The coffee shop was the perfect picture of order.
The tables were all spaced apart equally, and each was orbited by four identical chairs. From cream-colored walls hung tantalizing pictures of steaming cappuccinos, delicate chocolates, and immaculately glazed pastries. Expansive windows at the storefront revealed a quaint terrace just beyond the door, which boasted a flock of parasols. The entire establishment faintly glowed with the warm tones of brown and sepia, from the hardwood floor to the curved glass counter.
Behind the latter of these stood Uncle Dave, who was intently cleaning the sleek espresso machine. Despite the gray earth pony's constant maintenance, he usually managed to lightly splatter its surroundings if he wasn't extremely careful. He suspected that the spout's trajectory was slightly off; the desire to simply exchange the whole thing for a new one had nagged him for weeks. But this machine had been an investment, so he planned on sticking with it. It was nothing that a damp rag and a careful touch couldn't fix.
The quiet in the coffee shop was broken by the bright tinkling of a bell. At the sound, Uncle Dave's ears perked, though he didn't immediately turn away from his work. An extra couple of seconds were spent rubbing away the last of the residue, and only then did he smile and face the pegasus mare standing before him.
"Good morning, Rainbow Dash! What can I get for you?"
She smiled at him weakly. "Pretty late for a morning, wouldn't you think, Dave?"
"Indeed. Although when has that ever stopped you from sleeping until … what time is it now? Three in the afternoon?" A glance at the simplistic clock hanging nearby confirmed his estimate.
"All right, you've got me there," she chuckled. "Now, I don't usually come to these fancy places, but the girls were bugging me about dropping in and seeing how you're doing. And, well, maybe I figured I'd pick something up for myself too." She peered up at the vast menu above the counter. "Geez, you've got everything. What here is awesome enough for me, do you think?"
"Well, this is practically daybreak for you," he observed. "I could certainly warm up one of these machines if you wanted. You seem like the type who would go for a latte, maybe with dark chocolate or cinnamon."
"Thanks, but I'm not really into coffee," she said, waving a hoof. "Tried it once, and the crash afterward was … well, let's just say that word turned pretty literal for me and leave it at that. Got any croissants?"
"Of course." He raised an eyebrow at her as he retrieved one from behind the counter. "Though I have to say, I didn't take you for a fan of croissants."
"Croissants are flaky. Flaky is pretty cool." She pulled a bit from her saddlebags, then swapped it for the desired pastry. "Although actually, I don't usually go for flaky stuff. But when I do, it's buttery and delicious. Don't tell Rarity, though; she'd never shut up about it if she heard."
"Because it's 'too fancy' for you?"
"Because it's buttery and delicious. She likes to think these kinds of things are only eaten 'in moderation.'" Her wings came up as she spoke, and two primary feathers dipped twice in unison for emphasis. "I think she's missing the point of food."
Uncle Dave only smiled.
The chairs weren't occupied, but Rainbow chose to eat where she stood. To savor every bite, she took slow, careful nibbles that Uncle Dave hadn't expected to see. Whenever he had occasionally seen her, she made a point of devouring her food messily.
When she finished, she licked her lips and beamed. Uncle Dave nodded in farewell, glad to have given her a half-decent breakfast, and stepped into the back to heat up a pot of tea. As with the shop proper, everything in here was carefully organized, making it a simple matter to find the dark leaves he was looking for. He slipped them into a teacup, put the kettle on the stove, and returned to the counter to continue cleaning up.
Rainbow Dash hadn't left.
He blinked. "Can I help you any more?"
Her brow furrowed, and for a moment it looked as though she would simply turn away and leave. But instead she breathed deeply, scowled in the way only Rainbow Dash could, and spoke. "Why do we call you Uncle Dave?"
Even as he replied, his grin was fixed in place. "What do you mean?"
"Why do you go by such a weird name now? You're not actually anypony's uncle … I hope. And what kind of pony name is Dave anyway? Is it an ancient name from ancient times that means 'I do coffee,' or what?"
