• Published 1st Feb 2018
  • 2,090 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.

  • ...
5
 90
 2,090

Chapter 13 - Coffee and Rum

“Anyway, those are the basics of what you need to know,” Prudent said. He compiled the heavily-inked papers into a stack, shuffled them into an envelope, then slid them across the mahogany desk towards Carrot. He was tall even for a Unicorn, his coat a slightly richer variant of the envelope’s beige. His black, neatly-styled mane and small, silver glasses reminded Carrot more of a young actor than a lawyer.

Indeed, Carrot had been a little put off at how young Prudent seemed. He hadn’t remembered much about the lawyer, but if he had been practicing back when his father had first contracted him, he had to be in his forties. Carrot could only assume time had been unjustly kind to him. His voice was rich, measured, and reassuring, but it didn’t completely hide his unease and astonishment as Carrot explained the basics of what had happened.

“Though I think it goes without saying,” Prudent continued, taking a more cautious tone, “that a lot of this is going to be subjected to an unusually heavy dose of interpretation. The circumstances are incredibly unique, and many of the normal rules and questions may not apply.”

“I understand,” Carrot said quietly.

“Now, all of that aside…” Prudent fidgeted with his glasses, as if trying to decide something. “You haven’t asked, but part of my job is to be certain that you as the client are getting what you want.”

Carrot looked up and narrowed his eyes suspiciously. He wasn’t sure he liked the direction the lawyer was headed.

“And, though it does not affect my professional capacity directly, our firm has built a rather strong professional relationship with your family over the years. I do not know that your father and I could be called friends, per se, but nevertheless, I can’t help but feel I would be remiss if I did not ensure I had helped you consider any and all alternatives available to you.”

“Your point?” Carrot pressed.

“If you are not yet fully fixed on your course, you may wish to take some more time to be certain that this is truly the right thing for you,” Prudent said gently. “I have worked alongside numerous certified marital counselors in cases with some similarities to yours, and I’d be happy to refer you to any of them. Or I could find someone to recommend in Ponyville.”

“You think counseling can fix this?” Carrot asked. “Were you paying attention? We’re not fretting about our ‘spark’ going out or whatever petty complaints these counselors deal with. Cupcake cheated on me with two stallions in one night! What in Equestria makes you think I'm not sure about this?”

“I would not dare to downplay the significance of what has happened,” Prudent said, utterly unfazed. “Nor the devastating impact it has had on you. It’s only that it is part of my job to be sure you as a client are getting what you want, and during our discussions, I thought perhaps you seemed... hesitant, on some points. Now, your case is very unique. But, it’s not necessarily the worst I’ve encountered. In cases like yours, ponies can sometimes feel the dissolution of the relationship is a foregone conclusion. However, I have worked with couples who eventually recovered from betrayals and went on to enjoy long, healthy relationships. And then again, others did not. I only bring it up to demonstrate that, in some cases, it is not impossible for the damage to be healed, should you wish to exhaust the possibility before taking this step. If, however, you are certain that this is what you want, I shan’t speak another word.”

Of course I’d heal it if I could, Carrot thought angrily, by making it so that none of it ever happened! “Look, I appreciate your concern, but I really don’t know what good it would do.” He clung to the protest with a desperation that startled even himself. To not be constantly plagued by memories of Cupcake, the children that had been his but weren’t, and their absence—to simply be doing something about it, anything—hadn’t been exactly comforting, but it was at least distracting. It blunted the confusion and pain, and that had to mean it was, in some way, the right thing to do. He hadn’t been able to imagine anything else after days of drowning himself in the issue, and he didn’t know how many more days of the same he could take.

“I understand,” Prudent said, voice as calm and smooth as the polished desk between them. “We are here to work with you. I apologize if I caused offense. It’s simply that your father’s spoken very highly both of you and your family over the years. I would hate for you to lose anything simply because I took to the case without question.”

That his father had talked about Carrot’s family at all was a small surprise. Surely there was too much to talk about regarding his brothers, too many of their enormous accomplishments to be proud of. Carrot had assumed when he moved to Ponyville that he would just sort of fade from the family consciousness, too small and too distant to be any bother.

“Thank you,” Carrot repeated, tucking the folder into a saddlebag and standing to leave. “But I just don’t know if there’s anything I or anyone else can do at this point.” I’m not even sure there was ever anything I could have done. Not from the beginning.

