Fallout: Equestria - The Hooves of Fate

by Sprocket Doggingsworth

The Final Day

“In family life, love is the oil that eases friction, the cement that binds closer together, and the music that brings harmony.” –Friedrich Nietzsche

Time rolled by until at last, we came to the most horrible of days. The one right before you have to go back to school. Sure, actually dragging yourself there on Monday morning sucks, but in a way, the day before sucks even worse. There's a dread hanging in the air. A sense that no matter what you do, you're not making the most of your final hours of freedom.

At least on Monday, when you and your classmates are all moaning and groaning as you hang your coats up in your cubbies, and drag your notebooks out of your bags, there's a solidarity to it. Everypony suffers together. But on the last day of vacation, you nurse your private regrets. Your private fears.

For me it was the notion of going back to "normal."

The town had long forgiven me for attacking Kettle Corn in the middle of their musical number. But flashing smiley greetings to ponies I passed on the road was very very different from actually facing my peers - looking a dozen of my gossipy classmates in the eye as they peppered me with questions.

Then there was the hospital! The last I'd heard from half my class was a get well card. What the hay was I supposed to tell them when they asked me all about that? Sweet Luna, I didn't even know if they had any clue why I had been hospitalized in the first place! The idea of having to explain myself to them made me wanna run away and join Cranky's band of Traveller friends and sleep under bridges for the rest of my life.

But that wasn't even the worst of it. Hooves down, the most horrible thing about Hearth's Warming Vacation coming to an end was the plain and simple fact that I wasn't gonna have free time anymore.

Cliff and I had sooooo much to do. And we only managed because we built our lives around a routine. Every single day, the two of us would visit Bananas in the hospital; then stop for lunch; head into the Everfree; study with Zecora 'till dinner; maybe kill an hour or two at Cranky's afterwards if we had time; and then finally, when we were all done, Cliff and I would go our separate ways, and get ready to do it all again the next day.

Our lives were a well-oiled machine. A schedule machine that was about to get a wrench rammed into it. All of its gears were gonna grind together 'till the teeth break, and send pieces of schedule-metal flying into the furnace of our Duckyverse responsibilities. Flames and sparks were gonna fly out. And it was gonna be bad. Really bad.

But none of that hit home. Not at first. The day before the first day back to school was a mess. Full of terrible things. Wondrous things. Things that confuzzled my brain into a bubbling pool of brain slush.

But it actually started out pretty normal.

* * *

I dragged my hooves down the stairs, through the living room, and into the kitchen to find Cliff Diver already sitting at the breakfast table with Roseluck. Like usual. He was always skipping out at dawn to get away from his folks.

"Ugh ng ng." I grunted at the two of them.

"Happy Breeaakfaaast." Roseluck sang cheerily.

"Uhhhng ng ng humnugh." I replied. My sister was a morning person. That was the one thing I truly hated about her.

Poomf! I plopped my flank down on a cushioned stool and thwunk! Dropped my head onto the table. Buried it in my forehooves.

Cliff extended a sympathetic hoof. Wrapped a leg around me. Stroked my mane.

"Why does Princess Celestia do this to us?" I croaked.

Cliff let loose a mighty snort. "Because she hates you."

I chuckled faintly in reply. Relieved that Cliff was at least in a good mood.

Fwonk! Scrrrrrrr. Roseluck slid a bowl of fruit across the table. Slowly slowly slowly. Until it nudged my face. I swear she delighted in my misery. Morning ponies always do.

I picked my head up off the table. Just to make sure I showed gratitude for the fruit. Instinctual politeness was just about the only thing in all of Equestria that could force me upright. I had a nice long yawn, then got straight to work shoveling melons into my face-hole. Pineapples too. They were my favorite. Cliff slid a cup of bold black tea in front of me. Like he did every morning.

"Thanks," I slurped it greedily. Like it was the nectar of life. I guzzled that Ponish Breakfast blend pretty fast 'cause it was lukewarm. That meant that Cliff Diver had been hanging out in our kitchen for a really long time. Before Roseluck had even awoken.

"Better?" He said.

I grunted.

"Ah," he replied. Tilted his muzzle upward to keep an eye on my sister, all attentive-to-detail-like, and slid me the sugar bowl as soon as her back was turned.

Schlomp schlomp schlomp schlomp schlomp. I shoveled spoonfuls into my mostly empty tea cup. I could see Roseluck's shape messing with toast on the counter on the other end of the kitchen. Even through a web of dried up eyeball crust that clung like paste to my lashes.

Schlomp schlomp schlomp schlomp schlomp. I nabbed a couple more scoops of sugar and Claaaannnggg! Slammed the spoon back into the bowl just before my sister spun around.

