If you grew up outside of Canterlot, your young ears were filled with vivid descriptions of the wonders that awaited visitors to the shining city on the mountain, and like as not, you pestered your parents to take you there, please, can we, just this once?
And then one day when your ears weren’t so young, you got off the train and looked around the station and you asked: “Is that all there is?” The Station Manager patiently pointed out that the design was intended to be functional, not decorative, and if you wanted to see pretty things, there were plenty of them only a few paces away, and now if you’ll excuse me, I have to get back to work.
Lyra, on the other hoof, was quite fond of the Canterlot station, since it provided her opportunities for ponywatching that simply didn’t exist back home. There wasn’t going to be much of it today, though: there were only six ponies on the platform, one on each bench, though each bench could easily hold four, more if they sat like Lyra did.
Then she noticed an earth pony facing the westbound tracks actually sitting the way she did, bolt upright, flank against the surface of the bench instead of up in the air. She couldn’t tell much about him otherwise: brownish-green, somewhat faded coat, just about the color of grass two days after Winter Wrap-Up, and maybe a touch of white in his mane. I’ll hate myself if I don’t talk to him, she thought, and trotted over his way.
“Good morning,” she said. “Have we met?”
“Not yet,” he answered. “Are you the official welcoming committee? Because, uh, I was just leaving.”
“Where are you headed?”
“Going to Vanhoover. I’ve never seen it, but I hear it’s nice.” He smiled. “So much is new to me these days.”
She put forth a hoof. “I’m Lyra Heartstrings. I’m from Ponyville, but I come up here every other weekend to meet friends and occasionally play a gig.”
“Desert Brush. Nice to meet you.”
“So what brings you to Canterlot?”
The earth pony grimaced. “I was at the Royal Hospital. A … rather complicated bit of surgery.”
“You’d pretty much have to come here for anything really complicated,” said Lyra. “Are you going to be all right?”
“I think so,” Brush answered. “They were supposed to release me last night, but there were about a hundred tests they had to run just one more time.”
She looked under the bench: a single bag. “Traveling light, are we?”
“I don’t need much.” He bowed his head slightly. “Everything I ever wanted, I have.”
“I wish I could say the same,” Lyra sighed. She pointed one hoof at his neck and asked: “Where’d you get the locket?”
“A gift from a Very Special Somepony,” he said. “There’s supposedly something vaguely magical about it.”
“That’s what happens when you date unicorns,” Lyra quipped. “Does she live in Vanhoover?”
“No. She grew up here, but she lives in Ponyville.”
Lyra’s eyes grew wide. “Really? Anypony I might know?”
“I wouldn’t be surprised,” said Brush, waving a hoof at Twilight Sparkle as she materialized on the platform.
“Oh, hi, Lyra,” Twilight said. And then she grinned at Brush: “Flirting with the mares already? You must be healthier than they said you were.”
“I’ve been good,” he protested mildly. “Really, I have.”
“A perfect gentlecolt,” said Lyra. “How in the hay did you two meet?”
“It’s a long, long story,” said Twilight as the westbound train pulled in. “And it’s still being written.”
Inevitably, an Emergency Meeting was convened at Sugarcube Corner. “Did anypony know that Twilight had a coltfriend?” Pinkie Pie began. “I didn’t know anything about it, and I’m usually the first to know about things unless somepony is trying to keep a secret, like the time Applejack —”
“Hush now,” Applejack snapped. “We’re not bringin’ that up again.” She rolled her eyes. “How serious is this, anyhow?”
“Any time you hear the term Very Special Somepony, it’s safe to assume that it’s indeed quite serious,” Rarity said. “Then again, supposedly he said it, and she didn’t. Is it possible that the gentlecolt may have an exaggerated sense of his own importance? I mean, we do know that Twilight was already on her way to Vanhoover.”
“What the hay is in Vanhoover, anyway?” Rainbow Dash asked. “All I know about it is that it’s a whole lot of mountains west of Cloudsdale.”
“It’s their turn to host the Librarians’ Convention,” answered Pinkie. “It rotates. Well, it doesn’t actually rotate, or everypony would get dizzy and have to go home early and that would ruin the whole convention. But last year it was in Baltimare, and I don’t remember where it was the year before that but I’m sure it was in some big city because they’ve never, ever had it here.”
“Three weeks in Baltimare? Sheesh.” Applejack frowned. “Ah’d go crazy if Ah had to spend three weeks in the city. Any city.”
“It’s not three weeks,” Pinkie replied. “It’s only two or three days. Gosh, what would librarians do for three whole weeks?”
Applejack stared. “But Twi said she was takin’ three weeks off, didn’t she? Even allowin’ for a three-day train ride either way, that leaves —”
“Fifteen days in a love-nest with her little earth pony,” said Rarity. “Not to mention whatever mischief they can get into on the train. This is so unbelievably romantic. Especially for Twilight.”
Dash shook her head. “I’d say it’s unbelievable. Poor egghead turns redder than berry juice if a stallion so much as looks at her funny. And we’re supposed to believe she’s run off with this — what was his name again?”
“Desert Brush,” Applejack said. “Never heard of him mahself. Ah mean, it’s a name that sounds like it oughta come from some place like Dodge Junction, right?”
“There are no places like Dodge Junction,” said Rarity, “and thank Celestia for that. The first order of business, I believe, is to verify Twilight’s itinerary.”
“Her what?” asked a puzzled Dash.
“Her itinerary. Where she’s going, and when she’s coming back.”
“On it,” said Rainbow Dash. “Either Spike owes me a favor, or I can get him to think he does.” Out the door she went.
