CHAPTER TWENTY-SEVEN - CONFESSIONS
"I asked for water. You gave me gasoline." - Howlin' Wolf
With Bananas Foster's revelation came 100,000 billion more questions. How the shadowmajigs operated; what their next move might be; what we could do to protect ourselves now that we knew their angle, if anything could be done at all. But the one thing that really made my brain itch, more than any of that other stuff, was the need to know how exactly Bananas Foster had managed to escape that doom castle.
I didn't get to find out.
Not right away.
As Foster stood by the wall of her bubble, and I sat on the edge of my bed, contemplating her discovery, the door swung open, and a cheerful head popped inside.
"Good morning, good morning," it said in bubbly, but muted tones. "It's breakfast time. Who's up for muffins?"
Foster darted to the far corner of her dome, leapt for the rope that drew her curtain closed, and Zip!
Just like that, I was left alone with this orange lady, and her tray full of muffins. Even though I still had all that doom talk rattling around inside my head. The desert that swallowed up lost souls. The ruined worlds from storybook lore. The revelation that the shadow monsters were incapable of original thought – of imagination. I had barely begun to digest any of that when this lady had barged in.
I was not ready for small talk.
The mare in the stripey scrubs tip-hooved over to the chair next to me, and gently roused my sister. Roseluck awoke with a startle and a whimper. She looked around, all confused and such. When she finally saw me, she dodged my eyes.
“Oops,” said the mare in the striped scrubs. “You havin’ a dream, sugah?”
"What? No." Roseluck said defensively. “I’m fine.”
I reached out to put my hoof on her shoulder. But she just held up her own hoof. A give me a minute gesture.
‘She’ll be fine.’ Muffin Nurse turned to me and mouthed silently.
She made her way around my bed with a wink, and headed for Cliff Diver. It took her a solid minute. She had to climb over a great big old pile of crap on the floor - trinkets, and books, and crumbled-up pieces of paper - things that’d spilled out of Cliff's saddlebag. When the nurse got to him, she nudged his snorey, drooly face awake.
Meanwhile, Roseluck took my hoof into hers. When I turned to face her, she gave me a warm, fragile smile.
“What happened?" I whispered.
My sister closed her eyes and shook her head.
“It was just a dream.” She whispered back. “Not that kind of dream."
She was quick to add.
“Really,” she said. “It's fine.”
Cliff let out a yawn like a moaning whale. And the second that I craned my neck, even a little bit, to glance in his direction, the pony in the striped scrubs was suddenly next to me again. Talking. Expecting me to be coherent.
"You sleep well, sweetie?"
I stopped for a minute. Blinked at her in confusion. Because Sweetie was the actual name of a classmate of mine. Then my barely-awake brain finally kicked at me from the inside of my skull.
She’s using a term of endearment, stupid.
I laughed at myself, and shook my head no in reply. I had not, in fact, slept well.
"Aww. Well, that's a shame." Said the stripey mare. "How's about a muffin? We've got raisin bran, blueberry, and banana."
I didn't answer. Instead, I stared off into space, and fretted about Roseluck. She fretted right back at me too, though she did her level best to hide it.
“Raisin bran, blueberry, or banana?” The mare repeated, and shoved a tray of muffins right up in front of my face.
“Bananas,” I said.
I didn't even want a muffin. But Bananas Foster was still on my mind.
* * *
"You all right?" Said Cliff, a few minutes later around a mouthful of muffin.
We were alone now - the three of us. Four if you counted the filly behind the curtain. The Muffin Mare was long gone.
"I guess so," I replied, all cold and distant-like.
"What is it?" Cliff Diver climbed up off the floor. "Did you have another dream? Already?"
I shook my head.
“I didn't sleep at all. A lot on my mind, I guess. You know, destroyed worlds and stuff."
I looked to Foster's curtain. All longing-like. ‘Cause I neeeeeeded to pick her brain. I mean really, really, reeeally needed to. To hear the end of her story. To compare notes!
And my sister - she was sitting right between us. Something was up with her too. The second that I mentioned destroyed worlds, Rose got all nervous again. She startled. Twitched like somepony had just flicked her nose with a pencil.
When she finally worked up the nerve to look at me directly, Roseluck just sighed.
"I'm really sorry." She said to me. “There's something I need to tell you. I, um...should have brought it up earlier when this all started, but, well…”
Roseluck let out a nervous little laugh, and flashed a nervous little smile. While I just stared at her what-the-fuckishly. ‘Cause what the fuck? We were sisters. We didn't hide stuff from one another. I mean, we did, but nothing major. Nothing that warranted a giant confession, like she seemed to be making.
“I had a dream just now,” she said. “Not the type with shadows, or time travel, or any of that.”
My sister was quick to clarify.
“The kind of dream where your conscience takes a bite out of you."
Roseluck closed her eyes, and shook her head.
"You can't stop the bomb.” She said.
“The bomb, the future, the megaspell that's destined to obliterate Equestria. You can't stop it. None of us can.”
Rose clutched at my foreleg. Hard. Pleaded with me.
“I'm sorry.” She said. “I didn't want to say anything at first, but I…”
She bit her lip, squeezed her eyes shut again, and stopped before she could finish her thought.
"Well, why the hay not?" Cliff huffed. "We've got Rose Petal's superpowers."
"Shut up." I said, all blushitty. “I don't have superpowers."
"And my science stuff." Cliff continued - frantically collecting his papers off the floor. “And...And you!"
He pointed a hoof at my sister.
"You got attacked by ice. 'Cause…’cause, ‘cause the shadows are trying to stop us!"
"I know." Roseluck pleaded.
“Then how can you say that we’re doomed? If they want to stop us so bad, we must be close!” Cliff’s voice cracked.
"Not if what they're trying to stop us from doing has nothing to do with the war."
That shut Cliff up.
"These things you encountered, they aren't going to cause the war." My sister added meekly. "Or the apocalypse. We will. Ponies will."
Cliff Diver looked to me. For confirmation. For reassurance. But Roseluck was right.