"Hay," Roseluck smile-mumbled as she set her plate down with her teeth.

I plunged my muzzle into that teacup. Pretended to drink. Even though there wasn't really any fluid left. Just soggy sugar. Which I slurped up instead.

My sister sat down beside us. "So what did you two learn from Zecora yesterday?"

I smacked my lips. Tried to swallow. Tried to speak through a throat that felt like it was full of cement. Really, really sweet cement.

"Ducky stuff." I coughed.

Roseluck turned to Cliff, who slid me a glass of water (that he had ready for just such an occasion). "Ducky stuff," he confirmed.

"I see." She replied.

I gulped the water. Coughed a little. Hack-hockitty hluk hlok hlok. "We've gotten really good at it." I said at last.

Roseluck set her toast down. Eyed me suspiciously.

Fuck. Distract her. Quick! My brain yelled at me from the inside of my mind-skull. "We're making progress." I said, "Mapping duckies. Observing the orbit of all the dead worlds...I don't really understand that part--;"

"Oh, yeah!" Cliff jumped in. "They don't move in elliptical orbits like the Sun or the Moon do when they circle 'round Equestria. But you can still predict their motions...Well, sorta."

"Sorta?" My sister said.

"It's totally safe." I threw my two bits in, mega fast. I knew concernittyness brewing in Roseluck when I saw it.

"Yeah, totally." Cliff said. "Omigosh, yes! Sorry...Just so long as we stay away from the purple energy field."

Roseluck raised an eyebrow. "Purple…"

"You know, under the--;"

I kicked Cliff's shin under the table.

"Ow!" He squealed out loud.

"Shut up." I whispered through gritted teeth.

If my sister knew that we were observing the castle that close almost every day - that we were observing this weird mass of mist and lightning under the cloud that the castle floated on, and that that purple mist moved of its own volition. Like those blurry wavy lines you see in the air above a barbecue. If she knew that we were going back there on purpose to study the castle. That dead duckies like Columnland got their orbits all fucked, and blurred temporarily out of existence if they strayed too close to that mass of power. She would never stop worrying.

"Zecora is with us the whooole time." I said with a smile.

A half-truth.

"Yeah, there's nothing we can't handle." Cliff added, laying it on just a little bit too thick. But even as he beamed with confidence, there came a knock on the door. It seemed to mock him.

The three of us looked at each other suspiciously. Nopony ever came around this early. Ever.

As if drawn by a single magnet in the ceiling, Roseluck, Cliff, and I all rose from our seats as one. But my sister threw up a hoof. Gestured for us kids to stay back. Not because she literally thought some squad of cloak-o's was gonna kick down our door, and try to kill us or anything.

That only happened in my dreams.

No. It was something primal. Something instinctual.

So Cliff and I nodded. Hung back. While Roseluck answered the door.

We heard the moan of the floorboards. The cry of the squeaky hinges as the door swung slowly open. And then silence. No sign of what the fuck was going on. Until a few moments later, Roseluck called out to us. "Kids, come here. We have a...um, visitor."

Her tone was prim. Polite. But devoid of its usual enthusiasm.

"Okay," I called out to her brightly, hiding my confusion. "Sure thiii-iing!"

Cliff put his hoof on mine. Reassuring-like. More confident than I was.

I hadn't even realized that my anxiety had been showing. But I was, crazy-nervous. The last thing I needed was a visit from Miss Cheerilee or whatever, checking to make sure that I didn't come from a TeRrIbLe HoMe in advance of my rejoining the normaler children at school.

I smiled meekly at Cliff. Sighed. Exasperatized by the idea of having to answer to someone sent to inspect me. In my own fucking house.

But our visitor wasn't anypony like that. She was far far far far far far worse.

"Rose Petal?" Said a voice so sour it could curdle milk before it even left the cow. "I have something for you...And Cliff Diver," the voice turned somehow even more acidic. "I raised you better than to keep company waiting."

Cliff froze. Ears falling to the sides of his head like deflated balloons. Eyes as wide as planets.

His hoof slid off of mine. And slowly, he seemed to shrink away. Like a grape shriveling into a raisin of despair. I hadn't seen anypony break down like that since the mine-o kids, cowering in the caves of Trottica. And by all logic, his mom's arrival shouldn't have affected him that badly. As bad as his parents were, he still saw them every. Single. Day. And he didn't fall apart whenever he laid eyes on them.

Yet there he was. A whimpering mess. Not here. His woobly hooves seemed to say. Anywhere but here.

