"Hello?" Crystal asked. "Velvet? Are you there?"
Velvet blinked a few times as a hoof was waved before her eyes. She looked around, confusion plastered on her face. She was in the classroom, in her seat. That much she knew for certain. It was morning, or maybe early afternoon. She blinked again and focused on Crystal sitting beside her.
"What happened?" Crystal tilted her head. "You look exhausted!"
Velvet tried to smile. Slowly, her eyelids started to slide down, but she shook her head and forced them back up. "Oh, um, nothing. I just was up really late reading." She yawned. "I think I got some sleep somewhere in there, maybe?"
"Really?" Crystal glanced at the front of the class. The teacher seemed quite preoccupied with her lesson, not noticing them whispering back and forth. "What was it?"
"Oh, uh." Velvet stared at her. "Uh?" She furrowed her brow. "I'm so sleepy, I can't remember, but I know it was good?" Her grin was forced, but Crystal didn't seem to find it suspicious. "I borrowed it before I left yesterday. Do you mind if I come by and borrow another?"
Crystal raised one brow. "I don't know if I can be an accomplice to anything that makes you look so—"
"Miss Crystal Wishes!"
Crystal winced and turned toward the front. "Yes, Ms. Tutor?"
"Is there something you'd like to share with the class?" The ever-present hint of a frown had fallen into a near scowl. "Or would you like to join us in this lesson that you're so disinterested in?"
Crystal's ears folded back. "I'm listening, Ms. Tutor! Honest!"
"Then what did I just say?" She tapped one hoof on the floor.
The question brought a small grin to Crystal's lips, but she quickly smothered it by clearing her throat. "You were teaching us the intricate and confusing rules of the order in which 'e' and 'i' are present in various words, Ms. Tutor."
The mare gave a small sigh and turned back to the chalkboard. "Correct, Miss Wishes. Please help me out and make it more apparent that you're listening from now on."
Velvet surfaced out of her exhaustion just enough to smile. "How do you do that?" she whispered as quietly as she could.
"Practice," Crystal whispered back, keeping her eyes forward. She continued with her nose upturned and a quiet voice reminiscent of Upper Crust's, "One must always keep an ear on another conversation from one's own, lest one miss out on crucial information."
The two giggled softly before Crystal paid attention while Velvet just tried to keep her eyes open. It was a struggle, but she managed to survive until lunch. Barely.
Before Velvet could remember to catch Crystal up on the previous day's happenings, High Horse shyly walked to the door, cringing from the weight of Golden's glare as their paths intersected.
Crystal glanced at Velvet. "What—"
Velvet yawned. "High Horse and Golden broke up so now she's our friend."
This seemed to be all that Crystal needed. She sat up straight in her seat and waved her forelegs. "Hey, Horsey!"
High Horse's ears perked and she lifted her head. "Huh?"
Crystal beamed. "Let's have lunch together!"
"Really?" Horsey started to smile. "You don't mind?"
Crystal waved a dismissive hoof. "Why would I mind having lunch with friends?"
"But, you and Velvet—"
"Now it's me and Velvet and you!" Crystal levitated her lunch bag, slid out of her seat, and trotted for the door. "C'mon, Velvet, the sun will perk you up, I'm sure!"
"Mm." Velvet dragged her hooves as she followed behind the two figures she hoped were her friends.
Once they were seated, High Horse and Crystal started to eat their lunches while Velvet leaned against Crystal and closed her eyes.
"What was so good about the story that you stayed up all night reading it?" Crystal asked before she took a bite of her sandwich.
Horsey looked up suddenly. "Oh, so she's just tired from staying up? Thank goodness," she said with a smile. "I was worried she was sick and nopony was going to mention it."
Velvet opened one eye. "Uh, it was really well-written. I couldn't go to sleep without knowing what happened."
"Really?" Crystal tapped her chin. "Was it Of Mice and Mares?"
"No." She closed the eye again.
"The Chronicles of Neighnia?"
Velvet paused. That sounded like a story that might have a sequel, right? Her heart started to race as she placed her bets and gambled, "Um, maybe."