Prudent stood as well, offering a carefully sympathetic smile in place of a farewell. “Very well. Though, you might still consider speaking with someone even if you do go ahead with the divorce. This is a very traumatic time for you, and it can be difficult to pull through it alone. It is important to look out for your own mental well-being in such stressful times.”

Carrot nodded. He was tired of the conversation and eager to leave. Worse, however, was the agonizing knot that had formed in his throat at the mention of the word “divorce.” Somehow, he had gone through the entire meeting without saying it himself, and Prudent seemed aware that he should avoid the term as well. Hearing the word spoken aloud made it seem so… real. It was as if, as long as Carrot wasn’t too specific, what he was thinking of doing also remained nebulous, indistinct, and somehow safer to approach.

Am I really here? Carrot thought wearily as walked to the office door. Is this really happening? Some part of him kept hoping he would somehow wake up and find everything to be some kind of nightmare. Not even a week ago, the idea that he would be in a lawyer’s office contemplating divorce would have been beyond inconceivable—it would have been downright offensive.

He longed to go back a week and somehow prevent it all from happening. Even if it just meant he could have stayed ignorant and let Cupcake keep her horrible secret for the rest of their lives, he kept thinking he would actually choose it if he could have those lives back. He missed her. He missed the days they had spent together. Most frustrating and confusing of all, he missed Pumpkin and Pound. And having that longing coupled with the enormous, incomprehensible pain that he hadn’t been enough for her was crushing him every waking minute.

I don’t want this, he thought involuntarily, clenching his teeth as he thought of giving the papers to Cupcake. And it was true. He didn’t want to do it, neither to get some kind of justice for himself nor even as some way to fix things. He just wanted everything back the way it had been. But I can’t have that. And I can’t just pretend none of this matters. So… what else am I supposed to do?

It was the only thing he could think of. In all the years he had heard others talk about relationships, this was the only way he had heard of things ending up. This was what ponies did. And unless someone else told him otherwise, it was what he would have to do. All the other options just seemed idiotic.

He opened the door and stepped outside. In his distraction, however, he just missed the edge of the step leading down to the pavement, and he stumbled, barely catching himself before he planted his muzzle into the concrete.

That’s just what I need, he thought shakily, slowly getting all four hooves back under him and standing up straight. Breaking my nose on top of everything else falling apart.

As he rose, however, he froze. One of the docks that had been vacant that morning was now filled. Carrot’s eyes went dry and his heart seemed to seize up as he stared at it. He’s here. There was no a mistake. No one who lived or worked within a mile of Manehattan’s coast could have mistaken that ship at any distance. It had been a fixture of the port longer than anyone else could remember. Its silhouette was known to every sailor who called Manehattan home, and every market within fifty miles probably got half their goods from its hold. The old hulk of a freighter was there, dark as a phantom, and it almost seemed to loom over him as he stared at it down in the bay.

“Well, well, well.” A voice as deep as Tartarus and soft as silk broke Carrot’s reverie, and he froze where he stood. His very breath seemed to turn to ice and stick inside his lungs. “Look what the cat dragged in.”

The voice had come from right beside Carrot. If the speaker had been any closer, he would have been practically purring into his ear. The very veins in Carrot’s skin seemed to shrink and go dry with dismay. Of all the voices he had expected to hear, that voice hadn’t just been off the list; it would have been one he would have chosen to avoid, if he could. On top of the ship reappearing, this was almost too much for him to take. He’s not supposed to be here. Even if dad’s here, Dev shouldn’t be. Carrot turned and raised his eyes.

A gargantuan shadow loomed over Carrot, blocking out far more of the morning light than a living creature had any right to do. A smooth, long face looked down at him curiously from a sweeping, sinuous neck perched above shoulders lined with hard, smooth muscle. The pony’s coat was black as night, but gleamed bright as satin in the daylight. His long, billowing mane waved gently in the playful morning breeze like smoked night. His smile was wide and brilliantly white beneath golden eyes that glittered with amusement.

Carrot’s brother, Devil Cake, let out a soft laugh. “You didn’t mention little baby Carrot was coming for a visit, dad.”

Beside him, the other monster of a pony took a single step forward. Where Devil was a walking shadow, this pony was a living thunderhead. Though he stood a head and a half beneath his tall, lean son, his bulk somehow seemed to dwarf Devil. His coat, dark as pumpernickel, stretched over muscles thicker than Carrot’s legs and corded tight as ropes. A short, ragged mane as black and tortured as a steamship’s smoke sprouted from his scalp. His chin was as proud and hard as the prow of any vessel, flecked with gray stubble like the salty whitecaps of ocean waves. He was the master of the Rum Runner, the sternest sailor known to the eastern ocean, and as much a legend to the citizens of Manehattan as Granny Smith was to Ponyville… and Carrot’s father: Captain Rum Cake.

