The world seemed to be all aglow. There was a song in her heart and a skip in her step as Crystal walked to the Phial and Filly, and she could swear the birds were even singing as she passed by them. All she needed was for the stallions and mares around her to break out into song but, when she glanced around, nopony seemed to be in as good a mood as her. A spontaneous song and dance was likely not going to happen.
"Hello!" she called when she walked into the shop. There were a few other ponies browsing the wares, so she started toward the counter but Runic met her halfway with a determined look on his face. "Runic?"
"Shh, it's not safe!" He grabbed her by the hoof and tugged her toward the back of the shop and behind the counter. "Somepony's watching us."
Crystal glanced around, or at least she tried to before he forced her to look at him with a hoof against her cheek. "No, no, if they catch you looking, they'll know we're on to them. Try to look casual."
"Okay, but that might be difficult."
Runic frowned. "Why?"
"Because you're caressing my cheek." She giggled as Runic quickly withdrew his hoof, then she put on a serious face and asked in a whisper, "So who is watching us?"
"I don't know, but look at this!" He retrieved a magazine from the counter and held it up for her to see.
Crystal's magic took it from him, but she already knew. Mares Monthly. Her throat went dry as she tried to say calmly, "What's this?"
Runic tapped on the article facing her. "This! It's clearly an account of you and me in the changeling attack, but there weren't any other ponies there! So either we're being watched, or one of those changelings escaped and is trying to cash in!"
Crystal stared at the article, then lowered the magazine to stare at him. She said in a near-whisper, "I wrote it."
Runic slammed a hoof on the counter. "Darn, dirty changelings! That must be it! Writing as though they were on our side of the door, terrified for their life—"
"—when we were on that side, sending their hides to Tartarus and back! We were the heroes, not this—this—this—What?" He blinked, his gaze focusing on her. "You said something?"
Runic took a moment, then slowly, his ears started to droop. "You wrote this?" He took the magazine out of her magic and skimmed the page. "But we were valiant warriors! This makes it sound like you were scared." His gaze returned to her. "You were scared?"
Crystal swallowed and nodded again. "I was. It gave me nightmares, Runic."
"Oh." He set the magazine down. "I didn't know that."
She reached out to set her hoof on his shoulder. "It's okay. Honestly, I'm fine now. Writing this and talking about it to some friends made it better. I haven't had any nightmares since I turned this article in, so, it's fine."
Runic looked at her with a stern frown. "No, it's not fine. Why didn't you talk to me? Aren't I your friend, too?"
"We are! Absolutely!" She shook her head. "I just—You seemed fine after the attack, so I didn't want to bring you down."
Runic sighed. He turned from her to face the counter, staring down at the magazine, still open to her article. "Can you do me a favor?"
She bit her lower lip nervously but nodded. "I can."
"Next time, could you talk to me, too?" He glanced at her. A small smile tugged at the corners of his mouth. "I know I'm not normal, but we're still friends. I can be serious once in a while, you know."
"I know." She smiled and wrapped her forelegs around him. "I'm sorry, Runic. I promise I'll make sure you're one of the first ponies I talk to when I have a problem, okay?"
Runic nodded and leaned into the embrace, then pulled back with a grin. "So, got any problems?" Her face turned red and he pressed, "Ah, troubles with a stallion, eh?" He reached under the counter and retrieved two shot glasses and a bottle of hard cider. "As a stallion myself, I can't relate at all, but I can listen!"
"Runic—" She sputtered with laughter and put a hoof on his to stop him from pouring the cider. "Runic, it's all right. I think I'll keep this problem to myself."
"Aww." His ears drooped. "But you just said I'd be one of the first ponies!"
Crystal winked. "Maybe not for this kind of problem, all right? Now, I think what we should discuss is why you're reading Mares Monthly in the first place."
"Oh, this isn't mine." He frowned when she raised a suspicious brow at him. "It isn't! Miley brought it here asking who the mare was. Of course, I had no idea it was you, so I told her I didn't know. Strangely, she seemed like she didn't believe me!" He sighed. "Relationships are complicated."
