Velvet followed closely behind Crystal, glancing around nervously. They walked down the halls of the palace, and once the armor of the guards they passed changed from the standard issue to the notable purple hues of Princess Luna's House Guard, Velvet whispered, "Are you sure this is a good idea?"
"Of course I'm sure." Crystal nodded. "Luna asked specifically if she could see you before you left. It will just be you, me, her, and maybe a guard, so you don't have to worry so much."
Velvet swallowed audibly. "I guess if I embarrass myself a third time, at least none of your friends will be around to see it." Her ears twitched and she frowned. "Well, except for your friend, the freaking Princess of the Night. No big deal!"
Crystal laughed, flashing a smile at the guard posted outside Luna's chambers, and led Velvet through the opened door. "Hi Luna!"
Princess Luna looked up from her desk. She smiled and stood up. "Greetings, Crystal." Her ears perked when she noticed Velvet. "And a most welcome greeting to thee, Velvet Step!"
Velvet stiffened. Her gait became wooden as she walked the rest of the way to the seating area. "He—Hello, Princess Luna."
Luna frowned, albeit playfully. "Please, Velvet Step, thou mayest call me Luna."
"I'm not sure I can do that Princess, um, Luna." Velvet twiddled her hooves and stared at the floor. "It doesn't seem proper."
"'Tis so?" Luna laughed and settled onto the couch across from them. "Thou remindest me of a guard." She winked at Crystal, who flushed.
Velvet perked up at the opportunity with a smile. "Oh yeah? Would that guard happen to also be a Knight?"
A grin spread across Luna's face that was almost out of place on her otherwise elegant and regal features. "Verily."
The tension in her muscles relaxing, Velvet scooted forward to the edge of her seat. "Does that mean you're my ally in this endeavor, Luna?"
"Thine ally?" The grin twisted into a smirk. "Nay, Velvet Step, I believe it is thou who art my servant in this endeavor."
"Then I am at your service, my lady," Velvet said with the best flourishing bow she could manage while sitting on a sofa.
Luna and Velvet held a moment of silence before the two of them burst into giggles while Crystal squirmed. "Are you both sure you're talking about the same thing?"
"Of course," Luna said, lifting her nose in the air. "The well-being and mental health of my subjects is a great interest of mine."
Velvet wrapped a foreleg around Crystal's neck and pulled her close. "It's going to take a lot of effort to get this one's mental health well."
"Hey!" Crystal pouted.
Luna looked between them a moment before she laughed. "'Tis a good and noble thing to have a friend such as thou hast, Crystal."
"I know," Velvet said, puffing out her chest. "But let's get back to the issue at hoof. Luna, how long have you been in on the Silent quest?"
Luna arched her brow. "How long?" She scoffed and gestured at Crystal with a vague, almost dismissive wave of her hoof. "Before this one was aware, certainly."
"What!" Crystal tried to hide her heavy blush by slouching against the couch and rubbing her cheeks. "Why is this happening to me?" she asked in a drawn-out whine.
"Then answer me this." Velvet leaned in, her eyes glinting with mischief. "Does the Knight know?"
Luna paused. She seemed to hesitate, glancing at Crystal, then at the door that led out of her chambers, then finally back at Velvet. "We do not feel it is proper to speak for our House Guard on personal matters."
Velvet sighed and slumped forward. "Aww."
"But," Luna continued in a higher, almost coy voice, "we do know that some guards oft have lunch late, or skip it altogether, and 'tis growing close to the midday hour." She winked as Velvet jumped to her hooves. "Left down the hall, second door on the right."
"Thank you, Luna!" Velvet chirped, grabbing Crystal's hoof and tugging her off the couch. "We're getting lunch!"
Crystal's face grew even redder. "Are you serious?"
Luna waved them off while Velvet urged Crystal toward the door. "Have a good afternoon!"
Once outside and the door closed behind them, Velvet let go of Crystal and pranced ahead to lead the way. Crystal sighed, trying to regain her composure, but her face remained flushed.
"I wanted you two to bond, but I didn't expect it to happen like this," Crystal muttered.
Velvet looked over her shoulder to flash a mischievous grin. "Me neither, but now I realize we're on the same team! I have to put personal fears aside when it comes to business, you know."
"I guess if you feel better, I feel better, too." She stiffened and her eyes widened. "Velvet," she whispered, "that's his office."