"No," he said patiently. "It's not special in the slightest. That's the point."
"It creeps me out, is all," she said. "It's not like you. Or at least, it's not like you were before. It's like our rainbow of awesomeness turned you into the king of lameness. At least Princess Luna looks cool now. This just doesn't make sense! And you're not looking happy at the fact that things aren't making sense! What's wrong with you, Discord?"
He shivered. "That isn't my name."
"Pretty sure it is."
"Those times are behind me now," he said, heading back into the kitchen as the kettle shrilled impatiently. He set the tea to steep, washed his hooves reflexively, and ventured out again in hopes that she'd given it up.
"Look," he said, "the Elements gave me a second chance. They showed me the problems in my thinking, and then they removed them. I did terrible, terrible things as a draconequus, and now I'm being a productive member of society. I hardly see what the fuss is about."
"You're kidding, right? You're not you anymore! A few months ago, you wouldn't be hanging around giving overpriced coffee to hipsters like Octavia! You'd be doing whatever stuff you'd do normally, like turning flowers into popcorn balls. But instead you're here, obsessing about how everything looks perfect in here and whether you'll reach monthly quotas, whatever those are, and you're so chill all the time. You don't even eat chocolate anymore! It's honestly creeping me out!" She stamped on the floor, glared at the glass separating her from the muffins, and then stamped again. "I can't believe I'm saying this, but … why can't you go back to the old you?"
"I'm surprised you feel like I should. I remember that you were rather annoyed at what he did to you."
"You know what I mean. Why can't you just be Discord, but with a conscience or something? Not messing up the stars and whatever, just being Pinkie Pie cranked up to eleven. Do you really think you can spend the rest of your life as a normal pony?"
There was a sigh. "You know, I'm not sure your friends would appreciate you talking to me about these kinds of things. Aren't you the Bearer of Loyalty?"
"Yeah, which means I've learned a bit about how it works. We all have to be loyal to something. That's how it works. I'm loyal to my friends. Twilight's loyal to her books. Shouldn't you at least be loyal to who you really are?"
He was silent.
"I'm not saying you should go back to being a giant evil dragon goat," she went on. "I don't think that could happen even if we wanted it to. But you have to be weird in your own way, not somepony else's. Or at least I think that's how it goes. The point is, you're trying too hard to do what the Elements told you."
Still he said nothing.
"Just my two cents here. I guess if you actually enjoy being the coffee guru of Ponyville, that's your deal. But is that really what you want to do for the rest of your life?" She shrugged and turned to leave. "Thanks for the croissant."
And with another jingle of the bell, she was gone.
He watched through the window as she departed. The incessant ticking of the clock didn't quite match up with her wingbeats, so that for a few seconds they all possessed an arrhythmic quality. Another pony outside waved to her, then continued about her business, saddlebags brimming with goods.
Staring down at his hooves for a moment, he noted how they had been filed to perfection. He shook his head, headed back into the kitchen, and gingerly picked up the teacup. It was still quite hot, but from the pungent smell of the tea he could tell it was as good as ready. With pursed lips he bent his head to take a sip, ready to indulge in the bitter drink.
And then he stopped. He pulled back, watching steam curl off its surface like delicate mist. Beyond that was a murky darkness, but he remembered that the tea leaves were still nestled at the bottom, waiting to reemerge. Frowning, he jiggled the teacup slightly and watched the liquid ripple millimeters from its lip. The disturbance gradually settled, giving way to perfect stillness once more.
Slowly he set it down, causing it to clink gently. He backed away, stumbling, and found himself in the coffee shop yet again. When he glanced around, only emptiness stared back. There was only him and the relentless clock, so predictable that his heart couldn't help but beat in time with it.
His eyes narrowed. His lips pressed together. His tail swished once as he came to a decision.
The sign on the door was flipped around, and soon he was out in the street, leaving the coffee shop behind to brew in its own solitude. As he passed by ponies selling their goods, offering each a tentative but genuine smile, he pondered on the merits of employing a mariachi band.
In the kitchen, the tea grew cold.