The train whistled, startling the mares awake and they responded with tired groans. Crystal kept her face firmly buried against the pillow and tugged the blanket over her head to try to drown out the light and noise.
"Time to get up," Velvet chimed. "We have to switch trains to get to Las Pegasus."
"Five more minutes," Crystal grumbled, rolling over to give her back to the world. "Just five more."
Velvet shrugged and turned to walk with the other mares toward the exit. "Okay, but in five minutes, you'll be on your way back to Canterlot all by yourself!"
Crystal whined. She squirmed under the blanket before she kicked it off and rolled out of the bunk. "Fine! But I'll need breakfast soon."
Velvet winked over her shoulder. "That's already taken care of!"
When they stepped off the train, a familiar face was waiting with a large basket in her hooves. "Good morning!" Horsey smiled brightly. "Right on time, as always!"
"Trains tend to do that," Velvet said, giggling.
Horsey huffed. "No breakfast for you, then." She doled out neatly wrapped little packages to the other mares as they walked past. "I even included extra fruit spread for your bagel, but snarky ponies don't get rewarded for their bad behavior."
"Really? Well, then!" Velvet cleared her throat. "Top of the morning to you, Horsey! Pip, pip! Aren't you looking lovely?"
"That's much better." Horsey rummaged through the basket and retrieved a package that was wrapped in a distinct mauve cloth. "There you go!" Her attention turned to Crystal. "So, you're going to tour Equestria, huh?"
Crystal nodded. "The major parts of it, anyway."
Horsey lowered her voice to a more private level. "Velvet told me what was going on in her letter. Here." She held out a light pink package. "I made your favorites. Everything will be okay, okay?"
Crystal smiled and, instead of taking the package from her, she wrapped both forelegs around the mare's neck and tugged her in close. "Thank you, Horsey." She pulled back, grinning. "Are Savoir's parents still sending you care packages?"
Horsey's face turned bright red. "Yes! They are, and it's so embarrassing! Last week, I got a box of diapers in the mail. We're just dating, but their letters act like I'm already their daughter-in-law!" She clasped one hoof to her cheek. "What if Sav feels pressured by his parents? I don't want him to—to make a move that he's not ready for!"
"Don't worry! He seems pretty serious about you, and, well, stallions at his age don't have time to dawdle."
Horsey frowned. "He's not that old."
Crystal laughed and hugged her again, then took the wrapped food. "Yes, yes. Thanks for breakfast."
"Come on, Crystal!" Velvet called from the other side of the platform. "The Las Pegasus train is here!"
Crystal waved at Velvet to acknowledge her, but kept her focus on Horsey. "If he proposes, send a letter as soon as you say yes, okay?"
Horsey bit her lower lip. "If he does, I will." She shook her head and sighed, though she still smiled. "If."
Crystal grinned, her ears wiggling with delight. "Good enough for me!" The train whistled and Velvet shouted again. Crystal stuck out her tongue and said, "Okay, I really have to go! Bye, Horsey!" She laughed and ran across the platform, over to the waiting train, and jumped aboard.
Velvet eyed her with playful suspicion. "Would you rather have stayed in Ponyville while I go on tour?" She huffed and walked over to an open seat.
Crystal followed after her and once seated, she started to unwrap the cloth in her lap. "I don't know if I could spend two weeks in Ponyville. It's so—so small." She gasped when the contents of the package were revealed. "But I will say that she does know exactly what I like!"
Velvet looked over. "Aww, now that's just not fair! All I got was extra jelly!"
Sitting in the pink cloth was a bagel with dried rose hips baked into it and a creamy strawberry spread, along with a small bunch of grapes and cucumber slices.
Crystal glanced at Velvet's spread, which consisted of a single, well-jellied bagel. She giggled and teased, "Well, maybe if you have a soldier go off on a mysterious mission, you can get a special breakfast from Horsey, too."
Velvet fell quiet as if to mull this over, then shrugged. "Just extra jelly it is, then."
