The sun was still a few hours from rising as Macintosh walked slowly through the Royal Gardens, surveying and cataloging the scope of the task that he'd accepted. Macintosh was a farmer, and early rising was second-nature to him, especially when there was work to do. The full moon along with the conveniently placed lanterns near the walking-paths provided enough light for his eyes to discern just how much needed to be done.
Big Mac felt his ears droop. Agreeing to this might have been a bad idea.
The very nature of the gardens would make things difficult - they had been laid out for aesthetic beauty, with very little regard given to the conditions each variety of plant would need to thrive. While his knowledge of plants other than agricultural varieties was limited, Macintosh knew enough to see that many of the choices that had been made were ill-considered. Delicate, sun-loving flowers were situated at the bases of trees with dense, sun-blocking foliage. Succulents from arid climates had been planted in thick, water-retaining soils that would rot their roots if watering was not painstakingly monitored. Fruit trees that needed others of their family to pollinate them stood solitary vigil, without a chance of bearing forth what they had to offer.
Big Macintosh began to fear that in his awe of Princess Celestia, and his eagerness to be helpful, he might have taken on more than he could ever handle. As he trotted on through the paths that wound through the gardens, his worries began to gnaw at him. He should have just politely declined, and returned to Sweet Apple Acres. That was his home.
Big Mac's pace quickened. The trees and bushes all around him seemed to almost to lean over the path, spindly limbs stretching out for him, to remove this interloper. Mac gritted his teeth, ducked his head, and plunged on. He didn't care where he was going as his legs churned and his breath whistled through his snout. He just had to get away. He didn't belong. Not here, in Canterlot. Not here, with Twilight.
The thought brought him to a halt.
He'd come so far. Could he abandon it all now?
Raising his head, He took a deep breath, trying to calm the nervous thing that currently lived where his heart had once sat.
Despite his panicked galloping, it seemed he'd arrived at a familiar part of the garden. Over his head the huge magnolia tree spread it limbs, stately, sheltering. Before him stood the semicircle of old rose bushes, still wild and in need of a good pruning. As Macintosh walked closer, he noted that those sprawling limbs now bore numerous buds, on the verge of blossoming.
Big Macintosh wasn't the sort of pony who believed in signs and portents; that sort of thing was for foals. Still, the image seemed to calm his panic, for some reason. It was like remembering what hope was. Peace embraced him once again.
Which left him completely unprepared when a commanding voice spoke out behind him.
"Thou possesses a speed that belies such a massive frame, Macintosh Apple."
Macintosh nearly tripped over his own hooves as he spun around to find himself in the presence of the Princess of the Night, her starry mane blowing in some unfelt breeze as she fixed him with an appraising look. Though not as imposing as her sister, Princess Luna was more than tall enough to look Mac in the eye. Her face didn't have Celestia's warm, almost maternal wisdom; instead there was a sense of knowledge gained through trial and sadness, and guarded by implacable will. The eyes that examined him, though not necessarily unkind, were very sharp.
Remembering his manners at the last instant, Macintosh closed his gaping mouth and stumbled into an awkward kneel. "Y-your Highness, I-I'm sorry, I wasn' expectin' that I'd happen to meet ya out here," he stammered. Big Mac had heard all the stories, both the 'official' ones and the less embellished version from Applejack, and he knew that Princess Luna was no longer the dreaded entity known as Nightmare Moon. That knowledge didn't stop his knees from quaking just a bit.
"'Out here,'" Luna said, a pensive expression on her face. She walked around Macintosh, her eyes taking in their surroundings as she made a slow circuit around him. "I see. And where precisely is 'here,' Macintosh Apple?" she asked as she bent her neck to study the budding rosebush.
"Where do we find ourselves, at this moment?" she said, seeming a bit impatient. She looked back at him again, and snorted. "Please rise, good pony. Such a posture sustained for a long period will wreck havoc upon thy knees, given thy great size."
"Thank you, Your Highness," Macintosh said, trying to enunciate his words properly. It seemed like Princess Luna was the formal type. "And this would be the Royal Gardens, though I have to admit I'm a trifle confused by the question."
"Are we, though?" she asked. "For in truth, we are not, for thou art still in thy bed, in the arms of sleep."
It took Big Mac a moment to puzzle out her rather archaic language. "Wait, ya mean I'm dreamin'?"
The Princess nodded. "This place is much on thy mind, and so the dreamscape reflects it."
"Does that mean yer a dream too?"
"Nay gentle Macintosh, I am quite real." She moved next to him, gently touching the budding rose-bush with her muzzle. "I am the Princess of the Night, and all things nocturnal fall under my aegis. This includes the dream-time. There was a time long ago when Equestria was far more dangerous place than it is now, and there were beings that would prey upon ponykind."
"Like timberwolves?" Macintosh asked.
"Indeed, though there were also other more nefarious entities that would pursue ponies beyond the mundane world, into the dreaming itself. I took upon myself the task of being the guardian of the dreams of all ponies, keeping their sleep safe and their minds un-scarred by torment." Luna gave him a grave look. "Though such creatures have been long gone from our world, for the most part, I continue my vigil for all ponies, every night. It is a part of who I am."
Macintosh sat on the ground next to her, staring at her in amazement. "Yer in the dreams of all ponies? At the same time? Scarcely sounds possible."
Luna's face showed the ghost of a smile. "Less plausible than the origins of Zap Apples?"
