The Filly Within

by Detsella Morningdew

First published

With all the evidence stacked up against her, can Sweetie Belle remain herself? A Sweetie Bot story.

Sweetie Belle's life always contained a fair amount of frustration. From a lack of magical ability to her flank's stubborn refusal to develop a cutie mark, Sweetie has many a reason to envy her classmates. But her friends share many of those problems, making them somewhat bearable.

But at a certain fateful wedding, the changelings seem less interested in putting her in a pod, and more interested in attacking her outright. More evidence starts to appear, and she starts to realize something about herself that she would much rather forget.

While this story contains several adventure-like stories, especially in the beginning, it will mostly focus on slice-of-life material.

Chapter 1: A Departure From the Norm

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The air was crisp and cool, stars shone brightly with the absence of the moon, and the evergreen trees covered the ground with a surprisingly comfortable layer of needles. The pleasant odor of burning pine permeated the clearing, as a cheerful fire burned within a cicle of hastily thrown-together rocks.

"I can't believe it took you that long to start the fire, Apple Bloom."

"Well if it's so easy, you start it next time."

"Well you're the one who said you were an expert."

"It's.... been a long time since Applejack taught me, okay?"

"And we still don't have our survivalism cutie marks."

"Lay off her, Scootaloo. We have a fire now. I just wish we didn't have to walk so far just to go camping."

"No, no. This isn't camping, Sweetie. It's survival-ing. Totally different."

"Ummm... how exactly?"

"No adult supervision!"

"Oh, okay. That makes sense. I still don't think 'survival-ing' is a word, though."

"What else would you call it then?"

"Uh.... I dunno."

Scootaloo crossed her front legs, flinging droplets of tree sap into the fire. "I rest my case."

The statement was a bit more dramatic than she intended, as the highly flammable drops of pine sap took the opportunity to explode. Apple Bloom just managed to keep the rest of the flaming sticks inside of the little ring they created, but her expression told the rest of them that she was suddenly wanting to be a lot further away from the fire.

"Uh, girls? I think we all should probably wash off. Like now-ish."

"But who's going to watch the fire?" Scootaloo pointed out. "You said that was kinda important. Like, the 'burn the forest down' kind of important."

Apple Bloom grimaced. "Right. Uh... I guess we'll take turns then. Sweetie?"


"You have the least sap... on your hooves, at least."

Sweetie giggled nervously. Her mane wasn't exactly in a state that would be fixed by a single wash, especially without soap. And Scootaloo had insisted that it wasn't real survivalism if they brought soap.

"And you're the only other pony I'd trust to not burn the forest down."


Apple Bloom reached out with the fire-poking stick, and Sweetie nervously took it. "All right. Just don't take too long, okay?"

The others left for the stream they had located earler, on Apple Bloom's insistence. If anypony was getting a cutie mark out of this, Sweetie thought, it was her. Sure, it was mostly just Apple Family knowledge, but she was definitely doing a... well, if not a good job, at least a passable one.

Sweetie held the fire stick in her hooves, but didn't really do much with it. Apple Bloom liked to poke the fire a lot with it, but she realized that she didn't have any of that "Apple Family knowledge," other than what she told the other Crusaders.

The only thing she was looking for was if a burning stick fell out of the ring. That's what Apple Bloom said was the most dangerous, and could burn the forest down. Fortunately, the grass underneath their hooves was pretty wet, even though it was getting close to the Running of the Leaves again.

Still, she kept a bit further from the fire than usual. None of them had realized that the tree sap they were so used to was flammable. And she certainly didn't want her skin exploding.

The way the sap droplets "popped" in the fire was very interesting, though. They didn't just catch fire - they pushed the sticks away from the little explosions. Like how Pinkie's cannon pushed away confetti. And... other items.

But thinking about Pinkie too much was never a good idea.

Fireworks, on the other hoof, might be finally within reach again after they had been banned from entering Dr. Hooves' lab. (For real this time.)

She started to become increasingly aware about the very combustible sap in her fur, both excited at the possibility... and nervous about the fire that wasn't really that far away from her, since she had to be close enough to poke it with the stick.

Fortunately, she didn't have to worry for much longer, as Apple Bloom and Scootaloo finally returned at a hurried trot.

Apple Bloom took the stick back. "Come on Sweetie, it's your turn."

Sweetie Belle practically galloped away towards the stream, and for once in her life, didn't take her time washing up. She still needed to take a bath when she got home anyway. With real soap.

But as soon as she was no longer a fire hazard, she rushed back towards the camp. The creepy sounds from the forest at night had absolutely nothing to do with it.

Besides, she had a new idea to share - one that might earn them all their cutie marks.

...Or more realistically, now that she thought of it, probably just Apple Bloom. She was the only one of them that was any good at building things. Fireworks were really cool and all, but she just couldn't see herself with a firework-making cutie mark at all. Same with survivalism, really, but it was more fun to do things with friends anyway.

And for the first time, even if they didn't get cutie marks for it, all of the Crusaders would have something fun to show for it afterwards.

If it worked at all, that is.

But it still felt odd to think it outright - that she probably wouldn't get a cutie mark for something, and it wasn't the worst thing in the world. As long as she got to do it with her friends.

And it was totally cool anyway. Fireworks always were.

"Didn't we already try to get cutie marks in firework-making? And get banned from Dr. Hooves' lab for it?"

"Okay, yeah, sure. But this isn't about cutie marks!"

Scootaloo looked baffled. "It isn't? You just said it was!"

Sweetie snorted. "I mean, I said it was, but... I mean... that was kinda just out of habit. I mean, we do everything together, right? Even if one pony doesn't really like whatever it is."

Apple Bloom nodded, and Scootaloo gave a reluctant shrug.

"I mean, I'm sure neither of you really were into it that time when I tried to make dresses like Rarity."

"...yeah, I guess so."

"But what's the one common denominator with all of this?"

"...The what?"

Sweetie shook her head. "Oops, sorry. What happens, like, every single time we go Crusading?"

Apple Bloom rolled her eyes. "Tree sap?" Scootaloo shuddered.

"Exactly. So what if we could make getting tree sap fun? We'd have, like, unlimited fireworks."

"All right, all right, you've made your point. Still don't like how it gets in my feathers, though."

"So..." Apple Bloom started. "It's decided then. Before our next crusade... or maybe after, if we can't find the tree sap, we start experimenting with it." She looked down at the fire, now lower, but warm with embers. "And maybe we might be able to use it as a firestarter next time instead of trying to light wet wood with sparks."

