(Part One of Two)
Contains spoilers for “Love Mine”! Do not read until at least after Chapter 5: “… You are not one of my children.”
When the Sun-bright flash of Celestia’s powerful magics sending the Changeling many miles away in the span of milliseconds subsides, the Bearers of the Elements stare at the spot where a declared enemy of Equestria had just placed its (or his) fate in the hooves of one of the land’s diarchs. All six are now contemplating some version of the same question: Had Princess Celestia held true to her promise? And if she hadn’t, would that be a good thing—would it be for a greater cause—or not? As sure-hooved as they may have sounded moments ago as they argued their points, now that a decision had been irreversibly made it has become all too easy to imagine that a different outcome—a better outcome (whatever that may mean for each pony)—could have been made if they had said more, explained themselves differently, or done anything else to further each of their cases.
Celestia looks down at each of her subjects in turn, and upon seeing the same questions on their faces, sighs, wishing she could explain herself, but she knows that she has neither the time nor the information necessary to convince the three (and almost four) who had defended the Changeling. No matter, she thinks, there will be plenty of both when Alternate returns. “I am sorry, my little ponies,” they jump at being addressed, jerked out of their mindscapes, “but I must return to attend to the court I had interrupted for this issue.” At this, Twilight looks suddenly like she wants to apologize—thinking she had done something wrong; that she should have been able to handle the Changeling herself, but Celestia, of course, notices and cuts her off before she can start. “Fret not, my faithful student, and recall that had I not been here to mediate, I believe some terrible mistake would have been made that you all would have come to regret. Now, for better or worse, the situation is out of even my hooves, so I ask you to try to not worry about what you can do nothing for, and simply return to your lives as I am.”
Naturally and not without reason, Celestia inwardly fears that such is simply not possible given how far too close to home the events just past have hit, yet she cannot do more than ask them this. Twilight Sparkle had already felt betrayal once by more than just her friends, but that had passed easily and quickly when the Changelings responsible had been revealed and expelled from Canterlot; now this… The betrayals here remain unresolved even after the removal of the Changeling, and will likely stick perhaps even past Alternate’s second reveal and final judgment. On the outside, however, Celestia has to remain calm and composed, even as she feels that the fate of the Bearers of the Elements of Harmony teeter on a tightrope in the middle of a hurricane. Mother, smite those creatures! How can one mortal render me so helpless? -Without even beating me in horn-to-horn combat like his Queen?!
With no more that she can say just yet, but a list of things she wishes she could say longer than any list Twilight has ever composed, she teleports away. Just as they had done for the Changeling, the Bearers stare for a moment at where Celestia had just stood; this time, all wonder just how Celestia could possibly imagine them going back to their lives so simply as that after what had just happened—after what they had just done-… done to each other.
Unexpectedly, it is Fluttershy who finally breaks the silence. “Uhm… Rarity?” The unicorn looks up, first with surprise, then with a kind of eagerness that finally exposes to the physical world all the Bearers’ wish to move on from this topic, even as they know it won’t be so easy to escape their own thoughts. “If you… wouldn’t mind changing your schedule, I could, uhm… really use a relaxing trip to the spa right now. If you don’t mind.” This makes Rarity’s ears perk up even further.
“Ah! Yes, of course! What a wonderful idea, Fluttershy! Indeed, what better a way to forget one’s troubles, after all, than to work out the tension in one’s body?!” Rarity all but hops in place at the welcome distraction. “Girls? It’ll be my treat, if you want…?” She lets the question hang, hoping for some takers who, with a little gossip, would help work out the tension in her mind as well (she would never speak ill of Fluttershy, but her sense for the fun of rumor is worse than Pinkie Pie’s sense for subtlety).
Yet again to everypony’s surprise, Applejack takes up the offer. “On any other day I wouldn’t, but thinkin’ back at what I said to tha’ both a’ya, that sounds like an A1 idea ta me.” She looks around expectantly at the remaining three, hoping they’ll jump on this chance to forget their disagreements, even if only for a little while, but all three either look away to the side or down to the ground.
Rainbow Dash, jumping into the sky to hover above them with her forelegs crossed in animosity, mumbles out some half-hearted excuse. “I got’ta go. Busy. Lots to do, and… important stuff I can’t put off any more.” Before anypony can ask that she explain or drop her wet-paper façade, she zooms away and the remaining five quickly lose sight of her behind the trees of Applejack’s orchard, leaving its owner to sigh with not entirely unexpected disappointment.
