Chapter 4: Subtle Progress
The next few weeks were a bit of an emotional roller coaster for the Cutie Mark Crusaders. They made a pact to keep their true natures secret from the other foals at school, though it felt a bit less fun than their normal pacts and secrets, as even Applejack had suggested it might be a good idea for now. While they didn't tell any other foals about it, the three fillies would still rush to their clubhouse after school each day to speculate and fantasize about what it might mean to be born from a magic cupcake. Apple Bloom and Sweetie Belle were mostly curious about what their conditions implied for the future. Scootaloo professed not to care if she was "made of clouds or whatever," being much more concerned with the new things she was learning about flying. Her friends were pleased to see the pegasus once again being enthusiastic and energetic, the new approach to flight lessons having given the filly new hope.
So, as the weeks went on, life slowly returned to normal for the trio, the thoughts of weird blood and weirder cupcakes fading from their day to day conversations as their focus returned back to the normal complaints about homework, idle chatter, and random ideas they'd always shared.
There were a few changes though. All three admitted they were actually trying to practice with the latent magic Twilight assured them they held. Sweetie and Apple Bloom were also particularly amazed to see Scootaloo with her nose in a book quite regularly. They figured some changes were definitely for the better though, and the energy and impatience of the pegasus had changed little, so all things considered, the trio found life to be pretty comfortable again.
Meanwhile, Twilight was quite busy trying to figure out exactly what the fillies actually were. She had written to Celestia and Luna, relaying the initial story she'd pieced together, as well as her early speculations. Celestia had responded that neither she nor her sister had come across a situation quite like that before, but suggested a few avenues of research for Twilight to pursue. Very little of it bore fruit, though a few threads did have some promise. The only solid thing Twilight really had after the first few weeks though, was a proper name for what the fillies were. That word was "golem."
She'd found it in a collection of ancient earth pony legends from before the tribes were united. According to the story, the first golem had been created to help protect an earth pony village from the attacks of unicorn and pegasi marauders. The golem had been made of mud from the banks of the river the settlement straddled, and given life by the earth pony magic of its creator. After she'd found the word, Twilight was able to track down a few more legends about golems in other literature. There were quite a few variations, but the core elements were the same: a living creature made from inanimate matter, meant to protect those around it, and often wielding unusual or powerful magic of its own. In some stories, it was wicker and cloth, in others, piles of rocks, or even gems. Many, like the original, used mud or earth.
Some stories even talked about statues, paintings, and other things being brought to life. Those usually didn't use the word "golem" however, and, more often than not, involved a unicorn. Twilight figured those cases were likely variations of the ironically named "come to life" spell. There were several unicorn spells that could animate an unliving object, giving it the appearance of life, but it wasn't the real thing. Twilight knew very well that unicorn magic could only manipulate things, not create life. Of course, those "things" could be—and often were—alive, but a unicorn couldn't control life itself. She could break bones and end it, or stitch wounds to help save it, but only earth pony magic touched on lifeforce directly. As such, Twilight felt pretty confident that the proper golem stories—if true at all—would have to involve earth pony magic.
Of course, there was almost no modern evidence at all of earth pony magic being strong enough to do anything close to that. Most ponies didn't really even think of their earthen kin as having magic at all, though when pushed on it, most admitted there were some near-magical things earth ponies were somehow always best at. Know where to dig a well? Sure. Sense when a flower was about to bloom? Definitely. Feel a friend getting sick before even they do? Of course. But create life from clay? That seemed to stretch all credibility.
"Credibility, heh..." Twilight giggled at the word when she realized what she'd been thinking. Of course it was important to maintain a skeptical perspective when dealing with myth and lore, but how "credible" was her own life if you stepped back and looked at it? Just a few years ago, no pony at all believed her that Nightmare Moon was returning until it actually happened. Certainly no pony would ever have believed how a bunch of young mares released Luna from the Nightmare that same day, if Luna herself hadn't been both witness and direct evidence. Likewise Sombra, the return of the Crystal Empire, a changling invasion, and best not to even get started on the "credibility" of anything related to Discord. Remembering all this, Twilight readjusted her expectations. If the past few years had taught her anything, well... It wasn't that she'd come to actually believe there was such a thing as "fate"—she was still a firm believer in free will—but she had developed quite a healthy respect for "narrative coincidence." Three fillies, all created ex nihilo by magic cupcakes, in a singular, convoluted day that somehow involved her and all five of the other Elements of Harmony... Yes, she thought, must maintain some skepticism, but must also not dismiss anything as being "un"—or even "in"—credible at this point... especially with a particular earth pony named Pinkie Pie involved. So she read on.
