"A Cup of Joe"
Written by The Descendant
Concept by Bronymian Rhapsody/Animal Man
Chapter 3: "Sugar"
Sweet Cream was literally pounding on the door by the time that Joe had even realized that he had walked to the doughnut shop.
Joe looked around, realized he was in the kitchen. Nothing was moving, none of his equipment was on, no doughnuts were being made. He looked up to the clock through bleary eyes.
Oh Celestia, it was already half-past.
He trotted to the door, making it come open with a resounding clang.
"Morning Joe, how Oh, Celestia! Oh Luna! Joe you look like you've been through the Well!"
Sweet Cream had literally recoiled upon looking at Joe, had seemed actually afraid of his customer. He leaned forward, inspecting Joe as he stood there, without apron or hat, almost as though he was seeing him for the first time.
"Joe are you alright?" asked the milkpony.
Joe looked up to him with bloodshot eyes.
"Yeah yeah, I didn't sleep well."
Together they danced their usual morning dance, each moving around one another to get the dolly cart within the freezer. Joe moved slowly, awkwardly, making Sweet Cream act more cautiously, keep worrying.
Joe saw him to the landing once more, his eyes down.
"Joe, are you sure that you're okay is there somepony you want me to get a hold of?"
Joe looked up to him, forced a smile. "No, no I'll be alright."
"I'll I'll be around today, after my shift leave me a maple glazed, okay?"
"Sure sure "
With that Joe closed the door, leaving Sweet Cream to look upon his departing figure for the first time since he'd begun delivering milk to his shop, leaving the earth pony standing there next to his cart in the light that shone over the door.
It was four-forty before Joe had recovered enough to do anything useful. In ten minutes Call would be out there, inconceivably early as always, and he hadn't even turned on the lights yet let alone started to make the doughnuts.
He trotted out into the dining room of the café, his little shop. He couldn't bring himself to look up to the altar above the glass couldn't bring himself to do anything other than watch the ghosts that flit around the space.
The table in the middle of the room, nearest the door
"How will you be paying the mortgage?" asked the realtor, inspecting her hoof as she did.
He had laid his first pension check on the table.
"Thank you for your service " said the realtor, her eyes going wide as she saw the amount.
The scuffmark on the floor
"Oh Celestia! Oh Luna!" called somepony as the guardsponies all stood, "It's the colonel!"
"Now, now lads, no need to salute me in here, right?"
The same tired stool at the end of the counter
"Morning sir! You're my first customer ever!"
"I'll have a tea and two double-chocolate doughnuts, and do keep that in mind for tomorrow as well," Artificer Call had said, laying that first newspaper on the counter.
"Yes sir!" he had answered.
Joe walked through the dining room to the door. There he laid his head against it, feeling the small cool breeze that seeped in through the tiny crack.
Had it all been worth it? Had it mattered? What could he have done differently what would have kept Beanie alive? What compromise had been presented him that didn't result in the entirety of an Equestrian army corps having their throats slit in their bedrolls? Where had the tipping point been what could he have said, done? Why why had it come to this why, why was this his life?
"Oh Celestia, Oh Luna, please please give me some answer, please "
A long moment passed as he sucked at the cool breeze, drawing the morning air into his lungs, letting the flush across his face fall down, let the weariness drift around him.
Another ghost tapped at the glass, and he lifted his head to see the figure of Twilight Sparkle standing outside the door just as she had those long years ago.
"Excuse me, sir," said the ghost as he stepped back, watched himself open the door for her, "Is this a new shop? Are you open?"
"Yes it is miss, and yes I am!" he said as she had entered, as he looked up to see the irate figure of Call race in behind her, dart for his stool.
Her massive saddlebags dropped to the floor, the books and papers heaving, falling over onto the floor.
