• Published 27th Feb 2013
  • 7,282 Views, 765 Comments

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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Like Everyone Else

CHAPTER TWENTY-FIVE - LIKE EVERYONE ELSE
“Sometimes monsters are invisible, and sometimes demons attack you from the inside.
Just because you cannot see the claws and the teeth does not mean they aren’t ripping through me.
Pain does not need to be seen to be felt.” - Emm Roy




It was our last night in the hospital together. Rose and I got cleared to go home as soon as the “observation" was done, and as soon as the paths outside were plowed. Cliff Diver got permission from his folks to stay and help us out because one of the nurses had made up a story about a Ponytarian of the Month Award, or some bullshit. Cliff cringed at the idea, but his folks ate it right up so he got to stay.

But the next day we'd all be gone. Cliff. Roseluck. Me. Sure, we all vowed to come back and visit Bananas Foster whenever possible, and we truly meant it from the bottom of our hearts. But it wasn't going to be the same after that.

* * *

Cliff was stretched out over a chair, elephant-snoring. His limbs dangled over the edges of the seat like loose spaghetti. Rose luck was out cold in a little reclining cot beside me. She'd crashed even harder than Cliff Diver had once the hospital had quit fussing about her concussion and cleared her for a good night’s rest.

That left Bananas Foster and me. She was lying in bed, staring at the ceiling. It had been hours since either one of us had spoken, but I didn't want to push anything.

After I’d told the story of the mines, she'd stopped being herself - turned moody. Moodier than usual. Like a spark had left her.

She was disappointed. I could tell. She’d gotten her hopes up. Expected an answer - a way to beat the shadows. But I didn't have any of that. Just my own story.

And once I got up to the part with the tunnel - Foster just sort of turned away. Stopped asking questions. Stopped caring.




It wasn't 'till late that night, after everypony else was asleep, that she broke her silence.

"Did you really mean it when you said you would come back and visit me?"

"Huh? What?" I said.

It startled me to hear her talking again after spending so many hours lying quietly awake in a room full of snores.

"Yeah, of course.” I answered. “I--;"

"Why?" She didn't let me finish. Just cut straight to the next question.

"Why?" I said.

"Yes," she replied. "Why?"

I didn't know how to answer. I mean, shouldn't it be obvious? What kinda question was that anyway?

I snorted. Let out a nervous little chuckle. "Why?" I said again. "What do you mean why?"

"I mean, why are you coming back?" Bananas said dryly. All disconnected-like.

"Uh...I'm sorry." I said. "I don't understand what you're getting at."

"Then just answer the question." She said. "Please."

There were tremors in her voice.

I took a deep breath. Sighed.

"Well, you know. We're in this together. I get that you're upset that my story didn't help you more. To be honest, I don't really feel all that qualified to help anypony. At all." I hung my head. "I don't know why Princess Luna said it was my job to teach you."

"To keep you busy." Said Foster matter-of-fact-ishly.

Ouch.

I stopped to let that one sink in. Wondered if it were true. Did I stand a chance of making a difference? Was the princess just putting me on to keep me busy? To keep me fighting. To keep me from dwelling on the futility of it all while she orchestrated a great big old chess move - a future two hundred years from now with a tiny faint glimmer of hope called Littlepip.

"What if we weren't in this together?" Bananas said.

"Huh?"

"If there were no such things as shadows; if you had never met one; if I had never met one. Would you still visit?"

The room suddenly fell quiet. Both my sister, and Cliff had quit snoring in unison.




I saw what Foster was getting at. Was our friendship really only based on a common enemy? If that was the case, what would even be the point if I couldn't teach her? Or protect her?

I had the same fear that she did. I understood where she was coming from. But no. Our friendship wasn't like that. I wouldn't let it be. I wasn't that kind of pony.

"Yeah." I said. "Of course I'd visit."

As the words left my mouth, I was relieved to realize the truth of them. I would visit her. No matter what. Really, I would.

"Why?" She said again.

"Why? What do you mean why?" I squeaked. "Look at this place. I can't just leave you here all alone."

I hoped that my dedication would get through to her. If only just a little bit. That she would understand that I wasn't like her previous roommates – that I wasn't going to abandon her. But Foster just lay there, staring at the ceiling.

Something was wrong.

"Oh," she replied.

Just oh.

A fire went off at the base of my brain, trying to figure out what was bothering her – screaming at me to comfort her somehow. But instead of thinking of things, the way brains are supposed to do, my brain just sort of locked up - melted like a marshmallow coming apart on its stick, and fell off all charred and gooey right into the brain fire.

"Listen," I pleaded. "I'm not going to abandon you. No matter what."

The only thing I could think of at all that could possibly be eating at her.

But she still just stewed in further silence as the rest of the room snored. It was maddening.

“Bananas, please. Talk to me."

"I didn't think that you would abandon me.” She said dispassionately. “You are a pony of conscience. I have no doubt that you would come back and visit - obsessively even - every single day if you thought that it was the right thing to do."

"Well, it is!" I said. "It is the right thing to do. That's what friends are supposed to do for each other."

"Are we friends?" Foster asked. Gravel in her voice. A monotone drone that made me more and more uncomfortable with every passing second.

"Yeah." I replied. "Of course."

Bananas lay there silently a good while longer. 'Till at last, she rolled over to face me, and finally, looked me in the eye.

“Do you like me?" She said.

"Yeah, sure. Of course."

"So if there weren't any shadows, and I wasn't in this bubble," she said. "You would enjoy hanging out with me."

Fuck. I froze. Searched my brain for answers. Any answers. Or at least something I could say to put Bananas at ease as she awaited my reply. But all I could think of at that moment was what a pain in the ass she had been.

Did I actually enjoy her company? Was our whole friendship built on my sense of duty? Were we even friends at all?

"I don't know.” I scratched my head. “Probably?"

"Rose, come on."

Bananas stared at me, all judgmental-like. I could tell. Even through the bubble. Even through the darkness. I could feel her disappointment.

I cringed. I had read her wrong - all wrong. That whole time I'd thought she’d wanted reassurance that I would be a good friend. That I would come back. That I would help her. And I would! I'd totally do all of those things.