"Um...Coo-ming!" I shouted, all sing-songy-like as I leapt to the ground and knelt in front of Cliff Diver.

"Run out the back." I whispered. "I'll stall her."

But Cliff just sat there on the kitchen floor.

"Come on!" I whisper-shouted. "We can meet at Zecora's later. It'll work. Trust me."

"No." He whimpered. "She knows where I live."

Cliff's throat apple swallowed real hard. Then he rose to his hooves, walked right past me, and sulked into the living room. "Hi, Mom." He said softly.

"Where's your little friend?" The sour voice feigned sweetness.

Oh, no. I rushed after Cliff. To come to his aid. Or at least to...you know...be there for him.

Gold Medal, Cliff's mom was standing near the front door. Still draped in a gold jacket to match her mane. Scarf and boots still on. At first, that was a small relief. 'Cause I knew she wouldn't be staying very long.

But then it hit me. Like a freight train armed with cannons that shot friendship-shattering anvils out of them.

What if she aimed to leave...with Cliff?!

My knees locked. My heart slid backwards into my belly. A glance at Cliff Diver told me that he shared that same terror.

His mom smiled a wholesome smile - or at least what she thought would pass as one - and gestured at a multicolored little gift bag she had set down on the end table by the window.

"A present for you, Rose Petal." The sound of her voice - even when she was attempting to be pleasant - made my skin crawl. And though that bag seemed harmless - even festive - on the outside, I didn't want to know what it contained. My guess was that it was full of centipedes, and slime, and bats, and ghosts, and eels, and stuff.

"It's a pie." My sister said.

"A pie?" Cliff and I squeaked in unison.

"Yes," the pegasus replied stiffly. "As a thank you."

"Um...You're welcome?" I said.

Then the fire crackled, cutting through the silence between us. Pop pop cracklety pop pop pop.

"Thanks for what exactly?"

"Well, to be honest," she replied. "I had begun to lose hope in my poor son." She spoke of him as if he wasn't there.

Cliff shrunk back some more - trying desperately to actually disappear.

"He's not a poor anything." I said, "Cliff has always been awesome."

I turned to him. Expecting his spirits to be lifted. But he just looked at me with wild and fearful eyes. Again like one of the mine-o kids. What the fuck are you doing? He seemed to say.

"Yes," Cliff's mother replied. "Well, anyway. I confess that we got off to a bad start when we met back at the hospital. But I wanted you to know that I approve of your good influence."

"My good influence?" My voice stretched upward in shock.

"Yes." Roseluck interrupted with an awkward little laugh. "Your good influence."

She shot eyeball-daggers at me. As if to say: Fucking go along with this, or this crazy woman is going to make Cliff Diver miserable.

"Since he started spending time with you, and your family." Gold Medal nodded approvingly at my sister. "My boy has matured. Torn down those ridiculous posters he had all over his room. Flying saucers, and books, and doors in the middle of outer space."

"You what?" I turned to Cliff in utter shock.

And then, fwoooomp! Just like that, all eyes were on him. Like an asshole, I'd put Cliff right in the spotlight.


"Yes," he whispered meekly. "I don't need that stupid stuff anymore."

Roseluck's kind and pleasant facade shattered. To see Cliff like that. So ashamed. So broken. It made her mad. I could see it in her twitchitty eye. But I just thought about how Cliff had gotten where he was in the first place. Whatever had happened to him was because of me. And my stupid travels. Our stupid studies with Zecora. The stupid shadow business I'd dragged him into.

My friend had lost a piece of himself. Right in front of my very eyes. And I hadn't even noticed how bad it was.

Cliff lowered his head. Ashamed. Not just because of his mom. (I knew him well). He felt like he had let me down. He'd been trying to protect me from whatever change he was going through. Whatever misery had made him tear his posters down, and rip his innocence up with it.

Crack crack crack. Went the fire as it all sunk in.

Until Cliff's mom, sufficiently at peace with herself, announced. "It's a cherry pie." She smiled brightly, gesturing again at the happy little gift bag. "Anyway, I've taken up enough of your time. I should be moving along."

She motioned toward the door. And I shook with rage.

'Cause that bitch had just shown up unannounced, in my home. Pretended to give a fuck. Then attempted to buy us with a fucking pie. All while belittling Cliff Diver before my eyes.

"Hay!" I said. Ready to give her a piece of my mind.

But Cliff leaped out of his raisin state. Dove in front of me. Don't don't don't! His face silently screamed. She's letting us stay friends. You'll make everything worse.

And Cliff's terror broke my heart. But it broke my concentration too. So when his mom turned around in the doorway to hear what I had to say, my mouth just hung open. And the fire in the fireplace split the silence once again like a box of crackers getting stomped on really really reeeally slowly.