Going through the other alleged golem tales with that in mind, several seemed quite plausible, if you gave them their one "incredible" premise at least. There was, however, one that gave her definite pause for thought, one about a golem made from wood and trees. The story was actually a legend, describing how the original timberwolf was created, and how it had turned on—and eaten alive—its creator when she had abused it one time too many. Twilight couldn't believe for a moment that those three little fillies—destructive though they may be in their own ways—could share anything in common with the monstrous beasts in the Everfree. She tried to console herself with the knowledge that, at best, these were legends, and not anywhere near what she'd consider "credible" sources. After her recent epiphany on that word though, it rang a bit hollow, and she found herself really wishing that the creator in that particular tale hadn't also been an earth pony.
Twilight had just put away the tome with the disconcerting story in it, and was trotting to the kitchen for some tea when a hoof knocked at the door.
"Back again so soon?" Twilight said, after opening the door to reveal Scootaloo.
"Yeah," the filly said. "I finished reading those two books you gave me last time, and while I think I maybe understood most of it, there're definitely some concepts in there that I couldn't grasp."
Twilight was really surprised that the filly had gotten through those books at all. When Scootaloo had returned only three days after she'd loaned that first book, she'd assumed the filly was going to give up. Instead, the little pegasus had asked for more. Twilight had pulled a couple of pegasus exercise manuals and even a biography of famous fliers, but Scootaloo had dismissed those, saying she needed books on how to actually fly, not how to do wing-ups. Eventually she'd left with an introduction to aerodynamics, and one on basic thaumaturgical principles. When the filly had left, Twilight was sure that was going to be the end of her reading career. But now she was back, so maybe there was still hope.
"Don't feel bad," Twilight said. "Those books are nearly university level. It's impressive that you got through them at all."
"Well, I... I did have to skip some parts, and read a lot of things over and over. But it starts to make sense once you get the bigger picture in your head, you know?"
Twilight smiled, the joy and sense of learning had, of course, always been one of her favorite things. "Yes," she said. "But isn't it a great feeling when you finally make sense of it all?"
"Heh," the filly laughed bashfully. "You, ah... could say that."
Twilight sensed something was being left out. "Is there something you want to tell me, Scootaloo?"
"Kinda, I guess. Like, I wanna tell somepony, but... well, promise me you won't tell Rainbow Dash?"
"Umm..." Twilight wasn't sure what to make of that request. "As long as it's not something she deserves to know, I guess I can promise to keep it secret."
"No... nothing bad!" Scootaloo assured her. "I just want to surprise her later is all."
"Okay then, I promise. What's the secret?"
"Well, the books... it's actually kinda working. Look!"
With that, Scootaloo gave a small hop into the air, buzzing her wings. She managed a wobbling hover for several seconds before having to set back down, the strain on her face evident by the end.
"Wow," Twilight gushed. "That's wonderful, Scootaloo!"
The filly blushed a bit, "Yeah, thanks I guess. I just figured it out a couple days ago."
"Well that's still pretty good for just starting something new."
"Sure, but I know I can do better. I'm learning so much each day when I read through this stuff. I just want to wait until I can really fly, then I can surprise Dash with it!"
"I'm sure she'd love that!"
"Right, but I need to learn more then, so..."
"Ah, of course," Twilight said, switching to librarian mode. "What can I help you with?"
"Well, for starters..." Scootaloo pulled out one of the books she'd brought with her and paged through it for a moment. "What does this letter mean?"
Twilight looked at where the pegasus was pointing, and found it was in a page full of calculus equations. It was actually some pretty advanced math too, well beyond what a filly Scootaloo's age could be expected to understand. She didn't want to disappoint the young pegasus, but... "Umm... that's actually not a letter. Well, I mean, it is, but it's in another alphabet, but here it's actually a symbol for this special type of math problem called an integral."
"What's an integral?"
"That's a pretty complicated concept, Scootaloo. I'm not sure you're ready for university level math like that."
"But it's something I need to know to understand the stuff on this page, right?"
Twilight looked again at the page in question. Variable acceleration, changing drag coefficients, air density variations... the page was full of physics. "Yeah, you would. I'm sorry."
"This is the sort of math they'll teach you when you get to university."
"Could you teach it to me now?"
Twilight sighed, hating to hurt anypony's feelings. "I'm not sure this is really what you need right now. Maybe if you just practice what you've already learned a bit and stick to the basics."
"But... But I need this to go faster! And I think I already kinda get some of it." The orange filly gestured at the page with one hoof. "This is like, building up speed, but the air is like, slowing you down at the same time or whatever, so there's speed you lose trying to get more speed."
Twilight mentally edited out the filler words, and realized that was at least a vague description of acceleration versus drag as related to total velocity... but still a long way from understanding fluid dynamics. "I'm sorry Scootaloo, but this is pretty complex stuff. I'm not sure that you're ready for it yet."
"Wait..." Scootaloo said. "Is it because you think I'm too stupid?"
"Now, I never said—"
"It is! You think I'm too dumb to figure this stuff out!"
"No, it's not that. It's just... Well, you're really young for this stuff, and..."
"Young? How old were you? You told us you didn't even have your cutie mark when you applied to Celestia's private school!"
