• 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 2 - Ashes and Aspersions

Sunburst winced as he stepped off the train and into the sunlight. Even at the edge of winter, the air seemed thick with humidity and heat, and for a moment, he had to catch his breath as other passengers emptied onto the platform. The carriage hadn’t acclimated fast enough to prepare him for the full force of the southern heat.

Less than a year... is the climate of the Empire really so different? He had never expected to become so accustomed to the cold, clear air of the mountains; not to the point where it would make such a difference. But whatever the reason, he was glad he had left his cloak behind. He needed to stay relatively inconspicuous for this trip, and on top of making him stand out, the heavy garment would have only added to his discomfort in this weather.

His glasses slid down his muzzle a little, and he scowled as he nudged them back into place. A thin film of sweat was already starting to form on his coat. Wonderful, he thought. Not ten minutes in, and already losing composure. Keep it together, Sunburst. This is important.

He took a deep breath and started to make his way down the platform. There weren’t many ponies, but compared to the near-constant silence of the Crystal Empire station, it felt like a clamoring crowd. That, at least, helped to keep his nerves in check a little. The more ponies he blended in with, the less chance there was that his coming here would lead to trouble.

Especially with Starlight nearby, he thought, not for the first time. His eyes were drawn to the bright blue starburst spire in the distance, shining in the afternoon sun. So long as I avoid the castle, no one else here should pay much attention to me. Sorry, Starlight… I’ll make it up to you.

Turning away from the spire, he instead fixed his gaze on the much more humble wooden tower of town hall. If his memory served—and it had rarely failed to date—Sugarcube Corner stood right at the forefront of the town square. Or… used to stand. With a shadow of fresh apprehension falling over his heart, he braced himself for what he might find and set out for the center of town.

When he got there, his heart fell into a stone-cold pit. On the far side of the square, nearly hidden from his initial entry by the enormous city hall, was a blackened skeleton of a building. It was nothing more than a few shattered frames clawing at the sky, as if frozen in its last death throe. The ground around it was strewn with ash and debris. It looked like nothing so much as a campfire pit, grotesquely enlarged. Crumbly, brittle coals were now all that remained of furniture and the few pieces of timber that hadn’t been totally consumed by the blaze.

Even now, days later, there were several ponies picking their way carefully through the wreckage, searching for anything that could be salvaged from the tragedy. Sunburst thought he recognized one of Starlight’s friends, an orange Earth Pony with a blond mane and tail named Applejack. She usually wore a hat, he recalled, but she had eschewed it today in favor of tying her hair up with a bright red bandanna. He could see even from a distance it was stained with soot.

Then, as he looked around at the sad ruin, he spotted her. If Applejack had been dirtied by the job, it was nothing compared to what Cupcake looked like. Her normally flouncy, bright mountain of a mane was tied tight behind her head, and there was hardly an inch of her frosting-blue coat that wasn’t blackened with soot. She had clearly wiped her face several times during the day, leaving long, dark streaks around and beneath her eyes.

He swallowed. At least he didn’t have to look for her. So much for the easy part. But there was nothing for it now. He was here to do what he could, and now it was time to do it. Taking a deep breath, he finished crossing the square and started entering the circle of ash.

Cupcake was sifting through a small pile of detritus. The whole lot seemed burned beyond recognition, and Cupcake was tossing aside piece after piece of ruined belongings with the quiet despondency of someone just grateful to be alive. She didn’t notice when he stopped a few paces away from her. He bit his lip, shuffled his hooves, and tried to find the words to let her know he was there. The silence was long past awkward when he finally gave up hoping she would just notice him and spoke up.

“Hello, Cupcake.”

When she turned to regard him, her expression was merely quizzical. As recognition sparked into them, however, her eyes widened in horror. She snapped a few quick looks behind, left, and right, then closed the distance between them in two quick strides. Before he could blink, she had his foreleg in an iron vice of a grip and was dragging him towards a woodshed built in the side of a nearby cottage.