Sweetie grinned. "That's the spirit!"

"Now where can we get some barrels..."

Chapter 2: Rain and Fire

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Sweetie Belle looked at the flaming wreckage.

"Well, that was a colossal failure."

Fortunately, Apple Bloom had the foresight to have them test all the sap in the middle of the rock quarry, rather than, say, in the forest. Or anywhere near Ponyville.

Lighting the sap on fire (from a distance, of course), only seemed to do just that - light it on fire. Only when the sap droplets were extremely small did they do anything like explode.

Apple Bloom had managed to make it more flammable with some potion-making equipment she borrowed from Zecora, but the air around it made them feel funny, so they scrapped that idea quickly.

It was a firestarter. Nothing they did to it made it anything else.

Well, that wasn't entirely true. Scootaloo found that when a stick was dipped in it, it became a crude torch.

A quick modification (some cloth scraps provided by Sweetie) made something they all deemed adventure-worthy.

All in all not really a failure, just not what they were trying for.

No, the colossal failure was when one of their experiments got to the other barrels of sap.

That got the explosion they wanted, though not exactly the kind they wanted. Flaming balls of sticky liquid shot all over the place.

It was a surreal experience. Time seemed to slow down for Sweetie. Scootaloo was at a safe distance, but Apple Bloom was the one working with the stuff, and several sticky balls of flame were heading towards her. Without even thinking, Sweetie kicked off the quarry floor with a strength she didn't know she had.

She got there right in time, tackling her friend out of the air, grabbing her close and gritting her teeth as she skidded across the stony ground.

It was a few moments before Sweetie even thought to release her grip. All around them were small little fires, which were quickly fading away as their fuel was exhausted.

"Apple Bloom? Scootaloo? Are you okay?"

Apple Bloom still hadn't gotten up, but she nodded.


"Y-yeah. I'm fine."

Sweetie looked for the source of her voice. She had a blank look on her face, just staring at the remains of the barrels.

"Are you sure?"

She quickly shook her head, adopting a much more sure expression. "Yeah. That was just... a lot worse than when we got those fireworks."

Sweetie followed her eyes, looking at the wooden wreckage, the only part of the quarry still flaming.

"Well, that was a colossal failure."

Apple Bloom got slowly to her hooves, rubbing a few sore spots. But she wasn't looking at any of her bruises. She was looking at Sweetie curiously, and an odd element of respect.


Apple Bloom paused. "Let's talk about all of this in the next Crusader meeting. We need to clear this up before somepony sees the smoke. If anypony finds out about this, we're gonna be grounded for more than just two weeks."

"Right." Scootaloo grinned awkwardly.

Sweetie sighed. "This was so stupid. Sorry, girls."

Apple Bloom put a hoof on her shoulder. "Nopony got hurt, and that's what matters." She winced slightly. "Well, nopony got more than a few bruises. Still, it wasn't a complete waste. Now we can all go try for our spelunking cutie mark with Scoots' torch.

"Now we really need to clean all this up, and fast."

The wood was still burning quite merrily.

"You wouldn't happen to know, like, a water spell or something?"

Sweetie Belle groaned. "No. I'm, like, the worst unicorn in our year. I can barely even get a flicker on my horn."

Apple Bloom suddenly looked guilty. "Sorry about that, Sweetie. I really don't know anythin' about unicorn stuff. I can just go get a bucket of water. There should be a nice river near the quarry. Don't worry about it."

"I know you didn't mean anything about it, just..." She sighed. "It's frustrating, you know?"

Scootaloo gave her a sidelong glance. "...Yeah."


Apple Bloom cleared her throat. "Enough of this. This little project failed, but what have we really lost? Nothing. We didn't even get sap on us this time."


"Yeah. Now, I'm going to get that bucket of water. Sweetie, I know you know where all my alchemy stuff goes, so if you could get that packed up for me, that would be great. Scootaloo, you go grab all the torches you made and all those cloth scraps we didn't use. When you're all done, we'll all meet at the clubhouse. And please try to be quick. I don't know if anypony already saw the smoke.

"So, everypony good? Let's break."

The sun was low in the sky when Sweetie finally returned to the clubhouse, mostly from trying to avoid being seen with Apple Bloom's alchemy set. Completely aside from her poor reputation with anything even loosely related to cooking, she was more worried about the questions ponies might ask. She didn't exactly have a good cover story.

But she got there without incident, and was relieved to find that her two friends were already waiting for her. Nopony got busted.

"Sorry for being late, girls. I was trying to avoid Rarity. Or anypony that might ask the wrong questions."

Apple Bloom put a hoof over her face. "Sorry, Sweetie. I should have just told you to leave it for me to pick up."

"So what's the meeting going to be about? This wasn't a cutie mark mission. And I kinda need to get home soon, before Rarity gets mad."

Scootaloo also turned to her friend. She had been sitting in the clubhouse for far too long for comfort already. "Yeah, what is it about?"

Apple Bloom hesitated for a moment. "Well, first, I'd like to thank you, Sweetie. That was some damn quick thinking. But... I just wanted to make sure ya know. You're a lot stronger than you give yourself credit for. A lot faster, too, come to think of it."

"What do you mean?"

She pointed to her chest, where a nasty bruise was growing. She held up a hoof to stop Sweetie from apologizing. "I've had a lot worse. And it's better than if any of that sap stuff got me. But that kick was almost as hard as my big sister. If I ever thought unicorns were weak, you definitely cured me of that."

Sweetie picked one of her front hooves off the ground, looking at it intently. She wasn't muscular by any means, and she certainly had a few bruises on her back from rolling on the ground. Rarity wasn't going to be happy with her, whatever story she gave. But seeing Apple Bloom, she had a hard time believing that she caused it.

"Don't worry about it Sweetie. Granny used to always tell me stories of ponies in danger doing some pretty crazy stuff. I used to think they were all just hooey, but it just seems like they were right. I mean, just look at Rainbow Dash. Both times she did that Rainboom of hers, she was trying to help somepony."

Scootaloo buzzed her wings in irritation. "Hey, let's not get too crazy. Rainbow can totally do the Rainboom on her own."

Apple Bloom rolled her eyes. "Anyway. It's getting late. See you all at school tomorrow?"



