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Steel Soul

It all began so simply, so stupidly, that looking back Rarity wondered why she hadn’t noticed the state of the shelving.

***

“Sweetie Belle, I already told you that I’d make you a...” The fashionista shuddered. “...a pirate costume for your play. You don’t need to ask again.” She glanced at her little sister, who was giving her the largest pair of puppy dog eyes she could manage. “I’m just working on some projects for a very important pony in Canterlot. I’ll be able to do your costume tomorrow, all right?”

“But miss Cheerilee said we’re doing a dress rehearsal this weekend!”

“And I’ll have it ready for you by this weekend, don’t worry! Today’s wednesday, it’s not the end of the world.” Opening up a window, the ivory unicorn telekinetically pulled over the form she was working on, checking the light patterns through the skirt. “Hmm, needs another petticoat. Tell you what, why don’t you select what shade of red you want for the outer coat of your costume. I’ve been trying to decide, but I get... well, I get bogged down in details.”

The smaller unicorn grinned happily, glad to be of help to her sister, and rushed over to the bolts of cloth near the sewing machine. After a few moments of careful consideration, she pointed. “That one.”

Rarity glanced over and gave a startled gasp. “That one? That... Sweetie Belle, that’s positively garish! I only keep it around because it’s thick enough to serve as a foundation for some of my heavier dresses!”

Exactly! This is a pirate, he wants to look ugly so he scares everypony!” Sweetie Belle smirked as she brought down her hoof. The logic was impeccable.

“...Well, I suppose that makes sense.” Rarity walked over, examining the offensive color. “And truth be told, it’s a very... practical cloth. I can easily imagine a ruffian who cares nothing for her looks keeping something made of this around for decades.” She could, really. She had nightmares about it. “Very well, I’ll set this aside for tomorrow.” The fashionista tugged at it with her magic, surprised to find that it had a very tight grip on the shelves around it, but eventually managed to wrench it free. “There we go--”

“Rarity look out!”

***

Time seemed to slow as the ivory unicorn followed her sister’s hoof to the shelves, seeing them tilt with a far too quiet groan. Acting on instinct, she leapt forward, trying to avoid the heavy object’s path of descent; she could see, out of the corner of her eye, the bolts starting to slide out of their cubicles in submission to gravity’s call. She managed to get out of the way, turning back to watch the final landing--and her eyes widened in horror when she realized the shadow of the shelving was falling over her sister’s outstretched hoof--

And then time resumed with a metallic scrape.

The shrill scream would forever haunt her, the moment marking not only her sister’s pain but the revelation of a truth she hadn’t even known existed.

***

“It hurts, it hurts, it hurts--” Tears of pain and fear rolled down Sweetie Belle’s cheeks as she struggled to free herself.

“I know, I know--” Rarity forced herself to calm down, trying to ignore the liquid pooling around the shelf. “Listen. I... I won’t be able to pick this up for long, so the minute I do you’re going to have to pull your hoof out from there. Okay?”

“O-okay...” With a whimper, Sweetie Belle nodded. “I’ll, I’ll try--”

“All right. On three.” Rarity lowered her horn at the object that had DARED to harm her sister, mentally swearing to throw it to the dumpster as soon as she could. “One... Two... THREE!” She wrapped the whole thing in a blue glow, lifting it just enough for her sister to retract her foreleg. As soon as she was sure that she could, she dropped the shelf with a gasp. Yes, she could handle multiple objects, but sheer weight always proved problematic.

“All right. Now, let me see that hoof.” Rarity turned around, preparing herself for the worst. “We’re going to need to go to the... hospital...”

Her voice trailed off.

Skin torn away by the impact... revealed something that was not muscle, not bone. Grey pistons and purple pivots hung limply, wires slinking along their length like veins. Sweetie Belle was staring at her hoof in horror, trying desperately to comprehend what she saw as tears of agony and terror merged their paths down her already wet cheeks. Rarity stepped forward, hesitantly, placing a hoof on a small red stain under one of the hydraulics.

Their faces turned slowly. Green eyes, filled with confusion and panic, met sapphire eyes swelling in shock and pity.

