If you grew up outside of Canterlot, your young ears were filled with vivid descriptions of the wonders that awaited visitors to the shining city on the mountain, and like as not, you pestered your parents to take you there, please, can we, just this once?
And then one day when your ears weren’t so young, you got off the train and looked around the station and you asked: “Is that all there is?” The Station Manager patiently pointed out that the design was intended to be functional, not decorative, and if you wanted to see pretty things, there were plenty of them only a few paces away, and now if you’ll excuse me, I have to get back to work.
Lyra, on the other hoof, was quite fond of the Canterlot station, since it provided her opportunities for ponywatching that simply didn’t exist back home. There wasn’t going to be much of it today, though: there were only six ponies on the platform, one on each bench, though each bench could easily hold four, more if they sat like Lyra did.
Then she noticed an earth pony facing the westbound tracks actually sitting the way she did, bolt upright, flank against the surface of the bench instead of up in the air. She couldn’t tell much about him otherwise: brownish-green, somewhat faded coat, just about the color of grass two days after Winter Wrap-Up, and maybe a touch of white in his mane. I’ll hate myself if I don’t talk to him, she thought, and trotted over his way.
“Good morning,” she said. “Have we met?”
“Not yet,” he answered. “Are you the official welcoming committee? Because, uh, I was just leaving.”
“Where are you headed?”
“Going to Vanhoover. I’ve never seen it, but I hear it’s nice.” He smiled. “So much is new to me these days.”
She put forth a hoof. “I’m Lyra Heartstrings. I’m from Ponyville, but I come up here every other weekend to meet friends and occasionally play a gig.”
“Desert Brush. Nice to meet you.”
“So what brings you to Canterlot?”
The earth pony grimaced. “I was at the Royal Hospital. A … rather complicated bit of surgery.”
“You’d pretty much have to come here for anything really complicated,” said Lyra. “Are you going to be all right?”
“I think so,” Brush answered. “They were supposed to release me last night, but there were about a hundred tests they had to run just one more time.”
She looked under the bench: a single bag. “Traveling light, are we?”
“I don’t need much.” He bowed his head slightly. “Everything I ever wanted, I have.”
“I wish I could say the same,” Lyra sighed. She pointed one hoof at his neck and asked: “Where’d you get the locket?”
“A gift from a Very Special Somepony,” he said. “There’s supposedly something vaguely magical about it.”
“That’s what happens when you date unicorns,” Lyra quipped. “Does she live in Vanhoover?”
“No. She grew up here, but she lives in Ponyville.”
Lyra’s eyes grew wide. “Really? Anypony I might know?”
“I wouldn’t be surprised,” said Brush, waving a hoof at Twilight Sparkle as she materialized on the platform.
“Oh, hi, Lyra,” Twilight said. And then she grinned at Brush: “Flirting with the mares already? You must be healthier than they said you were.”
“I’ve been good,” he protested mildly. “Really, I have.”
“A perfect gentlecolt,” said Lyra. “How in the hay did you two meet?”
“It’s a long, long story,” said Twilight as the westbound train pulled in. “And it’s still being written.”
Inevitably, an Emergency Meeting was convened at Sugarcube Corner. “Did anypony know that Twilight had a coltfriend?” Pinkie Pie began. “I didn’t know anything about it, and I’m usually the first to know about things unless somepony is trying to keep a secret, like the time Applejack —”
“Hush now,” Applejack snapped. “We’re not bringin’ that up again.” She rolled her eyes. “How serious is this, anyhow?”
“Any time you hear the term Very Special Somepony, it’s safe to assume that it’s indeed quite serious,” Rarity said. “Then again, supposedly he said it, and she didn’t. Is it possible that the gentlecolt may have an exaggerated sense of his own importance? I mean, we do know that Twilight was already on her way to Vanhoover.”
“What the hay is in Vanhoover, anyway?” Rainbow Dash asked. “All I know about it is that it’s a whole lot of mountains west of Cloudsdale.”