Twilight remains facing towards Ponyville, away from the others, as she follows Dash’s example. “I… was busy when Fluttershy came by. I should really get back to my studies. This has already cut far too much into my schedule, and I don’t want to fall further behind than necessary.” What she really doesn’t want, however, is for her fellow Bearers to see the too-familiar look of feeling betrayed in her eyes. So, as is her wont, she teleports instead of risking a chance of another catching a glimpse of her expression.
Feeling the pressure of three pairs of eyes on her, Pinkie looks up with a guilty and sorry smile. “I really need to get back to Sugarcube Corner, since I kind’a-sort’a snuck away when I went looking for that new pony, but since it turned out to be a Changeling and is now banished back to where he came from, I really should sneak back in and get back to work before Mr. or Mrs. Cake notices I’m gone, if they haven’t noticed already, and I really don’t want to stress them out worrying about me, since there’s nothing to worry about, soI’mgoingtogonow.BYE!” So she, too, zooms away before any of the remaining three can respond.
Those left in orchard look between themselves, all of their faces more downcast than they had been in a long time, if not the most downcast they had ever been. “Hm. Well then, I suppose it will just be the three of us…” Rarity states, more to dispel the unsettling silence than anything, her tone filled with disappointment and something less distinct: not quite anger, but overlapping it—even if only by a tiny corner—all the same. Fluttershy and Applejack just nod without saying anything, and after a few more seconds, they all start making their way wordlessly out of the orchard.
Rainbow Dash, naturally, does not have anything to do that fits within any definition of “important,” at least not so important it could not be put off a little bit more. Instead, she curves around Ponyville before angling back around to her cloud home, whereupon she fetches a pair of binoculars (which she had neglected to return to Twilight after the Dragon Migration—it’s not like she’s missing them, anyway). With these, she watches her friends in the orchard, carefully concealed at the corner of her window, just in case…
If Rainbow hadn’t been the fasted pegasus alive, then she might have missed Twilight’s teleportation; as it is, she barely catches it and swivels just in time to see the light of Twilight’s magic briefly flare through her bedroom window of Books and Branches. Turning back to the orchard, Rainbow watches as Pinkie also flees Sweet Apple Acres with nearly as much speed as herself, but the pink blur she leaves is easy to trace to Sugarcube Corner. When Applejack, Rarity, and Fluttershy show no sign of abandoning their plan for the spa, Rainbow Dash turns angrily away from the window, slams her back against the wall, then slumps down. “Minotaur crap,” she mumbles to herself.
I really wanted to talk to Fluttershy first, but-. She turns back to the window, her eyes going from the library, to the bakery, then the library again and settling there. -But I’m the bucking Element of Loyalty! I should be able to trust them—any of them—no matter what! She climbs onto the sill and launches herself towards Twilight’s. I can’t believe I’m actually going to do this… but I have to!
When the teleportation spell releases Twilight from its stasis-inducing (however short) grip, she sighs with regret, closes her eyes, and shakes her head, mentally berating herself. When twin tears leak out from behind her eyelids, she huffs and stomps her hoof, suddenly more angry with herself. She considers, briefly, teleporting back and accepting the offer for the spa trip, but that would mean admitting she had lied about needing to get back to her nonexistent supposedly-already-behind-studies. I don’t think I’d be able to look Applejack in the eyes the whole time, and that’d just ruin everypony’s experience… She slumps in on herself then with that deduction, naturally unaware that her social naïveté and tendency to assume the worst is yet again holding her back.
Not a second after she jumps into her bed to bury herself in pseudosleep, a knock comes from the front door. A few seconds, then more knocking. “Spike!… Spike!” she calls twice before remembering she had let him leave for a break, and therefore she had locked up the library when Fluttershy came by… then Princess Celestia… and that thing, calling itself “Alternate” as if Changelings actually have names! As if they’re indiv-… Another series of knocks, more insistent. “URGH! Can nopony understand that I need to be alone to sort through what just happened!?” No. Of course not… because nopony knows what happened… She shimmies off her bed, grumbling and generally taking as long as she can, hoping whoever it is will give up and leave.
No such luck; as she finally steps upon the ground floor of the library, yet louder knocking accompanies Rainbow Dash’s cry of, “Twilight! I know you’re here! I saw the flash from your spell! I want-!” At the distinct sound of Rainbow’s voice, Twilight hurries forward to unlock and open the door in the middle of Rainbow’s sentence. “-… to talk to you,” the pegasus finishes a bit meekly.
