• Published 1st Feb 2018
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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 16 - If the Heart Remains

There really isn’t much left, Carrot thought, a bit of detached curiosity worming through his defenses. It was well and truly night when he arrived, and the space where the Sugarcube Corner had stood was a conspicuous void in the surrounding light of the town. There was a little ambient light from nearby houses, but for the most part, everything Carrot could see was illuminated only by the full moon above.

It hadn’t looked so barren after the fire, he was certain of that. That scene was burned forever into his memory, the first clear sight of their home lying in crumbled, blackened heaps. Only the lines of the warped foundations had any resemblance to the shape of what they had built. Now, however, most of the rubble had been cleared. A few piles of rubbish still remained. They were heaped against the shards of wall that still stood here and there, which looked more like enormous pieces of broken, scattered glass than remnants of a building.

Carrot wandered in among the wreckage. The ground was surprisingly clear; it almost looked like it had been swept. Nothing but a hard scouring would clear the layer of ash and soot that still clung to it, though. His hooves were instantly darkened by it as he stepped into the circle of ruin, and he could still smell and taste the smoke, so unlike any other smell he knew. It was heavier than the smell of burned bread, and somehow bigger than the smell of tobacco, campfires, or fireworks. More overwhelming. It might be months before it faded.

The gutted corpse of the dresser was still there, he noted with a dispassionate glance. Nearby, the blackened metal veins of their mattress had been leaned against it. No doubt they would be hauled away soon. He glanced at one of the rubbish heaps. He could see the bloated pages of a foal’s storybook in one of the rubbish heaps, the edges painted with charcoal and the words scorched almost beyond legibility. There’s nothing here to remember, he thought, looking around at the remnants with a curiously poignant melancholy. The damage was just too much. I can barely even recognize anything.

Belatedly, he realized he had wandered through the storefront and into the bakery proper. He had already half-forgotten what the layout of his own home had looked like. There was no mistaking that line of dark metal, though. The ovens of Sugarcube Corner had occupied almost the entire back wall, and like the larger pieces of furniture, they hadn’t yet been moved.

In their case, however, it was for a different reason. The ovens were probably older than the building had been. They were forged from enormous slabs of industrial-grade cast-iron, several inches thick, and each weighed at least several hundred pounds all by itself. The fire had scorched each to a blackened hulk and even deformed some of the hardware, but the ovens themselves were the only things that had survived the fire without any real damage. For all its frills and fluff, the Sugarcube Corner had been built with a heart of blazing iron at its core, something Carrot had never imagined budging or breaking. And sure enough, they had remained when all else crumbled away.

He walked up to one of the ovens and ran a hoof along it gently, brushing a line of soot away as he did. The metal was ice-cold now, sitting exposed to the dark night air as it was. It’s so quiet, he realized after a moment. He had almost forgotten how quiet Ponyville was compared to Manehattan. He could almost hear the coarse grains of charcoal grinding against each other as he brushed the oven off. I remember asking to look at these, he remembered, not noticing the tiny smile that pulled at his lips. We could see them from the front counter. I never thought to ask any of the Manehattan bakers if they’d show me their setup.

And she was there. He could see it as clearly as if the dark, burned scene wasn’t even in front of him anymore. Cupcake, standing by the ovens’ warm glow, her cheeks bright with the heat as she pulled the next batch of pastries out for her parents. Her mane had been shorter and more carelessly styled back then. Her parents had owned the Corner in those days, and she had been working for them almost as long as she could walk.

Carrot had been surprised to see she was about the same age as him. Until that day, he had never met a pony his own age who had any interest whatsoever in baking. And when he had started pestering her parents with a few excited questions about how they ran the place, Cupcake hadn’t laughed at him or scornfully asked why he wasn’t at the Hoofball field with one of his brothers. Instead, they had ended up talking together for more than an hour before Rum dragged him away to catch their next train.

That had been the day Carrot stopped feeling quite as strange and alone in the world. He almost hadn’t had the courage to write to her out of the blue when he returned home, but the friendship had felt worth the risk. And she had written back.

That was how it started, he thought. They exchanged recipes, discussed different bakeries they found, and eventually opened up about their personal lives too. Carrot made excuses to pass through Ponyville and stop by the Corner more and more often. And at some point, their shared passion had stopped being the basis for a friendship, and instead drew them closer into something more. Skills became the foundation for a business, and finally, Carrot traded his role as friend for that of a husband. He wasn’t quite sure what the differences were, or where the boundaries began and ended. He only knew that, gradually, their cares had shifted.

They had talked about having a family long before they were married. Cupcake had seemed so relieved that not only was he not repulsed by the idea but was highly in favor of it. It was as the years had gone on and they adjusted to each other’s constant presence, Carrot realized, that the first caliginous tendrils of fear had started to take hold. It hadn’t mattered that no foals seemed to be forthcoming for the first few years of marriage. There were far too many other things to think about. It was only when their fifth anniversary faded that Carrot’s worries were haunting him almost constantly.

