"Come on, already!" Velvet knocked on Crystal's bedroom door. "We're going to be late!"
Crystal pressed up against the door to ensure it couldn't be opened unexpectedly. "I changed my mind. I don't want to do this."
Velvet huffed. "It's for charity, Crystal. We already signed up! You don't want the guilt of disappointing foals on your conscience, do you?"
"No, but, I mean," she whined, burying her face into her hooves. "I just—Do we really have to wear these outfits?"
Crystal groaned. Finally, she stepped back and pulled the door open. Velvet stood in front of her, both of them wearing the same white-trimmed outfit, she in green and Crystal in red. Striped socks adorned their legs all the way up to their knees, and pointed but floppy hats sat on their heads to keep their ears warm.
"Aww, see? You look adorable!" Velvet giggled and started to the front door. "Let's get to the meeting place before they start without us!"
Crystal sighed, following along behind her as they descended the stairs into the condominium's main lobby. "These outfits just feel a little wrong. We're going to be in front of little fillies and colts in these scanty dresses?"
"Oh, silly, that's not for the foals! That's for us." Velvet's tail swished from side to side as she pranced out into the snow-laden street. "Don't you feel sexy?"
A breeze chose that moment to drift by, sending cold air up their skirts. Velvet laughed when Crystal squealed in surprise and ran forward as if to outrun the wind.
"No, in fact, I do not feel sexy! I feel cold!" Crystal glared at the still-laughing Velvet. "Why did you sign us up for this, anyway?!"
"I did it last year and it was a lot of fun. Just trust me, all right?" Velvet grinned and bumped her shoulder against Crystal's. "When have I ever led you astray?"
Crystal stared at her suspiciously before relenting with a sigh and a roll of her eyes. "Fine, fine."
By the time they met up with the other mares, all dressed in the same red or green outfits, the brisk jog had warmed both of them up enough that Crystal no longer noticed the cold. The foals had yet to arrive, so the coordinator worked on arranging the mares in a semi-circle according to height and began practicing their harmony.
Slowly, families started to arrive one by one, and the caroling began.
"As with gladness, mares of old
"Did the warming heart behold
"As with joy, they hailed its light
"Leading onward, beaming bright
"So, most glorious Harm'ny
"May we evermore be led to thee…"
It didn't take long for the Hearth's Warming cheer to spread to everypony in attendance, caroler and otherwise. By the end of the afternoon, Crystal was almost disappointed when the coordinator came out to thank everypony and disperse the crowd.
"I know that face," Velvet chimed when she walked over. "I was right, wasn't I?"
Crystal beamed. "I never thought that would be so much fun! We have to do that again next year." She trotted in place. "Or can we do it again now? Is there another caroling?"
Velvet shrugged. "We could go door-to-door caroling, but we kind of have to be somewhere, don't we?"
Crystal stared at her a moment, brow furrowed, before her eyes widened. "Oh, yes! We do!" She hurried forward down the street. "And we're definitely not showing up in these little numbers!"
"Really? Why not?" Velvet grinned and walked alongside her. "I think this'd be a great way to catch a stallion's eye."
"Well, feel free to stay in your outfit, then." Crystal stuck her nose in the air. "I would prefer a gentlestallion, myself!"
There was a pause before Velvet said in a nonchalant manner, "I guess I would prefer a gentlepony, too."
Crystal glanced at her. They walked in silence for a while, then she finally asked, "Gentlepony?"
Velvet simply nodded.
"Oh." Another long pause. "So, does that mean—"
"I don't know, really," Velvet interrupted. "I've only ever been on three dates. I don't feel, like, weak in the knees when I see a handsome stallion or a pretty mare, but I'm not against the idea of either."
"Huh." Crystal blinked and walked quietly to ponder this new information. Finally, she gave Velvet a coy smile. "Are you trying to tell me that all this time, you've been secretly harboring feelings for me? Has there been romantic tension between us this whole time?"
Velvet managed to last through the questions without a sound, though her cheeks were puffed to hold back her laughter that escaped once Crystal was finished. "Definitely not!"
Crystal's ears drooped and her bottom lip stuck out in a pout. "And why not?"
"Because that'd be weird!"
