The cutie mark crusaders smiled gratefully as Rarity put a plate of small sandwiches on the table before them. Scootaloo shivered a bit, drawing her towel around her tighter as she reached out and grabbed one of the treats. "Man... at least this time we didn't get covered in tree sap."
"I don't think coral sap is much different," Sweetie Belle muttered. "I think I got some of it in my mouth..."
"Ah didn't even know coral had sap." Apple Bloom shook her head. "Ah hope that those ponies on that boat ain't too mad..."
"They got to shore safely." Scootaloo shrugged. "I guess that we can go back later and see if we can apologize properly."
"That would be the ladylike thing to do," Rarity agreed, giving Scootaloo an encouraging smile. "Always own up to your own mistakes, darlings, even when it seems like you might be worse off for it."
"Speaken' of ownen' up..." Apple Bloom gave Sweetie Belle a curious look. "Ya wanted ta tell us somethen'?"
The fillies glanced to the plate that had fallen to the floor, watching as it spun silently on its base for half a second. Rarity was standing stock still, eyes wide; her horn no longer emitted the glow of blue magic, yet it felt as if somepony had cast a chilling spell over the room.
Sweetie Belle took a deep breath.
"....yes. Yes I did."
Birds chirped outside, ignorant of the silence that had descended in that room. Opal perked her ears up from the corner where she lay coiled, glancing at the table to determine what it was that had made the three tiny hooves cease their incessant chatter.
The tableau was a juxtaposition of many faces. Rarity, mixed between shock, pride at her sister's courage, and the cold dark fear that Sweetie Belle would wrap herself tight in blankets that night as she drowned in tears. Scootaloo, mildly curious about whatever secret her friend had but much more curious about Rarity's reaction. Apple Bloom, leaning forward, trying to reassure the unicorn filly through her motions that she would not be judged. And Sweetie Belle herself, not ashamed so much as... weary.
Eventually the pegasus snorted. "Well?"
"Um..." Sweetie blushed. "I... actually, do you mind if I tell you one at a time? I'm still kinda, um, nervous about this."
"Whatever makes ya comfterble," Apple Bloom agreed, taking her friend's hoof gently.
"Thanks.... I um..."
"...Why don't we talk about this upstairs in my room?" Rarity suggested. "I think that perhaps it would be best for me to be present during this... particular conversation."
Sweetie Belle nodded. "Yeah... um... Apple Bloom? Could you, um, come with me upstairs?"
Scootaloo raised an eyebrow as the three ponies trotted up the stairs. "Alright, whatever! I'll just be down here! Sitting in the kitchen, eating sandwiches! All alone!"
"...All alone with Opal!" she added quickly. "Which kinda worries me a bit... Just... You know, just in case you want to know!" The pegasus gave the feline an awkward grin. "Um... ah... you're not, um, still mad about that thing that happened while Rarity was at the Crystal empire, are you?"
Apple Bloom sat down in the middle of the room, glancing at the shelves where the fabrics were stored. "Ah see ya made some changes."
Rarity and Sweetie Belle shared a look.
"...yes, well, I decided to upgrade to a more fashionable and... sturdy set," the elder unicorn explained simply.
"It's actually kinda related to, um, what I have to tell you." Sweetie Belle fidgeted, rubbing her foreleg. "I um... I... How do I say this?" She let out a nervous giggle. "This is actually... you're actually the first pony I,um, have told.. will tell. Rarity was there with me when I found out and, uh, Pinkie always knew..."
The earth pony nodded. "Ah can see how this can be hard fer ya then."
"Um... see, I'm not sure whether to just tell you, or kind of lead up to it, or maybe... show you. Um... What do you think?"
Apple Bloom gave her friend a deadpan look. "Yer asking me how ta tell me a secret Ah don't know."
"...alright..." The yellow filly tapped her chin thoughtfully. "...On a scale of one ta ten, one being that yer favorite color's pink and ten being that we're all actually tha products of tha imagination of a red-maned monkey mare, how world-shaken' is this secret?"
Sweetie Belle considered the question very seriously, taking some time to run the numbers through her head. "...um... eight? Maybe seven. Somewhere in that area, what do you think Rarity?"
"Yes, I... I believe that would be an accurate guess."
Apple Bloom raised an eyebrow. "...so let me guess. Yer a changeling."
"What? No! Why would you even think that?!"
"Anythang in that region kinda says 'Ah'm not what ya thought Ah was."
"Well, actually I'm a robot."
For a moment, the only sound was the chirruping of birds outside and the panicked cries of a pegasus downstairs.
Sweetie Belle blushed. "Um, I... I'm a robot."
"A.. you know, a machine pony?"
Apple Bloom snorted. "Ah know what a robot is. What Ah don't get is why ya think ye'r one."
"Well, it was a surprise to me as well," Rarity explained gently. "But as it turns out, my... our parents actually found little Sweetie Belle here in a dumpster. And they took her in and... well, here we are."
"Wait, so jus cause yer parents found ya in tha garbage they think ye'r a robot?"
"They don't know," Sweetie Belle clarified quickly. "Rarity and I only found out when the old, um, fabric shelf fell on my leg and..." She sighed. "Here, let me take it off."
"Take what o...."
Apple Bloom's voice faded away as she watched her friend slip the skin off her leg like a sock. Except socks weren't supposed to contain wires and tubes and hinges and fluid sacks and steel frameworks. They were supposed to contain... hooves. Sweeite Belle had just taken her hoof off and revealed machinery that fascinated and... slightly excited her friend.
The unicorn looked at her friend's face. "Um... this, this isn't scaring you, is it?"
