• Published 1st Feb 2018
  • 1,903 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 9 - Lonely Roads

“Have you ever noticed mornings are colder when you have to travel?” Sunburst asked, pulling his legs in a little tighter to try and keep warm.

“It does seem that way sometimes, now that you mention it,” Starlight said quietly. “It’s humid today, too. We’ll probably have more rain later.”

Sunburst doubted she was wrong. The sky was smothered in muddled, soupy clouds, heavy and gray with damp that seemed to filter invisibly down and drench every surface with tickling moisture. He rubbed it out of his beard for the fourth time, frowning as he realized he had left a little mud behind instead.

Starlight helpfully floated a napkin over and dried away the spots of dirt and dew. Her mane was frizzy with the humidity, and she poked at it listlessly as she sat waiting for the train with him. Finally, she took a breath and asked the question she had been stumbling over all morning. “What do you think will happen now?”

Sunburst shook his head. “I don’t know.”

Starlight turned away and stared down at the empty tracks. “I’m sorry.”

“You’ve got nothing to be sorry about,” Sunburst said with a soft, hollow laugh. “This probably would have turned out a lot worse without your help. At least for me.”

“I meant I just wish none of it was happening. To any of you. I keep trying to figure who’s really at fault, but… I just end up going in circles. I probably shouldn’t even try.”

Sunburst sighed. “I’m not sure if there are any answers. But it’s up to Carrot and Cupcake now.”

“That’s not fair,” Starlight countered. “Pumpkin is your daughter too, Sunburst. You have a right to be a part of this. You always did. Cupcake shouldn’t have made you feel like you needed to disappear from the country just to protect her.”

“Cupcake saw it differently. And she made a decent point. It was protecting Pumpkin too. From this. Besides, who was I to try to have a part in anything? Just some stallion looking for a good time one night. Not exactly the sort of pony you want around your daughter.” He let out a long sigh and hung his head. Wet strands of his mane fell free and dangled in his eyes. “And she was right, wasn’t she? As long as I stayed in the Empire, things were okay. Then I saw a chance to maybe get what I wanted, and I leapt at it. Now look at where things have gotten.”

“But it wasn’t okay before. I mean, sure, things were peaceful. I might understand why Cupcake choose to handle things the way she did, but... it was still wrong. Now, she’s finally taken the chance to be honest about all this. She and Carrot can really be open with each other again. This may be a disaster, but in a strange way, I think it’s better that it happened.” She let out a long breath, and it turned to mist in the cold air around her, swirling around her face and mane for a few seconds like tiny ghosts. “Ponies can only hide from their pasts for so long.” She turned to Sunburst and fixed him with a determined, questioning stare. “But I want to know what you want. If you could make any outcome for this, what would it be?”

“Any outcome?” Sunburst asked. “One where I didn’t break my daughter’s family apart, I suppose. One where everything could go back to normal.”

“Where you’re in this self-imposed exile?” Starlight pressed.

“If that’s the way it has to be.”

“I don’t believe you,” Starlight said, shaking her head. “I don’t think you really want that.”

“It’s not about what I want, Starlight. It’s about what’s right.”

Somewhere in the south, a long, low howl of a whistle sounded, worming through the valley and echoing off the mountains before sinking down into the silent grass. Sunburst unconsciously pricked up his ears, but he couldn’t hear any other sign of the approaching train. It was still too far away. Then he heard Starlight’s strained, shaking breathing, and when he looked over, he saw that her face was scrunched up in grief, her eyes closed and pressing out a few bright tears.

“Starlight?”

“There’s nothing right about pretending you don’t matter,” she said, her breath catching as she tried to keep her voice steady.

Sunburst stared at her, at a loss for words. She didn’t look up at him. Slowly, and with a few hesitating pauses, he reached out and wrapped his foreleg around her shoulders, pulling her close as he felt the first distant rumblings of the train in the ground below.

* * *

Cupcake leaned against the wall, staring out of the floor-to-ceiling window that dominated the parlor. The sun had risen more than two hours ago, but it had only been visible for a few minutes while it lingered in the sickly, choking fog between the horizon and the overcast sky. She was painfully aware of each slow breath, the way it seemed to take an eternity to move air out of her lungs, only to make way for a new load. Somewhere, a clock was ticking, most likely the one in the bedroom. She thought it had to be running slow. She could never remember seconds taking so long to pass.

