The mist coming in from over Horseshoe Bay always seems much more prominent around Hearts and Hooves Day. Nopony knows for sure why this should be: the archivist at the Baltimare Library, who’s studied the records for half a century, says it’s purely a figment of everypony’s imagination, that the winds and the humidity levels are typical for late winter in this part of Equestria, and besides, twenty years ago the local Weather Patrol officially denied that they had anything to do with the phenomenon.
None of this creates a problem, necessarily, unless you happen to be on the Baltimare waterfront at sunrise and you happen to dislike getting a faceful of mist. The old pony, alone on a bench, gave no indication of his feelings on the matter: he kept his head down, as though he were in mourning.
“Hello,” said a voice.
The old pony looked up. A bright yellow filly, old enough to have a cutie mark, but not much more than that. And a unicorn, even. Unicorns usually didn’t come down to the waterfront; they conducted their business in the tall buildings that scowled down on the streets of Baltimare.
“Hello?” said the voice again.
“Oh,” said the old pony. “Hello. I apologize for my rudeness. I was … thinking.”
The filly looked up at him. “Are you all right?”
He nodded. “I’m fine. Just … thinking.”
No further explanation was forthcoming. “Well, bye,” said the filly, trotting on.
The old pony sat there in silence. Nothing to be gained, he reckoned, by chatting up underage females within a couple of blocks of the police station. Although he did wonder: what was she doing out here at this hour? Walking to school? Unlikely, he thought; most of the unicorn families he’d known sent their foals to the private school on the other side of the hill.
And then he realized he hadn’t even noticed whether she had a backpack, and wondered if maybe he was finally falling asleep. He dragged himself to his hooves and headed for home.
He awoke about noon. It wasn’t a lot of sleep, but it would have to do. He stretched, rolled out of bed, and wondered if last night’s leftover pizza still counted as breakfast that late in the day. “And what does it matter anyway?” he said.
For a moment, he thought about going back to the plant. He had friends there still, and at least it was noisy; he wasn’t used to this much quiet, though in deference to his neighbors he didn’t make any noise of his own. But he suspected that the new management would not be happy to see him, inasmuch as they had paid him a rather ridiculous number of bits to go away. He’d never have to work another day in his life if he didn’t want to.
And he was bored out of his mind. In a week he’d made four trips to the library, hit up every museum, every gallery, everything within walking distance that looked even slightly interesting. He thought about that one mare he’d gone out with a couple of times shortly after he’d turned thirty-five; this was, he remembered, exactly the kind of life — “lifestyle,” she’d say, which always grated on his nerves — that she’d said she always wanted. Did she ever get it? He didn’t know; they had, after all, only gone out a couple of times, and nothing seemed to click. Then again, according to that book he’d borrowed the day before yesterday, of all the possible romantic combinations, the most problematic was unicorn/earth pony, what with their utterly different reactions to pure physicality. “In the heat of the moment,” the author had claimed, “the ferocity of the earth pony may overwhelm a unicorn used to reacting cerebrally.” He laughed. Obviously some unicorn had to have written that. At his scariest, he had discovered, he was about as ferocious as a newly-whelped puppy, and she had had desires he’d never so much as dreamed of. And then he stopped laughing, because he’d been the object of absolutely nopony’s desire ever since.
“Which is probably just as well,” he muttered, settling into a chair with a new book.
About four the next morning, having once again failed to bore himself into slumber, the old pony clambered down the stairs of his townhouse and walked the two blocks to the waterfront. The mist, as usual, obscured the view of Luna’s current star arrangement, but he wouldn’t be looking toward the night sky; he might be gazing across the bay, toward the sea he’d never seen, or he might be looking in the opposite direction, toward what he’d once left behind.
The filly showed up just before sunrise, and this time she wasn’t alone. “There he is!” she chirped.
“So I see,” said a second voice. He looked up: another unicorn, this one a full-grown mare. Probably her mother. “You run along now,” said Mom. “I’ll take care of this.”
The filly obediently trotted away, and the mare introduced herself. “I’m Needful Way. I’m a social worker.” She offered a hoof; he took it.
“Broken Spoke. Former carriage designer.”
“The board decided I was too old to run my own company anymore, so they ran me off.”
“I’m sorry to hear that. Are you … I mean, do you have a place to live?”
“I have a townhouse a couple of blocks away. Why?”
“My daughter has seen you on this bench several times, and she thought maybe you might be …” She choked for a moment.
“Homeless?” he said.
“I was looking for a kinder way to phrase it,” said the social worker, “but there really isn’t one, is there?”
“No, there isn’t.” He tried to force a smile. “If you’re looking for ponies who need a place to stay, there’s one who sleeps in the old Wheelwright warehouse.”
“Used to, anyway,” she said. “About a week ago he was found dead.”
He cringed. “Something got him?”
“Just exposure to the elements. He’d been hiding out there since before Hearth’s Warming Eve, and it eventually got too cold for him. Old earth ponies just don’t have the same resistance to the cold that the younger ones do. And sometimes they don’t realize that.”
“So your job,” he said, “involves telling me to beware of the cold?”
“If necessary, yes,” she replied. “That poor pony had no money, no family, and maybe if we’d found him earlier, we might have been able to save him.” She sighed. “And now he’s gone. I wouldn’t want that to happen to you. I wouldn’t want that to happen to anypony.”
He looked at her. “I’m sorry,” he said. “I didn’t mean to impugn your profession. I’m just not used to being worried about.”
“And your family?”
“Long gone. Both parents died; never had a brother or a sister. It’s just me out here.”
She persisted. “Do you at least have a Very Special Somepony?”
For a moment, he looked beyond her, away from the coast, toward a place he barely remembered.
Finally, he spoke. “For forty years,” he said, “I have loved only one mare. Well, she was a filly back then, but … but she was always the one.” He shook his head. “If only she knew…”
We never should have been in Ponyville in the first place, and we wouldn’t have if we hadn’t gotten confused in the Canterlot train station. Dad was sure he was right, Mom wasn’t about to correct him, and the pony taking tickets didn’t notice. So instead of a three-day ride back to Baltimare, we had a half-day ride to Ponyville, and of course it was too late to do anything about it when we arrived, so we planned to spend the night and double back the next day.