"Oh, thanks." Crystal cantered ahead, her head and tail held indignantly high.
Velvet laughed again. "Not like that! I just mean that it'd be weird because you're basically my sister! I'm sorry, I'm sorry." She bumped against her side. "You're a very pretty pony, okay?"
"Bah humbug!" Crystal shot her a quick smile. "You bet I am! Anyway, let's get changed and head over to Runic's before we end up late."
The closer they got to the Phial and Filly, the more Crystal noticed Velvet started to change. The confident, boisterous mare she knew was growing strangely quiet. When Velvet's head lowered and her ears pinned back, Crystal stopped walking and stared at her.
"What?" Velvet stopped as well. "What's up?"
"I was going to ask you that, actually." Crystal tilted her head. "What's wrong with you?"
Velvet sighed. She turned to face her, took a deep breath, and said rather quickly, "I'm nervous about meeting Princess Luna."
Crystal blinked. "Huh? Why?"
"Why?" Velvet's eyes widened in disbelief. "She's an alicorn! She and Celestia are over a thousand years old with magic beyond my or your comprehension! I mean, I know we just call them our rulers and princesses and whatever, but aren't they basically, like, goddesses?"
"Um?" Crystal slowly shrugged. "I don't know? I've gotten that feeling from Princess Celestia, as though she's some kind of otherworldly being, but, Luna is different. She's much more down to Equestria, which is a little ironic, if you think about it."
Velvet sighed, shook her head, and continued walking. "Well, I'm glad you can be so relaxed about it, but I've got butterflies up to my ears."
Although most of the buildings were decorated with wreaths and tinsel, one stood out among the rest: Runic's shop was completely loaded to the point of nearly being ridiculous with every kind of Hearth's Warming paraphernalia.
A sign was propped up to announce, 'Closed for a Private Function.'
When they opened the door, the decorations outside suddenly seemed tame. It was nothing short of a holiday winter wonderland with fake snow and icicles as well as ornaments, ribbons, streamers, and candy canes. A table was set up against one wall that offered cookies of various types and a bowl of purple punch.
"Good evening!" Crystal called. "I hope nopony minds, but I brought a friend with me."
Runic smiled. "The more the merrier!"
She heard Velvet's breath catch when the mare stepped inside. She looked uncharacteristically nervous, which put Crystal ill at ease.
"Hello, everypony, " Velvet said softly.
Crystal shot her a confused look before explaining, "This is Velvet Step, my best friend since fillyhood." She started to point as she introduced the three ponies standing around, "Velvet, this is Silent Knight, Iridescence, and, as you know, Runic Phial."
Velvet bobbed her head. "Pleased to meet you all. I've heard a lot about both of you."
"Good things, I hope," Iridescence teased.
"Absolutely!" Velvet nodded quickly.
Crystal watched her friend exchange pleasantries with the group. Where Crystal knew her as confident and playful, around these new ponies she was shy and tentative. It was like seeing a completely different mare.
"—and Luna's going to be bringing some new game she just got," Iridescence said to Silent Knight, who simply nodded in response.
Velvet swallowed and asked, "So it's true that she'll be coming? How am I supposed to talk to her?"
"Don't worry, Velvet." Crystal put a hoof on her shoulder. "Iridescence can tell you just as well as I can that Luna's very sweet. And, honestly, there's a chance she might not be able to make it because of her increasing duties." She nodded her head. "Why don't we have some punch to calm your nerves?"
Velvet relented with a small nod. Once they were by themselves, Crystal asked quietly, "Are you okay?"
"I told you, I'm all pins and needles." Velvet allowed a small shudder, then picked up a small cup and filled it. "These are your friends, not mine. Don't you remember when I dragged you to one of my dance meets and how you just stood in the corner?"
Crystal scrunched up her nose. "Yes, but your dance friends were also really…" She trailed off uncertainly, shrugging.
"Uh-huh. Different?" Velvet gestured at the guards a few paces away. "Try being surrounded by ponies that would give their lives to save an alicorn that's going to be here like it's nothing, and one wrong word or move might mean a hoof to the face! What if I do the wrong thing and get arrested, or worse?!"
