Five minutes to midnight, and the cab pulled over to the shoulder. “You sure this is the right place, Mac?”
The passenger looked at his phone’s GPS display for a moment. “Yep. Thirty-one thousand block. This is it.”
“There’s nothing here,” said the cabbie.
“That’s the whole idea.” He looked at the meter: sixty-seven dollars, seventy-five cents. He handed the cabbie a hundred-dollar bill. “Keep the change,” he said, and popped open the door; he stood by the side of the road long enough to watch the cab make a U-turn and head back towards town.
Once the old Ford was out of sight, he jumped the drainage ditch and headed into the vacant lot, watching the display screen as he walked. There had been something here once, he remembered: a little stone house and a gravel driveway. Five or six years ago, there was a sign on the corner, proclaiming a New Upscale Development, with a number to call and a Web site to visit. A year or two later, with gasoline pushing five dollars a gallon, no one wanted to live in the 31000 block of anything, and the development was abandoned — but by then, the stone house had been torn down, though on a clear night you could still see bits of the driveway.
Where the gravel ended, he stopped, and he checked the phone again. Thirty seconds, he thought.
And just about half a minute later, a shimmer came out of the sky. I won’t be needing this anymore. He hurled the phone into the darkness.
“You throw like a filly.” Twilight Sparkle smiled at him.
“I love you too,” he said. “Looks like it’s now or never.”
“You’re sure about this?”
“As sure as I’ll ever be.”
“Hold on tight,” she said, and the world turned inside out.
Halfway between frozen sky and the very bowels of hell, he slid along the edge of singularity, a hole blacker than any he’d ever imagined, and he knew he’d died. Worse than died. He’d been twisted apart, reassembled randomly, and then compressed into an amorphous mass that kept sliding along a path unknown, circling faster, faster, faster, deeper still into the void. He thought he’d cried out, he’d called her name, he’d screamed his fear into the darkness; but who could have heard? It was too late now, though; it was all over, he’d never see sky, stars, light ever again, and with his last remaining thought, he accepted his fate.
“There. That wasn’t so bad, was it?” said Twilight.
Slowly, he returned to the land of the living. “Is … is it always like that?”
“You get used to it.”
He stared. “If you can get used to that, you’re a better man than I am, Gunga Din. Especially for a pony. And where are we, anyway?”
“We’re in the southwest guest room. Celestia asked that you be brought directly here, so you wouldn’t attract any attention.”
“A wise choice,” he said somewhat groggily. “The last thing I need is to attract attention while my brain is fried. This would remind me of a bad acid trip, if I’d ever been on a bad acid trip I could remember.”
“How do you tell good acid from bad acid?” Twilight asked. “And what acid are we talking about, anyway?”
“Strange artifact from the Days of Human Silliness. Lysergic acid diethylamide. It comes from a fungus that grows on grain. Turns your black and white to colors, your colors to sounds, your sounds to a splitting headache. Or so they tell me, since I never actually tried the stuff.”
“We could synthesize it here at the Castle, if you’re interested. We have very good chemists.”
He chuckled. “I’ve just had my brain warped nine ways from Sunday, and you want me tripping?”
“I hope you’re in better shape in the morning, when we meet with Celestia.”
“Just give me a few minutes to tidy up.” He pulled open the closet door. “That,” he said, “is one truly humongous laundry bag.”
“That,” Twilight replied, “is a body bag.”
He wasted no time closing the door. “I hope I’m not going to need it.” She made no reply, and finally he said: “I’m not, right?”
“Oh, no. The only way you would have needed it would be if you didn’t survive the trip through the portal.”
He worked up some semblance of a laugh, but he didn’t believe it sounded convincing, and he suspected she didn’t either. “Current status: not dead. I suppose it could be worse.”
“I have no experience with being dead,” said Twilight. “But I can’t say I’m looking forward to it.”
“Could we possibly change the subject? I’m already a nervous wreck.”
“You’re not in the habit of meeting princesses?” she teased.
“You kidding?” he said. “I barely knew our guy on the city council. Once in a while I’d see the mail being delivered. But that’s as close to the circles of power as I ever got.”
“They’re not going to bite your head off,” Twilight said.
“I know. But I get tongue-tied at times like that, and I don’t want to seem any more inarticulate than I have to.”
Twilight pondered for a moment, then offered a suggestion: “I could work up a temporary confidence spell.”
“Please don’t. This is one of those things I have to do under my own power, just to prove I can. If I’m going to be allowed to stay in Equestria, I have to be able to deal with situations like, well, meeting princesses.”
“You said ‘if.’ You have doubts still?”
“Shouldn’t I?” he asked.
“I don’t think Celestia would have authorized me to come fetch you if she planned to send you back.”
“Well, you know her better than I do.” He almost, but not quite, stifled a yawn. “What do you think she’s going to ask me?”
“Knowing Celestia, it could be anything. And you’ll have a session with Luna later.”
“You’ll be there, won’t you?” It sounded almost like a plea.
“Unless they ask me not to, I will be there,” Twilight said. “You probably should get some sleep.”
“I wish I could. But there’s that whole nervous-wreck thing still.”
She smiled. “There must be some way I can calm you down,” she said, running a hoof across his midriff.
“That,” he said, “can do a lot of things, none of which is calming me down.”
“How about tiring you out, then?”
“Now that’s an idea worth pursuing,” he agreed.
Precisely one hour after sunrise, they arrived in the Castle’s Main Hall.
“Why here?” he asked. “There’s going to be — what, four of us in this big room?”
“Three, anyway. It’s traditional,” Twilight explained. “The Princess receives visitors in the Main Hall, and that’s that.”
“Well, far be it from me to argue with tradition.”
“Tradition,” said Princess Celestia, descending from the ceiling, “is of great value. It gives us guidance in our everyday lives. It provides a benchmark for the things we do. And sometimes, admittedly, it’s just there.” She smiled at the two figures on the Main Hall’s floor. “Good morning, my little ponies. Did you sleep well?”
“We did,” Twilight answered, and he nodded.
Celestia looked him in the eye. “You can speak for yourself, I trust?”
Twilight smiled. “I think he’s just a little bit overwhelmed by everything.”
He swallowed, and managed to come up with “Good morning, Your Highness, and thank you for allowing me into your presence.”
A briefly awkward, or awkwardly brief, pause, and then the Princess said, “You come with the highest of recommendations. I could scarcely refuse under those conditions. But your gratitude is noted. Oh, and you can get up now.”
Both he and Twilight stood, and Celestia asked him, “Exactly what is going through your mind at this very moment?”
He took a deep breath. “The fact that you addressed us both as ponies. I found that … reassuring.”
The Princess turned to Twilight. “Would you excuse us for just a few minutes? I have some perhaps personal questions to ask our guest.”
“Of course,” said the lavender unicorn, who vanished in a flash of light.
“I admit,” Celestia began, “that I am as least as curious about you as you are about us. Since Equestria has not granted official recognition of your species, we frankly were not expecting a visit from one of you, until Twilight Sparkle told us of what she had found, and whom she had found.”
“I was quite surprised to be found,” he said.
“What were you thinking at that time?”
“All sorts of thoughts went through my mind. But this was the main one: when you’ve gone a whole lifetime being told that unicorns are strictly mythological creatures, having one show up on your front porch tends to mess with your head.” He looked off into the distance. “And she’s so beautiful.”
“You already knew what she looked like, from watching that television program,” the Princess pointed out.