The moment the train neared Las Pegasus, Crystal knew the day she had to explore it would not be enough to adjust to the culture shock. Even at a distance the bright flashes of light sparking from neon signs threatened even the least sensitive of ponies to fall victim to seizures. She pulled the window open and leaned her head out to get a better look and once she did, she could hear the music vibrating the very air around the city.
However, that didn't stop her from fidgeting and squirming in line to exit the train, eager to see everything up close. Even the ponies of Las Pegasus were bold and colorful, many of them wearing sequins or feathers in their manes. The whole city was pulsing with vibrancy.
"What do you think?" Velvet asked, bumping her shoulder to Crystal's. "Canterlot seems pretty boring by comparison, doesn't it?"
Crystal continued to look around with wide eyes. "I had heard stories, but I never imagined. It's so bright!" She gasped and pointed at a mare walking across the street. "I want one of those!"
The mare in question wore a multitude of feathers, attached to the base of her tail and fanned out to resemble a peacock in full display.
Velvet squinted, then laughed. "That would definitely get Silent's attention!" Her voice cracked as she tried to stop herself, but the words had already been spoken. She winced and glanced at Crystal. "I'm sorry, I—"
"No, it's okay." Crystal smiled at her. "I was just thinking, 'I can't wait to tell Silent Knight all about this.' Because he'll come home. Let's be realistic: the changeling attack was the worst thing that I can think of that's ever happened in Equestria, and nopony was actually seriously injured. If that's the worst, then what am I so worried about?"
Velvet's grimace lifted into a returned smile. "Wow, it's not even been two days and you're already to the acceptance stage of grief? I think that's an Equestrian record!"
Crystal rolled her eyes. They walked into the hotel and awe washed over her again. Everything seemed to be gilded, save for the exquisite marble floors and mahogany accents. A large chandelier hung above the lobby with strands of crystals cascading down like a frozen, sparkling waterfall.
Crystal looked at Velvet with wide eyes. "How are you not freaking out right now?!"
Velvet shrugged. "Because this is where we stayed on my last tour. We'll only be here for two nights, and I'm going to spend most of the time practicing or performing, so I don't want to get too attached to the glitz and glam." She paused to get their room number, then walked with Crystal over to the elevator. "But feel free to live it up and enjoy the room service, or go to a show!"
Crystal giggled and, once inside the elevator, hopped from one hoof to another. "I'm going to go out on the town! I have to see everything so when Silent and I finally start dating, I'll know all the hot spots. I want to impress him with how worldly I am!"
"Well, as long as you have fun, I guess it's okay if your motivations are silly." Velvet giggled. "Just don't get lost because of a shiny distraction."
Crystal pranced out of the elevator when the doors slid open. They had just enough time to ensure the room was in good shape before Velvet had to leave for practice. Crystal stayed behind to gussy up with ribbons tucked into her tail and a short, sparkly dress, then left to see all that Las Pegasus had to offer.
The train gently rocked side to side as it sped along the tracks toward Ponyville, though no stop would be made; instead, it would continue on through the mountain and across to Baltimare, which was on the opposite side of Equestria from Las Pegasus. That meant they had been cooped up for nearly two days in the train before they pulled into the harbor city.
Baltimare reminded her of Manehattan, but with much fewer skyscrapers and the smell of salt water lingering in the air. What struck her most, however, was as they walked to the hotel, the locals seemed to be shouting at each other in a foreign language.
"Hey hon! Jeet?"
"Naw, stove's onner fritz."
"Yoose all shoold proly git dat lookat, hon!"
"Yah. Snoofew, hon?"
Crystal turned her head to look at Velvet with wide, confused eyes. "What language is that?"
Velvet laughed. "Just Bawlmarese, s'awl."
The other mares nearby giggled.
