Carrot had a spring in his step that he hadn’t felt since before the fire. It was small, but it was there, and even Cupcake’s strange behavior over the past few days couldn’t entirely dampen it. Twilight’s castle looked a little brighter, and the sky framing it just a few shades bluer. The gift the Apple family was making to the rebuilding of Sugarcube Corner was above and beyond anything he would have dared to ask for. True, it still wasn’t enough. Just resetting the foundations and raising the frames would take several months, and they would have to tighten their saddle girths in the meantime. It would be hard, especially on the twins.
By the time that first round of work was done, though, Carrot felt sure he could find a way to bring in more money, whether from support from families, additional charitable help, or whatever work he could find in the interim. Even if they still had a long way to go before they were out of the woods, to be able to move forward again at all was more than Carrot had allowed himself to hope for in weeks.
Which was why, when he had gone into their rooms a few days ago and excitedly shared the news about the Apples’ latest gift with Cupcake, he had known something was wrong.
Her mood had been the lowest he had seen it since the night of the fire. That was understandable. They had both been running with scraps and rags every minute since then, and each had succumbed to exhaustion or despair once or twice in the following weeks. When that happened, each of them had been there to pull the other up again. In some sense, it wasn’t that different from how they tag-teamed taking care of the twins.
It didn’t take long for Carrot to realize something was different this time, though. When he had come in, she almost seemed to be hiding from him. She was pale and her skin felt cold, and when he had told her the good news, she hadn’t risen out of it like he had been sure she would. She had smiled and agreed that it was the best news they’d had. But it had been an anemic smile, as starved for life as her face seemed to be.
Then, instead of finding more energy, she had withdrawn into herself again. It was like the Cupcake he knew had curled up and buried herself somewhere inside, leaving her body behind to sicken. Worse still, she seemed to be actively avoiding his company. If he came in to check on the twins, she would go out and pretend to work in the suite’s kitchenette, and if he followed her out, she would go back to check on the twins. She seemed like a trapped animal, crawling from corner to corner.
After a few attempts at conversation, he decided to let her be, though he kept a worried eye on her when she happened to pass nearby. As the hours stretched into days, however, Cupcake couldn’t seem to rouse herself, and his fears deepened. Even when the fire had claimed everything, she had still reached out to him, and he to her, for support. This total shutdown and withdrawal felt like something else.
He had seen such strange moods settle over her once or twice in the past. He couldn’t exactly recall when, but he knew it had happened at least once after they had learned she was pregnant with the twins. Back then, he had attributed it to mood swings from the pregnancy. It hadn’t brought him much comfort to feel so powerless, but at least it had passed. Now, however, he was reluctant to let it run its course. Everything was already in such a fragile state. He needed to find a way to bring her mood up, at least just a little. Neither of them needed more weighing them down than they could help.
She was sitting in the parlor, fiddling with a toy of Pound’s he had broken. Carrot walked up softly beside her and sat down. “Honeybun,” he greeted, wrapping a foreleg gently around her shoulders. He felt a stab of dismay as she flinched. Had he startled her so easily? “Is everything alright, sweetheart?”
“What kind of question is that?” she asked, and he couldn’t help but recoil a little at the bitterness in her voice. “We’re homeless, we’re stuck in these ridiculous rooms, the twins are getting more irritable every day… no, I’m not alright. Is that so surprising?”
“I just thought…” he tried, watching her with a scared frown. “With what the Apples are giving us, it’s almost like the end is in sight. We’ll get our home back, sweetie. Maybe even sooner than we hoped.” She had flinched again when he had mentioned the Apples, but he couldn’t imagine why for the life of him. Something deeper had to be bothering her.
“I need to go for a walk,” she said. She stood so suddenly that she jerked his foreleg as she pulled away. She turned back, saw him rubbing his shoulder, and looked at him with an expression that made his heart go cold. She looked terrified, of all things. “I’m just… I’ve been cooped up in here for days, dear. And I’m so stressed from everything. Watch the twins while I get some air?”
He could only hope it would do her at least a little good. But whatever she felt she needed to do to get through another day, he would help her do. “Sure thing, honey. Here.” He fished inside the ragged, stained apron he wore, and dug out a few bits. “Get yourself one of those lattes you like from Grinder’s stall. We’ve got a little to spare now with the framing taken care of, if you can believe it.”