Crystal smiled. "Oh, that's a really good series!"
Velvet felt a small bit of relief. "So can I borrow the next one?"
"Of course!" Crystal paused, then amended, "Though maybe I should just bring it to school tomorrow. You should go home and rest right after we get out."
Horsey nodded in agreement. "I don't mean this in a mean way, but I think you could really use some sleep."
"No, I want to come over," Velvet whined as she pressed her face into Crystal's neck.
Crystal laughed, shaking her head. "Okay, okay, but only if you promise to not stay up all night reading it."
"Promise!" Velvet yawned. She straightened up and looked in her lunch bag. "Oh, look, it's a real lunch today!"
When Horsey giggled, Crystal glanced between the two. "What?"
"Nothing," they said and giggled together.
Crystal frowned at first, but lightened into a smile. "I'm glad you're our friend now, Horsey."
Horsey flushed lightly. "Me, too."
The lunch went by relatively easy after that. It was especially good that Horsey was there, as Velvet's attention was floating in and out, so Crystal had somepony to hold a conversation with until they were called back into class for the rest of the day's lessons.
Velvet mustered all of her energy on the walk to Crystal's house, which was made easier when they walked in the door and Upper Crust called Crystal into the kitchen, leaving her alone in the foyer.
"Darling, I've been looking into these 'school lunches' and, evidently, I'm supposed to make them for you," Velvet heard Upper Crust say. "Why didn't you inform me of this sooner?"
"Oh, Mom, it's fine, really," Crystal replied. "I don't mind making them myself."
Velvet quietly tip-hoofed across the living room. She craned her neck to see around the corner and into the kitchen, where Upper Crust seemed to have Crystal's full attention. Excitement giving her a rush of adrenaline, she hurried up the stairs and into Crystal's bedroom. She squeezed herself under the bed and tugged on the box to move it closer to the reachable side.
When her head popped out from underneath the bed, however, she was staring at Crystal's hooves.
"Oh, uh—" Velvet blinked a few times. "Hey, you."
Crystal furrowed her brow and tilted her head. "What are you doing under there? You startled my mom with how fast you ran up the stairs all of a sudden." She rolled her eyes and mocked with a hoof daintily raised, "'Go tell your friend a lady never runs.'" Her gaze focused back on Velvet and one ear twitched, though she smiled softly. "So, this is weird."
Velvet's guilt was clear on her face as she glanced at the box she had pushed almost all the way out. Crystal followed her gaze and gasped. Panic overtook her eyes and she thrust the box to the far side of the bed with her magic, her over-attention causing it to hit the wall with a loud thump.
"What were you doing with that?" Crystal took a step back. "You didn't open it, did you?"
Velvet bit her lower lip before she crawled all the way out from under the bed and stood as tall as she could. "I did, and I'm not sorry!"
Crystal's ears folded back. "Why—You—"
"I'm not sorry because they were the best stories I've ever read, not just since I started reading, but, like, ever!" Velvet bounced in the air for emphasis of her excitement. "But the last one was cut off 'cause I guess you ran out of pages and I need the next one!"
Crystal stared at her, jaw slack as a flush crept over her face. "Wait, that's what you were up so late reading? My stories?"
Velvet nodded with so much enthusiasm that her ears flopped wildly. "Yes! I couldn't stop!"
Crystal's flush started to crawl down her neck. She raised a hoof to hide her face. "You're just—"
"I am not! If I was 'just saying that' then I would have gotten some sleep last night." Velvet stepped closer to her. "Please let me borrow the next one!"
Crystal fell back onto her haunches and covered her face with both hooves. "No, they're not that good! Honest! Anyway, how can you like them?" She tentatively parted her hooves just slightly to peer out with one eye. "They're about romance."
"Huh? Why would that be a problem?" Velvet blinked, one brow raised and her nose scrunched up.
"Because you didn't like Prima Donna and Dastardly Desperado being together."
