• Published 1st Feb 2018
  • 1,897 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 3 - What is Hidden

Starlight Glimmer wondered if there was an unwritten rule among dentists that said all their offices had to smell the same. As she walked through the steel-and-glass inner door, she was immediately struck by the familiar scents of nylon, mint, sterile metal, and astringent, gritty tooth polish. The smells always made her feel like a little filly again, trailing timidly along behind her mother at the office she had gone to in her hometown. The walls were even painted the same inoffensive shade of pastel green.

Indeed, the only office Starlight could think of that had broken the code was the one in the village she had led. She could only grimace at the memories of those visits. In hindsight, taking Bristlefoam’s talent away had been an even worse decision than most, and Starlight’s teeth had certainly paid the price over the years. As Colgate repaired the damage, each subsequent visit had been less painful, but Starlight was fairly certain she would need more than the usual level of care for the rest of her life.

“Oh, hello Starlight,” the receptionist said, glancing up from a stack of manila folders with a bright smile. “I’m afraid Colgate will be a little late seeing you. We had an emergency patient come in, and she had to see to him right away.”

“Oh dear,” Starlight said, frowning sympathetically. “Who was it? Were they badly hurt?”

“I’m afraid I can’t really say,” the receptionist deflected, her pleasant smile unwavering. “Patient confidentiality, you know. But don’t you worry, Dr. Colgate will have them fixed up in no time. If you’d like to take a seat, I’m sure it won’t be too long. Otherwise, I can find a messenger to let you know when—”

Aaaaggghhhh!

At first, Starlight was merely a little shocked to hear such a pained, strangled yell coming from deeper in the office. It was not a sound anyone wanted hear just after showing up for a cleaning. What made her blink and freeze in place, however, was how the yell took her back to the offices of her foalhood again, just as the smells and colors did.

Was that… Her brow furrowed deeply, and she took off at a trot around the receptionist’s desk. Unless she was completely mistaken, she knew that voice, had heard it several times in just such scenarios when they were both younger. He hadn’t dealt with dental visits well back then, either. He swore the practitioner made his gums bleed on purpose, but Starlight didn’t know how they could have helped it with him squirming and yelping the whole hour—a thin, higher-pitched, juvenile sound whose equal she swore she had just heard.

“Ms. Starlight, wait! Where are you going? You can’t go back there now! Hey!”

Starlight ignored her and pushed through the door at the back. There’s no way it’s really him. He was supposed to be in the Crystal Empire. Why would he be in Ponyville without her at least hearing about it? Yet there he was, stretched out on the reclined chair, his legs curled up in a protective wince as Colgate stooped over him on the near side. In spite of her curiosity, Starlight’s eyes went wide and her jaw dropped a little in surprise. “Sunburst?”

The eye that rolled to regard her widened in an expression that could only be horror. Starlight’s confusion only grew as she watched him stiffen with shock, then spasm a little as he tried to sit up.

“Agh!” he screamed instead, shrinking back from the barb of Colgate’s tool. She withdrew it a little and turned, glaring daggers at Starlight over her green muzzle mask.

“Ms. Starlight, I have an emergency patient,” she said, the mask muffling her voice. “I need you to step outside. Now.”

Starlight’s eyes fell on the silver tray next to the chair, and her eyes shrank as she noticed two large, white molars lying near the neatly-arrayed tools. Her eyes snapped back to Sunburst, and she saw that there was a huge, blossoming bruise on his jaw, the ripples of purple and blue visible even under his fur. She gasped and held a hoof to her mouth, taking a step forward as she continued to ignore Colgate.

“Sunburst! What happened?”

“Ehv wav goft a gah,” he said shakily, his tongue tripping over the tool still in his mouth. He grimaced as he looked down at it.

“What?” she asked. “I… didn’t really catch that.” Her brow knit in confusion. He seemed almost like he was shrinking away from her a little.

“Does this really seem like a good time?” Colgate growled. She lifted the tool a little more and waggled it in emphasis. Starlight shut her mouth with a snap.