Carrot swallowed, his mind racing for something to say. Of all the places for them to find me… he wasn’t ready to talk about what had happened. He wasn’t ready to explain why he was visiting their family lawyer. He had barely been able to prepare himself to talk to his father about any of it, let alone having Devil there to witness as everything fell to pieces. But there was nothing he could change, no way he could escape now that things were in motion. Unable to think of what else to do, Carrot faced him and tried to force a smile in greeting.

For a moment, the colossal figure just stared down at Carrot, eyes as bright as flint snaring him in their grip. Held fast beneath that gaze, Carrot felt as if he shrank to the size of a dry crumb. Then, a noise like a diesel motor roaring to life shook Rum’s throat.

“Hmmmm…” His lips pulled back a little in what probably passed for a puzzled frown. He tilted his head just a degree or two lower, the better to see his small son. Then, with a silence and speed that no Earth Pony that large should have been capable of, he loomed over his son, stretched out a hoof, and laid it on Carrot’s shoulder in the gentlest touch imaginable. The old skin around his eyes crinkled in a smile as warm and mild as the morning sun.

“Welcome home, son.”

Carrot blinked rapidly. Maybe they won’t ask. I have time to think of something. Maybe Devil will leave soon, and—

Then Rum turned and looked at the lawyer’s office, and the last of Carrot’s hope drowned a cold, definitive death. Rum’s whiskers were pulled aside as his frown returned. “But what in ‘Seidon’s name are you doing here?”

* * *

Starlight let out a heavy sigh, raised a hoof, and knocked on the suite door. She only had to wait a few seconds before she heard Cupcake’s steps approaching from the other side. When the door opened, Cupcake kept the gap narrow as she looked out.

“…Yes?” Cupcake asked. Her tone was so formal, Starlight almost expected her to add, “How can I help you?” as if addressing another faceless customer at a bakery that was no longer there.

At least she isn’t slamming the door on me. “Hey,” Starlight said. “I wanted to apologize for some of the things I said earlier.” She swallowed, grimacing as Cupcake raised a skeptical eyebrow. “Or, the way I said them, rather. I let myself get carried away, and I shouldn’t have.”

Cupcake gave her a long, measuring stare. She seemed to be running through a few things in her mind. Then her gaze dropped, and she let out a tired sigh. “It’s fine. I don’t know that an apology is what I want. You said what you meant to say. I think that’s pretty clear, even if you weren’t as eloquent about it as you might have wanted.”

Again, Starlight grimaced. She didn’t know that she could argue that point. “It’s more the timing than anything else. I didn’t want to try to solve all this at once. That’s just not fair.”

“We might as well get it all out,” Cupcake sighed. “Not much point in trying to make any of it nice or pleasant. I think we’re well past trying to keep control of this train wreck.”

“Even so. I’m sorry. And I’m still happy to help with the twins or anything else you need. If nothing else, we’ve gotten it out, so there’s no need to talk about it any more for the time being.”

“That’s sweet of you, but I think I’ll be able manage on my own for a little while,” Cupcake said.

Starlight nodded. She had expected that. It would be awkward for both of them to try to carry on like nothing had happened. She expected Cupcake felt exactly the same. Still, she felt better for having offered. Perhaps it would help to mend the rift a little sooner.

“Well, you know where to find me if I can do anything,” she said with a smile, giving an unconscious glance in the direction of her rooms in the castle. “Thank you, Cupcake.” She turned to leave.

“I will try to make things better,” Cupcake said suddenly after Starlight had taken a few steps away. Starlight turned her head back to look at her, ears perked quizzically. Cupcake was still watching her from behind the door, but her shoulders were slumped. “After what you said… I didn’t… I honestly never thought about Sunburst in that way,” she explained softly. “I never really imagined he felt anything for Pumpkin. I was always looking for some other motive.”

“Didn’t he explain it when he came to you?” Starlight asked, stepping closer again. “Back before they were born, didn’t he offer to help?”

“I don’t…” Cupcake paused, her eyes roving a little as she followed some internal thread. Starlight thought she looked like she was searching hard for something. Then she gave the smallest shake of her head. “I don’t remember it that way, if he did. I doubt either of us explained ourselves very well, and… If I’m honest, I wanted him to be someone I could just push away. I think I needed him to be someone who didn’t care.”