"They are." She sighed and shook her head, starting over to the nearest selection of shampoo. "But Miley is a good mare, so you better not make her cry."
"Why would I do that?" He blinked.
"Not intentionally, of course, but stallions have a tendency to make mares cry." Her back to him, she allowed her smile to fall. "Or want to, at least. Nonetheless, be good to her, all right?" She turned back to him with a bottle of cherry blossom and rose petal shampoo. The smile was back in place. "Anyway, I'll take this, please."
Runic smiled and hit a few buttons on the register. "Seven bits, please!"
Crystal and Velvet sat across from each other, both staring with determined expressions, neither seeming to give any ground on the matter at hoof.
Finally, slowly, Velvet laid down a card and, when Crystal huffed, she cheered. "I win! I win, right? That sound means I win!" She clapped her hooves. "I think I'm finally getting the hang of this!"
Crystal grumbled as she shuffled the Carrot cards around into the appropriate piles. "You blended all my carrots and stored a lot of yours, so yes, you definitely won." She sighed as she rose to her hooves. "All right, you decide what we're having for breakfast while I go wash up. Give my poor, innocent carrots a proper burial while you put the game away, okay?"
Velvet cackled gleefully as she held up the pink Carrot cards that had been saved. "We should play Carrots in a Blender at game night! I can win this game!"
Crystal laughed, walking toward the bathroom door. "I think this game might be a little too simple for Luna and the others."
"Hey!" Velvet frowned. "You're just mad 'cause I won. Simple things can be fun, too, you know."
"Yes, yes." Crystal giggled and shut the door behind her. She hummed to herself and started the hot water, letting the tub fill up while she sat on the stool in front of the mirror. "Let's see."
Crystal tugged on her cheeks then pushed them up. Mostly satisfied with the quality of her coat, she tied her mane up into a loose bun before walking over to and climbing into the tub. "Hot, hot, hot."
Once she had adjusted to the heat and the water had risen to fill half the tub, she turned off the faucet. She hummed to herself while she bathed, scrubbing her coat with a loofah, then applying some of Runic's patented coat shine formula.
Her ear twitched at the sound of three knocks followed by Velvet's voice. "Oh! Hello, Silent Knight!" Crystal gasped and Velvet continued, "Won't you come in?"
"Oh, no, no," Crystal muttered under her breath. She pulled the stop and jumped out onto the mat, shook out her coat, and quickly wrapped a bath robe around her body.
"What can I do for you?" Velvet asked from the other room. Crystal heard the door shut and hooves moving across the hardwood floors.
"No, no, no." Crystal looked at her wet, bedraggled self in the mirror. "Not like this!"
"I can't say too much," Silent replied, "but I'm leaving for a mission. I'll be gone for quite a while so I wanted to say goodbye to Crystal Wishes. And, of course, you, now that I know you're home."
"Two friends in one visit!" Velvet giggled. Her hoofsteps drew near. "I'll get Crystal. She's just getting ready for the day. You know how she can be about that. Make yourself at home!"
The door opened and Crystal plastered herself against the vanity. Velvet clamped a hoof over her mouth to keep from laughing at the terrified look she received.
"Shut the door," Crystal hissed and once it was, she whispered, "I can't let him see me like this!"
"Of course you can." Velvet rolled her eyes. "You want to spend forever with this stallion, don't you?"
Crystal turned back around to continue patting her coat dry with a hooftowel. "Ideally, yes, but that won't happen if he sees me looking like a mess!"
Velvet reached out and snatched the towel from her. "He'll see you looking like a mess sooner or later, so why not just get it over with?" She pointed at the door. "He said he's leaving. Get out there and say goodbye to your stallion."
Crystal hesitated. She just stared at her reflection and blinked when her vision started to go blurry. "Goodbye." She swallowed, looking over at Velvet. "Temporarily, right? This isn't goodbye forever?"
Velvet simply shrugged. Crystal sighed, tucked some of the loose strands of her mane behind one ear, and opened the door. "I am terribly sorry that you have to see me like this," she said as she walked out into the main room. "Velvet says you're leaving?"