"If you like, I can put it back on and--"
"NAH AH'M FAHN." Apple Bloom shook her head. "Ah mean, Ah'm okay, Ah, just, um, Ah, Ah was, um, surprised."
"Oh... I could see why you'd be--"
"Ye'r a robot!" she blurted without thinking.
The other two ponies stared at her. Suddenly she realized exactly what she had said and blushed. "Er... what Ah mean is... um...." Apple Bloom rubbed the back of her head and chuckled nervously. "Ah mean, uh... wow. Ye'r a... wow... um. Wow."
"Is... is that a good wow or a bad wow?"
"It's... it's a wow." Apple Bloom waved a hoof in a circular manner. "Ah'm sorry, it's still kinda.. just going through right now. Sweetie Belle equals robot." She giggled. "Does not compute, working, working..."
Sweetie Belle frowned. "I don't sound like that. I don't even think like that."
"...it's okay. Um... we're still friends ri--?!"
"ABSOLUTLY." The grin on Apple Bloom's face could not be wider. "Friends ferevah. No matter what we're made of."
"Ohmygosh you don't know how happy I am to hear you say that!" Sweetie Belle pounced on Apple Bloom, wrapping her up in a tight hug. "I was so worried you'd be freaked out or or just not want to talk to me or--"
"Ow! Um, Sweetie, mah mane's caught in yer... leg."
Rarity winced. "Ah... perhaps I should help you two disentangle yourselves?" Her horn began to glow, the red strands of hair being delicately extricated from the complicated machinery. "There we go. No damage done."
"Aheh..." Sweetie gave Apple Bloom an apologetic look, slipping the skin of her leg back on. "Um... sorry."
"That's okay, ya didn't mean ta do that..." The earth pony rocked back and forth in place. "Wow. Robot. Wow. Um."
"Are... are you okay?"
"Yep! Ah'm... Ah'm just... do ya'll mind if Ah get somethen ta drink? Ah'm gonna get something ta drink."
"So long as it's not alcoholic," Rarity chided gently.
"...fahn." Apple Bloom trotted out the door. "Not like ya keep cider in tha fridge anyway..."
"I'll brush your fur, I'll clean your litterbox, I'll bring you live mice! Just please, please please please please! Get me out of this mess before Rarity comes downstairs!"
Opal's ears twitched as she heard the tell tale clippity clop of somepony walking down the stairs. She flashed the pegasus a fanged smirk, turning around and trotting away with a swish of her tail. Scootaloo could only stare in panic as she hoped and prayed Rarity would forgive her, or at least listen to reason.
Apple Bloom glanced her way as she stepped onto the ground floor. After a few seconds, she walked to the kitchen.
"...wait seriously? Your friend is tied up in, all this fabric, and..." Scootaloo's ears swiveled forward in disbelief. "Are you opening the fridge?!"
"Ah'm thinking orange juice. Ah don't usually drink it, but this is an orange juice thang."
The pegasus stared at the kitchen doorway. "...Is Sweetie Belle's secret really that bad?"
"It's... startlen, but Ah don't think it's bad."
"She's not pregnant, is she?"
Apple Bloom sputtered, emerging from the kitchen with a look of disbelief. "PREGNANT?! Scoots, what tha hay?! She's way too young ta be thinken about marriage, let alone foals!"
"Well, I heard somewhere that the youngest pregnancy on record was a five year old..."
A yellow eyelid twitched. "Ah... Ah did not need ta know that."
Scootaloo shrugged. "Look, I... I just thought if it was that big it had to be something like that. You know, a five or six."
"Try seven or eight."
The pegasus stared. "...what?"
"She's a robot."
"That's exactly what Ah said."
"...I'm sorry, wait, what? She's a... Okay, that's it. I'm walking up there and--" Scootaloo looked down at herself and sighed. "Dangit Opal. I'm going to wriggle up there and ask Sweetie how she learned to hypnotize you."
Apple Bloom could only watch in bemusement as Scootaloo rolled and writhed like a multi-colored caterpillar. "Aren't ya worried she'd, quote unquote, hypnatize ya too?"
"Nnnnnope! I just wanna see her hypnosis cutie mark."
Apple Bloom rolled her eyes. "Rarity! Sweetie Belle! Ya'll better come down here, Scoots is in a pinch o' trouble."
The two unicorns descended the stairs quickly, glancing over Scootaloo with confusion.
"Opalescence," she explained simply.
"My pet cat managed...." Rarity poked at a ribbon. "...this?"
The fashionista's mouth opened and shut for a few seconds, before she finally shrugged. "Oh well... My apologies. Now, if you'll hold still..." Her horn glowed, summoning a pair of scissors which slipped under the fabric and began to sheer it away.
Scootaloo struggled free of her bounds with a grateful breath. "Oh geeze, I can stretch my wings again!" She flicked her feathers, stretching her legs and whirling her neck around. "Oh wow..."
"You're okay, right?"
"Yeah, Sweetie, I'm fine." The pegasus fixed the uniucorn with a grin. "Now how exactly did you convince Apple Bloom you were a robot?"
Sweetie sighed and, wordlessly, pulled the skin off her leg.
Scootaloo stared. "...okay, yeah, that is pretty convincing..."
"He's letting his emotions cloud his judgement."
"If the leaders of this nation find out we've been spying on them--"
"I am aware of the risks. But his argument is valid. Besides, there are a thousand drones. If one is discovered, it's not too much of a loss."
"And what of the keem'Potriitch?"
"At the moment they are occupied elsewhere."
"...I still don't like it. This whole situation could blow up at any moment. I.... I'm keeping him under watch."