Crystal smiled as she walked into the living room with a whistling tea kettle levitating beside her. "How many lumps of sugar would you like with your tea, Trend?"
"Two, please." Trenderhoof flashed a polite smile. "Thank you."
Travel had done the stallion a lot of good. He had broken the plastic mold of Canterlot society and found his own stride. He was sincere, genuine, and confident. Some said he was a little too confident, but he had certainly earned the right to be. It had been about a year since she had last seen him and if she were into the lanky type, this would be a tempting encounter.
"Certainly." Crystal nestled down onto the pillow across from Trenderhoof and poured the hot water into the two cups. She maintained eye contact with him, preparing the tea easily by relying on rote memorization. "I appreciate you agreeing to have the interview here."
Trenderhoof shook his head. "It's no problem at all. I don't normally do this kind of article, but for you, I'm more than happy to oblige your request!" He paused, then added with an earnest smile, "I've had the pleasure of staying in all manners of places, but it's nice to spend some time back home in the comforts of Canterlot architecture. Besides, your condo is so very well-maintained that I couldn't possibly complain."
Crystal waved a hoof, laughing softly. "I can't take full credit for that. My roommate does most of the cleaning."
"Your roommate?" His ears pointed forward, alert and recording. "A live-in coltfriend, perhaps?"
"Oh, no, nothing of the sort." She laughed softly, though she panicked on the inside. She had to be more careful with her words around journalists. "She's my best friend."
"I see," the stallion said in a tone that suggested more than Crystal meant, though she couldn't reason why.
"We've been friends since we were fillies."
"I see." There was that tone again. The pencil and pad lifted and he jotted down a note.
Crystal tried not to break her smile. She dropped the lumps of sugar into Trenderhoof's tea. What in Equestria did he think was going on? She tried to peer at what had been written, but the pad tilted out of her view.
He smiled. "So, Crystal—or, should I say, C.W.? That's what you prefer to be called, is it not?"
"I do, yes. If you don’t mind—"
"Of course. I understand that you authors prefer your anonymity and I respect that." He chuckled and continued, "C.W., not even a full year ago, you were an unknown author whose first chapter of The Mare's Temptation was just published in Mares Monthly. The series took off rather quickly and is now being published as a novel. Are you an overnight success? Has it changed you?”
Crystal giggled and waved a hoof to dismiss the notion. "Oh, no, I certainly hope I'm still the same mare. I can't speak to the success part; as a serial, I was delighted by letters from fans, so I would dare to say there is a good chance The Mare's Temptation will do well as a novel, too."
Trenderhoof nodded. "Now, my usual audience is mainly interested in travel, culture, and cuisine. As a blossoming author in the romance world, how can your story relate to their interests? More importantly, why should they buy your book?"
Crystal crossed her hooves in proper lady-like form, trying to keep her muddled feelings of excitement and nervousness under control. It was a question she had prepared herself for after reaching out to a travel writer. Sunset Coffee had suggested the idea of having an interview done to advertise the release, and she knew Trenderhoof owed her a favor, as conniving as it was to think.
"On the whole," she said, her gaze drifting over to the bookshelves along one of the condo's walls, "books are the easiest way to travel. They can take a pony anywhere in the world without having to leave one's home. They can also provide a deeper view into a new, unfamiliar culture."
She returned her gaze to him and smiled. "For your readers who are not familiar with Canterlot culture, I would dare to say that my story will open their eyes. I have lived in Canterlot my whole life, born and raised by two ponies very well-ingrained into this society. In The Mare's Temptation, you will learn many of our city's secrets that you will never discover by simply visiting.”
Trenderhoof's smile widened as he listened to her. "My, my! How eloquently stated. Well, why don't you tell me more about The Mare’s Temptation, then?"
Crystal nodded. "I am very humbled by my story's success. It was well-received by the Mares Monthly audience." She smiled as she fondly reflected on the most recent fan letters she had received. "It has been a wonderful journey from a brand new serial to a novel picked up by Reindom House. They've all been very helpful and accommodating through the process of publishing my first book."
