His foreleg was held out, almost straight, the hoof at ninety degrees from down, and the old-fashioned canning-jar drinking glass did not fall. Liam didn't dare shake it, of course, he wasn't that sure of himself, but it was absolutely enough that the glass wasn't falling. "See? See? It really works, and I don't even know how I'm doing it - it just works!"
Mairzydoats, the unicorn in the third apartment on the floor below, had sworn that all ponies could hold things with their hooves, and not just by the strange, improbable natural balance that all Equestrians seemed to possess. It definitely wasn't fancy juggling or balancing - Liam's glass was stuck to the bottom of his hoof as if it had been glued there. This was magic, or something like magic, and Mairzy hadn't been teasing them one bit.
She'd been one of the last minute conversions, just before the Los Angeles Bureau shut down and left the city, ahead of the approaching Barrier. It had been all over the media, blaring constantly from every kiosk - the Bureau was pulling up stakes and moving east, and any human not yet converted needed to flee or get ponified pronto.
There were no fourteen days of fine dining and First Meals As A Pony and classes and cartoons about new body parts - it was one big, last, final Conversion Week, and it was come-as-you-are and leave-on-four-hooves, and that was that. Emergency Conversions. They had set up three big tables, labeled 'A', 'B', and 'C', and had a bunch of medics and PA's and any person they could get who could use a medscanner all standing around allergen-typing like mad. Marizydotes had been told she was a 'B', and to go grab a cup and find a place to lie down.
Conversion Bureaus tend to look like enormous used car dealerships after a while - people come, park and just leave their vehicles forever. Ponies don't have much use for cars and trucks and the like, even if they could drive them easily. Even the rich generally don't bother with their AI controlled self-driving models - they get giddy and get swept up in the instant party that so often happens when a bunch of freshly minted newfoals find they are inexplicably best friends. Off they go to play together and form families or ship out to Equestria, and the vehicles just pile up.
Thus Mairzy had some trouble finding anywhere to lay down and drink her cup of purple - finally she just crawled under the plain cloth that covered the table and squeezed in between the others she was surprised to find had thought of the very same plan.
When she woke up, she was a unicorn, without the slightest training or education on how to be a unicorn... much less a pony. But she felt good, and for several days she found herself hanging out with all the other last minute emergency converts in what amounted to a big pony block party. Local businesses and markets brought in free food and drink, and apparently it had been quite the jolly affair.
It was during that big 'Going Out Of Humanity' party that Mairzydotes had both picked her new name, and found out the hoof trick. She had met a native Equestrian, one of the L. A. Bureau staff, who had bothered to tell her a lot of things about being a pony, and about being a unicorn, including stuff they don't bother to teach in the classes, because they only have fourteen days maximum, and they need to concentrate on basic skills that will work for newfoals immediately. The hoof trick takes about a month to learn, minimum.
"So, like, human fingernails are made out of this stuff, and it's the same stuff that, like, hair and junk is made out of, right?" Mairzy had been touring her own apartment building, finally meeting the neighbors for the first time. New ponies tended to do that, their heads suddenly filled with good cheer and a desire for socialization combined with a loss of fear and whatever bigotries they may have had as a human.
"Right...?" Dylan hadn't been sure what to make of Mairzydotes when she had rapped a hoof on the open door and immediately trotted in with a gift of candies in a little bag. She was like a pony social whirlwind - instantly he and Liam had been sucked in, and found themselves sucking on sweets and trying to follow the excited unicorn.
"So, like, ponies are made of different stuff. Like, their hooves and horns and feathers and junk, it's different than that stuff humans have. Pony stuff is... um... I can remember this... um... something-a-corn. Acorn... no, that's not right..." Mairzy wasn't dumb, but she could be forgetful.
"Alicorn! Alicorn, right?" Liam knew all the pony stuff. He was really good with pony stuff. "I remember, I saw a show on the kiosk about it... it was about this human girl going through a Bureau in 'Frisco with her friend. She or somepony mentioned 'alicorn'. I think. I'm pretty sure." Liam stuck his muzzle into the bag and pulled out another rose-and-oat candy "Yuppers! Alicorn. I'm sure of it!"
"Yeah! That's the stuff, thanks!" Mairzydotes had a really nice smile. Dylan thought she seemed nice, but he was still getting used to being social. He thought that was odd, and Liam did too - they had both just expected that Dylan would suddenly be super-social, just like Liam had become. But that isn't what happened. Dylan was more social than he had ever been as a human, but he definitely wasn't as at ease with others as Liam, not by a long shot. It left them scratching their polls for some time.
"Anyway," Mairzy was all excited again "that 'alicorn' stuff is super-magical, right? It's where all the pony powers come out of. On unicorns like me, it's our horn, on pegasai, their feathers are made of alicorn, and for earthponies..." Mairzy had smiled at both Liam and Dylan, who were just that "...it's what their hooves are made of. Actually, all ponies hooves. You, like, get the idea, right?"
Liam and Dylan nodded.
"So, all ponies have hoof powers, and it's like totally cool!" Mairzydotes had stood their grinning, like that statement had settled everything, and there was no more to say. Naturally, Liam and Dylan were quite interested in just what these new powers they had not heard of actually were.
"OK, like earthponies can grow stuff, and pegasai can push clouds and like walk on them and junk, and unicorns... actually I don't know if we get hoof-only superpowers or what. But all ponies can hold things with their hooves if they try." Mairzy had paused to try to remember. A lot of her days partying with the Emergency Conversion crowd had become a blur. "Um... like you got to try, for a long time and stuff, but eventually, you can hold things. No, seriously. I'm not making it up! It's the same as me levi-floating junk with my horn, only hooves can do it too. I saw it!"