"They talk really funny here," one of them, Moonlight Dancer, said. "But they have the best crabapples you'll find anywhere in Equestria. You can get them served any which way! Pies, tarts, spring rolls, raw…"
"They're amazing in pies if you can get them fresh!" Nightingale sighed wistfully.
Ocean Starlight leaned forward, adding, "But don't forget to just go out on a pier and look at the ocean. It's so romantic when the stars and moon dance with their shimmering reflections in the waves!"
Nightingale rolled her eyes. "Of course you would say that." She laughed when Ocean Starlight huffed and turned away.
Crystal looked between the three of them with a smile. "That all sounds wonderful. Do you know if they have crabapple vendors near the pier?" Her gaze turned toward the hotel just a few paces away. "It could be the perfect location for a romantic stroll. Share a crabapple pie, walking along the pier to watch the moon rise over the sea…"
The three mares gave varying degrees of agreeable squeals and nods. Velvet, on the other hoof, sighed. She stood on the opposite side of Crystal, not participating much until she finally teased, "Are you really going to spend the whole trip with sugarplums dancing in your head?" She shook her head. "Can't you at least spend a little time just relaxing and enjoying yourself instead of trying to discover the perfect date for an oblivious stallion?"
Crystal stuck her tongue out. "I am enjoying myself quite a good deal, thank you!"
While the hotel was not nearly as glamorous as the one in Las Pegasus, it was nothing to scoff at, either. Where the previous was gilded, this one was fully decked in marble and black stone. It was much more contemporary and in some ways Crystal preferred it.
"Room 213?" the stallion behind the counter questioned when Velvet checked in. "I gawt a leder for ya." He turned and walked through a doorway into the back room.
Crystal gasped and grabbed onto Velvet's foreleg, squeezing it tightly, hopping up and down. Her heart was pounding with excitement and her stomach was knotted with nerves. "Oh my gosh, Velvet! Do you think—"
"It has to be!" Velvet beamed at her, though she winced. "Now calm down and let go of my leg before you snap it off!"
"Sorry, sorry." Crystal stepped away and waited in heart-pounding silence as the stallion returned, a letter hovering beside him. "Thanks!" Her magic tore the letter out of his and she ran to the elevator.
Velvet laughed and called, "Wait! You'll need the room key!"
Crystal trotted in place in the opening to keep the doors open, glaring across the room at Velvet. "Well, then get it and hurry up!"
Once both of them were in the elevator, the gears seemed to take their time in getting them to the second floor. Crystal started to wonder if the stairs would have been faster right as the bell dinged and the doors slid open. She sprinted out into the hall, Velvet laughing and chasing after her, until they were at and inside their hotel room.
Crystal sprung onto the nearest bed and snatched the letter. "He's alive!" She laughed, though tears were in her eyes. "I wasn't sure how much longer I could wait for this to arrive. Oh, Velvet, he's alive." She hugged it to her chest while Velvet climbed into the bed beside her.
Velvet bit her lip. "Well, you got a letter, but maybe you should read it first before you get too excited?"
"What else could it mean?" Crystal glared up at her, but she did start to gently open the envelope. "I doubt anypony would have the notion to send me a letter if something happened to him."
Crystal fell silent for a moment as she scanned the letter's contents, then mumbled, "Well, on the positive side of things, he is alive."
"What does it say?" Velvet asked, despite leaning over Crystal's shoulder and reading the letter for herself.
"Not much," Crystal replied with a bit of disappointment in her voice, "but I suppose that's all that can be expected if he's feeling as seasick as he describes. That must have been an awful boat ride. I wonder where the boat took them, though."
"Overseas?" Velvet suggested, grinning when Crystal rolled her eyes. "I don't know. Maybe to Varrheim?"
Crystal scrunched up her nose. "I hope not. He has a bit of a grudge against gryphons, because of his father, I think. I'm not completely certain on that one. Luna mentioned that his father was injured while in the gryphon kingdom a long time ago." She rolled over onto her stomach, sighed, and retrieved a blank sheet of paper and a quill. "Still, it's such an—an anticlimactic letter."