But that's not what she’d been hoping for at all. Bananas Foster wanted someone who liked her for her. Someone who was a real friend, not just a pony willing to pretend to be one.

"No." I said with a sigh. "I want to. I want to get to know you.” I added hastily. “But you haven't let me.”

Bananas didn't answer.

I sat up to face her good and proper-like. Swung my hind legs over the edge of the bed.

“I'm trying, Bananas. Seriously! I don't know if I like you. But I really, really, really would like to find out.”




Foster closed her eyes.

"I appreciate your honesty." She sighed in relief.

It turns out that that was what Bananas had wanted to hear. She’d actually been dreading a trite "of course I like you" sort of answer.
Foster rolled over on her back again. And took to staring at the ceiling.

"I know I've been a jerk." She mused. "I haven't given you very much to like at all. It's...just that, well--I, I...I. I am, well...uh…It's just...”

Bananas stammered on and on. ‘Till she just sort of trailed off. Left me in the dark with all of those noisy snoring sounds. I waited, and waited, and waited, but it was clear she wasn't gonna finish her thought.

“You're what?” I said at last. “It's just what?"

"Look,” she said. “I’d make you promise only to visit if you actually wanted to, but I know you'd still come anyway out of obligation. You are a pony of conscience."

"You say that like it's a bad thing."

“It's not." She replied. "But I have enough ponies to pity me. I don't want that from you.”

I nodded, even though I knew she couldn't see.

"I'm tired, Rose." She continued. "Really tired. I'm not interested in being anyone else's inspiration porn at this stage of the game."

I coughed.

"Inspiration what?"

Foster facehoofed. Shook her head.

“Forget it, never mind.”

"No. You don't get to open a door like that and then just pretend you never said it."

"I'm sorry I did. Look, just don't…"

“Inspiration. What?"

Bananas Foster sighed and grumped. "You're seriously going to make me get out of bed right now."

"Uh..."

Bananas shook her head.

"Fine."

She rolled over, landed on the floor. And stumbled over to a storage trunk she kept in the corner.

"Uh, what are you doing?" I asked.

"Digging for a copy of The Foal Free Press, what’s it look like I'm doing?”

Clunk, whoosh, thud. Rustle, rustle, rustle.

"The Foal Free Press?"

Bananas shushed me. Threw a hoof up and swatted at the air while she rummaged.

"Here we go!" She mumbled, mouthful of newspaper.

"What were you looking for?"

Foster trotted over to the edge of the bubble. Whipped her head suddenly, and gave it a good toss. Next thing I know the paper’s on my lap.

"Turn to page seven."

"Okay."

I could barely see, so I rolled out of bed, and tip-hooved around Rose's cot.

Tip-tip. Tip-tip. Luckily, Roseluck didn't wake up. Not even when I tripped over her cot and banged my knee. She just kinda lay there snoring as I stuffed my mane into my mouth and screamed, and dropped Bananas’ newspaper on the floor, .

“Engg!” I shouted into a mouthful of hair. “Ennngh!”




When I was done, I spat out my mane, took a deep breath, and looked around. Listened. The room echoed with the sound of snoring. I hadn't woken anypony up. The only sign of waking life was Bananas Foster glowering at me for having dropped her paper.

“Sorry,” I mouthed at her, and stepped gingerly over Cliff Diver.

Once clear of obstructions, I made for the table in the corner, where my two candles burned – one for Twink, one for Mom. I plopped the newspaper down on the table. Flipped it open. There were two stories on Page 7.

"Zap Apple Jam Season Almost Here?" I whisper-shouted.

"No, the other one." Bananas whisper-shouted back.

I squinted down. Saw a photo of an employee at a local coffee shop, assisting another pony with no front legs, and what appeared to be a deformed jaw. Above it was the headline.

"Do the Right Thing, by Namby-Pamby?" I read.

"That's the one." Foster said contemptuously.

"Namby-Pamby? How old is this thing?"

"Just read it."




It's Thursday evening, the sun has just started to hang in the horizon like a foal in a hammock, and local barista, Foam Latte is working hard at making the world a better place. He doesn't have many bits to donate. He doesn't hold grand sweeping baroque fundraisers. He doesn't even own the shop. His heart, however, is enough.

I noticed him in the corner, assisting a mare in need, who had difficulty feeding herself, and it struck me in that moment how benifulant that manner of kindness can be.

He asks for no accolades, has no thought of reward. Foam Latte simply does the right thing, even when no one is looking.

We can all learn from that."




It was a short article – probably because there was no interview or anything like that. Just a moment in time captured, and analyzed, and combed for sentiment. Namby's trademark style.

I closed the newspaper and furrowed my brow. Something was weird about that article. But I couldn't pinpoint it. Apart, of course, from Namby-Pamby's abuse of the thesaurus.

"What was that pony's name?" Bananas snapped.

"Foam Latte." I said.

“The other one."

I stopped. Thought about it. Namby hadn't mentioned the other pony's name.

"I don't know." I said.

Bananas watched me. Studied me closely. I'm sure my confusion was quite apparent.

Thunk. Thunk. Thunk. She tapped the bubble.

"How would you feel if your shadow hoof acted up in public, and you fell, and somepony had to walk you all the way home, and then you found out later that some self-absorbed jerk had taken your picture while you were at your most pathetic, and wrote a story about how great it was that helpless cripples like you had random acts of kindness to rely upon."

My blood started to boil. Bananas Foster was right. Nopony had ever asked that pony how she felt about any of it - whether she wanted that story spread around, or if she preferred to enjoy her meal in peace. Nothing. She wasn't even an equine being as far as the article was concerned. Just a prop for Namby's inspiring fucking perspective.

I looked up from the newspaper to find Bananas pressed up against the inside of the bubble. The light from her force field was just enough to expose a bitter scowl.

"Inspiration porn." She said.

* * *

That thought rattled around in my brain. Probably for longer than was healthy. The poor pony in the picture. It bothered me that I hadn't considered her feelings at all. That it even needed pointing out. It was almost as though she had been less than pony in my mind.

An object.

And I felt like total garbage for thinking it.

By the time I stumbled back to my bed, Bananas was holding up a stack she’d dug out of her trunk.

