The day before the event, Crystal went home with Velvet as planned. The last time she saw the condo, it was immaculately clean and tidy. That day, however, it looked like a bakery had walked in, exploded, and left without so much as an apology.
Baking tins, some empty and some still holding cupcakes, were sitting on every surface available. Some tins were stacked on top of other tins. Cupcake wrappers were tossed about haphazardly, some used and some still safe in their original packaging. Once-bitten-and-then-rejected cupcakes were sitting everywhere, discarded and rejected.
Sunbeam was sitting on the couch with her forehead resting on her hooves while she stared at a magazine for inspiration. Pepper Ridge was in the kitchen. The smell of every kind of cupcake flavor imaginable filled the air and while the idea seemed pleasant, the reality was a confusing cacophony of scents that overwhelmed her nose.
Crystal took a moment to regain her thoughts after walking into a crime scene of cupcake mishaps. Velvet cleared her throat to get her mother's attention.
"Huh? Sugarpop, did you bri—" Sunbeam looked up with wide, tired eyes. "Oh, thank Celestia you are here, Crystal! My husband has gone mad, and only you can save him."
Pepper skidded into the room, standing on his hindlegs, stirring a bowl of batter with his forelegs. "Crystal! What do Canterlot ponies like?!" His eyes darted about the room. "I've made everything. Try it all!" He gave a lopsided smile before returning to the kitchen.
Crystal blinked a few times, then put her hoof to her face. "I should have come sooner." How was she supposed to get them under control? Well, she had seen royal guards get yelled at before, and that seemed to work for them. She sighed, then took a deep breath and shouted, "Mr. Ridge! Mrs. Sunbeam! Stand at attention!"
Startled at the power behind her voice—and, if she was being honest, it startled her, too—they both hurried over to her.
Crystal glanced at the mixing bowl Pepper was still holding. "Put that bowl down, Mr. Ridge!" After he did so, she started to pace back and forth in front of them. "All right, listen up, Mr. Ridge! Canterlot ponies are concerned 'bout their health. So chocolate is right out!"
Pepper nodded meekly. "Makes sense."
"Stick to more delicate flavors that you won't find normally." She stopped and pointed a hoof at him. "What are some flavors you can put in a cupcake that you'd find at a formal event?"
He looked down at the floor, then back up at her. "I can make a pink champagne cupcake."
Sunbeam suggested, "Your tiramisu cupcake would go over well."
"I really like your red velvet cupcakes!" Velvet chimed in.
Crystal continued pacing. "Pink champagne, tiramisu, and red velvet." She stopped and faced Pepper. "You got that, chef?"
"Yes, ma'am!" Getting into a more cheerful spirit, Pepper saluted and puffed out his chest. "Right away, ma'am!" He trotted back into the kitchen in a much saner manner than how he had skidded out of it.
Crystal turned her attention on Sunbeam. "Mrs. Sunbeam!"
Though she still looked weary, Sunbeam smiled at Crystal's enthusiasm. "Yes, ma'am?"
Crystal thrust a hoof at the couch sitting against the wall. "March back over there and get some rest while Velvet and I clean up!"
"Thank you, ma'am." She patted Crystal on the head, then went over to collapse on the couch.
"All right, Velvet," Crystal said, turning to look at her, "it's up to you and me to put this place back in order."
Velvet stood as tall as her little frame allowed. "Yes, ma'am!"
By the time Pepper had baked a batch of each flavor, Crystal and Velvet had finished cleaning. Sunbeam rose from the couch and joined them in tasting each one while she contemplated the decorations.
The pink champagne cupcake received a delicate, light pink frosting with small pink edible pearls. The red velvet, naturally, paired well with a fluffy cream cheese frosting and garnished with a chocolate figure in the shape of bit signs to match Upper Crust's cutie mark.
Lastly, a mascarpone frosting was selected for the tiramisu cupcake, with a dusting of cocoa powder guided by a futuristic airship-shaped stencil that Sunbeam made with Crystal's help.
Pleased with their decisions, and with how everything was finally in order, Crystal gave each of them a hug before she left to return home, spirits renewed.
After school the next day, Crystal walked out to find Upper Crust waiting for her. Smothering the urge to groan, she smiled half-heartedly. "Hi, Mom."
"Hello, darling." Upper Crust waved a hoof to motion her over. "I came to ensure you didn't dawdle with your friend." She paused to acknowledge Velvet with a glance. "Hello, Velvet Step. Goodbye, Velvet Step."
Crystal managed to give Velvet a quick, brief hug before she was ushered away by her overeager mother.