But that wasn’t where it started, he realized, almost unconscious of where his thoughts were leading him. It started here. Right by these ovens. It wasn’t our plans that drew us together. Not even our hopes. It was our interests. Our passions. Cupcake hadn’t simply been beautiful to him. She had been a kindred spirit, filled with a strength and enthusiasm Carrot had been starved for all his life. Where he doubted, she believed. Where he wavered, she urged him on. She had believed, every minute, that they could do anything together. And somehow, as time had gone on, he had felt as if he really were as strong as the pony she seemed to see him as. He had been strong. With her.

“Carrot?”

Carrot felt his eyes go wide, and he almost jumped through a full turn as he spun to see her. Cupcake stood where the entrance to the bakery had once been, framed by the diminutive stumps that remained of its swinging door. Her eyes were wide in the moonlight, and she took a single, hesitant step forward, like she was afraid he would spook and spring away if she moved too suddenly. “You’re back.”

Carrot stood as still as if he had been turned to the same rigid iron as the stoves behind him. The cold air seemed to bowl over him like a train. He was startled to realize he had felt warm only a second or two before. It was as if the heat from the ovens had been so powerful and so real, even the memory of them had briefly been able to physically warm him.

“Cupcake,” he said quietly, almost more to confirm her presence to himself than to greet her. Her face twitched in worried frown, and she stopped coming closer. She had noticed the strange tone of his voice.

Anguish rose up inside him, and he could feel his mind fleeing back to that dark, small space inside where nothing mattered, where nothing hurt. The walls were going up and the doors were slamming shut. He would greet her with cold indifference, he would push everything away, and then—sometime later, it didn’t matter when—he could approach the issue again.

Only, it didn’t work. Not this time. This time, as he saw her, the source of all his pain and doubt, something else rose up and pushed back. That first instant of conflict was so intense, it nearly tore him apart. The world seemed to tilt drunkenly, and he nearly staggered back as fought off the wave of vertigo.

It wasn’t happiness. Far worse, it was something that reminded him of happiness. It was the memory of feeling happy when he saw her, he realized, and it was pummeling his defenses to pieces even as he recognized it for the twisted, broken shadow of real emotion that it was. Sunburst had been wrong. It hadn’t helped to come back here; it had made the confusion and conflict ten, no, a hundred times worse. He wanted so badly to push her away. He wanted with every fiber of his being to cut away the uncertainty, the insecurity, the sheer misery of everything that had happened.

He wanted to leave.

And I did leave. I left before. I should be able to leave now. Why can’t I? He felt paralyzed, and his stomach turned like he was going to be sick. This wasn’t so hard before. Why is it so hard now?

And then the pieces fell into place. That memory, that ghost of what he had felt so many times over the past few years, broke through the walls and hit him like a thunderclap. He realized, against all logic, all policy and experience that told him how he ought to feel, that he still felt that affection and attraction he had found in that very spot all those years ago. That was the source of the conflict. The lingering desire for all they had and could have had together left him like a drowning castaway at sea, battered back and forth by waves of emotion that beat him senseless.

He didn’t know what to feel, and it was precisely because he wanted two diametrically opposed things. He wanted to cut away the pain, but he wanted to be with Cupcake. There wasn’t a scrap of ground where the two could meet. He blinked and swayed where he stood. He needed to escape the clash, needed to stop staring at the ragged schism where the feelings met. If he examined it a moment longer, he thought he would surely snap like the twig he was.

“Carrot?” Cupcake’s voice wavered. She sounded scared. Carrot’s awareness snapped back to the present. He was outside in the winter night, in Ponyville, and Cupcake stood in front of him. He pulled in a long, shaky breath of clear air and blinked away the last of the dizziness.

“I’m okay,” he said shakily. Then he realized no one had asked. He gave the tiniest embarrassed smile. “I’m just… I’m okay.”

“Are you?” Cupcake asked softly. She took a few more steps forward, but she stopped well away from him. He was grateful she tried to respect some kind of distance between them, even now.

“No,” he replied softly. “No, I’m not.”

Cupcake nodded, her eyes wandering over the char and ruin of their home. Her brows were curved with quiet sorrow. “Me neither.”

For a little while, they just stood there together in the cold, unable to look at each other. Somehow, the quiet, dead rubble was more comforting than the immediacy of change that now hung between them. There’s no more time, Carrot thought numbly. There’s nowhere else to run. We’re here.

“Would it do any good for me to apologize?” Cupcake asked, stirring him from his reverie. Finally, he looked at her, almost puzzled.

“You already did,” he said. Their voices were quiet as snow in the otherwise empty night. There wasn’t a sound to be heard in the entire village around them. He could almost imagine they were all that was left in the world.

