by D. G. D. Davidson
The portal opened and Brony Steve’s body reassembled. He struck hard against soft grass and lay in a heap, panting as his head throbbed. Sweat trickled down his face and a spasm wracked him. The trip had been painful, but he was certain it had been worth it.
The air was muggy, and the sun beat hot against the back of his neck. For a minute, he kept his eyes closed, afraid of what he might see when he finally opened them. He had watched this world many times on the screen of his laptop, but to see it for real, from within, might be too much for his mind to take.
At last, he sat up and peered around. It looked much the same as it had on TV. The bright colors were the same, but he could see new details now. He could see shadows. The foliage under his feet was not a flat, pastel green; he could make out individual blades of grass. The flowers waved gently in the hot breeze. The clouds overhead looked like the clouds back home rather than like flat white swirls.
He sighed in relief when he realized he could judge distances. He had expected that, in a cartoon world, he would have no depth perception, so for the last few weeks, he had practiced performing complicated tasks with one eye closed.
He ran his hands through the grass around him. It felt real, if perhaps silkier than he expected, though that could simply indicate a well-manicured lawn. The color was strange, but at least the grass didn’t feel like a hard, flat plane, which was what he had anticipated.
When he stood, he wobbled; he was still dizzy from the lingering effects of the transportation, but he otherwise felt well.
The portal had dropped him exactly where he wanted to be. The Everfree Forest loomed nearby, its twisted trees casting its dense underbrush in shadow. Ponyville’s outlying houses were only a few hundred feet away. The quaint, Elizabethan-style buildings looked more substantial than he had imagined they would. The thatch on the roofs looked real, and some showed signs of mold. The buildings had mud from the streets splattered up their walls. Some of the houses were in disrepair.
He took a deep breath and frowned. He had supposed that Equestria would smell like flowers, or maybe fudge. It actually smelled like a barnyard.
Something buzzed near his ear and landed on his neck. Without thinking, he swatted it. When he looked at his palm, he saw the squashed remains of a horsefly.
Since the fateful day when Brony Steve and his friends had discovered serendipitously, while drunk, that they could open portals to other worlds by following the esoteric instructions in the short story “Mismsy Were the Borogoves” by Lewis Padgett, they had worked hard to find a way into the only alternate world they cared about—the magical land of ponies.
Sitting on the corner of his bed, Brony Mike munched a slice of Domino’s pizza and held a folded copy of Padgett’s story in one hand. A soft-spoken English major with thick spectacles and fine blond hair, Mike was just old enough to have watched the original My Little Pony ‘n’ Friends back in the Eighties. He had enjoyed the franchise even then, though he had admitted that only to his closest friends. On cheap plywood shelves bolted to the walls of his room, he kept his steadily growing collection; it consisted mostly of G4 toys, including the Pony Princess Wedding Castle and a complete set of Bridle Friends figurines, the hair of which he had carefully styled to be show-accurate. He also displayed a set of G1 DVDs. “You know,” he said, “it’s possible there is no Equestria. It might just be a place in a children’s cartoon show.”
On his hands and knees on the floor, arranging rocks to conform with Padgett’s arcane descriptions, Brony Karl snorted. “It’s not a children’s show! Why can’t you guys figure that out?” He picked at a pimple in his bald spot and peered at his handiwork.
“Whatever,” said Mike. “I’m just saying maybe we should use the portal to go to a universe full of hot, lovesick women instead.”
Karl sat up, patted his paunch, and reached for the open pizza box. “Women,” he grumbled. “Just forget about women, I say, like they always forget about me. Why would I go to a world full of hot women when I can go to a world full of hot frickin’ ponies?”
Mike shrugged. “I don’t have an answer to that.”
Brooding, Brony Steve lay on the floor in a corner, stared up at the cracks in the ceiling, and slowly turned in his hand his prize possession—a brushable Fluttershy, the only pony toy he owned. He had considered styling its mane the way Mike had styled the mane of his, but then realized that, if he did, he would no longer be able to comb its hair.
