Desert Brush had just about gotten back to sleep when Twilight Sparkle rematerialized in the guest quarters. “Oh, you’re back,” she said. “The temporary homing spell seems to be working correctly.”
“I was wondering how it was that I, lowliest of the low, was doing high-grade unicorn stuff.” He grinned. “I guess they really want to keep me out of sight for the duration.”
“Looks that way,” said Twilight. “Oh, and the Princess tells me you have a new name.”
“As of a few hours ago, anyway.” He noticed she wasn’t smiling. “You don’t look particularly happy about it.”
“Well, we’d never even talked about it. Were you planning to just spring it on me?”
“I sprung it on Princess Celestia, actually. Made it up right there on the spot. And she didn’t seem to mind it in the least.”
“It’s a very nice name, I suppose,” Twilight said. “But it doesn’t exactly cut all the bonds with the Old World, does it?”
He shrugged. “I’ve burned more than enough bridges already. It shouldn’t be too awfully long before people find a me-shaped hole where I used to be.”
“Did you at least tell your family?” she asked.
“I did. In fact, I told them, my kids and their kids, exactly what was happening. I’ve fallen in love with a pony, I said, and I’m moving to Equestria to be with her. Just like that. The only one who took me seriously was the seven-year-old, and all she wanted to know was ‘What pony?’ The only sensible one of the bunch.”
“You told her?”
“I did. And she went ‘Oh,’ and refused to talk to me the rest of the day.”
“Already she doesn’t like me?”
“Nothing to do with you personally. Apparently she’s a big Rainbow Dash fan.”
Twilight laughed. “Sorry to be such a disappointment.”
“Anyway, they assumed that the old man was talking out of his hat again, and I decided to leave it at that. I doubt seriously that they’d be coming down for a visit anytime soon, but they’re going to be rather startled if they do and they have to deal with the new occupants.”
“You sold your house?”
“No. Just emptied it and rented it out. Should bring at least a thousand dollars a month, whatever that is in bits.”
“And how do you propose to collect that rent?”
“Actually, the agent collects it for me. As for getting it here, I haven’t the faintest idea. I have money from early retirement — took a tax hit, but I’ll get over it — and I sold the old metal chariot, figuring I wouldn’t need it anymore. For the moment, I might qualify as wealthy, just barely, if I could get my hands on all that.” He sighed. “And tomorrow, I may not even have hands.”
“I’ll talk to the Royal Treasurer,” Twilight said. “She may have some ideas.”
“I’d appreciate that. I’d hate to mooch off somepony for the rest of my days. Even if it’s you. Especially if it’s you.”
“You won’t have to mooch. There’s always something you can do to earn your keep.”
“I’d better start thinking about de-blanking the flank, then.” He winced. “How does that work, anyway?”
“I could arrange for you to meet with the Crusaders,” Twilight teased. “They’re bound to come up with something someday.”
Brush snorted. “I thought you said they weren’t obsessed with getting their cutie marks.”
“Well, they’re not, really, but they wonder, and I don’t blame them, how some filly like Diamond Tiara already has hers and the only talent she seems to have is annoying everypony.”
“We have individuals like that too. They’re called middle management.”
“As for your mark,” said Twilight, “I haven’t read up on how they apply it, though I would think it would be incorporated into the skin-regraft procedure.” She looked at him sideways. “Do you find that disturbing?”
“You want to know what’s disturbing? The idea that you haven’t read up on something. That just seems impossible, you know?”
“Now you’re being silly.”
“It’s a defense mechanism. Keeps you from finding out that underneath it all I’m scared spitless.”
Twilight stared. “The Princess said she thought she’d detected a measure of fear.”
“A measure?” Brush replied. “With all due respect to Her Royalness, it was perfectly obvious. I was shaking like a leaf, all the way down to the ground. Even I would have noticed something like that, and I normally have the intuition of a slab of drywall.”
“Drywall?” she repeated.
“Sort of prefabricated plaster. Makes for a good, inexpensive wall. Not at all good at psychoanalysis.”
Twilight beamed. “Now, you see? This is what you’re good at. Concepts that you know, but that are new to us. You should have a cutie mark to reflect that skill.”
“Come on. Drywall? Lowest of the low-tech. If you’re going to promote my technological brilliance, such as it is, you might as well stencil a hammer on me. Or an abacus. Something at the bottom of the list.” He laughed. “Won’t that look sweet? The most advanced practitioner of magic from sea to shining sea, walking with a big, goofy-looking oaf with a row of beads on his butt.”
“But you’re my big, goofy-looking oaf,” said Twilight, and she kissed him. “I’m supposed to meet with the Royal Chief Surgeon. I’ll be back before you know it.”
“Hey, Ethan… Yeah, I got that phone working. It’s one of those pay-as-you-go models and it’s got no minutes left… Nope. No contacts. And no apps except for a GPS… I don’t know what I’m gonna do with it. It’s no use to me and I’m not gonna spend the money for airtime… Yeah, I suppose you can have it. Remind me to bring it to school Monday… Bye.”
