After a lull in conversation so they could eat lunch, Crystal was the first to speak. "So, what is the Crystal Empire like?"
Lazuli looked at her with a half smile. "Better, now. Better than it ever was before, I think. Working with the Canterlot Ballet lets me travel around to the major cities, which has been a great opportunity to see just how much everything has changed."
"That's right," Crystal mused, tilting her head. "It's been gone for quite some time. But..." Her ears perked straight up. "Wait, does that make you—"
"Old?" Lazuli finished. Her smile lifted into a grin at Crystal's flustered reaction. "I don't feel old, no, but I suppose it depends on how you perceive the spell cast on us. I feel the same age as I did before we disappeared, give or take the months since the Empire returned."
Velvet nudged Crystal's side. "And besides, it's rude to discuss a mare's age! You of all ponies should know that!"
Crystal pouted and tried to come up with a response, but Lazuli cut in before she could. "It's all right. At this point, I think every crystal pony is used to hearing the question." She laughed softly. "We ask it to each other, honestly, since none of us really know. It's... confusing, but it's worth the confusion to be back."
"Why did the Empire disappear in the first place?" Crystal tilted her head.
Lazuli shook her head. "We don't know. One minute, everything is fine, and the next we are in a new era. It was like waking from a deep slumber without remembering falling asleep in the first place. I was disoriented for quite some time before I got my bearings. But that's in the past; we're free to rejoin the rest of Equestria as we please again. I have a great job, so I can't really complain." She waved a hoof to dismiss the lingering awkwardness in the air. "Anyway, you wanted to know about the Empire itself? It's magnificent. Of all the cities I've toured with the company, the Crystal Empire puts them all to shame with its splendor." Her smile lifted to one of beaming excitement. "You should visit sometime!"
Crystal sighed dreamily. "Oh, I've seen a picture or two. It sounds like a magical place." Her gaze focused on Lazuli, almost predatory. "Are there any particular romantic stories prevalent in the Empire?"
"Really?" Velvet rolled her eyes.
Lazuli's brow furrowed. "Romantic stories? You mean romance novels?" She shrugged. "There are some, though I don't know how relatable they'd be down here in the south."
"Like what?" Crystal pressed.
"In times past, we had contact with frost ponies." A small grin crept onto her lips. "Big, burly, strong ponies, they are. Like earth ponies but with a shaggy coat that you just want to run your hooves through." She tossed her head back, laughing. "Stories of encounters with frost ponies while lost in the Frozen North were pretty rampant, now that I think about it!"
Crystal pursed her lips, humming quietly in thought. "You're right. I don't know if I quite get the appeal of shaggy coats." She slowly started to grin mischievously. "But I'm sure I could do a little research, if I got my hooves on a copy of one such book."
Her favorite time of the week was drawing near: private time with Silent. Crystal had already set up the coffee table to resemble one of a high class restaurant, a silk white tablecloth draped over it and two proper place settings on both ends. While she waited for those three knocks to resound from the door, she sprawled on the couch with a copy of The Winter Soldier.
The setting was unfamiliar to her, but it was so beautifully written that she felt cold just reading about the Frozen North. She had selected it for the militaristic angle and had been captivated by the setting. A crystal pony had gotten lost in a snowstorm searching for her younger sibling and was found near frozen by a frost pony during his patrol. She was almost disappointed when Silent knocked to announce his arrival, but her magic returned the book to a shelf while she went to answer the door.
"Hello, Sergeant," Crystal said as she stepped to the side to let him in. "I hope you brought your appetite."
Silent stopped to look at the table, his ears perked. "I haven't eaten yet." He glanced at her with the faintest hint of a playful smile. "Let me guess, civilized ponies don't eat like normal ponies? Is that today's lesson?"
Crystal giggled and walked over take a seat at one end of the table, Silent sitting at the other. A pink-enveloped salad bowl levitated over to rest in front of him. "Civilized ponies don't do anything like normal ponies. If you don't know that already, then we might as well give up now."