"Thank you." I said at last through gritted teeth. "For the pie."

Cliff's mom smiled at me. And even though her teeth looked totally normal, they somehow gave the impression of being razor sharp. Like some kinda momster.

"No," she said tightening her lips, and nodding graciously. "Thank you. For being such a good influence." And as those final words left her mouth, she threw eyeball harpoons at Cliff. A sharp look that somehow managed to convey approval and disdain at the same time. Just to let Cliff know that whatever tiny sliver of favorability he may have gained with her was not to his own credit. The force of her stare made him droop to his knees.

And then, just like that, Cliff's mom flashed us all a happy, cordial little smile, and left.

It turned out that a great evil had come to our doorstep after all. And into our living room. Worse than cloak-o raiders. Worse than shadows. 'Cause those could be beaten.

Cliff's mom was a cruel force of darkness that we could never truly escape. No matter how hard we tried. No matter how much we fought, or practiced, or trained. She would always be there. Ready to mess with Cliff Diver's head when the day was done.

Cliff stared at the floor for a long, long time after she left. His ear twitched with every creak of a floorboard or pop of the fire. He was listening. Waiting for another knock.

But it never came.

"We should get going." Cliff said out of the blue, when it finally became clear that his mom wasn't planning on coming back, and turning him into a pathetic puddle of Cliffgoo all over again.

"Hey," I said tenderly. "Do you wanna ta--;"

"No." Cliff answered, all abrupt-like. "Let's just go." He went straight to the door and set about the business of suiting up. Boots. Coat. Hat. Scarf.

Roseluck gestured for me to follow him. So I did. Got myself ready, fumbled with my boots, and sweater and stuff, but I just kept watching Cliff pretend to be okay.

Click click click. Went the snaps of his jacket. And he was done. Before I was even close to ready.

"You should try the pie, Roseluck." He called across the living room. "It's really quite good."

* * *

Cliff Diver was quiet on the way to the hospital...at first. He bunched his shoulders up and walked all super stiff-like. Eyes straight ahead. As if walking down the same road that we took every single morning somehow required every ounce of his focus and attention now.

And I let him be. As much as it drove me crazy, I let him be. Partly 'cause I was waiting for the perfect moment. Partly 'cause I needed to say the perfect thing.

But what magic words could possibly make it better?

Are you okay? How you doin'? You don't, like, feel totally crushed by the fact that your mom showed up at my front door, do you? 'Cause that's what it seems like. And I couldn't help but notice that my house was totally, like, the one place you felt safe. Until she invaded the joint and turned you into a Cliff-raisin.

"Are ponies good?" Cliff asked me, totally outta nowhere.

"What?" I cocked my head in confusion.

"Ponies." He said grimly. "All the stuff we're doing. To save Equestria. To fight the shadows. It's all for ponies who are never even gonna know it. But, like...are they good?

"'Cause the kids at school?" Cliff's voice warbled. "They all ignore me. Or make fun of me...Then there's the ponies who look at Travelers like Cranky, and just think, 'Well, sure it's perfectly fine that they don't have a place to stay. Except under a bridge.'

"In cities populated by thousands and thousands!" His voice pitched upward. "They can't find enough good ponies to provide food and shelter for what? A few dozen Travelers out in the cold?"

"I don't know." I said. "I'm not sure what you're getting at."

"Ponies." He reiterated. Almost angrily. "Are they good?"

I sighed. "When they wanna be."

And as the words left my mouth, I heard echoes of Blueberry Milkshake. Telling me the same exact thing back when I'd asked her that same. Exact. Question. The morning after I fell into the Wasteland.

Are ponies good? I'd asked.

When they wanna be. She'd replied.

It felt like a dream from a million billion moons ago. And it reminded me of the note she'd scribbled in my get well card. Which was also, like...a million billion moons ago.

We need to talk. The note had read. But she'd covered it with paste and scratched it out. As though she'd changed her mind about what she wanted to say.

Cliff hung his head, and stomped on clumps of frozen earth as he thought real hard on it. Crkk. Crkkkh. Crkkk. Crkkkk. 'Till, at last, he sighed too.

"Thanks." He said.

"For what?"

"Being good." He answered. "You're the only one in school who is."

"That's not true." I tsked. And immediately set myself to the task of flipping through every page of every book inside my brain. Trying to find one example of a good, and normal classmate. But what real opportunity did we have for goodness in the first place? We were kids. It was all little things. Playground stuff. Then, suddenly it hit me...