“Vaguely. The drawings that made up that program did not do her justice. Oh, the colors matched, sort of, and the facial expressions were close enough, but a real, tangible, touchable pony is beyond the capacity of our television.”
“Touchable? Did you touch her then?”
He shook his head. “Not at first, no. I didn’t want to seem too forward.”
“But you did think about it?”
“I thought about a lot of things. Some of them were maybe a little embarrassing.”
“You were, however, quite taken with her,” the Princess said flatly.
“Very much so.”
“And you did not think that she might feel the same way about you?”
“Not in a million years would it have occurred to me that she might have felt the same.”
“Yet something happened to change your mind,” said Celestia.
A smile broke over his face. “We danced.”
And the Princess laughed. “You got Twilight Sparkle to dance? That’s a form of magic I don’t even know.”
“We were talking about some of the horrible things that happened to us when we were young, and one of the things we had in common was the dreaded School Dance. Apparently neither of us were particularly graceful.” He grinned. “And I don’t think we’ve improved much.”
The Princess leaned closer. “So tell me what happened.”
“I stood there like a goof, she put her forelegs over my shoulders, and the music started. It was a little three-minute record. And I wished it could go on for three hours or three days or three hundred years.”
“And that’s when you knew you were in love with her?”
“I looked into her eyes, and everything changed.”
“What happened after that?”
“We are, after all, the worst dancers in our respective universes. We promptly fell on our flanks.”
“May I infer that you were in no rush to get up?” asked the Princess.
“We were, uh, kind of busy.”
Celestia chuckled. “Obviously being from different species didn’t matter at the time.”
“Love laughs at hardware,” he said.
“But now you’re here, and all of a sudden you’re wanting to become a pony?”
“It’s not really all of a sudden. And I figure, if I’m going to earn Very Special Somepony status, the very least I can do is start with being Somepony. It’s a perfectly natural progression.”
“Now that,” said the Princess, “actually sounds like Twilight Sparkle.”
“We really hadn’t talked about it that much,” he admitted, “but one day she asked me, Oh, why couldn’t you have been a pony? And after that, the whole scheme suddenly seemed to make sense.”
“It’s a very difficult process,” Celestia warned. “And we’ve never used it on a human before. There are risks.”
He shrugged. “Everything in life has risks.”
“She already loves you just the way you are,” said the Princess.
“But we couldn’t keep going back and forth between universes, and I couldn’t ask her to live in mine, where she’d be an object of curiosity, or worse. On the other hoof, it’s probably not in your best interest, Your Highness, to have some oddball species running around Equestria, especially one that vaguely resembles an ape with advanced alopecia.”
She laughed at that. “I’m not trying to talk you out of it. I just wanted to see the depth of your commitment.” A sheaf of papers appeared in front of him. “First, we must enter your name on the Grand Scroll. Do you plan to keep your original name?”
“That was yesterday,” he said. “Today I am, with the kind permission of the Crown, Desert Brush.”
The Princess smiled. “What is the origin of that name?”
“I lived most of my life in a land of abundant sunshine, beautiful nights, and not a whole lot of foliage. It seems to fit somehow.”
“So be it, then. The second form is your application for Equestrian citizenship. Both my sister and I must sign it before it is considered accepted. Luna will speak with you one hour before sunset.”
“I hope she’s in a good mood.”
“I’m sure Twilight will vouch for you. For the time being, she will be responsible for you; we ask that you sign the third form, which confers upon her the power to act in your behalf, should it become necessary.”
A quill floated up towards him; he scrawled his new name on the paperwork. “What happens next?”
“You’ll be transported to the Royal Canterlot Hospital to be evaluated.”
“Suppose they turn me down?”
“They won’t. The chance to make history is too much for them to resist.” And then she added: “Never knew you’d be part of Equestrian history, did you?”
“Life is a series of surprises,” said Desert Brush, who was surprised to find himself suddenly teleported off the premises.
At about that moment, Twilight Sparkle returned to the Main Hall. “Oh, good, you’re still here.”
“Did you expect me not to be?” the Princess asked.
“I thought I heard a teleport.”
“Oh. That was your coltfriend being dispatched to Doctor Wellbe’s office.”
“What did you think of him?”
“The doctor, or your coltfriend?”
“Does it matter what we think of the doctor?”
“Not really,” answered Celestia. “As for your coltfriend, he’s very … interesting.”
“Is that good or bad?”
“It’s hard to get much of a fix on him,” said the Princess. “I have no experience reading his species, so I can pick up only the most obvious personality traits. Fortunately, he has a lot of them.”
“Such as?” Twilight asked.
“Right now, he’s fighting an internal battle: determination versus fear. The innermost part of him is radiating sheer terror.”
“Terror? What does he have to be afraid of?”
“Just about everything, if you think about it. He’s far from what used to be home, he knows he’s never going back, and his physical body is about to be changed permanently. If he didn’t have a reaction to that, I would be suspicious.”
“You said he’s fighting. Can he win this?”
“I think he will win this,” said the Princess. “He’s trying very hard to keep those fears in check. He has greater strength than he thinks. As the obstacles fall, the fears will subside.”
“Is there anything I can do to help?”
“Just be there for him. He’s utterly devoted to you. I didn’t have Cadance check him over, but I didn’t have to: it’s obvious how much he loves you. And that scares him a little. Perhaps he’s never been in love like this before.”
Twilight frowned. “He was married once, but it didn’t last.”
“And how long ago was that? Five, ten years?”
“More like thirty.”
“Oh, my. That explains much by itself. A pony left alone for decades will waste away on the inside: the emptiness grows and grows until there’s no room for anything else. Perhaps it’s the same with Desert Brush.” The Princess shook her head. “On the other hoof, he has one more reason to fight on, to keep the emptiness at bay.”
“Desert Brush?” asked a puzzled Twilight. “Did he pick that name?”
“He did. Did he not discuss it with you?”
“We’ve never even talked about it.”
“Do you like it?”
“It reminds me a little of the place he left behind. Maybe that’s the one thing from home he wanted to keep.” Twilight closed her eyes and turned away, but the Princess had already seen.
“You need not cry for him, or for yourself. These things will work themselves out.”
“But I feel so guilty,” Twilight sobbed. “He’s having to go through so much, and it’s all my fault.”
“It is not your fault,” said Celestia. “If he had not wished to go through with this, all he had to do was fail to show up at the rendezvous point. He did not fail. And he will not fail. That determination is there, and it’s there because he loves you. Give him a chance to prove it.”
“I think … he already has.”
Royal Chief Surgeon Midas Wellbe was not in a good mood. The second-to-last thing he wanted was having his perfectly reasonable advice against ponification of some Mystery Biped overridden by Princess Celestia herself. The last thing he wanted was for said biped to materialize in his office.
“I assume you didn’t do that under your own power,” he grumbled.
“If I have any power,” said Desert Brush, “it’s news to me.”
Dr. Wellbe glared at a stack of paper on his desk, and extracted a folder. “Hmmm. I see nopony bothered to get your date of birth.”
“That would be, uh, the fourteenth of Sixmonth, 943.”
“Nine forty-three? You’re sixty bucking years old?” He pounded a hoof on his desk. “Her Aloofness is going to owe me big time for this.”
“I’d complain to my parents,” Brush said, “but they’ve long since passed on.”
“Yeah, yeah. You’ll be awfully lucky if you don’t pass on in the middle of all this. Just for the record, I am required by Equestrian law to inform you of the following. One, all surgical procedures involve risk, and the possible hazards include infection, collateral damage, and death. Two, payment arrangements must be completed before you are discharged, whether you’re alive or not. Three, since your citizenship is still pending, all this paperwork will have to be read and initialed by your sponsor. You do have a sponsor, do you not? Or is the Princess undertaking all this on her own?”
