"Sister, we would have words with thee."
Celestia sighed, looking up from her papers. "Luna, I thought you had gotten out of the habit of using such old language."
"We still find use for it when we grow miffed," the night princess growled. "And most assuredly we are miffed at thou."
"You do realize that the word thou is only meant to be directed as social inferiors, not at peers?"
"We are most assuredly miffed. With. Thou."
The princess of the sun shut her eyes, finishing off her latest signature and placing it in the hooves of a nearby clerk. "Please leave us for now." The clerk bowed and trotted out, flicking her tail in annoyance; unscheduled breaks like this were never factored into her pay.
The door shut with a click.
"The last time I ignored you, I ended up having to... separate us for an uncomfortable amount of time. So this time, I think I'll try to do things right." Celestia took a breath, pulling her ears to attention. "What, exactly, is going on this time?"
Luna snorted. "Your student has suffered most grievous abuse, and fears to acknowledge it."
Celestia's wings flared. "What?! Who? How? If it's that changeling--"
"Her tormentor is in this room right now!" Luna snarled. Her hoof shot up, pointing to one of the stained glass windows. "Look upon her!"
"....Luna... that's an image of me."
"Yes. It is."
The elder sister took a moment to process the claim. "I... am afraid I do not understand."
"Dost thou not recall the words thy spoke to Twilight Sparkle? At the very moment she revealed treachery to thou and her brother, you rebuked her." Luna's wings drooped, her eyes falling shut. "It is mine duty to tend to the slumbers of all our citizens, and these past few days hath caused much busyness on my part. Yet I failed to see the dreams of the very one who prevented our conquest, so foalish was I in comforting the young and the frightened that I did not even realize Twilight had been more grievously injured. Only when the graceful bearer of Kindness arranged a... forced period of rest upon her, only then did I even think to enter her nightmares. Only then... only then did I see what she has been subjected to."
Celestia sighed. "And what? What's done is done, Luna. My mistakes are made.... I have nothing I can do."
"At the very least you can apologize."
"For what? From my viewpoint at the time, she had just torn into an innocent mare for no other reason than sheer hatred. Maybe I operated off incomplete information, but my actions were justified."
"No!" Luna stomped her hoof, edging forward as she spoke. "Shining Armor was hypnotized by the changeling queen, Twilight's friends had never met Cadance before, even I had no idea if these actions were normal, but YOU! You watched her grow up! You watched Twilight grow up with her! Her bosom companion came to you firm in the belief that she had become consumed by a great evil, and you dusted her off." The princess of the night narrowed her eyes. "At the very least, you should have mediated. Instead you struck her down, and an unknown enemy slipped in behind while you looked away. Twilight Sparkle could have been killed that second and you would never have known it. She could have ended her own LIFE without you even realizing it."
The sister were nose to nose now, their eyes locked in a battle of wills.
"What do you want me to say, Luna? I made a mistake? I know that, Twilight knows that... All of Canterlot knows."
"The mistake thou made is irrelevant. It is the fact thou hast not truly made reparations that enrages me." Luna's face softened. "Have you truly become so distant from your subjects that you feel they should bear guilt for being in the right?"
"That's not it at all!"
"Then why does Twilight Sparkle still believe her actions were unjustified? Why do her friends agree with her? Why do you sit on this throne while she has nightmares over your rejection?"
"DO YOU THINK I DON'T KNOW WHAT I DID WRONG?!"
Celestia and Luna stared at each other, wings flared.
"...do you think," the elder finally continued, "I don't know that I was wrong? That I am still... in the wrong... I don't deserve her forgiveness, not after this. If I go to apologize, she'll still trail after me. She'll put me back on the pedestal she's made over the years, let herself be broken for me. I can't... I can't let that happen to her. I can't."
Celestia folded her wings with a sigh. "She's become too dependent on my infallibility. She's hurting now, but I can't be the one to heal her. I would... set the bone wrong, so to speak." She took a slow breath. "It has to be Cadance, and Shining Armor, and her friends. It can't be me. Not anymore."
Luna stared at her for a moment.
And then she slapped her. "That is not your choice to make!"
Celestia rubbed at her face, not comprehending.