“Oh! Uh… yeah, I guess it really isn’t.” She gave them a small, sheepish smile. Colgate only continued to glare at her, while Sunburst looked at her with a kind of despondent resignation. “I’ll just… I’ll wait for you outside, Sunburst.”

“That would be best,” Colgate said sardonically, and turned back to her patient. Sunburst seemed to sigh a little and turned his eyes up to the ceiling, as if he couldn’t even meet Starlight’s eyes. She frowned, her confusion and worry only rising. Nevertheless, she turned and starting walking back to the reception area. What is with him? Why is he acting like that? What is he even doing here in Ponyville?

She supposed she would have to wait for those answers until he didn’t have a small icepick seating his teeth back into place.

* * *

“Oh, hey Applejack!” Twilight said cheerily as she emerged from the castle library. She carried no fewer than five cubes of tightly-packed books above her, the air rippling and shimmering with her levitation spells. A plain canvas bag hung over her back, and Applejack could see the corners of several envelopes poking out of it.

“Hey there Twi,” Applejack said, giving her a slightly more nervous grin. She hoped her friend was occupied enough with her work not to notice her unease. She had cleaned the soot from her fur and retrieved her hat, so she doubted she looked any different than normal at a glance. “Interlibrary Loan Day again already?”

“Don’t you know it,” Twilight said, giving a sigh that was somehow tired, annoyed, and feverish with a secret happiness all at the same time. “Who knew growing the library by a factor of ten would start attracting requests from all of Equestria? It might be bigger now, but it’s hardly the Canterlot Archives!”

Applejack gave a small shrug. “Guess you’ll be busy the rest of the day then?”

“That’s Interlibrary Loan Day! Unless you need me for something?”

“Nah,” Applejack said, waving a hoof in what she hoped was a casual gesture. “I’m here to see Carrot. He around?”

Twilight’s face sobered as she nodded. “Yeah. Both the Cakes are here most of the time, really. There’s not much for them to do unless one of the recovery charities gets through more of the red tape.”

Applejack couldn’t help a sympathetic frown. “I take it the insurance agencies still ain’t budging, then.”

Twilight scowled. The books hovering above them lost a little of their orderly stillness, shifting and shuffling in a faintly menacing way. “No. I’m putting as much pressure on them as I can, but I’m getting nowhere.”

“Even though Five Alarm confirmed the fire started in the new wing they were building?”

“Yes. We know a lamp was left burning, but Fork Lift is adamant it was the Cakes, not one of the workers. Without proof of who to blame, both the Cakes’ agency and Fork’s are refusing to be the ones paying for it. It could be years before the lawyers settle anything.”

“Leaving the ponies actually in need in a ditch, as usual,” Applejack sighed. “Think they’re holding up okay? Anything… odd that you’ve noticed?”

“Odd?” Twilight asked, tilting her head a little. “I mean, I’m not sure I’d know what to call odd. They’re doing as well as can be expected, I suppose. It’s definitely wearing them down, though. They’re not used to having nothing to do but fill out forms and play with the twins day after day.”

“Yeah, I know I’d be banging off the walls,” Applejack said. “Well, I know where to find them, so I won’t keep you from your work. Thanks, Twi.”

“No worries, AJ.” Twilight nodded with a smile and headed to the back room of the castle, which served as a loading dock for the larger deliveries that came and went. Applejack checked another item off her mental checklist. Twilight wouldn’t emerge until late that night for anything but a catastrophe. Although, Applejack thought ruefully, I guess a catastrophe is exactly what I’ve got brewing on my hooves. She put the grim notion out of mind as best she could and made her way to the guest wing.

Twilight’s home might be a lot bigger than the cozy oak tree she had once occupied, but she was right that it was still no Canterlot Castle. Even The Crystal Palace dwarfed it by several orders of magnitude, boasting wing upon wing of guest rooms that could probably house royal families from all corners of the world. Twilight’s home, in contrast, had only four suites of rooms for visiting dignitaries. Even so, just one of the suites was still more spacious and luxurious than the entire Apple family farmhouse. Applejack didn’t think so much space was comfortable to live in, and she doubted the Cakes felt very differently.

