Applejack lay still for a few moments to catch her breath, and to allow her heart to stop thundering while she assessed this new situation. She noted that it was still dark in her room - which was a welcome change. The pony also discovered that she was thoroughly entwined in sweat-soaked bedsheets. Applejack experienced a brief moment of panic when she found that she still could not feel her left leg, but she quickly learned it had just become so tangled in the bed covering that it had gone to sleep.
The mare looked around the shadowy room while she smacked her left foreleg with her right hoof to slowly bring it tingling back life. She could barely make out a few details from the dim light of the gibbous moon shining in the window, but she saw what she was after when she noticed that one corner appeared to be a bit darker than the others.
"So, am Ah really awake this time?" Applejack addressed the comment to the corner of the room, and she was not surprised to see a stygian form stir to life. The shade slowly detached itself from the other blackness and stepped into the wan light with its silvered hooves glinting.
As Luna emerged from the corner, the stars and nebulae in her mane and tail slowly flickered into life, adding their own faint glow to that of the moon. The alicorn's eyes gleamed impishly in the meager glimmer of her mane. "You are truly awake now, Applejack."
The farm pony flopped her head back on the pillow and tried to shake the pins and needles out of her left leg. From the corner of her eye, she watched the dark princess walk languidly up to the side of her bed and stop there to fix the orange mare with an open expression of amusement. Applejack patted the leg a couple more times.
"Poor Applejack," said Luna in an innocent, dulcet tone. "Are you making sure that it is still attached?"
"Maybe," replied the other mare. She quickly pulled her other hoof back and glared up at the alicorn. "What in the hay was all ... that?"
"That?" said the tall princess with a look of mock surprise. She tapped her chin with a gleaming hoof as if pondering on the earth pony's question. "Dear Applejack, I believe that was me winning our little bet." Luna remained standing on her rear hooves, but she leaned her front elbows on the bed, curling the hooves down so that she could rest her regal chin on her royal wrists. "I am still learning the modern nomenclature for such things," said the princess more seriously, "but I believe the accepted thing to say at a time like this is booyah!"
"Whoa now, hang on," said Applejack, squinting up at the gloating princess. "Ah seem to recall having an unseemly amount of cider last night," she said. "How do Ah know that wasn't responsible for the dreams rather than you?"
Luna gave a quick, half-frown and shrugged. "A fair point," she conceded. "Though I do not recall it being cider to which you said - to quote you directly - 'Ah bet ya couldn't give me more dream than Ah could handle, Princess.'"
"Well hey there, Luna. Ah certainly didn't expect to find ya here at our little shindig - especially not all the way down here in Ponyville."
The princess started and almost spilled the tall glass of sparkling cider over which she had been brooding. "Hello, Applejack," said Luna, quickly regaining her regal composure. "I am here because my sister insisted that I need to 'get out more'." Her tone made it clear that she disagreed to a point. "Alas, it always ends up being uncomfortable for me. I am so disconnected from modern ponies that small talk becomes difficult. Everypony wants to talk about their sports ball team, or some latest entertainer of whom I've never heard."
Applejack's encounter with the princess had not been entirely by chance. While the farm pony was not averse to parties, she also tended to grow tired of crowds very quickly, and she spied the alicorn when she'd been looking for a place to be alone for a bit. The tall princess had been staring distractedly into a flute of sparkling cider and - for lack of a better word - skulking in the shadows beside a pillar in exactly the way one did not do when they wished to attract attention.
"Well, under the circumstances Ah guess Ah don't blame ya for wantin' to be alone," said Applejack, "an' Ah thought I'd come over and be alone with ya, if that's okay."
"Yes, of course, this is fine," said Luna with an awkward grin, but it quickly faded into a long, glum sigh. "Well, it's not really fine at all," she admitted. "I came here to mingle, but instead I am standing off in the shadows and avoiding everypony."
Applejack took another swig of her cider, wiped her muzzle with the back of a hoof and winked at the princess. "Well technically ya kinda are minglin' now, Princess."
Luna's expression brightened. "Why, yes I am," she said. "Very well, let us mingle, Applejack. Would you like to talk about something that does not involve sports or entertainment?"
"Well, Ah could talk endlessly about apples," replied the other mare, "but Ah'm more interested in hearing more about you, Princess. Are ya still doing all that..." Applejack spun a circle with her hoof in an effort to elicit the right words, "dream ... stuff?" Luna quickly became more animated.
"Yes!" she said. "Most of my nights are spent monitoring dreams, and intervening when the dreams turn bad."
"That has to be hard," said Applejack pensively. "Ah mean, goin' from nightmare to nightmare has to be a bit of a strain on a mare."
The alicorn scrunched up the side of her face and shrugged. She took a delicate sip of her sparkling cider and said, "Not really. Most nightmares are much scarier when you are in them than when you are viewing them from the outside. Often when I rescue a pony from a bad dream and they get to see it from another viewpoint, they feel a little silly for having been afraid." The princess's eyes appeared to lose their focus for a moment as she took another sip. "You can learn a lot about ponies from their nightmares."