Twilight felt like she'd been slapped across the face. Scootaloo was right. She'd been reading and studying university level subjects at the same age the pegasus was now. She'd faced exactly the same sort of disbelief and casual dismissal from all the adults around her too. Twilight wondered how in the world she'd come full circle in the intervening years. Now here she was, just inherently assuming this young and eager student couldn't handle a subject... and why? Because she was too young? Because she wasn't a unicorn? Oh, Twilight really hoped that wasn't the reason her subconscious was doing this. Or was it because the filly just wasn't the "bookish" type? Scootaloo was loud, confident, impatient, athletic, and... well, all those other things Twilight had spent years associating with "dumb ponies"—the ones she'd decided weren't worth her notice back during her years of lonely study in Canterlot. The truth, she sadly realized, was probably a combination of all those.
"Twilight?" Scootaloo said, noticing there were tears starting to well up in the alicorn's eyes after the moment of silence. "Are you okay?"
Twilight sniffled a bit and smiled, "Yes... I think you caught me just in time."
"What?" The filly said, tilting her head in complete confusion.
"Nevermind," Twilight said, wiping her eyes with a fetlock. "Just know I'm sorry if I ever made you feel like I thought poorly of you, or that I saw you as anything less than a bright young filly. And of course I'd be happy to teach you."
Twilight nodded. "It's going to be hard though. I'm not kidding about this being university level subject material. Are you up for that?"
"Hey, if the easy book already let me figure out how to fly, then the hard ones... I figure those are what's gonna let me be really awesome!"
Twilight grinned to cover the sting she felt inside. That was exactly the sort of "logic" she'd expect to hear from the mouths of those "dumb ponies" and she winced reflexively at hearing it from Scootaloo now. Apparently she still had a nearly-innate loathing for such things. She forced aside the knee-jerk reaction though, and focused on what mattered. Here was a young filly, eager to learn and excited by a challenging subject. It just saddened her that she'd somehow forgotten, even for a moment, how incredibly important and amazing that should always be. Perhaps they'd both be learning some things in this endeavor.
"Ooh, look what the blank flank has!"
Apple Bloom was trotting to school nearly a full month after the big meeting when she'd heard the mocking tone. She looked up from the path, disappointed to find that the voice belonged, as she had feared, to Diamond Tiara.
"Yeah, what have you got there, blank flank?"
And right on schedule, thought Apple Bloom as she tried to ignore the two, there's Silver Spoon, with her always-original thoughts. She shifted to keep the flower pot as far away from the two as she could.
"Hey," Diamond said, moving to block the path to the schoolhouse. "I'm talking to you."
"Oh, were you?" Apple Bloom said. "I didn't hear my name."
Apple Bloom had never had much luck with sarcasm, but she'd tried most of the other things she could think of to avoid the bullies in front of her. Nothing really seemed to deter them though, and at least it made her feel slightly better if she got in one or two clever remarks.
"Oh, are you trying to get your cutie mark in deafness now?"
That... that didn't even make sense, and Apple Bloom couldn't think of a clever comeback either, so she just sighed and responded, "Leave me alone Diamond. I just want to get to school."
"Why?" Diamond said, poking the wooden flower pot Apple Bloom was carrying on her back. "So you can give those flowers to your coltfriend?"
Ugh, Apple Bloom thought, now it looked even worse than it actually was. "No," she said. "These are for Miss Cheerilee. It's her birthday this weekend."
"Trying to suck up to the teacher, are we?" Diamond chided.
"No, it's just a nice thing to do. Yer always supposed to give ponies gifts on their birthday."
"So why flowers? Your family finally run out of apples?"
Apple Bloom had actually wondered the same thing herself, but Applejack had insisted that a gift should be something special. So, even though an apple was a standard gift for a teacher, it might mean a bit less if it came from a family that was literally called Apple, and therefore always had plenty of the fruit to spare. Applejack had then suggested she get her teacher some flowers instead. So now Apple Bloom had a small wooden pot with three white and yellow flowers growing in it balanced between her saddle bags. That was way too many words to say to Diamond though, so her reply was simply, "I thought she'd like these better."
"Oh really? But they're so... fragile!"
"What do ya mean by..." Apple Bloom was cut off as Silver Spoon "accidentally" bumped into her from the side, causing the flower pot to fall to the ground. Diamond Tiara then made a show of looking up and away at some imaginary thing in the sky as she stomped firmly on the flowers sticking out of the pot.
"Oops, I didn't see that there. I'm sooo sorry!" Diamond said, before turning to Silver and laughing. "Guess you should have brought an apple after all. I mean, it's all you're good for anyway!"
Seeing that Apple Bloom was starting to get tears in her eyes, the two other fillies decided their work was done and trotted off, giggling between themselves. Apple Bloom knelt down to look at the damage as she felt tears start to track through the fur on her cheeks. She righted the pot and did what she could to scoop the soil back into it. Thankfully, she'd picked a wooden bucket-like pot. She'd just thought it looked more rustic than the ceramic ones at the shop, but now she was glad it was more durable too.
