• Published 27th Feb 2013
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Fallout: Equestria - The Hooves of Fate - Sprocket Doggingsworth



A young filly in present day Ponyville is cursed with nightmares of post-apocalyptic Equestria. She finds herself influencing the course of future history in ways that she cannot understand.

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Storytime

* * *


BOOK THREE
AFTER THE STORM


* * *

CHAPTER TWENTY-FOUR - STORYTIME
"Mother is the name for God in the lips and hearts of little children." - William Makepeace Thackeray



I missed Roseluck. The entire time I was gone, I missed her like crazy. Like a rambling, raving, there are snails living in my eyeballs kinda crazy. But I couldn't think about it in the trenches. Not while I had all that truce and war and get thee to the door business going on. So I’d stayed focused, chased down my goals, and my inner pirate behaved herself for the most part. Didn't cry or yarrrr at me for attention or nothing.

But Roseluck hadn't shown up for Hearth's Warming. And it scared me. ‘Cause what the hell?

What the hell? What the hell? What the hell?

There are no words that I can come up with for just how much what the hell was going through my brain back there. But there's a passage in that history book that Bananas Foster gave me - a letter from Chancellor Puddinghead to Clover the Clever that captured my deepest, darkest, scariest fear.




Dearest Clover,

It is my hope that this letter will reach you at your new poste. I've sent correspondence to both your Manehattan office as well as the princess' old estate, all to no avail, as your sudden departure has left both manors in something of a state of disarraye, but my pudding sense tells me that you might be in the company of that olde wizard once agayne, so I've dispatched messengeres to deliver this most important letter to him in the hopes that my words might reach you.

I am sorry, Clover. You were right about everything.

A few weeks ago, this nation celebrated its thirtieth Hearth's Warming. It's hard to believe that it has been so very long since the six of us conquered the windigo, but thirty sugar-plum-fueled winters have indeed come and gone, and the anniversary of sayed victory passed rather unceremoniously, with neither pomp nor spectacle. The five of us remaining “founding sisters,” as the ponies have taken to calling us, gathered as we had on Hearth's Warmings' past, and feasted on the elderberry pastries you fancy, and the special eclairs that your princess adoreth; we also imbibed those fine mulled liqueurs, my affinity for which is so extreme, that it has become the subject of gossip and conjecture throughout the kingdom.

My dearest Clover, it would be a lie to pretend that such an assembly could possibly be the same without you. To be honest, I cannot help but wonder if my presence is the very thing that warded you away, (not to mention my legendary affinity for the aforementioned liqueurs).

I would not blame you if this were the case. For what little it is worth, Clover, I am sorry. You were right.

I thought you would want to know that I plan to seek help. I have ordered my vineyard, and my distillery to be auctioned off.

I'm scared, Clover.

I know that, by the time my words reach you, I will either have died or recovered, (as the rehabilitation facilities employ rather extreme methods). In either case, the worst will be long behind me, but you deserve to know that I am sorry. I am so very sorry, Clover.

I'm sorry for everything.

Yours in Friendship,

Puddin’




She signed it Puddin'. Not Puddinghead. Not Chancellor. Just Puddin'.

According to the Ponies' History of Equestria, the letter never made it to Clover. Discord came and took over everything. And the letter was lost for many, many years. Most of the founding sisters were never seen or heard from again.

That's the part that terrified me! What if something happened to me in my dreams? None of my friends would know what had gone down, or why. And Roseluck! She hadn't shown up for Hearth's Warming. It scared me. ‘Cause what if she was in trouble? Would I want her last thoughts to be spent worrying about me? Wondering if I would be the one to miss out on the letter?

* * *

I opened up my eyes. It wasn't like waking up after having poisoned myself with all that tea. It wasn't like coming to in the cages at Trottica either, where we just kinda phased in and out of this messed up weird not-sleeping, not-waking state. It wasn't even like getting up normally. I was just suddenly really fucking awake.

Swoomp! My eyes flung open like they were spring-loaded,

And boom. There I was back in the old Ponyville hospital bed. The room was decked. Festive strings and banners hanging from the ceiling. Strands of popcorn. Unlit candles were propped up in fancy-hearths-warmingsy-loooking holders, red, and green, and gold, hung with care from hooks on the walls, right next to the stockings.

And there were a bunch of nurses staring at me. I didn't recognize any of them. Except the jerk nurse who'd been a dick to Screw Loose. He was there, ogling.

Some kinda doctor was in the room too - all bestethescope’d. His pencil slowly slid off his ear as he stared at me, frozen in shock, and silent as the night. An older nurse, pink with white hair, slowly lifted her foreleg up to point at me. The younger, purpler nurse beside her just stood there, jaw agape.

"How?" She said.

"What?" I snapped.

And surprised myself. It came out louder than I’d expected. None of that croaky, raspy sick-mouth. It sounded like my old voice. When I gulped, I didn't have any of that dead-rat-in-my-throat taste either. The air came in fresh and clear with no effort at all.

I thought about it for a moment. Moved my limbs around. Stretched them out real good. Turned my head without any effort.

I wasn't sick anymore. Wasn't weak! I didn't ache. In fact, I was glowing. I looked down. Even through the sheets, I could see a faint aura. A shimmer. Love and light from the Crystal Empire.

"How?" I asked out loud, marveling at the glow.

But the captive audience at the foot of my bed just stood there. Wondering the same thing. A mix of terror and wonder lit up their eyes as they gawked. A great big old pegasus - not a medipony, but a visitor - blue with a white mustache - babbled and shot his eyes toward the door. A white Pegasus mare. Also a visitor. Stood there next to him. Gawking.

Then there was the Jerk Nurse who’d taunted Screw Loose. He staggered backwards. Tripped on his own hooves. While the young purple nurse - the one who'd had the presence of mind to actually open her mouth and ask, "how" - held it together well enough to come up to me and start talking to me like a pony.

She was barely old enough to be out of school. The young nurse cleared her throat, floated a clipboard and pencil in front of her face with her unicorn magic, and got on with her protocol as though she had done it a thousand times before.

"Rose Petal," she said, reading my name off the chart. "Can you tell me how you feel?"

"Um...good-ish?" I replied.