She opened the door a little wider and took a step towards Starlight. “If he really cares about Pumpkin… Look, I’m not comfortable with it. You can understand that, right?”

Starlight gave a slow nod, biting her lip as she waited for Cupcake to continue. She clearly had more she wanted to say.

“But it’s also not like there’s a reason to keep him hidden away anymore, either. I don’t know how we’re supposed to figure out something that will work for all of us, but…” she gave Starlight a small, almost grateful-looking nod. “You’re right. It’s not right of me to say he has to disappear, or that his feelings don’t matter. I’ll… Carrot and I will try to work something out with him. Somehow.”

Starlight gave her a warm, grateful smile. “I don’t think I can say how much that means, Cupcake. And I know Sunburst will feel the same.”

Cupcake just shook her head. “I’m just so tired, Starlight. I’m tired of being some kind of monster to everyone. I just want someone to be happy again.”

Starlight frowned, then closed the last of the distance between them. Cupcake winced, but Starlight put one foreleg around her shoulder and looked her in the eye. “You’re not a monster, Cupcake. No one’s ever said that. Not even Sunburst. You were trying to protect your family. None of us knows how to fix this, alright? None of us. But we can work it out together.”

“Together,” Cupcake agreed sadly. “Once Carrot comes back.”

Starlight blinked and felt herself pull away a little. Cupcake noticed as well and asked, “What?”

Enough unsolicited opinions, Starlight. “Sorry, nothing. Just my mind running away again.”

Cupcake pulled out of the embrace and frowned at her. “Is it about Carrot? You’re not keeping something from me, are you?”

“No, no,” Starlight said, shaking her head vigorously. “It was just… I know there’s probably not much we can do right now.”

Cupcake nodded slowly. “He asked me to give him some space, so…”

“And that’s what all of us have to do, I think. But what about what you want to happen after all of this?”

“What do you mean?”

“I’m just thinking, Carrot’s going to come back with some idea of what he wants to happen next. But you deserve to say what you want, too.” Starlight shrugged. “I’m sorry, it just kind of sounded like you’re waiting for him to decide for you. But if he doesn’t…”

Cupcake’s lip twitched, and she took a long, shuddering breath. “He won’t… he’ll come back. I don’t know how, but we’ll fix this. We have to.”

“Is that what you want?”

“Yes,” Cupcake said. Starlight was surprised at how quickly strength had come back to her voice. “I know it sounds like I’m just waiting for Carrot to decide something. But I’ve known what I wanted since before this all started. I want this family to be whole, Starlight. I want to raise Pumpkin and Pound, and I want to do it with Carrot. I’ll do whatever it takes to make that happen.”

Starlight nodded. “And… should we think about what to do if Carrot can’t move past this?”

Cupcake held Starlight’s gaze. Starlight was struck by how strong and yet fragile she looked in that moment; like a statue balanced perfectly on the edge between holding and crumbling. “If that happens, I still know what I’ll do. But I won’t let it. Not until I’ve tried everything else.”

* * *

Devil lay with curiously regal repose on the sofa, watching his brother with a tiny, amused smile. Carrot was leaning against the metal wall of the living room, staring out at the bay through a window. In the corner, the iron-bellied fireplace smoldered moodily, bringing the blackened kettle sitting on it to temperature. Rum Cake had gone to one of the nearby yards to buy and cut a new ration of firewood, something he always did when he came home for a longer stay between voyages.

“Well, it’s later.”

“Huh?” Carrot asked, twitching an annoyed ear back.

“You said, ‘I’ll explain later.’ It’s later. So. What’s brought you back to our humble little home on the shore?”

Even from where he lay, Devil could see Carrot’s lips stretch a little tighter before he answered. “Can’t we talk about something else? You guys just got back. It’s not really something I want to talk about first thing.”

“What, you want to make some small talk first?” Devil grinned. “Come on baby bro, there’s more on your mind than the weather. Must be something pretty big to make you run all the way back here.”

“Devil. I’m serious. I’ll get to it, just not right now.”

“I mean, I could take a few guesses. Let’s see, what could go wrong with your life… there isn’t a powdered sugar shortage, is there?”

“Devil. Drop it.

Devil couldn’t help a small chuckle. It was as easy as ever to get under Carrot’s skin. When he saw the glare Carrot was throwing back at him, he shook off the last laugh and waved a defensive hoof. “Hey, no need to be like that. I was just having a little fun.”