“Inkwell.” She said, turning to the inside cover of a book on her lap. “‘Was born with thymic alymphoplasia, a condition which confined her to an immunosphere for most of her brief life, but still, despite her personal challenges, she managed a triumphant ascension to the top of the literary world. Her profound and unique perspective breathed such life into her Cunning Candy Heart mystery novels that, knowing her as I did, it became almost impossible for me to separate the art from the artist. So much of her soul is in that titular character we’ve all come to adore, and it is through the legacy of Candy Heart that Inkwell will live on. It was my honor, as her editor and friend, to complete The Gates of Tartarus, her fourth and final novel, after her tragic passing. It was a task I did not take lightly…

Bananas slammed the book shut. Pressed the covers together angrily.

While I tensed up. ‘Cause I honestly couldn't figure out what was wrong with the passage. Was it the editor? The fact that he ultimately made it about His Great Honor, instead of about Inkwell? No.

At least I didn't think that it was. I looked to Foster for answers, but she was gritting her teeth in rage.

Yipe. I cringed. Forced myself to think. Tried to play Spot the Offense. But no matter what I did, I couldn't make sense of Bananas’ outrage.

Was it the fact that the editor had played up Inkwell’s disease? Made it her identity? The fact that lymphic whatever-you-call-it was the very first thing the editor even mentioned about her? I didn't know! I couldn't know. I tried to see things from Bananas’ perspective, but it was too fucking impossible. I simply hadn't been there.

“I, I, I…” I stammered, terrified of hurting Foster’s feelings, determined not to be another Namby. Desperate to prove that I was, in fact, a good pony - that I wasn't “part of the problem.” But I failed. My burnt marshmallow brain came up with absolutely nothing.

“I'm sorry,” I said at last, voice quivering. “I don't see it. What's wrong with what the editor wrote?”

Bananas opened her mouth up to explain, but I was so nervous and upset that I kept on rambling.

“Please don't be mad!” I said. “I want to understand; I want to help, but I, just...I don't know, I don't--;”

“Stop.” Bananas glowered at me.

I cringed again, afraid of having offended her.

“This isn't a quiz.” She said, rolling her eyes. “Quit the walking on eggshells bit. It's pathetic.”

“Sorry.” I whimpered.

“You're better than that.”




In that moment, Bananas Foster reminded me of Twink. The realization felt like a spear puncturing my chest and poking at my heart. Dull end first.

“What is it?” Foster asked.

My shock must have been showing.

“Just a two-by-four.” I whispered to myself. “Continue, please.”

Bananas nodded patiently before snapping right back into her furious rant.

“It's Inkwell!” She whisper-shouted. “She's the public face of...” Bananas waved frantically at her bubble while she tried to summon the right words.

This.” She growled.

“Thymic, Alisoplayground? Uh…”

“Alymphoplasia.” Foster corrected me.

“Yeah. Is that what you have?”

“No.” She replied, shaking her head in disapproval. “But close enough.”

Bananas clucked her tongue and rolled her eyes. Sucked in a deep breath, and let out a hefty sigh.

“Look, everyone loves to reflect on her life story, right? They read her lousy books, and think about that plucky cripple,
and feel soooo good about her. But do you know what I get?”

I shook my head ‘no.’

Foster snapped into an impression of Nurse Redheart. She was so precise in her mannerisms that it was downright unnerving. Bananas even had her minutest of facial expressions down.

“‘Don't feel bad.’” Foster said as Redheart. “‘Look at Inkwell. She was in very much the situation you are now, and she went on to be a very accomplished author.’”

At the stomp of a hoof, Bananas dropped that tight cheek muscle and let her face sag again. Looked like herself again.

“Well, what if I can't write, huh? What if I don't want to write? What if that's not me? What if I wanna be a carpenter? An explorer? A soldier? Am I supposed to feel better that some other bubble girl wrote a bunch of mediocre mystery novels that I don't care about?”

Foster plunged her face into the pile of documents on the floor in front of her. Next, she held up a record sleeve.

“Beehoofen’s Sixth Symphony?” I said, squinting to read the cover.

“Conducted by Golden Baton.” Foster replied. “A wheelchair-bound maestro.”

“And?”

“Do you have any idea how much I have to hear about him? A bright and shining example that you can do anything if you put your mind to it.

Bananas made a blech face.

"But he's in a wheelchair.” I said. “You're in a bubble. You can't run an orchestra from inside a bubble.”

“I know!” She said super loud.




Cliff mumbled to himself, as if in reply, tossing and turning under the cheap blanket the hospital had given him.

“Eep.” Bananas cringed and clapped her hooves to her mouth. Waited for him to settle in again, and calm down.
We both sat there, holding our breaths, and we both sighed in relief when Cliff Diver didn't rouse.

Foster took a deep breath, leaned in close - as close as the bubble would let her - and whispered.

“The list is long, Rose Petal - very long: Dusty Tome, the historian; Inkwell; Gold Baton; Swiftwing, the amputee Wonderbolt.”

“Swiftwing.” Cliff babbled angrily in his sleep. “I’ll kill her.”

Foster and I stopped. Exchanged glances. Looked at Cliff.

“Cliff?” Foster said all prim and cold-like.

“Mmmm mmmm mngg,” he mumbled in reply.

Foster furrowed her brow, and studied him carefully.

“Er, hello?" She said delicately.

“Mmm.” He mumbled in reply.

“Why can't you be more like Swiftwing?” Her dry, detached cadence was eerily reminiscent of Cliff’s mom’s voice.

“She's missing a leg.” Cliff groaned. “I. Can't. Fly. It's not the same.”

He smacked his lips up and down. Made an angry face in his sleep. Mumbled some words that I couldn't understand.
Foster and I turned to face one another once again. She was just as disturbed as I was to hear that stuff coming from poor Cliff Diver. The two of us sat there in silence, watching him.

Contemplatey.

I was starting to hate Cliff's mom as much as Bananas did.

* * *

Eventually, Foster broke the silence. Back to her "inspiration porn” rant.

“Anyways,” she whispered. “The point is that, while everyone is feeling good about themselves, patting themselves on the back for being such good ponies, Cliff is still stuck on the ground. Comparing himself to ponies he'll never be.

“And I'm stuck in here.” Foster made a face at the bubble.