“Then… do you think I’m lying?”

“…I don’t know.” He turned away. “I really don’t know what I think anymore.”

“I never wanted this,” Cupcake said after a moment, stepping towards the scorched ovens. “I never wanted any of this to happen. You can believe that, can’t you? This… what we had here in Ponyville… that was all I ever wanted. I wanted that to last forever.”

“Then why? Why did it happen, if you didn’t want it?” He turned to her, a hint of the anger he had tried to cling to returning to him. “You said you chose to do it, Cupcake. You said you decided to go through with the whole thing that night. Why, if you didn’t want it?”

“I’ve asked myself that for more than two years,” she answered, barely loud enough for him to hear. “There’s no excuse. I know that, Carrot. The only way I can explain it is that I was just so, so confused and afraid that night. I thought it was all ending, all that time ago.” She sighed and lowered her head, putting a hoof on the cold metal as if to steady herself. “When it all started happening, it just… felt good. In some way, I think I was afraid it was the last time I’d get to feel anything like it. So, I kept it going.”

“…Did you want it to end? Back then?”

She turned to look at him, brow furrowed in confusion and fear. “What?”

“Did you want it to end?” he asked. “When we found out we would never have foals together. Did you want to find someone else?”

She looked into his eyes for a few seconds before answering, almost like she was searching him for the answer rather than within herself. “No. Not even for an instant, Carrot.” Finally, she closed the distance between them. She raised a hoof to touch his cheek, daring to brush it with only the smallest contact. He felt the cold grit of soot, and he saw her grimace as she saw she was leaving a smudge of it on him. “Not then, and not once since. I wanted to spend my life with you, Carrot. No matter what that life looked like. Foals or not. If this whole place burned to the ground and we never clawed our way back, I still wanted to face whatever we had to with you.”

Tears were welling in her eyes, and she blinked them away as she broke eye contact with him. “I wish I’d known how to say that before now. Maybe I thought it didn’t need to be said. But it’s still true. I still want that. Carrot, I want you to stay.” She couldn’t hold the tears back anymore. She closed her eyes, her face screwed up in an angry, crushing grip of overwhelming inner turmoil. “Please, Carrot. I don’t know what it will take, but… anything. I would give anything to still have that with you.”

He thought of meeting Prudent in Manehattan, of the paperwork that still sat in a drawer in his small room on the sea. Even now, they somehow seemed to call to him. Am I supposed to just forgive and forget? Pretend like none of this mattered, that it’s all perfectly fine? It felt like surrender. It almost felt like the easy option, like burying his own feelings to make as little trouble for everyone else. Keep the happy little family together, keep everyone in Ponyville from suspecting. Play the part. Everyone else gets to be happy. Contrasted with that, the papers seemed like action he could take; a way to assert his own will and take his fate back into his own hooves. It was almost enough to make him forget the feelings his memories had returned to him.

But he couldn’t forget. He couldn’t look away from it. Not anymore. Even as it threatened to tear him apart, he realized there was one grain of truth in that paradox that even he wasn’t obstinate enough to ignore.

“I…” he whispered. “I want it too. It doesn’t make any sense to me, but I do. But I don’t think I can just forget this. Every day, every moment I would spend with you or Pumpkin or Pound… I couldn’t just pretend like I don’t remember. I’d be forced to relive all this every single time. I don’t know if I can live like that.”

“I know,” Cupcake said, breathing out the words with a resignation that hurt Carrot to hear. “I know you’ll never forget. I don’t know who could. But please,” she pleaded, “take a chance. If there’s still any part of you that sees anything in me, then give us both one more chance at what we wanted. If it doesn’t work out…” Carrot could see her throat constrict as she tried to choke out the words. “…Then I won’t stop you. I won’t fight it. I’m not saying this will just go away. I’ve… I’ve hurt you. I’ve hurt you so deeply, I don’t think I’ll ever fully understand the full extent of it. I can’t make up for it. But give us all just one more chance to be what we thought we could be.”

I wanted so much for all of us, Carrot thought, almost saying it aloud. I wanted…

…this.

He blinked in surprise at the unbidden thought. He looked at Cupcake, confused for a moment. What?

It made no sense, but there was something else there now, something he hadn’t recognized until just then. He had carried a void with him ever since leaving Ponyville, a void that had plagued him every step of the way. It was what had hollowed him out as he tried to take pleasure in returning to Manehattan, in the familiar tasks and pastimes that used to be so familiar. That empty space that seemed to walk beside him had vanished the moment Cupcake had come to him. For all the anguish and uncertainty it also brought, he realized he no longer felt the ache of missing her, of wondering what her response would be to whatever circumstance he happened to be in.

