To Spike, the past two days were a blur. He had eaten far too many sweets at the reception, confident that any consequences would be Future Spike's problem. Unfortunately, the next morning's sugar-induced migraine reminded him that Future Spike's problems had a nasty habit of becoming his problems. Fortunately, after a day of much needed rest, the buzzing in his head had more or less disappeared, and he and Twilight were on their way back to Ponyville.
"That was some wedding, huh Twilight?"
The unicorn across from him didn't bother to look away from the passing scenery outside the train window to reply.
"It sure was."
The two of them had the car to themselves, since Twilight had stayed a day later than her friends so she could look after Spike while he recovered (for which the baby dragon was grateful). Even so, they had barely exchanged a word since the wedding.
"Are you okay?" Spike asked, frowning. "You've been awfully quiet lately."
"Sorry, Spike," Twilight said, turning to look at him at last. "I guess I'm just tired. I'm actually kind of glad it's all over. Glad that we're finally going home."
Home. Just over a year ago, it would have been unthinkable to call Ponyville "home," but in the short time they had lived there it had become more of a home than Canterlot ever was. Twilight had certainly never had so many close friends before, and neither had Spike for that matter.
"It still feels kinda strange to call leaving Canterlot 'going home,'" Spike thought aloud.
Twilight turned back to the window, her response as short as it was cryptic.
"Home is where the heart is, Spike."
In actuality, Papilia's thoughts were not on their upcoming arrival in Ponyville; as eager as she was to start operations there, there would be plenty of time to work out the specifics once she had settled in. The events of yesterday afternoon were far more worrisome to her at the moment. The dragon himself had been easy to fool; as soon as she started putting her heart into the impersonation he would be wrapped around her hoof. Her doppelganger, however, was proving more troublesome than even her mother had predicted.
How had she been able to break out of the Hivemind? In theory, it was impossible. There were hundreds of failsafes in the spell, put in place to help the dreamers accept the virtual world. No illusion was perfect, but just as in a real dream the victim would simply ignore the inconsistencies and fill in any missing details, making the dream seem far more realistic than it actually was. No, there was no way the unicorn could have woken up on her own. Unless...
A thought had been quietly nagging Papilia ever since the encounter in the alleyway. You put the spell on her yourself, it said. What if it didn't take properly? Papilia would never admit the possibility that an error had crept into any spell of hers, but the thought still gnawed at the base of her brain, taunting her.
And then there was the fact that the pony had seen through her Glamour. Though she had managed to maintain her composure at the time, this almost bothered her even more than the unicorn's escape from the dream world.
She really should have insisted that the pony be interrogated before she was returned to the Hivemind. This at least she could accept as her own fault. Intelligence gathering was a vital part of the changeling way of life, something her mother often underemphasized. Chrysalis may have been a master of deception, but that troublesome unicorn had still suspected her and had almost ruined the entire invasion, all because of the queen's lack of research. When Papilia became queen, she would overhaul the training program to focus on getting to know your prey. Who knew, if she handled Ponyville well enough she might get her chance even sooner.
A faint trail of concern wafted over to Papilia from the young dragon. Not as tasty or filling as love itself, but it still satisfied. She inhaled slowly, savoring what little flavor there was. Her mother had been right about one thing. Equestria was so full of love, even its dragons had some to spare. It was just the kind of place the swarm needed, especially at this delicate time. And Ponyville would be a prime location for the task Chrysalis had entrusted to her.
Home is where the heart is, indeed.
"I found her!"
The baby dragon's cry awoke the real Twilight Sparkle from her slumber. She shook her head to stop the ringing in her ears, and immediately collided with a hard surface. "Ouch!"
Somepony addressed her in a familiar, southern twang. "You alright, sugarcube?"
"I think so," Twilight answered.
She could see very little of her surroundings. A patch of light near her eyes revealed Applejack standing near the library's bookshelves behind a bewildered-looking Spike. The rest of her vision was obscured by black, jagged shapes. Even worse, she could barely move. A claustrophobic panic set in, and she started to flail about, in the process again bumping her head against whatever surface was hemming her in. One of her front hooves connected with the shadows in front of her and toppled them, revealing them to be a stack of books.