“...we...” Rarity breathed in. “We... I’m going to get Twilight.”

“Don’t leave!” Sweetie Belle begged. “I can’t-- I don’t know what’s going on! Please don’t leave me alone!”

And Rarity broke and pulled her sister into a hug, ignoring the strange appendage she had. “Oh, no no no no no. Of course not! We’ll handle this together, okay? I will never leave you.” She stroked the mane of the younger unicorn gently. “No matter what happens, you’re still my little sister.”

She could feel Sweetie crying into her mane in relief, and spent the minutes comforting her silently. Of course she could never leave. Never again.

But what if she isn’t your sister? whispered a part of her. What if this is all a lie?

She ignored it.

***

After the tears had passed, Rarity had suggested they head out together for the library. But Sweetie had turned that offer down flat out, looking at... the appendage in shame. She couldn’t let anypony know about this, she said, she couldn’t handle it....

After the second bout of tears, Sweetie Belle had asked if she could have some water. She would have gone down herself, but the kitchen had windows. Rarity had agreed, amicably enough, shutting the window in the workshop and fetching a glass for her sister. She had returned to find her sister staring at... the appendage with distant concentration, watching it twitch and slowly move as though it were a real hoof. She placed the glass down in reach of Sweetie Belle, who had absently thanked her.

She still hadn’t touched it.

“...maybe we should send a letter to Twilight,” Rarity suggested.

“Why?”

“Well, to be honest, I don’t know anything about...” The ivory unicorn cringed, realizing what she was about to say, and finding she didn’t have an appropriate alternative. “...I don’t know anything about, um, robotics.”

Sweetie Belle’s head shot up. “I’m not a robot.”

“I didn’t say you were!” Rarity clarified. “It’s just... this seems like something Twilight would know about.”

“Twilight’s special talent is magic, not machines.”

Rarity opened her mouth to reply.... and then shut it, realizing her sister had a point. She had automatically assumed that the scholar would be able to help, but now that she thought about it she might just try to examine the appendage and lock her sister up. “Well... we need somepony’s help with this.”

There was a ringing of bells. Somepony had entered the shop.

Rarity and Sweetie Belle looked at each other. Sweetie looked away first. “You need to go on down... the shop’s open.”

Rarity nodded. “I’ll be right back.” She trotted down the stairs.

“Heya Rares!” Pinkie Pie waved, pulling a pastry box out of her saddlebags. “You know what happened when I was walking by earlier? My knee got SUPER pinchy, like I couldn’t even walk! So I thought something scary was happening here, but just as soon as it started it was over so I was wondering if I should come in but then I heard Sweetie Belle scream and I realized whatever it was was happening to her so I rushed over to Sugarcube Corner and I opened my stash of emergency cupcakes and I gathered the best ones I could think of and packed them up for her!” She bounded up the stairs. “What happened anyway?”

“No wait--!” Rarity rushed after her. “Pinkie don’t go up there!” She couldn’t move fast enough though, the party pony was already in the room with Sweetie Belle--

“Oh wow, looks like that hurts!” Ignoring the shocked look the unicorns were giving her, Pinkie rushed over to the foal and put the cupcake box down. “Why don’t you have some of those while auntie Pinkie looks this over?”

“Wait.” Sweetie Belle gave her a confused look. “You... know about this stuff?”

“Oh yeah, like a lot!” Taking the metal appendage in her hooves, the baker began examining it while idly rambling on. “I’ve been trying like FOREVER to make a party robot to help me when there aren’t enough Pinkies to handle a party but it just hasn’t worked out because I can’t get a party program into the head but that’s okay because I’m good with the rest of the robot’s parts and I’ve used all my experiments to make things like the party cannon and my greeting wagon and the gyrocopter that Gilda broke once but I’ve rebuilt it!”

“Pinkie...” Rarity stepped forward cautiously. “...Can you fix this?