She rounded a corner, then yelped in surprise as she nearly ran into the pony she was looking for. Carrot Cake jumped back as well, holding a hoof over his chest as he took a few deep breaths.

“Applejack!” he said. “I’m so sorry, I wasn’t watching where I was going.”

“That’s alright,” Applejack said. In truth, she was not surprised his attention had wandered. Even the strongest ponies would be struggling to keep up with what the Cakes were going through, and Carrot had never been the most robust stallion. He was all limbs and neck, somehow fumbling from one task in the bakery to another. It had been his place, though—his zone. In spite of all his stumbling, his baked goods received only the finest attention and care, secure as if sheltered in the calm eye of an otherwise chaotic hurricane. When he finished a delicacy, there was never a fleck of stray frosting to be found out of place.

Now, however, that comfort zone was gone. As if the core of that bumbling hurricane had broken, the frayed strands of his energy had scattered and dissipated with it. Now, Mr. Cake looked like a wilted plant, those long limbs drooping and his mane limp with neglect. Every ounce of the family’s collective energy was now bent to just figuring out what they could do next, and it was showing on both of them. And here I have to come into it, knowing something that could snuff out the last sparks they’re still clinging to. Should I really be doing this?

“What brings you here?” Carrot asked.

“Well,” Applejack said, taking a deep breath. “I actually came looking for you. Something came up you need to know about.”

“Oh?” Carrot’s ears perked up, but his face was set in a grimace. “It’s not bad news, is it?”

Now or never, AJ. Get it over with. She took another deep breath.

“We got one of our contractors to postpone their lumber order,” she said easily. “It’s not much, but it’ll get you closer to finishing the framing of the new place. Big Mac wants you to come down and take a look, pick out what you think will fit the bill and all.”

“Seriously?” Carrot’s face lit up, and for a moment, he almost looked like his old self. “Oh my goodness, that’s wonderful, Applejack! There’s no way we can ever thank you enough for this!”

“Well, don’t go heaping praise we don’t deserve,” Applejack said. “It still won’t be nearly enough to build the whole place back. But we’ll still keep our ears out for more we might be able to get hold of. Anything comes our way, you’ll be the first to know.”

“It’s more than we could hope for,” Carrot said sincerely. “Thank you so much. I’ll go see Big Mac right away!”

He trotted off, looking happier than Applejack had seen in over a week. It was all she could do to keep from breaking out in tears at the sight. Well. That’s the last of the easy work done. Now for the real job.

She had thought about going to Carrot with what she knew. It hadn’t taken a genius to figure out that he was the one being kept in the dark, and that there was a lot more to find out. Applejack had nearly had a heart attack just on piecing together what she could from the letter.

Prior to that, if anyone had asked her who in Ponyville was an example of the perfect family, she would have said the Cakes. Not for an instant had she ever once imagined they were anything but what they seemed: a simple, happy couple with humble, happy ambitions. They ran a small-town bakery like a dance, they were adorable together to the point of sickening sweetness, and their family had just grown by two happy, beautiful children. She didn’t know how long she had stood there, crumpled letter in hoof, refusing to believe what she read.

That was why, finally, she had decided simply that she didn’t believe it. Not all of it. There was more to the story, she was certain. And in her mind, there was only one pony with the right to set the record straight first.

It had seemed like a simple plan to Applejack at the time. Make sure Twilight, Carrot, and any other curious ears were out of the way, and then get Cupcake to open up with the truth. It had been easy enough to talk Big Mac into canceling the Manehattan order and donating the materials they would have sold to the Cakes. They had been debating doing it anyway. The fallout would make for a leaner winter than either of them liked, but Applejack and Big Mac knew they would pull through.