“It’s their turn to host the Librarians’ Convention,” answered Pinkie. “It rotates. Well, it doesn’t actually rotate, or everypony would get dizzy and have to go home early and that would ruin the whole convention. But last year it was in Baltimare, and I don’t remember where it was the year before that but I’m sure it was in some big city because they’ve never, ever had it here.”
“Three weeks in Baltimare? Sheesh.” Applejack frowned. “Ah’d go crazy if Ah had to spend three weeks in the city. Any city.”
“It’s not three weeks,” Pinkie replied. “It’s only two or three days. Gosh, what would librarians do for three whole weeks?”
Applejack stared. “But Twi said she was takin’ three weeks off, didn’t she? Even allowin’ for a three-day train ride either way, that leaves —”
“Fifteen days in a love-nest with her little earth pony,” said Rarity. “Not to mention whatever mischief they can get into on the train. This is so unbelievably romantic. Especially for Twilight.”
Dash shook her head. “I’d say it’s unbelievable. Poor egghead turns redder than berry juice if a stallion so much as looks at her funny. And we’re supposed to believe she’s run off with this — what was his name again?”
“Desert Brush,” Applejack said. “Never heard of him mahself. Ah mean, it’s a name that sounds like it oughta come from some place like Dodge Junction, right?”
“There are no places like Dodge Junction,” said Rarity, “and thank Celestia for that. The first order of business, I believe, is to verify Twilight’s itinerary.”
“Her what?” asked a puzzled Dash.
“Her itinerary. Where she’s going, and when she’s coming back.”
“On it,” said Rainbow Dash. “Either Spike owes me a favor, or I can get him to think he does.” Out the door she went.
Nopony spoke for a moment, and then Fluttershy piped up: “This could all be perfectly innocent. I mean, Twilight is just like any of us, when you think about it. We’ve never been colt-crazy or anything like that.”
Rarity laughed. “Speak for yourself.”
“I’m sorry,” said Fluttershy, visibly shrinking further into the corner.
“Oh, sweetheart, you needn’t apologize,” Rarity replied. “You are what you are, and we all love you. If anypony owes us an apology, it’s those crazy colts who have only one thing on their minds.”
“Just one thing?” asked Pinkie. “The crazy colts I meet have seven or eight things on their minds and they can’t get them in the right order half the time. Maybe that’s what’s making them crazy?”
Rarity stared. “You’re meeting crazy colts?”
“Of course,” Pinkie retorted. “Any colt I meet is likely to be crazy. The very least I can do is try to get him to be crazy about me, right?”
Applejack rose from the table. “Ah think you’re all just a hair crazy right now. We don’t know squat about this pony except what Lyra told us, and that ain’t much. Shouldn’t we be givin’ Twi the benefit of the doubt? She’s a grown mare, for Luna’s sake.”
“So are we all,” said Rarity. “But love, or the appearance of love, can lead anypony astray. And poor Twilight, to put it mildly, is not especially well-versed in these matters. Canterlot, for all its glory, has some very seedy characters lurking in its shadows.”
“Well, Ah don’t want any part of this here witch hunt ’til I have some reason to think Twi’s in real trouble.” Applejack walked over to the door, which suddenly popped open in her face.
“I think Twi’s in real trouble,” said Rainbow Dash, only slightly out of breath.
“How so?” asked Rarity.
“Well, her itiner-whatzit checks out. But Spike showed me this new gadget that’s wired to the Royal Library in Canterlot. It has information on everypony in Equestria, where they live and what they do.”
“Ah’m not so sure Ah like that sorta thing,” Applejack said. “Granny says we got too many pryin’ eyes already. We already had to fill out some dumb forms last summer.”
Dash ignored her. “Anyway, as of last month, there was nopony named Desert Brush, in Canterlot or anywhere else.”
“A con artist,” said Rarity. “I might have known.”
“Is there anything we can do?” Fluttershy asked. “I mean, if I were dating a con artist, I hope somepony would be able to help.”