She hadn’t bothered to turn on any lights. She had expected the morning light would be more than enough to fill the rooms, just like it had every day over the past weeks. Instead, the light inside looked starved, almost gaspingly pale as it struggled to fill the enormous space. It couldn’t even come close. Enormous shadows swathed the far corners and walls like black velvet curtains, leaving everything empty and cold. It didn’t bother Cupcake, though. To her, it was just space, too unimportant to think about. A lot of things weren’t important enough to think about now. It didn’t matter that Ponyville looked so lifeless and drained of color when it didn’t make her sad.

No, she thought with a small spark of curiosity. It doesn’t make me happy, or sad, or… anything. It was like looking at a dusty old photograph on an antique store shelf. It was simply… there. Empty of any significance or emotion. A sight, nothing more.

She had lost the capacity to be moved. When all the shame and misery had drained out of her, nothing had been left to fill her in its place. She felt stiff and heavy, like a doll going through the motions without understanding or remembering any of them. It ought to have felt better than the crushing anguish she had known ever since Sunburst had reappeared, but it didn’t. It was just a different kind of wrongness to carry around and endure.

Endure. What else was there left to do? Carrot hadn’t returned after storming out, and no one had seen him since. Like Applejack’s beau, he had apparently vanished, to what end nopony knew.

“He’ll come back,” she told the glass quietly. “Tonight. He’ll be back tonight. We’ll talk. We’ll…”

Her words broke off as the shell of the doll cracked. She couldn’t imagine facing him, couldn’t plan out what to say or how to convince him of how desperately she wanted him back. If she tried, the scalding agony of that sorrow, still too raw to bear, threatened to overwhelm her again.

I... I hit him.

Somehow, the memory felt wrong, a sensation that felt like some form of mental food poisoning. It was an act almost totally contrary to everything she thought of as being herself.

In that moment, when Carrot had turned his anger towards Pumpkin and Pound, all she had known was a sudden surge of ferociously defensive maternal instincts. Even in all her worst imaginings of what might happen when the truth came to light, she had never dreamed of him turning on the foals, or painting them with such a horrific slur so casually... so hatefully.

“Bastard foals.”

In that moment, he had almost seemed like a threat, like something dark and angry that could hurt the foals out of sheer spite if given the chance. She had barely recognized him. And in that moment, she had given herself to those instincts without reservation. Those same instincts that, long ago, had told her to get Sunburst as far away from all of them as possible.

He had lost control, and so had she.

But while those things were true, she was beginning to feel they had also been an excuse. They had given her an escape. It had been a way to stop sitting beneath the barrage and actually do something. She had acted on emotional instinct. And once again, it had gone horribly wrong.

A shaky breath, a calming sigh. Once again, the feelings were buried in a shallow grave. It would let her endure until something changed.

It was all she had left.

In the next room, Pound started to whine. It wasn’t his cry of distress, or pain, or hunger. Those she knew well enough. He was curious, calling out for someone, wondering why he and Pumpkin had been left alone so long. Neither of them liked it when it was quiet. They got bored so easily. Mechanically, she turned and walked towards the bedroom. She would swap out the toys, and hopefully that would distract them for awhile longer. She didn’t know if she could do more than help them fend for themselves today. It would have to be enough.

As she walked towards the playpen, she tried her best not to look at the enormous bed against the other wall. It was too big, and she could never fill it without feeling the vast emptiness it wrapped her in. The most unimaginable thing would be enduring that again later that night.

“He’ll come back. Tonight. He’ll be back tonight.”

And what if he isn’t?

Pumpkin Cake looked up at her, eyes wide and a puzzled frown holding her mouth just a little open. It was almost like she was the one asking what they would do if Carrot didn’t come home. Cupcake slumped down on the other side of plastic mesh of the playpen, resting her forehead against the flimsy wall.

“I don’t know, sweetie. I don’t know.”

* * *

“Last crop of honeycrisp,” Applejack called out over the market, again trying to project more of her usual enthusiasm. It wasn’t working. “Seven baskets left, won’t last the week. Get ‘em while you can.”

“Two bags, please,” Cheerilee requested, trotting up to the stall. “I can’t believe you’re already almost sold out.”

“Heh, yeah,” Applejack said, sweeping the little gold-and-red apples out of the baskets and into the canvas sacks Cheerilee offered. “We’re a little shocked at how crazy ponies are going over them. We’re doing the best we can to bring in a few more trees for them, but they don’t grow as well here in Ponyville as we’d like. Still, we should be able to sell a little more each year.”