"Whoa there, Twilight. No need to get all worked up. Let's just get you out of there, nice and easy, okay?"
Applejack extended a hoof to her over the pile of books on the floor. Twilight grabbed onto the proffered hoof and allowed herself to be pulled out. She looked back to see that she had somehow been stuffed into one of the bottom shelves of a bookshelf.
"What in Equestria were you doing in there, anyhow?"
"I was just about to ask you the same thing. I guess I must have fallen asleep while looking for a book or something, but the last thing I remember is sitting down to write up my schedule for this month, and then..." Twilight paused, staring off into the distance.
"And then? And then what?" Spike asked in trepidation. There was no response.
"Uh, Twilight?" Applejack waved a hoof in front of her friend's face.
"Huh? Oh, sorry, I was just thinking of a dream I had. More of a nightmare, really. Have you ever had one of those dreams where it seems really important at the time, but when you wake up you can't remember anything?"
"Sure have, but you won't see me frettin' about it. If it was really that important, you'll remember it eventually anyway. The important thing now is that we've finally found you."
"I'll say," said Spike. "We were starting to get worried that you ran away or got lost in the Everfree Forest or something."
"Ran away? Just how long have you been looking for me?"
"Well," said Applejack, "we first noticed you were missing yesterday afternoon. I say 'we,' but it was really Pinkie Pie that came and told us. We've been asking around for you ever since."
"Yesterday? You mean I was asleep for a whole day?"
"It sure seems that way. You had us worried right sick. Spike here especially, since you didn't tell him you were goin' nowhere. I'm mighty relieved it was only a nap we had to worry about."
"Some nap," Twilight said wryly. "Although I was awake for almost two days straight on our trip to Canterlot. I guess I still had a lot of catching up to do."
"I'm just glad Spike and I decided to check the library one more time in case you decided to come back. If we hadn't, we'd probably still be out combing the forest for you."
Applejack paused as something occurred to her.
"Oh gosh. We ought to tell everypony we found you, so they aren't busying themselves all day over nothin'. You feel up to a bit of a walk?"
Twilight stretched out a foreleg to test its stiffness. Satisfied with the result, she nodded.
"I'm as ready as I'll ever be."
"Great. Let's get a move on, then."
Something was not right.
Indeed, something was quite wrong, but Pinkie Pie couldn't put her hoof on what. Twilight Sparkle was still missing, of course, but that wasn't it, not exactly. A missing friend was troubling, of course, but it was an ordinary, mundane kind of troubling. Ponies went missing all the time, even if most of them were foals that had simply lost their way. No, something somewhere was just fundamentally wrong.
Pinkie tilted her head to the side to see if that would help her think. It didn't, but it did make the grove of trees in front of her look slightly ridiculous. A mother bird landed sideways in a nest that clung absurdly to the end of a dangling branch. Pinkie giggled. Oh, well. She wasn't going to find out what was wrong by just standing here, that's for sure. Twilight didn't seem to be hiding in this meadow either. Maybe Fluttershy had found her by now? Not that Pinkie was too worried yet; it had only been a day, and, although she couldn't say just how, she had a feeling that the bookworm pony would show up again soon.
She laughed again at the mental image of Twilight as a worm. The whole metaphor didn't make sense at all if you thought about it. Even without her legs, Twilight would look more like a jellybean with a pony's head than a worm. Besides, real bookworms ate books. Twilight just read them. Well, sometimes she hit the books instead, though Pinkie had never witnessed this firsthand, but that wasn't like eating either. Pinkie tried to remember where she was going with this train of thought.
That's right, she was going to visit Fluttershy!
Pinkie bounced cheerfully in the direction of the Everfree Forest and the grass-roofed cottage that stood at its edge. As it came into view, she heard the sound of singing coming from nearby. Sure enough, as Pinkie got closer she saw Fluttershy flitting about, singing back and forth to a colorful flock of birds she was feeding from an oversized bag of seeds. Pinkie bounded forward to greet her.
"You really should eat more slowly," Fluttershy was saying to a robin that was particularly overzealous in enjoying its lunch. "You wouldn't want to get a tummy ache."