While the soil and pot were quite salvageable, the flowers themselves were in much worse shape. Diamond had stomped them pretty hard, the edge of her hoof nearly severing the stem of two of them, and completely crushing the head and petals of the third. Apple Bloom tried to straighten out the bent stems, wondering if she could fix them somehow, but they couldn't support their own weight, flopping over at the damaged point the moment she let go.
As she held the flowers upright one more time, she focused on the inner senses she'd been practicing with the past few weeks. She thought she could almost feel the damage inside the plants, the crushed capillaries blocking off any hope of nutrients making their way up from the soil to the bloom, and the damaged head on the other swelling with fluids which would quickly lead to it rotting from the inside. She could sense it was hopeless. All three flowers were beyond fixing. They were dying, and it was all because of those stupid, good for nothing bullies that wouldn't leave her alone!
Apple Bloom couldn't hold back her tears anymore, and she flopped down right in the middle of the path and started crying softly over the remains of the flowers. It just wasn't fair. It was never fair. She'd told Applejack she wasn't jealous of those two "snooty richfillies," but she was. Why did they get everything? They had their marks. They had rich families and got every toy, jewel, or dress they ever wanted. On top of that, they were never the ones left crying in the middle of the road, but were the ones trotting away laughing. And the worst part... the worst part was even though they were maybe the worst two fillies ever, and no one should ever want to be near them... they even had friends!
In stories, the bad guy might be rich, he might get to laugh, and he might even win, but he certainly never got to have friends... but those two fillies had each other, and while Apple Bloom knew she much preferred her own friends, it wasn't fair that two worthless bullies even got each other! It even makes it worse, she thought, as they get to team up to make every other foal's life that much more miserable! Here she was, a good pony, just trying to be kind to a teacher that—despite giving out more homework than Apple Bloom really would've preferred—really tried hard to help all her students, both in and out of school. Now, even if she and her friends somehow got back at Diamond and Silver later, it still wouldn't make everything better. Apple Bloom had tried revenge. It felt good for a moment, but it never really fixed things, and fixing things was the one thing Apple Bloom was good at... at least in everything else. It seemed she always failed miserably at it when it came to other ponies though. She couldn't fix Diamond and Silver, couldn't fix the bullying, and she couldn't fix the fact that Cheerilee wouldn't get the flowers. And these flowers—the ones in her own hooves that were crushed and dying—she couldn't do a thing to fix those either.
As she wept into her hooves, cradling the broken flowers in their small bucket of soil, that's all Apple Bloom could think about, how unfair life was, and how there just had to be a way to make things right, to make the hurt stop, to just fix it all, or even just to fix one little tiny flower that somehow now meant so much.
After a while, her sobs eventually started to subside, and Apple Bloom opened her eyes, blinking away the remaining tears. She couldn't quite understand what she was seeing at first. It took a moment for her brain to connect the dots, and for her hoof to clear the remaining tears so she could be sure her eyes weren't deceiving her. When she did so though, she saw something that she'd remember vividly—and for the rest of her life—as the second best thing that happened that day.
The actual best thing was, of course, the look of utter shock and confusion on the faces of her two tormentors when she'd trotted into class and given Cheerilee a small, wooden pot, filled with no less than a dozen healthy flowers in full bloom. Well, either that, or how completely speechless the two were when she turned and gave them the biggest and most self-satisfied smirk she could manage. Yeah, that one was pretty good too.
"Golems, huh?" Apple Bloom said, as the three fillies sat around their clubhouse later that weekend. "What exactly does that mean?"
"Well," Sweetie responded. "Twilight said it was an old earth pony legend. Supposedly about inanimate things brought to life to protect the ponies that created them."
"So, kinda like us then?" Scootaloo said.
"That's what Twilight said when I talked to her."
"Well, at least it's better than mud monsters," Apple Bloom said.
"Umm, actually..." Sweetie started to explain what golems were most often made of, then thought better of it.
"Yeah?" Apple Bloom said, curious.
"Uh, I was..." Sweetie thought quickly, and found the verbal escape route. "I was just wondering why you were so excited when we talked about meeting up here today."
"Heh, yeah," Scootaloo added. "You seemed pretty excited about something. I'm just glad you don't have a knife this time."
Apple Bloom blushed a bit, remembering how panicked she'd been the day she'd first discovered something was different about herself. She felt much more optimistic about her surprise today though.
"Nah, it's nothing bad this time, I promise."
"Well, what is it?" Sweetie said.
"Gimme a sec," Apple Bloom said, and retrieved a pot with some soil in it from the corner of the clubhouse. "Alright, now watch this."