“I am sponsored, so to speak, by Twilight Sparkle. I’m sure she’ll be happy to review anything you put before her.”
“Fine,” said Dr. Wellbe. “Have Miss Sparkle drop by some time today. Once that’s completed, we can talk about checking you in.” He looked at the ungainly creature again. “I assume you’ll leave here the same way you arrived?”
“That would be my guess,” said Brush.
“This is going to be a great heaping bowl of Not Good,” the doctor muttered as the not-yet-a-pony disappeared from view. “I never should have left Manehattan.”
Desert Brush had just about gotten back to sleep when Twilight Sparkle rematerialized in the guest quarters. “Oh, you’re back,” she said. “The temporary homing spell seems to be working correctly.”
“I was wondering how it was that I, lowliest of the low, was doing high-grade unicorn stuff.” He grinned. “I guess they really want to keep me out of sight for the duration.”
“Looks that way,” said Twilight. “Oh, and the Princess tells me you have a new name.”
“As of a few hours ago, anyway.” He noticed she wasn’t smiling. “You don’t look particularly happy about it.”
“Well, we’d never even talked about it. Were you planning to just spring it on me?”
“I sprung it on Princess Celestia, actually. Made it up right there on the spot. And she didn’t seem to mind it in the least.”
“It’s a very nice name, I suppose,” Twilight said. “But it doesn’t exactly cut all the bonds with the Old World, does it?”
He shrugged. “I’ve burned more than enough bridges already. It shouldn’t be too awfully long before people find a me-shaped hole where I used to be.”
“Did you at least tell your family?” she asked.
“I did. In fact, I told them, my kids and their kids, exactly what was happening. I’ve fallen in love with a pony, I said, and I’m moving to Equestria to be with her. Just like that. The only one who took me seriously was the seven-year-old, and all she wanted to know was ‘What pony?’ The only sensible one of the bunch.”
“You told her?”
“I did. And she went ‘Oh,’ and refused to talk to me the rest of the day.”
“Already she doesn’t like me?”
“Nothing to do with you personally. Apparently she’s a big Rainbow Dash fan.”
Twilight laughed. “Sorry to be such a disappointment.”
“Anyway, they assumed that the old man was talking out of his hat again, and I decided to leave it at that. I doubt seriously that they’d be coming down for a visit anytime soon, but they’re going to be rather startled if they do and they have to deal with the new occupants.”
“You sold your house?”
“No. Just emptied it and rented it out. Should bring at least a thousand dollars a month, whatever that is in bits.”
“And how do you propose to collect that rent?”
“Actually, the agent collects it for me. As for getting it here, I haven’t the faintest idea. I have money from early retirement — took a tax hit, but I’ll get over it — and I sold the old metal chariot, figuring I wouldn’t need it anymore. For the moment, I might qualify as wealthy, just barely, if I could get my hands on all that.” He sighed. “And tomorrow, I may not even have hands.”
“I’ll talk to the Royal Treasurer,” Twilight said. “She may have some ideas.”
“I’d appreciate that. I’d hate to mooch off somepony for the rest of my days. Even if it’s you. Especially if it’s you.”
“You won’t have to mooch. There’s always something you can do to earn your keep.”
“I’d better start thinking about de-blanking the flank, then.” He winced. “How does that work, anyway?”
“I could arrange for you to meet with the Crusaders,” Twilight teased. “They’re bound to come up with something someday.”
Brush snorted. “I thought you said they weren’t obsessed with getting their cutie marks.”
“Well, they’re not, really, but they wonder, and I don’t blame them, how some filly like Diamond Tiara already has hers and the only talent she seems to have is annoying everypony.”
“We have individuals like that too. They’re called middle management.”
“As for your mark,” said Twilight, “I haven’t read up on how they apply it, though I would think it would be incorporated into the skin-regraft procedure.” She looked at him sideways. “Do you find that disturbing?”
“You want to know what’s disturbing? The idea that you haven’t read up on something. That just seems impossible, you know?”
“Now you’re being silly.”
“It’s a defense mechanism. Keeps you from finding out that underneath it all I’m scared spitless.”
Twilight stared. “The Princess said she thought she’d detected a measure of fear.”
“A measure?” Brush replied. “With all due respect to Her Royalness, it was perfectly obvious. I was shaking like a leaf, all the way down to the ground. Even I would have noticed something like that, and I normally have the intuition of a slab of drywall.”
“Drywall?” she repeated.
“Sort of prefabricated plaster. Makes for a good, inexpensive wall. Not at all good at psychoanalysis.”
Twilight beamed. “Now, you see? This is what you’re good at. Concepts that you know, but that are new to us. You should have a cutie mark to reflect that skill.”
“Come on. Drywall? Lowest of the low-tech. If you’re going to promote my technological brilliance, such as it is, you might as well stencil a hammer on me. Or an abacus. Something at the bottom of the list.” He laughed. “Won’t that look sweet? The most advanced practitioner of magic from sea to shining sea, walking with a big, goofy-looking oaf with a row of beads on his butt.”
“But you’re my big, goofy-looking oaf,” said Twilight, and she kissed him. “I’m supposed to meet with the Royal Chief Surgeon. I’ll be back before you know it.”
“Hey, Ethan… Yeah, I got that phone working. It’s one of those pay-as-you-go models and it’s got no minutes left… Nope. No contacts. And no apps except for a GPS… I don’t know what I’m gonna do with it. It’s no use to me and I’m not gonna spend the money for airtime… Yeah, I suppose you can have it. Remind me to bring it to school Monday… Bye.”
Twilight Sparkle, of course, had done the math. It would normally take 2.718 seconds to teleport from the southwest guest room to the Main Hall, assuming no obstructions of a magical nature. (There was that one night when the poker game in the Guards’ Lounge got a little out of hoof, but that was years ago.) For some reason, it took nearly fifteen seconds to move Desert Brush, and he arrived looking as though he’d just been slapped around by a manticore.
“What happened to you?” she asked.
“I don’t know. For a moment there, I couldn’t breathe. Maybe I’m not cut out for all this unicorn stuff.”
Twilight pondered. “This could be a hyperphysical reaction. You didn’t do so well with the portal either. Maybe in your current form you’re just not able to deal with that much magic over a short period of time.”
“In my current form?” Brush asked. “Tell me it’s going to get better. If I’m allergic to magic or something, I’m totally screwed.”
“The pony form has evolved to work with, rather than against, magic. There should be no problems in the future.” She smiled at the disheveled human. “For now, though, it’s either the spell or a very long walk with the Royal Guards.”
“I’d just as soon take my chances with the Guards,” he said. “I suspect they’re not actually under orders to beat me to a pulp.” And then: “Your brother’s not working tonight, is he?”
Twilight said nothing.
“Uh, he does know you have a coltfriend under construction, right?”
“Does anypony know about any of this?”
Still no reply.
“No,” she said. “Nopony knows. I wasn’t even going to tell the family until after the librarians’ convention.” She shook her head. “I was hoping they’d just assume I’d met a pony and there’d be only a few questions and that would be the end of it. What was I thinking?”
Brush stared at her. “You haven’t seen any of them since the wedding, have you?”
And Twilight Sparkle dropped to the floor and wept. “What’s happening to me?”
He followed her down. “You’ve gotten so used to making your own decisions that you’ve forgotten that there are other ponies who worry about you. I went through something like that myself.”