A blue wing flicked out, halting the approaching guards. "I will not harm her, soldiers, that was never my intention."
They halted, still wary, but lifted their halberds.
Luna nodded before turning back to the other princess in the room. "Listen to me, sister. You want Twilight to fly on her own power, but all you are truly doing with your distance is setting her adrift. Yes, amends must be made by her family and her friends and you are in that group. She cannot fly if she is hurt, and she will never fly on your command; it must be of her own design, not your manipulations. The fact remains, she needs you, even if you think she needs you too much. You made a mistake, and she was hurt. Please, don't make her suffer more for it."
Then she blinked again.
"...but... how can I? I can't... after all that... she... I am not worth--"
"Excuse me, which one of us was locked on the moon for a thousand years instead of being executed? Right. If I'm still around after what I did, you can go to a mortal unicorn and apologize for not believing her about a previously unknown threat. Really, Tia, I thought I was the younger sister, I shouldn't have to be telling you to clean up your mess!"
After a moment, she sighed, her head falling forward. "Why is it that I always fail ponies when they need me the most? Is something wrong with me Luna? I don't know why I do this to ponies I love... I try to shelter them, but when they're truly hurt, I don't know what to do. I never even realize..."
"The sun provideth life, but burns those that rise too close, and to look upon it is to risk blindness. Icarus, of the pegasi." Luna bowed her own head. "You do not know how to heal, sister, because you cannot deliver any but the greatest of pains. Let me guide your steps in this. Let me help you redeem yourself."
The alicorn of the sun gave her a tired look. "I wish I could deny your words. I wish... very well. I will... apologize for my folly the very next time I see Twilight."
"That... is a start." Luna nodded, turning away. "I do not doubt that this will be a long and delicate process--"
Both alicorns looked to the main entryway as a wild-eyed, frazzle-maned Twilight Sparkle galloped through and levitated a stack of papers toward them at alarming speed. "I've got a lead--oh hey Luna--on the Rainbow Dash thing but I need to run an expedition to a certain place to confirm that it's accurate and I need to bring both the changelings in the dungeons so I was wondering if you could just sign this soldier requisition form and this transport of prisoners form and stamp here okay that should be it I'll get this all delivered thanks!"
"Twilight I--!" Celestia's hoof lowered as the unicorn sped out the door. "And she's gone."
Luna raised an eyebrow.
"...I should go after her, shouldn't I?"
The alicorn of the sun took a breath. "Well... technically speaking, she did request soldiers. And, technically, I never actually removed myself from the military ranks."
The alicorn of the moon blinked. "Wait, you can remove yourself from military ranks? I didn't know that was possible!"
"Oy! You! We're going on a little trip!"
The changeling lifted her head wearily as the guard stepped into the cell, absently noting his magic detaching her leash chain from the wall. "Who in the world thought this was a smart idea? I'm dangerous."
"Twilight Sparkle," one of the guards deadpanned. "Apparently she needs you for something. Come on, stay in front of me and behind him at all times."
She nodded, taking up position between the two guards. They walked down the hallway and out of the dungeon, then through a few more corridors which all looked the same to her. Occasionally they passed other ponies...
Let them glare.
She deserved it.
And then she was led outside, which seriously confused her. And then she spotted Twilight and her friends.... well, Twilight's friends anyway, all gathered around a royal chariot. Pinkie and Applejack were talking to the chariot's occupant, blocking the changeling's view of whoever was in there. Rarity and Fluttershy were awkwardly listening to the ramblings of... Lyra? What was Lyra doing here?
That question, however, was quickly overwhelmed with another: Why was an armored Celestia saluting to Twilight?
Apparently, Twilight herself had the same question, judging from her flabergasted expression. "But princess, this really isn't necessary!"
"You need guards, and I am a guard. A very experienced one, at that. If this expedition is as important as you claim, I feel there should be no expense spared--"
"But you're the princess!" Twilight blurted out. "You're needed here, you need to present a unified front so that Canterlot can recover--"
"Canterlot is perfectly fine in the hooves of my sister. Aside from which, I feel that--"
"You could have assigned Shining Armor or, or somepony else if you needed to--"
"Shining Armor is currently commanding the guards keeping Spike safe," Celestia explained.