So it began, and to Joe's amazement he raced through a few meetings with Twilight Sparkle, watching her come in each morning, sharing some small talk each day. Two events leapt to him. The first time she had brought Spike with her the dragon just the night before having finally come to live with her instead of in the nursery, their first morning together as a Designate and Summoner team.
He remembered how shy the whelp had seemed; hiding behind her like any foal would behind his mother when a stranger was near. A few doughnuts later, however, it was as if he and Spike had fought in The Wars together
The second time was that first horrible anniversary.
Call had noticed, and so had Twilight Sparkle. By that time there were other regulars too, many of them his friends from The Guard. Yet, if any knew they were silent until his sniffling began.
"Joe?" lifted the soft voice of the filly as he poured her some more hot chocolate, "Joe, are you okay?"
"Oh, just a bummer kind of day is all "
"Do, you want to talk about it?"
He shook his head, sought to change the topic.
"I've never asked you what are you studying?" he said, forcing a smile.
"Oh," she had answered as the two had watched Spike inhaling a variety of frosted treats, "Magic, of course I'm onto the advanced stuff already, believe it or not."
She had blushed when she said it, looked down into the swirl of the whipped cream in her cocoa. As she did something happened, it was as though the spiral were drawing him back.
Suddenly Joe was no longer simply remembering these things, letting the ghosts of the memories float around him. Suddenly he was back here in the shop those few years ago, a time when the wax on the counter wasn't as thick, a time before that one tile had gone missing from before the door, a time when the vinyl wasn't split on the second stool from the register
a time when he was slightly younger, a touch less melancholy.
"But, Twilight Sparkle," he had said with a laugh, as though she hadn't understood his question, "What is it you're going to be? What are you studying to become?"
She had shrugged her shoulders, sipped at the hot cocoa as he looked on baffled. Surely a smart cookie like this one had some kind of plan
"Whatever Princess Celestia needs me to be," she said, putting the cocoa down.
"I don't think I get it," he said, doubtfully.
"Well, the princess has been training me in magic now for years and, I trust she's teaching me what she thinks I need to know, so that when the time comes, I'll be ready to do whatever it is that, well, needs being done "
"Doesn't sound like there's much money in it!" he intoned as Spike began yet another doughnut, "I mean, it's not exactly going to be easy to fill out a tax form "
Twilight smiled, sipped at her hot chocolate. "Yes, but when I made the choice to pursue magic, to learn all about it that was what I wanted, and wherever it takes me, that's fine that's where the choice takes me "
"Yeah?" asked Joe, looking across the restaurant, "What if choices you make don't don't always work out for the best? What what if choices you make end up getting, getting your baby brother killed "
"I don't have a oh, oh " she said, standing, walking slowly across the floor. She stood beside him as he looked up to the altar, as the tears ran down his face.
"If I'd told him not to join not to join the Regular Army, he would have listened he would have listened, he was a good colt Oh, Luna! Oh, Celestia!"
He tried to hide his face, knew that she was looking at him.
Joe didn't brag about having known Twilight Sparkle when she was "just a college kid". He didn't want it to be a big deal even after she'd become a hero to all of Equestria he didn't tell the ponies enthusiastically speaking about her that they were sitting at the table where she had studied and eaten his doughnuts for years.
So, the way she had offered him a hug there in the café, beneath Beanie's altar that remained a happy secret between him, her, Call (if he'd bothered to look up from his paper), Spike, and the napkin dispensers.
After a few moments she lifted her head from his and sighed. "Joe, do you use salt in your recipes?"
"Yes," he replied.
"Yes, in some "
"How about cinnamon?"
"Yes, yes of course why?"
"Would you recommend to your customers that they eat these things by themselves?" she asked as they crossed over to her table.
"Heh, no," he said, sniffing against the pain, letting the odd comment rattle around in his mind.
"But you use them? Why is that?" she had asked as they watched Spike dealing with the fallen custard that he'd inadvertently released from a Hoftson Crème.
"Because because they're part of the recipe."