Apparently, the native unicorn medic she had been hanging out with had demonstrated the hoof trick, and blown her pony mind. Dylan shrugged with his ears, but Liam had been seriously taken with the notion.
Two months later of everyday practice - with not a few broken bowls - and the drinking glass wasn't falling.
Dylan moved closer and craned his neck to look at the canning-jar glass from every angle. It was just there. The jar was on Liam's hoof, slightly tucked into the hollow of his frog but that wasn't what was keeping it attached. It wasn't that he had somehow wedged the glass between the ends of the 'U' shape of his hoof wall or anything. The glass shouldn't be sticking, but it was.
"Now watch!" Liam grinned, and then thought a bit "Wait! Put your hooves under, and get ready to catch it, alright?"
Dylan sat down on the kitchen floor and raised his forelegs, placing his hooves just under Liam's jar-glass.
"I'm going to stop... uh... holding it. Catch it when it falls, alright?" Liam visibly relaxed.
The jar fell, just like that. Dylan barely managed to catch it between his forehooves, and set the drinking jar down on the floor. "How did you... what did that feel like? How did you make it happen? How did you switch it off?" It really was pretty amazing, also it looked really useful, too. They had both learned how to do everything they truly needed to do with mouth and hoof and the especially incredible sense of balance that earthponies had, but this... this was like having a magic magnet for a hoof, and there were countless uses already forming inside of Dylan's brain.
"Well, I kind of try to 'suck' or 'pull' with my hoof to pick things up, and I sort of stop trying, to let go. That's it. I guess it feels like... you know how you can pick up a maraschino cherry at the bottom of your soda by sucking on the straw and lifting it up? Like that." Liam was very proud of himself, and his vivid green eyes shone with triumph. He had every right to be chuffed, Dylan figured, it was a pretty cool trick, and Liam had been working on it for quite a while.
"I want to learn to do that too, Liam." Dylan put a hoof against the glass and imagined his leg to be a crane with a shiny electromagnet at the end. Nothing happened.
"I'll help you, Dylan! We can try a little every day, if you like!" Liam was happiest in life when he felt he was being helpful with something. "It can be another thing we can do together!" The smile on Liam's face just looked so glad that Dylan would have happily agreed even if he didn't really think the hoof trick was awesome. Which it was.
"I'd... really like that, Liam." Almost as soon as Dylan had said the words, Liam was giving him a quick, happy hug. Liam did that quite a lot, really, and it was only now, months after his own conversion, that Dylan had realized it. In the three years the two had lived together in their third-floor two bedroom, not once had Liam ever given Dylan more than a tentative handshake. It was just plain awkward, two men... touching. But as ponies, all the rules had changed. Dylan smiled at his friend - really his best friend, pretty much his only friend back when he was human. Still his only truly close friend even as a pony.
Somehow, Liam had become a different person as a pony. Before conversion, Liam had been goofy, but quiet. Aloof. Distant. A bit on the angry side. Sometimes he could act like a little bi... bit... b... Dylan felt his mind recoiling at describing somepony he cared so much for in such negative terms. It was mean. He rephrased it in his thoughts. Sometimes... Liam could act... needy and... foal-like, back when he was human. There had been more than once that Dylan had wondered if Liam was gay. He'd always denied it though.
But after conversion, Liam was like day after night. Instantly he had become gregarious, where before he was as withdrawn as Dylan. Being withdrawn was something they had shared. Liam now had many friends, and was interested in their lives, he was giggly and easily excited, and he expressed his emotions almost disturbingly freely. Pony Liam was a completely different being than the human Liam... only not really.
When Dylan really thought about it, there was something about the new Liam that made sense, and that bothered him too. It was like the Liam he had known as a human had been all bottled up. It was as if Dylan had seen, through the glass of the bottle, something of what his old friend really was, and ponification had opened the bottle. The new Liam wasn't exactly strange, he wasn't unexpected at all... who he was now made familiar sense in some way.
It wasn't unpleasant. Dylan still didn't feel... confident? Secure? OK? with initiating hugs, but he definitely did enjoy them. If Liam hadn't hugged him at least twice by the end of the day, Dylan began to wonder if he'd done something wrong. There were times when he was alone, he felt like he wished Liam was there to give him a hug. Being a pony was very, very strange, while at the same time feeling completely safe and normal. It was confusing, Dylan decided.
If it was true that Liam had become some kind of true self by being ponified, a self he had worked to keep hidden all the time Dylan had known him, then things did sort of come together about it all. Becoming a pony had allowed his friend to overcome whatever it was that had kept him bottled up. So what was it about that which was so bothersome? Dylan, reflecting on the issue had come to an uncomfortable realization - it was likely he felt jealous of his friend. Liam had enjoyed such a positive, bright change when he became a pony, yet Dylan felt he had changed very little and truth be told, he had gone into the Bureau hoping to come out as free and uninhibited as Liam.
What really did change, inside, when a human was transformed into an Equestrian? The puzzle of it had begun to nag at Dylan.
Today was another shopping day, and Liam had brought out their saddlebags. Both Dylan and Liam worked as draft ponies, pulling plows and using their earthpony magic to grow food in the new gardens that covered the formerly grey and brown city. They also worked on the Naturing Detail, crushing sidewalks and blacktop with their powerful hooves. As Los Angeles had become Los Pegasus, everything had changed. Hard highways and streets had been smashed and the debris removed to create rustic dirt roads that were much kinder to pony hooves. Parking lots and stretches of cement and plascrete had been removed for gardens and orchards grown to maturity within days. Soil had been hauled to cover the roofs of buildings, or to fill balconies, turning the great city into a vast cluster of ruralized villages and farms. Liam and Dylan had no small part in these matters, and it was how they earned their bits.