Apparently this town wasn’t big enough to have an actual hotel by the station, so we gathered our bags and trudged into town. The first pony to see us was this crazed mare who talked like a hundred words a minute with gusts up to one-forty. And for some reason she smelled like cotton candy, of all things. I’d never seen anypony so happy to meet perfect strangers, and she didn’t even flinch when Dad said that we were all tired out, dammit, and where was the nearest inn?
Mom tried to be polite to her. “What’s there to do here in the mornings? Our train doesn’t leave until noon.”
“Well,” said Crazed Mare, “it’s the first day of Cider Season at Sweet Apple Acres, just on the edge of town, and you don’t want to miss that! And you want to get there early, like just after sunrise, or maybe even before sunrise, but the main thing is getting there early, before Rainbow Dash drinks it all up.”
“We don’t do cider,” Dad said. “The colt here” — he pointed at me — “is too young for that sort of thing.”
“Aw, no he’s not. Just ask for the Foal Special. It’s safe for underage colts and fillies. Though I guess if they’re colts and fillies they’d have to be underage, wouldn’t they?”
“I think I’d like that,” Mom declared, and Dad gave in. “Okay, cider it is.”
So the next morning, right at sunrise, we were about fiftieth in line outside the gate to this apple orchard, and I was looking around to make sure I wasn’t the youngest pony there, because I always hated being surrounded by grownups. I knew they weren’t really going to gang up on me and make my life miserable, but I couldn’t take that chance.
And then, about ten places behind us, I saw her.
She was a little taller than I was, and her poofy scarlet mane made her look more so. She had these humongous spectacles taking up half her face, and a bulbous nose to hold them up. I suppose she wasn’t really beautiful, but the fillies back home were all trying their best to look exactly alike, and they all seemed to wind up equally boring. For some reason I got it into my head that this filly would not be boring. But what did I know? I was eleven and had never come close to having a fillyfriend, beautiful or otherwise. “And I probably never will,” I said to myself, falling back into line.
The gates opened, and what had been a well-behaved line suddenly turned into a stampede. I cut to the left to avoid being run over. Then, of course, I promptly got run over.
I was still pretty resilient in those days, so I got up quickly enough, and there she was. “I’m so sorry,” she said, with just a hint of a lisp. “New glasses. I’m not used to them yet.”
“It takes time,” I said, pretending I knew what I was talking about. “We better go get some cider before Rainbow Dash drinks it all.”
She flashed me the biggest smile I’d ever seen. “You — you know Rainbow Dash?”
“Uh, no, not really,” I admitted. “But apparently she has quite a reputation.”
She looked at me again. “You’re new here, aren’t you?”
"The newest. But we’re only here for today.”
“Oh.” Her face fell. She was disappointed that I wasn’t going to be around? That’s a first. “Where do you live?”
“Baltimare,” I answered.
“That sounds so exciting,” she said, still mangling the occasional S-sound. “I’ve never been anywhere.”
“It’s okay, I guess. Not a pretty place, but it’s home.”
Somepony brought us cups of cider and asked for four bits, which I paid because I thought it would make me look cool, and because I was grateful they hadn’t asked for five, which was all I had.
The filly smiled. “My coltfriend never has any money.”
It was my turn to be crestfallen. “You … have a coltfriend?”
“Well, I thought I did,” she said, “but he didn’t bother to show up. Again.”
I was ready to commiserate with her, but then I realized that after today, I wouldn’t be showing up.
Just then, a stallion’s voice rang out: “Twist! We’re leaving!”
She gulped down the last of the cider. “I have to go. Thank you for the cider, and I’m really sorry I knocked you down.” She trotted away, and it dawned on me that I’d never even told her my name.
The things I said to myself on the train back to Canterlot would have gotten me grounded for sure if I’d said them out loud.
“A sweet story,” said the social worker. “You know what you’re going to have to do now, right?”
“You can’t be serious,” the old pony said.
“You need closure, one way or another. Maybe she’s been waiting for you all these years, maybe she hasn’t. But you’re never going to get out of this … this mood you’re in, until you find out for sure.”
“Perhaps I don’t want to know,” he protested.
“Do you really believe that?”
He shook his head. “No, not really.”
She stood up. “I can’t tell you what to do. That isn’t my job. But I can tell you this much: you’re never going to find any sort of contentment until you find her.”
She left him there on the bench. The sun was up, the mist had begun to retreat, and the clouds began to clear out of his head.
Equestria is an ancient land, and the one thing you can count on in an ancient land is that it’s not going to be optimized for speedy travel: the topography is what it is, and the earliest settlers located where they could, not where they could make easy connections thousands of years in the future. The old pony was something less than delighted with the fact that he’d have to take the train to Canterlot, spend the night in one of the capital’s overpriced hotels, and only then catch a train to Ponyville. This was, of course, inevitable: Ponyville had connections north, south and west, but none to the east, officially because building adjacent to Rambling Rock Ridge was discouraged, what with the potential for landslides and such, but mostly because nopony wanted to run a rail line through the Everfree Forest.
It could be worse, he thought, and anyway, the station in Baltimare was only six blocks from his home, so the first step at least was easy. And he’d have several days to come up with something to say to somepony he’d hadn’t seen in forty years.
What could he say, though? “Hey, babe, remember me? I bought you cider back in the day!” He shook his head. There was no way she’d remember him at all. She’d had a coltfriend back then, and he’d have taken up all her time and all her memories. This argument seemed to be unassailable, and somewhere near the switch for the spur line to Detrot, he’d just about talked himself into turning around and forgetting the whole thing.
Except, of course, that he couldn’t forget. Not now, not ever. If it turned out to be a waste of time, well, it was his time to waste. He vowed to press ahead. He would suffer whatever embarrassment it might entail, but he would see this thing through to the end.
Once off the train at Canterlot, he hiked the four blocks to the Westphalian, a boutique hotel that had served him well in the past. Usually he didn’t venture into the bar on the ground floor, but that night he felt the need for something in convenient liquid form to unjangle his nerves. To his delight, the place was relatively empty when he arrived; to his dismay, it filled up rather quickly.