“I had more haters trolling my blog today,” he said. “I announced that Fluttershy was my waifu, and they cussed me out and told me to grow up.”
“You should stop reading the comments on your blog,” Mike answered. “Disregard haters and acquire ponies.”
“What happens if we really go to Equestria?” Steve asked. “What will we do there? How will the ponies react? We need to consider every possibility.”
“I can tell you what I’ll do,” Karl answered, pulling a thick slice of pizza out of the box. Licking his lips, he muttered, “Maybe all those mares can’t keep you satisfied, Rainbow Dash, but I bet I can.”
Steve sat up. “Do we know what ponies are really like? We see them on TV, we make up stories about them, but we really have only a tiny glimpse into their world. How does their economic system work? Do they have religion? How does their government function? Does Celestia have a cabinet? A senate? Is the mare-to-stallion ratio really as high at it looks in the show?”
“That’s why most of ’em are lez,” said Karl, tearing pieces from his pizza with his teeth.
“That’s just it,” Steve answered. “We don’t really know that about them. We made it up. I mean, it’s a children’s show—”
“It’s not a children’s show!” Karl shouted, spitting flecks of crust. “If it were for kids, do you think it would have all that sexual innuendo?”
Mike lowered the paperback he was holding and scratched his head. “What sexual—?”
“C’mon!” yelled Karl. “It’s everywhere! Haven’t you paid attention?”
Mike shrugged again. “Well, I did sorta think the Marzipan Mascarpone Merengue Madness looked like a phallic symbol.”
“Exactly! It’s obvious if you think about it.”
Steve stood. “You guys, we gotta be serious about this. We’re ambassadors from one world to another. We’re going to be the first humans ever to visit the ponies—”
“Except Megan,” said Mike.
Karl pounded a fist against the floor. “For the last damn time, there is no continuity between G4 and your stupid G1.”
“And your crossover fic sucked!”
Pouting, Mike walked to his shelf of toys and fiddled with his Friendship Express playset.
Steve paced up and down. “Before we go to Equestria, we have to go into training. We have to learn to be gentlecolts! We don’t know what might offend a pony. If we act like the bronies in those choose-your-own-adventure fics, we could cause an interdimensional crisis. We gotta be on our best behavior. We gotta be polite. We gotta avoid calling characters by their fan-given names if they haven’t been confirmed in canon, and we gotta . . .”
He snapped his fingers, turned, and pointed at his friends. “That’s it, we start practicing now. From now on, no more swearing.”
“What?” Karl cried. “This is another excuse to get me to stop talking, isn’t it?”
“Dude, I’m serious. What if ponies are offended by cuss words? I mean, the worst thing they say is hay.”
“You forgot they use buck to mean you-know-what,” said Karl, sniggering.
“No they don’t,” Mike said with his back turned. “We do. Steve’s got a point.” He turned around and dusted crumbs from his jeans. “You know what I think? I think we shouldn’t all go together. Not the first time, at least. To avoid frightening them, only one of us should go.”
Karl scrambled to his feet. “What? No! You just want to get your hands on Rainbow before I can—”
Mike slapped a hand over Karl’s mouth. “I think Steve should go.”
Steve furrowed his brow. “Why?”
"You’re serious about being nice once you get there. You deserve to be the one, if any of us do. Karl’s only interested in pony porn, and I’d be disappointed if I found out Firefly isn’t really Rainbow Dash’s mom. You don’t have all the stupid fantasies and expectations. You can plan for anything.”
Steve clapped Mike’s shoulders. “Dude, you’re awesome.”
“Nah, man. You’re awesome.”
“Brony hug?” Steve asked.
Steve and Mike grabbed each other, and they dragged Karl into the embrace as well.
Guilt burned in Steve’s stomach. He really had wanted to be as polite to the ponies as he could be, to plan as far as possible, and to be a worthy ambassador from Earth to Equestria, but he had a secret goal he hadn’t told his friends.
More than anything, the one thing he wanted to do was kiss Fluttershy. If he could accomplish that, he would consider his life complete.
Of course, he intended to accomplish it politely. That was key. Also, he didn’t want to end up on the wrong end of Fluttershy’s stare.