Nopony spoke for a moment, and then Fluttershy piped up: “This could all be perfectly innocent. I mean, Twilight is just like any of us, when you think about it. We’ve never been colt-crazy or anything like that.”
Rarity laughed. “Speak for yourself.”
“I’m sorry,” said Fluttershy, visibly shrinking further into the corner.
“Oh, sweetheart, you needn’t apologize,” Rarity replied. “You are what you are, and we all love you. If anypony owes us an apology, it’s those crazy colts who have only one thing on their minds.”
“Just one thing?” asked Pinkie. “The crazy colts I meet have seven or eight things on their minds and they can’t get them in the right order half the time. Maybe that’s what’s making them crazy?”
Rarity stared. “You’re meeting crazy colts?”
“Of course,” Pinkie retorted. “Any colt I meet is likely to be crazy. The very least I can do is try to get him to be crazy about me, right?”
Applejack rose from the table. “Ah think you’re all just a hair crazy right now. We don’t know squat about this pony except what Lyra told us, and that ain’t much. Shouldn’t we be givin’ Twi the benefit of the doubt? She’s a grown mare, for Luna’s sake.”
“So are we all,” said Rarity. “But love, or the appearance of love, can lead anypony astray. And poor Twilight, to put it mildly, is not especially well-versed in these matters. Canterlot, for all its glory, has some very seedy characters lurking in its shadows.”
“Well, Ah don’t want any part of this here witch hunt ’til I have some reason to think Twi’s in real trouble.” Applejack walked over to the door, which suddenly popped open in her face.
“I think Twi’s in real trouble,” said Rainbow Dash, only slightly out of breath.
“How so?” asked Rarity.
“Well, her itiner-whatzit checks out. But Spike showed me this new gadget that’s wired to the Royal Library in Canterlot. It has information on everypony in Equestria, where they live and what they do.”
“Ah’m not so sure Ah like that sorta thing,” Applejack said. “Granny says we got too many pryin’ eyes already. We already had to fill out some dumb forms last summer.”
Dash ignored her. “Anyway, as of last month, there was nopony named Desert Brush, in Canterlot or anywhere else.”
“A con artist,” said Rarity. “I might have known.”
“Is there anything we can do?” Fluttershy asked. “I mean, if I were dating a con artist, I hope somepony would be able to help.”
“If that’s all we have to worry about,” said Pinkie. “It may be ten thousand times worse than that and we’d never know the difference. Lyra said that he had strange posture and kind of a halting gait, almost like he wasn’t used to walking, and he wasn’t carrying around a lot of baggage so he maybe wasn’t planning this trip in advance.”
“She also said he’d just got out of the hospital,” Applejack pointed out. “Everypony walks kinda strange after bein’ flat on their backs for days on end.”
“Actually,” Rarity said, “she said that he said that he’d just gotten out of the hospital.”
Rainbow Dash laughed. “Lyra complaining about somepony’s posture? I’ll believe that when I see Derpy turn down a muffin.”
“Seriously, Dashie,” Pinkie insisted. “He doesn’t sit like a pony, he doesn’t walk like a pony, and nopony has ever heard of him. Suppose he’s not a pony at all?”
Sugarcube Corner was never this quiet when it was closed.
Finally Rarity broke the silence. “Well, we know what we have to do.”
There are those who say that the Unicorn Range of today was the site of the original founding of Equestria, several millennia ago, and indeed the classic Hearth’s Warming Eve story would seem to bear them out: the stretch of mountains that defines the southern border of the Range is unusually rich with gems, the cluster of clouds to the north extends all the way to present-day Cloudsdale, and in between lies some of Equestria’s best farmland. The very first rail line in Equestria connected the southeastern end of the Range to the capital at Canterlot. The Northwest Line today now extends all the way to the northwestern end of the Range, where it divides, the south fork heading toward the ocean, to Tall Tale and to Vanhoover, while the north fork makes its way toward the Frozen North and into the Crystal Mountains.
There are no large cities anywhere along the Northwest Line: once you’ve departed from Canterlot and headed west, it’s all farms and forest, forest and farms, a couple of dozen towns no more than a few houses wide. It was at one of these towns, just before sunrise, where a lone pegasus stood on the platform. The train duly stopped for her, but she did not board: instead, she gave a parcel to the conductor, and then flew off.
A knock came at the compartment door.
“Sorry to disturb you, Miss Sparkle, but there’s a package for you from Canterlot.”
Twilight, barely awake, roused herself enough to take the three steps to the door. “Wonder what this could be…” She carefully opened the package, refolded the wrapping in case she might need it, and examined the contents: two letters. The first was from the Princess; no surprise there. Until, of course, she actually read it.
“Wake up! You have to hear this!”
Desert Brush rolled over, not even barely awake. “Mmmm… hear… what?”
“It’s a letter from the Princess. Apparently they’re very worried about me. And you. Well, mostly about you.”
Brush pulled himself upward. “Why would anypony worry about me? And who are ‘they’, anyway?”
My faithful student:
The attached communication was received last night. It appears that your friends in Ponyville are deeply concerned about your trip, and most especially about your traveling companion. I understand why you might not have warned anypony about him: things moved rather quickly once he arrived and was processed. I have done what I could to offer them reassurance without violating anypony’s confidence. But you should be prepared for many, many questions when you return.
“So I’ve been processed. Now there’s a first,” Brush said.
Twilight giggled. “Wait till you hear this.”
Dear Princess Celestia:
We are writing to you because we are worried about our friend Twilight Sparkle, who took an extended leave of absence to attend a convention on the western coast, and who apparently is being accompanied by an unknown pony of questionable origin.