"Then I guess we have to stop the ponies too." Cliff said.
Roseluck shook her head again.
"Even if there is a way to prevent the war, and there might be," she added brightly. "It still can't be us who do it."
My stomach started doing cartwheels. Roseluck was talking like Luna now. I didn't like it. That destiny stuff was tranquil somehow when it came from the princess. She was over a thousand years old. She could afford to think in epochs. But to hear my own sister talk like that? It was awful.
I felt alone. Angry. Like grown-ups everywhere were just folks you couldn't count on at all. They were too busy being logical, and sensible to understand that, when something's wrong with the world, it's your job to fucking fix it.
"If not us, then who?" I growled through gritted teeth.
"I don't know." She said.
There was sadness in her voice.
“But we have to try." Cliff Diver whimpered.
Roseluck shook her head.
"We have to." He repeated.
Rose shook her head again. Shaking her head seemed like all that she knew how to do.
"Let's say we do prevent the war. If the apocalypse never happened, then you would never have visions about it." Roseluck pointed at me. "You would never meet Twinkle Eyes, who would probably never even be born. You wouldn't have made friends with Cliff Diver over there, because your vision set certain wheels in motion that lead up to your introduction, and your friendship.
“You would never have taken too much tea, after Twinkle Eyes died. You would never have ended up here at Ponyville General, and met Bananas Foster."
I looked to the curtain. I knew that Foster was listening on the other end.
"I don't know what's going on between you two," my sister continued. "But I can tell that you're connected. Same with that pony who thinks she's a dog."
"Screw Loose," I whimpered.
"Yeah, her." My sister replied.
I cringed. Roseluck had no idea how important Screw Loose really was. I had told no one at all that the dogmare in the psych ward was really The Wanderer. Or that there even was a wanderer. It wasn't my place to say.
"These are all ponies that you would never have met if not for what you saw, Rose, and where you've been. Everything you've done so far, everything you're planning to do – wouldn't happen if the bomb, and the apocalypse, and all of that wasn't already, on some level, part of your past."
"My past?!" I whisper-squeaked.
She put her hoof on mine again.
"Our past is what makes us who we are today." She said. "Even if, technically speaking, it's part of the future."
I started to shake. Tears ran silently down my cheeks. I didn't sniffle, or weep. Just looked to Cliff Diver, desperate for some kind of hope. He was always full of theories - full of ideas. There had to be a way out. There just had to!
“So if we stop the bomb because we came together as friends," Cliff Diver said slowly. "Then the bomb will never bring us together as friends to stop it.”
Roseluck nodded in reply.
“There's nothing we can do to stop it. Or anyone else who knows about it, for that matter.”
A silence fell over the room.
Cliff furrowed his brow. Like he was doing math inside his head or something. While I just sat there and contemplated a universe where Twinkle Eyes never came to be.
* * *
I found my hooves stroking the piece of bark that was tied to the pocket watch around my neck. A piece of Twink’s “candle.”
Cliff and Roseluck shared a spontaneous moment of silence - for Equestria, for ourselves, for our hopes and dreams, and shattered fantasies of saving the world. As I touched the bark from that candle-twig, a single horrifying thought ran wild through my brain, with a thousand tiny side questions.
Twink had been a driving force in my life. Her death, and my coping with it had set the wheels in motion for the peace in No Mare’s Land.
What if that had been the whole of her destiny?
Twink came into the world, and was sold into slavery. In all her life, she knew just a few hours of freedom. Was that it for her? Had the universe put her there, in Trottica, and given her a lifetime of cruelty and hardship, just so that she would be Who She Was. In the right place at the right time. To become friends with me? Was her whole purpose in life to fucking die, just to teach me a life lesson? To be my background pony?!
I couldn't accept that. And I couldn’t take orders from any more of those stupid voices in my head if it turned out that that's all Twink was to them.
A background pony.
* * *
We all got real silent, and real contemplatey, each in our own personal way. It stretched this haunting sorta quiet over the whole room that seemed to last forever.
‘Till Cliff Diver finally broke its spell.
"It's a loop." He said, all of a sudden-like. "Just like Professor Science wrote about in her thesis."
Cliff rummaged excitedly ‘till he could produce a book. Then he flipped through it, double excited to find the right page.
He ran over. Showed us both a picture of several intersecting cones, with arrowy lines and stuff running through them. It didn't make a whole lot of sense.
I would have humored him, but I just didn't have it in me. I waved the book away. Pushed it out of my face.
My stomach was turning sour, and I didn't have the energy for stupid time-math.
I plunged my muzzle into the tray in front of me instead. Scooped an entire muffin into my mouth, just to get my stomach to quiet down. And to not have to look anypony in the face.
“Fine. It's not my fault you don't like awesome things that are awesome." Cliff closed the book, and stuck his tongue out at me. "But lemme put it this way. Everything that's happened to me, happened because I believed you."
"Oh, Jeez. I’m sorry." I mumbled pathetically, mouth full of crumbs.
“No, no. That's not a bad thing. It's a really cool thing, actually. I'm like...totally honored to be part of this.”
He laughed at himself, and blushed a little.
“But what I mean is that we can't tell anyone. Not a princess. Not a librarian. Nopony. Anyone who hears about the apocalypse from us - anypony who believes us - is like, y’know...a part of it. So the less ponies who know about whatcha saw, the more ponies there are left to maybe turn it all around someday."
It was a depressing thought. Everypony else must’ve thought so too, cause that doom-y quiet hung over the room again. Silent but for the sound of my chewing my muffin. Om nom nom nom nom nom nom nom nom.
"Mm...so, we're doomed, mmm." I nom-mumbled.
"Yes." Roseluck sighed. "...And no. There are other fights - other things that should not happen. Things we need to stop from happening."
"Like what?" I mumbled grumpily.
"I don't know. That's what you three have to figure out.” My sister added, all stoic and professor like.
It was annoying, but she was right.
"Three?" I heard Bananas Foster say as the curtain slowly opened.
"Yeah." Roseluck replied. "You too, you little sneak."
