A white, round tablet dropped into the glass of water and was engulfed in little bubbles that released a low, fizzy hiss. Crystal swirled the glass and glanced at Velvet, who stared intently back at her.
"I already said I'd go, so you don't have to watch me like a foal," Crystal muttered.
Velvet rolled her eyes. "Considering you got yourself drunk the moment I stopped watching you, I kinda think I do."
Crystal groaned and lifted the glass to take a long drink. The powdery flavor was unpleasant, but no more or less so than her throbbing headache. "So, I know how my evening turned out," she said, setting the glass down and turning toward Velvet. "What have you got to report?"
"I think you're going to have to look elsewhere for your next big hit." Velvet shrugged. "I dunno. Sunny and I talked, and I learned some things about myself. Then you dove off the bar into a group of mares and that kind of cut my evening short."
Crystal scowled and slowly made her way across the room. Each hoof lifted and fell with precision so as not to make a sound. "Yeah, yeah. What did you learn about yourself?"
Velvet dropped down from her high and mighty stature to nestle into the pillow beneath her. "I learned that I'm just not interested in being with another pony. At least, not right now, anyway."
"Oh." Crystal's ears fell. She levitated her bags onto her back and looked over at Velvet. "Why not?"
Velvet looked at her with a neutral expression. "Why not not?" She shrugged. "Why do you want to be with Silent Knight? Or anypony, for that matter? I just don't feel any motivation to find myself a special somepony at this point in my life."
Crystal stood by the front door. "That sounds like an awfully boring writing prompt, but I'll see what I can do." She grinned and waved before opening the door and stepping out.
Crystal hummed as she flipped through the latest Mares Monthly. Hearts and Hooves was still two months away, but the articles were already attempting to capitalize on the hype. And it worked.
"Ooh," she cooed. "Velvet, listen to this: Pack your bags and set sail for Maris, Prance, which has been voted as Equestria's most romantic getaway for this year. Discover exotic cuisine and beautiful scenery that will set your love on fire."
Crystal giggled and flipped to the next page, which featured several pictures of the Prench countryside. "Do you think I have time to get Silent Knight to like me enough to take me to Prance for Hearts and Hooves Day?"
Velvet laughed. "I think that might be overreaching just a little bit, sweetie. Maybe just work on a first date before jumping to expensive, romantic vacations?"
Crystal stuck out her tongue and flipped to the next page. "It could happen! I mean, it won't, but it could."
Three short, quick knocks came from the front door. They looked at each other and both of them shrugged, then Velvet quickly touched her hoof to her nose.
Crystal rolled her eyes and got up to walk over to the door. When she opened it, her heart jumped into her throat. "Oh! Sil—ergeant Knight!" Her ears perked upright. "What brings you here?" She tried not to purr the words while she gazed up at him.
Silent Knight nodded. "I apologize for the uninvited interruption, Crystal Wishes. I won't take long."
Crystal shook her head and leaned against the door frame. "Take as long as you'd like."
"I just wanted to request some of your time tomorrow evening. Iridescence's leave is up and I am going to Manehattan to escort her back, and I think it would help her re-acclimate if she had friends waiting for her at the train station."
Just as it had jumped with excitement, her heart sunk like a rock. "Oh." She straightened up, her tone falling soft. "Of course. I'll be there."
He smiled, if only slightly. "Thank you, Crystal Wishes. Have a good evening." With another nod, he turned and walked away with his usual, proper soldier's gait and posture.
Unlike usual, however, she didn't enjoy the retreating view.
Slowly, she shut the door, but didn't walk back to the pillow she had previously occupied. Instead, she simply stood there, staring.
"Crystal." Velvet bit her lower lip. "Hey, it may not be what you think it is."
"Isn't it?" Crystal's voice trembled. She blinked several times to stave off the tears. "I'm pretty certain he's not even aware I'm a mare because his attention is still on her."
"Then force his attention on you!" Velvet stomped a hoof. "You said Iridescence broke up with him, right? That means she already had her chance!"
Crystal shook her head. She turned and started to walk back toward where she had left her magazine. "And that means that he has unresolved feelings. I'm not interested in going down that path."
Velvet scowled and stalked toward her. "So that's it? All of that excitement and giggly puppy-love is suddenly over? No more spark?"
"Of course not!" She jerked her head to return the scowl, though hers was softened by the tears in her eyes. "But I'm also not going to get my hopes up if it's a hopeless endeavor."
