Finding a glass bottle in the driveway was nothing particularly unusual, though it’s far more common to turn up a bottle made of plastic, typically reeking of the sort of cheap booze appreciated only by cheap boozehounds on foot. I shrugged, picked it up, noticed that there was no screw-on cap and no place to screw it onto if there had been, and then dropped it — slowly — into the bin. The recyclers would pick it up Tuesday.
About an hour later, I noticed that I’d forgotten to close the garage door, and hit the remote switch. The door had reached the halfway point when I saw it: another bottle, same place as the previous one. I hit the switch again, the door reversed its descent, and I walked out to the driveway. Before I could pick up the bottle, it vanished. Disappeared. The whole classic into-thin-air bit, in about one second, and not a magician in sight. I was ready to write this off as pure hallucination, but it had been something like 18 hours since the last time I’d popped an Ambien, and anyway I was pretty sure I wasn’t asleep, since if I had been asleep I wouldn’t have been wearing these old khakis and a T-shirt. Still, no other explanation presented itself, so I decided I would come back out in an hour or so and see if Bottle Number Three had made an appearance.
At the forty-minute mark, I took a look outside. No stray glassware. Fine. These old eyes are not above playing tricks on me, and I hadn’t been wearing my glasses for most of the afternoon anyway; all manner of possible explanations that didn’t require further explanation traipsed through my head, one after another. I went back inside and loaded up my trusty browser, on the off-chance that someone else, preferably someone else presumably sane, had experienced something like this before.
Two minutes later there came a sharp rap on the door glass. “Um, we do have a doorbell,” I muttered as I went to the door.
And as I opened the door, it occurred to me that the fact that I had a doorbell wasn’t as obvious as I thought it was, though I didn’t have a whole lot of time to entertain that thought, what with having much of what I thought of as “reality” being ripped away at that moment. This can’t be happening, I said, or at least I would have said, had I been able to speak.
My visitor, or so I presumed her to be, was utterly lovely. Television, even in high definition, clearly hadn’t done her justice, and the tiny imperfections that would never show up on screen were downright endearing in, um, person.
“Person.” Yeah. Right. I needed to get out of that mindset in a hurry. And by the time I’d finished gawking — honestly, that’s what it was, and there’s no point in being apologetic about it now — my tongue had finally managed to untie itself, and I was able to address the unicorn on the porch. “Twilight Sparkle, I presume?”
- = * = -
She had been smiling, but the smile didn’t last. “You, um, know my name?”
Whoops. Bad move. Never be able to explain that. Backpedal? No, she’s too smart for that. She’s smarter than you, you pinhead, said the none-too-helpful voice in the back of my head.
So I finally decided to try Act Like Nothing’s Wrong Mode. “The finest young practitioner of magic in all of Equestria? And Princess Celestia’s personal [oops] protégée? Doesn’t everypony know you?”
Just a hint of a smile, and then a frown. “I see no ponies here.” She took one step back, as though she were taking inventory, and then looked at me again. “Have you seen a boron-crystal flask?”
“Wait just a moment,” I said. I made a quick dash to the garage, plucked the bottle from the recycle bin, and brought it back with me. “Something like this?”
Her expression this time was closer to relieved than to annoyed. “I had sent three of these through the portal, and only two returned. I didn’t want to experiment further until I had some idea where they were going.”
My turn to look puzzled. “And yet you came through there yourself?”
“A chance I had to take,” she said. “Evidently this is one of the human realms they mention in the old history books. I’ve never seen one before.” She smiled again, though I suspected it was forced. “It seems … very nice.”
I was getting ready to say something to defend my world, but once again, mouth led brain by half a lap. “The old history books? What about the new history books?”
“They’re mentioned, but they’re said to be mythological, legends from the days before Night Mare Moon, when humans and ponies could see each other on opposite sides of the Breach.” I could be wrong, but I thought I saw the hint of a grin. “Wherever that is.”
“And were you looking for the Breach?” I asked.
“I wasn’t looking for anything,” she said. “I had found a discontinuity in a star map, and I was trying to figure out either where it came from or where it went. I still don’t know where it came from, but at least now I know where it goes, wherever this is.”
So I told here where we were, and our approximate position on the planet. “Now I wish I’d brought a quill to take all this down. I really didn’t expect to find anypony, er, any humans here. I thought they’d all vanished by the year 600 or so.”
“What year is it now?” I asked.
“One thousand two. It’s the second summer since Princess Luna returned. You perhaps count your years differently.” She paused for a moment. “There was a great streak across the sky when Night Mare Moon was banished. It returns four times every three hundred years.”
At least I could still do simple math in my head. “So it will return in just under fifty years?” She nodded, I did one more calculation, and then: “I think I’ve seen it.”
Of course. Edmond Halley had seen it in our year 1682, and calculated that it would return in 1758. Which it did. I remembered that I saw it in 1986.
And suddenly the doorbell rang. Still my turn to look puzzled, I figured.
“I’m sorry,” said Twilight. “I must have set off that chime. Temporary burst of energy to reinforce the Retrieval Spell, or else I can’t go home.”
“I understand,” I said, pretending to understand.
“But I still want to know how you know who I am. Nopony — or hardly anypony, anyway — crosses into this world, and we never see any humans.”
This was going to be difficult. “How long until that spell activates?”
“About forty minutes.”
“Are your minutes the same as ours?”
She thought for a moment. “How long was that, from the time you opened the door to the time the chime went off?”
Like I look at my watch when someone, um, make that somepony, comes to the door. “Seven or eight minutes.”
“Close enough,” she said.
“You are so not going to believe this.” I pulled a DVD off the shelf.
- = * = -
Twenty-two minutes of Friendship Is Magic, Part I later: “I told you you weren’t going to believe this.”
“It’s believable enough,” said Twilight Sparkle. “I was there. Oh, except that bit about Pinkie pouring hot sauce on a cupcake. I don’t remember that at all. I mean, that’s something Pinkie would do, but I don’t think she did it then.”
Ton of bricks, incoming. “You mean all this — actually happened?”
“Well, yes, of course,” she said. “What did you think?”
So I told her about Hasbro and generations and brushables and all manner of things, and she sat politely through all of it. Finally she asked the question I was least prepared to answer: “So how did this version of our history wind up as part of your culture? It doesn’t make any sense.”
I pondered a moment. “Is it possible that the same ley lines cross both my world and yours?”
“Okay, let’s make some unwarranted assumptions. This was the Summer Sun Celebration, and Night Mare Moon, as it turned out, returned, right on schedule. An event of this magnitude would cause some sort of magical disturbance, would it not?”
“It would, and it did,” she said.
“Now how impossible is it that someone on our side of the divide might have picked up on that magical disturbance? She wouldn’t have known what it was, but all of a sudden she had this idea for a story. A good storyteller doesn’t pass up anything that looks like an idea, right?”
“Are you a good storyteller?” she asked.
“Not in the least,” I said. “But I’m trying to make sense of this. Could Princess Celestia have wanted this story to be told to us? I mean, if she wants something, it happens, right?”
“She does generally get what she wants. I’ll have to ask her if she had anything to do with it.” She fumbled about for a moment, then did a wholly unexpected facehoof. “I wish I’d had enough sense to bring a quill.”
“Maybe next time,” I teased.
“Definitely next time,” she said.
And there went the doorbell.
“When are you coming back?” I asked, trying not to sound urgent or anything. “I mean, you are coming back, right?”
“Depends on whether the portal is still open. If it’s not, I’ll have to look for another one. It may be a day or two, or it may be a month.”
“Great! I’ll bring lunch.”
“That would be … very nice. Thank you.”
She stepped into the shade of the old mulberry tree, a circle of light appeared around her hooves, and suddenly she was gone.
Now to find a place that caters to herbivores, and that delivers.
- = * = -
Three days later, an email showed up in my inbox, lacking all the usual header information except for eight groups of four digits, which I guessed might be an IPv6 address. “And why shouldn’t Equestria have a gateway to the Internet?” I said to nobody in particular. It occurred to me that they were going to an awful lot of trouble to communicate with a species that’s supposed to have died out four hundred years ago. Then again, we’re constantly sending messages into deep space in the hopes of finding someone, so it’s not like I have any room to talk.
Besides, it was addressed to me, and it didn’t mention anything about overseas funds or Personal Enhancement Products, so I had to read it:
This is just a note to let you know that I will be returning tomorrow at 1800 hours your time. I hope this works. I have never tried this system of communication before.
Princess Celestia and Princess Luna send their best wishes.
Your friend, I hope,
All the usual Reply options were greyed out, so I filed the letter away in a storage folder — and then moved it back to the inbox, just so I could look at it some more.
Six o’clock. Kind of late for lunch. No matter. We’ll make a dinner of it. In fact, we’ll make it into a fanfic: My Dinner with Twilight. It will go unread, of course. And even if someone — oh, what the hay, somepony — reads it, what difference does it make? There may have been eight million stories in the Naked City; for all I know, there might be eight million stories in Ponyville, population, well, I have no idea, but it’s certainly less than eight million. And is “population” even the right word when discussing ponies?
I need a drink, I decided. Which is odd, since I gave up drinking on a regular basis long before the Great Streak Across the Sky. Something, and by that I mean “something other than the complete and utter implausibility of this entire episode,” was bothering me. Maybe it was just the idea of being mentioned in front of Princess Celestia. Or, for that matter, in front of Princess Luna. I shook my head: why was I worrying about this? What had happened so far that could be remotely construed as Bad? The species, contrary to the impression given by a bunch of history books I’d never even seen, is not actually extinct. And surely Equestria wasn’t going to declare a war on the humans. I mean, they said “Best wishes,” didn’t they? Everything seemed to be conspiring to reassure me, yet I would not be reassured. There had to be something wrong here, something terribly, terribly wrong.
Finally I got my mind around something that might conceivably be troublesome. The driveway is shaded by the old mulberry tree, and said tree feeds rather a lot of birds, and where there are a lot of birds — well, gravity makes it all complete. Satisfied that I’d gotten a grip on myself, I turned the hose onto the concrete and watched several gallons of none-too-clean water roll into the street.
Next day at 5:56, the doorbell rang, and my heart did a couple of half-gainers off Kilimanjaro. It was the evening repast: bean sprouts and hummus and stuff Fluttershy wouldn’t dare feed Angel and sort-of-freshly baked bread and a couple of bottles of what was probably filtered tap water from Wichita. I was sufficiently crazed to demand no change from two twenties. The fellow’s truck — what, he didn’t ride a bicycle? — had just barely cleared the driveway when the feeble little bleep of my thirty-year-old wristwatch announced the hour, and an oval of light appeared on the concrete. I stood there and watched, awed. I could swear, she seemed to be glistening.
