Wednesday, 1 August 2018

Ponyfic Roundup 213: Spotlight on The Cough

Yes, that's right: I'm doing a Spotlight edition of PR for a story that's barely a thousand words long. This wasn't my original intention, but I just can't fit everything I want to say into a single paragraph. In fact, this post has ended up longer than the fic itself!

Read it Later story count: 327 (nc)

The Cough by Ebon Mane
Mane Six
Romance/Dark; 1k words; Aug 2011; Teen (Gore)
The mane six take shelter in a place that is, for now, safe from a disaster occurring outside.This gruesome tale of violence and death is not recommended for colts, fillies, or the faint of heart.
This fic's opening line is "In the darkness, somepony coughed." The question is who. It matters because, as Twilight explains, coughing is the symptom of the final stage of a terrible disease that becomes highly contagious. In other words, the only way to stop all the Mane Six sickening and dying is for the cougher to die. Right now. The play-out is grim, so be prepared. However, at the end you'll be left wondering. (These days, I suspect the fic would have [Horror] and [Mystery] tags.) This is a very old story, so bear that in mind as regards characterisation, and it also really shows its age in the plentiful LUS. Ebon Mane's writing was not as good in 2011 as it later became. Despite those problems, this fic is likely to stick with you – and perhaps even keep you awake at night. ★★★★

Some more detailed thoughts, which are very spoilery indeed, await beyond the break.

As I expect you know if you've got this far, the last line of this fic is identical to its first – which, on the face of it, means either that Fluttershy has died for nothing... or that she wasn't the only pony infected. The game readers have been playing for seven years now is to try to decide what the actual situation is. (Ebon Mane has deliberately avoided giving a definitive answer.) So, here's what I think about it all.

First, let's consider who coughed at the start of the story. I don't think it was Pinkie. She's in "Party of One" Pinkamena mode, but she says nothing throughout the story and is apparently completely out of it. Of course, that doesn't rule out that hers was the second cough, but again that doesn't feel right. I don't think a story like this is playing fair if it gives you no clues at all, and so I'm going to assume that Pinkie can be acquitted on this score.

I don't think it was Applejack either. This story was written after S1, so before we'd seen AJ Discorded. At this point, the only real lying we'd seen her do was in "Party of One", and she was spectacularly bad at it. I can't reconcile Applejack's canon characterisation at the time with her being able to speak as she does in this fic unless what she says is honest. This also rules out Twilight's comments on how the disease progresses being a lie.

I'm not sure about Rarity. As with Pinkie, she doesn't really play an active part in the story; we just see her crying. She used to do that a lot more in S1 days than she does now (see, for example, "Suited for Success") so it doesn't seem out of character. I'd be inclined to give her the benefit of the doubt and feel that Rarity is sobbing simply because she knows she's about to lose one of her best friends forever.

Next, let's look at Twilight. It's been suggested that this could be a horrible, deliberate setup by an evil Twilight to get rid of the rest of the Mane Six. She sounds, as has been pointed out, remarkably calm and analytical compared with the rest. I don't think I buy it, though. Where's the motive for her to become, effectively, a serial killer? I'd find it very unsatisfactory for Twilight to be the initial cougher.

So, we're left with the two pegasi – the ponies involved in the most physically brutal part of the fic: the on-screen, albeit darkened, killing of Fluttershy by her marefriend Rainbow Dash. I think it has to be one of those two, if only because their relationship means that one of them being the cougher has the most impact and makes the story especially chilling, even before we get on to the question of who coughs at the end of the tale.

Two points here. One, this is a very S1 setup. Over the years since, Applejack's bucking ability has become more and more impressive (from "The Mysterious Mare Do Well" to "Shadow Play") and I think a job like this, however gruesome, would have to fall to AJ nowadays. Two, it's noticeable that Rainbow doesn't do an especially clean job. She clearly believes she can kill Fluttershy with a single buck, yet her first doesn't even knock her out and in the end it takes four.

Could it have been Rainbow herself who coughed? If it had been, then her heart not being in the bucking could be explained as Dash knowing that Fluttershy was taking the rap for something she (Rainbow) had actually done, with Dash's guilt gnawing at her enough to stop her doing a fully clean job. Rainbow's thoughts at the end about the "red residue of her deed" do sound just a little like a guilty pony fearing always being scarred by what she's done.

