Every night for the last two weeks, the stones. And the names.
Oh, the particular arrangement was different, and she was different too. Sometimes she was a full grown mare, somehow, with a cutie mark and everything. Other times, she was still a filly.
But every time she slept, she saw the stones, the names upon them, and it was only after she awoke that she recalled it hadn't happened yet.
Every name she had ever known. Every name.
She wondered why Luna never visited her in those nightmares... or even if she could.
It was a bright sunny day in Ponyville, not in itself a remarkable occurrence. Sweetie Belle grinned alongside her friends as they cantered through the streets, determined to accomplish SOMETHING today. This was part of the reason why she was dragging an inflatable raft along.
Actually, that was the only reason she was pulling the inflatable raft along.
"Ah told ya, this is mah greatest idea yet! One of us has GOT ta be a cutie mark white water rider."
"Hmmm. I guess that could work. Rafting the rapids."
Sweetie rolled her eyes. "Well, I know I'm not going to be a river rafter."
Apple Bloom gave her a curious look. "Why not?"
Because I'd spark and fritz. "I'm just not built for that sort of activity."
"Yeah, I'm actually kinda amazed you keep up with us," Scootaloo agreed casually. However, she soon regretted her choice of words when a yellow hoof slapped her upside the head. "OW! What was that for?!"
"Being rude ta Sweetie."
The unicorn filly giggled. "No, it's alright. I know she didn't mean anything mean!"
"It's still wrong," Apple Bloom grumbled. "We don't know fer sure that Sweetie's special talent ain't something sporty. And 'sides, it ain't like she's out of shape."
"Well, no," Scootaloo agreed. "Still, I mean.... Sweetie Belle? Professional wrestler?"
"....it could happen," Apple Bloom insisted uncertainly.
"No it couldn't," Sweetie said calmly.
"...yeeeeeah, maybe that's a bit too much ta swallow."
"GIRLS!" Scootaloo stooped suddenly, a wide grin on her face. "WE HAVE ARRIVED!" She flung a hoof forward, pointing at the water that whisked down the hill faster than a train. "Soon, we will be earning our cutie marks in the most AWESOME way possible!"
"Let's just get this over with," grumbled the unicorn, dragging the inflatable raft next to the river.
Apple Bloom gave her a worried look. "Are ya okay?"
"What? I'm fine, why?"
"Ya kinda seem a bit.... melancholy."
Sweetie Belle gave Apple Bloom a look. "What happens when you get your cutie marks?"
She opened her mouth, about to explain, but stopped. Then she shook her head. "I'm being a silly pony, that's all."
"Well will you STOP being a silly pony and hop in?" Scootaloo looked at them from her seat at the front of the raft, her annoyance and impatience making her flutter her wings. "I'm not pushing off until we're all ready!"
"Sweetie Belle...." Apple Bloom put a hoof on the unicorn's shoulder. "We are yer friends. Nothen', and Ah mean ABSOLUTELY nothen' could evar change that."
Sweetie Belle smiled at her gratefully. Apple Bloom smirked back, giving her one final pat, before tucking herself in behind Scootaloo. Neither pegasus nor earth pony saw the smile fade from their friend's face as she slipped into the rear of the raft.
"Alright everypony. On the count of three we shove off these rocks." Scootaloo put an orange hoof right outside the raft. "One... two...."
"....three of tha most thick-headed fillies Ah've ever met! Look at ya'll, all covered in bruises and tree sap and...."
Applejack sighed, seeing the way that her audience was shamefully hanging their heads. "Look, girls. Ah know ya want ta get yer cutie marks. Ah respect that. But when Ah see ya beaten up like this... Ah just can't help but worry that yer gonna find somethen' that actually takes ya away forever."
"Sorry, big sis..."
The farmpony melted at the sad look Apple Bloom was giving her. "Now come on.... don't do that. Listen just.... next time ya'll do somethen' dangerous, try ta have a grown up looken' out fer yah. Ah don't want ta lose ya, ya hear?"
"Okay, big sis..."
"That goes fer all three of ya!" the mare added, giving the other two fillies a pointed look. "Now if ya'll excuse me, Ah gotta get that raft ya'll rented off tha cliff-face... somehow."
She stared at the yellow object, still bewildered; the river was quite some distance away from the stone slope, and she could not for the life of her understand how the raft had ended up hanging from the precipice.
"Gonna need mah rope," she grumbled, walking toward the barn.
As soon as she was out of earshot, Scootaloo perked up. "THAT! WAS! AWESOME!" She checked her flank. "I have to have gotten a--oh. Still blank. " She shrugged, turning to the others. "What about you girls?"
"Nothen' here.... dang."
"White as a sheet of paper."
Scootaloo sighed. "And I was SURE one of us would get a cutie mark out of this. Oh well.... hey, want to go by Sugarcube Corner?"
"Yeah!" Apple Bloom perked up instantly. "That sounds like a great idea! Ah could really go fer some cookies."
Sweetie Belle, try as she might, couldn't work up the enthusiasm. "I'm sorry, but... all I want to do right now is go home and take a bath." And check to make sure my skin's not torn, she added in her mind, giving her foreleg a glance. "I'm just going to head home and wash up."
The pegasus looked at her friend suspiciously. "Really? You're skipping out on cookies?"
"....I'm sorry, I'm just.... I don't know. Tired." The unicorn shrugged halfheartedly. "I.... I've been having some bad nightmares recently, so I keep waking up in the middle of the night..."
"What kind of nightmares?" Apple Bloom asked gently, stepping closer.
"Oh it's... nothing trust me." Sweetie laughed off her friend's worry, trotting down the road. "Come on, let's get those cookies!"
Scootaloo thrust her face into Sweetie's, stopping the unicorn in her tracks. "Nothing? If you're losing sleep, it's not nothing. Tell us what's going on."
"...I really don't want to talk about it."
"Is it somethen' ta do with Rarity?"
Sweetie Belle snorted. "No. Can we drop the subject?"
"Do you think we should be doing something different to get our cutie marks?"
"I don't know! I'm just going with whatever you guys try!"
"Are ya worried that yer never gonna get yer cutie mark?"
The unicorn blinked. She turned her head slowly to Apple Bloom, who was looking at her sympathetically.
"...I... yeah." She slumped. "Yes." That wasn't all she was worried about, but it was all she was going to let them know.
"Hey." Scootaloo tried to smile comfortingly. "We won't stop trying until EVERY crusader gets their cutie mark. Me, You, Bloom, Babs, whoever else Babs has recruited... We're the Cutie Mark Crusaders and more importantly we're your friends. Rainbow Dash doesn't leave anypony hanging... and I won't either."
"We're always here fer ya Sweetie." Apple Bloom wrapped her forelegs around her friend's neck. "And we'll always be here fer ya even after we all get our cutie marks."
Sweetie Belle let out a long, slow breath.
Then, reluctantly, she returned the hug. It hadn't helped at all, but Apple Bloom was trying. And even if they couldn't help her, she could at least let them feel useful. "Thanks... I really just don't want to talk about it."
They stood there for a silent minute.
Eventually, Scootaloo sighed. "You two are stuck, aren't you."
"Have I mentioned I hate tree sap? I hate tree sap. Put that on the record."
Hot cookies. On a blue plate.
Of course Scootaloo and Apple Bloom were eating eagerly. And Sweetie Belle was also eating... but for every two one of her friends took, she only had one.
Pinkie Pie raised an eyebrow. She could see the signs and, unlike the crusaders, actually knew what was going on. She slunk out from behind the counter, unseen by the fillies, sneaking around them in a shockingly silent manner.
Without warning, she stuck her head between Scootaloo and Apple Bloom. "HIYA SWEETIE BELLE!"
"AAAoh hey." The unicorn recovered quickly. "What's up Pinkie?"
"Well I'll tell you what's down. Your cookie-eating speed!" The party pony spun the plate around. "You've not even eaten half of what your friends have COMBINED!"
"Oh... um.... sorry?"
"THIS IS A PROBLEM!" Pinkie declared emphatically. "I think.... you have gotten... the rare illness. The most horrific of illnesses." She nodded gravely. "Papillangitis."
"Taste bud cold!" The pink pony grabbed Sweetie's tongue, stretching it out. "Your taste buds are so congested they're not tasting buds! They're not tasting anything! Oh my oh me oh moe, this is very very very bad. FORTUNATELY, I know the cure." Pinkie gave the other two crusaders a pointed look. "You two, stay here, this is a delicate operation. AWAY!"
Picking up the unicorn, the baker whisked her into the kitchen proper and began to rifle through the pantries. producing a variety of ingredients and mixing them before the befuddled filly's eyes. "Sugar, yes. Flour, yes. Nitroglycerine, maybe... no, I got hot sauce, nitro's not necessary. Vinegar, definitely not. Eggs! Chocolate! Vanilla! High fructose corn syrup? No, anachronism." She dropped that bottle in the trash. "Catsup... nah. Oranges!"
