Five minutes to midnight, and the cab pulled over to the shoulder. “You sure this is the right place, Mac?”
The passenger looked at his phone’s GPS display for a moment. “Yep. Thirty-one thousand block. This is it.”
“There’s nothing here,” said the cabbie.
“That’s the whole idea.” He looked at the meter: sixty-seven dollars, seventy-five cents. He handed the cabbie a hundred-dollar bill. “Keep the change,” he said, and popped open the door; he stood by the side of the road long enough to watch the cab make a U-turn and head back towards town.
Once the old Ford was out of sight, he jumped the drainage ditch and headed into the vacant lot, watching the display screen as he walked. There had been something here once, he remembered: a little stone house and a gravel driveway. Five or six years ago, there was a sign on the corner, proclaiming a New Upscale Development, with a number to call and a Web site to visit. A year or two later, with gasoline pushing five dollars a gallon, no one wanted to live in the 31000 block of anything, and the development was abandoned — but by then, the stone house had been torn down, though on a clear night you could still see bits of the driveway.
Where the gravel ended, he stopped, and he checked the phone again. Thirty seconds, he thought.
And just about half a minute later, a shimmer came out of the sky. I won’t be needing this anymore. He hurled the phone into the darkness.
“You throw like a filly.” Twilight Sparkle smiled at him.
“I love you too,” he said. “Looks like it’s now or never.”
“You’re sure about this?”
“As sure as I’ll ever be.”
“Hold on tight,” she said, and the world turned inside out.
Halfway between frozen sky and the very bowels of hell, he slid along the edge of singularity, a hole blacker than any he’d ever imagined, and he knew he’d died. Worse than died. He’d been twisted apart, reassembled randomly, and then compressed into an amorphous mass that kept sliding along a path unknown, circling faster, faster, faster, deeper still into the void. He thought he’d cried out, he’d called her name, he’d screamed his fear into the darkness; but who could have heard? It was too late now, though; it was all over, he’d never see sky, stars, light ever again, and with his last remaining thought, he accepted his fate.
“There. That wasn’t so bad, was it?” said Twilight.
Slowly, he returned to the land of the living. “Is … is it always like that?”
“You get used to it.”
He stared. “If you can get used to that, you’re a better man than I am, Gunga Din. Especially for a pony. And where are we, anyway?”
“We’re in the southwest guest room. Celestia asked that you be brought directly here, so you wouldn’t attract any attention.”
“A wise choice,” he said somewhat groggily. “The last thing I need is to attract attention while my brain is fried. This would remind me of a bad acid trip, if I’d ever been on a bad acid trip I could remember.”
“How do you tell good acid from bad acid?” Twilight asked. “And what acid are we talking about, anyway?”
“Strange artifact from the Days of Human Silliness. Lysergic acid diethylamide. It comes from a fungus that grows on grain. Turns your black and white to colors, your colors to sounds, your sounds to a splitting headache. Or so they tell me, since I never actually tried the stuff.”
“We could synthesize it here at the Castle, if you’re interested. We have very good chemists.”
He chuckled. “I’ve just had my brain warped nine ways from Sunday, and you want me tripping?”
“I hope you’re in better shape in the morning, when we meet with Celestia.”
“Just give me a few minutes to tidy up.” He pulled open the closet door. “That,” he said, “is one truly humongous laundry bag.”
“That,” Twilight replied, “is a body bag.”
He wasted no time closing the door. “I hope I’m not going to need it.” She made no reply, and finally he said: “I’m not, right?”
“Oh, no. The only way you would have needed it would be if you didn’t survive the trip through the portal.”
He worked up some semblance of a laugh, but he didn’t believe it sounded convincing, and he suspected she didn’t either. “Current status: not dead. I suppose it could be worse.”
“I have no experience with being dead,” said Twilight. “But I can’t say I’m looking forward to it.”
“Could we possibly change the subject? I’m already a nervous wreck.”
“You’re not in the habit of meeting princesses?” she teased.