“I won’t complain about that!” Cheerilee said, happily shouldering the bags with Applejack’s help. As she slid a few bits onto the stall counter, however, she looked at Applejack with concern. “Is everything alright, Applejack? You look worn out.”

“Do I?” Applejack asked with a slight chuckle. She fidgeted with her hat, straightening it and then returning it to its usual rakish angle. “Last few days have run a bit long is all. I’m fine as fine can be, don’t you worry.”

“That’s good. I’ll see you soon, then. Don’t forget, family night at the school is next Friday!”

“Wouldn’t miss it,” Applejack called after Cheerilee. As soon as the teacher was out of sight, Applejack’s smile slid off her face like a harness falling to the ground. “A few long days? That’s the understatement of the week.” She shook her head. Cheerilee had been the fourth pony that morning to ask if anything was wrong. She knew she didn’t have her usual energy for calling out the wares to the milling shoppers, but it couldn’t be that obvious, could it? Then again, she thought ruefully, glancing at the rather paltry pile of bits in the till, maybe I am worse for wear than I thought.

“Hey, Applejack.”

Applejack glanced up with a start. She hadn’t heard anyone walk up. “Oh! Howdy, Starlight. You, uh... You need any apples?” She waved towards her wares, trying halfheartedly for a show of normalcy.

“No, thank you,” Starlight replied, stepping to the side so as to give way to any interested customers. “I just saw you were working today, and I wanted to ask if you were doing okay.”

Applejack let out a long sigh and let her shoulders droop a little. That makes five. Nevertheless, she kept her head held high as she nodded in appreciation to Starlight. “Heh. I don’t know. I guess I’m doing as well as can be expected, I suppose. What about you?”

Starlight’s eyes were lined with dark rings, and there was no small amount of redness to them either. “I don’t think I know either,” she said, giving Applejack a shaky smile. “I’m probably about the same. Sunburst is on his way back to the Crystal Empire, so I’m headed back to the castle.” She bit her lip, looking around for a moment before continuing. “Did you… did you manage to talk to Hoops at all last night?”

Applejack felt her eyes narrow, then shook her head before Starlight might worry the anger was directed at her. “Couldn’t track down hide nor hair of him for hours. Then I finally found out from the ticket office that he hopped a train. They wouldn’t tell me where. I think he mentioned he has an aunt somewhere out east he visits now and again. Maybe he decided to hole up there for awhile.”

“He actually ran away?” Starlight asked. “After just leaving you without a word, he actually ran to another town to hide?”

Applejack shrugged. “Looks that way.”

“Oh my… Applejack, I’m sorry.”

“Don’t be.” Applejack set her lip in a firm line, scanning the crowd for any potential customers. “If that's how he’s decided to deal with this, then let him.”

“That… Applejack, you can’t be alright with that.”

“Don’t matter whether I am or not. He’s gone.”

Starlight was looking at her, teeth set in a nervous grimace. She seemed to be trying to decide how to fix things. Applejack gave a small huff and went back to searching the crowds. She didn’t need ideas about how to fix things. There was real work to be done.

“You could… you could go after him,” Starlight suggested.

“What good would that do? Like I said, I’m not even sure what city he ran to.”

“Well… he can’t just run away from all this,” Starlight said incredulously. “He can’t just run away from you. What kind of pony would do something like that?”

“My point exactly.” Applejack turned and gave Starlight a stern stare. “Ponies have been warning me about him ever since we started seeing each other, and I gave him every chance to show me he was better than that. And up until yesterday, I thought he was. I really did. But yesterday…”

She turned away from Starlight, took up position behind the counter, and stood as tall and straight as a Wonderbolt drill sergeant. “It’s one thing to panic. It’s another to run to another town so you won’t have to face consequences of what you’ve done. If he’s the kind of pony that can do that, then he ain’t the pony I thought he was.”

“So… you’re done with him?”

Applejack’s eyes narrowed the tiniest fraction of an inch. Whatever hurt Hoops had left her with was buried beneath the weight of her anger. “Looks that way.”

* * *

Hoops swung himself off the couch and walked into the kitchen for the tenth time that hour. To vary the routine a little, he went straight back to the couch instead of making a circuit around his aunt’s bedroom. Unfortunately, with nowhere else to go, it just cut his restless roving short. He ground his teeth in frustration and sat down on the couch again. He scooted over, trying to find a spot on the cushions that hadn’t been pressed flat as pancakes. Failing that, he prodded the thin fabric, not even knowing what he was trying to accomplish. Even that was futile. The sofa seemed to have petrified sometime in the previous decade, and he doubted he’d be able to change it even if he took a hammer to it.