Which, as it turned out, she was. “How do you stand this heat?”
“We hide indoors,” I said, and somewhere behind me, the doorbell rang again: two long chimes and a short one. “And dinner’s ready.”
- = * = -
Dinner, in fact, was quite charming, though more for the conversation than for the actual food. Twilight said she’d been up to Canterlot for the last few days: “Princess Luna asked me to come up and report on what I saw.”
“Luna, and not Celestia?”
“It’s a matter of jurisdiction,” she said. “Holes in the fabric of the universe are apparently Luna’s department.” She caught my expression and grinned back at me. “I didn’t know that either.”
“Was she disturbed that the humans had somehow failed to die off?”
“Oh, no, not at all. And neither was Celestia, though they decided that they didn’t want to order changes in the textbooks just yet.”
I chuckled. “No sense upsetting the population. If that’s the right word.”
She upended the water bottle over a tumbler and took a drink, all without moving a hoof. I wondered how I’d ever get used to that, and then wondered why I was wondering that, so I decided to change the subject: “So how did you find the Internet?”
“Luna’s idea,” said Twilight. “I’d told her what I’d seen, and some of what you’d told me, and she asked the Royal Canterlot Library what they knew about it. It wasn’t much, but the night shift is good at this kind of thing, and by morning she’d traced it and found an access point.”
“Just one mare on the night shift?”
“She’s very, very good. Her name is Secret Finder. She’s been there for about two years.”
Because I just had to know: “What’s her cutie mark? A magnifying glass?”
She sighed. “You humans pay too much attention to cutie marks. They show our actual talents, not what we really do.”
I thought about this for a second, for a few seconds more about the fact that what I had studied then and what I did for a living now were about a hundred eighty degrees apart, and then it dawned on me what she’d just revealed. “I gather you’ve seen more, um, episodes?”
“Princess Celestia insisted on reviewing as many of them as she could find, to see if ponies were being misrepresented.”
“And are they?” I asked.
“Not really, no. Well, maybe in a few instances.”
Apprehension grew. “For example?”
“The fillies you call the Cutie Mark Crusaders? They’re friends, yes, and they do want to get rid of their blank flanks, but they’re not obsessive about it.”
“Exaggeration for effect,” I said. “It’s a common theme in our literature. Still, if that’s the worst thing we did…”
“Really, Celestia liked most of the portrayals. Though she did raise an eyebrow over the destruction” — Twilight actually raised both hooves to do air quotes, which made me giggle — “of Town Hall. All that really happened was that Derpy knocked down a balcony and put a hole in the roof of the south wing.”
“Once again, exaggeration for — Wait a minute. Her name is really Derpy?”
“Yes. It’s not mentioned in the story, though. And her voice is way off.”
If only she hadn’t said that while I was actually taking a sip. Most of it wound up on the furniture. “What did I say?” she asked.
I fetched the DVD again. “This is how it went out the first time,” I said, and played the opening scene of “The Last Roundup.” An overly long explanation followed.
Twilight was not impressed. “That’s silly. It’s out of context. Derpy is a very sweet mare. She works very hard and she flies really well. That’s why she has bubbles on her flank. Her name comes from an old word in the Ancient tongue that means ‘lighter than air’.” She could have been a champion flier, except that she has poor vision and is kind of uncoordinated.”
I had to ask: “What does she do for a living?”
“She’s one of three mailmares in Ponyville. She works only part-time because she’s raising a foal all alone.”
Of course. “Does she make enough for them to live on?”
“I’m afraid not,” said Twilight. “The stallion who, er, had his way with her was never heard from again, otherwise he’d be paying foal support. Mayor Mare asked Princess Celestia for assistance, and the Princess set up a small annuity for them. If they find him, they’ll collect from him.”
“Is this a common occurrence in Equestria?”
“Not in Ponyville,” she said. “I’ve heard of one or two cases in Canterlot but it’s not at all common anywhere.”
“It’s routine among the humans,” I admitted. “We are a sorry lot sometimes.”
Twilight smiled. “Perhaps not all of you.”
The doorbell rang: two short tones and a long one. “I must run,” she said. “One minute until the Retrieval Spell comes looking for me.”
It was 6:37. “Not quite forty minutes this time.”
“We’ll worry about that next time. I’ll send you another one of those fancy electronic letters.”
“I am honored,” I said as she teleported herself out of the house and onto the driveway.
I didn’t see Twilight Sparkle again for another week. She’d had to report to the royals, of course, and as long as she was in Canterlot, she figured she’d talk to the library staff and learn more about that mysterious Internet stuff. By the time she got back to Ponyville, she’d acquired enough skill to set up terminals in the library, and she was delighted. From (it said) firstname.lastname@example.org:
How have you been? I’ve spent hours wandering around on this Web of yours. Some of it is fascinating, and some of it is a little scary. I’m not sure I’m going to allow Spike to look at it.
I told Derpy about how her name was misinterpreted, and she said that as long as you liked her, you could call her whatever you wanted.
Princess Luna was thinking about diplomatic relations with the humans, but Celestia talked her out of it, saying it would be too much too soon. What do you think?
Your friend (for sure),
I hit the Reply button and typed in a batch of vaguely techie pleasantries. It bounced, of course. And as I was muttering dire imprecations against a mail server in a world I’d never seen, the doorbell rang in a familiar pattern.
She was wearing some sort of bonnet. “You like it?”
“Unexpected, but very nice. One of Rarity’s?”
“Yes, it is. I asked her for a little something to keep the sun off my horn. I don’t know who controls the sun here, but it’s way too hot.”
“There are times,” I said, “when I think everything around here is out of control. How have you been?”
“It’s been one thing after another all week,” she said. “Not that I’m complaining or anything. Keeping busy is good for me. If I can clear all the items on the day’s checklist, it’s a good day.” That smile again. I could spend years looking at that smile. “But seriously, who does the sun?”
I grinned. “The official story these days is that the sun is more or less stationary, and we go around it fast enough to see it for half a day and then not see it for the other half. Not exciting, and not scientifically accurate for that matter, but it manages to avoid personalities. The old god Apollo, who used to be in charge — well, he was kind of a pain in the flank, if you know what I mean. He had a twin sister, but you didn’t see her much. I’m not even sure if she was in charge of the moon.”
Twilight frowned. “We expect so much more from our deities.”
“And you can,” I pointed out. “They’re right there where you can see them. This has been a problem with all of our deities since whenever. They’re always someplace remote, and there’s always someone who claims to have a direct line to them, but you never see them actually getting a message through. At least Princess Celestia answers her mail, or so I’m told.”
“She’s been very good about that, at least with me. But she’s known me since I was a foal. A random somepony from the middle of nowhere might not get through the first time.”
“Sounds like me,” I laughed. “A random somepony from the middle of nowhere, that’s me.” Then I remembered something I’d wanted to know. “How many ponies are there, anyway?”
She shrugged, and you haven’t seen anything until you’ve seen a pony shrug. “I don’t think there’s ever been a formal count made.”
“Count the legs and divide by four,” I said.
“But that doesn’t make sense,” she protested. “If the pony is there in front of you, you can count the one and move on without having to do any arithmetic.”
“Sorry, bad joke.” Got to watch that alleged sense of humor. “We do a lot of those on this side of the Breach.”
“I don’t get it.”
“It’s not supposed to make sense,” I said. “Forget it. I never said it, and I’ll deny it if anypony asks.”
She seemed satisfied with that, and countered with a question of her own: “So how many humans are there?”
“About seven billion.”
“Oh, my. Is there really room for that many?”
“Well,” I began, “we’re not exactly evenly distributed. We have cities with ten million; we have towns with only a few. If we were spaced evenly, we’d have lots of room still. But we’d have to give up the forests and the deserts and build out over the oceans.”
“I’ve never seen an ocean,” said Twilight. “There are seas on the Moon. Princess Luna has told me about them. And there are seas beyond Equestria. Maybe one of them is really an ocean.”
“Sounds like you have your next research project.”
“I already have my next research project,” she said. From her bag she levitated what appeared to be a half-size legal pad and a proper quill. “We know there are equines who live among the humans. What are they like?”
Oh, my. This is way beyond my pay grade. “Tall,” I said. “Very, very tall. So tall that the shortest ones are called, um, ponies.”
“They’re not like us, are they?”
“Vaguely similar. Nowhere close to being as advanced, technologically speaking. And not a unicorn or a pegasus in the bunch.”
“There once was a pegasus actually named Pegasus. Used to hang around with the deities in the days of Apollo. When he finally died, he became a group of stars, and some nights he can actually be seen, if you have better eyes than I do. Or a telescope.”
“But no unicorns?” She seemed worried.
“There have been reports of unicorns for thousands of years, but no one seems to have seen one lately. The ones we are supposed to have had are the same height as regular equines, plus a very long horn. According to one legend, the last of the unicorns perished after nearly a month and a half of rain, which flooded their homes.” I stopped, took a breath, and wondered if I was making any sense at all.
“Could you tell me what your equines do? And, uh, how they are treated?”
Oh, boy. Or should that be “Oh, colt”? I’m going to have to watch my phrasing here. “Many of them do draft work: they assist with farming. Others, specially bred, race. Still others serve as companions to humans. And some run wild on the Great Plains.”
“Are they happy?”
“I’d like to think so. It is considered very bad form for a human to do an unkindness to an equine, and in many places humans will be punished for harming them. We don’t understand their language, but we can usually tell what’s on their minds.”
At least she didn’t want the gory details. Or maybe she did, but not from me. I’d worry about that later.
Then she hit me with the question I feared most: “What is their legal status? Do they have rights equal to humans?”
“They do not,” I said. “They occupy some zone, not well defined, above pets, but below humans. Humans have a tendency to think of themselves as the rulers of the world.”
Nice save, I thought. And then: “But how can you justify it? How do you get to be the rulers of the world?”
Deep breath in 3… 2… 1…
“We built — admittedly, with help from those so-called ‘lesser’ species — a civilization that perhaps rivals your own. And we did it without magic, relying on brain power and occasional feats of brute strength. We’re probably not as civilized as Equestria, and we get into ridiculous disputes all the damn time, but we haven’t done so badly, if I say so myself.”
She put the quill away and smiled at me. “I knew most of those things already, poking around in the library at Canterlot.”
“Then why did you ask?”
“I wanted to make sure that you were being honest with me.” She blushed slightly. “And I was running a small spell to monitor your nervous system, which I guess I should have told you about.”