Luckily, she did seem to believe it. It was a lie, and he barely had any energy to put into it. But she took the bits with the sickliest shadow of a smile he had ever seen and hurried out. He watched her go, feeling the weight of helplessness settle over him again. Then he took a deep breath and squared his shoulders. If her mood hadn’t brightened when she returned, he would find something else to try. At least making sure she could take it easy for one evening might keep her from getting any worse.
* * *
Cupcake wandered aimlessly through the opulent halls of the palace. She still felt like she was one bad shock away from a heart attack. At least she could calm herself down away from their rooms, their belongings, and the sounds of Carrot and the twins so close by. Every scrap of their lives piled into that small space was like a series of anvils around her neck. Every step Carrot took closer to her, she found it harder to breathe. It was like she could feel a physical pressure radiating from him, crushing the very lungs in her chest. She could feel his eyes constantly on her, prying out inconsistencies in her behavior, and every move she made only broke the pattern and drew his attention more. She wasn’t sure if she would explode or shatter, but one thing was for sure—if she stayed there, something would break. Badly.
It’s okay… it’ll be okay, she told herself. You’ve been through this before. You managed to pull it together then. You can do it now. Everything will go back to normal. It will. You just have to endure.
She didn’t know if she could this time, though. She had so little left to give to the act. In the comfortable, day-to-day routine of their old lives, she had been able to pull through when the dam threatened to burst. She had been able to take enough time to think, to plan for contingencies, excuses, and barriers. She had been able to hide in her own disguise, pretending that she was still the Cupcake everyone had learned to know—the Cupcake who had never strayed beyond the boundaries of their cozy little bakery in their cozy little town. The Cupcake who didn’t carry the foals of two other stallions because of one stupid mistake. She was loved by her entire family, and Cupcake could put everything into being her.
But now that cozy bakery was gone. She couldn’t keep her thoughts and stories straight like she could back then. The frame around her perfect family portrait had already broken enough to show the secret beneath to Applejack. How many more breaks were appearing that she hadn’t spotted yet? How could she soothe Carrot’s suspicions and fears without fomenting more?
She stopped in the hall and slumped against one of the freezing walls. Her legs felt nearly ready to let her collapse then and there. How can I keep this up?
“…shouldn’t stay any longer. I don’t want to risk any more trouble.”
“I understand. But I’m glad you decided to stay. It was nice to finally see you just for a few days, even if the circumstances are less than ideal.”
Cupcake froze. She knew those voices. She turned hard, walking as fast as she could back down the hall without making a racket. Shoot. How did I let myself wander to this part of the castle?
It was no good, though. The door beside her opened, and she nearly screamed as her hooves scuffed the floor, scrambling to push herself away from it. She hadn’t expected to run into anypony, and she couldn’t stand trying to keep up appearances for anyone else. Let alone around him.
“And really, thanks for listening. I can’t tell you how much it— Oh, horseapp—”
She froze, then turned, trying to calm herself as she saw Sunburst and Starlight standing together in the entrance to Starlight’s rooms.
“Oh, hello dearies,” she said, hoisting a panicked grin into place. She could feel her jaw shaking, and she could hear the tremble in every word she spoke. Calm down, calm down! You can’t let Starlight think anything is…
…what is Sunburst doing here with her?
Time slowed to a crawl as they stared at each other. Sunburst was looking at her with an expression of abject terror. Starlight, meanwhile, looked merely nervous.
Why is she looking at me like that? Starlight was glancing between Sunburst and Cupcake like she was waiting for one of them to attack the other.
Sunburst thanked her for listening… to what?
The pieces fell into place in Cupcake’s head, and it felt like all the other pieces of herself tumbled apart and scattered over the floor.
“…You know.” It was all she had the strength to say.
“Uh…” Starlight took a step back, and Cupcake turned a horrified look to Sunburst.
“You told her?”
At this, Starlight’s apprehension seemed to vanish, and her face settled in a cool wave of indignation. She squared up her shoulders and took two steps forward, just barely imposing herself between them. “You hit him.”
That made Cupcake flinch. Her anger was stunted, and she turned away. “That… I shouldn’t have done that. I lost my temper.”
“It’s fine,” Sunburst said, touching his jaw and wincing. “I had it coming. I lost my temper too. And…” he turned and looked uneasily at Starlight. “I shouldn’t have told her, but—”
“No? You don’t think so?” Cupcake whispered. Starlight took another step in front of Sunburst, her brow darkening, but Cupcake barely noticed. Once again, every fear, every caustic emotion that had been eating her alive for days had found a target, and they flocked to it like a flood to a spigot. “This is what your promises look like, your honorable word? What kind of Tartarian monster are you? You barge into my life, you harass me for years—just what more do you want from me?!”