"Hmmm so, when you put these in with, say, flour, milk, sugar they become something more?"
"Well, yes," he agreed.
"And you have to fry them, correct? Have to send the doughnuts through a freakin' boiling lake of oil before they're ready, right?"
"That's part of it, yeah yeah," he said beginning to understand.
She smiled up at him. "We are the sum of the choices we make, Joe, good ones bad ones, ones we regret and wish we could take back, ones we love every day of our lives. But, in the end, they are us make us who we are. If we accept that, then we can go forward if we can't, well, we're trapped. Don't let the one thing you blame yourself for trip you up, Joe keep living."
"More doughnuts!" called the little dragon, pounding at the table. They looked at him, then at each other with arched eyebrows.
The memory sped down, raced away from him. At once Joe was left standing alone in his partly lit shop. The place was empty, now even the ghosts of memories having left him.
He didn't know why Twilight's speech hadn't registered with him maybe he'd been so busy that day that he hadn't internalized it. Maybe over the years his guilt, the feeling that he'd failed Beanie, had triumphed over her excellent intentions.
Yet, as he turned back to the kitchen, he found himself repeating her words. Damn, that kid was a smart cookie.
The metal door wobbled open, and rather than putting the disposable hat on his head he found himself staring at the uniform. He had opened the wrong door or had he?
"We are the sum of the choices we make "
A ringing began, and for a second he feared that he was having an episode, like the one he'd had in the palace. But, no no it was coming from outside.
The carillons were playing. He looked up to the clock in alarm no, no it was still ten before five.
He listened to them, listened as they played a familiar tune. "Fox in the Woods" the fight song of the Brigade of the Household. Why would it be playing, he wondered to himself. It's only supposed to be played when the Royal Guardsponies are being summoned to the castle.
He went to the calendar. The only scheduled event that month was the Dawn Tattoo, and that was next week.
He listened as the carillon came alive again, playing the song once more.
Something something was wrong. To his horror two guardsponies in full armor came pelting up the street, crossing in front of his shop at a full gallop.
He looked back and forth outside his door. It was five minutes before five, and the suspicious lack of Artificer Call made a cold sweat go down his back. Had something gone wrong? Had he not seen something as he blearily made his way through the street?
At once the chimes started again, and three more guardsponies went past up to the gates of the citadel, the loud clang of their hooves across the cobblestones evident even through the walls of the shop.
"Once a guardspony, always a guardspony."
"We are the sum of the choices we make "
Inside of two minutes, Joe had squeezed into the armor.
He raced about, trying to fasten the straps, the maddening process taking long moments. At once a though reached him, what color were the light infantry wearing this week? He tried to think, tried to remember seeing what the paint was in the beards and manes of the infantryponies as they had munched on his creations. He couldn't seem to remember, couldn't single one out.
He looked around the kitchen. There was no coat paint of course, but as he went he lifted two bags from their containers and laid them on the table as a bar of soap flew out into the dining room to write the word "Delayed" across the windows.
Powdered sugar, cocoa, powdered sugar, cocoa. Oh Celestia. Oh Luna. He knew it really wouldn't matter if the emergency was big enough with a fifty-fifty chance he guessed that the powdered sugar would adhere better to his tan coat and brown mane.
In a puff of white glucose he burst out into the street the Hero of Fifth Pines racing to the aid of his comrades.
The climb up the hill was longer than he remembered, and the armor wasn't shifting the way it was designed to. It was stiff, rusted.
He was older out of shape.
As he came panting to the top of the hill he saw torches gathering in the courtyard inside the gates lines of forming regiments cast long shadows upon the tall walls of the palace.
Looking about himself he looked for an officer. One was waiting outside, Bright Nights, errr Colonel Nights. Immediately he trotted up to him.
"Colonel Colonel Nights, sir, Sergeant "
"Joe?" answered the colonel with no small surprise, the first lieutenant turning to look upon him as well, their eyes going wide.