“I know,” Carrot said shortly. He turned away and went back to staring out the window. “It’s fine, Dev.”

Devil waited a few seconds to see if Carrot would do anything else on his own. When he seemed content to just stare outside like a sick gull, Devil shrugged to himself. “Alright then, have it your way. Still. You know dad’s not going to let you off that easy. After all, it’s one thing for you to finally show up here after all this time. But you come stumbling out of our lawyer’s office like a concussed fish, he’s gonna pry a little.”

This time, Carrot didn’t take the bait. Since he wasn’t looking, Devil took the chance to frown unobserved. There was something different about Carrot’s reactions this time around. He always got angry, but there was something darker simmering under that thin skin this time. Something bitter. Devil knew he ought to back off a bit, show at least a little respect and concern. For him, however, the curiosity to know just what had set his baby brother off so badly was just too much.

“So, where is that little wife of yours?” he tried, angling for a new approach. “You didn’t come here alone, did you? I didn’t think we’d ever be able to pry you two apart as long as you were in that cozy little muffin house of yours.”

The look that Carrot shot back could have curdled chowder. Nevertheless, its potency was ruined by the broken despair hidden behind it. Devil knew that expression, or at least something like it. He’d seen it often enough. It was the face Carrot made when he or Pan Cake occasionally pushed him too far, and it always signaled he was about to run outside or to his room where he thought they wouldn’t hear him start to cry.

Sure enough, Carrot stalked out of the room, and shortly after, Devil heard the rattle of the front door slamming shut. Silence descended over the shanty.

“Ah, shit,” Devil said. He gave a remorseful sigh, leaning back into the couch until it threatened to tip over backwards. “I really am bad at this.”

* * *

The sound of the waves filled Carrot’s ears and drowned out even the distant hum of the city. He couldn’t see anything. He had buried his eyes in his hooves, and it was easy to pretend he was adrift in the vast, freezing darkness of the ocean, detached from everything but the roiling pain within. Absent all distraction, that seething mass of confusion and anger felt as tangible, thick, and nauseating as if he had swallowed some kind of acidic jelly, and it was now eating him alive from the inside out.

How long until this gets easier?

The throaty, diesel rumble sounded from somewhere just beside him. “Salt’s sake, boy. Can’t you and Devil get along for ten minutes?” The brittle wooden bench Carrot occupied sagged and splintered as Rum lowered himself down by his side. The ground seemed to shake with Rum’s shoulders as he let out a grating chuckle, slow and even as the waves. Carrot lifted his face and looked at his father through tired, bleary eyes. Rum wasn’t watching him. Instead, his attention was focused on the black steel thermos he held in his hooves. The biting smell of unsweetened, burned coffee wafted from it and over Carrot in the freezing breeze. Rum raised an eyebrow and offered the thermos to Carrot, who shook his head mutely.

“Still no taste for it, eh? Shame. It’d put more floof on that scrawny chest of yours. Mares want their stallions to have a bit of floof to ‘em.”

Carrot barked out a short, strangled laugh. “I think we’re past the point of coffee fixing things, dad.”

“Hmmm. Dunno. Coffee can fix a lot,” Rum said reverently. He tipped a massive mouthful of the oily stuff straight into his throat, then sighed appreciatively. “But you know your business.”

For awhile, they sat in silence. Rum would take a pull from the thermos every so often, and the only other sound was the restless wash of the ocean, working to eat the concrete shore away stroke by stroke. Finally, Carrot asked, “Aren’t you going to ask what’s wrong?”

“Don’t have to,” Rum grunted. He gave Carrot a quick, piercing glance. The absence of his usual, knowing grin attested to the seriousness with which he regarded his son. “You want to tell me.” He turned back to his coffee and blew on it. “So you will, when you’re ready.”

Carrot gave a short scoff and turned away. “You know so much.”

Rum didn’t reply. He just stared out to the dim, hazy horizon, steeping in the salty air while he waited for Carrot to make the next move. Yet, in spite of the invitation, Carrot found he still didn’t know how to even begin. He could feel his thoughts starting to spiral around themselves again as he tried to put some kind of story together. It’s so cold, he thought, but there was no accompanying shiver. It was just another thing his dulled senses pulled to his attention as he tried to focus on what had happened.