"Pinkie... what are you making?"
"A super-sense-spectacular!" The party pony whirled around with a smirk. "Just let me find some baking powder and a dash of olive oil and some pinapples! Probably some cinnamon too. Oh, and can't forget the spices! Pepper, rosemary, jimbu, paprika--"
"And you expect me to actually eat that?"
"Or you could tell me what's really going on. Either way I win."
Sweetie Belle stared in shock at the suddenly very calm, very focused expression on Pinkie Pie's visage. Never would she have expected such a level of cunning from such a silly pony.
Cautiously, she decided to test her luck. "Well, I really don't want to talk about it..."
"Okay fair enough. OH LOOK JALAPENOS!"
"ALRIGHT! You win! I'll talk!"
Once more, Pinkie's face reformed into that calm, observant face. It was unnerving.
Eventually, the unicorn sighed. "...every night, I... I have this dream. It's not always the same, but... I'm walking in a graveyard, and... and there are names. Names I know, names I love, and I'm all alone.... Last night, I dreamed that Apple Bloom died young." Tears began to form in her eyes. "I.... I'm a machine. Machines don't die. I'm going to see all my friends die. I--"
"Stop." Pinkie put a hoof to her muzzle. "I see the problem. You're worried about the future."
She nodded, eyes brimming.
"That's exactly what you shouldn't be doing! Look out there!" Pinkie pointed at the door. "Scootaloo and Apple Bloom are eating cookies and laughing and wondering what that crazy pink pony is doing with their friend! Even if they die one day, that day isn't today. You still have time with them! You have a lot of time with them! Use it! Live in the moment! And if you do outlive them--not a guarantee, even for a machine--you don't mourn them forever. You grieve... and then you keep the good parts, the good times in your heart. Make HAPPY memories, Sweetie Belle. That's what the now is for!"
The unicorn sniffed. "But... they'll be gone one day. You'll be gone one day..."
"Hey, listen to me. You know princess Luna?"
"Everpony she used to know is gone. She didn't even get to mourn them before she was thrust into this new world." Pinkie leaned down. "And she was scared, and hurting, and sad. But... she's been smiling recently. It's rare, but it happens."
"How? How does she cope?"
"By looking at what's around her now."
Sweetie Belle blinked. She stared at the baker with shimmering eyes.
"...I.... I'll try to live for the moment."
"In the moment. Not for it." Pinkie smirked. "Trust me, there's a huge difference. Now if you don't hurry, all those cookies will be gone!"
The unicorn stared at her.... and broke out a sly smile. "I'm in a kitchen. Why don't I just make more?"
"....Sir? The latest data packet.... you need to look at this."
Rarity emitted a sigh that communicated that she would genuinely appreciate accepting the gift if she were not so busy at the moment. "Would you be a dear and put them on that desk there? I'm sorry, but I'm rather focused right now..."
"Oh.... Okay!" Sweetie slid the plate onto the desk, looking at the mannequin that Rarity was working on. "That dress looks really pretty! And, um, complicated." She tilted her head, examining the masterpiece in the making. "Are all those layers really necessary?"
"It's a period piece, dear. I'm trying to impress some rather... connected historians down in Fillydelphia." She snorted. "Apparently, being endorsed by Sapphire Shores put me on their naughty list, so they spread rumors through the city and now I can't so much as set hoof in there.... they've never even seen my face! Well, except for the Princess's announcement that one time we locked Discord in stone."
"You'd think they'd be head over hooves to get on the good side of one of the bearers."
Rarity sighed. "Well... the princesses have downplayed our, ah, fame. Applejack and Fluttershy in particular didn't want the attention, and Rainbow Dash is the kind of mare that wants to succeed on her own merits, not titles. Twilight simply didn't see the point, the dear, and Pinkie Pie.... well..."
"Pinkie Pie is Pinkie Pie?"
"Precisely, dear." She smiled wistfully. "And for the element of generosity to flaunt her status would be somewhat... out of character. Still, I suppose if everything were handed to me on a silver platter I'd get too lazy to even work on my dresses." Rarity finally stepped back, eying her work with a careful look. "I do believe that's accurate enough."
"It looks really nice!"
"Thank you darling." The fashionista turned to her sister. "Now then! I think I should see these cookies you made, I'm almost certain they're going to be delicious."
"Pinkie Pie helped me make them!"
Rarity levitated a cookie to her muzzle, taking a graceful bite. "Mmmmm... Yes, I can tell! These are simply astounding!" She took a moment to finish the pastry and dab her lips clean with a handkerchief she kept specifically for that purpose. "So how did you convince Pinkie to help you make these?"
"I just asked. After, um..." Sweetie Belle pulled her ears back. "After.... well, after I kinda told her about... my nightmares..."
The elder unicorn, after a moment, hugged her sister gently. "I... wish I could help with that somehow. I know how bad nightmares can be... after Discord's day, I had a number of them."
"Actually, Pinkie Pie talked with me about them. I don't think I'll have those nightmares anymore, she was a big help."
"...oh was she?"
The younger unicorn realized what she was saying and leaned back. "N-N-Not that you weren't a help, I mean, I just--"
Rarity giggled at her panicked expression, putting a gentle hoof on her lips. "Don't you worry, dear, I'm not jealous. If anything, I'm grateful to Pinkie for being able to help where..." She sighed. "Well. At the very least, you'll be getting more sleep every night."
"...Why do I need to sleep, anyway? I mean, I get eating, but sleep seems kinda weird for a robot to do."
The fashionista shook her head. "Well, most ponies sleep so that their minds can organize the memories from the day."
"Oh. That makes sense." Sweetie Belle nodded to herself, trying to determine where to take the conversation now; sleep was a subject that was ironically easy to exhaust. "Um... so you had nightmares because of Discord?"
Rarity flinched. "Yes. I... couldn't quite get over the way I was made to..." She shuddered. "I don't like thinking about it."
"No, dear, I'm fine. Discord's day was awful for all of us..."
The younger unicorn hesitated. "Um... actually, he kinda ignored me."
"Well, when he came to Ponyville and did all his chaos stuff, he would talk to ponies before he did... whatever. But when he came to me and the other crusaders he just... stared at me. And shook his head." She kicked the ground awkwardly. "Said something about nothing causing more chaos than curiosity."
That comment caused Rarity to pause. Even after he was reformed, Discord had a habit of... twisting truths in sinister ways. Perhaps she should ask Fluttershy if she could persuade the draconequuis to explain that odd statement.
Sweetie Belle fidgeted uncomfortably in the sudden silence.
"....Well!" The fashionista shook her head. "I suppose that you were lucky then."
"Yeah, I... I guess I was."
When Sweetie Belle awoke the next morning, she gave a silent, ladylike yawn. Her eyelids still heavy, she trotted to her wardrobe, taking a moment to comb her mane and tail.
It suddenly occurred to her that she hadn't dreamed at all.
A small smile stole over her face at that realization. She began to hum to herself, checking her mane and double checking for any cuts in the fabric of her skin, before she nodded in satisfaction.
Out of habit, she walked to the bathroom and brushed her teeth. Pinkie had told her that it wasn't, strictly speaking, necessary, her mouth apparently cleaned itself in her sleep, but... somehow, she couldn't stop herself. Once that was done, morning breath conquered, the filly trotted down the stairs. Her humming had become the happy formless singing that she so often engaged in, random tunes swimming through the air with no real direction.
Saint Germane smiled as her daughter walked into the kitchen. "Looks like somepony's happy to wake up today. I made you waffles for breakfast." She gestured to the blackened husks on the table.
"Thanks Mom!" Sweetie Belle grabbed some of the charred disks and began munching on them happily.
"You're welcome, Sweetie. Do you have anything special planned for today?"
"No... The girls and I are going to do a little crusading, but besides that there's nothing really unusual on the schedule." She tapped her chin thoughtfully. "You may want to bring Fluttershy over though..."
"Really?" Her mother gave her a curious look. "Why do you say that?"
"Well, last night I heard squeaking coming from your room."
"...O-oh. You, ah, heard that...?"
The filly sniffed the air curiously. "And now I'm smelling something... I don't know exactly what, but--"
"SO you said you were doing some crusading today? Not anything particularly dangerous?" Saint Germane smiled widely.
"Well, probably not too dangerous, no. At least not after yesterday with, um... stuff." Sweetie sniffed again. "I really think you should get Fluttershy, Mom, whatever those squeaking things were they've been in the kitchen."
"Right, I'll be sure to do that! Oh hey, is that Scootaloo out there?" Germane began to nudge her daughter out the door, blushing lightly for some inexplicable reason. "You should probably go out and hop into that wagon so you're not late!"
"Bye Sweetie, I love you, have a good day at school!" Her mother shut the door quickly, not fast enough to actually slam it but still a bit too fast, in her opinion.
"...today is Saturday..."
