While Velvet's parents were serving the fillies and colts slices of cake, Crystal surveyed the room with watchful eyes like an overprotective second mother. She did her best to keep things together, but only one filly against a crowd of foals couldn't stand strong forever.
The cake was two layers of soft pink and deep reddish purple, matching Velvet's coat and mane, respectively. The frosting was smooth, and when they cut the first slice out of it, a rich, moist chocolate cake underneath was exposed.
All the foals licked their lips with mouth-watering anticipation as plates were given out.
"Wait," one cried out before anypony had taken a bite of their cake. "This doesn't have butter in it, does it?"
The word 'butter' earned a collective gasp from nearly everypony in the room. One colt dropped his plate right onto the ground and backed up in terror as though it had suddenly come alive and bit him. All of them turned their wide eyes on the unsuspecting Sunbeam and Pepper Ridge.
Sunbeam smiled sweetly. "Of course! What is a cake without butter?"
"Butter is like, basically fat!" a filly cried. She set her plate on the table and turned away with her nose held high. "I won't be able to fit into my dress if I eat that stuff."
"My mom said butter is the first step to giving up." A colt looked at his cake longingly, but set it down anyway, as did every other foal.
Sunbeam and Pepper Ridge glanced at one another with mirrored uncertainty and confusion.
"But I eat my parents' cooking all the time, and they use lots of butter," Velvet said, frowning.
High Horse snickered. "Even if you're short, you should really consider taking better care of yourself and laying off the butter."
The others giggled and whispered. Velvet looked down at herself with worry crossing her face, stirring Crystal into action.
"She's smaller than you are, High Horse, so I don't really know what you're trying to prove," Crystal chided, pacing alongside High Horse. "I thought you looked fine, but now I'm not so sure. How much butter do you put on your toast every morning?"
Sunbeam interjected in a soft voice, mostly unheard by the little ponies, "Butter isn't bad for you in moderation."
Crystal took a moment to glance around the room. She seemed to have their attention, so she looked back at High Horse to gloat with a smug grin. And that was when her feeling of superiority was suddenly squashed.
High Horse was starting to cry, her expression open with sincere pain. Crystal was caught off-guard and, unfortunately, it showed. She felt the shift in power like a shiver down her spine.
"Now that was uncalled for!" Amber Joy put a foreleg around High Horse's shoulders and pulled her close. "Crystal, you can be so mean sometimes!"
Crystal choked. She had no response. She looked around the room for help and for a moment, she felt alone in a sea of sharks.
"Well, High Horse was mean first, though," Velvet said, stepping up to stand beside Crystal. "So, if she apologizes, then Crystal will apologize." She glanced up a little worriedly at her. "Right?"
"Right. Actually, no, I'll apologize first." Crystal bit her lower lip. "I'm really sorry, High Horse."
High Horse sniffled and shook her head. "S'okay. I'm sorry, too."
The tension was diffused for the time being; however, the cake was still boycotted by the fillies and colts. Pepper Ridge moved about the room to gather up the plates and clean up any dropped slices, his ears folded back and an openly hurt look on his face.
Crystal turned to Velvet to ask if he'd be all right, but the look of hurt on Velvet's face stopped her question dead in its tracks.
"I know you were just trying to protect me, but," Velvet started. She hesitated, and Crystal jumped in to finish for her.
"I know. I'm sorry. I took it too far." Crystal lowered her head and gave a sheepish smile. "I don't care if High Horse doesn't actually forgive me, but will you?"
Velvet smiled and nodded vigorously. "Of course! After all, it's my fault you had to say those things anyway, right?"
Crystal paused to consider the question. Velvet's smile faded the longer she thought. Velvet was from a happy family who was completely naïve to Canterlot society. How could she even begin to understand?
Finally, she explained slowly and carefully, "Well, I mean, yeah, I started because I wanted her to stop picking on you. But that's just how it is here. You have to be strong or everypony will turn on you."
"Who cares!" Velvet flushed at how loudly she had exclaimed. She glanced around before continuing in a softer voice, "I just want to have fun with my friend. That's all I want."
Crystal smiled and nodded. "Then that's what we'll do. Twister?"
The game of Twister was brought out, and most of the ponies took turns playing in groups of five while the others snacked on the fruit and tiny sandwiches after confirming there was indeed no butter in fruit. Pepper Ridge tried to make the case once more that butter wasn't evil, but Sunbeam put a hoof on his shoulder, sighed, and shook her head.
"I'm so bored," Golden Pants whined as loudly as she could while waiting for her turn.
"Don't worry!" Sunbeam smiled and gestured to a box of games lying beside the snacks table. "We have more games! Do you like Monopony or Candy Land?"
Golden Pants inclined her head toward the box, gave it one look-over, then rolled her eyes. "Those games are for little foals and poor ponies. Don't you have anything more interesting?"