Trenderhoof transcribed her words while he nodded and sipped his tea. "From what I researched after you reached out to me for this interview, The Mare's Temptation has caused quite a stir among the romance community. Why is that?"
"Oh, my." She raised a hoof to hide a soft laugh. "Well, the main characters are a chef in the Canterlot palace and a prince. It's a bit unconventional, but on the whole, I believe it has been well-received. After all, doesn't every mare dream of finding a prince?"
The pencil continued to glide over his notepad. "Why did you choose a chef as the leading mare? Is she, perhaps, inspired by somepony you know?"
This gave her pause. She had tried to anticipate everything he might ask. "There—" She swallowed. "There was a bit of real-life inspiration in her character, yes." Was that a good answer? Would he ask more about it?
Trenderhoof's ears perked and he leaned in. "Is that so?" There was a glimmer of curiosity in his eyes. "And did your inspiration have a happy ending like Sable and Prince Highborn?"
Crystal shifted on the pillow and laughed nervously. "Yes, I am happy to say that she found a happy ending."
He tapped a hoof against the hardwood floor. "How wonderful!" The pencil furiously scribbled across the paper as if on a mission of its own. "What would you say was the most difficult part of getting your story published?"
"The most difficult part?" Her gaze wandered the room while she hummed in thought, then she smiled at him. "I would say waiting for the finished cover. I didn't have too much input in the selection of a cover artist, which suits me fine because I didn't have anypony in mind for the job. Though I was able to meet with him to discuss my ideas, it was largely up to his creativity to design the cover. I feel he did a wonderful job capturing the feel of the story as a whole."
She looked at a copy of the book resting on the nearby coffee table. The cover boasted a detailed scene of Sable standing on a balcony and gazing at a moon, her expression perfectly capturing Sable's hopeful nature. Transposed across the night sky was the mare's dream: a vision of her holding hooves with Prince Highborn, a gold wedding band around his horn and a matching one around her dainty hoof.
Trenderhoof followed her gaze and smiled. "I would have to agree there." He looked back at her. "And, on the other hoof, what was the most exciting part?"
"Getting the letter in the mail that Reindom House was going to pick up my novel, of course," she said with an excited giggle.
He paused to look at his notes, mumbling to himself for a moment. "Hmm. Well, I appear to have enough to work with, so why don't we finish off with a question I'm sure your fans are dying to know the answer to?" His lips parted with a grin. "What's next on the horizon for C.W. Step? Do you have another gripping romance to share?"
Ah, another question she was prepared to answer. She smiled, though her heart fluttered in her chest. "I will certainly assure you that The Mare's Temptation will not be my last story."
"How did it go?" Velvet asked the moment she walked in the door. She tossed the bag containing her ballet gear into her room before returning to the main area. "Did you remember all the responses we practiced?"
Crystal looked up from the mess of papers scattered around her. "It went fine." She smiled. "How was practice?"
"Fine, huh?" Velvet mused, ignoring the question. "What happened?"
"Oh, well." She twiddled her hooves. A weak grin pulled her lips out of the gentle smile. "He asked about my next novel."
Velvet settled down on the pillow beside her. They didn't have a couch or any chairs because they weren't something either of them could afford when they first moved in. Then it turned out that pillows were much more comfortable, so they never invested in 'proper' sitting furniture.
Velvet started to paw through some of the papers lying on the floor. "What did you say?"
Crystal raised and dropped her shoulders in a slow, heavy shrug. "That Temptation wouldn't be my last story, just like you suggested."
"Yeah." Velvet started to stack the discarded papers that were filled with crossed-out lines. "So." She grinned sheepishly. "I guess that's still up in the air right now?"
"Ugh." Crystal lowered her head to bury it against her hooves, the quill she had been holding in her magic falling to the ground as her concentration was lost. "I have no ideas! Nothing! Sunset keeps asking for the next proposal, but I'm drawing a total and complete blank every time I try to think of something." She lifted her head to look up at Velvet with despair in her eyes. "What if I'm a one-hit wonder and that's all I'll ever be?"