“Pumpkin and Pound aren’t my children,” he finally said. His voice was almost totally lifeless as he let the secret out. He glanced at Rum, watching for the cascade of signs that were sure to appear as his father processed the meanings and implications of what he had just said. Carrot watched for anger and confusion. Most of all, however, he watched for a sad spark of disappointment, the way his father would look down on him when he fully understood how Carrot had let things go so wrong.

He watched. And watched. His brow furrowed as Rum just sat there, perfectly still. The only sign he had even heard Carrot was the slight crease that had appeared between his bristling gray brows.

Carrot couldn’t take the silence. He turned back to the water and started to speak. With dull detachment, almost as if he were talking about a scene he’d watched someone else perform, he told Rum about Las Pegasus, Sunburst, and everything else he had learned. Almost as an afterthought, he mentioned how the Sugarcube Corner had burned down and set the whole disaster into its final destructive motions. Odd, how far into the background that’s faded, he thought. I really thought that was the worst disaster that could ever happen to us. Now, it’s almost like it doesn’t matter.

“I thought,” Carrot continued, following the gray ribbon of sea out to the horizon with his eyes, “that I’d found what I was looking for. I know I was never like you, or Devil, or Pan. And I know that you never… it was never the same for us like it was for them. I tried to keep up. I tried so hard. But year after year, all I could do was bake.” He gestured despondently at the sea, like he was throwing something out there to drown. “I never fit in. I know that. But when we passed through Ponyville, and we stopped at Sugarcube Corner, I thought… I thought I’d found it. Someplace I could actually do something. And she was there, and… I’d never been able to talk to anyone like that before.”

“I remember,” Rum said. He matched Carrot’s dispassionate tone, but the back of his lip was quirked in the tiniest smile. “It was a good day. Never saw a colt get twitterpated quite that easily.”

“I wasn’t twitterpated,” Carrot groused. “Well… fine, maybe a little. But things here never really felt the same after that. Just baking for no one while you and Devil were out at sea, and Pan was down in his mines. I didn’t… I didn’t have you guys the way you had each other, and I didn’t have anyone else, either.”

“Aye. It’s a hard truth,” Rum sighed. “Don’t think I didn’t know how lonesome you got. Truth is, I was right pleased when you started writing back to her after that day, and you may lay to that. It was good to see you find someone you could share your work with.”

Carrot glanced at his father, slightly surprised. Then he looked down again, the gloom rolling back in like a choking fog. “But… it was all foolishness after all, wasn’t it? Devil and Pan were right. I went after a soft career because I thought I could just be happy there, but it was all a lie.”

“T’weren’t all a lie,” Rum argued, raising a brow at Carrot. “Couldn’t have been.”

Carrot spread his forelegs out bemusedly. “Well, look where it all ended up. Can’t have much more solid proof than that, can I? I chose wrong, and this is the result.”

“Hm. And what’ll you do about it, now that you’ve had such an epiphany?” Rum seemed to spit out the last word a little.

“What else can I do?” Carrot replied quietly. “I’ve made mistakes, and now I have to fix them. I thought I’d found a way to get around the rules. I thought I’d found a way to get by without being strong like Devil or Pan.” Or you. “So, if that’s the way things are, maybe it’s time I finally woke up to it, right? Time to shut the door on Ponyville and everything I thought I could get away with. I’ll come back here, find some work more fitting for an Earth Pony, and maybe then I can get by for real this time.” That’s what you would do, right? This is the right choice for ponies like us. I just have to do it.

Rum rolled his jaw, grinding his enormous teeth around as if he could chew his way through his thoughts. “What about your family?” he finally asked.

“…I don’t have a family,” Carrot said. Even to himself, it sounded like he was reciting an answer in school, one he wasn’t sure he remembered correctly. “I have a wife I wasn’t good enough for, and foals that aren’t mine.”

“So, you want them gone, then,” Rum said matter-of-factly.

“I...” Carrot’s voice shriveled away before he realized it was happening. “I don’t... it’s not that simple.”

Rum gave him another hard, penetrating stare. Once again, Carrot felt that his father was seeing more than he wanted him to, making him feel like a little colt caught in a lie. “It’s only that If I’m waking up to things, maybe one of them is that ponies like me shouldn’t have families at all,” he offered.

“The hay do you mean, ponies like you?”

Carrot opened his mouth to answer, but it was like trying to bite the air. There just wasn’t anything there when he reached for it. Of all the disastrous failings he had bared, he had kept that one final bit of brokenness buried. That, above all, he had tried to forget, to protect. He couldn’t tell anyone he couldn’t have foals, and he certainly couldn’t tell it to his father. If he could just keep that one fracture plastered over, he could find a way to be strong enough in all the other ways. He could still find some place with ponies strong enough to deal with their own problems.