Bananas Foster's eyes went wide as parachutes. She looked to me for reassurance, but I had nothing to offer.
"I'm not a sneak!” She pleaded with the room.
Foster was afraid. That the others knew. That they were on to her about her grifting. That our whole conversation had been heard.
"Yeah, but you are, though." Cliff chuckled.
"Am. Not!" Bananas fumed.
She ground her teeth together. Scraped her hooves against the floor. Her pallor was even starting to turn red.
"We just caught you listening to us,” said Cliff. “Hiding behind that curtain."
"What?" Bananas froze when she realized that they weren't on to her. That she was still trusted.
"Oh, uh, yeah." Foster forced a laugh. "You got me."
She wiped her eyes - struggled to swallow.
“You okay?” Cliff raised an eyebrow.
Foster ignored him.
"I say we make a pact.” She said, already talking like herself again. "Here and now. We promise not to tell anyone else.”
"Right." My sister agreed.
"Yeah,” said Cliff. “I'm with you. No apocalypse talk."
I shrunk. It was my turn to chime in. And I felt like such a fool. There I was, surrounded by close friends – folks I really cared about - and I had gone and dragged them all down with me. 'Cause I'd been weak. 'Cause I’d been selfish. ‘Cause I hadn't been able to keep my fool mouth shut.
Everypony who knew anything about the apocalypse was doomed to it. And I’d gone and told everypony I loved!
I freaked out. Started rambling inside my head. About how terrible I had been. How selfish.
"Stupid Rose Petal," I said to myself. "Stupid, stupid, stupid, stupid, stupid."
‘Till WHAM! I got hit with Twinkle Eyes' 2x4 o' Friendship again. Nopony talks that way about my friends.
I took a deep breath. Sighed. Got it together for Twink.
“Yeah,” I said. “No more apocalypse talk.”
Roseluck reached out and put her hoof on my shoulder. She knew I was hurting. I didn't want her to worry, so I sucked it up. Put my best I'm Okay face on.
"So where do we go from here?" I said.
"Shadow Country." Foster said bluntly, without missing a beat.
She was more than happy to grab the reins of the conversation.
“They have a country now?” Asked Cliff.
He and Roseluck looked to one another in confusion.
"We find the castle.” Foster continued, ignoring Cliff Diver completely. “We find it. And we blow it up.”
Then she stood there, scowl on her face. Confidence flying all the fuck off of her like beams of sunlight. It was kinda remarkable. Bananas Foster genuinely, truly, for-real-and-a-half-ish-ly thought that we might be able to pull something like that off.
The very thought of it smacked all of us silent. Cliff, Roseluck, and me. We all just sat there, stewing in quiet. ‘Till we got interrupted by a knock on the door.
"Knock, knock." Said the young nurse from the day before.
The one who’d made a point of showing off how professional she could be while everypony else had been stunned by my Crystal Empire glow.
"I'm here to interview you for the Ponytarian of the Month Award." She said dryly. "So tell me, what made you want to make the world a better place?"
The nurse turned to Cliff Diver. He didn't notice at first. Just groomed his tail, plucking stray paper clips out of the long brown hairs. Then he looked up, and found himself in a room full of eyes focused directly on him.
"Who, me?" His voice cracked.
"No, no, no.” I said. “The head nurse made that up. To distract his annoying parents. So he could sleep here. I really, reeeeally needed a friend. The award is, uh, not a...well, you know...an actual award award.”
“Well, I’m supposed to write an article about it,” replied the Purple Professional.
Cliff rustled his mane, draped it in front of his face just to have something to hide behind.
“Relax. It's only a blurb in the weekly hospital bulletin. Nopony will see it.”
“Oh, well, uh...okay.” Said Cliff. “So long as nopony makes a fus--;”
A great big orderly with a camera stepped in through the door.
Flash! Flash! Flashitty-flash flash-flash.
“Come on, kid!” He laughed a hearty laugh while Cliff rubbed the spots from his eyes.
“Smile! It's a big day.”
The Purple Professional rolled her eyes and whipped out a clipboard.
"Don't mind him.” She said. “So, Cliff Diver, tell me, what exactly it is that you did.”
“Well, I didn't really do--;”
Cliff stiffened. A slow, soft screech escaped his throat, as his chest visibly tightened. Cliff's mother was standing in the doorway.
“Ah. There you are.” She said. “Good morning, good morning, good morning."
She turned to everypony in the room, without really looking at any of us in particular.
"Cliff," she added. "We’ll be leaving in a moment.”
“We were just doing our story on your son," said the nurse. “For the Ponytarian of the Month Award.”
“Ah,” she said primly. “Well, won't your father be proud.”
She made a show of lovingly rustling his mane. But he cringed at her touch. I got the impression it was not the sort of gesture he was accustomed to at home.
I had to look away. Roseluck next to me, did the same. Anything to avoid contributing to Cliff’s humiliation.
It made my blood boil. To have to pretend to be okay with Cliff’s bitch of a mom while every inch of me was screaming on the inside. Driving me to leap up on my hospital bed and shame Cliff’s mom, just like I had Diamond Tiara. Shame! Shame-shame-shame shame shame shame!
But what was I supposed to say? Hey, you! Don't rustle Cliff's mane?
I felt so powerless. A bully you can stand up to. A priestess. A General! Sure, they might blow you to smithereens, or lock you in a dungeon or something, but you can still do it. Not parents. They’re more powerful than that. They can spend decades breaking somepony on the inside, and there's not a damn thing anypony can say or do about it.
"Science!” Bananas Foster squealed, totally out of the blue.
And suddenly all eyes were on her.
"I'm not all that good with science and stuff, you know? But Cliff Diver is.”
“And he’s been tutoring me.” She added.
"Really?" Said the purple nurse, seeming a touch sunnier all of a sudden - less bored with the assignment.
"Yeah." Bananas Foster took to chewing on her mane. "Y’know, it's a lot like story time, but with ideas. And shapes and numbers.”
“Awwwwwwwwwwwww.” Both the nurse and the orderly drew in closer to Bananas.