“Hey, buddy,” said a voice behind him. A grey pegasus with a shiny, somewhat oily black mane, whom he didn’t recognize. Out of force of habit, the old pony introduced himself: “Broken Spoke, Baltimare Carriages.”
“Fiscal Cliff, certified public accountant. What brings you to this part of the world?”
“A little unfinished business to take care of down in Ponyville.”
“Ponyville? Really? I’ve heard some really strange stories about that town.”
“Only been there once, so I can’t confirm them for you.”
Cliff took a swig of whatever brackish stuff he was drinking. “Probably a load of horsefeathers anyway. I’ve been in this business long enough to know that anypony will pull your leg if you give ‘em half a chance.”
“You’re probably right about that,” said the old pony, wishing he’d stayed in his room.
A changeling of indeterminate age fluttered her way towards them. “Cliffy!” she exclaimed. “We were wondering if you’d make it tonight.”
“Wouldn’t have missed it for the world,” Cliff said. “Give me a couple minutes and I’ll be right with ya.”
The changeling backed away, and the old pony started breathing again. “You know her?”
Fiscal Cliff looked at him disbelievingly. “Don’t you get it? Changelings! They can be anypony you want them to be! I’m pretty sure she’s got a sister, if you want to give her a go.”
“Uh, that’s all right. I think I need to go upstairs and, uh, get some work done.” He climbed down from the bar. “Nice talking to you.”
“Work,” for the evening, consisted of reading one of the local papers — somehow Canterlot was still able to support three competing dailies — and wondering what might have happened had he actually engaged the services of a changeling. As he understood matters, they could duplicate anypony within a reasonable distance; duplicating somepony who wasn’t nearby, however, seemed decidedly problematic at best. And even if they could, how likely would it be that they could come up with a match for present-day Twist? A copy of filly Twist was definitely out of the question, more than a little creepy, and probably illegal. He thought to himself that this was a question he might like to have answered some day, but that he’d rather not have to answer it himself.
Still, this disconcerting line of thought aside, the trip seemed to be doing him some good. For one thing, he was actually getting a reasonable amount of sleep, something he hadn’t enjoyed in a long time. And while he’d persuaded himself that he really didn’t like these long-haul train trips, he had to admit that they were a lot less annoying than the short hops. It had been nearly a year since he’d traveled anywhere farther away than Manehattan, and the miserable little feeder line that crawled up the coast was slow, uncomfortable, and often as not delayed in Fillydelphia. The main cross-country lines, all things considered, were much nicer, and if his dream of someday going coast to coast in less than two days was probably never going to come true — there was talk about some sort of “flying coach” being developed out in Los Pegasus, but he’d believe that when he saw it for himself — well, he had a more immediate dream to work with, and he had every reason to think that it would work out.
Except, of course, if it didn’t. The likelihood that little Twist had spent four whole decades pining for him, he had long ago concluded, was pretty close to nil; even if she hadn’t been conventionally pretty back then, she might have blossomed into a real beauty, and even if she hadn’t, surely somepony would have noticed her by now. Even a surly, disagreeable, slovenly mare occasionally found a mate; in his twenties, he had met several, and he was grateful for whatever brand of magic it was that caused them to be scooped up by somepony else. Then again, he’d known several stallions who had little or nothing to recommend them, and even they had found love, or at least somepony to help them kill the time.
And besides, the goal here wasn’t to sweep Twist off her hooves, although he certainly wouldn’t complain if he managed to pull that off; even if she rejected him outright, at least he might be able to put down that torch he’d been carrying since he was eleven years old. Maybe.
One thing, at least, had changed in Ponyville in forty years: somepony had seen the wisdom of building an inn, admittedly a small one, in proximity to the train station. They had one room left, which the old pony was happy to take, for a price that turned out to be 60 percent of what he’d paid the night before in Canterlot. It was, he noted with some amusement, the priciest room they had.
He left his bags in the room and walked into town, and within five minutes happened on a phenomenon more or less unchanged in forty years.
“Ooh, a new friend! This calls for a party! Welcome to Ponyville, the friendliest town in all of Equestria, and you’re invited to the very next party at Sugarcube Corner!”
He laughed in spite of himself. “I remember you. I was just a colt last time I was here.”
Pinkie Pie smiled, because that’s what Pinkie Pie did. “Well, I’m a little bit older and a little bit slower, but I’m still happy to see anypony come to our little town, and I do party hearty.”
“I bet you do,” said the old pony. “Any chance you could help me find somepony? I’m looking for … an old friend.”
“Friends are my specialty,” Pinkie said. “My name’s Pinkie Pie. What’s yours?”
“Broken Spoke. I make — that is, I used to make — carriages and wagons in Baltimare.”
“Oh, I’ve been there! Do they still have that gorgeous harbor?”
“Still there. I live only a few blocks away. Sometimes I go down there and just sit and think.”
“I do a lot more of that than I used to,” Pinkie admitted. “But don’t you go telling anypony.”
“I won’t,” he promised.
“Now tell me about your old friend.”
“She’d be in her early fifties about now. Earth pony, white coat, curly scarlet mane. Her name was Twist.”
“First name or last name?”
“I honestly don’t know,” the old pony confessed. “To me she was always just Twist.”
Pinkie pondered for a moment. “Did she wear humongous glasses, about the size of a frying pan?”
“Yes!” he shouted.
“Then I can’t help you,” Pinkie said sadly. “I think she’s moved away.”
His face fell. “Do you know where she might have gone?”
“I don’t,” said Pinkie, “but I bet we can find her.” She pointed down the block. “Turn right behind Quills and Sofas, and you’ll be at the brand-new library, which is where you want to be because the old library is closed now. They know everything, or at least where everything is supposed to be, which is close enough, right?”
“I hope so. Thank you for your help.”
“It’s what I do best,” said Pinkie. “Except, of course, for throwing parties. Sugarcube Corner, right after sunset. Be there or be totally rectangular!”
“You mean ‘square,’ don’t you?” he laughed.