The other fillies weren't exactly sure what they were supposed to be watching, but gave their friend the benefit of the doubt as she closed her eyes and placed a hoof on the soil in the pot. Nothing happened at first, and Scootaloo, never one for patience, was about to speak up when Sweetie pointed at something in the soil. The two fillies looked down, and saw a small green tendril just breaking through the surface. After another moment or two, it had grown into a stem, and before they knew it, they were staring at a fully blossoming flower.
The "trick" complete, Apple Bloom opened her eyes and looked to see her friends' reactions. "So," she said. "What do ya'll think?"
"Wow, AB, that sure is something," Sweetie said.
"Yeah, how'd you do it?" Scootaloo asked.
"Well, I got to talkin' with my sis on the way home that night, after that big meeting at Twilight's. Anyway, she started explainin' about how earth pony magic was subtle and stuff, and I thought I knew a bit what she was talking about, but didn't think much of it. I did try an' practice a bit, and I thought sometimes I could maybe, I dunno, 'feel' somethin' in the plants and trees and things. I wasn't ever sure it weren't just in my head though. Then a couple days ago..."
She continued the story, recounting what had happened after Diamond Tiara and Silver Spoon had gotten in her way, finishing with how amazing it'd felt to see them both put in their places.
"Wow, so that's why they looked so confused when you walked in!" Sweetie said.
"Yeah, that's awesome! You showed them!" Scootaloo exclaimed, adding a hoof pump for emphasis.
"So why didn't you tell us sooner?" Sweetie asked.
"Well..." Apple Bloom felt bad for keeping another secret, but hadn't meant it that way. "I think I just wanted to make sure it was real first. I went home after school that day, and tried to do it again. At first, I couldn't, and that really kinda scared me. But I kept practicin' and tryin'. It took me another day before I could do it again, and by that point, I figured it'd be cooler to just show ya'll like this. Sorry I left ya'll out though, I didn't really mean to."
"Naw, it's okay," Scootaloo said. "It was pretty cool as a surprise just now."
Sweetie nodded at that, then added, "And, to be honest, I kind of have a trick of my own I've been practicing."
The other two fillies looked eagerly at their friend. "Well what is it?" Scootaloo asked.
"Promise not to laugh?"
"Why would we laugh?" Apple Bloom asked.
"Okay, I promise I won't laugh," Apple Bloom said.
"Me too," Scootaloo said.
With that, Sweetie Belle brought her front hoof up to her face, and somehow, someway, managed to stick the entire thing in her mouth. The look on the other fillies' faces was priceless, but quickly devolved into barely contained laughter.
"You guys promised!" Sweetie said, after removing her hoof.
"Sorry, Sweetie," Scootaloo said. "But you gotta admit that's pretty funny."
"Yeah, sorry Sweetie," Apple Bloom said, after throttling her own laughter. "How the hay did you manage to do that anyway?"
"Well, you know how I'm apparently made of clockwork and such?" The other two nodded. "So after that revelation, I started practicing with magic harder than I have before. That's actually why I'd been talking with Twilight; she's been giving me some extra lessons. Anyway, I'd never managed more than a few sparks before, but... I don't know. Somehow, knowing I was practically made of magic... it felt like it unlocked something for me. Suddenly I could feel it in me, and not long after that, I could feel how it sort of... I don't really know how to describe it. I could feel how everything inside me fit together."
"How does that let you put your hoof in your mouth though?" Scootaloo asked.
"I'm getting to that part, Scoots. As I was saying, I could feel how it fit together. When I'm not thinking about it, everything in me works like a normal pony I think. Magic makes the pieces move like any other filly. But when I focus on it, I can directly move things, even change some things. What you just saw, that was the first really weird one I figured out. I felt the hinge in my jaw, and there was no physical reason why it stayed together, just some sort of automated magic saying that's how a jaw works. I found that, with enough focus on it, the magic at the joint just lets go, and I can open my mouth really wide like that."
"Wow, that is... creepy... and awesome!" Scootaloo said, her thoughtful expression melting into a grin.
"Yeah, can you imagine doing that in front of Diamond and Silver?" Apple Bloom said.
"Heheh, they'd run away screaming!" Scootaloo agreed.
All three fillies laughed, picturing the two bullies fleeing in fear. After the laughs subsided, Apple Bloom spoke up. "So ya said that was the first trick. What else did ya figure out?"
"Well, I'm starting to get better with normal unicorn magic. I can actually levitate a few things now." Sweetie demonstrated this, juggling a couple of stuffed animals and the flower pot in her aura. "I think I also figured out why I never knew I had glowing blood before."
"Yeah, I was wonderin' about that," Apple Bloom said.
"It turns out, I don't think I've ever been injured before. At least not enough to actually make me bleed."
"No way," Scootaloo said, unconvinced. "You've done all the same crazy stuff we have trying to get our marks. We've crashed into like every tree in the world, and at least half the fences!"
"Yes, but... well, here, I'll show you," Sweetie said, using her aura to fetch some scissors from the craft bin by the wall and giving them to Scootaloo. "Here, try to hurt me," she said, holding out a front leg in front of the pegasus.