"Yessir, reporting, sir where do you need me, sir what's the emergency, sir, how can I help?" panted Joe, trying to compose himself.
Joe saw Colonel Nights turn to the first lieutenant. That pony covered his mouth with his hoof, and instantly Joe knew something was wrong.
"Joe...Joe, did you forget, about the Dawn Tattoo?" asked Colonel Nights, "It's today, Joe. This is the Tattoo."
Joe felt his vision recede no, oh no, no.
"The calendar the calendar says it's next next week," he said, meekly, still fighting for breath.
"Did you adjust for the new second day of the Autumnal Equinox Celebration, Joe? It moved it moved the Dawn Tattoo up "
Joe felt the energy drain from him, felt fresh embarrassment overwhelm him.
"Is is that powdered sugar?" asked the first lieutenant as Joe began to back away.
"You idiot!" he raged at himself, the words turning over and over inside his head, "You moron!"
Joe turned from the officers, began going back down the long stone road as guardsponies who had also forgotten that fact continued to gallop by.
"Joe Joe?" called Colonel Nights after him, Joe barely noticing as his self-admonishment continued.
"Sergeant!" called the colonel in a loud, authorative tone that was not to be ignored. It was not a friendly one it was an order.
Joe felt himself go stock-still, his head up, the old soldier in him responding.
"Fall in on the first lieutenant! March!" called the colonel. At once Joe felt himself turning, and as he found his spot beside the first lieutenant he looked back into the colonel's eyes.
The colonel at first looked at him harshly, but as he looked down on him the earth pony's countenance became lighter, almost concerned.
"You never leave The Guard, Joe. Come along now, Joe, come along "
Before Joe had even realized what he was doing he was marching behind the colonel and the first lieutenant, crossing beneath the arches and gates and marching out into the vast parade ground.
"Halt," ordered the colonel. As soon as he did, he spun back to Joe, nodding at him. "Stay here, parade rest that's an order. Do you understand me, sergeant?"
"Yessir," answered Joe, looking back at him in confusion.
"It's going to be fine Joe just wait here."
As the colonel and the first lieutenant cantered off towards the general staff Joe looked around himself and wondered what in the Well the colonel had in store for him. Above him torches hovered in the air on visible currents of magic, and nearby the regimental bands began forming up, their drum majors hefting their maces before them, each one readying himself to show his mettle.
Beyond them the regiments formed up all five thousand fighting ponies in Their Majesty's Brigade of the Household, each with armor finely polished, each of the five regiments falling into company front, long lines of the soldiers ready for the yearly celebration.
Beside him a company of the brigade's heavy infantry regiment, all big strong earth ponies, came up. Their hooves shook the ground as they marched in cadence. As they halted their captain called "Mark time!" and waited for their position behind their flag to come open. As their proud hooves tromped the ground over and over in a single place he felt their rhythm, felt the life that flowed from them
"It's Joe "
He heard his name, looked around, looked into the ranks of the company near him.
"Quiet in the ranks!" hissed a corporal next to him, "Pay no mind to drag me out of the Well, it is Joe!"
Joe looked at him fought to remember his name, but in the end could only think of the big colt as one of the few regulars at the shop who had liked his attempt at a coconut glaze, and who liked to have a cup of nice cold milk as he ate his doughnuts.
"Hi," breathed Joe, still standing at parade rest, the same position he had been left in by the colonel.
"Joe Sergeant," said the corporal as other familiar eyes turned to face him, "What are you doing here?"
"I have no idea."
"Is that powdered sugar?"
At once their captain called them to the march again, and as Joe watched him deftly wheel his company into the line of the regiment he saw more heads in adjoining companies turn to him as news of his presence grew news of the return of the Hero of Fifth Pines reaching even those who had never set hoof within his shop.
"Sergeant!" he heard Colonel Nights call, "Post!"