“Tell me," said the nurse, readying her clipboard again. "What did you learn?”
“The first rule of physics.” Bananas beamed. “Cliff taught me it real good. You see, every action has an equal, but opposite reaction.”
Cliff’s mother took to silently hurrying him in gestures and in whispers. He rushed to gather his things. Shoveled them into his saddlebag. Bunched his shoulders, sunk his head down, all cowed and ashamed-like.
“An equal, but opposite reaction?” Said the orderly.
“Mmm hmm.” Bananas nodded.
“Can you tell us what that means?” Asked the purple professional. It was obvious that she already knew. But the nurse was more interested in Foster’s perspective than a physics lesson.
Bananas brought her mane down in front of her face again. Hid behind it just like Cliff had. And while the nurse and the orderly were clutching their chests, awwww’ing and d’awwww’ing over how damn cute she was, I could see what she was actually trying to conceal.
Foster may have been getting fidgety with her body, all childish and adorable-like, but Foster’s eyes were fixed on Cliff's mom. Cold as ice picks.
“It means that when you shove something,” she said. “It shoves back.”
* * *
Bananas Foster had the whole room eating out of her hooves. By the time she was done, Cliff's mom was even taking credit for his love of physics. Bragging about how she encourages him at home. How she was gonna get him a telescope to encourage him more. How, sure, yes, of course she wouldn't mind if Cliff visited Bananas twice a week.
Cliff’s mom promised the moon when she had an audience. But once the nurses had gotten what they came for, and it was time to go, she nudged her son urgently, and made straight for the door.
“Excuse me, um...Ms. Place?” Foster called after her, all sweet and innocent-like.
Cliff's mom turned around, and stood in the doorframe.
“Yes?” She said.
“I just wanted to thank you, so very, very much. Cliff Diver coming to visit means so much to me.”
“Yes." Cliff’s mom replied stiffly.
Even stiffer than usual.
“No trouble at all.”
Cliff shot Foster a what the fuck are you doing look.
“This Tuesday, then?” Foster continued. “Tuesdays and Thursdays is what you promised.”
“We’ll see.” Cliff’s mom said through a jaw clenched tightly shut.
She turned to leave again, but Foster just kept going.
“Wait!” She called after them again.
Cliff’s mom poked her head back inside. “What?” She grumbled.
“It’s just...that...I'll get worried. Real worried if he doesn't come. And when I get worried, I get sad.”
Bananas got so sniffly, I could almost hear the violins playing between each word.
“I'm very sorry to hear that.” Cliff’s mother replied.
“And when I get sad, there's only one pony who knows how to cheer me up.” Foster continued. “She throws me little parties all the time, and brings me news about the outside world. Luckily, she comes Wednesdays and Fridays. The exact day after Cliff Diver’s supposed to come. Isn't that funny?”
Foster giggled meekly.
“So if Cliff can't make it, at least I'll have a way to get some smiles. And to help me figure out if everything’s okay with him.”
Cliff's mom stopped. The color ran from her face. You could practically see the wheels inside her brain turning. She knew Bananas Foster was talking about Pinkie Pie - the mare who would throw a parade, or whip the town up into a giant musical number if she thought a poor, sick little girl was in need. Which, incidentally, meant that, if Cliff's mom fucked with Bananas, or prevented Cliff from visiting, the whole town would find out exactly why.
“That's good to hear." Said Cliff's mom. "Tuesday. He'll be there. Won't you, Cliff?”
She turned to him sternly, as if not showing up had been his idea.
Cliff worked hard to suppress a smile. “Whatever you say, mom.”
She nodded back, and swept him out the door.
* * *
When everypony was gone, and Foster was sure that they would stay gone, she leapt onto her bed, kicked up her hooves, and smugly stretched herself out.
“How?” I asked her.
“What?” She replied.
“How did you...?” I asked again, completely flabbergasted.
I couldn't figure it out. How Foster could dig into her shadow history one moment - get all shakeitty and teary-eyed with fear and despair - and then just go and put on a cutesy wittle show for the grownups the next moment! I would have been a wreck if I were her.
“How did I what?” Foster raised an eyebrow.
My brain seized up. Flooded with so much NOPE, that it couldn't think of anything else to say, except, of course,
“Are you okay?" Roseluck asked me.
She was looking at me funny too. ‘Cause to her, this was business as usual.
“Well, um...I, I…” I stammered.
‘Till at last my brain quit trying to think of words to say, and my mouth just took over and said them. On its own.
“I like you." I told Foster.
Bananas sat up in her bed.
"Last night you asked me if I liked you, or if I just pitied you, and I said I didn't know….But now I know. And, uh...I do. I do like you."
Bananas smiled. “Thanks, I guess. But, uh...Why?”
My mouth, having said what it wanted to say, suddenly let my brain take over again. But it wasn't ready. I kept tripping over my words for fear of giving away Foster’s secrets in front of Roseluck.
“Uh, you know.” I stammered. “Like...what you did just now? For Cliff…That was, I dunno, kinda cool.”
Roseluck looked at us both, and blushed. Laughed nervously. Covered her smirk with her forehooves. It was weird. I had never seen her turn so red in all my life.
“Rose,” I said. “Is everything--;”
”Well, I don't know about you girls,” she interrupted, stretching, and yawning, and getting up out of her chair. "But I'm famished. I'm gonna go, er...wander over yonder to the nurses’ station. Find out when breakfast is coming.”
She flashed us both a smile that was meant to be reassuring. It wasn't.
There were muffin crumbs all over her tray.
“Roseluck?” I said. “You okay?”
She’d only made it about halfway to the door.
"Me?” She spun around and laughed. “I am just hungry. Very, very, very hungry.”
She rubbed her belly with her hoof, all exaggerated-like. It reminded me of a Kindergarten kid struggling to remember her lines for her first school play.
“I'm so hungry, it might take me a little while to get back, you know.”
Rose turned to me and winked – a gesture of encouragement - and zipped out of the room as fast as she could. It was only after the door clicked shut behind her that I realized what my sister had thought was going on.