Liam carefully placed the two saddlebags on the floor of the shared apartment. Liam's saddlebags had the usual two straps, and the bags were boxy affairs with stiff sides which could stand up on their own. He had chosen teal saddlebags, which he felt went well with his pale violet coat and corn-husk mane and tail. Liam loved color, and he was quite into coordinating its use and application. In truth, the teal saddlebags looked stylish on him.
Liam crouched before the arch made by the two upright, boxy bags and crept forward, low on his hooves. He stuck his head under and through the tunnel made by the two straps and carefully lifted the saddlebags so that the two straps that connected them slid down his long neck, over his withers. By shaking his rump and twisting his body, the saddlebags came to rest perfectly across his back, hanging properly to his sides. He shook out his mane and wiggled his ears in triumph.
"I really think I'm getting better at this, Dylan!" Liam was in good spirits today. He was usually in good spirits, it was rare that he was sad, but when he did become sad, he became fairly weepy, which brought Dylan's heart to his throat, and his forelegs around his friend to comfort him. "Someday, I'm going to do it like Cornflower!"
Cornflower was the native Equestrian that had taught one of the LA Bureau's earthpony 101 classes - apparently Cornflower could slide into saddlebags faster than a human could slip on a T-shirt, and even toss them into the air and catch them on her back without error. It had greatly impressed Liam during his stay at the Bureau.
Dylan approached his own saddlebags with some trepidation. He had yet to get them on without help from Liam. His saddlebags were shiny and black, like his mane - Liam had picked them out, to match, of course - and like Liam's bags were made of the remarkably tough kelp-leather the ponies universally favored. Who knew it was possible to make excellent leather from kelp?
Dylan lay down behind the carefully arranged arch of his own saddlebags. Liam had clearly taken extra time laying Dylan's bags out, trying to make it easier for him. Dylan began to crawl forward, scooting in jerks across the cheap carpeting of the apartment. As he began to enter the saddlebag tunnel, he realized, yet again, that his forehooves bumped right into the bags, knocking the whole thing out of alignment.
Liam was there, on the other side of the tunnel, looking at Dylan with concern, and some amusement. "You can't crawl in Dylan, it's too small. Just stretch your neck through and lift, like a crane, and let it slide down!" Liam had told him this countless times, he felt stupid for forgetting every one of those times. Including now.
Dylan sighed and backed away while Liam set up the saddlebags once more. This time, Dylan tried to mimic what Liam had done, as best he could, crouching on his legs while docking with the saddlebag tunnel with his head and neck alone.
"OK! Great! Now just lift your neck! No... slowly, not so fast... oh... um... here, hang on..." Liam had gone around to Dylan's flanks and began to tug the rear strap back up and over his dock. Next Liam stepped closer to Dylan's shoulder, and with his neck over Dylan's back, nibbled until he grasped the forward strap in his teeth, so that he could tug the saddlebags into proper place. "There! Perfect!"
Liam stepped back to admire the result. "Looking stylish, Dylan! You are quite the bumblebee today!"
Dylan's coat was bright yellow, and with his black mane and tail, Liam had though he looked like a bumblebee. It had become a bit of a pet name now, actually. Bees were another Equestrian import, having long ago perished from the earth, and bee-related designs and patterns and jewelry had enjoyed a recent popularity. Bees and butterflies both, returned to the world from Equestria, now fluttering and buzzing in the green gardens of Los Pegasus.
Dylan hung his head. "I don't think I'll ever get this." He looked so sad.
Liam nuzzled his friend. "You'll get it eventually, don't worry! And until then, you will always have me here to help you get dressed! Besides, it's more fun this way!"
"Really? Is it fun... for you?" Dylan had assumed that his roommate was burdened with him and his ineptitude at basic earthpony tasks.
"Oh, Dylan... Dylan... I really do like helping you. I love helping you! I kind of fear the day you actually get good at things like putting on saddlebags, because then you won't need me anymore. And that would be really sad." Liam had a strange look in his eye, which Dylan couldn't decode.
"So... it's not like a burden or anything?" Dylan gave his rear a shake, testing to make sure the saddlebags were on solidly. It was embarrassing to have them just fall off walking to market. Or worse, back.
Liam crept close and stared directly into Dylan's bright purple eyes. "It's so far from a burden that... it's a pleasure, Dylan. I really, really do like being helpful that way. It makes me feel useful to you." Liam's gaze was so intent, there was no way to doubt it. Dylan felt a strange tingle run down his spine, inexplicable, like electricity. That happened a lot when Liam got all intense and serious like that. Maybe it was some weird earthpony magic thing or something. Dylan shivered to let the tingle evaporate, and grinned, to show he was all right. Liam instantly brightened to his usual bouncy self.
It took a while to leave the building, it always did. Almost everypony left their door wide open now, eager to say hello or share a joke or a bit of gossip with anypony passing by. Liam was popular, and for some reason he could not fathom, so was Dylan. He mostly just stood by Liam and remained silent, but everypony treated him with respect, even when he went out alone. Dylan wasn't a big talker, he wasn't able to be open like Liam was, so he couldn't understand why he would be treated so well. Maybe it was because he was mostly always with Liam - maybe popularity just rubbed off, somehow. Or maybe Liam said nice things about him all the time, during those moments when they weren't together.
That would be like Liam, Dylan thought. He'd do stuff like that.