Joe turned on his left rearhoof, first clanging the boots together in recognition and salute, and then cantered up to the colonel. As he did he realized that he was being motioned to Brigadier General Gambit.
As he saluted the general spoke to him, the grey eyes looking surprisingly aware. "Brevet Color Sergeant Joe, at the recommendation of Colonel Nights, I ask that you bear my headquarters flag throughout the following action "
"I'd I'd be honored, sir," said Joe as the flag unfurled from its staff, as the general wafted it towards him. At once Joe reached out his right foreleg, gathering the banner into his shoulder. At once he turned, the flag above giving a single snap in reply.
"Is that powdered sugar, color sergeant?" asked the general with a smile.
"Very well "
Brevet Color Sergeant! Oh Celestia, oh Luna, he'd just been promoted! He wondered if it was merely symbolic or if his pension would actually go up a few bits. It would be nice to replace the tiles in the shop
"If this stallion is assailed," called the first lieutenant as Joe struggled to remember his name, "who will aide him?"
It was a symbolic gesture. At least Joe hoped so he doubted that any of the foreigners in the observation deck above were there with the intent of attacking the Tattoo.
Joe realized that he was talking to the honor guard, a company of pegasi skirmishers from the behind the general. They were all young colts, noponies he knew it would have been nice, he thought, to have some pony he had served with take up the symbolic position.
"Sir! Private Rush, sir, requesting the honor "
As a private came up Joe looked down to nod at him. When he saw who it was he nearly swallowed the flag in surprise.
It was the same private who had lead the beautiful mare through the market the day before, who had stared at him accusingly in his shop.
Joe felt himself begin to sweat as the pegasus stood near, began to wonder if the large drops would leave tracks across the powdered sugar.
The attention of the assembly now focused on the lines of the regiments beyond, as the bands stepped forward, as the entirety of the Brigade of the Household, the Royal Guardsponies, moved into their final starting positions.
"I read up on you, last night," said the private, daring to speak. Joe felt his stomach tighten.
"I my fiancé and I, read through some old magazines, journals," he said, his head turning to watch as the drum majors stepped before their bands.
"I I had some pretty biased opinions about you, when we met in the shop. I mean, I I love your doughnuts, but forgive me, but to me you didn't look like what I thought a guardspony, even one who'd been out of active duty for a few years, should look like "
Joe felt a pinch behind his eyes.
"But I just want you to know, sir "
"Sir, if I'd been through what you'd been through both, both with how badly you were wounded, and and what it must have been like, losing your brother "
Joe looked over to the private. As he turned he saw the colt hanging his head
"If I'd gone through that, sergeant, I hope I'd be able to drag myself up to being half the stallion you are fighting back, starting a shop. Amazing. I'm sorry, sir."
A long moment passed between them, and as the brigade's senior drum major stepped forward to lead the procession Joe replied in a single quiet, but firm, utterance.
With that there was a long winding shrill noise, and at once dozens of bagpipes came to life. For the next half of an hour the brigade marched, countermarched, and wheeled as the bands played songs like "Broken Ground", "The Well is Dry", "The Old Roan Thistle", and dozens of other martial tunes, each one packed with meaning for the ponies that passed before the stand where the general reviewed his troops and where Joe stood with the flag.
As they did Joe caught sight of familiar faces among the ponies that stomped by in perfect cadence, a few even looking right at him acknowledging him without breaking their concentration.
He realized then that he was a part of their story and as the drum majors swung their maces, and as the bagpipes, drums, and pipes rang out across the parade ground he realized that if he had not made the choices he had made, had he done one thing differently there might not be some of these ponies out here.
Not only those whose lives he had saved, but also those who had come to him for something resembling normalcy that the hot coffee was more than just a pick-me-up that the conversation was just as important that his regulars, well were his regulars.
"We are the sum of the choices we make," he whispered to himself.