“I’m expected to be like Inkwell, the success story, or worse yet, her vapid protagonist, the sad sack plucky cripple kid who solves mysteries and makes everypony go ‘D’awww’.”

Foster stuck her hoof in her mouth and mimed vomiting.

“If I dare get mad, if I cry or complain or kick this stupid thing ‘cause I'm bucking sick of it,” she thunked at the bubble again. “Do you know what I get? Rolling eyes. Sunny advice to stay positive. This, coming from ponies who have no idea how positive I have to force myself to be every single day just to keep from screaming.

“I get comparisons to ponies who are way more functional than I am, or ever could be - like Gold Baton, the maestro; or compared to ponies who have it far worse than I do.

“‘Look on the bright side,’” She said, imitating the nurse I’d nicknamed the Purple Professional.

“‘It could be worse,’” Foster added, this time mimicking the jerk nurse who’d messed with Screw Loose. “‘You’re lucky to be stable and not in pain.’”

Foster stomped on the ground. Spoke as herself again.

“Like contemplating that level of suffering is supposed to make me feel grateful?! Like there is some kind of Illness Hierarchy, and I should smile and feel good about myself because there is some pathetic mess out there somewhere who has it worse than I do?

“Is that what able ponies think about when they remember me? They come in here for a broken leg, are ‘friends’ with me for a couple of weeks,” Bananas made quotation marks with her hooves. “And then they go home to their nice cozy beds, and cuddle a nice cozy pillow to the comforting thought that they aren't me?”

Bananas panted like a wild mare. Clenched her teeth. Shook her head.

“I'm so sorry,” I whispered in the awkward silence that followed.

“Please stop saying that.” She snapped.

And I shrunk back in shame.

“Sorry.” I said again. Almost by reflex.

I winced half a moment later when I realized how stupid I sounded. But Foster ignored it. Thank Celestia.




...



I, on the other hoof, was less forgiving of myself.




I felt so bad for Bananas Foster. Like really, really, really, really bad. But the last thing she wanted or needed was pity. And knowing that just made me feel bad about feeling bad for her.

It all snowballed into this terrible, terrible feeling. And I couldn't think of a damn thing to say.

So I just sat there. Like an idiot.

‘Till I happened to lift my hoof to massage my throat, and it brushed against the pocket watch necklace that Pinkie Pie had made me.

Suddenly, I remembered her efforts to cheer up the ponies of Ponyville General Hospital. The words she’d said to me just the night before - a phrase that had since become something of a personal motto.

It's worth a try.




I looked back up at Bananas. And an even more terrifying thought came and hit me like a cart full of anvils, and bricks.

“What about Pinkie Pie?” I asked.

”Pinkie?” Foster said, somewhat taken aback.

“Yeah,” I replied. “Is she an inspiration pornizer too?”

I crossed my hooves for luck. Hoped that Foster hadn't found some insult underlying Pinkie’s acts of kindness. ‘Cause Pinkie Pie had thrown me every birthday party I’d ever had. She'd stopped to cheer me up whenever she’d seen me dragging my hooves. She’d always been around. I wasn't super close to her, or anything. I didn't see her every single day, but Pinkie’s presence had always been a constant - something you could count on. Something all of Ponyville could count on. Like the Moon. The thought of Bananas being secretly hurt by her - the way she'd been secretly hurt by just about everypony else - it made the whole world seem wrong somehow.

“No,” said Foster. “I'm not her inspiration porn.”

I sighed in relief.

“Um...Why do you care?”

Foster’s rage had fallen from her face. Now she just looked puzzled.

I shrugged.

"I guess it's just ‘cause she's always been there." I said. “And she's always been selfless. It might sound stupid, but that was a comfort to me when I was in the trenches.”

I fondled the pink watch hanging around my neck. The Most Accurate Watch of All Time, not to be opened ‘till I really, really, reaaaaally needed it.

Bananas nodded slowly, struggling to digest what I’d just said.

“Well, uh, I wouldn't go so far as to say that she's selfless.” Foster retorted delicately.

“What?”

“She and I have a mutually symbiotic relationship.”

“You make it sound like a business deal.” I snapped.

Foster shrugged. “Pinkie Pie is a profoundly unhappy pony.”

“Huh? Are you sure we’re talking about--;”

“Let me finish.” Bananas held up her hoof.

I raised a suspicious eyebrow at Foster, and nodded for her to continue.

“Pinkie Pie needs constant affirmation. Constant. She has dedicated her entire life to making others smile because it beats away her sadness, and she's addicted to the way that that makes her feel. Pinkie Pie is, at her core, an addict. A smile addiction may be harmless, but it's an addiction nonetheless.

"What we have – she and I – we both get something out of it. I genuinely enjoy her company. She never condescends to me with trite platitudes. I am free to just laugh when she's around - something very few others can give me. And in exchange, she gets her smiles, and her peace of mind - both well-earned. It's great for her. It's great for me.” Foster held her hooves up as though they were a scale, balancing a weight on each side. “Symbiosis.” Foster added emphatically.

* * *

I mulled that over for a good long while. Got to wondering what Cliff Diver got out of his friendship with me. Or Twink. Or Bananas Foster. Apart from a common goal. Could all of friendship actually be whittled down to a simple matter of symbiosis? No. Definitely not. The very idea felt wrong. Utilitariany. I didn't like it.

But that seemed to be Foster's idea of friendship. And I had nothing to offer her. Nothing.

“What's the matter?" Bananas Foster said, reading the worry on my face.

I stopped. Stared off into space. And in a sorta state of shock, I muttered an uncomfortable truth – something that I had been hiding from her - hiding from myself - ever since I’d woken up.

“I don't think I can help you.” I said.

And waited for a reaction.

But Foster said nothing in reply. Even her face was blank.

"I’m sorry." I continued. "I...don't know what I'm doing. I try not to show it, 'cause Roseluck is always terrified. And Cliff Diver, well, he looks up to me.”

“But I don't know how to fight shadows.” I squeaked. “Not really. All I know is what Wormwood told me. Find your light and fight to get to it.”




I looked to Bananas. Anxious for forgiveness. Desperate for understanding. But she didn't say a word.