"Oh my gosh, they're not going to accost you." Crystal laughed and shook her head. "Just try to relax and have fun, all right? That's your mantra for tonight."
"Mmhm." Velvet followed her as they returned to the party. "Relax and have fun," she repeated under her breath. "Easier said than done."
Runic and Silent had stepped off to exchange their gifts, which prompted Crystal to reach into her sweater. "Here you are, Iridescence," she said and offered a small box wrapped with a silver ribbon. "Happy Hearth's Warming."
Iridescence's eyes glittered with delight. Her magic slipped the ribbon off the box and lifted the lid. "Oh, it's gorgeous!" She raised the moonstone pendant that dangled from a silver chain.
"It made me think of you, what with its iridescent appearance," Crystal explained with a small giggle.
Iridescence carefully undid the clasp and put on the necklace. "Thank you, Crystal. In return—" She raised a small green box. "Happy Hearth's Warming."
Inside the box was a little brooch in the shape of a quill. Crystal turned it over in her hoof and giggled. "It's so cute! Thank you!"
They were all startled by the sudden movement of Silent tackling Runic with a big hug. Iridescence rolled her eyes and said playfully, "Oh, stallions."
Velvet quietly cleared her throat. "Um, I'm sorry, I didn't know very much about you, so, well." She held out a little envelope. "Here you go, Iridescence."
Iridescence looked at her guiltily. "Oh, Velvet, I can't accept this. I didn't get you anything."
"You didn't know I was coming, but I knew you were, so." Velvet swallowed and held the envelope closer to Iridescence. "Please?"
Iridescence accepted it with a gracious smile before she opened it. Inside was a gift certificate for the spa that Velvet and Crystal preferred, when their budget allowed for such luxury.
"Platinum Salon & Spa?" Iridescence glanced between them. "I've never been."
"They work wonders, especially if you're stressed." Velvet rubbed her hoof against the opposite leg. "I just figured, given your job, it might be nice to be pampered."
Iridescence gave a short laugh, quickly covering her mouth. "Thank you. I can't wait to drop by."
At that moment, the bell chimed and a gust of wind blew in to alert to the door opening. Two ponies walked in, both clad in the recognizable armor of Princess Luna's House Guard.
Silent cleared his throat to address them. "Miley. Harvest."
They nodded to acknowledge him before they scanned the room. Deeming it safe, both stepped to the sides to allow Princess Luna inside.
"We wish a most glorious Hearth's Warming Eve to everypony!" she exclaimed, smiling brightly. "Art thou ready for the fun to be doubled?" She gestured to her saddlebags, both barely able to contain the board games she had brought. "We have brought games!"
Crystal heard a small sound like a whimper from her left and she glanced at Velvet, who stared at Princess Luna with wide eyes, her mouth hanging open just slightly from shock.
"Not what you expected?" Crystal whispered, grinning.
Velvet shook her head. "Not at all."
"Well, you're in for a whole evening of surprises, then." Crystal looked over at the others, who were setting up a table for gaming. "I think you're going to discover that Luna is very different from what you had in mind." She nudged Velvet forward. "Don't be rude, now. Say hi to the princess."
Velvet squeaked when Luna's ear twitched at her approach and the princess turned to look down at her. "He—Hello," she stammered, then bowed so low that her snout nearly touched the ground. "I'm—"
"Velvet Step," Luna finished, smiling. "Thou art Crystal's dear friend of whom we have heard many a good thing. We are quite happy to meet thee." She gestured with one hoof. "Please, there is no need for such prostration."
Velvet lifted her head and looked up at the princess with a tentative smile. "It is an honor to meet you, too, Princess." Her gaze landed on the hoof held out to gesture her up and, without a moment's hesitation, she leaned forward and kissed it.
All of them stared at Velvet with mixed expressions of either surprise, shock, or flat-out amusement. Iridescence was the latter and tried to smother her laughter as best she could. Luna peered down at Velvet, who froze when she realized all eyes were fixated on her.
Luna smiled and retracted her hoof. "We like thee very much already." She turned to look at the others. "Velvet shall sit by us tonight!"
Everypony began to take their seats. Velvet remained where she was, her eyes still wide in confused terror, and Luna's horn lit up to levitate her off the ground and into a chair.