Velvet's ears fell. "But I like these games."
"Of course you would." Golden snorted. "But that's because you're both of those things."
Crystal leaped forth and put herself between the two. "Hey, now—"
"Oh, look, surprise, surprise. The little blank flank wants to protect the other blank flank." Golden started to walk in a small circle around Crystal. She smirked, her eyes glinting with a dark mischievousness.
Crystal took a deep breath and let it go through her nose, but her gaze didn't waver. She firmed her jaw and narrowed her eyes to visibly hold her ground. She just needed to stay calm so she could get back to playing Twister.
Sunbeam and Pepper Ridge glanced at one another helplessly, and Sunbeam asked with earnest confusion in her gentle voice, "I thought blank flanks were cool this year?"
Golden sneered and rolled her eyes. "No way. Ponies thought they were cool, like, months ago. It turns out Crystal just spread that rumor so she could try to stay cool. Blank flanks have never actually been cool."
"I did not!" Crystal narrowed her eyes. "That's a lie, I just—"
"Whatever, Crystal Wishes." Golden turned sharply and put her face right in Crystal's. "You can't ride on your parents' coattails forever, especially if you keep wasting your time on little foals like her." She gestured lazily, dismissively at Velvet.
"Now, girls, that's enough!" Pepper Ridge put his hooves down and tried to separate the two, but it was too late.
Something snapped inside Crystal's chest and a flood of emotions poured forth.
"You're one to talk, Golden Pants! What do you do except follow Daddy Fancy Pants around and repeat everything he says? You're worse than a show pony! You're just an accessory!"
"Well, at least accessories know their place, unlike little ponies with no talent!" Golden bit back, snarling.
"Girls!" Sunbeam shouted with a force of anger behind her voice. The room fell silent from the drastic contrast to the mare's normally soft-spoken and honey-laced tone.
The foals' silence allowed a single sound to be heard: a soft, sniffling sob. Crystal felt her heart drop into her stomach as she slowly turned her head to look over her shoulder. Velvet's shoulders trembled and she clenched her eyes shut in a failed attempt to keep tears at bay.
"That's quite enough," Sunbeam said, hugging Velvet to her chest and stroking her back with a hoof. "I think we can all agree this party is over." Her voice and frame shook slightly as she looked at the crowd of foals with narrowed eyes.
On one hoof, canceling the sleepover was for the best. There wasn't enough room for everypony to set down their sleeping bags without encroaching on each other's personal space, which would have inevitably started a fight later anyway.
On the other, Crystal felt like the worst friend in all of Equestria.
As the ponies gathered up their bags and started for the door, quietly complaining on the way out, Crystal stood frozen in place. She raised a hoof and opened her mouth, but Sunbeam glared at her before she could speak.
"I know you meant well, Crystal," Sunbeam said and gestured with one hoof, "but I think you should go, too. I think Velvet just needs to be alone right now." She glanced at her husband, who nodded in agreement.
Crystal's voice caught in her throat and came out as a quiet, "Okay."
She looked at Velvet's sobbing form and wanted to cry herself, but she pieced herself together enough to levitate her bag and walk out the door. At the bottom of the stairs leading up to that floor, Golden Pants and High Horse waited for her—waited to rub salt in the wound.
"Good job, Crystal Wishes," Golden sneered when Crystal reached the bottom of the stairs. "You were really the belle of the ball tonight."
"Just leave me alone." Crystal bit down on her tongue as she tried to keep her cool. She started to walk past them, but a hoof landed on the skirt of her dress so that she stumbled and fell forward. She trembled at the merciless laughter that followed.
Golden raised a hoof, examined it for a moment, then patted Crystal on the head. "There's no reason to be upset. I'm sure your parents will understand when they hear about what happened! I mean, they are really cool, after all!"
Golden smiled daggers down at Crystal and continued, "Well, anyway, see you on Monday!" With her nose upturned, she turned and walked away. "Come on, High Horse. Let's go to my house and have a real slumber party."
High Horse glanced at Crystal. She hesitated, a flicker of regret crossing her expression, then trotted after Golden. "Yeah! Coming!"
Crystal remained on the ground for a while, watching their retreating hooves as her heart sunk lower and lower. Normally, she could hold her own against them. Her chin trembled and she looked up at the condominium building.
The problem was she wasn't just fighting for herself anymore. She was fighting for Velvet, which meant she had all that much more to lose. And Golden had taken advantage of that.
She sighed as she finally stood, raising her bag off the ground, and started the long walk home. She couldn't help but feel that if she were a character in a story, it would have started raining right at that moment. With a wince and a hesitant pause, she glanced up at the evening sky, then breathed a small sigh of relief at the distinct lack of clouds.
The delicate tulle was shredded and, with every step, it scratched at the back of her hindlegs. Her knees ached from hitting the ground. One of them might have been scuffed. She just kept walking, tears rolling down her cheeks.