“Questionable?” said Brush. “If they only knew.”
“Sounds like Rarity dictated it to Spike. Now listen to this.”
Since no record of a pony named ‘Desert Brush’ presently exists, we are forced to conclude that Twilight has been deceived by a changeling, and may be in great danger. Any assistance you can provide will be greatly appreciated.
“Signed by the other five Elements of Harmony, of course.”
“That’s what friends are for,” Brush said dryly. “How did they comb through all those records that fast?”
“Remember, back when I was visiting your old world, about how I didn’t have any statistics to offer you? I mentioned that to Princess Celestia, and she ordered up a census of all of Equestria, to be updated with changes twice a month.”
“You have to count everypony every other week? That sounds tiresome. And bureaucratic.”
“We don’t count everypony every time. A local official, like Mayor Mare in Ponyville, has to send in any changes: new arrivals, births, deaths. An actual count is conducted only at five-year intervals.”
Brush grinned. “It could be worse, I suppose. Is this all a matter of public record?”
“It is,” said Twilight. “In fact, it’s accessible by terminals across most of Equestria. Mayor Mare has one, and there’s one in the library. You ought to take credit for this, since it was your idea.”
“I’ll be happy to, once I actually, you know, exist.”
“You should exist now. Database changes would have gone in this morning.”
“What does it say about me?”
“There’s not much in the database on anypony: they collect name and legal status, date and place of birth, name and status of parents, current residence, and cutie mark.”
Brush stared. “What, technically, is my legal status?”
“I turned in the paperwork while you were in the hospital. As of the eleventh you are Immigrant Granted Equestrian Citizenship. Princess Celestia signed the order herself.”
“Does she get a lot of these?” Brush wondered.
“One or two a month, maybe. But it’s usually a pony from the Crystal Empire, which is outside Equestrian jurisdiction. I’m pretty sure you’re the first human to apply.”
“Certainly the first one to get a cutie mark,” Brush said wryly. “Although back where I come from they have something called ‘tramp stamps’, just north of the tail. In fact, there was a brief craze for adding body decorations just about everywhere.”
“Painted on?” asked Twilight.
Brush winced. “Ink embedded into several layers of skin, a droplet at a time. I guess that’s how they decorated my flank this week. I was unconscious at the time, and that’s probably a good thing, because I’d have screamed my fool head off. I imagine that it doesn’t hurt quite so much for ponies who were born ponies.”
“Not at all. Then again, cutie marks are normally a magical function, and for the moment you’re only barely connected to magic.” She laughed. “Of course, you could have stayed a blank flank and confused the hay out of everypony.”
“From the sound of things, I confuse the hay out of everypony already,” he said.
“Read it out loud,” commanded Rarity, and so Rainbow Dash did:
My dear friends:
I thank you for your letter, and I appreciate your concerns. However, you need not worry yourselves. I have met with Desert Brush twice, and I believe his loyalty to Equestria and his devotion to Twilight Sparkle are unquestionable. All will be explained to you in two weeks when they return to Ponyville.
“That’s all she said,” Dash muttered, and set the letter aside.
“I don’t get it,” said Pinkie. “How can he return to Ponyville when he’s never even been to Ponyville? That’s like a griffon coming down with the Pony Pox, or a pony with the Griffon Pox, if there is such a thing as the Griffon Pox, and there probably is.”
“She didn’t say anythin’ one way or another about him bein’ a changeling, then?” asked Applejack.
“At least loyalty counts for something,” Dash said. “But there’s a whole lot here that nopony is telling us. Why didn’t Twilight tell us anything about this?”
Rarity nodded. “It does seem odd of Twilight not to mention something so potentially life-changing as a new coltfriend.”
“Maybe she was scared,” said Fluttershy. “If I had a new coltfriend I wouldn’t be telling everypony in town.”
“Why the hay not?” Applejack asked.
“Suppose our first date went badly and we never had another one.” Fluttershy dropped her voice to just above a whisper. “If everypony knew about it, maybe no other pony would ever want to date me.”
“Oh, that’s just silly,” said Dash. “I’ve had lots of first dates go badly. I still get hit on.”
“Have you ever had a second date?” Fluttershy asked.
Applejack roared. “She’s got you there, Dashie.”
Rarity held up a hoof. “We’re getting off the subject here. The Princess says this Brush pony meets with her approval. Perhaps he’s a changeling who underwent permanent ponification, and voluntarily gave up his power to change.”
“Can they do that?” Pinkie wondered.
“I don’t know,” Rarity admitted. “But what else are we supposed to believe? We’ll just have to wait until Twilight and the Mystery Stallion come waltzing in.”
“Well, if they’re gonna waltz,” Pinkie said, “we gotta have a dance party!”
They trotted down the hill from the little bed-and-breakfast and sat on the grass, sometimes gazing at the stars, sometimes at each other. “You know what I don’t miss? Having grass this tall and knowing there’d be a note on the door from the city, telling me to cut it down or pay a fine, or they’d do it for me and I’d pay a bigger fine.”
Twilight laughed. “Did that ever really happen to you?”
“Came close once or twice,” said Brush. “It’s a strange sort of situation. They all want these plants to decorate their homes; they just don’t want them to act like, well, plants. Plants grow and spread and put down roots where you weren’t expecting and generally act like they don’t care what you think. Because they don’t, and why should they?”
She scooted in a little closer to him. “Is there anything you really do miss?”