Now, that’s not like her at all, is Twilight’s first thought—and her second, unsurprisingly given what had just happened, is of Changelings, making her narrow her eyes, crouch, and lift her lip to reveal her teeth in an instinctual show of warning and aggression. Rainbow Dash, no matter how air-headed and unobservant at times, could not fail to notice this, and steps back, wings shooting out and fluttering, ready to take off; she opens her mouth, wanting to say something, but Twilight’s savage stance seems to have frozen her tongue. Thankfully, an echo of her mentor’s words come back to Twilight, passing by her rage—words of reassurances and warnings about suspecting Changelings—and she quickly brings herself to stand up straight again, turning away with shame, apology in her eyes. I think we’re all going to be a bit thrown off our usual… ways, since that Changeling came here and tried to drive this wedge between us!
Twilight opens her mouth to start apologizing, but Rainbow Dash didn’t come here to listen to one of her friends beat herself up. “Forget it… Twilie,” she tries to inject some comedy into the situation as she waves a hoof dismissively, but neither of them let out even one chuckle, so she merely steps past Twilight into the relative darkness of the library—as evening is getting along, and no candles are yet lit. “I should have figured you’d be the most stressed out of any of us, but I had to talk to somepony, one-on-one, and since Pinkie was the only other one of us not to go to the spa… of course I had to be so bucking selfi-.”
“No,” Twilight cuts her off, herself neither in the mood for hearing another’s self-pitying. “This is a good thing! We should…-” Twilight tries to think of some apt, more specific word, but finishes lamely, “-talk… and work… stuff out.” Guh! “stuff?!” That doesn’t sound like me! No. Don’t worry about it, Twilight. Don’t. Worry. About. What. You. Can’t. Change. Remember, that’s what Princess Celestia just told you! What happened is going to need working through, though, if we’re going to go back to our old lives… Twilight calms herself down, most unaware of what Rainbow Dash has truly come here to talk about, though her misunderstanding, of course, is hardly without excuse.
Rainbow Dash turns her head to the side, and only occasionally glances at Twilight out of the corner of her eye as she asks, “Uhm… what would you think if I-… faief? I mea-. Urgh!” Rainbow pauses to take a few slow, deep breaths, and Twilight waits patiently. “If I- If I left?” She waits for a moment, but when she sees Twilight’s confusion and her mouth opening, no doubt to ask for clarification, Dash rushes to answer before the question is asked. “I mean-! I mean… if the Wonderbolts ever accepted me… I’d have a lot of training to go to—some military training, too—and-… and then I’d be away most of the time. I wouldn- We wouldn’t-.” She lets out a huff of irritation at being incapable of articulating herself clearly, but instantly returns to looking sorrowful. “D’you… get what I’m trying to say, Twi?”
Twilight is left stunned and blinking by this confession and all its implications, and for a moment is incapable of doing anything more than gapping silently—and she considers it quite lucky that Rainbow’s looking away from her leaves her unaware of what Twilight’s momentary silence means. Eventually, of course, she regains herself, “Oh… that’s what you’ve been worried about? I thought you wanted to talk about that Changeling…” she mumbles mostly to herself as she tries to get her mind to shift gears from “Changelings” to “personal lives and worries”. One of your friends needs you, Twilight—right now! Time to put that aside for the moment!
As Twilight struggles with herself, Rainbow Dash nods slowly, completely missing Twilight’s slight against Alternate (for which she would beat herself up about later as she thinks back on this conversation over and over). “Yeah… I guess it really hit me when you kept on going after Fluttershy and Rarity… What if Princess Celestia was right? What if she wasn’t there? What would we have done to each other?” Her voice steadily comes to sound more and more like begging—begging for reassurances.
Twilight, rendered at a loss for words—both incapable of explaining and not wanting to examine this hypothetic for herself—tries to convey a hint of an answer through her sorrowful expression, but as to its exact meaning, even she’s not sure. “I think…” she ventures to answer, a tiny, barely noticeable pause between each word, “that we wouldn’t have done anything we haven’t done before. We’ve hurt each other before, but we’ve always forgiven each other or found some way to make it up to whomever we hurt. Right?”
“Yeah, but-,” Rainbow Dash sees the flash of something less kind disappearing from Twilight’s eyes, and cuts off, but only momentarily. “-but that thing with Alternate was different. We wouldn’t have been hurting each other, not exactly. We wouldn’t mean to- I mean, of course we never meant to, but not because we weren’t-… uhm… jeeze, this is harder than I thought it would be…”
Tell me about it, is what Twilight wants to say, but she bites her tongue.