Dylan liked being well thought of, he just couldn't understand how he'd earned it. He wanted to be able to chat, and joke, and interact with everypony on his own, but... it was so difficult. He kind of choked up when faced with another pony, and couldn't think of what to say or how to say it. He felt afraid he'd say the wrong thing, so he just remained quiet.
When they finally made it out the door of the apartment building, Dylan had learned many things. Mrs. Daisypetal was expecting her first foal, the Raspberry twins had been the ones that ate all the carrots from the roof garden, and had been properly scolded for not fessing up. Loco Mocha had finally learned how to levitate three objects at once with her horn and her mother was oh-so-proud. Spanky and Sweetcheeks and Speckle Dots were all getting married in traditional Equestrian style, they wanted the ceremony before the Barrier hit, but they weren't sure it could happen in time. Scrumpy Custard had nearly split his hoof wide open breaking up concrete for a new garden, and would you boys try to be careful, so the same wouldn't happen to you - no, Scrumpy is going to be fine, thanks to nanoglue, or maybe it was the unicorn medic, she wasn't sure.
Everypony they knew had brand new names. Except for Liam and Dylan. Dylan worried that it was because of him. Before he had been converted, he had a little falling out with Liam. He had left after hearing their favorite grocer suggest a new name for Liam - 'Violet Fetlocks', and Dylan had scorned it, and then run off. Since he had returned, as a pony, the two had never talked about the incident, and Mr. Whitemane, the grocer, had never brought it up since, either.
In the new world of ponies and pony life, in the new Los Angeles that was called Los Pegasus, human names stuck out. They just sounded wrong. Strange. They sounded like somepony deliberately trying to be contrary, refusing to join in, or at least that is what Dylan thought. The sentiment didn't seem to be echoed by others, not if how Liam and he were treated was any measure, but still. Trotting around with crude-sounding, meaningless monikers in a world of Aetherwinds and Flowersongs and Stormrunners and other colorful, meaningful names... it made Dylan feel other, and inside himself, less.
Whitemane's little grocery was just down nine blocks to the south, on Garcelon Avenue. Overhead, a moderately-sized cloud was being pushed by a group of pegasai, doubtless intended for one of the gardens downtown. The pegasai were kept pretty busy now, what with all of the greening of the city. Dylan figured it must be pretty tough being a pegasus right now - Los Pegasus was in desert land, so there was a lot of cloud-pushing to do. He chuckled to himself - somewhere out there, right now, there just had to be a pegasus named 'Cloudpusher'. The name just sounded funny, because it was so obvious. 'Hi, I'm Cloudpusher! I... um... push... uh... clouds.'
"Something funny?" Liam smiled, hopefully. He liked all kinds of jokes and anything the least bit fun.
"Oh, I was just thinking - because of the pegasai up there - " Dylan nodded at the hard-working winged ponies maneuvering the unwieldy cloud above "that somewhere, right now, in this city, there has just got to be a pegasus named 'Cloudpusher'. It's just such an obvious name, you know?"
Liam considered the notion. "I guess so... and?"
"Well, Cloudpusher... he pushes clouds. 'Hi! I'm Cloudpusher and I push clouds!'" Liam wasn't getting it. "It's like a human being named 'Ditchdigger' or 'Trashsorter' - 'Hello there, my name is Trashsorter, and I bet you can't guess what I do for a living!', like that."
Liam and Dylan walked on, Liam obviously trying to see where Dylan was coming from. "I guess it... is obvious, I kind of get that, but... doesn't it just make sense? I mean... if you really love what you do, why not name yourself after what you love? It's true that a lot of ponies name themselves after what they look like, or something they like to eat or whatever but..."
"No, no, Liam - it's... who would actually enjoy sorting trash, right? Or digging a ditch? For a pegasus, what could be more ordinary and dull than pushing a cloud, see?" Dylan felt like he was explaining water to a fish, it should be already understood.
"I do. I like digging ditches." Liam's eyes were without any trace of guile, he meant it. "Well, furrows, anyway, it's kind of the same thing. When we're on plow duty, and we're pulling together, and the ground changes behind us because of our magic, when the little green shoots pop up right after our hooves leave the soil... I love that. All the time, I'm thinking about how warm it is in the sunshine, and how happy I am to be helping to make delicious num-nums, and that you're there beside me and..." Liam suddenly looked off at the group of unicorns galloping down the road, hovering groceries in their horn fields.
The two ambled on down the dirt lane, past the gardens made from the ruins of the buildings that didn't survive the Austerity War, or parking lots that didn't survive the advent of hooves. Dylan didn't know what to say. He had thought it was funny. Cloudpusher, I push clouds! For a living! Liam and he got along like matched bookends all of the time, except for moments like this. They hadn't had moments like this when they had been human together. Liam would just laugh at whatever sick thing - it was usually pretty raunchy - that Dylan would come up with and that was that. Liam acted weird now, sometimes. Like he had a different opinion of things. He never used to, not about stuff like this.
"Liam... did I do something wrong? Again?" Dylan found himself feeling strangely insecure. That was new, too.
Liam's ears folded back, then stood up again. "No, no... of course not, Dylan. I'm sorry. Maybe it's just all the sunshine. Now that there's no smog anymore, it's just so bright, you know?"
The two walked on in relative silence for some time, the clippy-clop of their hooves softly pounding the sun-baked dirt. Dylan found he really liked walking as a pony, there was something soothing and relaxing about it, and on four legs he always felt so stable and sure-footed. Stable! Hah! He thought about telling Liam that one, but decided not to press his luck, since he hadn't comprehended a bit of what had just happened with the last joke.
"Yes?" Liam was smiling at Dylan. It seemed like he had been already, before Dylan had broached the silence. What was up with that?
