Winds of Change

by Masterweaver


Chapters


Prologue: SONIC RAINBOOM!

It wasn't easy, being an advance scout. So far from the swarm, having to rely on a manufactured personality for sustenance... true, if a drone was really lucky, they could get into a relationship and have endless love to feast upon, but there was also the risk that they'd go rogue. Add to that the sheer loneliness of the position...

Sometimes, changeling 802802 wished she was still a nymph, unpupated.

Still, she had a job to do. Today, more so than any other day. She was in the process of carrying a cocoon between her wings, all the way back to her home base in Ponyville. It was, to be honest, still some distance away, and she wasn't exactly sure she could hide it from the locals, but orders were orders were orders.

"Well, at least I've got you to keep me company.... for now." The drone chuckled, patting her payload reassuringly. "So, how are things back in the swarm? Queen Chrysalis still going on about her unending reign? Don't tell anyling I told you this, but that girl needs to relax. She takes herself waaaaay too seriously--"

Her ears perked and she dived into the bushes, scaring a flock--swarm--a heck of a lot of butterflies out into the open. Somepony was screaming nearby! She couldn't be seen like this.... the screaming seemed to be getting closer. And... coming from the sky?

802802 could only stare as the very butterflies she had scared out of hiding caught a flailing pegasus filly just before she hit the ground. It was.... bizarre, weird, and just plain strange. Even for ponies.

How the hay did the butterflies even hold that lanky girl up?! Freaky pegasus magic...

And then the filly began singing some nonsense about the world being wonderful. Just like a pony, really... Anyling that did that would be considered daft by the swarm.

The changeling took the moment to make her escape, hoping that the filly would be to distracted with her melody to notice the rustling in the bushes. Well, she couldn't go straight back to Ponyville now, not without being seen. She could just shapeshift, of course, if it weren't for this stupid cocoon she was carrying all the way from the stupid swarm on the orders of that stupid queen with her stupid superiority complex...

And then all of the sudden this loud booming noise! What was WITH today, it was like the world WANTED her to get caught or something! AND WHAT THE HECK WAS THAT THING IN THE SKY?! A rainbow... ripply... THING!

Intellectually she realized she should probably get away.

But... she was a scout. And scouts were chosen for their curiosity.

"....by the Hive, I swear if I get caught I'm going to tell these ponies everything."

Grumbling under her breath, the changeling adjusted her package and trotted toward the source of the rainbow ripply thing. Soon enough, she stumbled across a crater, fresh if the dirt clods all around it were any indication. What could cause something like this?

"...uuunnnnghaaa...."

HOLY SILK IT WAS ALIVE.

Cautiously, 802802 peered into the impact zone. Anything that could survive that had to be dangerous...

...oooooor maybe it was just another pegasus filly. What, did the weather crew schedule a foal rain?

The changeling peered at the mangled pony, somewhat surprised that she was still alive at all. There was a heck of a lot of blood, and she knew that most ponies couldn't survive being bent in some of those ways. The fact was, this girl was dying--

Wait.

She glanced at the cocoon on her back, and then looked at the filly again.

The girl was dying.

This.... THIS WAS PERFECT!

The changeling giggled to herself as she danced down into the crater. She could accomplish her mission, sneak back into Ponyville, and hey, she didn't even have to kill anypony! Cause, well, the girl was already dead (practically speaking). Heck, she might even get the girl to go along willingly, now there was an idea. 802802 took a moment to brush the filly's surface thoughts, picking a form and shifting into it. Then she turned the pegasus over, scrunching up her face at a few of the squelching noises.

The filly looked up at the changeling with bleary eyes. "...M...Mom?"

Oh. Oooooh. Well, it was difficult enough to construct a persona, so... "Nah kid. I'm a shapeshifter, I just took this form off your mind." Better to be truthful than caught in a lie.

"Oh." The filly covered her mouth, coughing up some blood. After a moment, she brought it to her eyes. "Heh... looks like I'm kinda messed up."

"Yeah, you're pretty much screwed." The changeling shrugged. "Broken bones, cranial damage, I think that over there is your... yeah. You'll be dead in, I don't know, seven minutes? I'm guessing here."

"Dead? As in--" She coughed again.

"As in rotting, gone to meet your maker, joined the hive, whole shebang." 802802 grinned. "But hey, you went out great! You did that whole... ripply rainbow explosion thing, that's neat!"

"...I did a sonic rainboom?"

"Is that what it's called?" She shrugged. "Sure. Let's go with that, kid."

"Wow..." The filly managed to smirk. "And I don't even have my cutie mark yet--FLUTTERSHY!"

The changeling tilted her head. "Who?"

"Fluttershy, a, a yellow pegasus, she--" Another coughing fit interrupted the filly, a bit of bile joining the blood.

"Wait. Lanky, pink mane?"

The filly, unable to reply because of her coughing, nodded.

"Small world! I just saved her life, got some butterflies to carry her." Technically true...

"Oh." The dying pony took in a deep breath. "Thanks."

"No prob."

They stood there in silence.

"...so. I'm dying."

"Yep."

"Great." A vague hoof waved at the sky. "I lost the race, my best friend got saved by a shapeshifter, and by the time they find me--"

"If they find you." The changeling glanced around. "There's a lotta wild animals in these parts. Fresh corpse means fresh meat."

The filly glared at her. "Gee, thanks."

"Hey, just saying how it is."

"...I'm not going to get the chance to say goodbye, am I?"

"Nope."

Silent tears began to crawl down the bruised face. "They're all... all going to be hurt. Mom, dad, my brothers and sisters... Fluttershy... they're all going to be hurt because I didn't get to say goodbye."

The changeling tilted her head. "You know, they don't have to know."

A silent moment followed that.

"...what?"

"They don't have to know you died. I could take your place or, even better!" 802802 slipped the cocoon off her back. "This little guy could."

"...what do you mean?" The filly looked at the green object, uncomprehending. "What... is that another shapeshifter?"

"Yep! All she needs is a form, some memories, and voila! Brand new--um, whatever your name is."

"Rainbow Dash."

"Right! Brand new Rainbow Dash. I just cast a search spell on you, transfer your memories into her, then she shifts and I insert her right back into society. No fuss, no muss. Whaddaya say?"

The pegasus pondered the offer, rubbing her chin weakly. "...this was your plan all along, wasn't it?"

"Well, my original orders were to kill somepony, but you're dying already." The changeling waved a hoof. "Besides, I'm not really the killing type. I mean, if you didn't deserve to live you wouldn't be born, right? Right."

"Huh." Rainbow gave the cocoon a thoughtful look. "You... you're sure nopony will be able to tell?"

"Like I said. Shapeshifter, plus memory, equals New. Rainbow. Dash." 802802 leaned in. "I'm not going to lie, I could just take your memories right now. But if you let me do it, it's a lot easier for me, and a lot less painful for you. Come on, shake on it!"

The filly stared at the proffered hoof. "...show me your real form."

"Alright, dying request. It's not pretty." Green fire melted Rainbow's mother into a black, misshappen locust the size of a pony. "There, see? We look creepy. That's why we need to shapeshift, so ponies can accept us."

"I dunno, you look kinda awesome to me."

"...wow. Um... thanks, kid."

802802 fidgeted a bit.

"...you know what, I don't like being exposed like this." She shifted back into the form of the filly's mom. "So, um, do we have a deal or what?"

"Alright. Not like I could stop you anyway." Rainbow Dash shut her eyes. "Just... tell me when it's over."

The changeling lowered her horn to the filly's forehead, pulling the memories out and copying them into her own mind. The copy she sent to the cocoon, letting it seep deep into the other drone's mind. Conscious, unconscious, ego, supego, id...

The whole process took less than fifteen seconds, but she'd remember that strange feeling forever.

"Right. So!" 802802 tapped the cocoon twice, and grinned at the green glow that appeared in it. "She's shifted, aaaaand... there she goes! Teleported somewhere discreet." She turned to the dying filly. "Doesn't even know she's not the original. Congratulations, kid, you just won the race!"

"She thinks she's... me?"

The changeling laughed awkwardly. "Yeeeeeeah that's... kinda a side effect of the memory spell. But hey! No better disguise than thinking you're real, right? Your family will be happy, your friends will be happy, and... yeah."

"...I guess... that's fair, I guess."

"Well, it's been nice chatting kid. I'm, uh, going to have to hide your body anyway, what would you like me to do with it?"

Rainbow Dash sighed. "I dunno. I just.... look. I know, I mean, I get that you're not... really my mom. But..." She stared at the changeling, eyes watering. "Can you... can you hold me? I'm scared."

802802 blinked. She hadn't even considered stealing love from the dying filly and... here she was, giving her some. "I..." What was she supposed to do here?

The rose colored eyes shed a few red tears.

"...alright." The changeling wrapped her forehooves around the pegasus, stroking her mane gently. "Don't... don't worry, Dash, I'm here."

"It hurts, Mom. It... it hurts a lot."

"I know Dash. I... I know." Mom. Well, this... this was what normal drones did. Right?

"I don't want to die..."

She nodded. "Nopony... nopony wants to die, Dash. But we can't stop it."

"Can... can you sing me to sleep? I know I said it wasn't cool before, but... just this once, I... I think I can handle it."

Sing? 802802 couldn't sing! She didn't know any songs!

"...please, Mom? I'm really... really scared."

Well... maybe just this once.

"...hush now, quiet now, it's time to lay your sleepy head... hush now, q...quiet now, it's time for you to... go to bed..."

802802 looked down at the filly. She wasn't breathing anymore. All that remained of her was a smile on her bloodstained face.

It was quick work, telekineticly digging up a grave in the earth loosened by the impact. It was easy enough to wrap her... all of her, even the bits that fell out, into the now vacated cocoon, and lower her into the ground. Of course, she didn't mark it. It would have been stupid to mark the grave of a filly that nopony knew was dead.

The changeling walked to Ponyville, stopping to rinse her hooves in a nearby stream. She felt a curious sensation on her face, and brushed it gently.

"Huh... my eyes. They're wet...."


Chapter One: A Joyous Day

"A sonic rainboom? At a wedding?!" Rainbow Dash bounced on her hooves. "Can you say best wedding ever?!"

Pinkie gasped, flailing her hooves in the air. "Best. Wedding. EVER!"

The pegasus smirked at her friend's antics; Pinkie Pie was just so random sometimes, but that was something that she'd learned to love about the pony. Heck, she'd say that everypony in the cart had their little quirks; Applejack just didn't care about awesomeness as much as she should, Rarity cared a little too much about her looks, Fluttershy needed to learn how to act out... and of course, Twilight went neurotic at the drop of a hat. But in the end, for all their flaws, these ponies just plain rocked. Rainbow Dash couldn't--no, she wouldn't imagine a life without any of them.

"So you all get to help with the big fancy wedding, but I'm the one who gets to host the bachelor party!" boasted the only nonpony in the cart. "I have just one question... What's a bachelor party?"

"PFffffhahaHAHAhahaha!" Rainbow barely managed to keep from falling out of her seat. SPIKE? Running a bachelor party? Oh Celestia that was just priceless! An image of the dragon wearing a mustache and holding auditions for poledancers with an absolutely stoic face passed through her mind, and she burst out in another bout of capricious laughter.

Applejack was the first to notice that Twilight hadn't joined in. She moved over to the unicorn and gave her a gentle smile. "Why tha long face, sugarcube?"

"I'm just thinking about Shining Armor," she replied with a shrug. "Ever since I moved to Ponyville we've been seeing each other less and less. And now that he's starting a new family with this 'Princess Mi Amore Cal-whatshername,' we'll probably never see each other." An aggravated sigh escaped her lips as she stared out the window.

"Come on, now," Applejack insisted. "Yer his sister. He'll always make time fer ya."

"...Couldn't seem to make time to tell me he was getting married."

"We're here, we're here!"

Pinkie Pie curtailed Twilight's grumbling with joyful bouncing. The mares all looked out the window, eager as always to see the capital city. Rainbow Dash narrowed her eyes at the purple bubble that seemed to encapsulate Canterlot; she'd seen it from a distance, of course, but now that it was close, it felt... weird. The train seemed to pass through without any ill effect, though, so she shrugged it off. More than likely it was just a side effect of whatever magic was causing it.

As she trotted out with the other ponies, though, she noticed something a bit more pertinent. "Whoa, what's with all the guards?"

"I'm sure they're just taking the necessary precautions," Rarity explained. "Royal weddings do bring out the strangest ponies."

She gave a sidelong glance at Pinkie, who sneezed out confetti as if on cue. Dash nodded in comprehension; Pinkie did have a sense of propriety, but other ponies like her may have been a bit more overeager.

"Now let's get going," the unicorn added. "We've got work to do!"

"And you've got a big brother ta go congratialate," Applejack added, nudging Twilight and giving her a grin.

"Yeah," she grumbled, stalking off. "Congratulate. And then give him a piece of my mind."

The other mares watched her break off and head her own way in confusion.

"...Yeesh. What crawled under her tail and died?"

"Rainbow Dash!" Rarity gave the pegasus a pointed look. "There is no need to be so crude, especially in this situation!"

"I'm just calling it like it is!" The pegasus glanced skyward. "Can we just go? That bubble is seriously freaking me out."

"I think it looks kind of cool!" Pinkie commented, bouncing up and down. "Like a big balloon! OOOOO maybe it is a big balloon! But who would put a balloon around Canterlot? Are they trying to make a flying city for the wedding? You can't make a flying city with balloons, believe me I've tried, you need ROCKETS."

"Or, um, clouds," Fluttershy pointed out. "Cloudsdale is a flying city."

"Yeah, but only pegasi live there. MY WAY WORKS FOR EVERYPONY. Que. Eee. Dee."

Rainbow rolled her eyes. Pinkie was just so random at times.

***

"Bet I can guess what you're all thinking!" Twilight shouted loudly, storming up to the table where her friends were eating together. "Cadance is the absolute worst bride-to-be ever."

"Who, me?"

"Spike!" Applejack reprimanded, giving the dragon a stern look. "That goes on tha cake." She raised an eyebrow as he sheepishly put the models down.

"Twilight, whatever are you talking about?" Rarity turned to her friend, nonplussed. "Cadance is an absolute gem!"

"Rarity, she was so demanding!"

"Well, of course she is!" The ivory unicorn tilted her head in confusion. "Why shouldn't she expect the very best on her wedding day?"

Twilight huffed, turning to the farmpony. "Applejack, did you know that after she told you how much she just 'love-love-loved' your hors d'eouvres she threw them in the trash?"

The orange mare blinked in shock, but quickly shook her head and smiled. "Aw, she was probably just trying ta spare my feelin's."

"No, she was just being fake, and totally insincere!"

"She did raise her voice at one of my birds during rehearsal," Fluttershy admitted reluctantly.

"See?" Twilight pointed in triumph. "Rude!"

"But..." The pegasus gave her an embarrassed smile. "He was singing really off-key." As if to demonstrate, one of the songbird next to her grated out something vaguely resembling a tune.

The unicorn scowled, turning to her next friend. "Pinkie Pie, you had to have noticed how Cadance treated--"

She stared for a moment at the party pony, currently engaged in steamy cake model role-play with her number one assistant. Her eyelid twitched.

"...Nevermind." Twilight finally rounded on her final hope. "Rainbow Dash, you're with me, right?"

The pegasus considered mentioning what had happened when Cadance checked out her practice session, but the unicorn was already under a lot of stress. "Sorry Twi. Been too busy prepping for my sonic rainboom to pay much attention to the bride's bad attitude." Hearing that her sister-in-law to be had mentioned princesses were easily dominated would be, even in Rainbow Dash's world, a bit much.

She privately filed away the image of Shining Armor in tight clothes with a whip, though. Sometimes her imagination rocked.

"The princess is about to get married," Rarity gently reminded her friend. "I'm sure any negative behavior she might be displaying is simply the result of nerves."

Twilight stomped a hoof. "And I'm sure it's the result of being an awful pony who doesn't deserve to even know Shining Armor let alone marry him!"

Applejack reached a gentle hoof out to the heavily breathing unicorn. "Think maybe yer being just a tiny bit possessive of yer brother?" The rest of the table nodded in assent.

"I am not being possessive," Twilight screeched, "and I am not taking it out on Cadance! You're all just too caught up in your wedding planning to notice that maybe there shouldn't even BE A WEDDING!" She slammed the table, making all the dishes jump up a few inches, before spinning around and tromping off. Angry, half formed words poured from her mouth as she rounded the corner.

Applejack sighed, rubbing her forehead. "That filly's getten' all worked up about this. Ah hope she can calm down before she does somethen' she'll regret..."

"Ah! There you girls are!"

The five friends turned to see princess Mi Amore Cadenza trotting up to them with a small entourage of unicorns. Rainbow Dash waved casually, getting up and pulling out a chair for the bride-to-be.

Rarity raised an eyebrow. "Why Rainbow, I don't think I've ever seen you so courteous in my life!"

"What can I say?" The pegasus gave her a cheesy grin. "I guess weddings bring out the best in me."

"Well, thank you miss Dash." Mi Amore Cadenza nodded to her, sitting in the chair gracefully. "I feel I must.... apologize to you all. I've been horrendously dismissive and harsh to each of you."

"Oh, there's no need to apologize, princess." Fluttershy smiled, putting a reassuring hoof on the alicorn's shoe. "You're about to devote yourself to one person for your entire life. I... I can only imagine how stressful that could be."

"...yes, you're right. That would... Indeed, that is something of an issue." The princess pulled her hoof back, rubbing it nervously. "In fact... well, I seem to have, in a foolish fit of stupidity, fired my previous bridesmaids."

Rarity gasped, covering her muzzle in shock. "Why? Darling, whatever happened?"

"It's... not something I would like to discuss." After a moment, the princess glanced up. "However, I thought... It might be best to ask you all to attend to me during the wedding."

"Of COURSE we'll be your bridesmaids!" Pinkie Pie bounded over. "I could never see anypony not enjoy a party cause there won't ponies at the right places!"

"Pinkie, Ah'm not sure that a wedden' really qualifies as a party."

The baker gave the farmer an incredulous look. "There will be a bunch of ponies, in one room, celebrating something. There's going to be decorations, and cake, and PUNCH! HOW IS THIS NOT A PARTY?!"

Applejack chuckled, holding up a conciliatory hoof. "Simmer down thar, sugercube. Ah guess when ya put it like that, Ah can't really argue."

"Well, if we're going to be bridesmaids, I suppose I should start designing some dresses for us." Rarity turned to the princess with a smile. "Do you have any preferences, dear?"

"Well..." She sighed. "I'm sorry, I feel I must retreat to my private quarters. This whole day has been stressful for me, and we still have the rehearsal to do! Miss Dash, would you care to escort me?"

"Huh? Uh..." Rainbow blinked. "Sure, but... why?"

"Well, I feel I have been groundbound for too long and, unfortunately, none of my guards have wings at the moment." The princess gestured at the group of unicorns still standing at attention behind her.

"Yeah, I know what it feels like to be grounded." The pegasus turned to her friends. "You guys don't mind, do you?"

"Nopey dopey!"

"So long as ya keep her safe, Ah'm alright with it."

"Well, um... I suppose it's okay."

"Darling, I wouldn't dream of robbing you of this glamour."

"Go on, I'll stay with the girls." Spike smirked. "New Rainbow Dash, at your service!"

The pegasus rolled her eyes. "Please, don't bring that up." She turned around, saluting the princess as she hovered into the air. "Escort Dash ready to go, your majesty!"

"Very well then." Mi Amore Cadenza turned to the other ponies and granted them a polite smile. "Farewell. I will see you all at the wedding!"

The princess took to the air, as graceful in the winds as she was on the ground. A strange feeling rose up in Rainbow Dash as she followed her, and she shook her head in confusion. Did she have the hots for Cadenza?! That was wrong, the princess was getting married!

After a rather fast moment of self analysis, Dash calmed down. She didn't feel any attraction to the princess, at least, not in her heart. She was just able to appreciate a hot flank, and the pegasus knew better than to act on anything so shallow.

"...the dragon mentioned he was the... New Rainbow Dash?"

The blue pegasus gave an awkward laugh. "Yeah... well, you remember back when Discord was released?"

"Ah, yes. Horrible day for ponies."

"See, my friends and I are the bearers of the Elements of Harmony. So Discord sort of... flipped our personalities. Pinkie Pie was angry, Fluttershy was cruel... I bear the element of Loyalty, so...." Rainbow waved a hoof, embarrassed.

"Discord... made you abandon them?"

"Yep. Twilight tried to get Spike to be the new bearer, but it didn't work out. We did beat Discord though," she added quickly. "Took some doing to get us back into our right minds."

The princess nodded. "Yes, I can see that. Bearer of the Element of Loyalty? Quite an accomplishment..."

"Yeah, I guess I am pretty awesome."

For a moment, Mi Amore Cadenza was silent. Then she shot Dash a sly look. "I've been meaning to ask.... what is your rank?"

"My what?"

"Your rank. Your position. What is it?"

The pegasus looked at the princess, nonplussed. Then suddenly it clicked, and she burst out laughing. "Oh man, hahaha! Ha, I'm sorry! You've got the wrong mare."

"I... what?"

"I'm not actually a Wonderbolt." Rainbow Dash smirked. "I mean, I am going to get in one day, don't get me wrong, but right now I'm not part of the team."

"...what?"

"Seriously though, I'm flattered. Thank you, princess." The pegasus bowed in midair, still grinning. "Don't worry, this whole thing can stay between us."

Mi Amore Cadenza stared at her for a long time. Then, suddenly, she began to descend. "Well, this is my destination. Thank you for escorting me."

"Heeeeey wait." Rainbow landed next to her. "This doesn't look like a princess's place!"

"Well... to be honest, it belongs to Captain Shining Armor."

The pegesus smirked, raising an eyebrow. "Oooooh, I get it. A little premarital bliss, huh?" She gave the princess a playful nudge as she rose into the air again. "Go get him, tiger."

With a final salute, she zoomed towards Rarity's studio. Hopefully, the unicorn hadn't made another heavy dress....


Chapter Two: Shattered Illusions

Rainbow Dash growled as she was escorted back into the main hall. The last half hour had been one of the most horrible in her life. First, Twilight was missing from her brother's wedding after that spaz attack last night, then suddenly she burst in with a clone of the bride, then the bride turned out to be a mad tyrant bug thing that mopped the floor with Celestia, and of course they were unable to get to the Elements because the bug swarm outmaneuvered and captured them. But the worst thing, the absolute worst thing of all...

"You do realize the reception's been cancelled, don't you?"

Her wings would NOT stop TWITCHING!