I lifted the bedsheets. Looked down at my crystallness. Secretly wondered how long the glow would last.

"Yeah, goodish, I'd say."

"You're shiny." Came a groaning voice at my side.

I rolled over, and there was Roseluck! The top half of her head was all bandaged up like a mummy. A head-wound mummy. But she was there. Alive. And she still loved me.

"Roseluck!” I shouted. “Omigosh! What happened? Are you okay?"

The grim faced, determined young nurse came up to me, levitated some cotton, pressed it against the spot in my leg where the needle and tubes went. The doctor didn't object.

"Put pressure here." Said the nurse, pressing down on my little IV wound, showing me how.

Without thinking, my hooves did as I was told. But I totally ignored the nurse beyond that.

"Roseluck!” I cried. “What happened?"

"Just a little spill," she said. "I'll be fiiiiiiiiine." She smiled a dazed little smile at me, even as her head waved around.

“Ahem.” The young professionalistic-ish nurse messed with the clipboard again. And whipped out her fake ass I’m talking to a wittle kid now voice.

"Can you tell me your name, little girl?" The bitch said to me all singitty-songitty.

The sound of it made my eye twitch, and my teeth grind against one another. It must've been obvious, 'cause Roseluck, even in her woozy state, managed to throw me a don't you dare give this lady a hard time look.

"Rose Petal.” I grumbled. "You read it to me off the chart, just a moment ago."

"Ah, so I did." The nurse answered nervously. "Do you know what your cutie mark is?"

"It's rose petals."

"Do you know what day it is?"

"Hearth's Warming."

"Who is the Princess of the Sun?"

"Celestia. Are you kidding me?"

I turned to my sister.

"Roseluck, what's going on? Are you sure you're okay?"

"I'm fine." She patted my hoof. "Thanks to your friend Cliff Diver."

"Cliff?!"

"That's my boy!" Came a voice from the other end of the room.

"Who are you?" I said.

"Name's First Place." The mustache pegasus stepped forward. Offered me his hoof. "Cliff Diver The Hero's old dad."

"Um, hi?" I bumped his hoof.

"And I'm Gold Medal, Cliff's mother." Said the white pegasus lady.

She was colder, more reserved. She didn't even bother stepping forward.

"First Place?" I said. "Gold Medal? Are you seri--;"

"Yes!" The older, pinker nurse jumped in with an awkward laugh. "It's been a busy night for us all."

The purple professional grabbed my leg. Started poking it.

"Any tingling, numbness in your hooves?"

"No. It's fine."

"Does it hurt when I do this?"

Poke. Poke. Poke. Poke. Poke.

"No." I turned back to Roseluck. "What happened to you?"

"I fell,"

"You fell?"

"I'll tell the story later." She said, all woozy-like. "For now--;"

"There he was!" Cliff’s Mustache Dad stepped even further forward. "In the middle of the worst blizzard this side of the frozen North.”

"Hooooo, boy." Roseluck sighed.

"He knew your sister might be in trouble because you hadn't heard from her all day, so he and his mother…” Mustache threw Gold Medal a quick nod. “Trudged through the snow to ensure her safety."

The purple professional ignored First Place completely, and kept on prodding at me. "How about now?"

Poke, poke, poke, poke, poke.

"...And just when it looked like the snow was too heavy for them to make it to the other end of town, my son - the hero - and my wife - the other hero - turned to one another boldly, and said..."

"Ayyyiieeeeeeeeeeeee!"

The real Cliff Diver ran into my room, shrieking like a little foal in a basket full of worms. "...eeeeeeee!"

He slammed the door shut. Pressed his back to it, and panted.

"That pony out there is nuts!" He squeaked.

"What pony?"

"Bow wow wow wow rrrrrrrrruff!" Screw Loose darted passed my doorway. Barking. Followed by a team of orderlies. Some of the nurses in my room brushed Cliff aside, and ran out there to deal with Queenie. The doctor too. Even the purple professional whipped around to see.

"Jeez, again?” She said as she got up to draw the privacy curtain that hung from the ceiling. "She's been at it all night."

I smiled. Silently rooted for Screw Loose. The underdog. ‘Till it hit me.

"Did you say all night?"

"Yeah."

"As in all night?"

The nurse rolled her eyes. "Yeah," she said, dropping her professional demeanor. "Don't get me started on that one."

"But she slept, right?" I said. "She had to have slept."

“I wish!” The nurse answered. “Not a wink, poor thing."

My heart thundered in my chest. How could it be? I had seen her in my dreams! But she never even winked! Had I been tricked? Had the Wanderer really been her? If not her, then who?!

Screw Loose slammed her face against the thin glass window in the door to my hospital room. Between the curtain that the nurse kept trying to use to ward off distractions, and the distance between the door and me, and the narrow, tiny little glass space that the dogmare had to peek through, I barely had a chance to get a good look at her. But we still shared a moment, Queenie and I. We locked eyes. And somehow, in that instant, I knew. It had been her. Screw Loose was the Wanderer.

Then unseen hooves whisked the dogmare away. The moment went as quickly as it had come. And I was left pondering her madness. The mirror in her brain must have been so broken, that she didn't even need to sleep to dream. Was that what it meant to be crazy? Trapped in a waking dream? Unable to tell the real from the imaginary?

"Hello, son." Said First Place, King of all Mustaches. "I was just telling everypony how you--;"

"Eeeee!" Cliff Driver shrieked again. "She tried to eeeeat me!"

Cliff's dear old dad sighed, and raised a hoof to his face. His mom just cleared her throat, and looked at him disapprovingly.

"Enough." Snapped the older nurse - the pink one. "Everypony out."

Almost everyone scurried out, but Cliff's parents kinda sorta tip-hooved toward the door, and stood there. They threw each other these "she couldn't possibly mean us" looks. Again, and again, and again. It was like watching a game of Privileged-Asshole-Who-Can’t-Take-a-Hint eyeball ping pong.

"Cliff stays." I said.

Gold Medal smiled at her husband.

"Just Cliff." I whispered to the purple young nurse.

She stopped. Held me at leg's length. Studied me closely.

"Pleeeease," I said.

The nurse put her clipboard down. Leaned over me, and got close. I mean really, really close. Lifted up a hoof ever so delicately. I swear I thought she was going to whisper some deep dark secret at me.