Now, let's consider whether all the mystery is simply misdirection and the facts are straightforward: was Fluttershy simply telling the truth when she admitted coughing? Even in S1, as Applejack remarks at one point, Flutters had enormous inner strength; it just wasn't seen very often. She also has medical knowledge ("A Bird in the Hoof") and might well understand most clearly what this unnamed disease would do if she didn't act.

That last point brings up another possibility: at this moment, Fluttershy has already realised that somepony else is going to cough, and she can't bear to be around when that happens because she knows what it would mean. A quick death is easier for her to cope with – we don't know what religious faith she may have, but if Flutters believes in the Great Beyond or Elysium or whatever, it's possible that she doesn't see earthly death as the final End.

So, here's my theory. The first cougher was Rainbow Dash. It wasn't a cough from the disease, but she knew nopony could take that risk. She was too scared to admit it, because as the closest to Fluttershy she knew that her (Dash's) death would destroy 'Shy's life forever and leave her an empty shell. Rainbow, who I think genuinely did love Fluttershy, would see that as torture. So, when Fluttershy claimed to be the cougher, Rainbow saw a way out. A terrible way out to be sure.

Rainbow killed Fluttershy, knowing 'Shy was innocent, because it was a choice between doing that and leaving her a hollow parody of the pony she was. Because Rainbow loved Fluttershy, she didn't quite have it in her to deal a killing blow first time – but also because she loved Fluttershy, the suffering, however short-lived, that she inflicted by not doing so affected her so badly that she (Dash) could simply not go on.

So Rainbow coughed again, and after the end of the story she will admit it. There's a possible clue in the structure of the story: the first line of the fic is the same as the last, and perhaps that means the same pony coughed both times. The first time by accident, the second time because she has nothing left to live for... and, if she also believes in an afterlife, she has faith that ending her earthly existence would reunite her with the pony she loved and loves and always will love. The pony she murdered.

And there's the tragedy. In fact, none of the Mane Six is infected. Fluttershy misinterpreted. But two of them will die, because of how much they love each other.

Next time on Ponyfic Roundup: there won't be a PR next week as I'll be away for much of the time between now and then. PR 214 will appear on 15 August.


  1. I always interpreted it as the second cougher as having been infected by the first cougher. It works to re-contextualize their actions, dramatic as they were, as ultimately futile. It creates this "anti-catharsis" of sorts, a deeply nihilistic ending that paints their situation as completely hopeless – which ultimately drives home the horror of the situation very effectively.

    1. I've seen a few people advance that idea, either with Rainbow infected via Fluttershy's blood or being already infected via a kiss before the story starts. It does give a reason for the otherwise fairly pointless shipping. I don't know, though... their relationship is no secret, so o I'd imagine Twilight would think of the possibility straight away.

  2. Consider the possibility that you're right about all of that except the second cough. That was Dash coughing deliberately, because she couldn't live with what she'd done.

    (Disclaimer: I've never read this story, but I've seen enough reviews of it to know what happens in it.)

    1. Oh.


      I have never once considered this, and it is fantastic.

    2. I also think she coughed deliberately: "so Rainbow coughed again" implies that, though k admit not unambiguously. The difference with your idea (which is clever) is that I didn't think Rainbow coughed out of guilt so much as out of hopelessness at the thought of a life without Fluttershy.

  3. The fic itself is great but Thelostnarrator made it the most unforgettable experience to me.;3
    Awwww, the golden age of grimdark fanfic....

    1. I almost never listen to readings, Tbh, as I read fast so find them a bit slow. But with a short fic like this, I might make an exception. :)

    2. It really depends on the story and the reading for me. For some readings, they go to the trouble of adding sound effects and background music and getting other VAs so they can do a good job of matching character voices. I like listening to those, just because it's more than simply the words. Another is the case where the story is just begging to be read aloud, because there's a significant auditory component to it. Poetry is a good example of this. It's often enhanced by hearing it instead of just reading it, though you definitely can get hung up on wordplay, where it deliberately makes use of homophones, for instance, so you need the words in front of you as well to figure that bit out. I've written several stories that really are better for hearing them. Dinkin' Donuts is a great example. I love the reading of it, because it can lend so much to the tone, besides also being one that does have lots of sound effects and background music to supplement the mood.