"Go! Feed!" The black bug creature laughed as her drones buzzed into the city, strolling up to the bearers with a sultry smirk and stroking Twilight Sparkle's cheek. "It's funny, really. Twilight here was suspicious of my behavior all along. Too bad the rest of you were too caught up in your wedding planning to realize those suspicions were correct." She giggled as she practically bounced away to the balcony.

Dash managed to tear her eyes away from her flanks with a blush. Why the hay were her wings twitching?! The bug had holes all in her legs, her long... graceful... curvacious legs that were not hot at all dang it hormones!

It had to be some sort of bug magic. That was it. Everypony was magically attracted to the bug and they were all hiding it out of embarrassment. Yeah, that's how the bug ate love, by using magic to make ponies think she had that lovely, soft neck that was so huggable and this line of thought was caused by magic REMEMBER THAT RAINBOW!

"It's not your fault," Twilight reassured her friends. "She fooled everypony."

"Hmm, I did, didn't I?" The bug mare chuckled, her wings fluttering and setting Dash's heart aflutter. Even knowing that it was magic, the pegasus had to admit those were awfully pretty wings.

And then she began to sing.

"This day has been just perfect... The kind of day of which I've dreamed since I was small; Everypony I'll soon control, Every stallion, mare and foal--Who says a girl can't really have it all?"

That voice sounded so... glorious and--

Rainbow Dash shook her head, focusing and taking deep breaths. The bug mare was the enemy. She was not a sexy beast. She was a magical love-eating mind-twisting thing. She was not attractive. All it was was a spell.

The pegasus swore, once all this was over, she'd get some serious therapy. And pray to Celestia she didn't develop a chitin fetish.

While she had been distracted by the spell, Twilight had managed to free herself and the (real) princess. "Quick! Go to him while you still have the chance!" The alicorn nodded in thanks, rushing over to the hypnotized stallion at the altar and wrapping her wings around him and giving him a sad kiss.

Apparently that was enough to shake off whatever spell the guy was under. Hooray true love!

"Wha- whe- huh?" Shining Armor looked around the room in confusion. "Is...is the wedding over?"

"Oh, It's all over!" proclaimed the totally not smoking hot it's just a spell bug mare triumphantly.

"Your spell!" Twilight shouted. "Perform your spell!"

The bug mare chortled. "What good would that do? My changelings already roam free."

The captain of the guard tried to summon his reserves, but his horn fizzled out. "No! My power is useless now..." He let his head droop. "I don't have the strength to repel them."

For half a second Dash considered surrendering just so the bug could jump on her and--nononononono stupid brain stupid magic she's not sexy stopitstopit!

"My love will give you strength," the real princess proclaimed, channeling her energy into the captain's horn.

"Ahaha. What a lovely but absolutely ridiculous sentiment...." The bug mare turned around and all too late caught sight of the two rising off the ground. "Stop! What are you--no, no! Noooooo!"

Rainbow Dash smirked as the bug mare was sent flying by the captain's spell. Ha! Equestria was safe once again--

The wave of energy hit her like a train. She spun through the open double doors, spiraling through the air until she slammed high against the far wall of the hallway.

"...ooooooooooow..."

Her last thought, before she blacked out, was to wonder if Shining Armor had decided to do that because he'd seen her checking out what he had, at the time, thought was his bride-to-be.

***

"....uuuuugh."

Ah, pain. An old friend.

Rainbow Dash greeted her companion blearily as she opened her eyes, flicking a hoof in the air to try to ward him off. She decided to listen to his ramblings for a moment, to better determine which parts of her were injured.

Apparently, every part of her was injured. Pain needed to learn to be more specific.

Bruised and battered, but very definitely still alive, Dash lifted her head to take stock of her surroundings. An odd clinking sound caught her attention, and she turned to the source; apparently there was a chain on the wall. Weird. The wall itself seemed to be made of stone bricks, stacked tightly together.

"Wow. Weird hospital."

She turned her gaze around, examining her surroundings with a bit more interest. The iron door across from the chain made her gulp in fear.

"...okay, not a hospital."

Soooo she was in a cell. Great. Dash rolled her eyes as she brought a hoof to her neck and discovered a metal collar around it. Well at least she knew what the chain was for.

"Oh look. Hoofcuffs too." She brought the restraints before her eyes. "Nothing too good for... the..."

...last time she checked, her hooves weren't black. And they didn't have holes in them.

Experimentally, she twitched the right hoof. Sure enough, the holey appendage rotated back and forth. She did the same thing with her left hoof and received a similar result.

With bated breath, Dash poked one of the holes. She shivered when she realized she could feel what it was feeling.

Her hooves lowered to the ground again. A deep, shuddering breath was taken.

"...okay. Okay, so... okay..."

Slowly, she twisted her neck and looked at her back. Instead of the familiar feathery wings that were her pride and joy, she saw a pair of translucent, hole-patched flaps that would befit a housefly. The carapace underneath was the same cyan shade as her fur. She let her eyes trail out to her tail, a raggedy spectral blue bundle of silk vaguely in the same shape as she recalled her own rainbow flag to be.

"...riiiiight. So... this is a coma dream. I'm in a coma, and this is my mind dealing with... the aftereffects of that bug mare's magic." Rainbow Dash nodded to herself. "See? Cool. Keep your cool, and don't panic. Yep."

She smiled, giggling a bit. It was really kind of funny... knowing that you were asleep. Hey, maybe she could do the lucid dreaming thing Twilight talked about sometimes! "Alright, subconscious, I want a huge barrel of cider!"

"Quiet in there!" shouted a voice outside the door. "You, go tell the captain the prisoner is awake."

"Wow, my subconscious hates me. Hey subconscious, where am I supposed to be?"

"You will speak when spoken to, changeling."

Rainbow scoffed. "Yeah sure, whatever. I gotta admit, I didn't expect my mind to put me in a cell. Hey, if any of this is reaching the real world, could you doctors tell my friends I'm trying my hardest to wake up?"

There was no reply. Rainbow sat down, rocking back and forth as she waited for something to happen. It made sense, she couldn't just wake up because she was in a coma. It wouldn't be that easy, right? Otherwise all the coma patients would wake up quickly. So, she'd take it as it came.

Shortly thereafter, the door opened. A stoic Shining Armor marched in, glowering at the changeling before him.

"Well hey there!" Rainbow greeted brightly. "My subconscious doesn't hate me completely after all. Nonono, wait, let me guess: You represent my guilt at finding my friend's brother hot? Actually, wait, that doesn't make sense, that would make you Big Macintosh--"

"Changeling, do you know why you are here?"

"Yep! Coma dream." She tapped her forehead, then began feeling it more carefully. "Oh wow, I have a horn! How cool is that? I guess that's a side effect of being a changeling. I wonder why I'm a changeling?"

Confusion appeared on the unicorn's face for a fleeting moment, but he managed to repress it before the prisoner noticed. "I can assure you that you are completely awake."

"Yeah, that's what you psyche fragments would say. Oh no wait, I got it! You're the captain of the guard, so you represent my sense of duty, and you're angry that I didn't back Twilight up!" Rainbow nodded at her brilliant deduction. "Well, yeah, okay, I'm guilty of that. I am so ashamed. Can I wake up now?"

Shining Armor narrowed his eyes. "Changeling, you are being accused of replacing, or at the least assisting in the capture of the pegasus known as Rainbow Dash."

"Of course! That makes total sense!" She facehooved. "I should have seen it, that's how the coma dream justifies itself. I mean, it wouldn't be a coma dream if it didn't convince me it was real, right?"

And then the captain of the guard slapped her.

She stared at him in shock.

"Next time I come by, I suggest you take this situation seriously." The unicorn marched out of the cell. "Otherwise your stay will be very long."

The changeling shakily raised a hoof to her cheek as the door creaked shut. "That.... that hurt..."

"Watch her, make sure she's fed at regular intervals."

She heard his hooves clipclop away, but that didn't... didn't seem important anymore. She rubbed the spot where his hoof had connected; it hadn't hurt as much as it should, but there seemed to be a bit of a crack in her chitin.

And she could feel it.

"But... coma... sleep... not pain..."

The hoof was brought before her eyes again, quivering in doubt and terror.

"...Oh Celestia. I... I'm awake.... this is real."

Her tongue ran across her teeth, finding a pair of fangs; she brushed her hoof through her mane, feeling how silky and thin it was compared to the coarse rainbow she remembered.

"This... this is really happening..."

For a moment, she was silent.

Then the corners of her lips twitched upward. "Heh...heh, aheh... hehahaha... hahahehhahaheeheehehhaHAhahaHAHAHAHEEHEEHEHHAha, ahahahahHEHHEEHEEHA haha!" Tears began streaming down her face as she curled up, laughing and stroking her tail. "I, I, I, hahah, I'm not real! Haha, oh Celestia, I'm not real! Heeheeheh hahaha! This is happening, and, and I'm not real oh Celestia I'm not real! I want to be real! I want to be... I, I'm not real, hahahahaHAHAhahahaheeheeheh! I'm the New Rainbow Dash! Oh Celestia, I'm not reheheheal!"

She sobbed and sobbed until she couldn't breathe, and her tears never stopped flowing.


Chapter Three: Identity Torture

Celestia looked upon the assembled ponies, sipping her tea calmly and maintaining a relaxed facade. True, her horn was still burnt from her duel with the changeling queen, and she felt pings of pain whenever she used her magic, but Equestria and, more importantly, the ponies right here needed an unwavering leader to look up to. After all, Twilight and her friends had just discovered that one of their own was not who they thought she was, Cadance had only just been returned form her imprisonment, and Shining Armor was still coping with the fact he had nearly married a mind-warping shapeshifter.

Only Luna, sitting on Celestia's right, made any move to comfort the princess. An azure wing wrapped around her sister's shoulder, a quiet reminder that she did not have to face fate alone. Celestia gave her a thankful smile.

Then she cleared her throat. "Now then. I believe you all understand why I have gathered you here today?"

Twilight nodded. "The changeling that replaced Rainbow Dash. We need to find out where she is."

The only pegasus at the table took a breath before nodding. "I... I understand that she, or, um, he, was probably just acting under orders but.... I would really like to find Rainbow again. As soon as we can. If that's, um, possible..."

"Rest assured, Fluttershy, the retrieval of our dear friend is of utmost priority." Luna nodded. "Not only do we have much to thank her for personally, but from a purely strategic viewpoint losing the bearer of the element of loyalty is something that cannot be allowed. Captain? Do you have any progress to report regarding the interrogation?"

Shining Armor put a hoof to his brow with a sigh. After a moment of contemplation, he looked up to the other ponies sitting across the table. "Princess, I... I would like to request I be pulled from this assignment."

The diarch of the sun raised a brow at this proclamation. "May I inquire as to why?"

"I feel I am... too emotionally connected to the subject matter to be an impartial and fair questioner. I... allowed myself to physically handle the prisoner in response to her actions."

Cadance brought a hoof to her mouth, gently hugging her fiancee with a wing. "Oh, Shiny..."

"Would you care to elaborate?"

The captain couldn't meet Celestia's eyes. "I.... After she riled me up by insisting she was in a coma dream, I... slapped her."

There was a moment of dead silence.

Luna cleared her throat. "...Allow me to see if I understand this situation. You are a captain of the guard."

"Yes, your majesty."

"Your prisoner was being problematic."

"...Yes, your majesty."

"You... slapped her, presumably not causing any permanent damage?"

"Not that... I am aware of, your majesty."

Luna took a breath. "Am I to understand, then... by the laws of this era, slapping is considered a form of torture?"

Celestia sighed, bringing a hoof to her brow gently. "No, sister. It is the emotional intent and context of a slap that is being addressed here. Specifically that it is demeaning and unfair to the prisoner in question."

"I thought that was the definition of torture in this era," the night princess said, uncomprehending. "Certainly the rack is demeaning and unfair."

"Technically, torture nowadays refers to inflicting pain," Twilight clarified.

"But then slapping would be considered a form of sadism--"

"More, ah, intense pain," the unicorn added. "Not just bruises and bumps. Usually involving whips."

Even more confusion formed on Luna's face. "But... what of the shop on Platinum road? I noticed a lot of late-night customers purchasing what could be constituted as dungeon equipment but when I investigated they assured me that it was not considered against the law--"

Rarity blushed. "Ah, if you are referring to, well, the Crop... those items are usually used intimately."

"Oh. So, the Saddle Arabian methods no longer qualify as torture?"

"Only if all participants are willing," Celestia explained with a sigh. "There's a fairly large subculture, actually..."

"Really? Well I must say I am impressed! The fact that so many ponies are willing to agree to--"

"Ah think we're getten' off-topic!" Applejack interrupted, managing to keep her face from going entirely red. "What Ah want to know is how we plan ta get that changeling ta tell us where Dash is!"

"Apparently slapping is out of the question," Luna grumbled. "I"m still not sure why."

"Why don't we just ask her?" Pinkie offered brightly.

Rarity rolled her eyes. "Darling, I doubt an espionage agent is simply going to answer questions."

"Why not? It's not like she can pretend to be Rainbow Dash anymore. We just promise her a lifelong supply of cupcakes and she'll answer anything!" Pinkie tapped her chin. "Unless she doesn't like cupcakes. She could be a muffin sort of Changeling. Or maybe scones."

"Offering leniency in return for cooperation..." Celestia nodded. "I believe you have a point there. Most ponies respond better to kindness than to threats."

"That thang ain't no pony," Applejack pointed out.

"She's not a thing either," Fluttershy replied. "She's a person.... I mean, she did something very mean but we can't just disrespect her." She rubbed her hoof awkwardly. "Rainbow... Rainbow is my oldest friend. But I don't think even she would want us to treat something that could talk like an animal."

The farmer let her head fall. "Ah'm just sayen'... them Changelings are natural born liars."

"Which is why we will not fall to their level," Luna stated calmly. "I have learned from my own mistakes; I will not let ponykind reduce itself out of fear."

"Well said." Celestia nodded, giving her sister a thankful smile. "I do not suggest releasing her, but... attempting to befriend this infiltrator would be better in the long run. We literally know next to nothing about her people; one invasion cannot be allowed to sour our relationship with an entire race. Especially one that so expertly subdued Canterlot."

Shining Armor sighed. "In all honesty, Princess... that invasion had me almost become the personal pet and toy of their leader. I don't think I could possibly befriend any changeling."

The alicorn considered his words. "...Captain. You have had the most experience with changelings to date. I cannot in good conscience remove you entirely from this effort; you are far too valuable."

"I... understand."

Celestia smiled gently. "For that reason I insist that you choose the pony who will be in charge of interrogations of the prisoner from now on."

***

Silence.

Whispers in the leaves.

And then....

"....tch...."

Her eyes opened.

"...hng. Hff." She rose on three unsteady legs, keeping the fourth in the air. Her gaze drifted beyond the canopy, to the white city on the mountain.

"Hmmm."

A green fire enveloped the form. They knew now. Nothing was left to her but vengeance.

***

Twilight Sparkle opened the dungeon door cautiously, levitating a clipboard and quill as she peered into the cell. Her eyes widened at what she saw; the changeling had simply curled up on the floor, back to the unicorn.

"...um. Hello."

The changeling's ears perked for a second. It was the only motion she made, before returning to inactivity.

"...My name is Twilight Sparkle. What's yours? Or, um, do you even have a name?"

"I don't know." The changeling's voice was unusually like Rainbow's, but with an odd flanging effect. She laid absolutely still as she spoke.

"You don't know?" Twilight began scribbling notes on her clipboard. "Is it because of some... cultural thing? You haven't earned your name yet?"

"I don't know."

The unicorn shook her head. This wasn't as easy as she had thought it would be... actually, she'd expected some sort of reaction. "I've... been told that your previous int--questioner raised his hoof against you. Are you hurt?"

"...I don't think so. It doesn't hurt much, anyway." The changeling finally moved, brushing her cheek with a hoof. "It's more like a bruise than anything."

"I... apologize for that."

"He had every right. His bride was replaced by a bug who sabotaged his relationship with his sister and then brainwashed him."

Twilight blinked. She hadn't expected the changeling to forgive her brother so quickly... or to even justify it. In fact, that the changeling understood the situation at all was a bit alarming... although, being briefed on the situation before being inserted made sense.

"...soooo, I understand you changelings need to eat love. How does that work?"

"I don't know."

And back to the non-responsiveness. The scholar jotted down a note at this behavior, trying to conceive of a reason for it. "Well, I hope we become good enough friends that you don't starve, anyway."

"No you don't."

The sheer despairing confidence in that reply was enough to raise the hairs on Twilight's neck. "Of... of course I do! I mean, there's so much we could learn from--"

"We both know the real reason you're here, Twilight. So go on. Ask me."

Silence filled the cell for a long minute.

"....where is Rainbow Dash?"

"...I d...don't know." The changeling curled up tighter, her wings pressed flat against her carapace.

Twilight Sparkle put down her clipboard. "Come on. You replaced her, you've go to have some idea."

"...I... I d-don't..." A strange sound came from the creature in the cell as she started to shake.

"Are you..." The unicorn stepped forward cautiously. "Are you alright?"

"...I...."

Slowly, Twilight reached out, putting a purple hoof on the changeling's shoulder. "Look, if... if you don't want to answer right now, I guess that's fine--"

"I THOUGHT I WAS HER!"

The unicorn snapped back as the Changeling whirled to face her, black face wet with tears. "Right up until I woke up in this cell, I thought I was Rainbow Dash! I don't even know when I replaced her! I want to tell you where she is, because you deserve the real Rainbow, but I just don't know! I don't know anything about what that bug planned, I don't know anything about being a changeling, I don't even know who I am! I JUST! DON'T! KNOW!"

She curled up again. "I just... d-d-don't... know...."

Twilight Sparkle stared at her as she sobbed, silently stroking her tail. This... this was cruelty on a level she could not comprehend. To rob anypony... anybody of their identity just so they could play a part in some grander scheme sickened her.

After a moment, she stepped forward. "Listen... maybe you don't know. But... I promise, I'll help you."

"Of course you will..." The Changeling managed to laugh mirthlessly through her tears. "You want Rainbow Dash back."

"More than that, I want to find out who did this to you and why. You... know how good I am at research," Twilight admitted reluctantly. "Let's find out who you are... let's find out together, okay?"

The changeling was silent for a moment.

Then she took a deep breath and raised her head. "...okay. Together."


Chapter Four: Memories Of Lies

Scootaloo walked down the halls of the palace, eyes roving up and down the various banners and windows. The other two crusaders had been moved to suites with their elder sisters, mostly for the sake of comfort and security after the attack. She, on the other hoof, had found herself paired with Fluttershy. When she'd asked about Rainbow Dash, though, the other pegasus had clammed up.

That raised some flags in her head.

So now she was hoping to find Shining Armor and ask him where Rainbow was. Sure, he was Twilight's brother, but more importantly he was a captain of the guard. If anypony knew where Dash was, it had to be him.

Of course, finding the stallion was going to be a bit difficult...

Still, months of crusading with Apple Bloom and Sweetie Belle had left the pegasus with a mind that could quickly process facts when necessary. One: Shining Armor was in love. Two: His lover had suffered recently by kidnapping. Logical conclusion: Find Cadance, and she'd find Shining Armor.

All she had to do was ask one of the guards where that pretty pink princess was because she love love loved her tiaras! She'd even managed to keep from gagging at the frillyness of her question until she was out of earshot of the guy. Of course the directions he'd given were a bit vague, but 'somewhere in the northeast wing' was a lot better than 'somewhere in Canterlot.' Still, tracking down Cadance and, by extension, captain Armor was proving a lot more tedious than she would have liked; she couldn't even check the rooms systematically, because this part of the palace had hallways and ballrooms and serving quarters all jumbled up as though it had been renovated from a storage area and then renovated again from some sort of restaurant!

No doubt Apple Bloom could find her way in here. She never seemed to get lost in strange buildings...

Scootaloo's ears perked as she rounded the corner. A pair of voices were headed her way, just down the hall. She took a moment to dive under a small table that apparently only existed to hold up a trio of painted plates, listening in as the two ponies trotted unknowingly closer.

"...but I can remember everything I did while I was under her spell. And... I mean, I just can't shake the feeling.... did I propose to her? Or to you?"

"Shining, honey, I was only in that cave for two weeks. Of course you proposed to me."

"No, I know that up here, but...."

The pair stopped right in front of Scootaloo, the pink alicorn turning to her fiancee and wrapping her forelegs around his neck. "Hey. I understand, okay? She lured me into a trap pretending to be you and... I'll admit I felt a bit... betrayed. But if we let ourselves be consumed by doubt, then we'll never be able to have a healthy life."

"I... guess I'm just being silly--"

"No, you were hurt. Deeply. But... I'm here to help you now."

The alicorn smiled gently, leaning in. After a moment, the unicorn glanced up, looking into her eyes. A matching smile, a thankful smile, formed on his own lips.  Slowly the distance between them closed, their faces crawling ever closer. Their hearts quickened, muzzles inches from each other--

"OH EW! GAG, ICK!"

The two ponies leapt apart quickly, their eyes snapping to Scootaloo's hiding place with some shock. After a moment, the alicorn chuckled a bit awkwardly. "Well well well! Looks like we have a little peeping tom here, Shiny."

With an aggravated sigh, the unicorn gestured for the filly to step out from under the table. "What are you even doing in this part of the castle?"

Scootaloo emerged, giving the pair a dry glare. "Not looking for kissing ponies. Gross. I'm actually looking for... wait, you're Shining Armor, right?"

"Yes...?"

"Then you know where Rainbow Dash is, right?"

Instantly the stallion tensed up. "Not... at the moment--"

"Do you know when I can see her?"

"Well, actually, no--"

"You know something, don't you."

"Maybe you should head back with your friends and--"

"TELL ME WHERE RAINBOW DASH IS!"

"She's in the hospital!" the alicorn blurted out.

Scootaloo froze, her hooves still gripping on the face of Shining Armor.

"...She is... she was hurt in the battle with the changelings." The princess nodded. "Severely injured, rescuing some ponies... the fact is, because she's an element bearer, we thought it would be better to keep it secret and not let the news ponies bother her."

The filly dropped to the ground, giving her a hurt look. "And... nopony told me?"

"Aside from the bearers and military personnel, the hospital is only letting family members in." The alicorn kneeled down, wrapping the filly in a gentle hug. "She tried to get them to allow you in, but... the doctors are stubborn. So she asked us all to keep an eye on you."

"She didn't want you to be hurt that they weren't letting you see her," Shining Armor added.

Scootaloo shook her head. "Right.... How long until she can...?"

"It's... touch and go," Cadance explained reluctantly. "She's stable but... that only means she's not getting worse. It'll be a while before she gets better, the doctors aren't sure."

Silence filled the hallway. The two adults could only watch as Scootaloo sagged, her eyes shutting tightly to prevent tears from leaking out.