She just closed her eyes, pounded down a few deep breaths, and said, “Alright. I...guess if you can't help me, we’ll have to try to help each other. Compare notes. We are both, er...shadow survivors after all."

Foster sounded more like she was trying to reassure herself than me. I waited patiently as she cleared her throat. Clamped her teeth around a cup of water that had been sitting at the end table, and downed the whole thing.

Thunk. She dropped it on the end table, licked her lips, and plopped on to the edge of her bed with a fwoosh of the sheets.

"My experience with the shadows was different from yours." She said at last. “My family and I were stalked by them - hunted, you might say. We were on a long journey at the time, and we had gotten horribly lost."

Foster must've seen the puzzlement in my face, because she offered an explanation right away.

"Oh, I was being transferred to another hospital. My family and I had saved up for my transport."

"The hospital made you pay for it?"

"Don't be absurd. They're not griffins." She made a face like a toddler who'd just tasted a lemon for the first time. "The mobile transport unit came free. No hassle. It's basically just a box that generates a dome. It rests easily in any carriage. But the argonite crystals that power them are hard to come by, and only good for a single use. Most hospitals don't even have access to them. Mother had to pull a lot of strings."

She held up her hoof, as if to warn me to shut the hell up.

"Anyway," she grumbled and flashed a nasty this is very difficult for me so don't give me a hard time look. "We got lost along the way. Wandered for days. I don't know how, but we found ourselves in a desert.”

"A desert?" I scratched my head, trying to figure out where in Equestria they could have accidently run into a desert. “Uh, a desert, like, where?”

“When we left, we were still in the Canterlot region.” She replied.

“But--;”

Snap. Foster clocked her teeth together to get my attention. Gave me the evil eye.

“Are you going to let me explain, or what?” She said with a grimace on her face.

“Sorry.”

Foster sighed.

“The point I'm trying to make, Rose, is that the desert had no business being there. It wasn't on any map. We had all fallen into a sort of haze as we travelled, and then suddenly, it was hot. And dry." Foster shook her head. “By the time any of us realized what had happened, we were so deep in it, that there was no sign of any other life.”

“What?” I said.

The fourteen million reasons why that should not have been possible ran rapidly through my thinkitty brain.

“Well, we had started in a forest, but that place we found ourselves in? Not a single tree - neither ahead of us, nor behind.” She replied. “Not even a cactus. Only cracked red sands as far as the eye could see.”

Bananas Foster shuttered a little at the thought of it. While I was left with a strange feeling of familiarity I couldn't quite put my hoof on. Cracked red sands.

“There was a stillness there I can't describe." She said. "Normally, you feel a slight breeze as air gets pushed around a room. A door opens. A door closes. Air circulates. I feel it just like you do. But that place was all stagnant. Moving around felt like waking a ghost - like the air was some kind of corpse we were disturbing just by being there.

“I panicked. Spun around. Scanned the horizon for something familiar - anything other than sand. My brothers too. But all we did was kick up dust that had been sleeping.

“We gathered into a cluster, or should I say, my family gathered around me.” She tapped at her bubble.

Thunk. Thunk. Thunk. As if to remind me that she was separate from the rest of her family. That she couldn't exactly ‘gather around’ anything.

“We huddled there, afraid to move. We watched in horror as the dust stirred and swayed in tiny little cyclones of air we’d made just by being there. Those lands had not been disturbed for a very, very long time. Not by wind. Not by hoof.

“I looked around, desperate to try to see something that wasn't stagnant - that wasn't dead. I was on top of the cart, so I had a better view than most, but nothing about that place felt right. Even the skies were wrong.”

“The skies? Wrong how?” I said, feeling more and more like her desert landscape might be familiar.

“The sky was purple.” Bananas said. “A sickly purple, like lavender getting ready to die.”

“Red sands? Purple skies?” I whispered.

“Yes.”

“The pit.” I said, suddenly realizing why her mystery desert felt so familiar. “The Pit of Infinite Duckies!”

Bananas cocked her head at me.

“When I fell in," I said. "I came out the other side. Into a desert. Not of this world. With red sands...”

“And purple skies.” Foster whispered.

She looked like she has just been hoof-smacked in the face.

“You didn't mention that!" She snapped. "You didn't mention that when you told your story!”

“I had a lot to tell.” I replied, feeling a little shy and stupid for having skipped over some of the finer details.

“Well, what else did you forget?”

“Uh…” I said, shrugging apologetically. “I dunno. Nothing important. Um… Probably?”

I let loose a nervous little laugh.




Bananas rolled her eyes and sulked. Muttered to herself. Like she was trying to figure something out. She chewed on her hoof. She fidgeted with her mane. But it did her no good. After a good long while, Bananas Foster sighed, gave up on whatever her train of thought had been, and scribbled some notes in her book.

“We were stuck there," she turned to me, and said. “My brothers and I didn't know what to do, so we held perfectly still, as that unnatural dust cloud stirred around us, and we waited. We waited for instructions from Mother.”

“Instructions?”

What kind of family raises you to await instructions? Who even calls it that?

Something was seriously starting to feel off about her story. But I couldn't quite put my hoof on what.

“My family isn't like yours, Rose.” Foster said contemptuously.

My skepticism must have been obvious.

“They were always on the move, and they had to adapt quickly to any environment they found themselves in. We were a well-oiled machine. Whether they had to leave me behind, or send me ahead, throughout our entire lives, no matter what else happened, Mother was poised. Like a princess, she always, always, always knew exactly what to do.”

Bananas sighed, cast her eyes downward, and shook her head.

“Not this time. This time, Mother was nervous. The arrow on our compass was spinning in wild and crazy directions, and uh...Mother didn't take it well. She paced around us, half contemplating a plan, half cursing the ponies who’d sent us on our way in the first place”

“Sent you on your--;”

“We were thieves.” Bananas snapped. “Con artists. And I don't need you judging us.”

Foster added before I could even begin to express my shock. I shook my head to assure her I wouldn't. Foster was pissed and I was not about to poke that wasp’s nest.

“This is about the shadows. So don't get all self-righteous on me. Not over my family. Not over this.” She spat. “They're dead anyway.”

Foster sunk forward, leaned her head on the inside of her bubble. And panted. Caught her breath. Gently banged her head against the inside of the dome.

Thunk. Thunk. Thunk.

