Everypony who was anypony lived or at least had a vacation home in Canterlot. There were some exceptions, of course, as the less fortunate, ungifted, or otherwise fashion-challenged found their way into the city, much to the chagrin of the snobbier inhabitants. And much to her chagrin, Crystal Wishes was the daughter of Upper Crust and Jet Set, two ponies who should have been listed in the dictionary as the prime example of snobs. She had already checked; they weren't.
Her parents were both notable ponies that everypony knew in the fashion industry and high-class society, which meant a lot of eyes on her wherever she went. The fillies and colts in her class at Canterlot Elementary all said the same, shallow things every day before school started:
"It's so cool that your parents are the trendiest ponies in all of Equestria!"
"I wonder what kind of cutie mark you'll get! Probably something in fashion!"
"Or something extravagant!"
If only they knew what her parents were really like. She sighed and looked up when the teacher entered the classroom. Although she wanted to focus on that day's lessons, sugar-coated praise melted into judgmental whispers behind her back in true Canterlot style. It was impossible to focus with their sharp-edged words piercing her concentration.
"It's a shame that such cool parents have to have such a lame daughter."
"Yeah, I mean, how can she still be a blank flank?"
"Her parents must be so embarrassed!"
Crystal groaned and sank down in her seat, though a sarcastic smile crawled onto her face. At least they had something right.
In between Ms. Austere Tutor's lessons, Crystal heard the barbed whispers jabbing into her back. Her classmates smiled to her face, but she knew it was only because of her parents. None of them were her friends; she didn't have any of those.
Eventually, she protected herself the only way she knew how. She gave up on trying to focus and instead started to write in her notebook.
Where had she left off? Oh, right, the wicked stallion was going to steal the princess! A smile curled her lips as the quill started to dance across the page, continuing the story of Prince Bascule and Princess Shy.
The stallion felt his heart race when he saw her: a beautiful mare with eyes like rubies, a coat of silver, and a flowing mane of pink velvet. "I must have her," he whispered, slipping out of the crowd to retreat home—but he would be back.
From her perch on the balcony, Princess Shy shivered and stepped closer to Bascule.
"What's wrong?" he asked and looked down at her.
"I don't know," she said as she closed her eyes. "But something bad is going to happen."
Crystal blinked a few times as the bell sounded, bringing her back to reality.
Ms. Tutor smiled, a little wearily, and moved to stand by the door to watch each of her students hurrying out of their seats. "All right, my little ponies. I'll see you tomorrow. Remember to practice your mathematics; we have a quiz on Monday!"
Crystal slipped her precious notebook into her saddlebags and hopped down from her seat to blend into the crowd of fillies and colts rushing for the door. While they cheered and immediately set about playing in the courtyard, she trotted straight for home.
It was a large house on one of the main streets, which was quite the notable thing, as most ponies in the town lived in condominiums just to make the claim that they were citizens of Canterlot. Above all else, no matter the cost, her parents were relentless when it came to ensuring their high status in society was boldly stated.
She willed the door open with her magic as she walked up to it and tried to step as quietly as she could, hoping to not be noticed. She winced at the sound of her mother's airy voice coming from the other room.
"Oh, darling, you're home! What did you get your cutie mark in?" Her mother trotted through the doorway between the kitchen and the living room, then froze mid-step. "Oh." Both her expression and her voice dripped with disappointment.
Crystal tried to smile. "No cutie mark today, either, Mom."
Upper Crust raised a hoof to her muzzle to hide her frown, but Crystal had already seen it.
Crystal forced herself to keep smiling, then an idea brought a bright sincerity to her face that she quickly tried to smother. "It's awful, Mom!" She turned her head to look at her bare flank, lips puckered in an exaggerated pout. "I'm the only pony at school without a cutie mark! Amber Joy just got hers last week."
Jet Set leaned his head through the doorway into the room. "Did you say—"
"—the only pony?" her mother finished while her father walked over.