“But I never hid anything from them,” she said. “Until now.”
“You weren’t hiding anything. You just weren’t telling them everything.”
“I wasn’t telling them anything! That’s not like me at all!”
“It’s not? Twi, darling, you live in a real-life Book Fort. You’ve always been defensive. Maybe even more than me, and I’ve got more insulation than the Home Depot.”
“What’s the Home Depot?” she asked.
“It’s a place that sells drywall. But that’s not important. Now I admit I don’t know squat about magic, but I know this: when you wield power, the first thing you do is protect yourself. You’d never have gotten out of Magic Kindergarten, or whatever it was, without knowing that. And why do you think Celestia sent you to Ponyville in the first place? It wasn’t because you wore your heart on your sleeve.”
“You make it sound like I’m just completely wrapped up in myself,” Twilight said.
“Don’t think of it as being wrapped up in yourself,” Brush replied. “Think of it as a really efficient self-preservation mechanism.”
“I don’t like the sound of that either.”
“We used to have a saying: The perfect is the enemy of the good. We may try our best, but we’re going to fall short now and then. The perfect Twilight Sparkle does not exist. The real one is going to mess up once in a while. Life is like that.”
“So you’re saying I’m defective?”
He shook his head. “Twi, honey, there’s only one thing wrong with you: you can’t stand the idea that there’s one thing wrong with you. You seem to be able to put up with my flaws just fine. Can’t you cut yourself a little slack now and then? I don’t want to come home some day and find you’ve put a Starvation Spell on yourself because you farted in the bathtub the night before. But you make me worry about things like that, and it scares me.”
“If I’m such a terrible pony, how can you possibly love me?” she wailed.
Brush sighed. “Maybe I’m just as terrible as you are. Or maybe neither one of us is all that terrible but we’re just too blind to see it.” He let out a brief whistle. “We need to snap out of this, whatever it is. Princess Luna certainly doesn’t have time for an evening of melodrama.”
“On the contrary,” said the Princess of the Night. “We are always interested in dark stories.”
Quickly they fumbled their way into the proper position for obeisance, but Luna bade them rise. “You have been down there longer than you realize. The moon and stars are already in position.”
“H-how much did you hear?” Twilight asked, uncharacteristically meekly.
“We would hear more,” said the Princess. “The mysteries of the heart are sometimes best understood away from the light of day. And we are expected to rule on whether Mr. Brush is qualified to be a citizen of Equestria, so we are keen to gather as much information as may be available.”
“I will happily answer any questions you may have, Your Highness,” Brush said.
“Very well, then,” Luna began. “It appears that thou art not seeking political asylum.”
“That would be correct.”
“Thou must know that the Equestrian form of government as currently constituted is a principality ruled by my sister and by me coequally. Does this structure present any issues for thee?”
“It does not. So long as I may dwell in the lands under your domain, I willingly accept the terms of your rule.”
The Princess turned to Twilight Sparkle and smiled. “He is good at this.”
“I count on him to say the right thing at the right time,” Twilight said.
“Sometimes I even succeed,” Brush quipped.
There was a rustle near the ceiling, and Luna announced, “The Princess of the Sun arrives.”
The usual greetings ensued, and Celestia asked, “How are you feeling, Desert Brush?”
“A bit tired, Your Highness, but nothing more than that.”
Celestia looked him over. “You do look as though you’ve had a rough day. If I have made it any rougher than necessary, I do apologize.”
Brush turned to Luna. “And this is why I am willing to embrace the rule of the Royal Sisters. I have lived for six decades in a place that calls itself a republic and occasionally makes vague references to democracy, and not once in all that time have I heard anyone in a position of power make any kind of apology that seemed even the slightest bit sincere.” He bowed his head. “I offer you both my humblest thanks for the welcome I have received. I am certain this is the world where I shall want to spend the rest of my days.”
“Don’t overdo it,” Twilight whispered.
“I am not overdoing it,” Brush protested loudly. “I meant every word I said.”
Celestia glared at Twilight. “I have no doubt,” said the Princess, “that these words come directly from his heart, and that he will prove to be a worthy and reliable citizen.” Then to her sister: “Are you willing to sign his citizenship application?”
“It shall be done,” Luna answered, and with the sudden appearance of a quill, it was.
“Thank you very much,” said Desert Brush. Suddenly, his knees gave way, and he dropped to the floor.
Twilight knelt beside him. “He’s breathing, but irregularly. No indications of anything other than fatigue.”
“Should we transport him to the hospital?” asked Celestia.
“They aren’t expecting him until sunrise. I think he’ll be all right once he gets some sleep. And I think the teleport spell we’ve been using has been draining him, so I’d like to request that a pair of Guards accompany him instead.”
“They will, of course, see him,” Luna pointed out. “Perhaps we should disguise him first?”
“Agreed,” said Celestia. “Twilight, do you have a mental image of what he will look like as an earth pony?”
“I do indeed. In fact, I worked up a sketch for the medical team.”
“Project it onto him. The Guards won’t be expecting that. And you should go with them. Please come back when you’re done.”
Twilight’s horn began to glow, and the image of a man dissolved into the image of a pony: a coat the color of leaves getting ready to fall, a reddish mane with streaks of white, and a shortish tail to match. “Oh, and this,” she said, as a temporary cutie mark appeared.
“Is that an abacus?” Celestia asked.
“It is. I think he’d find it appropriate.” Twilight grinned. “Unless you happen to know what drywall looks like.”
“Drywall?” Celestia repeated.
“It’s a long story,” said Twilight, as a pair of Royal Guards arrived.
The absence of Desert Brush, of course, did not mean the discussion was ended. “He’ll be all right,” Twilight announced as she reentered the Main Hall. “He’s not exactly sleeping, but he’s not exactly conscious either.”
“Will he be ready for surgery tomorrow morning?” Celestia asked.
“I will see that he arrives on time,” Twilight said. “Of course, the very first thing they’re going to do is put him to sleep for about twenty hours, so it hardly seems worth it to wake him up.”
“He seems a gentle soul,” said Luna. “We would really have liked to ask him more questions, if only to see if he is truly insane.”
“You think he’s insane?” Twilight asked.
“Perhaps that is the wrong word. But we wonder if he and his sense of self have been temporarily disconnected. What he is doing is truly astounding, and we would not want to discourage him in his pursuit of true love, but to give up his own species? It seems an act of madness. Love is fleeting.”
“It doesn’t have to be,” Twilight replied.
“And reality is always there. What if this relationship should founder? He has lost everything, and for what?”
“It will not founder,” Twilight insisted.
“How can anypony ever be sure of such a thing?” said Luna. “We trust in love, and we trust it will not let us down. But relationships do fail. We know not of his level of experience, but we are aware of yours, Twilight Sparkle, and it is, to be charitable, not extensive.”
“Sister, be kind,” said Celestia. “Would either of us turn away a pony who loved us as much as Desert Brush obviously loves her?”
“If only.” Luna stretched her wings. “Could somepony ever love us? Perhaps when we were younger and less was expected of us, we were more open to the prospect.”
“Or perhaps more approachable,” Celestia said. “The affairs of state discourage affairs of another kind.”
“It’s not like a lot of ponies ever approach me,” Twilight remarked. “And some of the ones that did, well, I wish they hadn’t.”
“Your reputation precedes you,” said Celestia. “When you’re the most gifted unicorn in several generations, some stallions simply won’t want to get involved.”