Scootaloo rode up, giving the unicorn an odd look as she tossed her a helmet. "What is up with your mom? It's like she wanted you out of the house or something."
"I don't know, it's just weird!" Sweetie Belle strapped the green thing to her head, idly wondering if she actually needed it. Maybe she could ask Pinkie to take a look at her head during their next research session...
"Maybe she's busy wrapping up a birthday present for you."
The unicorn gave her friend a look as she clambered into the wagon. "Scoots, my birthday isn't for eleven months."
The pegasus shrugged. "Hey, it was just an idea." She began flapping her wings rapidly, propelling her scooter and the attached vehicle at ever more rapid speeds. "So what do you think we should do today?"
"I don't know. Something not dangerous. Cutie Mark... um... secretaries?"
"Ugh. That's so boring!"Scootaloo mock gagged as they swerved around a startled unicorn. "But I guess I could give it a shot. Did... did you sleep well?"
"Hmmm? Oh! Yeah, no nightmares, no nothing!" Sweetie perked up. "I think talking to you girls and Pinkie helped a lot!"
"Taste Bud Cold is not a real affliction."
"Ooooooh." The pegasus nodded. "I guess that would explain why you seemed so much happier when you came out of that kitchen."
"That and the cookies." Sweetie giggled. "Cookies were a big help."
Soon enough the next meeting of the Cutie Mark Crusaders was called to order. The secretary idea was thrown out pretty rapidly, on the grounds that being a librarian was kind of like being a secretary and they'd already tried that. Scootaloo's snowboarding idea was also thrown out, on the grounds that climbing up a mountain or going up a ski lift were too expensive (although they did put it down on the Ideas needing Funding list). Finally, Apple Bloom suggested they try something like fishing, which Scootaloo admitted was possibly a bit cool, provided they caught a really big or neat fish.
"...you know, this is ridiculously boring."
"....why do we even fish?" the pegasus continued. "It's not like we eat fish."
"Fluttershy feeds fish to some of her animals," Sweetie Belle pointed out. "Maybe that's what happens to them!"
Scootaloo rolled her eyes. "So all over Equestria, ponies fish and send the fish to Fluttershy."
"...well, or a local zoo or something." Sweetie shrugged. "It's kinda relaxing."
"I thought for sure we would have at least caught that squid by now," Scootaloo grumbled.
The three of them sat on the shore and stared at the water, waiting for something to happen. As they sat, each of them considered their position in life. What had brought them to this. Where they could go from here.
"...Girls. You're great friends, you know that?" Sweetie Belle turned to her companions. "You've helped me through a lot."
"What do you mean?" Scootaloo gave her a weirded out look. "All we've really done is crusade with you... and that one time when AB arranged things so Rarity would go to the Sisterhooves Social with you. Oh, and that hug thing after Babs and Diamond took our clubhouse..."
"Trust me, you girls are the best."
"What brought this on, Sweetie?" Apple Bloom turned to the unicorn. "Was it tha nightmares?"
"That's the thing. I didn't have nightmares last night. And I... I think I know why." Sweetie Belle smiled. "I... have a choice. It's a choice I've been afraid to make, because... I didn't know how you, or anypony would really react. But..."
She took a deep breath.
"...I think I'm ready now. I think I'm ready."
"...ready ta do what?"
"Ready to tell you two something. Something really important."
"Whatever it is, it's going to have to wait!" Scootaloo stood eagerly, clutching her fishing pole. "I GOT A BITE! I FINALLY GOT WHOAAAAAAA!"
Apple Bloom leapt at the pegasus, just managing to grab her tail as she was suddenly dragged over the water. "AH GOT YA! AH GOT WAAAAAAAAAA! SWEETIE! HELP ME!"
The unicorn giggled, jumping after the two. "Hold on, I--!" It was only after she had a grip on the earth pony's red tail that she realized how useless her action would be.
Then the three of them were dragged through the lake.
"Level of exposure?"
"Two individuals. One is eccentric, one considers herself to be drone fifty eight's sister. Both have sworn to keep it secret."
"Both individuals are national heroes. At the moment, the situation is stable. Normal methodology is not suggested, as it would attract attention from a large portion of the populace. I say we do nothing."
"The other drones are undiscovered. At the moment, risk is minimal."
"Your suggestion is taken under advisement. Return to your station."
The cutie mark crusaders smiled gratefully as Rarity put a plate of small sandwiches on the table before them. Scootaloo shivered a bit, drawing her towel around her tighter as she reached out and grabbed one of the treats. "Man... at least this time we didn't get covered in tree sap."
"I don't think coral sap is much different," Sweetie Belle muttered. "I think I got some of it in my mouth..."
"Ah didn't even know coral had sap." Apple Bloom shook her head. "Ah hope that those ponies on that boat ain't too mad..."
"They got to shore safely." Scootaloo shrugged. "I guess that we can go back later and see if we can apologize properly."
"That would be the ladylike thing to do," Rarity agreed, giving Scootaloo an encouraging smile. "Always own up to your own mistakes, darlings, even when it seems like you might be worse off for it."
"Speaken' of ownen' up..." Apple Bloom gave Sweetie Belle a curious look. "Ya wanted ta tell us somethen'?"
The fillies glanced to the plate that had fallen to the floor, watching as it spun silently on its base for half a second. Rarity was standing stock still, eyes wide; her horn no longer emitted the glow of blue magic, yet it felt as if somepony had cast a chilling spell over the room.
Sweetie Belle took a deep breath.
"....yes. Yes I did."
Birds chirped outside, ignorant of the silence that had descended in that room. Opal perked her ears up from the corner where she lay coiled, glancing at the table to determine what it was that had made the three tiny hooves cease their incessant chatter.
The tableau was a juxtaposition of many faces. Rarity, mixed between shock, pride at her sister's courage, and the cold dark fear that Sweetie Belle would wrap herself tight in blankets that night as she drowned in tears. Scootaloo, mildly curious about whatever secret her friend had but much more curious about Rarity's reaction. Apple Bloom, leaning forward, trying to reassure the unicorn filly through her motions that she would not be judged. And Sweetie Belle herself, not ashamed so much as... weary.
Eventually the pegasus snorted. "Well?"
"Um..." Sweetie blushed. "I... actually, do you mind if I tell you one at a time? I'm still kinda, um, nervous about this."
"Whatever makes ya comfterble," Apple Bloom agreed, taking her friend's hoof gently.
"Thanks.... I um..."
"...Why don't we talk about this upstairs in my room?" Rarity suggested. "I think that perhaps it would be best for me to be present during this... particular conversation."
Sweetie Belle nodded. "Yeah... um... Apple Bloom? Could you, um, come with me upstairs?"
Scootaloo raised an eyebrow as the three ponies trotted up the stairs. "Alright, whatever! I'll just be down here! Sitting in the kitchen, eating sandwiches! All alone!"
"...All alone with Opal!" she added quickly. "Which kinda worries me a bit... Just... You know, just in case you want to know!" The pegasus gave the feline an awkward grin. "Um... ah... you're not, um, still mad about that thing that happened while Rarity was at the Crystal empire, are you?"
Apple Bloom sat down in the middle of the room, glancing at the shelves where the fabrics were stored. "Ah see ya made some changes."
Rarity and Sweetie Belle shared a look.
"...yes, well, I decided to upgrade to a more fashionable and... sturdy set," the elder unicorn explained simply.
"It's actually kinda related to, um, what I have to tell you." Sweetie Belle fidgeted, rubbing her foreleg. "I um... I... How do I say this?" She let out a nervous giggle. "This is actually... you're actually the first pony I,um, have told.. will tell. Rarity was there with me when I found out and, uh, Pinkie always knew..."
The earth pony nodded. "Ah can see how this can be hard fer ya then."
"Um... see, I'm not sure whether to just tell you, or kind of lead up to it, or maybe... show you. Um... What do you think?"
Apple Bloom gave her friend a deadpan look. "Yer asking me how ta tell me a secret Ah don't know."
"...alright..." The yellow filly tapped her chin thoughtfully. "...On a scale of one ta ten, one being that yer favorite color's pink and ten being that we're all actually tha products of tha imagination of a red-maned monkey mare, how world-shaken' is this secret?"
Sweetie Belle considered the question very seriously, taking some time to run the numbers through her head. "...um... eight? Maybe seven. Somewhere in that area, what do you think Rarity?"
"Yes, I... I believe that would be an accurate guess."
Apple Bloom raised an eyebrow. "...so let me guess. Yer a changeling."
"What? No! Why would you even think that?!"
"Anythang in that region kinda says 'Ah'm not what ya thought Ah was."
"Well, actually I'm a robot."
For a moment, the only sound was the chirruping of birds outside and the panicked cries of a pegasus downstairs.
Sweetie Belle blushed. "Um, I... I'm a robot."
"A.. you know, a machine pony?"
Apple Bloom snorted. "Ah know what a robot is. What Ah don't get is why ya think ye'r one."