"Point taken. Though I don' recall seein' ya in my dreams before, Yer Highness. Yer a little hard to forget, I mean."
Princess Luna shrugged, taking one last look at the rose-bush before settling down on the ground herself. "I normally endeavor to remain unobtrusive. I would not seek to cause distress, and I am quite aware that there are still some fears about me in the wake of my time as the Nightmare." Her tone was matter-of-fact, but there was a hint of something in her eye that Big Mac could see - a wound that hadn't quite healed right. "I have approached thee directly because of thy place in the heart of another; namely my sister's protege, Twilight Sparkle."
Macintosh felt a blush starting. "Beggin' yer pardon, Highness, I didn' think our.. uh... relationship was exactly common knowledge yet. Not that I mind if she's told anyone, 'course."
"She has not shared, though I believe that simply stems from a lack of opportunity rather than reluctance to speak of it, for she is most pleased with thee, a fact reflected by her own dreaming, and thy place within it." Luna gave him a rather arch look. "But perhaps it would not be proper for me to speak of the content of her in greater detail."
Big Mac was suddenly glad he'd decided to sit down - it made the shocks easier to take. "Ah... eeyup, I think I agree," he said.
"Yes, well, thou art much on her mind, and that should be remembered." Luna bowed her head slightly, looking vaguely uncomfortable. "I do not normally directly contact a pony in their dreaming, barring some sort of great threat to their mind. In the past I was much more prone to direct intervention, and it did not end well, least of all for me. But things have changed, and even I have changed. I have made friends, and I count Twilight Sparkle amongst them. Her happiness means much to me, and to my sister as well."
"I promise I won' do wrong by Twi, I give ya m'word, Yer Highness," Big Mac said emphatically.
She smiled gently. "I did not doubt thee, Good Macintosh. Thine caring for her is plain for all with the proper sight to see it. Many of your friends have already seen it, in fact. My concern is thine own happiness, for hers is tied to it as well. Thy doubt thine own capabilities regarding the task my sister has set before you... and part of thine heart wished to flee from here, did it not?"
Mac hung his head. "Eeyup, t' be truthful, I did. I don' really know what I'm doin' here. I'm farmer, not a..." Macintosh looked for a word, but it wasn't there. "I mean, I know nature, how t' make things grow, but I don' know anything about makin' em' pretty for folk t' look at. I just got this fear that this is all gonna fail. An' I don' want t' fail the Apple family name." He paused a moment, knowing something else was within him that he couldn't hide from the Princess. " An' I don' want t' fail in front of Twi," he confessed.
"Dost thou think she'd render a harsh judgment upon thee?"
"No! Not a bit! She's a kind pony, kind as there ever was, I just don' want her to be saddled with an embarassin' bumpkin, on anythin' like that. She deserves better," Macintosh said, hanging his head.
"And thou dost not deserve these underestimations of thyself," Luna retorted, softly touching his face with one outstretched wing. "These endeavours are new to thee, and the unknown is intimidating, this is true. But have faith in thyself, Macintosh. Thou hast achieved so much in thy span of years thus far, as simply being here to trade words with me proves. And there is more yet to achieve if thou canst but find the will to embrace the new, rather than flee from it. It may take time, but that is no great matter. This garden... it is patient. As I and my sister are also patient." She looked up at the moon, her eyes a mystery. "Changes in life are something we all must face, in our own way. I have faith thou shalt pass this test. Also remember, thou dost not do this alone. I myself struggled with that particular part of the lesson, I do admit."
He snorted. "Well ya might just find I'm even worse, Yer Highness. We Apples are known for bein' about half-mule in temperament, at times. That bein' said, though, ya really have helped me out here, Princess Luna, an' I promise I'll do my best t' be worthy of the help." He remembered proper manners, and rose to his feet and offered what he hoped was an acceptable bow. "I hope t' see ya around the gardens sometime, fer sure."
Luna rose to her hooves, the feathers of her wings whispering as she stretched them out. "Thou art truly kind to offer, but I fear these gardens have little to offer me. I rarely wander the grounds during the daytime, for I unintentionally cause a scene when I do, and the flowers here hide their beauty during the nighttime hours, as is their nature. But I am confident we shall see each other anon, one way or another."
He nodded. "Eey- that is, I'd like very much yer Highness."
"Indeed." Luna looked at him curiously, pursing her lips. "And thou should awaken now, and prepare thyself for the afternoon's sport."
"Oh, ya mean th' hoofball game. Any pointers, M'Lady?"
"Mmm... I suppose the only advice I can offer on that is to keep an eye on the ball? At least, try to keep the one that isn't on thy lady-love on it," she said, a ghostly little laugh echoing in the air as Macintosh awoke.
To be continued...
Yeah, it's short, I'm sorry about that. Things have been a little hard in my corner of the world lately, and I just wanted to put this out there as a "thank you" to everyone being so patient, and also as my way of showing I'm not abandoning this story. Rest assured, I still love this fic, and I'm very grateful to everyone that reads it.
As usual, I'd like to thank Calliope and They-Call-Me-Orange for dispensing support and butt-kicking to me as necessary. Also, I would like to thank the esteemed Martian on FimFic for helping me with this as well. He's an incredible writer, and if you aren't reading his stuff, you're missing out on some of the best writing on that site, IMHO.
Oh, and apologies for any awkward stuff in Luna's dialog... us southern boys ain't so skilled with the pretty words, but I did my best.