“Wait a minute,” said a puzzled Brush. “Celestia is late with the sun? Since when does that happen?”
“I’m not sure this is Celestia’s doing.” Twilight scanned the sky again. “There’s nothing out of the ordinary up there, so far as I can tell.”
“So do we wait for sunrise, or do we go look for it?”
“I’ll go look for it. You stay put and keep watch. I’ll be back soon enough.” Twilight shimmered out of sight, and Brush shivered just a bit; he was, he thought, getting too old for this sort of thing. Still, he had his instructions, and he would not let her down.
Princess Twilight Sparkle materialized at the Foal Mountain siding, looked up at the sky, and calculated: the sun had risen about twenty minutes ago. Right on schedule.
Again with the giggling. Brush spun around, saw that same foal again, and charged after him. “I don’t care if you are dead, you’re not getting away this time!”
The foal, apparently very much alive, darted off into the woods; Brush followed at the highest speed he dared. Still no sign of the sun. The path was narrow — maybe one and a half ponies wide at best — and twisty; trees and shrubs seemed to have been carefully located to block as much light from Luna’s moon as possible. Try as he might, Brush couldn’t get closer than seven or eight paces.
And then a hedge that wasn’t there before appeared across the path, and the colt smacked into it headfirst. Brush closed in, and suddenly Twilight appeared beside him.
“Nice catch,” she said.
“Nice instant landscaping,” he replied. “I wish I’d thought of that.”
“You did,” said the colt, in an utterly grownup voice.
Twilight looked at the foal sideways. “Weren’t you about four years old half an hour ago?”
“That was … a long time ago.”
“He does seem to have grown a bit,” Brush offered.
“The timelines must be distorted,” said Twilight, “though I can’t imagine how. I’ve never heard of any enchantments that would do this.”
“Then we’re even. I’ve never heard of any enchantments that would allow me to plop down a hedge exactly where I needed one.”
“Can you explain this?” Twilight asked the colt.
“Everything is … as it should be,” he gasped, and suddenly he fell forward. Green liquid trickled from his muzzle.
Brush dropped to the ground, fastened his mouth over the colt’s, and began pushing his hooves into the youngster’s midsection.
Twilight stared, mystified.
Some unknowable period of time elapsed. Finally Brush withdrew. The colt was breathing, but barely. And inexplicably, he seemed bigger.
“I did what I could,” said Brush, wiping a streak of green from the side of his face.
“I think we can eliminate ‘revenant’ as a possibility,” Twilight declared. “But there’s some strange temporal distortion going on here, and that green liquid seems familiar somehow.”
“Looked like the same atomic puke Princess Skyla was hurling at the wedding,” Brush snickered. “Though I’m not in a position to compare flavors, if you know what I mean.”
Twilight pondered. “But Skyla has unicorn magic, at least in the nascent stage. Are you suggesting this foal can wield magic?”
“Look at him,” said Brush. “When we first saw him he was four years old. Now he’s almost twice as big as he was. If this keeps up, he’ll be older than I am by sunrise.” He looked at Twilight. “We do get sunrise here, don’t we?”
“That’s what I mean by temporal distortion. Time flows like it always does, but here its effects are scrambled.”
Brush shook his head. “I’m not following you.”
“Watch this,” Twilight said. She directed a small beam of magic toward the colt: he clambered to his hooves and stood up. “How old are you?” she asked.
“Eleven next week,” he answered.
“Have you seen us before?”
“A long, long time ago. I wasn’t even in kindergarten then.” The colt looked up sadly. “Can I go home now?”
Twilight considered for a moment, then nodded. “Run along. We will not pursue.”
The colt took off down a path that Brush didn’t remember seeing. “Are you telling me we’ve been here six years already?”
“Not six years on our timeline,” Twilight explained. “But six years on theirs. We didn’t see sunrise because it went by faster than we could see it.”