"What? Spike? Why does Spike need protecting?"
The alicorn of the sun took a breath and released it. "I... it is a sensitive and classified matter. Suffice it to say that Luna found who made the threat against Canterlot... or at least who the changelings pinned it on, and that she could not attend the wedding because of her discovery."
"Um..." The changeling held up a hoof. "Excuse me, I'm sorry to interrupt but... why am I here?"
Twilight blinked and turned to her. "Oh! Um. Okay, this is going to be awkward. Uh... there's a slight possibility that you are, in fact, the actual Rainbow Dash."
"See, the other changeling--"
"What?!" The changeling snapped her gaze up. "Twilight, changelings are dangerous! You can't trust them they, they wrecked your brother's wedding for crying out loud!"
"I'm not taking her word for it! That's what this whole expedition is about! Her story requires a piece of evidence, and we're going to go... find it." The unicorn shrugged. "That's all."
"It... it has to be an ambush, or some kind of trick or something!" She couldn't let Twilight fall for this, not before they found out where the real Rainbow Dash was. "Who is this changeling, anyway? It could be any one of the Queen's drones!"
"Hey!" Lyra pushed past Rarity and Fluttershy. "Bonbon's no drone! She's as Independence as they come!"
A voice from the chariot buzzed in annoyance. "Lyra...."
"She's an entrepreneur, and, and a free thinker and--"
"Lyra. She meant drone in the biological sense." The speaker stepped out of the chariot, rolling her eyes. "Which, strictly speaking, I technically am."
The blue-eyed changeling stared at the pink-eyed one.
Pinkie Pie leaned in toward Rarity. "I thought blue eyes meant connected to the hive mind?"
"Glowing blue eyes." The fashionista shook her head. "That's a natural blue. Try to keep up, dear."
"Now now now, I can't have you starving. And you must admit, not many people in my position would even care enough to ensure you had a tasty and balanced diet." Chrysalis grinned, pushing the plates forward. "Come on, my little ponies, eat up."
The three fillies glowered at her.
"Are you expecting me to beat you into submission?" The changeling queen tapped her chin thoughtfully. "Well, now, there's a horrible idea. I'm not pointlessly cruel, after all."
"You don't think invading Canterlot counts as cruel?" the pegasus growled. "Or replacing Shining Armor's wife? Or ruining his relationship with his sister? Or using your crazy changeling powers to tie us to the ground?!"
Chrysalis smiled, leaning down. "I said I am not pointlessly cruel. Consider that very carefully." She rose up again. "Now then, a lesson in tactics. An advantage that does not impact is no advantage at all. I have you as hostages, but only I know this. Nopony is coming to rescue you, nopony is going to negotiate for your release, and even assuming, somehow, that you are the princess's daughters it will certainly take a while for anypony to realize you're missing. Therefore, I must turn you into an advantage. Which means sending a message out."
Without any warning she lunged and sank her fangs into the unicorn's leg. There were screams, of course, from all three fillies, but by that point she was already back out of their range.
"OH SWEET CELESTIA!" cried the earth pony. "SWEETIE BELLE ARE YOU OKAY?!"
"I... I feel.... purple..." The unicorn dozed off.
Chrysalis sighed. "She's not dead. She's not even seriously injured, just asleep for the moment. Killing anypony would be a disadvantage at the moment; I can't afford a trail of bodies when I'm in hiding." She reached out with her magic, levitating the filly out of reach of her companions.
"Why the HAY would ya do that?!" the earth pony shouted, tears in her eyes. "What has she ever done to ya?!"
"Oh, nothing. Nothing at all." The changeling queen lowered her horn. "It's what she's going to do that interests me. I had to put her to sleep, the quick version of this spell can be rather painful."
"Quick version--?" The pegasus blinked. "You're going to do what you did to Shining! You're going to--"
"Integrate her forcefully into the hive mind, where her own thoughts will be drowned out by my commands. And I'm not going to do it. I already have done it." Chrysalis smiled and stood back.
Slowly, the unicorn got to her hooves, opening her eyes and turning around. She nibbled quietly at her plate.
"Now look. Your friend is eating her vegetables." The changeling queen smiled warmly. "I think you should too."