From her seat outside the café, Luna watched the bustle of the market as she sipped her coffee. She had been coming to Ponyville every week for months now and the whispers and stares had finally subsided. It had been difficult at first, but she had stuck through it for her friend.
Derpy returned to their table with two plates of cake.
"This place does a great carrot cake," said Derpy, putting one of the plates in front of Luna. "Here, try some."
The two made small talk between mouthfuls.
"I hear Celestia has you back at your old job," said Derpy, wiping a few crumbs from her lips.
"Yes, she feels that the people trust me again," said Luna. "I'm really glad to be back at doing what I do best. It's been difficult without anything to occupy myself while I'm not here."
"That's great," said Derpy. "Is it any different this time around?"
Luna shook her head sadly. "It's the same as it ever was. People just don't appreciate my night. They spend the whole time sleeping through it."
"Aw, Luna," said Derpy. "A lot of people don't like their jobs."
"You like yours."
"I like it because it gets me out of the house. It doesn't mean I'm appreciated for my work. The only time people notice me is when I'm late delivering a package they're expecting. I suppose if I'm not appreciated, it just means I'm doing my job right."
Luna laughed. "That's not true. I've seen people squealing with delight when you arrive with a package." Shielding her eyes from the sun, she looked at the sky and sighed. "I don't think anyone has ever celebrated darkness descending."
Derpy hated to see Luna brooding. "At least it's easy work," she ventured.
"Easy?" cried Luna. The other patrons in the café turned to look at them and she lowered her voice again. "Easy? It's a long night, Derpy. You don't understand what it's like."
"No," said Derpy, taken aback. "No, I suppose I don't."
Luna smiled as an idea occurred to her. "I know! Let's swap jobs."
Derpy could only stare at her in disbelief.
"No, really," said Luna. "Just for one day. I'll do the mail run and you raise the moon."
Derpy laughed nervously. "Luna, I don't have any powers. I certainly couldn't raise the whole moon."
"I'll lend you the powers you need. Come on, Derpy, just one day."
Derpy considered the offer. The more she thought of it, the better it sounded. It was practically a day off, away from her daily rounds.
"All right, you're on," she said.
"Oh, what have I gotten myself into?" thought Luna as the postmaster stacked another box onto the already substantial pile next to her desk. The gruff old pony seemed to be enjoying this a bit too much.
"Little Derpy pulled a fast one on you, yer highness. Miss Rarity's new fabric samples always come in on the first of every month and Twilight Sparkle is restocking her library this week, so there's a lot of heavy lifting today."
Luna groaned, but continued to sort through the letters in front of her. Derpy had tried to explain the route she should take, but her notes included flow networks and shortest-path formulas, which seemed far beyond Luna's embarrassingly limited mathematics. She had even included a detailed weather report with wind speeds.
Eventually, satisfied with the order of delivery, Luna stood and hoisted the saddlebags onto her back but immediately buckled under the weight. Forcing herself to stand up straight, she trotted unsteadily out the door of the post office.
The sun was rising in the east as she stepped out into the chill air, meaning she was already behind schedule, so she braced herself for a jump and spread her wings. Unfortunately, the saddlebags weighed her down too much for flight and she could only manage a few metres before dropping heavily to the ground again. Derpy, clearly, had far stronger wings than she did. Luna settled on a brisk canter until her load would be lighter.
Panting heavily, Luna was struggling up the path to the Sweet Apple Acres house when a small blur sprinted out from behind the building towards her. It was Winona, the Apple family's dog, her tongue out and tail pumping. When she got closer, she skidded to a halt in front of Luna and her eyes widened at the unfamiliar pony. Where was Derpy? Who was this strange mare? Danger!
Winona began to bark and snarl at Luna, who stood her ground. Not getting a reaction, Winona dove in near the stranger and snapped her jaws menacingly. Luna sighed heavily and, lowering her horn, levitated the dog into the air out of reach.
There was an audible "pop" and Winona suddenly dropped to the ground, landing painfully on her rear. Luna had only a brief moment to regret lending quite so much of her depleted power to Derpy before Winona stood and turned furious eyes towards her.
Big McIntosh, still groggy from rising so early, opened the front door to see what all the commotion was about. He watched in disbelief as the royal Princess Luna ran screaming towards him with a livid dog snapping at her heels.