“You can be a parallelogram or a rhombus or even a trapezoid, as long as you’re there!”
A pleasant young unicorn greeted him: “Welcome to the Twilight Sparkle Ponyville Library. How may we assist you?”
“You named a library after an Archmage?” the old pony said, puzzled. “Is there a major collection of arcana here?”
“Archmage Sparkle actually was our town librarian for many years.” The unicorn smiled. “We’re very proud of her. And yes, there’s a lot of arcana here, though most of it requires the usual mage permit.”
“I don’t think I need any arcana right this minute. What I’m trying to do is track down somepony who once lived here.”
“A relative of yours?” asked the librarian.
“Just … a friend.”
“How far back are we going to have to go?”
“About forty years or so.”
“This may be just a little bit tricky,” she said. “We don’t have full electronic versions of the archives that far back, so at some point we’ll have to start digging into actual paper.” Just the same, she smiled. “This is where the job gets to be fun.”
Finding one pony in a nation of millions? As the enormousness of the task began to dawn on him, he wondered: How long could that take?
“I think we’ve found her,” said the librarian. “Did she look something like this?”
He looked at the screen. “That’s her.”
“Here’s the basic information. Strawberry Twist, earth pony, born 8/7/89 here in Ponyville. Parents: Dutch Treat and Cherry Surprise, both earth ponies. Siblings: none. Cutie mark, 2/1000: two candy canes placed to form a heart.”
“Wow. Her flank was blank even longer than mine was.”
“The timing of a cutie mark,” she said, “is never really predictable. But you know that.” She pulled up a sheet from a bin on the desk. “This is a reprint from an old Canterlot newspaper. In aught-nine she opened a candy store, Twist’s Sweet Shop, at 47 Chestnut Street.”
“Holy Celestia,” he whispered. “The hotel I stay at in Canterlot is on Chestnut Street. How did I not see that?”
“It’s not there anymore. According to the article, she sold the store after five years to work on her college degree full-time.”
“Do we know where she went? What she studied?”
“Let’s see if I can find this online.” She turned to the terminal on the desk, and a bewildering array of patterns and colors appeared on the screen. A quick glow from her horn, and the patterns coalesced into a swirl, and then into a page of text. “Three degrees, in fact. BA, University of Canterlot, 1020; Master’s, Manehattan Institute, 1022; Ph.D, Manehattan Institute, 1025. Thesis: Vision and Revision: Failures of Memory Retention in Aging Pegasi.” She smiled at him. “It will cost you twenty bits to read the whole thing, or forty to have a copy printed and mailed to you.”
“Probably way over my head,” he said. “I’m a technician, not a scientist.”
“Perhaps you underestimate yourself,” the librarian suggested.
“Wouldn’t be the first time, I guess. What’s she doing with that fancy degree? Not still making candy, I imagine.”
She turned back to the screen and watched the colors dance for a moment. “Here’s a Doctor S. Twist, speech therapist. I’m assuming this is the same pony.”
He burst out laughing, to the librarian’s apparent annoyance. “Why would that be funny?” she asked.
“I’m sorry. When she was younger, she had a bit of a lisp. I guess she taught herself how to get rid of it.”
“Or possibly somepony taught her, and she was inspired to do the same for others. There’s no way to tell unless we stumble across a full biography.”
“Is there any chance we can find a current picture?” he asked.
“Not on this page. Give me a couple of seconds.” The colors resumed their furious flashing, then stopped; the librarian shook her head. “Nothing recent.”
“Can you tell me where she’s working now?”
“Hold on a second. I’ll need to bring back that previous record.” More splashes of color. “Here we go. Foal Health Center of Detrot North, 311 Eight Mare Road.”
“That’s what it says.” She pushed something with her left front hoof, and the bin on the desk emitted a whir, then yielded up a map. “A long way from here, but at least we found her for you.”
“You’ve been a great help. Do I owe you for anything?”
“Our services are always free,” she said. “However, there’s a jar by the door, if you’d like to donate a few bits.”
“Thank you so much,” said the old pony.
“Just happy we could help,” the librarian replied, stuffing sheets of paper into his saddlebag.
He headed for the door, pausing just long enough to drop a fifty-bit note into the jar.
“You made it!” shouted Pinkie Pie as the old pony pushed through the door of Sugarcube Corner. “Everypony, this is Broken Spoke, and he’s come all the way from Baltimare!”
The three other customers in the dining area waved at him.
“It’s a small gathering, but a friendly one,” Pinkie said. “I can’t scare up as many ponies on short notice as I used to, but everypony deserves a welcome party, don’t you think?”
“I do appreciate it,” he replied. “It’s a good day, and this is a good way to bring it to a close.”
“Did the library help you find your fillyfriend?”
Fillyfriend? He was going to correct her, but thought better of it. “Found her. She’s up in Detrot, helping foals with speech problems.”
“Oh, that’s totally incredibly sweet! Are you going to meet up with her?”
“I’m certainly going to try. She probably doesn’t remember me, but it’s something I’ve been needing to do for a long, long time.”
“You miss her that much?” Pinkie asked.
He nodded. No sense trying to hide it. “I miss her that much.”
“I can see it in your eyes,” said Pinkie. “When you say anything about her they light up like they were catching reflections off the stars. And that’s pretty hard to do when you’re inside.”
There was a menu sitting on the corner of the next table. “Watch this.” Pinkie brought down one hoof on its edge; the menu flew up into the air and landed right in front of him. “Take your time, and don’t forget dessert, ’cause it’s on me. Although the last time I said that I dropped the bowl and it really was on me.”
The old pony stared, then smiled. Somepony as wonderful as Twist, he was sure, had to have come from a town like this.
One of the best things about small towns, the old pony decided, was that you didn’t have to go out of your way to see the night sky: it was right there where you couldn’t miss it, just the way Princess Luna would have wanted it. So he took his sweet time getting back to the inn, marveling at the sheer vastness of it all. He didn’t pretend to understand Luna’s design theory, but he was grateful that she was on the job, night after night.
Once back inside, he asked the desk clerk: “What’s the fastest way to send a letter from here?”