“If that’s all we have to worry about,” said Pinkie. “It may be ten thousand times worse than that and we’d never know the difference. Lyra said that he had strange posture and kind of a halting gait, almost like he wasn’t used to walking, and he wasn’t carrying around a lot of baggage so he maybe wasn’t planning this trip in advance.”
“She also said he’d just got out of the hospital,” Applejack pointed out. “Everypony walks kinda strange after bein’ flat on their backs for days on end.”
“Actually,” Rarity said, “she said that he said that he’d just gotten out of the hospital.”
Rainbow Dash laughed. “Lyra complaining about somepony’s posture? I’ll believe that when I see Derpy turn down a muffin.”
“Seriously, Dashie,” Pinkie insisted. “He doesn’t sit like a pony, he doesn’t walk like a pony, and nopony has ever heard of him. Suppose he’s not a pony at all?”
Sugarcube Corner was never this quiet when it was closed.
Finally Rarity broke the silence. “Well, we know what we have to do.”
There are those who say that the Unicorn Range of today was the site of the original founding of Equestria, several millennia ago, and indeed the classic Hearth’s Warming Eve story would seem to bear them out: the stretch of mountains that defines the southern border of the Range is unusually rich with gems, the cluster of clouds to the north extends all the way to present-day Cloudsdale, and in between lies some of Equestria’s best farmland. The very first rail line in Equestria connected the southeastern end of the Range to the capital at Canterlot. The Northwest Line today now extends all the way to the northwestern end of the Range, where it divides, the south fork heading toward the ocean, to Tall Tale and to Vanhoover, while the north fork makes its way toward the Frozen North and into the Crystal Mountains.
There are no large cities anywhere along the Northwest Line: once you’ve departed from Canterlot and headed west, it’s all farms and forest, forest and farms, a couple of dozen towns no more than a few houses wide. It was at one of these towns, just before sunrise, where a lone pegasus stood on the platform. The train duly stopped for her, but she did not board: instead, she gave a parcel to the conductor, and then flew off.
A knock came at the compartment door.
“Sorry to disturb you, Miss Sparkle, but there’s a package for you from Canterlot.”
Twilight, barely awake, roused herself enough to take the three steps to the door. “Wonder what this could be…” She carefully opened the package, refolded the wrapping in case she might need it, and examined the contents: two letters. The first was from the Princess; no surprise there. Until, of course, she actually read it.
“Wake up! You have to hear this!”
Desert Brush rolled over, not even barely awake. “Mmmm… hear… what?”
“It’s a letter from the Princess. Apparently they’re very worried about me. And you. Well, mostly about you.”
Brush pulled himself upward. “Why would anypony worry about me? And who are ‘they’, anyway?”
My faithful student:
The attached communication was received last night. It appears that your friends in Ponyville are deeply concerned about your trip, and most especially about your traveling companion. I understand why you might not have warned anypony about him: things moved rather quickly once he arrived and was processed. I have done what I could to offer them reassurance without violating anypony’s confidence. But you should be prepared for many, many questions when you return.
“So I’ve been processed. Now there’s a first,” Brush said.
Twilight giggled. “Wait till you hear this.”
Dear Princess Celestia:
We are writing to you because we are worried about our friend Twilight Sparkle, who took an extended leave of absence to attend a convention on the western coast, and who apparently is being accompanied by an unknown pony of questionable origin.
“Questionable?” said Brush. “If they only knew.”
“Sounds like Rarity dictated it to Spike. Now listen to this.”
Since no record of a pony named ‘Desert Brush’ presently exists, we are forced to conclude that Twilight has been deceived by a changeling, and may be in great danger. Any assistance you can provide will be greatly appreciated.
“Signed by the other five Elements of Harmony, of course.”
“That’s what friends are for,” Brush said dryly. “How did they comb through all those records that fast?”
“Remember, back when I was visiting your old world, about how I didn’t have any statistics to offer you? I mentioned that to Princess Celestia, and she ordered up a census of all of Equestria, to be updated with changes twice a month.”