"And as always, if you have any cutie mark ideas, make sure you write them down for the next meeting. This time might have not been a proper crusade, but we certainly aren't going to just give up."

Sweetie nodded, and turned to leave, but her mind wasn't even registering Apple Bloom's speech. Sure, it was probably just adrenaline, but even afterwards, her legs weren't even sore. It was like that crazy tackle hadn't even happened. Her bruises still hurt a little, but even those seemed muted.

And something just felt off about the whole thing.

But it was a school morning tomorrow. She didn't have the time to think about it. And she still needed to come up with a story for Rarity to explain all the bruises on her back.

Chapter 3: Intelligence

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"Okay everypony! Crusader huddle."

Apple Bloom joined in with the others, but she exchanged a confused glance with Scootaloo.

"I know I'm not usually the one to call an emergency Crusader meeting like this, but Rarity just told me, like, five minutes ago. She just got invited to this wedding in Canterlot with all her friends, and..."

Scootaloo rolled her eyes. "Something happens with them, like, every week."

"Yeah, but this is a royal wedding. In Canterlot."

Apple Bloom preemptively shut down her friend's no doubt scathing response with an observation of her own. "Wait, if all of them are gone on this trip, that means Applejack is gone, too? Like, unrestricted Crusading kind of gone?"

Sweetie Belle's smile became slightly strained. "Not... exactly. Rarity already kinda... knew we might try something. She's taking me with."

"So... you called an emergency Crusader meeting just to tell us you wouldn't be able to meet tomorrow?"

"No, Scootaloo. I called the meeting because this is the perfect opportunity! If you can convince everypony to come with me as a group, we could totally do all sorts of Crusading stuff while we're there. I mean, I was kinda excited to go to a royal wedding, but..." She scuffed a hoof against the clubhouse floor. "It just never feels the same without you girls."

"Yeah, but... what are we gonna do there, exactly? I went to a wedding before. Like, the only fun part is the party afterwards."

Sweetie grinned slyly. "Well... I also maybe heard that Rainbow Dash was gonna perform a Sonic Rainboom-"

"Okay, okay! Scratch that! We have to go."

"And I don't think they'll be that many fillies our age at the wedding. They'll make us the flower fillies for sure!"

"...Less fun, but I suppose you said we shouldn't just go for our cutie marks every time we do something."

Apple Bloom perked up slightly. "And I always did want to meet royalty, even if Applejack says it's not that important."

Sweetie Belle grinned at both of them. "We all agree on this, then?"

She received unanimous nods.'

"All right! Together!"


Sweetie Belle groaned. How could everything have gone so wrong? First, Twilight started acting all neurotic, but that was just par for the course. Then that Mi Amore princess lady was... less than receptive to their request to be flower fillies. She kinda saw that she might have been a bit too excited when asking, but even after Apple Bloom tried to negotiate with her, she just brushed them off.

I mean, it made sense now, since she ended up being a fake evil queen lady, but that just made things more weird. When were Twilight's neurotic episodes ever actually right?

But they did save the world before. Like, multiple times. Even when Princess Celestia couldn't. She just had to wait until that happened.

Still... it was hard to wait. Bug ponies (she thought she heard the term changelings, but it was kinda noisy at the time) were everywhere, and she couldn't even find the rest of her friends in the chaos.

It was made even harder, because every changeling that happened across her seemed to forget what it was doing and beeline for her instead.

She secretly was incredibly glad for all Scootaloo's cutie mark ideas at the moment. While Apple Bloom was easily the most "fit" out of all of them, keeping up with their adventures was probably the only reason she hadn't been caught by now.

Inwardly, she cringed, remembering the green, sticky pods she had passed on the cobblestone streets of Canterlot.

While she was once aiming for the train station, that goal had completely left her mind at this point. She had to hide, and fast. But no matter where she went, it seemed that changelings were always where she wanted to go.

Finally, something caused her muscles to bind out of shock.

The changeling queen. The pony that beat Celestia in a magic duel. Right in front of her.

She couldn't take it anymore. "What the heck is going on?"

The Queen of the changelings just stared at her, perplexed. "You? But... why? How?"

She quickly looked to the side, down at the changelings flanking her. "Cease the attack," she said sharply. "We are leaving. Now."

It was as if a ripple of silence spread out from her.

And as the Changelings all flew away, Sweetie could only stand there, still frozen in place.

As cheering swept the city of Canterlot, she came to her senses, but everything seemed dull, muted.

She was broken from her reverie when a guard came up to her with a worried look on his face. "Miss, are you all right?"

Sweetie looked at the sky. "Why did she call it off?"

The guard started, suddenly a lot more alert. "You have information about the attack? This needs to get to the Princess, immediately."


He looked uncomfortable. "Sorry, but it's not a request. I can't be sure you aren't a changeling."

"No, I mean, I'm just as confused as everypony else."

"Miss, everypony just thought they had been defeated in the Castle or something of that nature. If you know anything, the Princess needs to know."

Sweetie glanced once again at the sky, then back up at the guard. "All right. Sorry, sir."

He smiled warmly down at her. "Don't worry, the Princess isn't nearly as scary as many ponies make her out to be."

She smiled back. "...Thanks."

The Princess herself may not have been all that scary, but Twilight and the rest of her friends all staring at her was a bit unsettling. Even Rarity was looking at her a bit funny.

"My little pony, please, if there is anything you can tell us, it might help us understand this situation. As it is now, that queen could return to attack at any moment, and it would be disastrous for Canterlot."

Sweetie cringed down into an even smaller form than she had been when bowing. "She, uh, recognized me or something? But I've never seen her before! I swear!" She looked around at the ponies that were all still staring, trying to gauge their reactions. But their intense stares didn't fade in the slightest. Even Rarity seemed more curious than comforting.

"And then she, um, left. Oh, and she told all the other bug things to stop attacking and leave too." She scrunched down further as she looked back at Princess Celestia. "Sorry, I don't know any more than that."

An idea popped in her head. "Oh, and all the other changeling thingies really liked chasing me. But I dunno, maybe they were chasing everypony else? I never got a chance to really look anywhere except where I was running."

Celestia nodded thoughtfully. "That is less than we hoped for, but that is not your fault, Sweetie Belle. Don't blame yourself for this."

Rainbow Dash, who had looked the most suspiciously at her the entire meeting, objected to this. "How do we know you're not just a replacement, trying to throw us off your trail?"