Silent looked up from the pillow he was sitting on. "You look fine to me, Crystal Wishes, but Velvet is correct. Duty calls. I'll be gone a month at the minimum, but it depends on how things go." He smiled softly. "I didn't want to leave without saying goodbye to you and Velvet. It would feel wrong to just disappear."
Crystal and Velvet sat on the pillows across from him. Crystal didn't quite meet his gaze while Velvet said, "That's awfully kind of him, don't you think?" She nudged Crystal to bring her back to reality.
Crystal blinked a few times, then nodded. Her expression remained cautiously neutral. "Is there trouble? More importantly, Silent Knight, do I need to be worried for your safety?"
Silent shifted and looked down at the floor. "I apologize. I don't mean to be rude, but I'm not at liberty to go into those details."
Crystal swallowed. He might as well have outright said yes with that kind of reply. "I understand. Procedure, and all that."
Velvet reached out and put a hoof on Crystal's, giving it a reassuring squeeze.
"I'm glad you understand." He smiled. "I can't stay long, and I don't want to take up your time anyway. What I really came here to ask was, well." He hesitated just a moment before he continued, "I wanted to ask if I could write to you while I'm on this mission." He glanced between them "And Velvet, too, of course."
"Yes!" Crystal's spirits lifted at the idea. "Absolutely. We would love to stay in touch, though I'm not quite certain how that would work."
"That is something I can share. By the time my letter would arrive, it would be from where I was, not where I am, because we will be moving a great deal. However, if you just postmark your responses to that location, royal agents will handle the details of secretly forwarding it to my new location."
Velvet oohed. "That's neat!"
"And efficient," Crystal added.
Silent nodded and stood up. "I'll send you a letter when I arrive safely. For now, however, I have an appointment, so I will let the two of you get back to what you were doing. It's always a pleasure to see you both." He smiled, looking between them. "When I return, I'd love to celebrate my first successful mission."
"That sounds wonderful," Crystal said, standing with him. "Please stay safe, Silent Knight."
"And have safe travels!" Velvet chimed in. "Make sure you get a window seat if you're traveling by train. I learned that the hard way."
"I will, and I'll keep that in mind. Thank you both." He nodded and left, shutting the door behind him.
When it clicked shut, Crystal collapsed back down onto the pillow. "It's dangerous," she whispered, her wide eyes staring at nothing in particular. "I know it's dangerous. What if he doesn't come back?" Her vision blurred and her eyes stung. "What if that first letter never arrives?"
Velvet moved closer to her and wrapped a foreleg around her shoulders. "Hey, he's a pegasus, isn't he? They're born-and-bred warriors. He's a tough one, too. Come on, now." Velvet's ears drooped when Crystal's lower lip started to tremble. "Don't cry, Crystal. You're going to make my little bit of news really hard to take if you cry now."
"Little bit of news?" Crystal sniffed. She rubbed her eyes with the back of her sleeve. "What? What now?" She glared up at Velvet. "Don't tell me you're going to leave for a month or two or three or forever."
"No, nothing like that just—" Velvet hedged, biting her lower lip. "You know, like, two weeks. Again."
Crystal froze. "Again?" she repeated in a whisper.
"Oh." Crystal dropped her head down to bury it against her forelegs. "Great. So everypony's leaving!"
"Well, yes, but." Velvet rubbed her back. "You could always come with me. I mean, you can write on the road, you're on summer break, and Silent Knight won't be here, so, why not?"
Crystal straightened up. She stared at Velvet with a furrowed brow. Words failed her as her mouth flapped open and shut a few times, then she finally asked, "Can I do that?"
"Sure! I mean, we'll have to buy a train ticket for you, and I don't know if I can get you into the performances, so you might be spending a lot of time by yourself, but at least you won't be alone by yourself. That's better than sitting here moping, right?"
Crystal let her gaze wander the condo. So much of her life lately was spent there, at the castle, or at school—all of which were in Canterlot.
"What are the cities you'll visit?" she finally asked.
"All the major ones!" Velvet replied cheerfully. "Fillydelphia, Las Pegasus, Baltimare, and Manehattan!" She grinned and nudged Crystal's side with her elbow. "You'll be more worldly. That's good for an author, isn't it? Come on, say you'll come with me! I can show you the world!"