"Well, it was a surprise to me as well," Rarity explained gently. "But as it turns out, my... our parents actually found little Sweetie Belle here in a dumpster. And they took her in and... well, here we are."
"Wait, so jus cause yer parents found ya in tha garbage they think ye'r a robot?"
"They don't know," Sweetie Belle clarified quickly. "Rarity and I only found out when the old, um, fabric shelf fell on my leg and..." She sighed. "Here, let me take it off."
"Take what o...."
Apple Bloom's voice faded away as she watched her friend slip the skin off her leg like a sock. Except socks weren't supposed to contain wires and tubes and hinges and fluid sacks and steel frameworks. They were supposed to contain... hooves. Sweeite Belle had just taken her hoof off and revealed machinery that fascinated and... slightly excited her friend.
The unicorn looked at her friend's face. "Um... this, this isn't scaring you, is it?"
"If you like, I can put it back on and--"
"NAH AH'M FAHN." Apple Bloom shook her head. "Ah mean, Ah'm okay, Ah, just, um, Ah, Ah was, um, surprised."
"Oh... I could see why you'd be--"
"Ye'r a robot!" she blurted without thinking.
The other two ponies stared at her. Suddenly she realized exactly what she had said and blushed. "Er... what Ah mean is... um...." Apple Bloom rubbed the back of her head and chuckled nervously. "Ah mean, uh... wow. Ye'r a... wow... um. Wow."
"Is... is that a good wow or a bad wow?"
"It's... it's a wow." Apple Bloom waved a hoof in a circular manner. "Ah'm sorry, it's still kinda.. just going through right now. Sweetie Belle equals robot." She giggled. "Does not compute, working, working..."
Sweetie Belle frowned. "I don't sound like that. I don't even think like that."
"...it's okay. Um... we're still friends ri--?!"
"ABSOLUTLY." The grin on Apple Bloom's face could not be wider. "Friends ferevah. No matter what we're made of."
"Ohmygosh you don't know how happy I am to hear you say that!" Sweetie Belle pounced on Apple Bloom, wrapping her up in a tight hug. "I was so worried you'd be freaked out or or just not want to talk to me or--"
"Ow! Um, Sweetie, mah mane's caught in yer... leg."
Rarity winced. "Ah... perhaps I should help you two disentangle yourselves?" Her horn began to glow, the red strands of hair being delicately extricated from the complicated machinery. "There we go. No damage done."
"Aheh..." Sweetie gave Apple Bloom an apologetic look, slipping the skin of her leg back on. "Um... sorry."
"That's okay, ya didn't mean ta do that..." The earth pony rocked back and forth in place. "Wow. Robot. Wow. Um."
"Are... are you okay?"
"Yep! Ah'm... Ah'm just... do ya'll mind if Ah get somethen ta drink? Ah'm gonna get something ta drink."
"So long as it's not alcoholic," Rarity chided gently.
"...fahn." Apple Bloom trotted out the door. "Not like ya keep cider in tha fridge anyway..."
"I'll brush your fur, I'll clean your litterbox, I'll bring you live mice! Just please, please please please please! Get me out of this mess before Rarity comes downstairs!"
Opal's ears twitched as she heard the tell tale clippity clop of somepony walking down the stairs. She flashed the pegasus a fanged smirk, turning around and trotting away with a swish of her tail. Scootaloo could only stare in panic as she hoped and prayed Rarity would forgive her, or at least listen to reason.
Apple Bloom glanced her way as she stepped onto the ground floor. After a few seconds, she walked to the kitchen.
"...wait seriously? Your friend is tied up in, all this fabric, and..." Scootaloo's ears swiveled forward in disbelief. "Are you opening the fridge?!"
"Ah'm thinking orange juice. Ah don't usually drink it, but this is an orange juice thang."
The pegasus stared at the kitchen doorway. "...Is Sweetie Belle's secret really that bad?"
"It's... startlen, but Ah don't think it's bad."
"She's not pregnant, is she?"
Apple Bloom sputtered, emerging from the kitchen with a look of disbelief. "PREGNANT?! Scoots, what tha hay?! She's way too young ta be thinken about marriage, let alone foals!"
"Well, I heard somewhere that the youngest pregnancy on record was a five year old..."
A yellow eyelid twitched. "Ah... Ah did not need ta know that."
Scootaloo shrugged. "Look, I... I just thought if it was that big it had to be something like that. You know, a five or six."
"Try seven or eight."
The pegasus stared. "...what?"
"She's a robot."
"That's exactly what Ah said."
"...I'm sorry, wait, what? She's a... Okay, that's it. I'm walking up there and--" Scootaloo looked down at herself and sighed. "Dangit Opal. I'm going to wriggle up there and ask Sweetie how she learned to hypnotize you."
Apple Bloom could only watch in bemusement as Scootaloo rolled and writhed like a multi-colored caterpillar. "Aren't ya worried she'd, quote unquote, hypnatize ya too?"
"Nnnnnope! I just wanna see her hypnosis cutie mark."
Apple Bloom rolled her eyes. "Rarity! Sweetie Belle! Ya'll better come down here, Scoots is in a pinch o' trouble."
The two unicorns descended the stairs quickly, glancing over Scootaloo with confusion.
"Opalescence," she explained simply.
"My pet cat managed...." Rarity poked at a ribbon. "...this?"
The fashionista's mouth opened and shut for a few seconds, before she finally shrugged. "Oh well... My apologies. Now, if you'll hold still..." Her horn glowed, summoning a pair of scissors which slipped under the fabric and began to sheer it away.
Scootaloo struggled free of her bounds with a grateful breath. "Oh geeze, I can stretch my wings again!" She flicked her feathers, stretching her legs and whirling her neck around. "Oh wow..."
"You're okay, right?"
"Yeah, Sweetie, I'm fine." The pegasus fixed the uniucorn with a grin. "Now how exactly did you convince Apple Bloom you were a robot?"
Sweetie sighed and, wordlessly, pulled the skin off her leg.
Scootaloo stared. "...okay, yeah, that is pretty convincing..."
"He's letting his emotions cloud his judgement."
"If the leaders of this nation find out we've been spying on them--"
"I am aware of the risks. But his argument is valid. Besides, there are a thousand drones. If one is discovered, it's not too much of a loss."
"And what of the keem'Potriitch?"
"At the moment they are occupied elsewhere."
"...I still don't like it. This whole situation could blow up at any moment. I.... I'm keeping him under watch."
The Crusaders had headed over to Sweetie's place shortly thereafter, ostensibly to do homework. But it became difficult to focus when two of them had been alternating between trying not to stare at the third, communicating through facial expressions, and lightly eating what passed for snackage in this underskilled household. Eventually Sweetie Belle, aware of the awkwardness in the room, had claimed she was going to head out for spare pencils, leaving her friends in her bedroom while she dithered downstairs.
It took them ten minutes just to work up the courage to speak.
"Okay. So now what?"
Apple Bloom gave Scootaloo an odd look. "Whadaya mean?"
"I mean we just discovered Sweetie's a robot! Does that... change anything? At all?"
There it was. The big question. Would it change anything? What could a robot do that a unicorn couldn't? What could a unicorn do that a robot couldn't?
Asking whether Sweetie Belle was still Sweetie Belle was not something either of them had thought to wonder, lost as they were in the possibilities, but if they had heard the question their answer would be confusion. To them, a set of wires was no different then the veins of blood, except in the purely technical and medical sense. They had not even briefly pondered breaking off their relationship, though Apple Bloom had privately considered upgrading it. No, to them, nothing had changed except that their friend was a little different.
"...well. Way Ah see it, we gotta see what all she can do cause of how she is before we make any judgements. But she's still our friend, and Ah say we don't treat her any different."
"Right. I get that, that would be wrong." Scootaloo spread her forelegs wide. "What I mean is... who built her? Who threw her away? Do we... do we want to help her find out?"
"Ah don't think she cares, actually." Apple Bloom shrugged, standing. "She might be curious, but... it doesn't affect her life right now. We should let her lead any investagation."
"But, but... but what if they come looking for her? Or, um, what if Twilight decides to come looking for her?! Wait... MAYBE TWILIGHT BUILT HER!"
"No? Why not? She totally could!"
"And yer going off on wild tangents."
Scootaloo opened her mouth to reply. Then she shut it, seriously considering her friend's words. Was she in fact making heinous assumptions? Was she wandering into realms of intellectual mire and muck, lost in the swamps of idle fantasy? "...maybe you're right. But... What if somepony does come looking for her?"
Apple Bloom sighed, glancing away. "...that depends on what they'll want. If they want ta take her away, or turn her off, or... change her, somehow, against her will, then we'll save her. But... they could want ta help."
Scootaloo snorted. "They left her in the dumpster. They don't deserve any of our sympathy."
"We don't know that. We don't know who put her there, or why." Apple Bloom rubbed her forehead. "We might not ever know. Let's... let's just stop asking questions and focus on bein' Sweetie's friends."
