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The nearest Luna vanished. Fantasy assumed they all had, all over Aura and Shadowville. The vanishing had the look of a teleport rather than an illusion being dispelled. She wondered if that meant anything. The princesses practiced magic on a level beyond anything she had ever studied even as pure theory. There was that old story about the Mirror Pond or Mirror Pool, but these Lunas had seemed too…conjoined for that. They had all spoken as one, in perfect harmony across Aura above and Shadowville below.
The crowd began to disperse, a quiet undercurrent of conversation humming through it. Some seemed thoughtful, others seemed more animated. A noticeable fraction appeared worried. Fantasy kept close to the rest of her family as they waited. They weren’t in any particular hurry to go anywhere so they had decided for the crowds to thin before heading home. Many ponies seemed more eager to get back to the lives that Luna’s arrival had disrupted. Some seemed to be waiting for the same reason as the Longhorns. More had begun to clump up in smaller groups to discuss what Luna had said.
To Fantasy, it had been an anticlimax. The civil war in Dust was a tragedy. It was the moral obligation of all the citizens of the Equestrian Empire to show kindness and generosity to the refugees fleeing the country. That was it. Luna had padded it out, gone into details, but that was what it all boiled down to. That seemed enough for most. Fantasy had been expecting…more. A public announcement of Smog’s arrest, maybe. A request for everypony to remain calm; that panic would only make the coming disruptions even worse. Was it possible Luna really had come here just to make the speech she had made? Was Fantasy reading too much into it, seeing deeper layers where none existed?
That soon became a background worry. Fantasy had a tremendous, dizzying sense of déjà vu. Her clairvoyant power had felt similar. That made her nervous. Was this feeling some re-surfacing of that power? Fantasy knew déjà vu was just a brain-derp: mis-identfying new experiences as remembered things. She was still recovering from having her head messed with without her consent. This was a new twist for her, but déjà vu was on Doctor Zeitgeist’s list of symptoms she might experience. It beat the hoof out of paranoid hallucinations, at least…
To prove it was nothing, Fantasy decided to test it. Her brother wasn’t great at keeping quiet for extended periods. It didn’t take a crystal ball to predict he’d say something soon. Fantasy felt sure she knew what he was going to say before he said it, though she couldn’t bring the details to mind. Watching Punctuality from the corner of her eye, she waited for him to speak. She would speak at the exact same time. When what she said didn’t match what he did, she would have proven this feeling was…
Punctuality stirred and inhaled.
“Can we go already?”
Punctuality and Fantasy stared at each other. He looked surprised, shading to suspicion. She had exactly imitated his words and intonation. Fantasy stared back with sheer brain-numbing shock, shading to dread. She had exactly imitated his words and intonation. Not a hair behind him. Not even in harmony. She had been a little ahead. Tankard and Berry looked back and forth between their children. Then their father made a snorting laugh. “Great minds think alike? Yeah, okay. Let’s brave the busy streets. Better slow progress than no progress?”
He exchanged an amused look with Berry, who rubbed her nose against his with a chuckle. Punctuality, careful not to let his parents see, mimed shoving a hoof down his throat. Normally Fantasy would have needed to pass a laugh off as a cough. Right now she didn’t feel like laughing. The four of them headed out of the open plaza where they’d joined at least a thousand other unicorns and earth ponies there to hear Luna speak. Punctuality kept quiet, giving her little looks now and then. Fantasy’s déjà vu persisted. Everything that happened felt as if it had all happened before. Even her testing it, and the outcome, and the events that had unfolded from that complaining duet.
Fantasy tried to keep calm, but this was beginning to seriously freak her out. It was if she had been given the ability to perfectly see into the future…but only a half-second ahead. There was a terrible sense of inevitability, of ironclad fate. No matter what she did, no matter how zany or impulsive it might be, could be spontaneous. Even the sense of panic squirming in the back of her mind was fated. It was all in some script; her apparent ability to read a few words ahead of everypony else did nothing but make her aware that they were all puppets on strings. A hint of bile crawled across her tongue as a possibility crept across her thoughts.