Crystal sighed and nodded. "Yes, the only pony! But if my dearest parents insist, I'll keep working on getting my cutie mark so I can fit in and be like all the other ponies."
Upper Crust waved a hoof. "Now, now, darling, let's not be so hasty!"
Jet Set nodded. "Absolutely! A rare commodity must be valued, you know!"
"Rare commodity?" Crystal beamed up at them. Her eyes shimmered in the light from that calculated angle, a skill any true Canterlot citizen knew by the age of three. "Me?"
"Why, of course, my darling," her mother cooed as she stroked Crystal's blonde and pink mane. "Who else but our little pony could be so special?"
Crystal nodded. "Great, I'm glad that's settled!" She galloped through their legs and up the stairs. "I'll be down for dinner!"
Jet Set hurried to the bottom of the stairs to call up after her, "Try not to discover any pesky talents while you're up there! We'd hate for you to be like everypony else!"
"Kay, thanks!" She closed her bedroom door and flopped on the bed.
Crystal remained there for a few silent moments before she realized she had started to cry. She rolled over to stare at the ceiling with a blank expression—as blank as her now-special flank—and begged herself to calm down before one of her parents came in.
"I'm just not good at anything," she muttered bitterly.
She sighed and rolled back onto her stomach. One of her saddlebags' flaps opened and her notebook lifted out of it, wrapped in her pink magic. She floated the notebook over, willed it open, and raised the quill from where she had left off.
"Let's see." The quill's feathered end rubbed against the underside of her chin. "So, when the princess goes missing, the prince will be distracted by—" She scrunched up her nose, then gasped. "By another princess! Ooh." She shivered as the quill furiously scrawled along the notebook paper. "But, of course, he'll realize that she's not the one. Right?"
The quill stopped taking notes. Crystal looked around her room for an answer. All along the walls were posters of scenes from her favorite foal's tales where the prince and princess finally fall in love. She looked at the classic 'love at first sight' moment from Snow Whinny and the Seven Foals with flowers and butterflies encircling the pair, as well as 'true love's first kiss' before the setting sun in The Little Mermare.
She sighed and lowered the quill before she rolled over onto her back. Above her bed was a single poster of her most favorite of them all: Sleeping Mare. She stared up at the idyllic scene that featured the beautiful Aurora, disguised as Briar Rose, dancing in the forest with her love-to-be, both gazing fondly at each other.
Crystal frowned. "True love is real, isn't it?" She turned her head and stared at the notebook where almost a hundred pages of prose rested. "Oh, I hope it is."
A knock came from the other side of her door and she gasped. The notebook slammed shut, and she flung it into her saddlebags as quickly as her magic could send it through the air.
"Darling, dinner is ready," her mother called.
"Okay, Mom!" She glanced at the saddlebags and her magic flared to cover the notebook with some textbooks. Feeling safe, she left her room to go downstairs and joined her parents for dinner.
A few days later, a classmate stopped her outside the school, which wasn't all that unusual. It was almost routine at that point to have some filly or colt try to suck up to her for their parents' sake. What was unusual, however, was that as soon as Crystal looked up, she realized she was completely surrounded by wide, prying eyes.
The filly in front of her gawked. "It's true!"
The small gathering of fillies and colts around them gasped, and a quiet buzz of murmuring filled the air.
"I can't believe it!" a colt exclaimed.
Crystal glanced nervously around and squeezed her notebook to her chest. "Believe what?" Her heart started to race and her chest ached from its pounding.
A filly turned to another and whispered, "She is the only pony in school without a cutie mark! I'm so jealous!"
Her white coat did nothing to hide the sudden flush she felt when all the eyes in the courtyard landed on her rump. All at once, realization hit her and she groaned, "Oh, no."
This wasn't good. Her parents must have bragged to their friends, who went home and scolded their foals about having a cutie mark.
Crystal hadn't thought things through at all.
Another filly muttered somewhat bitterly, "My mother told me that not having a cutie mark is in this year, but I already got mine."