He got up again. This time, he set a route to follow the walls as closely as possible until he got back to where he started. The carpet was as thin and hard as the sofa, and about the same shade of gray, now that he looked at it. He could feel the very grains of the wood beneath with every step. By the feel of it, he thought it might have petrified as well.

The apartment was as old and hard a relic of Manehattan as the catacombs beneath the city. It was so small, he could cross it in only a few paces, and the ceiling was so low, he could feel his mane brushing it as he paced. There was only a single frosted glass globe hanging in the middle for light, and the bulb inside was burned out. Threadbare curtains covered both the window in the main room and the smaller sliver of glass in the bedroom, though they probably weren’t necessary. There was enough smoke and grime plastered over the outside that only the thinnest, grayest light filtered in from outside.

It was stiflingly hot, and the tomb-still air did nothing to wick away the thin film of sweat he’d worn since walking in late the night before. There was a narrow bed in the other room, a heavy dent sunk in the middle of it that traced the habitual sleeping posture of the pony who used it. A short chest of drawers sat opposite, painted, of all colors, a faded, flaking gray. Aside from the microscopic kitchen and the even smaller bathroom, that was the extent of his aunt’s apartment.

For a Pegasus, it was a fair representation of Tartarus. For one as big as Hoops, it was like being buried alive. There was nothing to do, nothing to interact with, nothing even to watch or read. Outside, he could hear the chugging, rattling din of the city. A hundred voices floated through the air with not a word to be heard clearly. The clatter of hooves and wheels and bells was laced all around like arsenic. Somewhere, a saxophone that sounded like it had been dented in more than one place was being haltingly played. If only the song had been good, he might have been able to at least focus on that instead of his own thoughts and ever-present fear.

Instead, he could do nothing but dwell on it as he sat on the sofa and scooted from one side to the other. The letter had been real. Real. He had a foal. As if that wasn’t a death sentence in and of itself, his fillyfriend knew right off the bat. As far as he was concerned, his life was officially over.

Shit, he recited listlessly to himself. Shit, shit, shit, shit, shit…

He stood and tried to pace some more. He couldn’t believe he had shown the letter to Applejack. He couldn’t believe he hadn’t taken it seriously. And now, everything was gone. And I even kind of… liked Applejack, he thought, staring up at the shadows of dead bugs in the lamp. But that relationship was done now too. If there was one thing he knew, it was that there weren’t many things fillies ran from faster than a stallion with a foal dragging him down. Not that I’ll have time for that after this, anyway.

Glancing around the apartment, he realized this might be the best he could expect for his life from now on. It wouldn’t be long before the mare’s lawyers tracked him here, after all. After that, there would probably be at least a few rounds in court, if half of what he had heard about situations like his were true. He would be saddled with all the costs for that, and afterwards, most of whatever he earned would go into foal support. I’ll be lucky to have a bit to my name ever again. His days trying to get into the professional leagues were over, that was certain. He’d need to work full time and even overtime at the factory just to make enough for food after what the kid would take from him.

The whirlwind of probable outcomes filled him with a hot wave of despair. It’s not fair! he screamed inside, struggling to keep from punching the couch until it broke in half. It’s not my fault. I don’t have anything to do with this! How was I supposed to know she’d get pregnant? It’s her fault, not mine! Stupid bitch shouldn’t have pulled me into her room if she didn’t want to deal with foals.

“How could I be so stupid?” he groaned, burying his face in his hooves. Belatedly, he realized he was getting a pounding headache.

A few seconds later, a key scratched in the lock of the door. By the time the door creaked open, he had leaned back into a casual sprawl. He couldn’t manage to pull a nonchalant expression together, but he hoped his scowl would pass for being tired from the train ride. It wasn’t like it was possible to sleep on the slab of a couch, anyway.

“Who’s being stupid?” His aunt spoke with an intense, low voice, as pointed and direct as steel. A paper bag hung behind her long, clenched teeth, and another was slung over her wide back. As she stepped into the small apartment, she stretched out one huge, gray, leathery wing and nudged the door shut again.

“Huh?” Hoops asked, startled in spite of himself.