"I'm sorry, Teacher. I'll endeavor to do better." He eyed the bowl warily. "So... ?"
She gave him a smile filled with utmost sugar and sweet. "Do you wish to eat?"
He sat perfectly still as he tried to figure out the catch for himself. The bright colors of the salad seemed to be too enticing and he finally questioned rather than replied, "Yes?"
"Can you think of a reason why you shouldn't?"
He stared at her, then assessed the situation with a quick glance across the table. His ears twitched when he spotted the difference. "You don't have a bowl."
She nodded. "One must always wait for all guests to have food before beginning their own. There is an exception, of course."
"Of course," he repeated with a small smile.
"I have chosen to not have an appetizer for this meal, so you may start on yours."
Happily, he picked up his fork and speared a slice of cucumber. Crystal waited a moment, much like a cat perched on a ledge, then pounced with an innocent two words: "Excuse me." She got up to stand and he dropped his fork to stand with her. A giggle escaped her. "Very good. But there's a new complication to the rule that you must stand when a lady is not sitting."
His ears fell to the sides, the surge of pride from his success quickly deflated. "And what's that?"
"Once you've picked up your cutlery, it never touches the table again. Rest them on the plate, crossed together if you are not finished and side-by-side if you are." Before he could ask, she answered, "This lets the server know whether or not you are done and if they can take your plate."
"I see." Just like that, his demeanor shifted to a more relaxed, confident one. His shoulders squared up and he held his head high. "So fine dining is rote memorization, then?"
She hummed to consider the question, then nodded. "Yes." She added with a small giggle, "You don't have to worry about lying to your meals."
A handsome smile took hold of his expression and her heart fluttered. "I can do that."
"I can't do this!" Crystal shrieked, a shower of papers raining down on her after she threw everything in front of her in the air.
Velvet watched with vague amusement from where she was sprawled on the couch. "What, is planning two weddings at the same time too much stress?"
Crystal shot her a withering stare. "Why are you enjoying this so much?"
"Because you asked for it?" She shrugged. "The mare of honor doesn't have to do everything. You told Horsey she didn't need a wedding planner because you'd take care of it. You told Raven she didn't need a schedule, so now she's relying on you for everything. This is stuff a real wedding planner gets paid for."
"Well, it seemed like a waste of money at the time." She ran her hooves through her mane and let out a long groan. "I can't do this. I'll have to cancel with Silent Knight tonight. There's just too much to do."
Velvet rolled off the couch to land on all fours. "Do you really want to cancel? Since he started officer school, he hasn't been able to get away, and now after not seeing him for two whole weeks you're going to let stress get in the way?"
"Tonight's lesson is in formal dancing. I need my head in the game for that!"
"Really?" Velvet walked up to her and into her personal space. "Crystal?"
Crystal looked down at the mare, one brow raised. "Yes?"
"We're close right now, aren't we? Physically?" Velvet was close enough that her breath tickled Crystal's face.
"Yes?" Crystal repeated, her tone and expression growing more confused.
"Formal dancing is even closer than this, isn't it?"
Realization crept up on her like the blush that started to take hold. "It is."
Velvet grinned a little too wickedly. "And there's touching, isn't there? With hooves? Wrapped around bodies?"
Crystal's knees went weak at the thought of Silent's forelegs wrapped around her, holding her close, and she replied breathlessly, "Oh, yes..." Her heart fluttered "You're right, I think I won't cancel after all." She pranced on the tips of her hooves around the room as her magic reached out to all the furniture, clearing a space the living room.
"Whoa the-there!" Velvet laughed so hard that she struggled to speak clearly. "Sl-Slow down, fris-frisky britches!"
"What?" Crystal looked at her with a pout. "You're leaving soon, aren't you? It can't hurt to be prepared."