Why was she so ugly inside? Velvet was kind, inside and out. Crystal wasn't. Canterlot was in her blood. She'd breathed its toxins ever since her mother taught her how to walk properly. Now she didn't know how to act any other way.
When she opened the door to her house, Crystal tentatively called out, "Mom? Dad?"
She exhaled, relieved when there was no response. Of course, there was no note either, as nopony would have thought to leave one for a filly that was supposed to be at a party. A party which she helped ruin. Her chest felt suddenly tight with regret, but she staved off the tears and walked upstairs. After she washed off the makeup and climbed out of her dress, she hopped onto her bed and buried her face in the pillow.
How would she fix this situation? Could she fix it, even? If she started going with her parents again to events to build up her social credibility, she wouldn't have as much time to spend with Velvet, assuming she still wanted to be friends after her outburst.
She wouldn't have blamed Velvet if she didn't want to associate with her anymore. After all, even though her heart had been in the right place—or so she told herself—she was still just another loud, mean-spirited filly vying for power.
She sniffed and rolled over onto her side to look at one of the posters on the wall. There was a time, only a few years ago, when they were all too young to be caught up in their parents' social intrigue. She remembered playing in the sandbox with Golden Pants and High Horse and the names of their parents had no meaning.
Back then, everything was happy and carefree, just like a foal's tale. She wished things could be like that again.
But once their parents had started sending them to finishing school, everything had changed. And now, all of a sudden, she missed those simple sandbox days.
After a while, Crystal closed her eyes. She needed sleep, but it seemed to be far beyond her reach. Her mind buzzed with all sorts of thoughts that just repeated over and over. Why was she this way? Why couldn't she just be nice like Velvet? She wanted to be nice, so why wasn't she?
She shifted on the bed to hide her face again, the pillow enveloping her in its downy embrace.
Crystal wasn't sure when she had fallen asleep, but she was startled awake by the sound of her parents arriving home. Groggy and a little disoriented, she glanced out the window to see the moon sitting high in the sky. It must have been pretty late in the night.
"That was absolutely horrid," she heard her mother's voice say downstairs. "I swear, some ponies have no sense of class."
"Quite right, my dear." Her father heaved a deep sigh. "After that ordeal, I believe I am going straight to bed."
"I'll join you in a minute, darling."
She listened to their hoofsteps until she heard nothing more, then tried to go back to sleep. The silence was suddenly deafening and she struggled just to keep her eyes closed.
Finally, she sighed and crawled over to the edge of the bed. She pulled up the cushion with one hoof and reached with the other for her journal. Once she had it in hoof, she levitated it up with her magic, opened it to the page marked by the quill, and started to read from where she left off.
The prince looked upon his beautiful bride-to-be with a strange, hollow feeling in his chest. She smiled at him but it brought him no joy; at once, he realized that he didn't love her. He looked out the window and tried to remember something that was nagging at him in the back of his mind, begging him to recall what it was. Something… or somepony was missing.
She stared at the words, the quill hovering at the end of the sentence, waiting to continue. When her mind drew nothing but a blank, she groaned and dropped the journal. "Oh, what's the use? It's not like anypony's going to read it, so why keep writing?"
Rolling onto her side, she clenched her eyes shut and tried not to think about the story she was working on. Instead, she tried to think about Velvet and what she was going to do on Monday, or if she would try to go over and see her before then, but it was no use. Her mind was full of uncertainty and fear.
Slowly, she rolled back over to face her journal. The quill hesitantly lifted and started to write.
"Excuse me, my dear," he said and walked away before she could respond. "I need to get some fresh air."
Prince Dashing walked down the corridor, ignoring the mare's calls for him to not leave her. It was the day before their wedding and she wanted to be near to him more than ever. She had grown increasingly needy, now that he thought about it. Just leaving her sight seemed to cause her a great deal of stress. He felt as though he should be touched and flattered by the sentiment, but he instead felt suffocated.
Crystal paused. She reread the words she had written and shifted to sit upright. "Suffocated, huh?" She scrunched up her nose. "Wait a minute, am I writing a love story, or am I just complaining about life?"
She set the quill back down and looked around the room at her posters. Until Velvet, they had been her friends, comforting her and convincing her that a wonderful life of love and happiness awaited when she was older. Now, they were just posters hanging on the walls, and she felt lonelier than ever.
Perhaps she would go over in the morning and try to see Velvet and her parents. Would they want to see her, though? After all, that seemed like the first real, raw taste of Canterlot that Sunbeam and Pepper Ridge had received, and she had brought on the brunt of it.
She shook her head vigorously and dropped back down onto the bed, burying her face against the pillow. "She's still my friend," she muttered. "And I want to see her."
She clenched her eyes shut, begging for sleep to bring the morning faster. The sooner she saw Velvet's face again, the sooner she'd know what to say. She was sure of it.