“Depends on where it’s going and how fast you need it to get there,” said the clerk.
“Detrot, day after tomorrow. No, make it the day after that. I want it to arrive one day before I do.”
“Your best bet would probably be Fetlock Express. They’ll guarantee two-day delivery for eleven bits, one-day for twenty.”
“FetEx it is, then. Where’s the nearest dropoff point?”
“You’re looking at it. They pick up here every day, no later than noon.” The clerk pulled out a FetEx envelope from under the desk. “Bring it down when you check out in the morning, and be sure to tick the box for one-day delivery. We’ll add the charges to your bill. Anything else we can do for you?”
“This is fine, thanks,” said the old pony. “PasternCard will hate me next month, but they’ll get over it.”
He hadn’t originally planned on writing her a letter, but it occurred to him that it would hardly be appropriate for him to come trotting into her office and then throw himself at her hooves; the least he could do, he thought, was to warn her in advance. And since he was looking at a three-day train trip anyway, this way she’d get at least a whole day to think about the matter.
He’d already thought of the opening: “Dear Dr. Twist: You probably don’t remember me, but…”
And there, he got stuck. If she truly didn’t remember him, he’d have to explain everything that happened in line that day, waiting for a cup of cider. As a proper engineer, he’d have to provide all that data in the first couple of paragraphs. But do proper engineers, dedicated to numbers and systems and mechanisms, ever have to write about falling in love?
Of course they do, you dimwit, he said to himself, and he started writing. About the fourth paragraph, he wished for a moment that he were back in his old office, where he could just dictate a letter to a member of the administrative staff and be assured it would reach its destination at the proper time.
But no, he really didn’t wish that. When he was at work, he was working: he did not spend office hours on unofficial business, and he expected the same from the hundred or so ponies who worked under him, so he strove to set the proper example. And besides, did he really want some secretarial type to go blabbing to everypony on staff that old Spoke was desperately hung up on somepony he hadn’t even seen since he was a foal?
So he kept writing, and somewhere around midnight he’d completed a version of the narrative, a version that somehow did not actually contain the phrase “I love you.” That, he decided, would come later, assuming there was a later to come.
But he did say this: “I admit that it does seem somewhat improbable, but I swear to you it’s true: not a single day has gone by since then that I haven’t thought about you.”
And then he made his pitch:
“You may, of course, choose to disregard this letter, and I wouldn’t blame you if you did. The circumstances are highly unusual. And I don’t think I should just drop in at your office all of a sudden.
“If you are at all interested, meet me at seven on the twenty-third at a little restaurant called Sorraia on Augeron Avenue. In case you’ve forgotten, I have a dark blue coat, a grey mane and tail, and a confused look on my face. If you don’t show, no hard feelings, and I promise never to bother you again. But if you do, I promise to do whatever I can to make you feel like it was worth the effort.”
Sorraia. Perfect. One of those out-of-the-way places where the lights are low and the prices are high and the staff deserves far more than the standard gratuity. He’d first gone there two years ago, when he’d traveled to Detrot to negotiate a new deal with Roundabout Axle, and as more and more suppliers migrated to that area, thanks to Mustang and his method for building several wagons at once instead of just one at a time, he found himself coming in once or twice a month. It wasn’t enough to get him his own table or anything, but it was enough to get him a personal greeting at the door, and once in a while somepony might be impressed by that sort of thing.
He signed it “Very truly yours, Broken Spoke,” and tacked on his address in Baltimare, just in case.
Two in the morning. He sat bolt upright. “W-who are you and what are you doing here?”
The strange pony laughed at him and spread her multicolored wings. Dost thou not recognize us? she said in a weirdly accented — and not particularly loud — version of the Royal Canterlot Voice.
“An alicorn? But you’re not a Princess.”
We, she said, are every mare thou hast ever dated. Our appearance is a composite, and our coat is resplendent with all of their colors.
He forced a chuckle. “There can’t be too many of you in there, then.”
And who, thinkest thou, is to blame for that paucity of selection?
“I never was much for promiscuity. And I’ve never forced myself on anypony, if that’s what you mean.”
Thou hast never even tried, she said. We remember several instances wherein thy inability to comprehend even the most blatant of signals was distressingly apparent to us.
The alicorn disappeared in a flash of light, and standing in her place was a vaguely familiar yellow pegasus.
The old pony stared. “Tender Blaze? Is that really you?”
“I still can’t believe you turned me away,” said the pegasus.
“I thought you were bored,” he replied.
“Well, of course I was bored!” she yelled. “You didn’t try to lay a single hoof on me all night!”
“But we’d only just met! How was I supposed to know you were …”
“For Celestia’s sake, don’t say hot to trot! I hate that phrase. What the hay was wrong with you? Wasn’t I pretty enough for you? Wasn’t I interesting enough for you? Do you expect the mare to do all the work for you?”
“I didn’t know what to expect,” he admitted.
Thou camest unprepared, said the voice of the alicorn from somewhere behind — no, somewhere inside — him. A mare wishes to be wooed, and to be won; were it not so, she would not have presented herself to thee.
“I object,” said the old pony. “What about those times when all she wants is a chance to get back at her ex-coltfriend?”
“What about them?” Where the yellow pegasus had stood, there was now a dark-green unicorn. “If you thought there was something wrong with the deal, nopony said you had to go through with it.”
“You said you wanted me to buck your brains out!” he shouted.
“And guess whose brains actually did get bucked out? Not mine.”
Wooed and won, said the alicorn again. Not screwed for fun.
“Why are you telling me all this ancient history?”
The unicorn dissolved into the air, and the multicolored alicorn materialized in her place. A single thread, she said, connects all thy relationships. We do not doubt thy sincerity; but we question thy judgment, for thou hast driven away everypony who sought thy company.
“Some things,” said the old pony, “are simply not meant to be.”
And now thou seeketh to rekindle the most insubstantial of relationships, from a chance meeting in a queue.
“Your point being?”
Thou didst sacrifice a dozen potential companions on the altar of adolescent folly. The alicorn scowled at him. Sufficient point, or shall we continue?
“You question my love for Twist,” he said flatly.