"Um... I wanted to talk to you about names. And apologize. Because I think I may have... I mean...." It wasn't as easy as Dylan had expected it to be. "I mean, back when, back before I went pony, there was that time when I left, you know, with mister Whitemane and... um..." This was definitely more difficult than he had thought.
"Oh. Ahhh..." Liam nodded, his large green eyes half shut. "'Violet Fetlocks'. I remember."
Dylan winced inside. He'd been kind of a... a... he'd been a little mean back then. He didn't like how that realization felt.
"It's OK, Dylan. Don't worry about it." The voice was believable, but Liam's ears were back against his head, and that told a completely different story. Dylan thought such things were really useful. Pony emotions were difficult to hide and there were countless tells. It really made understanding a lot easier when it was almost impossible to hide how one felt. On the other hoof, Dylan doubted that a pony could ever be good at poker.
"No, it's not alright. I feel... I'm sorry for acting that way back then. I was dealing with a lot of... stuff, and I feel like I kind of put you off on the whole idea of taking a new name. A proper pony name." Dylan studied his forehooves as they walked. Clip-clop. Clip-clop. "And I regret that."
Dylan looked up after he realized there had been no response. "Liam?"
Liam stopped and stood, regarding his friend. Dylan stopped too. "You've told me about what made you change your mind, what made you decide to go to the Bureau. The dream you had, the memory."
When Dylan had run away, after the 'Violet Fetlocks' incident, he had holed up in various abandoned hotels, feeling sorry for himself and angry at Liam, angry at the ponies, just... angry. On his last night, he had a dream, a memory dream about his childhood. At some point, when he was very young, when his mother had still been alive, she had taken him to a street fair in East Los Angeles, a hispanic street fair.
Dylan's mother had been very open to life in Los Angeles. She had seen the mix of cultures as one large buffet to which every citizen had been given a large plate and the encouragement to eat all they wanted. Dylan had loved his trips with her, and in the dream, he remembered dancing, freely, to a mariachi band and being doted on by an elderly woman who had instantly become his nana for the day, for no other reason than he was a child, and he was there.
That dream had changed Dylan's heart. He had forgotten what it meant to be open, both in heart and in the wideness of his arms. He had realized just how closed off he had become, and how much he had lost by becoming so. And then... he had realized how much he was losing in Liam. In the end, that was why he had gone to the Bureau. He could have run, to the east coast, and then to Europe, and then South Africa, as the Barrier closed in, he could have chosen to put it off, or die as a man, but if he had done that, he would never have seen Liam again. He knew, just knew, that Liam would be doing everything to try to find him.
When Dylan had shown up, release bag in mouth, it quickly became clear that this is exactly what had happened. Liam had always been his best friend, his only friend, even though he had never truly understood what a profound gift that was.
"Yeah, yeah, the dream." Dylan studied his hooves again. Shiny, black, they looked like hard, round dress shoes. "Remembering my mother, that fair she took me to, back before... before she was gone, it made me... reconsider my life." Dylan's mother had gone shopping in the wrong part of town at exactly the wrong time, and had been caught in a drive-by. He had never gotten over it, withdrawing into himself, dying inside with every passing day. "But... it isn't what made me go to the Bureau, not really."
"I don't understand". Liam was simple when he should be complex, and complex when things were supposed to be simple. It was frustrating sometimes.
"You're my best friend, Liam. You're the best friend I ever had. Really, the only friend, after what happened to my mother..." Dylan wasn't sure exactly what he was saying, or how he was supposed to say it. "I'm just sorry about running off like an idiot, and I am really sorry if the reason you've never taken a real pony name was because of the way I acted about... about Whitemane's suggestion, is all. Take any name you want. Be Violet Fetlocks if you want. I don't... I just want you to be you because..." There was nothing else in his head to say. His heart wanted to say more, but his head wasn't able to parse it, what did come through was scrambled, like a bad signal. Dylan felt stupid just standing there, staring at his hooves, and the ant that had decided to crawl nearby.
Suddenly his face was in shade and he felt a soft, slow nuzzle against his cheek. "I understand."
Sunshine hit his eyes full on as he raised his head. Liam was standing proud with the sun above and the vast, approaching Barrier cutting the sky in half. "You know, 'Violet Fetlocks' wouldn't do at all!" Liam smiled broadly. "I mean, I'm more than just a set of pretty fetlocks!" Liam put on a pose that looked like something one would expect to see in a Dress Club, where the ponies put on socks to be outrageous and sexy.
Dylan couldn't help but laugh at the display. "Yes, yes you are. Exactly what, I won't say. Besides, you need to get those things trimmed, dude. Your hooves are starting to look like dust mops."
"Um... really?" Liam looked almost hurt. He was freaking pouting. It was a joke, a joke!
"No... NO! Sweet biscuits, Liam, I'm just kidding. I'm the one that trims them, so if they're too long, it's my fault anyway. They're perfect... uh...wait. You're messing with me, right?"
Liam whisked his tail across Dylan's startled face. "Race you to the market!"
"You are SO ON!"
The remaining blocks passed in a flash as the two stallions went at full speed leaving puffs of dust behind them as their hooves pounded the sun-baked dirt. By the time they had made it to the market, both had sweaty coats, and Dylan's saddlebags were partially dragging behind him. Liam spent some time pulling them onto Dylan's back while Dylan panted, his tongue lolling out. Liam had won the race, but it didn't matter.
A strong laugh met Dylan's ears, it was Mister Whitemane, who ran the mostly open-air market. He and his family had converted early and had some kind of a connection with ponies in Equestria, which meant that his was the best local place to go, to get real, imported produce. It had mattered more months ago, now, through strong effort, local Los Pegasus food was serious competition for the imported goods. This had only become more pronounced the closer the Barrier got - more thaumatic energy meant more earthpony powers, and that meant better and better food. The recently grown Los Pegasus apples were competitive with Equestrian ones, which was a great source of pride to every newfoal in the city.