It occurred to me that if our positions and abilities were reversed, I’d have done pretty much the same thing. “So can you trust me?”
“I trust you,” she said. “Still friends?”
“Still friends. Pinkie swear.”
She laughed. “I think that only works with Pinkie.”
“Well, we’ll find out, won’t we?”
- = * = -
The next time I heard that familiar doorbell pattern, it was almost midnight. She looked, well, happier: “Now this is more like it. Not so terribly hot.”
“Well, yes, there is that,” I said, stifling a yawn. “Although it is a little past my bedtime.”
“Oh, I’m so sorry,” she said. “I really didn’t know what kind of hours you kept, but I wanted to come at night so I could see the stars.” She looked up at the sky, rolled her eyes a bit, and added: “You do have stars, don’t you?”
It took me a while, but I figured out the situation. “Too many lights, this close to downtown. We’ll have to head out to the country.”
“Is it far?”
“Too far to walk and make it by daybreak. Fortunately, I have, um, other means at my disposal.” I opened the garage door, and she stared in apparent disbelief at the huge metal chariot.
“This … belongs to you?”
“And to me alone, now that it’s paid for.”
“What does something like this cost?”
Dollars obviously meant nothing to her, so: “How much for three tomatoes?”
“About two bits,” she said.
“Then this was about twenty thousand bits.”
She looked at it and frowned. “It doesn’t look very comfortable.”
It dawned on me that I probably shouldn’t mention the leather seats. “Pony cars, I imagine, would be very different.” And then I went into a ridiculous fit of laughing over the phrase “pony cars,” which I hoped I didn’t have to explain. Especially the Mustang.
“You don’t think ponies could build something like this?”
“Of course they could, if they had some reason to. But they’d be useless in Ponyville: nothing’s more than a short walk away, and I seem to remember that the streets aren’t paved. Nopony wants a face full of dust.”
She seemed satisfied with that, and said: “Let’s go for a ride, then.”
I had to drop the passenger seatback as flat as I could so she could sit properly — this wasn’t Lyra Heartstrings, after all — but it was good enough, and after about ten miles I pulled onto a back road that led nowhere in particular.
Twilight Sparkle was delighted. “Almost a forest!” But then: “Are there any creatures I need to watch out for?”
“This isn’t the Everfree,” I said. “Maybe a snake or a bobcat. They’ll usually ignore you if you don’t seem to present a threat to them.”
“Late at night sometimes, I like to go on long walks to the edge of town. The moon is so bright and — Why is the moon not round?”
I hoped I remembered everything in my Junior Astronomer kit from half a century ago. “It’s round. It’s just that there’s a shadow on it.”
“What’s big enough to cast a shadow on the moon?”
“This very planet. The shape changes from night to night; sometimes it’s just a sliver, sometimes it’s a big silver ball. The whole cycle takes about a month.”
“But it’s always really the same size, right?”
“Always the same size. So is the sun. But you can’t look directly at the sun without hurting your eyes.”
“I knew that, silly,” she said, and playfully — I think — poked a hoof into my side.
And she was so very beautiful in the moonlight, shadows playing on her coat, highlights I’d never before seen in her mane. I remembered a picture from an old EqD Drawfriend, showing her running through a field late at night. It was, someone had said, “the Twilight I love best: spring in her step, the moon in her eyes, and maybe for once a song in her heart.”
She ran maybe a hundred yards into the woods, then doubled back. “Somepony’s put a fence up.”
It figured. “Lots of those out here. Some folks just like to keep to themselves. And that reminds me: we need to be getting back, before that spell of yours kicks in.”
I’d seen Twilight’s look of Total Alarm before on television, but never at this range. “Let’s go. Fast.”
We went. Fast.
- = * = -
Two days later, or maybe two and a half; it was just before sunset. And she was hungry. “I was hoping you’d feed me. It’s been a long day.”
What was a dyed-in-the-wool carnivore like me supposed to do with a request like that? I thought for a moment, then retreated to the kitchen, sliced up everything in the fridge that looked remotely vegetable in origin, and brought forth a bowl of “Random Salad.” Too much romaine, if you ask me. She tucked into it as though it were going out of style, pausing once to observe that “At least the food tastes the same out here.”
“Organic,” I said without thinking.
“Of course it’s organic. It would have to be.”
I decided I didn’t want to explain this one, and that I would rely on my mostly-reliable Subject-Changing Routine. “So what about Princess Luna’s idea of appointing an Equestrian ambassador to the humans?”
That old phrase about all the color running out of one’s face? It’s a lot scarier if one’s face is sort of lavender-colored to begin with.
She shook her head. “I’m so sorry. There was an … unpleasant discussion at the Castle.”
Had a pin dropped at that moment, it would have resounded like thunder on a spring day.
“Do you want to talk about it?”
She was fighting back the tears. So far as I could tell at that point, it was a draw. “Luna,” she said, “wanted me to be the ambassador.”
“And you didn’t want to?” asked Captain Obvious.
“That’s not the kind of pony I am.”
“I’m not following you.”
“It’s like this,” she said. “Ambassadors are supposed to be older and more experienced and should be able to deal with everypony no matter what the situation. I can hardly deal with anypony at all.”
I was lost. “But you’re — what, the third most powerful pony in all of Equestria?”
“That makes it worse! Something goes wrong, I’ll try to fix it, and if I fail, it’s twice as bad. I’m not any kind of diplomat. I get embarrassed making suggestions to Mayor Mare.”
“You seem to have no problem talking me into things. And I’d like to think I’m reasonably representative of my species.”
“But you’re different,” she said.
“How so?” No, really: how so?
“You seem … favorably disposed toward us.” She paused long enough to levitate a few strands of lettuce, which I read as a good sign. “As a diplomat, I wouldn’t always be dealing with friends. Sometimes I would have to deal with enemies.” Then suddenly she wailed, “It took me this long to learn about friendship! I don’t know what to do!” The veggies fell to the floor, and the tears began to flow.
What could I do? I took her in my arms and held her. She whimpered, but she offered no resistance. Reasoning that the next few words I said would be of vital importance, I wound up saying nothing.
A few minutes later: “Thank you for that. I’m sorry I ruined your evening.”
“The only evenings you’ve ever ruined for me,” I said, “were the ones when you weren’t here.”
She clambered to her hooves. “I think I need to go.”
- = * = -
A week went by with no word from Twilight. By about day five, I’d figured out that she’d wearied of this back-and-forth bouncing, and had decided to give it up.
Then on day eight:
I feel really bad about what happened. Can you ever forgive me?
Please, Celestia, let it work this time.
“Dear Twilight: I will be more than happy to forgive you if you ever do anything wrong.”
An hour passed without a bounce message, and I went to bed.
A much happier unicorn showed up at the door the next day. “I’m off the hook!”
“Were you on a hook?” I asked, wondering where she’d picked up that particular idiom.
“Not literally,” said Twilight. “But the whole Ambassador plan has been scrapped. I couldn’t be happier.”
“Well, yay, as Fluttershy might say. Only louder. What happened?”
“Celestia put her hoof down. She said, and I quote, ‘If we’re not going to recognize their existence yet, we’d look awfully foolish sending them an emissary, wouldn’t we?’ And we would!”
“Good call,” I said. “Did Luna take it well?”
“She complained, but not very much.” Twilight looked around — did she think she was being watched? — and continued: “To be honest, I think she was pushing for me to be the ambassador because I’m supposedly Celestia’s favorite and this would get me out of the way for several years.”
“What’s several years to an immortal?” I asked. “And besides, you technically are Celestia’s favorite, aren’t you?”
“I suppose so. But I’m just glad I don’t have to go. I was so scared…” Her voice trailed off into inaudibility.
“I don’t know about you, but I have faith in your abilities. Haven’t you saved Equestria’s bacon on a regular basis?”
I should have known this was coming. “Bacon? What’s that?”
“Let me try this again. The end of the reign of Night Mare Moon. The re-stone-ification, or whatever, of Discord. The thwarting of the changelings. As I recall, you had something to do with all these, correct?”
She seemed to bristle slightly. “Correct. But you’re overlooking something. In all of those … situations, I had my friends with me. I couldn’t have done anything without them. If I’m being shipped off to another world, I have to go alone. It’s completely different.”
“I see your point.”
“And really, I’ve never been much of anywhere except Canterlot and Ponyville. When I was a filly, my parents took my brother and me to some other places. I know we went to Manehattan for their tenth wedding anniversary, but I barely remember it.” Something like wistfulness was creeping into her voice. “There’s so much in Equestria I’ve never seen.”
“This must be very important to you,” replied Captain Obvious, whose presence was starting to embarrass me.
“Where you’re from is part of what you are,” Twilight said. “You can walk many miles, ride many trains, climb many mountains, but there’s always a place you think of as home. For me, that can never be any place but Equestria.”
“We are what we are,” I said. “You don’t owe me any explanations. I’m just happy that you came back to see me one more time.”
“Oh. About that,” she began.
“It seemed like the Retrieval Spell had been activating a little ahead of schedule, so I recreated it. And it didn’t help. It turned out that the spell was just fine. It’s the discontinuity I’m exploiting that’s acting funny.”
I took a couple of seconds to let this sink in. “Is there, um, any risk that you could be trapped here?”
“There is risk with any spell,” she said, sounding like she was teaching a class — which, I suppose, she was. “I think I’m all right. But the time intervals might be shaky.”
“I mean, could Celestia or somepony bring you back?”
“I’m sure they could trace me. Beyond that, I’m not sure.” She took a very deep breath. “In the meantime, I’d have to figure out some way to support myself. I can’t keep taking from you.”
“I don’t mind. Really.”
“I’m a very good librarian, I think, but what library here would want to take me on?”
“Discrimination on the basis of species. By now we probably have a law against that.”
She gave me a look I couldn’t even begin to read. “Not everypony is suitable for every job. Or non-ponies, either. You’ll never see a griffon as a Royal Guard.”
“Has a griffon ever asked to be a Royal Guard?”
“Not as far as I know.”
I could see I was getting nowhere with this line of thought, so I sent one out to left field. “Okay, how about Spike and Rarity?”
Twilight smiled. “Poor Spike. It’s a crush he’ll never get over.”
I know the feeling. “What do the laws say about that? If Rarity could somehow be persuaded to say Yes, could they get married?”
“Oh, Celestia, no. Not permitted at all.”
“Why not? Just because he’s a dragon?”
She stuck a hoof in my rib. “No, silly. He’s underage. Legally, he’s considered to be a colt. He’s not allowed anything stronger than cider, and he can’t even sign for a package delivery without my permission.” Twilight winked. “Although sometimes we’ve bent that a little.”