Scootaloo sighed, giving a nod. "I.... yeah." Her wings drooped, shamed at the way she had allowed her worries to drown out the matters of true import. But still, at the back of her mind, she could not help but wonder if something would happen, if this was... the start of something important.
"Are you two done having your private conversation about me?" Sweetie called out from the other side of the door. "Because I know that's what you're doing!"
"Sorry!" Apple Bloom called back. "We're still... well, just figuring this out!" She opened the door, giving a sheepish smile to the third member of the cutie mark crusaders. "Really. This is... just a bit of a lot. Ya know?"
"Yes. I get it. It took me days to..." Sweetie sighed. "I couldn't... the point is I get that this is really weird."
Scootaloo shook her head, walking over with a groan. "Weird or not, it's still you. So whatever. I'm more worried about what it means." She rubbed her head. "I can accept you being a robot, but... I still want to know the why."
Sweetie Belle sighed. "I'm curious too... but honestly I think we should stay out of it." She gave a cautious look over her shoulder, before leaning in. "I'm a little worried Twilight will take me apart for science if she finds out."
"She's a princess," Apple Bloom pointed out. "Ah think she's a tad more responsible than that."
"It's an irrational phobia, okay?!"
The earth pony flinched back, her ears flattened against her skull. "Ah... ah didn't..."
Sweetie sighed, shutting her eyes and rubbing her forehead. "I know... rationally I know it should be fine but.. but I just... can't. It took me this long to work up the nerve to tell you girls. Just... just let me go at my own pace? Please?"
After a moment, Apple Bloom nodded. "Alright. Ah.... alright."
Scootaloo watched the exchange, an odd look on her face. She took a moment to consider her next words. "You know... in a purely technical sense, it could be argued that you're not a filly."
"Gee, thanks Scoots."
"Or a colt."
Sweetie blinked. "I... what?"
"I'm just saying." The pegasus shrugged. "You could date anypony and technically it wouldn't be gay or straight." She fought to keep a smile off her face.
"Now thar, Scootaloo," Apple Bloom stammered, "Ah don't think that we need ta--"
"Actually, I'm not sure what that would be. I mean, your partner would obviously be a robosexual but what you would be called--"
"I am not hearing this! I'm going back downstairs!" The flushing unicorn retreated from the room, ears pulled flat against her skull. Still, she couldn't avoid hearing Scootaloo's loud laughter.
"Ah'm still not talken' ta ya."
"Aw come on! That was two days ago!"
"Did ya hear something, Sweetie?" Apple Bloom cocked her head. "Cause all Ah hear is hot air."
"Apple Bloom, it's fine. Really." The unicorn rolled her eyes. "She was just teasing anyway."
For some reason, that didn't seem to assuage the situation at all. If anything, Apple Bloom's expression only grew more dour as her hooves clomped harder against the ground. Sweetie Belle gave Scootaloo an apologetic glance and shrugged in confusion; Scootaloo merely rolled her eyes. "So... did any of us actually get the homework done?"
Apple Bloom nodded, still keeping her eyes on the ground. Sweetie Belle gave her a momentary glance, before turning to Scootaloo. "Yeah, both of us did the work. Why, is yours not done?"
"No! It's.... mostly done, really!" Scootaloo kicked at the ground. "I just kinda need to write the final page..."
Apple Bloom raised an eyebrow. "It was a one-page assignment."
"But I did do the research!" the pegasus exclaimed. "I mean, I could write it all down, I just need a bit more time!"
"You're in luck, we're here early." Apple Bloom gestured toward the school house as they arrived, walking inside. "Ya've got seven minutes."
"Seven minutes. Okay. I can do this." Scootaloo dropped her saddlebags by her desk, puling out her notebook and pencil. "A page in seven minutes, right." She stared at the paper for a few seconds. Then suddenly she jolted forward and began writing like a madmare.
Sweetie Belle pushed her saddlebags into her cubbyhole, taking out what she needed for the school day. "So, do we have any crusading plans for this afternoon?"
Apple Bloom tilted her head. "Er, well..." She glanced up at the ceiling. "Ah was kind wondering... with yer, um, condition... is it even, ya know, possible for...?"
"I honestly don't know." Sweetie Belle shrugged, keeping her ears from pulling back. "All I know is that I want to hang out with you two, and that you two want to get your cutie marks. I'm leaving that question for... later."
The yellow filly folded her ears, kicking at the ground. "Er... sorry."
"No, it's... it's okay." Oblivious to the curses now rebounding through her friend's skull, Sweetie Belle walked over to her desk. "If I can't get a cutie mark... my skin's some sort of fabric, and Rarity knows how to sew, so yeah."
Apple Bloom stared at her quietly for a long while. She knew that Sweetie Belle had always been the least.... zealous of the Crusaders, for lack of a better term, but even she was eager to find her special talent and had willingly joined in some of their crazier attempts. Her mind wandered back to the odd sadness that the unicorn had expressed mere days ago, before they went river rafting; only now she realized, really realized, how Sweetie must have felt.
"...we don't have to go crusaden' every day," she pointed out. "Maybe today, we can just sorta... Ah dunno, play board games or somethen'."
"No, really!" Sweetie Belle smiled at her. "I've had lots of fun, even after I... figured that whole thing out." She rubbed the back of her head, trying to think of the right words to say. "I just.... look, even if I'm a tad out of it because I'm a robot, it doesn't mean I don't care about... what I mean is, I don't think we should stop. Not because I'm..."
"...not because yer different."
Apple Bloom nodded. "Okay. Okay, sure. Uh... well, we didn't have anythang planned anyway, Scoots and Ah were kinda blindsided with..." She gestured vaguely at Sweetie Belle. "Well. Why don't we just get togather afta school and figure out where ta go from there?"
Sweetie Belle pursed her lips for a moment, then nodded her assent. "Yeah, okay. Yeah. That's actually a pretty good plan."
"What," Scootaloo piped in, "and mine aren't?"
"Weeeeeeeeell, you are trying to finish an entire page of homework in the two minutes before class starts," Sweetie pointed out. "That's not exactly speaking well of your planning ability."
"Hey, it's finished now! Therefore my plan worked." The pegasus stuck her tongue out. "What do you say to that, huh?"
"Huh. Good point." Sweetie Belle paused. "Um, are you two talking to each other now? Because it'll be hard to plan things if you're not talking."
Apple Bloom gave a long, drawn out sigh. "Ah'm not going ta open a dialogue with her till Ah hear an apology."
"An apology for what?" Scootaloo demanded. "It was. A joke. That's all it was."
"It wasn't funny!"
Scootaloo narrowed her eyes. "So it's okay for you to joke about Rainbow Dash being too shallow for a big sis but when I come along and say 'hey, maybe you two should date' it's completely serious?"
"What?" Apple Bloom gave her a weird look. "When did Ah ever say anythang bout Rainbow?"
"That one time after Truffle Shuffle came along and asked if she was my cousin or something!"
"Ah don't think Ah ever said that."
"Technically it was Diamond Tiara that said that," Sweetie interjected. "You did... kinda nod, though, Bloom."
"What? No, Ah..." Apple Bloom tapped her chin. "Ah think Ah was just glancen' in mah lunchbag ta see if Ah had anything ta throw at her."
Scootaloo opened her mouth... then shut it. "Oh."
Then the school bell rang, and they all rushed to their desks.
"Are you sure you're not taking this too seriously?"
"What do you mean?"
"Your argument for leaving 58 alone. It's logical, but is it the real reason?"
"...you're accusing me of being attached."
"The drone will have to be terminated eventually, if only to preserve the illusion of a natural death."
"And that, I will not object. Do you really think I would go against orders?"
"...You've done so before, brother."
"It saved lives."
"I know I'm being watched. I know this is a warning. And I know you don't want to be the one warning me. So go tell your superiors that I got the message."
"...and that, class, is why our sun orbits us instead of the other way around." Cheerilee put her chalk down, turning to the fillies and colts at their desks with a wide grin. "Do any of you have any questions?"
The foals all stared at the board, blinking as they tried to process the equations on them.
After a moment, Cheerilee sighed. "The first sun was dying, so the precursors built another and made it go around us."
"Oh!" Scootaloo chirped brightly. "That makes sense!"
"Ah kinda got that from all her chatting," Apple Bloom pointed out. "What Ah don't understand is how one pony manages ta keep tha thing from entering our atmosphere."
"Wait," Sweetie Belle interjected, "the precursors are real?"
"Yes, as a matter of fact. You've even met one!" Cheerilee nodded out the door. "The Draconeuuqii were once quite widespread--"
The school bell suddenly chimed, a signal that caused all the foals to start shifting out of their desks. The teacher rolled her eyes, stepping toward the front door. "Alright, recess has started. Everypony form a single file line, don't shove, and remember not to start fights!"