Yet, even when she was standing in front of the guest wing door, hoof raised to knock, she couldn’t quite put the doubt to rest. She slowly lowered her hoof back to the floor as she reconsidered. Maybe I should just leave it alone. It was not the first time she had thought it, nor in all probability the tenth or twentieth. One thing’s for sure—it sounds like the last thing she wants is more ponies trying poke into this. And I don’t have anything to do with it. What do I know about relationships or what ponies should do in situations like this?

Each time, she had nearly succeeded in talking herself out of it. It was, by all odds, the safest thing to do. She wasn’t involved. She shouldn’t even know as much as she did. Everything she knew about common courtesy demanded she turn around, leave the castle, and pretend she had never even seen the letter. It was almost enough to make her turn away and do just that.

And then the final argument came again, the same argument that now made her lift her hoof back to the door.

She’s all alone in this.

Applejack knocked. There, too late now. Choice made. Just have to make the best of whatever happens next. It was no time at all before she heard hoofsteps approaching from the other side, and then the heavy crystal door swung open, Cupcake grimacing a little as she hauled it back. Applejack gave a small, sympathetic wince. As impressive as the castle was, the huge, three-story-tall doors that led into the individual wings were not very convenient for daily use.

“Oh, hello Applejack,” Cupcake said, giving her an exhausted smile. She was speaking in a deliberately low voice. “Sorry to be so quiet, but I just got the twins down for their nap. If you’re looking for Carrot, I’m afraid he left a little while ago to get some fresh air.”

“I know,” Applejack admitted with a shaky smile of her own. “I actually came to talk to you, if you have a moment.”

“Oh? Well, certainly, dearie. Come on in, but do shut the door as gently as you can. I’ll close the door to the bedroom, that should let us talk without waking the twins.”

Applejack followed Cupcake into the large parlor common to the guest wings in Twilight’s Castle. It was well-furnished and welcoming enough, but as Applejack glanced around, she felt again that such rooms were too stiff and alien for long-term living. The dishevelment of family life was settling over it, but instead of molding to it like a family home would, the room was starting to feel like worlds were clashing. It was the same feeling as a hotel room lived in too long. There was an artificial, formal order constantly trying to keep its shape against the comfortable messiness of real life. This was not the Cakes’ home, and it never could be.

“There,” Cupcake said, returning from the doorway that led to the bedroom. “Make yourself comfortable dearie. Just, ah, watch out for any toys. Pumpkin’s fond of throwing them lately.”

Applejack saw Cupcake’s embarrassed grimace as she scooted several toy pony figures off the couch. Cupcake had managed to clean her hooves and legs after the morning’s bout of hopeless salvage at the Corner, but her face and mane were still stained and grungy. How she had found time just to do what she had, Applejack couldn’t begin to guess.

“Still no word from Pinkie?” Applejack asked, trying to find a way to ease into the conversation.

Cupcake shook her head sadly. “Nothing. I’m sure she’s just as upset as we are, I just…” She gave Applejack a shaky smile. “It would be good to know she’s okay… and I can’t help feeling a little selfish. We’re really missing her help… but I’m sure she’s doing whatever she needs to.”

“Pinkie wouldn’t disappear the morning after the fire without a good reason,” Applejack assured her. “She could be a little better about explaining her plans, that’s for sure. But if I’ve learned anything about her, if she ain’t here, she’s got something important she’s cooking up. And how are the twins doing?”

“Oh, they’re fine. It’s a little hard to get them to sleep these days. It’s hard enough getting foals used to a new place, and I think the castle is a little overwhelming to them. Especially Pound. He’s been overstimulated ever since we got here. Er, not that it’s any problem, of course. We’re nothing but grateful to Princess Twilight for her generosity.”

“It’s a lot to get used to,” Applejack said reassuringly. “Especially for such little ponies. I’m not even sure Twilight is used to this place yet.”

That seemed to put Cupcake a little more at ease. “So, was there something you needed to talk to me about?”

Well, that’ll be it for keeping things comfortable, Applejack lamented. But there was nothing else for it. “Well… Yeah.”

When she hesitated too long, Cupcake’s face clouded with a small, worried frown. “Is everything alright?”