Velvet sucked in a breath, held it despite her laughter struggling to break free, then grinned. "Five hours in advance? Yeah, that's some kinda prepared, all right." She stood up on her hindlegs and stretched her forelegs to the ceiling. "Well, since the space is available, I guess I could do another round of practice. Never hurts to be extra limber!"
Crystal trotted over to the couch, which was blocked off by the coffee table. She bounded over it and flopped onto the cushions, her magic carrying The Winter Soldier to her. "Sounds good! I'll just do some reading. Don't mind me."
"Haven't you already finished that book?" Velvet sat on the floor with all legs stretched in front of her, reaching for her hindhooves. "Is it really that good?"
"Oh, yes." Crystal practically purred the words. "I've never read anything like it. Ponies back then truly knew how to craft a tale!" She paused, then looked over at Velvet. "How long was the Empire really gone, anyway? History books always say everything happened a thousand years ago, which seems somewhat improbable, unless times were dreadful enough to warrant so many disasters all at once."
Velvet shrugged. "A thousand years, two thousand years, nine hundred years... I think it's just the easiest way to say 'a long time ago' without sounding like the beginning to a foal's tale." She shifted to balance on the tips of her hooves, stretching the lower muscles of her hindlegs with her forehooves hovering near the table to catch her if she lost her balance.
Crystal watched her for a moment, then returned her attention to the novel floating in the air, opened to the page she had read last.
Bitter winds chilled her to the very core. Everything around her was white, an endless expanse of snow in every direction. Was she moving forwards, backwards, or just going in circles? Was she making any progress at all?
Her legs gave out, too numb to feel pain. Her eyes fluttered, too tired to stay open. Her head dropped, too heavy to keep upright...
After she had finished her stretches, Velvet stood up. "Well, I'm off! Good luck with your dance lesson!" She winked. "Be sure to tell me all about it when I get home!"
"Yes, yes." Crystal shivered in anticipation. "I'm sure there won't be much to tell, but if there is, I'll tell you."
Classical music quietly drifted out of the record player, enveloping the room in a soft, comforting melody. Crystal walked in a circle around Silent Knight as he stood upright on his hindlegs and she examined his posture after completing a successful succession of dance steps.
"I suppose being a soldier has its uses in high society," she finally said, stopping in front of him. "Your posture is impeccable. You've done well tonight."
He smiled down at her. "It also helps to have a wonderful teacher." The smile fell when she rose up onto her hindlegs. "Huh?"
A giggle bubbled up from her chest, which was tight with nerves. "You can't truly learn from dancing alone all evening, now, can you?" She guided his forelegs, resting one around her middle and holding the other's hoof with her own. "It's different when you're dancing with a partner."
There wasn't exactly a sensation of fire or electricity when he touched her, like she had read in novels; instead, she just wanted to melt against him in perfect contentment. She felt safe in his embrace, even if it was forced for the lesson. At their new closeness, she could feel warmth radiating from him. He was so close and yet, at the same time, so far. A pang of bitter and sweet tightened her chest at the thought.
"Remember, right hoof first, then bring the left to join it," she instructed. As she breathed in to continue speaking, she inhaled the heady scent that she could only describe as 'Silent Knight', and it sent a shiver down her spine. She found the electricity after all! "We're just going to do the box step for now."
Silent cleared his throat as he fumbled the movement. "Shouldn't Velvet be here for this?"
She blinked. "Velvet? No." She shook her head and tried to guide him through the steps. "Velvet isn't this kind of dancer." She looked up at him with a coy smile. "Are you worried I can't do it? I was trained in the waltz when I was a filly, you know."
He quickly shook his head to chase the concern away. "That isn't what I meant at all."
After successfully making their way through a complete box, she said, "One more box, then we'll try a spin." He nodded and she asked, "What did you mean, then, Sergeant?"
"Cadet," he said simply.
Crystal's brow arched. "Pardon?"