If only he could just get past the one not, not dwell on not talking Beanie out of
He snapped back to awareness as the final notes of the regimental bands drifted up, out, over the crowd. As the ambassadors and dignitaries of all kinds of foreign powers applauded, and as dignified ponies, visitors to the capital, and those who just loved the spectacle cheered the Sister Sovereigns of Equestria strode out onto the ground to inspect their brigade.
Bands played slow lilting tunes as Princess Celestia and Princess Luna wove among the regiments, kissing their flags, receiving salutes and being bowed before.
As they approached the general the entirety of the assembly bowed, and as the general raised himself up he dropped his sword from his brow to his boots.
Joe looked on as the general spoke. As he did the sisters turned, and he snapped back to attention, the private doing so at the same time.
"Why," spoke the older sister, "I do believe that color bearer is our Joe "
Oh Celestia Princess Celestia had noticed him!
"Oh, do introduce me, Tia! Poor dear, I remember when you spoke of him. I have so enjoyed his doughnuts!"
Oh Luna Princess Luna had noticed him!
Joe fought to contain his blushing as the Sister Sovereigns of Equestria strode across the stand and moved before him. As the elder sister's vibrant mane shifted around him he bowed deeply, lowering the flag, the armor pinching at him where he was not quite as trim as the last time he had worn it before an alicorn when he had been thrashing about the halls of the palace in despondency.
"Do stand, Joe, I wish for you to meet my sister. It is wonderful to see you again "
Joe raised himself up, tried to think of an appropriate response. The words formed quickly in his mind. He opened his mouth to reply to the sovereign's wish when she suddenly interrupted him.
"Is that powdered sugar, Joe?" asked the ageless immortal with a small grin.
"Yes, Majesty," he said, his selected words fleeing him, blushing so hard that he feared that the sugar might caramelize at the heat of it.
"Is it now?" she said, tilting her head, looking at her sister mischievously.
With that, Procer Celestia Invictus, The Elder Sister Sovereign, The Firstborn Alicorn leaned down and planted a lingering kiss on the side of Joe's face just beneath the helm.
His world had barely receded from the flashes of rainbows and morning light before she had licked the sugar from her lips and dropped her beautiful head once more to his again. With that she graced him with another kiss a long one that swept another swath of sugar from him.
"Do share, Tia! Do share!" called Procer Luna Revenio, The Younger Sister Sovereign, The Nightbringer and then she too proceeded to slowly draw her muzzle against the opposite side of his face, slowly kissing him over and over, the white of the powder evident against her darker coat.
As cascades of color and beauty shot through him Joe could not believe that he simply had not died and was not swimming through the most blessed part of the Well of Souls.
Out in the assembled ranks the few who knew what Joe had been covered in spread the word, passed an understanding of what was transpiring to their comrades. The knowledge grew and spread like the roots of a vast tree.
As the guardsponies watched those who knew him, loved him as a brother, whistled, cheered, or laughed and those who did not know him simply wished to be him in that instant.
"And what is it, Joe," said the older sister, lifting her head, covering her mouth with her hoof as she licked away the sugar, "That brings your delicious self back into our presence?"
"I I," he stammered, looking into the vast beautiful eyes of the alicorns. He took a breath, laughed at himself a little bit, and pressed on, "I had a bad night's sleep, Majesties, and that made me forget about how the Tattoo had been moved and then something your Designate Twilight Sparkle had told me kept coming back to me, over and over "
"Twilight? Really?" spoke Celestia, brightening at the mention of the precious name.
"Yes, Majesty " he said, his countenance falling again, "Something she said about the choices we make "
The two sisters looked at one another as he sighed, as he tried to straighten in their presence. Princess Celestia tilted her head again. A concerned look, one almost motherly in composition, slid over her. She once more placed her head to his, alongside where his tan coat had been revealed by their softly given affections.
"Will you show me, Joe? Will you let me help you, as I did then?"