“Ye… well… no, I suppose not,” Applejack sighed. She wondered why her heart was suddenly pounding against her ribs. It almost felt like she was the one with a guilty conscience. “Look. I don’t think there’s any easy way to do this, so… first off, I need to apologize. I’m not even sure I should be here, and I know I shouldn’t… well, I shouldn’t know what I do. But I do. And the way I figure it, best to do something about it before somepony else puts pieces together.”

Cupcake had gone from curious to rigid as Applejack talked. She still had a shaky smile, and she was still pretending to be confused. But Applejack could see it now. There was paranoia in her eyes, a kind of feral fear at even having to wonder if Applejack could be talking about Cupcake feared she was. Something she was desperate to keep to herself. “I’m not sure I’m following you, Applejack.”

“Yeah,” Applejack said sadly. “You are.” She tipped her hat back and let the crumpled wad of paper fall from beneath it onto her hoof. She set it gently on the table between them, watching Cupcake all the while. The effect was immediate and calamitous. Cupcake’s face went so white so quickly, Applejack didn’t think it could have been worse than if she had laid a knife at her throat. Her mouth opened, just a sliver, but Applejack doubted any air was moving between those stricken lips.

“I found this,” Applejack said slowly, trying to sound gentle and not accusing, “after you gave Sunburst the walloping you did.”

And that was that. The very air in the room seemed to change. It could not have been more palpable if it had been transmuted to lead. In the blink of an eye, Cupcake had gone from looking like an exhausted mother to something like a hunted, cornered animal. Once again she opened her mouth to say something, then closed it soundlessly. It was only then Applejack realized she ought to say something more to keep the tension from rising further, but suddenly she had no idea how to continue the conversation.

“What…” Cupcake swallowed and tried again. “How much did you read?”

Applejack realized Cupcake was still hiding behind a barricade, even then. Every word, every gesture was being carefully scrutinized for confirmation of something, and she wasn’t going to commit to saying anything that might reveal more than what Applejack already knew. The secret was cemented so deep in her, every minute detail guarded with such constant care and sleepless, pinpoint precision, it was tearing her apart. No, Applejack thought, even worse—it’s practically turning her to stone around itself. She can’t even move for fear of it getting out anymore.

“All of it, I’m afraid,” Applejack admitted, hanging her head. “Ought to have tossed it away the moment I realized what… where things were going. I guess it was one of those train wreck kind of things. You want to look away, but it’s just too awful to do anything but watch.”

“Well. I’m glad the ruin of my family is such an entertaining spectacle for you,” Cupcake said icily. Applejack bit her lip, and would have smacked her face with a hoof if she had felt more free to do so.

“That weren’t… Dang, I’m sorry Cupcake. I didn’t mean it like that. I’m not here to make excuses.”

“Then what are you here for?” Cupcake’s eyes were narrowed to slits. “You want to blow the whole thing wide open? Give the letter to Carrot and leave me to fend for myself?”

“Nothing of the sort.”

“Then what?”

“Listen,” Applejack said, raising a nervous hoof in a placating gesture, “I know none of this is any of my business. And if you want, I’ll leave and never say another word. You have my solemn promise. I won’t breathe a word about any of this to anyone. Not even Twilight. But I just thought that… well, it sounds like you’re surrounded by stallions who don’t really have the full idea of what’s going on.” She lowered her hoof and gave Cupcake a hopeful, open smile. “Maybe you need a mare friend you can share the trouble with. I’m here for you, Cupcake.”

Of all the answers Cupcake had likely been planning to rebuff, the one Applejack gave seemed to break through something. She blinked as if startled, then seemed to try to find the old, familiar anger again. “But… you’re right. This isn’t your business. You shouldn’t have…”

Her words trailed off. Applejack thought she could guess what was going through Cupcake’s mind. In all likelihood, it was killing her to think of letting Applejack walk out of the room knowing what she knew—a fragment of a story that could totally destroy what little of her world was left. The Apples and the Cakes knew each other, trusted each other, but nopony could trust another to keep a secret so important. Most ponies couldn’t even trust themselves to keep it, and the worry of it kept them up at night. Applejack wondered how many nights Cupcake had lain awake.

