Twilight awoke with a start when the balcony door of the bedroom was abruptly thrown open, a loud bang echoing through the entire room. Her eyes snapped open and she sat bolt-upright in alarm, a high-pitched yelp slipping out of her. Standing in the frame of the balcony door was Rainbow Dash, her eyes wide open and her entire body quivering. The pegasus barely even acknowledged Twilight while stumbling up to the bedside table and grabbing her crown off the top. With the golden circle held in one of her hooves, she turned and began to trot across the room, her movements stiff and her eyes fixated on a tall vanity mirror leaned up against the wall.
Wide awake now, Twilight hurled the blankets off of her body and hopped out of bed. She quickly made her way to Rainbow’s side, her worry evident on her face. “Rainbow? Are you okay? What happened, what’s wrong?!” she asked rapidly, barely giving a chance for Rainbow to reply. The mare in question responded by looking over her shoulder into Twilight’s eyes and shrinking back as if she were afraid. Twilight’s ears drooped when she saw tears welling up in Rainbow’s eyes. She didn’t get a chance to act on it, though, as Rainbow shoved passed her to get to the mirror, where she then sat down on her haunches and looked at her reflection.
All was silent after that. After a few seconds, moving slowly, Twilight continued her advance and reached out with a hoof. “Rainbow, what’s wrong? Please, talk to me…” she whispered as soothingly as possible, her hoof brushing against Rainbow’s shoulder.
Rainbow twitched from the contact, her wings partially extending. The sudden reaction made Twilight back off a couple steps, a quiet gasp escaping her. For several moments, neither of them moved. Rainbow kept staring at her reflection, and Twilight kept watching Rainbow with confusion and concern. Finally, the cyan mare, with stiff and slow movements, set her crown on her head, her eyes narrowing.
“...Rainbow?” Twilight asked tentatively, her voice having almost no strength.
“It’s funny…” Rainbow suddenly said, her voice cold and without emotion. Twilight tilted her head and got braver in her approach, picking up her pace.
“What is?” she asked, reaching out with a hoof to tentatively touch Rainbow’s shoulder again. Rainbow didn’t even acknowledge the contact, her eyes never leaving her reflection in the mirror.
She lifted a hoof to point at her reflection. “Princesses in Equestria are supposed to be these… uh… I dunno… paragons of all that’s good and right with the world, right?” she began before letting her hoof drop back down to the floor. The thud it made was almost deafening. “Each one is supposed to be the best example of whatever it is they represent, a shining beacon to reach for, a golden standard to try and live up to… even if they sometimes muck it up…”
Twilight’s ears slowly perked back up, and she found herself curious about where Rainbow was going with this.
She didn’t have to wait long. Rainbow let out a slow breath through her nose, her eyes briefly flying up to look at the crown on her head. “When somepony looks at a princess, they’re supposed to feel… I dunno… love and admiration or something… respect, at least…” she mumbled before her gaze slowly drifted back down to look at her face in the mirror. It was then that Twilight noticed that the shaking in her body was getting worse. Rainbow’s face was starting to twitch subtly, and her shoulders were hunching up.
“So it’s kinda funny that when I look at myself in a mirror…” Rainbow continued without waiting for Twilight to finish, her voice starting to crack. “...I don’t feel respect or admiration… I just…” the shaking was getting even more intense, and Twilight took an instinctual step back out of fear. It was almost like she was watching an angry animal. A comparison that proved on-point as, suddenly, Rainbow’s eyes widened, her pupils dilated, and with an ear-splitting scream of hatred, she tore her crown off of her head and drove it, along with her hoof, into the mirror in front of her.
The smooth surface shattered all at once, several of the shards sticking into Rainbow’s hoof and foreleg and piercing the skin. Although at that moment, she was too high on rage and adrenaline to care. She dropped her crown to the floor, one of the rubies having been dislodged. “YOU STUPID IDIOT!” she screamed before driving her hoof into the mirror again, punching through the wooden back of it and sending splinters and pieces of wood everywhere.
Twilight stumbled back in shock, a hoof flying up to her chest at the sight. She watched as Rainbow struck the mirror, again and again, steadily dismantling it before hurling the frame against the wall with another infuriated shout. She stopped then, her breaths coming in ragged, desperate gasps. She shifted slightly. Her wounded hoof brushed against a shard of glass on the floor, drawing her gaze to it. When she saw herself looking back, she didn’t even hesitate in stomping the shard, shattering it and adding even more glass to her hoof.
Twilight had seen enough.
“Rainbow Dash, stop!” she cried out, sprinting forward and wrapping her forelegs around Dash’s barrel and dragging her back from the wreckage. “Please! You’ll hurt yourself!”
