There was a knock on the library door. "Hold on, girls," Twilight said to the three fillies she'd been talking with, and went to answer it.
A big red stallion stood on her doorstep. "Hi, Big Macintosh!" she said.
He looked into her eyes a moment, then looked away and chewed a little faster on the wisp of straw in his mouth.
"Apple Bloom!" Twilight called. "Your brother is here to pick you up."
"Aw, Mac!" Apple Bloom protested. "Do I hafta leave already?"
Big Mac ducked his head under the doorway and stepped into the library. He walked softly over to his littlest sister, hooves barely clicking on the wooden floor, turning his head from side to side to look reverentially at the rows of books.
"Ah'm a bit winded," he said on reaching Apple Bloom's side. "I s'pose I can set and catch my breath." He sat down, looked back at Twilight, inhaled, and smiled, working away at his straw and looking as content as a cow in a field on a summer day.
Twilight cocked her head and looked back expectantly. But Big Mac just twitched his ears and looked away.
She raised her chin and straightened her ears suddenly. "Oh! Big Macintosh, if you don't mind, can you watch the girls for a bit while I trot on over to the Mayor's? I'm supposed to give her my comments on her Science Day speech."
He lowered his head toward the floor, and looked up at her with just his eyes. "I ... reckon."
"I know!" Twilight said. "Why don't you read them a story?"
Big Mac stopped chewing on his straw. "Read?"
The three fillies leapt up all at the same time and jumped towards Big Mac.
"Cutie Mark Critics!"
Big Mac tossed his head and shied away as they pounced on him.
"A story," Twilight repeated. "Something nice."
"Bleah!" Scootaloo interjected. She flapped her wings to raise herself up onto her rear hooves and leaned on Big Mac's shoulder to shout in his ear, "Something exciting!"
"But not too exciting," Twilight added with an anxious grin.
"Something romantic!" Sweetie Belle said, tugging at his opposite foreleg with her hooves.
"But not too romantic," Twilight added.
Apple Bloom sat in front of her brother and frowned at Twilight. "Somethin' responsible an' boring."
"But not too ... heh. You got me, Apple Bloom. I'll be back in a jiffy. Thanks so much, Big Mac!" There was a scroll already neatly tied and waiting on a shelf by the door. Twilight wrapped it in a purple magic glow and headed out the door.
Big Mac shook the fillies off carefully, then took another step back. They lined up in a row, sat down, and stared right back at him. He turned and looked at the row upon row of books surrounding him, then back at the fillies.
"So are ya gonna read us a story?" Apple Bloom asked. "You never read me a story before."
Big Mac stepped over to the nearest bookshelf. He brought his head up close to the books lined up there, turning it sideways to look at them. His lips moved slowly as he scrutinized the words written on the bindings. Then he carefully bit down with just his teeth on a tall, thin book with a bright lavender cover. He carried it to a table and set the book respectfully down onto it.
"Whatcha got?" Apple Bloom asked.
"A book," he said, without looking up.
"What kinda book?"
"A purple one." He stretched his neck out toward it and sniffed, as if it were a strange pony he was meeting for the first time.
Sweetie Belle giggled. "You're funny, Big Mac. What's it about?"
Big Mac wiped his hoof off on his flank, then carefully opened the cover and began turning the pages. He stared down at the words, focusing intently on them. He looked up at the fillies, who were waiting expectantly. He looked down at the book again and sighed.
"Ain't ya gonna read it?" Apple Bloom asked plaintively.
"Yup," he said, setting his mouth in a determined line. He sat down behind the table. "It says, this here's the story of the smartest mare in the world."
"You mean in Equestria?" Scootaloo asked.
"Wouldn't that be Princess Celestia?" Sweetie Belle asked.
"Ah'm just saying what it says here," Big Mac declared. "Says she was the smartest mare in the world, an' knew just about everything. Why, if she didn't know it, it probably weren't worth knowing."
"Where was she?" asked Apple Bloom.
He peered at the book again. "Says, she lived in a big city with lots of other smart ponies, and studied magic, because she was a unicorn."