"Oh, pfft!" Velvet waved a hoof to dismiss the notion. "That's because I didn't like Dastardly. He was just a bad pony. But the stallions you write about, oh!" She started to flush herself. "It makes me want to be a mare!" She put her hooves on Crystal's and pushed them away. "If you don't believe me, then write a story and leave it on Ms. Tutor's desk without your name on it."
Crystal's flush vanished. "What? No! What if she finds out it was me?"
Velvet rolled her eyes. "That's why you leave your name off it, d'uh!"
Crystal groaned under her breath as she fought with the idea. Finally, she sighed and tried to smile. "I guess if she doesn't know it's me, then I've got nothing to lose."
Velvet squealed and hopped onto the bed, dropping her head down onto one of the pillows and closing her eyes. "Great! You work on that while I close my eyes." She paused, then cracked her eyes open to peer at Crystal. "Do I still get to borrow the second book?"
"I—I guess, if you want to."
"Double great!" She yawned, closed her eyes again, and drifted off almost immediately. She had been working hard, and it was time for a slumbering reward.
Crystal started to pace around the edge of the fluffy pink rug before she threw herself on top of it and internally screamed. Ms. Tutor? Reading one of her stories? It was hard enough turning in assigned essays
She rolled over onto her back and stared up at the ceiling. She took a deep breath in, then slowly released it as she levitated a quill and a blank sheet of paper from where they had rested on her little desk up against one wall.
"Hmm." She tapped her chin, focus overtaking her nerves. "What to write?"
Slowly, the quill dipped into the inkwell and started to scrawl across the paper. "In every class," she mumbled under her breath. "there is one special pony that comes to school every day with hope in her heart…"
Velvet's ear perked and listened to the story as it was written, a smile on her face.
An hour later, Crystal was sitting on the bed with Velvet resting against her, reading over her shoulder.
"And—done!" Crystal lowered the last page onto the small stack of ten written pages.
"That's a really sweet story," Velvet said softly. She reached out a hoof to touch the edge of the papers, careful not to smear the still-wet ink. "I think Ms. Tutor is going to love it."
Crystal shrugged. "I guess." She hopped down onto the floor. "Come on, it's getting late. I'll get Dad to walk you home."
After a brief hug at the door, the two fillies said their goodbyes for the evening, Velvet with excitement and Crystal with dread.
The next morning, Crystal arrived at school as early as she could to beat out anypony in their class. She glanced around to double-check that the room was empty before she slid the ribbon-bound papers out of her saddlebags and onto Austere Tutor's desk. She moved a few other papers on top of it to make it seem less obvious, then ran back outside to wait as unsuspiciously as she could for Velvet to arrive.
Not long after, a few of her classmates wandered into the schoolyard, including High Horse, who blinked a few times when their gazes met. "Crystal?" She trotted over. "Why are you here so early by yourself?"
Crystal smiled sheepishly. It would take some getting used to having a third friend around. "Mom and Dad had somewhere to be this morning, and I got bored sitting around by myself." It wasn't entirely a lie, so she didn't feel too bad about it.
"Oh." High Horse nodded and smiled. "Do you think Ms. Tutor would let me, um, move to sit by Velvet?" Her gaze and smile faltered. "It's really awkward still sitting beside Golden."
Crystal gave a firm nod. "I'm sure it'll be fine if you explain the situation to her! Ms. Tutor is only scary most of the time."
"Excuse me?" came the very mare's voice.
The hairs on the back of Crystal's neck stood tall and she jumped in the air. "Ms. Tutor!" She whirled around to face her. "I'm sorry!"
Ms. Tutor frowned. "What a wonderful way to start off my day. Thank you ever so much, Miss Wishes." She gave a small snort before she walked into the classroom.
Crystal put a hoof to her chest to ensure her heart was still beating. "She's never this early!" Her gaze darted about. "Why is she here so early?"
High Horse tilted her head. "Didn't you know?"
"Know what?" Crystal looked at her with panic. "What?"
High Horse shrank back and offered a weak smile. "Ms. Tutor always comes to school early, then patrols the schoolyard before class starts to catch any stragglers."
"Oh, Celestia." Crystal slapped a hoof to her forehead. "I'm dead."