But all she did was touch my cheek. And after that, my nose. "No pain?" She said.

Poke, poke, poke, poke, poke.

"No!" I snapped.

And just when I was starting to feel the urge to leap up and strangle her, the older pink nurse swept in and dealt with Cliff's folks. "Sir, madam, if you would be so kind, the patient needs her rest."

"What of, er..." Cliff's mom cleared her throat and gestured at the door. Referring, of course, to Screw Loose. First Place had a look of disgust on her face like she was trying to swallow a slug that had just finished squirming its way through a puddle of sour milk.

"It's fine." The older nurse said all diplomatic-like. "The patient has been subdued."

The nurse turned away from the bitch, and the mustache to look me square in the eye, and reassure me.

"Screw Loose is safe." She said. "And resting."

It was good to hear. And reassuring to learn that somepony actually cared.




Apparently satisfied, Gold Medal and First Place turned to leave. Cliff tried to follow, but the nurse threw her hoof at him.

"I have a special job, however, for your son."

The parents looked at one another skeptically.

"...The hero." The older nurse cunningly added.

Cliff hung his head. Turned bright red. I could tell he'd already come to hate that word. But his parents didn't seem to notice. His dad beamed with pride. His mom radiated smug satisfaction.

"Why don't you go get something from the cafeteria? No charge. Er...Hero's Parents Special."

Cliff's folks left with smiles on their faces, totally oblivious to the actual Cliff Diver, who looked just about ready to cry.

* * *

Once his folks were gone, Cliff Diver squeezed his eyes shut, and said, "I'm so sorry about uh, my--;."

"Don't be." The older nurse said stiffly. "We actually do have a job for you."

She stepped forward, turned to my sister.

"Roseluck has got a pretty bad head wound. She'll be fine, but she needs someone to make sure she doesn't fall asleep. Can you do that?"

Cliff Diver nodded. Saluted.

The purple professional grabbed the clipboard with her mouth. Passed it to her senior. And trotted to the door. She let out a sigh of relief, glad to have the pressure taken off of her.

"What about me?" I said.

"Yeah," Roseluck yawned. "What about Rose Petal?"

"She's fine. Better than fine in fact."

The nurse smiled an awkward little smile. “You may even be out of here soon. I can't say anything ‘till the attending physician has a look at you, but from the looks of it, I'd say everything's coming up roses."

"Ughhh," I groaned.

Cliff brought a hoof to his face.

Roseluck just shut her eyes and sighed.

The nurse grinned a wicked grin at all of us, knowing full well the crime she'd just committed against good taste.

"You need anything, you just ring that bell, you hear?” She said.

“Okay.”

* * *

Before she left, the nurse disappeared behind Bananas Foster's curtain to go check on her. Bananas couldn’t have been too happy about all of this stupid commotion. The rest of the room went quiet. Cliff looked at me. Then at Roseluck. Then Roseluck looked at me. And I whipped around to exchange glances with Cliff Diver again. We all kept trading stares with one another, like a three way game of hot potato, ‘till eventually, we just sorta stopped, turned our heads in unison. And watched Bananas Foster's curtain. Waiting impatiently for the moment when the nurse would leave, and we could finally get ourselves some privacy.




After a few minutes, the nurse staggered away from the curtain, looking like she had seen a ghost.

"Just ring if you need anything." The nurse told us yet again. But this time, she sounded different than before - like she was a thousand miles away.

What the hell? I mouthed to myself as she left, and the door swung shut behind her.

"Bananas,” I called out. “Are you OK?"

"Yeah," she answered softly. "I'm fine."

The curtain slid across its track. Crick-a crick-a crick-a crick-a crick-a crick.

Foster was standing on the other side, looking anything but fine. Her eyelids were puffy and twitching. Her tail swished and swatted back-and-forth all over the place, agitated-like. Her teeth chattered as they chomped on a rope that dangled from the ceiling inside of her forcefield bubble - the rope that drew the curtains. And the whole time, her bloodshot eyes fixed themselves on me.

Help, help me! Please, I'll do anything, just somehow fucking help me!

Her silent plea hit me like a kick to the face. I scrambled back. Almost fell right off the edge of the bed.

I had seen that look before. In the Wasteland. Butterscotch. The lightning water that had approached his cage. "Don't leave us." He'd shouted just before I’d abandoned him and dove my way to safety. "Don't you dare leave us."

The echoes of Trottica shook me pretty hard. And Bananas Foster somehow kept on drilling that thought straight into my brain, even as I recoiled.

Help me.

Help me.

Help me.

Help me.

Help me.

"Sweet Luna," I whispered.

And pulled my bedsheet halfway over my face, as though that could somehow help. Roseluck drowsily turned to say hello. She shot straight up in her chair when she actually caught sight of Bananas. Clapped her hooves to her mouth to stifle an exclamation of horror. Cliff, on the other hoof, came right out and said what we all were thinking.

"Are you sure you're fine?" He said. "You look like you ran your face through a hay bailer."

"Slept badly," Bananas replied, not blinking at all, staring at me still. ‘Till at last, after a long uncomfortable silence full of eye wrestling, Foster turned away from me - slow and uncertain-like - bent her neck down, and reached for a breakfast tray that the nurse had left for her at the edge of the bubble. Reached for her cup of tea. Struggled to lift it with trembling hooves.

"Bananas?" I asked her.

She didn't answer. Just focused instead on balancing her teacup in its saucer.

Cran-tinka tinka tinka tinka tinka tinka tink.

“What happened?” I added in a whimper. I felt like I was gonna cry.

“W-was it nightmares?"

Bananas dropped her cup.

Cliff looked to me. Roseluck too. They’d noticed that I’d somehow struck a nerve.

"You know.” I added. "Is that what, uh, kept you up? I don't wanna intrude. And it sounds kinda stupid, but I do need to know if you're nightmaring. It's...um...well, it's like, a really long story but,…"

“You're sparkly,” Bananas said dryly without looking at me.

Fwimp. The sound of someone changing the subject. Hard.

I pulled the sheet over my glowy skin. Even though I had nothing to hide.