"What? No way, not this again!"
"Seriously, Scootaloo, it's okay. You won't hurt me, I promise."
"Argh, fine! What exactly do you want me to do?"
"Just try to make a small cut on my leg or something."
Scootaloo opened the scissors and ran the edge of one blade across her friend's foreleg. Nothing happened, so she looked up quizzically, searching for any sign of pain in Sweetie's expression.
"Go ahead, try again," the unicorn said.
Scootaloo tried again, and a third time as well, putting more force into it each time, before finally checking that the scissors were indeed sharp by slashing easily through a piece of craft paper.
"Okay," the pegasus finally admitted. "That's a pretty good trick there Sweetie. What gives?"
"I'm not completely sure, but as far as I can tell, being made of magic gives me some kind of magic shield. The only reason I could cut myself that first day was because I expected to be able to cut myself. When I'm not expecting to be hurt, I don't get hurt. Same way, when I'm not expecting my jaw to open extra wide, it doesn't. Oh, that reminds me, one other thing to show."
Sweetie stood up, and stretched out her left foreleg. Then stretched it out again. And again. At this point the leg was now twice as long as her other three limbs. Seeing the stunned expressions and gaping jaws of her two friends, she went ahead and returned the limb to its normal length before explaining.
"So it seems the mechanisms that serve as my bones are meant to expand. I imagine it may be so that I can actually grow to an adult size. Like with the other things though, if I focus and concentrate on some part of myself, it seems I can override the normal functionality there."
Sweetie looked between her friends, waiting to see who would recover first. Scootaloo—like in most things—was the fastest.
"So you're telling me you can just, grow up at will?" she said.
"Umm, I don't think it works quite like that. Growing up involves a lot more than just longer legs. Right now, I have to concentrate pretty hard to just alter a single piston or joint."
Scootaloo looked slightly disappointed, but then her expression cheered again. "Still though, you have like, awesome robot superpowers! I bet you probably don't even have to breathe! Wait... do you have to breathe?"
A thoughtful look crossed Sweetie's face. "You know, that never occurred to me. I wonder..." The unicorn closed her eyes and a look of concentration took over her features as she searched through the workings of her own body.
The other fillies sat patiently for a moment before Sweetie opened her eyes and spoke up. "Interesting..." she said. "I don't think I actually do have to breathe. Well, at least not more than once every couple of hours or so. I can sense some odd processes tangentially related to breathing that I don't quite understand yet though. It could be closer to once every few weeks. I'd probably need to practice and learn a bit more before I could go that long though."
Scootaloo waved hoof dismissively. "Oh, only a few hours for now then?"
"Yes, well... I think so. We could have a breath-holding contest to be sure."
"No thanks, Sweetie. You know I don't like losing... especially not by hours!"
Sweetie looked up, about to apologize for offending her friend, but saw that Scootaloo was actually grinning.
"Ya know," Apple Bloom said. "When ya talk about just 'feeling' how things are workin' with ya, but can't quite explain it... well, I think that's how I felt with those flowers and stuff. It's like I can feel and almost see all these complicated things goin' on inside that I never woulda understood before."
"Yeah," Sweetie said, nodding in agreement. "It's just like that. As though my mind is somehow comprehending things I never actually learned, and there are these millions of little details that I can touch and manipulate, but to actually explain it... I can't even begin to try."
"So," Scootaloo added. "Speaking of things you have to just feel, but can't explain..."
Sweetie Belle and Apple Bloom turned to look at Scootaloo.
"Yeah?" Sweetie said, waiting for the explanation.
"So I think I'm like the opposite of you girls."
"How so?" Apple Bloom asked.
"Well, Dash has been trying to teach me how to fly for a couple of years now, and it never worked. For Dash... she can just 'feel' it, and I never could. Then, Rarity and Twilight explained all about pegasus magic and such..."
"Yeah, we were there," Sweetie reminded her friend.
"Right, well... like I said, I couldn't 'feel' it. But I spent the first few days after that meeting going over the book Twilight gave me, and it actually explained some of the stuff about how to fly. So I went and got another couple of books from the library, and they explained some more stuff, but it got complicated. I mean, I never thought I'd be, like, enjoying an actual book, much less learning from it, but then I was back for more books, and asking Twilight to teach me some of the more complicated stuff."
"And?" Apple Bloom eagerly asked, suspecting where her friend's explanation might be going.
"Well..." Scootaloo said, a grin spreading across her face. "Watch this."
With that, her wings started to flap, making their familiar, humming-bird-and-engine noise. This time though, Scootaloo lifted into the air... and stayed there.
"Oh my gosh, Scoots! You can fly!" Apple Bloom leapt and shouted.
"Congratulations!" Sweetie added, equally excited for her friend's accomplishment.
Scootaloo, still hovering, explained. "Unlike you two, I never understood pegasus magic... never felt it until it was explained."