When Carrot didn’t answer, Rum huffed in annoyance. “ ‘Seidon’s kelpy beard, boy. How long have these ideas been twisting you up inside?”

Carrot snapped out of his reverie. “What ideas?”

“Never been like your brothers. ‘Never the same for us like it was for them.’ Treating all this like some manner o’ grand punishment for being who you are.” Rum scowled and downed a huge gulp of the coffee. Then he stared down into its dark depths, his shoulders sagging. Carrot blinked in surprise. He could only remember a few times in his life when Rum had looked so… sad. “Suppose there’s only one pony to blame for that, aye?”

“Blame for what?” Carrot asked.

Rum drained the thermos and set it down. “Tartarus. I thought you grew out of this foolishness. You always did talk too much about how ponies ‘ought to be’ and ‘what they ought to do.’ What I never could figure out was who you thought was writing all the rules. Still, I suppose I should have seen better, oughtn’t I? Your brothers…” Rum shook his head. “They always did tease you for a runt. I knew enough to stop them short sometimes, but maybe never enough. Never could tell when you were in on the fun, and when it was punching a hole in your hull. Probably more often than I’d like to guess.”

He turned and laid his hoof on Carrot’s shoulder again, the same as he had when he had first spotted Carrot outside Prudent’s office. Even his gentlest touch made Carrot’s whole body sag a little. “Son, if you’ve lived in doubt of your worth all these years, that fault lies square with me. I’ll own that, if I have to. Before the lady of the tides, I will. But now, you listen to me, aye? You’re as solid a lad as either of your brothers, and when these old bones lie beneath the grass, or beneath the waves, you can bet your boots my eternal smile’s a content one, knowing all three of you turned out exactly the way you did.”

“That…” Carrot breathed out a shaky, angry laugh. Something inside felt like a hole had been punched through it, and a slew of emotions threatened to overwhelm him again. “What are you talking about? I’m not…”

“Not like them?” Rum repeated. “You’re their equal in every way that matters, boy.” He took his hoof away and returned to his sea-gazing posture, but his shoulders remained hunched. He looked suddenly much smaller than Carrot thought he could have. “Aye, you had a hard time of it, growing up the way things were. It’s true enough that I never could quite work out how to get on with you the way I could with Pan and Devil. If there’s one thing I always wished I could work out better, every damn day, it was that. Still. Time went on, and you learned to manage for yourself in a way none of the rest of us quite did. I suppose I took that as a sign you were doing alright.”

“You… I just assumed… I thought you didn’t want to talk to me,” Carrot said. He was barely able to get the words out. “I thought you were disappointed.”

“Not for a damn minute,” Rum replied, his voice sodden with regret. “Cripes, boy, couldn’t you see that?”

“But how?” Carrot demanded. “They grew up the way they were supposed to! They got even bigger and stronger than you! And I… didn’t.”

“I was never proud of them because they grew up bigger and stronger than me,” Rum countered. “I was proud of them because they followed their hearts, and they gave it their all. Same as you, boy. Same as you. You followed your talent with more dogged determination than most colts I’ve had before the mast. And when you found yourself a home you could love and a mare you adored, and you worked your way into a life that pleased you, well, I swear it by the moon and the sea, my heart never cried out for honest joy like it did that day for you.”

He paused, then rubbed a hoof over the sandpaper scruff of his chin, staring at the ceiling thoughtfully. “Of course, you’re right that I never cheered in your bakery like I did at your brothers’ games. I mean, it seemed inappropriate.”

Carrot couldn’t help but give a weak chuckle at that. “Okay, yeah, please don’t ever do that.”

Rum roared out another rasping laugh that shook Carrot to his bones, then clapped a hoof down on his back so hard it blew the breath clear out of his lungs. “Then what are you complaining about? Either envy your brothers their cheers or don’t!” He laughed again, but then he gave Carrot a long, sad smile. “Aye. You’re father’s a horrible old colt, isn’t he? Nopony knows better than you I never learned to say a word to honest feelings, except in jest. But they are honest words, my boy, and you may lay to that.”

Carrot didn’t know how to reply to that. Even as much as he wanted to take in his father’s words, the crushing weight of grief wouldn’t allow him a moment of it. “Still,” he said, the last gasp of the laugh fading from his face, “it doesn’t change the fact that it’s over now. And I have nothing left.”