“It's temporary." I said. I'm pretty sure I was blushing. "What about you? Was it nightmares?" I asked again.

Foster didn't reply. Not at first. She just sucked a deep breath in, and composed herself. Then another breath. And another. ‘Till that tea cup in her hooves finally quit its tinka tanking.

Meanwhile Rose and Cliff looked all concernily at me. Like "why should you care so much if it was nightmares or not?”

I decided then and there that I couldn't lie to them. Couldn't pretty it up. They needed to know the truth. "It's part of what's going on." I said. "Nightmares, I mean."

"Oh." Bananas Foster replied, already calmer than before. "Yeah. Don't worry. I always have nightmares. I just slipped up this time - let myself fall asleep.”

"Wait." Roseluck whipped around to face her. "You never sleep?"

Foster didn't answer. Just got up and started pacing. She had a what-the-hell-am I-gonna-do look written all over her face.

"Spill it." Said Cliff. "What's going on?"

She reared up, flailed her forelegs around and shooed him away, deep in thought.

"What's. Going. On." Cliff Diver pressed her harder.

"Not now." She muttered. Paced around some more.

"Bananas, what the--;"

"Ugh!" Foster snapped at last, acid on her tongue. "Leave me alone. It's nothing Cliff the Hero can fix."

"Hey, you shut up!"

He got up. Punched the bubble. Punched it ‘till sparks flew. Cliff hated the "H" word. More than any of us had expected. Even Bananas was taken aback. She stopped pacing and everything.

"Stop it!" Roseluck and I shouted at the same time.

And everypony turned to us.




Fuck. I thought. We'd all been way too loud. The last thing any of us needed was more mediponies in the room.

Cliff blushed. He'd lost control too.

"Listen," I said in hushed tones. "There's serious stuff going on. Not just with the end of the world and all that, but here. In Ponyville. Right now. And it’s possible that your nightmares."

I pointed to Bananas.

"Your accident." I pointed to my sister.

"And your um...heroism, I mean adventure." I pointed to Cliff. "Have something to do with it. Bananas, you first. What happened?"

"I get nightmares." She said. “It sucks. I don't wanna talk about it."

"No, really," I said. "Listen, seriously, I --;"

"Nope." She shook her head in disgust.

“Bananas, come on.”

“I said no.”

“But--;”

"Don't make her." Roseluck interrupted, a little bit like her old self again.

"But, but--;"

I was speechless. I looked to Cliff Diver for support, but he just threw up his hooves, all don't-involve-me-like.

"Fine." I turned my attention to Roseluck. "What about you? What happened? I've been worried about you! All day. All night. In the future. In the duckyverse."

"Ducky...?" Cliff looked at me like I was nuts.

"In the castle," I continued. "In the playground. In my cave in Lunaland--;"

Foster quit her pacing.

"Lunaland?!" Said Roseluck.

Oh, jeez.

"Uh..."

Now all three of them were looking at me, hanging on my every word. My every non-sensical word. But I couldn't tell them about Luna. Or my adventures. Not yet. I needed to hear them out first. In their own words. See if I could find some kind of connection. The last thing I needed was everypony imagining shadows where there had been none, just ‘cause I had told my story first.

So I stopped. Thought real hard. I could feel the seedling of a plan itching around in my brain soil. “You first.” I said to Rose.

"I don't really know." She looked away from me. Shifted in her seat. "I was on my way to see you, rushing to leave the cottage cause..."

Her voice trailed off awkwardly.

“Well, uh, I was running late, trying to get here before the blizzard got too bad. I had just gotten out the door when I heard this weird noise." Roseluck rubbed her head. Looked up, all confused. Almost as though she was half-surprised to find the bandage still there. "And next thing I know, your friend Cliff Diver's digging me out from under the snow. Waking me up."

Cliff blushed and looked away.

"There was some yelling over something or other, and, well, I ended up here." Roseluck shrugged.

And that was it. Not much of a story.

“What was the sound?” Bananas asked.

“Huh?”

“You said you heard a sound before the snow fell on you. What sound?”

“Oh, uh…” Roseluck looked up in the air. Did that eye-rolly thing she does when she’s trying to remember something. “Like a click-clack sort of sound.”

Bananas scratched her chin. Studied Roseluck. It made me wonder. Was she testing the waters too? Trying to figure out what everyone else knew?

“Like the sound of a bunch of rusted metal centipedes scurrying along a chalkboard?” I said, watching them both carefully.

Bananas twitched. Her breath quickened. She turned to me, and tried to pretend like she was fine. But she wasn’t. She knew that sound. She had tangled with the shadowy clitweasels at least once before!

Roseluck, on the other hoof, just sorta nodded along. “Kinda, yeah. It sounded rusty like that. Why?”

“No reason.” I laughed nervously, and quietly worried to myself about the schemes and machinations of the shadowy clitweasels. “Well, okay,” I admitted. “There is a reason, and I’ll tell it to you. I promise. But your story’s um, well, it needs...more, you know, details. What happened? I really, really, really need to know.”

From the look on her face, it seemed that Foster, likewise, really, really, really needed to know too.

But Roseluck shrugged. Totally clueless.

“I don't know.”

One by one, we all unanimously turned to Cliff. He cringed. ‘Cause he’d clearly been hoping to share his harrowing tale of heroism dead last. Or not at all. But Rose's half-sorta-not-actually-a-story story begged all kinds of questions that only he could answer.

"Okay, fine," he sighed. Squeezed his eyes shut. "So we're on our way home to Hearth's Warming dinner. My mom and me. She’s all yelling at me for making her late, you know? 'Cause I spent so much time in the hospital with you girls.

"She's all like, 'Cliff Diver, I can't believe you left the house with your mane looking like that.'

"And I'm all like, 'Looking like what, Mom?'

"And she's all like, 'It's a mess. I taught you better than that. You look like a loser.'

"And I'm all like, 'I'm not a loser!'"

Cliff raised his voice up real loud. But then he stopped. Shuffled his hooves. Looked at his own tail.

"Only I didn't shout like that." He said. "I just, you know, thought it. But I soooooo wished I had said it.

"Anyway, Mom's leading me. And the snow, it's really coming down, you know? 'Cause of the blizzard. And I'm all worried about my stupid hair. Even though it's all under a winter hat anyway, and gonna be totally messy under there no matter what!