“You kidding?” he said. “I barely knew our guy on the city council. Once in a while I’d see the mail being delivered. But that’s as close to the circles of power as I ever got.”
“They’re not going to bite your head off,” Twilight said.
“I know. But I get tongue-tied at times like that, and I don’t want to seem any more inarticulate than I have to.”
Twilight pondered for a moment, then offered a suggestion: “I could work up a temporary confidence spell.”
“Please don’t. This is one of those things I have to do under my own power, just to prove I can. If I’m going to be allowed to stay in Equestria, I have to be able to deal with situations like, well, meeting princesses.”
“You said ‘if.’ You have doubts still?”
“Shouldn’t I?” he asked.
“I don’t think Celestia would have authorized me to come fetch you if she planned to send you back.”
“Well, you know her better than I do.” He almost, but not quite, stifled a yawn. “What do you think she’s going to ask me?”
“Knowing Celestia, it could be anything. And you’ll have a session with Luna later.”
“You’ll be there, won’t you?” It sounded almost like a plea.
“Unless they ask me not to, I will be there,” Twilight said. “You probably should get some sleep.”
“I wish I could. But there’s that whole nervous-wreck thing still.”
She smiled. “There must be some way I can calm you down,” she said, running a hoof across his midriff.
“That,” he said, “can do a lot of things, none of which is calming me down.”
“How about tiring you out, then?”
“Now that’s an idea worth pursuing,” he agreed.
Precisely one hour after sunrise, they arrived in the Castle’s Main Hall.
“Why here?” he asked. “There’s going to be — what, four of us in this big room?”
“Three, anyway. It’s traditional,” Twilight explained. “The Princess receives visitors in the Main Hall, and that’s that.”
“Well, far be it from me to argue with tradition.”
“Tradition,” said Princess Celestia, descending from the ceiling, “is of great value. It gives us guidance in our everyday lives. It provides a benchmark for the things we do. And sometimes, admittedly, it’s just there.” She smiled at the two figures on the Main Hall’s floor. “Good morning, my little ponies. Did you sleep well?”
“We did,” Twilight answered, and he nodded.
Celestia looked him in the eye. “You can speak for yourself, I trust?”
Twilight smiled. “I think he’s just a little bit overwhelmed by everything.”
He swallowed, and managed to come up with “Good morning, Your Highness, and thank you for allowing me into your presence.”
A briefly awkward, or awkwardly brief, pause, and then the Princess said, “You come with the highest of recommendations. I could scarcely refuse under those conditions. But your gratitude is noted. Oh, and you can get up now.”
Both he and Twilight stood, and Celestia asked him, “Exactly what is going through your mind at this very moment?”
He took a deep breath. “The fact that you addressed us both as ponies. I found that … reassuring.”
The Princess turned to Twilight. “Would you excuse us for just a few minutes? I have some perhaps personal questions to ask our guest.”
“Of course,” said the lavender unicorn, who vanished in a flash of light.
“I admit,” Celestia began, “that I am as least as curious about you as you are about us. Since Equestria has not granted official recognition of your species, we frankly were not expecting a visit from one of you, until Twilight Sparkle told us of what she had found, and whom she had found.”
“I was quite surprised to be found,” he said.
“What were you thinking at that time?”
“All sorts of thoughts went through my mind. But this was the main one: when you’ve gone a whole lifetime being told that unicorns are strictly mythological creatures, having one show up on your front porch tends to mess with your head.” He looked off into the distance. “And she’s so beautiful.”
“You already knew what she looked like, from watching that television program,” the Princess pointed out.
“Vaguely. The drawings that made up that program did not do her justice. Oh, the colors matched, sort of, and the facial expressions were close enough, but a real, tangible, touchable pony is beyond the capacity of our television.”
“Touchable? Did you touch her then?”
He shook his head. “Not at first, no. I didn’t want to seem too forward.”
“But you did think about it?”
“I thought about a lot of things. Some of them were maybe a little embarrassing.”
“You were, however, quite taken with her,” the Princess said flatly.