"Oh, it looks like—" Velvet tilted her head to the side. "It looks like all the other office doors. Who would've thought?" She walked up to it and knocked twice before pushing it open.
Silent Knight looked up from his desk, his gaze flickering between the two faces hovering at the door, and smiled. "Good morning, ladies." He stood up and straightened to polite attention. "What brings you by?"
Velvet jabbed her elbow into Crystal's side, grinning.
Crystal sucked in a squeaky breath, fought the urge to glare at Velvet, and forced a polite smile instead. "Hi, Sergeant. Velvet Step and I were thinking of getting lunch and Princess Luna mentioned you probably hadn't eaten yet." Velvet giggled quietly behind her and she continued, "Would you care to join us?"
Silent Knight paused. He glanced at a clock and blinked in surprise. "Princess Luna would be correct." He started to walk around the desk. "I'd hate to be a third wheel, but I would be happy to go to lunch with the two prettiest mares in Canterlot." He smiled and Crystal's heart fluttered.
Crystal playfully arched an eyebrow. "Oh, and since when did you learn flattery, Sergeant Knight?"
Silent's smile cracked and he admitted with a sheepish grin, "Mares Monthly. Winterspear leaves them around and I get bored sometimes, so…" He trailed off, shrugging.
Velvet hopped forward and chimed in, "Well, I can assure you that you definitely won't be a third wheel, so come along."
Silent walked ahead to lead the way. With his attention focused away from them, Crystal looked at Velvet and giggled. Velvet rolled her eyes, grinned, and nodded her head toward Silent.
"That plot," she mouthed.
Crystal turned bright red, but couldn't help stealing a glance as she bumped her shoulder to Velvet's. "Stop it," she hissed.
"Where do you recommend for lunch, Crystal Wishes?" Silent asked, his voice startling Crystal into a stiff, upright posture. "I really liked the place you chose before."
"Last time?" Velvet asked in a hushed tone.
"Shh." Crystal bumped her again and cleared her throat to reply, "Oh, if you have time, I know of a place you might like, but it's a little further from the palace."
The helmeted head in front of them bobbed up and down. "I always have time for the two of you."
This prompted Velvet and Crystal to glance at each other in brief confusion before Velvet just grinned and shrugged.
"Just head toward Sunridge Sweets," Crystal said. "I'll stop you when we get there."
The helmet bobbed again. "Yes, ma'am."
They walked in relative silence aside from Velvet's quiet giggles and playful teases that made Crystal blush and fidget. When they were just a block away from Sunridge Sweets, Crystal trotted forward to catch Silent's attention. "There it is." She pointed at a small cafe. "It's such a nice day, so we can eat outside, if you'd like."
"That sounds nice." He smiled and changed direction to head toward the cafe. He stopped to pull out a seat and gestured for Crystal to sit, then did the same for Velvet.
"Thank you, Sergeant." Crystal smiled and folded her hooves in her lap.
"Such a gentlepony," Velvet teased, giggling.
Silent sat across from them, took off his helmet, and set it on the empty seat. "I try."
Crystal turned her head to look at the street beyond the fence that defined them as 'in the restaurant' as opposed to loitering. "It's a busy day today, isn't it?"
Velvet rested her elbow on the table and her chin on her hoof. "Don't mind her. She likes to watch crowds."
Silent glanced up from looking over the food selections. "Oh?" He tilted his head just slightly. "Is it research for your novels?"
"Huh?" Crystal looked back at them. "Perhaps it's a little bit of that. I also just like pony watching, I suppose." She giggled and reached over to tap at a section on his menu. "Anyway, their grilled vegetables here are top notch."
"Then that's what I'll get," Silent said, closing the menu and setting it down. He glanced between their own untouched menus. "Do you two already know what you want?" When they nodded, he flagged down a waiter with a wave of one hoof.
"Hello, ma'ams and sir; are you ready to order?"
"I'll take a zucchini and avocado panini, please," Crystal said, sliding her menu toward the center of the table.
Velvet smiled when the waiter looked to her. "Grilled vegetables with feta and mint!"
"And you, sir?"
Silent hedged a moment longer before he decided on, "Grilled zucchini and onion on a sub roll."
"Very good. I'll have your orders out shortly."
Crystal smiled and, after the waiter walked away, her gaze flickered from Silent to the ponies walking by. "Zucchini is probably one of my favorite vegetables."
"Oh? It is definitely my favorite." Silent inclined his head to peer at the crowd with her.
