• Published 1st Feb 2018
  • 2,094 Views, 90 Comments

Heteropaternal Superfecundation - Thornquill



When Sugarcube Corner burns down, Sunburst & Hoops are the last ponies that ought to be affected. But if the past can't be buried again, even Ponyville's model family may be shattered forever.

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Chapter 12 - The Echo of Absence

Applejack opened the farmhouse door, and she felt her eyes widen a little in surprise as she saw who had knocked. “Starlight? What brings you all the way out here? Any news about Carrot?”

From Starlight’s expression, Applejack knew before she answered that she hadn’t come to the Apple farm for that. She shook her head sadly. “I’m afraid not. Cupcake still hasn’t heard a word from him, and no one else has either, as far as we know.”

“Oh,” Applejack said. The disappointment she felt was mingled with the tension she now carried around with her constantly. She still felt she ought to be doing more to help, but Carrot had taken himself beyond the reach of anyone in Ponyville. Only Cupcake knew precisely where he had gone, and for now, she was respecting his request to be left alone.

But like Starlight, Applejack knew that whenever Carrot did return, it wouldn’t necessarily mean he and Cupcake would start to repair their relationship. On the contrary, there was a good chance it would be the beginning of the end. And if the prospect hung over them so darkly, she didn’t even want to imagine what it was doing to either Cupcake or Carrot.

“I do have an update for you, though,” Starlight said. She was hiding it, but Applejack could glimpse a grimace in how tightly Starlight’s lips were pulled over her teeth. It was bad news, then.

“About what?”

“Hoops,” Starlight said.

Applejack felt her eyes narrow, and the muscles in her face hardened. “He come back?”

“No. And I’m afraid that by the sound of it, he might not at all.”

“Sounds like there’s a story in that,” Applejack said, stepping back from the door. She tried to keep the ice out of her voice as much as she could. Starlight had no part in what Hoops had done, and Applejack knew it wouldn’t be right to vent any of her anger at her. “Why don’t you come inside? Can I get you anything?”

“No, thank you, I’m alright,” Starlight said, following Applejack inside. Applejack saw her give a small, grateful shiver as she stepped into the warm air.

“So,” Applejack continued, closing the winter chill outside, “where’s this info on Hoops from then?”

There was no mistaking it this time; Starlight gave a noticeable grimace before suppressing it. She looked embarrassed, Applejack thought. “Sunburst.”

“Sunburst?”

“Yeah… listen, AJ, I need to apologize for him,” Starlight sighed. “I mentioned what you told me, about Hoops leaving the area completely. I didn’t think he would do anything about it, considering how things are right now. Honestly, I didn’t even think it was possible for him to do anything. I guess I should have known better.” She rolled her eyes. “He went and tracked Hoops to Manehattan. And as if that wasn’t bad enough, he actually went after him.”

“Manehattan?”

“Yeah… Listen, AJ, I really am sorry. And I’ll be sure he apologizes next time he gets the chance, too. He shouldn’t have gone messing with Hoops without talking to you first. I thought he would’ve known that. But apparently, he got it in his head that he and Hoops might be able to work together somehow.”

Applejack felt her lips twist a little, torn between a scowl and a bitter laugh. “Yeah, Hoops and Sunburst… they ain’t exactly birds of a feather. So what happened?”

“It… didn’t go well,” Starlight hedged. “In fact, I’m afraid it went pretty badly.”

“How bad?”

“Well… From the sound of it, Hoops was not the pony Sunburst was expecting him to be.” Starlight shook her head. “I’m sorry, AJ, but it sounds like you were right about him.”

Applejack blinked. Was I right? “If you’re beating around the bush, you don’t need to. What exactly happened? Did Sunburst say?”

“Yeah,” Starlight said reluctantly. She pulled a lightly-rumpled letter out of her saddlebag, but her reticence told Applejack she didn’t want Applejack to know the specifics of whatever Hoops had said. She was trying to protect her, soften the blow. Even so, she held it out for Applejack to take. “Unless Sunburst’s exaggerating, Hoops was… very clear about some things. It’s pretty unpleasant, AJ.”