“Okay, jump ahead ten years. Assuming Rarity waits that long. Could they get married then?”
“It’s up to Celestia. There was a griffon-pony wedding in Fillydelphia a few years back. She’d approve it if she thought they were really in love.” She smiled. “And that’s the important thing, right?”
“Right,” I said.
- = * = -
Two days later, a question burst forth from the back of my mind, where it had apparently been lurking with intent to loom: “Do these trips of yours reduce your capacity for magic?”
Twilight stared at me. “What do you mean?”
“I mean that, well, you have to maintain a spell just to make sure you can get home, and I have no idea where the nearest ley line is, so I was wondering if you were suffering — what’s the word?”
“Mana?” she guessed.
“Exactly. Mana depletion. Is this a problem for you?”
“Uh, what brought this up?”
“Remember the other day when we drove out in the country, and we had to hurry back or miss the Retrieval Spell? Could you maybe have teleported back, or would that have been too much of a power drain?”
“I don’t get it,” she said. “Are you expecting an Ursa to show up or something?”
“Never mind,” I said. “I’m sorry I brought it up.”
Oh, great, now she looks hurt. Smooth move there.
“Let me try this again. I’m trying to understand some things which may be beyond my comprehension. Here you are, possessor of planet-class magic, and it’s never occurred to you to do a single silly parlor trick to make the goofy human’s eyes bug out. Which, by the way, they would. I am concluding, therefore, that you’re not a showoff by nature.”
“Well, no, not really. But you didn’t ask, either.”
“I never know what to say to you,” I said.
“If I levitate a frying pan over your head, you may assume that you’re doing it wrong.” Her stern facial expression began to waver just a bit, then a bit more. And then she broke out in a case of the giggles. “You’re so silly sometimes.”
“Call it lack of experience. I’ve never met any unicorns before, and there’s nothing on the subject in the Complete Compendium of Human Etiquette, volumes 1 through 6 inclusive.”
She pondered for a moment, and then came up with this: “Okay, thought experiment. Suppose you’d been probing a discontinuity in the fabric of space/time, and you wound up on the edge of the Everfree Forest. What’s the first thing you do?”
“Seriously? I yell for help, then I feel stupid because I have no idea if anyone speaks the same language, and then I probably get eaten by something.”
“I have faith in your abilities,” said Twilight, and we both burst out laughing.
“And speaking of language,” I asked, “how is it that we understand each other at all? I mean, this particular language is what we call English over here. The Royal Canterlot Voice sounds to me like Elizabethan English, which goes back four hundred years or so.”
“It evolved,” Twilight explained, “from the Ancient tongue. Languages have always changed over time. I haven’t done any research on this, though.”
“Could there have been social interactions between humans and ponies long before?”
She shook her head. “No records of this sort exist. I think the most likely explanation is that there was a third species which had connections with both humans and ponies, and both borrowed from their language.”
“Griffons, maybe? According to legend, we’ve had a lot of griffons.”
“I honestly don’t know. I’ll put this down for a future research project.” And out came the quill and the pad; she scribbled something that to me didn’t look close to readable.
“It’s better than my alternate explanation, anyway.”
“And what is that?”
“It’s a function of magic. You’re a unicorn, and you will benefit in a strange land by being understood, so there’s a temporary aura about you which performs some form of translation for us barbarians who don’t speak Equestrian.”
“Should I send an earth pony next time?” she teased. “You could try talking to Pinkie.”
I chuckled. “Well, if nothing else, Pinkie could give you first-hoof information on every one of the half a million humans in this town, because she’d throw a party for each and every one of them.”
“That she would,” said Twilight. “That she would.”
- = * = -
“Lou Gehrig,” a comedian once joked, “actually died of Lou Gehrig’s disease. Now what are the chances of that?”
I suppose you had to be there. But it occurred to me the next morning, while I was thinking up excuses not to get out of bed, that some fairly unlikely things had been happening to me of late, things I wouldn’t have dared to predict a couple of months ago. That space/time discontinuity, or whatever it was, could have opened up a path to just about any place in the universe. Or it may have been there all along, waiting for someone — make that somepony — to pass through. I’d never have known. It never would have occurred to me that the fabled land of Equestria was something more than just a clever idea by some talented people, a premise on which stories could be based, a pretext to sell toys to youngsters — and, yes, I admit it, occasionally to me. And the idea that Twilight Sparkle, of all ponies, should find that portal, step through it, and find me at the other end? What are the chances of that? With apologies to the late Mr. Gehrig, I consider myself the second-luckiest man on the face of the earth.
And then I realized that by not getting out of bed and running the errands early, I had sentenced myself to an afternoon in the blistering summer heat. Okay, third-luckiest.
- = * = -
“Does it seem to you,” I asked Twilight the next day, “that we seem to talk a lot?”
“What do you mean? Do you not want to talk?”
“No, no, not that,” I said as hurriedly as I could. “It’s just that, well, it’s still something of a shock to me that of all the portals in all the universe, you end up walking through one that ends in front of my house.”
“It had to end somewhere,” she said. “As far as the universe is concerned, one place is as good as another.”
“Yeah, but what are the chances of that?” Now I know what kind of pony I’d be: “one-trick.”
Twilight sighed. “Once it happens, the probability goes up to 100 percent.”
“I know that. Intellectually, I know that. Yet it still messes with my head.”
“Look at it from my point of view,” she said. “The first sentient being I encounter knows who I am and where I’m from. What are the chances of that? I could just as easily have landed in front of a hungry carnivore.”
I remembered that it had been a long time since I’d had a proper hamburger, but this clearly was not the time to bring that up. “There are days when I question my sentience,” I said.
“Don’t feel bad. There are days when I think I’m the most pitiful pony in town.”
“The curse of intelligence?”
She shook her head. “I wouldn’t call it a curse. But being the resident egghead” — again with the air quotes — “means I don’t always get to talk things out with somepony. I can always write to the Princess, and she’ll listen, but I’m embarrassed by some of the things I’ve dropped in her lap. I wouldn’t even dictate them to Spike.”
“This is what friends are for, isn’t it?” I retorted.
“When they can understand you. Sometimes I don’t even understand me. They’ll always try to help, but it doesn’t always work.”
“Sometimes you just need a shoulder to cry on,” I said. “Or other body part as appropriate.”
Twilight looked at me sideways. “Excuse me?”
“It occurred to me in mid-sentence that a pony shoulder, if it’s functionally equivalent to a human shoulder, would be located in a less-than-ideal place for crying on.”
“Oh.” The smile returned to her face. “Can I cry on your shoulder?”
“Any time you want,” I said.
“That’s what friends are for, isn’t it?”
I grinned. “We do have ourselves some amazing conversations, don’t we? I bet the Princess starts tearing her mane out every time she reads a transcript.”
“Oh, I don’t tell her everything.”
“Is that so? What exactly do you leave out?”
“The last couple of minutes, for sure. And the next few.”
I wasn’t sure if I was supposed to be apprehensive or not. “What’s going to happen in the next few minutes?”
She stood up. “For you, my bookish friend, I am going to perform a silly parlor trick. You have somewhere around a thousand books. Pick a title, and it will come flying out of the shelf and into your grasp.”
I named a very thick novel with a very short title, and in a second or two, it was delivered from two rooms away. “Bravo,” I said. “Right up there with the Great and Powerful Trixie.”
Twilight snickered. “Oh, yes, Trixie. She’s really very good at these things, but no one ever notices.”
“Too much shtick?”
She blanked on the unfamiliar word.
“Shtick. The trappings of the act are more important than the act itself.”
“I should take home one of your dictionaries for the library.”
“Well, I’m not giving up my trusty Webster’s, but I’ll buy one for you. Or you could just ask Sweetie Belle.”
Another blank. “I don’t get it.”
Uh-oh. Can of worms opening in 3… 2… 1…
“There was this one scene in the television show, which we now know is at least somewhat accurate on details, in which Sweetie Belle complained that something or other was not really a word, and Scootaloo snapped back at her, ‘What are you, a dictionary?’ This line has been showing up as fanfic shtick for many months now.”
“Okay, I think I understand ‘shtick.’ Now what’s ‘fanfic’?”
Even larger can of worms. “Oh, Celestia, what have I gotten myself into?”
“We have time,” said Twilight, rearranging herself on the sofa. Obviously I wasn’t going to be able to get out of this.
“The full term,” I began, “is ‘fanfiction.’ You remember the Hasbro stories?”
“Some of them,” she said. “I haven’t seen them all yet.”
“Those are not fanfiction. They’re considered official. A fanfic is created by someone not connected with the official production team, using the same characters and locations and themes, or sometimes integrating them with some other stories. Our pony fans think they don’t get enough official pony stories, so they write their own.” I took a deep breath and pressed ahead. “By now there must be thirty or forty thousand unofficial stories.”
“About you. And your friends. And anypony in Equestria, it seems. Some of them are funny, some of them are sad; some of them are quite good, and some of them are fairly awful.”
“What happens in these stories?”
“Oh, you name it. Ponies with incurable diseases; ponies in love, which may or may not work out; ponies who meet up with scary characters from other universes. And because humans think themselves the center of this universe, there are a lot of humans in fanfic.”
The doorbell rang. “Give me a title to look up.”
Without thinking, I said, “Try My Little Dashie.”
“I will,” said Twilight, and vanished.
- = * = -
The next night, it was a very worried Twilight Sparkle who showed up on my stoop. “So it was my fault?”
“Um, what was your fault?”
“On your recommendation, I read My Little Dashie. Apparently none of that would have happened if I hadn’t tried to dispel that storm.”
“None of that did happen, Twi. That’s why they call it fanfiction. It’s just like novels in Equestria. For all we know, the real Daring Do is ninety years old and gets around in a walker.”
“But it seemed so real. And it hurt so much to see his face when we had to take Dash back home. He really loved her.”
“For all intents and purposes, she was his daughter. That’s what fathers do. I’ve been there.”
Twilight’s expression was utterly unreadable. “You have a daughter?”
“And a son. They’re raising families of their own now, a long way away.”
“So you’re married?”
“I was. It didn’t last.”
“Long story,” I said. “Basic problem: two youngsters, old enough to have been out on their own for a while, but not really knowing what they were in for. It was a mismatch from the start, but we thought we could make a go of it. Turned out that we couldn’t.” I swallowed, and for some reason it hurt.
“I’m sorry,” Twilight said. “Does this sort of thing happen often?”