“You have to count everypony every other week? That sounds tiresome. And bureaucratic.”
“We don’t count everypony every time. A local official, like Mayor Mare in Ponyville, has to send in any changes: new arrivals, births, deaths. An actual count is conducted only at five-year intervals.”
Brush grinned. “It could be worse, I suppose. Is this all a matter of public record?”
“It is,” said Twilight. “In fact, it’s accessible by terminals across most of Equestria. Mayor Mare has one, and there’s one in the library. You ought to take credit for this, since it was your idea.”
“I’ll be happy to, once I actually, you know, exist.”
“You should exist now. Database changes would have gone in this morning.”
“What does it say about me?”
“There’s not much in the database on anypony: they collect name and legal status, date and place of birth, name and status of parents, current residence, and cutie mark.”
Brush stared. “What, technically, is my legal status?”
“I turned in the paperwork while you were in the hospital. As of the eleventh you are Immigrant Granted Equestrian Citizenship. Princess Celestia signed the order herself.”
“Does she get a lot of these?” Brush wondered.
“One or two a month, maybe. But it’s usually a pony from the Crystal Empire, which is outside Equestrian jurisdiction. I’m pretty sure you’re the first human to apply.”
“Certainly the first one to get a cutie mark,” Brush said wryly. “Although back where I come from they have something called ‘tramp stamps’, just north of the tail. In fact, there was a brief craze for adding body decorations just about everywhere.”
“Painted on?” asked Twilight.
Brush winced. “Ink embedded into several layers of skin, a droplet at a time. I guess that’s how they decorated my flank this week. I was unconscious at the time, and that’s probably a good thing, because I’d have screamed my fool head off. I imagine that it doesn’t hurt quite so much for ponies who were born ponies.”
“Not at all. Then again, cutie marks are normally a magical function, and for the moment you’re only barely connected to magic.” She laughed. “Of course, you could have stayed a blank flank and confused the hay out of everypony.”
“From the sound of things, I confuse the hay out of everypony already,” he said.
“Read it out loud,” commanded Rarity, and so Rainbow Dash did:
My dear friends:
I thank you for your letter, and I appreciate your concerns. However, you need not worry yourselves. I have met with Desert Brush twice, and I believe his loyalty to Equestria and his devotion to Twilight Sparkle are unquestionable. All will be explained to you in two weeks when they return to Ponyville.
“That’s all she said,” Dash muttered, and set the letter aside.
“I don’t get it,” said Pinkie. “How can he return to Ponyville when he’s never even been to Ponyville? That’s like a griffon coming down with the Pony Pox, or a pony with the Griffon Pox, if there is such a thing as the Griffon Pox, and there probably is.”
“She didn’t say anythin’ one way or another about him bein’ a changeling, then?” asked Applejack.
“At least loyalty counts for something,” Dash said. “But there’s a whole lot here that nopony is telling us. Why didn’t Twilight tell us anything about this?”
Rarity nodded. “It does seem odd of Twilight not to mention something so potentially life-changing as a new coltfriend.”
“Maybe she was scared,” said Fluttershy. “If I had a new coltfriend I wouldn’t be telling everypony in town.”
“Why the hay not?” Applejack asked.
“Suppose our first date went badly and we never had another one.” Fluttershy dropped her voice to just above a whisper. “If everypony knew about it, maybe no other pony would ever want to date me.”
“Oh, that’s just silly,” said Dash. “I’ve had lots of first dates go badly. I still get hit on.”
“Have you ever had a second date?” Fluttershy asked.
Applejack roared. “She’s got you there, Dashie.”
Rarity held up a hoof. “We’re getting off the subject here. The Princess says this Brush pony meets with her approval. Perhaps he’s a changeling who underwent permanent ponification, and voluntarily gave up his power to change.”
“Can they do that?” Pinkie wondered.
“I don’t know,” Rarity admitted. “But what else are we supposed to believe? We’ll just have to wait until Twilight and the Mystery Stallion come waltzing in.”