Velvet glanced between the two of them with one brow arched. She let them carry on in silence before she cleared her throat. "So how are things as the, uh, first sergeant, right?"
Silent's ear swiveled toward her and his gaze met hers. "I seem qualified. My unit is great and I'm very proud of them all, so being first sergeant allows me to spend more time with everypony, including Princess Luna."
Slowly, Velvet's head tilted to the side. Crystal giggled and explained in a playfully loud whisper, "What he means is that things are good and he likes the flexibility."
"Oh." Velvet straightened up and smiled. "Good! So, what exactly is a first sergeant, anyway?"
"My rank," he said. "My position is unit sergeant, which is the senior-most, non-commissioned officer of the unit. The lieutenant's second in command, essentially."
There was a lull as Velvet's confusion returned. She looked at Crystal for help, but this time all she got was a smile and a shrug in response.
Silent cleared his throat. "Anyway, so from what I understand, your parents are known for the best sweets in Canterlot, right?"
"Yes!" Velvet chirped, beaming at him. "It's really an amazing feat that they've been known for their sweets for years, thanks to Crystal. She always keeps an eye on the fads and steers my parents in the right direction so they never go out of style."
Velvet's ears drooped and her gaze fell to the table. She added in an almost bitter mumble, "They're doing so well, in fact, that I don't really know why I don't just work at the bakery. I don't think I'll ever compare to their success."
Crystal frowned. "Velvet?" She leaned in and gently nuzzled her. "Are you that nervous about your new role in the big tour?" Both of their heads bobbed as Velvet nodded. "Listen, you've loved dancing your whole life. Now that you get to be on stage and you're going on tours, as long as you keep working as hard as you always have, everypony will know what I know: that you're an amazing dancer."
Silent nodded. "She's right, you know. Hard work always pays off." He tilted his head and asked, "What is the big tour, by the way?"
Velvet sniffed and pulled away from Crystal. "Thanks, you two." She rubbed at her eyes. "We just found out that I'm going to be playing Kitri in Don Quicolte. Beryl Waltz broke her leg and her understudy is sick."
Silent just stared at her with a blank expression and she elaborated, "It's a principal role in the ballet. Um, main? Important? Lieutenant?"
He chuckled and nodded. "I follow, but that sounds like something to celebrate."
Velvet sighed, her shoulders drooping. "It would be, if I didn't have only two days before I go perform for tons of ponies in all the major cities when I've only had a week and a half to practice it for real instead of for fun." She whimpered, and Crystal patted her on the shoulder.
Silent smiled. "Well, it seems to me like your hard work is already paying off if you got the role, so congratulations. I'll have to get tickets to one of your shows sometime."
Velvet managed a smile. "Thanks, I guess."
The waiter returned, balancing two plates on his back and one on his head. "Here you are!" He maneuvered the plates onto the table and slid them to their respective owners. "Enjoy your meals. Just let me know if there's anything else you need!"
Silent went straight to his meal while Crystal continued to try and reassure Velvet.
"You already know the role pretty well, don't you?" She raised her panini and took a bite.
Velvet poked at her salad with a fork. "Well, yes, of course. It's my dream role! I know all the girls want to snag a Giselle or Odette, but Kitri is so much more fun!"
"Then you'll be fine." She nodded curtly. "I'm confident in you."
Velvet paused, then frowned and said in a hushed tone, "Um, Crystal, you have a little…"
"Hmm?" Crystal didn't look away from her panini.
Velvet raised a hoof to gesture vaguely at her own cheek. "Ahem."
Crystal finally looked over and furrowed her brow. "What?"
Velvet sighed, rolled her eyes, and reached out a napkin to wipe off a bit of avocado that had gotten smeared on Crystal's cheek. "There."
Crystal flushed. One hoof flew to the spot where the rogue food had been and she looked at Silent with embarrassment plastered on her face. He looked distinctly at the table, continuing to munch on his sandwich.
A sigh of relief escaped her and she continued to eat, though with much more care than normal. Instead of the occasional dab with a napkin, she kept the white cloth hovering near her face and wiped the corners of her lips after every bite. Velvet hid her amusement by shoving more spinach in her own mouth.
Once she finished her sandwich, Crystal asked, "Did I hear correctly that Princess Luna's House Guard found a new lieutenant to replace Haze?"
Silent nodded. "Yes. I think he'll be a good fit and won't be a problem like the former lieutenant. He certainly won't interrupt any of Princess Luna's scheduled appointments, or book discussions."