Before Sweetie or even Celestia could respond, Twilight already was rebuking her friend. "She was scanned before she even started talking, Rainbow. And I was the one that did the scanning. So unless you're saying I'm a changeling, too-"

"Right, right. Sorry, Twilight." She looked awkwardly back at the filly. "And sorry, Sweetie, was it?"

"I feel that our only recourse is to increase security around Canterlot once more. Perhaps not with your shield, Captain Armor, until you have recovered fully, but we must not be caught by surprise once more. And Twilight? If you could write down that dispelling magic you have discovered to be effective against changelings, that would be a great boon to the integrity of our Guard."

After a few moments, she turned back to the rest of them with a smile. "And I suggest that all of you get some rest. It's been a long day for all of us. Especially you, young Belle."

Twilight looked like she was about to protest, but gave up before she started to speak.

"I know it feels wrong to leave Canterlot, especially with the potential danger still present. But simply, we do not know when, or even if, that threat will be realized. If I had known anything beyond a vague threat, you would have been called here much sooner, and we would have postponed the wedding."

After their farewells, the six of them left for the train station, Rarity bringing Sweetie along with a comforting hoof over her back.

But Sweetie's thoughts were somewhere else. She had no delusions that that Queen had been scared of her. She could probably squash Sweetie under her hoof, and that wasn't even counting the magic. Magic that Sweetie didn't have yet, much to her eternal frustration.

The queen had called off the attack as soon as she saw her, though. That didn't make sense. Even Celestia was confused. What was special about her that made that Queen change plans like that? She didn't even have her cutie mark yet.

Everything just felt off. Just like yesterday, when the sap exploded. Something was wrong with her, and she didn't know what.

It wasn't even just her, either. Rarity was acting odd, too. She was always so protective of Sweetie, a fact that always annoyed her greatly, especially when it came to the bruises she got from Crusading. But this time, she seemed more... intrigued than usual, not even stepping in to vouch for her when Rainbow got a bit carried away.

She shook her head, watching the castle fall away as the train went back down the mountain. Whatever it was, it wouldn't be solved today. Celestia was right. Sleep felt like a pretty good idea right now.

Chapter 4: Heartbeat

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The looks hadn't stopped. Not when she woke up in the morning, not when she came back from school. Rarity was looking at her like she had never met her in her life.

At least, when she didn't know Sweetie was paying attention. She was her normal, loving sister every other time.

This has got to stop. I need to know.

And today was the perfect time to find out.

"Genealogy? I thought we already looked at family trees and stuff. Apple Bloom suggested that one, remember?"

"Yeah, but this time I have a better idea. We could be, um... geneticists!"


"Geneticists! Like, we could look at how we looked when we were little, and then maybe what our parents look like and see what we got from each of them."

"I... guess so?"

Apple Bloom smiled. "That sounds like a great idea, Sweetie. And don't give me that look, Scoots, Sweetie always tries all your crazy ideas."

"Yeah, yeah. We can be boring this time."

Sweetie Belle sighed. "You don't have to do it if you don't want to."

Scootaloo's eyes went wide. "No, no, that's not what I meant! It's still fun doing stuff with you girls, it's just I was hoping something more... awesome would happen today."

Apple Bloom rolled her eyes. "Personally, after our last experiment, I've had enough 'awesome' for a week."

Scootaloo gave a sheepish grin and pulled the torches out of her saddlebag and back into the Crusader supply box.

Her two friends looked at each other. "Ah, that's why."


Apple Bloom tapped Sweetie with a forehoof. "Uh, why are we goin' to Town Hall? If we're just lookin' at foal pictures, shouldn't we be asking our sisters for the photo album?"

Sweetie kept Scootaloo in the corner of her eyes. "Well, the thing is, aren't birth certificates, like, the most reliable pictures for this kind of thing? It's always right after you're born, and only official ponies get to take them. And besides, I don't think I've ever seen my parents' baby pictures in an album."

Or mine.

"But if everypony has their records with Mayor Mare, we can compare them, like, really well."

Sweetie felt a little bad deceiving her friends like this. And really, she might have suggested something like this anyway. They had done genealogy before, but it was only with the Apple family. While Apple Bloom's family was very large and very interesting, she was far more interested in her own today.

Really it shouldn't matter. But it did.

When they were finally able to get Mayor Mare's attention, it didn't take much convincing to get her to show them their birth records. She was all too happy to help them with this sort of educational endeavor, especially, Sweetie suspected, since it involved files and organization. If anypony could keep up with the amount of weird paperwork Ponyville produced, it was this mare. And she enjoyed it.

She even let them stay in the files room alone, which really made Sweetie question her judgement.

Apple Bloom looked up at the vast filing cabinets, sorted alphabetically. "Okay, are we looking for parents first, or us first?"

Scootaloo crossed her hooves. "I don't know why I'm even doing this. I know I'm not related to my parents."

Sweetie walked over to her. "Yeah, but you're the perfect control group!"

Both of her friends just looked at her blankly. "Uh, the what?"

"Like, since we already know that your parents are different from you, we can make sure that the similarities we find in our parents aren't just coincidental!"

Apple Bloom just looked at her, completely deadpan.

Sweetie sighed. "Like, Scootaloo's mom is a pegasus. It doesn't make them related. And Pumpkin and Pound Cake are a unicorn and pegasus, respectively. Mr. and Mrs. Cake are earth ponies. They are definitely related, though. At the same time, it's really rare for anypony in the Apple family to be anything but an earth pony."

Apple Bloom nodded. "I think I get it. Like, I'm the same color as my dad was, and that probably because of these gene things, but just because Sweetie here is white doesn't mean she's related to Celestia or something. Or that DJ, even though they all have horns and are white."

"Oh. Yeah, that kinda makes sense."

Sweetie smiled. "Exactly!"

Even though she had ulterior motives, Sweetie couldn't help but enjoy this. Even though she certainly was no Cheerilee (and their teaching cutie mark attempt had been disastrous), knowing that she showed her friends something, and they learned from it was a wonderful experience. And it wasn't often that both of her friends were able to talk about their parents so openly.

But based on Scootaloo's expression, it probably wasn't a good idea to dwell here. While she certainly loved her adoptive parents, the subject was still a sensitive one. And Sweetie couldn't exactly blame her, given her current real motive to be here. This needed to end soon. Whether she was right or not she had to know, right now.

"Let's look at ourselves first."