A small giggle escaped Crystal. "Okay, okay, okay. I'll do it. Just get me a copy of the schedule so I can ask Zerox to forward Silent's letters while we're gone if he sends any."
"When he sends any. For a romantic, you're being awfully pessimistic." Velvet stood up and trotted to the kitchen. "I'll make breakfast while you get your affairs in order, because we're leaving in three days."
"Three days?!" Crystal jumped to her hooves. "Why didn't you tell me about this sooner?! Celestia above, Velvet!"
Velvet looked over her shoulder with a lopsided grin. "I don't know, because I kept forgetting to bring it up? My world doesn't revolve around you, you know."
"Like hay it doesn't!" Crystal stuck her nose in the air. "I'm going to go finish putting myself together, and then we're going to have a nice, long talk about communication."
"Okay, okay." Velvet giggled and turned one of the stovetop burners on. "Go make yourself pretty, silly mare."
Crystal huffed and walked into the bathroom, shutting it with an exaggerated, playfully irritated slam.
It shouldn't have surprised her as much as it did, but she had to stop and stare for a few moments. The whole office was pink: pink carpet, pink table, pink cups, and pink wallpaper with darker pink hearts.
"You really like pink, don't you?" Crystal asked in a voice between disbelief and awe.
"Yup!" Lovey chirped, her head bobbing from side to side. "It's my favorite color!"
"I see that." Crystal looked around one more time before she sat down on a pink pillow. "Anyway, thank you for agreeing to see me on such short notice when I don't have an appointment."
Lovey waved the notion away. "Oh, no, no! Anything for a brand new friend!" She glanced down, stared a moment, then looked back up. "Everything looks good to me, though! Love line's nice and strong, just like it was before."
Crystal touched her hoof to her chest and looked for herself. She saw nothing but the fluff of her coat, where it was slightly upturned at the base of her neck. "Are you certain? Absolutely certain? Silent Knight is leaving, and I have this awful feeling that something might happen to him because he couldn't say whether or not it was dangerous. Of course, that means it must be!"
Crystal sniffed as the tears threatened to return and finished in a mumble, "If something is going to happen to him, I wouldn't have a love line, right?"
Lovey listened in silence, a serious look on her normally happy face. It contrasted greatly with the sweetness of her voice as she said, "I'm sorry, Crystal, but you told me you didn't want spoilers. I don't know where your love line leads, but it leads to somepony, I can tell you that. I just can't promise you that it's the stallion you think it is."
Crystal looked across the table at her. They held each other's gazes before Crystal finally relented and stood up. "I'll just have to be happy knowing that, I suppose. I'm sorry to take up your time."
"If I can make you feel a teensy bit better, then I'm happy to have my time taken up!" Lovey reached over and patted her on the head. "You'll be okay, Crystal. I can tell you that."
Crystal wasn't exactly comforted by the head patting, but she smiled nonetheless and turned for the door. "Have a good day, Lovey."
"I will! You, too!" Lovey waved. "Bye, now!"
Velvet looked up from where she sat outside Lovey's office when Crystal walked out. "So?" She smiled, albeit hesitantly. "How did it go?"
"She said my love line's still strong." Crystal sighed. "Well, we have a train to catch, don't we?"
"We've got some time if you want to talk on the way." She stood and walked alongside her in the direction of the station. "What does 'strong' mean, exactly?"
Crystal shook her head. "I have absolutely no idea, but she says it like it's a good thing, so I have to assume that it is."
"I see," Velvet said in a tone that suggested she didn't. They walked to the station in silence, Velvet perking up when she saw the other mares in her troupe. "Hey, girls!" She pranced ahead to reach them first. "This is my roommate, who will be hitching a ride with us this trip. Crystal, these are the girls!"
Crystal smiled and politely nodded her head. "It is very nice to meet you all."
A nearby unicorn stepped forward, as if to put herself between them and the rest of the dancers. She had such a voluminous mane that even though it was tied up in several loops atop her head, it still cascaded down past her shoulders.
