- Mare Twain
It wasn't Fluttershy. It couldn't possibly be Fluttershy. The panting, growling yellow monstrosity staring with malice at Twilight Sparkle defied every concept the purple unicorn had of her friend. Fluttershy had a hard edge inside her, Twilight had cataloged it during one of her regular 'friend profiles' she maintained inside her head, and this strength had come in handy in many circumstances - she had counted on it, in fact, during an encounter with a dragon earlier in the year.
But Fluttershy's inner strength was driven by one thing - a total commitment to the safety and protection of the ones she loved, be they ponies or the animals of the forest. Fluttershy became her strongest when she was defending the innocent and the weak, and Twilight's studies on pony psychology had clearly indicated that her power derived from a strong nurturing instinct, deep within her ego. She fought as a lion mother would, to protect her cubs, and her cubs were her friends and any creature in her care.
But this Fluttershy, this mockery of the Fluttershy that Twilight dearly loved and deeply respected, had knocked one of her closest friends down and was having trouble containing the impulse to do further physical harm. If this creature could be more unlike the Fluttershy that Twilight knew and called friend, she could not imagine how.
"Hmmph!" Fluttershy sneered at Twilight, sprawled out in the street, looking down over her muzzle at her, as if she were beneath contempt. "Watch where you're going in the future!" The thing that was not Fluttershy stomped heavily away, leaving Twilight shaking, grateful that worse had not happened. Twilight's tail hurt where she had landed on it, and her dignity was damaged, but at least the incident had not come to an outright brawl, which had seemed, just moments ago, entirely possible.
Twilight slowly got to her hooves, looking around at the crowd. Not a single pony other than herself was agape. To them, this was not abnormal, or at least it was not a matter of shock or astonishment. Virtually every pony in Ponyville knew Fluttershy - the time she had served as a model for Photo Finish had seen her image plastered all over the town. That had made her perhaps the most recognizable denizen of Ponyville, and her rejection of fame to care for the small animals near the Everfree had been gossip for weeks afterwards. Twilight should not be the only pony shocked by what had just happened. Yet the ponies passing in the area acted as if nothing had occured.
Twilight continued toward Sugarcube Corner with a feeling of dread in her heart. What would she find there, what kind of Pinkie Pie inhabited this twisted reflection of the cosmos she knew? Though she often became frustrated with Pinkie, and it was true that when Pinkie and Dash got together their rambunctiousness could become infuriating to her, deep down Twilight adored Pinkie Pie. In a way, she envied her.
Pinkie was utterly kind and loving. There was literally nothing she would not do to help and cheer a friend, and she counted every pony in Ponyville - and probably the entirety of Equestria - as her friends. She was odd, silly and strange, but also almost shockingly smart... there were times that Twilight had privately wondered just how intelligent and aware Pinkie Pie might be, and sometimes the conclusion was humbling. But secretly super-intelligent or not, the one thing that truly defined Pinkie Pie was boundless love for others. Pinkie didn't need to study friendship - Pinkie was friendship.
Twilight could not bear to see that image in her mind spoiled, but she also needed help. Pinkie had... gifts. Insights. Pinkie seemed to understand things in ways that went beyond what Twilight considered possible. In this mad, insane realm, perhaps Pinkie Pie was the one pony that might truly be able to help her.
Twilight studied the front door of Sugarcube corner. As far as she could tell, the door was identical to the one in her Ponyville. She had started defining things in terms of 'her Ponyville' and 'this Ponyville', as a means to comprehend her situation. Just what separated the two Ponyvilles? It wasn't the architecture of this building at least. Sugarcube Corner was Sugarcube Corner. Looking at it alone, Twilight could easily convince herself that she was finally home. With a small gasp of worry, Twilight opened the door and entered.
Sugarcube Corner was empty of customers, not entirely unusual at various times throughout the day. Twilight walked to the counter and rang the bell. "Just a moment!" The voice was unmistakably Pinkie Pie's, and it sounded entirely normal. It was the usual sound of Pinkie when she was busy baking, and Twilight felt cautiously cheered, though she was still worried. It was reasonable to be worried, she reasoned, she was a stranger in a strange sweetshop that on the whole didn't seem that strange at all, and that was surely reason enough to be even more concerned since it was when things seemed the most normal that... oh dear! Twilight blinked and caught herself. Her ongoing studies of Pinkie Pie had clearly affected her in some manner. Then again, perhaps the situation she was in would naturally instigate Pinkie-like thoughts in any pony, considering the...
"Oh, hi Twilight! I didn't expect you here today. Not that you aren't welcome, because you definitely are, it's just that you usually come in on Maresday, and this is Hoofsday, or is it Coltsday? No, it's Hoofsday because on Coltsday Rarity comes in and gets six large eclairs which I shouldn't be telling you about because I don't think she wants anypony to know she likes to eat eclairs, or at least that many eclairs, unless she does want ponies to know, in which case it doesn't matter! Can I help you?"
Oh, thank Celestia! thought Twilight. Pinkie was Pinkie. Immutable, unchangeable, forever Pinkie. Well, except for that strange time on her birthday, of course, that was kind of creepy. But then, every pony has moments when they feel down. The bottom line was that this Pinkie was Pinkie. It was such a relief.
"Um, Pinkie, I've been having a kind of a strange day today and... I wonder if maybe we could talk. I think I need your insight into things more than I ever have before." It would likely take quite a while before she could get Pinkie to settle down, of course, but the process had to start somewhere. Pinkie would go on and on for a bit, then it would be necessary to restate things, at which point Pinkie would take some aspect seemingly wrong and go off on a tangent. It would seem random, but it would not be, and after some bizarre twists and turns eventually something useful would come out. Twilight steeled herself for the first round of... Pinkie-ness to burst forth.