"...she'll be alright." The filly took a deep breath. "She always pulls through." Her eyes snapped open again. "You'll tell me if she gets any better, right?"

"...You have my personal promise as a princess." The alicorn smiled gently, nuzzling Scootaloo for a brief moment.

"Ugh, okay! Okay, I get it!" The pegasus pushed her away. "I'm okay! No more of that mushy junk!"

"What's the problem with mushy junk?" Shining Armor asked in amusment. "You were perfectly happy to be a flower filly."

"That's a wedding. Mushy junk is FINE at a wedding."

"I don't know," Cadance commented slyly, "I think mushy junk has some place outside weddings. Right, schmoopy doo?"

"AAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAA!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!"

Shining Armor raised an eyebrow at the retreating filly. "...quite a set of lungs on that one."

"Ironically enough, Twilight says she's tone deaf."

***

"Lyra! I came as soon as I heard!"

The mint green unicorn looked up from her meal, grinning warmly at the approaching mare. "Come on, Bonbon. I'm fine! Heck, I've even got free food cause of the whole thing!" She waved her hayburger for emphasis, before chomping half of it down. "Mmm! Shsh ish gunf!"

"Why couldn't Chry--the changeling queen teach you proper manners when you were enthralled?" The mare sighed, shaking her head as she slid into the seat across from Lyra. "Um... seriously. How are you doing?"

"I'm fiunh." The unicorn gulped down her chow, taking a breath. "Sorry. I'm fine, Bonbon, don't worry. It was a bit... well, scary, but I got out alright." She leaned forward, lowering her voice. "Those times you and I linked... they really helped me shake it off."

"I should never have let you come here," the cream mare muttered. "I should have tied you up in Ponyville..."

"Hey. You didn't know who she'd replaced."

"I should have guessed that bitch would go for somepony important."

"What's with all these should haves?" Lyra put a hoof on her marefriend's shoulder. "You can't have known what was going to happen. I know that you did everything you could to help."

Bonbon sighed. "...not everything."

"...nonono, you don't get to do that. You don't even get to THINK of doing that." The unicorn used her magic to tie the other mare's tail to the table. "Not now! Not after--"

"It's my choice to make!"

"Oh, and I suppose I'm supposed to just sit back and let you WALTZ to your death?"

"Do you really think she'd kill me?"

"Oh gee, I dunno, why is it every time I write a paper on humans all of Canterlot gangs up on me to call me a madmare?!" Lyra stomped her hoof. "Anything that fits outside her clearly defined world gets purged!"

Bonbon gave her a flat look.

"...What?"

"Really. You think she killed off humans."

"Nah, that was Discord. She just hid the evidence they ever existed."

"So, by your own admission, she won't commit genocide."

"But she could still execute you!" Lyra glared at her. "You're all so moral and high but you know what? I don't want to lose you again!"

The two mares stared into each other's eyes. The golden set was beginning to fill with tears, the cyan pair already flooded with guilt. Words unsaid, words that needed not to be said, the language of love and care flowed between them.

Bonbon looked away first. "...if... if anything changes. And I'll tell you first."

"...okay."

***

"...and, um, I think that's it."

"...oh. Uh... thanks, Shy."

"...you're, um, welcome I guess..."

Pegasus and Changeling kept their eyes on the ground, one's cheeks a light pink, the other's a lime green color.

"...listen. I know how hard this has to be for you, and... I just want to say, um, thanks." The changeling swished her tail. "For, you know, helping. With... that."

"It's... no trouble, really." Fluttershy took a breath. "I mean... I guess I thought you would know how to... um..."

"Whoever did this did a good job of overwriting my memories," the changeling grumbled. "I don't even know my own body now. I don't even... am I still a mare?!"

"Erm."

Panicked blue eyes locked onto the pegasus. "Fluttershy. Tell me I'm still a mare. Please."

"...ah... from, what I could tell... changelings, um, don't exactly have mares and, um, stallions..." She curled up and squeaked. "You're kind of... both..."

The cell was quiet for a moment.

Eventually, the changeling slumped. "So even that's a lie. Good to know. Good to know I'm a complete joke."

Fluttershy's head shot up. "What?"

"Bearer of the element of loyalty? Ha!" The changeling pointed at her face. "What is this? This is completely not loyal to anything! Not to friends, not to Equestria, not even to the memories in my head! Hooray, that queen has a wicked sense of humor!" She laughed mirthlessly, tears forming in her eyes. "I can't even be loyal to the hive, because I don't remember it. Nope! Just a stupid! BUCKING! JOKE!"

The changeling threw up her hooves and lunged at the ground--

--but Fluttershy was there before her face could hit the cobblestone, holding her in a tight hug. "Don't you dare hurt yourself. Don't you even dare."

"Hah... like it even matters now."

"Now you listen here, young lady!" The pegasus wrenched the changeling's head up. "Even if you aren't who you thought you were the fact is you are still somebody, and that means you're worth something! Would Rainbow Dash ever try something like that?"

"I'm not Rainbow, though."

"Then who are you?"

"I'm a joke! I'm a complete---"

"No."

"Oh come on, Shy, you know it's--"

"No."

The changeling stared at her. "...don't you want Rainbow Dash?"

"Yes... but I don't want her to be responsible for anyone killing themselves."

That got a wry laugh out of the changeling. "Yeah... she's always doing suicide prevention stuff. I... don't think she'd ever tell you this, but... there was this one time in flight camp where she... saw Cloudkicker just sitting alone. Apparently somepony in her family had just lost their lives in the service of the guard. So Rainbow went up and hugged her..."

"That sounds a lot like something she would do. And if she were here... she'd be mad, but I don't think she'd want to kill you."


"...I don't think I want to die."

"I know." Fluttershy nuzzled the changeling. "I... I promise, whoever you turn out to be, you'll always be welcome in my home."


Chapter Five: Unnamed and Unknown

"...what if she really is Rainbow?"

Twilight looked up from her thick tome, giving Fluttershy a flat look. "I beg your pardon?"

The pegasus tilted her eyes behind her mane, but didn't break her gaze. "I mean... what if Rainbow Dash was... always a changeling? And, um, some changeling mother didn't want her to, um, have the same life as all the other changelings and... somehow managed to convince a pony couple to adopt her?"

It was a valid theory, Twilight realized. It would explain a lot... but then again, there wasn't any evidence for it. Or against it. And theories without any positive or negative possibility simply could not be reasonably explored. Evidence, then theory.

"There's no way to tell," she replied eventually. "And given that the queen changeling replaced Cadance, it's probably easier to assume Dash was replaced."

"...what about the Element of Loyalty? Um, wouldn't it recognize its bearer?"

The unicorn sighed. "I don't know. It didn't react badly to being put on Spike... it didn't react at all, actually. And there's no actual proof that there's ever only one bearer for each element. The fact that the changeling doesn't believe her--him..."

She trailed off, staring into the distance for a moment.

"...itself?"

"Herself." Fluttershy lidded her eyes and frowned at Twilight. "If she thinks she's female, then we should respect that."

"Herself. She doesn't believe herself to be Rainbow Dash. So even if she was Loyalty's bearer... we couldn't convince her to activate it." The unicorn sighed. "I just wish this were that easy...."

"...when... when we do find Dash... what are we going to do with, um, her?"

Silence filled the atrium at Fluttershy's question. Normally, Twilight would simply say the changeling would be banished but... from the way that she acted, she was as much a victim in this as anypony else. On the other hoof, she had replaced Dash, and justice would have to be served on somepony; the invasion was too recent to alleviate anti-changeling sentiments. Leniency would just cause ponies to think Celestia had been conquered by Chrysalis...

"I don't know."

"Oh."

The two sat in silence for a while, Twilight compiling Fluttershy's observations.

"...what will Rainbow think of her?"

"She'll probably be a bit upset that she was replaced... and captured..." Twilight shivered. "If she can get past that, maybe... maybe she'll be able to make friends with her."

"She's always been very accepting," Fluttershy mused. "Well, more she's always treated everybody she met equally. The species didn't matter to her, so long as you were a nice... person."

"I don't know, though... After everything that happened..." The unicorn pressed a hoof to her brow. "Our priority right now is finding out what happened to Rainbow Dash. We can worry about what to do with the changeling after that."

"I know, I know... but..." Fluttershy sighed. "Even if she isn't Dash, she feels... like a friend. Do you know what I mean? Like she needs us..."

"Of course she needs us." Twilight snorted. "She feeds on love, right?"

"No, not like that! Not like... more like, like if she didn't have us... she wouldn't do anything." The pegasus shivered. "Like she's in the snow, and we're... torches? And she'll let herself be buried by the wind if we go out."

"...That's... unexpectedly grim of you, Fluttershy."

"But it's true."

The unicorn stared at her friend, considering her words carefully. That the changeling was so... dependent on them, in ways more than sheer survival... that a single slip could cost the life of somepony, someone she knew only casually...

She shivered. "That's... I don't... I just want Rainbow back."

"Even if she has to die?"

"I DON'T WANT ANYPONY TO DIE!" Twilight yelled, slamming a hoof on the table. "I don't even want her to die, I just want Rainbow back! After, after we get her back then we can deal with this, alright?"

Fluttershy sighed. "Twilight.... it might be too late by then."

The unicorn glared at her, but the pegasus held her ground. A tense, terrible quiet clustered and coiled into the room, denial thickening under the constant assailment of worry and compassion. Two forces so great and powerful strove in those humble locked eyes, wrestling around the ponies, battle locked in stalemate.

A third force then walked in and chopped them down at the root. "Hey girls! Who wants cupcakes?" Pinkie placed the tray of pastries down with a toothy grin.

Instantly, Twilight and Fluttershy looked away from each other in shame. Their argument dropped, unresolved, as they both gave their friend thankful smiles.

"I guess... I guess we have been in here a while, and I am feeling a bit peckish." The unicorn levitated a sweet to her mouth.

"Um, yes... Thank you, Pinkie."

"No problemo! Anything for my friends is anything I can do!" The earth pony paused, reflecting over her words. "Wait, that doesn't work. Things I can do are anything for... no. If my friends need anything, I'll... no, that's cliche..."

"We get it Pinkie." Twilight snorted, putting a hoof on the baker's shoulder. "Thanks."

"You're welcome! So have you decided what to do about Wob Niar yet?"

"Who?"

"The changeling, silly filly!"

Fluttershy gasped. "All this time talking about her and we haven't even given her a name! Oh my goodness how could we be so mean?!"

"Well, she didn't give us a name," Twilight pointed out.

"Because she doesn't know her own name! Oh my goodness oh my goodness oh my goodness..."

The unicorn sighed. "You... have a point. I guess we'll run Wob Niar by her for approval..."

***

670903 reporting in. Current location: Rambling Rock Ridge. Status: Rear legs broken, gash in chest. Internal magic at 400 thaums.

Maintain position and await further orders... 923302, go to 670903 and initiate healing spell.

784501 reporting... I found another bonfire. No survivors. Moving on to next region of Fillydelphia.

Hold. Attempt to gather remnant thaums. Hive knows we need every scrap we can get now...

They found me! They found me! Someling, get me out of Appleoo--

Chrysalis cursed to herself as another voice went silent. There was a time when the mourning song would have keeled out through the hive, but after the first few thousand dead there was just no point.

Damn those ponies! They deserved to be SHREDDED OPEN, every foal, mare, and stallion, and the only reason she was restraining herself from doing so was because she didn't have the power to do so. Why couldn't they have submitted to her glory? Why didn't they realize what she was offering?! Eternal bliss, and all they needed to do was be cocooned up so a changeling could sip some love off of them on occasion.

Honestly, it was as though they wanted to descend into independent chaos... They claimed to adore harmony, but rejected the true unity of the hive. Hypocrites!

The queen stilled herself, letting her mind wander through the network of connections. Her drones... those that survived were scattered and disconnected. She'd had to have them all construct personas, and even then they had to be careful; too many orphan sob stories would illicit suspicion. The filter was small and inconsistent. And a single misstep could cost the hive not only a life but... food.

Damn the ponies....

Damn them all.

Chrysalis was already constructing another plan. One that didn't rely on unknown factors. She'd show those equines true harmony. She'd show them.

After all, one of her own was a wielder of their ancient magics...

***

The changeling's ears perked as the door opened. She turned around, keeping her gaze on the ground. "Hey."

"Howdy."

Silence.

Applejack took the time to examine the creature with her eyes. There were similarities, she had to admit to herself. Uncanny ones. its barrel was thick and round, just like Dash's. The way she nervously folded and unfolded her wings...

But...

In the end, the creature had replaced her friend and expected to get away with it. Even if it didn't know... well. It had some part in this whole scheme.

"...what do ya want?"

The changeling sighed. "I... I want you to have Rainbow Dash back."

"And after that?"

"I don't care." It slumped, curling up on the floor. "Kill me, dissect me, forgive me, I don't give a flying feather. Get it? I don't have feathers. So I can't give them." The voice was listless, simply tired.

"So that's it? After ya failed in yer little charade yer jus' gonna give up?"

The changeling chuckled, raising her eyes to Applejack. "Are you trying to rile me up? That would have... that would have worked, if... If I was her." She sighed. "But I'm not. Time we all accepted that."

Applejack snorted, pawing at the ground. "Fahn. Ah don't have time fer yer games anyway. Where is she?"

"I don't know. I really don't."

Somehow, the farmer could see she was telling the truth... or at least thought she was telling the truth. She nodded, walking around the changeling carefully.

"...Why Dash?"

The prisoner snorted. "Why her? I dunno. I think maybe it was meant to be some sort of joke. Or maybe she was just in the right place at the right time. You know when Cadance... when the bug queen came up and asked her to escort her home? That's probably when it happened." She pressed her ears flat. "Weird thing is, I... I still remember being Dash all through the day. Probably some constructed memories. Except for the part where the bug was the hottest mare on earth."

Applejack blushed. "What?"

"I think it comes with being a changeling. For some reason... for some reason the only time I can remember being aroused is when she was in the room...." The changeling rolled her eyes. "I absolutely hate her but she had one sexy... something. Something about her was sexy. I can't even remember what. I'm trying to, but.... I don't even remember." She sighed. "Rainbow probably flirted with everypony, though...."

"Actually...." The earth pony rubbed her neck. "Ah had a talk with her bout that once. She... she said she could understand what made a pony attractive, but.... she had tah force herself on. She never even went inta heat."

The changeling blinked. "I... I remember that..."

Instantly Applejack was on alert. "Do ya now?"

"I..." She shook her head in confusion. "These aren't constructed memories... these are... stolen. Stolen... Of course!" The changeling jumped up with a grin. "If Twilight just probes my mind she can find the, the, the break or whatever! And then maybe she can use that to egghead out where Rainbow is and..."

She paused, staring at the wall.

"...and I'll... just stay in this cell. Forever."

Applejack could only watch as the changeling curled back up, laying down on the floor again.

Well, ya'll deserve it.

She couldn't bring herself to say that. Even if it was true... she couldn't.

"...why do ya have a mane?"

"Huh?"

"All tha changelings out there, cept the queen, they all had fins. Why do ya'll have a mane?"

The changeling looked up at her, rubbing the back of her neck. "There's a fin under there, actually... kinda small, but it's there..." She waved a holey hoof vaguely. "I don't know why I have a mane."

"Maybe yer a princess changeling."

"Ha. I hope not... Celestia has loads of paperwork to do every day. I can barely stand..."

Applejack raised an eyebrow. "What?"

"...I was going to say I can barely stand the weather paperwork. But..."

The farmer nodded. "Ah see."

Silence descended once again on the pair, each trying to find a way to move the conversation forward. Neither of them could find any hook to latch onto, any information worth giving or requesting. They couldn't console each other in their respective situations; any assurance by the changeling that Dash would be found felt, in her mind, like an insult, and for her part Applejack didn't know whether she wanted to promise the changeling freedom or even a purpose in life.

The earth pony examined the prisoner with confusion; she had entered assuming that the changeling would, inevitably, be the enemy, but she had found nothing worth being angry at in the creature's words or acts, nothing that aggravated her. Even the sadness she exhibited was too mellow to earn her ire.

Eventually, she simply tipped her hat and walked out.


Chapter Six: Shuddering Faith

"...so she thinks ya'll could scan her memories ta find when tha real Rainbow was... ya know."

Twilight sighed, rubbing her horn. "It's possible, AJ, but.... mental magic is delicate. I could develop the basic spell based off current medithaumology, I guess... I'd prefer if somepony more experienced with that particular field was the one to cast it though. And, well, I don't want to bring in any more ponies than I have to."

"Well, Luna walks in the realm of dreams," Rarity pointed out. "And her... absence during the invasion makes her more neutral than other ponies would be."

The purple unicorn shook her head. "Okay, so we have a... plan, now. I just...." She put a hoof to her horn and sighed.

Rarity blinked, stepping forward quietly. "Twilight, darling.... have you been sleeping?"

Weary lavender eyes peered back at her. "I try... every night. I get a few hours, but... I can't stop thinking about that queen. She almost sabotaged my relationship with my big brother... she did, actually, and if she hadn't dumped me where I could find the real Cadance, I... and, and I acted so...."

Without warning, Twilight lunged at Rarity, wrapping her hooves around her neck and breaking down into tears. "I'm sorry! I didn't, I, I didn't want to ruin the wedding! I was being selfish and spiteful and cruel and even, even, even if I was right I shouldn't ever have done any of that I'm sorry I'm sorry I'm so so so so sorry...."

"Shhh...." The fashionista ran her hooves gently through Twilight's mane. "It's alright.... it's alright. We're friends. We forgive you..."

"I wasn't, wasn't.... I was horrible, I shouldn't, I don't deserve your forgiveness..."

Applejack put a hoof on the weeping unicorn's shoulder. "Sugarcube... we'd never up and leave ya. Maybe ya were... a complete snake, yeah, but tha thing is that's not how ya normally act. We were worried fer ya."

"I think, maybe, you should talk to your brother and sister-in-law about this," Rarity suggested delicately. "If... if you can make peace with them, then--"

"No! No, not yet, no." Twilight shudders. "I almost... almost killed Cadance. I can't... not now. Not now...."

She shuddered. "No. Not now. Later. Later when, when we find Rainbow. When I fix, fix, fix everything. Then. Then we talk, not now."

"Are you sure about that?" Rarity asked, leaning back. "This is... a very deep issue. Putting it off could--"

"Checklist!" Twilight explained. "Make sure everypony is accounted for. Ensure changelings cannot attack again. Then, then, then deal with issues in safe, comfortable environment. It works better if the boxes are checked." She pulled away. "Need to make the mental spell now."

"Twilight, ya need ta get some shut-eye."

"Nono, Applejack... yes, but not now. Maximum efficiency, work till bedtime."

"Twilight, dear--"

Applejack put a hoof to Rarity's chest and shook her head. At the unicorn's raised eyebrow, she jerked her head to the door and walked away; the fashionista followed after a moment, pulling the door almost shut behind them.

"Twilight's not gonna listen ta reason right now Rares."

Rarity huffed. "She needs rest, Applejack. Can't you see that?"

"Yep, Ah sure can. But she... look, ya know when yer in 'tha zone' and somethen interupts ya?"

"Yes. It is honestly most aggravating."

The cowpony looked through the door at the frantically scribbling scholar. "This is almost like that. Ah've seen it before... heck, Ah've been there before, after Ah failed ta get money at tha rodeo. It's a way of... keepen' tha thoughts away from what ya don't want ta think about. Ya focus on what needs doen' and ya forget ta think bout yerself..."

Sadness and shame formed on Rarity's face; she hadn't considered that angle. "I... I see."

"With me, it was just money and I could be talked back ta sense. But this..." Applejack shook her head. "She's not gonna get tha rest she needs less she's forced asleep. Way Ah see it, we need ta knock her out somehow."

The unicorn flinched... but, after taking a deep breath, nodded to herself. "Fluttershy... Fluttershy knows some chiropractic techniques... and pressure points. If she offered to massage Twilight while she worked..."

Applejack snorted. "Ah was thinken' more along tha lines of druggen' her food, but yer way works too. Ah just hope we can get her on board with this plan."

"I think I can do that." Rarity smiled slyly. "I know how she works, after all."

***

"They're what?!"

"That just ain't right."

"I knew you guys would agree with me."

"Now hold up thar. It ain't right, but Ah get why they're doen' it. If they let just anypony into that thar hospital, who knows what could happen? And ta be quite frank, we don't zactly have a reputation fer being tha safest of fillies ta be round."

"Oh come on!"

"Scootaloo, Apple Bloom is right. I mean... we did kinda sorta release Discord that one time...."

"That was a total accident! And, and he was probably manipulating us! Come on girls, what if it was one of your sisters?!"

"Tha docs would let us see 'em."

"Uuuuugh!"

"Apple Bloom, that was insensitive and you know it."

"...yer right.... Ah'm sorry bout that, Scoots. Ah get where yer comen' from, but just breaken into a hospital don't sit right by me."

"That's the thing though. I don't know what hospital she's in! Shining Armor didn't tell me."

"Did ya ask?"

"....no."

"Thar ya go then."

"It is a bit weird, though. He should have at least mentioned a name."

"Oh come on, Sweetie Belle, do ya really think that's that unusual?"

"Well, if Rarity was in a hospital and I wasn't allowed to visit, I think my parents would tell me which hospital I wasn't allowed to visit."

"Shining Armor ain't Scoot's dad."

"Come on, Apple Bloom, you know that's not what Sweetie Belle meant!"

"What, ya think that tha Captain of tha guard would keep somethen that important a secret?"

"Well, Celestia kept Nightmare Moon and Discord secret. She can't have done all that without help."

"Scootaloo, Celestia did that cause they were Nightmare Moon and Discord. Those are big thangs, tha captain of tha guard wouldn't know bout stuff like that."

"But smaller secrets, like what REALLY happened with Rainbow Dash, could fall under his... job thing!"

"Jurisdiction."

"Thank you Sweetie."

"Ugh! Even IF he's keeping that a secret, Ah don't see why we should go prodding bout looken' for em. Thar's a reason that he's keepen' it secret."

"Like what?"

"I dunno, that's why it's secret."

"You--I--RAINBOW DASH COULD BE DYING!"

"That... what? Ah mean, maybe, but... what does that have ta do with anythang?"

"It has everything to do with anything! The longer we sit around talking, the more likely it is she's going to get in a worse position. We've gotta help her!"

"Oh my gosh, I just thought of something! What if she's been sent on a super secret spy mission to the Changeling... home place?"

"Okay, girls, this is seriously--"

"That makes loads of sense! She's super fast and awesome and she'll be able to pound the queen into dust!"