She didn’t voice aloud the offer to take the letter away unread. Applejack was determined, though. Whatever Hoops had said, she wanted to know, no matter how much the words hurt her. It would be better than second-guessing. Without another word, she took the letter.

Starlight, as Applejack had suspected, had been sugarcoating things. It had definitely not gone well. Applejack could almost feel Sunburst’s disappointment and anger, the quiet despair meeting with Hoops had left him with. Beneath it, Applejack could easily imagine the venom in Hoops’ own words, and she had little doubt that Sunburst reported them faithfully. Even written, the mere tempo of the words reminded her of Hoops, or at least how he sounded at his worst.

To her surprise, though, the words somehow didn’t hit Applejack like she knew they ought to. It wasn’t that Sunburst had been vague enough to leave room for doubt. On the contrary, he had left very little to the imagination. And as she read what Hoops had said about her and their relationship, she did feel a heavy blow somewhere deep inside. No one could hear such words and not be hurt by them. Instead of cementing her fury, though, she only felt a strange, almost inexplicable sympathy.

Manehattan.

“I’m so sorry, Applejack,” Starlight said quietly. She wasn’t just apologizing for Sunburst anymore.

“Yeah,” Applejack said slowly, not really responding to anything. She wasn’t even reading the letter anymore. Her mind had taken her elsewhere, putting memories and feelings before her that she hadn’t thought about for years and years.

She knew she ought to be furious. The blow of what Hoops had said was tempered, however, with a curious certainty that they were lies. They were awful, malicious lies, and they hurt her almost as much as if Hoops had truly meant them. But it wasn’t just that she thought Hoops was lying about how he felt. If she was right, she thought she might understand exactly why he was lying, too.

“Applejack?”

“Sorry, sugarcube,” she said, shaking her head. “Got lost in my own thoughts for a minute there.”

“It’s okay,” Starlight said. She gave Applejack a soft, sad smile. “Do you want to talk about anything?”

She thinks I’m about to fall apart, Applejack realized distantly. “Nah, thanks Starlight. If you don’t mind, though, I think I’d like to think some things through.”

“I understand. But you know where to find me if you need me.”

“Sure thing,” Applejack said. She kept her voice neutral as she walked Starlight back to the door. “You heading back to the castle?”

Starlight nodded. “I’ll be helping Cupcake again this afternoon. And listen, Applejack, I really am so sorry. I know this wasn’t a good way for this to end up.”

Applejack didn’t really know what to say to that. “I’ll be alright, sugarcube. And listen, don’t be too hard on Sunburst, okay? I know he was just trying to help. It was good of him to think of me like he did.”

“If you say so,” Starlight said with a sheepish smile. “I mean… I suppose you have some answers now, right?”

“Yeah. Yeah, I guess I do.”

Applejack watched Starlight disappear into the trees. In spite of what she had told her, though, Applejack now felt that she had fewer answers than she had before, not more. She stood there for some time, impervious to the cold air as she sorted through her thoughts.

He might’ve meant every word, she thought, feeling a bitter needle jab into her heart as she did. He might just be that kind of pony. It wouldn’t be the first time I was wrong about something like that.

But the memory of her own weakness wouldn’t let her hold onto that judgment anymore. She hadn’t thought of it before, but she had not always been so steadfast and dependable, either. There had been a time, long ago, when she too had run away from fear and pain, right into the streets of Manehattan. She had said things she wasn’t proud of and hurt ponies she cared about. She had hidden behind lies. It felt safer to do that than be the pony she was afraid to be. And it had taken an alien and hostile environment to wake her up and make her realize what she was throwing away.

If that’s the case, though...

Sunburst had mentioned Hoops’ address in the letter. She could go after him, if she chose. But as she stood there, looking out over the farm she had nearly left forever, remembering the pony she had been, she knew it was not something she could allow herself to do.

At least... not yet. She turned, walked inside, and shut the door behind her.

Sunburst had accomplished more than he thought. She knew it might very well be that Hoops was exactly the sort of pony Starlight and Sunburst now thought he was. It might be that the anger and loathing she had felt for him when he ran away would be the only reaction he would ever deserve from her. And if that turned out to be the case, she would bury any feelings between them forever.