"Let the night of games begin!" Luna proclaimed as she settled into the last remaining seat and raised up a pair of dice. "Roll for initiative, little ponies!"
Crystal grinned when Velvet looked to her for some kind of explanation. She simply shrugged, which did not quell the look of fear on the mare's face. "Have fun," she mouthed.
Velvet slowly nodded but didn't visibly relax in the slightest.
The air was tense with near silence, interrupted only by the sound of silverware hitting china to cut into the pieces of vegetables. Jet Set sat at the head of the table and Upper Crust was across from Crystal. The conversation had petered out after the usual, obligatory pleasantries.
Crystal swallowed. Her stomach was in knots from the tension that hung in the air. She pressed on despite the feeling, slowly moving her silverware from her plate to her mouth.
"So," Jet Set finally said. "How is Velvet, dear?"
"She's well." Crystal glanced at him. "She's trying out for a new position in the company. Hooves crossed, she will be a part of the corps de ballet and no longer an understudy."
Upper Crust chuckled. "That sounds like quite the improvement." Her tone was laced with poorly disguised sarcasm. "A backup pony into a background pony."
Crystal clenched her teeth into a smile. "It's a step up, yes."
Jet Set pushed his empty plate away and leaned into his seat. "And you two are still… doing well?"
"Of course. Why wouldn't we be?"
He hummed thoughtfully, then shrugged and smiled. "I just want to make sure my little girl is happy."
Following his cue, Upper Crust stood and collected their plates. She paused when she lifted Crystal's. "Are you not hungry, darling?"
"I'm fine, Mother." Crystal did her best not to sigh.
While Upper Crust cleaned the table, Jet Set tapped his hooves together and regarded Crystal with hesitancy. "So, dear, there is a very high profile event we plan to attend."
Crystal returned his hesitancy with caution. "Oh?"
He nodded. "You're aware that Lady Cadence and the Captain of the Canterlot Guard are to be wed?"
"Of course!" She flushed when the excitement raised her voice unexpectedly. "Who hasn't heard of that?"
"Mm." He chuckled and started tapping his hooves again. "If you would like, I am sure your mother and I could secure you a spot on the guest list." He blinked, then quickly added, "And Velvet Step as well."
Crystal's gut told her to snap up the offer faster than she could stop herself, but it was too slow. She held her tongue just long enough to think it over.
By accepting a favor, that put them in a position of power over her. She would owe them, and her mother would certainly use that against her.
With a pang of regret gripping her chest, she shook her head and said, "No, but thank you, Father."
Jet Set looked as though he would argue the matter. Instead, he smiled. "All right, dear. I simply wanted to make the offer. Are you going to be staying the night, or will you go back home?"
"I have some things I need to take care of," she lied. "Actually, I should probably head out now."
"Oh? Well, all right." He stood and walked with her to the door. "Happy Hearth's Warming, dear. Thank you for having dinner with us. Give Velvet our regards."
Upper Crust leaned into the room through a doorway. "Are you leaving already?"
"Yes, Mother." Crystal smiled at her. "Thank you for dinner."
"Mm." Her mother eyed her with one brow raised, then disappeared back into the kitchen.
After giving her father a brief hug, she walked out into the cold night. The moment the door shut, she released a frustrated sigh through her teeth, shook her head, and trotted home.
The lights were off when she entered the condo and everything was silent. Of course, that was to be expected when the place was empty. Velvet was celebrating Hearth's Warming with her parents and spending the night there.
Crystal sighed and didn't bother flipping the switch, instead using the glow of her magic to ensure she made it to her bedroom without bumping into anything in the darkness. Once safely in her room, she flopped onto the bed, buried her face into her pillow, and closed her eyes.
Whenever one wishes for sleep, however, their mind actively works against them, and Crystal's mind was no different that night. All she could think about was the wedding.
Lady Cadence was a unicorn like no other; there were several stories around Canterlot about her unique love magic. And her marriage to the Captain of the Canterlot Guard sounded like something straight out of a romance novel that Crystal would write herself! The wedding was sure to be a grandiose, beautiful event nopony would ever forget.
Perhaps it wouldn't be so bad to be trapped under her mother's hooves just one more time for the chance to attend.