He could not, would not, hide anything from her. As her light fell over him he opened up that still, soft, quiet place in his heart where the memory lay where his blame still rolled around inside him
Celestia lifted her head, looked down into his green eyes as he looked back up at her, longing for some solace.
"Joe," she said, her voice more motherly, just as it had been those years ago, "You are here because of your choices, and one is begging to be made, longing to be made one that has possessed you "
He looked back to her in understanding. As he nodded at her she smiled down at him and continued to level her advice upon him.
"You blame yourself, and though it was not your choice but his you cling to the belief that you were to blame because it's the only way you allow yourself to understand his death."
He gasped slightly, was was it true? Was he not coming to terms with Coffee Bean's death, was he afraid that if he stopped blaming himself that he that he was afraid he'd forget Beanie was he disallowing himself from moving on?
"Joe I beg you, make one more decision," pleaded his sovereign, "Choose to live your life in honor of his, move out of the shadow of your blame or I fear you will live entombed within it."
She once more nuzzled him, and with that he bowed. At once though his eyes were filled with visions of a cool night across a starlit meadow, and the sweet smells of a summer evening reached him
the Princess Luna had kissed him once more, drawing off one last long draw of the sugar.
"Do consider cocoa powder next time!" she giggled into his ear before turning off and following her sister.
As bands played the Sister Sovereigns of Equestria left him there, envied by all, loved by many and knowing what he must do next.
The Tattoo had long ended, and as he had hoisted his armor across his back he had headed out into the streets of Canterlot.
He did not head directly back to his shop. Instead he came out through an alley where one of the many streams that fed into and along each other brought the cool water down from the sacred mountain.
It was a place where he and Beanie would come to play a secret that they kept from Java and Mocha. It had been a place just for them.
He splashed forward under the arch, a great stone viaduct overhead gathering him into its shadow.
He looked up to see Beanie already there, smiling at him the soft eyes of his kid brother looking to him earnestly and happily. There was no armor, no new uniform, it was just Beanie.
Baby brother Beanie.
"Hi, Joe. I'm glad you came, I'm so glad " said Beanie.
"Yeah," replied Joe.
Joe dropped his armor at the side of the channel, dropped down into it further, washing the last of the powdered sugar from himself that his sovereigns had not already lapped away with their perfect tiny kisses.
As he emerged it was not Joe of the Guard in his armor, it was not Joe the Shopkeeper in his hat and apron that approached Beanie it was just, Joe.
Big brother Joe.
"I I'm moving on, Beanie, I I can't keep living in blame " he said, crossing into the shadow beneath the viaduct, moving toward where Beanie stood.
"I never blamed you Joe, I swear it bro, I never have you just keep blaming yourself," he said as he came forward, "It's horrible to watch I kept trying to show you I was alright, I just kept smiling "
"I know, I know I thought I had to keep blaming myself " he said, moving closer to the mental image, the ghost, the memory whatever it was.
"Please don't anymore."
"I won't, I'm done "
The brothers looked at one another for a long time, their expressions growing softer, the tears forming at the corners of their eyes.
"I I know it sounds kitschy, but but I'm okay. I really am. Yeah, getting here stung a bit, but the water here is fine, in the Well," spoke Beanie, moving forward, not disturbing the flow of the stream, "But don't you think of jumping in for a long, long time, Joe."
Joe laughed, one tear running down his cheek.
"Do me a favor?" asked Beanie as a tear of his own ran down his spectral face.
"Love them try to love Mom and Dad, Java, Mocha try to love them that much harder, for me, make up for what I can't physically give them anymore "
"Of course "
"And how about some nieces and nephews?"
"You sound like Mom," snorted Joe, sniffling back some tears.
"Pfffttt " spat Beanie, sticking the tongue out of the side of his head, drawing it back within as tears began flowing over it.
The brothers walked up to one another, laid their heads across their shoulders, necks, withers, drawing them up and down in long motions as they sniffed, sighed, gave single huffs of pent-up emotion.
