No cover art, so here's a nice, depressing picture to go with the fic. Also: to read the story, click the image or follow this link.
I had to go to the dentist today, and my gums are still sore. Eugh. Luckily, my pain/grumpiness hasn't stopped me from typing up this intro. Go me! You, meanwhile, should go down below the break, to read my review of Ebon Mane's The Cough.
Impressions before reading: It's been something like five years since I read this, and while I remember enjoying it, I must admit to some trepidation as to how well it holds up as a ponyfic--what little I can recall of it has me concerned that it will prove to fall into the category of "would have been better sans Equestrian setting." Still, I don't remember more than the premise and the last line; hopefully it will turn out that my half-decade remove from this fic has caused me to forget a few key details. It would be surprising if it didn't, after all!
Zero-ish spoiler summary: A virulent, contagious disease with a 100% mortality rate is sweeping Equestria, but the main six have decided to wait out the sickness together. Except it turns out one of them might be infected.
Thoughts after reading: Unfortunately, this didn't hold up well on re-read. Part of that comes back to my initial fears: this is indeed a story ill-fitted for its protagonists. To work, it requires leaps of characterization like Twilight and Applejack feeling perfectly comfortable murdering one of their best friends "just in case" ("one death, or six," Applejack intones, conveniently ignoring the just-mentioned possibility that a single dry cough could, just possibly, be a natural reaction to being trapped in a dirty, cold, enclosed space). To be fair, this story was written during season one, so there was a lot less characterization for the author to go on, but "casually equicidal" is still a much larger leap than I can make.
There's also the matter of the inexplicable shipping this story shoehorns in. I say "inexplicable" because it serves no obvious story purpose; at least, I suspect most readers wouldn't need a reason for Dash to be reluctant to kill on of her friends (then again, given the others' behavior, maybe she does). Beyond that, it requires Twilight to awkwardly narrate an explanation to the readers, in a story which (at barely 1000 words) is clearly aiming for a minimalistic storytelling approach. While the rest of the story tries to leave as much as possible to the reader's imagination, the introduction of a shipping angle undercuts that intent.
Where the story does succeed is in producing some very clever ambiguity. The identity of the cougher--and whether the source was this super-disease, or one of the more likely, more mundane culprits--is never explicitly revealed, and it's easy to go down the list of "who could have coughed" and re-evaluate the characters at play here. Granted, most of the answers don't make sense or are obviously absurd in the context of "the main six," but I already said that the characters here bear no discernible resemblance to those ponies; the story is best enjoyed, it seems to me, as a piece of original fiction. If one can ignore the pony names, it opens up a lot more opportunities for character ambiguity, which plays to the strengths of this fic. Likewise, the last sentence leaves plenty of room for interpretation open, though sadly (for this review) in ways I can't fully elucidate without getting too deep into spoiler territory for my comfort.
★☆☆☆☆ (what does this mean?)
As a piece of original fiction--or heck, as a piece of ponyfiction involving some different characters (preferably OCs--a minimalist story that trades on ambiguity is best served, in my opinion, by a group of tabula rasas onto whom the reader can project any number of interpretations with equal ease), this would rate rather higher. However, it's very difficult to reconcile the behavior and beliefs on display with the main six, and when the author tries to accomplish that, it only succeeds at interrupting the chillingly stark tone of the story.
Recommendation: Readers who enjoy a story that leaves plenty to the imagination will probably find this worth turning over in their heads a few times, but I wouldn't recommend it to anyone who's going to get hung up on details like "Twilight wants to murder somepony just in case."
Next time: Why Am I Crying?, by Rated Ponystar