“Well, yeah, from time to time. It’s a shame I won’t get to see what happens to the grandchildren — um, grandfoals.” He sighed. “The language adjustments are taking a little longer than I thought they would.”
“They’re not ponies. You don’t have to call them ‘foals’ if you don’t want to.”
“And once in a while I’ll have a fleeting thought: What was I thinking? Was I insane to do this?”
“Princess Luna certainly thought so.”
“Really?” Brush asked. “She said that?”
“After your first meeting with the princesses. The guards took you to a guest bedroom, and both Luna and Celestia threw questions at me for the next several hours while you were supposedly sleeping.”
“No ‘supposedly’ about it,” said Brush. “I was out like a dying candle.”
“And what Luna wanted to know was what would happen if all of a sudden you decided you didn’t want to be a pony anymore. ‘Love is fleeting,’ she said. ‘Reality is always there.’ And I didn’t have an answer for her.”
Brush nodded. “That would be a tough one to answer on short notice.”
“How would you have answered her?” Twilight asked.
He looked up at the moon for a moment. “Can you take a letter?”
She produced a pad and a quill. “Of course.”
Dear Princess Luna:
You ask if maybe it might have been a bit shortsighted to throw away my previous life for something that has no guarantees. But life itself has no guarantees: we take for granted that the sun will rise in the morning, and that the moon will replace it at night, but we know that things can happen to interrupt this routine.
And I really didn’t “throw away” my previous life. It’s boxed up and sitting in a lawyer’s office for the next ten years, as he waits for further instructions; after that, he is to sell the land and the house and the material goods and pass the proceeds to my offspring. Were I to go back at any time before that, I could pick up right where I left off — except for the fact that I would still be a pony and would have major difficulties adjusting to a life with which I’d already had six decades of experience.
But that’s beside the point. I did not come to Equestria to shed my old life; I came to Equestria to embrace a new life. Twilight Sparkle loved me before I was a pony; but to be the pony of her dreams, I first had to be a pony. Nothing else was quite so important to me. And from this day forward, nothing else ever will be. If this be insanity, I plead guilty.
Yours sincerely, et cetera, et cetera.
Twilight put the quill and pad away, and suddenly burst into tears. “Oh, Celestia, what have I done?”
Brush sought to embrace her, but she pushed him away. “And what have I done to you? I took your whole life away! I destroyed you so I wouldn’t be lonely! I’m a selfish, wicked, horrible pony! I deserve to be banished!”
Again he reached for her. “I don’t feel destroyed.” She looked away; he moved in front of her.
“Look at me,” he said.
“I am here. Do you know why I am here?”
She said nothing.
“I am here because I would rather be an ordinary pony with you, than be whatever else I was or could have been without you. That’s all there is. Nothing else. No spells, no mind control, no mental illness, no selfish wickedness — nothing.”
“The Equestrian Library Federation was founded in 973 with a simple motto: Everypony Needs To Know. In thirty years, the Federation has grown from half a dozen members to nearly four hundred, librarians, educators and writers from every part of Equestria, each dedicated to the idea that everypony can, and should, have access to the widest possible spectrum of information.”
The voice from the podium droned on and on, and Twilight Sparkle looked at the program for the seventh or eighth time. “You’re going to be very bored,” she said. “A bunch of eggheads yammering at one another for two days.”
“It won’t be so bad,” Desert Brush said. “Last egghead I met, I fell in love with.”
Twilight smiled. “Remind me not to introduce you to any more of them.”
“Far as I’m concerned, they don’t actually egg-zist.”
The smile disappeared. “Old-world humor, I guess. Although I can’t imagine that it was funny there, either.”
“It wasn’t,” Brush admitted. “But my resistance to bad puns has always been low.”
She planted a kiss on his ear. “Let’s test your resistance to boredom.” They took seats in the next-to-last row.
The program somehow proceeded on schedule, and the final item on the agenda that afternoon was a panel discussion on Library Outreach, led by Secret Finder of the Royal Canterlot Library. While library services were available in all but the smallest towns, she said, it’s difficult to get books to ponies in remote areas, and any suggestions would be appreciated.
A pony in the front row wearing a black hoodie and socks raised a hoof. “I have a question.”
“You have the floor,” declared Secret Finder.
“I’d like to know what efforts our libraries are making to reach the changeling community,” said the pony in a weirdly distorted voice.
“There is really no changeling organization of which I’m aware,” Secret Finder answered, “and to my knowledge no changeling has shown any interest in library services.”
“That’s funny, because there’s a changeling in this very room —” she spun and faced the back of the hall — “RIGHT NOW!”
Twilight gasped. “P-Pinkie Pie?”
All eyes turned toward Twilight and Brush, and somepony yelled: “SEIZE THEM!”
“Hold on to me,” Twilight whispered. A brief flash, and they were gone.
“So … where are we?” Brush asked.
“I’m not sure,” Twilight admitted. “I just hope it’s outside the city limits. Still, they could call in anypony up to and including the Royal Guards, so it’s not like we have a safe place to hide.”
“Do we have to hide at all? I mean, everything’s in order, right?”
“It’s a mob,” Twilight said. “Mobs do things that nopony would dare do alone. And if we’re caught, you’ll be identified, and everypony will know that the humans exist, and …”
He nodded. “Understood. So what do we do now?”
She pulled his necklace away. “I’m going to try to retune this stone just long enough to contact Celestia and see if she can do something to restore order. Maybe they won’t challenge her.”
Brush stared in disbelief. “I can’t imagine a whole town overrun by marauding librarians. That just doesn’t happen.”
“Forget everything you know about what does and doesn’t happen. This is Equestria. Things are different here.”