I'd said that I liked Bananas. Roseluck thought that I liked Bananas!
I screamed in my head, and threw my bed sheet over my face out of pure embarrassment. Even though my sister was already gone.
Bananas Foster, being the kind and sensitive soul that she was, bust out laughing.
Then, as I lay there staring at the under side of the bedsheet, my brain clobbered me with a cinder block o’ brain logic. Roseluck was gone. She was trying to give Bananas and me some space. So she was gonna stay gone, at least as long as the hospital would allow.
I threw the bed sheet aside. Sat up in a hurry. Or tried to. I ended up face first on the floor, with my hind leg still tangled in the sheet up above.
“Bwahahahaha!” Said Foster.
“Bananas," I said, desperate to get her attention.
“Hahahahahaha!” She replied.
“Bananas!” I snapped again, more urgent than before. But all she could do was laugh at me.
“How did you escape the castle?!” I said as loudly as I could without arousing suspicion from the hospital folk outside.
Bananas stood still. Blinked in mild shock. Ploink-Ploink. Ploink-Ploink.
“W-what?" She said.
“We’re alone again. No nurses. No doctors. No Roseluck.”
Thud. I finally managed to get myself free from the tangled up bedsheet.
“Foster, I need to know.”
“Yes," I said. "Come on! I don't know how much time we have!”
I leapt to my hooves. Ran to the door. Tried to get a peek through the little window above the knob. But I couldn't see squat. There was no way to even guess how much time we had left. I hoped that Roseluck was good at blending in and keeping herself occupied.
“It's...complicated.” Said Bananas, ashamed to look me in the eye.
“The shadows could come for me, Foster.” I said. “Tonight. Tomorrow. The next time I nap, they could come for me.”
For a while, she stood there. Not saying a word.
"Foster, come on!" I pressed.
“I'm sorry.” She whispered. “I...uh, I don't remember.”
“What?" I squeaked.
“My escape," she said. “I don't actually remember."
Kapow! It was like a kick to the teeth. Hearing her say that. ‘Cause I knew damn well that she remembered.
“Bananas,” I shook my head at her and whimpered. “Family doesn't lie to each other.”
Bananas Foster looked up at me. All stunned-like.
“Family?” She said, venom suddenly on her tongue.
She was not taking the complement the way I had intended it.
“Well, yeah, I've been thinking about what you said.” I rushed to my own defense. “The way your family functioned. Your motto, or code, or whatever.”
Foster stared me down with all of her hurt. Like her eyeballs were rage guns, ratatatatat’ing me to bits.
"Please,” I continued. “Please, please, please, please, please don't take this the wrong way. Nothing can replace what you lost. But, I do kinda think you're, um, I dunno...family-ish to me. So if you’re gonna refuse to tell me how you did it, for whatever reason, pleeeease just refuse to tell me. Don't lie and say you forgot.”
“It hurts.” I added.
Foster sucked her face in real tight. Stood there like a statue for a good long while. I had no idea what she was thinking. But eventually, she took to nodding, slow and thoughtful-like.
“Alright.” She said. “Just gimme a sec.”
Then Bananas turned her back on me. Rummaged through another one of those boxes of hers. Vinyl records this time. She dug, and dug, and dug. 'Till she found what she was looking for, slid it out of its sleeve, and dropped it down on a beat up old turntable. The horn spit out a crackling sound, and Foster tugged on the rope beside her. The curtain started closing. Slowly this time. Crick-a-crick-a-crick-a-crick-a-crick.
The curtain slid behind me, and sealed us off from the rest of the room, even though it was empty.
"What are you doing?" I asked.
A few crackles later, and classical music started playing.
“An orchestra is a living organism." Bananas said, all super-mellow now.
And that was when I lost my cool. I freaked out and poked my head around the curtain to see if anypony was coming. ‘Cause we didn't have a second to lose. As far as I could tell the coast was clear. But that could change at any moment.
"Bananas we don't have ti--;,"
"Shut up, Rose." Bananas said dryly. "I'm going to tell you, but it'll take concentration to block them out. So just be patient and listen."
The orchestra kept playing. It sounded like...well, it sounded like an orchestra. I shrugged back at her. I got nothing out of the tune. I was a Sapphire Shores kinda girl.
"Music is a type of magic." Foster said. "Shadows like to divide and conquer. But an orchestra has eighty ponies in the same room, playing as one. Flutes doubling the violins. English horns doubling the oboes. The celli and contrabass underneath, moving, driving it all forward. Do you hear it?"
I tried listening again, but just gave up and shrugged. Whatever it was that I was supposed to be listening for, I couldn't hear it.
"Well,” Foster replied. “When my mind sits front row, and imagines that kind of unity - that level of order - it's shadow repellant."
I nodded. Swallowed hard. That much I did understand.
So I gave her a moment to collect herself. Did my best to ignore the meal trolleys banging around out in the hallway. But it was damn hard. The tiniest sound made me jump. We couldn't afford for anyone to barge in and interrupt us again.
Foster closed her eyes as the music swelled. Took a deep breath. And then just sorta blurted it right out.
"I didn't escape." She said.
Foster kept her eyes closed.
"I didn't escape." She repeated. "The shadows let me go."
As the words left her mouth, she winced. Cringed. Just a little bit. Waiting for the obvious question that she knew was to follow.
"Why?" I said. "After all that, why did just...let you go?"
"Because,” Foster fussed with her mane. Hid behind it a little. This time for real, not to put on some cutesy little inspiration show for the grown-ups. "’Cause they made me an offer."
The record player spat out the sound of bright happy pranceitty little flutes. It made the silence between us all the more surreal.
"...And you took it." I said.
"Not at first," she was quick to answer. "Not the second time around either. But, yes. Eventually, I did."
I didn't know what to say. So I sat there. Like a dope.
"I haven't given up." Foster assured me. "I'm not on their side. I'm gonna find a way to make them pay.
“But I couldn't do it from in there. I had to get out first. And now that I'm free, they can't even find me!"