Forgetting that she was already flying, the pegasus pony attempted to jump six feet into the air. Pinkie had to jump backwards to avoid being hit by the hefty bag of birdseed as it fell out of Fluttershy's hooves.
"Oh, Pinkie Pie, you startled me. Um, are you okay?"
The pink pony just sat there staring at the bag of birdseed. It falling like that had come as a complete surprise to her. Normally she liked surprises, but she could not remember her Pinkie Sense ever failing her like this before. Nothing ever fell around her without her tail twitching, but right now it hadn't budged an inch.
Just like when Twilight fell, she reminded herself.
The memory had come out of nowhere, but how could she have possibly forgotten? There was one other time her Pinkie Sense hadn't activated when it should have, and that was the event that had set off this whole wild goose chase for a pony who was clearly a unicorn and not a goose. If today was strange, yesterday had been just weird.
She had gone to visit Twilight on a whim, but when she arrived she saw Twilight fall from the tree and disappear right before hitting the ground. Strangest of all, her tail had only started to twitch afterward.
Was this what she had sensed earlier, that her Pinkie Sense was misbehaving? That would certainly be the right level of wrongness. Come to think of it, she hadn't really sensed much of anything since her pinchy knee at the wedding in Canterlot. At this thought, a familiar feeling of light-headedness washed over her, as if her mind had decided that was enough thinking for the day, thank you very much. She realized Fluttershy was still talking to her.
"You must be in shock. Come inside and I'll get you a blanket and some nice calming tea."
"Oki doki loki."
Pinkie stood up and staggered for a couple of steps before collapsing against Fluttershy, fast asleep. Before the pegasus could properly react to this new development, a voice came over the adjacent hill, followed by its owner and her companion.
"And now we're at Fluttershy's already. Are you sure there isn't a secret set of shortcuts you've been leading me through?"
Applejack rolled her eyes. "I keep tellin' ya, Twi, this is how long it normally takes."
"I know, but it feels like we just left the Carousel Boutique, and suddenly we're here."
"You're probably still tired, and weren't paying attention to where we were going. You didn't even say goodbye to Spike earlier."
"That's the other thing. I don't recall him volunteering to stay behind at the library at all. I only noticed he wasn't with us when Rarity commented on it. Am I really that out of it?"
"Oh look, Fluttershy's home," Applejack said, changing the subject. "I knew she'd have to come back to take care of her animals. And Pinkie's with her too. Hey, Fluttershy, Pinkie Pie! We found Twilight!"
"That's wonderful," Fluttershy said, still struggling to prop up Pinkie's dead weight. "I'm so relieved."
"Uh, Pinkie Pie?" Applejack said, addressing her unresponsive friend.
"What's up with Pinkie Pie?"
Rainbow Dash hovered in the middle of Fluttershy's living room, her face the picture of skepticism.
"You're trying to tell us she fell asleep because you almost dumped birdseed on her?"
Fluttershy quailed under the force of the interrogation.
"Rainbow, calm down. She's just telling us what she saw," Twilight interjected.
She then turned her attention to the yellow pegasus cowering in the corner of the room. Shooting a brief but meaningful glare back at Rainbow Dash, Twilight continued.
"It's alright, Fluttershy, nopony is blaming you for what happened."
"Hey, I'm not implying she dropped it on purpose or anything. But you've got to admit, it is kinda suspicious," retorted the cyan pegasus defensively.
"Indeed it is," agreed Rarity. "I'm not doubting your story either, dear, but who ever heard of a pony falling asleep out of surprise?"
"I thought so too," said Twilight, "so I ran some tests while Applejack went to fetch you. From what I can tell, I think she's been hypnotized."
Five pairs of eyes glanced over to where Pinkie Pie lay asleep on Fluttershy's sofa.
"Hypnotized?" Rainbow Dash asked, somewhat bewildered.
"Yes, hypnotized. It's pretty apparent, actually. Shewell, I should probably just show you. Fluttershy, would you go wake up Pinkie please?"
Fluttershy assumed a position by the sofa as Twilight made her way to the kitchen. Applejack spoke up, stopping her at the doorway.