Velvet shrugged and walked over to the kitchenette set against the wall. "Don't worry. The next one will be better once he gets his land legs back, I'm sure of it!"
"Yeah." Crystal tilted her head as she started to write her reply. "I suppose it was foalish of me to get my hopes up when he said he would write."
Dear Silent Knight,
I hope that by the time you receive this letter, you will have already recovered from your sea-gotten illness. Nonetheless, I am happy to hear that you arrived safe and sound. Hearing from you has relieved some of my worry for your safety.
Be strong and do not let anypony ruffle your feathers while you are on your mission. I know you are more diligent than they are.
Crystal slid the letter into the envelope and copied the address from the one he had sent. She glanced somewhat nervously at Velvet, who stood with her back to her while she rummaged through the cabinets. Quickly, so as not to be seen, she placed a kiss on the fold before setting it on the foot of the bed.
The familiar, comforting sounds of a cafe enveloped Crystal like an auditory hug. She smiled and stirred the honey-dipped spoon around her teacup while Sunset Coffee took a sip of his plain, black coffee.
"So," he said, lowering the mug and tilting his head, "you're touring Equestria because your coltfriend is away?" He chuckled. "Why not just go with him?"
Crystal flushed. "He—He's not quite my coltfriend, really, he's just a stallion I'm interested in. And I'm not exactly invited on his trip, so that wasn't an option."
With another chuckle, Sunset shook his head. "Details, details. Anyway, did you want this meeting to be personal or professional?"
Crystal hummed as she thought the question over, then replied, "How about a little of column A, a little of column B? Let's get the professional talk out of the way so we can enjoy ourselves."
"What, you don't enjoy talking about expectations and deadlines?" He rapped his hooves on the table between them. "All right. So you're coming up on month four of Her Silent Love. How is it going so far?"
Crystal bobbed her head, a motion somewhere between affirmative and contemplative. "Well enough. I don't know if it'll be ready by this year's Equestrian Writer's Convention, however."
"And why not? You wrote the last one in just a few months!" He paused, then asked with sincere concern, "Are you trying to force this story just to stay out of a lull? Because it's all right, authors go through slumps. It's perfectly norm—"
"That's not it," she interrupted. "The problem is I want to write too much. I keep writing scenes and chapters that I'm not sure will be interesting to anypony, so most of my writing is a waste. I care so much about this story that I want it to be perfect."
Sunset shrugged. "I always say 'better done and close enough than never finished at all,' but what I've read so far of the first few chapters is worth the wait. It's—This one is different."
A short laugh escaped her despite her efforts to smother it. "I've heard that before, actually."
"Well, let's take this opportunity to segue into personal." He leaned in, brow raised. "Is this story personal?"
Crystal turned the cup slowly in her hooves, staring down at the dark-colored water with darker-colored tea leaves resting at the bottom.
"Yes," she admitted softly. "It is. It's complicated, Sunset. I'm not sure if he's interested in me or still pining for his ex-marefriend. I'm not even sure if I'm his type. A part of me thinks if I can do what 'The Canterlot Invasion' did for my nightmares—if I can get my feelings out in written word—I'll finally know how to handle them and what to say."
Sunset nodded as he listened carefully. "I'll give you one piece of advice: be careful. You don't want to associate your story with a bad memory if things don't work out with this stallion, because once it's published, you can't take it back." His serious expression lightened with a grin. "But I can't imagine a well-bred mare like you having trouble landing the stallion of your choosing! Just do what my wife did and hit him with a frying pan."
Crystal sputtered into laughter. "I'll keep that in mind." She shook her head, her laughter calming to a chuckle. "Speaking of your wife, how is the family?"
"Great, thank you!" His voice and chest swelled with pride. "Violet is blossoming into the sweetest little filly." He reached into his bag and pulled out a wallet that folded out to reveal several pictures of his family. "Here's when a butterfly landed on her cupcake, and here she discovered bubbles!"