Silent frowned when his hooves seemed to misunderstand the instruction, crossing over one another. His wings flapped to aid him in regaining his balance, and once he was steady, he replied, "I'm not a sergeant anymore. I'm two weeks into officers' school. That makes me a cadet now."
She tried not to laugh. "I see. Be that as it may, I know a deflection when I hear one. Now, stop fidgeting and answer the question." She nudged him with her hoof on his shoulder to signal that it was time to spin. "Why would you rather Velvet be here, Cadet?"
Her heart raced. Oh, she hoped this wouldn't be the moment where he told her he was actually in love with Velvet. She wanted to stay like they were forever. Him holding her, music swaying around them, the world fading away...
"Well, we're awfully close." He swallowed. "I don't want her to get the wrong impression if she came home early."
The music in her head skipped; the music from the record continued on undisturbed. "What?" They swept into an elegant turn, his focus on her seeming to distract him just enough from dancing to not overthink the steps. "Why would she get the wrong impression?"
His ears pinned back nervously. "You know. You and Velvet." His gaze flicked away from hers. "I'm taking up all of your private time." As he dipped her—which he did quite well, but she was too focused on trying to decipher his meaning to remember to congratulate him—his gaze returned to hers.
Uncertainty swam in the silver depths that she wanted to get lost in. She looked up at him while they held their position, his forelegs cradling her like a treasure, and suddenly the music in her head screeched to a halt.
"Wait, private time?" She blinked. "We don't have private time... Do you..." It couldn't be. She almost laughed as she asked, "Do you think Velvet and I are a couple? Of course not. We're just friends."
His eyes widened and his grip on her loosened; she squealed in surprise and fell to the ground with a thud. His hooves reached down to help her back up after he recovered from his momentary shock. "I'm so sorry!"
She accepted his offer and he righted her. "Did you really think Velvet and I were dating?" When he nodded, she blinked a few times in surprise, then frowned. "You're the only one who thinks that... right?" His head shook and her brow furrowed. "What? No, Velvet and I... We're just..." She trailed off as her mind diverted all energy to thinking.
They were just friends. Close friends, but that was to be expected given how long they had been friends. After all, sisters were affectionate, and they were like sisters. Her eyes widened as she gasped. "Oh, Celestia..." But they weren't sisters. Just because they felt that way didn't make it true. Reminiscing on all the dates that had ended awkwardly after she had introduced the stallion to Velvet, she dropped her face into her hooves and felt like crying. Now she suddenly understood why there were never any second dates. "So many stallions thought..."
Silent slipped a hoof around her shoulders in comfort. "I'm sure it isn't that bad."
She lifted her head to stare at him, her expression anything but comforted. "Really?"
"I've just gotten used to mares that like mares." He shrugged. "Maybe I just assumed?"
Her ears fell flat to the sides. "And everypony else just assumed along with you?"
He puffed his chest in playful confidence. "Of course. I have that effect on ponies. After all, I'm the boss."
Though she fought it for a moment, a laugh broke free. She covered her face with both hooves to smother it into a giggle. He took a sharp intake of air and his grip on her not only loosened, but vanished completely, and she fell to the floor.
"Silent Knight!" All sense of decorum was lost and she glared up at him. "What the hay?"
"I'm so sorry, Crystal!" He reached down once again, but she just stared at his hooves with skepticism clear on her face.
After a moment of weighing her options, she placed her hoof on his and he pulled her back upright. "What is wrong with you today?"
Silent sighed and looked into her eyes, his gaze chasing away all of her feelings except for fondness—and a little soreness, but that was to be expected after landing on her rump twice in a row. "You're a sweet and selfless mare and you always help me out. I just thought you were being a good friend and left it at that. Then we're dancing very close, you tell me you're not into mares, and giggle at me. That's a whole lot to take in all at once."
Crystal's heart found its familiar, fluttering pace and she leaned in a little closer to him. "Oh? Do go on."