Velvet released a heavy sigh and dropped down next to Crystal, nuzzling against her side. "You're kind of hopeless."
Crystal sniffed. "I know."
"Do you want me to come with you tomorrow?" Velvet grinned lopsidedly. "I can flirt with Iridescence so you can run away with your Knight."
"No, that's all right. I know you have practice around then, and—" She shook her head. "I'm fine, really."
Velvet leaned forward to look at the magazine still lying on the floor. "If you're sure. Oh, look at this: '7 Steps to Woo Any Stallion!' That seems pretty appropriate right now." She grinned. "Step 1…"
Crystal took a deep breath and knocked on the door. It opened a few moments later, and Painted Wave smiled down at her, blinked, then tilted her head.
"Crystal?" The smile returned. "I'm really sorry, but right now isn't a good time. I'm kind of expecting somepony."
Crystal nodded. "I know. It's me."
Without missing a beat, Painted's smile softened and she stepped out of the way to let her in, nodding. After shutting the door, she turned and stared directly at Crystal with an unnerving seriousness in her eyes.
Crystal held perfectly still until Painted nodded once more and said, "The changeling attack, eh?" She gestured for Crystal to follow her and started to walk toward the work area. "I'm not surprised. Civilian ponies like you aren't supposed to see that sort of thing."
Crystal blinked and glanced up at her. "Civilians 'like me'? What about you?"
Painted waved one hoof. "I typically use art therapy for clients. So!" She pointed at a canvas, a brush, and a paint palette tray already set up against one wall. "Don't tell me what's bothering you. Show it."
Crystal furrowed her brow and levitated the brush, turning it around to look at it from every angle. "I'm not much of a—"
"Shh." Painted sat down beside her. "Don't talk. We use words every day so much that we can say them without any feeling. I want you to use your feelings to express yourself so both of us can truly understand."
Crystal sighed, but nodded and dipped the brush into the black paint. As she coated most the canvas in darkness, her heart started to beat faster from the images flashing in the back of her mind. The strokes grew more erratic as she added various colors to fill the thin blank spaces between the darkness. Plumes of colored smoke. Two of the remaining gaps she painted with light blue. Eyes in the darkness. She dabbed bright white paint on the other two curvy gaps. Gleaming fangs, hissing in the shadows.
She swallowed, her throat dry, and set down the brush. It certainly wasn't a piece that was going to win any awards, but it was close enough to the vision that haunted her dreams and turned them into nightmares.
"Now, you can tell me: how do you feel?" Painted asked in a gentle voice.
"Scared," Crystal whimpered. "What if it happens again? What if I'm not somewhere safe next time? I was lucky. I was with Runic, and Velvet got to safety. What happens next time?"
Painted put a foreleg around her shoulders to pull her closer. "Oh, Crystal." She sighed. "This is so much harder to do when it's somepony I know!"
Crystal sniffed, rubbing her eyes with the crook of her foreleg. "I'm sorry. I didn't want to do this, I—"
"I'm glad you did. I'm just not sure if my normal method is going to help you."
Crystal's ears started to droop and she looked up at Painted. "What?"
Painted smiled. "You need to do two things, and my typical art therapy won't accomplish either. I know I said what I said about words, but you have a special way with them."
"What?" Crystal repeated, her brow furrowed.
"First, you need to realize you're not alone," Painted continued.
Crystal sighed and looked down at the floor. "That's what everypony keeps telling me."
"But you don't believe it, do you?"
There was a long pause before Crystal admitted in a mumble, "No. From what I can tell, everything has returned to normal, as if it never happened. Runic and his shop are perfectly fine. Velvet's gotten over her nightmares. I—" She blinked a few times when her vision blurred with sudden tears. "I feel very alone."
"There you go." Painted patted her on the head. "And thus, that is why you need to realize you're not. The second is that you need to let go of—this." She gestured at Crystal's painting. "And I have the perfect idea how." A grin tugged at her lips. "Write a story about it."
"What?" Crystal jerked her gaze up to meet Painted's. "I can't—I don't write that sort of thing!"
"C.W. Step doesn't," Painted corrected. "But a new pseudonym could. You already have a good relationship with Mares Monthly. I'm sure if you spun it right, you could get them to publish it under a new name."
Crystal felt suddenly cold as panic overtook her. Her breath caught in her throat and she looked at Painted with wide eyes. "Publish it?!"
Painted nodded. "That's what I said."
Crystal sprung to her hooves and backed away a few steps. "I can't do that! What if—what if it's horrible?"