Shading his eyes with his hand, he squinted at the sky and tried to judge the time of day. His best guess was noon. He could see Canterlot perched on its cliff in the distance; it still looked like a fairy castle flagrantly defying the laws of physics, though he could make out massive struts and cantilevers on its underside, features invisible in the cartoon show. The waterfalls pouring through it did not appear as solid bands of blue, but grew indistinct as they neared the ground, whipped into clouds of mist by the wind.
He had spent several hours examining the show and had come to the conclusion that Canterlot was roughly northeast of Ponyville. Since he was on the edge of Ponyville and Everfree, Fluttershy’s cottage should be almost directly east. He could reach it by walking along the forest’s edge.
He dug into his pocket until he found his brushable. Gripping it tightly, he set off.
Steve and his friends had for weeks discussed the likely consequences of a human’s sudden arrival in the world of ponies. They had made a list of all the human-in-Equestria fan fictions they could find, and they had divided them up according to their personal tastes. Steve had read the adventure stories, Mike had read the comedies, and Karl had read the clopfics.
“Here’s a guy who says the only realistic thing for the ponies to do at the sight of a human is go crazy and kill him,” Mike said as he lay on the sofa and read a blog entry on his smartphone.
“I don’t think that sounds realistic at all,” Steve answered. He rubbed his temples as he scrolled through another wall of text on his laptop. “When they saw Zecora, they just ran and hid . . . hey, in this one, the human’s got superpowers, he’s the only one who can save Equestria, and he goes on a big adventure in an airship. Oh, and he has a romance with Twilight Sparkle.”
“That doesn’t sound realistic either,” said Mike.
Karl clapped his hands and giggled as he read a story on his own computer. “Oh, man! In this one, he bones all the ponies! Damn, you should see what he does to Lyra!”
Steve sighed and closed his eyes. His head throbbed. “And I know that’s unrealistic. I’m not sure any of this is helping.”
“In all the stories, it’s always Twilight who’s most calm at the sight of a human,” said Mike. “So look for her first.”
“But then I gotta walk through town until I find the library, which means every other pony’s gonna see me.” He swallowed a lump. “I think I should look for Fluttershy.”
Mike threw his phone down on the couch. “That’s the last one I would think—”
“No, really. Look, she was scared of Zecora, but she thought Zecora was a pony at first. She wasn’t particularly scared of Iron Will, and she defended him when the others called him a monster. She wasn’t scared of Spike or Cerberus. Fluttershy is scared of full-grown dragons and she’s shy around other ponies, but she does okay with everything else. If she thinks I’m an exotic animal, everything’s cool.”
“Ha!” Karl cried as he slammed his laptop closed. “Oh, man, Rarity had that coming to her! Whew, best one I’ve read in a while. Hey, what’s this about Fluttershy?”
“Steve wants to find her first,” Mike said. “He says she’ll think he’s an animal.”
Karl nodded. “I’d be an animal with Fluttershy, if ya know what I mean. But if you wanna pretend to be part of the wildlife, bucko, ya gotta go nekkid.”
“Karl,” said Steve, “just shut up.” He twisted his mouth. “But that’s something else to consider—how should I dress? What’s the temperature like?”
"Dunno," Mike said. "Always looks sunny in the show. I’m guessing it’s warm . . . well, unless there’s a season-centered episode, of course. Except in ‘Fall Weather Friends,’ ‘Winter Wrap-Up,’ and ‘Hearth’s Warming Eve,’ it always looks like summer.”
“But apples are always in season,” Steve answered, “which means late fall.”
“I love ‘Fall Weather Friends,’” said Karl. “That episode proves that Dash and Applejack are doing it. My second favorite is ‘Griffon the Brush-Off,’ which proves that Dash and Pinkie Pie are doing it. My third favorite, of course, is ‘Hurricane Fluttershy,’ which proves that Dash and Fluttershy are do—”
“Karl, shut up,” said Steve.