Twilight’s horn flared for a second. “There. That may buy us some time. We can’t go back to the hotel, obviously, so we may have to stay out here all night and hope we’re not triggering Pinkie Sense.”
“How much range does she have?” Brush asked.
“I have no idea,” said Twilight. “I’m not sure Pinkie even knows.”
“Come to think of it,” asked Brush, “how did Pinkie get to the coast that fast in the first place? Can she outrun a train?”
“I wouldn’t be surprised if she could, but she probably didn’t have to. There’s a freight train every evening with one car for passengers on a space-available basis. She could have left a day behind us and still made it on time, if the schedules worked out.” Twilight frowned. “What I want to know is how she did that funny voice.”
“I’d say your guess is as good as mine, but I’m hoping it’s better. Because I’ve got nothing. Except, of course, that it’s just Pinkie being Pinkie.”
“Sometimes that’s all the explanation there is,” said Twilight.
“And now that I think about it,” Brush said, “this would be a great time to remember a good old-fashioned concealment spell, what with several hundred angry ponies after us and all.”
“I know one. Unfortunately, it’s limited to one body at a time. It won’t cover us both.”
“So use it,” Brush said. “You’re a whole lot more recognizable than I am. I am Generic Earth Pony.”
“You may be a pony now,” Twilight said sternly, “but you’re a sitting duck if that mob finds you.”
“Is that new-world humor?”
They walked on. The clearings in the forest seemed fewer and farther between. Desert Brush began to cough.
“Are you all right?” Twilight asked.
“Just a bit thirsty,” he said. “I’ll survive.”
Twilight focused for a moment. “I’m seeing what I think is a stream, about four or five minutes ahead. Can you last that long?”
He nodded, but didn’t speak. Occasionally she could hear him trying to suppress the cough reflex, with varying degrees of success. And about six minutes later, they came across a stream.
“Can you jump that?” asked Twilight.
“Think so. First, give me a chance to drain it.” He bent forward — and stopped.
“Maybe this is just one of those Only In Equestria things,” Brush began, “but … shouldn’t I have a reflection or something?”
Twilight walked up to the edge of the stream, looked downward, and saw nothing but moonlight dancing on the water.
“Very curious,” she said.
“Indeed. Is it still safe to drink?”
“It should be. I mean, it doesn’t look like it’s enchanted or anything.”
“That’s all I wanted to hear,” said Brush.
“Thou art up late,” said Princess Luna.
Celestia yawned. “It’s not all that late. And I have … premonitions for some reason.”
“Has this to do with the changeling incident in Vanhoover, by chance?”
“The what?” Celestia sputtered. “Changelings again? How so?”
“Should you step to the balcony,” said Luna, “you will find that the castle is surrounded by reporters.”
“Oh, great. Can you at least tell me what is going on, before I go out to meet the press?”
Luna produced a scroll. “This was received just after sunset. It was addressed to you, but for some reason it was delivered to me.”
Celestia read. “This is not good. They’re in unfamiliar territory.”
“They need not fear,” answered Luna. “The night shall be their ally. I have so arranged.”
“Freeze,” said Twilight.
“Off to the right. Search party. Don’t move.”
Two ponies in uniform, one a pegasus, the other a unicorn wielding a portable torch. Had they seen anything? They continued to approach. The torch passed over a tree, several shrubs, and Brush’s and Twilight’s hooves.
And then another tree. The police ponies remained on their course, and continued on their way.
The longest two minutes of the year crawled by, and finally Twilight said, “It has to be.”
“Has to be what?”
“They didn’t see us, even with the light. We couldn’t see ourselves in the water. This has to be some kind of concealment spell.”
“Huh. I always wanted to be invisible when I was little. Never figured it might actually happen.”
“This must be Luna. But it isn’t like Luna. She’s been known to turn off the moonlight in certain special cases, but I don’t think I’ve ever heard of her using a traveling concealment spell.”
“If I didn’t know better,” said Brush, “I’d think the Princess was trying to make it up to us for calling your coltfriend insane.”
“It’s not about you,” Twilight snorted. “It’s about the preservation of order. And that comes first in situations like this.”
“Yes, ma’am,” Brush said meekly.
From the balcony, Celestia surveyed the scene. Maybe ten actual reporters, about a dozen photographers, and scores of those characters who have no idea what is going on but want to be part of it just the same.
“This is,” said the Princess, “the only statement I will make on the, uh, situation in Vanhoover. An earth pony named Desert Brush, present at the Equestrian Library Federation convention in Vanhoover, was misidentified — loudly — as a changeling, which resulted in a temporary panic.
“Since the Royal Wedding last year, many ponies have been understandably worried about changelings. Let me assure you that changelings present no meaningful threat to you or to Equestria: they keep their distance, and our defenses have been improved. A single changeling last summer requested asylum in Equestria. She was willing to sacrifice her shape-shifting ability to become a normal pony, and after she met with us, we granted her request.
“Desert Brush is not a changeling. He has never had any shape-shifting ability. His point of origin is far beyond Equestria’s borders, beyond the borders of this continent; my faithful student Twilight Sparkle encountered him while conducting an unusual scientific experiment. After long discussions, we offered to meet with him; he expressed the desire to stay, to become a normal pony, and we granted his request. His conduct as an Equestrian citizen has been exemplary, and his knowledge of technologies beyond our own may serve us well in the future.
“We will not seek to punish the rioters for what was, ultimately, only a minor breach of Harmony. But we ask that they spend some time in reflection over what happened, and whether it is wise to jump to conclusions, to automatically think the worst of somepony new.”