"Kettle Corn!" I exclaimed. "She forgave me. After I brutally attacked her."

"Yeah." He replied. "I guess." Khnch crunch Crkkkh. Crkkk. Crkkkk. "...They're not soooo bad. Maybe it's just that...with you, and your sister, and Cranky, and Matilda, and Zecora, I've kinda gotten used to ponies being good...y'know...to me.

"And tomorrow, I gotta go back, and re-learn how to deal with ponies that, well...aren't."

Cliff stopped in his tracks. Ponyville General Hospital was in sight now. There was an orderly sorta hustle about that place. Nurses stepping outside on their breaks. Sick folks limping in. Healed folks getting wheeled out. A sort of current in the air.

It was hardly Manehattan, but it was enough to burst that quiet bubble of privacy that Cliff and I had enjoyed on the road. As a young doctor galloped past us, muttering, "Late, late, late, late, late." Cliff looked to me. Forced himself to hold his head high. The hospital was no place for whiny piratery. Even if your feelings were totally justified.

Finally, he took a breath, looked me square in the eye, and gave me a nod, as if to say, Ready as I'm gonna get.

I held up a hoof for bumping. His stern face cracked, and out came a smile from underneath.

"You're awesome." I told him.

"Thanks," he said, suddenly bashful again. As if compliments stung him.

* * *

Once inside Ponyville General Hospital, the two of us moseyed casually past the receptionist, who, after weeks and weeks and weeks of regular visits, didn't even bother to sign us in anymore. A glance up from her newspaper. A warm isn't-it-oh-so-inspirational-that-these-kids-are-devoted-to-their-bubble-friend smile. And the two of us were in.

Through the double doors, and on our way down the first of two corridors we needed to navigate before we could get to Bananas Foster.

"I'm gonna beat her at chess this time." Cliff Diver said. That anger of his melting away like wax smacking right into the Sun and turning into liquidy nerd-slime. "I've been reading up on strategy." He added with a demonic little smile. "And I think she got her moves and strategies out of the same book!"

"I hate to sink your ship," I said. "But...if...like...she got her moves out of the same book that you did, then she also read the part about the strategies that you're gonna use to counter her."

Cliff Diver shut his eyes. Even though he was walking. "Darn." He said with a huff as he scuffed his boot against the floor in frustration.

But it turned out to be way louder than he expected. I mean really fucking loud. Screeeek! Went the rubber against the tile - a razor-on-chalkboard sound that neither of us had expected.

"Ahh!" I jumped up.

Cliff cringed. Blushed. Smiled a sheepish little smile. "Oops."

I rolled my eyes. Caught my breath.

And as we neared the end of the first corridor, we came upon Nurse Redheart, pushing a wheel-a-majig with tubes, and trays, and silvery tools, and clipboards, and other nurse-stuff on it.

"Hay," I said politely. Waving a hoof.

But she didn't reply. Didn't even look at us. She just sorta shuffled along. Her face cemented into a sort of mask. Like she was trying mega super hard to remember something.

Clip clop clip clop clip clop went her hooves, as she kept on walking past us. Oblivious-like. Creaka-deeka-deeka went the wheels on her cart. Down a corridor that led only to the main lobby. And not to any sort of place where the tubes, and medical doo-hickeys she was pushing would be of use to anypony at all.

"What's up with her?" Cliff said, as the nurse realized her mistake, turned around, and wandered back in our direction.

"Nurse Redheart?" I asked. "Are you okay?"

"What?" She said. "Oh yeah." The nurse looked around. Took note of her surroundings. A little dazed, but clearly herself again. "Somepony must have accidentally made decaf."

"Ok." Said Cliff.

"Have a good day."

"You too." The nurse altered her course to bring the cart to wherever it was supposed to go. I hoped.

Cliff and I moved on. The hallway ended, the walls widened and expanded into a great big open space, and we found ourselves standing in front of the nurses' kiosk.

Everyone there seemed more or less normal. A yellow pegasus nurse-guy moved around, looking over several clipboards at once, darting back and forth to reference a ledger of some kind. The young doctor I'd once referred to as The Purple Professional weaved seamlessly around him. Checking charts of her own. Sipping coffee from a thermos. Not decaf.

Other medical ponies came and went. Ducked out of one another's way like sprockets on gears, interlocking and turning, and never quite crashing into one another. Even when it looked like they were going to.

It was all pretty smooth.

Except for this one guy - the nurse who'd been a jerk to me and Screw Loose so many weeks ago. I couldn't even remember his name at the moment. But that wasn't important. The only thing that mattered was the fact that he. Just. Fucking. Stood there. Staring. Worse off than Redheart.