Karl cracked his knuckles, leaned back in his chair, and laced his fingers behind his head. “Aww, is little Steve jealous? You’re just upset because my girl is using your girl to slake her voracious appetite.”
Steve slowly shook his head and allowed an expression of disgust to settle on his face. “Are you even watching the same show we are?”
“Sure. I just know how to read the subtext. You don’t.”
“You know,” said Mike, “the G1 ponies cuddled and kissed each other all the time. It didn’t mean anything.”
“Yeah,” said Karl, “but that was the Eighties. People were naïve back then. Now we understand these things.” He opened his laptop again. “I need more porn.”
In the end, Steve had decided on simple clothes, cleaned and pressed to look presentable but sturdy enough for outdoor labor if that became necessary. He wore cargo pants, a loose button-up shirt, and hiking boots. In his daypack, he had a fleece-lined windbreaker along with energy bars and bottles of water in case he couldn’t eat cartoon food. He also had a copy of “Mimsy Were the Borogoves” so he could create a portal to get back home.
Only when he stood next to Fluttershy’s chicken coop did it occur to him that she might mistake him for a monster out of the Everfree Forest, but by then it was too late.
The cottage looked much as it did in the show, except its many birdhouses, its roof, and the surrounding grounds were stained with bird droppings. Encircled by chipmunks, squirrels, robins, blue jays, and butterflies, Fluttershy herself stood in the middle of the front yard. She wore a faded straw sun hat and quietly hummed a pretty tune as a chickadee alighted on her raised hoof. The breeze blew a few strands of her pink hair across her face.
Steve’s heart leapt into his throat and a frisson ran from his head to his feet. Here was the first pony he had seen in the flesh. In his pocket, his sweaty hand gripped the toy even tighter.
She looked much as he had expected, except, as was the case with the grass and the houses, he could espy details invisible in the show. Instead of appearing thick and featureless, her legs had visible joints, tendons, and muscles. Although painted yellow, her hooves were distinguishable from her coat. She had a bulbous head and foreshortened muzzle, half human and half horsey in appearance. Her eyes were large, but not nearly as large as they appeared on television.
Steve paused for a moment and almost drew back. She was too real. Her anthropomorphized equine features, so cute in a cartoon, now struck him as grotesque.
Leaving the toy in his pocket, he pulled his hand free. Slowly, and as quietly as he could, he stepped around the coop and approached her. Absorbed as she was in her animal friends, she didn’t notice.
Swallowing a lump, Steve opened his mouth, licked his lips, and said one word.
She turned and looked at him.
Gasping, Steve fell to the floor of Mike’s room and twitched uncontrollably.
Mike knelt beside him. “Dude, are you okay?”
“No,” Steve gasped. “I think . . . urgh . . . it’s worse. Maybe it gets worse each time . . . ungghh.”
He panted for a minute, but then his breathing slowed. “It’s passing. Yeah, I’ll be all right. I think.”
Mike pulled him upright. Steve swayed on his feet.
“What happened?” Mike asked. “We’ve been watching the show, trying to see if you’d appear in any existing episodes or something, but—”
Steve shook his head. “I don’t think it works like that. We’re not seeing the real Equestria on the TV. It’s more like a representation. A reflection, maybe. The real thing’s more solid.”
Karl, who had been lying on top of the My Little Pony bedspread, rose to his feet. “How did it go?”
Steve put a hand to his forehead and discovered he was dripping sweat. “I met Fluttershy.”
“And?” Mike asked.
Steve swallowed. His mind was still a jumble.
Karl’s mouth turned up in a lopsided grin. He gave a satisfactory nod. “You banged her, didn’t you?”
Pushing past Mike, Steve slugged Karl in the jaw. “Just shut up, you sick son of a bitch!”
Enervated as he was, his punch landed weakly. Karl replied with a powerful right hook that knocked Steve back to the floor.
Mike wrapped his arms around Karl, struggling to pin his arms to his sides and hold him back. “Stop it, guys! Stop!”
Karl shrugged Mike off and picked Steve up by his collar. “You little pissant. You little piece of shit. You think you can just knock me around? Huh? Huh?” He slapped Steve back and forth across the face.