"Certainly, Twilight. Maybe you could start by telling me what is going on?"
Uh oh. This was not Pinkie. Not the Pinkie Twilight knew. It wasn't bad, like her encounters with Dash and Fluttershy had been, but all the hairs along Twilight's withers were standing up again. Calm, quiet, rational Pinkie - without any change to her poofy, cotton candy hair - was very odd at the least. Pinkie was acting normal. That wasn't right.
Suddenly there was a loud crash as the front door of the sweet shop burst open. Rarity swept in to the store, forehooves raised above her, wailing in a wild staccato cadence "Out of all the worst things that could happen!" An elaborate, heavy divan somehow came into existence and was slammed down onto the floor of the confectionery. Twilight could not explain its sudden presence, and her mind spun in disbelief. Rarity flopped, in a bizarre, overly exaggerated flounce onto the unexpected furniture and yelled out "This is THE!"
Rarity paused. Twilight stared at the seamstress. Rarity shrieked out "WORST!"
Twilight blinked several times, incapable of grasping such crazed, unusual behavior. Rarity could be very emotional, even unreasonably caught up in personal drama but... this was beyond anything Twilight had ever seen. Just as Twilight was about to say something, Rarity suddenly burst out with her conclusion "POSSIBLE! THING!"
Rarity was weeping and moaning now, tears streaking her normally impeccable coat. Occasionally, she would slam her hoof down on the divan, as if deliberately trying to make as much fuss as possible purely for its own sake. "What's the matter, Rarity?" Pinkie had said the words quietly, seriously.
"OOOHHH! POOR Rainbow DASH! She's hurt her WING the poor, dear THING! It's SOOOO AWFUL!" Rarity had a hoof to her forehead, striking an overdramatic pose that was less real concern than Look At Me. Rarity peeked through one of her tightly squeezed eyelids to make sure she was the center of attention. Although she was still learning about friendship and pony emotions, Twilight was always good at observation and every bit of what she saw before her convinced her that this Rarity was crying crocodile tears, her only real interest being how she could milk Rainbow Dash's tragedy to gain attention for herself.
If this Rarity was the Element Of Generosity for this strange Ponyville, then the generosity she represented was not one of spirit, nor of kindness.
"I would be happy to talk with you, Twilight, but perhaps we could do so on the way to see Rainbow? Where is she Rarity?" The more that Pinkie Pie spoke this way, the more Twilight felt an unnameable dread rising within her. "We should bring her some books! Rainbow loves her Daring Do stories!"
Twilight's ears perked at this, despite her dread "Wait! Rainbow Dash... reads?"
"All the time, now. Don't you remember, you silly filly? Last time she hurt her wing, you brought her a Daring Do book and she ended up loving it, only she didn't want anypony to know because she was afraid of being called an egghead like you, not that you're an egghead, well you are, but you shouldn't be called that of course, because it's rude, and nopony should be rude, but sometimes they kind of are and..."
Twilight let Pinkie ramble for some time. Hearing this Pinkie, in this strange place, sound more like the Pinkie Pie she knew and loved made Twilight feel better. It was such a relief to hear Pinkie babble right now, even if it was only a quiet sort of babble devoid of her usual, frantic...
"Oh, PINKIE! Do stop your babbling, you are SUCH a DRAMA QUEEN!" Rarity seemed incensed that she was no longer the center of attention. She performed an exaggerated double take "Relatively speaking, of COURSE!". Rarity batted her eyelashes several times.
No. "NO!" Twilight shouted. "I CAN'T TAKE ANY MORE OF THIS!"
Twilight found herself running for the door. She didn't stop to open it, but focused her magic and did a short, line-of-sight teleport to the street she could see out the window. She appeared in a burst of light outside of Sugarcube Corner, her face in a wide feral grin, her teeth gritted in anguish.
"I simply... can't... take any more... of this." Twilight's head sagged down, as she wandered off, feeling beaten and discouraged. Maybe Pinkie could have offered something... but not with Rarity there... and even if she could have had some kind of talk with this realm's Pinkie Pie... she wasn't sure she could bear to see her bouncy, joyful, erratic pink friend act... ordinary and normal. Especially with the experience of Rarity carrying on as she was. No, Sugarcube Corner offered no respite, and no answers, after all.
The world itself was different and wrong. The world. The world was everything... everything was wrong. If everything was wrong - except for the specific architecture of Sugarcube Corner, she reminded herself - then that meant that this was an all-encompassing problem. A cosmic problem. Something was deeply wrong at the cosmic, all-encompassing level.
Going home would solve nothing. It didn't matter if there was some alternate version of herself living in the library with some duplicate-but-not-quite-right Spike. Seeing that would only upset her further and provide no answers. It could even be counterproductive - what if the alternate version of herself turned out to be some irrational, completely neurotic freak, instead of a steady, balanced, determined student? No, it would be too upsetting to deal with.
For a cosmic level problem there was only one pony to turn to, and She was not precisely a pony. Celestia. Immortal, omnipotent, the living goddess of the sun. So kind and loving that she preferred her subjects to call her 'princess' rather than 'Almighty'. Celestia, who had lived over a thousand years, who had lived through Discord, who had brought order to his reign of chaos, turning a universe of twisted insanity into the rolling hills and mountain peaks of Equestria.
If any being could help her, Twilight resolved, it could only be the living sun goddess Celestia, the absolute monarch that controlled reality itself - her mentor... and her friend.
Whatever else, Celestia would help. A goddess was above all worlds, all alternate realities. Celestia, like the avatar of the sun she was, would shine through all levels of reality, even into this strange realm. She was a cosmic being, and this was a cosmic problem. It was time to go where true light shone.
Twilight turned herself towards Canterlot. All of the answers would be there.
They could be nowhere else.