Everypony else moved around him. Like he was a piece of furniture that they needed to reach around to get to their charts, and clipboards, and medications and stuff.

"Hay, what's up with him?" Cliff pointed at the dull-eyed nurse.

The yellow dude looked up from his desk. Broke his frantic hospital pace just long enough to turn to us slowly and say, "Everything's normal." He sounded like a bored filly reciting lines for a lackluster school play.

Then, he spun back toward the desk behind him - a motion as awkward as his answer to our question - and went right back to ignoring us. "No,” he told one of the junior nurses. “That's the wrong dosage. Show it to the doctor so we can write it correctly. "

"Ookaaay." I said with a great big phony smile.

And Cliff and I, without conferring, left the nurses behind, and went straight for Bananas Foster's hallway. As briskly as we could without actually breaking into a trot.

It was weird. The hospital was clearly running smoothly. The staff seemed to have everything under control, (as much as anypony in their profession could, anyways). But nopony noticed that their head nurse was running on decaf, or that a senior member of their staff was basically a statue.

Neither Cliff nor I wanted to consider the obvious explanation, so we racked our brains for alternative theories.

"What's going on?" I scanned the corridor for more signs of trouble.

"Shadows?" Cliff postulated.

"No. My evil hoof's too warm."


"They're not eating anypony." I replied.

"Right." Cliff put on his grimmest face. Tried to act stoic. But his voice cracked. And his legs started to quiver. I guess he couldn't handle my cottage getting invaded, and the hospital falling into chaos on the same day. "Well, what's going on then?" He whimpered. "What's making everypony act...weird?"

At that moment, we came to Bananas Foster's door. And for a teeny tiny instant, I let myself indulge the obvious answer - wondered if maybe, it was her. Feeding on the nurses more than usual. Making them act funny.

But I shook that thought right out of my head. Ashamed of having even considered it. Foster would never. There was a meticulous order to how she used her powers. When she fed. Who she fed off of. How much of their hearts she ate.

"I don't know." I answered.

And the two of us stood outside of Bananas' door for a moment. Trying to make sense of everything. Until suddenly, Cliff Diver, startled by his own private brain-thoughts, looked to me, all panic-struck. And flung open the door.

"Bananas?" He said. "Are you okay?"

I charged in after him. And we found Bananas Foster lying there in her bubble. On her side. Two right legs dangling limply off the edge of her bed

She never rests. I thought. Not even to sleep.

"Foster!" I called out to her.

"What? What?" She rolled out of bed and fell on the floor.

Cliff ran to her glowing purple dome. "Are you alright?"

"What?" Bananas leapt up to her hooves. "What's wrong?"

"The nurses." I said. "And...uh...one of the doctors, I think. They're zombies!"

"Zombies?" Foster's voice squeaked upward in disbelief.

"Yeah," Cliff added. "Wait…" He turned to me, and pointed an outstretched hoof. "You said they weren't zom--;"

"We saw Redheart staggering around with her cart." I interrupted. "She didn't even seem to know where she was."

"Oh, right. Yeah!" Cliff leapt in, no longer hung up on the z-word. "And then there was that other guy! I don't remember his name. But he was staring at the wall. Doing nothing."

"...And every pony else was acting weird too." I said. "Like they didn't notice him at all!"

"Are you okay?" Cliff and I said to Foster, both at once.


"Oh." Bananas replied. Running her hoof through her long, tan mane. "Heh heh. I think I mighta had something to do with that."

"What?" Cliff squealed. A sound so shrill it made Foster throw her hooves up.

"I'm sorry." Foster said. "I know you have moral issues with my…feeding. I try to understand that - really, I do. But I messed up this time. Lost control. I'm really really sorry."

Foster blushed. A distinctly equine social cue she couldn't possibly have done naturally in her changeling form. It was oddly off-putting. 'Cause I knew it was fake.

I slid my out of my jacket and kicked off my boots. Just to have something to do to hide my discomfort.

"You try to understand?" Cliff said, still trying to catch his breath from the scare she'd just put us both through.

Foster reeled. Blink-bloinked her eyelids for a moment. Taken aback by Cliff's intensity.

"Yeah." Bananas said. "I genuinely do. Equine ideas of ethical philosophy don't always make sense to me. But I still think you've expanded my horizons a bit, and overall, you've been a good influence."

Suddenly, the room fell still. So still that I swear, it seemed like every fleck of dust was gonna drop out of the air and fall to the ground. In that moment, I saw a flicker in Cliff's eyes. Of pain. Of rage. Just before the rest of his face hardened into an angular scowl.