"But, but, but I told you everything," I said. "They could have heard us."
"But they might." I insisted.
My stomach took to twisting and turning again. My face got hot. My legs started trembling.
"Rose Petal, I swear, they won't."
She put her hoof against the inside of the dome. To try to put me at ease. And when I saw her face, as stern and as confident as Colonel Wormwood's, I knew I could believe her. Whatever else may have been going on, they weren't listening. Foster would have known, and I would have felt it myself, evil hoof and all.
"The shadows think I'm working for them, but they hadn't counted on my ability to fragment my mind. To shut them out." Bananas bragged.
There was a sparkle in her eyes. A sort of lunatic pride. ‘Till I asked the other obvious question.
"What was the offer?" I said.
Her smirk suddenly sank. Whoosh! Like a candle in the wind, the light in her eyes went out too.
Foster sighed. Licked her lips. Brought a trembling hoof to her face while the classical music kept on filling the silence between us. All hornsy and bold now.
"I don't know how to escape from the castle." She said. "But there's a pony out there that does.”
Foster must have seen me perk up at the thought of it, because she raised a hoof, and shook her head.
“No.” She warned. “That's not a good thing. It's one of their inquisitors.”
Foster nodded. “The shadows don't want their prisoners banding together against them. So, when they dig inside your head, and make you relive your worst memories - they give you the option of making it stop...If you're willing to do it to someone else.
"Most of the time, we were kept in isolation, but I've seen the looks that these kids give each other in the mess hall. Well, grownups too, but mostly kids.” She added. "Nopony can trust anypony else. No one knows who’s betrayed who. Or who is going to.
“And whenever the shadows notice that a particular pair of friends is forming a bond, they make sure to set them against each other."
Foster lowered her head.
"Everypony thinks they're a hero - that they'd never turn on a friend - but they all crack once they've spent a week or two reliving their worst memory like a broken record."
"Is that what they did..." I pointed at her.
Foster nodded solemnly. And I understood. It was either: do a job for the creatures that killed your family; or just watch your family get killed over, and over, and over again forever, and ever, and ever.
"They pit friend against friend.” Foster continued. “And once someone’s agreed to take part in the interrogations - to deliver the nightmares - to help go inside somepony else's mind..."
Bananas threw up her hooves.
"They're lost. They become part of the place. Like the walls. And eventually they don't even want to escape anymore.
"They stay. Either out of guilt ‘cause they know that they deserve whatever happens to them, or worse, because they actually like it. The power."
"That's what an inquisitor is." Foster said through gritted teeth. "Mine was a little filly. Five years old, and meaner than any shadow ever could be.
"Well, she looked five, but time is weird over there. No one really ages. For all I know, she was five-hundred.
"She had a lisp 'cause of her missing front tooth, and a squeaky little kid voice, but she spoke with a certain kind of confidence. Like she’d been interrogating other ponies for a very, very, very long time."
"She was the one who made me the offer.” Bananas whispered. “She actually smiled at me when I refused."
The record player hissed into a moment of silence. The end of track one. And Foster stood there for a minute, staring off into space, collecting her thoughts.
"Anyway,” she said at last, drawing her hoof across her face as she sniffled. “One of their chief inquisitors snapped - escaped after hundreds, and hundreds of years. The shadows let me out ‘cause they expect me to track her down."
I couldn't help but look at her giant glowing dome prison and raise a confusitty eyebrow.
"Yeah," said Bananas. "That was my first thought. It's ridiculous! I mean seriously, what could I possibly do?"
"But like your Rose Voices, the shadows truck in vague portents. If they knew exactly where their inquisitor was, they wouldn't need me. But they don't. The shadows don't even know what she looks like on the outside."
Foster looked at me, tilty headed, and confused.
“She lived there!” I snapped. “‘For hundreds of years,’ you said!”
"The castle doesn't publish yearbooks." Foster replied. "Shadows move between worlds, seeking fear and guilt. They smell it like sharks drawn to blood in the water, but that's all that they know about us. The traces of darkness we leave behind us like hoofprints.
“This inquisitor – she disappeared completely. No trace of shadow mojo, or whatever you wanna call it. Nothing.
"For some reason, the shadows think that I, of all ponies, can bring her back to them."
She stared at the ground again for a solid minute. And I didn't know what to say either. Because I had no fucking idea what kinda crazy shadow thoughts went through the minds of those clitweasels. I couldn't begin to guess why the fuck they’d picked Foster.
"Rose?" Bananas broke the silence.
I looked up, and found her twiddling her hooves all nervous-like.
“You do a lot of thinking about right and wrong. Good and evil.” She continued.
"Not really...I mean, well. Yeah. I guess so."
"Do you ever wonder if there's an evil so bad, that it can't be redeemed? Like some kinda point of no return? “
"I don't know." I said. "I never really thought about it like that. You mean like, is there some super special line that nopony can cross?"
"Nah." I said confidently. "Nightmare Moon was pretty evil, and look at Princess Luna now."
"No. No, no." Bananas grumbled. "Not princesses. I'm talking about folks not important enough to get blasted by rainbows, or zapped by the Elements of Harmony."
"So...You wanna know if we can change this inquisitor." I said. "Without magic.”
Foster shook her head.
"Nope. The One I’m Supposed to Find?" She did her best impression of that scratchy metal centipede voice the shadows spoke in. "I've seen what she’s capable of. What she’s done.”
"No. She's way beyond redemption.” Foster said. “I’m talking about us."
"Well, me, specifically." Bananas shuffled her hooves anxiously against the floor. “Rose, I really need your help."
"Sure." I said, without batting an eye.
"And I need you to keep an open mind." She added.
"Okaaay." I said, all suspicious-like, whilst I waited for her to get to the damn point.
Then Bananas Foster sat back on her hindlegs. Pressed her forehooves together. And sucked in a deep breath.
"Rose,” she said. “I’m gonna try to kill her.”
The string section on the record let out a soft, thin hum as my heart skipped a beat.
"What?" I whispered.