The Princess stepped back, and the balcony was closed forthwith.
“I know I’m going to regret asking this,” Brush began, “but how long can we reasonably expect to be under the protection of Princess Luna?”
“Until sunrise, as a rule,” Twilight answered.
“Well, I hope there’s time to grab a nap between now and then.” Brush sighed. “Finally, something else I miss about what used to be home: wristwatches.”
Twilight looked at him blankly.
“It’s a bracelet containing a mechanism to keep track of time.”
“Oh. Well, I suppose you might need something like that if you don’t know the stars very well.”
Brush sat on the grass. “I don’t really have a problem with living in your shadow, you know. But you don’t have to remind me how dark it is over here.”
“I’m sorry,” said Twilight. “This hasn’t been a good day for either of us, I suppose.”
“When you get to be my age,” Brush said, “any day you can still wake up is a good day.”
“That sounds … morbid.”
“In my younger days, I’d see old couples walking through the park, and I’d think, Wouldn’t that be great, to be together all those years? And then I’d go home and hide in my room because I knew it was never going to happen for me.”
“It still could,” Twilight said softly. “But we have to live through this first.”
“That is how it works: one day at a time.”
“And please don’t say that you’re living in my shadow. That’s not the way things are supposed to work. I don’t need somepony to follow me around. I need somepony to be part of me.”
“For an egghead,” said Brush, “you’re quite the romantic.”
“For a romantic,” said Twilight, “you’re quite the egghead.”
“I guess it all balances out in the end. Let’s get some sleep. From what I remember about sunrise, it always comes too early.”
They awoke at dawn on the downslope of a knoll, and dragged themselves to their hooves.
“I used to skip breakfast all the time,” Brush said, “but it never bothered me much until now.”
“Well, we don’t have much time to graze,” Twilight answered. “The sun is up and we have to keep moving until we find out what’s been happening.”
“You think they’re still searching?”
“There is no need,” came a voice from on high, and both Twilight and Brush dropped to the ground as Princess Celestia landed in front of them. “Good morning, my little ponies. Did you sleep well?”
“Very well, thank you,” answered Twilight.
“I’ve had better,” said Brush, prompting Twilight to poke him in the side.
The Princess laughed. “Less than a week as a pony,” she said to Brush, “and you’re already having a big adventure. How does that make you feel?”
“Oh, it’s tons of fun, your Majesty. Especially since I didn’t have to do it alone.”
“There is no better traveling companion,” said Celestia, “than my faithful student. She is wise beyond her years, and resourceful beyond my expectations. I still haven’t figured out how she managed to transmit a sub-aethereal message across such a great distance.”
Twilight beamed, and pointed to the locket around Brush’s neck. “This was a little something I worked up before he, uh, relocated, so we could keep in touch.”
“May I see it?”
The Princess examined the jewel. “In some ways, this resembles one of Luna’s musical stones, though it’s certainly not as old.”
“Or as highly polished,” Twilight said. “I’d been experimenting with a form of crystallized boron.”
“Isn’t that the same stuff you were using for glassware?” Brush asked.
“The very same. I chose it for durability. I had no idea it had a resonance frequency compatible with the sub-aether.”
“One should never underestimate the power of fortune,” Celestia said. “We control much, perhaps most, of our own destinies; but the purely random can never be eliminated entirely.”
Brush nodded. “I never would have imagined a gang of rioting librarians. You can’t get much more random than that.”
“It was not entirely random,” said the Princess. “Much of the blame for this incident, I must bear; I was hoping we could integrate you, Desert Brush, into society without anypony noticing much difference. But things seem to be much more complicated in the presence of an Element of Harmony.”
“How so?” asked Twilight.
“The bearers of the Elements, it appears, will be unusually sensitive to their antitheses, their polar opposites. Pinkie Pie represents laughter and joy, and the negation of laughter and joy is fear. In this case, it was fear of changelings, which merely bothered the others; but Pinkie was hurt badly by those sensations, a hurt that struck to her very soul. I should not have been surprised that she struck back.”
“What’s the opposite of magic?” Twilight asked.
“I think that would be me,” Brush drawled. “Completely devoid of the stuff, I am.”
“Not true,” said the Princess. “As an earth pony you are connected to the mana, the magic that underlies all of Equestria. The mana helped to heal you after your surgery, and it gives you strength every day. You will learn these things in time.” She smiled. “Twilight, you have your work cut out for you.”
“I love my work,” Twilight Sparkle said.
Two days passed without further incident, and then a knock came at the library door.
“Spike!” yelled Twilight. “Can you get that? We’re kind of busy up here!”
“That’s it, make it sound like work,” Brush teased. “And since when does anypony knock on the door during business hours?”
“Probably a messenger from the railroad, bringing our bags. They tend to be somewhat on the formal side.”
“I think we can forget about the formalities,” Brush said as Pinkie Pie burst into the room.
“Oh, Twilight, I am so sorry for what happened. It was all my fault. I was just so scared that you’d been abducted or foalnapped or seduced and abandoned that I went into a Pinkie Panic, and usually I go to a lot of trouble to make sure nopony sees me in a Pinkie Panic because it’s not pretty.”
Twilight stared. “Uh, perhaps you’re apologizing to the wrong pony.”
“Can you ever forgive me? I want to be a friend to everypony and sometimes I try too hard and sometimes I don’t try hard enough and sometimes I just mess up, and this is one of the times when I messed up. I never want to hurt anypony.”
“What do you think?” Twilight asked Brush. “Shall we forgive her?”
“Oh, please, please, please say yes,” the pink pony begged.