Mike landed a hand on Karl’s shoulder. Karl paused.
“Get out,” Mike said. “Just get out of my house.”
Karl dropped Steve and looked at Mike for a moment, chewing his lip. At last, he knocked Mike’s hand away and walked toward the door, muttering to himself. “Little bitch wouldn’t know what to do with a pony anyhow.” He punched the door on the way out and clattered around in the hall before the front door slammed, indicating he’d left.
Fluttershy merely stared at Steve, her lower lip trembling and her nose quivering. Her ears lay back against her head.
Sweat broke out afresh on his forehead, but he forced himself to take another step forward.
She shrank back and opened her wings.
He raised his hands. His voice cracked as he said, “I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to startle you.”
Tilting her head to one side, she peered at him. Her face expressed suspicion, but she folded her wings and her ears rose up again.
“Are you . . . a satyr?” she asked.
She tilted her head the other way, frowning.
“Yes,” he said.
A grin slowly spread across her face. She ran up to him and pranced around him, looking him up and down. “Oh, I’ve never met a satyr before, but I’ve heard so much about you.”
She stopped prancing, frowned, and shrank back again. “How did you know my name?”
“I’ve heard about you, too,” he said.
“About me? Oh my goodness!” Her voice rose to a squeak.
“Somepony told me you took care of the animals around here.” He smiled. Shyly, she smiled back.
He walked with her, and they talked. He felt guilty about lying to her, but he kept doing it anyway. He made up stories about life as a satyr, and she accepted everything without question. Several animals followed them. At first, they were timid and kept their distance, but soon they grew used to Steve and swarmed around Fluttershy again.
As they talked, he became accustomed to her strange appearance, and after a few hours, he thought of her as the real Fluttershy, of whom the cartoon character was only a quaint misrepresentation. Her voice, though soft and feminine, was not Andrea Libman’s: it was a beautiful yet inhuman voice reminiscent of a whinny. She sounded perpetually out of breath, which perplexed Steve until he remembered that horses only breathed through their noses; to speak, Fluttershy had deliberately to force air out through her mouth.
He helped her with her afternoon chores. He gathered firewood from the edge of the forest and stacked it behind her cottage. She praised him on the clever use of his hands.
“But you don’t have to do that, really,” she said.
“I’m glad to,” he answered.
After that, he helped her make new nests for some of the birds; he wasn’t good at it, but he was useful when it came time to carry the nests to the trees and replace the old ones.
“I usually have to make two trips to do this,” she said. “But you really don’t have to—”
“It’s no problem,” he answered.
After the chores were done, they took tea in the little garden behind the cottage. He sat close to her. Angel Bunny, glaring suspiciously at him, served.
The western sky turned dusky as the sun lowered. Angel hopped back into the cottage to get something, and Steve felt his heart pound hard as he realized this was his chance.
He glanced at her muzzle, which looked like a horse’s in miniature, and wondered for a moment if he really wanted to go through with this.
She was talking about the squirrels and her concerns as to whether she could find them enough nuts to store away for the winter. Only half listening, he leaned toward her, and she went silent.
“Would it be all right if I . . . I mean, would you let me . . . ?”
“. . . Comb your hair?” Steve felt his face flush, and he kicked himself.
She blinked a few times. “I guess so.”
Crickets chirruped in the dark glade behind Mike’s house. Steve sat on the back porch, nursing a beer and a black eye as he watched moths flitter around the porch light.
Mike walked out and leaned on the railing. “You want another ice pack?”
Steve shook his head.
“You want another beer?”
Steve nodded. Mike walked back inside. A minute later, he walked out again with a couple of fresh bottles. Steve popped the cap off one and took a long pull.
Mike watched him.
Steve lowered the bottle to his lap and turned it in his hands. “I used to know this girl in high school,” he said. “She was very shy and had such a soft voice that it was often hard to hear what she said. She was pretty, too, maybe the prettiest girl I’ve ever known, a dishwater blonde with long, really thick, crazy hair.” He laughed quietly. “She had such a sweet, innocent face. She was skinny and looked frail.”