"Wow, Crystal Wishes! You're so lucky," cooed the most popular filly in their class, Golden Pants. She sidled up to Crystal and batted her long eyelashes. "Can I sit by you in class?"
Oh, this was worse than before. Much, much worse.
Crystal lowered her head and hurried through the gossiping crowd into the school. She slid into her seat and set her notebook safely on her desk where she could keep an eye on it.
"Good morning!" an unfamiliar voice exclaimed from the seat beside hers. "I'm Velvet Step!"
Crystal turned her head and blinked at the filly sitting there. She was smaller than Crystal, which was odd, given that earth ponies were generally bigger than unicorns. She had a soft pink coat and deep violet eyes, the colors of which complemented her bubbly voice. Her mane and tail were a darker mauve in color, both cut at an angle so they were long in the front short in the back.
"Good morning," Crystal finally replied.
Velvet beamed at her. "I just transferred here from Manehattan!"
Unceremoniously and without thinking, Crystal glanced down at Velvet's flank and smiled brightly. "Oh! You don't have a cutie mark!"
Velvet's tail curled around herself to hide her rump, her ears fell, and tears almost immediately welled up in her eyes. "Sh—Shoot," she stammered, her voice suddenly fragile and void of its previous cheer. "I thought—I mean, I knew somepony would notice eventually, but—"
Crystal interrupted her with a wave of both hooves. "No, wait, look!" She wiggled in her seat to angle her own blank flank into view. "Neither do I!"
Velvet sniffled and looked down at Crystal's rump. Her ears twitched upward in surprise. "Oh! You don't!"
Excitement filled Crystal's little chest that she did her best to contain with a giggle. Maybe today wasn't going to be so bad after all.
"Okay, um, so, things are going to be really confusing for you." Crystal giggled again and held out her hoof. "Anyway, I'm Crystal Wishes. After school, let's go to Quills and Sofas so I can explain, okay?"
Velvet stared at the hoof for a moment. Slowly, the tears and sniffling subsided and she finally smiled as they shook hooves. "Okay."
The quiet moment was abruptly interrupted when their classmates, who had been hovering at the door, finally poured in to surround them.
"The new student doesn't have a cutie mark!" one cried.
"They're, like, an unstoppable duo now!" another cheered.
"Will you come over to my house after school?"
"Can I be your friend even though I have a cutie mark?"
Velvet looked to Crystal for help while they were bombarded with what were understandably confusing questions. Crystal simply smiled and offered a light shrug, which only confused her further.
Once school was finally over, Crystal grabbed Velvet's hoof and hurried her out of the classroom. They outran the mob of their newly converted fans and ducked into the quaint little shop of Quills and Sofas, which was a pretty straightforward store.
Canterlot had the largest school system in all of Equestria, so quills were always in high demand. Sofas were, too, since they were considered the 'centerpiece of the home' and furniture fashion changed on an almost monthly basis. Why they were sold in one store was a mystery, but they had been in business all of Crystal's life, so she guessed it worked well enough.
"Well, good afternoon, Crystal Wishes!" the proprietor, Mr. Quills, exclaimed from behind the counter. "Need any more—"
"Nope," Crystal hurriedly interrupted, nodding her head at Velvet. "I just need a place to sit and talk, if that's okay, please?"
Mr. Quills chuckled. "Ah, I understand," he said with a wink. "Of course it's okay. There are some older sofas in the back that you can use. Nopony usually goes that far back in the store, so it'll stay quiet."
The store was normally quiet, as quills and sofas didn't tend to encourage a lot of conversation, but Crystal smiled nonetheless. "Thanks, Mr. Quills!"
The two fillies walked through the rows of sofas on display and picked one resting along the back wall, then hopped onto it. The worn cushions were particularly springy, and—as young fillies are wont to do—they immediately started bouncing up and down, their giggles echoing throughout the store.