But she needed to know. And she decided with a strange sense of resignation that if what she suspected was true, then she wanted to give him one final chance to show her what kind of pony he was. The worst of it was that in order to find out, she couldn’t go after him. Ponies do act like idiots, sometimes. Maybe... maybe sometimes we need to be idiots so we can figure out what we really want to do.

So, she would wait; at least for just a little longer, until something else had a chance to become clear to her. She would let him be an idiot, if only to find out if he could stand being an idiot. But she couldn’t make that choice for him.

What’ll matter, she decided, is whether he keeps his head in the dirt… or acts like a grown pony again. That’s what’ll tell me what I need to do with him.

* * *

“That looks like the last of it,” Starlight said, laying a final pair of folded foal pajamas aside on the bed.

“Thank you, dearie,” Cupcake said.

“Was there anything else?”

“No, I don’t really think so,” Cupcake said, giving a relieved sigh and looking around with slight astonishment. “I don’t think I realized how hard it was getting to keep up with the basics, even with both…” She trailed off, and Starlight saw her swallow hard, still unable to bring herself to mention Carrot. Whatever else she was feeling, though, she buried it before Starlight could say anything. “Well, it’s been a lifesaver, what you and Applejack have done. I really can’t thank you enough.”

“Don’t even mention it,” Starlight said. “Are you sure there isn’t anything else you’d like help with? It’s barely even noon.”

“No. I have an appointment with Mayor Mare later, but that’s not for another few hours.”

“Will you need anyone to watch the twins while you’re there?”

“No, no, I can bring them along, no one will mind,” Cupcake said dismissively. “Really, I’m sure you have other things you want to be doing with your day. I can manage from here on out.”

“Well. Okay. If you’re sure.” Starlight nodded and headed out of the bedroom. Neither it nor the parlor were what most ponies would call tidy, but the storm of discarded toys, clothes, dishes, and other paraphernalia of family living had been tamed within the bounds of organized chaos. The whole suite felt less oppressive and claustrophobic as a result, at least to Starlight, and she hoped it took some strain off of Cupcake as well.

Starlight made her way to the door, assuming that nothing more needed to be said. Before she could leave, however, she heard Cupcake again behind her. “Um…”

She paused, waiting for something else to be said. When she heard nothing, she turned, puzzled. Cupcake was still standing in the doorway to the bedroom, shifting her hooves uncomfortably. She didn’t seem to want to look at Starlight.

“Is something the matter?” Starlight asked.

“No… no,” Cupcake said, shaking her head. “Nothing ‘wrong,’ per se, I just…” her words trailed off again, and she chewed the inside of her cheek uncomfortably. “I was just thinking, now that you and Applejack both have helped pull this place back from the brink, it’ll be easier to keep things running now. So... I guess I’m trying to say, you don’t need to keep coming by if you don’t want to. I think Applejack and I can manage.”

“It’s no trouble,” Starlight assured. “Applejack still has her work to look after all, and I’m nearby. Many backs make lighter loads, as they say.” She chuckled awkwardly, but felt her smile fade when Cupcake’s expression didn’t change. She turned to face her directly. “Unless... did I do something wrong?”

“No, of course not, not at all, dearie,” Cupcake said, shaking her head emphatically. “It’s nothing you’ve done. You’ve been incredibly generous, under the circumstances. But it’s those circumstances I’m worried about, if you take my meaning.”

Starlight took a deep breath and let it out slowly, but she didn’t look away from Cupcake. She thought she did take her meaning, but she wanted to be sure. “I’m a little confused; what exactly do you mean?”

Cupcake frowned a little. She clearly didn’t want to put whatever she had in mind bluntly. “Well… you’re friends with Sunburst, aren’t you?”

Yep, there it is. Starlight nodded slowly. “Yeah.”

“Maybe even more than friends?”

Where did that come from? Starlight opened her mouth to answer, but hesitated. She didn’t know if there was an answer to that question to be had at that time. “That’s kind of complicated at the moment. But it’s really not relevant, is it?” she offered instead.