Apple Bloom nodded, grabbing the ladder and climbing the up to the cabinet named "A". After rummaging for a few seconds, she returned with a thick card with her information.

Sweetie looked at her oddly. "That was fast."

Apple Bloom scratched the back of her head with a hoof awkwardly. "I might have... already been here before."

Sweetie suddenly remembered Mayor Mare's decision to leave them alone. It made a little more sense now.

After a few moments more of awkward silence, Apple Bloom moved over the "S" section. "Ah still think these files here should be sorted by family, not name. Would be a whole bushel less confusing."

Sweetie nodded, but also tried to think of a way that would actually work. The Apple family was obvious, since they were big enough to have a unified name. And her own family was primarily a unicorn one, which meant they kept a second, family name, Belle. But Scootaloo's family, even if they were blood related, had no unified name, which would be hard to sort in general. At least with Mayor Mare's system, it was simple.

"Though ah suppose it's easier for me to find both your birth certificate things. They both start with 'S.'"

As Apple Bloom passed them to her friends, Scootaloo perked up for the first time, looking not at her foal picture, but the information to the side.

Now that it was in front of her, Sweetie was almost afraid to look. But after a half second of indecision, she looked down.

It wasn't what she expected. It wasn't even either outcome she expected, both good and bad. In fact, she wasn't sure what to think.

The picture was a picture of her face. Almost identical to how she looked now. She didn't even remember the picture being taken, but Rarity had taken many pictures of her before. Same with her parents.

Though, as she looked at the information to the side, they weren't really her parents. Or maybe they were, but it didn't seem to be by blood.

Her birth town was blank. Her birth date was uncertain, an estimate rather than a solid date. It wasn't even the date she remembered celebrating every year.

She wasn't just an orphan. She was, like, a super-orphan. They didn't even know who her parents were. She was just found.

But if she was this old when they found her, why didn't she remember any of it?

Sweetie hadn't noticed until now, but her friends were now looking over her shoulders, reading the paper frozen in her hooves.

"Sweetie, I..."

Scootaloo gave a humorless chuckle. "I guess I don't have much to complain about, do I?"

Apple Bloom looked at her friend's face closely. "Sweetie? You aren't mad at Rarity are you? Your parents?"

Sweetie looked down. "I... I guess not. More that I'm just... sad I was right."

She positioned herself in front of her, lowering her head to make eye contact with Sweetie. "So, you'll go talk to her with us, won't you?"

She looked back up. "I... not yet."

Apple Bloom's eyes narrowed.

"I will! I promise. It's just... I need to check something first. Just one thing."

"Are you sure?"

"If it makes you feel any better, I'm just asking Twilight something."

Apple Bloom still looked uncomfortable, but nodded. "All right. But we're going to Rarity with you right after, you hear me?"

Sweetie nodded.

"Good. We'll be at the clubhouse when you're finished."

The world felt strange to Sweetie as she exited Town hall and walked down the dirt road to the library. The evening air felt too wet, the sky too heavy, and the ground felt like she was pushing it backwards rather than the other way around. It didn't help that halfway there, the sky started leaking water.

Really, being adopted shouldn't have been such an important thing. Despite their disagreements, Sweetie knew Rarity loved her like a sister. And even though their parents weren't around often, she knew they loved both of them just as much.

It shouldn't matter, but it did. And those looks Rarity gave her after the changeling thing... did she really love her after that?

And worse, what if she did know that changeling queen, but just didn't remember it? She didn't remember that picture, and it looked almost recent. Why couldn't she remember more than a few years, and all of that was with her new family?

She looked at the door to the library with determination.

And why can't I do magic?

She had always been told that all young unicorns took a while to master their horn. It took effort, but you got it when you were ready. Just like cutie marks. And just like cutie marks, some got it earlier than others.

But just like cutie marks, she was the last to get it in the entire school. Well, Scootaloo and Apple Bloom didn't have theirs, either, but she was still the last unicorn. But with the magic, she even caught Cheerilee looking worried, even though she still reassured her that it would work eventually. She wasn't so convinced anymore.

Sweetie knocked.

"Just a moment!"

The door opened, and a figure around the same height greeted her.

"Hi, Spike! Is Twilight here right now?"

"Yeah, just a sec." He turned around. "Twilight! It's Sweetie Belle!"

He turned back to Sweetie, realizing she was still in the doorway. And that it was raining. "Oh, right. You can come in, by the way. This is a public library, anyway, even though it's close to closing hours." He poked his head out and looked up at the sky. "Don't know why you'd be out in this weather, though. Didn't you look at the schedule? There's a storm today."

Sweetie trotted inside, allowing Spike to finally close the door and shut out the sound of the steadily growing rain. "I know, but our Crusading was supposed to be all indoors. And I thought the library was supposed to have a lightning rod, anyway."

Spike shrugged. "I was more talking about, you know, staying dry. Not getting struck by lightning. That's kinda hard to do if there's buildings nearby."

Sweetie looked uncomfortable. "I know, it's just our project was done early, so I thought I'd ask Twilight some questions. It was supposed to be tomorrow, but... I don't really want to wait another day."

The sound of hooves on wood interrupted them. "Ask me what?"

"Oh, hi Twilight!" Sweetie smiled up at her, then suddenly remembered her reason to be here, and her smile faded into a grumpy frown. "Right, I need to ask you this Twilight, and I want you to tell me the truth. Even if it's something I won't like. Can I do magic?"

"Of course you can do magic, Sweetie. You just have to be patient-"

"Twilight! I'm fourteen! I should have magic by now! At least a little!"

Twilight's mouth hung open for a few seconds, clearly unsure on how to deal with the sudden hostility. "Um, I mean... maybe you're really late?"

"Twilight. I've been told that for more than a year. I don't care what you have to do, scan me, hook me up to your weird mad science devices-"

"I do not have 'mad science devices!' Those are precision-"

"Twilight! That doesn't matter! Just tell me, with absolute scientific proof, that I can do magic. I don't care how. That changeling Queen changed her plan because of me, and I just found out that I was adopted and they don't even know who my parents are. I need something today."

Twilight stared at Sweetie, and to her horror, her expression looked a lot like Rarity's.

"Please, Twilight."

Twilight shook her head, and the expression was gone. Replacing it was a kind of determination that Sweetie found significantly more comforting. "All right. This should be pretty simple. Well, the spell I'm using isn't actually that simple, but it should make things really clear for you. The spell simply lights up in the presence of magic, allowing us both to see your magic core, as well as the leylines that connect to your horn. And if your magic really is damaged, we can get you the proper treatment, all right?"