"Okay," Crystal said in a serious tone and stopped bouncing of her own will, though the cushion sprang her back up a few more times before it finally settled. "So, you're probably a little confused."
Velvet stopped bouncing as well and sat down on her haunches. She did her best to match Crystal's tone, but she seemed to have a cheery voice by nature. "Uh-huh."
Crystal sighed and flopped down onto her stomach, her little legs splayed haphazardly in each direction. "I kind of convinced my parents that not having a cutie mark is cool, 'cause other than you now, everypony else in our class has one, and my parents were upset that I didn't."
"How did you do that?" Velvet asked slowly, cautiously.
Crystal rolled over onto her back and closed her eyes. "Well, I pointed out that I was the only one. And then they said it was special and rare, and then I guess they bragged to everypony else. Which I sorta should have seen coming."
"What?" Velvet's voice rang with clear skepticism.
Crystal opened her eyes to look up at Velvet upside-down. "It's true! That's what it's like here. If you can get one pony to believe that calling the sky purple is fashionable, then everypony is going to do it." She groaned. "So, now, not having a cutie mark is in."
Velvet fidgeted as she mulled the new information over. She flopped forward onto her half of the sofa. "That's so—" She paused, then lifted her head, her ears perked straight up. "Awesome!"
Crystal frowned up at her, brow furrowed. "But you saw what it was like! Nopony would leave us alone all day!"
"So? It's way better than what it was like in Manehattan!"
Crystal rolled over to sit upright and asked in a tentative voice, "What was it like?"
Velvet was silent for a moment while her excitement deflated. She turned her head away to stare out into the dimly lit store. "The ponies are really mean there. The bullying got so bad that—well, that's why my parents decided that we should move here for a fresh start."
Crystal leaned forward and extended a hoof to place it on Velvet's shoulder. "I hope you take this the best way possible, but—" She gave Velvet a serious look when she turned back to meet her gaze. "—your parents totally picked the worst city to move to if you want to avoid bullying."
Velvet shrank back and her ears drooped low. Her chin trembled some as she whimpered, "Really?"
Crystal nodded. "Yup. Canterlot is full of ostentatious ponies and—"
Velvet blinked. "What?"
Crystal blinked back at her. "What, what?"
"Ostentatious." After a pause, she flushed lightly. "Um, stuck-up ponies. Sorry."
Velvet tilted her head. "Where did you learn a word like that?"
"Oh!" Crystal waved her hooves. "You know! I like to, uh, read, so, well, I guess I picked it up somewhere. From some book. That I read."
"You read? Like, for fun?" Velvet scrunched up her nose. "I thought reading was just for school."
Crystal hesitated for a few moments, then bowed her head in shame, ears pinned against her mane. Right. Reading was for nerds, and nerds weren't cool. Writing was for—she didn't even know who, but somepony worse than a nerd.
Velvet looked around in slight panic and hopped up to stand on all fours. "I, uh, I mean, what do you read? Maybe I should start reading! It sure sounds like a lot of fun!"
Crystal avoided her gaze. "Anyway, so, that's why school was so weird today. It'll get better once everypony finds something new to be the cool thing." She hopped down off the sofa and started toward the front of the store. "I need to head home. I'll see you tomorrow."
"Oh, okay," Velvet mumbled with a sigh.
Worry buzzed in Crystal's head. What did that sigh mean? Was she embarrassed that she'd made friends with the lamest pony in school?
Crystal stopped by the counter and forced a smile for Mr. Quills. "Can I get my usual now? Still three bits, right?"
"Of course!" He reached over for a small, plain-looking box that held three quills inside and slid it across the counter, which she levitated up and into her saddlebags. He took the bits she dropped in the box's place. "Thanks as usual!"
"Bye, Mr. Quills." She waved before she left the store. Her smile fell once she was out of sight and she sighed, shaking her head.
If Velvet thought it was weird she was just reading, how would she react if she knew Crystal was writing, too? Well, as long as she remained vigilant, she'd never have to find out.