“I think,” Brush began, “that we are bound by tradition to collect some form of recompense from those who have wronged us. Perhaps if she’ll agree to postpone the party you know she’s planning for us.”
“Agreed!” Pinkie shouted. “You don’t have to be at Sugarcube Corner for a whole hour!” And she bounded down to the first level and out the door.
Twilight looked at Brush and sighed. “There is so much you have to learn.”
As Princess Celestia had predicted, there were many, many questions, starting with the nature of Brush’s cutie mark.
“Is that an abacus?” Rarity asked. “Twilight, dear, have you fallen for an accountant?”
Twilight scowled, but Brush fielded the question anyway. “It sort of fits. This was what I was trained for, many years ago, though I actually haven’t worked in that field lately. And I figure Equestria just has to have a more sensible tax code than I’m used to.”
“Then you’re in for one humongous shock,” said Applejack. “The tax system here is downright crazy.”
Brush laughed. “The complaint of every small business, everywhere in the universe.”
“We ain’t so small,” Applejack retorted. “We’re the biggest food operation between here and Canterlot.”
“Are there any other food operations between here and Canterlot?” Fluttershy asked, and Rainbow Dash broke into a grin, which quickly escalated to a guffaw.
“Speaking of the universe,” Pinkie said, “and I guess we’d have to be, where the hay do you come from?”
Brush looked at Twilight, and Twilight came up with “You know where the dragons go for their migration? It’s farther than that.”
“So,” said Rainbow Dash, “you’re like a refugee, then?”
“Not really,” Brush replied. “My life wasn’t bad there. I had my little house and my job and a couple of youngsters who had long since grown up and moved away. I was, let’s say, reasonably comfortable.”
“It sounds like a very nice life. Could you have stayed there if you wanted to?” Fluttershy asked.
“Easily. In fact, I was expecting to stay there for the rest of my days.” He grinned. “But things didn’t go according to plan.”
“What’ll you be doin’ here anyway?” asked Applejack. “Besides screamin’ at the tax forms, Ah mean.”
“As of the first of next month,” said Brush, “I’m the second-in-command at the Royal Office of New Technology.”
“I didn’t think there was anything so dreadfully wrong with the old technology,” Rarity observed.
“Nor do I,” Brush assured her. “But Princess Celestia believes that my experiences during my, uh, previous existence may lead to new products and services here in Equestria.”
Twilight spoke up. “You know the new Directory of Equestria we have on a terminal at the library? That was his idea.”
“Wasn’t such a hot idea if you ask me,” Applejack said.
“Are you even in the directory?” Dash asked Brush. “Because last time I looked, you weren’t.”
“I checked,” said Twilight. “He’s definitely in there.”
“And are these promised new innovations,” asked Rarity, “along the same lines? Is Equestria to be remade to resemble his old home?”
“Not if I can help it,” said Brush. “There are aspects of that world you would not at all like.”
Brush turned to Dash. “How much control over the weather is available to a junior member of the Weather Patrol?”
“Very little,” Dash answered. “At best, she’d get to assist on scheduled rainfall days. Everything else is training.”
“But that young pegasus has more direct influence on the weather than any resident of my old world. We couldn’t do anything about it. We got to the point where we could predict what it was going to do, but if a tornado was coming, all we could do was warn folks to take cover. We can’t so much as move a rain cloud.”
“I bet the weather’s awful, too,” said Dash.
“Oh, it is,” Twilight chimed in. “It’s just horribly hot in the summertime, and there never seems to be enough rain.”
“And you know this — how?” asked Rarity.
Twilight looked at Brush; he smiled. “Go ahead,” he said.
“I was there,” she admitted.
“You mean there there?” Pinkie asked.
“I do mean that. You know how sometimes an experiment of mine doesn’t quite work out the way it was supposed to?”
“Sometimes?” Dash cracked.
“For a few months last summer,” Twilight said, “there was a gateway that connected his world directly to ours. It was unstable, so I couldn’t travel freely, and it only seemed to work in one direction, so he couldn’t come here at all.”
“You went lookin’ for this place?” Applejack wanted to know.
“I was curious. If you see a door, wouldn’t you want to open it?”
“That depends on what’s behind it,” said Fluttershy.
“Well, I didn’t know what was behind it,” Twilight said, “but I was going to find out. And I found —”
Brush interrupted: “She landed in front of my house.”
“You saw his house?” said an incredulous Rainbow Dash. “What’s it made of?”
“It’s a simple wooden house,” Brush answered. “Nothing special.”
“I don’t get it,” Dash said to him. “Somepony you don’t know shows up on your doorstep and all of a sudden you’re ready to follow her anywhere? And you weren’t even a pony at the time, or so they say.”
“I was not a pony at that time, no,” Brush admitted. “I became a pony when Princess Celestia signed my immigration papers and I went through the conversion routine. Which is going to cost me several zillion bits somewhere down the line.”
“Actually, no, it won’t,” Twilight said. “Since it was the first ever on a member of your original species, your operation was covered by the hospital’s experimental-medicine fund. I signed for you.”
Brush gave her a quizzical look. “What’s the catch?”
“Only that if something should go wrong, you can’t sue them.”
He smiled. “I’m starting to like this place.”
Rarity smiled back at him. “And you went through all that because —”
“Because I love Twilight Sparkle. And I’d rather live in her world than live without her in mine.”
“I am no such thing,” Brush protested. “I’m a terrible singer. You just don’t know how bad I am because you don’t know the song.”
“When we get home, you owe me a song.”