While I raised my hoof to ask a nervous little question.

She couldn't see it at first. So I waited. Trying as hard as I could not to be intrusive. When she finally did look up and took notice, Foster rolled her eyes.

“What?” She groaned.

And I had a million questions in my head at that point. How they had traveled without her. How she had managed to be a functioning member of such a family while confined to a bubble. How it felt to make due with Tokens Of Maternal Affection while her mom was off somewhere stealing.

But when I saw her wild eyes. Angry. Accusatory. Tired. I tabled all of that.

"It doesn't matter." I told her.

For a moment, Foster didn't react at all. Just kept panting.

I felt like I should say something else - something to let her know that it was okay - but I couldn't find the words. Not without coming off as condescending. Not without risking being the "It's okay, I forgive your dead family for ethical transgressions that had nothing to do with me" pony. So I held my breath, and hoped that by the time I exhaled, something more constructive would spill out of me.




It didn't.




The two of us just locked eyes in dreadful silence.

"It doesn't matter." I said again. 'Cause one of us had to break the ice.

Foster sighed. "Are you up for hearing the rest?"

I nodded ‘yes’ silently.

Bananas got up, downed another cup of water from her end table, plopped on to her bed, and continued.

"Well, Mother picked a direction, and lead. There was a jagged rock jutting out of the ground way off in the distance. From where we stood, it could've been a hundred feet away, and ten feet high, or five-hundred miles away, and fifty miles tall. There was no way to tell. But it was our only landmark, so that's where we headed.

“My brothers took turns towing my cart. It was a slow march because of all the dust. We stirred up a giant cloud of it everywhere we went. It burned my eyes, my nose, my throat. I can only imagine how bad it must've been down there on the ground.

“Mother kept us moving because she had to, but I’ll bet that the sound of all that coughing broke her heart. We pushed forward like that for what felt like the better part of a day, but with no sun in the sky, there was no way to tell. You’ve been there. You know what I mean?”

I did. I remembered. It was far from the weirdest thing I saw after I fell into the ducky pit, but that desert had had no sun. It was lit like daytime. A dull sort of dusk. But there had been no sun at all in the sky. And no clouds for it to hide behind.

“Yeah.” I told her solemnly. “I remember.”

“In all that time, we felt remarkably alone. Not just because we were, in fact, alone, but because of that strange sense of stasis - not a single sound but that of our own coughing, our own hooves grinding against sand and brittle rock, and the creaking of the wheels under my cart.

“That kind of silence is terrifying. Every move you make is deafening. After a while, it made me wonder if we had even survived, or if we were all stuck in some manner of afterlife - an infinite landscape of pure nothing.” Bananas ran her hoof through her mane. “That kind of emptiness is unnatural, Rose.”

“My Rose Voices were gone when I was there." I said. "The ones in my head.”

Bananas nodded. Grabbed a pencil with her teeth, flipped open that book again, and jotted some notes.

Shadow business.

When she was done, she spit it out all unceremonious-like, and continued.

“Eventually, after a very, very, very long hike, the desert started changing. The more miles we put behind us, the more the ground beneath my brothers' hooves started to sound like clopping on bedrock, rather than crunching on brittle sand. The clouds of dust beneath us got smaller and smaller, until there was barely any at all."

She stared off into space, as if she were delivering terrible news.

“Well,” I said. “That's good, right? Less, you know, cloudsyness?”

Foster shook her head. “I’d rather breathe the dust.”

* * *

“I saw something up ahead by the horizon - a hairline just under the mountain. At first I thought it was a mirage, but as the hours past, the line sharpened and grew.

"It was a chasm - a gash in the landscape that stretched out in both directions as far as the eye could see, and it stood in our way. The nearer we came, the more my heart sank. It was more than just the prospect of potentially having to turn back. The canyon itself was so..."

Bananas twittled her hooves in the air trying to think of the right word. I could see the frustration making crinkles in her forehead.

"It was all, just so...full of nothing." She said.

“The little bit of dust that we did stir up? It simply drifted along a hundred feet ahead of us, straight off the edge, and hung there over the chasm.”

Foster looked at me impatiently. I apparently had failed to realize the significance of what she was trying to say.

“Miles, and miles, and miles of canyon, Rose, and not even a breeze.”

When I thought about it, I realized how strange that really was. Even a modest ravine like Ponyville's always had wind running through it. I can't really explain why. It's physics, or rock science, or wind science, or something like that, but there's no such thing as a chasm without wind. A cloud of dust drifting lazily over one? Without so much as a breeze? It was against nature.

“How?” I asked.

“The canyon was empty.” Bananas answered simply.

Empty.

“Mother signaled us to stay put.” Foster continued. “That little dust cloud drifted further and further away while she went ahead on her own. She marched, proudly but cautiously, to the edge, and stood there, studying the mountain on the other side, strategizing how to cross."

Foster bit her lip.

“I didn't like it - Mother being so far ahead. We were stronger together!” She said to me, as though she were pleading. “I know it must be hard for you to understand, but you should've seen my brothers. They were accustomed to dangerous situations, and not one of them watched her make that walk without holding their breath the whole time.”

“Of course,” Foster cracked a broken little smirk. “Mother herself showed no fear. She stood there like a statue of some warrior of old, gazing boldly at nothing in particular.

“It was a staring contest with the abyss, as you put it. Once she perceived herself as having won, she spun around, and gave the order we’d all been dreading. We were to fly over it. Pegasi carrying earth ponies and unicorns.”

“What?” I squeaked. “How? Why?!”

It sounded so wrong. So stupid. Had Bananas’ mom really been that crazy? I hadn't even been there, and I got a bad feeling about that chasm.

“Mother wasn't dim, Rose Petal.” Foster said dryly. “She knew the canyon was bad news, but she also saw something on the other side. She bent down low when she got back, and pointed it out to us all. We couldn't make it out exactly. Some cloth draped over a rock. A tent, maybe? We had absolutely no way of knowing for certain, especially since the canyon had a haze about it - a way of sucking the light out of the air. Bending it. Making it weak somehow. Like a pale photograph.

“But there was nothing else for miles, and miles, and miles, so Mother reasoned that it was better to risk making the crossing than to lie down in the dust, and wait to die.