"Winona! Sit! STOP!" he bellowed, running into the yard. The dog, hearing the urgent tone in her master's voice, slowed down and drooped her ears, coming to a stop in the middle of the trail. Luna, meanwhile, barrelled past Big McIntosh and into the fenced yard, where she slumped on the dirt path, looking about for any further dangers but mostly hoping her lungs wouldn't collapse.
"Oh no. Oh miss, are you all right?" babbled the huge red stallion leaning over her. "I am so sorry! She's normally such a good dog."
"Wa'" breathed Luna.
"Eyy... didn't catch that, miss."
"Wa'er" she repeated. Her tongue felt like sandpaper now.
"Wa... Oh! Water! Right away!"
Luna buckled over and lay gasping in the dirt as Big McIntosh ran inside for water.
It was nearly noon by the time Luna finally finished her run and made it back to the post office, far behind schedule. The postmaster had gone home, but she found he had left a lettuce and tomato sandwich on her desk. It was soggy by now, but she devoured it hungrily. Her back was aching and her knees felt like jelly, but there was still the stack of parcels to be delivered. Fortunately, both Rarity's boutique and Twilight's library weren't far from here. She used one of Derpy's harnesses to fasten two boxes of books to her back. She had to tighten the straps considerably. Derpy must be a good bit bigger than Luna, but you certainly couldn't tell by the way she carried herself about town. She always sagged at the shoulder as if she was worried about taking up too much space.
Luna was testing the balance of the harness when the first drops of rain spattered on the skylight above. It rapidly became a torrent beating down on the small building. Luna opened the front door she was immediately struck by a gale strong enough to ground any pegasus. She closed the door again and leaned against it. Remembering Derpy's weather schedule, she fished it out of the debris on her desk and traced a hoof down the timeline. "12:00 to 14:00 - Downpour" it said. Derpy had highlighted it in green marker and written beside it: "Make sure you finish before this."
Luna moaned and planted her chin on the desk. She knew she couldn't stall any longer. She was already behind with the packages and her friend's reputation was at stake. What was it she had said?
"The only time people notice me is when I'm late," muttered Luna. She grabbed a waterproof coat from the rack next to the door and flung it over her shoulders. She struggled to make it cover the packages as well before remembering there were special bags that she could use to protect them.
Of course, that meant she had to take the coat and harness off again and redo it all over. She screamed at the empty office in frustration.
It was six o' clock when Luna limped exhaustedly up the path to Derpy's house. She rapped on the door until the grey-coated mare opened it.
"Hi Luna," she said cheerfully. "Come in. How was your day?"
Muttering inaudibly, Luna trudged through the hall into Derpy's lounge. She swayed unsteadily in front of the couch before turning to her friend.
"I'm commandeering this sofa in the name of the royal family."
She was asleep before she even hit the cushions. Derpy wrapped a blanket over Luna's shoulders before sneaking out the front door and taking flight for Canterlot.
"What have I gotten myself into?" muttered Derpy, shifting uncomfortably. She had been led up the steps in the middle of the castle's vast courtroom and placed on one of two huge mahogany thrones. Beside her sat Princess Celestia and below them both, a crowd of guards, scholars and onlookers had gathered to watch the spectacle.
She felt like an insect next to the princess, whose presence seemed to fill the room. Luna had explained the situation to her sister and eventually gotten her consent, but Derpy worried that she disapproved of the scheme.
The crowd watched her with piercing eyes as she unravelled Luna's scroll and waited for Celestia to lower the sun beneath the horizon. Her cue came when the last rays of light dipped out of view and she began to read the arcane text from the scroll, which glowed with a violet hue. Several times she stuttered and had to re-read sections before the scroll started to flicker as panic set in. She couldn't imagine the consequences if she fouled this up, and the fear only made her reading worse.
"Dear," said a voice. Derpy looked up to find Celestia smiling kindly at her. "You're doing fine. Keep going. I'm here if anything goes wrong."
Comforted, Derpy finished the scroll and breathed a sigh of relief as the moon hove into view, filling the chamber with silver light.
"Very good," said Celestia, rising from her throne and gesturing for the assembly to leave. "Keep an eye on the kingdom until I return. If you need me, the guards will know where to find me."
"Thank you, princess," said Derpy, bowing low.
"Good night, then. Oh, and Derpy?"
"Thank you for everything you've done for my sister. She speaks very highly of you. I don't think I've ever seen her so happy as when she sets out to Ponyville to see you."