“Wouldn’t it have looked like it was somewhere in between, then? I mean, we had no trouble seeing the moon, except for the occasional cloud now and then.” He paused for a moment. “Those clouds were pretty fast, though.”
“It’s part of your internal brain organization,” said Twilight. “If something happens so fast that you can’t see it, the brain continues to process what it saw first.”
“That still makes no sense,” Brush insisted. “That would mean it took me several weeks to run that foal down, and no way can I run for several weeks at a time.”
“Once you interacted with him, you adjusted to his timeline.”
“Why didn’t he adjust to mine, then?”
“Because,” said Twilight patiently, “this is a magical phenomenon, and apparently it’s beyond the normal limits of regular earth-pony magic.” She looked off into the woods for a moment, as though she were scanning for something. “That green stuff must have had something to do with it, though.”
“Why do you say that?” Brush wondered.
“Skyla. I don’t know why I didn’t think of this before.” Twilight visibly shuddered. “Her timeline may have been distorted too.”
“How so?” asked Brush.
“Calculate it yourself. You’ve been here just over a year. Cadance wasn’t pregnant when you arrived. Now Skyla’s four months old.”
“I’m still lost.”
“Normal gestation period is thirteen to fourteen months. It’s possible for foals to be born as early as eight months, but they’re always undersized and underweight. Skyla wasn’t either of those things.”
“Wouldn’t her alicornality, or whatever it is, offset that kind of thing?” Brush asked.
“I don’t think so,” Twilight said. “Then again, how many alicorn foals do we have for comparison?”
“Point taken. So answer me this. What do Skyla and this foal have in common?”
“Two things. They’re both ponies growing up in unusual circumstances. And —” She left it at that.
“And they’ve both come into contact with you. Happy now?”
Brush paled. “You think I could be causing this plutonium-barf stuff?”
“I don’t know,” Twilight admitted. “But we’re going to have to find out, one way or another.”
The edge of town, nearest the railway line, looked much the same as it had before, with one notable exception.
“This stuff wasn’t halfway up the walls when we got here, was it?”
Twilight drew closer to the corner of the structure that looked like the Canterlot Express building but wasn’t. “Not even close,” she said.
“How long before the place is completely engulfed?” Brush asked.
“Several years, I think. Which, to us, might be an afternoon or two.” A brief flash from her horn, and a small glass container materialized before her. “I think I want to examine this material further.”
“Are you sure that’s safe?”
Twilight forced a grin, which did not persuade him at all. “Nothing is ever completely safe. But I don’t have lab facilities with me, so this is going to have to do.”
“You don’t think it will ooze its way out of the bottle, do you?”
“It should grow more slowly, or stop growing completely, once it’s out of this environment.” This time her smile wasn’t forced. “And while I’ve had a wonderful time, I think it’s time we got out of this environment.”
Brush nodded. “No argument from me. Do we know when the train is due?”
“Not for certain, no. But I’m positive it will be worth the wait.”
An hour, or a month, or something, passed by, and the train screeched to a stop. Brush seemed to be staring at the wheels.
“Something bothering you?” Twilight asked.
“I’m just wondering how it is that wooden wheels produce that kind of noise on a metal track.” He smiled. “Sometimes, the laws of physics here seem ever so slightly out of whack to me.”
They clambered aboard. “I don’t have any problems with them. Of course, I was born here.”
“Of course,” he whispered.
She stared at him. “Would you rather things had gone the other way?”
“What things? Which way?” He looked around the car: no other ponies. “Are things about to get Very Serious?”
“I can’t help wondering,” said Twilight slowly, “if it would have been easier if I had become a human and you’d stayed the way you were.”
“Not possible,” Brush said. “In the first place, humans don’t have the technology to deal with ponies on any level, let alone transmogrify them.”
“It’s like shapeshifting, only maybe a little more permanent. Very common in human legends, though nopony — uh, nobody — ever saw it happen: it was always the cousin of a friend of a cousin, and it was always many years ago. Thousands of years ago, sometimes.” He laughed. “But humans can be persuaded to believe anything. One reason I don’t miss them much.”