"I'm always with you Joe, I'm never far from you bro," said Beanie as Joe began to bawl, as he ran his hoof across his brother's back. For long minutes they stood there, their tears dropping down into the slowly tumbling currents of the stream in which they had played as foals.
Soon Celestia's sun began to fill the space beneath the viaduct. As it did Joe lifted his head to look into his brother's eyes for the last time.
"I love you forever, Joe."
"I love you forever, Beanie, forever "
"Later, big brother "
"Later, baby brother love you forever "
As Celestia's light passed over them the image of Beanie was drawn down into a golden light. He smiled at Joe one last time as his memory reformed as luminous spheres that wafted high into the sky, or passed through the water of the stream to the waterfalls far beyond.
He splashed himself with the water from the stream. In that instant he baptized himself, forgave himself in the cold water, and then lifted his eyes to the sky.
Overhead birds chirped in hidden eaves, and pegasi wheeled overhead and called to one another in happy tones.
Joe smiled, took a deep breath, and smiled some more.
With that Joe crossed out of the shadow beneath the viaduct, gathered his armor, and went out of the alley into the High Street.
His last tear was carried in the stream that bubbled on, once more left alone in its stone channels. The waters gushed forth, joining other streams as they became the wide river, the one that parted around the High Dais of Equestria. From there the waters went cascading down, down, down in a roar as they became the massive waterfall that evaporated into a haze of mist that drifted out across the land beyond.
As he approached his shop the clattering of cantering hooves met him, and he was surprised to see the frustrated and confused form of Artificer Call coming up to him.
"Oh, Joe!" said the older stallion, "We were so worried none of the regular crowd knew anything about where you were or if the shop was going to open "
"Yes," he said, nodding to Call, hefting his armor across his shoulders as they turned together and walked back down the cobblestone street, "I'm sorry, Call, I was needed at the Dawn Tattoo I'd forgotten today was the day, you see "
"Well, I suppose that's all right," said Call, straightening as Joe smirked at the stallion's need to somehow forgive him, "We've all had off days I'm having a fairly awful few hours myself was late getting here "
"How's that?" asked Joe, stopping as Call did the same. As the older pony rummaged through his bags Joe smiled some more, noting that this was now the longest conversation he'd ever had with his oldest customer.
Joe was very surprised when a familiar looking alarm clock was produced from the older pony's bag.
"Last night I was on my way home when I was assaulted by a spinach quiche! And now this morning I was taking my constitutional before patronizing your shop when this alarm clock dropped from the sky and pelted me about the head!" said a very wounded and embarrassed Artificer Call.
Joe nodded in sympathy, looked at the clock.
"May I have that?" he asked, nodding at Call, "I think it's a good little clock, it just doesn't want to be ignored somepony was unpleasant to it, is all."
"Oh," replied the older stallion, rubbing his head, "Yes yes, please do "
Call placed the alarm clock among Joe's armor and then looked at him once more.
"We were very worried, Joe," said the stallion in a low tone, "your regular customers, when you weren't present this morning."
"All of you?"
Joe smiled back at him.
"Well, we still have a couple of hours left, wanna learn how to make doughnuts?" he asked, popping open the lock on the front door with his magic, heading out across the café, smiling at the missing tile, and entering the kitchen beyond.
"I I never have," said Call, entering Joe's kitchen for the first time, looking around in startled confusion.
"Nothin' to it," replied Joe, heaving his armor into the wobbly metal cabinet and opening the other side in one motion, "you just gotta make the right choices with your recipes and selections."
"Hey," he added, tossing Call a disposable hat, "Did I ever tell you about my kid brother Coffee Bean?"
Call shook his head and then tried once more to adjust the little paper hat.
"Great kid, really," smiled Joe as the machines whirred to life, looking through the door to nod at patient customers who were already arriving, "There was this one time "