“Don’t. Say. Anything,” she hissed. In another moment, she had thrown the latch of the shed, opened the door, and shoved him inside so quickly that he was barely able to stop himself from crashing into the opposite wall. It was surprisingly roomy for a woodshed. A precariously heaped pile of logs leaned against the right wall, leaving enough room for two ponies to stand a few feet apart. Cupcake was inside now, and with a last glance around at the outside, she pulled the door shut and turned to him with an expression of incredulous anger.

“What in Tartarus are you doing here?” she demanded. “I asked if you would help, not come here yourself! Do you have any idea what would happen if someone saw you? You promised me you would stay away from Ponyville!”

“I had to,” Sunburst protested, dusting himself off and frowning at the dark, sooty mark she had left where she grabbed him. “You can’t just tell me Sugarcube Corner burned down and expect me to sit in another country, hoping you’re all okay! …She is okay, right?”

“She’s fine,” Cupcake said through gritted teeth. “As I told you in the letter.”

“No, you didn’t,” Sunburst countered, allowing himself to narrow his eyes just a little. He reached back into his saddlebags, pulled out the folded note, and held it out towards Cupcake. “You were careful enough to remind me of why I should stay away, that much is for sure. But you didn’t say one word about whether Pumpkin had been hurt or not.”

He watched as she took the letter and glanced over it. After a few moments, he knew by her grimace that she hadn’t found anything in the letter she could use to argue with him.

“I’m sorry,” she said reluctantly. “You’re right. I should have said more to assure you Pumpkin was safe. I guess I just thought you would assume it in the absence of bad news.” She crumpled the letter up into a tight wad, then glanced around as if looking for somewhere to dispose of it. Finding nothing, she tucked it into the fringe of her apron. “Well. Now you know Pumpkin is fine.” She opened her mouth, then shut it again, looking frustrated. Sunburst wondered if she wanted to tell him it was time for him to leave, but also wanted to ask if he would help. She probably didn’t know how to ask that ugly question.

“Cupcake, you know I would help. I want to. But it’s not that simple.”

Immediately, the expression of doubt vanished from Cupcake’s face. Her eyes narrowed, but otherwise she assumed a front of cool stoicism. “If you don’t want to help, I already told you that you just need to say so, Sunburst. I’m not going to try to extort any help from you. You don’t need to lie.”

“It’s not a lie, Cupcake.”

“Really? The court wizard of the Crystal Empire doesn’t have a bit to spare from his royal income for his homeless—” Her voice broke off at the last word. She worked her jaw angrily, apparently unable to put shape to sound. Or unwilling. Sunburst decided it didn’t matter and pressed on.

“I don’t have an income anymore,” Sunburst protested.

Cupcake’s eyes hardened to flint. “What kind of lie is that supposed to be? Do you really expect me to believe Princess Cadence and Prince Armor don’t pay you anything for your services? That you’re living hoof-to-mouth in a shack outside the crystal palace or something?”

“I don’t have any kind of separate holdings, is what I’m trying to say,” Sunburst explained. “As court wizard, I’m attached directly to the royal treasury, the same as Cadence or Shining. Anything I need to pay for gets invoiced directly to the Empire. I don’t have a private bank account, or savings, or anything like that anymore. And every bit that comes and goes from the treasury is reviewed quarterly by Princess Cadence.”

That broke through to Cupcake. Her eyes widened, and her face went a little pale. “Oh.”

“Exactly. I didn’t think you’d want that,” Sunburst confirmed. “They give me a pretty free rein when it comes to personal expenses. But if I suddenly spend tens of thousands of bits to buy a building in Ponyville, they’re going to notice, and they will be very curious about it.”

It was clear she didn’t miss the implication. The Princess of Love was the absolute last pony in the world Cupcake would want poking into her affairs. Financial or otherwise, Sunburst thought with a bitter grimace. “And they have to consider avoiding appearances of favoritism by the Crown, too. Which, I’m guessing, is what Princess Twilight told you. Otherwise, you wouldn’t have needed to risk writing to me.”