“Yeah, but--;”

Don't!” Foster snapped, a stern warning. “Don't. Blame. Mother.”

There was lava in her eyes.

“I won't.” I said, throwing my hooves up in the air defensively. “I mean I don't. I, mean I, uh--;”

“We had no water left.” Foster said dryly.

Her words were like a kick to the face. I stopped my babbling. Contemplated the burden of such a decision. I still hadn't finished punishing myself over getting the tunnel wrong back in Trottica! Second, or was it seventh?

A move as desperate as Bananas’ family’s? I couldn't even imagine.

I looked to Foster and was completely dumbstruck, so I just nodded slowly in silent understanding.

* * *

“Mother leapt off the edge.” Bananas continued. “I can still hear the whoosh of her wings. Every flap was like a whip crack. We were all so quiet.

“I watched her get smaller, and smaller, and further, and further away until she seemed almost still - a fleck on an otherwise empty skyline.

“I chewed my hooves raw worrying about her. I’m used to worrying. I'm accustomed to helplessness, but seeing her alone out there? Seeing her so small?”

Foster closed her eyes. Took a deep breath. Shook her head.

“It was hard to watch.” She continued. “But Mother made it, and wasted no time once she got to the other side. The moment she landed, she shouted back, ‘One-two, one-two, one-two!’ rushing the rest of us to cross.

“We couldn't see her very well, and the chasm had a way of garbling sound too, so it was difficult to make out what she was saying, but 'One-two, one-two, one-two'? We all knew that rhythm, and that cadence. Even I knew what that meant, and I had never been out in the field with the rest.

It was time to get moving.”




“My brothers hitched up - started rigging harnesses out of what little rope we had with us. They had done this sort of operation before, so they knew what to do, but it was all new to me. I had never scaled a wall, or fled a scene. I was always the forger - the one who got sent into town ahead of time with fake medical documents of my own design."

Bananas’ eyes lit up and sparkled. She forgot about the shadows and the canyon for just a moment and spat out her ideas like one of those rapid fire rat-at-at’ers.

My job was to research - learn every local custom - every quirk." She leapt out of bed, and started pacing back and forth as she spoke. "The trick to a good con is figuring out what your mark wants most - what they need you to be. I devoted my whole life to research. I did it wherever I could – however I could. Newspapers, books, pamphlets, even archives when the rubes let me. Academically, I left no stone unturned. I knew that, if I worked hard enough, I’d convince the others that I could contribute. That I could be a part of the family! That--;”

Bananas stopped mid-sentence. Remembered what she was supposed to be talking about. And just sort of stared off into space. Her gusto faded as quickly as it had come.








“I had never gone out into the field.” She said, lowering her head in shame. “There was no protocol for carrying me across. So when I saw the others getting ready to fly, I realized that I couldn't go with them, and that I shouldn't go with them.

“I told them to leave me.” Bananas leaned against the inside of her bubble. “I’d only hold them back. Even if they did find food or water, without an Argonite Crystal, I was doomed anyway.

“Some of my brothers took to flying ahead, rushing to meet Mother as she shouted from the other side. Others stayed and pleaded with me not to give up. They took--;”

"What were their names?" I interrupted.

"What?"

"Your brothers." I said. "You never mention them by name.”

Foster startled. A brief moment of panic. Like a little filly caught face deep in the cookie jar. It was odd. It made me wonder what she might have been holding back.




“Uh…My brothers, well,” Bananas said with an awkward little chuckle. “We weren't terribly close.”

She fussed with her mane.

“It's complicated." She added. "They loved me. All of them. And I love them back. They would kill or die to protect me, because that's what family do--;”

“Kill?!”

That's what family does," she said through gritted teeth.

"But--;”

“It’s theoretical," Bananas rolled her eyes. “It never actually came up, Rose, so quit high horsing and let me finish. This isn't easy for me.”

I nodded, all affirmative-like, but more out of shock than anything else.

“My brothers were used to putting on a brave face, so they held their heads high, emulating Mother - trying desperately to stiff-upper-lip their way through the problem while they struggled to come up with a solution.

“Sugarplum, the oldest, an earth pony - he went straight to work and started tying my bubble generator to one of the harnesses. He was one of those alpha types - accustomed to brazening his way through just about everything.

“But Glitterwing rushed to me, and took to asking me questions. He wanted to know technical details about the filtration system on my bubble - whether or not the air passed through instantly, or if there was a delay.”

Foster shrugged at me. “I didn't know for sure, so Glitterwing flipped.”

“‘How could you not know?!’” She said, imitating the nasal tones of her brother's voice. “‘You live in this thing!’”

Foster was damn good at impressions.

“But I didn't live in that thing!” Bananas said as herself. “I live in an A-13 grade Immunofiltration Unit. The transport was an H-11 mobile unit. I didn't know if there was a delay in the filtration or not. I only had suspicions based on the behavior of the dust clouds, and what little of the manual I had glanced at.

“‘I think so,’ I told him. ‘A fraction of a second.’ And then I asked, ‘Why?

“‘Wind resistance!’ Glitterwing shouted back at me. He couldn’t lift me if I was dragging air behind me like a sail.

“When I realized that he was probably right, the whole world seemed to fall silent. I watched helplessly as my family dissolved - became a blur in the distance, hovering over the chasm. I had talked a great deal about staying behind for the greater good, but this was different. This was real! Once I actually saw so much of my family already so far ahead, I...cried. Like a foal.”

Bananas Foster scowled at herself. Like she was ashamed. Like she wished her crying self were there in front of her, so that she could smack the tears back into her own foalish eyeballs, and say, ‘Knock it off.’

“I don't remember exactly what happened after that. I was curled up in a ball. But I know that there was yelling. The last of my brothers had been readying for take off, and Sugarplum and Glitterwing were hollering for reinforcements.”




“It was Mother who scooped me up at last.” Bananas mused.

“Because they shouted for her?” I asked.

“Because she already knew.” Foster replied, almost whimsically.

“She swooped in out of nowhere, stomped her hoof on the ground, pointed at the chasm, and shouted, ‘Go! Go! Go!

“Glitterwing nodded, grabbed Sugarplum and swept him away in a tandem harness while Mother hitched the dome generator to herself using the rope that had secured it to the cart.