“Oh surt. It looks like a hydraulic fluid bag exploded, that’s all, and this piston here just needs to be bent back into shape, but that’ll need a bit of hammering. I can go get my tools lickity split! Oh, but I think you need to sew a new outer covering for her leg, Rares, I don’t know how to do that. In the meantime you can just eat your cupcakes!”

“Can you not tell anypony about this?” Rarity glanced at Sweetie Belle. “She’s just... this is a shock for us.”

“Waaaaaaait.” The baker turned around suspiciously.. “You didn’t know she was a robot?”

“I’m NOT a robot!” Sweetie stamped her metal hoof down. “Ow! I’m not! I’m a normal filly!”

“Oh. Oh wow, I thought you all knew!” Pinkie covered her mouth. “I mean I was the only pony that ever heard the squeaking of your pistons so I thought you were keeping it secret--”

“I AM NOT A ROBOT!” Sweetie Belle was crying again. “I, I’m a normal pony and I have feelings and a life, I, I have friends and--”

Rarity wrapped her sister in a gentle hug. There wasn’t anything she could say.

Pinkie Pie, realizing she had stumbled on a major situation, glanced about the room as she tried to figure out how to handle this. “Okay! So. I Pinkie Promise not to tell anypony that Sweetie Belle may or may not be a robot. Cross my heart and hope to fly, stick a cupcake in my eye. I’ll just go now and get my tools and buy some hydraulic fluid and OH YEAH Rarity you’ll need to make a new sack for the fluid or use your magic to repair the old sack bye!” She rushed out of the room.

***

The baker returned with her tools to find not much had changed. Sweetie Belle was no longer crying, but there was still a distant look in her eyes as Rarity gently rocked her back and forth.

She sighed, putting the small sack on her back down. “Okay. Sweetie Belle, somepony has to say it. You are, and you always have been a robot.”

Rarity’s eyes shot up in a glare, but Pinkie held up a hoof.

“And that doesn’t change anything. Just because you’re a robot doesn’t mean you’re any less of a pony. You have friends, you have feelings, you have a life, you have a big sister that absolutely cares about you. I mean does anypony treat Spike any different because he’s a dragon?”

“...no...” Sweetie whimpered. “...not unless it matters...”

“Right! So stop all that mopy dopy nonsense and let me fix you up!” The party pony grinned tapping her belt. “It’ll hurt a bit but you’ll be running round with the other crusaders before you can say Chipper Chanter chases Cherry Chimichangas!”

“Chipper Chant cherry chimi...?” The little unicorn’s eyes spun in confusion.

“See what I mean?”

Sweetie Belle couldn’t look at Pinkie’s ludicrously wide grin without resisting a small smile herself. “Okay... I... I guess you can...” Slowly she released her grip on her sister, who backed off only just enough to allow Pinkie access to the injured hoof.

The earth pony, for her part, began pulling small bits of metal from the belt. “No... noo... that’s not it... no... Oh here it is!” Finally settling on a miniature hammer, she took the hoof and examined it carefully. “Rarity, could you look in that sack and find the ⅜ screw valve? Sweetie, I’m sorry but this is going to be a bit painful, bite down on this.”

Without any warning, Pinkie stuffed a cupcake into the unicorn’s mouth and began tapping away on the machinery with small, powerful swings. The filly winced, but kept from crying out in pain. Rarity, confused, looked in the sack, finding an assortment of odd packages; she eventually discovered a set of objects labeled Screw Valves, and slid her hoof down to the appropriate one. “Here’s that thing you wanted--”

“Good! That’s going to be the cap for the sack, needs to be waterproof and water resistant. Cylindrical, about two inches in diameter, and, oh, three inches in height...? Yeah, I think that will fit. Can you sew that?”

“I--” The ivory unicorn blinked. “My materials are under that shelf, but I think I could use the, um, the... bath... curtains...”

“Well then go do it silly filly!” Pinkie waved her off. “Without that fluid she’s not going to be able to move her hoof!”

***

After staring at the baker for a moment, Rarity headed into the bathroom and tore a portion of her bath curtains off. It was easy enough to make it into the sack that Pinkie had ordered.