"You two, always having fun! Racing in this heat... ah, what a joy it must be to be so young." This was always an odd thing to hear from Mister Whitemane - physically, he was the same age as Liam and Dylan, because ponification set back the clock. It truly was a fresh new life. But as a human, Mister Whitemane had been in his sixties, and somehow the reality of his new physiological age had not fully registered with him. He still thought of himself as old, despite how he looked, and no doubt felt. Liam and Dylan had learned not to argue the point.
"Well... yeah... Liam whipped my face with his tail... heh... he needed a good... chasing." Dylan was still a bit out of breath - even with the smog gone, and blue skies above, the fact was that the desert climate was hot and today was a scorcher.
"You wild stallions look thirsty, here..." Mister Whitemane set out two half-buckets and filled them with water from a hose that snaked back into the building behind the open air part of his market. Thanks to the diligent efforts of the pegasai, water had been restored to many parts of Los Pegasus, and this is one big reason why the Whitemanes' had chosen to set up shop in the location they were in. "... you can't shop if you're dying of thirst!"
Liam and Dylan dove for the buckets at almost the same time. A second filling was in order, which Mister Whitemane happily obliged. Licking the last drops from his muzzle, Dylan finally had his breath back. "Oh, wow... thank you. I really needed that. Liam too. Thank you Mr. Whitemane!"
"It is no problem, not for my two favorite neighborhood stallions. So, what can I help you with today?" Whitemane's youngest, a little filly currently named 'Froggy' after her favorite toy, a rubber frog, had trotted up and was pressing against her father's legs. She kept peeking at Dylan and Liam, while trying to stay half-hidden inside the cage of her father's limbs. The two had wondered at times if the little filly would keep the unusual name as she grew up, Liam hoping she would, and Dylan sure she couldn't reasonably do so.
Dylan and Liam began selecting produce and treats for the next several days. It was very difficult to shop alone as an earthpony, so the two picked out their items and filled each other's saddlebags as they went. It was important to load them evenly, since the bags had no billet straps underneath. There was no need for carts or baskets or a checkout lane. The two were expected to remember their choices and report them so they could be paid for. Dylan both marveled and felt some discomfort at this matter of trust. There was no question of stealing, it never happened. That part was wonderful, the world had become honest. The disturbing part, to Dylan, was why.
Clearly the brain was altered during conversion. Dylan wouldn't steal from Mr. Whitemane, even as a human, but that wasn't the issue. Nopony stole. It just wasn't a concern. Dylan had once tested himself, to see what would happen. He had carefully slipped a small cloth-wrapped bundle of homemade oat candies (everything now was homemade, and fancy packaging had been replaced entirely with reusable jars and jugs or cloth wrappings which were brought back) into Liam's bags when nopony was looking. His intent was to deliberately not mention the theft, as an experiment.
He had made it as far as an entire block before the guilt was overwhelming. He couldn't stop thinking about Mr. Whitemane's family, about how they depended on honest shoppers, he kept worrying about little Froggy, and whether she would go hungry because he had cheated the Whitemane family. It wasn't at all about getting caught, or what Mr. Whitemane would think of him or being punished in some way. He found himself utterly caring about what his theft might do to the Whitemanes.
Dylan had rushed back and confessed everything to Mister Whitemane, he couldn't help himself. He begged forgiveness, and explained why he had done it, that he was trying to see what the Bureau had done to his brain and... Mr. Whitemane forgave him just like that. He wouldn't even take the two bits for the candy, saying that he understood completely, and that it was a gift... but Dylan had left four bits on the counter, twice the price, because he felt so bad.
That night he had cried in Liam's forelegs, still ashamed of himself. It was only then that he began worrying if he dared ever show his muzzle at Whitemane's market again. Liam had needed to take him back the next day to talk with Mr. Whitemane, just to get it all clear in Dylan's heart that everything was alright.
Caring. That was the disturbing thing. Stealing wasn't blocked by some weird governor or some neurological program or somesuch. Stealing, violence, crime of any sort - it was stopped by one thing alone. Compassion. Empathy. That is what had been tuned up, cranked up to eleven and the knob ripped off, that is what conversion did to the brain. Hooves for the legs, and compassion for the brain. Ponies didn't steal because others meant something to them, personally, constantly, always. Abstractly, Dylan could see it was the very definition of goodness, of justice, of rightness. But it was... it was frankly unhuman. Unearthly. The strangeness of it was uncomfortable to Dylan. But not even a bit, to Liam.
Dylan had been so caught up in his thoughts that he hadn't noticed the pegasus. He was a huge, strapping sort, almost certainly a native pegasus, visiting Earth. Maybe he was one of the mail carriers, or he could be one of the trainers from the Bureau... no, that couldn't be it. The Bureau had up and pulled out of Los Pegasus because of the Barrier. In three days, it would hit and Los Pegasus would be no more. There was no need for a Bureau, because very soon, everything would be Equestria.
Liam was acting like he was a deer caught in the headlights. Dylan had learned that phrase from his great grandfather, who claimed to have seen real deer. The pegasus was the most intense peacock blue that Dylan had ever seen, with a striking mane that looked like flame. His muscles had muscles, and those muscles were getting ready to have grandmuscles. And it was clear that his mesmerizing, golden eyes were intently locked on Liam's suddenly shy green ones.