It was almost unthinkable. Not too long ago, it probably would have been. The possibility she now considered would never have occurred to her. Since Smog had entered her life she’d had her mind opened to wider horizons of possibility. Unpleasant ones, for the most part. The darkness was out there, and inside her too. She refused to let it control her but she couldn’t ignore it either. So she had the thought, though it felt disloyal to the point of treasonous: is Luna doing this? Had she swapped out a gentle glamor of soothing calm for something that put the future of the city on a pair of shiny little rails?
If it was so Luna could arrest Smog but prevent the city from being torn apart by his ‘insurance policies,’ then…Fantasy could understand the necessity. Even forgive it. Maybe. After she had some time to get used to the idea. The sensation of being stripped of her free will was a deeply unpleasant one. It was entirely too familiar. She had looped back to the night-that-never-happened twice now. Once with Morhoof, once with Tradewind. Acted it out, aware it was wrong but unable to stop herself. If the situation got too similar to the opening scenes of those false memories, she dropped right onto the rails Smog had laid in her mind and rolled along them to the end.
By the time they got back to the Brass Hoof, Fantasy trembled on the edge of what felt like a full-blown nervous breakdown. The only thing that kept her from giving in was the bone-deep certainty that she wasn’t going to give in. She felt like she had suffered this crisis before and managed to keep her head. So she would this time, because she had to. Everything she did was what fate decreed. Even her attempts to defy it only served it. She was incapable of going off-script. That almost tempted her to let the hysteria have her.
Of course, only almost. Her inner darkness was down there, waiting. A pit that would definitely swallow her but made no promises about letting her back out. Of course this didn’t have to be some dark spell cast by Luna. It could all just be in her head. Her fragile mind might be showing new cracks. ‘Paranoid hallucinations here I come.’ she thought. ‘All aboard the Crazy Train for Locoville.’
“I’ll be in my room.” Fantasy said. It came out sounded bizarrely casual. The pervasive sense of déjà vu continued undiminished.
“That’s fine, sweetie.” Tankard said. “Your mother and I need to have a talk with your brother about pranks. We’ll be up in the parlor, all right?”
Punctuality seemed to have forgotten about that in all the excitement of seeing Luna. Fantasy got a glimpse of his sudden shamefaced grin as she fled for the stairs. Her own shame chased her up them all the way to her room and curled up in bed with her. It was her fault. She had set him up. At least she had confessed it. Mom knew. There was trouble headed her way too.
A voice hit her like a bag of wet sand. “Fantasy Longhorn.”
Fantasy leapt to her hooves with a scream of fright. Or rather, it tried to be one but all that came out was a little squeak as her throat locked up. A sense of double-vision hit her, only it embraced all her senses. She was curled up on her bed in her room, all alone. She was also standing on her bed in her room and she was not alone.
Princess Luna sat in one corner, Mister Billy the goat doll balanced atop a raised fore-hoof. It dangled its legs in a relaxed fashion.
Even Fantasy’s voice came out doubled, in the sense that in half of her split awareness, it didn’t come out. “What the hay!?”
“You are both awake and asleep.” Luna said. “Awake in that you remain aware of your physical senses and surroundings. Asleep in that you dream. I could not visit you in the flesh. I am truly sorry for the distress I have caused you, but our need to meet was too great. If you would permit, I can bring you more fully into a dreaming state.”
Fantasy plopped onto her rump. The full body double-vision thing was starting to make her nauseated. “I have a big corundum here.”
“What color?” Luna said. She seemed puzzled.
“What?” Fantasy said. “What do you mean, what color?”
Luna tipped her head to one side. “What?”
Fantasy gave her head a shake and planted her fore-hooves on the floor, though she also remained curled up motionless on the bed. “You might be real, or you might be a hallucination. Asking if you’re real is a waste of time; a hallucination would claim to be real too.”
Enlightenment seemed to dawn for Luna. “Oh, a conundrum.”
“That’s what I said. Tell me something I can’t possibly know but will learn later. That way, if it comes true, I know you were real. Until then I’ll provisionally accept your reality, unless you ask me to do something that’s not sensible. I am determined to act sensible if I possibly can.”