"The point is, I'm not as big as Mom, so it's hard for me to keep up in all that snow. She's lecturing me from, like, ten feet ahead.

"So I quit listening. And I get to thinking. I'm worried about you, Rose Petal. And I was worried about Roseluck too."

He turned to my sister. She smiled graciously back at him.

"So I stopped. There in the middle of the snow. The pegasus ponies hadn't cleared any skies yet. And the earth ponies hadn't plowed anything. So it was real, real deep. And Mom was mad, so she was just charging up the road without me. She didn't even notice when I fell behind.

“I stopped altogether. Looked down, and realized I'm standing in these crossroads, you see? Up ahead is mom, and off to the side is the path that heads West. The way to your cottage.

"So I get this thought. Like maybe I should check on Roseluck. While Mom just keeps going, and going, and going. And next thing I know, she is like thirty feet away from me. Then forty. Then fifty. Still ranting about how stupid I am.

“And I got afraid. Like really, really afraid. ‘Cause I know if I don't catch up soon, I'm gonna hear about it for, like, the next six months. And I hate that."

Cliff was turning cherry red. Shaking.

"Yeah, sure, now they're all like, 'My son, the hero.'" He shot up straight. Did a spot-on impression of his old man. "But when we get home, he's gonna forget all about it, and be all, 'So, son, did you find anything you don't suck at yet?

“Like that's gonna help me or something. And Mom is just gonna sit there, reading like she always does, and then just, like, casually remind me of the time that I ruined her Hearth’s Warming. But it's okay, ‘cause, you know,"

He started doing impressions again. First his dad: "'You're a hero. A winner.'"

Then his mom: "'At least you were for a day. Why can't you be like that all the time?'

"So anyway, I'm standing there, right? In the snow," Cliff started to sniffle.

I wouldn't have thought it possible to sniffle angrily, but he managed. A sniffle of purest rage.

"And just when I'm not sure that I can do it. When I think, 'Hay! I'd better catch up before I get caught,' my mom turns around, and she's like, 'C'mon, Cliff. What's wrong with you? What? Now your legs don't work either?'"

Cliff stretched out his broken, mangled wings. Looked on them with shame.

"I didn't know what to do. But I had this weird moment, where I just stopped thinking about it. And I...ran. I made straight for your cottage - forced my way through all the snow.

'But when I looked over my shoulder behind me, my mom was, like, flying right after me. And I didn't know what she was gonna do to me! 'Cause I never ran from her before. I never did anything like that before.

"So she came at me real, real fast, right? And dove down to scoop me up. But she's so stupid, 'cause she did one of those fancy Wonderbolts Reserves maneuvers she's so proud of. As if I hadn't seen it a thousand times before.

"I know exactly how she's going to dip, and where. So I jump away in a zigzag, and dive into the snow. And she missed me." Cliff laughed. "Gold Medal - the great, aerobatic champion dove down on me, and actually missed!

"So I got up and ran again. 'Cause I knew that your cottage was close. I ran as hard as I could. Like really, really hard. But when I finally got there, I didn't see anything! I wasn't sure what I expected to see. But I didn't see it!

"Then my mom landed right in fronna me. And I thought she was gonna kill me." Cliff sniffled. "I fell back, you know, ‘cause I was startled."

Cliff looked away.

"She grabbed me. By my wing." He whispered that last part. Like he was ashamed of it.

"And I tried to tell her about Roseluck. Why I did what I did. But I don't even think she was listening. She just started pulling - leading me away. And I knew she was wrong! But I gave up and went along with her ‘cause, ‘cause..."

Cliff Diver trailed off. Hung his head, and his tail down low. He wouldn't even look at us. 'Till Bananas finished his thought for him.

"Because it hurt." She said.

Cliff nodded meekly.

A coldness came over Foster. A distant look in her eyes. Like she had just quietly added Killing Cliff's Mom to her if I ever get out of this bubble to-do list. And the scary thing is: I had no doubt that she would do it in a heartbeat, if she only could.

Cliff stood there though. Looking at his hooves. Summoning the nerve to finish his story.

"So I went with her." He said to the floor. "I shouldn't have. But I did."

He shivered. Rubbed his hooves together as if for warmth.

"I'm sorry, Roseluck. I get the chills just thinking about it. That I didn't, I dunno, try harder. You could have...You might have..."

"Sweetie," said Roseluck. "You saved me."

"I guess."

"The chills?" I pressed him.

He nodded.

"'Ma dragged me away, and when she did, I felt cold. Real cold. Like a bad kinda cold. I dunno how else to describe it.”

Bananas Foster’s face twitched when she heard him say that. She definitely knew the shadows. Her eyes darted straight to me. To measure my reaction. I looked away.

“But then,” Cliff got going again. “I looked back and saw something out of the corner of my eye. Like, this one part of your roof. It didn't have any snow on it like everything else did. And there was a little mound underneath it, while everything else was, you know, even."

Roseluck was fully awake now, leaning forward, all eager-like. She hadn't heard Cliff's side of the story before.

Me? I couldn't believe it. The shadowy clitweasels' plan. That tiny rock at the top of the stairs that killed kings? Was it just a bit of ice on a thatched roof? A piece of straw come loose? That little snap that almost killed Roseluck, ruined my life, and Cliff’s life forever, if he hadn’t had the courage to go looking?

"It was Roseluck stuck under there. I knew it. And I tried to tell Ma. But she wouldn't listen!" Cliff squeaked when he talked. “She wouldn’t listen!”

He pounded his hooves together. Then laughed uncomfortably at what he had to say next.

“So I, um...I sorta lost control for a bit. ‘Cause, you know, Rose, you're so brave."

He looked to me and blushed.

"Me?"

"Yeah." He said. "I thought maybe I could be brave too, so I um...I did what you would do. Hehehehe."

Silence. He didn't finish his thought. even though he knew the rest of us were waiting.

"Well, what'd you do?" Foster snapped at him.

"Oh, uh," Cliff tapped his hooves together all nervous-like. "I ran back to the mound and started digging. And then Mom came after me, but I saw some red hair in the snow. And I shouted 'look!' And, uh, she did look, and we dug Roseluck up. The end."