"So," he said softly but bitterly, "You're only a good pony because of Rose and her influence." He sang that last word with sarcasm.

Bananas scrunched her face up, all confused-like. She looked to me as if to say What the fuck is his problem? But I didn't get to reply. I was too busy rushing to shut the door so no hospital ponies would hear the epic argument that was about to ensue.

"Um...Yes?" Foster turned to Cliff and said. "Except I never claimed to be good, and I'm...not even a pony..." She shrugged. "Are you okay?"

"No, I'm not okay. Ponies could have died!" Cliff exclaimed, determined not to acknowledge any of what Bananas had just said. "What if...if...if...one of those nurses just went and...zombied out while treating somepony else."

"Can we not do this?" I butted in. "Foster already said she was sorry."

"But she isn't." Cliff snapped at me. More terrified than angry now. Panting like a wild animal. "What if we're the bad guys, Rose? If we're okay with this. If we say nothing. How can we even say that ponies deserve to be saved?"

Foster stood there. Dumbstruck. For a fraction of a moment, I could look into her eyes and see something shatter deep within her. I'd say it was her heart. Breaking as Cliff's jabs at the unworthiness of us all twisted a little knife inside.

"Maybe ponies don't deserve to be saved." Foster said, super calmly, gently, but still somehow seething with contempt.

"Oh, come on." I said.

"You are a goody four shoes." Foster retorted. "You wanna help everyone. And I respect that. A lot. Everypony else? Not so much." She turned to Cliff. "Except you. You're one of the most admirable creatures I've ever met. Your devotion to family? It's downright changeling-esque in its intensity."

Cliff's hooves trembled. The hair in his coat stood on end. That was the final straw.

"Family?" He said. "Family? What? You mean my dad who hardly ever says a word to me except to nudge me into ogling mares as they trot by, hoping that I'll get married someday and make him grandsons who actually know how to fly because apparently, 'greatness skips a generation.'" He threw up his forehooves and made quotation marks in the air.

"Celestia forbid that he should stop and ask me what I want, or even take one look at my collectibles and notice that I have an ooobvious crush on Zap from the Bearded Stallions of Space Station 11, (though they totally ruined him with that redemption arc that ran from issue 37 to 49)." Cliff muttered that last little piece of trivia out the side of his muzzle. Quibbling geekily even in the midst of his rage.

Foster and I exchanged startled glances with one another. Partially because neither of us had had any idea that Cliff liked colts, but mostly 'cause we had no idea what the Bearded Stallions of Space Station 11 were.

"Or do you mean my mom?" Cliff stomped his hoof. "Who hates my guts. And apparently isn't content to simply hate my guts at home. No, she absolutely had to follow me to Rose's cottage just so she could let me know that her judgments could reach me wherever I went. Is that the devotion to family you're talking about, Bananas? That family?!"

He flung off his coat. Hucked it across the room. And dropped to his knees. Started sobbing. Heaved and panted and tried to choke it all back down, so as not to make too much noise. But it was no use. He'd completely lost control. So he just threw himself at me instead. Buried his face in my ribs. Used my sweater to muffle his cries.

I put my hoof on his shoulder. It felt like such a useless gesture. It couldn't change anything, or help him, or be of much use at all. But it was the only thing I could think of to do.

When Cliff Diver's cries finally tapered down to a trickle, and his sobs faded to sniffles, Bananas Foster spoke up. "You know I meant us, right?"

Cliff picked his head up off of me. Looked at Bananas Foster like she had thirty-seven eyes.

"Your devotion to family." Foster clarified. "I meant us. Rose Petal and me, and Roseluck, and...I guess that weird friend of Rose Petal's who thinks she's a dog. You know, by extension."

Cliff kept on staring at Bananas. Astonished by the very idea. Foster sighed. Looked away in shame. For the pain she'd caused him in the first place. That's when I realized there was something going on with her too.

"What made you lose control?" I asked. "It's not like you."

Foster waved her hoof. "I don't wanna bother you."

"Tell me." Cliff spoke up at last. "Please?"

"I was stress eating." Bananas sighed, still staring at the flloor. "Because I was afraid."

"Afraid of what?" I asked.

"Of what's gonna happen tomorrow. When you all go back to school. And get normal lives again." Foster threw up her forehooves before either of us could interrupt her. "I know you'll swear you're gonna make time for me." She said. "And you'll mean it too. And you're even gonna try. (That's probably the worst part). But like it or not, things are going to change. And I don't know how to deal with that, so I...lost control." Foster squeezed her eyes shut in self-disgust. Stewed in silence for a minute.