“More than you might think. She’s on her third husband now. He seems to be the keeper.”
“What happened to the second?”
“He was a mess. Much better looking than I ever was, and he had the charm I never did have. But he was incredibly self-destructive, and unfortunately, he wanted to share it.”
“I know a stallion or two like that,” said Twilight.
“Do yourself a favor. Don’t marry him.”
She laughed. “I won’t.” And then she suddenly turned serious again: “At least, I think I won’t.”
“Love, or something that looks like it, will make you do all kinds of crazy things.”
“That’s what I’m afraid of,” she said. “I’m still learning how to make friends. Finding a very special somepony must be harder. I’ve read books about it, and none of them seem to make any sense.”
“It’s the same way with us. Something happens and we’re head over heels, and we never find out until we’re in too deep.”
Twilight looked at me sideways again. “Aren’t you always head over heels? Unless you’re standing on your head, I suppose.”
I nodded. “It’s a silly figure of speech. Like putting your best hoof forward. Which one’s supposed to be the best?”
“I never thought of that,” she said. “I guess it would have to be a front hoof, though, or you’d fall down.”
“I’m clumsy enough on two legs. I honestly don’t know how you manage to keep four of them in order. It’s just something you have to learn, I suppose.”
“We have something to learn every day,” said Twilight. “The day we stop learning is the day we start dying.”
Which of course is true.
- = * = -
Sunday morning, early. And by “early,” I mean “no way I am out of bed at this hour.” Sleepily, I threw on a bathrobe and staggered to the door, ready to read the Riot Act to the cruel and/or thoughtless interloper who rang my doorbell at six-thirty.
Wait a minute. Rang my doorbell?
“Good morning,” said Twilight, looking irritatingly impeccable for this time of the morning. “Did I interrupt something?”
Where’s Instant Replay when you need it? Evidently I’d interpreted the first ring as the last element in whatever dream I was having and had already forgotten, woke up on the second, and didn’t — oh, never mind. “Well, this is a surprise.”
“I can try to go home if this is a bad time for you,” she said.
“Not a bad time. I’m just not entirely sure I’m awake just yet.”
“I’ve had dreams like that. Sometimes I can’t tell when they’re over.” She pointed a hoof toward the robe. “What is this you’re wearing?”
“Technically, this is a bathrobe. Although I wasn’t taking a bath.”
“I can’t imagine anyone wearing that to bed. It must be very uncomfortable.”
I saw where this was going, and I didn’t want to go there, but obviously she did, so: “I didn’t wear this to bed. I put it on to answer the door.”
Would she drop this line of questioning? Are you kidding me? This is Twilight Sparkle we’re talking about. “So what did you wear to bed?”
I came up with an exaggerated sigh. “The same thing I’ve worn to bed for the last forty years, which is, um, nothing.”
“Really?” she said. “If there’s anything I’ve learned in studying your Net, it’s that humans are always dressed.”
I chuckled. “You might consider asking the Princess to turn off the filters.”
“Just kidding. But actually, our laws frown on humans wandering about in nothing at all. Another area in which ponies are farther advanced than we are, if you ask me.”
“Well, ponies do have coats. And we do get dressed up for special occasions.” She gave me that sideways look again. “There must be some reason why you’re always wearing clothes.”
“There’s a religious angle,” I said, “but really, I think it just comes with being a biped. Whatever naughty bits a pony may have, you’ve got to be underneath to see. With us, they’re right there in your face. Literally, given your height.”
“Naughty bits?” She laughed. “Never heard them called that before.”
“And you shouldn’t. There’s nothing on me you can’t see every day on a stallion. With minor variations in size, of course.” I can’t believe I said that.
She reached up with one hoof and pulled the belt in exactly the right place, with the result you’d expect from pulling the belt in exactly the right place, and grinned.
“Actually,” she said, “I never see any stallions.”
"I find that hard to believe," I replied, rearranging my robe.
"Well, not at this angle, anyway."
That couldn't have been a lecherous grin, could it? No. Not possible. "Come on out back," I said. "It's still early and it's not hot yet, and we can talk about the Sun. Or something."
It seemed to me that Twilight’s visits were becoming a bit more random. No, not in the Pinkie Pie sense of “random,” nothing like that; it’s just that the timing seemed erratic, and she’d stopped sending me email beforehand. (Beforehoof?) This would only be troublesome if she arrived while I wasn’t at home, I suppose, but never underestimate my ability to worry about something that hasn’t happened yet.
So the first item on the agenda for next visit, I decided, would be disclosure of my work schedule. With fifty hours spoken for each week, that left us, um, a hundred and eighteen hours to choose from. Not all of them would be particularly convenient, but a bad time to meet with Twi was far better than no time to meet with Twi.
Still, the lack of notifications was troubling. Perhaps she didn’t schedule her trips in advance because she couldn’t schedule her trips in advance: discontinuities usable as portals are not particularly stable, I reasoned, and besides, by all the available evidence, she had a life, something few would have accused me of having. (There have been those who suggested I should get a life, but that’s another matter. I think.)
For a moment, I actually contemplated sending a letter:
Dear Princess Celestia:
I apologize for being perhaps unnecessarily forward, but I am worried about Twilight Sparkle. Your faithful student is evidently going through some tumultuous times, and …
But I dropped it there, partly because I couldn’t believe I’d trotted out such a cumbersome word as “tumultuous,” but mostly because I couldn’t think of a way to get it to the Princess directly. I didn’t have her email address, and it’s not like I have a dragon by my side to deliver it. Then again, how hard could it be to find a dragon? Surely there must be several of them nearby: I can feel their blast-furnace breath when I walk outside, and I can see its effects when the electric bill comes in. “You pay two thousand bits a year to avoid the weather?” Twilight would ask. And then I felt a rush of guilt — who am I to say what Twilight would ask? — with just a hint of loneliness.
Which shortly thereafter became more than just a hint.
“Where are you, my little pony?”
Yes, I said it out loud. Maybe I’d said it too loud. The email notifier delivered its usual raucous audio clip. and I stared in disbelief at the screen. Evidently Princess Celestia had somehow received that letter I’d never sent.
There was a paragraph full of formalities, inasmuch as we’d never been properly introduced, and then the heart of the matter:
Please be kind to my faithful student Twilight Sparkle. She has been under considerable stress these past few days, and I suggested to her that she might not want to journey back across that time/space divide in her condition. I expect, however, that she will ignore that suggestion.
She left it at that, and left me to puzzle over its implications. Had I been somehow unkind to Twilight? Or had something horrible happened to her since the last time I’d seen her?
Then it dawned on me that the Princess might actually be cutting me some slack. From what I knew about her, she could threaten me with anything from a horde of changelings to the heartbreak of psoriasis, and deliver on that threat without so much as breaking a sweat. Instead, she said simply “Please be kind.” Perhaps she’d decided, as did Ford Prefect once upon a time, that we are harmless. Mostly.
Besides, there’d be no opportunity to be kind to Twilight unless Twilight was coming back, right?
I opened another window to read the mail header, which turned out to be utterly unreadable. Of course.
- = * = -
It was about, oh, a minute and a half later when she entered. “Did you miss me?”
“I missed you about ten seconds after you left,” I said. “And I’m surprised it took that long.”
There was that sideways look again, only longer. I felt like I was being inspected by the drill sergeant before the real inspection by the company commander.
Finally: “She told you, didn’t she?”
“Who told who what?”
“You know perfectly well who told who what! I can’t believe this! Everything that happens in my life is broadcast across the entire bucking galaxy! I should just throw myself into Ghastly Gorge and get it over with!”
I am not having a pony fight in my living room, I thought. “For crying out loud, Twilight J. Sparkle, get hold of yourself!”
She stared at me in what seemed to be more disbelief than rage. “J?”
“Just kidding” obviously wasn’t going to work this time. “A, then?”
She paused, probably to build up another head of steam. “Is that the best you can do? Make fun of my middle name?”
I threw up my hands, and I couldn’t tell you if it was in defense or in despair. “I didn’t even know you had a middle name. Nor do I know everything that happens in your life. Obviously I’m in some pitiful backwater at the ass end of the galaxy. Would you mind terribly explaining why you went off like, I don’t know, a box of low-grade gunpowder just now?”
A brief flash of aura from her horn — couldn’t have lasted more than a second or so — and then: “You really don’t know, do you?”
“Not a thing. The Princess left me a note asking me to be kind — that was the word, ‘kind’ — what with all the stress you’ve been under. That’s all she said. I didn’t ask for any details.”
“You won’t want them,” she said. “Oh, it was awful! And what’s worse, I let him get away with it! What was I thinking?”
“Him? Him who? Do I need to go kick somepony in the flank?”
“That,” she said, “won’t be necessary. But thank you for offering.”
I saw my opening, and I took it. “Is this something you can talk about?”
- = * = -
“This all started,” said Twilight, “after I’d gone up to Canterlot to report, and things went so smoothly for once that Princess Luna dismissed me early, but not early enough to catch the last train back to Ponyville.”
“Beyond your teleportation range?” I asked.
“That’s a long teleport,” she said. “I’d probably have to sleep for two days to recover from it. Luna said I could stay the night at the Castle.”
“Doesn’t sound horrible so far.”
“Well, I thought I’d have somepony to talk to. But Luna was working on some project she couldn’t say anything about, Celestia had already turned in for the evening, so I decided to go downtown and see if anything interesting was happening. There wasn’t, so I trotted over to a little watering hole I always wanted to go to when I was in school.” She sighed. “Of course, I was underage, and Celestia would have had a fit if she thought that her faithful student was heading out to a bar, so I never did.”
“Okay. Bar in downtown Canterlot. Good, bad, indifferent?”
“Closer to ‘good,’ I would say. It was nicer than anything we have in Ponyville, but we don’t have a lot of two-hooved drinkers in Ponyville, and this place seemed to be designed to get you to consume as many drinks as possible in the least amount of time.”
“May I assume you don’t hold your, um, liquids well?”
“Hmmpf,” she said, tossing her mane. “I’ll have you know that I can outdrink anypony I know. Except Pinkie. Her consumption levels are off the map.”
Now I was looking at Twilight sideways. “How hard can it be to outdrink Fluttershy?”
She smiled. “Okay, you got me that time. Don’t let it happen again.”
“You know,” I said, “the willingness to engage in repartee is considered a sign of healthy social development.”
“It can also get you in trouble.”
“Well, yes, there’s that. Did it get you in trouble?”
“Contributing factor. This stallion strides in, and he draws every eye in the place. Half a dozen mares seemed to be trying to get his attention.”
“We’re talking major looker here?”