"Hear me out." She said. "I kinda think of it like, a big responsibility. This monster - she's loose. She's dangerous.
"We can't tell anypony. We can't let her go. We can't just give her back to the shadows. And there's no way we can change her nature with a bunch of friendship rocks."
"I know. But kill her?" I squeaked. “Do you actually think you could do something like that?"
Foster looked down at her own hooves. Turned them over. As if the answer might be written on them.
"No." She said with a sigh.
Hearing Foster say that should have come as a comfort to me, but there was still something unsettling about her. The way she just kept staring at her hooves. When she finally did look up at me, she had this pleading, desperate look on her face. Her eyes were the size of bowling balls.
"You want me to do it?" I whispered in reply.
"I want you to help me figure out that line. Morals and stuff. That's like, I dunno, your thing."
"My thing?" I snorted a little. I couldn't help it.
"Yeah." She smiled faintly.
"Well," I thought about it for a moment, though the answer was pretty much obvious. "For starters, killing is a pretty big line to cross."
"Yeah, yeah, yeah, I know, but what if this maniac kills other ponies because I did nothing? Or worse. What if she…” Foster winced a little bit - hushed herself down to a whisper. “What if she does things to them - makes them feel, like, you know - like how the shadows made me feel."
Bananas shrank a little bit. Like she was ashamed to admit that they had hurt her.
"I don't know." I answered honestly. “I just don't know.”
"Me neither." She sighed.
And the record settled down into a crackly quiet between tracks. We sat in silence for a while longer.
"You know, everyone says they value forgiveness.” Said Foster, scorn on her tongue. “Second chances. They say they value kindness.
"But what they're really talking about is how they treat their friends. Not their enemies. No one faults the princesses for annihilating Sombra, or for turning Discord into stone. Even though that's a fate a thousand times worse than death.”
“Well, they kinda had to." I said. “They did it to protect all of Equestria.”
“Then how is this any different?"
“I suppose it isn't.” I admitted, all heavy-hearted-like. “It still feels kinda wrong, you know?”
“Not to me.”
The record player hummed a few faint screechy violin tones as the next symphony movement-or-whatever started up.
“If you're so sure," I said. “Why do you even need me?”
“I didn't until yesterday!” She said. “I thought I had it all figured out. I even had a plan. Now, I don't know anything anymore.”
“Why?” I asked.
And as she fidgeted and blushed, I tried to think on it. Struggled to figure out for myself what the fuck could have happened the day before? It drove me crazy.
‘Till suddenly I remembered how silent Bananas Foster had been. She never told us about her confrontation with the shadows. She’d told me her story, sure - her history - but we’d all had separate Hearth’s Warming battles.
I thought back to Princess Luna’s warning - that those shadowy clitweasels had spent the entire evening attacking all of my friends.
“Was it the nightmare?" I pressed her.
“What? No.” Bananas scoffed. “It was you.”
“Yeah.” She said. “I never gave much thought to right and wrong before yesterday. For me, it's always been more about us and them. The way I figure it, either you're family, or you’re not. And what happens to ponies who aren't, just isn't my concern.”
“And now you're all about morals?” I raised an eyebrow. "Because of me.”
“Sweet Celestia, no.” She snorted. Giggled a little bit.
I wasn't sure whether I ought to be insulted or relieved.
“But you got results." Foster added, chock full of actual genuine warmth all of a sudden. "You were able to actually beat the shadows with all that lovey dovey stuff. And now I'm left wondering if maybe we could, um…”
Bananas stopped, nervously clicked her teeth together whilst she struggled to find the right words. Chomp-Chomp. Chomp-chomp. Chomp-Chomp.
“...I don't know. Hunt this inquisitor. Or better! Kick down the doors of the castle. Annihilate everything. And, and, and…" She got herself worked up into a gleeful, excited little frenzy. "...And then I could go face-to-face with that little girl again. The one who climbed inside my head. The one who giggled at me, and smiled when I refused her offer again, and again, and again.”
Bananas Foster grinned a wicked smile. Rubbed her hooves together eagerly.
“I’m gonna walk right up to her, Rose. I'm gonna look her square in the eyes, and I'm gonna friendship her to death.”
“Friendship her to death?” I said.
“Something like that. I dunno. You get the point. I seriously think we can do this.”
“We can't friendship anyone to death.”
“It doesn't work like that.”
“Well, it should." Foster pouted.
For a moment, Bananas reminded me of that petulant child she pretends to be.
“What about turning Discord into stone, and banishing Nightmare Moon? And Sombra! The princesses had no problem wiping out Sombra.”
"You're missing the point."
"Then tell me!” She pleaded with me desperately. “What is the point? 'Cause there's a dangerous pony out there, and I have no idea what we are supposed to do!"
"Me neither." I said sadly. “I wish I knew.”
And as I lowered my head, and stared at the floor with unfocused eyes, I heard a scraping sound. Hoof on tile. It was Bananas, stomping like a mad pony, ready to charge. When I actually got a good look at her, Foster looked changed. I saw a strange passion in her - a lust for revenge that lit up her eyeballs like the lights of Bridleway. It made me queasy. Just to be near. It wasn't that I didn't understand how Foster felt. It's the fact that she was so damn understandable that made me sick. Because I knew that feeling. That righteous slave rage - we'd all felt it back in the mines of Trottica. It was a good feeling. A top of the world feeling. And absolutely everything we did because of it felt totally justified too. ‘Cause we had to do it all just to survive. It really, actually, literally was us or them.
But you can't live your whole life like that!
Bananas had never gotten what I had. She never got to ride in the back of a giant cart-a-majig wielding a ratatatatater like Twink. And when her mother died, there was no tearful goodbye. Foster’s mom never got an "everything's gonna be alright after I'm gone" moment with her kids, like Twinkle Eyes’d had with us.
The loss of Twink still hurt me. A lot. Every single day I thought about her. But I was moving on, or at least trying to.
For Bananas Foster, the battle had never ended.
"Rose?" Foster said gently. "You okay?"
I snapped out of my little trance. Realized suddenly that my worry must've been written all over my face. I shook my head no, in answer to her question. I was not okay.