"Scootaloo, Ah really don't think--"

"I think that spell flung her west towards Whitetail Wood! Or maybe the roots of the unicorn mountains!"

"Sweetie Belle, don't encourage--"

"Okay, so if we find the Changeling Queen, we find Dash. So, we're going to need camping supplies for the woods and some way to tell that we aren't changelings, a secret code or something."

"Ah really don't think that--"

"Oh oh oh! Here it is, when we meet up we say 'How's the wind?' and if it's the real us, we tilt our head left like this and say 'Windy' then our head right like this and say 'How are you?' and then you reply 'Real cool.' See, it's simple to remember but hard to spot."

"Are we really doen' this?"

"That is brilliant. That is brilliant and we're making that our CMC passcode."

"We're really doen' this."

"CUTIE MARK CRUSADER CHANGELING CHASERS YAY!"

"Let's do this! For Dash!"

"Ah'll just come along and hope ya'll don't kill yerselves...."

***

"Hey there Grumpyfangs! Guess what I got for ya?"

The changeling winced as Pinkie slammed the door shut behind her, giving her a weary look. "I don't think Changelings eat cupcakes."

"But Dashie always did. And Dashie certainly ate a lot at the breakfast before the wedding, fueling up for the rainboom she should have made. And if she was replaced the day before when Cadance asked her to escort her home like you think she was, that was you! Besides, it's made with looooooooooooooove." The baker waved the treat tantalizingly under the prisoner's snout. "Don't you want some looooooooooooooooooooooooooooooove?"

"I don't think it works that way, Pinkie."

"Listen. You've been locked up in this cell without any love for a while, and I don't think even creatures who DON'T feed on love could tolerate that for long. Just eat the cupcake please?"

"Pinkie--"

"Pleasepleasepleasepleasepleasepleasepleasepleasepleasepleasepleasepleasepleasepleasepleeeeeeeeeeeeease?"

The changeling sighed, gripping the cupcake between her forehooves and maneuvering it up to her muzzle. She took a sniff, nodded, and started to chip away at her treat. She was very aware of Pinkie Pie's intense stare as she swallowed.

"Sooooooooooooo?"

She shrugged. "I guess... eh, it tastes the same as any of your other cupcakes."

"That's cause they're all made with loooooooooo-"

"Yeah, got it. Thanks." The changeling sunk to the floor. "You can go now."

Pinkie tapped her chin. "Hmmm. Nah, I think I'll stick around for a bit."

"You seriously don't need to--"

"Hey, so you know what I heard? I heard Soarin was kissing Spitfire! Isn't that weird?!"

"...Pinkie, they're married. They have a daughter--"

"ON THE TOPIC of the Wonderbolts, I've been thinking of throwing a WONDERBOLTS PARTY for all the Wonderbolts fans of Ponyville. Except that's kinda silly to do without the actual Wonderbolts, so I was thinking maybe I should invite them to Ponyville--"

"Pinkie, seriously--"

"--so I figured I'd try to find a good pegasus holiday to invite them over on and then I thought HEY what's Private Pansy's birthday so I went into the library and started researching and did you know that Private Pansy was actually Commander Hurricane's daughter--"

"Look, Pinkie--"

"--which makes you Fluttershy's father, which makes her another duchess of Cloudsdale I think except she doesn't actually have a rainbow mane so maybe we could dye it but then I thought hey why doesn't she just marry a snakeybird, right? So I started to look for their country--"

"Hey, listen, I get that--"

"--south Amareica, which is a jungle so we'll need a machete and then I realized you would make the perfect Daring Do! Will you be Daring Do for me? Will ya?"

The changeling rubbed her head. "Pinkie... I'm in a dungeon. I'm dangerous. You really shouldn't... shouldn't even be talking to me like this."

"Why not?"

"I could, I dunno, hypnotise you or something."

"Silly filly! Nonmagical hypnosis requires the subject on some level wants to do what they're being hypnotized to do and magical hypnosis requires a knowledge of mental magic that Dashie never had! And since you only remember what Dashie remembers, you can't hypnotize me." Pinkie rolled her eyes. "Duh!"

"Pinkie, seriously. I... you don't want to talk to me."

"Yes I do. Why else would I be here?"

"Pinkie, I'm the bad guy."

"I dunno, it sounds like the bad guys used you to do bad things but that doesn't make you a bad guy, really."

"I'm a changeling!" she shouted. "Don't you get it? Changelings are the bad guys and I'm a changeling and--"

"Correlation does not equal causation."

The changeling stared at Pinkie. "I... what?"

"Just because the bad guys are changelings doesn't mean that changelings are the bad guys. That would be like saying since I throw parties all parties are thrown by me! And as talented and skilled with parties as I am even I would not attempt something of that magnitude." Pinkie paused. "Without good reason."

"But, I... what?"

"You are not a bad guy," Pinkie deadpanned.

"Yes I am!"

"No."

"Pinkie, I am a horrible--"

"No."

"I've replaced Rainbow Dash!"

"Wrong, you are the REPLACEMENT for Rainbow Dash. You did not do the placing again. You were moved, not the mover. You have done nothing. Ergo, you have done nothing wrong."

The changeling opened her mouth, closed it, narrowed her eyes, made some vague motions with a hoof, opened her mouth again, and managed a confuddled squawk.

"Exactamundo." Pinkie grinned and leaned in. "By the way, I heard you had two?"

"Two... two what?"

The earth pony waggled her eyebrows.

"...Oh. OH! Uh, oh, um, I..." The changeling's face grew green as she desperately tried to look away. "It's kinda, I, um, well, yes but--"

"Neat!"


Chapter Seven: Shame and Subterfuge

"...she... what?"

Fluttershy nodded slowly. "She's... very distraught over it, um, Captain Armor. She... well... I think you should see her."

"You can call me Shining, you know." The captain of the guard gave her a brief smile, trying to get her to relax around him. "I mean... with the way you and Twily get along, we're practically sister-in-laws."

The pegasus blushed, hiding her face behind her wing. "I, uh, Idon'tthinkofherlikethat--"

"What? No!" Shining Armor shook a hoof rapidly, trying to clear up the confusion. "Nonono, that's not what I meant. I mean... the way you, all six of you get along... you're practically family."

A shy smile formed on Fluttershy's face as she pulled her wing back. "Thanks..."

The unicorn sighed. "I... I just don't get it. She didn't actually kill anyone. Why would she be so torn up about it?"

"Exactly because she didn't kill anyone."

Fluttershy gave a small squeak as Luna strode into the room, jumping behind a potted plant. Shining Armor straightened up and saluted. "Princess! It is an honor to--"

"Stay your pleasantries. This is not a royal visit. This is..." The princess sighed, sitting. "...This is a visit from one of Twilight Sparkle's concerned friends to her dear brother. I feel that perhaps you would be the best.... mediator?" She considered the word for a moment. "...mutual companion during Twilight's reconciliation with Cadance."

Shining Armor sighed. "I... suppose that's fair."

"Um.... Princess..." Fluttershy emerged from behind the potted plant. "You... you said that Twilight felt as bad as she did... because she didn't kill anyone. What do you mean?"

Luna turned to look at her, a grave and ancient sorrow on her features as she considered her next words.

"...Tell her about the Teddy Bear Test, captain."

Shining Armor blinked. "Um.... I don't think--"

"You did go through it, did you not?"

"...yes, your highness." He sighed. "For me though it was... well, a purple unicorn plush. For obvious reasons."

Fluttershy turned to him in confusion. "Obvious reasons? What... what's the Teddy Bear Test?"

"...every officer has to go through some training outside the scope of normal conscripts. And it's tough. So... you're given a sort of... stuffed animal, a companion. Something to talk to, to take care of, what it is doesn't matter so long as you can actually connect with the thing." He chuckled. "You're graded weekly on how well you take care of the little darling. It seems silly, but... over the course of your training, you feel for dumb thing... and then, near the end of your course..."

The unicorn sighed.

"They tape it to a target."

Fluttershy drew in a sharp breath. "But... but that's horrible! Why would they make you--?"

"An officer must be ready to take a life," Luna said. "An officer must be ready to put down a psychopath, to protect ponies from wild beasts.... Every pony has a part of them that says they are not killers." Her magic snaked around a branch and snapped it off. "We cannot afford that weakness in our soldiers. We must break it."

The pegasus wilted.

Shining Armor looked at the twig in her magical grasp. "But... I don't understand. What does the Teddy Bear Test have to do with Twilight?"

Luna sighed. "You know how it felt, Captain. The switch from not being a killer... to knowing, in some part of your soul, that you could never retrieve that again." She gave the stick a sad look before tossing it in the garbage. Her magic snaked out again, twisting another branch slowly. "Twilight Sparkle does not have that luxury. She was not broken. She did not kill, but she knows she could have." The wood splintered slightly, revealing pulsing green veins beneath. "She hasn't fallen. But she has stood on the edge. That terrifies her. Perhaps she can be mended, one day, but the guilt rips at her soul and heart and mind and she still thinks she could be better than that."

She turned away from the plant. "Her very sense of identity has been unbalanced. She is hurt because she can hurt." Her eyes fell to the ground. "And I know... I know from experience that pain is far more intense than that of one who has actually become a killer... even if the killer's wound runs much deeper."

"I... still don't understand."

Luna smiled wryly. "Be glad that you never can, Captain. But... at the very least, you must support her in this trying time."

"Of course!" Shining Armor nodded vigorously. "I'm her brother, why in the world WOULDN'T I support her?" He stood up, walking out from behind his desk. "Where is she?"

"Um..." Fluttershy raised a hoof awkwardly, not meeting the guard's eyes. "She's.... sleeping."

"At this hour?" Luna turned to the pegasus. "That is... certainly odd, even for a scholar of her caliber."

"I.... may have given her a massage," Fluttershy reluctantly admitted. "And, um... possibly pushed a couple of pressure points to knock her out for a while... um..."

She looked up, her gaze turning from the shock on Shining Armor's face to the bemusement upon that of the Princess of the Night.

"....Rarity told me to do it! She was worried Twilight was overworking herself and, and, and she said it would be the best thing for her!"

Shining Armor sighed. "I wish I could say it wouldn't.... Twily is a bit overstudious. I'll have a word with Rarity when she finishes talking with the prisoner..."

****

"...I was wondering when you'd come."

Rarity sighed. "Well... all of the other girls have, and..."

"And you figured you could complete the set."

"And I thought it would only be fair." The unicorn looked at the changeling in shame. "I... suppose I should have been here earlier, what with me being Generosity's bearer and all..."

The changeling shrugged. "I dunno. I never really figured out the difference between Generosity and Kindness. Shy was here right after Twilight, though. So there's that..."

"I thin..." Rarity pursed her lips as she considered. "I think that perhaps, Generosity is the willingness to give to any...body, no matter what, where Kindness is the willingness to help a specific pony. It's difficult to put into words."

"Yeah..."

There was silence in the cell as, once again, a pony and a changeling found themselves at a loss at what to say to each other. The unicorn took the time to examine the changeling's features, noting to herself the similarities between her and the bearer of loyalty. In fact, to her trained eyes, this changeling could have worn any of Dash's dresses without alteration...

It was as though somepony made an outline of the pegasus and hadn't finished coloring it in.

"...Your mane is quite lovely, dear."

"Heh." The changeling rolled her eyes. "Probably the only pretty thing about me, am I right?"

"Not at all!" Rarity insisted. "As a connoisseur of the arts myself I know for a fact that beauty can come in many different forms. Why, you're one of the sleekest, most graceful figures I've ever had the honor of meeting."

"...wait, really?"

"But of course. The irony in having you chained like this--why, it is simply appalling. Don't misunderstand, I am quite aware of the reasoning behind the bars, and I must acknowledge its legitimacy... and yet I can't help but feel that letting yourself be hidden away from all the inspired artists of Canterlot is a grave error."

That got a laugh out of the changeling. "Ha, right. Like anypony would want my portrait. In case you've forgotten a bunch of changelings just ransacked Canterlot and knocked out the princess." She shook her head. "Maybe I should wear one of Pinkie's trick arrows, put some ketchup--no, relish around the... parts where it... touches me."

Rolling her eyes, Rarity stepped forward. "Perhaps the current times are somewhat... hostile to your status, but somehow I doubt that will remain in effect for all times." She lifted the changeling's chin up, gazing into her eyes. "You don't need to disguise yourself. You are beautiful just the way you are."

The prisoner considered her words, her eyes flicking away as she blushed green.

"But.... what about Rainbow Dash?"

Rarity sighed. "Rainbow is beautiful too, but... well, she refuses to see it. A lot like you, actually. Though I suppose in her case she feels that beauty must equate to frills and petticoats and high collars and honestly, the point of fashion is to accentuate beauty, not to create it." She sat down, rolling her eyes. "So many designers these days seem to forget that... do you know how garish some of the most famous outfits are? Bold gold with reformed pink and the STITCHWORK, oh dear Celestia how ever do they stay in business?"

A chuckle and a shake of her head was the changeling's reply. "Yeah, I... I saw some of that. Heck, even with my pathetic fashion sense I knew those were no-goes."

Rarity smiled. "Glad to know I have some support against the tyranny of overemphasis."

"There's something I never expected a drama queen like you to say!"

"Well, I never!" The unicorn put a hoof to her chest in mock offense. "A drama queen? Moi? How could you ever make such an assumption?"

"Basic observation."

"Touche." Rarity giggled, before her eyes grew weary. "In all seriousness though.... part of the job is having the emotional investment in one's work. I have to cultivate the Drama Queen personality, otherwise the fashion industry simply will not take me seriously. Ironic, isn't it? In order to be treated like an adult, I must sometimes act like a child."

The changeling tilted her head. "...you have to be... something you're not."

"But the most insidious thing is that if you're not careful... you find yourself actually becoming that person. You..."

"...you become the mask..."

The two of them sat in the cold, stone cell, letting their thoughts reverberate against the walls in silent contemplation. Neither of them could deny the sudden connection they felt. Neither of them could deny the way that the changeling moved, the way she spoke, the similarity between her and the pony she had impersonated.

Finally, she cleared her throat. "Rarity... if... when this all gets cleared up... I would be very honored to, um, model your clothes. If you like." A buzzing chuckle escaped her lips. "I can shapeshift into all your customers, you know, make things so much easier for you. If I can ever figure out how to shapeshift, anyway--"

A white hoof silenced her. "I would never force you to."

****

"Hey there fillyfriend!" Lyra kicked down the door, her saddlebags loaded with loaves of bread, slices of cheese, deep fried spinach, juicy tomatoes, and pre-prepared snackbars of questionable healthiness. "What's shaking in the house?"

Bonbon rolled her eyes. "You only left ten minutes ago. You really expect something to be different?"

"Weeeeeeeeeeeell, I know one thing that's different." The unicorn slung her saddlebags off onto the table, which groaned slightly at the weight, and tackled her lover in a tight hug. "I didn't miss you this much!"

"LYRA! Stop--heehee--stop doing that with my mane!" Cream hooves lightly swatted at the mare enthusiastically nuzzling into Bonbon's bicolored coiffure. "Do you know how long it takes to get it like this?"

"I dunno, ten seconds?"

Bonbon sighed. "Lyra..."

The unicorn reluctantly released her, backing off with a sheepish smile. "I know, I know... laying low, no magic. Alright, I'm sorry."

"It's... ugh, it's fine." Bonbon turned around with a small smile. "I can't say I don't like it."

Lyra smirked, lidding her eyes as she stepped forward. "I know a few other things you'd like, Bons."

"Ah-ah-ah!" The confectioner put a hoof to the other pony's chest. "Work, then play. We still need to put away the groceries!"

"But Boooooooony, I carried all that heavy stuff all the way down the street and my back huuuuuuuuurts!"

"Awwww, well then I guess we can't have playtime if you're too hurt to help me." Bonbon smirked, beginning to organize all the foodstuffs on the table. "I mean, if your back is that seriously hurt then us getting it on could only hurt it worse!"

Lyra stared at her. Then she threw up her hooves. "Fine, you caught me, I was being lazy." walking over, she plucked a large amount of groceries from the table with her magic, sending them to the small fridge that the Canterlot apartment had nestled just inside the kitchen doorway. "I can't wait to get back home, you know. This place is just too... STIFF."

"I warned you," Bonbon singsonged.

"Guess that's why the Crusaders skipped town."

That got the confectioner's attention. "The Crusaders?"

"Haha, yeah, I bumped into them while I was shopping." Lyra shut the door. "Apparently they got it into their heads that Rainbow Dash was on a super secret mission and they needed to help her. Crazy, right?"

Bonbon stared at Lyra.

"...what?"

"You didn't tell anypony about this?"

"Well, I mean it happened like three minutes ago. And I'm telling you, so--"

"And you're sure they said Rainbow Dash. Her, specifically?"

"Yeah, pretty sure. Bonbon, what's up?" Lyra tilted her head. "You're kinda freaking out here."

Bonbon's gaze drifted downward. "...I... I need to see, Lyra. I need to know exactly what they said."

"Why?"

"Because... if I'm right... somepony I met long ago might need my help."


Chapter Eight: Resolutions and Revelations

Shining Armor was filing paperwork.

Unlike his younger sibling, he had no love for lists and checks and long rambling reports that essentially boiled down to stating that the only thing wrong in a certain sector was paranoia. He didn't hate them, of course, otherwise his relationship with his sister would have been far more strained than it was. He just... tolerated the paperwork as a necessity, an unfortunate aspect of his job of commanding an active section of the guard.

Inside he wanted to leap to action and fix all the problems of the world. Help Cadance and Twilight recover, find Rainbow Dash and rescue her from a hive of scum and villainy, slam a hoof into the Changeling Queen's FACE... But duty came first, and duty required that he figure out what was happening in the city before figuring out what to do.

Still, what he wouldn't give for a distraction...

"Sir!" A guard ran in, flicking a quick and sloppy salute. "There's a changeling in the entrance hall!"

"What?!" The unicorn shoved his stool back, rushing around the desk. "How did it get in?!"

"Through the front doors, sir!"

"Through the front--You let a changeling just waltz in?!"

"It was shapeshifted sir!"

"Then how do you know it's a changeling?!"

"It dropped its disguise sir!"

Shining Armor blinked. "...what?"

"It... dropped its disguise, sir."

For a moment the captain of the guard stared at the footsoldier, jaw hanging open in disbelief. "It just... just like that?"

"Um.... it also said 'I surrender peacefully' before... uh... it dropped its disguise."

That got the captain's attention. "Right. I'm going to see to this myself." Something was definitely off about this whole thing, he mused as he trotted briskly down the hall. A changeling just surrendering like that? Even if it was a rogue--which, technically, he supposed was possible--revealing themselves so soon after the assault would be near suicidal. The rogue had to have a very good reason to turn itself in. Or this could all be a trap--

"YAH!"

Shining Armor recoiled as a green hoof slammed into his muzzle, taking but a second to brace for combat. Already his assailant was leaping toward another guard, trying to stab his leg with her horn and failing horribly. "YOU PALACE PUNKS WON'T TAKE HER AWAY FROM ME!"

"Lyra, I'm surrendering willingly."

Shining glanced at the new voice, and then did a double take. An undisguised changeling was looking at the attacker with annoyance in her pink eyes, something he never even suspected changelings could do.

"I don't care what they threatened you with, I'm not letting them execuAAAAGH!"

The unicorn dangled from Shining's telekinetic grip, her head swinging inches from the carpeted steps as he stepped forward. "Ma'am, you just attacked on duty members of the royal... wait, weren't you one of Cadance's bridesmaids?"

"Well, not the real Cadance but--" She shook her head. "Look it doesn't matter! All that matters is that I won't let you kill Bonbon!"

"Shining Armor isn't going to kill me Lyra," the changeling droned. "He's going to throw me in a dungeon and interrogate me."

"Oh yeah, like that's SOOO much better!" The unicorn glared at the captain of the guard and punched at the air. "Come on you wimp! Let go of my tail, I'll wrestle ya to the ground!"

The changeling pulled her hoof through her cream-pink mane and let out an infuriated sigh. "Okay, you know what? She's not responsible for her actions. I hypnotized her."

"What--? NO! I'm completely lucid! Ask me anything!"

"Lyra, I'm trying to get you out of trouble here!"

"I'M NOT LEAVING WITHOUT YOU!"

Shining Armor shut his eyes and took a deep breath, trying to fight back the headache he felt coming on. "Obviously I'm missing a few details. Private?"

"Yes sir?"

"Did this changeling engage in any hostile or magical action during the time you have observed it?"

"No sir. The unicorn just charged in and started wailing on us, sir."

"I WAS SAVING HER FROM YOU!"

"Lyra, you're making things worse."

"Okay you know what?" Shining released his grip, letting the mare fall down. "You're both under arrest, and you're going to get cells across from each other. And if either of you acts out of line, it's the other one that's going to get the lashing, is that clear?"

Unicorn and changeling both jolted up at that. "But that's not fair--" "She's an equestrian citizen--" "I was the one that attacked you--" "We're not acting together--"

"I SAID IS THAT CLEAR?!"

The two of them gulped simultaneously. "Y'ssir."

"Good." Shining Armor nodded to the guard on his left. "Take your squad and escort these two to their cells. Make sure they're kept in the eastern dungeon, have them watched at all times, regularly fed, the usual." He rubbed his forehead. "I'm going to go make sure Twilight knows about this... then I'm going to go get a drink."

***

Twilight took a deep breath, nodding to the guards positioned to either side of the cell door. "I'm here to see our new... um... does she count as a prisoner if she surrendered willingly?"

"Legally, yes."

"...okay, fine. I'm here to see our new prisoner and... talk. Talk to her."

The guard rose an eyebrow at her hesitation. He had been specifically assigned to this position due to his almost Sherclopian analysis ability--after all, even changelings had to make mistakes sometimes--and he could already tell that something was off about the princess's protegee. She was obviously Twilight Sparkle, of course--the way she walked, the way she groomed, practical and efficient--but there were things off. Slight creases under the eyes. Ears ticked back half a titch. A nervous flick of the tail.

"Are you sure you are capable of doing that in your condition?"

Twilight sighed. "Thanks for your concern, but I'm fine. Maybe a bit sleep-deprived and nervous... but I can handle this. Princess Celestia wouldn't have trusted me with this if she thought I was incapable of performing my duty!" She smiled reassuringly at the guard, unaware of the slight flick of her right ear.

"...very well. Just try to keep calm, miss Sparkle." The guard opened the door. "We wouldn't want another Smarty Pants episode, would we?"

The unicorn flinched as she trotted in. "You slip up one time and nopony ever lets you live it down..."

The changeling chained to the wall smirked. "To be fair, it was one incredible amazing doll."

"Look, I had a bad day alright?!" Twilight blinked, narrowing her eyes. "Wait a minute... how do you even know about that?"