Looking suddenly struck by inspiration, Rainbow Dash rushes on before the words can leave her. “I mean, we’d know what we were doing to each other by protecting or wanting to… get rid of Alternate, wouldn’t we? If you hurt him, you’d know you’d be hurting Fluttershy, too; unlike all those other times we hurt each other by accident.” With her words now coming out as strong as her will can hope for, she looks at Twilight straight on.
The question and statement hit Twilight like falling anvils, one after the other, crushing her mind with uncomfortable thoughts and truths, and their unexpected source and out-of-the-blue delivery only worsen their blows. The only thing she’s sure of then is that she has to refute Rainbow Dash on one point: the implication that knowingly hurting somepony—even indirectly—damages their friendship irreparably. But how?! Isn’t that a basic part of the unwritten contract: That friends don’t hurt each other on purpose, no matter the situation?
…-On purpose! “Rainbow Dash, if that did happen, would you at least be willing to hear me out, if nothing else?” The hesitant nod she receives is—to be honest with herself—the best she could ask for, so she’s prompted to go on. “Then, what if I explained that what I did was for what I think is best? If I explained that I was trying to protect you? That I was hurting you and Fluttershy and Rarity to save you from being hurt worse by-…” she stops for a moment, unsure of how to phrase the next part to imply distrust without turning Rainbow Dash away from the idea; in the end, however, she simply can’t bring herself to say what she thinks she should. “-by that Changeling?”
She’s told instantly that she has said the wrong thing by the sudden hardening of Rainbow's eyes. After a moment of the angered pegasus staring down at the unicorn trying to say how sorry she is with her body language, the former finally speaks. “Well… I guess I got my answer, then.”
It takes Twilight a moment to retrace their conversation and get at what Rainbow means. “But I thought… you came here to ask me about what would happen if you left to join the Wonderbolts?”
Rainbow Dash stands, silently signaling she wants to leave. “I’m not dumb, Twilight-”
“I never s-!”
“-I know what ‘implication’ means.” Rainbow forges on, undeterred by Twilight’s exclamation. “I guess, since I know leaving… and joining the Wonderbolts… would hurt all of you, then I won’t.” Her voice almost breaks on the last word, but though she manages to keep her tone steady, she bites her lip all the same, revealing weaknesses in her so-called surety.
Twilight gapes for a moment at Rainbow Dash’s decision, unsure if she really wants to “go there” and battle with her Loyalty. “Rainbow Dash-… you-…” she says just to say something to dispel the horrible silence fertilizing the paradox of Dash’s Element, but she still has no real idea what to say; where to even begin. “I-… You’re spreading yourself too thin. We can deal with this. We can get through this; we just have to take it one problem at a time.”
Rainbow Dash doesn’t say anything to this, nor respond in any way; she merely looks to the side, suddenly wishing her pseudo-messy mane (it is done on purpose, after all) was long enough to hide her face as Fluttershy so often does. As it is, however, her annoyance—product of ugly pride—cannot be lained from Twilight, but she still tries to shove it away from herself. “Twilight, I… don’t blame you for thinking the way you do about Alternate. I mean, if I was you, and with what happened to Shining Armor and Cadance, I’d probably hate Changelings, too, but… how can you blame all of them for what some of them did!”
Not ignorant of the shift of topic, Twilight considers for a moment not answering and bringing the subject of Rainbow Dash’s insecurities back to fore, but easily dismisses the idea. She’s obviously not ready to talk about it, at least not any more. Later, then… It sounds like it’s too deep to deal with in one talk, anyway. A small shake of her head seems to help with shifting onto the new topic. “Rainbow, Changelings are…” she starts, but shakes her head again at her too-condescending tone. “All Changelings are part of a collective: there’s no ‘individuality’ for them. Everything they do is part of their queen’s will.” Rainbow Dash is now staring hard at her, looking more and more like she wants to interrupt, so Twilight rushes on, not wanting to give her a chance. “Any ‘personality’ they display is just another part of their trickery. It’s been observed in every Changeling captured and studied sinc-.”
“That’s a lie.” The pegasus finally decides she’s heard enough, but she doesn’t sound angry, or anything else: her voice is as flat as any living creature’s voice can be, and almost quiet. When Twilight regains control of her mouth and looks about to start up again, Rainbow only repeats herself more forcefully. “That’s. A. Lie.” Again, she doesn’t raise her voice so much a single decibel, nor display any more emotion than before; this time, though, the implied disappointment gets through to Twilight. “And you know it; you just don’t want to believe it.”