Cupcake gave her a deadpan stare. Then she turned away, embarrassed. “Listen, I appreciate your kindness. I really do. I suppose I just feel a little… uncomfortable, I guess, with how much you’re helping. I can feel the rift between us every time you look at me. I can see there’s a lot of anger and mistrust still. I’d have to be blind not to.”

Starlight blinked in shock. I didn’t think… it can’t be that obvious. I decided not to act on anything.

“It’s okay,” Cupcake said gently, but she still didn’t look at Starlight. “I couldn’t blame you, considering your history with Sunburst. Regardless of whatever I think of him, I know things are different between you two. So I can’t really expect you not to be on his side.”

“It’s not really about sides right now,” Starlight tried.

“I know. You said that before. But that’s what it usually comes down to, in the end,” Cupcake sighed. “And I don’t expect things to be friendly between us if you care about Sunburst. I thought it might be easier for you to not have to help me anymore, if that’s the case.”

Starlight bit her lip. It’s not the right time yet. As firmly as she wanted to believe that the right time would come, however, she could barely find the willpower to keep her tongue still. Sunburst’s last correspondence still weighed heavily on her. She couldn’t get it out of her head, how despondent he had sounded after everything with Hoops had fallen through so badly. He had placed the last of his energy and hope in that desperate gamble to either fix something or else find someone else who really just… understood the situation. Starlight hated to imagine him so beaten down and hopeless, but she couldn’t think of anything she could possibly do to help.

Nothing that fits within the bounds of common decency, at any rate, she told herself. She wanted to follow her own advice, but Cupcake had given her an opening. Against all her better judgment, and almost before she could really try to talk herself out of it, she gave in to the pressure within and took it. “You’re okay with me being upset, but you don’t want to do anything about it?” she finally said.

“I don’t really know what I’m supposed to do about it. I just don’t want you to feel obligated to do anything for me if you’re also angry. It’s the only thing I can think to do.”

“Well, what about Sunburst, then?” Starlight asked. “If this is because we’re both concerned about him in some way, then maybe that’s where something needs to be fixed.” She was careful to avoid any words that directly placed blame. As firmly as she had told herself she wouldn’t act on Sunburst’s behalf, she hadn’t been able to resist mulling over some of the ways she might approach it. Now, some of that planning was coming into effect.

To her surprise, however, Cupcake only gave a soft, sad laugh. “Of all the things I’ve messed up, I don’t think he really ranks high on the list,” she said.

Starlight felt her jaw drop a little in angry shock. “What?” was all she managed to say.

Cupcake shrugged. “Look, I know this has all been stressful for him, and I won’t pretend to really understand why he’s done some of the things he has. But he’s gotten what he wanted, hasn’t he? Carrot knows about him now, and there hasn’t been any talk of foal support or anything else either of us might ask from him. So, he’s free to go back to the Crystal Empire, or wherever he wants, and he doesn’t have to worry about keeping my secret anymore. He’s essentially free.”

“…That’s what you think this has all been about?” Starlight asked, giving free reign to her incredulity.

“What else would it be about?” Cupcake asked, frowning at Starlight’s reaction.

“Uh… Pumpkin? His daughter?

Cupcake’s frown deepened. “Pumpkin isn’t his daughter.” She waved a hoof dismissively when Starlight opened her mouth in outrage. “Okay, yes, technically she is, but they’re not family. You don’t get to call a foal you gave some mare in Las Pegasus your daughter. Besides,” she added, cutting off Starlight when she tried to speak again, “it’s not like that’s what he was really after that night.”

“Then why exactly do you think he tracked you down afterwards?” Starlight demanded. “Why in Equestria do you think he kept coming back?”

Cupcake only shook her head. “Celestia help me if I know. That’s exactly what I kept trying to figure out when he wouldn’t just take my word for everything and leave. I thought I made him a pretty astounding offer, all things considered. I didn’t want anything from him. I didn’t want anyone punished or any kind of complicated arrangements. I just wanted to keep Carrot from finding out. Why he didn’t believe me, I have no idea.”

“I don’t believe this,” Starlight breathed. She sat down hard on the floor, staring across the room at Cupcake with wide eyes. “You really think that’s all he cared about? That he doesn’t care about Pumpkin at all?”