She grit her teeth so hard, she thought a few of them might crack from the strain. She could feel the pressure of her mindless rage running through her jaw to the base of her skull. The very veins in her eyes felt like they were alive with fire as she glared at Sunburst, who was now all but cowering behind Starlight.
“Cupcake,” Starlight tried, “I know you’re upset, but you need to calm down. We can work this out.”
Cupcake didn’t even hear her. What she did hear, however, were hooves galloping up the stairs at the end of the hall. Somewhere, deep beneath the agony and the fury, there was one tiny speck of fear left within herself that registered the sound with a flurry of panic. With all the composure of a lunatic trying to gather up a load of screaming mice, Cupcake pulled her anger back inside and tried to rebuild a normal expression. Whatever she had to do to deal with Sunburst, she couldn’t risk even one more pony noticing anything was wrong. She had to keep the frame together.
As such, Applejack was one the ponies she absolutely would not have chosen to see at that moment. Yet there she was, coat glistening with sweat and brown hat askew as she barreled down the hall. Her eyes widened as she locked her gaze on Cupcake, and her metal shoes screamed against the polished floor as she braced all four legs into a sliding, catawampus halt.
“Cupcake!” she panted, gathering her limbs back into order in a scramble. “Thank Celestia! We got a prob—” Applejack’s lips shut with an audible plip as she noticed Starlight, and her eyes widened even more as they darted between Sunburst, Cupcake, and back to Starlight. For several seconds, the entire miserable gathering stared at each other, most of them not daring to breathe. “Uh,” Applejack finally said, her chest still rolling with exertion. “I need to… to talk to Cupcake about… about something. Important.”
Cupcake felt that if she didn’t say something, she would just start crying from the sheer stress of it all. To Tartarus with it. “Please just tell me it’s not about the twins or this pestilential letch,” she said, waving at Sunburst.
“Hey!” Sunburst snapped.
“Shut it,” Cupcake snarled.
“Wait, Applejack knows?” Starlight asked.
“Maybe everyone knows!” Cupcake yelled. Only belatedly did she cringe at how her voice carried down the hall. “It might as well be, just… what, Applejack?”
“Uh… actually, about that,” Applejack said.
Cupcake slowly raised her head. She could see actual blackness closing in around her vision, leaving Applejack at the end of a long, dark tunnel. Every breath she took drove a sharp spike of adrenaline-drained pain through her chest.
“…Applejack…” she shook her head, and she could feel tears running uncontrolled down her face. “No.”
It couldn’t be. Of all ponies, Applejack couldn’t have let her down. Not her. Not on top of everything else. It just couldn’t be. Applejack’s next words, however, killed any speck of light still sputtering within her.
“Sugarcube, it ain’t like that, but—”
“ ‘But’? ” Cupcake hiccuped. “ ‘But’? How could there be a ‘but’, Applejack? You promised me…” she choked and drew in a long, ragged breath. When she could speak again, her voice rose into a hysterical pitch. “You gave me your word, Applejack. I trusted you!”
“It weren’t even me!” Applejack protested. She swung her head at Sunburst. “Technically, he’s the one who went off telling ponies about foals.”
“Me?” Sunburst sputtered, his mouth dropping open. “Now hold on just one second! I haven’t talked to anypony other than Starlight.”
“Talked, maybe,” Applejack said. “But you’ve been writing letters, haven’t you?”
“Letters? I don’t… wait… how do you know…?”
“Because you wrote to the father of the other twin. You wrote to him and laid out the whole thing. How you found him, what happened to Sugarcube Corner, and how you thought he could help.”
Now that Applejack said it, Cupcake remembered. It was partly why she had knocked out some of Sunburst’s teeth in the first place. In all the chaos and panic that had followed with Applejack finding the first letter, she had completely forgotten the mention of the second. She had forgotten there might be somepony else out there who knew.
Now she did collapse. Before anyone could even think to catch her, she fell heavily onto her side, barely troubling to keep her head from cracking against the floor. Instead, she held it just barely aloft as Applejack rushed over to her. “Who? Who did you write to?”
“Sunburst, why?” Starlight asked. “Why would you do that?”
“I thought he could help!” Sunburst protested. “I can’t do anything without Cadence finding out, but the other father’s an independent pony! If he knew he had a foal, I don’t doubt for a minute that he’d try to do the right thing. And if nothing else,” he continued, setting his mouth in an indignant frown, “I thought he deserved to know.”