We question the timing. Wouldst thou not have pursued her before? Why wouldst thou wait forty years? We believe that in thy heart of hearts, thou hast abandoned hope, and this adventure serves merely to push it farther from thy sight.
“If I’ve abandoned hope,” he shot back, “you’re not helping in the least.”
On the contrary. We seek to return thee to the path of rationality. Youthful crushes do not result in happy relationships.
“The Captain of the Royal Guard might disagree with you on that point. He wooed, and won, an alicorn. A real one, yet.” He paused. “I don’t know what branch office of Tartarus sent you here, or why you’d think I needed this sort of thing.”
Thou needest this sort of thing because—
“I’m not finished yet.” By now he was visibly angry. “I admit that I can’t do a damned thing about the past. Most of us are doing well if we can do something about the present.”
Which thou cannot.
“You think so? We’ll see about that. Twist may not love me. She may not even like me. But one way or another, I’m going to find out, and you’re not going to stop me. Get out of my head, get out of my sight, and get out of my way!”
The image of the alicorn dissipated into random shimmers, then vanished altogether.
The old pony looked at the clock. It was still two in the morning. Whatever had just happened, evidently happened outside the normal borders of space and time. Either that, or those hotel walls were extremely thick, because nopony had pounded on the door to tell him to knock off the racket already.
He rolled over on his side and slept, perhaps better than he’d slept in weeks.
There are those who say that Equestrian culture is just, well, different along the coasts; the seafaring ponies who settled in places like Manehattan and Vanhoover had markedly different interests than the farmers on the central plain, or the movers and shakers high atop Mount Canterlot. You can be reasonably certain, for instance, that nopony in Dodge Junction worries about the price of kelp.
Then there’s Detrot, an industrial town about a day’s journey by train inland from the east coast, located there because it’s that much closer to the rest of Equestria — and because it’s far enough away from the Eastern metropolises that it can enjoy a certain amount of cultural and financial autonomy. (Similar considerations led to the founding of Whinnipeg, farther north and west.) After growing for several decades, the population of Detrot eventually leveled off, and the carriage/wagon industry, while still dominant, is today far from the only game in town.
The old pony liked Detrot. In his younger days, he’d say it was because they had fewer unicorns, but that sort of utterance wouldn’t help anypony’s business connections, so he revised his assessment to “more down to earth,” reasoning — correctly, as it turned out — that pegasi wouldn’t care one way or another. Still, his first hire in Design at Baltimare Carriage was a unicorn, a very talented one, who stayed with him for twelve years, until Mustang’s operation in Detrot hired her away for, he found out later, roughly twice the salary.
And Detrot appealed to the old pony’s sense of design, its wider-than-normal streets and squared-off city blocks better suited to the carriage trade than were the narrow alleys in his section of old Baltimare. So coming up to visit several times a year, inconvenient as it may have been, didn’t bother him much anymore.
He did, however, book his room at a different hotel this time around. If you asked him why, he’d tell you that Equestrian Express was offering several thousand reward points for staying for those two nights, and would offer no further explanation.
As always, Torqué greeted him at the door to Sorraia. “Good evening, Mr. Spoke. Just yourself tonight?”
“I … I expect to be meeting someone a bit later. A small table for two should be quite sufficient.”
“Very good, sir,” said Torqué. The best hosts, thought the old pony, say the least. And Torqué was one of the best: a former long-distance flyer, forced into early retirement by one too many accidents, he conducted himself as gracefully on the ground as he had in the sky.
The table offered was, by a small margin, the farthest away from the door. The old pony chose not to speculate on what that might mean. He thanked the host, and out of force of habit took the seat facing the door. It was six minutes until seven.
Seven minutes later, he saw her. It couldn’t have been anypony else. Her mane and tail were carefully groomed, her glasses fashionably small — and her nose perfectly ordinary. I wasn’t prepared for this, he said to himself, but he rose to his hooves as Torqué brought her to the table.
She smiled at him. “Just Twist will be fine.” Neither of them made any sudden hug-like motions, but she did offer a hoof, which he happily took.
“I’m so glad you could make it,” he said.
“I admit, your letter was something of a surprise. I remembered that day in line at whatever the name of that orchard was, but I really never expected to see you again.” She bit her lip for a second, then went on: “I wasn’t quite sure I wanted to go through with this.”
“What changed your mind?”
“Just then the regular mailmare showed up, and she had a letter for me about you.”
He stared. “About me? From whom?”
“From Pinkie Pie, back in Ponyville. She said she’d checked you out thoroughly and that you were a perfect gentlecolt, and that she hoped we had a wonderful time together, and a few other things that didn’t entirely make sense.”
“I could ask for no better recommendation,” he said. “And tonight, I could ask for no better company.”
“I’ll try not to disappoint you.”
“Why would you think I’d be disappointed?”
She looked off into the distance for a moment, as though she were awaiting an offstage cue. “I’m nothing like the filly you met that day,” she finally said. “If you’d been fixating on what I looked like back then, you’d already have said something about it.”
“I did notice a few things,” he said, “but who hasn’t changed in forty years?”
“I may as well tell you the whole story. It’s not like I need to keep secrets anymore…”
My parents had saved up some money so I could go to college in Canterlot. They were very upset when I used half of it to pay for a muzzle job and some overbite correction. My dad said “All of a sudden you think you talk funny?”
And I cried. “I’d like to have at least one date before I die.” It was a pitiful scene. But parents, I guess, are required to tell you that there’s nothing wrong with you, that you look just fine, that whatever’s bothering you, it’s all in your head. It was two years before they’d even speak to me again. I got a part-time job as a confectioner, so I could still carry half my class load. I eventually bought out the store, and that took up all of my time, so I dropped out of school.
After four or five years I went back to my old boss, who’d retired, and asked him if he’d like to buy the store back, so I could go back to school. He said he would. I got my degree, my parents were happy to watch me get the diploma, and I went off to Manehattan for graduate work.
“My compliments to the surgeon,” said the old pony. “You’re quite lovely.”