Then, with a pitiful sigh, Bananas summoned her courage, took a few steps forward to the edge of her dome. Looked to me, all sullen-eyed. And then finally, to Cliff.

"I swear on my mother's memory, the thing with the nurses won't happen again." She shook her head and cried. "I'm sooo sorry. Really, I am. And if you must know, I gotta tell the truth. You're absolutely right, Cliff. I'm not like you.

"There's no fancy ethics behind my remorse - no compassion for all pony kind, or whatever. I'm sorry because it hurt you. And I care about you. 'Cause you're a brother to me" Foster sucked in a ragged breath. "...I just hope that's enough."

Bananas bit her lip and dipped her head so low it almost hit into the dome.

The room fell silent again. This time not out of tension or anger. But wonder! Cliff Diver knew as well as I did what that word meant to Foster. How seriously she took stuff like that. Being brothers. Being family. Being a hive.

Then, I reached out, though honestly, I couldn't tell you why. Cliff was leaning on my good leg, so I used the other one. Pressed that inky black hoof against the dome, and, soundlessly, it went right through. I felt Foster's mane. Actually touched it! It was soft. Like it had recently been brushed.

Reflexively, I jerked my leg back. Out of sheer surprise. But then Foster looked up. Jaw agape. Eyes twinkling with shock and hope and awe. I thrust my hoof back through in a hurry. Foster touched it with her own. Just a tap at first. Clop. Her cheeks curled into a smile. She laughed. And a tear leapt out of her eyeball and slid down the side of her cheek.

Cliff Diver picked his head up to see what was going on, and the sight of my hoof on the other side of the bubble startled him so badly that he slid right off of me, and thunk! Hit his head on the floor.

He scrambled right back to his hooves. Leaned real close to examine the spot where my evil hoof penetrated the dome. He got so close, he felt the sting of the bubble as it grazed against his cheek.

"It only blocks living matter." He said as he furrowed his brow, and got his brain-gears turning.

It should have come as a shock to me. It should have made me tremble, and hate the shadows all the more. If I was in any state of mind to absorb that information objectively - to realize that my hoof wasn't living matter, I'd probably scream, "Ew, ew, ew," and cut the damn thing off, and run away screaming.

But Bananas Foster was giggling at that hoof. Booping herself with it. Relishing the feel of one-on-one contact. Laughing and smiling and crying as she leaned in, and it rustled her mane.

I thought back to Twinkle Eyes. How I'd felt so alone in my cage. So lost. So confused. How the simple act of stroking my head through the bars had filled me with warmth. Hope! Strength! Touch means so very much. It's more than a comfort. It makes other ponies real to us. It makes us feel real to ourselves. It saves our hearts from hardening.

So in that moment, I loved my hoof - truly fucking loved it - for the first time. I can only imagine what it meant to Foster.

"Family." Cliff whispered. No longer holding disdain for the word.

He put one forehoof against the dome.

"Family." Foster repeated as she sat up tall on her hindquarters, even as the tears kept flowing down her face like rain. She held my evil hoof in hers, and extended her free leg to Cliff. Even though there was still a barrier.

Finally, Cliff held his free hoof out to mine.

"Family." I said. And clop! The three of us formed a leg-triangle.

That's when I felt a surge of light. Of warmth. A glow of sorts. More than just the happiness of the moment. More than just a chuckle or a tear.

It was a tidal wave of magic. Real magic.

* * *

After a long, long, long, long while, the three of us found ourselves sitting on the floor, gathered around the edge of the dome like it was a campfire and we were all Filly Scouts.

"I've been thinking." Cliff said.

"Uh-oh." Foster snickered.

"You're right." He said. "There are gonna be times when life on the outside does pull us away. You know, like field trips, and stuff. Things my stupid mom needs me to do. There's no way around it. And I'm sorry. But that doesn't mean we should give up! Bananas, I will never stop visiting you. I promise. Whenever I can."

He crossed one leg, diagonal-like over his chest, and then flipped it up to his forehead in some kinda weird spazz-salute. "Until my final day." He added in his most solemn of tones.

Foster and I looked at one another. All shruggitty.

"What the hay was that?" Bananas imitated Cliff's stupid salute-a-majig. Jerking around awkwardly like a marionette with tangled strings.

"Hellooo?" Cliff retorted indignantly. "The Solemn Oath of the Bearded Stallions of Space Station 11? Ooh!" His face lit up like a foal on Hearth's Warming morning. "We should all--;"

"No." Foster said abruptly.

"Fine." He grumbled in reply.

"Wait a minute." I said. "I thought you got rid of all your space stuff."

"Well," his cheeks flushed red. "Not all of it."