"Oh my gosh, Crystal," Velvet muttered and rolled her eyes, though she still grinned. She reached out and tugged on Crystal's cheeks to force her lips into a smile. "You're just feeling the pressure, that's all. It'll be fine! You just need to stop thinking about it for a while and boom! It'll come to you all of a sudden." She stood up from the pillow, pausing to stretch her limbs, then trotted to the kitchen. "Are you hungry? I'm starving."
Crystal remained where she was and grumbled just loud enough to be heard, "What do we have left? More eggplant lasagna?"
Velvet giggled as she opened the freezer to look over its contents. "You liked the eggplant lasagna last week, so I got a lot of that, yeah." She grabbed two of the pre-made meals sitting on the shelf and set them on the counter. "What, you don't like it anymore already?"
Crystal started to clean up the mess she had made with her fruitless idea session, gathering up all the papers into a single pile. "All the Hungry Mare meals are starting to taste the same. I mean, it's better than the noodles in a cup, but it's also more expensive."
After putting the containers into the oven and setting the temperature dial, she walked back into the living room. "Well, we can get the noodles again for a while, then come back to Hungry Mares. Would that make Miss Grumpy happy?"
Crystal stared at Velvet with a scrunched-up pout. Velvet returned the expression until she giggled first, prompting Crystal into giggles.
"All right, all right, you win," Crystal said and waved a hoof at her. "I'm sorry. I'm taking my stress out on you."
"No, you're taking it out on the food, and it did nothing wrong." Velvet hesitated before she continued in a softer voice, "Maybe you should get out more."
Crystal raised her brow. "Get out more? I go to school every weekday."
Velvet hesitated again. She returned to the kitchen and peered through the glass at the slowly cooking meals. "That's not really getting out, though, is it?" she finally said. "You go, you sit, you come back. You don't talk about making any friends or—"
"What are you trying to get at?" Crystal finally got up off the pillow with a small grunt, her muscles sore from the extended time spent sitting, then walked over.
Velvet turned to face her with an openly concerned expression, her brow knitted together. "I'm just worried that you're going to turn into a hermit crab if you don't get out more."
"Into a—" Crystal laughed, though she quickly regained her composure when Velvet didn't laugh with her. "Okay, I'll try to make a friend or something. I'm sorry to worry you."
Her tone was serious, so Crystal responded earnestly, "Cross my heart and hope to cry, else I'll live in a pig's sty."
Finally, Velvet smiled again. "You're darn right. If you break your promise, I'm moving out. Just see how long this place stays clean without me!" She reached for the oven mitts, but the oven door opened and the meals lifted out, all with a pink glow. "Oh, you and your unicorn magic," she huffed with a playful roll of her eyes. "Thanks."
"Yup." Crystal set them on the counter, then raised a fork to stab at a piece of eggplant. It barely held onto the silvery prongs, more mush than anything else.
After Crystal took a bite and made a distinctly displeased face, Velvet giggled. "I get it, I get it. I'll get the noodle cups next time I go to the store." She paused, then corrected, "No, you will."
Crystal blinked at her. "Huh?"
"It's a perfect opportunity to get you out of the house! Besides, it's so much easier for you to carry groceries home than me."
"Oh." Crystal took another bite, struggling to swallow. "Okay, sure."
Crystal hadn't gone grocery shopping by herself in a very long time. It took her no less than thirty minutes after she finished lunch to psych herself up to leave the condo. By herself. Alone.
When they had first moved in together, she would go with Velvet to the store. Lately, other than going to school, she just sat around the house, writing drafts for half-baked stories that never fully rose in her mind's oven.
Her brow started to furrow as she trotted along the cobblestone street. She really was becoming a hermit crab, wasn't she?
As she walked into the store, she idly pondered when the last time she had visited Horsey was. They exchanged letters frequently, of course, but all three of them were becoming so busy. She nodded to herself. She'd make a day trip down soon.
"Afternoon," the clerk offered from behind the counter, a well-practiced smile on his face. "Anything I can help you with?"