Rainbow briefly struggled against Twilight’s hold, but only very briefly. In only a couple of seconds, her rage evaporated, and she let herself fall limp against Twilight’s chest. With her thrashing ceased, the two of them took a moment to collect themselves. After maybe ten moments of trying to catch her breath and calm herself, Twilight helped Rainbow sit upright on her haunches before sitting down before her. They locked gazes, and Twilight’s heart fell into the pit of her stomach when she saw the fresh tears in Rainbow’s eyes.
“Rainbow, what happened?” she asked in barely even a whisper, reaching a hoof out to touch the princess’s cheek.
That feather-light touch was all it took to break down the dam.
With a miserable wail, Rainbow hurled herself against Twilight and buried her face into the unicorn’s shoulder. She shuddered, sniffled, and openly began weeping. Twilight wrapped her forelegs around Rainbow on reflex, holding her close and doing her best to calm her down. Despite her confusion over what could have gotten Rainbow so upset so quickly, Twilight did everything she could to soothe Rainbow’s distress. She rocked them back and forth, she stroked the back of her head with a hoof, she whispered reassurances into her ear. This dragged on for several minutes, with the sound of Rainbow’s crying echoing in Twilight’s ears, just as it had when she had entered her mind, or when Rainbow had confessed how she had felt in Hollow Shades. It was a sound that Twilight had hoped to never hear again…
Finally, Rainbow’s cries began to die down, and after about ten minutes, she finally built up the strength to pull herself out of Twilight’s embrace. Her eyes had gone bloodshot and there were long trails leading down her cheeks where her fur had been matted down. She was still shaking terribly, but at least now she looked like she could talk. “Twi… I’m…” she tried, her voice broken and hoarse. Before she could get any more words out, however, a pained yelp tore itself from her lungs, the glass shards that had embedded themselves in her foreleg reminding her that they were there.
Twilight’s eyes widened and her face went pale at the gruesome sight. “Oh my gosh, you’re leg! Hang on, I’ll go get Fluttershy. She’ll fix you up-”
“Twilight…” Rainbow cut her off through clenched teeth, her good foreleg grabbing onto Twilight’s shoulder and holding her in place. After a second or so, she managed to open her eyes again, looking into Twilight’s. “...Get the others, too… I need to talk to all of you…”
Everypony was assembled in the bedroom not long after. While Fluttershy tended to Rainbow’s foreleg, picking shards of glass out of her leg with a pair of tweezers she had gotten from a first aid kit. Everypony else stood in various places around the room, listening to her. She didn’t dare look back at them, her head hung low and her eyes closed as she recited her tale, informing them of the treaty she had signed with King Sombra. She would have told them that she knew where the Crystal Heart was, but the words always got stuck in her throat, no matter how hard she tried to say it. It wasn’t all that hard for the others to figure out, though, and she could tell that Twilight must have put it together immediately.
When she finally finished her explanation, there was a silence the likes of which she had never heard. Nopony moved. They barely breathed. The only disturbance to the quiet was Fluttershy carefully extracting another piece of glass from her leg before running a disinfecting swab over it. She could feel their eyes on her, judging her. Too emotionally worn out to cry anymore, she shifted on her haunches to be more comfortable and sighed. “I’m sorry, everypony… I ruined everything… this is my fault…”
“Yes, it is,” the voice of Starlight Glimmer’s cold voice suddenly cut through the silence, making Rainbow cringe while everypony else audibly gasped in surprise from that statement. She didn’t seem content to let that verbal assault be the end of it, though, and kept talking. “How many ponies did you betray when you signed that treaty, huh? How many ponies live here in the Empire? Hundreds? Thousands? Tens of thousands?!”
Of course, Twilight was the first one to jump to her defense. “Starlight, please. She did the best she could-” she tried in a diplomatic tone, but Starlight was having none of it.
“The best she could?!” The irate unicorn shouted, and Rainbow finally looked up at the two when she heard hooves stomping on crystal. Twilight was backing away while Starlight advanced towards her, a seething glare on her face. “Twilight, I understand that you love her, you’re biased, but you cannot honestly think she did the right thing here! Even if we somehow beat Chrysalis, there’s still one more power-hungry villain in the world, and we’ll just have to hoof the Empire over to him!”
Twilight scoffed and stood her ground, her eyes narrowing. “I never said I agreed with her decision, Starlight, and I sure as hay didn’t say I like it! But what was the alternative?” she demanded, trying to be the voice of reason. It wasn’t hard to tell that her desire to protect Rainbow was overwhelming any ability she had to be diplomatic, though.