Sweetie started to nod, but stopped suddenly. "Wait, if the spell just lights up in the presence of magic, won't the rest of my body just block the light inside me?"

"That's what makes the spell not that simple to cast."


"So... I'm going to start the spell right now. Is that okay?"

Sweetie nodded, tensing up as she readied herself mentally. Less than an hour ago, she found out that she shared more with Scootaloo than she had ever thought she would. Could she really share even more? Scootaloo had told her before, what was really wrong with her wings. And she had read from Twilight's own library about the condition, to get it in a bit more than a few words. Could she really have the same problem? Were her leylines broken?

Twilight gasped, and Sweetie looked down at herself. Her heart soared. There was indeed a fuzzy light in her chest, with thin, light pink lines running from it all over her body, even her horn. Her magic wasn't broken!

But Twilight was still staring. And her expression was weird again.

"Twilight? What's wrong? I thought this was what we were looking for?"

"But... but... no! That's not where it's supposed to be!"

Sweetie blinked, her brain refusing to comprehend what she was saying. "What?"

Twilight pointed at the light, still staring at it with laser-like focus. "Your magic core! It's supposed to be in your head! Pegasi have their core in their spines! Earth Ponies have it in their stomach! Nopony just has it in their actual heart!"


"And your leylines! They just go... everywhere! They aren't supposed to do that!" Twilight was now breathing heavily, putting her hoof to her chest and trying to slow it down.

Sweetie wasn't doing much better, despite her relative silence. No matter what, the face of that queen would not leave her head. If her magic didn't look like a unicorn, didn't look like a pegasus, and didn't look like an earth pony...

She bolted.

Twilight called out for her to come back, but she was already out the door, not caring that it slammed against the library's welcome sign. Not caring about the rain that came down in sheets and turned the dirt road into mud.

Thunder crashed in the distance.

Vaguely, she noticed that Twilight was running after her, but it didn't matter anymore. Who was Sweetie Belle? Was she even real?

She slipped, her face falling solidly into the mud. The darkening sky wouldn't have given her much to see by, even if she had been looking. She scrambled to her hooves again, this time going off into the grass. It didn't really matter where she was going. She didn't have a sister. She didn't have a family. It was all fake, just like that fake, evil queen.

All that mattered was that she got away.

She was running up a hill now, but she barely even noticed it. It wasn't much harder than running on flat ground. She shivered. Weren't bugs supposed to be able to walk on walls?

Twilight's voice pierced the air, and Sweetie easily traced the source. She was at the bottom of the hill, horn lighting the way. "Sweetie! It's okay! I'm not going to experiment on you, or do more tests, or anything a mad science pony would do, I swear! I was just surprised!"

"I just wanted one thing, Twilight! Was it too much to ask?" Her voice hitched. "I just wanted to know who I am! And now I don't even know WHAT I AM!

"Maybe I do know, but you know what's even worse? I DON'T EVEN REMEMBER!"

Sweetie stood on her hind legs, pointing angrily in the direction she thought through the clouds must have been the sun. "And YOU! Why didn't you tell me? You know... you're supposed to know everything.. right?"

"Then who am I?"



The lightning bolt missed the houses nearby. It missed the trees that were scattered along the field she was in. It bypassed everything and hit Sweetie Belle right on her outstretched hoof.

It hit her, and she saw no more.

Chapter 5: Signals

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Twilight froze in horror, blind from the flash so close to her, yet the image still burned into the back of her mind. A lightning bolt, defying all odds and laws of electricity to strike the filly she was trying to calm.

Pegasi had magic that let their controlled lightning hit targets contrary to the natural versions behavior, and for a brief moment, she was angered by the thought of foul play. But that didn't make much sense, either. The rest of the weather team always kept a close eye on the storm, to make sure it didn't get out of hoof and to make sure non-trained pegasi stayed well away. And now was certainly not the time to investigate.

Still half-blind, she ran up the grassy hill, glad that the thick grass stopped the ground from becoming a slippery, muddy mess.

Twilight ran up to Sweetie's prone form, preparing her magic to rush her away to the hospital, but as her vision finally cleared, it fizzled out.

What she saw on the ground there certainly looked a bit like Sweetie. But it didn't look much like a filly.

Sweetie Belle did not, in fact, lose consciousness, though one might have forgiven her for thinking she had. She could not see. She could not hear. She couldn't even feel any part of her body. She wouldn't have even considered taste as something she was doing before, but the sudden lack of it was unnerving. And her sense of smell was out of the question.

But that unnerving feeling was the first thing that made her realize that she was not, in fact unconscious. And her thought made her realize that unconscious ponies don't think when they are unconscious. That was, like, the whole point. Maybe they dreamed or something, but she definitely wasn't doing that. This felt way too real.

The blackness didn't feel black. It didn't feel empty. It wasn't even like she was trapped in a box. There just wasn't anything. That scared her more than anything.

It was her search for something, anything, that she could feel, that made her find it. It wasn't what she was looking for, of course. But it was something besides her own thoughts, and she hung onto it like a leech. It was a number. Just one. It was a one, in fact.

It was attached to something, though. Some letters, and some weird symbols, that spelled out 'safe_mode.'

Safe was good. Safe was very good. Maybe she could make the number more safe? She tried to change it to a million. That didn't work. She then tried a much more reasonable value of two. Still, nothing happened.

If Sweetie could have groaned, she would have. This was infuriating. Could she even change what she was seeing here?

Well, maybe it's just supposed to indicate how safe I feel. And I don't feel safe at all.

So she tried to change it to zero.

It was numbers. Lots of numbers. All the numbers.

Numbers all the way down.

Twilight didn't know what to do. The flesh-and-blood sister of her friend was nowhere to be found, a metal... something in her place. Whatever pony made this machine was clearly a master of their craft, but the fact remained that there should have been a filly right there.

Nopony was around, and it wasn't as if anypony was hiding. She checked. With her magic. There was no way that this machine had been swapped with Sweetie Belle, and despite her brain working on overtime, she couldn't think of a reason why somepony would replace her with such an obvious fake.

The metal plates had been painted with her exact coat color, her mane and tail could almost fool her that they had been real, and the attention to detail on her face... it was almost expressive, if completely inactive.