Crystal listened to his stories and looked at the accompanying pictures, but more than that, she glanced up to see his face every once and a while. Joy glittered in his mocha-colored eyes as he spoke of his family, and she wondered if Silent wanted kids someday. Sunset's words faded away the more her mind drifted to the idea of being a mother and raising foals of her own.
It was rather nice to dream.
Velvet walked beside Crystal while the troupe made their way to the train that would take them home. After two weeks of travelling and performing, the group seemed weary and ready to return to Canterlot. Crystal, however, walked with several bags floating behind her and was levitating item after item to show her Itailian Market finds to Velvet.
"Look at these bargains! All this jewelry was only thirty bits!" She giggled. "And, look, a pair of authentic Itailian cufflinks! Not that Silent really does the formal wear, but you never know…" Her voice trailed off as a sigh overtook her. "Assuming—"
"Miss Wishes?" a voice called, hurrying toward them. "Wait! Miss Wishes!"
Crystal turned her head to see a pegasus mare wearing the distinct uniform of a mailpony. "Yes?" Her heart fluttered with excitement. "Do you have a letter for me?"
The mare came to a halt in mid-air. "Yes!" she exclaimed between pants. "Glad I caught up to you!" She held out an envelope. "Here you go!"
Crystal took it gingerly despite the feelings coursing through her and tucked it into one of her bags. "Thank you so much!"
The mare nodded. "No problem, ma'am! Have a good day!" She turned and flew off back in the direction she came.
Velvet grinned and bumped against Crystal's side, wiggling her ears. "So, assuming what? Assuming you ever hear from him again? I guess Celestia's looking out for you, huh?"
"I guess so," Crystal said. She pranced on the tips of her hooves. "I'll wait until we get on the train, though. I don't want all of Fillydelphia to see my reaction, whatever that may be."
They soon arrived at the train station and waited with little to no conversation. Where they all had been buzzing with excitement for the tour to begin with, there was simply exhausted desires to go home.
Crystal retrieved the envelope and turned it over to look at it while she waited. She desperately wanted to rip it open and read it right there, but all of Velvet's troupemates were around her. The last thing she wanted to do was embarrass her friend by squealing if the letter contained better-than-expected news.
The tell-tale whistle sounded and a few moments later, the train pulled up. Crystal walked as casually as she could in line and straight to the sleeping car so she could flop onto one of the bunk beds, Velvet following close behind her.
"Open it!" Velvet jumped onto the bunk above hers and leaned over the edge to peer down.
"I am, I am," Crystal mumbled as her magic worked the paper. "Okay." She took a deep breath, composed herself, then began to read.
Dear Crystal Wishes
It is certainly not a sure thing but we may be coming home soon. I dread the thought of getting back on that ship but the idea of returning to good friends like you fills me with excitement.
Each day here has been a testament to how important true friendship is and a reminder about what life could be like without it. Though I have no regret in my chosen profession, trips like this one give me pause. I can no longer imagine a life solely devoted to the pursuit of war.
I ask that you keep this realization confidential as I would not want to share it with my comrades in arms. Please give my love to Velvet Step and her family. I look forward to seeing you soon.
Crystal released a loud groan after she finished the letter.
Velvet tilted her head, brow furrowed. "What? What's wrong?" She leaned a little further over. "What happened?"
"This." Crystal rose the letter up for Velvet to read. "I've been placed in a zone of friendship three times in one letter, while he wants me to give you his love!" She shot a playfully seething glare while she clutched her chest. "Et tu, Velvet? Et tu?"
"Don't worry. If he really is after my tail, then I'll just tell him I'm totally in love with somepony else." Velvet giggled and glanced over the writing. "Seriously, though, I think this is just a case of being the stereotypically oblivious stallion he is."
"She says, while secretly stealing the stallion of my dreams behind my back!" Crystal sighed, flopping over like a rag doll. "What if he actually is interested in you, though?"