“…yes.” Her shoulders slumped, and she shrank as her weariness and the dashing of another plan caught up with her. It might have been Sunburst’s imagination, but he thought her colors actually faded a little bit in front of him. “The Princesses can’t just rebuild entire properties for individual families… otherwise, why can’t they do it for everyone, or why can’t they build things for free in the first place, yada yada…”

She sighed again and shook her head. “She has us working with some charities in town, and Applejack’s and Rarity’s families are helping as much as they can. But with living expenses, it’s nowhere near enough to rebuild. That’s neither here nor there, though. I’m sorry, Sunburst. I should have realized you’d be bound by the same constraints. I just assumed you were distant enough, and… I figured a court wizard would be pretty rich. That you might not miss a little extra.”

Sunburst grimaced. “I could try to help a little with living expenses. But even a few hundred bits going to Ponyville without explanation risks making her curious. At the very least, I figured I ought to make sure you knew that first.”

“No, you’re right. I can’t take that chance.” She gave him a rueful smile. “Well. I guess it’s up to us still. You should probably leave, then. The longer you’re here, the riskier it is.”

“Actually,” Sunburst said, “I did have another idea.”

Cupcake looked up at him, hope guarded closely by suspicion. “What?”

* * *

Applejack tilted her head, her brow furrowed quizzically as she stared at the shed. It had been almost ten minutes now since Cupcake had yanked Sunburst, of all ponies, inside. What is he doing in Ponyville? And what the hay are they doing in there?

Something strange was definitely going on.

* * *

Sunburst had known Cupcake would not like the idea, so he wasn’t surprised when her face hardened into a mask of anger almost instantly. “Bring another pony into this mess? Are you crazy? This is killing me every night with just you involved!”

“What other option do you have?”

“It doesn’t matter anyway,” Cupcake ground out. “I never even knew who he was. I don’t even remember… I don’t remember anything about it. So whoever he was, he’s gone for good.”

“I found him,” Sunburst said quietly. He shied away from her a little as he braced for what came next.

He was not disappointed. By her expression of startled rage, he was certain she was only a moment or two away from charging and trying to pummel him. “You did what?” she hissed, every syllable of screaming fury compressed into a steam-hot whisper. “Why? And how in Tartarus could you possibly find some random pony from Las Pegasus?”

“I’m good at research,” Sunburst explained, shrinking back from her a little more. “And I saw him that night as I was leaving. He was wearing a Cloudsdale Weather Academy letter jacket. I remembered that much when I came looking for you. And when I got your letter… I realized he might be able to help. So I cross-referenced the Weather Academy yearbooks with the guest lists from that night and worked it out.”

“How the hay did you get guest records? Those are private! And it was more than two years ago!”

“Turns out, there aren’t any laws protecting hotel records,” Sunburst said. He couldn’t help a small, proud smile in spite of the gravity of the situation. “They didn’t ask any questions when the court wizard of the Crystal Empire asked to review a broad list. And they keep records for up to five years, so.”

“Well, whatever. Thank you for your diligence, Sunburst,” she spat, “but you shouldn’t have bothered. I’m not risking bringing anyone else into this.”

“I already wrote to him.”

When Cupcake turned back to him, Sunburst knew she wanted to murder him. “…what?”

This time, however, he didn’t shy away. Instead, he met her glare with a frown of his own. “He deserves to know, Cupcake. You shouldn’t have tried to keep it from me, and you shouldn’t keep it from him. And you need the help.”

“You know what I don’t need?” she said, stepping closer to him. Sunburst felt his ears reflexively fall flat. Cupcake never seemed to yell. That was the scariest thing. As the danger built, she simply got quieter. It was like watching the tide go out before a hurricane rolled in, and Sunburst knew he was very, very close to the storm.

“What I don’t need are stallions I don’t even know deciding they suddenly get a say in what happens to my family. Have you ever once thought about what will happen if Carrot finds out what happened that night? I’ll lose him. And then Pumpkin and Pound will spend their foalhoods in court while a bunch of crusty old judges decide which of their fathers gets to spend the next weekend with them. And the only thing anypony will agree on is that if this stupid whore of a mare had just kept her legs together, none of this would have happened, so it’s all her fault and she should be kept out of her foal’s lives for good!”