Screed rolled her eyes and carried the grocery bags into the kitchen. “This is Manehattan, Hoops. The walls are thin as paper. Try to keep that in mind. Old Mrs. Canner on the third floor is a real hag when it comes to noise in the building. So.” She started sorting the groceries into various cupboards, each almost totally empty until she started filling it. “Who’s being stupid?”

“Uh… n-no one,” Hoops said. He flicked his mane disdainfully as he turned away, letting out an annoyed huff. If Screed even heard his answer, Hoops got no sign of it. Soon enough, the extra food she had bought for his visit was packed away. Her hooves walked a well-worn track across the floor, and when Hoops looked up, she was staring down at him with a single dark eyebrow arched. He sighed and scooted to the other side of the couch, and without a word, she settled herself onto her haunches beside him. She held an enormous red apple gripped precariously in the small claws of her wing, and she took a few quick, snipping bites from it as he watched. Sensing his gaze, she turned and tilted her head questioningly.

“Apple?” she asked stoically, raising the torn fruit a little higher. “I bought plenty.”

“No,” Hoops said, his frown deepening. “Not hungry.”

Without giving him another glance, Screed turned forward again and stared at the wall, stealing a nip at the apple every minute or so. This went on for nearly ten minutes, her sitting impossibly still, Hoops fidgeting every other second. They didn’t exchange a single word, and only the soft, crisp mashing of the apple broke the constant cacophony of the city noise outside. Hoops would have given anything for a stray fly to be buzzing around. At least he could have watched that with some semblance of distracted entertainment.

“So…” he said. “How’s the company?”

Screed shrugged. “We’re doing fine. No shortage of demand. We’re working on five different towers around the city. Laying the foundation of the newest one tomorrow.” She frowned slightly, regarding the apple with the thinnest glare. “We did have one of our contractors cancel a lumber shipment. That’ll set us back. But it’s nothing we can’t replace.”

“Good,” Hoops replied, giving a casual nod. “Good.”

Once again, they lapsed into silence. When she finished the apple, Screed gently perched the core on the edge of the sofa and folded her wing behind her back. “So. What’s the plan?”

Hoops shrugged. “Not really much of a plan. I just needed a place to crash while I figure some stuff out.”

Screed nodded slowly, still staring at the wall. “You in trouble?”

Hoops knew his heart skipped a beat, but he pushed through it. “Nah. Nothing like that.”

One of Screed’s tufted ears twitched, but otherwise, her expression didn’t change as she nodded again. “Want to talk about anything?”

“No. Thanks, but it’s cool.”

“How long you gonna stay?”

“Uh… I don’t really know. Probably not long, I guess.”

“Need a job?”

Again, Hoops felt something constrict in his chest. He probably would, if things played out the way he was sure they would. He knew the hours Screed kept, and one thing was certain—he would never lack hours on the job. It was hours for sleep he was terrified he’d never have again. “No. I’ve got the factory. You know. Back home.”

“They know you’re taking time off?”

No. “Yeah.”

Screed gave a final nod. “Alright then.” She stood and followed the path back to her bedroom. “I’m getting some shut-eye. If I’m going to take a sick day to host you, I’m going to get some good out of it.”

“Sure.” Hoops glanced around at the walls again as he heard his aunt settling between the old sheets. Suddenly, he couldn’t breathe. “I might go out soon. Get some fresh air.”

“Don’t get lost.”

Hoops felt his ears fall flat at that. “Too late,” he whispered.

* * *

He could hear her washing dishes when he opened the door to the suite. The water sounded like it was running full blast, and he could hear the occasional clangor of ceramic as she laid bowls and cups aside. By the the rhythm, he knew almost without thinking that the twins had just finished their breakfast, and Cupcake was finishing the morning cleanup before they all settled into their routine for the day.

With a dull pang, Carrot knew that routine would not be happening.

He walked inside with mechanical, measured steps. He could feel the agony his legs were in, and there was a splitting pain in his head somewhere behind his burning eyes. He wasn’t exactly sure of how long he had been gone, but if the twins had just had breakfast, he knew the number was easily in excess of twelve hours. Only one thing was important, though—he had been gone long enough to be too tired to fully recognize the pain. He could move, and the burning protest of his muscles was hazy and indistinct, almost background noise. Behind that, somewhere, was the real pain. At long last, that too had faded to a point where he could ignore it.