“Does Mr. Brush realize that you may be his intellectual superior?” Luna asked.
Twilight smiled. “Oh, he knows it. And he’s fine with it.”
“A rare specimen indeed,” Luna replied.
“If I’m reading the literature correctly,” said Twilight, “males of his species tend to resent more intelligent females — except, curiously, for librarians, who are considered objects of fantasy.”
Celestia laughed. “Now why would that be?”
“I don’t know,” Twilight admitted. “But I don’t have a lot of experience dealing with other librarians, which is why I wanted to go to that convention in Vanhoover.”
“You should take him with you,” Celestia said. “Think of it as an experiment.”
“I have the train tickets already. And besides, it will give him a chance to see some of the countryside on the way.”
“We are starting to believe,” Luna said, “that the two of you are good for one another.”
“Truly,” Celestia added. “And we will do our best to help you along.”
“Thank you both,” Twilight Sparkle said. “Nopony ever had better friends.”
The largest single operating room in the Royal Canterlot Hospital has no natural light. When this wing was constructed, rumors flew that the Chief Surgeon at the time had a financial interest in the only manufacturer of luminescent tubes in all of Equestria, but nopony was ever able to prove anything, and the next two Chief Surgeons declared that they had better things to do than second-guess their predecessors, an attitude that sat well with Midas Wellbe when he assumed the post in 998, and ultimately with Princess Celestia when she observed the next year that the hospital was no longer running an annual deficit.
So Desert Brush had no opportunity to observe Celestia’s sunrise from the bed in the prep room. As partial compensation, he was given a few minutes to observe Nurse Greyheart, who at that moment was administering a rather hefty anesthetic.
“This won’t hurt at first. You may feel a little queasy shortly thereafter, but it will fade, and so will your consciousness. This dose is intended to last eight to nine hours; at the eight-hour mark, you will receive a second dose, which you should not notice.”
He grunted in something resembling assent. Greyheart picked up a sheaf of papers.
“Your medical team numbers five, headed by Doctor Wellbe. There will be two nurses and two technicians. The techs will work on specific tasks: one will analyze and resequence your DNA, and the other will prepare sections of epidermis for the skin regraft.
“You have had one stroke of luck: your current body mass is already appropriate for a normal-sized stallion, which will save one step in the process. However, this advantage is offset by the fact that you have next to no coat, which makes the epidermal procedure more difficult. The following body parts will not be carried over: teeth, which will be replaced with dental implants more appropriate to pony dietary habits, and phalanges, which are redundant, though the nerve connections will be preserved to improve hoof control. Everything else will be resized, reshaped, and reoriented, as necessary.”
Brush winced. “Queasy” was arriving right on schedule.
Greyheart continued: “The single most time-consuming procedure will be the retuning of your limbic system to resonate with the hypovibration of the ley lines. This is the means by which earth ponies, who lack a specific connection point, utilize the magic around them. Once you are released, you will begin to build your own supply, but it will be some time before you are up to full strength.
“As this procedure winds down, a Healing Spell will be activated, which will close all incisions and ward off infections. This will last all night, and it has its own anesthetic effect. You may regain consciousness by tomorrow morning, though noon is more typical. The doctor will decide whether you can be released at that time, or if you need to stay for a second night.” She looked at her bleary-eyed patient. “All this material will be included in a booklet in your folder; it will be given to you at the time you are discharged.”
The last thing Brush saw was, he hoped, merely hallucination: he was strapped to a table in Dr. Frankensteed’s laboratory, facing an array of bizarre-looking equipment with DANGER: HIGH COLTAGE signs plastered thereupon. And after that, he didn’t see anything for quite a while.
About an hour into the proceedings, the runner from Central Lab brought the bloodwork report. “Doctor,” Greyheart said, “you might want to take a look at this.”
Wellbe backed away from his patient for a moment. “What sort of horrible things did they find in his blood?”
“Surprisingly, nothing,” she replied. “Nothing at all. Within ten percent of pony normals for almost all components.”
The doctor ran a hoof down the report. “Well, I wasn’t expecting this. Most ponies who end up on the table aren’t within ten percent of pony normals.” He tapped the clipboard. “Either this species isn’t quite as carnivorous as I anticipated, or this patient actually made a conscious effort to switch to an appropriate diet beforehoof.” And then, unexpectedly, he smiled. “Thank you, Nurse.”
Greyheart, who hadn’t heard anything like that in weeks, very nearly blushed.
“He’ll be along any minute now. Apparently he had to redo the duty roster before taking lunch.” Princess Cadance sipped her tea. “What can I say? I married a workaholic.”
“He wasn’t always that way,” said the workaholic’s little sister with a grin.
“Oh, I know. But he takes his position very seriously. And the Guards respect him.” She leaned toward Twilight and whispered, almost conspiratorially, “The pony he replaced as Captain? Worked overtime at being a plothole. There were parties for weeks after he retired.”
“Who retired?” inquired Shining Armor, sliding beside his wife on the bench and planting a kiss on her nose.
“Tempered Sword. You remember him, don’t you?”
“Too well.” He laughed. “Twily! It’s about time you came up here to see us. What’s the occasion?”
“Final report on an ongoing experiment,” Twilight said, “and then off to Vanhoover for the Equestrian Library Foundation. I’ve just been so busy lately.”
“So we’ve noticed. I don’t think I’ve even seen you since the wedding.”
“I’m sorry about that. I’ve just been incredibly busy, and, well, what do I have to say to a pair of newlyweds?”
“We’re hardly newlyweds,” said Cadance. “It’s been almost a year.”
“She’s like this,” he explained. “She always has been. When she was living in the Ivory Tower, she wouldn’t come home for days at a time, and it was only about a fifteen-minute trot.”
“And thank you, dear BBBFF, for defending me in my hour of need,” Twilight laughed.
“What do you need?” asked Shining Armor, perfectly deadpan. “Except, of course, to see Mom and Dad, and you’ve been needing that for quite some time.”
“I know, I know. I’ll go over there tomorrow. How are they?”
“Oh, same as always. I figure we have about a month before Mom starts in on that whole grandfoals thing again.”
“Again?” Cadance groaned.
“It’s either that or find somepony for Twily.”
“Not a chance,” Twilight laughed.
“You sure about that? Because the second-shift report last night shows you and some earth pony on the way back to one of the guest rooms. With a two-guard escort.” And then, in a high, sing-songy voice: “Twily’s got a coltfriend! Twily’s got a coltfriend!”
Twilight Sparkle froze. Of course this was on the guard report. What was I thinking?
She forced a smile. “Oh, that’s one of the ponies going to the librarians’ convention. It’s his first time.”
“First time at what?” her brother teased.
“Now stop that,” Twilight said. “You shouldn’t go around making assumptions about ponies you don’t even know.”
“But I know you,” said Shining Armor. “And how can I help making assumptions under circumstances like these?”
“Please, just drop it.”
“It’s not my place to interrupt,” Cadance said, “but if you don’t tell us anything, how can we assume anything but the worst?”
“Okay, fine. His name is Desert Brush, he’d had a meeting with the Princess, and he was feeling sickly. Now if you’ll excuse me, I’ve got to run,” and Twilight took off for the Castle.
“What’d I say?” asked Shining Armor helplessly.
“Enough to get her talking,” said Cadance. “Which is a start. I’ll see if I can get to the bottom of this.”