"I was there,Twilight. Want-it Need-it and everything." The changeling shuddered. "I haven't ever used mind control and after that I don't think I ever will."

"Wait wait wait. You were there for... You've been in Ponyville for a whole year?!"

"Well, actually I've been living there for a little over a decade..."

Twilight sat down heavily, staring at her. "A changeling queen... hiding out in Ponyville for more than ten years..."

The changeling raised an eyebrow. "Um... I'm not a queen."

"What--? But, but you have a mane! A-a-and the eyes--!"

"The eyes glow blue when a changeling connects to a hive mind, stronger blue the bigger the hive." The prisoner patted her mane. "As for this... all changelings grow silk. It's just that most changelings use the silk in the hive's cocoons and whatnot. Although Chrysalis claimed she was saving her silk for 'the royal eggsac'. As if that would EVER happen. Complete control freak, she was."

"Chrysalis?"

"You've met her."

Twilight nodded in understanding, her eyes distant. She was still trying to process everything that she'd just heard. A ten-year hidden changeling completely willingly giving her the name of her queen and explaining things about her race without any provocation... just how exactly was she supposed to respond to this?

"...Twilight?"

She started, snapping her gaze to the changeling. "What? Yes sorry. I drifted off there for a moment, I... let me start over. What were you doing in Ponyville?"

The changeling sighed. "Well... at first, I was just a scout. Then I decided to go rogue, faked my death in the hive mind, and I've spent the good part of my time there just making candy." She smiled goofily. "Well, there was the occasional side activity Lyra insisted on..."

"Lyra? Wait, she was dating that candy... maker...."

Twilight stopped, her eyes widening slowly. The changeling nodded.

"...Bonbon?"

"Hey Twilight. Sorry, the mint pellets are going to be late this week." Bonbon tugged at the chain around her neck. "Extenuating circumstances, you understand."

"But--you--ten years--" Twilight shook her head. "You and Lyra are changelings?!"

"Um... no. I'm a changeling. She's just an idiot."

"Wait, why would she attack the royal guard if she wasn't a changeling?"

"I reiterate: idiot."

"I heard that!" came a shout from across the hall. "I thought you loved me!"

"Just because I love you doesn't mean I think you're perfect!"

Twilight rubbed her temple. "Wait. Okay, wait. I thought... I thought changelings fed on love."

"Yes. We can also feel love." Bonbon shrugged. "It was a shock to me as well, but I'm head over heels for that crazy mare. I mean she took on the royal guard for me! Granted, she lost..."

"Only cause Shining Armor cheated!"

"Hey!" Twilight shouted. "That's my brother you're talking about!"

"This is the strangest interrogation I've ever heard," one of the guards quipped.

"This is the only interrogation you've ever heard," the other reminded him.

"I think we're all getting off topic here," Twilight said, holding up a hoof. "Now then. I'm... supposed to find out why you're here and what you know."

"You mean why did I turn myself in?"

"Well... I suppose that's a good enough place to start, yes..."

Bonbon sighed, slumping onto the ground as she closed her eyes. "It kind of ties into why I went rogue in the first place. See, us scouts had found Equestria was a great place to get love--which, yeah, we eat. Of course, at the time if we went with an out and out invasion, we'd have been trounced. So Chrysalis ordered us to install sleeper agents--unpupated changelings, basically infants in suspended animation, we'd transfer the memories of a pony over to them and then... remove the pony."

Twilight took a breath, but nodded. From a tactical viewpoint that made some sense. "So... you killed a pony?"

"Actually no, I got lucky." Bonbon's ears folded back. "I was walking back home when I found a filly who was... pretty much screwed anyway. Heh, when I walked up and told her she probably wouldn't survive, she took it really well. Worried about her family... heck, the first thing she asked was if her friend was okay." She shrugged. "So I told her I was a shapeshifter, that I had a baby shapshifter here and hey! Why not let me transfer your memories so her family didn't worry? And she was like, yeah sure."

Her breath caught. "And after... after that... she... she asked me to hold her and... and sing to her. I'd taken the form of, of her mother, right off the top of her mind... I... I held her..." She shook her head. "She had a smile on her face when..."

Twilight blinked, tears coming to her own eyes as she put a gentle hoof to the prisoner's shoulder. "It's okay. It's okay, you... you helped her in her final moments. You couldn't do anything else."

"...I... I'm fine Twilight." Bonbon took a shuddering breath. "I mean, it was years ago. I've moved... beyond that."

They sat in silence for a moment.

Eventually, Twilight cleared her throat. "Um... So... if this all happened around a decade ago... why are you here now?"

"...do you know how that filly died?" Bonbon chuckled wryly. "No, I didn't tell you, did I. She died because she plowed into the ground at high speeds. Very high speeds." Her eyes narrowed. "Rainboom. Speeds."

The unicorn's eyes snapped wide.

"And yesterday Lyra came home, telling me that the crusaders thought Dash had been kidnapped by changelings." Bonbon shook her head. "I never connected her to the hive mind, so tell me Twilight Sparkle: Where is she now?"

***

"This is nuts," Apple Bloom muttered, pushing another branch out of the way. "We shouda left this to tha guard."

"The guard is big, shiny, and clangy." Scootaloo snorted, looking up through the branches for any watching eyes. "We're small, stealthy, and silent. We are so much better at sneaking around than they are."

"Ah'll give ya small."

"Oh come on AB!" Sweetie Belle hopped up and down beside her friend. "Relax! Just think of this as another crusade! Who knows, your special talent may be in spy-seeking, right?"

"Do either of ya'll know where we are?"

"Nope. That means we're getting close." Scootaloo pressed an ear to the ground. "If you want to hide, you'd hide off the map. Basic logic!"

"Ah... what?"

Sweetie Belle nodded. "That makes sense."

"...Seriously?" Apple Bloom rolled her eyes. "Ya really expect we're just gonna find tha changelings any second now?"

"Well..." purred a new voice. "Not unless we find you first."

The fillies froze.

Slowly, they turned to look behind them.

Chrysalis smiled. "My my my, three little foals lost in the woods?" At the flick of her ear, black shapes oozed out of the branches and surrounded the crusaders. "I think somebody should ensure your safety."


Chapter Nine: Ponderings of the Self

"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."

Celestia blinked.

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!"

Celestia winced.

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--"

"PRINCESS!"

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?"

Luna nodded.

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."

"...what."

"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."


Chapter Ten: Excavated Sorrows

Celestia stood to attention.

Twilight looked at her checklist.

Celestia stood to attention once more.

Twilight took a breath, opened her mouth.... and looked at her checklist.

Celestia, surprisingly, stood to attention.

Twilight tapped her checklist.

Applejack facehoofed. "How long have they been going at this?"

"Thirty seven minutes and fifty three point seven six five two seconds," Pinkie replied, lounging against one of the chariots.

"Honestly, this is getting ridiculous," Rarity grumbled. "We're here... wherever here is supposed to be. Why doesn't she just order a different guard to look for... whatever it is we're supposed to be looking for?"

"Ah think it's cause Celestia's tha top ranked pony in the military."

"Well, technically speaking she isn't the top ranked pony anymore," Pinkie pointed out. "Even during Luna's banishment she was always just the Marshal Commander Interim and that was only on the paperwork, she was never activated by the parliament which left most of the Generals to operate the military on their own initiative, and since most Generals are from the Noble houses there wasn't really any effort to keep them active beyond what was needed to keep the country together, but now that Luna's resumed her role as Marshal Commander she's been using her influence to get the army back on its hooves, which is kinda difficult when most of the Generals are embroiled in the Noble family politics but after the invasion I'm almost certain that they'll see how hard Luna is working to get them back up to snuff and anyway since Celestia gave up her position she just falls down to her old rank of Major."

Rarity, Fluttershy, Applejack, Lyra, the changeling claiming to be Bonbon, and the changeling that the changeling claiming to be Bonbon claimed to be Rainbow Dash all stared at Pinkie Pie.

"I listen to ponies," she explained defensively. "Really! That's all! I do not have a plan for throwing the entire military a party."

The ponies visibly relaxed.

"No seriously," Pinkie continued, "I don't actually have a plan. I can throw individual soldiers a party and maybe entire companies but if the whole army is mobilized then how am I supposed to help keep up morale if I can't throw a 'hooray we held the enemy back!' party or a 'good job capturing the strategic location' party on demand?! It's not just the size of the group but the fact that they're always moving and it could be dangerous to put emergency cakes in potential battlefields and, and... Parties don't scale very well, is what I'm saying."

Fluttershy rose an eyebrow. "You've been considering this very seriously, haven't you?"

"We were just invaded," Pinkie pointed out. "I'm against war, but.... if the parliament votes that way, I want to be able to support our soldiers in the field."

The other ponies all paused. Slowly, Applejack put a hoof on Pinkie's shoulder. They looked at each other, a slow, sad smile growing on their faces.

"It'll be all right, Pinkie. Trust me."

"RIGHT!" Twilight suddenly shouted, her expression held somewhere between stern and unbelieving. "Major! The... thing should be buried somewhere over there. You'll know it when you see it. Secure it and do not ask questions and do not let the civilians see it and oh sweet Celestia I'm ordering Celestia around Princess I'm so so so sorry I--"

"Captain Ironmane, you and your men are to guard the prisoners and civilians," the alicorn snapped. "Captain Vorpal Blade, Captain Honorbound, your men are to join me on the digging crew." With a quick wing salute toward Twilight, she walked toward the indicated marker.

"It's not too deep!" the changeling claiming to be Bonbon shouted. "Just... be careful with it!" She turned to Twilight. "You didn't tell her what it was?"

"I..." Twilight shivered, taking a breath. "She can take it, and... discussing it here would be a security risk--:

Bonbon sighed. "That's got to be one of the weakest rationalizations I have ever heard."

"Wait, what is it ya'll are talking about?" Applejack looked from pony to changeling. "What's this thing we're looking for anyhow?"

"Trust me AJ, you don't want to know." The purple unicorn managed to nervously check off a box. "I'm... disturbed just thinking about it."

Bonbon cringed. "Um. I... would be happy if you just took my word, but... I know that you're logical and that... means you'd need confirmation... and, uh..."

"What, are you going to cast a spell on her?" The other changeling finally spoke up. "That's what your plan is, isn't it? Some freaky mind control spell that you pretend is actually confirmation of--"

"No." Bonbon crossed her heart, flicked her wings, and stuck a hoof over her eye. "I Pinkie Pie swear I will not cast any mental magic on Twilight or arrange for mental magic to be cast on Twilight without her explicit permission. I'm just worried about how she plans to go about... confirming."

Twilight Sparkle winced. "It's... not something I want to do. And I really don't want to hurt her..."

Fluttershy sucked in her breath. "Hurt? Oh no, Twilight, who's going to be hurt?"

The unicorn began stroking her tail, her eyes downcast. She didn't answer.

Lyra coughed. "Sooooooo. Hey! While we're all here, let's discuss ancient history. And by that I mean humans--"

Rarity groaned. "Not this again."

"Come on, I paid for everything I asked for!"

"Do you have ANY idea what those commissions put me through?"

"I have to admit they look good on her," Bonbon said brightly. "I don't know how you pulled it off, but you've got more skill at making ponies look different then an entire swarm! That's saying something." She coughed. "You know... because we're changelings and... we... disguise ourselves--"

There was a sudden flurry of activity over the digging site. Muttered exclamations caught the attention of everypony. After a moment, Celestia approached.

"The... item... has been secured." She saluted. "...orders?"

Twilight took a very deep breath.

"...Fluttershy. I need you to come with me."

The pegasus blinked. "Um... Twilight?"

"Please. Just... don't hate me for this..."

It took a moment for her to process the odd statement. Then her wings snapped shut, and she glanced around nervously. "I... um..."

Her eyes met Rarity's; concern.

Her eyes met Applejack's; support.

Her eyes met Pinkie Pie's; confusion.

Her eyes met Rainbow... possibly Rainbow's. "No, Twilight, whatever it is it's a trick! Don't bring Fluttershy into it!"

Her eyes met Bonbon's... sorrow, and apology.

Finally, she met Twilight's gaze.

Fear.

"...alright."

"For what it's worth," Bonbon said quietly, "I am sorry."

Fluttershy gave her a nod, took a breath, and looked to Twilight. Together they trotted off toward the soldiers.

Applejack, Rarity, and Pinkie Pie tilted their ears forward, desperate to get even a hint of what was going on. Bonbon was breathing deeply, her head drooping; Lyra had a single hoof rubbing at the base of her wings, looking at her pain and helpless to stop it. The other changeling was flicking her head between the dig site and the presumed candymaker, torn between wanting to leap out and protect her friend from whatever was happening... or stopping the evil shapeshifter from ever hurting another again. The guards noticed, giving a magical tug to her chains. She didn't protest.

There was a short yelp. Twilight's voice said something, too quiet for any of them to hear. Fluttershy nodded, murmuring a weak reply.

Then she started quietly sobbing.

Pinkie and Rarity and Applejack started forward--only to be blocked by a gold shod hoof. Celestia shook her head slightly. Twilight was hugging Fluttershy, rocking her gently back and forth.

"What happened?" One changeling glared at the other, struggling against her chains. "What did you do to her?!"

Bonbon sighed. "I told Twilight the truth and.... she showed Fluttershy."

"What? What's that supposed to mean?!"

The guards were returning, carrying something that nopony else could see. They loaded it into a large covered box in one of the chariots. Fluttershy managed to compose herself and took a few deep breaths. She walked back to her friends... and past them, stepping up to Bonbon.

Lyra moved between them quickly. "Look, I know you're upset but if you do anything to her I--"

"How did it happen?" the pegasus asked quietly.

With a deep breath, the candymaker gently pushed her lover aside and looked into Fluttershy's eyes. "A crash. High speeds--"

"No. The last moments."

She nodded. "...I told her what I was... and asked if she'd let me transfer her memories into, uh, a pupa... she said yes... then I became her mother and sang her to sleep..."

The pegasus nodded. "So she knew. Okay. That... that's okay."

"...you were the first thing she asked about. She wanted to know if you were... okay..." Bonbon shrugged. "I was, um, the one that scared the cloud of butterflies..."

"Oh..."

"Fluttershy she's not saying that," the other changeling said desperately. "Tell me she's not saying what I think she's saying."

Applejack's jaw dropped. She pointed at the large box, turning her shocked face to Twilight for confirmation. Rarity's hooves went to her mouth in horror as she stared at the changeling, Pinkie's eyes snapped wide as she whirled to focus on the mysterious package. Twilight nodded, slowly.

"She was very brave, for a filly," Bonbon continued quietly. "Didn't even worry about herself right up until the end."

The pegasus chuckled wryly. "Her all over..."

"Fluttershy." The other changeling leaned forward. "Please. It can't be true."

Celestia lowered her gaze.

"...there will need to be a funeral," the pegasus whispered. "A proper one, and.... and you both should attend." Her gaze moved from Bonbon to the other changeling. "Because...."

"Don't... please don't say it, Shy."

"....because you both... she was an influence on you both." Fluttershy giggled. "Hee, you... could say she really shaped your lives, hee hee...."

The laughs broke forth and then she was sobbing again and her friends rushed to her side hugging her tightly and they murmured reassurances and the changeling wanted to jump out too she knew the chains were loose enough but she could not stop staring at the box she could not stop staring at the box she could not stop staring it was so still it had to be a trick it had to be and Fluttershy was breaking down and she wanted to hold her tight but she could not move could not breathe and the world began to tilt and grow grey and she heard Lyra shout and she wanted to help but she could not move--


Chapter Eleven: Wraiths and Wraths

"...she going to..."
























"....quite a shock, just..."




























"...only been a couple of...."





























"...up, I'm going to get an air..."











































WONUGH!

She jerked away from the loud noise as her eyes snapped open, reflexively spreading wings which felt wrong, gaze darting around the room--

"I did warn you," Pinkie stated calmly. "If you didn't wake up, I would get an air horn."

"I was unconscious!" she protested, managing to fold her wings back as she took in her surroundings. A bed, a cabinet... medical screens? And her friends... except...

The earth pony waved a hoof dismissively, tossing the air horn aside. "Details."

Memories trickled back in, memories of the worst week of her life, of the lie, of the dead. The changeling held up a hoof, looking at the holes and sighing. Round her... what would have been a fetlock was a band, a cord trailing off toward one of the screens. She turned back to the ponies that....

Their faces. Gentle, encouraging. Hopeful.

She looked away. "Just.... get out. All of you, out."

Twilight blinked. "Rainbow, we need to--"

"DON'T. Call me that. Just.... get out."

There was a moment of uncertainty as the ponies shared significant looks. Eventually, Twilight sighed, nodding towards the door, and four of them filed out... leaving a butter yellow pegasus.

The changeling gave her a weak glare. She replied with an awkward shrug. "The doctors, um... they say you shouldn't be left alone. I thought since.... since I knew both of you, I should be the one to... if you like I can see if somepony else--"

The changeling sighed. "No, it's... it's fine, Fluttershy." She leaned back on the bed. "...how long have I been out?"

"Um.... five hours." A yellow hoof reach out for the medical clipboard, moss green eyes rolling through the data. "Basically you're exhausted and... a tad malnourished, which combined with a sudden upspike in stress overexerted your body. So, um... you need to eat well, get some sleep, and--"

"I can't sleep," the changeling muttered. "Not until...."

She trailed off. Fluttershy looked up at her, gently putting the clipboard back.

"...tell me about her." The changeling turned to the pegasus. "Was she... any different?"

Fluttershy took a breath, her eyes drifting to the ground. "Before the race.... she was brash, confident, knew she was at the top of her league and... well, she didn't care about it. She didn't want to join the Wonderbolts, she just knew she was Wonderbolt material. She'd brag, yeah, but then she'd turn right around and point out how... how somepony else was awesome too. That's why she hated bullying. She didn't get the idea of inferiority, everyone was just... well, the same."

"And... after?"

"...it took me a couple days to notice," Fluttershy admitted, "but... Well, her confidence was kind of gone. She... you were brash and knew you were the best, but you didn't know if it would stay that way. You had to have approval of, well, not everypony but... me and Gilda, the teachers.... Gilda especially. You were very clingy, but not in a way that most ponies noticed; if Gilda ever suggested you were lazing off you'd do your best to impress her. I... I wrote it off as being nervous that you would never do anything as 'awesome' as a sonic rainboom again, but...." Her wings drooped with a sigh. "Well... it could be that you were, subconsciously, trying to ensure ponies loved you."

The changeling nodded, leaning back into the bed. "I guess that makes sense." She glanced around the hospital room. "That foal.... why'd she have to die for me?"

"Bonbon says she was dying anyway."

"...that just makes it worse."

"Does it?" Fluttershy narrowed her eyes, stepping closer. "That filly could have died all alone in a crater of her own making. Instead, she had the option to help somebody else in the last seconds of her life. And... apparently, she did so of her own volition."

"Did the other changeling tell you that?" A holey hoof rose to deflect the pegasus's reply. "No, you're right, that doesn't matter. Either way, I stole her life."

The monitors beeped along for a few minutes.

"...she has a cutie mark," Fluttershy said softly.

The changeling shifted her gaze toward her. "Is that supposed to comfort me?"

"It's not yours."

She paused, tapping her hoof. "...what is it?"

"Come to the funeral," Fluttershy replied. "If you really regret taking over her life, you need to find out what it stood for on your own."

The changeling shut her eyes. After a moment, she nodded. "Yeah... okay, sure. Yeah."

Once more the sounds of beeping monitors dominated the room.

"...The girls are worried about you," Fluttershy pointed out. "You're the only Rainbow Dash they've ever known. Even if you... can't think of yourself that way, that's how they see you."

"I... guess I know that." Sighing, the changling looked up at the ceiling. "But... I don't know. There was a foal in Cloudsdale, best of the best, and then her life stopped. And somehow I feel like.... every time I acknowledge her name, I'm stomping on her grave. It's not fair, Fluttershy. And not just in the usual unfair way things happen, by random chance or stupid politics. It's... personally unfair, deliberately unfair, she decided to just hoof off her life to a random stanger and here I am reaping the rewards of her death."

"It was her decision."

"Do we know that?" The changeling looked at her. "The other changeling, Bonbon... how do we know she's not covering her own flank?"

"Because I knew that filly," Fluttershy replied simply. "I know exactly how she acted. I remember her spending time after class helping me and the other weak flyers instead of racing with the top ponies in the camp. And..."

She trailed off, rubbing her leg for a moment. Then she nodded firmly.

"...just trust me. There's enough evidence."

"...alright, Fluttershy. If you're sure... I guess I can believe you for now." She sighed. "Does Scootaloo know about-?"

"The, um, Crusaders... they're missing."

The changeling snapped her head toward her, eyes wide. "What?!"

"Well, with all the commotion going on, apparently they decided you... Rainbow..." Fluttershy pused her lips for a moment. "They decided you were on some sort of secret spy mission, and went off to help you. Nopony noticed because we were all focused on... Twilight..." She shook her head.

"Wow." The changeling's ears folded back. "I... we all really screwed up with Twilight, didn't we? I should probably apologize..."

"What about the Crusaders? Applejack and Rarity are worried sick, they've been pushing for Celestia to let them take some guards to go after their sisters, and I know you and Scootaloo--"

"Scootaloo deserves a real hero," she countered. "Somepony who... Some pony who doesn't get so egotistical her friends need to knock her down a few pegs with a made up vigilante. Some pony who... doesn't steal books from hospitals. Or cheat in a race against their friends, or... sneak a bite from the cake meant for Celestia--"

"Nobody is perfect, Rainbow Dash."

The changeling shivered. "Don't call me that."

Fluttershy let out a breath. "...sorry. But my point still stands. She doesn't need a hero who's perfect. She needs a hero who can help her. And I think you can do that."

"...I'm a lie and a ghost, Flutters." The changeling sank into her bed. "I can't go looking for her, even if I want to help. She needs somepony real."

"But--"

"I'm sorry. Really. I... can't help." She sighed. "But... tell me when you find her, okay?"

The pegasus stared long and hard at her, trying to formulate an answer. "....That--"

"Ah, hello!" A doctor walked in with a smile. "Everything reads normal. You're free to... well, mostly free to go, the princess has escorts waiting outside. Just get some more food and, um, a bit of love perhaps... we're still not sure how that works. Oh! And sleep too." He unhooked the changeling and gestured toward the door. "On you go then. Have a good day!"

The changeling blinked. "...just like that?"

"Yes. Just like that." The doctor's smile shrunk slightly. "I don't mean to pressure you, but we do need to clear out healthy patients."

"...Oh! Right, the invasion." The changeling nodded, standing and walking toward the door. "Um... Sorry about that--"

"You weren't involved," Fluttershy reprimanded her. "You don't need to apologize."