"Yeah, that's great, Scoots!" Apple Bloom cheered.
"I... umm, I actually figured this part about almost two weeks ago, just from those first couple of books."
"What?" Apple Bloom objected. "Why didn't you say anything?"
"I don't know... same reason as you with the flowers. Just got distracted, then thought it'd be cooler to show you."
"That's fair enough, I guess."
"But then Twilight agreed to tutor me on some of the harder stuff, and I got more books to read, and now I really understand how pegasus magic works."
"Yeah Scootaloo, we couldn't be happier for you!" Sweetie said, smiling up at her finally airborne friend.
"No, I mean I really, really understand it."
At the confused looks from her friends, Scootaloo decided a demonstration was really the only way to explain... at least for now. So, she simply stopped flapping her wings. The other fillies looked on, dumbfounded. Silence descended over the clubhouse, and Scootaloo remained hovering in mid air, her wings perfectly stilled. Only the motion of a few small dust motes in a sunbeam betrayed the hundreds of subtly manipulated air currents being circulated to keep the pegasus aloft via magic alone.
"She can do what now?"
"I'm tellin' ya sis," Apple Bloom said for the third time. "She can fly, without flappin' her wings!"
"Now, that don't make no sense, AB. If a pony could fly without wings, then all of us would be doin' it now, wouldn't we?" Applejack turned and smiled at her sister, before delivering another kick to the tree behind her.
"Ugh..." Apple Bloom slid her hoof down her face. "I'm serious, Applejack. I saw it with my own eyes and everything! Scootaloo can fly, and she don't need her wings to do it! Why won't you believe me?"
Applejack stepped away from the tree and gave a good stare at her little sibling, before another smile cracked her face. "Aww, I can't do it!"
"Do what?" Apple Bloom said.
"I do believe ya, AB. Sorry for pretendin' otherwise. Twilight told me a couple of days ago. Said it was a secret though, and I should pretend I didn't know anything."
"But I already know the secret. Why would ya have to pretend to keep it from me?"
"Truth be told, Bloom, I was using you for practice. Just wanted to see if I could keep a straight face for more than a minute. Turns out I can't, which means I really can't be anywhere near Rainbow Dash 'till Scootaloo comes out in the open with it, which is gonna..." Applejack looked up into the distance behind her sister and rolled her eyes. "Well if I ain't just the luckiest pony ever..." she mumbled, as the aforementioned pegasus swooped down to land.
"Hey guys!" Dash said on landing. "Thought I heard my name over here. What's up?"
"Uhh, not much," Applejack said, a tad nervously. "Just buckin' apples as usual and all."
"Yeah," the pegasus said, looking around suspiciously. "That's cool and all, but... I know I heard you two talking about me."
Applejack looked back and forth, before nodding to her sister in what she felt was a "casual" way, though Apple Bloom might have described it more as a major nervous twitch. She got the hint anyway though.
"Hey Dash!" Apple Bloom said. "Scootaloo was telling me you were practicing a new stunt?"
"Oh yeah," Rainbow said, always excited to talk about her flying. "I'm calling it the double-inside, reverse triple-spin, death roll!"
"Sounds, uh... awesome!" Apple Bloom said, not sure what to make of such words in that particular order. "So, what's it actually look like?"
Rainbow Dash rubbed the back of her head. "Yeah... haven't actually figured that part out yet. Really just spent most of the time thinking up the name."
"Oh. Well, that's a cool name at least. You know who'd love to hear about it?"
"Scootaloo! I bet she could maybe even help you line up some parts of it or what not."
Rainbow's expression sunk at this.
"What's the matter?"
"Well, Scootaloo and I haven't really been hanging out much lately. Ever since I told her maybe I'm not the one to teach her how to fly... Well, she's been spending all her time with Twilight and stuff. I'm sure it's for the best though."
Apple Bloom was a bit taken aback by this. Scootaloo had told her and Sweetie that she was waiting to surprise Dash, but did she realize that Dash herself was taking it kind of hard? Hmm... should be pretty easy to fix that actually.
"I was just talking to her earlier," Apple Bloom lied. "She said she couldn't wait to practice with you again."
"Really?" Rainbow said.
"Yeah, she said she had some really awesome thing she wanted to show you, but she didn't think it was cool enough for Rainbow Dash yet."
Her honorary little sister did still want to spend time with her? That was awesome! And it didn't matter one bit to Rainbow how cool—or not—whatever it was she had to show ended up being. "Hey, I'm sure it's awesome, whatever it is," she said.
"Yeah, I sure think it's pretty cool, but she said it'd never be cool enough for Dash."
"What is it?"
"I can't tell ya that, I think she wants it to be a surprise. Ya should go ask her yerself!"
"You don't think she'd mind?"
"I think she'd love to have her 'big sister' come check up on her!"
"Yeah," Apple Bloom assured her. "You should go find her."