That last part finally gets to Twilight, and she huffs with impatience. “It has nothing to do with ‘belief,’ Rainbow Dash; it’s science. I’ve read papers on studies, and they all come to the same conclusion; every single one: Changelings share a hive mind. If there’s any ‘individual,’ it’s the hive itself.” Twilight finishes with an internal flinch; she hadn’t meant to say that last part—it’s only what she had imagined as a logical progression of what she had read on the subject. Still, even if the hive can be called an “individual,” it’s not like a pony-individual… Right?… Even if a pony’s mind is a “collective” of cells… she flinches, physically this time, at the unwelcome comparison and the alarming implications it brings, but she’s quick to console herself. No, it’s not the same. It can’t be. The ‘hive’ still doesn’t have emotions like a pony, first of all, so-.
“Papers? Studies?” Dash’s incredulous voice, suddenly displaying the emotions she had held back before, pulls Twilight away from the war with herself. “What ‘studies’?! It’s barely been three months since anypony even knew Changelings existed!” Rainbow Dash jumps into the air and throws her forehooves out in exasperation. “How could anypony do any thorough research that fast?! Even if they never slept, there hasn’t been enough time! Admit it, Twi: any so-called-…” She struggles for a moment to find the right words here. “-Any so-called ‘Changeling specialists’ are just seeing what they want to see—if they’ve actually studied living Changelings at all—and writing out their own prejudices! Jeeze, Twilight, I thought if anypony would be able to realize that, it would be you!”
Rainbow’s words, however, had the opposite effect she had intended—but that could hardly be unexpected considering her tone—getting Twilight to rise up herself instead of fall. “That hardly matters! It’s the truth! Whether it’s proven now or later makes no difference! It’s like Applejack said: They’re all liars! You can’t trust a single one of them!”
“So, just because he’s a Changeling, Alternate’s a liar, huh? If I didn’t know any better, I’d say you were a Changeling doing a pretty bad job of imitating my egghead friend! I never thought I’d see the day Twilight Sparkle, magical prodigy of Princess Celestia, says something without proof! How do you even study whether Changelings have-?!” Rainbow Dash would have gone on, but the suddenly defeated look in Twilight’s eyes and the way her body freezes—not even looking as if she’s breathing for a moment—makes the pegasus stop.
Rainbow Dash… Bearer of the Element of Loyalty… I thought-… “Rainbow Dash-… I-…” But those papers… how-…? Twilight puts a hoof to her horn; it feels as if her thoughts are coming to her through a strainer: slowly and coming out damaged and incomplete. “-But Changelings-… I didn’t- I don’t want anypony to get hurt, and Changelings, when they lie, replacing somepony, even temporarily-.”
Rainbow Dash, who had until then started to nurture a look of sympathy over her features, turns angry again, though not quite as severely as before. “Yeah, I got that first part, especially the ‘anypony’ part, but if a Changeling starves to death, who cares, right? As long as Changelings aren’t ponies, then their trying to get love in order to not die is evil. And replacing ponies? What else are they going to do since most ponies are like you and distrust them instantly?! When you don’t even give them one chance!?” She glares, but slowly softens as she sees Twilight lower herself to clutch her head between her forelegs.
“Rainbow… please…” She begs, trying to shut her eyes away from the door to a horrifying world that the pegasus had just blown open—away from what she can’t admit without blowing the rest of her carefully ordered world apart—but she can’t turn away from something in her own mind. “I’m sorry… I didn’t mean to hurt you. You- I’m horrible friend; I don’t deserve you. I’m sorry… I’m sorry…” She continues to whisper, slightly more quietly each time until she finally falls relatively silent.
The other stands still, looking down at her friend and silently watching her fall apart. In time, she eventually rolls her eyes before stepping forward and—a bit roughly—pulling Twilight up into a sitting position; though the unicorn instantly slumps into Rainbow’s forelegs, wishing only to fall back to the floor. “Stupid…” Rainbow says as she pulls Twilight into a hug, both the word and act making Twilight’s muscles turn to stone. “You can be so stupid, Twi. If I didn’t care, I wouldn’t be here talking with you… and if you need a little more time to sort stuff out before talking again, I’ll give you as long as you want… as long as you promise to still be my friend.”
That elicits a wet, weak chuckle from Twilight, and when Rainbow Dash gives her an encouraging squeeze, she nods as if in answer (though Rainbow didn’t truly expect one), first slowly, then more vigorously as the tears start flowing. They stay like this for the best part of an hour, and even though Twilight Sparkle never brings herself to return the hug, Rainbow Dash doesn’t mind.