Scootaloo stretched her wings and yawned, flicking an ear toward Apple Bloom as she passed. "Right, so yeah. Sorry about yesterday or whatever." She shrugged. "I can be a blockhead at times, yaknow?"
"Yeah, you sure can..." With a sigh, Apple Bloom walked out after her friend. "Look, if ya want ta tease with me that's fine, but... you really shouldn't say things like that about Sweetie. It could--"
"Apple Bloom," Sweetie Belle interjected as she left the classroom, "it's fine. I mean I was totally embarrassed, yeah, but it's Scootaloo. I know she didn't mean any harm by it!"
"Hey, blank flanks! What're you talking about?"
Sweetie Belle frowned. "Her, on the other hoof..."
"None of your beeswax, DT." Scootaloo snorted and turned her gaze away from the approaching pink pony. "Come on, let's go get a table somewhere over there."
"...DT?" The filly rolled her eyes. "Sounds like some lame rapper name."
"Well," Scootaloo said smugly, "diamonds shine and glitter with refracted light, and tiaras are the mark of a true princess. I figured DT was more your wavelength." She gave the earth pony a mock salute. "Can't wait to hear your next album!"
"Huh, you're right," Sweetie mused. "DT fits her so much more than Diamond Tiara."
The pink filly fumed. "Why--You can't just--you are so going to get it!"
"Get what?" Apple Bloom asked innocently. "We're just complimenting your artistic skills."
"Diamond! Sorry I was held up." A grey filly galloped up to the group, breathing just a touch heavily. "My lunchbox was kind of jammed into my cubbyhole in a weird way--"
"Hello Silver Spoon." Sweetie waved happily. "We were just discussing Diamond Tiara's promising musical career."
Silver Spoon adjusted her glasses. "Wait... Really?"
"Well for what it's worth, I think you would be a very good singer," Sweetie Belle assured her. "You've got a good voice, you just need to train it a bit. Rap is good for that," she added with a smirk, "easy to find a rhythm, there's not a lot of pitch variation--"
"AAAAAAAUGH!" Diamond threw up her hooves. "I AM NOT A RAPPER!"
Scootaloo shrugged. "Hey, no need to broadcast your disappointment."
"NARNIGHFLIRKNSHEMARFISDA--!!" Diamond took a deep breath, held it for five seconds, and let it out slowly. "Right. Clearly you lot are beneath me. I think I shall remove myself from your presence."
"Yeah, keep telling yourself that," Apple Bloom snarked at Diamond's retreating form. "Denial's perfectly natural, after all!"
Scootaloo gave Apple Bloom a strange look. "What's that supposed to mean?"
"Oh, ya know, it's just... Mah sis says a lot of ponies would get in a lot less trouble if they was just honest with themselves."
Sweetie Belle tapped her chin thoughtfully. "You know... that's actually pretty deep."
Scootaloo rolled her eyes as she sat at a table. "Yeah, sure it is. So! I motion we figure out the most epic way to find our special talents."
Apple Bloom sat down next to her. "Ya ever wonder if'n we've found our special talents and just haven't realized it?"
The pegasus leaned away, horror evident on her face. "Apple Bloom... that's crazy talk. I mean, if we'd found our special talents, obviously we'd realize it, right?"
After a moment, the yellow filly reluctantly nodded. "Ah guess you're right... Um. No offense Sweetie."
Sweetie Belle sighed, sitting across from them and letting her head rest on the table. "I'm going to have to get used to it anyway. Maybe I'll look into how griffons figure out their special talents... if they have any..."
Scootaloo rubbed the back of her head awkwardly. Apple Bloom bit her lip, glancing away.
For a moment, the sounds of the other foals playing were drowned out by their own somber reflections.
"...Didn't... Those Saddle Arabian ponies," Scootaloo offered, "the ones that came that one time after Trixie took over... didn't they have blank flanks? Maybe they have a way to find special talents without getting cutie marks! Or... something...?"
The unicorn didn't lift her head, but her eyes did roll to give her friend a flat look.
"Look, I'm trying to help here. I really don't know what to say, Sweetie Belle, I just..." Scootaloo waggled a hoof in the air, desperatly searching for the words that would communicate her point.
"Yeah, yeah. I get it." Sweetie sighed. "Just... can we not do this now? Can we just have an ordinary lunch?"
Apple Bloom frowned. "Sweetie, ya can't just ignore this."
"I'm not. I just don't see what it has to do with anything right now. We're here to eat lunch and talk like friends do, and..." Pushing her head off the table, Sweetie Belle let out a little sigh. "I want to be normal right now. Maybe later we can talk about my thing, but right now, let's just... I don't know, talk about our favorite musicians?"
Scootaloo shrugged. "Alright. So, either of you catch that last Sapphire Shores album?"
"Was that 'Watch Mah Flank' or 'Sass Me Ah Dare Ya?'"
"Actually, I was talking about 'Schoolyard Sweethearts'. It was a bit of an out of genre experiment for her, but it really worked." Scootaloo shrugged with a smile. "I mean, yeah, a couple of the songs were way too mushy, but the beat was pretty good, and she worked out some great tunes. Dunno bout the lyrics, though."
"Wait, that was a Sapphire Shores album?" Sweetie Belle's ears perked, the faintest smile coming to her face. "I thought it was a disk of old movie tunes, from back when colored film was still kinda new..."
Diamond Tiara snorted as she entered her mansion, absently handing off her saddlebags to the stallion on her right. She didn't even spare a glance as he started taking out the schoolwork and organizing it into stacks, instead choosing to stomp forward for a few steps. "Those... those.... THOSE...!"
Silver Spoon gave the butler a questioning look. He nodded for a brief moment. With a sigh, she raised her hooves to her ears.
"THOSE SELF-ABSORBED PRANCING PANDERING TALENTLESS TRIO OF CHARLATANS I SWEAR TO CELESTIA THAT THEY DELIBERATELY GO OUT OF THEIR WAY TO SABOTAGE MY EVERY EFFORT AND HOW IN THE HAY WERE THEY CHOSEN TO BE PRINCESS MI AMORE CADENZA'S FLOWER FILLIES WHY AM I ALWAYS JUST PUSHED ASIDE BY THE GROWN-UPS WHY DO THEY LISTEN TO THEM JUST BECAUSE THEY RUINED MY CUTECENARA ARGBLARGLFRAGLEAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAA!"
The grey filly opened an eye, peering at her friend carefully.
"...Alright. Alright." Diamond took a deep breath and let it out slowly. "I... am cool now. I'm cool. And I'm sorry you had to hear that, Randolph, that was quite... extreme of me."
"Not a trouble, miss Tiara." The butler placed a stack of papers in front of the filly. "The top portion is homework that is due tomorrow, as per usual, but the packets on the bottom will require considerable effort and time to complete; I simply felt it would be best for you to start work on it now instead of later."
"Thank you very much." The words were automatic, casual, and even as she said them Diamond had picked up her papers and started to walk into the living room. "I don't know what irritates me about those blank flanks, Silver, but every time I see them I get this overwhelming feeling of... of..."
Silver Spoon put her forehooves back on the floor. "...Of what?"
"...I don't know! It's like I'm jealous except that they don't flaunt what I'm jealous of! It's... they're so... do they even realize how lucky they are?! Two of them are related to national heroes directly, both of whom are independently wealthy, I'm pretty sure Princess Twilight was willing to teach them at one point... They have a huge social network and they never use it except for these frivolous 'crusades' of theirs! It's like seeing a pony walk up to a high class buffet and ask the chef for a donught!"
Silver nodded as the two of them sat on a couch. "I can see how that would be frustrating. I myself often find the lack of knowledge about our world that most ponies exhibit to be incomprehensible. The fact that so many disciplines have solutions to problems other disciplines struggle with is a constant reminder of how poor communication can hamper a society to an almost unbearable point."
Diamond stared at her.
"...was I using the big words again?" Silver coughed. "I'm sorry, I'll try to be more relateable."
"No, it's fine Silver. It's just us in here." Diamond started sorting through her homework, absently filling in the proper answers. "And yeah, I totally get what you're saying. You know, I think the crusaders could fix that too? If only they'd focus for one measly month!" She groaned, setting aside a finished paper and working on another. "Honestly, at this point I kinda expect they'll become alicorn princesses before they gain their marks. Can you believe I ever--?"
She snapped her mouth shut.
"...Ever what?" Silver asked.
"Ugh. It's nothing. I'm disgusted to even think about it." She waved a hoof. "Let's just get this all done."
Silver frowned. "You're already halfway through your stack, Diamond. I'm still not complete with my first assignment."
"Huh. Really?" Diamond glanced back at her pile of papers. "...well, it just goes to show that I'm naturally very smart, is all."
Silver frowned. "And I'm not?"
"No, you're smart in a different way. I mean, you do a lot of research and I just... see patterns is all. Honestly, most of this is just guesswork." She shrugged. "It really helps when talking to ponies."