"Doesn't mean I don't feel sorry...."

***

"Captain Armor!"

The groom-to-be turned toward the quickly approaching alicorn. "Princess Luna. I take it your visit has something to do with...?" He gestured at the corpse draped across her back.

"Indeed." Pushing the paperwork aside, Luna levitated the body onto Shining Armor's desk. "The vile fiend almost passed thought the library undetected. Even I only became aware of him because of the smallest whisper of air across the book I was reading. Do not look so perturbed," she added quickly, "he was obviously a master at his craft. Your guards would have been sufficient against a less experienced foe."

"Actually, I'm somewhat more concerned that you've dropped a dead pony on my desk."

The princess of the night took a moment to process those words. "...is that not done anymore?"

"Not to my knowledge, no. Typically a coroner or criminal analyst examines corpses, not an officer." Shining rubbed the back of his head. "We do have the training, but it's easier to let a specialist handle the initial look over."

"Ah, delegation. I see."

"That and a bit of squeamishness." The stallion poked the body. "Still warm...?"

"I came to you immediately upon reprehending this infiltrator." Luna held up a hoof. "Yes, I know that he could have been merely one of those... paparazzi, I believe the term is? I did ask what he was doing before I attacked him. He replied with this." A small dart levitated out of her mane. "Be careful, tis laced with something, I know not what."

"See, that's another reason we usually take dead bodies to the morgue," Shining Armor pointed out as he took the dart in his own magic. "They usually have chemical labs."

"Ah, a wonderful boon in this modern age. Alchemy was naught but an estoric habit when I left, yet now..." The princess of the night shook her head. "But that is beside the point. Assured of his aggression, I summoned forth a blast of lightning and slit his throat with a dagger."

"Where'd you get the dagger?"

"Tis a natural part of my regalia," Luna explained casually. "I adopted the habit from a pegasus custom."

"Huh." Shining nodded. "I suppose that makes sense. I wonder how hard it is to get a blood stain out of a Bitsworth..."

"I would not know, modern crafters are somewhat bizarre to my tastes." The dark alicorn opened the corpse's mouth, pointing at the tongue. "But look here. This tattoo... do you recognize the sigil?"

The captain peered carefully. "...this pony was with the Mukade."

"Verily."

"...An assassin sent after you?"

"Nay," Luna replied, shaking her head as she pulled a slip of paper out from under the corpse's hoofbands. "The Mukade are not one for vengeance, but careful plots. This was a messenger." She opened the note, glancing over its contents. "And he has given us directions."

"Why would the Mukade do that?"

Luna sighed. "Once... once, long ago, they were a noble band, and I supported them. Though they have descended into fanaticism and blind hatred, I still felt regret as I removed their hoofhold in Equestria. Even more so when it came to light that the changelings had merely used them as pawns. We were both tricked. This," she explained, flicking the paper, "this is their way of offering me my honor back. This is most likely the location of a hive."

"I see..." Shining Armor shook his head. "If you're sure about this..."

"I'll arrange for a contingent of my guards to head there." Luna smiled grimly. "We will route the changelings out."

"...before you do that, princess." The captain gestured at the body. "Could you clean up your mess, please?"

***

"Rarity!"

"Sweetie Belle? Sweetie Belle!"

"Oh Rarity, I missed you so much! It was so scary, the girls and I--"

"Hush, Sweetie. You're safe now."


Chapter Twelve: Pains of the Past

It should have been raining. Rain at funerals was an old tradition, extending back to the pegasus battles before the unification. Yes, crashing into the ground wasn't technically a warrior's death, but...

It shouldn't still be so bright. The sky shouldn't have been blue.

Not that her opinion mattered. Really. If... if Rainbow's parents were okay with this, then she would let them be okay with this.

She watched as they approached the casket, her father wrapping his tail around the flanks of... no, not her father. Not her mother. Even if they raised her, she....

The couple looked in.

Her mo... the mare reached a hoof out, brushing the body inside; apparently the cocoon had preserved it very well.. She could see the shudder that went through her body. The mare nodded to the stallion, absently. They spoke to each other, too quietly to hear.

The other changeling--she supposed she had to call her Bonbon--hung her head low. Lyra stood just outside the cemetery, watching and glancing awkwardly at the fence.

It took a while before the married couple moved away from the box, stepping up to the podium. The mare cleared her throat.

"I... when I was called here, and I had the... situation explained to me, I had to wonder. Any parent would, I think. I... I considered what she meant to me." The mare gestured to the coffin. Then her eyes fell on the changeling. "And I considered what... what you meant to me. And in the end... You felt the same." Her eyes fell down. "I can't accept that my daughter is dead. I understand that filly is, but... I don't think my daughter is dead. I'm sorry. This is... wrong."

She stood there a moment longer. Her gaze met that of her husband's and she balked. Then she took a breath, closed her eyes, and trotted briskly out.

The stallion snorted. He looked at the casket, then back to where the mare now stood next to an uncomfortable Lyra.

He trotted up to the podium and took a steadying breath. "My daughter is dead. I know this and... and yet, I can see why my wife deludes herself. Because the pony that replaced her was... we loved her. Still do, I suppose. And she acted so much like Rainbow that we were fooled. If I understand correctly, she believed she was Rainbow. I... I will mourn my daughter's death, and the fact I was not there for her... and I will turn to the newcomer and say she was my daughter's sister." With a sigh, he stepped down and trotted back to his seat, his eyes avoiding the two ponies outside the cemetery.

Fluttershy took a breath, standing up and walking to the casket. Her eyes drifted over the body... and then she steeled herself and walked over to the podium. "Um.... I... If it really matters, I guess I believe that... that whether or not the changeling who was the replacement for Rainbow Dash is, um, Rainbow Dash.... it's not really what matters here. We are gathered here today, not to debate who is who and who is not, but to remember the life of one of the bravest, kindest fillies I have... ever had the honor of knowing. I... I know how we found her is... something of an issue, but I prefer to put that aside. I prefer to remember how she would always stop whatever she did to help. How she... how she would sometimes, heh, break into the vending machines and hand out little packets of cookies. How she would go up to the toughest, most fiery flyers and give them a hug before challenging them to a stunt-off. She even made up that term, stunt off.... she never finished the rules before...."

The yellow pegasus dabbed at her eyes.

"...Rainbow Dash was reckless, short-sighted, arrogant... and wouldn't ever let anypony down. I don't know if she's 'dead' or not, and I don't care. All I know is that she was one... heck of a filly. And I... I'll always remember that filly."

The stallion's wings drooped in shame as Fluttershy trotted quietly off the podium. Outside the cemetery, the mare collapsed into a heap of quiet tears. Lyra looked around nervously, rhythmically stroking her neck as her eyes roved across the funeral for some form of support.

Both the changelings stared at the casket for a long time.

Eventually, Bonbon stood up. She paused, turning the other changeling. "Do you want to...?"

The other changeling followed the holey hoof with her eyes and shook her head. "Go on. I'll... be right after you."

"Right." Bonbon nodded. "Right..." She walked up to the box, looking inside. Her silence was long. Then, with a sigh, she took her place at the podium.

"...I can't claim to have known this filly. I met her when she was dying and... and some would say that's when a person really reveals themself. From what little I got to see, she was caring, brave... she allowed herself to be replaced so that others wouldn't feel what I'm sure they're feeling right now. Loss. Pain. She... she wanted them happy." Bonbon sighed. "I sung her to her final sleep. I... I was a monster, then. And.... Well, she changed me. I... I wish I could have known her."

She turned to the fence, her eyes meeting Lyra's as she stepped off the podium. For a moment she wavered. Then she hung her head and returned to her seat.

That just left one.

Alright.

The other changeling stood up, steadying herself. With every hesitant hoof step she was brought closer to the casket, closer to the horror within. Memories that were and weren't hers floated up to the surface, memories of mirrors and self image. And then...

It wasn't exactly like looking in a mirror, of course. The fact that the filly was dead and slightly stitched up and, well, a filly made it different. But it was far closer than what she had expected. It was almost like... like the face itself had never changed, like she'd only gotten bigger but not aged. The changeling couldn't help letting her hoof trail down the corpse's cheek.

This was what she had stolen.

Her eyes drifted to the filly's flank... and she took in a harsh hiss of breath. There, where everypony's destiny would be written, was the image of a cocoon bursting open to reveal a trio of bedazzling spectrum-winged butterflies.

"....what?"

The butterflies were small, an afterthought. It was clear that the cocoon itself was the focus of the cutiemark. Rough, discarded, no longer of any use.

The changeling stared at it, almost refusing to comprehend. That the filly had died to earn this mark... She tore her gaze away, stumbling to the podium,

Her mouth opened.

Her mouth shut.

She swallowed.

Her mouth opened....

And she bolted.

***

It was shortly thereafter that a whispered shouting match was held outside the door of one of the palace's many guest rooms.

"No, I get that you raised her," Bonbon whispered harshly. "That's why I think you shouldn't go in! You'll just make things worse for her!"

"But we're her parents. That, at least, we can agree on." Silver Stocking flicked her mane back, shooting a quick glare at her husband. "Right?"

"Yes, dear. This isn't about us, this is about her."

"And that's why you should stay out here and let me handle this," Bonbon insisted. "Look, if the two of you can't even agree who she is among yourselves, how do you think she'll respond? She needs a changeling perspective on all this before she can really understand herself."

"I'm with Bonnie!"

The changeling sighed. "Lyra? I love you. I really do. You pulled me out of one of my worst places. But I don't think you should get involved in this particular argument, okay?"

Lyra blinked uncomprehendingly. "...why not?"

"Because this is a deeply personal problem for their daughter and you don't have nearly the level of subtlety that is necessary to handle it."

"I just want to help..."

Bonbon put a hoof on the shoulder of the pouting unicorn. "I know you do. And that is why I am giving you the most important job."

"Really?"

"You are going to take these two and make sure they have the most romantic date in Canterlot they can get right now."

"WHAT?!" cried the two pegasi.

"And I mean right now immediately move your cute patootie! GO GO GO GO!"

Lyra saluted. "AYE AYE SIR!"

"Oh no, you're not going to MEEP!" Silver Stocking struggeld in the sudden grip of magic. "Put us down now!"

"No can do ma'am! You heard my commanding officer!" Lyra giggled as she carried the two pegasi out. "She called my patootie cute!"

Fluttershy stared as they rounded the corner.

Bonbon rolled her eyes. "It's a long story that can be summed up as Lyra is Crazy." She paused. "Um... I'm not going to have to convince you to let me do this alone too, am I?"

"...Oh! Uh... I'll be right outside, but..." Fluttershy gestured to the door. "Go on."

"Thanks."

Opening the door revealed a room that was almost normal, if one ignored the way that every reflective surface was either cracked or covered with a blanket, a dress, a rag. Bonbon raised an eyebrow as she trotted over to the changeling sitting next to the window, looking out on Canterlot.

"...so." Bonbon rubbed her foreleg awkwardly. "That was... intense."

"...did you see her cutie mark? Before you buried her, I mean."

"No. I... Back then, I was still nominally loyal to Chrysalis. I just did my job quickly."

The other changeling shrugged. "Makes sense, I guess. She probably didn't earn it until... until almost when she..." A sigh escaped. "Bonbon, she died to give me a life. Her life. Willingly. How can I accept that?"

"...do you know, when I met Lyra, I was... I was basically starving?" Bonbon closed her eyes. "See, that was a few weeks after I decided to break off from the hive. And from ponykind. I decided that changelings, we were all monsters. Me especially for letting her die, and... so I became this hateful, spiteful earth pony that would insult everyone that came near and Lyra just wouldn't take anything. I insulted her mane, her instrument, her parents, her lifestyle choice... all that, all to keep her away from me. And she would just laugh it off. I don't know what she was thinking. All I know is one day, she followed me to my little box, and--I tried, I really tried to get under her skin and eventually I snapped and dropped the disguise and...."

She sighed. "Lyra just said 'Oh hey, you look neat.' That's... that's what the filly had said too. And I just... I broke down."

The two of them were silent.

"...and then," Bonbon added, "she gave me a reason to live. Even after all I had caused." She chuckled. "Crazy little world, isn't it."

"...hmm."

"...Fluttershy's right outside, you know. The rest of your friends, they're probably still worried. Scootaloo--"

"--was captured by Chrysalis."

The two changelings turned at the new voice. Rarity and a tear-streaked Sweetie Belle had entered the room, followed closely by Luna.

"Um..." Fluttershy poked her head in. "Princess, I understand your concern, but--"

Bonbon stood up quickly. "What do you need from me?"

"Tactics. Personality." Luna glanced at Rarity and Sweetie Belle, one eyebrow arching. "...perhaps comfort for the returned hostage. You were her candymaker, correct?"

"Ah, right. Tell you what, Sweetie, I'll make your favorite as soon as I can get to the kitchens."

"Oooooh! Rainbow bits, right?"

Bonbon smiled widely. "Exactly!"

"Yaaaaaaaaaaaay!"

Bonbon's smile remained, but her eyes grew hard and steely. "Except it always takes you a good three minutes to decide that."

Sweetie Belle blinked.

Then she smiled back. "Oh, darn. Very clever, traitor. I suppose that--" She suddenly convulsed, flickering between a number of forms as Luna overloaded her with magic before finally collapsing into a black changeling with a helmet.

Rarity backed away in horror. "What--but she was so like--she knew everything!"

"The real Sweetie Belle's back with the swarm, most likely." Bonbon shook her head. "Forced into the hive mind... Chrysalis is a bitch, but she's a smart bitch." She kicked the helmet. "Sending one of the Pure in disguise, we won't be able to get anything from him. Without the hive he's braindead, basically--"

"Wait wait wait, back up." The other changeling turned around. "Forced into the hive mind, that can happen?!"

"Yep. How did you think she controlled Shining Armor?"

Luna bit her lip. "This presents a problem. We know where they are most likely located but--"

"And you're saying they've got Scootaloo," the other changeling interrupted. "And they could force her into this hive mind too?"

"In... theory," Bonbon allowed.

"And this hive mind is directly connected to the mind of the evil sexy bug shapeshifter bitch?!"

"Sexy?!" Rarity cried.

Bonbon sighed. "That's a changeling instinct, we just find the queens irrationally sexy--"

"Okay, that is it." Rainbow Dash trotted toward the door. "I am NOT letting that bug rip out Scootaloo's brain."

"Wait, hold up, what are you doing?!" Bonbon held out a hoof. "Like less then a minute ago you were horribly depressed and now--"

"Now I've found something to live for. I'll rainboom over there and get the crusaders back, ten seconds flat!"

"Not as a changeling!"

Rainbow Dash looked at her insectile wings. "Right. Forgot. Doesn't matter, Luna, where am I headed?"

The princess lidded her eyes, but a small smirk formed on her lips nonetheless. "You do not even have a plan."

"Yes I do. Find the bug queen, beat her up, save the crusaders."

"Are you completely insane?!" Bonbon waved a hoof out the window. "SHE TOOK ON CELESTIA AND WON!"

"But she was defeated anyway. So either help me become a pegasus again or stand aside."

Bonbon blinked. Then she sighed. "You know what, I'm not even going to argue. I can get you back to how you were, but... you're going to have to let me link to your mind and temporarily take over your body."

"...what?"

"Just trust me. I think I've got a plan."


Chapter Thirteen: Confrontation and Coercion

Chrysalis licked her fangs, staring into the blue sky as she flicked orders through the hive mind. True, the pure had been revealed before she had a chance to contact Rainbow Dash, and the presence of a rogue--and a traitor at that--complicated matters. Still, the basic plan could be salvaged easily, now that the princesses were no doubt scouring the land for her and the hostages.

Keep a lookout for the guards as you patrol. Do not engage.

"You're never going to get away with this!" Scootaloo shouted, glaring from behind the changelings guarding her. "They're going to figure out what you did to Sweetie and then Rainbow Dash will KICK YOUR SORRY FLANK!"

"Rainbow Dash? Hmmm." Chrysalis smiled. "I would assume that Rarity would be far more eager to inflict pain on me, it being her sister and all..."

Apple Bloom rolled her eyes. "Scoots has a bit o' hero worship."

"And wasn't Rainbow Dash in the hospital?" Chrysalis added brightly. "Even if she wanted to save you all--oh, something I won't deny, after all, element of Loyalty and all that--to see her come to the hive in bandages and bleeding... perhaps with a catheter!" Her eyes slid back to the fillies. "Such a beating I gave to that poor pegasus--"

Scootaloo shouted in incoherent rage, her lunge halted by chitinous limbs.

Chrysalis shook her head. "Never let your emotions control you, young filly. Or, well, you'll fall prey to them. Emotion is the mind's feedback system, nothing more, and nothing... less. Don't ignore it, but don't let it control you."

She smiled at the fillies. "And always listen to your queen."

"You're not my queen," Scootaloo snarled.

"Hmmm, true. Not yet. There's still some legalities." Chrysalis tapped her chin thoughtfully. "You know, I think I went about this invasion all wrong. Admitting mistakes, that's another important lesson."

"Sooooo.... yer gonna negotiate a peace treaty with Celestia and find a way fer yer changelins ta feed without causing too much damage?" Apple Bloom suggested.

Chrysalis looked back to the sky. "Negotiations... yes. There will be negotiations."

"And as part of the negotiations yer gonna release Sweetie Belle from tha hive mind in a show o' good faith?" the filly pressed.

A few moments passed.

"You're going to keep pestering me until I do, aren't you."

"Ah prefer tha term negotiation." Apple Bloom grinned. "Think o' it as practice!"

"You really think pestering me is a form of negotiation."

"Ah want Sweetie Belle free. You want me to stop pestering you. Ah am proposing a trade. Ergo, negotiation."

Chrysalis raised a brow. "Surprisingly astute. Although it does rely on the assumption that I will not take what I want by force."

"Even assuming ya have some trick fer tha princesses, killing fillies would give ya a bad reputation and probably cause resistance. Thus, Ah am protected from force."

"I could gag you," Chrysalis pointed out.

"But then Ah'd starve, and ya'd be back to tha whole killing fillies thang. Also!" Apple Bloom pointed out quickly. "Afor you think of removing mah vocal cords, invasive surgery without permission would also cause resistance from tha masses."

"You're making this up as you go."

"If it works, it works."

Queen and filly locked gazes.

And Chrysalis grinned. "Ruthless and efficient. A good beginning, for any ending. Very well."

Sweetie Belle screamed, clutching her head suddenly as she collapsed. Instantly her friends were beside her, nuzzling her and holding her up. Scootaloo glared at the queen. "You said you weren't unnecessarily cruel!"

"Removing her from the hive mind was painful. For both of us. But now she's free." Chrysalis turned back to watching the sky. "You got what you wanted. Consider it a gift."

"A gift?! What kind of gift is torture?!"

Chrysalis didn't reply, her mind already on other concerns. This would need to be perfectly executed. There could be no room for error, every illusion slotted into place perfectly, every trick performed with utmost sincerity--

"HEY! I'm talking to you!"

....with utmost sincerity, and--

"HEY YOU UGLY BUG THING!"

"You do know you're only making your situation worse, young pegasus." Perhaps a little discouragement was in order. "It isn't as though your beloved Rainbow Dash really cares about you."

"Oh come on, that's the most pathetic jab ever!"

"She cares about Scootaloo the orphan," Chrysalis continued calmly. "She cares about Scootaloo the fan. She cares about Scootaloo the crippled pegasus. She cares about protecting her charges, keeping little fillies safe." She flicked her tail dismissively. "She's loyalty incarnate. She will always protect you. Because you are alone, clingy, and broken. But she will never care about just Scootaloo. You're just another victim to be rescued. Another heroic deed. Another foal, rolling off a cliff."

"You're...." Scootaloo blinked back tears, glaring at her. "You're really good at that, but I don't believe it."

"Tell me then, young Scootaloo..." Chrysalis glanced over her shoulder. "Has she ever spent time with you? Just you?"

The pegasus was silent.

"...Truly, no fault of hers." The queen of changelings returned her gaze elsewhere. "Or yours, really. Just fate and lies. Don't worry, though, when I am Queen, I'll give you a Rainbow Dash worth loving."

"You said... you weren't unnecessarily cruel."

Chrysalis sighed, a gentle and perfectly practiced sigh. "She'll come, Scootaloo. But she won't come for you. And I will defeat her, put my plans into motion, and you'll live happily under my spell for the rest of your life. It really is a shame, but you must accept that some ponies are simply... impersonal." She buzzed her wings. "And Rainbow Dash, hero though she may be, is one of them. Tell me, did I miss anything? Is there any sign I'm wrong? A single scrap of evidence?"

A large boom echoed over the forest.

Apple Bloom stared through the branches. "Three."

Chrysalis spotted an odd rainbow disc expanding through the sky.

Sweetie Belle shivered, but finally looked up. "T...Two."

An odd whistling noise passed various drones, flooding the queen with reports.

Scootaloo blinked back tears and gave a broad grin. "One."

Prepare for engagement, primary target! Don't deviate from--!

And suddenly Chrysalis was separated from the ground and slammed up against a tree. She shook her head and rose her gaze to look into her attacker's eyes.

Spectrum mane wreathed in green flames, the fastest flyer in Equestria glared back with a face contorted into coldest rage.

The queen nodded. "Miss Dash."

The flyer sneered. "Chrysalis."

And then the queen braced herself against the tree and shot a leg under the flyer's tail.

Rainbow Dash went spiraling up with a yelp, but the queen had already fallen the long distance to the ground and was weaving through the trees. A bolt of green fire snapped toward the prismatic pony--augh, the leg, Chrysalis winced, that should have healed by now, no matter--and when she looked back the pegasus had regained her aerial traction and was already headed right at her.

Drones!

Rainbow zipped up, down, left, down, twirled through a crowd of drones and Chrysalis jumped against a trunk, a gasp of pain but now she was above Rainbow and down into the dirty leaves they went. She snapped her jaws forward and just missed the pegasus's face who pushed against the ground with her wings and screamed wordlessly in rage as she bucked the queen off of her, slamming through a drone and pinning her opponent. Chrysalis growled and dodged the first hoof, caught the second and twisted it and Rainbow cried out before biting at the fin hidden under her mane eliciting a wincing yelp--

The drones grabbed at the pegasus, pulling her off and already tying her down with the silk stored in their legs. Chrysalis stood, shaking herself off and brushing off a bit of dust. Rainbow Dash glared up at her, a bit of the queen's mane still in her mouth.

"My, my, my. So eager to attack your mother."

"You're not my mother," Rainbow snarled. "You're a--hck!"

Chrysalis raised an eyebrow. "Something wrong?"