Starlight’s eyes shot from Twilight to glare at Rainbow Dash bitterly. Dash flinched back as if struck, and grimaced when more white-hot pain danced up and down her foreleg. “Oh, I’m sure she could have found one if she looked,” Starlight accused, stamping her hoof again.
“Are you implying she didn’t?” Twilight shot back, her coat starting to bristle. “I know Rainbow Dash and you don’t! Don’t go assuming things about her before you know her!”
Starlight turned back to Twilight incredulously, her eye twitching. “Oh, look at you! Jumping to her defense without even considering the possibility that she did something wrong!” she shouted before taking another step towards Twilight. “Let me say it again; you’re biased here. Your opinion doesn’t really count for much!”
“And you’re passing judgment on her without knowing her, or how far she'll go to do the right thing!” Twilight countered, shoving Starlight back with her hooves. “Try growing up with her, or living with her for nine months!”
“She’s doomed an entire empire of innocent ponies to live the rest of their lives as slaves under a monster!” Starlight screamed, her horn suddenly lighting up. “I don’t think I need to know any more!”
“BOTH OF YOU, STOP!” Fluttershy suddenly shouted, stepping in between the two of them and shoving them apart. Rainbow blinked. She hadn’t even seen her move… Fluttershy turned to face Starlight, the look in her eyes making the unicorn take a step back. “That’s enough! Please!” her words lost some of their strength after that, and tears began welling up in her eyes. "Please stop fighting..."
Starlight didn’t seem appeased by the timid mare’s efforts, but she did at least opt to refrain from throwing more insults around. Her angered eyes shot between everypony else in the room before, with a huff, she turned and stomped for the door. Throwing it open with her magic, she paused only briefly in the frame to glare back at Rainbow. “I take back what I said before; you’re not a good pony.”
With those words hitting Rainbow Dash like a brick wall, Starlight punctuated her parting sentiment by slamming the door shut behind her. The following quiet was so thick that Rainbow swore it could have choked her. At that moment, she almost wished that it was. Anything would be better than what she was feeling right now. Eventually, Fluttershy turned around and wordlessly sat back down by the wounded leg, checking it over for any residual shards of glass.
Pinkie Pie looked down, her mane partially deflated. “Well, this is a huge bummer…” she said quietly, scuffing the floor with a hoof.
Rarity shuddered, nervously tugging on her mane with a hoof. “Understatement of the year, I should think…” she solemnly agreed, briefly glancing at Applejack. The farmer’s eyes were hidden underneath the rim of her hat, though the tightness of her lips made it perfectly clear how she felt.
“...Ya lied to us,” she finally droned out, drawing Rainbow’s attention. Applejack then lifted her head so that her eyes were visible underneath her hat. “Why? You shoulda said somethin’.”
Rainbow shook again, her eyes drifting over to look at Twilight, who was now sitting down with her eyes closed and her head low. Barely stifling a sniffle, Rainbow answered. “I didn’t say anything because... I… I didn’t want to lose Twilight again…”
Twilight’s ears perked up, but she otherwise didn’t respond.
Applejack snorted in disbelief. “Ya didn’t wanna lose Twi again? Ya never lost her before, ya know,” she reminded in a bitter tone, The shadow cast by the brim making her disapproval almost palpable.
Rainbow looked away. “I know… but… back on the train…” she choked out before going silent. Those words were enough to make Applejack’s calm anger dissolve into something more regretful.
“That’s enough,” Twilight suddenly cut in, getting back to her hooves and glancing at Applejack, a sour look on her face. “We don’t need to dig those old wounds open, especially not right now. We need to work on coming up with a plan. We still have to protect the Empire from the changelings, and the Crystal Heart isn’t an option anymore.”
Thorax, who had been standing off to one side, watching all of this unfold in silence, looked down at the little filly at his side. Wind Whisper was pressed tightly against his foreleg, looking on in confusion and fear at the scene in front of her. Spike was with her, although the look on his face made it clear that he understood the gravity of what was happening perfectly well.
“Dashie should take a little while to calm down, first,” Pinkie Pie suggested gently, sliding over to put a hoof on the aforementioned pegasus’ shoulder. “I can’t focus when my friends are all pouty…”
Rarity let out a sigh of her own. “I am going to have to agree with Pinkie on this one, even if that’s not how I would personally have phrased it…” she agreed while giving a despondent nod.
Applejack simply lowered her head until her eyes were hidden again, giving a non-committal harumph.
Thorax watched them all, a horrible feeling building in his gut. Their morale had just plummeted. They were angry, nervous, they didn’t have the resources to fend of Chrysalis, and they didn’t have anypony but themselves to help fight off the swarm. It was as clear as day to him…
When Chrysalis arrived, they wouldn’t stand a chance.