"Yes. That was certainly—" Crystal paused, then finished, "Awkward."
"Indeed. It was awkward, inappropriate, and foolish." He looked down at his empty plate with a frown, then back up with a smile. "I should get back to work. I hope you two will forgive me for leaving so soon."
"Always, Sergeant Knight." Crystal smiled.
Velvet put down her fork and waved. "Thank you for joining us!"
Silent nodded, put his helmet back on, and went inside to pay for his meal. When he was out of earshot, Crystal sighed and slumped forward. "So, do you see what I mean?"
"Oh, you're just being too impatient. He's a stallion." Velvet laughed and waved dismissively. "You have to be patient with them!"
"Mm, I suppose." She turned her chair some to face Velvet. "What am I going to do without you around to keep my head level?"
Velvet flicked her square in the middle of her forehead, grinning. "You grow up, of course."
Crystal sputtered a few incoherent comebacks before she huffed, then wrapped her forelegs around Velvet's neck. "I'm really going to miss you, but I know you'll have a lot of fun. You have to write to me as soon as you get to your first stop, okay?"
"Yeah, yeah. There's just one problem."
"What?" Crystal pulled back to frown at her.
"Silent just walked by while you were hugging me. You don't want him to get the wrong idea, do you?"
"What?" Crystal repeated, this time in a high-pitched squeak. She jerked her head to the side to see Silent Knight walking away and frowned. "Wait, no, don't be silly. I've seen him hug Runic, and I didn't get the wrong idea."
Velvet giggled. "Runic's his cousin, though."
Crystal slid out of her chair and started toward the door, blowing a raspberry over her shoulder. "And you might as well be my sister, so it's essentially the same thing!"
After they paid for their meals and were on the walk home, Velvet heaved a great sigh. "Hey, Crystal?" She glanced at her. "Do you think our cutie marks are what we're good at, or what we love to do?"
Crystal shrugged quickly and without interrupting her gait. "Why can't it be both?"
"I'm just saying. I love dancing. I love being on stage. When I got into the corps, I thought that was enough and that I'd be happy with just being able to be on the stage every night, not just when they needed a stand-in. What if I really, really like playing Kitri, but I'm not good enough and I ruin my chances of ever being a prima?"
Velvet's words fell out faster and faster as panic rushed in behind her voice. "Not everypony with a dancing cutie mark can be great enough to go prima, or else there'd be no ponies in the corps or struggling as understudies! What if I never get a lead role again?"
"Whoa, whoa, whoa." Crystal put a foreleg around her, pulling her close. "Why are you so scared of this today? You've been excited all month for this tour!"
Velvet sucked in a ragged breath and shook her head. "That was before I got the role! Crystal, I'm sorry, but Celestia help me, I'm not prepared for a spotlight. Think about it, okay? Where would my parents' bakery be if it weren't for your help? Nowhere. Sure, I can get by if I'm in the background, but with everypony's eyes on me, judging my every move, I'm not so sure. I don't know if I'm strong enough to do this on my own, and I can't even go to you for help!"
"Velvet, listen to me." Crystal stopped Velvet in her tracks, stepped ahead, and turned around to face her. "Yes, I helped your parents out way back then, but I didn't get them to where they are today. Their cupcakes and cookies and milkshakes did, and I had nothing to do with that. I don't help you half as much as you help me, but if I'm going to do anything for you, it's this." She raised a hoof and slapped Velvet upside the head. "You're a great dancer and you'll do great."
Velvet yelped, then laughed. She rubbed at her eyes, mumbling, "I'm sorry. I'm just scared and it's really getting to me, I guess. I've never really been scared of something before. At least, not like this." She sighed and shook her head. "I've always been the one who kicked your rump into place, but who's going to do that for me when I'm halfway across Equestria?"
Crystal put on a serious face, her jaw set and her brow furrowed. "You will, because you're stronger than you give yourself credit for."
Velvet sighed. She shrugged and started walking toward the condo again. "I hope you're right."
"I know I'm right," Crystal corrected. "Now, we don't have a lot of time before you leave, but it sounds like you could use a spa day!"
"A spa day?" Velvet ruminated on the idea, clicking her tongue against the roof of her mouth. "That does sound nice, actually."
Crystal hooked her foreleg around Velvet's and tugged her off-course. "Then to the spa!"
Velvet slowly smiled, then perked up, trotting alongside her instead of being dragged along. "Thank you, Crystal."