Perfect Stitch’s parents had always wanted him to become a doctor, but after finishing his pre-med studies, he decided that he’d much prefer the aesthetic side of medicine, and after specialized training and years of experience, he was now among the nation’s leading regraft professionals, highly sought after by ponies desiring the latest in cosmetic surgery but wanting something a little more permanent than a spell. Dr. Welbee, an old-school medical pony, wasn’t big on aesthetics, and he definitely wasn’t keen on what he saw as Stitch’s artistic temperament, but for difficult tasks, there was no substitute for Stitch.
And, he had to admit, Stitch had outdone himself this time. “Doctor, you can see here that we’ve applied some custom touches to this coat, to make it appear slightly worn in random locations. which would be appropriate for a pony of his age.”
“A stallion, maybe,” said Wellbe. “Mares want to be twenty-nine forever, or at least until the grandfoals arrive.” He inspected the coat, and sure enough, this pony looked about forty-five, maybe even forty. Beats the hay out of sixty, though, he thought, an age he’d reach all too soon himself.
But he had to pass judgment here, and so he did. “Very good. Anything else I should know about?”
“We spotted some macular degeneration while reworking the eyes. Not severe, but easily fixed. And shaping the flanks was a little tricky, given the underlying musculature.”
“Looks fine to me,” said the doctor.
“It’s an optical illusion. The cutie mark contains several parallel lines, only they’re not actually parallel. The eye thinks they are, though, and the correction applied by the brain also makes the flank itself look slightly less fleshy.” Stitch smiled. “We probably don’t want word of this to get out.”
“Not unless we want every vain mare from here to Fillydelphia parked in the waiting room.”
“These days,” said Stitch, “the stallions are just as image-conscious. Maybe more so.”
“You’re probably right. When will he be ready for the Limbic Tune?”
“Within the hour, I think.” He called to the other technician. “Helix! Where are we on DNA?”
“Regen is 95 percent complete,” Helix replied. “Twenty minutes, tops, plus a few minutes for test samples.”
“Not bad for six hours’ work,” said the doctor. “The rest of you can take an early dinner. I’ll shoot him up for the second round. Be back here in —” he looked at the clock — “seventy-five minutes.”
A second knock, louder. “Twilight, it’s Cadance. Would you please let me in?”
“Why are you even knocking? You could just park yourself in the center of the room and there’s nothing I could do about it.”
“All right, be that way,” said the Princess, and parked herself in the center of the room. “Are you happy now?”
“What do you want from me?” Twilight demanded.
“I want you to get your head out of your tail and pay attention. I don’t know what in the hoof is wrong with you, and I don’t know why you took it out on your poor brother, but I’m not leaving until I do know why.”
“I don’t want to fight about it,” said Twilight.
“We don’t have to fight about it. But something’s wrong here, and it’s got to be put right before everypony starts yelling at one another.”
“You’re not my foalsitter anymore,” Twilight snapped.
Cadance groaned. “I’m not trying to be your foalsitter. I’m trying to find out why you’re so touchy all of a sudden.” She dropped to the floor. “Tell me about him.”
“This stallion you’re seeing. The one you can’t, or won’t, talk about.”
“There’s nothing to talk about,” said Twilight.
“I don’t believe you.”
“And why not?”
“Because,” said Cadance, “I’m the resident expert on love, remember? Now tell me about him.” She softened her voice. “I won’t say a word to Shining Armor if you don’t want me to.”
“I don’t know what’s wrong with me,” Twilight wailed. “I wasn’t like this yesterday.”
“What was different yesterday?”
“He was here. In this room. Most of the day, anyway.”
“And where is he now?”
Twilight sighed. “Royal Canterlot Hospital.”
“Oh, no! What’s the matter with him?”
“He’s … in love with me.”
“And that’s bad? You think maybe you don’t return his feelings?”
Twilight stared at the ceiling. “I’ve never wanted anypony so much in my entire life.”
“So what’s the problem?”
“I don’t know!” Twilight pushed her face into a pillow. “I keep trying to tell myself this is everything I ever wanted, and I’m just not hearing it!”
Cadance nodded. “This just sort of spontaneously happened?”
“It was pure chance that we met at all,” said Twilight.
“How does this affect your plan to become an Assistant Mage at thirty, marry a unicorn from a good family, and bear three lovely foals?”
“When did I plan that?”
“When you were seven and I was just the foalsitter. You had every aspect of your life already nailed down back then.” Cadance pointed a hoof at her. “Twilight, you don’t do spontaneous. You never have. If it’s not on your checklist, it didn’t happen and it’s not going to happen. Now there are no expected vacancies in the office of the Grand Mage for the next fifteen years, and you’re in love with an earth pony. No wonder you’re upset.”
“Shouldn’t I be happy I’m in love with an earth pony? Doesn’t love bring happiness?”
“It can,” said Cadance. “But it doesn’t have to. According to legend, one of Luna’s guards had fallen in love with her the same night that the Nightmare took possession of her. He stood by her loyally, just the same. After Luna was imprisoned in the moon, he grieved, and eventually he took his own life. Nopony would call that happy; but it was clearly a matter of love.”
“That’s just terrible,” Twilight said. “Couldn’t he have made, you know, a move on her before she was banished?”
“Do you see anypony putting the move on Luna now that she’s free? The Nightmare is gone, and yet Luna never seems to get so much as a lunch date. And Celestia’s not doing any better.”
“They are the rulers of Equestria,” Twilight pointed out. “One does not simply walk into the Castle and ask for a date.”
“If one had the sheer guts to do it,” Cadance replied, “one might be surprised. Would your coltfriend have that much nerve?”
“I don’t think so,” said Twilight, shaking her head. “Before it happened, things were moving too slowly. Now they’re going too fast.”
“Before what happened?”
Twilight Sparkle sighed. “Would you like to know why Desert Brush is in the hospital?”
“You already said it was because he was in love with you.”
“You don’t know the half of it.”
From the bog at the south end of the Everfree, through the near side of Ponyville, to the caverns under Canterlot Mountain, runs a single ley line, a channel for the transmission of magic. Some believe Star Swirl the Bearded himself, finding a resonance at a constant frequency in those caverns, followed it on hoof all the way across the forest, seeking its source. Others, more skeptical, suggest he foisted off the job on Clover the Clever. One assignment given to second-year students in Celestia’s School for Gifted Unicorns is to calculate the exact frequency of that resonance. They are not told, of course, that the number denoting that frequency is an irrational number, the decimal places stretching out to infinity. Focusing mechanisms generally round it off to 1.7 million cycles per second, which provides 99.8 percent accuracy.
The hypervibration itself is well beyond the range of equine hearing; it was detected only because inside the caverns, the multiplicity of reflective surfaces would occasionally yield up an audible frequency, which the mages of the time were able to analyze in a limited way.
Both unicorns and pegasi take advantage of this hypervibration, each tribe having specific access points sensitive to its frequency. For the unicorn, it’s near the base of the horn — the tip of the horn is a transducer, used to propagate energy. For the pegasus, it’s between the wings, between the backbone and the spinal cord. No such receptor exists on the earth pony, and early experiments with directing magical beams at earth ponies, in an effort to find a resonance point, were unsuccessful.
It was not until the year 878 that science was able to answer this question of earth pony magic. The physicist Prismatic, analyzing the hypervibration to discover its components, determined that there exists at very low levels a second vibration, at a frequency too low to hear: approximately 1.61803398875 cycles per second. (Twilight Sparkle, of course, would insist on at least eleven decimal places.) Thinking this might be an impurity in the waveform, Prismatic rigged up a crude high-pass filter, which would eliminate the low-frequency component. His assistant at the time, an earth pony whose name has been lost to history, fell ill, and did not recover until the filter was deactivated.