“Sunburst!” Starlight gasped.
“I know! It wasn’t just my secret to share. But I couldn’t think of anything else to do!”
“You could have done nothing,” Cupcake said weakly. “Horseapples, I should have done nothing. I should have just kept quiet about this whole mess and never tried to involve you.”
“I wanted to be involved!” Sunburst pleaded. “I’ve always tried to make you see that. I want to do the right thing, but you… well, you had your own ideas about how to run this. I thought when you wrote… I thought maybe you would finally give me the chance to do this right.”
“Hang on,” Starlight interrupted. “We can figure out this mess later. Applejack, why are you here? Why do you know about the other letter?”
“Because he sent it to my coltfriend,” Applejack said. “Hoops.”
Once again, everyone simply stared at each other with open mouths. But at long last, Cupcake couldn’t take it anymore. With a quick snort and a final, feeble effort to suppress it, she burst out in a broken, hysterical laugh.
* * *
“Feeling better?” Starlight asked.
Cupcake nodded. It still hurt to breathe, but at least she was back to slow, even breaths again. Following that short bout of hysterical laughter, she had partially fainted, and it had taken Applejack and Starlight the better part of fifteen minutes to bring her into Starlight’s room and calm her down. “I’m so sorry, dearies…” Her voice was hoarse, and it hurt even more to speak than it did to breathe. “I think I’ve just… been pushed a little bit past my limit.”
“I think that’s understandable,” Starlight said gently, giving Sunburst an uneasy glance. “I think everypony needs to calm down some. I still think this can all be worked out.”
“There’s nothing to work out,” Sunburst said. He looked up at Cupcake, and there was a resigned earnestness in the tight set of his jaw. “I’ll go back to the Crystal Empire, and if I can figure out a way to help, I’ll find a way to ask you about it. In the meantime, Carrot doesn’t have to hear about any of this.”
“You just want things to go back to the way they were?” Starlight asked. Now she was looking back at Cupcake, and by the dark tilt of her brow, Cupcake knew she wasn’t happy with how Sunburst had been kept out of their lives.
“That’s not what we need to focus on right now,” Sunburst said. “I should have thought about that before I put my nose into all this. I shouldn’t have come down here in the first place, or tried to interfere like I did when Sugarcube Corner is gone and everything is in such a fragile state. It’s not the right time. Maybe I do want things to change, but not at this cost. I’m not going to send Cupcake or Carrot into a total breakdown. If we’re going to make things better between all of us, it needs to happen when they’ve healed from this trauma first. So, for now, yes, I’ll help get things back to the way things were. I’ll be out of Equestria, and everything will go back to normal.”
Normal… Cupcake felt her heart clench in a strange wave of panic. What was normal? She and Carrot would find a way to rebuild the Sugarcube Corner, that was true. But what did she have to look forward to? More days haunted by the specter of what would happen if Carrot somehow realized the truth? Feeling that agonizing stab of guilt every time she made one of her little foals smile and laugh, knowing that laugh was not Carrot’s?
And now, she would have to meet not only Applejack’s but Starlight’s eyes every time they happened to meet in town, knowing that they knew the truth about what she was—what she had done.
Even if she managed to hold the crumbled wall together for years like she had planned, it wouldn’t let her live in peace again. How many nights was she going to lie awake, planning out what to say to the twins when they were old enough to understand? How many times would she rehearse her confession to Carrot? How many times would she almost speak up, almost tell the truth, then shrink back in the same familiar terror and decide never to speak at all?
It was enough to break her there and then. And that was when Applejack cleared her throat.
“Uh… I’m not sure we’ve got it that good anymore,” she said.
“Right,” Sunburst groaned, rubbing his forehead and almost knocking his glasses askew. “Hoops. What exactly are his plans, Applejack?”
“That’s why I came here in such a rush,” she said. “I don’t have a clue. He thought the letter was a prank his roommates tried to pull on him. I had no idea he was involved in any of this, but when he showed me the letter… well, I don’t think I need to explain I was floored. I didn’t have time to think about anything. But he knew right away something was dead wrong. Before I could think of what else to do, he got enough out of me to realize Cupcake was real and here in Ponyville. And then he was just gone.”
“Gone?” Sunburst asked. “What do you mean gone?”