"Ah can imagine," agreed Applejack. The two of them stood without speaking for a time, sipping their ciders and enjoying the presence of somepony else who could appreciate silent time together. The orange mare almost took her leave when she saw that the party organizers were setting up a square dance, but she cast a sidelong glance at the princess. "Hey Luna, how come Ah never see you in any of mah bad dreams?"
The alicorn tittered and cocked her head at the orange pony with a bemused smile. "You don't have nightmares, Applejack."
"Ah do," protested the other pony. "Sometimes when Ah dream about buckin' trees, one 'em won't drop any apples." She saw the princess's disbelieving grin and doubled down. "Ah'm serious. When yer livelihood depends on apples, havin' trees that don't drop 'em is a scary thing." The orange mare could not maintain her serious expression long enough to finish the sentence though. "Who am Ah kiddin'? My dreams are all borin' ones about buckin' apples and pressin' cider."
Applejack tipped up her flagon and made a face when a single drop rolled out onto her tongue. "Aw shucks, empty again," she said. "Guess Ah'm gonna have to sneak back out there for a refill. Can Ah get ya one while I'm..."
Before the pony could finish, the princess held up a hoof in a universal "give me one second" gesture as she downed her own cider and then winked out with a muted "pop". A second later Luna reappeared, bearing refills for both ponies.
Applejack heard a confused waitpony in the distance say, "Hey, was that Luna?"
"Ah ain't never gonna get used to that teleport thing," said the orange pony as she accepted the fresh mug, "but Ah approve of the results." She raised her mug to the princess and took another sip. "Ah was serious when Ah asked why I never see ya in my dreams, though," Applejack continued. "Ah mean, Ah know ya mostly deal with nightmares an' stuff like that, but maybe ya could - I dunno - pop in and spice things up a bit in mah dreams. Buckin' apples every night gets a bit old."
Luna turned down her mouth and shook her head stiffly. "I cannot," she said. "I only liberate others from nightmares. When I try to meddle in the dreams themselves, the results can be ... unsettling."
Applejack swirled her cider while she considered the alicorn's words. "Not sure Ah follow," she said finally. "Are ya sayin' that everything ya touch turns to nightmares?"
"Not as such," said Luna. "But I suppose that word is probably as good a fit as any."
"Ah ain't afraid of no nightmares." Applejack shrugged. "Ah mean they can't be any worse than night after night of buckin' apples in mah sleep." She tossed back another deep swallow of cider. "Ya may not have noticed, yer highness, but Ah don't scare very easy. Ah bet ya couldn't give me more dream than Ah could handle, Princess."
Luna frowned slightly and cast quick, furtive glances in both directions. With a nod, she took a dainty sip of her cider, and then leaned closer to Applejack to whisper out of the side of her mouth. "How much?"
Applejack blinked. "Ah beg yer pardon?"
"How much are you willing to bet that I could not give you a dream that you can't handle?" asked the tall, dark pony, tilting her head in the other mare's direction. "I am willing to make a wager on that."
"Aw, c'mon yer highness, that's just a figure of speech. Makin' bets is the kind of things that common ponies do, not princesses."
"Oh?" said Luna. The alicorn smirked and took a long, unprincessy slurp of her sparkling cider without breaking eye contact with the earth pony. "If only there were a princess here with whom we could consult on the subject."
"Well, Ah guess in fairness Ah can only go on the princesses I know best," conceded Applejack. "Ah can promise you that Twilight would find the whole idea appallin'."
"Well, yes," agreed Luna. "But Twilight Sparkle can be..."
"A stick in the mud sometimes," promoted Applejack helpfully.
"I was going to say 'a bit too self-conscious', but she will grow out of it." The princess eyed Applejack with a slight frown of disapproval. "I can't believe you called her that." She bobbled her head, "But now that it's out there... Anyway, do we have a bet or not?"
"All Ah was sayin' is that Ah used the term 'Ah bet' as a figure of speech that ... uh, Princess, whatcha doin'?"
Luna had a hoof raised behind her ear and was looking left and right with a puzzled expression. "Pardon me, Applejack, but I thought I heard something," said the alicorn. "It sounded an awful lot like somepony being a chicken."
Applejack lowered her head and pawed the ground. "Them's fightin' words, Princess," she snorted. "Fine, ya want a bet, ya got a bet. Ah'll bet ya five of my best, home-baked apple pies that ya can't give me a dream that Ah can't handle. Ah'm talkin' about one of them 'wake up in a pool of sweat' nightmares. Ah'll even buck fresh apples for it in the mornin'."
"Very well," said Luna with a nod of approval. "I accept a payment in pies as a fair tender when I win." The alicorn cast an imperious look down toward Applejack. "On the minuscule chance that I do not win, what do you demand in payment?"