He wrung his hooves and as he rambled, his gaze darted about. "I'm not very good at relationships, or a lot of things not related to being a guard. But I believe Winterspear would say you've been sending me signals. And, honestly, now that I think about it, Velvet has been trying to help you all this time, which just confused me for a while. I thought she was trying to wrangle me into a three-pony relationship."
Unable to help herself, she started to laugh again, though she was careful to not giggle. Being dropped a third time was three times too many.
He looked more nervous the more his mouth continued on without his permission. "I'm not against ponies being in multi-pony relationships, and I'm not against being in one myself, I guess, but to be frank, I think my capabilities will limit me to a single mare."
Laughter overtook her and she tumbled backwards, clutching her sides. When he settled onto the floor next to her, she rolled over to face him and wiped the amused tears from her eyes. "Oh, Silent Knight, you silly pony."
His sense of self restored, he said in a low voice, "If you're not seeing Velvet, then I would really like to ask you out."
Before she could even think to respond, the door opened and Velvet took a step in. "Hi!" She stopped, tilted her head, and looked between them. "Well, then. This doesn't look like dancing."
Crystal scrambled to her hooves and beamed. "Velvet! He thinks you and I are a couple! Everypony does, in fact! Isn't that great news?"
Velvet arched one brow, her expression otherwise blank. "Reason tells me no, but your expression says... yes?"
Crystal couldn't delay it a moment longer and cheered, "He finally asked me out!"
"What?!" Velvet gasped and leapt through the air to bound closer and threw her forelegs around Crystal. "That's the best news ever!"
The sound of Silent clearing his throat interrupted their rejoicing and they quickly pulled away from each other to look at him, then Velvet looked back at Crystal. "So, everypony thinks we're a couple, huh? I mean, that would explain why neither of us have been asked out in a long time, though I thought it was just obvious you were after Silent Knight and me, well." She shrugged. "We're not that bad, right?"
Crystal said in a monotonous voice, "Just think about it for two minutes."
Velvet stared off into space, her eyes searching for an answer, then widened. She slapped a hoof to her forehead and sighed. "Oh, wow. We totally are that bad, aren't we? I'm sorry, I had no idea, but we act exactly like a couple, especially with me being... Well, you know. Me."
Silent tilted his head in understandable confusion. "Don't blame yourself, Velvet. Crystal was just as, uh, familiar toward you." He stood up and walked over. "Unfortunately, I have to get back to the academy. Cadets get very little liberty with their time." He smiled at Crystal. "Keep your date book open, please."
He hugged them both out of habit, then paused and glanced between them, as if to be reassured that it was okay. Crystal giggled and ushered him with a wave of her hoof. "Go on. I don't want you to be late."
After the door shut behind him, Crystal and Velvet looked at each other. The record player continued to play its song, but the sound of it was quickly overtaken by their high-pitched squeals of excitement.
"I can't believe it!" Crystal hopped up and down. "He asked me out!" She giggled and her magic lifted the needle from the record. The pink aura then brought over two pillows, which they settled onto as the adrenaline died down into companionable silence.
Velvet crossed her forelegs and looked at Crystal, her brow knitted. "So, then, you two'll start dating?"
Crystal sighed happily, flopping over onto her side. "Oh, soon, I hope!" She shot back upright and gasped. "Ah! What if he discovers he doesn't like me when we go on a date? What if I make for poor company?!"
"Seriously?" Velvet rolled her eyes. "Is there no end to your worrying? Why do you even want to be in a relationship in the first place?"
Crystal paused to stare at Velvet with brief confusion on her face. "I don't know how to answer that. I just... do? When I see him, my heart knows. Isn't that enough?"
"Not for me, but whatever," Velvet muttered. She shifted to face Crystal more completely. "Then what? You two date, then get married, and you'll move out?"
Crystal's face heated up at the question and she shook her head. "I don't know about that! I mean, yes, of course, if things get serious, I suppose I will move in with him." At Velvet's response of a light snort, Crystal asked, "What?"