Cupcake heard him and turned from the sink. Her expression was a mixture of relief and apprehension that was hard to look at. “Carrot,” she said, letting out a breath that sounded like it had been held for hours. A wavering line of a smile flickered across her face for just an instant, then vanished as a more sober, braced look took its place. “You’re… you’re back.”

Carrot stared at her for several seconds. For an instant, he didn’t even recognize her, and he couldn’t remember her name. It was like he was looking at a stranger who had suddenly happened across his path, and he spent a few moments trying to figure out just what exactly he was supposed to do. Then he gave a slow nod. “…yeah.”

Cupcake looked like she wanted to say something else, but hesitated. She looked just a little away from his eyes a moment later, as if she was checking to see if the door had shut properly behind him. “Um…” But once again, her voice died.

Carrot felt a flicker of annoyance flare up that he didn’t have the energy to sustain. He turned away from her and walked to the windows overlooking Ponyville. Now that he wasn’t looking at her, she seemed to gain a little more confidence. “Where were you?” There was no accusation in her voice. In fact, by the mincing tone, it sounded as if she expected to be accused of something the minute she broke the spell of silence and drew attention to herself.

“Nowhere,” Carrot said, his voice listless and quiet. “Everywhere. I don’t really know.”

“You… you were gone all night,” Cupcake said. She didn’t try to leave the kitchenette and approach him. “I was worried.”

He didn’t reply to that. What did she want? An explanation? An apology? The question was a little ridiculous. Where else could he have possibly gone except nowhere? They had nowhere in Ponyville to go except this little stolen space, and last night, he hadn’t been able to stand being near it. Near her.

The Sugarcube Corner was gone. There was no shelter to be had there. So, he had drifted. He had shut down completely, then wandered in a stupor until his body couldn’t handle it anymore. He had vague memories of it getting dark, of the road rising and falling as he followed it thoughtlessly, refusing to think about what had happened. He had simply exerted himself, waiting for something to change. He supposed eventually he must have slept, though he couldn’t really remember lying down anywhere or getting up afterwards.

“Carrot?”

It was after he had finally managed to shut down, a few hours into the empty wandering, that he had finally started to look at what had happened. He couldn’t approach it, but he could look at it from a distance, almost clinically, looking for some flaw in the story that would make it all out to be some kind of mistake. After that, he’d had ample time to replay the conversation a hundred times over, memorizing every detail, every word Cupcake had said that turned the illusion of his comfortable, full life to ash.

Each time, he’d looked a little closer, piecing it together with little clues or suspicions he could remember from the past. Every repetition was like cutting a little more into a paper cut, slicing just a hair deeper, the pain becoming almost familiar and routine. He could stand it that way, and finally, he had grown numb to every aspect of the memories. He could replay them now without stumbling to the side of the road and bawling like a trampled foal. He could accept that what he had heard was the truth.

Pumpkin and Pound were not his children. There was a strange, hateful comfort in that, he had realized. Any guilt he had ever felt over being irritated with them when they cried an entire night through, that wasn’t his fault. Any errant wish he’d had to live a quieter life again, free of the burdens of parenthood? That was only one of many seedling suspicions of what he ought to have seen all along.

He was a dupe, a host to a pair of parasites those cowbirds of a Pegasus and Unicorn had left in his nest. All the relief he had felt at Cupcake’s pregnancy, his elation at having finally given her what she wanted, was all a sham. Oh, she got what she wanted, alright. She just didn’t need me. Probably never did.

A wailing, desperate voice in Carrot’s head was still trying to protest that not all of that was true. Cupcake had said she still loved him, hadn’t she? Even sitting next to that Unicorn with the wealth and power of an Empire at his beck and call, she had said it. That had to amount to something.

That’s just her trying to save face, he thought bitterly. If she could have gotten it without getting caught, you can bet I’d be out on the streets somewhere, none the wiser. She just doesn’t want all of Ponyville to know the truth.

Somehow, his argument only made Carrot hate himself even more. During the night, he had dismissed it as his jumbled emotions hitting him every way they could and trudged on. Eventually, he had looked up and been startled to realize that not only had the sun come up at some point, but his steps had led him back to the castle. Well… I suppose I needed to come home sooner or later, he had thought. But then a cold weight had settled onto his heart, breaking through the stupor he had managed to lose himself in. Is it still home? Carrot couldn’t answer the question, and that alone filled him with dread.

Behind him, Cupcake was stacking dishes again. Or rearranging them to keep herself busy. She couldn’t think of anything else to say, it seemed. She was just waiting, the way she had probably been waiting all through the previous day and night.