"I thought the problem was we couldn't get her to wake up."
"Oh, we can wake her up alright. The problem is getting her to stay awake. You'll see."
Twilight walked around the corner so that she was no longer visible from the front room.
"Okay, Fluttershy, I'm ready."
Three confused ponies shifted their gaze from where Twilight had disappeared to where events were unfolding at the other end of the room. Fluttershy placed a hoof gently on Pinkie's head and whispered into her ear.
"Pinkie Pie, it's time to wake up."
The pink pony yawned dramatically and groggily opened her eyes.
"Is it morning already, Fluttershy? Wait, what are you even doing here?"
She looked around at the assembled ponies. "What are you all doing here?"
She took one more look at the room. "What am I doing here? This isn't my room."
"No," Fluttershy agreed. "This is my house."
"Oh yeah. I was just on my way to visit you to see if you'd foundTwilight!"
The lavender unicorn had emerged from her hiding place so that Pinkie could see her. The pink pony leaped to her hooves and zoomed over to where her friend was standing, wrapping the unicorn in a giddy embrace and swinging her in circles while Twilight flopped about like a rag doll. "Theyfoundyoutheyfoundyoutheyfoundyou!"
As her eyes began doing an increasingly convincing impression of a certain ditzy mail-mare, Twilight decided to snap the pink pony out of her overly enthusiastic greeting.
Suddenly becoming aware of Twilight's discomfort, Pinkie bashfully stopped her spinning.
"Oops. Sorry Twilight. I'm just so glad they found you, I could" Pinkie suddenly gasped and let Twilight drop to the floor.
"Twilight! You disappeared when my Pinkie Sense stopped working. You have to help me remember, Twilight, so I can fix my Pinkie Sense! You've got to help... me..."
Pinkie's head drooped onto her friend's shoulder, and she again fell fast asleep.
"And that's all we can get out of her," Twilight said to Applejack, Rarity, and Rainbow Dash, who had stood slack-jawed throughout the entire performance. "Anytime she sees me or starts talking about her Pinkie Sense, she falls back asleep."
"So what do we do now?" Rainbow Dash asked, confusion evident in her voice.
"I... don't exactly know. I've never tried to snap someone out of hypnosis before. I suppose we could"
Twilight frowned, breaking off her sentence. She had been about to suggest going back to the library to do more research, but... against all her usual instincts, something was telling her that attempting to read now would only make things worse.
"And we're sure she didn't just bump her head on somethin', or she's just tired?" Applejack asked. "I mean, you were asleep all day yourself, Twilight. Maybe she just stayed up late looking for you."
Twilight shook her head. "She had a five-minute conversation with Fluttershy after we figured out it was me making her fall asleep, and forgot the whole thing the next time we woke her up. I think there's more to it than her just being tired."
Fluttershy nodded in agreement. "And I checked her for injuries when we brought her inside. Her eyes dilated properly, too, so she doesn't have a concussion either."
"Well, she's fine as long as she doesn't see Twilight, right?" Rainbow Dash piped in. "We can just keep them apart until this whole hypnosis thing wears off, and it'll be like nothing's different."
"Yeah," Applejack said sarcastically, "except Twilight still won't be able to talk to her. Not different at all."
"Maybe we should just let her sleep it off?" Rarity suggested.
"We don't know how long the hypnosis might take to wear off," Twilight said. "It might not wear off at all, and she's still going to need to eat sometime."
"Um, we could take her to see Zecora."
The other ponies stared at Fluttershy, somewhat surprised at the suggestion.
Eyeing her timid friend incredulously, Applejack was the first to break the silence. "Huh. I never thought I'd hear you suggesting we go into the Everfree Forest, Fluttershy."
"W-well, I am still scared of it," replied Fluttershy, nervousness evident in her voice, "but if anypony can tell us how to get Pinkie Pie back to normal, Zecora can. She knows about all sorts of things from her travels."
There were murmurs of assent from all present. Their Zebra friend had proven herself time and time again to be an invaluable source of advice when it came to obscure problems.
"Alright then," said Twilight Sparkle, a glint of determination in her eyes. "Let's go visit Zecora."