With one brow raised, she sized Crystal up by looking her over from head to hoof before she smiled. "I'm Perennial, the true prima of this troupe."
Crystal paused. She glanced at Velvet, who was looking purposefully straight ahead, then back at the mare whose expression and tone toed the line between cordial and intimidating. "I see. I look forward to seeing your performance, Perennial."
Perennial's tail snapped in the air as she turned around with all the grace and fluidity befitting of a prima. "Oh, I would be surprised if even our dear little Velvet could get you tickets. We are a very elite group, you know. Our shows always sell out."
When the mare was out of earshot, Crystal whispered to Velvet, "Aren't you headlining as Kitri this tour, too?"
Velvet walked forward, her shoulders rolling in a casual shrug. "I am. It's not a permanent position, though. Come on, let me introduce you to Nightingale!"
A tawny brown mare's ears perked and her head turned. "That's me!" she chirped. "Hi there!" She offered a hoof. "You're Crystal Wishes, right?"
Crystal smiled and shook hooves. "I am."
"Velvet said you're some kinda writer, yeah?" Nightingale smiled. "Ocean Starlight writes some poetry. You should talk to her while we have some downtime on the train. She could use, well, a real writer's perspective, yanno?"
The three chatted for a while until the train pulled up and boarded one by one, Crystal bringing up the rear. She stopped to look out at the castle at the far side of the city, standing stalwart and vigilant over its citizens. It had always been somewhat of a comforting protector, but at that moment, she blamed it for the necessity of Silent's mission.
She turned her back on the castle and looked at the train that hissed steam which promised two weeks of seeing new places and meeting new ponies. Two weeks of distractions. Renewed by the thought and ushered on by Velvet's calls, she bade Canterlot farewell by stepping onto the train.
While Velvet's time was taken up by the other mares, Crystal took her seat toward the back of the car that was reserved for the troupe. She watched them as they practiced in the open space available, each mare more coordinated and limber than she'd ever be.
The train whistled and jolted forward to pull out of the station. Her gaze turned toward the window to see Canterlot slowly slipping further away until they rounded a bend and it disappeared behind the mountain the city was set against.
"Excited?" Velvet asked, plopping down into the seat beside her, dabbing her forehead with a wet cloth.
"I don't know if I'm excited just yet." Crystal smiled at her. "But I'm not dreading it."
Velvet laughed and shook her head. "I swear, you're impossible to please!" Her smile widened into a grin. "I brought that Carrots in a Blender game, if you want to have a rematch."
"All right, but don't complain if you don't win this time!" Crystal shifted to face Velvet while the mare retrieved the game and started to set it up in the space between them.
A few, evenly matched rounds of Carrots in a Blender went by, slowly attracting members of Velvet's troupe until they had a crowd of eight ponies around them. Crystal brought out her copy of Timberwolf and Velvet protested, but the interest of the other mares drowned out her pleas and they played long into the evening. Velvet enjoyed herself more than normal, given that her peers played at her level rather than with the skill of Silent the Strategist or Luna the Schemer.
Finally, after several hours of playing different card games, the crowd dispersed to retreat to the sleeping car. Crystal and Velvet stayed behind to put away the game, then just sat in companionable silence.
A yawn escaped Velvet and she slipped off the seat. "I'm going to bed. Look before you climb into a bunk and make sure you don't get too cozy with one of my dancers, okay?" She giggled and waved. "And don't stay up too late."
"I won't. Good night." Crystal smiled up at her, then returned to looking out the window, the smile falling once she was alone.
Crystal watched the night sky that loomed over the horizon. The sparkling stars seemed rather dim to her that night, though she felt a little guilty for thinking such, as she knew Luna cherished each and every one. A crescent moon swam in the sea of deep blues and purples, the same shape as the one in Silent's cutie mark. Somewhere out there, that very cutie mark was beneath the same pale moonlight, preparing to go off and do who only knew what sort of vague mission.
She sighed and slumped in her seat, gazing up at that moon. "I hope you'll be safe," she whispered, touching her hoof to the glass, seeming to caress the moon from her perspective. "Please be safe…"