“I think,” said Pinkie Pie, “he should sing right now for all of us.”
“I think I agree,” Twilight said.
“I think you should all plug your ears,” Brush said, and then cleared his throat and began to sing a song.
Twilight and her friends listened as he ran through three verses and a chorus, finishing up with "I’ve loved you since heaven knows when / There! I’ve said it again."
Six ponies applauded, and then Applejack spoke up: “Who or what is this ‘heaven’?”
Brush grinned. “You’re familiar with Tartarus?”
“Imagine the exact opposite.”
“One more thing, if I may,” said Rarity. “You said you were the second-in-command of this Technology Office. Who’s first?”
“I am,” Twilight said. “Like I don’t have enough to do already.”
“Oh, this is just too perfect,” Rarity replied.
“Once in a great while, things just work out that way,” said Desert Brush.
Almost any time is a good time for a picnic in Ponyville, but early Spring is one of the best. The weather is perfect ninety percent of the time, and the Weather Patrol will warn you about the other ten percent; birds migrating in are busy working on their new nests, while birds migrating out are busy dismantling their old ones; and the ground is already warm enough to sit on with just a single blanket.
Desert Brush took a bite of his sandwich. “If I’d known dandelions were this tasty I’d have never spent all that time trying to kill them.”
“I never understood that. Dandelions break up the monotony of grass, grass, nothing but grass, even if you’re not going to eat them.”
“It’s those crazy humans,” Brush explained. “They like the monotony of grass, grass, nothing but grass. It’s like the ideal place to live is on a golf course.”
Brush laughed. “Suppose you’re standing about four hundred hooves off to the side of Fluttershy’s house. You take a little ball, and you whack it with a stick as far as you can, but you can’t hit the house, and you don’t want it to go flying off into the Everfree. You trot on over to where that ball lands, and you go through basically the same steps toward the next house, seventy or eighty or two hundred times, and you pay many, many bits for the privilege.”
Twilight giggled. “Did you ever do that?”
“Oh, Celestia, no,” Brush said. “Never could hit the ball straight. I’d wind up beaning Angel on the head or something.”
“You say that like it’s a bad thing,” Twilight teased.
“We’ll have none of that,” said Brush. “I’m here on a beautiful day eating dandelion sandwiches with the pony of my dreams, and I’m perfectly willing to be nice to Angel. Why, I might even say something kindly about Discord.”
“Let’s not say that too loud,” Twilight said, drawing closer to him. “In fact, let’s not say anything at all.” She pressed her lips against his. “Like this.”
[This takes place about six weeks later: I couldn't think of anything else to do with it, so I stuck it here. -- DS]
Desert Brush spat out the quill. “Do you think Celestia would go for a line of flavored writing utensils?”
“You’d have to explain the concept to her first,” Twilight Sparkle said. “It’s not like she’s ever had to write this way, so she probably has no idea what a quill tastes like.”
“There are times,” muttered Brush, “that I wish I didn’t.”
“You don’t have to,” said Twilight. “I’ve seen you write with a hoof, and somehow it’s perfectly legible.” She levitated the paper on which he was practicing. “This is on the level of an eight-year-old colt, at best.”
Brush grinned. “For six weeks of practice, that’s not bad. I mean, it’s a lot faster than the first time I had to learn to write.”
“Maybe so. But why make things difficult for yourself when you don’t have to?”
“I’m an earth pony. It’s in our DNA.”
Twilight laughed. “You’ve only been an earth pony for a couple of months.”
“Yeah, but earth ponies don’t write like humans with a bad case of muscle cramps. Earth ponies hold the quill between their teeth.” He bent forward and bit the quill savagely, then spat it back out. “No matter how bad it tastes.”
“Why does it matter?” Twilight asked.
“If we’re ever at some fancy eatery in Canterlot, I am not sticking a hoof on the table just to sign the check. I have some manners.”
“I make most of the bits around here. You should probably let me sign the check.”
Brush burst out laughing. “Twenty or thirty years ago, we would have called that a Statement of Emasculation.” And then, more seriously: “Uh, you don’t do that sort of thing here, do you?”
“Are you kidding?” said Twilight. “We need every stallion we can get. We have so few.”
Once again, Brush laughed. “For what? Mares can breed without ‘em.”
“They can,” Twilight replied, “but it’s more complicated, and it almost always produces a filly. Eventually we’d run out of colts entirely.”
“Back where I come from,” said Brush, “there are females who would consider that a Good Thing.”
Twilight frowned. “Don’t they know about the necessity of maintaining biodiversity?”
“Humans are not about biodiversity. Humans are about power: who has it, and why don’t I have it?” He smiled. “There are lots of things about that place I don’t miss in the slightest.”
“Well, I’m glad you’re here,” Twilight said. “But I still don’t get why you don’t want to be seen hoofwriting. It’s not against the law or anything.”
“Same reason I wouldn’t want to be writing with jaw action in that, uh, other place. I thrive on being inconspicuous.” Brush grinned. “And fortunately, my marefriend doesn’t believe in blowing her own horn either.”
The young unicorn was shocked. “What?”
Realization was slow in coming, but it did finally come, and Brush facehoofed. “Oops. Poor choice of idiom.”
“Which means what?” Twilight demanded.
“In the human context, it describes an individual so desperate for attention that she would actually announce her presence with a trumpet fanfare, if there happened to be a trumpet within reach.”
“Sort of like the Great and Powerful Trixie, only more so?”
Brush nodded. “Same general principle: Look at me! I never was any good at that sort of thing, and eventually I got comfortable staying in the background. Generic Earth Pony, that’s me.”