"Ooh! Was it Canterlot?" Sweetie Belle asked.
"Well, it says here it had streets all made of stone, so they never got muddy, and the streets were full of carriages with real enamel paint on 'em, and the carriages were full of fancy-dressed ponies going to fancy dress-up balls. It says, it had snooty rich ponies and poor working ponies what had lost their farms, all living pushed up against each other like apples in a barrel."
"Sounds like Canterlot," Apple Bloom said.
"But this mare," he said slowly, "she didn't care nothing about the fancy dresses nor the fancy carriages nor the fancy balls. She read and studied all day, and then she'd light a candle and read and study some more."
"Bo—ring," Scootaloo said.
Big Mac's ears rose sharply, but he just kept reading. "One day, she'd read all the books in the city—"
"Nopony could read all the books in Canterlot!" Apple Bloom objected. "There are thousands an' thousands of them!"
"Says who?" Big Mac demanded.
Big Mac considered this. "Well," he said, "if Twilight knows how many books are in Canterlot, she must've seen them all. Ain't that right?"
Apple Bloom scratched her chin and looked up and to one side, considering this. "I guess so."
"And you ever seen Twilight see a book, an' not read it?"
"No," she admitted.
Big Mac nodded to himself, tossing a hank of blond mane into his face, which he expertly blew to one side without losing his straw. "That proves it, then." He turned back to the book on the table before him. "An' so, once this pony had read all the books in the city, and learned everthing there was to learn there, she went to a little city to see what they knew there. An' they didn't know a lot, but she liked it anyway, and stayed there."
"The end," Scootaloo said. "Now read something exciting."
"And romantic!" Sweetie Belle added.
"You keep your hooves on the ground," Big Mac said. "This story's got monsters, an' magic, and all that kinda stuff."
"And romance?" Sweetie Belle asked.
Big Macintosh blushed slightly. "I don't rightly know about that."
Scootaloo jumped up and turned on Sweetie Belle. "Of course there's no romance! Who's going to fall in love with an egghead?"
Big Mac clopped his hoof on the table. It made a very loud sound in the little library.
"Sorry," he said sheepishly. He cleared his throat. "It says here, there was a fella who was sweet on her. Prob'ly lots of fellas."
"It says all that on the first page?" Apple Bloom asked, stepping up to get a closer look.
Big Mac quickly turned the page. "It says how once there was a dragon that took to flying over the town and scaring everypony, not a nice one like Spike but a big, mean-lookin one, with claws like plow teeth, and teeth like ... bigger plow teeth. And she rounded up her friends an' went off after it, even though she was just a little thing."
"Sweet!" Scootaloo said.
"What about the romance?" Sweetie Belle asked.
"Ah said ah don't know about no romance!"
"You said there was a feller who was sweet on her," Apple Bloom said.
"Ah only read that part because you pestered me about it."
"Whattya mean?" Scootaloo demanded. "It's a story. You start at the beginning and read until you get to the end."
"I don't see why," Big Mac said, "when I've got this big ol' story spreadin' out all over the place."
"What about the fellow who was sweet on her?" Sweetie Belle insisted.
"Probably another egghead," Scootaloo said.
"He weren't no egghead," Big Mac said. "He was ... a bricklayer. He was a big fella, and pulled big loads of brick around, and spent all day stacking them up in rows, neat as a honeycomb."
"Well, that's silly," Sweetie Belle said. "Why would they fall in love? How would they even know each other?"
Big Mac frowned, and considered this obstacle for several moments. "It was a small town, and everypony knew everypony else," he finally said. "Everypony liked her, on account of her bein' smart, but real helpful-like, not snooty at all. She was a solid worker, just like him. Reliable. They'd both work from sunup till past sunset. And she was brave. She could stand up in front of a big crowd of ponies and talk and talk, even tell 'em what to do, an' never be afraid of soundin' stupid. Everypony would listen to her, even the mayor."
"That's why he liked her," Sweetie Belle said. "But why would she like him?"