Thousands of ponies were gonna end up just like Foster. In pain. Unable to move on. Living in a constant state of warfare. Of fear. Of loss. Once the ball got rolling, there would be no stopping the war. At all.
I shook my head. Raised a trembling hoof to stroke my aching temples.
“That us and them stuff.” I said softly. "It's gonna kill us all."
"Huh?" Foster replied.
"Zebras." I said. "Ponies. We really can't stop the bomb, can we?”
Foster was silent.
“Once one side wrongs the other,” I continued. “That's it. It's just a free fall. Justifiable rage all the way down."
"You’re thinking about what your sister said." Bananas remarked.
"No," I shook my head. "What you said. No morals. No rules. Just us and them."
"Well, it’s the way of the world.” Foster said sadly. “It goes back to cavepony days. The wild herds. You've got kids forming tribes in the playground. Princesses doing what it takes to protec the nation. Everyone has an us and a them. It's part of what keeps us alive."
She reached out and put her hoof against the wall of the dome, as if to try to touch me on the shoulder, and tell me it was all gonna be okay.
"But hey," she said. "That doesn't mean we're gonna be like the zebra war. None of us can stop what we are. But what we can do is pick our us, and our them. And you know what, Rose?”
She paused what she was saying to look me square in the eyes, and throw me a hopeful little smile.
“We have something extremely rare. Enemies actually worth killing!"
The record player started playing a blaring fanfare with a bunch of horns and drums and stuff. It was almost as though they all agreed with her.
"These are shadow creatures made out of evil," Foster said with a laugh. “For Celestia's sake, there are sadists and torturers loose among us. Don't waste your pity on them."
"It's not the inquisitor I'm worried about." I said. “I'm worried about what's gonna happen to you."
"Me?" Bananas startled just a bit. “I'll be fine.”
"Yeah? You said that shadows trap you by getting you to cross a line. By making you do bad things you wouldn't ordinarily do. To try to make you a little bit darker. More like them. What if…."
I shook my head, mouth wide-open. I had a hard time summoning the breath to finish what I had to say.
“Only if you feel guilty about it afterwards." Foster smirked at me.
“But what if they win either way?” I said. “What if you kill this inquisitor, and they take you? They smell your rage, and your violence. Like sharks drawn to blood in the water.”
Bananas Foster's irises shrunk down suddenly to the size of pinpoints. While the rest of her eyeballs widened so much that they practically took over her face.
Foster plopped her flank down on the ground while she stared off into space.
"It wouldn't happen." She shook her head. "It couldn't. We can't let that happen."
I replied with silence. For once, not because I was flustered and couldn't think of anything to say. But 'cause I had already said everything I needed to.
* * *
The music kept on playing while Foster thought on it some more. A flute solo. It swirled around and reminded me of meadows and stuff. ‘Till Bananas looked up at me, and broke the silence.
"Do you know what she said to me, just before I was sent away?” Foster whispered. “My inquisitor?"
I shook my head no.
“See ya later, traitor.” Bananas snorted.
Then she cast her eyes on the ground again.
"Yep.” I said. “That's a preeeeetty bad joke."
“Yeah.” Bananas nodded solemnly. “Right. A joke.”
Judging by the look on her face, Foster actually took the insult to heart.
“Oh, come on!” I said. “You had no choice."
But even as the words escaped my mouth, I cringed a little on the inside.
I hadn't lived through shadow torture stuff the way Bananas had. Who was I to throw stupid reassurances at her? A stupid jerk, that's who. I may as well have given her a greeting card.
I winced in embarrassment but Foster just ignored me. She closed her eyes. Bit her lip nervously. Sucked in a deep breath.
"There’s more I haven't told you.”
"I don't like to admit this,” she said. “But of everypony I've ever met outside of my family, you are the only one I've ever considered an us instead of a them. You and Cliff, anyway."
"Thanks." I answered, and silently wished that I had something more to say.
That kinda complement meant a lot coming from Foster.
"I've been stewing on what you said a few minutes ago.” She continued. “About how family doesn't lie to each other. And you’re right. If we're gonna friendship my inquisitor to death, we have to be clean with each other, you know?”
“I still don't think--;”
Foster held up a hoof to shush me.
“When my inquisitor was done with me,” she said. “The shadow castle spit me out into a field about a mile from here. I was pretty weak, but I summoned everything I had, and made for Ponyville."
“A whole mile?”
“I could barely speak by the time I got to the hospital. I had to use this to identify myself."
Foster held up a medical dogtag, that was hanging from her bedpost. The front had one of those symbols that looks like two snakes fighting each other over a stick.
"They looked up my number and put in a request to the Canterlot Medical Archives, where I, um…” Foster turned away from me, took to fidgeting with her hooves. “...Where I had sort of, you know...planted a series of forgeries a few weeks before.”
Foster laughed nervously.
“Um...Why were there forgeries?” I asked.
“Rose, please believe me. Absolutely everything I told you - about the desert, about the shadows, about me, about my family - it was all true."
My stomach took to spinning that muffin around inside of it.
“Except for one teensy tiny little detail."
“You're not really sick?” I whispered in horror.
Foster chuckled joylessly.
“Oh, I'm sick.” She sighed. “Getting treatment is, um...well, a lot more complicated than you might imagine.”
She sighed. Looked up at the ceiling.
“My name’s not really Bananas Foster.” She said at last.
The violins hummed while she tapped the floor nervously and worked up her nerve.
“Thirteen?” I asked.
Bananas nodded meekly.
“Your name is Thirteen.” I repeated. “Like...the number?”
Foster kept nodding.
“I don't understand.”
Foster closed her eyes. And stood there, trembling like a leaf. Then she summoned one last deep breath, gulped hard, and mouthed the words, “Mother, forgive me.”
And in the blink of an eye, Bananas Foster was gone.
A changeling stood in her place. Black as pitch, and full of holes.
“There are no pretty names where I come from." It said sadly, its voice darker and raspier than the one I thought I knew.