He grinned sheepishly.

Bananas Foster glared at him. Tapped impatiently on the inside of her bubble. Thunk. Thunk. Thunk. Thunk. Thunk.

When he saw her wry little look, Cliff wiped that grin clean off his face.

"What?" He said.

"That's it?"

"Yeah that's it. Whattaya mean, 'That's it?'"

"I mean," Bananas growled. "How'd you get away from your mothe...from her?"

"Oh, that."

"Well, uh, I kinda, you know. Well, funny thing is, I, uh...maybe, sorta...bit her."

"You bit her?!" We all said at the same time.

"I didn't mean to! I mean, I did mean to. But it just uh, sorta, you know--;" Cliff babbled, and babbled, and babbled, and babbled. "Well, it happened when she was grabbing me, and I had to get loose ‘cause I was worried, and--;."

"Ha!" Roseluck interrupted.

"What?" I asked.

“Ha ha ha ha ha!” Roseluck was too busy wheezing and laughing to answer me.

“What?” I snapped.

"That…Sounds…Just...Like...Rose Petal."

She laughed so hard that her throat went silent. Nothing but a high-pitched screech managed to squeak its way out.

"Hay!" I said. "No."

"Ha, ha, ha, ha, ha, ha!"

"I would never!" I said. "I wouldn't bite my own mother? Are you crazy? You seriously think I woul--;"

Fuck. I stopped midsentence. Looked over at Cliff, who was clearly mortified. Fuck. Fuck. Fuck. Fuck. Fuck. So Stupid!

"I mean, uh, that I would never...bite my own mother...unless I had a very good reason. Which you did, Cliff. Of course."

And I wasn’t lying. He’d had a great reason. And I couldn't even begin to imagine what it must feel like to have a mom like that. And to have to worry all the time about what she thinks. And to be scared. And to actually have to choose between saving somepony's life, and saving your own ass. I admired the hell out of Cliff for what he did. I wanted to hug him and tell him that he was a hero. That he was amazing. That I owed him big time for the rest of my life for bringing my sister back to me! But it all came out wrong.

"Biting moms is good when you have a reason." I said.

Stupid Rose. So fucking stupid.

"Whatever." Cliff pouted. "It's fine."

“Really, I--;”

Whack. Roseluck crumpled up a paper cup and threw it at my head.

“Ow.”

“Ha.” Bananas Foster snickered.

“Hey, Cliff?” Roseluck said sweetly.

“What?”

"Thanks," She smiled.

"It was nothing." He blushed. "Happy Hearth's Warming."

Roseluck held open her hooves. Cliff blinked. Watched her for a minute, then crept over. And sank into a hug.

“You’re a good kid.” My sister told him. “You’re welcome at our house anytime.”

“Thanks.” He said.

And they held a while. But after their long moment of tender silence, Cliff pulled away from her, and bounced a little. All happy-like. ‘Cause he knew what Roseluck had actually meant by her offer: If you ever need to get away from your crazy asshole jerkface parents, just come on over.

“Cliff, seriously, thank you.” Roseluck repeated. Trying to drill it home to him that he actually had done a heroic deed.

“It was nothing." He smiled back, blushing. "Think of it like a Hearth's Warming gift."

Roseluck's smile faded. Her face went from white to whiter.

"What?" Cliff said. "What's wrong?"

"The gift." She whispered to herself. "My Celestia!”

She turned to me, wearing the fakest, bravest smile I'd seen on her since I was seven years old, and she’d tried to pretend that my hamster hadn't died.

"Rose Petal, I'm sorry. I forgot your gift."

Something was wrong. It was more than that. Roseluck was lying. I could tell.

"Rose," I said. "What's going on?"

"Nothing, really." She replied. "Well, actually, I was carrying your gifts out the door when the snow hit me. It's why I was so late. I had to look around for them.”

Roseluck smiled at me. But I didn't smile back. 'Cause "look around" for my gifts? Look around?! My sister was super organized! She never lost anything around the house. Not in my whole life. What wasn't she telling me? What was going on?

"They've got to be under three feet of snow by now.” My sister said with a heavy heart - like some pony had just died. “I'll buy you new stuff as soon as we're both well. I swear."

"Hmmph." Bananas Foster grunted in disapproval.

I looked past Roseluck to see what Foster was on about. But the bubble girl just gave me the evil eye in return. Even as she shook with fear and anger, like one of those nervous chihuahuas.

"What?" I asked her.

But Bananas wouldn't reply. She just spun, and turned away from me. Leaving me completely flabbergasted. 'Cause what the hell had I said? What the hay had I done? I was so confused, I felt like screaming. ‘Till it hit me. Suddenly, out of the blue, I realized what had set her off. "I'll buy you new stuff.” Roseluck had said. “As soon as we are both well."

I was feeling better - a fuck of a lot better. And Roseluck only had a minor concussion. We would be going home soon. Both of us, and Cliff too, since he was only visiting after all. We would heal, and laugh, and get released, and move on with our merry old lives. Except for the girl in the bubble.

I wanted to leap off of that bed and hug her. But I couldn't. I wanted to reach out and touch her, and tell her that everything was going to be all right. But it wasn't. Not for her. So I just stumbled and did my best to assure Bananas Foster that, at the very least, I wouldn't bail on her like she thought I would.

"Bananas," I said. "Listen, just 'cause we're doing better--;"

"Can it." She said.

The bubble girl yanked on a rope, and the curtains swished closed.

I turned back to look at my sister. Roseluck was so wrapped up in trying to put on a brave face for me, that she hadn't even noticed my exchange with Bananas Foster. She hit me with another insecure smile even harder than before - that, "no, this isn't a new hamster that I bought to replace your old hamster" smile, followed by that, "really, I swear, sometimes hamsters just spontaneously change color when you're not looking, which is why this hamster is brown instead of white" laugh she did sometimes when she was terrified, and trying not to show it.

"Rose," I whispered. “What's wrong?"

She shut her eyes. Sighed. Took a deep breath.

"Rose Petal, I--;" Her voice trailed off.

And then finally, out of fucking nowhere, she snapped completely, and started sobbing.