Crystal shook her head and dragged her hooves as she started to walk away. "Nevermind. Just—" She looked over her shoulder with dramatic flair, though she was sincerely worried. "Remember me fondly!"
As Crystal paced around the courtyard and High Horse watched her with concern, the minutes went by and the teacher didn't emerge from the school. Her panic rose and her pacing grew more frantic until—
"Miss Wishes, I would like to speak with you a moment," Ms. Tutor called from the doorway and turned to walk back into the school.
Crystal whined, stomped her hooves, and took a breath. Well, she had no choice now but to face the inevitable. Austere Tutor had a particular fondness for literature and was quite the critic when it came to even the simplest of writing assignments. How had she let Velvet talk her into this? It was going to be humiliating. It was going to be—
"Wonderful!" Austere exclaimed as Crystal walked into view. "You wrote this?"
Crystal froze and stared at her with wide, frightened eyes.
"Miss Wishes, I don't know why you neglect to bring such flair to your essays and have insisted on torturing me with unimaginative writing all these years."
Crystal said nothing, though her mind was moving rapidly through too many thoughts to keep track of.
"I must say, if you modeled this—" She straightened her reading glasses. "Blossom Mentor after me, then I am most flattered!" She looked back at Crystal. "What, little pony?" She smiled. "Did you think I wouldn't recognize your quillmanship?"
"I—I—" Crystal swallowed. Her throat was dry. "I need some air."
Austere blinked a few times, but had no opportunity to speak before Crystal ran out of the classroom and back into the schoolyard.
Just at that moment, Velvet rounded the corner and was happily trotting up the pathway. When she saw the look on Crystal's face, her own happiness fell and she quickened her pace, calling out, "Crystal?"
High Horse walked over as well. "What happened?"
Velvet skidded to a halt in front of Crystal. "Did she read it?"
High Horse glanced between the two of them with a curious frown. "Read what?"
Crystal slowly lifted her head and looked at Velvet with a blank expression. "She—She liked it."
"Liked what?" Horsey's voice grew quiet and she took a step back, her ears falling.
Velvet giggled and embraced High Horse. "Crystal's discovered her special talent!"
"She has?" Horsey tried to incline her head to look at Crystal's flank, but the tight hug made it hard to move. "Really?!"
"Really!" Velvet paused. She let go of Horsey to look at Crystal, who hadn't moved. "Right?"
Crystal finally moved to sit down and look at her hooves. "I—I wrote something, and Ms. Tutor called it wonderful." She looked up at the two. A smile started to spread across her face, just like the warmth that started in her chest and spread throughout her little body. "She called it wonderful! Something I wrote! And you liked my writing, too!"
Velvet bounced up and down as she squealed with excitement. The explosion of Velvet's feelings overwhelmed Horsey and she began to bounce as well.
"Look!" both of them cried, pointing one hoof, bouncing on the others.
Crystal didn't look. She was almost too scared to. A cutie mark was permanent, and in a way, boastful. She had kind of grown to like being a blank flank and fading into the background, but her gaze betrayed her when it snapped down and to the side.
There, on her flank, was a quill overlaying the outline of a pink heart, the same pink that was present in her mane and tail—her favorite pink in all the world.
She had always wondered about the incomprehensible magic of a cutie mark. At that moment, she realized that however it worked, it worked perfectly. She couldn't have dreamed of a better mark to adorn her flank forever.
The sound of the two fillies' squealing returned to the forefront of her mind. She jumped up onto all fours and started to bounce with them. "I got my cutie mark!" she exclaimed as loudly as she could. "And I love it!" She jumped forward and nearly knocked them over with a sudden hug that they quickly returned, all three laughing happily.
Crystal let go of them and spun in a circle as she tried to keep an eye on her cutie mark, then fell over onto her side and squirmed in the grass. Finally, she gave a small, content sigh as the other two laid down with her.
"I wish I could always be this happy," she said softly. "Wouldn't that be nice?"
They nodded, and she nodded along with them.
"Yeah, that'd be perfect," they all agreed aloud, then giggled at the sound of their voices in harmony.