“Thank you,” she said. “But now I’m kind of embarrassed by it. I was getting asked out, and that was wonderful at first, but eventually I decided that I really didn’t want that much of a social life.” She shook her head. “When nopony wanted anything to do with me, at least I had time to do things.”
“It just seems unreal to me that you’d never attracted any attention.”
“You’re still remembering that sort of cute little filly. You can get away with looking like that at twelve. Not so easy at sixteen.”
“I remember cute,” he replied. “But I also remember sweet and sincere. And that’s worth a lot more in the long run.”
She laughed. “It never occurred to me that you’d be smitten, right then and there.”
“I never imagined I’d stay that way, either.”
“Tell me you didn’t just say that you’ve spent all those years just waiting,” she said.
“Well, I have had dates. Not a lot of them, but I have had them.”
First course arrived: a bowl of potato and kale soup for him, a chestnut salad for her.
“How did you even know about this place?” she wondered.
“Needs of the business. I used to come up here several times a year, and eventually I learned where to find the good stuff.”
“Used to? Why did you stop?”
“The business,” he said slowly, “decided it didn’t need me anymore.” He shook his head. “I probably never should have gone public.”
“Then why did you?” she asked.
“I thought it would be easier to finance expansion by selling shares than by borrowing bits. And it worked, for a while.”
“The stock went down?”
“Worse. Manehattan hotshots who never built a wagon in their lives were making quarterly earnings estimates, and we missed three in a row, and the board got nervous.”
“So they asked you to leave. It figures.”
“It was my own fault. I still owned fifty-one percent of the company. I told them, if you want me gone, you’ll have to buy me out.” He shrugged. “The next day, they sent me a tender offer for fifty percent at a twenty-percent premium. I couldn’t believe it. But, hey, if they want it that bad, let ‘em have it. I cleaned out my desk and went home.”
“How much did you get for it?”
“Enough,” he said airily.
She looked sheepish. “I’m sorry. I guess that made me sound like some kind of golddigger.”
“Let’s put it this way. After I left work, Equestrian Express raised my credit limit.”
“Do you miss it?”
“I did at first,” said Broken Spoke, “but not anymore. It was probably time to move on.”
“Did you always want to be a speech therapist?” asked Spoke.
“I’d never thought about it,” Twist said. “I figured I’d just go into pre-med and then pick a specialty later. And then the guilt kicked in.”
“Guilt? Over what?”
“I’d never really learned how to fix my own problem. I just forked over a bag of bits and told them to redo my mouth.”
“Does it matter? I mean, the problem was fixed, wasn’t it?”
“It matters to me,” she said. “I felt like I’d taken the easy way out, and that’s just not the way I prefer to do things.”
He pondered for a moment. “Your patients. Do they get non-surgical treatments?”
“If at all possible. If a foal has a cleft palate, well, obviously she’s going to have to have surgery, and that’s somepony else’s department. But with a simple frontal lisp, there are repetition drills, and we have a little plastic device that’s worn in the mouth like a retainer. It forces the tongue into the correct location to say sibilants, and eventually it becomes habit.”
Spoke seemed to be looking at her jawline. “Would that have worked for you?”
“It would have, I think. Of course, I didn’t find this out until several years and several thousand bits later.”
“That figures,” he said. “What would you have wanted to be, if you hadn’t followed this path?”
“For a while, I was thinking about clinical psychology. I think I’d have been good at it, too. But a faculty advisor talked me out of it. He said that nopony would accept me in that position, because I’m an earth pony. Apparently only unicorns can handle this sort of thing.”
Spoke grinned. “And was he a unicorn?”
Twist smiled back at him. “Of course.”
“Absolutely indispensable, they are. And don’t think they don’t know it.”
“But of course we are,” said their server, seemingly appearing out of nowhere. “Fine dining would be nothing without us unicorns.”
“Okay, Prandial, you got me,” Spoke said. “I’ll drop a couple extra bits into your tip. But you’ll never beat Pegasus Pizza in Baltimare.”
The waiter recoiled in mock horror. “They make pizza out of pegasi? How ghastly!” He turned and retreated to the kitchen.
“Thank you,” said Twist.
“For joking around with the waiter. I once dated a pegasus who went totally berserk when our orders got slightly messed up. I figured that was not a good sign.”
“It’s never wise to pick on the staff, especially if you have any intention of ever coming back. They have long memories.”
She smiled at him. “Sometimes long memories are … good.”
The nights were still a bit chilly, but the winds were light and the streets were clear, so Broken Spoke decided to take a chance: “May I walk you home?”
“Always the traditionalist, I see,” Twist replied. “Even though you don’t have any idea where I live.” She peered at him from over the top of her glasses. “Uh, you don’t have any idea where I live, right?”
“Not a clue. That’s why I sent that letter to your office.” He grinned. “I’d make a really terrible stalker.”
She laughed. “You lose points for efficiency, but you score for persistence. That’s worth something.”
“Have I been that much of a bother?” he asked.
“Not tonight. You were utterly charming, every step of the way.”
“I thought I might have been out of practice.”
“I’d be suspicious of anypony who sounded like he’d been practicing all day,” said Twist. “It’s about a twenty-minute walk. This way.”
They set off down the street, the blue stallion and the ivory mare, looking for all the world like they’d always been together.
“So,” said Twist, “what’s the first thing you’re going to do when you get back home?”
“Write a letter to Pinkie Pie, to thank her for helping to make this evening possible,” he answered. “Did I tell you we met when I was a colt? We were doing the tourist thing, and she caught us coming out of the train station, like she was the welcoming committee or something.”
“She pretty much is,” Twist said. “How is she these days?”
“Just like the rest of us. A little older, a little slower, but hanging in there.”
“Is she still the bearer of the Element of Laughter?”
“I think so. It’s been a while since I even thought about the Elements of Harmony. You think maybe we’re spoiled after all these years?”
Twist pondered for a moment. “I haven’t had any problem adjusting to the absence of chaos.”
Spoke laughed. “You win this round.”
“It’s something I learned to live with. In those days, all six of the Elements of Harmony lived in Ponyville, so we got to see them on a regular basis. Inspirations to us all, when they weren’t trying to one-up each other, and sometimes when they were.”