Derpy blushed. "She is a beloved friend, princess. Perhaps the first true friend I've ever had."
Celestia smiled again and left, leaving only a few of her royal guards behind who took their positions at the door.
Derpy fished out a notebook from her saddlebags. Luna's instructions had been complicated, so she had taken a lot of notes, written in the back of her old geography notebook. She flipped past a poorly-written essay on the flora and fauna of the Everfree forest to Luna's directions for remote viewing. She memorised the steps again and settled back in the throne. She closed her eyes and tried to visualise the moon. At first she saw the familiar face of the mare in the moon and had to remind herself that it looked different now. Slowly, she drew a detailed image of the moon in her mind and moved on to the next step. Concentrating, she felt herself rising slowly from the throne and ascending into the image, merging herself with it.
She opened her eyes and gasped. Below her stretched all of Equestria, dimly lit by the silver light. As she watched, clouds flowed over dark forests, lights twinkled in the cities and she caught a glimpse of her pearly reflection in a vast lake. Derpy had often flown high above Ponyville in the dark, but nothing compared to this. Beside her, a field of stars stretched into infinity, unmarred by the glare of the lights on the ground. She could see how Luna would be proud of her design.
After a while, Derpy remembered her duties and composed herself. She was the kingdom's watcher for tonight and needed to be vigilant. She focused her vision on the populace below. She had been stargazing for some time, it seemed, since most ponies had retired to their homes and were preparing for bed. As she watched, lights were being extinguished in bedrooms all over the land.
Then the prayers started.
Derpy was never one for praying, but her mother had taken a lot of comfort in speaking to Celestia through prayer. She would give thanks for a good meal or praise the princess for a fortuitous event. Derpy realised now that these were only the prayers her mother spoke aloud during the day. At night, curled up in bed, ponies stared into the darkness and reflected on their lives. Often, it seemed, they didn't like what they saw.
Prayers to Luna begged for a safe haven for the night, for a better day tomorrow, for change, for someone to hear their problems. As Derpy listened, the prayers rose to a cacophony. She tried to focus on the familiar, but even then the pleas she heard drowned out her own thoughts.
Silver Spoon was afraid of the dark, but her parents insisted on turning out the light. She flinched at every imagined figure in the shadows and buried her head under the covers, weeping and begging for protection.
Romana ran her hoof though the mane of the filly sleeping on her flank and looked at the clock. Berry was late returning home again. Through tears, she prayed that her lover wouldn't spend the night drunk in a ditch again. She and their daughter worried about her so much.
Applejack stared at the ceiling of her bedroom and tried to relax, but her mind drifted again to the family budget. The farm provided enough food for them all, but profits were slim this year. She couldn't face telling Granny Smith that she would have to put up with the constant ache of her hip for another month, or Apple Bloom that she couldn't afford the doll house she wanted so much for her birthday. They all worked so hard; wasn't it only right that they get the happiness they deserved?
Spike turned restlessly in his bed, his thoughts constantly returning to the image of his mother. He missed her so much he thought his heart would break. Couldn't he see her again?
Eventually, the prayers slowed and stopped as ponies drifted off to sleep, but Derpy reeled with the sheer sorrow and fear that had been directed at her. Is this really what Luna did every night?
Drying her eyes, she settled in for the long, lonely hours ahead.
They met again at the same café the following week. Derpy had offered to get their food from the counter, but Luna had been very insistent on going herself. "You've been working all morning," she had said. "Rest yourself for a bit."
Luna returned with a bottle of red wine and seated herself across the table from Derpy. Luna seemed very cheerful today, but Derpy was still guilt-ridden about the comment she had made the previous week.
"Luna," she began. "I'm really sorry I said your job was easy. I don't think I could do it even once more. I really didn't mean any offence."
Luna's bright laugh made Derpy feel at ease again. "You didn't offend me, Derpy. But I'm glad we traded places. My muscles ached for days, but it helped me come to terms with a few of my own worries."
Leaning forward, she poured a glass of wine for each of them. She raised hers above the table.
"May our work always show the effort we put into it," she said.
Laughing, Derpy raised her own glass. "And the love we put into it."
That night, with the moon high in the sky, Luna watched as her weary subjects retired to their beds. They may sleep through the night she provided, she thought, but that's all right. She was happy that she could give them the rest that the day could not.