From this experience, Prismatic concluded that it was this low-frequency vibration that transmitted earth-pony magic, and speculated that since there was no known specific receptor point, the magic was absorbed through whatever part of the pony’s body, usually the hooves, happened to be closest to the ground at any particular moment. Princess Celestia ordered further investigation, and eventually Prismatic’s theory was verified experimentally. The low-frequency wave was dubbed “hypovibration,” thus causing confusion for thousands of students in succeeding years.
In 967, two distraught parents discovered that their earth-pony foal was taking in little or no magic, causing occasional spasms and general weakness. A specialist, a unicorn, was called in, and eventually she hit upon a treatment: mild electrical stimulation to the cingulate cortex. The shock to the system, as it were, temporarily reordered randomized synapses long enough to restore normal magic absorption, though it took several hours and three booster shocks. The patient went on to live a normal life. Over the years, the process has been refined: today, the components of the limbic system are exposed to multiple harmonics of the base frequency, which then create sympathetic vibrations throughout. It is still a lengthy process, however, since eventually every synapse must be thus retuned.
It was two hours before sunrise, and Desert Brush could faintly hear an occasional ping from some machine somewhere. It was too early to tell, he decided, but for the moment he wasn’t feeling the same anxiety that had been tormenting him. Which aspect of the process had produced this happy circumstance, he didn’t know, and he didn’t really care. All he knew was that his sense of anxiousness had been replaced with a sense of belonging, a sense that he’d done the Right Thing after all.
For the first time ever, in fact, he felt like a pony.
At the entrance to the Recovery Room, the head nurse was apologetic but firm: “I’m sorry, Miss Sparkle, but there’s a strict limit of two visitors at a time.”
“Who could possibly be visiting?” Twilight wondered.
On the other side of the big double doors, Desert Brush was a little more than half-awake, but only a little. Still, he was alert enough not to panic at the sight of a pair of unfamiliar unicorns at bedside, one of whom was sporting a Twi-like pagecolt cut.
“Mister Brush?” said the stallion.
Brush blinked. “Have we, uh, met?”
“We have not,” the stallion replied, “but I thought perhaps we should. My name is Night Light, and this is my wife Twilight Velvet.”
Recognition came, not quite in a flash of light, but quickly enough, all things considered. “Oh, my. Twilight Sparkle’s parents.” Brush smiled. “Pardon me for not getting up.”
“It’s quite all right,” said Night Light. “You’ve been through a lot in the last couple of days, we are told.”
“When we’re told anything at all,” added Twilight Velvet.
“I’m sorry about that. I tried to guilt her into telling you.” Brush tried to remember how to shrug. “I guess it didn’t work.”
“Our daughter is — reserved sometimes,” Night Light said. “Fortunately, our son is less so.”
“I’d like to meet him some day.”
“You almost got a chance to, last night,” said Night Light. “He was ready to barge in here and see what kind of lowlife pony, as he said, was after his sister.”
Brush grinned. “I hope you can assure him that I’m at least a moderate-life pony.”
Twilight Velvet smiled at that. “He’s very protective of his sister.”
“As he should be,” said Brush. “I had a younger sister and I was suspicious of just about every one of her dates.” He coughed once. “Eventually, she married. He was poor, but he was honest.”
“Not unlike yourself?” Night Light quipped.
Brush considered. “I’m not all that poor, but I do strive to be honest. Mostly. I’m just a soul whose intentions are good.”
“How did you two meet, anyway?” asked Twilight Velvet.
“Pure fluke,” said Brush. “Last summer she found a hole in space-time, got curious as to what was on the other side, and passed through it.”
“And what did she find?”
“Well, uh, me. I hasten to add that she wasn’t looking for me at the time, but I happened to be there when she arrived.”
“You must have impressed her,” said Night Light.
“Enough to get her to come back a few times. Unfortunately, the hole didn’t work equally well both ways, and it was several months before I could come here myself. I’ve still never seen Ponyville.”
“You’re not missing much,” Twilight Velvet said. “It’s a disorganized, messy sort of place.”
“Sounds perfect for me,” Brush drawled.
“I’m surprised our Twilight didn’t come up to see you this morning,” Night Light observed.
“I was hoping she would, but she always seems to have thousands of things to do in Canterlot.”
“Everything but visit her family,” Twilight Velvet grumbled.
The public-address system, for some reason, chose that moment to blare an announcement: “Miss Twilight Sparkle, please come to Administration. Miss Twilight Sparkle, please come to Administration.”
“She’s in the building, anyway,” said Night Light. “Or at least they think she is.” He looked at Brush again. “When do you think you’ll be out of here?”
“Twi says it’s got to be by tomorrow at the latest, so we can go to some convention out on the west coast. So far, nopony has given me any information about how I’m doing, other than the fact that I’m apparently not dead, and I think I could have figured that out myself.”
“Hospitals. Even the best of them can be a pain sometimes.”
A white unicorn in a nurse’s cap came through the doors. “Mister Brush? We’re going to do a little physical therapy this morning.”
“Oh, joy,” Brush said. “Then again, there’s a lot to be said for getting out of bed.” He pushed the lever to drop the side rail, rolled to the edge, and promptly fell on the floor. “Perhaps I spoke too soon,” he groaned.
“Your equilibrium is going to be off for a little while yet.” The nurse helped him to his hooves. “We’ll be gone for about an hour,” she said to the visitors.
“We were just leaving,” said Night Light. “Glad to meet you. You go by your first name or your last?”
“Call me Brush. It’s shorter,” said Brush.
“Take care,” Twilight Velvet said.
He made it to the courtyard without incident, though he did occasionally put the wrong hoof forward. “You were a biped,” the nurse said, “so you can expect some temporary confusion until you get used to going about on four legs. It’s not difficult, but it’s not going to be automatic for some time. Turn around.”
He did so.
“For a few minutes, we’re just going to march in place. Do what you see me do.” She took some moderately high steps, which he did his best to match; he didn’t quite get high enough, but he didn’t fall down either, and he stayed mostly in sync.
“Not bad,” said the nurse. “One problem you’re going to have is that you don’t have a true instinct for this, the way a foal would; you’re having to override the instinct you do have, which puts the back legs in control at all times. This is a good way to fall on your face.”
“I’ve seen better ones,” Brush replied. “I have ways of falling you would not believe.”
“Well, don’t do it now,” said the nurse. “We’re still a week shy of Winter Wrap-Up, and the ground is very, very cold. Next, we’re just going to trot two laps around the courtyard. Don’t watch me this time. Just keep your eyes forward. Don’t look down, or you’ll get yourself out of sync.”
He made it about halfway through the first lap before he tripped over himself and faceplanted.
They found Twilight Sparkle leaving the administrative office. “So there you are,” said her father, and there were hugs all around.
“What brings you here?” she asked. “Is everypony okay?”
“We’re fine,” said her mother. “We thought we’d pay a visit to your coltfriend.”
Twilight blanched. “You what?”
“We knew he was here,” Night Light said, “and there was no telling when you were going to get around to bringing him home for us to meet. So we took a little initiative.”
“He seems very nice,” Twilight Velvet added. “Though I never imagined you had an eye for those rough-hewn earth ponies.”
“Didn’t we have this discussion when I was twelve? There is nothing wrong with earth ponies. Some of my best friends are earth ponies.”
“But most of them,” said Night Light, “were born that way.”
Silence. And then, finally: “H-how did you know?”