"I have very little time to doll you up, so there's certainly no time for you to idle precious minutes away." She sighed. "I wanted to pull you out of school today so that we could go over everypony's names, but your father insists that you are old enough to remember them by now. I hope he is right."
"Yes, Mom." She trotted alongside her, her snout raised high in the air so that she matched her mother's pose. It hurt to keep her head tilted back that far, but if she didn't, she would just have to hear about it.
"I also noticed that Sunridge Sweets belongs to your friend's parents. More than anything, I hope you have the decency to not let your friendship cloud your judgment and embarrass us with a false recommendation."
Crystal lost her poise as she stopped, looked at her mother, and frowned. "No! Their cupcakes are really, really good, and I promise you'll like them!"
Upper Crust gave a small roll of her eyes. "You needn't raise your voice, darling."
Crystal grumbled softly under her breath and resumed her uppity walk. "Yes, Mom."
Unfortunately, when they finally arrived at the event, Crystal was forced to stand beside her parents and—as her mother repeatedly instructed—smile and look pretty. She was occasionally prompted to talk, which was even worse than just standing and smiling.
For the most part, however, she spent the first hour of the photo gallery standing, smiling, and giving polite responses when questioned. Crystal was convinced that all of her parents' events were boring, but this one seemed especially so.
They had the entire royal gardens to themselves, but kept it confined to a small clearing with a circle of easels making up the perimeter. Photographs of famous supermodels in the most ridiculous outfits faced inward so that guests were literally surrounded by fashion.
Photo Finish stood in the center of it all, responding to all inquiries with one-liners in her heavy accent. "Da magicks," she said more than anything else.
Nopony knew what that meant, but they all nodded and agreed with her anyway. That was just how it was in high society. Agreeing with the pony above you no matter what was the only way to survive.
When her parents had greeted everypony at length and it was nearing dinner, they made their way to the banquet table. Sunbeam and Pepper had just started laying out the assortment of cupcakes on the very end of the table next to the fruit bowl.
"Hello, Sunridge Sweets." Jet Set smiled cordially. "I've heard great things about your cupcakes, and if I do say so myself, they look quite delicious." He raised his hoof to his glasses and his smile widened. "The decorations are spot-on! Good show, I say."
Sunbeam and Pepper gave respectful bows of their heads. Pepper was shaking slightly, so Sunbeam spoke for them.
"It's an honor that you would allow us to debut at your event, Jet Set, Upper Crust." She smiled. "We're very grateful. Please, by all means, you should have the first ones."
Jet Set levitated the tiramisu cupcake and was admiring the shape of an airship while Upper Crust eyed the one modeled after her cutie mark with slight interest.
The attending ponies started to crowd around, all eyes on Jet Set and Upper Crust, awaiting their review. Crystal and Velvet stood off to the side inside the circle of ponies. Velvet trembled beside her, terrified of what the judgmental and influential ponies would think. Crystal grabbed one of her hooves and gave it a small, reassuring squeeze.
"It'll be okay," she whispered to Velvet. "I promise."
Velvet started to smile when another filly's voice rose above the soft whispering of the crowd.
"I'd be careful. There's tons of butter in those cupcakes."
Crystal's head turned in what felt like slow motion as the whispering grew louder. Standing beside Fancy Pants was the innocently smiling filly, Golden. Crystal felt her heart sink in her chest and the hoof she held trembled again.
Pepper's expression was a mixture of defeat and anger, but he kept his mouth shut when Sunbeam put a hoof on his shoulder.
"I apologize," she said in a voice that neared a strained whisper while all eyes—each narrowed and disapproving—were on them. "I thought you already knew."
"I'm afraid I wasn't informed of this mishap." Jet Set frowned down at Crystal, who shrunk back under his gaze. "Butter is terribly fattening and not something we condone in Canterlot."
Upper Crust opened her mouth and turned her head to also look at their daughter, and then froze.
Crystal stood beside Velvet as they held each other's hooves to seek mutual comfort. Her ears were folded back and both of them had tears in their eyes. Crystal looked between her father and her mother, waiting for the scolding, for the harsh words, for the insults.
But instead, she gazed into her mother's eyes, and Upper Crust gazed back. It was a moment in time Crystal would never forget. It was the first time she had ever felt that her mother saw her not as an accessory or a doll, but as her daughter in need of her support.