And what else is there to say?

Only what he had come back to say.

“I need to go,” Carrot said. The sound of the dishes stopped. Silence was his only answer. Carrot turned and looked at her, standing there in the dim kitchenette, wearing an apron he had bought for her years ago and holding a damp, gray towel in one hoof. She was looking at him as if he were pointing a loaded bow at her. “I need…” he broke off. The words… where were the words he had known he was going to say? It was hard to think straight. His emotions might be dulled, but it made it equally hard to hold onto his thoughts.

“Are you leaving me?”

He blinked, and brought her a little more clearly into focus. The question was an important one. He himself wanted to know the answer to that. But when he tried to think of the answer, of what he felt when he looked at his wife standing across the room, it slipped away from him just like his words. Trying to decide what he felt about her was like watching two puddles of oil and vinegar try to mix. Two warring, antipodal emotions were pushing fluidly against each other, each trying to subsume the other, but ultimately they were kept separate by a barrier as clear, slippery, and impenetrable as diamond.

He felt suddenly sick and looked away. “I… I don’t know.”

Something inside him roiled at the ambiguous answer. He felt a wave of misery and hatred, and distantly, he knew it had nothing to do with Cupcake. It died away after only a moment, though, replaced by a cool, calm sense of resigned righteousness. It gave him just enough composure to speak. “I’m going home. To Manehattan. I need to think.”

He fell silent and waited for her answer. He had wondered what she would say from the moment he decided what he would do next. Would she beg him to stay? Apologize and try to explain more? Or would she just demand an answer then and there? Would she even ask for an answer, or inform him that she was the one who would be leaving? He had wandered a few hours more just to try to prepare for any answers he could imagine her giving.

Once again, she didn’t say anything. He looked back at her. She was still staring at him with that stricken expression, that look of anticipation, like she was waiting for a blow to fall. Then she seemed to pull into herself somehow. A wall went up somewhere, covering up her vulnerability. He thought he could almost see anger. When she spoke, however, it was only with an exhausted sadness.

“…okay.”

Carrot nodded. Almost without thinking, he started walking again, this time towards the door. Neither of them said anything else. After all, he thought numbly, what else is there to say?

As he stepped into the hallway that would take him out of their borrowed home, and shortly after out of Ponyville, she asked him one final question. “Do you want to say goodbye to Pumpkin and Pound?”

His steps paused for only a heartbeat. Then they carried him out the door. “No.”

* * *

“Oh, Sunburst!” Cadence looked up with a surprised smile as she spotted him entering the library. “Welcome home!”

Sunburst couldn't’ quite suppress a pained grimace as he heard the words. He hoped Cadence would put it down to fatigue, or not notice at all. “Hello, Cadence.”

“Did you have a good trip?” She looked away and turned back to Flurry, who was sitting on the soft cushion in front of her and poking at a little picture book about gemstones. Sunburst felt a familiar, nauseous lurch of his heart as he saw them together. His casual affirmation died in his throat, strangled by guilt.

“Not… not really, I suppose,” he said.

Cadence looked up with a sympathetic frown. “What’s wrong?”

Everything. “Things just didn’t go the way I’d hoped.”

“Is it about Starlight?” Cadence asked, shifting a little farther back from Flurry.

Sunburst blinked in surprise. Of course. They probably think I went down to try to further our relationship. Yet, as he wondered how to answer the question, he realized that, out of all the things that gone wrong, his relationship with Starlight had actually deepened. He had expected her to reject him when she had found out he had a foal out of wedlock. Far from it, though. She had stayed by his side and even tried to help where she could. They certainly weren’t together by any means, but somehow their friendship felt more… anchored. He hadn’t realized just how much distance he had put between them to keep the secret until it was no longer there.

“No,” he said, surprised at the honesty of the answer. “No, actually, we’re fine.”

“Then what happened?”

Sunburst shook his head. “It’s personal. I might be able to talk about it later. It’s not the right time now, though.”

Cadence gave him a long look. “If you’re sure. But you know Shining and I are here for you. If you need anything at all, Sunburst, you can always talk to us.”

“I know.”

Cadence watched him for a few moments more as he started to poke through the card catalog. He avoided looking at her sad expression. He knew that few ponies had as hard a time leaving an upset pony alone as Cadence. Indeed, he had hoped to avoid her for at least a day or two after his return. Burying himself in research would have given him time to compose himself, restore a little of his energy, and come up with a few anecdotes to tell about Ponyville while avoiding discussion of the crisis he had caused.