In spite of all the pain, all the uncertainty, he had missed her. He had still wanted her by his side, even as he fought to want to cut her away. In that spot, where he had fallen in love with the pony who shared his passions and dreams, who banished the loneliness he had endured all his life, he realized that want was not just a memory. It was there, present, alive, and undeniably real.

It terrified him.

“What…” he asked. “…what could a future for us even look like?” He waved vaguely at the emptiness around them. “Do you really think we can rebuild what we had? How could we ever get that trust back?”

“I don’t know,” Cupcake said. “That’s why I’m asking you to find out with me. But I promise, Carrot, I’ve learned from my mistake. I have spent every night since regretting what happened, and trying... trying to find some way... but I made more mistakes. So I don’t know what it will take, or what our family will be like or feel like after this… but I know I can swear one thing to you. There won’t be any more secrets. Never again. I know I can make that much happen.”

Once again, Carrot felt the merciless tides of anger and longing rise up to tear him apart. He was standing on a wire stretched over two incomprehensibly deep, dark chasms. At the bottom of each was a life, a life that looked so different from the other, and there wasn’t a single common element to be found between them. He had perched there as long as he could. He had to fall, had to plummet into a choice he could not predict the consequences of, and he couldn’t see a single guiding light to show the way.

Carrot looked at her, trying to find some sign of what he ought to do. Nothing in his life had prepared him to be there, in that moment, facing the decision he now faced. He remembered how Cupcake had looked back then, warmed by the ovens’ cheery glow, and the earnest, bright smile that had gone from welcoming to loving as the years went by. The light was gone now, and so was the smile, but… it was still Cupcake. The earnestness was still there, the determination and strength that he had admired in her from the start.

Somehow, in that moment, he could believe she was telling the truth. And in spite of everything, some part of him wanted to stay, too. And it was stronger than he had dared acknowledge.

Almost before he knew what he was doing, he reached out and pulled Cupcake to him. At the moment he held her, such a burning wave of relief rose up it almost threw him into sobs in an instant. Somehow, he managed to choke them back. He wanted to stay in some measure of control of himself, even then. He still wasn’t sure he was happy with what he was doing. The doubt was strong enough that he almost crushed the relief he felt out of sheer caution.

Still… he thought stubbornly instead, If I feel it, doesn’t that make it real? I can trust that, can’t I? If we both want this… there has to be something left there. There has to be.

Cupcake didn’t say anything. He wasn’t sure she could even if she wanted to. She only clung to him, holding so tight he could feel his shoulders and ribs flex with the sheer force of her hold. She made no sound, but he could feel the cold trickle of tears soaking into the coat of his shoulders. After another moment, he almost smiled as he realized his face was just as damp.

He held her there while he quelled the uncertainty, holding onto the memory and the promise with everything he had. Eventually, he felt steadier again, more grounded. He pulled away, and she let him go, watching him with damp, questioning eyes for what he would say next.

“I don’t…” he broke off, giving a strangled chuckle as he tried to put something coherent together. “I don’t know what I want us to do. I don’t know what to do next.” He took a long breath, pulling in the cold, clean air as if it could blow away some of the uncertainty and show him a clear way forward. “If we do this… it’s going to take so much work, Cupcake. More than anything we’ve ever done before. And if we do, I think we should… I want us to work with someone. Professionally.”

Cupcake nodded, trying and failing to clear some of the tears from her face. “I can do that. It’s probably a good idea no matter what either of us thought.” She wavered a little where she stood. She looked like she wanted to pull him close again, but like him, she continued to err on the side of caution. “Whatever you need to work through this, Carrot. We’ll go at whatever pace you need.”

“This is… this is going to take time, Cupcake. Probably a long time.”

“Time and hard work,” Cupcake said, giving him a pained smile. “Is that all? Then what are we worried about? There aren’t two ponies in Equestria better than us at that.”

Carrot couldn’t help a strangled chuckle. Time and hard work were certainly not all it would take, and they both knew it. But somehow, he could finally see a light at the end of that tunnel again. He could see a way forward.

“And,” he continued, “I’m not the only one we’re going to worry about. Whatever we do needs to work for you, too. We’ll… we’ll figure it out.” He let out a long sigh. He suddenly felt more exhausted than he could ever remember feeling, more spent even than the night he had walked twelve hours straight. “It’s going to take… a long time,” he repeated. He could hear the doubt in his own voice, the second- and third-guessing creeping back in the wake of the emotions that were ebbing away.

“We can do this,” Cupcake said, breaking the distance again and putting a hoof on his shoulder. “We can. I know it.” When she leaned into another hug, Carrot didn’t stop her. She only gave him a short squeeze before pulling away. “I love you, Carrot.”

He answered almost out of habit. Yet, as he spoke, he realized with a strange relief that the words felt honest. They felt like the first words he had spoken in weeks that were unburdened by subtext, or double meaning, or prying. They were as clear and simple as the night air around them. “I love you, too.”