“Absolutely major. His coat was a brown so shiny it looked like metal. Perfectly groomed mane and tail. And I shouldn’t say this, but he had himself quite a horn.”
“I am so not going there,” I said.
“I wish I hadn’t. He looked things over for a moment, and then came over and parked himself next to me. I didn’t know whether I was supposed to be flattered or scared.”
“It’s the gorgeous ones you have to worry about, or so I’ve heard.”
“He said his name was Flashy Copper, and that he knew my brother from Royal Guard school. He seemed to be the right age, so I took his word for it. We talked and drank and talked some more, and…”
“I’ve seen enough soap operas to know where this is going,” I said.
The straight face she’d been trying to maintain for the last few minutes suddenly collapsed. “It was terrifying. Nopony had ever come on to me so blatantly before. And his attitude! ‘Every other mare in this town says Yes, why don’t you?’ I told him I wasn’t every other mare, but that didn’t stop him.”
“It’s guys like that who screw it up for the rest of us.” I shook my head. “What did you have to do?”
“I ran outside, and he … he followed me. Spent the next ten minutes yelling at me, about how I was stuck up, how I’d wasted his valuable time, things like that. He’d probably still be yelling if the police hadn’t heard him.”
“So the good guys win one,” I said. “Although it didn’t seem so at the time, I’m sure.”
“And the next day, I met my brother on his lunch break. Oh, yes, he knew him. Washed out of the class right before his. Apparently spent all his time scoping out the mares instead of studying the procedures. He hasn’t changed at all.”
“I apologize on behalf of my half of my species, and of whatever percentage of ponies might actually be male,” I said.
Finally, she smiled. “Approximately forty colts for every hundred fillies, at foaling. And of course mares live longer.”
“Of course,” I said. “And while I’m thinking about it: what is your middle name?”
“I don’t have one. I’m just Twilight Sparkle. I only know two ponies who have middle names.”
“Dare I ask?”
“Well, Pinkie, as you probably know, is actually Pinkamena Diane Pie. And I know Rainbow Dash has one, but I’m not sure what it is.”
“I always thought it was ‘Danger’ or something like that.”
“She’d like you to think that.” Twilight grinned. “All I know is that it starts with an M.”
- = * = -
Dating fails were still on Twi’s mind the next day, and I should not have been surprised when she asked me about some of my own.
“Are you familiar with the concept of the ‘blind date’?” I asked.
She pondered for a moment. “Like when somepony sets you up with somepony else that you’ve never even met?”
“Exactly like that. I think I had the worst one in recorded human history.”
For some reason, this perked her right up. “Tell me about it.”
“I’d thought we’d had a pretty good time,” I said. “At least, she didn’t act like she was particularly horrified at my behavior.”
“Do you normally behave in a horrifying manner?”
“Not if I can help it. Anyway, a couple of nights later I thought I’d drop by and say hello.” I summoned up the most stentorian tones I could manage, and wound up sounding like William Shatner with tonsillitis. “She. Had. Moved. Away.”
Twilight gave me a pure Pull The Other One look. “What do you mean by ‘moved away’?”
“Just like it sounds. She no longer lived there. Apparently she moved out the day after our one and only date. I am forced to conclude that she wanted to make sure it was our one and only date.”
“Did you ever hear from her again?”
“Not yet I haven’t. And it’s been, oh, twenty-five years now.”
Let me tell you: a pony doing an eyeroll is something to behold. “You seem to have recovered nicely from the trauma.”
“In twenty-five years? I should hope so. Although at the time, it bothered me a great deal.”
“Something like that would bother me for a very long time,” she said. “Things that happened to me when I was in school still bother me, and I’m supposed to be all grown up and everything.”
“When you’re young, you think that the world is out to get you. It takes a long time to realize that the world is out to get all of us.”
“But is it supposed to be this way? Couldn’t we grow up without constantly struggling? It would be so much easier on everypony, wouldn’t it? I know it would have been easier on me.”
“One of our wiser humans,” I said, “used to say that good judgment comes from experience, and often as not, we get that experience as a result of bad judgment.”
“You seem … at least somewhat wise.”
I laughed. “I assure you, I got to that point the hard way: by screwing up royally. If it’s possible to do something wrong, I’ve either already done it, or will have done it before too long. It comes with the territory. Perfection is not something we can aspire to. Or, as a teacher of mine would have preferred, perfection is not something to which we can aspire.”
“What I want to know is how you put things like this out of your mind. Every horrible thing that’s ever happened to me comes back to torment me on a regular basis and I want to scream. Spike says sometimes I do scream and it scares him.”
“Is there, like, a small-scale memory spell that could take these out of your head without damaging all the good memories?”
She shook her head. “All the memory spells I’ve seen are for really serious conditions only. I’d be afraid to try one on myself. You remember the ones I did on my friends when we were fighting Discord? I had no idea whether they’d work or if they’d make matters even worse.”
“That figures,” I said. “I know that there are things I’d rather forget, and then something reminds me of one of them, and I think ‘I’m not supposed to be thinking about that,’ and that reminds me of all the other things I’m not supposed to be thinking about. I’ve ruined whole days like that.”
“So have I. There was this one colt …”
I put my hand up in the universal Stop signal. “You don’t have to say it if you don’t want to.” It didn’t occur to me that it might mean something entirely different to ponies.
“I have to,” she said. “Maybe if I tell you, it won’t be a horrible secret anymore and I can put it aside.”
“If you fall, I’ll catch you,” I promised.
“Thank you.” She took a deep breath. “I was twelve years old. I don’t know what worried me more, going through puberty or finally getting my cutie mark. But I was constantly anxious about something. Some days I was anxious about everything. I was miserable and my parents knew it and the Princess knew it and they were sending messages back and forth trying to find some sort of solution. And this one horrible little colt, well, he came on to me, wanting to do a whole lot of indecent things, and I didn’t even know what half of them were but they sounded bad, you know?”
“Trust me, they were bad. Especially at twelve.”
“I told him to go away and he started screaming that I had no right to treat him this way and that he would tell all his friends about me and nopony would ever want me.” She was clearly fighting back the tears. “The rude suggestions, they didn’t matter. But it’s the worst thing in the world to tell a filly that nopony would ever want her, because she’ll believe it every time.”
“Even when she’s wrong?” I asked, already knowing the answer.
“Even when she’s wrong. She’ll grow up, maybe she’ll gain experience, but she’ll still believe it.”
I was pretty close to crying myself. “Even though it’s a damned lie.”
She nodded. “Oh, why couldn’t you have been a pony?”
“Unfortunate choice of ancestors, I guess.”
I was so happy to see her laugh at that. “But you’d make a really good pony.”
“Maybe a good earth pony. I’m far too clumsy to fly, and I’m not sure I’d trust me with magic.”
“Derpy is clumsy and she flies,” Twilight pointed out.
“Derpy at least can walk,” I retorted. “I have enough trouble keeping two legs moving. Four would be downright embarrassing.”
“I guess you have to get used to it,” she said.
“And the laws of physics are working against me. As a practicing biped, I have a high center of gravity. I’m much more likely to fall, and it’s a long way down.”
“Do you fall often?”
“Well, no,” I admitted. “I slip and slide when the driveway is covered with ice, and once in a while I trip over something because I wasn’t paying attention. But I do a pretty good job of remaining vertical, I think.”
“Nopony saw you fall?”
“It’s worse,” said Twilight, “when somepony sees you fall. I missed a couple of steps at a school dance once and landed right on my flank. For days there were giggles in the hallways. I was so embarrassed.”
“Don’t talk to me about school dances. We were forced into these things, and we didn’t want to be there, and we tried our best to imagine that we were somewhere else. You can imagine the results.”
“So here we are, the two worst dancers in the known universe.” She grinned. “What are we going to do about it?”
“Only one thing we can do,” I said, starting up the record player. “Miss Sparkle, may I have the honor of this dance?”
I’d never seen a pony curtsy before. “Of course you may,” she said, and to my surprise, she planted both front hooves on my shoulders, putting her at an angle where she could look me straight in the eye.
It was a simple box step. I figured I couldn’t mess that up. And the music was slow and deliberate, just in case. We managed to stay nicely synchronized for about a minute and a half. And neither of us saw the throw rug, which I had thought was securely anchored under a sofa leg. The laws of physics, as they will, prevailed, and we landed more or less on our flanks, a hopeless tangle of limbs.
And, seconds later, of lips.
It was like nothing I’d ever imagined; yet it was like everything I’d ever imagined. Everything had been merely prelude; everything was leading up to this moment.
I caught my breath. The record was long over. In a sudden attack of silliness, I did my best Derpy voice: “I just don’t know what went wrong.”
“Shut up,” explained Twilight Sparkle, somehow managing to draw me even closer.
“What just happened here?” I asked myself, alone in the room, still down on the floor, the Retrieval Spell having activated itself on time and therefore much too soon.
At times like this — no, wait, there had never been any times like this. No basis for comparison. I mean, it’s not the first time something happened on the floor of the living room, but it’s the first time something happened on the floor of the living room with a unicorn. And a darn cute one, too, with that little pagecolt ‘do of hers and that … um, never mind. I never could get anything done with stream-of-consciousness. I’d have to make an actual Twilight-style checklist to figure out where I was, where we were, and if we were going anywhere.
First item: “Do Twilight and I qualify for the pronoun ‘we’ at all?” Surely we weren’t, as the gossip columnists say, An Item; we technically weren’t dating, although I had bought dinner several times.
I went back and looked at that phrase “gossip columnists” again, and had a horrifying vision of the next day’s Foal Free Press: “PONYVILLE LIBRARIAN IN SECRET TRYST WITH NON-PONY.” Gabby Gums may be retired, but more often than not, the unknown eventually becomes the known.
Then again, the weak link might not have been on the Equestrian side of the chain. I have children, and they have children, and they all live several hours away by any form of transportation known to humans — but not so many hours that they couldn’t drop in unexpectedly. It was safe to assume that they had no idea what was going on, but it wasn’t possible to assume that they’d never find out, either.
Having strayed from the point, I went back up to that first item. “Do Twilight and I qualify for the pronoun ‘we’ at all?” This implied another question: “Will that ever happen again?” Obviously I did not know; but I was pretty sure I knew the answer I wanted. First item: tentative check.
Second item: “Could this be made to work on a long-term basis?” I’ve always been skeptical of long-distance romances generally, and when the distance isn’t measured in miles or hours but in literal holes in the fabric of space and time — well, I’ve never encountered that before. And it’s not like there’s a halfway point where we could meet. Obviously one of us would have to relocate.