"The same," said Applejack, buffing her hoof on her chest. "Ya show up at the farm bright an' early to buck apples an' make pies." The mare examined her hoof and blew off an imaginary mote of dust. "An' don't ya worry yerself none about the buckin', Luna. It's all in the technique, so even a delicate thing like yerself with them scrawny princess legs can do it with a bit of trainin'."
"Scrawny, indeed," said Luna as her eyes gave a little flash. "Oh, it is on." The alicorn kicked off one of her silver shoes, spat on her hoof and raised it.
"Okay, ya beat me fair an' square," said Applejack. She lifted her foreleg slightly from her eyes so that she could see the alicorn leaning on her bed. "Them sweat-soaked sheets don't lie. I'll set to bakin' them pies for you in the mornin' because an Apple always pays their debts."
"Thank you, Applejack," said Luna with a gracious bow of her head. She started to rise from the bed but Applejack forestalled the move.
"Hold up," the orange pony said quickly. "Ah got questions if Ah can keep ya for a couple more minutes."
"Of course," said the princess as she settled on the edge of the bed again. "What did you wish to know, Applejack?"
"Them dreams..." said the other pony, trailing off in thought. "Was any of that stuff real?"
"They were all dreams," said Luna. She brushed back her twinkling mane and grinned almost shyly. "I am rather proud of the third one."
Applejack nodded and bunched up some of the damp bedsheets between her hooves while she thought. "What was with all the weird dreams before the one at the end?" she asked.
Luna tapped her chin with a hoof pensively. "Well, to be honest, those were partly me having some fun. Their main purpose was to serve as a slight-of-hoof to get you off balance, but I was also testing a few things on you to see what really made you nervous." The princess grinned and shrugged. "In fairness, it was Celestia's suggestion to toss out a couple of weird ones to - in her words - 'soften her up'."
"Wait, ya got yer sister involve in this?"
"Well, yes - of course," said Luna, looking shocked that the pony was surprised. "My sister has a long history of making wagers." She grinned. "Though not so much recently because she has gained a reputation for sometimes," she paused and gently tapped her muzzle in thought, "exploiting loopholes."
"What kind of loopholes?"
Luna rolled her eyes. "The next time you are having tea with my sister, ask her about the wager with the Countess of Prancelvania - I am sure she would take great delight in repeating that tale to somepony else."
Applejack yawned into her hoof, but waved her other one at the princess to stay for just a bit longer.
"Ah guess my last question is how ya managed to figure out the one thing that might scare me," she said. "Of all the monsters and disasters and nightmarish things ya could have thrown at me, how could ya know the one thing that would make me wake in a sweat?"
"Oh that," Luna tapped her hooves together and looked down with a tinge of guilt. "I have to give the credit where it's due. Twilight Sparkle is the one who told me about your aversion to needles."
"She arrived at the party with Celestia after you had already left for the night," explained the alicorn.
Applejack shook her head and frowned in disappointment. "An' she just came right out and told ya that, huh? Some mares just can't keep a secret."
"She didn't, at first," said Luna. "Twilight Sparkle was actually quite appalled when I mentioned our wager, until..." Luna coughed daintily into her hoof. "I might have accidentally mentioned your 'stick in the mud' comment to her."
Applejack laughed and shook her head again. "Accidentally," she said with a scoff. "Ah guess mah big mouth done me in again," The orange pony pointed an accusing hoof at the other mare. "Ya princesses play dirty though, Luna."
"We do," the alicorn agreed. She pushed herself up from the bed and turned to leave. "You learn a few tricks over the centuries, Applejack." The tall princess stood and stretched sensually before turning to leave. "I must go now - I am sensing nightmares that need my attention." She glanced back over her shoulder and cast an enigmatic grin and wink toward the earth pony before she melted into the shadow again. "Sweet dreams, my little pony," she said, and her light chuckle faded with the flicker of her mane.
Applejack lay awake for almost an hour after the princess left, staring at the dim ceiling beams that were just visible in the weak moonlight. It took a bit for her to admit to herself that she was a little afraid to go back to sleep. "Ah feel like a silly filly after a bad dream," she scowled. The mare tossed and turned a few times before she finally resorted to counting apples.
The pony had just lost track of her count when the bedroom door slammed open and Rarity burst into the room. The white unicorn was preceded by a hovering bottle that seemed to be the focus of her concern. She was wearing the flattering, flank-hugging bathrobe she had received for as a gift, and her face was set in the adorable pout that usually meant she was going to whine disproportionally over something trivial.
"Applejack dear, have you been using my mane conditioner? I just bought it last week and now it's over half gone!"
Applejack sat bolt upright in bed, blinking in the murk of her room.
"Goldarn it, Luna," she cussed, smacking her thigh angrily with a hoof.
She sighed, punched her pillow back into shape and then lay down again. "Aw, whatever," she muttered. "Still a couple hours to dawn, and Ah'm kinda curious where this one's goin'."