This is going into my sister’s leg, she didn’t think. I am making a replacement part for one of the sweetest unicorns I know, she didn’t contemplate. Her head filled with idle, but complicated music.

She returned to the main room without a word and floated the... item over. She did see Pinkie pouring something into it, then screwing it into the pistons and sliding it into a set of braces. She did hear Pinkie tell her she was all done and that it’d be really really important to sew up a new covering for Sweetie’s leg. She did free up enough of her thoughts to form a blueprint as Pinkie lifted the shelves back into place, she did let her eyes determine what kind of fabric, what shade of color, she did let her horn sew the new hoof together.

She just never registered it.

I’ll have to keep her from breaking if this ever happens again.

Idle music, lovely tunes.

Sweetie Belle was asking her something.

She tilted her head, not comprehending.

Pinkie Pie pulled Sweetie away. Blue eyes locked into sapphire ones.

With a screech, the music stopped.

“....I need some air...”

And Rarity fainted.

***

Sweetie Belle was... with the Crusaders.

Normally, she’d be playing with them, but after yesterday, she couldn’t focus on Scootaloo’s rambling or Apple Bloom’s philosophical counterpoints. When pressed, she’d usually answer with a small “yeah” or a shrug. Rarity’s delayed faint had only lasted thirty seconds; she’d risen quickly enough, and after a moment she’d gone back to hugging Sweetie Belle....

“....and then we’ll paint the outer shell BLUE!” Scootaloo threw her hooves up. “I’m certain this will work!”

Apple Bloom rolled her eyes. “Ah dunno, Scoots. It’s a cool idea and all, but where are we gonna find a spare airship and all them fancy elecmolatronics? Besides, yer design ain’t all that hydrodynamic. What do ya’ll think Sweetie?”

The unicorn shrugged.

Scootaloo and Apple Bloom gave each other a significant glance.

After a moment, the yellow filly cleared her throat. “Hey, did ya’ll know Big Mac is cloppen’ ta pictures of Rarity?”

Sweetie Belle shrugged.

“Okay, she’s officially out of it.”

Scootaloo nodded. “I don’t even know what clopping is, but it gets all those older ponies upset when I talk about it. OY! SWEETIE BELLE! YOU IN THERE?”

The unicorn glanced up. “Hmm? Oh, sorry. Hydrodynamic is important.”

“Not anymore. Come on, what’s up?” Scootaloo trotted up to her friend, worry in her eyes. “You know you can talk to us about anything.”

“What? Oh nothing’s up.”

The pegasus gave her a deadpan look. “Apple Bloom just insulted your sister and you didn’t react.”

“Actually it’s kinda a compliment,” the earth pony clarified.

“Wait, seriously? But older ponies freak out when I mention clopping--”

Sweetie Belle blushed. “Wait, sorry, what?!”

“THA POINT IS,” Apple Bloom interjected, “Ya’ll seem ta be someplace else. What’s going on?”

“It’s.... the dress rehearsal!” Sweetie smiled a bit too wide. “Yeah. I’m just nervous about being a pirate, that’s--”

“What happened ta yer hoof?”

The unicorn froze in the middle of waving off the question. Her eyes slowly slid to the hoof; small patterns in the fabric were visible in the sunlight.

“....Tattoos!”

“What?”

Sweetie nodded at the incredulous farm filly. “Um, I wanted to get tattoos so I went to a tattoo parlor but Rarity found out and made me get rid of them but there are still some marks! It was for the play,” she added, “pirates have tattoos, right?”

Scootaloo peered at the hoof. “Huh, well... I can barely see them, anyway. Hey! Maybe Apple Bloom has a tattoo-spotting cutie mark!”

The three of them briefly inspected the yellow flank before sighing in disappointment.

“Anyway... So tha reason yer in a funk is cause you and yer sister had a bit of a fallen out?”

The words hit close to home. “Well... yeah. She is... upset with me, but, you know, not at me. Or did I get that backward?” Sweetie shrugged. “You get what I mean. She doesn’t hate me but there’s... something between us now...”

The pegasus snorted. “Well then knock that thing out.”

“Scootaloo!” Apple Bloom gave her a pointed look.