I couldn’t possibly ask Twilight to stay here. If she hated the weather now, in the waning days of summer, she’d hate it worse in the dreary days of winter. And it’s not like we could slip a few bits to the pegasi to persuade them to ease off a little, either. More to the point, her friends, her family, her studies, her whole life — everything was tied to Equestria. There was simply no way I would ever ask her to give all that up. Besides, she wasn’t the sort of pony who sought notoriety, and let’s face it, a lavender-colored unicorn on the streets of [name of just about any human town anywhere] is going to be distressingly conspicuous. Hide her away? Not a chance. Scratch this possibility.
But could I live in Equestria? Maybe. I’d have to make some serious dietary alterations, but then the medical community is always screaming about how most of us have to make some serious dietary alterations. If I had to subsist on fruits and vegetables, it wouldn’t be the end of the world. More to the point, though, Canterlot wasn’t officially admitting to the existence of my species; turning one loose in Ponyville was almost certainly not going to go over well with the Royal Sisters.
Friends and family? Well, yes, I had that same issue. But there was a difference, and it was purely chronological: I’m close to three times her age and would be written off by said friends and family far more quickly. Twilight had never actually said what a typical pony lifespan might be, but based on the equines I grew up with, who were generally considered full-grown at three to four years and lived to be twenty-five or thirty, and having learned that Equestrian mares didn’t exit fillyhood until well into their teens, I estimated that eighty to ninety years might be typical. (I wasn’t about to guess how old Granny Smith might be.) And should that be the case, even if the climate of Equestria should prove unusually salubrious and the diet especially healthful, she’d have maybe twenty years with me — I’m already pushing sixty — and then fifty years of … widowhood? “I can’t ask her to bury me,” I said out loud, and crossed out the words “long-term.” Second item: check, with reservations.
Third item: “Aren’t you jumping the gun here?” Well, yes, obviously I was. The alternative, though, was to view what had just happened as simply something that happened, that didn’t mean anything, that would be forgotten in a matter of moments. And I wasn’t about to believe that if I could possibly help it, even if it were true. Especially if it were true. Acting on the assumption that Twilight Sparkle does not take such things lightly, I left that third item unchecked.
Last item: “What, if anything, have you learned from this?” Only one thing for sure: I kissed a mare, and I liked it. Anything else was purely speculative.
- = * = -
According to the Standard Book of Tropes, in the Human Romantic Comedy section, there is one phrase which, when uttered by women, causes men to sweat visibly, their heart rates to turn erratic, and their brains to turn to tapioca. No, not that one. The one that Twilight Sparkle, not being at all human but definitely being female, would utter the moment she came through the door:
“We need to talk.”
I put my thumb to my wrist. No cardiac issues yet. “Perhaps we do.”
“First of all,” she said, “I want you to know that I don’t do this sort of thing with just anypony.”
“I’m not just anypony,” I pointed out. “In fact, last I looked, I wasn’t a pony at all.” That came out harsher than I’d expected, so I bunted: “And anyway, I never assumed you did this sort of thing at all.”
Like that helped. I saw what I thought was a flash of rage. She took a very deep breath, and then she visibly relaxed. “Well, so much for my prepared remarks. I spent an hour this afternoon working up what I thought was an appropriate response to, uh, recent events, and you knocked me out of my train of thought in a matter of seconds. Nopony does that to me, either.” She smiled. “I keep forgetting. I can’t deal with you the same way I’d deal with a stallion.”
“Is that good or bad?” I asked.
“I haven’t quite figured that out yet. You’re a challenge, and I like challenges, but you’re also completely foreign to me, and I worry that I’ll do something really wrong or really stupid, and when I start worrying about that, I almost always do something really wrong or really stupid. Which makes me worry even more.”
“Positive feedback loops. They’ll be the death of us all.”
She nodded. “Anyway, what happened — can I just say that I wasn’t prepared for that?”
“I’ve always suspected,” I said, “that if you’re prepared for it, it doesn’t ever happen. Either it’s spontaneous, or it’s nothing. And when it’s nothing, you sit there staring at each other and wonder what else you could be doing right about now.”
“I’m no good at being spontaneous,” said Twilight. “Everything has to be planned, and everything has to fit into the plan. When it doesn’t fit, I have to improvise, and that means formulating another plan, and — you see? Another feedback loop.”
“So you’re not so good at flying blind. Neither am I.”
“I’m not sure what you mean by ‘flying blind.’ Please explain.”
“We can’t fly under our own power, so we have aircraft. Large metal carriages with enough power to get themselves off the ground. These work wonderfully well when the sun is shining and you can see where you’re going. At night, or in bad weather, not so well. You have to place your trust in the instruments in front of you, and in your own best instincts.”
“Rainbow Dash told me one time that she was caught in an unscheduled storm. She said that she’d tried to remember every last detail of the route she was taking and that she was just going to fly according to that pattern and hope that she was headed in the right direction.”
“Exactly the same idea. I assume she made it?”
Twilight grinned. “This is Rainbow Dash we’re talking about. She would never have brought it up if she had gotten lost.” And then, out of the blue: “You’d like her. She’s exasperating at times, but I think everypony is exasperating at times.”
I took the bait. “Maybe someday I’ll meet her.”
To my surprise, she didn’t go in the direction I was expecting. “On second thought, perhaps it wouldn’t be a good idea to let you run wild in Ponyville. We have some really beautiful mares in town.”
“Now wait a minute,” I said in mock protest. “It took me almost sixty years to catch the eye of one mare. You think I’m suddenly going to have time for a whole herd of them?”
Again with the sideways look. “You’re that old?”
I fell back on an old human cliché. “You want to see my driver’s license?”
Which, of course, she did. Just my luck. I duly popped open my wallet and showed her the little plastic card, which she scrutinized as though it were an artifact from before the Age of Harmony. “And what year is this, to you?”
“Two thousand twelve.”
“That explains the grey,” she said.
“Not so much. I started turning grey when I was in my twenties. It just, um, accelerated in recent years.”
“If you don’t mind my asking, how much longer can you reasonably expect to live?”
First, the shock; then, the guffaw. “The only time this is ever asked is —” and then I realized that the brain and the mouth were hopelessly out of sync again.
I geared up for “You sure you want to hear this?” But of course she did, so I cut to the chase. “In bad dramatic productions, when the poor young woman is about to seduce the rich old man, hoping to get her, you should pardon the expression, hands on his money. I assume ponies aren’t so blatantly obvious in their behavior.”
“Don’t assume that. Some pretty horrible things have happened behind closed doors, even not-so-closed doors, in Equestria.”
“I’ll take your word for it.”
“But you still haven’t answered my question,” said Twilight.
“You noticed.” As the phrase goes, I knew when I was licked. Okay, maybe that was the wrong phrase. “Barring catastrophe, I should be good for, oh, fifteen or twenty years more. There’s just enough longevity in my family to give me some hope for more time. And allow me to point out, for the sake of drama, that you’re not exactly poor and I’m not even slightly rich.”
“You spent twenty thousand bits on a machine to carry you places you could walk,” she said crossly.
“It’s a three-hour walk to where I work, and another three-hour walk back. And I don’t know if you’ve noticed or not, but it’s hotter than the east side of Tartarus out there.”
“Believe me, I’ve noticed,” she said, and then: “Why are we fighting?”
I shrugged. “Why does any couple fight? So they can make up later.”
Her eyes grew wide. “Are we a couple?”
“I have no idea,” I said. “When you came in saying ‘We need to talk,’ I just naturally assumed that we were going to discuss that matter.”
“Very well, then, let’s discuss it.” I was not even slightly surprised to see her produce a pad and a quill. “First question: are we actually dating?”
“No. Well, maybe yes. In the broadest sense of the word,” I said, “perhaps we are. We meet sort of regularly, we don’t have any particular agenda, and we spend a lot of time getting to know one another.”
“Along with everything else,” Twilight noted. “Getting to know one another doesn’t seem to be the major priority.”
“But everything else goes with it. Nothing in the universe is ever truly disconnected from anything else.” I sensed that I was on a roll. “Finding out what you think about such-and-such a subject is every bit as important as finding out your birthday. It tells me where you’ve been, where you’d like to be going, and what your values are.”
“Ninth of Fourmonth.”
“The ninth of Fourmonth. It’s my birthday.”
“Of course,” I said, comprehending nothing.
“The Summer Sun Celebration is the last day of the year. It has no date. The next day is the first of Onemonth.”
It took me a second or three to catch on, but given the officially-proclaimed equality of Sun and Moon, and a few stray astronomical facts I’d learned back in the Stone Age, I was able to piece it together. “So basically you have 13 months of 28 days, plus one at the end?”
Twilight smiled. “Very impressive.”
“A marvel of simplicity next to the random afflictions of our calendar — which, by the way, puts your birthday on our 25th of September.”
“I’ll tell Pinkie. She’ll want to throw a party.”
“From what I’ve heard,” I said, “Pinkie would throw a party to celebrate the opening of an envelope.”
“Well, yes, she would,” Twilight laughed, “but that’s just Pinkie. You get used to it after a while. She’d certainly throw one for you. When is your birthday, by the way?”
“Um … er … fourteenth of Sixmonth.”
She wrote that down for some reason, and then resumed: “So have we decided that we are technically dating?”
“Like I said, maybe in the broadest sense we are. Now the rule I’ve always gone by, in terms of human relationships, is that’s it’s a date if — and only if — both participants expect at some point in the future, not necessarily that night, to see each other naked. I don’t think this rule is of much use here.”
“On the contrary,” said Twilight. “It is very useful, especially since we’re both beyond that point now, aren’t we?”
“Point conceded,” I declared. “Let the world — let the worlds? — know that we are officially dating. Next question?”
“I hate to ask this, but I have to. How are your family and your friends going to react when they find out you’re dating a pony?”
Good question. Too good, perhaps. “I’d almost certainly have to introduce you first, before I could break the news to anyone. I hope that ‘This is my marefriend, Twilight Sparkle’ would be sufficient, and maybe for some of them it would be. A few of them, though…”
“Would turn tail and run?” she said.
“You’re finishing my sentences.” I think I blushed. “Already we’re starting to sound like we’ve been together for years.”
“You think they’d object?”
“Some of them, almost certainly. They’re going to hear ‘pony’ and they’re going to think I’m doing horrible things with some plow-pulling mare down on the farm. At best, it’s bad form. At worst, I’m going to be damned for all eternity.” I grimaced a bit. “It’s an old religious theme. And it makes sense for our culture, since our equines are not even close to being consenting adults. You don’t fool around with other creatures strictly for your own benefit. It’s just wrong.”