"Hggfh. Hrk. Sorry, something went down my throat." Dash shook her head. "It's not important, what I was saying was YOU ARE NOT MY MOTHER!"

"I laid your egg," Chrysalis pointed out. "Granted I was only the incubator, none of the genetics actually came from me--the great contradiction of being Queen, I suppose."

"My mother," Rainbow spat, "is a pegasus. She raised me with my father, who is also a pegasus, and they sent me to flight camp--"

"Ah, a Nurture advocate I see." Chrysalis shrugged. "I really did hope you would come back willingly. I do care about your future."

"Is that why your slaves are gooping my hooves to the ground?"

"My children" Chrysalis said coolly, "are restraining a confused drone who is a danger to herself and those around her. Rainbow Dash, you call yourself? You weren't hatched with that name, and you've been away for far too long."

"You're really not helping your case."

"I know," the queen sighed, kneeling down. "I'm not. I've been... such a neglectful mother toward you. I can't begin to make up all those lost years, guiding your path, holding you close..."

"Oh, so you're possessive as Tartarus, is that it?"

"You've been so hurt, and you don't even realize it..." Chrysalis nuzzled her gently. "But I'm here now. Let me link you to the hive so the healing can begin."

"Um, how about no." Rainbow snorted. "I'm never going to join your dumb hive mind."

"Never?"

The pegasus glowered at her. "Nuh-uh, no way no how."

Chrysalis's small smile remained utterly still.

Suddenly, screams could be heard through the trees, three very familiar voices desperately crying out.

Rainbow's eyes widened. "Leave them alone! They're only fillies!"

"Exactly. They are only fillies, only ponies of a young age. What makes them different from older ponies?" Chrysalis tilted her head.

"I'm telling you, if you harm one hair on their body I'll--"

"Their lack of cutie mark? No, other fillies their age have a mark. Hmm. Perhaps their size... no, there are midget ponies..."

The pegasus struggled with her bonds. "Hang on girls! I'm coming! Break, damn you, break!"

"You know, in the end, I can't really see the difference. They're still liabilities." The queen tapped her chin. "I do need to get rid of them..."

"YOU WOULDN'T DARE!"

"Now the unicorn I've already used, and the earth pony has a very large clan." She nodded to herself. "It would anger many ponies if I hurt them, so I suppose I'll just set them up in cocoons. But the pegasus--"

"DON'T YOU EVEN TOUCH SCOOTALOO!"

"Oh, her." She grinned. "An orphan. Do you know, I've never understood that? At least the other two provide companionship to their families. Orphans are, well, a waste of resources. And yet you ponies love on them so much... Scootaloo is actually more useful to me than she is to Equestria."

"Fine! I...." Rainbow lowered her head and finally dropped her morph, revealing her chitin. "I'll let you connect me. Just don't hurt them. Don't..."

Chrysalis lowered her head sympathetically. "I know, I know. You're confused, and you're scared. It's not your fault. You were separated. But now...." her horn glowed. "You're coming home, R412803. You're coming home."


Chapter 14: Metastasis of Mentality

Every mind is different...

Chrysalis flowed through her connection, pouring on the surface of the drone's mind. Her thoughtform bubbled into one nearly identical to her realform, stepping through a sparkling mist as she looked about. "Dear heart, I know you haven't had much experience, but would you kindly give me a setting?"

A vague impression of a question wifted from the writhing mass of half-formed thoughts.

"A memory will do. Your home, perhaps?"

The wafting whispers began to bind, rising through the glittering mists to form a vague impression. Far below Chrysalis was a town, but she herself stood on a white cloud.

"Yes, that's it, dear heart." Chrysalis smiled indulgently. "Now, where are you?"

...here?

"But of course you are. I simply mean, where are you in this memory? Let me see what you see yourself as." She settled on the cloud, waiting patiently. "I think we should start there, if I am to help you."

There was a moment of nervousness. Then, slowly, something stepped forward. Cyan, of course, and the outline of a pegasus... but the tips of the feathers wisped randomly, and the rainbow blazed from the head, down the back, and into an explosive corona of a tail.

Chrysalis noted the empty eye sockets, and nodded at the holes in the hooves. "I see you are confused, dear heart. I suppose you would be, after these revelations."

yeah, I gu"ess I am a bit." The figure shook her head, flickering black for a moment.

"I can grant you less... confusion." Chrysalis leaned toward the apparition. "I am in your parlor now, so to speak. Your front room. If you want me to help, I will have to go deeper."

The half formed image of Rainbow glanced at the mist below her, watching a few twinkles drift by.

After a moment, she sighed. "Al... alright. In for a bit, in for the bridle I guess..."

Chrysalis smiled. "Splendid. I forewarn you, this will feel a tad unusual."

Threads of consciousness whispered down, shifting through the glinting azure fog and down into the channels of the drone's mind. Chrysalis could tell that it had been forged in loneliness, all the pathways weaving on their own and glimmering as the half formed thoughts were processed and pondered by a thousand minor committees. She had to smile as she saw an overt connection between flight and the etchings of permanence; truly, the soul of this one was held by the skies alone.

She dipped a thread into the glimmering fog... and paused. The fog flowed separate from the rest of the drone's thought. It was almost as if...

"Ah." There it was, a tunnel. Unguarded on this side, obviously, the poor drone had no idea how to work her own mind... but no doubt, no doubt the traitor was on the other, preparing some sort of foolish ambush.

With a small, quiet smirk, Chrysalis spiraled in.

***

Every mind is different...

Chrysalis sprung wide, her thoughtform clinging like a net around a projection. This one, unlike Rainbow, was firm and solid: a changeling drone with full mane and tail, wearing a startled earth pony mask.

The memory of the house she was in suddenly ruptured as half rotted dragons burst through the wall. With a scoff, the queen coalesced into a single black tentacle, batting them back into the glittering blue mist before springing on the central projection. Only then did she let her thoughtform here shift into its recognized self.

"Well, well well. What have we here?" She let a burst of smoke out and the mask dissolved, revealing the cringing changeling beneath. "A power mongering traitor, I take it. Let's find out more about you..."

This time, Chrysalis didn't seep down gently. She lanced deep into the mind, tearing the memories up and ignoring the cries of pain from the projection under her hooves. "802802. Scout, oh of course. Replaced Rainbow Dash... hmm, yes. Faked. Your. Own. Death." The queen gave the drone a condescending look as one of the house's walls fell. "What an insult to your whole family."

"Like... any of you would mourn me," spat the drone.

"Oh we did. Oh we truly did."  Chrysalis sighed. "I suppose you don't really care, though, what with us being 'monsters' and all--what's this?" She frowned, fleshing out a particular memory.

"Don't you dare go after her!"

The queen ignored her, staring at the smiling green unicorn that had appeared in the middle of the room. "This... I know this pony... she was..."

Her eyes narrowed.

A sudden force slamed out in all directions, demolishing what little was left of the house. Chrysalis snapped her gaze to the drone, pushing her into the glittering blue mist as the moonlight shone in the black sky. "YOU! YOU'RE THE ONE THAT WARNED CELESTIA!"

"What? No, that was--"

The drone's words were cut off as the queen pushed a hoof into her throat. "I thought you were merely a traitor, seeking to take my hive and remake it in your own image. I would have been lenient, but now I see the truth! You are a depraved BEAST!" She pointed at the smiling image behind her. "You consort with PREY! You lust after ANIMALS!"

"Lyra is not an animrk!"

Chrysalis ground her hoof down. "I would have reconnected you to the Hive, you know, if I thought you were foe. I would have torn you apart, yes, but your memory would live on. But now I see that you are sick, truly and irredeemably sick." She snarled. "Do you know what that means? YOU WILL DIE ALONE. And I, your queen, your mother..."

Her head lowered. "I will be the one that has to kill you." She sighed. "I will have to live with that guilt."

The drone scoffed.

Chrysalis gave her a look. "At least answer me this; how would you like her to die? I'll have to kill her, if she could so affect a drone she is dangerous, but I'll let you decide her fate. Her head chopped off, swiftly? A body for incubation? Drowned? Merely put to sleep? I will remember your request when the ponies are mine."

She pulled her hoof back, slightly. Just slightly.

After a moment, the queen tilted her head. "Well? Have you nothing to say?"

"...actually," the drone mused, "There is one thing I need to tell you."

She gave Chrysalis a very smug smile as the glittering blue mist flowed around her. "Look up."

Chrysalis blinked, uncomprehending for a moment. Her gaze tilted slowly, registering the dark and skyless sky...

...and the all too large, all too pale moon.

"No...."

She looked down at the glittering blue mist. The star filled blue mist.

"No!"

The blue mist flowing down the link into the brain of a drone just connected to the hive mind.

"NO!"

***

Every mind is different....

Chrysalis ran from the laughter of the traitor, diving down the tunnel. Chrysalis swam up through the channels of a loose mind, ignoring the cocky grin of a half formed image. Chrysalis leapt back up the connection and into her home, a home already half lost thanks to her ignorance.

"INTERLOPER! HOW DARE YOU ATTACK THE SANCTITY OF CHANGELINGS!"

The starry mist pulsed, and Luna stared down coldly at Chrysalis. "Thou had plans to enslave Us and Ours. We choose to free thine kin from thy's grip."

"They are not slaves!" Chrysalis protested, tearing a portion of the mists away from the strands of the Hive. "They are children, and I am their mother! This is our home!"

"Then explain these chains!" Luna brought forth a Pure mind. "Explain why these drones have no thoughts of their own!"

Chrysalis snarled, snatching the mind away. "It was their choice! The greatest honor and duty the swarm can have! They live forever in the Hive!"

Luna raised a brow as the starry miasma crawled further. "Some would say that the hive steals their souls."

"Stolen?" Chrysalis snorted. "And would you consider a foal stolen if their parents willingly gave them to the community?"

"Foals need parents!" Luna argued. "They need to be raised!"

"Then a stallion, stolen by the guard, if he walked in willingly." Chrysalis hugged the blank mind tightly. "This is not thievery. This is the acceptance of the greatest gift!"

Luna narrowed her eyes. "Being gutted willingly is still being gutted."

"Bah! You animals will never understand!" Chrysalis sneered at Luna, lashing out at the stars around her. "Why am I even speaking to you? I will force you from the hive, or crush you underneath it!"

"Thou assumes we want to take the hive," Luna replied simply. "We have already stated our intent to free it."

Chrysalis gave the night princess a look filled with rage. "And how would you do that, beast?"

"Quite simply, in fact." The stars snapped together as Luna's eyes shone with bright light. "We shall remove you from it."

***

Every mind is different...

Chrysalis's eyes snapped open, gaze sweeping wildly as she tried to stand--

A black hoof pushed her down, holding her against the forest floor. With a rush of green fire, Rainbow returned to her preferred form. "Nuh-uh, queeny, you stay where you are."

"The hive..." Her ears flicked, and she pushed up. "The hive!"

"Whoa!" Both the now blue hooves pushed into her shoulder. "I told you to stay put!"

"She's after the hive!" Chrysalis flicked her ear again, standing. "She's pushed me out!"

"Hey! Get back here, you stupid--!"

"I HAVE TO SAVE THEM!" The queen bolted through the trees, heading for the resting pods. Hopefully they would be safe from--

A black form slammed to the ground. "Stand down and surrender." Chrysalis's eyes widened in horror at the twinkling aura extending from the changeling's fin.

"You monster!" The changeling queen turned around and ran right into Rainbow Dash. "No, dear heart, retreat!"

The pegasus snorted. "I was never your dear heart. Now just give up and--hey!"

The queen sprinted through the treeline, desperately trying to formulate a new plan. She'd have to make a small nest somewhere in, in a place where ponies never came, use her own silk and watch the eggs every hour of every day, and build up an army to free her hive from--

A golden-armored guard landed in front of her. "Queen Chrysalis, you are under arrest for the assault of--"

She lobbed a ball of spit at his eyes, blinding him. "YOU HAVE NO LAW, CREATURE!"

She buzzed off the ground, flying into the dense branches. Her ears tilted left and right as hoofsteps sounded everywhere, everywhere, everywhere, she had to run somewhere, she had to hid somewhere, she had to SQUIRRELS SQUIRRELS TREES BRANCHES NO NO NO NO NO!

"Um..." Somepony cleared her throat. "It's okay now, little friends. I don't think she'll be escaping now."

Chrysalis looked up, seeing a yellow pegasus... and behind her, wearing thick and ancient armor, the princess of the sun.

"...beasts. Animals. All monsters..."

Celestia sighed. "Go to your friends, Fluttershy. I can take it from here." A spell built up on her horn... and then Chrysalis's world went black.

Alone.

Alone.

Alone.

Alone.

Alone.

Alone...


Chapter 15: Talks and Transformations

"Applejack!" Apple Bloom leapt toward her sister as she stepped off a pegasus-drawn chariot, tears in her eyes. "You're here, you're really wait a minute. Are you a changeling?"

The orange mare chuckled, ruffling her sister's mane. "Eeeenope. This here's one hundred percent genyouwine Apple. Got tha hat, got tha accent, got tha powerful hugs--!" She wrapped her sister up in a bone creaking embrace, smile dropping away as her own eyes grew wet. "Dang it Bloom, Ah was so worried... why'd ya go and run off like that?"

"Ah was just trying ta keep Scoots and Sweets safe... Guess Ah bungled that one right up, huh?"

"Eeeyup."

"Rarity!" Sweetie Belle clung to her sister tightly. "I'm so sorry I ran off, and, and that I got caught by changelings, and--"

"Shh shh shh. It's okay, it's okay." Rarity hugged her  sister tightly. "It's not your fault."

"Really?"

"...Well, running away was a bad idea," the elder unicorn mused, "but as for everything else you couldn't really control it, could you?"

"...no?"

"And I think you've been through enough as it is." Rarity shuddered. "Being forced to be in that hive mind... Nopony should go through that, least of all a filly."

"To be completely fair," Lyra pointed out, "I've found willing connections to be amazing."

Rarity glared at her.

"...in... that... they helped me with some mental issues," Lyra continued awkwardly. "Alongside other benefits I will not discuss in front of foals." She coughed into her hoof.

"...What are you doing here?" Scootaloo asked curiously.

"Oh, I'm like the second expert on changelings right now. The first one is back in Canterlot, helping Luna with... stuff," Lyra explained casually. "So I'm here to make sure the situation works out, yano?"

"Huh. I never pegged you for a changeling expert."

"I have my ways," Lyra said mysteriously. "Anyway, it looks like the whole thing's been dealt with, so as soon as Chrysalis is captured--"

"We have Chrysalis in custody," Major Celestia reported, striding up with a hoofcuffed and unconscious changeling queen. Rainbow Dash and Fluttershy trailed behind her, the yellow mare giving everypony an awkward smile while the cyan one strutted forward proudly. "She did attempt to escape, but our contingency plan worked out well."

"That's good to know, Major." Twilight Sparkle stepped off the chariot, giving Rainbow Dash a look. "Were there any problems on your end?"

"Nope, everything went off without a hitch!" Rainbow smirked. "Luna's running the hive now, we've got Chryssy in chains, and Scootaloo is safe." She ruffled the orange filly's mane. "And the other crusaders, of course."

"Ohmygosh do you know what this calls for?" Pinkie squealed.

Twilight rolled her eyes. "A party?"

"A PARTY!"

"Why don't we head back to Canterlot first, Pinkie?"

"Yeah, okay, throwing a party in the middle of the woods would be a little bit odd..."

Apple Bloom blinked at Pinkie Pie. "What are ya doin' here anyway? Ah can get Rarity and AJ being here, and Rainbow too, but you and Fluttershy and Twilight all coming down..."

There was a moment of awkward silence. Scootaloo noticed that most of the other ponies were not looking at Rainbow Dash.

"I... was put in charge of the mission to capture Chrysalis," Twilight offered.

"And Fluttershy's talent with animals proved instrumental in accomplishing the mission," Celestia added.

"And I..." Pinkie paused. "...am... Pinkie Pie!"

The fillies all looked at her wide, forced smile. Applejack pulled her hat over her eyes.

"...I got nothing," the party pony admitted with a shrug.

"Okay, question two: How did Rainbow Dash recover?!" Apple Bloom pointed at the pegasus. "She was in tha hospital last I heard!"

Dash started "How did you know about that?!"

"Cadance told Scootaloo!"

"She what?!" Rainbow shook her head. "That was a private thing! I didn't--how could she--AAAAArrRRRGGH!"

Scootaloo sighed. "I was...  really worried when I didn't see you around after the invasion. I kind of, um, forced it out of her." She grinned broadly. "But I hear you took on a whole bucketload of changelings to get there! That must have been awesome!"

Dash blinked.

"...oh." She rubbed the back of her head, smiling awkwardly "Yeah! It was totally... I took out, like, thirty on my own! Heh. They only got to me, um, after I pushed that filly out of the path of, uh, a falling piano."

"A falling piano?"

"Yep! There was a piano on a balcony, because Canterlot, and the changelings threw it off for some reason, and it landed on my leg and, yeah, things went downhill from there. Literally. I was fighting downhill with a broken leg. And they needed six--eight changelings to finally knock me out, six to hold me down and two to do the punching!" Dash grinned widely. "Even then I managed to totally bite some new holes into their legs!"

"Oh good grief," Twilight mutttered.

Scootaloo's eyes glimmered with awe. "So coooooool...."

Apple Bloom raised a single eyebrow.

"Yep. Totally what happened." The blue pegasus brushed off a foreleg casually. "So! Chariots. Canterlot. Let's all get up and ship out, ponies!"

"Oh my, yes!' Rarity nudged Sweetie Belle onto a chariot quickly. "We simply must get back. I'll have to redo the whole wedding ensemble...."

"Wait, is tha wedding still happening?"

"Why of course, Apple Bloom! Not even an invasion can stand in the way of true love!" The fashionista sighed, a small smile on her face as her eyes drifted dreamily toward the sky. "In fact it was true love that stopped the invasion!"

"We've just mostly held off until the changeling situation was handled because having a wedding right after an invasion would be in poor taste," Lyra explained. "Now vaminos vaminos! Let's get back quick!"

"Heh, don't have to tell me tw--EErrrgh!" Rainbow Dash stumbled suddenly, clutching at her chest with a panicked wince. "OW ow ow ow, what was that?!"

"You okay there Rainbow?" Applejack stepped forward carefully. "Cause if something's wrong--"

"Nah, it was just this sudden burning in my OH DEAR CELESTIA!" The pegasus curled up without warning, her stomach heaving as she attempted to breath. "Ow ow ow, okay, yeah something is definitely wrong..."

Twilight frowned, levitating her onto a chariot. "Then we better get back post haste."

***

As soon as the chariots hit the ground, Twilight jumped out and hugged the waiting guard captain. "Shiney! What's been going on here?"

"Well, Princess Luna is in an odd half-trance state, but our intelligence agent tells me that's normal, we've finally managed to clean up most of the property damage from the invasion, and after some security check's Spike's been allowed out of his room again. What's up with you?"

"Queen Chrysalis is captured and incapacitated, the Crusaders are back, and Rainbow Dash has been suffering increasing gastrointestinal pains." Twilight paused. "At least I hope they're gastrointestinal, because otherwise I have no idea what's going on."

"I'm gonna diiiiiiiiiiiiiiiie...." The blue pegasus rolled onto the ground. "I can't feel my hoooooooves..."

"Oh my gosh, somepony help Rainbow Dash!" Scootaloo had hopped out of her chariot and was rushing around the pegasus with terrified fervor. "The bug queen must have done something to hurt her again!"

"Or maybe fighting her broke out her old wounds," Sweetie Belle added. "This is not good... Rarity, didn't you say the Elements of Harmony healed up your tail that one time with Nightmare Moon?"

"I--yes, but--" Rarity pointed at the writhing Rainbow. "She's loyalty! I don't know if she would--"

"EVERYPONY STAND ASIDE!"

The ponies all stared as a new figure walked onto the landing courtyard, striding with a cold fury that could have emanated from an alicorn. She paused to give Lyra a good twenty-five second long kiss before leaving the fluttering unicorn behind and coming up to the groaning blue pegasus.

"Hey wait a minute--" Scootaloo stepped between her and Rainbow Dash. "You're a changeling!" She glared up at the creature. "I'm not letting you get your hooves on her, you big--!"

"Your favorite candy is juice cubes, you once took twice as much as you paid for but paid me back the next day, yes I am Bonbon, and yes I told Rainbow how to beat queen Chrysalis." The changeling took a breath, and let it out. "Now I think I know what's happening, but I need to look at her first. Can I do that?"

"Uhhh...." Scootaloo blinked twice. "I... guess?" She awkwardly stepped to the side. "Erm. So you're a good changeling then?"

"It would be more accurate to say I'm not a bad one." Bonbon knelt down to Rainbow. "Now then, miss Dash, I need you to answer one question and I need you to answer it truthfully."

"Oooooooh ooooow yes, ask, ask!"

"Did you swallow, on purpose or by accident, any of Chrysalis's mane?"

"I...." Rainbow screwed up her face. "I... Maybe? I remember choking on something for a moment--AAAAAAUGH! Did it do something?! Is it poison?!"

"Well, that depends on your definition of poison. Congratulations, Rainbow Dash, you are becoming a changeling queen."

"Wait," Apple Bloom said, shaking her head. "Changeling hair can turn ponies into changeling queens?"

There was an awkward pause.

"Okay," Bonbon said very calmly. "I've got to get you into a cocoon in the next ten minutes or the transformation will kill you. You've got until then to explain things and patch it all up." She started tearing out her mane and tail as quickly as she could.

"Wait, what--?"

"Ten minutes!"

"Uh, um--" Rainbow hissed and curled up. "Okay, uh, Scootaloo?"

"Yeah?"

"Remember when I told you about how I earned my cutie mark?"

"Um, yes...?"

"Yeah, apparently OW ow ow apparently I actually died doing that." Rainbow grinned awkwardly. "But Bonbon took my mind and stuck it into a changeling filly--"

"Nymph," Bonbon corrected, laying her mane out in neat little rows.

"Nymph, whatever, and then I was a changeling except I didn't know it until just after the invasion of Canterlot."

Scootaloo blinked a bit. "Wait, what?"

"Yeah, strange but true."

"That just... wait, what?"

"We're still cool, right kid?" Rainbow bit her lip. "I mean, I'm still... the pony that you made a fan club for and all..."

"Uh... I... you..." Scootaloo sat down heavily. "Sure, I, I guess--"

"Hey Dash, I don't have enough silk here. Can you drop your morph so I can get at your tail and mane?"

"Uh, sure, I AAAAARGH! Ow ow ow..."