“Well, if they’re gonna waltz,” Pinkie said, “we gotta have a dance party!”
They trotted down the hill from the little bed-and-breakfast and sat on the grass, sometimes gazing at the stars, sometimes at each other. “You know what I don’t miss? Having grass this tall and knowing there’d be a note on the door from the city, telling me to cut it down or pay a fine, or they’d do it for me and I’d pay a bigger fine.”
Twilight laughed. “Did that ever really happen to you?”
“Came close once or twice,” said Brush. “It’s a strange sort of situation. They all want these plants to decorate their homes; they just don’t want them to act like, well, plants. Plants grow and spread and put down roots where you weren’t expecting and generally act like they don’t care what you think. Because they don’t, and why should they?”
She scooted in a little closer to him. “Is there anything you really do miss?”
“Well, yeah, from time to time. It’s a shame I won’t get to see what happens to the grandchildren — um, grandfoals.” He sighed. “The language adjustments are taking a little longer than I thought they would.”
“They’re not ponies. You don’t have to call them ‘foals’ if you don’t want to.”
“And once in a while I’ll have a fleeting thought: What was I thinking? Was I insane to do this?”
“Princess Luna certainly thought so.”
“Really?” Brush asked. “She said that?”
“After your first meeting with the princesses. The guards took you to a guest bedroom, and both Luna and Celestia threw questions at me for the next several hours while you were supposedly sleeping.”
“No ‘supposedly’ about it,” said Brush. “I was out like a dying candle.”
“And what Luna wanted to know was what would happen if all of a sudden you decided you didn’t want to be a pony anymore. ‘Love is fleeting,’ she said. ‘Reality is always there.’ And I didn’t have an answer for her.”
Brush nodded. “That would be a tough one to answer on short notice.”
“How would you have answered her?” Twilight asked.
He looked up at the moon for a moment. “Can you take a letter?”
She produced a pad and a quill. “Of course.”
Dear Princess Luna:
You ask if maybe it might have been a bit shortsighted to throw away my previous life for something that has no guarantees. But life itself has no guarantees: we take for granted that the sun will rise in the morning, and that the moon will replace it at night, but we know that things can happen to interrupt this routine.
And I really didn’t “throw away” my previous life. It’s boxed up and sitting in a lawyer’s office for the next ten years, as he waits for further instructions; after that, he is to sell the land and the house and the material goods and pass the proceeds to my offspring. Were I to go back at any time before that, I could pick up right where I left off — except for the fact that I would still be a pony and would have major difficulties adjusting to a life with which I’d already had six decades of experience.
But that’s beside the point. I did not come to Equestria to shed my old life; I came to Equestria to embrace a new life. Twilight Sparkle loved me before I was a pony; but to be the pony of her dreams, I first had to be a pony. Nothing else was quite so important to me. And from this day forward, nothing else ever will be. If this be insanity, I plead guilty.
Yours sincerely, et cetera, et cetera.
Twilight put the quill and pad away, and suddenly burst into tears. “Oh, Celestia, what have I done?”
Brush sought to embrace her, but she pushed him away. “And what have I done to you? I took your whole life away! I destroyed you so I wouldn’t be lonely! I’m a selfish, wicked, horrible pony! I deserve to be banished!”
Again he reached for her. “I don’t feel destroyed.” She looked away; he moved in front of her.
“Look at me,” he said.
“I am here. Do you know why I am here?”
She said nothing.
“I am here because I would rather be an ordinary pony with you, than be whatever else I was or could have been without you. That’s all there is. Nothing else. No spells, no mind control, no mental illness, no selfish wickedness — nothing.”
He held her, and he sang these words from his distant past: "You are here, and so am I..."
"Well, obviously." Even an upset Twilight was still Twilight.
"Do you see anypony else?"
She looked around. "Nopony that matters."
"But they all disappear from view..."
“I’m … I’m sorry. I just … can’t … stop … crying.”
“Then I will cry with you,” he said.
And under Princess Luna’s beautiful sky, they cried together.