"...like to have dinner with me? I know a wonderful little cafe, it's at the very top of the Bank Tower - I could fly you there, it would be easy. Ever dine on the top of the world? You can see right into Equestria from up there... all the way in, and they make the most exquisite..." The pegasus was... he was... he was hitting on Liam! Why... that overdeveloped bluebird was asking Liam out on... on a... a DATE!
Dylan dropped the celery he had picked out, unsure of anything anymore. Liam was... he was blushing. By Luna's Left Hoof, his friend was... blushing, and looking down demurely... and his tail was... it was swishing. Ponies couldn't play poker, Dylan reminded himself, and the tells were blatant and obvious. Liam... Liam was interested. Flattered. Really... flattered.
His body moved of it's own accord, Dylan just watched from afar as if he were floating somewhere just over his own left shoulder, he swore it seemed like he could see the back of his own head, his black mane tumbling down over his own bright lemon coat. He heard his own lips speaking, felt his hoof stomp, hard on the ground. "He's taken!"
What had he just done? What had he just said? What prissy pony voodoo was happening to him?
"Ah, well!" The proud blue native pegasus grinned with enormous confidence. "Why don't we let Liam here make his own decision, hmmm?" He knew Liam's name already! The scabby spawn of a diamond dog said Liam's name like he knew him or something!
Liam's eyes were round saucers of disbelief and emotions so mixed that Dylan couldn't even hope to comprehend one of them. After some time, Liam's eyes softened, became gentle, and he turned to the bulky pegasus and spoke, almost in a whisper. "I'm very sorry. Thank you, it's a very tempting offer but..." Liam's eyes, half lidded, glowed warmly in the afternoon light as he studied Dylan "...I guess... that I'm... taken."
The pegasus let out a loud guffaw, before flapping off. He had no purchases to make. "Newfoals." He said the word dismissively, as if he were describing immature children that had annoyed him by raising a ruckus on his lawn.
The walk back was, for a long time, a silent one. During checkout, neither Liam nor Dylan had allowed their eyes to meet. Mr. Whitemane, who had watched the whole thing was his usual jolly self, but it was a subdued jolly, as if he didn't want to intrude in a strange privacy that had momentarily borrowed his market.
Dylan's thoughts raced inside his pony head. Why had he done that? What had he said that? Taken? Liam was... taken? The scene played over and over in his head, and he felt like he was on a boat out in some terrible storm on a sea of emotions all splashing and crashing around him while other emotions lit up the sky in frightening bolts. He wasn't gay. Liam wasn't gay. Liam had told him he wasn't gay. For all the three years they had lived together in the apartment building, and the two years before that in the dorms. And the year they rented the loft together while they finished college.
Why, Dylan had gone on dates. With human women of the opposite sex. Well, one date. OK, that one didn't work out. But who has time for dating? It was a major battle just to try to get a corporate position and stay out of the favelas, that would take up anypony's time. And Liam. He never went on dates. But he got along great with fillies. They'd talk like old friends the minute he'd meet a filly. Like... like girlfriends. Like girls together. Oh crap. Brain Stem to Cerebral Cortex, we have a complete loss of essential understanding, we are going down, repeat, the brain is going down...
Liam was staring at Dylan with a worried look. Mostly because Dylan had suddenly stopped in the middle of the road, legs spread and locked, with his mouth open and his eyes bugging out. "Dylan? Are you... alright? Do you need some water or..." Liam was at a loss.
Dylan began to realize what he must look like, so he began to collect himself. He unlocked his legs, and stood more comfortably. He remembered to close his mouth. He blinked a few times, feeling the sting of how dry his eyes had become.
The awkward silence lasted only a short time.
"Liam..." Dylan's voice was a little shaky, he noted. "Liam, I need you to be straight with me." The humor of that sentence almost made Dylan laugh, considering what he intended to ask. "I know I've asked you this before, as a human anyway, but... now we're ponies and... are you gay? D...Do you like... stallions?" The last part he could barely whisper. "Do... do you like... me?"
Liam thought for a long time. "No, I'm not gay. I don't particularly prefer stallions. Or mares. I've thought about this a lot, Dylan. I... I'm like native ponies, I think. I like who I like." Dylan once again found his hooves to be the most interesting thing in the universe to look at.
"I'm not attracted... because of what sex a pony is. I mean, that pegasus... whoo, you know? He was pretty amazing, and part of me wanted to go with him. That's true. But... a lot more of me didn't want to go, and I wouldn't have in any case. I really wouldn't. Thought about it later tonight, a lot, yes. But I wouldn't have gone with him."
Dylan looked up. Liam showed a new face to him, one he had never seen before. It was serious to the point of tears, almost hard, solid as stone. "W-Why not?"
"Because I was at the market with you." The words were simple but they somehow spoke vast volumes to some part inside Dylan's swirling consciousness.
"Liam... I'm not gay either. I... I have never once thought about a man that way. Not once." It was the truth. Dylan hadn't particularly thought about women either 'that way', but he didn't feel good mentioning that right at the moment.
"What about a pony, then?"
Dylan's hooves had an orange streak down them, a gleam of light from the setting sun. They had gotten scuffed, he'd have to try to polish them. It wasn't that hard to do. He'd mostly gotten it down, though it was easier when he polished Liam's hooves and Liam polished his and... um.
"Come on, Dylan, it's getting late. We can talk on the way. Come on, you silly stallion."
Dylan found himself ambling along, still looking at the ground for some reason. He could see Liam's perfect violet hooves, he just had to stay side by side with them, and he needn't look anywhere else.
"I... Liam... I just..." What could he say? He didn't know what he felt, or who he was anymore. "I am so confused, Liam."
"Remember when you tried to play Slaughterstrike, when you first came back?"