"And that's why you use a pseudonym, of course!" Painted stood up and walked to the kitchen. "I'll make some tea while you start considering what that name will be."
While Painted worked in the kitchen, Crystal paced the living room, muttering to herself. The very notion had her muscles twitch in worry and agitation.
Finally, when Painted returned, Crystal squeaked, "Why?"
"Why?" Painted looked at the teacups she magically carried in front of her. "Because tea is rather calming, of course."
"No, I mean, why do you think this will help?"
Painted stared at her. "Because I think calming you down is a good idea." Crystal made a sound of frustration and Painted laughed. "I know what you mean. I do think some nice, calming tea is a good idea, but as to why I want you to write and publish your fears?"
Painted levitated a tea cup over to Crystal and continued, "By writing it down, you distance yourself from it. Your fears will be on paper, not just in your mind. By publishing it, you let go of it completely and allow others to realize they're not alone, either."
Crystal took a long, slow sip of the herbal tea. Finally, she mumbled, "I suppose I should trust you since you're the professional."
"That's a good reason, but I think I'd prefer it if you trusted me because I'm a concerned friend." Painted put a hoof on Crystal's shoulder. "At least consider it. All right?"
Crystal nodded. "I will." She smiled and took another sip. "Thank you."
"Oh, don't worry about it." Painted shook her head. "It's just a quick brew I threw together real quick, so there's no need to thank me."
"What? No, I mean—" She laughed when Painted grinned. "Oh, you."
In the near distance, the train whistled to signal its impending arrival. Runic played with a rock he had found on the way there, Winterspear paced, and Crystal stood next to Princess Luna. Harvest Moon and Miley Hooves were positioned on either side of the princess and just slightly behind her in standard, proper formation.
"I hope it went okay," Winterspear murmured. "I don't want to see his face if he comes back empty-hooved."
Runic shrugged. "She doesn't have a choice, does she?"
"It dependeth on how much she valueth her job on our House Guard," Luna said with an air of certainty. "We have faith that she will return with Silent Knight." There was a small pause before she looked down at Crystal.
Crystal felt the weight of the princess's gaze and was compelled to look up and meet it. Luna's eyes were soft and warm, and her smile was a comforting, reassuring sight. Crystal just didn't quite know of what she was being comforted and reassured.
"He returneth her to her duty," Luna added and returned her attention to the approaching train.
Crystal could only nod and follow suit, watching the train pull up to the station.
After the train hissed and came to a complete stop, the doors slid open. Silent Knight stepped out first as if to secure the way before Iridescence followed behind him. Runic was the first to cheer and Crystal followed suit, while Winterspear went directly to Silent's side. Even Miley broke regulation and stepped forward to welcome Iridescence back and, given the occasion, Princess Luna didn't seem inclined to correct her, so Harvest Moon said nothing as well.
"Welcome back, Iridescence!" Runic held out a small basket of different mare care products. "Look, I made a batch of your favorites!"
"Yay, you're finally back!" Miley chirped. "I hope you had a good leave!"
Crystal smiled and said, "Welcome home, Iridescence."
Iridescence looked between them all with tears in her eyes. The way her brow was knitted, however, gave her a look of guilt rather than of happiness. "Thank you all. I really appreciate it."
There was a bit of tension in the air as the three mares—Luna, Iridescence, and Crystal—nestled onto the couches in the seating area. Luna began to pour the tea that had been served and doled cups out to them.
"I apologize for my extended leave of absence, Luna," Iridescence finally said, accepting the teacup.
Luna waved a hoof. "We understand. The changeling attack was hard on everypony. We only hope that thou returnest recovered and whole again."
Iridescence nodded and crossed her forelegs. "It was nice to see my family again. But it is nicer to be back here."
"Sergeant Knight said that you were in Manehattan?" Crystal smiled. "It's one of the few places I've been outside of Canterlot, because of work. I'm sure you know of that big building, Eminence Tower?"
Iridescence gave a short bark of a laugh. "Yeah." She nodded. "I do. I'm sure everypony does, though, considering it's the biggest."
A scream tore through their conversation, followed by the sound of clattering metal on metal. They all jumped and looked up to see Miley Hooves clinging to the chandelier, which rocked both from the sudden movement and her trembling.
"Miley Hooves?" Silent Knight called from the secretary's desk. "Seriously?"
"I'm—I'm sorry!" she stammered. "I got scared!"
Silent sighed and flew up to retrieve her. She jumped toward him and threw her forelegs around his neck, nearly knocking him off-balance. He returned her to the ground and asked, "What happened, Miley?"