“Look, I’m not good with all that mushy sister stuff, right? But if you let something like this build up and grow, it’s only going to get worse. So deal with it now!”

“That... It’s not that easy.”

Scootaloo rolled her eyes. “Lemme tell you something Rainbow Dash told me once. ‘Kid, the easiest things in life are the least worthwhile. They’re things everypony can do. But if you have to work at it, you know it’s important!’” She ended up standing on her rear hooves, pointing into the sky. “‘So never give up, no matter how many scratches you get!’”

“Ah dunno, Scoots. Making friends is easy, and that’s pretty important.”

The pegasus deflated. “Er, yeah, but... You know, making a first friend isn’t easy, and you kinda have to keep working at it if you want to stay friends... so the principle still works!”

“I think I’m getting what you’re saying,” Sweetie Belle interjected. “And.... And.... and you’re right, I guess. I think I know what I need to do...”

She paused.

“...Guys?”

“Yeah?”

“What?”

“If.... if I were, like, to turn into something else... like, um, I dunno, a Timber wolf... would we still be friends?”

“Hay yes!” Apple Bloom knocked her shoulder playfully. “Yer always gonna be Sweetie Belle, no matter what anypony does!”

“Well I mean we’d have to figure out it’s you,” Scootaloo added, “but after that we’d stick with you through thick and thin!” She paused. “Actually let’s do something right now. If we’re ever transformed, we need a secret signal.”

“Chase our tail three times, throw our hooves up--or forepaws or whatever--and then play dead.” Apple Bloom nodded. “That should do it!”

“What if we don’t have tails?”

“Oh come on, what kinda critter don’t have no tail?”

“Okay, so what if we’re turned into a snake?”

“Throw yer head up! Then play dead! It’s a pretty easy thing ta change ta another form!” Apple Bloom rolled her eyes.

Sweetie Belle snickered. “Thanks guys... you’re great friends.”

***

Rarity combed her mane....

Rarity stared in the mirror.

In idle curiosity, she walked into her workroom, pulling a pin from one of her many pincushions. She held out her hoof and slid the metal in, ignoring the pain. Then she slid it out. Red began to stream from the prick.

“...Is that really blood?” she asked the room.

“...Did Sweetie Belle ever bleed?” she added.

After a moment, she winced and hissed. Dropping the pin, she rushed back into the bathroom and pulled out a first aid kit. A simple and elegant bandage stopped the flow. With that taken care of she walked into the workroom again, picking up the now somewhat red pin and examining it.

She ended up dropping it in the trashcan.

Then she went downstairs and made herself some toast. Opal wound around her hooves, sensing her distress, but she made no acknowledgment of her presence.

“I remember when Sweetie and I made a pie... and we shared it...” Rarity bit some of her toast off, chewing thoughtfully, before she swallowed.“....So she can eat, I guess...”

She put the toast down.

“....Maybe I should look at what... she produces in the toi--”

The feline jumped back as the fashionista suddenly recoiled. “What am I THINKING?! Why would I even want to look at, at, at that?! No! No more questions! She’s my sister and she’s REAL! She’s as real as you Opal, or, or me!” Rarity stamped her hoof down. “I don’t care that she’s a, a robot. No! She’s real! Like me!”

How do I know I’m real?

Opal mewed in worry as her owner’s face twisted in desperate horror.

“...I’m real. I... we’re all real. Otherwise there’s no point...”

Rarity walked to the kitchen window, peering at her reflection.

“....I’m real. I’m not a robot.... am I?”

***

Sweetie Belle hadn’t gone straight home. She wanted to make sure Rarity knew about the story she’d made up on the spot, cover her bases. So it was she’d found her sister slowly flipping through pages on equestrian anatomy.

The two of them had shared a look.

Then, silently, the younger unicorn had dragged her sister back to their parent’s place. There was no resistance.