“But suppose this transwhatever process actually worked, and they made a human out of me. Would things be different between us?”
“Define ‘different’,” he said.
“Would we still be together?”
“Why wouldn’t we be? And what brought this on, anyway?”
She blinked. “Just … thinking.”
“Well, hold that thought for a while. I’m about to fall over.” He yawned, and exaggerated the motions as much as he possibly could. “It’s been a long day, or maybe a long several days.”
Twilight leaned forward and planted a kiss on his muzzle. “I guess we’re both kind of tired.”
He held the door open while she climbed back into the car. “Oh, what a wonderful place!” she was saying. “So many books!” He slid in behind the wheel. “How many of those have you read?”
“I have no idea,” he admitted. “Maybe several hundred, maybe a thousand or so. But I was never really the reader you were.” He turned the key; that annoying chime started up again. “Fasten your seat belt, honey,” he said.
“Sorry.” She pulled the strap over her midsection. “They really fuss over this kind of thing, don’t they?”
He smiled. “Every kind of thing it’s possible to fuss over will be fussed over at some point. Comes with the species, I think.”
“I have so much to get used to.”
“You don’t have to do it all at once,” he pointed out. “For just ten days, I think you’re doing fine.”
“Did you know her?”
“Did I know whom?”
“The older female behind the counter. She was looking at you like you’d forgotten to pay a fine for an overdue book or something.”
“She’d have said something if I had.” A smile broke over his face. “Maybe she was wondering how come this old man who’s been coming here for decades suddenly has a girlfriend. People do notice this sort of thing, though they’re seldom rude enough to say so.”
She laughed. “What if I’d reverted just then?”
“We’d never hear the end of it. Just trying to explain would probably take the rest of my life. ‘Sir, you cannot bring a pony onto the premises,’ she’d say.”
“Even if the pony is a librarian?” she teased.
“Worse. They’d make you shelve books and then they’d throw us out.”
“Canterlot is like that,” she said. “Anything that seems out of place must be corrected At Once.”
He chuckled. “I could get used to that.”
“Yeah, but you would be out of place, just by being there. And I guess I would too.”
“You can always go back to being a pony,” he said.
“I know, I know. It’s just a spell, and spells can be reversed.”
She nodded. “A little. But I can’t go home now.”
“Damned portals. You can’t ever count on them being there when you need them.”
“It’s not the portal,” she quavered. “I could find another one if I had to.”
“Then what’s the problem? You reponify, you step through the portal, and everything’s back to the way it was before.”
“Except that I’m out of work.” She burst into tears. “And I’m not Princess Celestia’s faithful student anymore.”
He took the next right, pulled into a parking space. “You quit?”
“I was sacked,” she said. “She told me that if I was going to abdicate my responsibilities, then I would be replaced, and that would be the end of that.”
The brake lever lay between them. He pushed it down and took her in his arms. “Why didn’t you tell me this before?”
“I … I was scared.”
“Of what?” he asked.
“I wanted everything to be like it was before, when we had only a few moments at a time to be together, and either of us could have pulled back at any time.” She blushed. “I guess I wasn’t ready for a permanent commitment.”
“Who is? It’s a scary sort of thing under the best of circumstances.”
“But what happens when my magic fades? I can’t connect to the ley lines here, at least not yet. And when the magic fades, the spell dissipates.”
“So you’ll be a pony again someday. I don’t have a problem with that.”
“But I’ll ruin your life!” she wailed.
“Then let it be ruined,” he said.
This was approximately the same moment he realized that the car was rolling backwards.
Brush awoke, looked around, noticed nothing unusual. Twilight was sleeping in the next seat over; the train was making train-like noises.
“I guess I’m allowed one nightmare now and then,” he said to nopony in particular. “With a small n,” he added quickly.