The orange filly stared wide eyed as her idol burst into green flame, revealing a black form almost totally curled up in on itself. She winced when she noticed something pushing against the chitin from inside, twisting just underneath the black shell. "Oh, uh, wow. That... is both cool and highly disturbing."

"Rearranging internal organs is kind of like that kid!" Bonbon was already tearing away the tattered blue mane and tail. "You ready to go in, Dash?"

"Wait wait wait. Twilight! I wanna say I'm sorry." The changeling looked up at the unicorn. "Sorry for not believing you about Cadance and just leaving you there. That was wrong. I was wrong."

"That's.... It's alright, Rainbow Dash." Twilight sighed. "I understand why you all--"

"No, it was wrong, and I'm sorry, end of discussion, why is my stomach melting?!"

"Right, here we go. Don't worry, girl, it'll be all over soon."

The ponies could only watch in nervous fear as Bonbon wrapped the other changeling up with threads of silk from their head and tail. Rarity flinched when she spread saliva all across the bundle, but she didn't say anything in objection.

Finally, Bonbon flumped back panting. "There, that's it. Give her, oh, a month or two, and... she'll be taller." She rubbed at her horn. "Wow. Okay."

"A month or two of stillness?" Fluttershy shook her head. "Oh, I don't know if Dash can stand that."

"...Oh, don't worry. I think, I think I can help with that." Bonbon collapsed. "Right after I take a nap, that was surprisingly exhausting...."


Chapter 16: Apologies and Acceptance

Cold around her legs--

Cold around her horn--

Cold around her neck--

Cold around her mind--

The blue one opened the door, stepping into the cell quietly. "So. You're awake then."

Chrysalis remained almost motionless. Only her eyes rolled up in a quiet glower.

"...You should know that you're not going to be officially punished. Everything you've done, as horrifying as it was, was within the law of the theatre of war." Luna folded her legs under her. "Your swarm is being recognized as a nomadic nation, with the hive being the governing structure. And you're still the leader, on paper anyway, you're just indisposed..."

The changeling queen scoffed. "Is that what you call your prisoners? Indisposed? Unbalanced?"

Luna didn't acknowledge the jab. "...the hive... it's amazing, actually. A whole mental network, with memories of those long dead and the feelings of all those alive. A direct line to your subjects, an instant one on one read of their thoughts, a shared problem-solving engine... This has always been a theoretical possibility in mental magic, but to see it so readily accessible and... deeply entrenched in a society... I find myself in awe."

Chrysalis smiled, finally raising her head. "As well you should be. It is the epoch of all civilization, and a testament to the true power of intelligent races. Even a beast as impressively talented as you pales before the hive's magnificence."

Luna sighed. "Why do you think of me like that?"

"Why would I not? You build your glowing cities and leave your people to wander through the world blind to each other, unknowing and uncaring of whatever paltry mockery of a soul their brethren have... to even touch another mind is considered dark magic." The changeling scoffed, flicking her hooves together. "A dance of friendships and foes, of truth and lies, of love and hate, and nopony knows what lies beneath the ever shifting masks. The game is fun, yes, but failure makes outcasts of even the kindest of ponies. You call us deceivers, but we are more truthful with each other than you have ever been!"

"I will not argue that point," Luna commented dryly. "Ignorance landed me on the moon for a thousand years. Still, the fact remains that to establish a connection is to invite alteration--"

"And alteration should be avoided? Feh. Even you beasts change over your life, without ever truly seeing each other, and there are cases where it could be useful." Chrysalis leaned forward, narrowing her eyes. "The monster of Manehattan? The barking mare of Ponyville? The souls cycled through your asylums, trapped by delusions which could be oh so easily removed? And that's not to mention the more mundane deviants, the depressed and the anxious, the suicidal and the schizophrenic, those ponies who intake congealed chemicals simply to participate in your precious society." She tilted her head, a sly smile forming. "Why, you of all ponies should see how we could help. Were you in the hive, Nightmare Moon might never have been born."

Luna narrowed her eyes. "But where does the problem end and the pony begin? You could destroy a soul with your tinkering and leave only a smiling puppet--"

"Alone. Alone it would be evil. Even with a small group, there would be risk that the code of ethics would break. But the hive, the hive is thousands strong! Every objection can be heard throughout the whole population, the will of Right is selected not by the one but by the whole. The hive keeps me Moral, the hive keeps me in the Right!"

Chrysalis sagged. "And now... now I am disconnected. Now I have no idea what right and wrong are anymore. No voice to tell me. No... now I am evil, for there is no way to see what is good." She shut her eyes and let her head rest on the ground. "Now I am a mindless beast."

The two monarchs sat silently in the cell.

"...We have declared a cease fire."

Chrysalis flicked an ear. "Does that matter?"

"No pony will be allowed to harm a changeling, and no changeling will be allowed to harm a pony. There is also a formal decloration of peace between our nations. You sign a paper and agree to a few rules and... I will reconnect you to your Hive."

That earned her a confused look from the prisoner. "What...? Why would you do such a thing?"

The blue alicorn stood, looking at the jail cell door.

"...Tell me, Chrysalis... How many ponies have willingly connected to the hive?"

"I...." The changeling queen tried to remember, but her reaching thoughts extended past her own recollections and into blankness. "I never chose to remember that. I do not know. I cannot know."

"Then let me tell you what the hive tells me. Throughout all the histories of your dead, not one pony chose to join. All were subjugated, all pulled in and locked away for their memories... except for me."

"You came in as a conquerer--!"

"I will not deny it. But to reign requires some understanding. Your hive... It is not good, as you think, but neither is it evil as I suspected. It simply is. Perhaps... perhaps allowing ponies to join if they wish would help us."

Chrysalis blinked, staring at the alicorn incredulously. "You... When I tried to force you to see reason you were too stubborn to even join, but now that you have torn me from the true way you have the gall to decide, all of the sudden, that we could possibly submit our hive to you beasts?!"

"A choice," Luna clarified. "No pony would rule the hive, no changeling would force them in. I am handling all your duties, but only as a regent. I make no declarations--save for the cease fire--and I will step down when the time comes."

"I suppose I have little choice," Chrysalis muttered dryly. "Peace at the terms of a beast... how could we have fallen this far?"

Luna rolled her eyes. "There is a saying about pride you might need to take to heart. But that can wait." She lit up her horn, opening the cell door and levitating a small stack of papers in, alongside a quill. "You'll want to read through before you sign, of course."

Chrysalis gave her a long, flat look.

"...Ah, yes, the restraining ring..." Luna chuckled awkwardly, letting her magic drift over the changeling's horn. "It goes without saying that if you try to use any magic against me I will put this back on."

"And yet you felt the need to say it."

"Mmm."

A few experimental flickers whispered across the crooked shaft before Chrysalis gave a satisfied nod. The stack of papers were wreathed in green and rose to a level where she could read it comfortably. Her eyes flicked left and right as she turned page after page....

"...the formation of a hive for refugee changelings?" Chrysalis gave Luna a glower. "The reparations I can understand, but you don't have a spare Queen to run a new Hive!"

Luna gave a cryptic little grin. "Oh.... we have our ways."

***

"Rainbow Dash, that's your cue!"

The blue pegasus blinked for a moment. Then she grinned, shooting off into the sky at high speeds. Within moments the magic in the Equestrian atmosphere had built up around a cone of fast moving air particles; soon enough it exploded from the pressure of a mach cone, spreading out in a radial glow of spectral energy.

"Best! Wedding! Ever!"

Rainbow giggled to herself as she flicked her wings, zooming downward for a landing. Some rainbow energy still trailed from her tail, leaving a path from the sky to the ground. She whisked quickly for the small changing room reserved for her, where Rarity was already waiting with a sly smile. "That eager to dress in style, are we?"

"Haha, Rares. Just get me suited up and ready to go, kay?"

The unicorn shook her head, slipping the garb over the pegasus with a small grin. "Very well, Rainbow." She pulled the hemskirt over the three candy wrappers on Dash's flank. "And... done! You two should be good to go!"

"Shh shh shh! It's a secret!" Rainbow's eyes darted left and right. "Don't want to start a panic or anything!"

"Oh, of course." Rarity rolled her eyes, holding out a hoof. "Shall we?"

"Sure, why not?" The pegasus gave her a broad grin, taking the proffered hoof as they stepped out into the gardens to join the wedding reception.

A small crowd of nobles had gathered around the courtyard, still glancing at some strangers and each other with nervous suspicion. The two newcomers gave them a look and skirted around the edge, avoiding the more hostile looking ponies until they found a cluster of familiar faces.

"...didn't make any mistake! Hello Rarity and Rainbow Dash." Pinkie waved at them briefly before turning back to Applejack. "I mean, we were the ones that didn't believe her about Cadance! We should be the ones saying sorry!"

"See, tha thing is we did make that mistake. It was a big mistake. It was tha worst thing we could have done, but Twilight thinks she made mistakes of her own." Applejack sighed. "And until she gets forgiven fer those, she's not going ta feel fully comfortable about how tha situation turned out."

"But-but-but she saved the day! She did the right thing and--Rainbow Dash, tell her! We were the big meanies here!"

"Yeah, AJ, I've gotta agree with Pinks." Rainbow shrugged. "Honestly, I don't see why Twilight would feel bad about this at all."

"If she was completely reasonable bout this you would be right, but apparently she--!" Applejack glanced around a bit before leaning in. "She tried to kill Cadance in those crystal caves. And right before that she had her first real fight with her brother--"

"But that was all because of Chrysalis!" Rainbow pointed out. "If she hadn't acted the way she had--"

"Rainbow, what Applejack is saying is that Twilgiht is too close to be objective." Rarity sighed. "We all know she was doing the right thing but she just can't see it--"

"Enough!"

The other four ponies turned to stare at the stern frown on Fluttershy's face.

"Mistakes were made, regrets exist. It doesn't matter who made what mistakes or who deserves forgiveness, what matters is how we move on. So here is what we are going to do: We will apologize to Twilight, and we will accept any apology she feels she needs to make. Are we clear?"

"...ysm'm..."

"Good! Now if you will excuse me, I think I need more punch." The yellow pegasus spun on one hoof and marched off to the buffet table, her hoofsteps as audible as a normal pony's.

Pinkie let out a low whistle. "And I haven't even spiked it yet..."

"Pinkimena Diane Pie!" Rarity looked at her, aghast.  "Were you seriously going to spike the punch at a royal wedding?"

"It's tradition!"

"No it isn't!"

"It's happened at every wedding I've ever been to! All fifteen of them!"

"How in the world did you get invited to fifteen weddings?!"

"Actually I was only invited to four."

"You crashed eleven weddings?!"

"I did no such thing! I just wandered in, there was no crashing involved!"

"Do these two always argue?" Lyra asked.

"Well, when it comes to parties they have two different when the hay did you get here?!" Rainbow Dash boggled at the grinning unicorn.

"Oh, you know, I was just around." She leaned in toward Dash. "Oh, by the way, I want Bonbon back before the night is out."

"Well, yeah, I mean I wouldn't just--"

"Rephrase. I want Bonbon in my bedroom before the night is out."

Dash blushed deeply. "Ah, um... she says she can, uh, arrange that. Can we, you know, talk about how this timeshare deal will work later though? I don't want to be unconscious in a cocoon for the next few weeks."

"Aren't you unconscious in a cocoon right now?"

"No, I'm semiconscious in a cocoon and fully conscious in a borrowed body. There's a difference--why are we even talking about this, we can't let anyone know about--" Rainbow waved vaguely. "Look, let's just--"

"Oh my gosh here they come!" Pinkie jumped up and started waving. "TWILIGHT! CADANCE! SHINING! SPIKE! WE'RE OVER HERE!"

"Pinkie, it's tradition for the wedding entourage to descend in a regal and orderly manner, they're not going to wave back aaaaaand they're waving back." Rarity facehooved. "Well, I guess some traditions die out after all."

"Rarity, you're not looking at the big picture here." Rainbow wrapped a foreleg around her shoulders. "The way I see it... this whole wedding is a reaffirmation of, you know, life. Change will happen. One day could be amazing, and the next you could..." she shrugged. "I dunno, find your whole life was a lie. But what happens doesn't matter. It's who it happens to. Who you're with. This wedding, it's a way to show these two will be with each other for the rest of their days, and a reminder to the rest of us that it's a good idea to, you know, hang out."

She paused and looked around. Fluttershy had returned from the punch bowl, smiling gently at her. Applejack was nodding along with her words. Pinkie had developed a large, teary grin. Even Rarity was listening to her words, a sympathetic smile on her face.

"...Uh, so yeah. That. I'm just being sappy cause it's a wedding, is all. Oh look, Cadance and Shining Armor are dancing!"

"Neat! I'm going to go check out that buffet table." Lyra trotted away. "See you all back in Ponyville!"


Epilogue: Colors of Ponyville

"She's almost ready."

Twilight flung her book aside and jumped up. "Really?!"

Bonbon nodded, glancing at the cocoon in the corner. "Give it about half an hour, and you'll be sweeping up silk." She grinned wryly. "I'm ready to stop being a spare body, thank you very much."

"Aheh, yeah, um...." Twilight's eyes darted left and right. "You said food, right?"

"Food and friends. Lyra's out gathering everypony--"

"SPIIIIIIKE! SPIKE IT'S ALMOST TIME!" The unicorn galloped down the stairs. "You can dust later, Spike, we've got less then half an hour to get things prepped!"

"Relax, Twilight, I pre-cooked everything!" Bonbon giggled to herself as she heard the dragon's voice waft up from below. "You just have to hit it all with a warming spell!"

"Oh, yeah, I forgot..."

The cream earth pony rolled her eyes, taking her seat beside the cocoon. "I don't think those two would survive without each other. Hey, why was Spike locked up between the weddings anyway?"

A faint rustle came from the cocoon.

"Wait... the Mukade are real?"

Another rustle.

"Wow. I knew Chrysalis had pinned the blame on somebody, but the Mukade... we got off light, all things considered." Bonbon shivered. "If they'd had gotten their hooves on Spike--"

"Spike doesn't know about the Mukade," Twilight interjected as she came upstairs. "All he knows is that somebody was after a young dragon, and I'd prefer it stay that way."

"...yeah, that's probably a good idea. Don't want him having nightmares." Bonbon's eyes darted around. "So... um... how have things been with you?"

"Oh, you know, mostly okay. Been seeing a therapist for my..." Twilight sighed. "My guilt complex--"

"The past is the past, Twilight. I left a child to die and..." Bonbon sighed. "Take it from me, letting your mistakes define you can lead you down a very dark road. Focus on what you have now." She smiled gently. "You've got Spike, one of the greatest assistant/brother/sons I have ever seen. You've got your family, filled with ponies that love you and a couple that happen to be family. You have five of the best ponies in the world as friends, and the adoration of one of the best pony towns as a local hero." She waved around the room. "And your own library, how cool is that?!"

Twilight giggled. "Okay, okay, I see your point..."

The two of them perked their ears as they heard the door downstairs opening up.

"Twilight, we've got company!"

Bonbon and Twilight shared a look. Then they braced themselves.

A flurry of hooves ran up the stairs. There was Rarity, panting heavily as she dropped an emergency sewing kit against the wall. There was Pinkie, helping Spike carry a ridiculous amount of food. There was Fluttershy, talking quietly with Rainbow Dash's parents. There was Applejack, trying to keep the cutie mark crusaders in line. And there was Lyra, standing casually on Princess Luna's back.

"P-Princess Luna!" Twilight stammered as she swiftly stood up. "What are you doing here?"

"As per certain treaties, miss Rainbow Dash is to be the Queen of the Equestrian Hive Mind." Luna pulled a scroll from her feathers. "There's a lot of details to hammer out, but I do require her to sign this as soon as she can."

Bonbon narrowed her eyes. "Lyra, why are you standing on Luna?"

"I think a better question would be, why wouldn't I be standing on Luna?"

"Because I am your wife and seeing you on another pony might make me outrageously jealous."

"Good point." Lyra hopped off the night princess. "But it brings up another point. Bonbon, I want babies."

The cream mare blinked, suddenly aware of all the eyes on them. "I... what?"

"Foals, bundles of joy, pitter patter of little hooves." Lyra stalked forward. "You, me, offspring. You've got the equipment, we just have to use it."

"Um, I don't know if a pony and a changeling can--"

"Ponies are naturally magical, and part of that magic extends to the development of infants. We can stabilize cross genetic material far more easily than other species. Look at mules, Bonbon. Or Zonies. Or hippogryphs. Heck, centaurs, Bonnie!" The green face jammed into the cream one. "CENTAURS!"

"I... don't... they aren't-- can we talk about this later?"

"Okey doke." Lyra pulled back and sat down with a grin. "But we are going to talk about this later."

There was an awkward moment where nopony really said anything.

"....SO! Luna." Twilight smiled. "Equestrian Hive you said."

"Ah, yes." Luna nodded. "The Changeling hive mind is a natural extension of their empathetic abilities, and formed as their society did. It is so key to their culture that they based their morality around its presence and its usage. They became.. not less individual, but more willing to give up aspects of themselves and bond deeper." She shook her head. "Changelings who didn't want to be a part could leave, but it was... considered a form of hermitage. It still is. And because of our own view on altering minds, ponies became seen as savages...."

She paused for a moment. "...Twilight, where did you get that quill and scroll?"

"Library, spare writing supplies. This is fascinating, a whole different morality system..." The unicorn looked up at her, eyes shimmering eagerly. "Tell me more!"

Luna stared at her for a few seconds.

Then she shook her head. "All that to say that the hive mind in and of itself is... not evil. In fact, I was temporarily in a position of power.... Changeling Queens, you must understand, are usually selected by the Hive, metamorphosed from a deserving drone using the hormones secreted by the crown of another Queen. They can direct a hive mind, it is true, but that is only because they bond with it on a far deeper level during their metamorphosis."

Luna tapped her hoof. "What Chrysalis did was fueled by misconception and arrogance. As part of the peace treaty, I have... made a motion to build a similar mental construct for Equestrian usage. Changelings who feel that Chrysalis's methods are intolerable can break away and join this new hive mind, and... there may be benefits for ponies who choose to join as well."

Bonbon hesitantly raised a hoof. "Ah... I don't know if you realize this, but, um, it takes some time to build a hive mind--"

"That will not be a problem. A significant portion of the changelings that were installed as sleeper agents broke off from the hive mind after Chrysalis revealed her plans to invade. They have formed a secondary hive mind of their own. I've talked to them, and they've agreed to the situation." Luna gestured toward the cocoon. "All Rainbow Dash would need to do is... administrate, for lack of a better term."

"Dash, a leader?" Spike crossed his arms. "Well, there goes the country."

"Hey!" Scootaloo shouted. "Rainbow Dash is totally a responsible leader type pony! She runs the weather service, after all!"

"That's... terribly convenient," Bonbon managed. "I didn't even realize they... well, I just assumed--"

"Chrysalis is a warlord, not a tyrant." Luna shrugged. "She didn't enslave any changeling that didn't willingly enter slavery, but she did prefer loyal citizens to deserters." She flicked her wings. "Her hatred toward you is more because of her own prejudice regarding your spouse."

Lyra snorted. "She's just jealous."

"...Whatever the reason," Luna continued, "she has officially banished you from the swarm."

"Totally jealous, she was checking out my tail all through the wedding."

Bonbon blinked. "Wait, seriously?"

"Yep." The unicorn shrugged. "Flattering and all, but totally creepy."

"...You're just messing with me, aren't you."

"Maaaaaaaaybe."

"You'll be happy to know the entire Chrysalis hive is currently mining crystal from the Canterhorn mines to pay their reperations," Luna deadpanned.

"IRONY ROCKS!" Lyra grinned. "Cause, you know, that was where she put Cadance. Cause of the thing."

Twilight sighed. "Right..."

Another long and awkward silence filled the library.

"So..." Fluttershy coughed a bit. "When is Dash going to... come out?"

"Oh! Oh it should be any time now." Bonbon nodded. "Bit of warning, she's going to be very hungry and running partly on instinct. Don't get between her and the food till I say it's safe."

"Will she need, um..." Twilight coughed gently, gesturing toward her horn. "You know... unique dietary supplements?"

The cream mare rolled her eyes. "You let me worry about that part, okay?" With a flash of green fire she'd shifted into a black and chitinous form, her silky mane and tail still a bit shorter than usual. "She'll be fine. I can just--"

Without any warning the cocoon began to bulge and stretch. Instantly everyone's eyes were drawn to the spectacle. Anticipation built as some threads split and curled away; the struggling grew more intense with each passing second.

A horn shaped like a black lightning bolt ripped out through the skin. There was some frustrated muttering before it retracted, and a bit more shifting. A hole riddled hoof emerged through the gap, tearing down through the cocoon in quick, short bursts. Soon enough it was joined by another hoof, the pair pushing outward, and it was only moments later that the horn reemerged with a gasping face in tow.

"AIR! ACTUAL FRESH AIR!" Rainbow struggled forward, pulling herself out as quickly as she could. "I had to marinade in my own sweat for three and a half weeks, you have NO idea--"

"Dashie it's so good to see you face to face again!" Pinkie beamed brightly, nudging a large hayburger forward.

"Haha, Pinkie, I get it. Funny!" The changeling knelt down and tore half the burger off in a single chomp. "Mmmph. Mmmm. Mrm, yeah, that was good. Oh great, my leg's still caught in--"

"Let me help you with that." Bonbon pushed the last of the cocoon away from Rainbow Dash's rear leg, leaving the shell to fall to the ground. "Oh, you might want to stretch your wings now. best to get them uncrimped as soon as possible."

The new queen swallowed the second half of the burger. "What, now?"

"Yes. Just... roll your shoulders and flatten your shell."

Rainbow Dash nodded, pushing up with her longer legs and standing as tall as Luna herself. She narrowed her slit blue eyes, testing the new set of muscles underneath the blue shell on her back. A few azure ridges around her thorax opened and closed as she flicked her blue silky tail in frustration.

And then the buds on her shoulders sprung out, unfurling into long thin paddles that shimmered in the light. A spectral pattern traced through the translucent veins, reds and yellows and blues curling round and round mixing in an image almost like the sky itself. Each experimental flap bathed the room in a glittering rainbow of color, and it seemed as though a bank of clouds dashed through the wings themselves.

"...pretty..." Pinkie murmured.

"Wow. Okay... that's... Bonbon, what the hay is up with my wings?"

"Um... If I had to guess...?" The candymaker shrugged. "I have no bloody clue. Maybe making rainbooms altered your body when you were young, or something to do with the Elements, or maybe it's just a genetic quirk."

"Huh." The room descended into quiet contemplation once again.

Scootaloo piped up. "I, personally, think they look pretty awesome."

"...Yeah. Yeah they do. You know what?" Rainbow grinned. "I think I'm ready to test these babies out."