“It’s a mother’s job to know these things,” explained Twilight Velvet. “And besides, his chart was hanging on the door.”
“At least we know he’s serious about you,” Night Light said. “One-night stands do not go to that much trouble.”
Dinnertime in the Recovery Room, and daisy sandwiches for two. “This is my absolute favorite,” said Twilight Sparkle. “It’s better on freshly-baked bread, but this will do for now.”
Brush managed to get a grip on the sides of a sandwich with his hooves, and dropped less than ten percent of the contents. “Can I claim that as a moral victory?” he asked.
“You’ll be all right. Like everything else, it takes practice.” She looked up at the wall clock. “I thought maybe they’d have moved you to a regular room by now.”
“I have never understood hospitals. All you can do is lie there and hope nothing worse happens.” He grinned. “I admit, I wasn’t expecting to see your folks this morning. Eventually, sure; but not this morning.”
“That was my fault,” Twilight admitted. “I stirred up a hornet’s nest yesterday.”
“I blew up at my brother for making fun of me, and then Cadance chewed my flank off. Which I totally deserved.”
“Made fun of you? Isn’t that, like, a fairly regular brother-sister thing?”
“Of course it is. But I was stressed out by everything, and I just snapped.” She grimaced. “Don’t take this the wrong way, but it’s a lot easier to deal with a fantasy coltfriend than it is a real one.”
“Love is a mixture of the magical and the mundane. Always has been. We’re going to get on each other’s nerves now and then. No way around it.”
“And it wasn’t even your fault,” said Twilight. “It was just me wanting everything to be perfect again.”
“Always the perfectionist,” Brush said laconically.
“I can’t help it. It’s what I am.”
“And I’m glad you are what you are. But sometimes, I’m glad I’m just a plain, ordinary earth pony.”
Twilight broke into a smile — and then into giggles. Then laughter. Gales of laughter. Outright guffaws, even.
Brush looked puzzled. “Must have been the way I said it.”
“It’s just … that sounded so pretentious. Especially considering you weren’t any kind of pony two days ago.”
“I learn quickly,” he said. “Walking excepted.”
“How did it go?”
“Not too badly. I’m probably better than a week-old foal, but not enough to brag about.” He shook his head. “At least nopony is asking me to keep up with Secretariat.”
“Is this Secretariat somepony you know?”
“In a manner of speaking, yes,” said Brush. “One of the equines bred specifically for racing. He was incredibly fast. I got to see him once, the year I turned twenty. He was sick that day and couldn’t race, but he did come out and do a lap around the track for the audience.” Brush sighed. “One of our greatest athletes ever. They put his picture on a postage stamp after he died.”
“How old was he?” Twilight asked.
“When he won all those big races, three. When he died, about nineteen.”
“They race at three?”
“They start before that. I spent rather a lot of money that year on two-year-old fillies.”
Twilight stared. “Buying them?”
“Oh, good gracious, no. Betting on them. There were days when I couldn’t pick a winner to save my life.”
“We don’t have a lot of gambling here. Well, we do here, but not in Ponyville. Maybe the occasional poker game.”
Brush smiled. “Now that’s a vision I never anticipated: ponies playing poker.”
“You have so much to learn,” said Twilight.
“It will be nice to see something other than the inside of a room. The remedial walking instruction was kind of a pain, but it was outside, and it was sweet. A little chilly, but sweet.”
“Spring will be here soon. Don’t worry.”
“I have faith in the Equestrian weather system,” Brush said. “I suspect it’s a lot saner than what I’m used to.”
“You’re going to love it here,” Twilight said firmly. “If I have to micromanage every last aspect of it myself.”
“I’m sure that won’t be necessary,” he laughed.
“I’m a perfectionist, remember? Of course it will be necessary.”
“Well, I hope you like the sculpting job they did on me. I didn’t really give them any instructions.”
She brightened. “I did.”
“You did? When?”
“When I had to meet with the doctor. I gave him a sketch and a color scheme.”
“And, it appears, a cutie mark. An actual freaking abacus. I couldn’t believe it.”
“I was hoping you’d like it,” she said.
“Oh, I thought it was hilarious. Then again, I’m not the pony walking behind it.”
“Can you stand up? I want to get a good look.”
He rolled out of the bed, did not fall down this time, and stood for inspection. After about two minutes of scrutiny and several instances of hooves-on verification, or something, Twilight pronounced him fine as pegasus feathers.
“Although I think I’d have preferred a slightly shorter tail. But this is an excellent job. Makes you look about thirty-five or forty.”
“I didn’t look so hot when I was thirty-five or forty,” he said.
“My mother said you looked rough-hewn.”
“This town is mostly unicorns, isn’t it? How many earth ponies does she ever get to see?”
“All ponies are equal under the law,” Twilight said. “But you can’t force them to think that way.”
“Meaning your mom looks down her nose, or her horn, or whatever, at us lowly earth ponies?”
“She used to, when I was a filly,” Twilight admitted. “So did my dad. I think they got over most of that the first time they came to see me in Ponyville.”
“I’d hate to see what they’d think of me in Cloudsdale,” Brush said.
“You’d never be able to set hoof in the place. You can’t walk on clouds. Neither can I, unless I use a spell.”
Brush facehoofed, nearly falling down in the process. “So what did the parental units think of your clumsy beau?”
“I think,” said Twilight, “that they came in, prepared to dislike you, and discovered to their surprise that they didn’t.”
“Good manners and a dazzling smile. Works every time.”
“What moved them the most was the fact that you’d gone through the process. It told them that you were serious.”
“How would they have known?” Brush asked. “Is it tattooed on the back of my neck or something?”
“It was on your chart, and your chart was hanging on the door, and Mom’s done volunteer work at Canterlot General, so she knows how to read medical codes.”
“Wonderful security you have around here,” Brush snorted.
“It’s all right. They won’t talk. Shining Armor certainly won’t talk. And I told Cadance already.”
“Which leaves … oh, the entire population of Equestria.”
“It’s not a big deal to anypony that you had the surgery. It’s finding out what you used to be that might cause problems, and that wasn’t on the chart.” Twilight gave him a So Serious look. “Celestia isn’t ready to reveal that the humans still exist, let alone that one actually made it here.”
“At least I’ll be nice and inconspicuous as an earth pony, once I get out of here.”
“Don’t be too sure about that,” Twilight warned.
“You’d better sit down for this,” she said. He clambered back into the bed.
“We are, for better or for worse, each other’s Very Special Somepony.”
“I like the sound of that,” Brush chirped.
“It’s not unreasonable to think that someday we’ll be wed.”
“No problem so far.”
“Now as the sister-in-law of a Princess, I have social standing only slightly below the Royals themselves. What do you think is going to happen to you if you marry me?”
“If?” Brush asked.
Twilight smiled. “No earth pony before has ever achieved such heights. If you were planning on being inconspicuous, forget about it.”
“I wanna go home,” Brush whined.
“Too late now,” Twilight said. “We’re stuck with each other.”
“So what happens next?”
“Well, you’re obviously not going to be discharged tonight, so I presume they’re going to run some more tests on you. Tomorrow we board the train to Vanhoover, so we can attend the Equestrian Library Federation convention.” She smiled. “Can you stand a three-day train ride?”
“I’m going with you,” he said. “Consider it stood.”
“After that, we come home to Ponyville, and whatever may be waiting for us.”
“Only the rest of our lives.”
Twilight kissed him. “Did I mention that I love you?”
He stretched out his forelegs and pulled her on top of him. “You can mention that just as often as you like.”