Still, it may not matter for much longer, he thought listlessly. The truth is out in the open now. It’s a stretch, but the story might work its way down the vine from Pinkie or Starlight to Twilight, then to Cadence or Shining. What’s getting another confession over with compared to everything that’s already happened?

Cadence turned back to Flurry, who was starting to fuss and push the book away. “Well. I’d better get our little bookworm back to the nursery if I want to meet the Crystal Harmonics board.”

“Oh, I can watch her,” Sunburst offered automatically, sliding the catalog drawer shut.

“No, that’s okay, Sunburst,” Cadence said. She gave him a sympathetic smile. “You only just got back this afternoon. I’m sure you want to rest. Doctor Bedside’s managed Flurry just fine this week, so she won’t mind another day or two extra.”

Sunburst struggled to keep his composure. When Cadence had said “no,” he felt as if she had punched him clean through the ribs. Blinking back his bewilderment, he realized it had almost thrown him into a panic. It’s not Pumpkin, it’s Flurry. No one else is being taken away, Sunburst. Get a grip!

Even so, something inside him screamed out in agony at the thought of Cadence taking Flurry and leaving him alone. He spoke before he could stop himself. “It’s alright, really. I could use the distraction. The train ride wasn’t really all that tiring, and I could use something simple to do.”

Now Cadence looked a little more worried. Sunburst realized she was probably sensing that there was more to his words. He cringed a little to think of how strong her and Shining’s trust in him had grown, but he had hidden so much from them.

“Well… if you’re sure,” she said reluctantly. “I won’t be much longer than an hour. I’ll have Bedside check in later anyway though, just in case you change your mind.”

“It’s no trouble,” Sunburst said. He walked over to Flurry and picked her up, grunting as he hefted the little foal who seemed to have grown more than should be possible in five days. “Oof, you are getting big, aren’t you? Don’t worry, Princess. I’m sure everything will be fine soon.”

Cadence nodded, and with a last questioning look back as she left, she shut the large library doors behind her. Only then did Sunburst let his tired smile crumble. He sank back to the couch, pushing Flurry’s forgotten book aside as he held her close.

“Oh Flurry,” he mused aloud. “What are we going to do now?”

She made a small, questioning noise as she looked up at him. He couldn’t help but give a sad chuckle in answer.

“You got that right. Starlight promised to keep me updated on everything she could, but… what can any of us do, at this point?”

He bounced her lightly, earning a few delighted giggles as she clung tighter to him. He could only stare blankly at the far wall though. He was lost in his thoughts. “If Carrot doesn’t return, I can’t imagine Cupcake will ever want to see me again. Not that she ever did anyway. Can’t really blame her there. But if everything falls apart… I might never see Pumpkin again.” He fought down the sudden sob that tried to burst from his throat. “And if Carrot does come back… why would he or Cupcake trust me to be around? They won’t want to be reminded of what happened… they’ll want to go back to the way things were. And I’ll never see Pumpkin that way, either.”

Another questioning noise from Flurry. He wondered if she could sense his strength breaking down inside him. She was startlingly astute sometimes.

“That’s a nice thought, Flurry, but I just don’t see it working out that way.” He let out a long sigh, then looked down at her. She had started to grow into those large, bright, questioning eyes, and her curly mane had gotten longer and fuller over the past few months. She was a beautiful foal. But she wasn’t his.

“Is that what I’ve been doing?” he asked her quietly. Something dark and miserable was lurking in the back of his thoughts, and it was rising now with dread certainty, giving voice to doubts he had never once allowed himself to examine. He’d always feared that if he did, he would lose even this last lonely refuge he had carved out for himself, here in the narrow confines of the frozen north. “Does keeping an eye on you make up for never seeing my own daughter? Does it… does it make anything right?”

He bent his head down, clenching his eyes and teeth against the cries that threatened to roar out of him and drag him into the emptiness of despair. “Are you the closest I’ll ever have, Flurry?”

She vocalized something that sounded like dissent. It was almost like she was trying to tell him not to cry.

If only such small comfort could have given him peace like it used to. Now, however, Sunburst knew what he was—an outsider allowed to share a little happiness with a family that would never really be his, giving love meant for another. And all because of the ongoing onslaught of his mistakes.

He held Flurry close, shoulders shaking with silent, wracking sobs in the empty depths of the castle.