Twilight Sparkle, of course, had done the math. It would normally take 2.718 seconds to teleport from the southwest guest room to the Main Hall, assuming no obstructions of a magical nature. (There was that one night when the poker game in the Guards’ Lounge got a little out of hoof, but that was years ago.) For some reason, it took nearly fifteen seconds to move Desert Brush, and he arrived looking as though he’d just been slapped around by a manticore.
“What happened to you?” she asked.
“I don’t know. For a moment there, I couldn’t breathe. Maybe I’m not cut out for all this unicorn stuff.”
Twilight pondered. “This could be a hyperphysical reaction. You didn’t do so well with the portal either. Maybe in your current form you’re just not able to deal with that much magic over a short period of time.”
“In my current form?” Brush asked. “Tell me it’s going to get better. If I’m allergic to magic or something, I’m totally screwed.”
“The pony form has evolved to work with, rather than against, magic. There should be no problems in the future.” She smiled at the disheveled human. “For now, though, it’s either the spell or a very long walk with the Royal Guards.”
“I’d just as soon take my chances with the Guards,” he said. “I suspect they’re not actually under orders to beat me to a pulp.” And then: “Your brother’s not working tonight, is he?”
Twilight said nothing.
“Uh, he does know you have a coltfriend under construction, right?”
“Does anypony know about any of this?”
Still no reply.
“No,” she said. “Nopony knows. I wasn’t even going to tell the family until after the librarians’ convention.” She shook her head. “I was hoping they’d just assume I’d met a pony and there’d be only a few questions and that would be the end of it. What was I thinking?”
Brush stared at her. “You haven’t seen any of them since the wedding, have you?”
And Twilight Sparkle dropped to the floor and wept. “What’s happening to me?”
He followed her down. “You’ve gotten so used to making your own decisions that you’ve forgotten that there are other ponies who worry about you. I went through something like that myself.”
“But I never hid anything from them,” she said. “Until now.”
“You weren’t hiding anything. You just weren’t telling them everything.”
“I wasn’t telling them anything! That’s not like me at all!”
“It’s not? Twi, darling, you live in a real-life Book Fort. You’ve always been defensive. Maybe even more than me, and I’ve got more insulation than the Home Depot.”
“What’s the Home Depot?” she asked.
“It’s a place that sells drywall. But that’s not important. Now I admit I don’t know squat about magic, but I know this: when you wield power, the first thing you do is protect yourself. You’d never have gotten out of Magic Kindergarten, or whatever it was, without knowing that. And why do you think Celestia sent you to Ponyville in the first place? It wasn’t because you wore your heart on your sleeve.”
“You make it sound like I’m just completely wrapped up in myself,” Twilight said.
“Don’t think of it as being wrapped up in yourself,” Brush replied. “Think of it as a really efficient self-preservation mechanism.”
“I don’t like the sound of that either.”
“We used to have a saying: The perfect is the enemy of the good. We may try our best, but we’re going to fall short now and then. The perfect Twilight Sparkle does not exist. The real one is going to mess up once in a while. Life is like that.”
“So you’re saying I’m defective?”
He shook his head. “Twi, honey, there’s only one thing wrong with you: you can’t stand the idea that there’s one thing wrong with you. You seem to be able to put up with my flaws just fine. Can’t you cut yourself a little slack now and then? I don’t want to come home some day and find you’ve put a Starvation Spell on yourself because you farted in the bathtub the night before. But you make me worry about things like that, and it scares me.”
“If I’m such a terrible pony, how can you possibly love me?” she wailed.
Brush sighed. “Maybe I’m just as terrible as you are. Or maybe neither one of us is all that terrible but we’re just too blind to see it.” He let out a brief whistle. “We need to snap out of this, whatever it is. Princess Luna certainly doesn’t have time for an evening of melodrama.”
“On the contrary,” said the Princess of the Night. “We are always interested in dark stories.”
Quickly they fumbled their way into the proper position for obeisance, but Luna bade them rise. “You have been down there longer than you realize. The moon and stars are already in position.”
“H-how much did you hear?” Twilight asked, uncharacteristically meekly.
“We would hear more,” said the Princess. “The mysteries of the heart are sometimes best understood away from the light of day. And we are expected to rule on whether Mr. Brush is qualified to be a citizen of Equestria, so we are keen to gather as much information as may be available.”
“I will happily answer any questions you may have, Your Highness,” Brush said.
“Very well, then,” Luna began. “It appears that thou art not seeking political asylum.”
“That would be correct.”
“Thou must know that the Equestrian form of government as currently constituted is a principality ruled by my sister and by me coequally. Does this structure present any issues for thee?”
“It does not. So long as I may dwell in the lands under your domain, I willingly accept the terms of your rule.”
The Princess turned to Twilight Sparkle and smiled. “He is good at this.”
“I count on him to say the right thing at the right time,” Twilight said.
“Sometimes I even succeed,” Brush quipped.
There was a rustle near the ceiling, and Luna announced, “The Princess of the Sun arrives.”
The usual greetings ensued, and Celestia asked, “How are you feeling, Desert Brush?”
“A bit tired, Your Highness, but nothing more than that.”