"Huh. Patterns, huh?"
"Yeah, it's always been that way for me."
"Neat, I guess...."
"Sir, we're getting a report from a listening station. The keem'Potriitch are headed in Equestria's direction."
"Hmm. Have they given any sign of recognizing our activities there?"
"...we don't know, sir. Their transmissions are coded."
"Keep me updated on their movements. If they enter the third sphere, prep for mass drone termination, but don't do anything before then."
"Wooo-eee." Applejack wiped the sweat off her brow, taking one last look at the dirt in front of her. "Gotta say, it feels right good to get that done."
"Yeah. New trees and all."
The orange pony turned to her sister. "What's tha matter, Bloom?"
"Huh? Oh, just... thinkin'." Apple Bloom stared at the furrowed soil.
"Well, ifn'ya want ta talk about whatever's goin' through your head, you know Ah'm always willin' ta listen."
Apple Bloom scoffed. "Always?"
"Well..." Applejack's muzzle scrunched. "If'n I'm not sleepin', or busy with chores or... other things."
"...What do ya think of robots, sis?"
"Robots? Well now." Applejack adjusted her hat. "Honestly, Ah don't think about them much. Suppose Ah kinda worry they might take jobs from hard-workin' ponies someday, if'n they ever become widespread, but that's not real likely ta happen anytime soon. Other then that, they... Ah dunno, they just happen ta be the occasional thingamabobber. Ponies will look at 'em for a bit, be in awe of all the technical finangelin's, then go home and keep livin' their lives."
"...Huh. Ah wasn't... Ah kinda meant, you know, robots like in the stories." Apple Bloom rubbed the back of her head. "Like, you know... ones that talk like ponies and all that."
Applejack was silent for a moment or two.
"...Ya'll remember how we used ta treat Zecora?"
"What, everypony hidin' when she came into town?"
"She was a strange one," Applejack mused. "Always in a cloak, livin' in the Everfree... Ah'm not quite proud o' how Ah acted back then. Matter of fact, Ah'm downright ashamed o' it."
"What's this got ta do with robots?"
"Ah'm just thinkin... a metal pony. Not like, one with support braces, or replacement limbs, but a full-on metal pony." The elder sister sighed. "Ah don't think we'd be as off-puttin' as we were with Zecora, cause... well, we've become a bit o' a mixed community, and Zecora lived in the Everfree, which kinda affected how we looked at her. But... at first, Ah think, there'd be a bit of... strain. Kind of like that."
"But there isn't for Zecora anymore," Apple Bloom pointed out.
"Yeah. Cause Twi vouched for her."
Apple Bloom looked at the ground. "So... a robot... if we wanted ponies to accept her, she'd need a friend."
Applejack gave her a slow look. "You know... yeah. That's a good way ta look at it. Is there... somethin' ya'd like to tell me, sugarcube?"
Apple Bloom considered the dirt for a moment.
"...Tellin' a secret is tha best way to lose a friend--"
Applejack and Apple Bloom jumped in shock, spinning around. Applejack recovered first. "PINKIE PIE! What in tarnation do ya think you're doin'?!"
Pinkie giggled. "It's been so long since I've been able to pull that! Ah, nostalgia. What a funny word for what a funny feeling. No-stal-gia. What's stalgia anyway--?"
"Pinkie, do ya need... anything?"
Applejack nodded. "Would'ya mind steppin' off mah hoe then?"
"Hmm?" Pinkie looked down. "Oh! Sure thing!"
Scootaloo spun her scooter around, skidding to a stop at the side of the street. "Wooo! That's gotta be my fastest track speed yet!"
"Well, third fastest. Still, not bad squirt." Rainbow Dash fluttered to the ground with a smirk, ruffling the younger pegasus's mane. "Not bad at all."
"Yeah!" Scootaloo threw her forehooves up... and lost her balance on the scooter, sending it flying from underneath her. "Ooof! Ow."
Rainbow rolled her eyes, holding out a hoof. "How about we take five, get back on this in a bit, huh?"
"I guess I could take a break." Scootaloo took hold of Rainbow's hoof and pulled herself up. "But we'll get right back on it soon."
The two of them sat against a nearby wall, relaxing in the midday sun. Rainbow smiled faintly as she watched the clouds go by.
"What's going on in your life? Anything interesting happen recently?"
Scootaloo shrugged. "Well... a little something, but it's not really something I should talk about."
"It's... I found something out about a friend of mine, and... I don't know. It's her secret, you know."
"Oh, I getcha. Yeah, you don't have to tell me if you don't want to." Rainbow shrugged. "But you know I'm here if you need to talk, right?"
Scootaloo hummed quietly, staring at the sky for a few moments.
"What do you think about robots?"
Rainbow Dash blinked. "What, robots?"
"Yeah, you know, machine ponies. What do you think about them?"
Rainbow Dash frowned. "You know they're not real, Scoots."
"But if they were. What would you think about robots?"
"Well... huh." Rainbow looked skyward. "I dunno, squirt."
Scootaloo frowned. "You don't know?"
"I mean, in all the stories I've read the bad guys build them to do things, and the heroes have to take them down. They don't have much personality beyond that."
"Oh." Scootaloo frowned. "But... if you found one that did have a personality--"
"What's all this about, Scoots?"
"It's... I dunno. Just... I kinda heard about a story," Scootaloo tried, "where the main character is this filly who finds out she's been a robot this whole time."
"Really? What's this story called?"
"Steel... something or other." Scootaloo shrugged. "I haven't read it myself. But it got me wondering... what would we actually do in that situation?"
"Huh. A robot the whole time... That'd be like discovering you're really a changeling, wouldn't it? Or a zombie or something." Rainbow shrugged. "I guess you'd have to choose whether or not you wanted to help ponies."
"...what do you mean?"
"Like, if you're a robot, you were built for some reason, right? And that reason might well be 'take over Equestria,' or something. But if you thought you were a pony, well, you grew up with them. So..." The blue pegasus bit her lip. "It'd be weird, you know?"
"Yeah... I guess."
"...in the end, I guess it'd come down to who actually cared about you. Or who didn't care. Who treated the robot the most like garbage, that would be the bad guy... I think."
"So... don't treat robots like garbage?"
"Well, unless they're an invading army or something."
"...like I said, if you need to talk about something--"
"It's good! It's all good."
The two of them sat for a few more minutes.
"You know," Scootaloo eventually said, "I'm thirsty. Maybe we should get some lemonade."
"Not that bad an idea. Come on, I think I know a place that's having a sale..."
Sweetie Belle frowned at her paper, absently scribbling down some equations. "I'm a robot, for Celestia's sake. Why are these so hard? Couldn't whoever have built me given me a super computer for a brain or something?" She bit her lip, concentrating as she spun out a few numbers. "...the answer is twenty two. It's gotta be."
"Is everything alright there, Sweetie-me-lass?" Saint Germane stuck her frowning face through her door. "You're not having too much trouble with that there skritch-i-skratch, are ya?"
"Not any more than usual," Sweetie replied with a sigh. "I'm just a lot better at language than I am at math. Don't worry, I've got this." She tapped her pencil on the desk. "It's not brainbending or anything... yet."
"Well, that's good to hear, Sweetie. Wouldn't want ya straining your noggin too much, all things considered." The mare shook her head and sighed. "Ol' Twilight used to have such strange fits afor she went and princessified herself, and even Rarity--well, you know what she's like when she's in her zone or whatchamacallit."
"Oh, don't I know it." Sweetie Belle half smiled. "I'm beginning to think I should just stay out of her way when she gets like that..."
She considered her homework for a moment or two.
"...Hey, uh, mom?"
"What is it, Sweetie?"
"What do you think about robots?"
Saint Germane blinked for a few seconds. "What do I think about--? What brought this on?"
"Oh, you know, just idle curiosity or... something..."
"Well... robots. Hmmm." The pink mare considered carefully. "I guess they can be pretty neat."
"Well, I haven't seen none myself, ya know. Heard 'bout them, obviously. Why? You want to build one or something?"
"I was more..." Sweetie Belle ran a hoof through her mane. "I was more... wondering what you would think if, like, you met a robot. Going shopping at the marketplace, maybe."
"You mean, what would I think if I saw a robot actin' like a pony?" Saint Germane shrugged. "Depends on what they were doin', I guess. The thing is, Sweetie, robots don't act like ponies. Even the ones that look like 'em, they're just... really advanced puppets, I think."
"Oh." Sweetie frowned. "Yeah. I guess."
Saint Germane shrugged. "Of course, there's them sci-fi books where robots suddenly start being ponies. I don't read a lot o' those, but I think the question's a lot like... raising a filly, really."
"What do you mean?"
"I mean, King Sombra was a unicorn, right? I don't think his ma and pa sat down and said 'welp, our little boy's gonna be a tyrant,' but that's what happened. And I don't think you're going to go bad, but..." The mare sighed. "One o' my biggest fears is that one day, you'll get caught up in some dark place or other, and I'll have to see you on the news. It's not that I think that's going to happen. You're a good pony. I just... worry that I might not... notice somethin', or somethin'."