“Well, I know he cares about her,” Cupcake admitted. “He seems like a decent pony, when all’s said and done. And only a monster wouldn’t care about a foal at all.” She fixed Starlight with a stern gaze. “But he doesn’t love her or anything, not like family. He can’t. He’s not her father, not in the ways that matter. That’s Carrot, and it always will be.”

Twilight’s lessons have done nothing to prepare me for this, Starlight found herself thinking. She was starting to understand why neither Cupcake nor Sunburst had felt confident that even Princess Cadence would be able to work with them effectively. How was anypony qualified to mediate a schism like this? She wanted to flee and consult at least five different specialists somewhere in large, well-funded psychology academies.

But Sunburst didn’t have a team of specialists on his side. At that moment, all he had was her. She supposed her best was all she could do for any of them, though the consequences of her potential ineptitude almost petrified her. Almost. “Look. Cupcake. I know that you don’t have much reason to see Sunburst in a favorable light. He made a serious mistake, and it’s cost you a lot.”

Cupcake’s eyebrows shot up. “That’s a bit of an understatement, dearie.”

Starlight pressed on unperturbed. “I know you haven’t had any reason to hear him out, and I’m guessing you two haven’t really talked much at all beyond the barest essentials.”

“Are you going somewhere with this? No, we haven’t had some big heart-to-heart. It’s not usually something one does when trying to keep her husband unaware of it.”

“So,” Starlight said, pressing her forehooves together in front of her face in an idle, distracted motion, “it makes sense that you wouldn’t really understand where he’s coming from, or how he’s felt these past few years. But… you really need to take my word for it that you have him all wrong.”

Cupcake narrowed her eyes at Starlight. “Listen, Starlight. I’m not trying to badmouth your coltfriend. This is exactly why I suggested maybe we shouldn’t try to act like there’s nothing wrong between us when, clearly, there is. But I don’t really want to understand Sunburst, or whatever it is you think I need to do. My family is just about ruined because of him. Now that everything’s out in the open, I just want him to leave us alone.”

Starlight threw up her hooves. “So, we’re back to where we started. You know some of us are upset, but you don’t want to do anything about it?”

“Alright, fine. Enlighten me,” Cupcake said. She pressed a hoof to her forehead, closing her eyes and grimacing as if pushing back a headache.

Starlight took another deep breath. She stood up and walked gently across the room, bringing herself closer to where Cupcake stood. Be. Careful. “Sunburst cares about Pumpkin,” she started cautiously. “A lot. More than somepony who’s just concerned about a foal’s well-being. To him, Pumpkin is his daughter in every sense of the word.”

“That’s ridiculous,” Cupcake snapped. “Was he there when she was born? Has he been taking care of her through these first phases of her life? If he cared at all about having a foal, he would have done it with a pony who wanted a foal with him.”

“Was he allowed to be there when she was born?” Starlight countered. Cupcake looked furious at the very notion. Okay, bad idea. Different approach. “Fine. You’re right. Ideally, foals should be born to parents who are happily together. But it didn’t work out that way in this case. And I thought you and he agreed that you both had some part in making mistakes that night.”

“It doesn’t matter. Sunburst isn’t family, so he can’t care about Pumpkin the way Carrot and I do. End of story.”

“Why do you get to say that?” Starlight asked. “Why do you get to just declare what he is and isn’t allowed to care about?”

“I’m her mother,” Cupcake said, aghast. “I’m pretty sure I have a handle on who really cares about her and who doesn’t.”

“And Sunburst’s her father. So, how is there a difference in authority there?”

Cupcake opened her mouth a few times, closing it soundlessly each time. She turned away. “He’s a stallion. Stallions don’t have the same bond with their foals as mothers do.”

Starlight could only gape at her. “Are you serious?” Cupcake didn’t say anything. Starlight could feel her face scrunch up as she held back everything she wanted to yell at Cupcake. It was only because she didn’t think Cupcake really believed what she was saying that she was able to hold back. She pressed her forehooves together again, pushing against herself with all her strength to keep from snapping. She’s just trying to rebuff what I’m saying. It was only after a few seconds that she felt safe speaking again.