Celestia looked him over. “You do look as though you’ve had a rough day. If I have made it any rougher than necessary, I do apologize.”
Brush turned to Luna. “And this is why I am willing to embrace the rule of the Royal Sisters. I have lived for six decades in a place that calls itself a republic and occasionally makes vague references to democracy, and not once in all that time have I heard anyone in a position of power make any kind of apology that seemed even the slightest bit sincere.” He bowed his head. “I offer you both my humblest thanks for the welcome I have received. I am certain this is the world where I shall want to spend the rest of my days.”
“Don’t overdo it,” Twilight whispered.
“I am not overdoing it,” Brush protested loudly. “I meant every word I said.”
Celestia glared at Twilight. “I have no doubt,” said the Princess, “that these words come directly from his heart, and that he will prove to be a worthy and reliable citizen.” Then to her sister: “Are you willing to sign his citizenship application?”
“It shall be done,” Luna answered, and with the sudden appearance of a quill, it was.
“Thank you very much,” said Desert Brush. Suddenly, his knees gave way, and he dropped to the floor.
Twilight knelt beside him. “He’s breathing, but irregularly. No indications of anything other than fatigue.”
“Should we transport him to the hospital?” asked Celestia.
“They aren’t expecting him until sunrise. I think he’ll be all right once he gets some sleep. And I think the teleport spell we’ve been using has been draining him, so I’d like to request that a pair of Guards accompany him instead.”
“They will, of course, see him,” Luna pointed out. “Perhaps we should disguise him first?”
“Agreed,” said Celestia. “Twilight, do you have a mental image of what he will look like as an earth pony?”
“I do indeed. In fact, I worked up a sketch for the medical team.”
“Project it onto him. The Guards won’t be expecting that. And you should go with them. Please come back when you’re done.”
Twilight’s horn began to glow, and the image of a man dissolved into the image of a pony: a coat the color of leaves getting ready to fall, a reddish mane with streaks of white, and a shortish tail to match. “Oh, and this,” she said, as a temporary cutie mark appeared.
“Is that an abacus?” Celestia asked.
“It is. I think he’d find it appropriate.” Twilight grinned. “Unless you happen to know what drywall looks like.”
“Drywall?” Celestia repeated.
“It’s a long story,” said Twilight, as a pair of Royal Guards arrived.
The absence of Desert Brush, of course, did not mean the discussion was ended. “He’ll be all right,” Twilight announced as she reentered the Main Hall. “He’s not exactly sleeping, but he’s not exactly conscious either.”
“Will he be ready for surgery tomorrow morning?” Celestia asked.
“I will see that he arrives on time,” Twilight said. “Of course, the very first thing they’re going to do is put him to sleep for about twenty hours, so it hardly seems worth it to wake him up.”
“He seems a gentle soul,” said Luna. “We would really have liked to ask him more questions, if only to see if he is truly insane.”
“You think he’s insane?” Twilight asked.
“Perhaps that is the wrong word. But we wonder if he and his sense of self have been temporarily disconnected. What he is doing is truly astounding, and we would not want to discourage him in his pursuit of true love, but to give up his own species? It seems an act of madness. Love is fleeting.”
“It doesn’t have to be,” Twilight replied.
“And reality is always there. What if this relationship should founder? He has lost everything, and for what?”
“It will not founder,” Twilight insisted.
“How can anypony ever be sure of such a thing?” said Luna. “We trust in love, and we trust it will not let us down. But relationships do fail. We know not of his level of experience, but we are aware of yours, Twilight Sparkle, and it is, to be charitable, not extensive.”
“Sister, be kind,” said Celestia. “Would either of us turn away a pony who loved us as much as Desert Brush obviously loves her?”
“If only.” Luna stretched her wings. “Could somepony ever love us? Perhaps when we were younger and less was expected of us, we were more open to the prospect.”
“Or perhaps more approachable,” Celestia said. “The affairs of state discourage affairs of another kind.”
“It’s not like a lot of ponies ever approach me,” Twilight remarked. “And some of the ones that did, well, I wish they hadn’t.”
“Your reputation precedes you,” said Celestia. “When you’re the most gifted unicorn in several generations, some stallions simply won’t want to get involved.”
“Does Mr. Brush realize that you may be his intellectual superior?” Luna asked.
Twilight smiled. “Oh, he knows it. And he’s fine with it.”
“A rare specimen indeed,” Luna replied.
“If I’m reading the literature correctly,” said Twilight, “males of his species tend to resent more intelligent females — except, curiously, for librarians, who are considered objects of fantasy.”
Celestia laughed. “Now why would that be?”
“I don’t know,” Twilight admitted. “But I don’t have a lot of experience dealing with other librarians, which is why I wanted to go to that convention in Vanhoover.”
“You should take him with you,” Celestia said. “Think of it as an experiment.”
“I have the train tickets already. And besides, it will give him a chance to see some of the countryside on the way.”
“We are starting to believe,” Luna said, “that the two of you are good for one another.”
“Truly,” Celestia added. “And we will do our best to help you along.”
“Thank you both,” Twilight Sparkle said. “Nopony ever had better friends.”