The only conclusion that Twilight's brain could come to was that Sweetie Belle was this machine, but that idea was clearly insane. After all, no machine could act like a pony. Not even the best come-to-life spell actually made something sapient. And besides, Sweetie Belle was nothing like this, despite the striking similarities in coat and mane color.

Thunder boomed again in the distance, shaking Twilight from her internal debate, and simultaneously providing a crucial data point that she had overlooked.

Her current appearance explains the odd behavior of the lightning.

Twilight readied her magic again, but the target was not Ponyville hospital. It was her library.

She disappeared in a flash, and the mechanical filly followed her.

Twilight's first impulse was to contact Princess Celestia about the problem. If there was anypony who wouldn't over-react to a situation, it would be her. And she would know what to do.

The problem was that she wasn't sure what to tell her. There were so many unknowns, all she could give to the Princess was theories. Was this Sweetie a replacement? Unlikely, but still possible. If not, how did she appear and act so normal for so long? And even if she was replaced earlier than the flash on that hill, it still had the same problem, except with an additional complication of motivation. And while she could think of plenty of those, Princess Celestia kept reminding her of Occam's Razor. The simplest solutions are usually the correct ones.

But the real problem, the one she was trying not to think about too much, was that she didn't even know if Sweetie Belle was even still... active. Whether she was a replacement, or she was a robot all along, whether there was a plot to overthrow Equestria or a simple filly trying to figure out her place in the world... the fact remained that she still had not moved. There were no whirring sounds, no lights.

A loud knock at the door startled her.

"Sweetie Belle? Are you still in there with Twilight? Putting this off won't help, you know!"

Twilight dashed to the door. She didn't have time to hide her, so the only option left was to stall. Or maybe reassure Apple Bloom enough where she would just leave.

Or apparently, both of her fellow Crusaders had come to confront her.

"Hey, girls! Um... what's the problem?"

"Hi, Twilight! We're just here for Sweetie Belle. Is she done with that thing she wanted to talk to you about?"

"Uh... oh that! No... no she is not done talking about... that thing."

Oh, right! It was about her lack of magic! Twilight smiled uneasily.

Apple Bloom gave her a look that reminded Twilight rather disturbingly of Applejack.

Uh oh.

"Twilight, helping her stall isn't going to help out in the long run. We all know... well, we know something about her that she needs to talk with Rarity about."

Twilight's train of thought skipped a few tracks, her body freezing up to reevaluate the current situation.

"Wait, you know?"

Both of the Crusaders blinked in surprise. "Wait... you know?"

Scootaloo looked past her into the library. "I thought she would want to tell Rarity first, at least."

"Well... I kinda found out on accident." Twilight stepped away from the doorframe, finally allowing Sweetie's friends out of the rain. "She got, um, upset about what we were talking about, and ran out into the storm, and um... got hit."

Both of them were rather confused, until the last of what Twilight said struck them, and the circumstances mattered a whole lot less. They pushed past her quickly, and cantered into the library proper, where they caught their first glimpse of their friend.

There was a pregnant pause.

"You never said she was a robot!"

Twilight covered her mouth. Oops.

"What happened‽"

"Um, well, she looked pretty normal until she got hit. Or maybe I noticed something when the magic scan spell I used had really weird results-"

Scootaloo suddenly had a look of comprehension.

Apple Bloom persisted. "Is she okay?"

Twilight's nervousness only increased. "I don't know! I only just got her here!"

Scootaloo leaned closer to her face.

"You didn't check that before you carried her?"

"I teleported, okay? There wasn't enough time, and it was raining! It still is!"

Scootaloo looked up. "Hey, Bloom? Miss Twilight?"

"It don't take much to check for a pulse?"

"Machines don't have pulses!"

She slammed her rear hooves into the wood floor, causing a loud crack to reverberate through the air. "HEY! Pay attention!"

Twilight paused. While Scootaloo was definitely a more... active filly, she was still usually quite polite to adults.

"There's lights on. Underneath her eyelids."


This was worse than the nothingness. The nothingness was way better. The safe mode was telling the truth. Sweetie might have turned it on again, but she could no longer find the switch.

She felt like sitting down in a corner somewhere, but there were no corners. She still couldn't actually go anywhere. All she got was more numbers, none of which she could escape. They all demanded her attention. At least the letters she could ignore. But the numbers just had a way of sticking there, almost as if engraved in her head. Or taped to her eyes. But she still couldn't see.

After what felt like forever, and nothing changing, she tried to start looking for the letters. Maybe she could find the safe switch again. Switches were easy. They could only be zero or one. A lot of the numbers were not like this, though, and had a lot of those annoying decimals. These weren't the nice ones Cheerilee used in math class, though. These were the kinds that had, like, ten numbers after the point. And these usually had the annoying habit of changing constantly. And way too fast. All going directly to her head.

But zeros were easy. If she looked for only the zeros, and then the letters attached, she could find the safe switch and turn it to one.

The problem was that there were an awful lot of zeros.

Chapter 6: Stream

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Sweetie found something. It wasn't the safe mode she was looking so frantically for, but the tag attached to it made her pause in her search. It was labeled sys_vision.

For the first time, she slowed down enough to realize just how strange all this was. Where was she? Why were these numbers here?

And was this vision switch thing the reason she couldn't see? It was set to zero, like all the things she was searching. The numbers all around were still burning themselves into her brain constantly, but for the first time, she wasn't thinking about that.

Maybe my head is broken? Am I crazy? Or is this just what ponies in comas all see? Will I remember this when I wake up?

But she had to see. So she turned sys_vision to 1.

The numbers didn't stop. But if she had started to ignore them before, this was when they really became quite irrelevant. She had something like vision, yes. Her brain definitely thought this was sight. But it hurt her head far more than the numbers did. It was like somepony spilled salt and pepper all over the floor, except the floor was her face, the salt and pepper also had weird colors, and it changed every millisecond.

But unlike the numbers, the really small color dots didn't stay annoying. Well, they did, but soon a lot more of the "pepper" dots were in her eyes rather than the "salt" ones that hurt her eyes the most.

Soon, she had a weird, grainy image, like a really bad camera. One of those new magic types, but the cheap kind. Sweetie still had no idea what she was looking at, though. It was mostly a featureless gray, with some faint green circles. There was a little sliver of light at the bottom, though, so she was a lot more inclined to believe it was real, rather than just another annoying thing her brain came up with to torture her.