Dylan had refused to accept that he wouldn't like violent games and programs anymore, despite having seen Liam become averse to such things after his ponification. Dylan figured it was just some kind of pony programming that could be overridden with effort. At first, he had slipped right into the online battlefield, and found he could play even better as a pony than he had as a human. His reflexes were vastly greater, his timing amazing. He found he could move, jump, turn, aim and shoot like some kind of bot. He felt invincible against the human players, and it turned out that he was.
He had rounded a ruin in the virtual world and spied, just for an instant, a trooper ducking down. He had leapt up, spinning with precision and landed behind his opponent. It felt like everything was in slow motion, like he was using a hack, which in a way he was - his pony brain was just plain faster. He had deliberately waited for the other player to stand up and desperately turn around, because he could, because it would be hilarious. At the last moment he dropped his gun and knifed the guy right in the face. It was the perfect humiliation kill. It was glorious.
And just as quickly, he had ripped the custom MicroSony Mindset, the one he had bought for Liam, for when he returned from conversion, right off of his new, pony head. He had bawled like a foal in Liam's forelegs, wracked with tears and sobs. He had hurt that players feelings. He couldn't have helped but hurt his feelings, and it was even more obvious when the foul swearing came out of the Mindset external speakers. Oh that guy was pissed. The names he was calling Dylan - but Dylan wasn't angry, he was miserable. He knew he had made another living person, on the other end, somewhere in the world, deeply unhappy and angry. He hadn't meant to. He had just wanted to play, and have fun, and he had hurt another living creatures feelings.
Dylan had pulled away from Liam and tried to apologize, to say he was sorry, that it wasn't sporting, that he felt so bad for stabbing the guy in the face like that, and for a while there was silence on the other end. Then mocking laughter and both teams calling him a faggot and a freak, until he was summarily booted from the game.
But the part that felt the strangest in all that moment was that the feeling of being sad about hurting the feelings of another online player wasn't entirely new. Deep down, way deep down, Dylan had understood that he had felt that before, only it was never loud enough to matter. He would shrug such a feeling off as being embarrassed about using a 'cheap' tactic, of getting a 'cheap' kill. But it wasn't that it was cheap. That was just a deflection. Dylan had felt such emotions before, just not as strongly, and definitely not as honestly. Not even close.
Yes, yes, Dylan remembered.
"I think bodies - even brains - are like a car." They had stopped again, and Liam had his neck over Dylan's back in a pony hug. Even in the warm twilight air it felt good. "You might be in a car with no artificial intelligence, with bad batteries, and bad shocks and maybe it has a bunch of quirks you are really used to. This is all you know, that car, how it drives, how it works, the things that are right and wrong with it. It's an extension of yourself, in a way, but you're still the driver, inside the car."
Liam pulled Dylan close for a moment with his neck and jaw, a quick squeeze. "But one day that car dies, and you get a new car. This car is fancy and strange and has all kinds of new stuff. It has an onboard AI that can drive for you if you want, and a nav system and super brakes and a nightvision HUD and automatic collision avoidance and it runs smooth and fast and it's just amazing, this new car."
Dylan raised his own neck and draped it across Liam's back, completing the hug. "So, you have this new car, but it feels strange. It's different. It drives differently, it does everything differently. Your life changes because of this car in so many ways, and because a car is a kind of extension of your abilities, of your self, you feel different too. But... Dylan... you're still the same driver, inside the car. Maybe your whole life is different, maybe you can drive places you never could or would before, but you are still the same driver, inside that new car."
Dylan was silent for a while. Then he began to chuckle. Liam began to chuckle too. Things didn't quite make it to a full laugh, but it helped.
"It's still me, inside the new car." Dylan said the words with reverence. In them was the answer to all of his confusion.
"Ponies can't be gay or straight or whatever." Liam gave Dylan another squeeze. "They don't even have words in their language for such things, did you know that? They don't even have it as a concept."
"I... I kind of heard that before. Someplace." Dylan could smell the sweat of the day on Liam's violet coat. It smelled sweet.
"Equestrians just like... who they like. They love... who they love. The gender doesn't matter, even the species doesn't matter, remember the film in the Bureau - you must have seen it - where they show interspecies relationships, ponies with griffons, ponies with dragons, ponies with... it doesn't matter. To an Equestrian, to a pony, there is only love. That's all, just love."
Dylan pulled back, with some effort, and faced Liam. The sun was almost down now, the fading light compensated for by the brilliant morning in Equestria, filling half of the entire sky. In two days, it would be here, Los Pegasus would be gone, the world of man would be gone from around them, and the only sun in the sky would belong to Celestia and the only moon would be that of Luna. Dylan stood on his hooves, and felt them, solid in the ground, the strange flow of his own earthpony magic reaching into the dirt, informing him, making contact in ways no human could understand. He could feel the life in the sun-baked dirt, the tiny spores and miniscule seeds. He could feel them growing, sprouting, bursting through the surface because of his presence, because of the strength of his emotion inside him at this moment.
Liam cocked his head to the side and smiled. "Of course, Dylan! Hasn't it been obvious all along?"
Dylan realized that ponification hadn't changed him as much as he imagined. In some ways, it was less a change than a release, like being set free. The basic things about a soul didn't change. Like how dense Dylan could be sometimes.
"I'm..." Dylan hesitated, because the words meant everything. The words held vast weight.
"Yes?" Liam was smiling in the strange glow from two universes, his muzzle orange on one side from the dying light of the Earth's sun, and yellow in the other from the rising sun of Equestria's morning.
"I'm..." Dylan put his heart, firmly, finally, completely into the words. "I'm taken too."