“There is a flaw in your logic. You have past experience with knowing things you should not have been able to know. Anything a hallucination might say, even if it should prove true, could be drawn from an inner source.”
“I…” Fantasy stared at Luna, fore-hoof raised and mouth hanging open. “Okay. A hallucination trying to fool me into thinking it’s real wouldn’t have said something like that. So if you’re a part of me, it’s a part of me that’s trying to be helpful. For what it’s worth, I’m pretty sure I can’t do…that…anymore.”
“Indeed not, Fantasy Longhorn. That power was granted by a…force, if you will. I could sense if it was still within you. That force comes from outside.”
“Outside of me?”
“Outside of our reality.” Luna said. She used a rather matter-of-fact tone for saying something like that. “The spectator sees more of the game than the players, it is said. A perspective from outside reality can perceive reality in ways we who are within it can never hope to do.”
“Okay, pull me into the dream.” Fantasy said. Luna gave a nod and Fantasy lost all sense of being curled up on her bed. She sat on the bed and held her head between her hooves. “That’s hard to handle even without doubled perspective. You’re telling me my brain was seeing reality from the outside looking in?”
“In a very limited way, yes. Other ponies in the past have suffered a similar…insanity. No truly sane pony can push their mind beyond the walls of reality. Many strange abilities can manifest in one whose mind has moved past that wall.”
“Like Pinkie Pie?” Fantasy said.
It was half a joke, but Luna didn’t laugh. “Yes. She could do things even I or my sister cannot. Teleport to the inside of a mailbox?” Luna smiled. “I would be crushed, even if I managed it. To her, reality was…flexible.”
“So Pinkie Pie really was certifiably crazy?”
“Crazy, yes. Insane, no. There is a saying. Laugh or go mad?” Luna looked down at Mister Billy, or a dream of the doll. “Your ability to write of events in other places, even to the thoughts of the one experiencing them, is gone from you. I am certain it will never return.” The princess’s manner turned more regal, a down-to-business kind of pose. “A level of sensitivity remains. You are not hallucinating. If anything you are prone to the opposite extreme, that of seeing aspects of reality that most ponies do not. I knew you would be more affected than most by the aftereffects of my actions. You feel it.”
Fantasy nodded, still holding her head in her hooves. “Crushing déjà vu. Well. Not anymore. Not in this dream.”
“We are…backstage, as it were.” Luna said. “I knew you would soon manage a deviation on your own. A deviation being inevitable, I chose to come and enlighten you. If you understand why you should…play along…then your awareness that things are…scripted…might not cause major disruption.” Luna appeared to be choosing her words with care.
“So this is a huge fate spell or something?”
“Nay, for that would be mass involuntary compulsion, and slowly drive everypony affected to insanity.”
Taking a deep breath, Luna fixed her eyes on the goat doll she held and began to speak. Within three sentences Fantasy’s jaw had begun to dangle. It stayed dropped right to the end. “So you see; your déjà vu is an awareness of the dream I was unable to completely seal from your consciousness. I even caused the dreamers to feel déjà vu within the dream so that even this influence would be the same once they awoke. Things must play out the same way so that I may predict what will happen, and so avert the disaster I watched unfold. The unconscious memories of the dream shall help ensure it does. Ponies will have their actions guided into doing what it feels right to do. A large enough disruption could still undo it. I only need a day or two. Not enough time for tiny deviations to gain momentum. After things begin to significantly diverge, I must return to reacting to events as they unfold.”
Fantasy closed her mouth. “Um. Okay? I can let the déjà vu guide me. No making waves. Play it through until things stop feeling like they’re scripted. Right. What about Smog?”
“He is gone from Aura.” Luna said. “He shall not return.”
“You said. That’s all you said. Is he dead, arrested, did he run away? Did you transform him into a public toilet seat, what?” After it came out of her mouth, Fantasy wondered where that had come from.
Luna’s deep green eyes narrowed, but not in anger. “If you would know, you must consent to a binding that would forever prevent you from sharing it with another. You would not even be able to admit you know but cannot say.”