“Sunburst,” she said slowly, measuring each word so it didn’t get away from her and turn into a rant, “has wanted a family all his life. No, he did not go into that hotel room that night wanting to start a family. But there is a beautiful baby girl sleeping in the next room, and Sunburst is her father. And he wants to be her father, every bit as much as Carrot does, even if none of that makes sense within what we usually think of as an ideal family. He loves that little foal. And it’s because he loves her and cares for her that he agreed to vanish into some frozen wasteland—because he didn’t want her family torn apart. But that’s also why he couldn’t just forget about her.”

“Well, that’s a lovely, if twisted, little idea,” Cupcake said. “But I don’t see how it could be true.”

“Which part of it?” Starlight asked. “Tell me which part just couldn’t be true.” When Cupcake didn’t answer, she sighed angrily. “You told Applejack you never wanted anything grandiose or extravagant out of life. You told her it was always your dream just to have your own business and raise a family here in Ponyville. You said you always thought that was what would make you happy. So. Explain to me how it’s right to say that Sunburst can’t want exactly the same thing.”

She couldn’t quite interpret Cupcake’s expression. The confusion was plain enough, as was the anger, but she couldn’t tell if there was also shock or just defensiveness. The conversation had gone horribly, and she wasn’t even sure what she was saying was right. She only knew it was at least close to what she believed. “I want you to imagine something,” she pressed on. “Just imagine, for one minute, that I’m right, and Sunburst loves Pumpkin as much as any father loves their daughter. If, growing up, one of the things you always wanted one day was a foal, then maybe you should think about what it means for you to have one, to hold her every day, and then tell Sunburst he can never even see his. Think about what it would be like for someone to tell you that you’d never be allowed to see Pumpkin or Pound again.”

That hit Cupcake hard. From her expression, one might have thought Starlight had just physically struck her. Indeed, Starlight was afraid Cupcake might be close to lashing out the way she had at Sunburst before.

“Just… look,” Starlight said, attempting to sound placating. “I’m not saying I know how all of this should fit together in the end. I don’t think I have any right to say that. But if you really want to know what I think… I think Sunburst at least deserves to have a chance to be some part of Pumpkin’s life, if that’s what he wants.”

“I don’t…” Cupcake seemed to be barely holding herself together. Starlight didn’t know if Cupcake was on the verge of breaking down or attacking her. Either way, it was probably time to leave. Before she could turn away, however, Cupcake managed to continue. “I don’t remember asking what you thought.”

Definitely time to go. Starlight backed away carefully, turned, and made her way towards the door. “You didn’t.”

Somehow, though, as terrified as she was at how badly the conversation had gone, she couldn’t bring herself to regret anything she had said.

* * *

Hoops watched the stream of carriages and trotting ponies down on the ground below with an idle, distracted gaze. There was barely enough room on the tiny balcony to stand with his front legs draped over the thin metal railing that held him back from a plummet. Balanced precariously on the rail next to him was a glass tumbler filled with oily liquid, gleaming gold in the ambient light from all the buildings. He had avoided raiding Screed’s stash in the time he had been staying with her, but when his mind wouldn’t stop turning over the events in Ponyville, he had given in.

It didn’t help. All it seemed to do was slow his thoughts down, letting them marinate in guilt and worry for even longer before he could pull himself away again. It was an utterly strange sensation, but the more time he spent in Manehattan, the more he felt sad, of all things. He felt increasingly guilty over leaving Applejack without a word, and the days gone by without seeing her were eating at him more than he thought should be possible.

Why? he wondered bitterly, grabbing the glass and staring into the golden depths with a scowl. Never had any trouble ditching annoying mares before.

He didn’t even need to remind himself that Applejack had never been annoying. There were too many other things to feel bad about if he really wanted to. Behind the shame following his memories of Applejack, he couldn’t get the confrontation with the blasted Unicorn out of his mind either. He had wanted to pummel the guy, but what lingered with him now was the disappointment and disgust he had looked at Hoops with. He couldn’t figure out why the derision seemed to hit him so hard. As he looked back on the incident, he also couldn’t help feeling that the pony had somehow looked… sad, for some unfathomable reason. Almost lonely, if a pony could look lonely while also looking furious.