Of course Rarity’s parents had been happy to see her, but they were instantly aware that something was wrong with their eldest. Saint Germane had placed a plate of homemade cookies on the table in an utterly misguided attempt to cheer her up; the fashionista had only prodded the charred husks before sighing and falling back into silence. Sweetie Belle was glancing between her sister and her father; unfortunately, doctor Magnum Fantastic wasn’t exactly skilled in reading either of his daughter’s emotional states and could do nothing but sit by awkwardly.

Eventually, thought, Rarity looked up. “Mother, father.... this, well, this may seem like an odd question, but do you remember the night when I was.... conceived?”

“With great fondness.” The stallion wrapped his hooves around his blushing wife. “But I don’t think you want to know the details.”

“And.... do you remember when Sweetie Belle, ahem, came into being?”

At this, the couple dropped their smile. They glanced to their younger daughter, who was looking at them with a sad but stern look.

Eventually, their mother lowered her head. “...how did you find out?”

Rarity blinked. “...Um. Blood. Yes, there was a bit of an accident, and I took Sweetie Belle to the hospital--”

“--she was panicking,” the younger unicorn added, “it wasn’t that serious--

“--yes, and while they were there they did a blood test. And it turns out she has a condition--not dangerous!” Rarity quickly clarified. “But genetic. She has it and I don’t.”

“And we put two and two together and....” Sweetie Belle shrugged. “Yeah. So...”

Their father, whose eyes had darted from one to the other during the whole conversation, let out a long, deep breath. “....I knew this day would come, but.... To be honest, we found Sweetie Belle in a dumpster.”

“It was while you were away dear,” Germane added. “You know, in that year-long fashion school?”

“The poor filly was traumatized,” Magnum continued. “Couldn’t walk, couldn’t talk... like an infant. But... you learned quickly, Sweetie Belle.”

“After we told the police where we found you, we just, well, had to take you in. And when Rarity came back and assumed you were ours by blood.... you were both so young, I just didn’t have the heart to tell you otherwise.” The pink unicorn smiled gently.

“I remember that,” Rarity commented. “I was... I was so upset you hadn’t told me I had a new baby sister...”

Sweetie Belle examined her hoof. “....um.... did they.... ever find out how I got there?”

“No.” Magnum stood up and walked over to them. “But whoever threw you away, they’re not your family. They don’t deserve to be, after letting such a precious thing go to waste.”

“Family isn’t about blood, dears.” Germane joined him. “It’s about who loves you. It’s about who’ll care for you, who’ll always be there. It doesn’t matter that only one of you spent time in my belly. Both of you are my daughters, and you’re sisters through and through.”

Together, the parents wrapped their children in a powerful hug.

***

It was the next day.

It was a day before the dress rehearsal.

And Rarity had delivered.

Sweetie Belle looked at the costume. It was everything she’d expected to be and more. She had noticed, of course, that the shelves had been replaced. But that wasn’t really important.

“It’s... ruggish and vulgar.” She nodded. “Yeah, I’ll make a mean pirate in this. Thanks.”

“Of course darling. Anything for family.” Rarity looked upon the abomination and shuddered. “Just... do me a favor and never mention where you got it.”

“What, at the local thrift shop? What’s wrong with that?”

“Oh I told you not to purchase the thing.”

The two of them giggled.

Then... Sweetie Belle sighed. “You know, I just realized I’m never going to get my cutie mark.”

Rarity gave her a sympathetic look.

“...Heck, I might never be bigger then a foal.” Sweetie plucked a hair out her mane. “I don’t think I’ve ever had a manecut, now that I think about it. I mean, there was that time Opal clawed part of it off, but I just rearranged--”

A white hoof cut her off. “Now you listen to me, young filly. We have Pinkie Pie, who can probably... do something to make you bigger, and you have me. I can certainly make you a mane if you lose yours, and I’ll even get to work designing your cutie mark when you find your special talent. But what I want you to do is remember something. You are SWEETIE BELLE. You are a cutie mark crusader, a great student in school... my sister. Don’t you ever think that what you’re made of changes who you are!”

Emerald eyes and sapphire stars locked.

And slowly, a smile formed underneath Rarity’s hoof. “...Thank you.”

The two of them hugged.

“....Love you, big sis.”

“....Love you, little sis.”