He took another long drink, and when he came up for air, he added, “But she was tough as nails. Once, a guy made a rude comment to her and she broke his nose. She took a trip to New Guinea and came back with scars from botflies running up her legs, and she acted like it was no big deal. Then she went to India and volunteered in a leprosarium.”
Mike sipped his own beer. “Wow.”
“Yeah. I had a crush on her like you wouldn’t believe. I spent my sophomore year screwing up the courage to tell her, and in late May I did.”
“Did she break your nose?”
“Might’ve been better if she had. No, she just told me, very sweetly, to take a hike. Even so, I carried a torch for her all through high school. I stopped thinking about her so much in college, or at least I thought I did—until someone from back home sent me a news clipping saying she was getting married.” He tapped his chest. “Felt like getting stabbed with a knife. Funny how some of us never entirely recover from things like that.”
Steve reached into his pocket, pulled out his brushable Fluttershy, and turned it in his hand. Its mane was tangled.
“We can always open another portal,” Mike said. “We can go together next time.”
“I’m not going back,” said Steve.
Steve finished his bottle. “I did what I set out to do.”
“So that’s it? Mission accomplished? No more ponies?”
Teeth clenched, Steve leapt to his feet and chucked the bottle. It shattered against a rock somewhere in the glade. “You don’t get it.”
“Then explain it.”
Steve shook his head. “I don’t know if I can yet. Maybe tomorrow. Maybe the day after. Maybe a month from now, I can explain it, but not now.” He gingerly touched the bruised flesh around his eye. “I feel guilty. I feel hollow. I feel like a pervert who’s finally got what he’s been horny for and now has to live with himself, and I guess that’s what I am. I think about the haters on my blog who told me to grow up, and I think I finally understand them. They weren’t telling me it’s wrong to like a children’s show. They were telling me it’s wrong to like a children’s show in the wrong way.”
Mike shrugged. “Who gets to say what’s right or wrong?”
“I don’t know, Mike. Maybe nobody has to say. Maybe it just is.” He leaned on the railing and stared into the trees. “A guy can’t marry Fluttershy or raise Rainbow Dash as his daughter. If we count on ponies to give us what we don’t have, we’re bound to be disappointed. I’ve figured something out: it really is a children’s show, and the ponies live in a children’s world. People like you and me don’t belong there.”
Mike slowly shook his head. “I don’t believe that.”
“But I’m certain of it. That’s what I learned in Equestria: the ponies are innocent, but we can corrupt them.”
Steve stared at his brushable, watching its mussed pink hair reflect the yellow light from the lamp overhead.
After several minutes of silence, he pulled his arm back and then, with a quick snap, threw the toy out into the darkness. Wiping his hands against each other as if removing dirt, he turned into the house, let the screen door bang shut behind him, and left Mike alone on the porch.
Even though it was late summer, the night air was cool. Steve tucked his hands into the pockets of his windbreaker as he meandered home in the dark and brooded over the time he had spent in another world.
It seemed like such a happy fantasy when he was merely watching a cartoon and imagining what it might be like to fall in love with a beautiful, kind, shy, gentle-hearted pony. Impossibly, he had spent the day with her, and all his dreams had come true.
Fluttershy’s long pink hair had been thick, fine, and soft, more like a human’s hair than like a horse’s. In silence, he had pulled a comb through it, listening to his heart thud in his ears, trying to work up the nerve.
He had paused, his stomach full of butterflies, and she had looked up at him. Gazing again at her inhuman face, he had realized that, much as he wanted this before, he wanted it no longer. He was fond of her; he wanted to be her friend. But he was not drawn to her in the way he had previously thought he was.
He leaned down and kissed her anyway. She had whiskers on her muzzle, and they prickled. The sensation was unpleasant. She didn’t react at all, but when he pulled away and looked again into her eyes, he detected, in the slight changes of her face, a deep hurt.
For several seconds, only silence passed between them. Then, wordlessly, he stood and walked away. He had got what he wanted.
And he felt like a fool.