“He ran. Flew off faster than I would’ve thought possible, considering I’d just… anyway, my guess is he panicked. Not sure I blame him. I about had a heart attack myself when I saw Sunburst had written to him about all this. But that’s exactly our problem now.” Applejack shook her head, avoiding Cupcake’s eyes. “I have no clue what he’ll do next. I can’t imagine why he’d go looking for either you or Carrot, but if he decided to…”
“Still… we should be able to contain this,” Sunburst mused. “Starlight can keep an eye on the castle itself. And Cupcake, if you go back to Carrot, you’ll know if Hoops decides to show up. In the meantime, Applejack can try to find him and work something out with him.”
Plans. Contingencies. Guessing at what to do when some hint of the truth reached Carrot. And all of it so feeble. Applejack was right, she thought as she heard Sunburst, Starlight, and Applejack continuing to talk. How could she keep trying to keep up with this disintegrating tapestry? The weight of the worry had been enough to crush her when all she knew was that Sunburst was out there somewhere, a pony who knew how badly she had failed her husband that night. Now how many ponies knew? How far would it go? How far could it possibly go before something slipped to Carrot?
“No.” No more. She had found her limit. She couldn’t keep wearing the breaking mask. Even if it didn’t break now, or a month from now, she would break beneath it. She couldn’t keep playing the perfect wife anymore. She could endure a lot. But she couldn’t endure her husband and foals, the lights of her life, if they continued to be the source of her darkest fears.
“Uh… what?” Sunburst asked. His head was tilted in puzzlement, and it took Cupcake a few moments to realize she had spoken aloud. She took another breath, and found it was nowhere near enough. She took a second. It would have to do.
“No,” she repeated, shaking her head. “I can’t… I can’t do this anymore.” She looked up at Sunburst. She could feel the tears spilling over, but she blinked them away and hardened her face into a determined glare. There. I said it. Now I have to do it. “We’re going to talk to Carrot.”
Sunburst’s face blanched. He looked like he wanted nothing more than to turn tail and start running. “You… what? Cupcake, you’re not thinking clearly. You can’t tell Carrot. That’s what this whole mess has been about all this time, right? We don’t know how he’ll take it!”
“No. But I can’t live with this hanging over me,” she said. She turned to Starlight. “And you’ll forgive me, dearie, but I barely know you. I might be able to make myself trust Applejack, but I can’t go on wondering if you’ll be able to protect me.” She turned back to Sunburst, and her glare returned. “After all, he wasn’t able to. And… If I’m honest, I don’t think I can trust myself to protect all this. Not for much longer. And now there’s this… other pony,” she said, casting a sad look at Applejack. “It’s over. Even if none of you breathes a word, this can’t last. So… I’m taking control. I’m going to try to fix this, and I’m going to let Carrot make up his mind for himself.”
She turned away and started walking down the hall. “He… he deserves that. He never deserved to have this fake house of cards built for him. He deserves to know the truth and make whatever decision he needs to about it. Just like any of us.”
In that moment, Cupcake didn’t believe it would change anything. She was bracing herself for pain, for humiliation. But she believed that, in the end, he would stay by her side. They would heal. They would get past it, and she would never make such a mistake again. It was only in believing it that she could force herself to say the words, to take the first steps back to their broken home. She couldn’t let herself think about the possibility that his decision going forward might remove her from the picture. He had to forgive her. He had to. It was the only outcome that would allow her to even risk anything else.
She paused and turned when she didn’t hear anyone following her. “You’re coming with me, Sunburst,”
He was trembling. She supposed she couldn’t blame him. How her knees weren’t knocking together, she couldn’t imagine. Perhaps she just didn’t have the emotional reserves left to be that terrified. “Cupcake… are you sure?”
The words reminded her of something. She wasn’t sure of exactly what. Only that they stirred in her a deep rage. She scowled back at him. “You’re part of this mess. You’re going to come help me fix it.”
“Maybe we should think about this,” Sunburst protested. Cupcake was about to shout him down, but then Starlight put a gentle hoof on his shoulder and shook her head.
“Go with her, Sunburst,” she said softly.
“This is already tearing everyone apart,” Starlight said. “And it’s her decision, whether you go with her or not. And I think she’s right. Maybe it’s a good idea to do something about this before it gets any more out of control.”
Sunburst looked helplessly between the two of them. He seemed to grow smaller by the second. Then he swallowed and gave a single spasm of a nod. “…okay.”
Starlight gave him a short hug. “You know where to find me if you need to me.” Sunburst could only nod in answer. He looked like he didn’t trust himself to open his mouth again.