Sweetie Belle turned around. "Mom... I--"
"And that's what it's like with robots, I think. Except bigger. Cause, if they do start bein' people, will we even notice? Will we be able to teach 'em right from wrong?" Saint Germane nodded. "So, yeah, if a robot's in the market actin' like a pony, I think... I think I'll see what they're doin' afor I do anything, but I'll probably talk to them at least a little bit. You know?"
"...that... that sounds good." Sweetie Belle sighed. "That sounds good."
"Mass drone termination?!"
"The keem'Potriitch are approaching Equestria. If they become aware of--"
"I know the risks, brother. But mass drone termination will not help. If anything it will make the situation worse--a sudden plague will lead to medical autopsies, then to discovery, the evidence will be insurmountable."
"--is used to undeveloped societies. It would be better for them to go underground, to start a resistance, then just to drop dead."
"...Time to talk to Twilight about this." Sweetie Belle swallowed. "Time to see if... she knows anything."
Rarity paused in the middle of her sketch, levitating her pencil to a nearby desk. "Sweetie Belle... if you're uncomfortable in any way with this decision, it is entirely okay to give it a longer period of consideration."
"I am, but... I don't know. It feels like if I don't do this now, I won't ever be able to. I can't explain it, I just... I feel that I have to do this."
"Alright." Rarity took a slow breath. "I'll be with you every step of the way, of course."
Sweetie Belle nodded, her thoughts still wrapped tightly around her own fears. She couldn't shake the feeling that what she was doing was... wrong somehow. And yet, she knew she had to do it. She just... knew, somehow.
Was this what it was like to get a cutie mark? To discover her special talent? This sudden certainty that something had to happen, and that she was going to be the one to make it happen?
The filly shook her head, focusing back on the moment. If she let her mind wander, she might lose her confidence... or something. Actually, she couldn't help being nervous even now.
"Can... Can we get the rest of the Crusaders to come with us?"
Rarity nodded with a gentle smile. "That sounds like an excellent idea."
"So, uh." Apple Bloom cleared her throat. "How are ya going ta break this ta Twilight?"
Sweetie Belle shrugged. "Basically the same way I did to you, I think. I haven't figured out any other way to do it."
"Riiiiiiight." Scootaloo took a breath. "And you want us to... what?"
"Just... be there, you know. If I need somebody to hide behind."
"You won't need to hide behind anyone," Rarity assured her. "If Twilight gets a little overeager, I'll hold her back."
Sweetie Belle smiled thankfully. "I know. I've just... been avoiding this for so long, it's... become a big thing, you know?"
"And that's why we're all gonna make sure it goes as good as it can," Apple Bloom assured her. "What're friends for, after all?"
"Yeah, that's right! Crusaders to the end." Scootaloo grinned widely. "We're going to get you a cutie mark, no matter what."
"Yeah, well. Thanks." Sweetie Belle took a deep breath as the library tree came into sight. "Well, here we go."
The final few steps were, perhaps, the most difficult she had ever taken. It wasn't as though there was any risk to her, she knew that... and yet, she knew, after this her life would be changed forevermore. Not that it hadn't already, what with discovering the truth beneath her skin, but this... this was more permanent. An outright statement, instead of merely being an acceptance of what was.
To one of her mentor figures, even. One who had serious clout, both politically and personally.
Sweetie Belle's hoof paused, inches from the door handle.
"Okay, see, this is the part where you have a big internal debate with yourself because you're afraid everything will go horribly, and to us it looks like you're just standing there, but then at the last minute Spike opens the door or something and you can't think of a good enough excuse to run away and so you go in and get all awkward and terrified and blah, blah blah." Scootaloo rolled her eyes. "Come on, Sweetie Belle, can we not go through this cliche?"
Apple Bloom shot her a glare. "Ya don't have ta be so insensitive."
"I'm the 'it's no big deal you're overblowing it' friend."
"Look, Rarity's already got supportive sister covered, and you've got the 'it's actually amazing even though I won't come out and say it' side of things all locked down, being the casually accepting type is basically the only role left here."
Rarity rolled her eyes. "You don't have to force yourself to be constrained to a specific role."
"Well, no, but..." Scootaloo paused. "I dunno. I just feel like... this is where I'm going to be going anyway."
Sweetie Belle let out a small chuckle. "You are completely ridiculous... but yeah, let's skip the cliche, like you said."
With one final deep breath, she swung the door open.
Dear Princess Celestia...
It's been a while since I've sent one of these, hasn't it? I suppose I should preface this by saying it is both one of my old fashioned friendship reports and, well, a matter of some political significance. The two are intertwined inextricably, and in fact originate from one central event. Even now... even now I am still trying to grasp the implications, but I feel that they are somewhat beside the point.
First of all, today I learned that sometimes ponies have deep, personal facts about themselves that can change how you look at them. And that it can be hard to reveal these facts even to friends or family, especially if they are afraid that they will be treated with less respect once the truth is known. Being told something like that is a sign of deep trust, and it can be terrifying to do so. But a true friend will always assess you not for what you are, but who you are. Your personality, your sense of identity. Even if you are different than the assumed norm, your friends will remain no matter what. They will support you, and help you when you decide to reveal yourself to others that might be a bit more surprised.
And if a friend reveals something deeply personal, you shouldn't act as though you must know everything. Some questions are okay, but they are not a new font of information. You should treat them with respect, that they were brave enough to talk about it with you, and keep your curiosity to something reasonable. And whatever else you do, you should always ask permission to talk about their secrets with others; violating their trust is not something to be done lightly.
Which, unfortunately, brings us to the political side of this letter. As you might have gathered, a particular individual brought a particular piece of information to me, after some deep personal questioning and discussion with their family. I will admit my initial reaction was a touch overeager--new information is something I am, of course, always interested in. However, after they calmed me down and told me what they were willing, I was left to think about the implications of their particular secret and, unfortunately, I can come to no other conclusion then that it must be a matter of national import.
I am not even dictating this to Spike. These matters are serious enough that I must imprint them personally to the parchment. That said, I have promised said individual that, no matter what your reaction might be, I will protect them from harm or relocation derived from Canterlot. I know this might mean that we are set up in opposition, if you deem this sort of knowledge worth acting on, but I am afraid that I cannot break my promise--it is what finally convinced the individual in question to allow this letter, which I am also allowing them to read before I send. Please, princess, do not force my hoof in this; I assure you that the person is harmless, even if the events surrounding them are not.
Today, Sweetie Belle, the younger sister of Rarity, revealed to me that she is not organic; she is artificial, a constructed and almost indistinguishable replica of a pony, who is unaware of both her origins and her purpose. I know enough about the field of robotics to realize this is beyond our capabilities as a world, excluding perhaps some interference by precursors. The point remains, however, that for what could well have been her whole life, Sweetie Belle walked among our race and believed herself to be one of us. Her biggest worry, after being discovered and dismantled by some mad scientist, is that she will outlive her friends; she is also unsure if her origin will prevent her getting a cutie mark.
The simple fact of the matter is, whatever else Sweetie Belle might be, she is still just a filly. I cannot in good conscience recommend a course of action that would separate her from her friends and family. I recognize that her artificial origin must result in some monitoring, if only for the safety of the nation. I will take full responsibility for such a program, should it be necessary. I am already planning to gather her medical records to form a preliminary basis for research. But, again, I will not allow her forced relocation or invasive experimentation.
As the head of the Equestrian government, I believe you have the final say in what our reaction to this revelation should be. I send this letter in hopes that your response is tempered by wisdom, compassion, and the best intent for both this pony and all of ponykind.
Your faithful former student,
Celestia put the letter down on her desk, staring at the wall for a few minutes.
"...and another lost riddle crops up once again." She gave a long, slow sigh. "Luna's going to have a conniption. I just hope we can figure out what's going on this time..."
"So. Here you are."
"Here I am."
"And you intend to warn them."
"Do you know how many rules you're violating? No, not even that--you are risking the sanctity of their society for the sake of a single drone!"
"I've already told you why mass drone termination is not a viable--"
"Don't lie to me, brother! I can see it in your helm, you are not using your mind to justify this decision!"
"...you cannot deny the reasoning I have offered."
"You could have waited for the captain to read your argument and approve your plan--"
"Could I? Would he?"
"...You know if you do this, you will have no support. You'll be labeled a traitor."
"I am aware."
"It might not even help. The keem'Potriitch are closing in. Even should you arrive before they, what could the Equestrians do?"
"You've seen the reports. They have a few surprises."
"...will you stop me, brother?"
"...I thank you."
"Don't. This madness, this break of trust.... This is the last gift I grant."
"From this moment forth, we are no longer brothers."
"...I see. Nevertheless... I wish you fortune. Goodbye."