"Okay," Dash said, half to herself. "I can do that."
With that, the pegasus launched herself into the air and her cyan form was quickly lost in the cerulean sky.
"Wow," Applejack said, after waiting for Dash to get beyond earshot. "That there was sure some quick thinkin', AB. I've never seen somepony wrangle Dash that smoothly."
Apple Bloom smiled. "Well, like ya said sis, us earth ponies just have to be a bit more subtle about things, right?"
"Hey squirt, mind if I join you?"
Scootaloo looked up from the book to find Rainbow Dash hovering above her and the park bench she'd been lying on.
"Uh... yeah," Scootaloo said, quickly closing the book and sitting up to make room. "No problem, Dash!"
Settling down onto the other end of the bench, Rainbow looked at her surrogate sister. "So, uhh, whatcha reading there?"
Scootaloo held the book tighter to herself, still not sure how to feel about being a "bookworm" in the eyes of her idol. She reminded herself that Dash claimed to love books too, but she feared this wasn't quite the same type of thing.
"Oh, come on Scoots, lemme see!" Dash said, gently pulling the book from the filly's hooves.
"Hmm..." Rainbow said, looking at the title. "Able Achievement's Advanced Aerodynamics and Applied Aerobatic Acumen. That sounds pretty dense."
Scootaloo could only nod in response.
Rainbow leafed through a few pages, frowning at the amount of math she saw, and even turning the book sideways to try and make sense out of a few of the larger graphs. "So, this sort of stuff helping you figure out how to get off the ground then?"
Scootaloo wasn't sure how to respond. Even though it'd only been a couple of months or so, it felt like forever since she'd been the eager student of Rainbow Dash. Then that night, Dash had practically dumped her onto Twilight and Rarity for proper training. Scootaloo got things now, saw and understood a lot of what her idol did, and it no longer seemed like... well... like magic. Her wonder at the feats of the cyan pegasus wasn't really there in the same way anymore. But she reminded herself, this was still Rainbow Dash. She wasn't just the fastest flier in Equestria, but was also her "big sister," who took her camping, told her stories, and helped her in food fights against Pinkie Pie. With that new perspective in mind, she looked up and with a smile said, "Yeah, it is actually."
Rainbow was glad to hear that. She'd been heartbroken realizing that maybe she wasn't doing right by Scootaloo trying to teach things her way, so it was great to hear that a new approach was working, even if she missed their practices together. Then she remembered what Apple Bloom had said.
"So I was told there was something 'awesome' that you were wanting to show me?"
"Wait," Scootaloo said. "How'd you know? Did Twilight tell you?"
Dash, never one to resist a good chance for a prank, confirmed that yes, definitely it was Twilight.
"Ugh, I knew she'd let it slip!"
"Let what slip?"
"Wait, you don't know!"
"Umm, of course I know."
Rainbow was stumped now. Thinking hard, she realized it probably wasn't the book. What else would be an "awesome" secret that Scootaloo would want to show off to... She facehooved at the realization.
"Wait! Oh my gosh! Scoots! You can fly! That's it, right?"
Scootaloo, realizing that Twilight had not actually betrayed her confidence, just smiled and stood up off the bench.
"Yeah Dash," she said. "Check it out!"
With that, she leaped, fluttered her wings, and hovered a few feet off the ground.
Rainbow was amazed. "Oh my gosh! That is, like, the most awesome thing ever!"
"Oh really?" Scootaloo said, affecting an air of nonchalance. Then she brought her wings to a standstill without losing altitude. "Because, I thought this was at least twenty percent cooler."
The filly's expression grew into an ear-to-ear grin as she saw the realization dawn on Rainbow Dash's own face. The cyan pegasus wasn't considered fast just for her airspeed though, and her stunned expression rapidly evolved into one of pure glee. She hug tackled the filly, wrapping her forelegs around her sister and squeezing tightly, overjoyed to feel the warm embrace returned with equal vigor.
As the hug finally ended, Scootaloo looked up at her big sister. "So, would you maybe want to go flying with me sometime?" she said.
Rainbow Dash felt some liquid pride starting to build in the corners of her eyes. "I know I exaggerate a lot," she said. "And so sometimes the really important things I say aren't taken that seriously, you know?"
"Right," Dash continued, wiping away the beginnings of a tear from her cheek. "So it's very important that you know I'm being absolutely sincere here when I say this, okay?"
Scootaloo nodded again, unsure what to expect.
Rainbow Dash leaned down to look the filly directly in the eyes. "Since our very first practice," she said, placing a forehoof on Scootaloo's shoulder for emphasis. "There is absolutely nothing I have ever wanted more than to go flying with you."
This time Scootaloo was the one initiating the tackle, her small forelegs wrapping around the neck of her big sister, strangling her with love, and drowning her in tears of joy.
"Besides," Rainbow said, attempting to lighten the mood after a very, very long hug. "You've got to show me how you do that hovering trick!"