“The way I see it, Cupcake,” Applejack interjected, “Things already aren’t going right, what with Sunburst wandering around with a busted mouth. I might not be the only pony who’s wondering a thing or two. This secret’s too big. It’s killing you, and it still ain’t staying in the bag.” She nodded down at the letter. “But something tells me whatever I might think after reading that, it ain’t the right truth of it. I figure, knowing you like I do, there’s more to the story. Wouldn’t it be better to get the truth squared away, instead of letting me guess what I can with this bit of nastiness?” She gave Cupcake a sad shrug. “Might feel good to at least be honest with somepony who’ll go away and keep quiet about it, if nothing else.”

There was an accusation in there, and Applejack realized it a second too late. Cupcake, however, didn’t seem to hear it. Some kind of barrier had already been broken, and she was finally allowing the pieces to fall through her hooves. The exhausted mother was back, but now, she was a mare truly at the end of her rope. The defensive fire she had built up went out, but in its place, there was nothing. She seemed totally empty, and that, more than anything else that had happened so far, broke Applejack’s heart.

“What’s there to be honest about?” Cupcake sighed. “You read the letter. You can guess what happened. So what’s there to do for me but try to pick up the pieces?”

“I know what the letter said,” Applejack agreed, nodding. “But I want to hear what you say. I want to hear your version of what happened.”

“What good will that do anyone?”

Applejack shrugged again. “You’ve been holding onto this secret for years, all alone. Might feel good to let it out.”

“…I can’t. Carrot will be back soon, and Twilight might come by.”

In answer, Applejack shook her head. “Carrot’s gone to see Big Mac, and he’ll keep him busy most of the afternoon. As for Twilight…” she gave a little smile. “She’s got library business to take care of. She ain’t coming down for nothing but Tartarus opening up.”

It didn’t get a laugh, but the weak smile she got from Cupcake was all she needed to see. The ice was broken.

“So,” Applejack continued, standing up. “How about I get us something warm to drink, and then we can talk?”

* * *

“No solid food for a week,” Sunburst complained, rolling his jaw and wincing. Magic could work wonders, and it could even help reattach the roots of teeth. Apparently, though, it couldn’t speed the healing of the tissues or make the roots knit completely to the jaw. At least, according to Dr. Colgate, not without cooking his brain.

After Starlight had walked in and seen him, he had seriously considered the option of just cooking his brain anyway.

The story that a cart had come out of nowhere and clipped his jaw in passing would be enough for Princess Cadence and the royal treasury once Dr. Colgate’s bill came. It was not, however, enough for Starlight. She had rescheduled her own appointment and, in spite of his protests, dragged him straight to the local juicer for a nutrient shake. They both knew the real reason, however, and neither saw much point in pretending otherwise. She wasn’t letting him out of her sight without some explanations.

“Somepony hit you,” Starlight said. It was a plain statement, almost toneless, but the demand for more information was clear. Sunburst cradled the thick glass of green pulp and kept his nose down, saying nothing. Starlight, growing impatient, started tapping her hoof on the table. “I’m not buying the cart accident story. That bruise is from a hoof, or I’m Celestia’s aunt. I saw my share of fights when I was running the village, Sunburst. Especially in the early days. I know what a punch looks like.”

Still he said nothing. He knew it was a mistake. It would only make her more suspicious. Ordinarily, he would have been able to come up with some responses, a few statements plausible enough to deflect the questions until he could get away. After Cupcake had laid him out, though, he had been left feeling strangely empty. Everything had gone wrong, and his chances now were probably worse than ever. He just couldn’t summon the energy to focus on lying. So he kept quiet.

“What’s with you?” Starlight finally demanded. “Why didn’t you tell me you were coming to Ponyville?” She turned away, and Sunburst’s heart wrenched a little as he saw the cloud of uncertainty pass over her face. “I wouldn’t have insisted we spend a day together or anything like that. I know you’re busy. But I like to see you just a little when the chance comes up.”