“No thanks. I’m sick of secrets.” Her curiosity raised a strenuous objection but she sat on it.
Luna looked aside. “I do not require a binding promise, but it would be best if you don’t share what I have revealed. It is for the best that what I have done in Aura this day remains…secret. Revealing the truth would serve no useful purpose and might well do considerable harm.”
“To your reputation.” Fantasy said.
She hadn’t actually meant to accuse, but Luna bristled. “Smog deliberately arranged a situation whereby no purely ethical solution could remove him from power. Forgive me for attempting to limit the damage caused by the line I crossed.”
Fantasy nodded. “No, I know. I understand, believe me. Legal, necessary, moral: sometimes the best you can do is two out of three. It sucks.”
“Indeed.” Luna said. “I beg your pardon for my churlishness. It has been a very long day for me, and it is not yet done. Tradewind is within Aura.”
“Whoa, what? Really?”
“He delivered the cursed urn to me at Smog’s request. I brought him here with me when I came. Yes, there is more to it than that. There are secrets he is bound not to share. Not even with you. I know you are not a mare to let a mystery stand uninvestigated. I hope you are a mare who can let a loose thread remained un-pulled if she knows that tugging upon it can lead to nothing good.”
Fantasy took a second to untangle that. “He knows more than he can tell me. If I keep bugging him about it it’ll just frustrate us both. There are things he can’t tell me. Even if he wants to. It might drive a wedge between us. You want me to just let it go. Accept that I’m better off not knowing.”
“You could know. Again I offer: consent to a binding of silence and I shall tell you everything he might, were his tongue free.”
“If I decide not to know, I at least know it was a choice?”
“But if I choose to know it, at least we’ll both know. Even if we can’t talk about it. I’ll know what happened, same as him. He won’t be bugged by an urge to tell me what he can’t tell me if I know it already.”
“You would not be able to tell him you also know it.”
“But you could, right?”
“I cannot. I have already interfered more than I strictly must in order to avert this crisis. You mentioned morality, necessity, and legality? I have already moved beyond the borders of moral behavior by my interference with an entire city’s dreams. This meeting with you comes very close to the edge of what I may legally do even with emergency powers. Two out of three is forgivable. One out of three is not.”
“Why make the exception at all?”
“I would not see my actions be the reason your and Tradewind’s love should founder and fail. The pegasus has ‘commitment issues.’ He fears to embrace his love for you. He fears to love you for fear of the pain if he then lost you.”
“But if he…I mean. If he avoids me, runs away, he loses me anyway, and is miserable anyway. If he loves me, he only maybe loses me. Even if he does, he gets all the days between now and then. Which he won’t if he runs.”
Luna rolled her eyes, and when she spoke her tone was drier than desert sand. “He also fears that, if he stays with you, he will hurt you. Ponies in love are not famed for rational thinking. By all means, make the point you made to me when you see him tomorrow. It may even work.”
“Tomorrow?” Fantasy tried not to sound like a disappointed filly, and failed.
Luna smiled and suddenly Mister Billy draped across Fantasy’s head rather than the alicorn’s fore-hoof. “He was not within the shared dream. He cannot be permitted to interact with those who were. Not in the first crucial day. Once things begin to diverge, one more random factor shall cause no issues.”
“I will see him tomorrow?” Fantasy pulled her treasured foal-hood doll down off her head and hugged it. “Promise?”
Luna smiled with a mischievous twinkle in her eye. “I promise.” The twinkle faded but a hint of it remained. “This is your last chance. Thrice I ask and done, as we once put it. Will you choose to know the fate of Smog, and be bound to take that secret to your deathbed? To the world his fate must remain a mystery. Once you know, you may wish that you did not. The truth might displease you.”
Fantasy looked within, consulting her heart. This struck her as the kind of thing where being rational was overrated. “Tradewind knows. I have to know too. Even if I can’t ever tell him that I know. Even if, no: especially if it’s terrible. I need to share his burden so I can understand it.” Fantasy took a deep breath and hugged Mister Billy tight. “So hit me with it.”