His father didn’t say anything to that for a moment. Carrot could hear him breathing, a slow and deep cadence in perfect rhythm with the waves below them.

“Carrot,” he said, and Carrot jumped. He almost never heard his father say his name. “Think about when we lost Pumpkin.”

Carrot felt his heart twist in a painful jolt. No, not that Pumpkin, he thought next. Pumpkin Spice. Mom.

“Never thought we’d come back from that. Any of us,” Rum said quietly. “Hit Devil especially hard. Stupid idiot almost got himself expelled beating up other ponies after that, you remember?”

“I don’t think I could forget,” Carrot said, confused. He touched his nose lightly and winced at the memory of pain. “I was one of his favorite targets.” He looked at Rum, frowning deeply as he thought back to those times, to the hours and days they spent in Prudent’s office. They had waited, not saying a word to each other, while Rum sorted out the funeral arrangements and tried to work through Pumpkin’s complicated estate. Her parents had their own ideas about what should happen, and she had never written a will. She and Rum had still been so young. Neither of them expected to get caught out at sea in a storm like the one that had taken her.

Carrot glanced down at the coffee. “I remember you taking longer than Devil to come back to us, though.”

Rum nodded slowly. He pursed his lips, looking like he was having trouble figuring out what he wanted to say next. “Look, Carrot. You know your business. You’re a grown colt, and you know how to chart your own course. I’m not the pony to come to for advice. You know that better than anypony alive. But…” He turned and gave Carrot another hard, serious gaze. “Do me one little favor, aye? You do what you think is right. But you think long and hard before you do it, you hear me?”

“I want to do the right thing,” Carrot said, almost automatically. “That’s why I went to Prudent’s office.”

“Is it the right thing, boy?”

“It’s… isn’t it the only thing?”

Rum didn’t seem to have a clear answer to that. It was some time before he spoke again. “After you started visiting Ponyville more regularly, I thought I got a decent idea of that mare. I said to myself, ‘there’s someone who’ll treat little Carrot right.’ The only time I ever saw somepony look at anypony with more affection than how you looked at her… was how she looked at you.” He shrugged. “Hearts change. ‘Seidon knows I’ve seen it happen often enough. What you need to be asking is whether that’s what’s happened. Whether her heart’s turned from you. Or yours from her.”

Carrot blinked incredulously. “She cheated on me. How could her heart not have changed?” How could it not have changed after what she found out about me?

“That’s for you to decide. If you know she doesn’t care about you anymore, or that you can’t care about her, then Prudent’s a good pony. There’s no one I’d trust more to help you get through this. But Cup struck me as a good, solid little lady. I wouldn’t have ever thought it of her to go running behind your back like that.”

“I wouldn’t have thought it either.”

“So. Maybe there’s a chance there’s more to the story,” Rum said. “You said yourself she came to you to try to fix things.”

“Only because she was scared about being found out anyway,” Carrot said bitterly.

“Even so. Suggests to me she still wants you around, at least. If she wanted to be rid of you, I can’t quite see her going to all this trouble, and you may lay to that. ”

“Well, so what? How does it change what I need to do? All I want is to do the right thing, and this is the only thing I can think of!”

“There is no ‘right thing,’ boy,” Rum growled. “There never is. There’s no easy answer for you. Maybe Cupcake isn’t the pony you thought she was. Maybe she made a mistake and wants more than anything to make it right. Maybe the answer’s somewhere in between. And maybe none of it matters, and you need her gone regardless.”

“Then why tell me this? Why bother about any of this? What does it matter what choice I make?”

Rum watched Carrot for a few seconds, then turned away. His eyes were narrowed, but he didn’t seem angry. He seemed, more than anything, frustrated that he wasn’t getting something across as clearly as he wanted to. “It matters because it’s your happiness on the line as much as hers. It matters because what you want matters. If she’s not the pony for you anymore, then you’ll be happier cutting her loose.” Then, he once again seemed to slouch and grow a little smaller, a little older. As before, Carrot could only think of a few times he had ever looked so sad. It was how he had often looked on the dark, quiet nights following the storm. “But don’t set the course rashly, Carrot. Once the pony you care about is gone… they’re gone. And lay to it, that’s a loneliness you carry for the rest of your life.”

He gave the thermos an idle shake, as if he couldn’t remember whether it was empty or not. He sighed when it didn’t make a sound. “Don’t make that choice because you think it’s what ‘ponies like you’ ought to do.”