Applejack stood slowly as well. “Do you… would you like me to come with you too, sugarcube? I don’t like the idea of letting you take this on alone, especially considering…”
Cupcake almost told her no. Then she glanced again at Sunburst. I’ll be lucky if he doesn’t bolt at the door, she realized. And Applejack had been the one to warn her that she might need to take control. She had cared enough to come to her for her side of the story before doing anything else. In fact, she’s the only one who ever asked to hear my side of it. The only one who believed everything I said.
Cupcake nodded. “It… it might be a good idea to have someone with us to keep a level head. Thank you, Applejack.”
Then Cupcake turned and left, Sunburst and Applejack following several steps behind.
They didn’t speak at all as Cupcake led them through the upper levels of the castle and back to the guest suite she shared with Carrot. She didn’t know what they might even talk about. Would there even be any good in planning out what to say? Cupcake doubted it. She already had several half-formed, vague ideas of how the discussion would go. They were the products of her most sleepless nights following the incident itself, the discovery of her pregnancy, and the reappearance of Sunburst. If she tried to plan it out any more now, she might freeze up and kick Sunburst out of Ponyville again. There was only one way to do it.
Don’t think, just do. Dive in and don’t look back.
And… she amended, glancing back at Applejack, Be honest. About everything. That would be the hardest part. Even after getting through the worst of the truth, she knew she would feel an immense compulsion to do some damage control. She would want to mitigate the hurt, soften out as many unessential truths as possible. But I can’t. I need this to be over. Everything Carrot wants to know, I’ll tell him. I can do that. I can. I can… we can do this.
She wasn’t thinking of Sunburst or Applejack when she thought this last bit of assurance. By the time she pushed open the door to their suite, she had almost forgotten they were still following her.
“Oh, hey there Honeybun,” Carrot said, looking up from his seat in the parlor. Cupcake felt her breath hitch a little as she saw him. He was smiling at her. He looked a little tired, but otherwise like he was still moving through the daily routine. Another stone dropped in her stomach when she realized he was holding Pumpkin, and she couldn’t help but glance uneasily at Sunburst. “Back already? Oh, and Applejack. And… Who’s this?”
If I die of a heart attack now, I won’t have to go through with it, she thought. Then she heard Sunburst’s breathing hitch behind her. He had seen Pumpkin, and Carrot had seen Sunburst. She could still explain it all away. She could introduce Sunburst as a friend of Twilight, and—
No. As if Sunburst would go along with that at this point, she thought, scowling at herself. She took one last, shaky breath. Too late now. Just… get it… over with…
“Sweetiepie,” Cupcake said, forcing a corpse of a smile onto her face. “I have… we have…”
“Mr. Cake,” Sunburst said, stepping up beside her. “My name is Sunburst, and… I wish we could meet under better circumstances. But Cupcake and I… there’s something we need to talk about with you.”
Carrot’s face fell. He was already putting up a wall to ward of the worst of whatever bad news he thought they might be bringing. “Oh dear… what is it? Maybe you should sit down. Sunburst, was it? I’m sorry, I don’t think I’ve even seen you around Ponyville before. What exactly brings you here?”
* * *
“You’re…” Carrot didn’t seem to have any idea how to respond. Pumpkin was back with Pound in their room. Cupcake had condensed the story down to as simple and, in Sunburst’s cringing view, blunt an account as possible. Sunburst had only been able to watch as Carrot’s face had gone from worried to mortified to utterly heartbroken in the space of only a few sentences. At some point, he seemed to shut down and just let Cupcake talk uninterrupted, watching with his mouth slightly open and his eyes unfocused.
The whole time, Applejack simply sat next to Cupcake, her face heavy with sympathetic grief. After Cupcake had finished, she forced Sunburst to give an even shorter version of his side of things. He tried to avoid sounding like he was making excuses as much as he could. He explained how fast everything had happened; how he hadn’t even thought to wonder if Cupcake might have been married or not; how he had tried to make things right afterwards, and what Cupcake had told him to do. He could see Cupcake cringing as if the words had been physical blows. Even so, she hadn’t interrupted. Not once. She looked like somepony with nothing left to do but await a death sentence.
“You’re…” Carrot tried again. Sunburst could see the apple of his throat working furiously as he tried to put something together. “You’re not joking. But am I supposed to… what am…” he turned to her, desperation shining in his eyes. “Cup. This isn’t true. You’re not…” But his words failed when she couldn’t look him in the eyes. Instead, she turned away, shoulders shaking. He blinked and returned his dead stare to the floor in front of him. “You… you cheated on me?”