Hoops tilted the glass back and drained another shot’s worth. The burning, at least, could distract him for a few seconds before he had to swallow it with a cough. Geez, would it kill Screed to keep some simple beer around? Even Screed had seemed more distant after the confrontation, and that was saying something. He hadn’t been able to get any real clues out of her. It was in the way she looked at him. There was something there that had never been there before, and he was almost afraid to try and puzzle out what it was.

The door opened behind him, and Screed herself squeezed out of the apartment until she stood halfway outside, looking at him curiously. “Cold out, isn’t it?”

Hoops shrugged. “Don’t really feel it.”

Screed tilted her head a fraction of an inch, but shrugged and looked away. “Shouldn’t drink if you’re upset. Makes it worse.”

“Not upset,” Hoops argued with a dark frown. He turned back to the view below and stared at the passing carriages through the long lines of his mane. “Just… thinking.”

Screed didn’t reply to that. She stood there, perfectly still, exactly long enough for it to be awkward. Then, she took another few steps forward, placed her legs on the rail next to Hoops, and watched the traffic with him. “Decided what to do yet?”

Hoops grimaced and took another pull at the glass. “No.”

Screed nodded, a long, slow, and deliberate motion. She might have bitten the corner of her mouth in thought, but Hoops couldn’t quite see clearly without turning to look. He wasn’t interested enough to do it.

“Want to talk?”

Slowly, Hoops shook his head. In the middle of a long sigh, he gave weary voice to his answer. “Nah.”

Again, Screed nodded silently. She didn’t leave, though. Instead, she just stood there with him, quiet but present, watching the lifeblood of Manehattan stream by.

It was something Hoops had always appreciated about her without ever really thinking about it. Most ponies needed to be kept at a certain distance, Hoops had found. It was easier to stay in control that way. Friends could turn to enemies in a heartbeat, but if Hoops never cared about them in the first place, it was always easy to burn the bridge and get a good laugh in while doing it. That way, it never hurt when ponies inevitably walked out of his life.

Screed, however, managed to remain an exception to his efforts. Maybe it was because she didn’t try. Screed was always just… around. She never tried to learn more about his life, but she always let him talk if he felt like it. It didn’t do much good to brag around her, but neither did she try to shape him in any way. Perhaps that was why he’d never felt the need to push her away. She was simply a presence, seemingly as eternal as Celestia herself, but placid and cold as a mountain. She was just there. And that was something that didn’t scare him.

Then, almost before he knew he was saying it, Hoops asked, “You hear from dad at all lately?”

That earned him a piercing look. Hoops punched himself mentally. Where the hay did that come from? It wasn’t something he had thought about in years.

“No,” Screed finally answered. “Have you?”

“No,” Hoops said, tilting his head lower and letting more of his mane fall into his eyes. “Not since last time.”

“Why ask?”

“I don’t know,” Hoops answered truthfully. “I just wondered if he’d come around again at all.”

“…No.” Screed stared at him for awhile, but neither of them said anything more. Eventually, she looked away and out at the city again. Another long silence lapsed in. With only the dwindling rum left in the glass as a distraction, Hoops was starting to feel antsy.

Aw, hay with it. “Screed? What makes you happy?”

She blinked and looked at him. He couldn’t tell if her furrowed brow conveyed confusion or annoyance. It might have been both. “That’s an odd question.”

Hoops shrugged. “Just asking.”

She turned away, looking uncomfortable. “What makes you happy?”

“I don’t know. Sports. Flying.” Applejack, he added silently. “Things like that.”

Screed remained silent, unmoving. She didn’t even give a sign that she was paying attention to him.

“So,” Hoops continued, “You probably like your job, right? Building things. Fixing things.”

“I like my job,” she agreed. “But it’s not what makes me happy.”

Hoops turned back to her, ears perked as he frowned. “What do you mean?”

Once again, she didn’t answer. He huffed a little in annoyance.