A sliver of orange took the light away. But the orange looked familiar. Really familiar.


She tried to say something, but then remembered that she couldn't talk. Or maybe she could, but she couldn't hear anyway. Or move her mouth. Or feel if she even had a mouth.

Where did that come from? I have eyelids, don't I? They look weird.

Maybe that's what changeling eyelids look like?

She needed to see, but her eyelids weren't moving. So, frustrated once again, she dove back into the zeros.

Sweetie wasn't looking for the safe mode anymore. But the search was no less frantic.

Twilight and the rest of the Crusaders were no less frantic, searching every inch of the mechanical body on the library's floor. Whether it was Sweetie or not, somepony's life was at stake, and whether they could affect the outcome or not, they needed to know.

The only light they had found so far was underneath the eyelids, which none of them could budge at all. As far as the rest of the joints went, some were loose, moving with relative ease. Most of the main joints were this way. But other, smaller joints were stuck firmly in place.

Twilight couldn't stop herself from associating the rigid behavior with rigor mortis, even though it made more sense that resistance meant that the machine did indeed function. In fact, when Scootaloo managed to make one of those joints move through sheer stubbornness, it had immediately moved back into the same position. An action that gave them all hope.

The sun was well beyond the horizon, but Twilight didn't want to abandon somepony in clearly critical condition, and she didn't have the heart to tell Apple Bloom or Scootaloo to leave. It was her fault that she was in this state, after all.

Her mind was quickly changed when she heard a knock on the door.

"Twilight? Are you still up? I can't find Sweetie anywhere!"

"Girls? I'll make sure Sweetie is okay. You need to get back to your families. You'll both need your sleep. I have a feeling tomorrow isn't going to feel any shorter."


Twilight sighed. "I get it. But I'm doing all I can to help." And it isn't much. "And if she gets better by tomorrow, I have a feeling she'll need help from her friends. But you need to be awake tomorrow."

There was a knock on the door again, this time a lot more insistent. "Twilight! I can hear you in there! Is Sweetie okay?"

"Come in, Rarity!"

She turned back to the Crusaders. "I promise I'll let you know if something big happens, no matter how late or early it is. Now get on home."

Twilight let out a deep breath as they left and a frantic Rarity noticed the Sweetie bot on the library floor. Twilight had pulled all-nighters before, but she had a feeling that this one was going to be longer than usual.

Behind her, Sweetie's eyelids suddenly slammed open.

She finally did it. She found the number that controlled her eyelids. This one wasn't a zero, though. Or a one. Actually, there were two numbers. One was indeed a zero. But the other one was one of the annoying decimal numbers really close to zero. She couldn't change any of the annoying decimal numbers. And changing the zero to a one barely changed anything. It made the slit just a tiny bit wider.

And then that changed the annoying decimal.

So she tried to change the number to a thousand. No dice.

She eventually found a number low enough to work, which was a hundred. Suddenly, her vision expanded completely, and she could clearly see... that she was on the floor of Twilight's library.

Oh, and there was Twilight. And Rarity! They were both clearly panicking, but she couldn't hear anything.

Oh dear. This is going to take forever.

Screw this. Next time I see anything I recognize, I'm messing with it.

Wait, cannon1? I have cannons?

Oh, right, that's the front part of my legs.

Ears... tail... more leg parts...

Sweetie blinked again, reveling in how normal of an action that was, but thoroughly disappointed in the fact that she still couldn't feel it. But Rarity and Twilight seemed to be freaking out even more, which was frustrating, as she still didn't know how to hear things. Or talk.

But maybe if I learn to use my hooves, I can write out a message.

She dove back into the code, ignoring the two adults trying repeatedly to get her attention.

Sweetie started with her front right hoof. It was pretty easy to figure out what did what, especially after she learned to turn her head so she could actually see what was going on. And it was even easy to move each individual... joint...

Oh, no, what happened to me?

What she was looking at was not her leg. It was some metal painted white that happened to be in the same general shape.

She looked back at Twilight, who was still panicking, and still just as silent as ever. It didn't even feel like silence. Just... there wasn't any sound. She shook her head. She wasn't making any sense. No matter what did happen, she still needed to be able to write.

It was fairly easy to control each... joint, on that strange leg that her body labeled as hers. Even though some of the numbers worked differently on different parts.

The hard part was getting them to work at the same time.

She finally managed to spell out the word "paper" on the floor, which prompted an immediate response from the librarian, who floated over a sheet.

If Sweetie knew how to sigh, she would have. She spelled out "pen."

Twilight's hoof met her face, and she brought over a quill and ink, eyeing Sweetie's one working hoof warily.

Sweetie slowly and methodically picked up the quill and dipped it in the ink. Fortunately, the rest of her body didn't shift during this process, so she was able to control this quite well. She was less lucky as she started writing, but managed to messily spell out "cant hear" as some sort of explanation.

It seemed to get the point across, as both of them stopped trying to talk to her. Twilight brought her own quill and paper next to hers.

Are you okay?

Sweetie started to nod, but stopped. She had no idea how to shrug.

She dipped the quill back into the ink. maybe

Can you get up?

She shook her head.

Is something broken?

Sweetie put her quill back to the paper. Her hoofwriting was still absolutely terrible, and would probably make Cheerilee faint, but it was getting easier. dont know. dont think so.

Twilight got up and started talking with Rarity, so Sweetie diverted her attention to applying what she learned about her right hoof to her left. Soon she was able to face the paper with something else other than a forty-five degree angle. Still, the more she used at once, the more annoying it got to keep track of. Standing up was still a long way off.

Twilight came back.

Is everything you do manually controlled?

Sweetie blinked, then nodded. How did Twilight know that? Did she know what was wrong with her?

Twilight got up again, talking again with Rarity, who was looking more and more frantic. Twilight came back once again, this time looking distinctly annoyed.

Are you Sweetie Belle?

Sweetie looked at Twilight with mild panic before nodding.

Twilight doesn't know what is wrong with me‽ What's going on?

Rarity came up this time.

What is your favorite flavor of ice cream?


She wrote down "vanilla," though remained confused as to why.

Rarity had a strange expression on her face that Sweetie couldn't place. It was distinctly uncomfortable.

What did you get for your birthday last year?

Oh. Suddenly she was a lot less happy to answer the questions. She shoved the paper away. It was getting full anyway.

And using the two hooves she still had control over, she turned herself away from her sister.