"No, thank you." She returned the smile with one of her own. She tried to make it sincere, but it was a bit of a challenge when his interest flickered away.
The store was cleverly arranged with all of the more expensive items facing the front, right where customers would see them first. Her mouth watered as her gaze drifted across the various fruits on display. They were brought in by train and were the freshest they city could get. They were certainly fresher than the frozen Hungry Mares, but ate up more bits, too.
She shook her head rapidly and headed straight to the iceboxes at the back of the store. Velvet still seemed to like them, so she grabbed a couple different meals, then raised up a box of noodle cups. Each individual Hungry Mare cost seven bits. A box of twelve noodle cups cost four. With the money they'd save buying the latter again, she could splurge on some fresher foods.
She hummed in thought as she walked past the produce barrels and hesitated, her eyes locked on the delicious fruit. An apple or two would be a nice treat. There might even be some cheap chocolate that they could melt down to make it extra special. Having a book published would mean more bits in their saddlebags, but it was still too soon to go crazy just yet. Two apples and a bar of chocolate was hardly going crazy, right?
After bringing her haul up to the counter, the clerk scribbled down the values of each item, muttered some math to himself, then smiled at her. "Thirty-seven bits, ma'am."
Crystal hesitated. "Could you perhaps, sir, please consider thirty-five bits?"
The clerk's eyes widened before they narrowed. "Listen, lady, I'm running a business here. The prices are not negotiable."
"Right," she muttered, then smiled and raised her voice to a normal tone. "Of course. Thirty-seven bits it is."
Velvet moaned after she dipped the tip of her hoof into the small bowl of melted chocolate and licked it off. "Oh sweet Celestia," she purred. "You are totally the one going shopping from now on if you bring back wonderful ideas like this each time."
Crystal flicked one ear. "Yeah." She finished slicing the second apple and brought the plate over to the coffee table. "Hey, Velvet?"
"Hmm?" Velvet eagerly eyed the apple slices, licking her lips.
"I was thinking—" She set the plate down and Velvet snapped up a slice to dip it into the chocolate. "The Summer Sun Celebration is being held in Ponyville this year, right?"
Velvet nodded, her attention momentarily drawn away from the snack. "Do you want to go and celebrate with Horsey?"
"I want to, certainly." Crystal's magic raised an apple slice.
Velvet shrugged. She dipped the apple, took a bite, then said, "Maybe we should go down after. I don't want to be rude to the Ponyville ponies. They deserve to have their day without us sneaking in, you know?"
Crystal grumbled a little bitterly, but she smiled nonetheless. "I'm trying to get out like you asked, but now you're telling me no? You're sending me mixed signals!"
"I'm not telling you no!" She laughed. "Just wait an extra day! So you'll see Horsey in six days, not five. She'll still be there."
In the days leading up to the Summer Sun Celebration, Crystal made an effort to leave the condo to work at different cafes. She didn't socialize too much, as once she sat down with a notebook she was lost to her thoughts, but she did at least breathe the fresh air. Admittedly, she enjoyed the change of pace.
In the twilight hours before the celebration, the whole city of Canterlot was alive with excitement. Tall buildings were renting their upper floors to ponies wanting to watch the sunrise with the best view, but Crystal took Velvet to a small park in the higher section of Canterlot. It was a small, untouched green space that was perfect for watching clouds, though at that hour it was better for stargazing.
Velvet spread out a blanket for them to lay down on their backs to look up at the night sky.
"It's beautiful," Crystal murmured as the twinkling lights of varying sizes and brightness danced in the sea of deep blues and violets.
Velvet giggled. "It looks the same as it does every night."
Crystal tilted her head. "Do you think so?" She spread out her forelegs and gestured at the view. "I think it's more beautiful than usual."
"Uh-huh." Velvet giggled again. "And when was the last time you looked at the night sky at this hour?"
Crystal paused to ponder this, then scrunched up her nose. "Oh, hush, you. It's more beautiful than usual."
"You know what would be beautiful?" Velvet crossed her hooves over her chest, yawning. "Having the sun rise so we can go to bed."