“I didn’t… I didn’t mean to,” Cupcake said. “I just… I was so broken down by what the doctors told us, and being trapped in that stupid hotel…”
“Didn’t mean to?” Carrot asked incredulously. He shook his head. “This… this is what’s been going on? Why I could barely get you to speak to me after you got back? And after the twins were born—” his eyes went wide, more dots connected in his head. “…of course.”
“But… that doesn’t mean…” he waved his hoof in a few wide, angry circles at Sunburst, “Just because the doctors said I couldn’t— that I don’t have— that doesn’t mean they’re his, right?” he crossed his forelegs and glared murderously at Sunburst. “Just because you had some fling around the time we conceived the twins, it doesn’t mean he has anything to do with it, right?”
“I had them tested,” Cupcake said quietly. “Four months in.”
Carrot could only stare at her, his mouth open in shock and his eyes full of betrayed despair. “Paternity tests? Before they were even born?” He leaned back hard into his seat. His eyes went blank and lifeless. “You knew. Right from the beginning, you knew they… they weren’t mine.”
“I was afraid!” Cupcake cried. “When I realized I was carrying, I knew… I knew there was a chance. I had to know, Carrot, I had to… Every night, I went to sleep telling myself they were yours, they had to be yours! Otherwise, I didn’t know what…”
“But they weren’t,” Carrot said stiffly. “You got your answer. And I got left in the dark.”
“No! You... you kept this from me. For all this time.”
“I was... I was trying to protect you... to keep us all—”
“Protect me? By lying to me, by letting me raise these...” He waved a hoof, as if trying to pull the words he wanted out of the air. Then he seemed to shrink into himself again. “And I fell for it. I didn’t think twice about any of it, even when the proof was staring me right in the face. Your great aunt’s second cousin twice removed, a Pegasus… My great-great-great-great grandfather, a Unicorn… that made sense, right? Oh, so much sense!” he slammed a hoof into his forehead. “I’m such an idiot.” Carrot turned to Sunburst, and his glare would have crumbled the glaciers of the Crystal Empire. “So. You’re the father, then.”
“Not… completely,” Sunburst said reluctantly.
“And just what the hay is that supposed to mean?” Carrot growled.
Sunburst looked at Cupcake for some kind of cue. But she only stared at him with a blank mask of despair. He coughed to give himself another second to think. “Uh… that is to say… I… well, Pumpkin is… mine. But not Pound.”
“You fathered Pumpkin, but not Pound? What kind of…”
Sunburst didn’t know how many mental blows a pony could take in one day. He suspected there had to be a limit, even for the strongest. And when the pieces came together in Carrot’s mind, Sunburst thought that he had never seen a pony crumble inside so completely in his life. As if breathing was agony anymore, Carrot turned slowly back to his wife. “No…”
Cupcake choked on a sob. She lifted her forelegs as if to bury her face in them, then lowered them again with a tremendous effort. She couldn’t speak. She just gave one quick jab of a nod, as if speeding this last blow would somehow lessen the pain.
“It wasn’t just that the paternity of the twins didn’t match you,” Sunburst said quietly. “They didn’t match each other, either. They’re half-siblings.” He cleared his throat, casting around in his stricken mind for more to say. “It’s referred to as heteropaternal superfecundation. It’s… not an unheard of phenomenon among ponies, though it is very rare… very, very rare. It’s really much more common in felines especially, and… and I’m getting off topic,” he finished feebly, withering as Carrot’s glare fell on him again.
“Riveting,” Carrot spat. “Then who’s the other father of my family, who also isn’t me?”
Cupcake shook her head violently, the barrel of her chest shuddering as she fought to rein in her emotions.
“Sunburst tracked him down too,” Applejack said softly. “And… well, so far as he can tell, it’s Hoops.”
“Hoops?” Carrot asked. “…that… the pony you’ve been seeing lately?” Applejack nodded, and Carrot’s eyes narrowed to slits. “…Applejack. Did you know?”
“Not about Hoops, that’s for sure,” Applejack said, shaking her head. Still, Sunburst could tell she was scrambling for something to say. “And I haven’t had a part in any of this until this week.”
“She told me to come to you,” Cupcake said. “She told me I needed to tell you everything. And she was right.”
“So, I’ve got her to thank for the fact I know anything at all,” Carrot said. He spat out a bitter laugh. “You’re on a roll, Applejack. You’re just saving my family from one horrible tragedy after another, aren’t you?”
Applejack didn’t say anything. She only sat there, eyes downcast as she waited for anything else Carrot might try to throw at her. Sunburst could only admire her stoicism.