"I don't know." Velvet's ears pinned back and she dropped her head down to rest on her front hooves. "I just... I never imagined you'd move out. I thought we'd be friends 'til we were old and grey."
Crystal furrowed her brow. "Just because I move out doesn't mean we're not friends anymore, Velvet."
"Oh, right, we'll write, won't we?" She rolled her eyes and sat back up. "We'll meet for lunch once in a while and call each other 'friends'." Her hooves raised to gesture air quotes around the last word, which she spat with a heavy tone of sarcasm. "Face it, how often do we really hang out with Horsey?"
Crystal clasped her hooves to Velvet's cheeks and forced the mare to look at her straight on, which allowed her to see the tears in her friend's eyes. Crystal's expression softened and she asked in a quiet voice, "Velvet, I don't understand! Aren't you the one who was pushing me to confess to him?"
Velvet sniffed and nodded. "Yes, but, but now it's real. Now, you're actually going to be together, and I'm not going to see you anymore." She rubbed at her eyes and continued, her breath hitching, "I just, I just don't think it's fair. You were my friend first, so why do I have to give you up to him?"
"Oh, Velvet, it's not like that at all." She moved her forelegs to wrap around the other's neck and pulled her in for a hug, resting her muzzle on Velvet's head. "He could never take me away from you. Even if things do work out and I move in with him, I promise I'll always be here to be a pain in your rump." She grinned when the mare laughed. "Remember our first year at Canterlot Academy?"
"Mmhm." Velvet nodded just slightly, her movement hindered by their closeness.
"And do you remember what you said when we had that fight in the cafeteria?"
Velvet paused, then mumbled, "I dunno. That was, like, almost three years ago."
Crystal laughed. "That no matter what, we'd always be friends, silly."
"Did I really say that?" Velvet scrunched up her nose. "That's awfully naive. Ponies change... you and I have changed. You're serious about a stallion now, a specific, singular stallion, not just any hunk of muscle that crossed your path."
"I'm so glad that that's the first thing that comes to mind when you think of how I've grown over the years." Crystal rolled her eyes, but continued to smile. "Are you really worried we'll drift apart just because I might get serious with a stallion?"
Velvet hesitated a moment before she shrugged and simply replied, "Yes?"
Crystal squeezed Velvet closer to her. "Absolutely not. Sisters before misters."
Velvet broke out into a short laugh. "Nevermind! I forgot how lame you are! Maybe it's better if we do drift apart." She leaned back to look up at Crystal, smiling. "I'm okay. Honest."
"Clearly you're not okay, if me going on a date with a stallion shakes you up so much..." Crystal's expression turned serious. "What's really the matter?"
There was a brief frown that flashed across Velvet's face, but she shook her head and the smile returned. "You're just my one and only best friend, all right? The idea of you just suddenly disappearing from my life scared me a bit. That's all. Double honest."
Crystal eyed her suspiciously. Velvet continued to smile. Finally, Crystal relented with a sigh. "Fine, fine. Just remember, best friends talk to each other about their problems, otherwise, what's the point of having a best friend?"
Velvet hummed in thought. "To have somepony around who makes dinner?"
"Is that a topic diversion, or a hint?" One of Crystal's brows raised, amusement toying with her lips though she tried to keep a straight face.
"Can't it be both?" Velvet beamed at her.
Crystal pulled away to stand on all fours, stretched out her legs, then walked toward the kitchen. "Then this topic-diverted best friend is going to make you dinner."
"Yay!" Velvet cheered, clapping her hooves.
Crystal rolled her eyes, but smiled nonetheless and set about making dinner for two. Whether Silent Knight and her worked out or not, there was no way she was going to lose her friendship with Velvet. If that was the cost for romance, then romance would just have to find another currency, but she wasn't too concerned. Silent Knight seemed like a low maintenance gentlestallion who wouldn't give her an ultimatum. He was, however, going to take her on a date. A small squeal of delight escaped her at the mere thought of it.