I froze. Oh, Jeez. Said the voice inside my head. Rose! Do something! Quick! I put a hoof on Roseluck's shoulder. It was probably a bad idea to touch Rose's bandaged up head. So I stroked her back instead. Shushed her. And tried to calm her down. She shook and heaved and brought her hoof up to her shoulder to meet mine. And as I sat there, giving what comfort I could, I had a terrifying realization. All my life had been safety net after safety net. Stories before bed. Kisses on my boo-boos. Comfort sandwiches. But now I was the grown-up. At least for the moment.

Yeah, sure, I had been in wars and slave revolts and stuff. That was hardly kids' play. But Roseluck was still my rock. Through all of it. Even when she wasn't there.

For me to suddenly be her rock? It meant that there was no one left to catch me if I started to come apart.

I looked to Bananas Foster's curtain. She had problems of her own. Cliff Diver? He was busy digging in that backpack of his. Tossing papers around.

Not helpful.

Screw Loose? Her heart was made of gold, but she couldn't give me that kind of support. Her head was full of oatmeal.

I was alone. Truly, truly alone.

"It's okay." I told my sister. "It's okay."

And patted her back silently. While inside, I felt anything but okay.

* * *

We hugged that way for a good long while. Me sprawled out over my bed. Reaching out to my sister, leaning on her shoulder, dangling over the edge. 'Till Cliff called out, "Hey, Roseluck!"

She picked her head up somberly, and looked to him without saying a word.

"Uh, it's not much." He said. "But I think I found one of those presents you were talking about."

Roseluck jolted upright so fast I almost fell.

"Which one?"

"Oh, uh...just a beat up old doll. It's kinda dirty and wet. I only grabbed it because it was there, but, you know, it's better than nothi--;"

He quit his rambling when he noticed the rainbows bursting out of Roseluck’s face. She looked like her eyeballs were made out of sunshine.

"Bring it here. Bring it here. Bring it here!” She squealed.

"What?" I said.

Cliff produced a ragdoll from his bag, and trotted across the room with it in his mouth.

Roseluck squee'd when she saw it.

"Pass it to Rose Petal. Pass it to Rose Petal!" She said.

Cliff dropped it in my lap. Pomf. A ragdoll. Basically sack cloth. With some yarn hair. It wasn't much to look at at all. But my sister freaked the hell out over it.

"Rosie," she said, as she leaned over and took my hooves in hers.

"This is your Hearth's Warming doll." She said somberly. "From Mom."

"From Mom?" I whispered, my voice suddenly failing me.

"She made it for you when she was sick. She knew she wasn't going to be there when you got your cutie mark, so she made this doll for you. And made me promise not to give it to you until the Hearth's Warming after you discovered your special talent."

"Mom?” I said to myself as I stroked one of the doll’s scraggly hairs.

Under the grunge, the yarn mane was red, and yellow, and white, and pink. Just like mine.

"It's a Rose Family tradition to pass these things down." She said. "Mom just bent the rules a little bit. 'Cause of the timing."

Roseluck stared off into space, and smiled.

"She used to dream about your cutecinera." Roseluck mused.

While I just squee'd internally. Squee! Squee! Squee! I squee’d squee-ishly. And hugged the doll. Small as it was. Scratchy as it was. I held the old thing tightly against my face. ‘Cause for the first time since my curse of future vision, I felt like a little kid again.




I quit my embrace. Held the heirloom out in front of me. Examined every stitch. Ran my hoof over the rugged cloth. Noted the clumsy way the seams all came together right around the heart. Crissa-crossa-cross-stitch. I thought to myself randomly.

But mostly I just couldn't believe what I was holding. Mom made this. I thought to myself, as I stroked the doll. I could almost see her holding it, too! Tugging the thread with her mouth.

I wondered what she'd been thinking when she’d made the stitches. Did she know that I would turn out to be like…well...like me? What would she have made of all this end of the world stuff? Would she be proud of me? Had I been good enough? I hoped I'd been good enough.

I ran a bunch of thoughts through my brain. Fantasized about all the things that might have been going through my mom’s head when she’d made the doll. But most of all, I just touched it. And imagined her touching it too. It was like reaching into the past and feeling her hoof on mine. Almost.

“Mom.” I said again in a whisper.

I hadn't even noticed that I had been crying until I opened my mouth to talk, and tasted a stream of tears.

.

* * *

I lay there a good long while, cuddling my doll. When I opened my eyes, I found Bananas Foster's curtain open again. She was standing there. Watching me.

Whatever that thing was that had made her bitter - that piece of iron stuck in her heart - it was gone. No hiding behind that cutesy wootsie mask of hers either. The real Bananas Foster was watching me longingly. The real Bananas Foster was just plain sad.

I rolled over in my bed. Propped my head up with my hoof.

"I'm sorry about your mother." She said.

"Thanks." I replied. “I'm sorry about your family."

“May I see the doll?” Foster asked without missing a beat.

“Um...Sure,” I told her.

But my hooves didn't want to let it go. They clutched the raggedy thing closer to my chest, as though parting ways with it, even for a second, would somehow make it disappear forever. I knew I was being stupid. So I pried the doll free. I took it in my mouth. And I swung my legs over the edge of the hospital bed.

The floors were white. Like really, really, really white. I hadn't noticed them before ‘cause I hadn't actually gotten a good look at the ground in the entire time I'd been there. For days, I’d been stuck staring at the same ceiling, the same walls, the same curtains, but never the floor.

I leapt off the edge. And was amazed at how good it felt. To have ground beneath my hooves again. It was exhilarating. I was standing. On my own. And it made me feel so alive! It's one of those things you take for granted until you're stuck in bed for a couple of days.

I went to Bananas Foster's bubble, and pressed the doll through. ‘Till my face hit it the magic border. Thunk. It felt like glass. I leaned against it clownishly with my smooshed-up face, doll dangling from my teeth. ‘Till I felt a gentle tug. Bananas was grabbing it from the other end. I opened my mouth and let go.

She took the Hearth’s Warming doll inside the bubble, and dropped it into her lap. Held it. Stroked that scraggly yarn mane. Ran her hoof over it. While I ran my left hoof over the bubble. I had never really thought about it before, but that thing was a cage.