Carrot, getting no response, seemed to deflate. He turned back to Cupcake. “I always thought how lucky I was that we found each other. For the longest time, I couldn’t believe somepony like you would find anything attractive about me. I guess I shouldn’t have worried; turns out it’s not important at all, is it?”
“So. These two get off with a wild romp in Las Pegasus, and I spend my life and bits here in Ponyville looking after their foals,” Carrot grumbled, ignoring how his wife’s face was stricken with shock and grief. “I shouldn’t be surprised at anything at this point. Doesn’t matter. I guess I should be grateful that at least one of the ponies who helped himself to my wife is here to rescue her for me. Since I can’t even do that.”
“Carrot!” Cup repeated, harsher this time. Now, there was anger burning in her cheeks as well.
“No!” Carrot shouted, slamming a hoof on the table. The discarded toys on it rattled, and Sunburst winced with sorrow and horror as Cupcake actually shrank back. Her eyes were wide with surprise and confusion. “Just… don’t. I don’t want to hear any of it right now. It doesn’t solve anything.” Carrot ground his teeth, glaring down at the table as if he couldn’t bear to look at either of them. “Or, I guess it does, doesn’t it? You didn’t need me to work odd jobs for nine different ponies these past few weeks. You didn’t need me to beg for wood from the Apples, or bits from all the charities around town, did you? No, because you had the Grand-spitting Wizard of the Crystal Empire in bed all along!”
“Court Wizard,” Sunburst squeaked before he could stop himself.
“Whatever!” Carrot yelled. Then he slumped back again. “You could have just said I wasn’t enough for you.”
“That’s not true!” Cupcake cried.
“And you’ll tell me the truth, is that it?” Carrot growled. Sunburst’s heart broke to see the hate in his eyes as he stared at Cupcake. For her part, the double blow of that black look and his ruthless words looked to be too much. She fell silent, staring in mute shock at her husband.
“Don’t—” Sunburst stammered, then swallowed his reluctance. “You shouldn’t talk to her like that. She doesn’t deserve it. The truth is exactly what she came here to tell you.”
“And you’re going to defend her now, are you?” Carrot asked. Sunburst blanched at how easily that boiling enmity swung back towards him. It was like a stream of bubbling, scalding tar Carrot could turn on anyone at any moment.
“Carrot,” Applejack tried, using the most level and reasonable voice she seemed able to manage. “I know things are bad right now, but—”
“Is that what you are?” Carrot demanded, ignoring her as continued his assault on Sunburst. “Are you her new white knight? Are you going to take her away to your crystal castle, and your bastard foals with you? Maybe I should—”
Sunburst didn’t even see Cupcake move. Suddenly, she was standing, and then she had struck Carrot in the face with a resounding smack that seemed to echo for second upon agonizing second. She didn’t punch him as she had Sunburst, he was glad to see. It was an flat-hoofed slap, but with the way she was breathing, Sunburst didn’t doubt she could have hit much harder.
“Cupcake!” Applejack cried. She had leapt up just behind her, but she had been too slow. Now, she was holding her back, but it was an empty gesture. The damage was done.
“Don’t,” Cupcake said, “ever talk about the twins like that. Ever.”
It was almost like seeing two Cupcakes standing there, one broken and shivering with sorrow, the other crimson with rage. The two emotions were so totally fractured, her body could only stand trembling while the battle twisted her face and streaked it with tears. Carrot stared at her with wide eyes. She had hit hard enough to raise a startled red mark on his cheek. Then his expression turned suddenly cold.
“And don’t say such horrible things about yourself,” Cupcake continued. “I’ve never wanted anyone but you, Carrot. I made a horrible mistake, but… what… where are you…?”
“I can’t do this,” Carrot said. His voice was hard and cold as granite, empty of any feeling, whether pain, rage, or despair. It had all gone out of him. “Just leave me alone.”
“No! Just… I can’t.”
The door slammed shut behind him. In the silence that followed, Sunburst became aware of how dry and ragged his breathing had become. Cupcake stood for several seconds, staring at the closed doors Carrot had left behind him. Then, like a ghost drifting down the Styx, she moved slowly back to the seat, sat down, and broke. Her sobs were the quiet, soft song of despair freely surrendered to. Applejack dropped down beside her and wrapped her in a grief-stricken embrace. Somehow, Sunburst suspected she knew the same thing he did. It was a token gesture. No one in Equestria could comfort her now.
That, he thought, feeling empty and thin, couldn’t have gone much worse.