“Pinkie’s the only one I ever met. Then again, I was way out in Baltimare.” He shook his head. “So many things I missed, all those years.”
“Nopony can keep up with everything. It all happens too fast. I could swear I was thirty last year, or maybe the year before. Now look at me.”
He looked at her. “You don’t have to tell me twice.”
They turned onto Haflinger Road. A couple of carriages out and about, but not much in the way of hoof traffic.
Twist glanced over at Spoke. “A bit for your thoughts?”
“They may not be worth that much,” he said.
“Well, I was trying to boil it down to three words, but turns out it’s not as simple as that.”
They came to a halt. “It’s not those three words, is it?”
He nodded. “Afraid so. Something somewhere, though, is blocking me.”
Twist smiled. “If you don’t mind my playing amateur psychologist here—”
“Go right ahead.”
“What’s blocking you is your superego, which recognizes the truth of the matter.”
“You’re in love. I’m convinced of that. But you’re not in love with me, really; you’re in love with the idea of me, what I represent to you. You’ve had all these years to create an image. A sort-of-pretty filly was nice to you once, and your brain took that idea and galloped off with it.”
“I never was all that interested in looks,” he said.
“That statement is almost never true. And it’s absolutely never a compliment. Think about it.”
Spoke thought about it. “I guess you’re right.”
“Like I have any business complaining about it after having my face redone,” Twist said.
“Who decided that dating and mating had to be so damned difficult, anyway?”
“I think it was inevitable. There are no perfect matches out there. Just us poor, imperfect ponies, trying to catch a little bit of happiness while we can.”
He sighed. “There are times when I think it might be too late for some of us.”
“It’s only too late,” Twist declared, “if you want it to be.”
It was nearly midnight when they turned the corner into a cul-de-sac. “Last duplex on the left,” said Twist. “It’s small, but it’s cozy. And no, I’m not inviting you in. I have rules about that sort of thing on a first date.”
“At the moment,” Spoke replied, “I’m just happy it counted as an actual date.”
“And you may as well know this too. Three weeks ago I got unceremoniously dumped.”
“Somepony was fool enough to let you get away?”
Twist shrugged. “It’s a long story.”
“I have time.”
“I’d bet you know Mayor Treadwell.”
“Met her once at a Chamber of Commerce gathering, a couple of years ago,” said Spoke. “I wouldn’t say we’re good friends, but we’re aware of each other’s existence.”
“She’s engaged now, to Cheerful Giver, the head of United Neigh.”
“Now her, I’ve never met.”
“We took a couple of post-graduate classes together at Manehattan, and we’ve stayed close. Coltfriend of the moment was reading about the engagement party in the paper, and he grumbled about how this sort of thing was setting a bad example.”
“What? Too many taxpayer bits spent on frivolity? That’s the usual complaint we hear in Baltimare.”
“Oh, he’s fine with money being spent, as long as some of it is being spent on him.” Twist gave out with a snort. “He’s just hung up on fillyfoolers in high places.”
“And you call me a traditionalist,” Spoke said. “This stallion sounds positively prehistoric.”
Twist sighed. “And I jumped to Cheerful’s defense, as sarcastically as I could. ‘I can assure you,’ I said to him, ‘the Mayor has made a good choice. Cheerful and I go way back.’ You could see his forehead wrinkling from halfway across the room.”
“Indeed. He called me several unpleasant names, of which ‘fillyfooler’ was the mildest, and stormed out of the café, never to be seen again.”
“If you ask me, you’re probably better off without him.”
“Oh, undoubtedly. But it’s taking me longer than I expected to get used to being unattached again.” She winked. “Although I did keep his toothbrush. It’s really good for cleaning the inside of the toilet-bowl rim.”
Spoke laughed. “A little something to remember him by.”
“And that’s the hard part, you know? For a while, it was wonderful. And it turned horrible in just a couple of minutes one morning. You never get used to that.”
“I wish there was something I could do to help,” he said.
“Just being with me tonight helped a lot,” Twist told him. “I had a much better time than I really expected.”
“Happy to oblige.” He bowed. “We must do this again sometime.”
“Not right away,” she said. “I have to let all this sink in, and then patch up my heart one more time.”
“I have the patience of an immortal,” Spoke replied. “I just hope she doesn’t have mine.”
Twist laughed, and gave him a quick kiss. “The night after Winter Wrap-Up, there’s a reception at Town Hall. Not quite black tie, but formal-ish. Miss Twist requests the presence of Mr. Spoke. Seven-thirty.”
“I’ll be there with bells on,” he said.
“Maybe a little more … formal than that,” she teased. “See you then?”
“I wouldn’t miss it for the world.”
She gave him one last smile, and popped open the door. “Good night, and have a wonderful trip home.”
“I will,” he promised. He waited until she closed the door, then trotted back up the street. For some reason, he didn’t feel the slightest bit tired.
The next afternoon, he went to the Post Office to drop off the letter to Pinkie Pie that he’d written on the train; in return, they gave him a week’s worth of incoming mail. When he got home, he was sorting through the stack, when he happened upon an official-looking letter in a City of Baltimare envelope. This can’t be good, he thought, and then he read:
Dear Mr. Spoke:
It’s been several days since we’ve seen you around town. Is something wrong? Please let us know what’s happened to you.
Needful Way, Ph.D.
Department of Social Services
City of Baltimare
He scrawled across the bottom:
Dear Dr. Way:
Nothing whatsoever is wrong. Thank you for paying attention.
And right about the time Celestia was scheduled to raise the sun, he was down at the harbor on the same old bench.
The yellow unicorn filly was right on time. “Hi!”
“Hello yourself,” said Spoke. “Could you give this to your mom for me?”
“Sure can!” She dropped it into her backpack, which was a yellowish orange, he noticed.
“Thank you,” he said. “Have a good day.”
“You too,” said the filly.
As she disappeared around the corner, Spoke thought: Someday she’ll have a Very Special Somepony. And as he started back up the hill, he realized that not once in his life had he ever said such a thing about himself.
So he said it, out loud, and he thanked Celestia for providing such a stirring background to what was going to be a beautiful morning.