Crystal rolled her eyes. "Spoilsport."
They rested in companionable silence for a while. Velvet's eyes slowly closed while Crystal continued to admire the stars.
"Velvet?" Crystal asked softly.
Velvet snorted, startled out of her half-asleep state. "Mm?" She yawned.
"Mm?" She rolled her head to look at Crystal. "For what?"
"I just—thank you." Crystal smiled up at the sky. "I can't imagine how my life would have turned out if we hadn't become friends."
Velvet chuckled sleepily and shifted to lie on her side, closing her eyes again. "We'd both be lonely adults with blank flanks. I owe you just as much as you owe me, you know."
Crystal paused. Something caught her attention in the sky, but she didn't see it clearly enough to know what it was. She suddenly felt alert, however, and her gaze darted about to try to spy it again. Then, she saw it.
"Velvet?" She reached out a hoof and nudged her a little more forcefully than she intended. "Velvet, wake up."
Velvet groaned and rolled onto her other side. "Ugh, just a few more minutes, please."
Crystal went silent. It was too strange to try to explain to the weary mare. Four stars were moving. Stars weren't supposed to move, were they? Shining brighter than the other stars, they slid across the sky toward the full moon before disappearing behind it, or into it—she wasn't sure which. Her eyes widened and she gasped when she beheld an even stranger event.
"Velvet!" she exclaimed. "Look!"
"What?" Velvet lifted her head to squint at her. When she saw her pointing, her gaze followed the hoof's direction toward the sky. "What?!" Her body tensed up and she jumped to her hooves. "What happened to the moon?!"
Crystal worriedly glanced between the moon and Velvet. "I don't know! The Mare in the Moon just suddenly vanished!"
Velvet bit her lip. "Maybe it's just part of the Summer Sun Celebration? Maybe Princess Celestia is doing something special for Ponyville."
Crystal stood and started to pace. "I have a bad feeling, Velvet. I have a very bad feeling."
It wasn't too long after that her fears were confirmed. A team of pegasus royal guards zipped by overhead, their armor rattling from the speed at which they flew, the metallic sound ringing out an unofficial alarm.
"They came from Ponyville," Crystal said in a dry voice that nearly caught in her throat. "Oh my Celestia, what happened?"
Velvet put a hoof on Crystal's shoulder. "I—I'm sure it'll be all right."
Soon, guards descended from the castle into the city in a professional but hurried swarm. Each one called out the same thing: "Citizens of Canterlot, return to your homes immediately. Citizens of Canterlot, return to your homes…"
The guard that approached them was large and well-built, but Crystal's panic prevented her from even caring. Tentatively, he asked, "Velvet Step?"
Velvet blinked, both in surprise and to ward off her tears in an attempt to see more clearly. "Huh?"
The stallion had a copper-brown coat underneath his royal guard academy uniform, a white blaze on his snout and similarly white socks extending up his legs.
"Citizens of Canterlot," a nearby guard hollered, "return to your homes immediately."
The stallion's wings twitched nervously as he said, "Velvet, you need to go home, now." When she just stared at him in confusion, he explained, "Sorry. We went to school together, sort of. Defender Bronzewing." He shook his head. "But now's not the time to catch up; you need to take—" He paused. "Crystal? Crystal, take her home and get yourself home, too."
Velvet grabbed Crystal's hoof and held it tightly in her own. "What happened, Daffy?"
He swallowed. "I can't say. Please, get yourselves home."
Velvet hesitated a moment longer before she complied, tugging Crystal to follow her. They walked at first, but as the never-ending call of the guards continued from all angles and echoed throughout the slowly emptying streets, they both broke out into a full-on gallop.
"Citizens of Canterlot, return to your homes immediately…"
Once they were inside their condo, Crystal and Velvet sat on their respective pillows, quietly trembling without any words between them for a long while. The calls of the guards could still be heard until they slowly faded away, presumably after the streets were cleared.
The silence was deafening, but neither could think of anything to say that wouldn't immediately bring them both to tears.