She looked off into the distance for a moment, which stretched into a minute.
“Was it something I said?” I asked.
“I think … I’m a little bit sad, knowing that if other ponies come to the human world, they might be treated badly.”
“We are a smug little species,” I said. “And much as I hate to say so, that’s one of our good points.”
“I would hate to see your bad points.”
“If I have anything to say about it, you won’t have to.”
The doorbell sounded. Twilight looked concerned. “That’s about three minutes early for some reason.”
“No time to worry about that now. Tomorrow?”
“Tommorow,” she said. “It’s a date.”
- = * = -
Twenty-three hours and change later. “Since the subject has now been broached,” I said, “how are your friends and family going to deal with you dating outside your species?”
“I … do not know,” said Twilight. “I was hoping I could avoid that particular problem, and to be honest I was hoping I could avoid discussing it right away.”
The “Not Good” sign went off in the back of my head. “What’s happened since yesterday?”
“Please don’t hate me for this,” she said plaintively.
I slid closer to her on the sofa — not that there was that much distance to begin with — and put one arm around her. “I don’t do hate. Tell me what happened.”
“You’re probably wondering why I was asking about your age.”
“That did occur to me, yes.”
“I went to the Royal Medical Office in Canterlot with copies of the reports I’ve been giving to Luna and Celestia, to see what they’d think about your survival chances in Equestria.”
“That doesn’t sound so unreasonable to me,” I said.
“They said that they could not give a favorable recommendation, because the abrupt change in atmosphere and the inevitable change in diet would have an adverse effect on you.” Her voice dropped to near-inaudibility. “A year, maybe. And they don’t know enough about human anatomy to treat anything other than superficial flesh wounds, so it might not be even that long if something terrible happened.”
“It gets worse. And this is the part where you’re going to hate me.”
Not knowing what else to do, I leaned over, and I kissed her as though I had some idea about how she ought to be kissed. Which I didn’t, but unfortunately I hadn’t had a whole lot of time to study the matter, a situation I planned to remedy in short order.
Gradually she relaxed. “You can tell me,” I said. “I promise I will not scream like a banshee.”
“You have banshees in this world?”
“I’ve never seen one, but that means nothing. The Medical Office said I was a goner. What else?”
She shuddered just a bit. “I asked them if … if there was a chance you could be transformed into a pony.”
My eyes grew to about pony size at that. “Seriously? They can do that sort of thing?”
“Under certain conditions. Apparently not these conditions.”
I had to laugh. “Who knew? I’m not qualified to be a pony.”
“I’m sorry,” said Twilight. “I had to find out.”
“It’s all right. How would that even, you know, work? I mean, there’d have to be a lot of gene-shuffling, wouldn’t there?”
“Not that much, really. The pony genome and the human genome match up about 98 percent.”
“You’ve researched the human genome? How in the …” I stopped, because I sensed I didn’t want to know.
“Yes, they had a DNA sample. And yes, I got it from you.” She looked almost sheepish.
The little light bulb went off over my head. And apparently it was one of those twisty compact-fluorescent jobs, because it took a long time to muster up any brightness.
Finally: “You didn’t actually trip me, did you?”
“Oh, no, no, not deliberately. I would never have done that. Ever.”
I swear, I don’t know where this came from. “Cross your heart and hope to die?”
“Spit a sample in my eye,” she said, right on cue. Whatever else I may have been thinking at that moment, I had to admire her sense of timing — and, apparently, her ability to multitask.
“Just out of curiosity,” I asked, “how often does some other entity get, um, ponified?”
“It’s not very common. There was a young changeling this year who’s now living as a pegasus in Fillydelphia.”
“A changeling? Couldn’t she, like, turn into a pegasus any time she wanted?”
Twilight smiled. “After the big wedding, she was apparently the only changeling left in Canterlot. She approached one of the Royal Guards, and he was ready to throw her off the premises, but she talked him into letting her stay long enough to talk to the Princess. Luna agreed to speak to her, and she told Luna that she hated life as a changeling and would give anything just to be an ordinary pony.”
“And she wound up as a pegasus because…”
“She could already fly, so it made the surgical transformation that much easier.”
I whistled. “Somehow, I can’t imagine myself as a pegasus.”
“You wouldn’t have been,” said Twilight. “Even if they could fit you with wings, it would take years to learn how to fly. And as a general rule, they don’t make unicorn horns available for transplant. At best, you’d be an earth pony.”
“Not that there’s anything wrong with that,” I said. “I’m just a good ol’ country pony at heart.”
“And not that it matters at this point, but we could never have foals.”
“Just as well,” I said, “since it looks like we may not be getting married. Some folks frown on that sort of thing.”
Twilight smiled. “Sometimes you amaze me.”
“Sometimes I amaze myself. Where do we go from here?”
“We don’t have to go anywhere right now,” she said. “There are … couple-type things we could do for the next few minutes.”
Once upon a time, I was bewailing my comparative lack of luck with the ladies, and a friend suggested that in the light of my, um, limited portfolio of virtues, I would be well advised to be somewhat less selective. “Beggars,” he’d said, “can’t be choosers, you know.” I reminded him that there were beggars all over town, standing in the middle of traffic islands, and that they weren’t about to approach a twenty-year-old rustbucket, even with the window down, if there’s a Mercedes in line. Sounded choosy enough to me. And anyway, I didn’t think I was that picky; a sweet smile and a decent pair of legs, I had said, would get my attention every time.
Which didn’t quite explain things on that Saturday morning, as I gathered up various power tools, landscape-operations division, and set about to catch up on the yard work before the sun baked everything to a crackly crunch. This was, I’d long ago figured, the only advantage of the searing summer heat: things thus baked simply don’t grow a whole lot. I surveyed the scene, pronounced it tolerable, and summoned from very recent memory a sweet smile and two decent pairs of legs while I unspooled yards and yards of electrical cord. It was just past ten in the morning, so I figured I had about an hour and a half to take care of this mess before Maximum Swelter Time kicked in.
I lead, I thought, a charmed life. Of course, there were minor irritations, punctuated every now and then with major irritations, but I really couldn’t complain: I had the house, I had the ridiculous twenty-thousand-bit metal carriage, I had (maybe) enough seniority at the salt mine to insure that I wasn’t going to be tossed into the street.
And I had Twilight, light of my life, sparkle of my soul, far away for the moment but soon to return. This wasn’t the easiest arrangement by any means, but it was livable. Things would work themselves out. If all we have is forty minutes, then we’ll make the best of those forty minutes.
Okay, thirty-seven minutes. Give or take a few seconds here and there. Things fluctuate, after all. “It’s not like she has this scheme tied to an atomic clock somewhere,” I thought.
Definitely the wrong thing to be thinking. Why the hay didn’t she have this scheme tied to an atomic clock somewhere? Surely she knew such things existed, and it’s not like she didn’t have a grounding in particle physics. “Librarian,” indeed. She could be teaching a class at MIT — the Manehattan Institute of Technology, anyway. I’d have to ask her about that one of these years. Like you’re so damned smart, said the voice in the back of my head.
Meanwhile, there was a holly that needed to be cut down to size, so I decided to introduce the shrub to Mr. Black and Mr. Decker. Having been warned a couple of times before by my physician, I pulled on a pair of ear protectors, which curiously looked almost exactly like my stereo headphones, sans cord, but which cost almost as much. Neither was exactly cheap. I hope Vinyl Scratch makes lots of bits, I thought, as the noise level increased to Barely Tolerable, just enough decibels to drown out everything else for fifty yards.
Including, unfortunately, the doorbell. I turned around just in time to see Twilight Sparkle materializing on the driveway. The holly suddenly didn’t seem so important anymore.
- = * = -
She was visibly worried. “Hurry, we haven’t much time!” she shouted as I shut down the din of the hedge clipper.
“The discontinuity. It’s sealing itself up. I don’t know how much longer I can keep it propped open. I tried to reinforce the spell by synchronizing it with an atomic time signal, but quantum effects kept canceling it out.”
So she did think of that. “How much time do we have?”
“Six or seven minutes, maybe. I’ll hold out as long as I can, but sooner or later the spell’s going to break. I’m trying not to move so I don’t disturb anything, and will you please come here and hold me?”
“I talked to Celestia,” she said. “If there’s ever a passage big enough for both of us, she wants me to bring you back to meet her. If anyone can persuade the Royal Medical Office to bend its rules, she can.” She smiled for a second, then turned serious again. “The trick is going to be finding another passage. There aren’t any more in this general area unless I’ve completely overlooked something.”
I shook my head. “You never overlook anything.”
“You’d be surprised,” said Twilight. “Ultimately, everything ends up random. What were the chances that I’d be standing here, far from home, holding on to a human and wishing I didn’t ever have to let go?”
“I think I’m going to cry,” I said. For once, one of my predictions was about to prove accurate.
“Are you okay with coming back to meet the Princess, whenever that may be?”
“I am,” I said. “To borrow a phrase, I can walk many miles, ride many trains, climb many mountains, and if that’s what it takes, then that’s what it’s going to be. I don’t even want to think about life without you.” Few things can speed along a decision quite as effectively as abject fear.
She shivered a little. The spell must be draining her, I thought. Her little backpack — I refuse to call it a “saddlebag” — opened up, and some sort of necklace rose out of it.
“I brought this for you. It’s a sliver of a tuned magical stone. It only works one way for now.” She hung the stone, encased in what looked like but almost certainly wasn’t Lucite, around my neck. “But if you ever want to talk to me, it’s there.”
“I have your email address, or at least I thought I did.”
Twilight grinned. “This is for more … immediate communication.”
Well, what do you know: it’s possible to smile through tears after all. “You mean if I yell into this little thing, you’ll hear it?”
She smiled. “You won’t have to yell.”
The shiver was more pronounced this time.
“And because I’ll regret it if I don’t —”
“Say no more,” she said, and nothing more was said. No, not even by the kid on the bicycle who stopped trying to sell newspaper subscriptions long enough to see the old man and the young unicorn engaged in what had to be one of the all-time great kisses.
At least, I thought it was.
She started to shimmer, then fade. “I will come back! I promise!”
And then she was gone.
- = * = -
One good thing about sweat: it does a passable, if not convincing, job of concealing tears. I packed up my tools, carried them back to the shed, then stood on the driveway for I don’t know how long, staring off into the distance.
“I love you, Twilight Sparkle,” I whispered. “And I always will.”
And as I turned to go back inside, the only cool breeze for a hundred miles around somehow found me and followed me to my door.