The air was tense and hung thick with gossip that died down into a few gasps as Upper Crust lifted a cupcake, pulled back the wrapper, and took a bite. The smile that followed was another thing Crystal would never forget: a sincere, earnest smile, with no pretenses or ambitions. She smiled purely and simply, and it was the most beautiful she had ever been in Crystal's eyes.
"It's delicious," she exclaimed and took another bite.
Jet Set looked at his wife in surprise. "But dear—"
"Oh, it's only a little cupcake. How much butter could it possibly have in it?" Upper Crust raised a brow.
Sunbeam gently chimed in, "In moderation, butter is fine, and these cupcakes are perfectly sized for moderation."
"Wonderful news!" Upper Crust turned that smile on Sunbeam, who smiled back.
Jet Set cleared his throat and lifted his cupcake back up. All focus was on him as he followed suit. When his eyes widened, he turned to the crowd of ponies around them and announced, "We are pleased to share with you fine ponies this afternoon, the best dessert in all of Canterlot!"
Fancy Pants was among the first ponies in line for a cupcake. He nudged Golden forward with a hoof, his expression calm and collected as he asked her, "Now, sweetheart, which cupcake do you want?"
"I don't want any of them," she muttered bitterly at her defeat.
"I didn't ask if you wanted one, I asked which you wanted." He looked down at her with a stern frown. "I am loath to call a dessert a punishment, but since you must fight it, then I must insist!" He looked back up at Sunbeam and Pepper with a charming smile. "Please do forgive my daughter. She is a good filly, but she can be a bit of a hoofful at times."
"Oh, please, think nothing of it!" Pepper quickly responded, overwhelmed by Fancy Pants's suave manner. "I only recently learned that butter is met with contempt here. Please, let me apologize!"
Sunbeam hid a small giggle behind a hoof. "We have tiramisu, pink champagne, and red velvet."
"Sweetheart, you like Donut Joe's red velvet donuts, don't you?"
"Yeah, but those don't have—" Before she could continue, Fancy Pants had levitated a red velvet cupcake and stuck it in front of her face. She groaned, rolled her eyes, and took an agonizingly slow, tiny bite.
Her ears perked straight up and stepped back to stare at the cupcake. "It…" She mumbled the rest.
Fancy Pants leaned down his head and tilted it to angle his ear toward her. "What's that?"
"It's—" She glanced around to see how many ponies were near, then finally finished, "It's far better than Donut Joe's donuts."
"That's a good girl." He patted her on the head, selected a cupcake for himself, and guided her out of the line.
Off to the side, Velvet finally let go of the breath she had been holding for too long and gasped for air.
"I can't believe it!" Velvet shook her head. "Even Golden likes them! I—I think my parents will be able to open a bakery after this! Crystal, I can't thank you enough!" She looked at her and hesitated. "Crystal? Why are you crying?"
Crystal blinked a few times and rubbed her eyes with a hoof. "Um, sorry, I'm listening." She paused. "Actually, no, I'm not. I'm sorry, give me a moment, okay?"
She ran away and through the crowd, gaze darting around. Her father was talking to Hoity Toity—High Horse diligently at his side but otherwise ignored by him—as they enjoyed their cupcakes, but Upper Crust wasn't with him. She stopped to look in all directions and finally caught sight of her mother. "Mom!" She ran toward her. "Mom, um, I—I—"
Her mother was facing away from her, but she could easily imagine her expression: cold and rigid as it always was. "Stammering."
Crystal took a small breath. A tremble ran through her, but she pushed through the fear, ducked her head low to stare at the ground, and said, "Thank you."
Upper Crust was silent for a long, awkward moment. "Please don't thank me just for being a mother. Now, darling, don't just leave your friend standing over there all alone. It's rude."
Crystal hesitated. "Okay." She stepped forward and wrapped her forelegs around her mother's hindleg in a tight hug, then ran back to the buffet table to join back up with Velvet. "I think this is a total success!"
"Right?!" Velvet sprung into the air with the exclamation. "This is the best day ever!"
Smiling brightly, Crystal looked around to see Sunbeam and Pepper talking to the elites of Canterlot. It was such good publicity for them! Her smile widened when Fancy Pants approached them and she heard the words 'business proposal'.
Her gaze darted over to where her mother still stood away from the crowd, one of the cupcakes designed for her held in her magic. Upper Crust plucked one of the little bit sign decorations from where it rested in the frosting and ate it. After a pause, she looked over her shoulder and made eye contact with Crystal.
A soft smile graced her mother's lips like the one before; it was just as beautiful, if not more. Crystal wished Upper Crust would always smile like that, but for the time being, she'd just be grateful for what she had accomplished for her friend's family.