“I gazed far away across the chasm, tried to see the others – tried to find the spot on the other side that she had flown back from. But I couldn't. It was all a blur. The landscape across the chasm was still, like a smudgy charcoal drawing. I squinted, and tried to make out Glitterwing and Sugarplum, but it wasn't long before even they started fading into the background.

“Once Mother tightened the final rope, she spoke up, ‘Hang in there, scout.’ She said, breaking the trance I hadn't realized I was in. ‘It's going to be alright.’

“I nodded back to her. Whatever else was wrong, I knew that, as long as Mother was in charge, I would come out safe. Somehow.”

* * *

“The moment Mother took off, I seized up. The dome was like a rounded glass floor. When the ground dropped out from underneath us, every muscle I had simply froze.” Foster visibly tensed just from the act of describing it. “I barely even breathed. I was terrified that I’d jostle the bubble, throw off Mother’s equilibrium, or fall through the floor of the dome and die.

“I had never faced a real height before, let alone a creepy chasm so...I seized up.

“It, too, was weak of me.” Bananas Foster let out a quivering breath. “I looked down into the darkness below my hooves, and for all I could tell, the chasm had no bottom. It was so big, it was almost hypnotizing.”

Bananas shook her head. “I watched the walls of red rock plunge for miles downward, and disappear into the black. Once we were far out over it, away from the cliff, and there weren’t even any walls nearby to be seen, I kept a sharp eye on the abyss instead.”

Foster sighed. “I wish I could say that I was keeping an eye out below for any sign of trouble - acting as a sentry of sorts - but I’ll be perfectly honest. I couldn't look away. The longer I watched the depths, the harder it became to pull my eyes from them.

“A feeling latched ahold of me - a suspicion. There was something down there, watching us. I couldn’t see it, but somehow, I knew. That chasm may have been still, but it wasn't empty. And the further along we got, the more that feeling of unease grew.

"I was able to hold it together for a while. For Mother’s sake. But when I actually gathered the strength to break my focus on the darkness, and look up to her to see how she was doing? That’s when I truly got scared.

“Mother was clamping her teeth shut, flapping her wings like crazy. She pushed forward as fast, and as hard as she could, but it wasn’t the extra weight that drove her, nor the negligible amount of air that the bubble dragged with it. Mother only permitted herself to look up, and she kept her eyes on whatever happened to be straightahead. She completely refused to look down for any reason, which as any Pegasus knows, is terrible flying.

“Mother was acting strange. Mother wasn't herself. Mother was afraid. I felt a chill when I realized it.” Foster looked to me with hopeless eyes. “The kind of cold that seems to come at you from inside your bones.

She quoted my own words back to me.

“I redoubled my efforts to find the thing that I knew was hiding in the dark chasm - to catch a glimpse of whatever it was that Mother had seen down there that had freaked her out so badly.




“Eventually, I saw motion. It seemed as though the darkness itself was stirring, like the clouds you get in your coffee when you pour milk in. Only there was no creamy white, just pitch black mixing with a dull, unholy shade of gray.

“That was when the nothingness truly took control. It had drawn my eyes and my focus like a magnet before, but when I saw that motion, I shivered, and forgot everything else: Mother, my family, the desert we had come from. All gone.

“I knew only the black and gray. It was all I saw, even when I closed my eyes. The cold was all I felt. And then, once I was thoroughly entranced, the shadows whispered at me.” Foster shuddered. “It spoke in words I couldn't understand - a scratching sound that almost seemed to come from the inside of my own head.”

The rusty centipedes. I thought.

“I tried to scramble my way up the bubble. I shrieked, and yelled, and forgot all my concerns about jostling the dome. I risked everything just to get a few extra inches away from whatever...presence was down there. I panicked all over my dome like a stupid, stupid, stupid foal.

“‘Till Mother rapped on the outside of the bubble.”

Tap, tap, tap. Foster knocked on her bed frame.

“‘Hey,’ Mother said to me sternly, but gently. ‘Eyes forward, soldier.’

“So I did.”

“Eyes forward, soldier?!” I interrupted, trying to contain my shock.

They were flying over a fucking shadow chasm, and she was supposed to magically get it together at the clap of a hoof? Just like that?! Eyes forward, soldier? Really?!

"Yes." Bananas said with a huge smile suddenly stretched across her face.

It was disarming.

“Huh?” I said out loud.

“Rose! Mother talked to me like everyone else! Not the cripple. Not the nerd with strange ideas about the value of research. Not the kid whom she just humors out of love, and mercy, and pity, and indulges in fantasies of being useful. Like. Everyone. Else!

Bananas closed her eyes for a minute, as though basking in the sunlight. Tears were streaming down her cheeks.

“After Mother said that, I felt like I could do anything. I kept my eyes forward, just like she instructed, and the longer I did that, like a soldier, the more that those whispers scratching at the inside of my head decayed, and echoed, and faded away, until, finally, I couldn't hear them at all anymore.”

Bananas paused for more water. Downed yet another cup on her end table.

“So you did it.” I told her. “You beat the shadows. With love, and strength.”

Like Wormwood had said.

Foster lowered her cup gingerly back onto the end table, and dabbed at her lips with a napkin.

“I suppose you could say that," she replied with a sigh. "But it was a, short-lived victory. When we got to the other side, that's when it all started to go downhill.”

TO BE CONTINUED...

Author's Note:

Special thanks to Seraphem, for his tireless hours of putting up with my nitpicking during the editing process.

And thanks to you all for waiting. I know it's been a long, long wait for this chapter. A lot of finer points had to be ironed out. I eagerly await your feedback on Bananas Foster, who is finally, after many, many chapters, starting to shine, (in my opinion). Sorry about the cliff hanger, but her story turned out to be too big to cover in a single chapter. I've already got a head start on the next one, so hopefully, it won't take as long to finish.

Last, and certainly least, I just wanted to insert a shameless plug for my Patreon. I have mouths to feed, and every little bit helps. So if my story, or my essays have moved you, I hope you'll make a pledge.

That is, if you want to.

(Seriously, though no pressure. Thanks for reading. You guys are the best. Your comments are a huge part of what motivates me to keep writing in the first place.)

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