I remembered what it had been like for me. To be caged, back in the Trottica Town Hall basement. I’d felt devastated. Alone. Even though I’d had tons of company.

It was only ‘cause of Twink that everything had turned around. It was Twink who’d taught me that it was fucked up and stupid to hope and expect to die alone. It was Twink who’d reached out in my hour of need and touched me.

But Bananas didn't have anything like that. No love, or friendship that she could touch. And she had been in her cage a whole hell of a lot longer. She ran her hoof on the doll’s heart. That messed up jagged seam that mom had made. Foster seemed to relish the gentle dragging sound her other hoof made as it scraped along the wood in the doll’s button eyes. And as she huddled there, tears streamed silently down her cheeks. They seemed to wash that terrifying complexion away with it.

“When I was younger, I had to go away sometimes.” Bananas mused, never prying her eyes from the doll. “Mother would send me letters, and pack the envelope with little trinkets. TOMA they were called.”

She laughed.

“Tokens of Maternal Affection. It was just a little gem, or a figure, or even a doodle on the page. But they kept me strong. They were her love, you see. In solid form.”

She held the doll and stared off into space for a good long while.

“Something you could touch.” I said out loud at last.

Bananas nodded.

“I never thought I would see a toma again. I know Mother won't be sending me any more of them.”

Bananas got all choked up. Forced herself to swallow. Started heaving.

“The fact that your mother thought to do the same thing, though? Send you tomas from The Great Tomorrow?” Bananas laughed again. “Great minds think alike.”

She said it with a smile. But in a matter of seconds her laughter devolved into a sob. Bananas broke down. Completely. And utterly.

Just bawled.

Cliff drifted toward her bubble. Stood outside its borders, watching, powerless to ease her pain. Roseluck dropped a hoof on my head and stroked my mane. And the three of us waited in silence while poor Bananas Foster huddled on the floor trembling, still clutching my mother’s toma.

* * *

The meltdown had been a long time coming. And it took a long time to die down. But eventually, Bananas Foster stopped wailing, and heaving. And just lay there motionless on the hospital floor. While the rest of us sorta hung around like idiots. Wishing we could do more.

When at last she sat up, Bananas Foster opened her eyes, and startled when she saw me. She had forgotten how close I was. Her eyelids flung open in horror. Her irises shrunk to the size of pinpoints. She looked like a prey animal backed in a corner, desperately seeking an escape route.

She turned to Cliff next, then to Roseluck.

But we'd all seen it, all witnessed her break down.

Foster scrambled to her hooves, rubbed her face all over her forelegs to wipe away the tears, and straightened herself up. Good and tall. Putting on a show of composure.

It was a strange new side of her. Bananas was a pony who played the pity card every day just to get "story time." And there she was, acting like nothing at all had happened, because she was ashamed of having cried over her dead mother.

I blinked. And BAM! Already she was looking stoic as hell. Wearing a face hard enough to rival Colonel Wormwood's.

"Do you know how to fight them?" Foster asked firmly.

She was talking about the shadows. Her legs were shaking, but she was forcing herself not to sway or waiver. She just focused all of her energy on me.

"What?" I said.

Both Cliff and Rose looked to me all curious-like. It made me uneasy.

"Fight who?" Said Cliff.

"Yes." I answered dryly, never prying my eyes off of Bananas Foster.

"Can you help me?" She asked.

And I paused, breathless. 'Cause I honestly wasn't sure. Could I help her? Would I even know how if I tried?

Bananas looked to me, all grim-like. If she’d stared me down any harder, her eyeballs would’ve leapt out of their sockets, ripped through the magic sterilization bubble, and beat up my eyeballs. For Foster, this shadow business was about more than just protection. She was mad as hell. This was about revenge.

I started to tremble. Fought to keep my hooves still. 'Cause I didn't want to let it show. Foster needed an answer - a real answer. This wasn't one of those situations where I could just say, “let's give it a shot," or "I'll try my best to teach you to fight the evil thing that's probably plagued you your entire existence, but if it doesn't work out, then hay, no worries.” This was all or nothing

Could I help her?

"Yes." I answered in a whisper, wondering secretly how the hell I was gonna manage. How I could possibly help Bananas to beat her nightmares when I could barely stay on top of my own.

But mostly, I just looked on that poor girl, and wondered what torture those clitweasels had put her through.

I swallowed hard. “Yes,” I said again, louder than before. “I can help you.”

Bananas nodded firmly, and dashed for her bed. Whipped out that journal of hers, and readied a pencil.

“Tell me everything." She said.

“Now?” I chuckled.

Silence.

“Okay, um, well, you know that drawing I did?”

“No,” said Bananas Foster.

“The one we did in class?” Cliff jumped in. “That you said was making you all cuckoo insane?”

"Yeah.” I said. “The Strawberry Lemonade picture."

"Huh?" All three of them cried out in unison.

"Start from the beginning." Bananas said, rubbing her temples in frustration.

"Oh, yeah, okay.” I nodded, and got to thinking where I should start. “Well uh...I guess my story starts where, you know, so many other stories get started, and like, so many beginnings get begun," I rambled. "The quest for a cutie mark."

All three of them leaned forward. I'm pretty sure they already knew this part, but my other tellings had involved a whole lot of rambling. And this time, we were gonna do it start to finish.

Everyone was there. And I was finally ready to open up. About the future. About my past. About Twink. I sucked in a long, deep breath, and sighed.

"Cliff," I said. "Can you do me a favor?"

"What?" He replied.

"Can you pass me one of those candles up there hanging from the wall?"

I pointed to the unlit holiday decorations.

Zip! He grabbed it.

"Candle?" He said, trotting over to me, candle already in his mouth. "You got it. One candle. Coming right up. Just for you."

Cliff Diver dropped the Hearth's Warming candle on my bed, and looked at me eagerly. I leaned in and grabbed it with my mouth.

"No," I mumbled. "It's not for me. It's for a friend."

Author's Note:

I intended to get this one out by Mother's Day, because of all of the stories centering around mothers in this chapter, but alas, I could not. It's the Full Moon, though! Luna's like a dream mother, so that works too.

Also, special thanks to Seraphem, who, as always, put in countless hours helping me edit, and proofread.

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