She was breathing hard when she finished, and her teeth were bared in a snarl. Sunburst stared at her with wide eyes. “Cupcake,” he began, taking a tiny step forward. “No one in this town would ever—”

“You don't know that, and you don't get to decide what chances I'm willing to take!” she growled, her voice finally beginning to rise in fury. “And when it comes to protecting my family, I'm not taking any. Especially not for you.”

She was trembling, and Sunburst retreated from her as far as he could. He opened his mouth to speak, but snapped it shut when she cut him off with a hard stomp. When she spoke again in turn, it was as if she were letting fly with spear after spear of all the anger and fear she had bottled up for years. “You haven’t even considered what we could lose, have you? What little we have left to lose! All it’s ever been with you is, ‘I just want to see her! I want to play daddy!’ You’ve never thought about what would happen to me, Carrot, or Pumpkin! I won’t let that happen. I am keeping this family together, and you will stay out of it.”

Sunburst was angry in turn now, and he knew it. He felt nothing but guilt for the part he had played in bringing this mess about, and he knew why Cupcake was as scared as she was. But to have the care and concern he had tried to give thrown back in his face with so much spite had snapped something. He knew he wasn’t thinking clearly, and he was already regretting what he was about to say. But he felt that if didn’t give it voice, the venom of his own anger would eat a hole in his throat.

“ ‘Stay out of it,’ ” he growled. “Well, you’re right about one thing, Cupcake. Maybe if that’s what you’d been yelling that night, we wouldn’t be in this mess.”

He saw the punch coming. It was in clinging to his last shred of dignity that he didn’t try to avoid it. He knew he deserved it. It was, however, a mistake. The punch of a furious Earth Pony mare, he would reflect later, was the sort of thing that broke apart mountains in legends. As it was, he immediately felt lucky that he only saw three of his teeth lying next to him in a little splash of blood on the floor.

“Get. Out.” She stood over him, the shadow of the reaper itself ready to crush him like a locust. There was nothing but hatred in her eyes. “I don’t want your money, and I don’t ever want to see you again. If I do, I will kill you. I swear by the Four Thrones, I will. Now get. Out.”

Despite her command, she left him no time to obey. Instead, she turned on a hoof and strode out, her fury shaking the ground with every step. When she left, she slammed the door so hard behind her, the frame splintered and the hinges pulled their screws a fraction of an inch out of the wall. As Cupcake’s steps faded, Sunburst was left to contemplate the agony in his jaw, which still somehow seemed to pale against the hollow void of guilt in his heart.

“Well,” he groaned, gathering up the broken bits of his teeth, “this is going great so far.”

* * *

Applejack stared with wide eyes as Cupcake stormed out of the town square. Whatever had happened, the change it had wrought in the mare was nothing short of terrifying. By the inferno in her eyes, she looked ready to rip the crust of the earth apart and burn alive whatever got in her way. Applejack was suddenly glad she had been working on the far side of the ruin. Cupcake still might have noticed her staring if she had taken another look around the square, but she had not. She seemed beyond caring if she was seen or not for the moment.

Cupcake had not vanished around the corner for longer than half a minute before the shed door scraped open again and Sunburst staggered out. Applejack’s shock only grew as she realized he was cradling his jaw in one hoof, and that she could see crimson blood shining on the cream-colored fur of his legs. He hobbled away on three legs, taking no more notice for who might be watching than Cupcake had.

Applejack started to follow him, intent on demanding to know what had happened. From the look of it, Cupcake had nearly broken Sunburst’s jaw. That was not a level of violence she was about to let pass between two ponies she knew without finding out exactly what had happened.

As she passed the shed, its door now hanging despondently on only one hinge, she was distracted by a soft, brittle crunch underhoof as she walked by. She glanced down, puzzled, and realized she had trod on a small, crumpled up wad of stationary. As she looked back up, she saw that Sunburst had already left the square and gone out of sight. Frowning, she picked up the paper. Bad enough having Sugarcube Corner ruined, she thought. Don’t need more litter to clean up. As she started off after Sunburst again, however, she began to unfold the paper with a hoof and her teeth. After all, if it was an important document and somepony had lost it, they might want it returned.

As her eyes swept over the first few lines of script, however, she froze in her tracks.