Miley straightened her helmet, then looked up at him. "There was a mouse. I jumped."
Crystal giggled behind a hoof. Iridescence and Luna looked at her, at each other, and smiled.
"I think of all your House Guards, Princess, Miley is my favorite." Crystal giggled again.
Luna arched one brow. "'Tis the truth?"
Crystal blinked a few times. She glanced at Iridescence, at Luna, then over at Silent Knight. In the brief moment that her eyes flickered to him, they made eye contact and she tore her gaze back to the mares.
"Well, one of my favorites," she admitted.
Iridescence opened her mouth, but before she could speak, the door flung open and in marched the pony Crystal recognized as Lieutenant Haze. He looked around, then started toward them.
"Sir?" Silent Knight asked as he moved from behind his desk to stand between the mares and the lieutenant. "Is there something I can help you with, sir?"
Lieutenant Haze grunted, "Not unless you're the princess, Sergeant. I need to speak to Princess Luna."
Silent Knight didn't budge. "Princess Luna has an appointment right now, as you can see, sir." He gestured to them. "But I can find a spot in her schedule to fit you into."
Haze grunted again and stepped forward. "As I recall, Sergeant, you work for me as a guard, not a secretary. Now act like it and move out of my way."
"Yes, sir." Silent bowed his head and did as he was told.
Haze advanced on them like a storm, his jaw set with rigid determination. "Princess." He bowed. "I need to discuss the current state of your House Guard. It's in sore need of improvement, and I have some suggestions on the topic."
Crystal and Iridescence sat perfectly still, both of them staring with wide eyes. Slowly, they turned their heads in unison to look at Luna as she rose to her full height, looking down her muzzle at the lieutenant and his wilting confidence.
"Of course, Lieutenant," she said in a firm voice. "As Sergeant Knight said, however, thou canst well see that we have an appointment at this moment. Wouldst thou check with the sergeant, we are certain he willeth find thou an opening." She smiled, though there was little friendliness in it. "We are sure thou art aware that Sergeant Knight is among those who receives a copy of our daily schedule to best leverage security assets."
"Princess, I think it would be best—" When Luna's smile fell and her stare grew more intense, he took two steps back. "I think that would be best," he corrected and turned away to head toward the door. "Sergeant, find me the next available opening." And with that, he was gone.
"Yes, sir!" Silent Knight returned to the desk and opened a book.
Luna returned to her couch and nestled against the cushions, though the air around her radiated with irritation. "Silent Knight?"
"Yes, Princess?" Silent looked over at her.
"We shall not have any openings for at least a week," she exclaimed in the Royal Canterlot voice that reverberated against the walls.
Silent cracked a smug little smile. "Yes, Princess." After he flipped through the pages and penciled in an appointment, he muttered to himself, "I know who I work for, but do you, you pompous gryphon-flank?"
Miley asked from her spot by the door, "What did you say, Sergeant?"
Silent looked up at the mares looking back at him. His eyes widened just a bit, but he quickly recovered by clapping his hooves together and saying, "Flank, Miley. You should always go for the flank when engaging a gryphon to wound their pride first!"
Miley nodded, Iridescence giggled, and Silent returned to his usual work. Crystal inclined her head to look at him out of the corner of her eye and caught him staring at her for just a moment. Her heart pounded and she felt heat crawl up her neck, but she tried to smile the fluttering nerves away.
"I'll have some more tea, please," she said and Luna obliged, refilling her cup.
She swallowed and kept her ears focused on the conversation between Luna and Iridescence. The princess was explaining the events that had happened around the castle during Iridescence's leave, including the start of Willowy Tempest's training. Crystal's attention, however, was on Silent Knight.
Occasionally, he glanced their way and from her position, it seemed as though he was indeed looking at her before he returned to his report. Was he writing about her? What sort of report was he working on, anyway? Her focus shifted to the mare beside her and the butterflies in her stomach went still at the reminder that she wasn't the only pony in that direction.
She shifted to rest on her right side, putting some distance between herself and Iridescence. Her gaze slowly crept to him and she caught him looking once more, still at her. The blush she had been fighting heated her cheeks and she jerked her attention back to the conversation.
"I do agree," Crystal slipped in without missing a beat. "Canterlot's cuisine is much better than what little I've sampled in Manehattan."
The butterflies returned in full force. Perhaps she would pretend it was true for the evening, because she rather preferred the idea of him looking specifically at her and her alone.