"No, I don't think so." Velvet slid off the bunk and climbed onto Crystal's. "Every time he came over, he came to specifically look for you. And whenever you are away, he doesn't come visit me like he did for you while I was on tour. Maybe he thinks you don't like him and is trying really hard to not offend you?"
Crystal stared at her with a blank expression. "How could he not know? I've tried everything!"
Velvet hummed thoughtfully. "Well, not really. You haven't tried just outright saying it."
Crystal paused. She remained still, then, slowly, sat up and retrieved a quill and blank parchment from her luggage. "You're right."
Velvet's eyes widened. "You're going to tell him?!"
"Oh, no. That's something I want to say to his face. And when he gets home, I will. He wrote that he'd be home soon, anyway, so I can put up with you getting his love in the meantime." She giggled and the quill started to wander across the page in her fanciest quillmanship.
Dearest Silent Knight,
Your secret is safe with me.
I look forward to your return. I have so many stories to tell you. You won't believe what I have been up to while you've been gone!
The news I can share with you is that we are expecting the arrival of Velvet's little sibling-to-be very soon. I think she is more excited than all of us now that she has accepted she will no longer be the foal of the family.
I hope all continues to go well on your trip. Please give Princess Luna my warmest regards, and know that you are in my thoughts.
"There." She folded the paper and tucked it into an envelope. "I hope he really does come home soon," she sighed, sealing it with a soft kiss, then froze.
"What was that?" Velvet grinned and pointed at her. "You sealed it with a kiss!"
"I, well, yes, but—"
Velvet laughed herself right off the side of the bunk, landing on the floor with a loud thump. "Oh my gosh! Crystal, you're so cute!"
Crystal looked down at her and frowned, her face bright red. "Shush, you!" She retreated to the far corner, pressed up against the wall. Her tail curled around herself almost protectively while she did her best to ignore the playful teases Velvet sent her way.
The train whistled and started to slow. Crystal turned her head to see Canterlot out the window. To her own surprise, a smile crossed her lips at the sight of it. Whether she liked it or not, Canterlot was home.
"Let's get you to the post office so you can get that letter on its way," Velvet said, hoisting her bags onto her back and heading toward the exit. "Don't want to keep your Knight waiting, and—um, Mom?!" Velvet gave a startled, high-pitched squawk. "What the hay are you doing here?!"
The mare in question smiled from where she stood on the station platform. "To welcome my little sweetie back home, of course!" She dabbed her forehead with a cloth. She was sweating profusely, and her eyes flicked around in the almost comical manner of a nervous Nellie.
Velvet closed the gap between them. "Mom, you should be in the hospital! He's due, like, yesterday, I thought!"
Sunbeam nodded. "He was, but I wasn't ready. I wanted you to be here when your baby brother's born." She huffed and looked past her to smile at Crystal, wincing in between labored breaths. "How was your trip?"
"Mom," Velvet interrupted, both forelegs gesturing at her fidgeting, sweating mother, "you need to get to a hospital! Now!"
Sunbeam snorted while Velvet ushered her toward the stairs. Crystal lingered somewhat awkwardly where she stood until Velvet turned to look at her and ask, "Aren't you coming?"
Crystal's ears perked. "May I?"
"Of course! He's your baby brother, too!"
Crystal smiled and trotted after them, walking on the other side of Sunbeam. To distract the mare from her discomfort, Crystal told her all about the trip until they arrived at the hospital. Pepper Ridge was already there, pacing nervously.
"Honey!" he exclaimed when he saw them approach, then turned on his hooves and ran inside, yelling, "Doctor, nurse! She's here!"
Like clockwork, a doctor and two nurses came to them and led Sunbeam into a room, Pepper Ridge following at their heels. And just like that, Crystal and Velvet were rather abruptly left alone in the waiting room. They looked at each other as a silent weight started to tense the silent air around them, the reality of the situation becoming more apparent in their shared wide-eyed expressions.