“Very much so.”
“And you did not think that she might feel the same way about you?”
“Not in a million years would it have occurred to me that she might have felt the same.”
“Yet something happened to change your mind,” said Celestia.
A smile broke over his face. “We danced.”
And the Princess laughed. “You got Twilight Sparkle to dance? That’s a form of magic I don’t even know.”
“We were talking about some of the horrible things that happened to us when we were young, and one of the things we had in common was the dreaded School Dance. Apparently neither of us were particularly graceful.” He grinned. “And I don’t think we’ve improved much.”
The Princess leaned closer. “So tell me what happened.”
“I stood there like a goof, she put her forelegs over my shoulders, and the music started. It was a little three-minute record. And I wished it could go on for three hours or three days or three hundred years.”
“And that’s when you knew you were in love with her?”
“I looked into her eyes, and everything changed.”
“What happened after that?”
“We are, after all, the worst dancers in our respective universes. We promptly fell on our flanks.”
“May I infer that you were in no rush to get up?” asked the Princess.
“We were, uh, kind of busy.”
Celestia chuckled. “Obviously being from different species didn’t matter at the time.”
“Love laughs at hardware,” he said.
“But now you’re here, and all of a sudden you’re wanting to become a pony?”
“It’s not really all of a sudden. And I figure, if I’m going to earn Very Special Somepony status, the very least I can do is start with being Somepony. It’s a perfectly natural progression.”
“Now that,” said the Princess, “actually sounds like Twilight Sparkle.”
“We really hadn’t talked about it that much,” he admitted, “but one day she asked me, Oh, why couldn’t you have been a pony? And after that, the whole scheme suddenly seemed to make sense.”
“It’s a very difficult process,” Celestia warned. “And we’ve never used it on a human before. There are risks.”
He shrugged. “Everything in life has risks.”
“She already loves you just the way you are,” said the Princess.
“But we couldn’t keep going back and forth between universes, and I couldn’t ask her to live in mine, where she’d be an object of curiosity, or worse. On the other hoof, it’s probably not in your best interest, Your Highness, to have some oddball species running around Equestria, especially one that vaguely resembles an ape with advanced alopecia.”
She laughed at that. “I’m not trying to talk you out of it. I just wanted to see the depth of your commitment.” A sheaf of papers appeared in front of him. “First, we must enter your name on the Grand Scroll. Do you plan to keep your original name?”
“That was yesterday,” he said. “Today I am, with the kind permission of the Crown, Desert Brush.”
The Princess smiled. “What is the origin of that name?”
“I lived most of my life in a land of abundant sunshine, beautiful nights, and not a whole lot of foliage. It seems to fit somehow.”
“So be it, then. The second form is your application for Equestrian citizenship. Both my sister and I must sign it before it is considered accepted. Luna will speak with you one hour before sunset.”
“I hope she’s in a good mood.”
“I’m sure Twilight will vouch for you. For the time being, she will be responsible for you; we ask that you sign the third form, which confers upon her the power to act in your behalf, should it become necessary.”
A quill floated up towards him; he scrawled his new name on the paperwork. “What happens next?”
“You’ll be transported to the Royal Canterlot Hospital to be evaluated.”
“Suppose they turn me down?”
“They won’t. The chance to make history is too much for them to resist.” And then she added: “Never knew you’d be part of Equestrian history, did you?”
“Life is a series of surprises,” said Desert Brush, who was surprised to find himself suddenly teleported off the premises.
At about that moment, Twilight Sparkle returned to the Main Hall. “Oh, good, you’re still here.”
“Did you expect me not to be?” the Princess asked.
“I thought I heard a teleport.”
“Oh. That was your coltfriend being dispatched to Doctor Wellbe’s office.”
“What did you think of him?”
“The doctor, or your coltfriend?”
“Does it matter what we think of the doctor?”
“Not really,” answered Celestia. “As for your coltfriend, he’s very … interesting.”
“Is that good or bad?”