Big Mac's ears drooped. Clearly this difficulty had already occurred to him.
"I was thinking," he mumbled, "if he followed her around some, showed up where she did, she might notice him."
Sweetie Belle wrinkled her nose in revulsion. "Creepy," Scootaloo said.
"Or, or maybe he'd swap with his sister for a spell. They had a stand, in the market, where they sold their—bricks. Then when this mare come by, looking for—bricks, she'd ... have to talk to him, see."
Sweetie Belle leaned forward. "Ooh! What does he say? Does he recite deep, passionate, yet emotionally-ambiguous poetry to her?"
"He'd have to be one slick talker, that's for sure," Apple Bloom commented. "Her being so smart and all."
But Big Mac's ears and the corners of his mouth both still slumped toward the floor, indicating that this was not, after all, the solution. "Maybe ... maybe if he smiled at her, every time they met," he said, gazing earnestly into Apple Bloom's face, "she'd see all the feeling what went into it, someday."
Apple Bloom cocked her head to the side and bit her lip dubiously.
"You're kidding, right?" Scootaloo said.
"Or he drives her wild with his dark moody looks, and the sense of mystery that follows him!" Sweetie Belle said.
"Ah don't think so," Big Mac said.
"It's got to be something!" Sweetie Belle said. "She has to notice something special about him, so she can drive herself to distraction wondering about him before they realize that they like each other!"
"They can't just ... like each other?" Big Mac asked.
"In all the best books," Sweetie Belle declared, with an authoritative shake of her mane, "they start out hating each other."
"If they're gonna fall in love," Apple Bloom said, "he must have something that'd grab the attention of a smart pony like her. So what is it?" asked.
Big Mac blinked at the book. He turned a few pages, then looked up, narrowed his eyebrows, pursed his lips, and looked off above the three fillies and beyond the library walls. The fillies looked up at him, waiting for an answer.
"Well," he finally admitted, "I don't rightly know."
Scootaloo jumped up. "I don't buy it! The smartest mare in the world wouldn't marry a bricklayer."
"They don't have to get married," Sweetie Belle said. She looked up airily, and clapped her front hooves together. "She could fall for his great, brawny muscles, and they could have a passionate fling!"
"This story ain't nothin' like that!" Big Mac spluttered.
"It seems like a stretch," Apple Bloom said. "Why, it would be like if you hitched up with Twilight!"
All three of the fillies giggled mightily at this, and Scootaloo lay down and slapped one wing on the floor repeatedly. Big MacIntosh didn't seem to see the humor at first, but after a bit he grinned weakly along with them.
Their laughter was interrupted by Rarity, who had come to pick up Sweetie Belle. She scraped her hooves daintily on the mat and came in. "Why, Big MacIntosh," she said, craning her neck forward to verify that the big stallion was, in fact, sitting in front of a book. "Are you reading the girls a humorous story?"
"Ah'm afraid so, Miss Rarity. Come on, Apple Bloom. There's work to do. Ah've been here too long already." He closed the book carefully. "Ah'm, ah'm sorry it was such a silly story, kids."
"Oh, that's okay, big brother!" Apple Bloom said. "It was nice to do something together."
"Yeah," Scootaoo said, "it was fun to listen to you read. You've got a funny way of doing it."
Big Mac didn't respond except to chew on his straw a little more vigorously. Everypony left the library and headed their separate ways.
Sometime later, Twilight returned and found the lavender-colored book still lying on the table. She read the title. "Hmm! I didn't think there was anypony else in this town who'd be interested in neuroponynomic theory."
She thought, as she picked it up and returned it to its proper place, that perhaps somepony new in town—some young stallion, perhaps—had been there, reading it, but had been unable to check it out because he didn't have a library card. Perhaps he would return for it tomorrow. "Oh, have you read Padoa-Cloppa?" she'd ask casually. "Why, no," he'd say. "Do tell me about it." She pushed some of the books on the shelf and pulled on others, humming quietly to herself, until they were all flush with each other again.