“Well, I know it can’t be the apartment.” He looked back behind him at the open door and wrinkled his nose in distaste. “Seriously, Screed. I know you can afford a place ten times this big. Why do you—”

“Things don’t make you happy.” Screed stared down at the bustling road beneath them, but she didn’t seem to be paying attention to it. “There’s a reason rich bankers and stock traders kill themselves all the time in this city. Money’s good. Jobs are good. Ambition’s especially good. They don’t seem to do the trick, though.” She gave him a cautious look. “Athletes don’t always do so great if they’re forced to retire, either.”

“Heh. That’s a problem I’ll be happy to have, if I can get to it,” Hoops said with a small laugh. After that, Screed seemed content to let the issue die. Hoops, however, hadn’t quite reached the point he was trying to raise.

“Did he ever…” Hoops asked slowly, but stopped when he realized he didn’t quite know where the question was going. Screed was looking at him again, and it made him uncomfortable. “He’s happy, right? I mean, you know where he is.”

“…Yes.”

“Thought so,” Hoops said. He took another drink, letting the burning, bittersweet taste linger. The answer satisfied him, but also made him feel strangely sick. He put the latter effect down to the alcohol. “I mean, how could he not be? Goes wherever he wants, does whatever he wants… Good stuff.”

“No.”

“Huh?”

“Not happy,” Screed said. She was looking at the traffic again, but her eyes were narrowed as if she were looking down at a particularly distasteful, rotting piece of fruit. “I said I knew where he was. But he’s not happy.”

“What do you mean?” Hoops asked, giving her a dark frown. “How do you know?”

“He’s my brother, Hoops.” He shrank back almost against the wall in the shadow of the dark glare she turned on him. “Don’t question what I know about him.” A moment later, the intensity faded, and she went back to staring quietly at the city. “He’s not happy. I can see how he might look happy. He’s always chasing pleasure. All it does is let him hide, though.”

“Hide? From who?”

“Himself, I think.”

“…huh?”

“Way I see it, as long as he’s distracted, he doesn’t need to worry about the things hurting him inside. He never figured out how to deal with those sorts of things. But at the end of the day, he’s always back where he started. And he’s always alone. Nothing changes. That’s how it will always be for him. So, no. He’s not happy.”

“So…” Hoops swallowed his nervousness and carefully approached the rail again. “ ‘Things changing.’ That’s what makes ponies happy?”

When she answered, she didn’t seem satisfied with her own reply. “In a way.”

Hoops snorted a short laugh. “Sure. That explains the apartment.”

To his surprise, that got a tiny smile from her. “You’ve changed.”

“Huh?”

“Changed. Grown. More than just height.” She turned and looked at him, eyes bright in the cool night. “You’ve got what it takes to figure out what to do. You’re a good colt, Hoops. I’ve always been proud of you. I hope you know that.”

“Uh… sure.” Now Hoops was really confused. It was disconcertingly unlike his aunt to sound so… sappy. But then, he supposed he had started the stupid conversation. It seemed she was tired of it too, since she had started to walk back inside. Nevertheless, he realized she had never quite answered his question.

“So…” he asked, staying by the rail as she left him behind. “Are you happy?”

She paused, an ear twitching back to listen.

“I mean… you’re alone,” Hoops added, gesturing at the apartment even though she wouldn’t see. “Does that mean you’re unhappy?”

“I’m not alone,” Screed said softly. She looked back and gave him a small smile, pointed teeth glinting the golden light. “You’ve always been around, haven’t you?” Then she went inside and disappeared, leaving him once again to his thoughts and the endless, sleepless stream of life below.

* * *

The sun was rising behind Carrot. He could just feel the warmth of it, a feeble, thin lightening of the frigid sea air blowing over him. The pavement was tinged orange-red with its rising light, but the door in front of him was as emerald green as it had been on the clear afternoon he had arrived. He could see his mirror image in the polished doorknob, warped and distorted, gold coat reflected in cold metal. He felt strangely empty. It was as if he had been cut open, and hour after hour, mile after mile, he had let feelings and thoughts just drain out of him. He had left a long, crooked trail across Equestria, leaving everyone and everything as far behind as he was physically able to. Finally, as he stood on that doorstep, he felt dry and hollow. Or perhaps it was simply exhaustion. Once again, he didn’t even have the energy to feel sad.

The door opened silently at his touch, and he stepped inside.