“It’s hard to get much of a fix on him,” said the Princess. “I have no experience reading his species, so I can pick up only the most obvious personality traits. Fortunately, he has a lot of them.”
“Such as?” Twilight asked.
“Right now, he’s fighting an internal battle: determination versus fear. The innermost part of him is radiating sheer terror.”
“Terror? What does he have to be afraid of?”
“Just about everything, if you think about it. He’s far from what used to be home, he knows he’s never going back, and his physical body is about to be changed permanently. If he didn’t have a reaction to that, I would be suspicious.”
“You said he’s fighting. Can he win this?”
“I think he will win this,” said the Princess. “He’s trying very hard to keep those fears in check. He has greater strength than he thinks. As the obstacles fall, the fears will subside.”
“Is there anything I can do to help?”
“Just be there for him. He’s utterly devoted to you. I didn’t have Cadance check him over, but I didn’t have to: it’s obvious how much he loves you. And that scares him a little. Perhaps he’s never been in love like this before.”
Twilight frowned. “He was married once, but it didn’t last.”
“And how long ago was that? Five, ten years?”
“More like thirty.”
“Oh, my. That explains much by itself. A pony left alone for decades will waste away on the inside: the emptiness grows and grows until there’s no room for anything else. Perhaps it’s the same with Desert Brush.” The Princess shook her head. “On the other hoof, he has one more reason to fight on, to keep the emptiness at bay.”
“Desert Brush?” asked a puzzled Twilight. “Did he pick that name?”
“He did. Did he not discuss it with you?”
“We’ve never even talked about it.”
“Do you like it?”
“It reminds me a little of the place he left behind. Maybe that’s the one thing from home he wanted to keep.” Twilight closed her eyes and turned away, but the Princess had already seen.
“You need not cry for him, or for yourself. These things will work themselves out.”
“But I feel so guilty,” Twilight sobbed. “He’s having to go through so much, and it’s all my fault.”
“It is not your fault,” said Celestia. “If he had not wished to go through with this, all he had to do was fail to show up at the rendezvous point. He did not fail. And he will not fail. That determination is there, and it’s there because he loves you. Give him a chance to prove it.”
“I think … he already has.”
Royal Chief Surgeon Midas Wellbe was not in a good mood. The second-to-last thing he wanted was having his perfectly reasonable advice against ponification of some Mystery Biped overridden by Princess Celestia herself. The last thing he wanted was for said biped to materialize in his office.
“I assume you didn’t do that under your own power,” he grumbled.
“If I have any power,” said Desert Brush, “it’s news to me.”
Dr. Wellbe glared at a stack of paper on his desk, and extracted a folder. “Hmmm. I see nopony bothered to get your date of birth.”
“That would be, uh, the fourteenth of Sixmonth, 943.”
“Nine forty-three? You’re sixty bucking years old?” He pounded a hoof on his desk. “Her Aloofness is going to owe me big time for this.”
“I’d complain to my parents,” Brush said, “but they’ve long since passed on.”
“Yeah, yeah. You’ll be awfully lucky if you don’t pass on in the middle of all this. Just for the record, I am required by Equestrian law to inform you of the following. One, all surgical procedures involve risk, and the possible hazards include infection, collateral damage, and death. Two, payment arrangements must be completed before you are discharged, whether you’re alive or not. Three, since your citizenship is still pending, all this paperwork will have to be read and initialed by your sponsor. You do have a sponsor, do you not? Or is the Princess undertaking all this on her own?”
“I am sponsored, so to speak, by Twilight Sparkle. I’m sure she’ll be happy to review anything you put before her.”
“Fine,” said Dr. Wellbe. “Have Miss Sparkle drop by some time today. Once that’s completed, we can talk about checking you in.” He looked at the ungainly creature again. “I assume you’ll leave here the same way you arrived?”
“That would be my guess,” said Brush.
“This is going to be a great heaping bowl of Not Good,” the doctor muttered as the not-yet-a-pony disappeared from view. “I never should have left Manehattan.”