Luna did. By the end of it, Fantasy didn’t know whether to laugh, cry, or be sick. One thing she did know, she loved Tradewind even more than before. “Thank you.”
“For making it so that spell on Smog ignored me.”
“I wish I could claim my motives were pure.” Luna said. “Yes, I do feel that your mind has already been violated too much by Smog. I am glad to have spared you from further invasion of your privacy. I also feared what might happen should Smog’s time-traveling consciousness touch yours during the time when a splinter of unreality remained lodged within it. Tempus Redux is a safe form of time-travel because the observer is only that: an observer. They can view the past in safety because they have no power to influence it. There is no risk of a temporal paradox. Usually.”
“Wow.” Fantasy stared past Luna. “I mean. Yikes.”
“Yikes indeed, Fantasy. Other exceptions were made. Smog’s mother. I visited her not long ago. I needed to learn about Smog before he became…Smog. In exchange she demanded to know what I knew. Learning what her son did to her daughter…she hates him now as only a wronged dragon can hate. They hoard their grudges more jealously than their gems. If Smog ever learns of her hate, it shall not be my doing. I knew his punishment might break him. I knew that experiencing his mother’s fresh hatred of him, coming near the end of his punishment, would break him. Most of the other exclusions were for security reasons. I have contingency plans in place if Smog somehow escapes my control and returns to evil. I cannot imagine how he might do that, but that may merely be a failure of imagination. Only a fool assumes that she can see all possible outcomes. He cannot know of those plans, and so he was spared from suffering all the headaches and frustration he has caused me.”
“Okay. Tradewind and other others chose to sleep out the months of not-really-time when the circle was up.” She found it difficult to wrap her head around that kind of magic. “I guess you’re just going to keep them asleep and out of the way until they can’t hurt anything by being awake?”
“Yes, except for Berta. Excuse me, Moon Pie. I have already sent her back to the home she has found and the stallion she loves. There was no need to delay that reunion. Nothing she does from there can affect Aura enough to matter. Not in the next day or two. Especially not since she understands the need to avoid dramatic action. Jindalee Longtail’s inexplicable vanishing, coupled with Smog’s, would likely cause consternation in Freeport. The dream let me identify every covert way his agents in Aura will send word of his disappearance there. The attempts shall only appear to succeed. By the time they learn otherwise, Jindalee shall have reappeared.”
Fantasy groaned. “No more. My head hurts.”
Luna gave a heavy sigh. “Mine as well, and my headaches are just beginning. Aura will remain troubled for a time despite all my efforts. I must remain here until it stabilizes.”
Looking down at Mister Billy, Fantasy spoke. She wasn’t sure if it was a good idea, only that she had to say it. “If I can help, I want to.”
Luna smiled. “Thank you, Miss Longhorn. Perhaps I will think of a way. Your willingness to help was in itself helpful to my mood. But now you should awaken. In a few moments your mother shall enter and request the sordid details of your manipulation of Punctuality.”
“I’ll go with the flow.” Fantasy bowed, remembering her manners. “Your Majesty.”
Luna inclined her head in a regal nod. Standing, she rapped her fore-hoof on the floor three times. It had a strange echo, seeming to come from behind Fantasy as well. Luna spoke, and her voice also had an echo. “Honey? It’s me.”
Fantasy awoke: a smooth transition rather than a jolt. Her eyes slid open and the dream evaporated. A hoof knocked on her bedroom door three more times. “Fantasy?” Berry said. “We need to talk.”
Fantasy sat up, starting to speak…and paused. She held Mister Billy snuggled against her. Fantasy looked over at where she had left him, guarding her inkwell on her desk. Down at the doll again. “Nice trick. Was I sleepwalking?”
Berry spoke through the door. “Sugar-beet. Are you okay?”
“Fine, mom! I’m coming!” She gave Mister Billy a kiss and set him on her pillow. Shaking her mane into something more orderly, she let the sense of déjà vu guide her movements as she headed for the door. It was like moving through a dance she knew by heart. ‘Time to face the music.’ she thought.
For a mare facing a fair degree of parental disapproval, it was a rather cheerful thought.