That broke him. He couldn’t stand to see Starlight hurting, or worse, doubting herself. He knew she’d had more than her fair share of that for a lifetime. “It’s not…” his words trailed off as he tried to figure out how to handle the situation. He had a promise to keep. He focused instead on the dark muddle of his smoothie. “…I didn’t say I was coming to Ponyville because… I had some private business that I can’t really talk about.”

It sounded even lamer spoken aloud than it had in his head. Somewhere, a dagger of guilt materialized and buried itself into his heart. So now I’m not only lying to Starlight, I’m deliberately telling her I’m keeping things from her?

“Private business that ended with you getting your teeth knocked out?” Starlight asked incredulously. “What, are you dealing with some kind of Ponyville mafia now?” She paused, then rolled her eyes. “I mean, I’d almost believe it, given everything else I’ve seen attracted to this town. But something tells me that’s not it.”

“It’s not… I can’t talk about it. I’d be breaking a promise to someone,” he finished, hating himself more with every syllable. This was wrong. He knew Starlight’s feelings for him had started to grow, and if his life had only stayed simple, he would have acted on his own feelings months ago. But he knew that, as far as deal breakers in relationships went, the baggage he was carrying was among the worst. Instead, he had decided to keep the doors closed. They would remain friends, and she would find somepony else. Someday.

That was what he had thought until today. He looked up, expecting her to look indignant at his continued refusal. Maybe she would even look hurt again. But she only looked confused and worried.

Somehow, that she was not even taking his mistrust personally and kept worrying only about him was too much. I don’t deserve her. Not even as a friend. In that instant, he felt something inside himself break. Before he knew it, he was hiding his face behind one leg, his shoulders shaking as suppressed sobs punched him in the gut. Right then, he wanted nothing so much as to just disappear, vanish into the most remote country in the world where no one knew him, and just try to forget everything he had ever done wrong.

Just like he had when he left for the Crystal Empire.

Before he could run though, he felt Starlight pull him into a gentle hug. “Hey,” she said softly. “It’s okay. It’s okay.”

Empty words. Meaningless platitudes. Yet, he leaned into her anyway. If she knew the truth, he knew she would have shoved him away, not pulled him into that comforting embrace. That’s the problem, he realized. He’d been stringing both of them along, wishing for more when he knew he would never deserve to have it. He had spent time with Starlight, sometimes imagining the mistake had never happened and that they would grow closer one day. He had watched over Flurry, sometimes pretending another little pony would look up at him with those eyes, with that unconditional, trusting love, but known it was a feeling forbidden to him forever.

It was all too much.

“I can’t… but…” he choked. “You need to know. You deserve to know.”

That made her stiffen a little. Suddenly, he knew, she was scared.

“You don’t have to, Sunburst,” she said. “If it’s not something you’re supposed to share…”

“It’s not. But…” The pieces fell together. He knew why it felt like such an insult when he refused to share this ruined part of himself. How had he and Starlight reconnected? Hadn’t she come to his door, face filled with fear and shame, and told him everything she had done in her life? Hadn’t she been in desperate need of forgiveness, acceptance, somepony else to bear the knowledge without judging her and tossing her aside? And now, he was denying her exactly that trust.

He felt like the lowest kind of scum. And Starlight had done some pretty reprehensible things. Was what he had done really worse than that?

Objectively speaking, he couldn’t say for sure. But to him, it felt infinitely worse.

“I know I can trust you,” he said. “This… no one else can know. It’s not just for me. Someone else would be hurt if it got spread around. Badly hurt. But this is… it’s killing me, Starlight. I just… I could really use a friend right now.”

Starlight gave him a long look. Then, she nodded resolutely. “Let’s go to the castle. It’ll be safe to talk there.”

Sunburst was too tired, too beaten to do anything but agree. The dice were cast, he supposed. Maybe it was finally time for something to change.