Crystal yawned as she trotted with as much energy she could muster on her way to spend the evening with Winterspear and company. Between school, writing, and trying to find time with Velvet, she hardly had any time for herself before she would enter the most awkward part of her days: visiting with Silent's family.
Iridescence had been unable to garner any information on Silent Knight's whereabouts or expected return, which put everypony on edge. Wallflower hardly moved from her spot on the couch, staring at the door, waiting for it to open. Winterspear tried desperately to find some way to keep her own sanity while trying to engage her mother in any form of normal conversation. Iridescence did her best to support her marefriend, and most nights that meant keeping Dot occupied.
Crystal was left with the ill-defined role of making tea. Finally, that night, she looked up from the half-eaten cookie on her plate and asked, "Wallflower, do you have any hobbies?"
Winterspear's wide-eyed gaze turned on her and she opened her mouth to speak, but Wallflower cut in with the simple reply of "Hobbies?"
Crystal bobbed her head. "Yes, ma'am. Hobbies. Making tea is a hobby of mine and is very relaxing for me. My friend's mother has recently taken up knitting."
Wallflower slowly raised one brow. "Knitting." She turned her head to look at Winterspear. "She wants me to knit, as if I were an old grey mare."
Winterspear's ears folded back. "I don't think she means it that way, Mom."
"I would indeed hope not," Wallflower retorted with a derisive snort, returning her gaze to Crystal. "And why should I knit?"
Crystal turned the teacup slowly in her magic, then wrapped her hooves around it to absorb its warmth through them. "It doesn't have to be knitting, you know. A hobby can take your mind off an unpleasant situation."
"If the situation is so unpleasant for you, then I'll remind you that you don't have to be here."
Winterspear jumped to her hooves. "Mom!"
Crystal held Wallflower's gaze firm and steady. "I wasn't calling it unpleasant for myself, ma'am."
"Is that so?" Wallflower didn't waver. She certainly had nerves of steel for not being a soldier herself, only the wife of one. The tension didn't diminish any when she said, "Then I'll try it."
Two weeks went by at an agonizing crawl until, slowly, the unease that sat in the edge of every conversation began to lift. Crystal peeked over the cards held in her magic to see Wallflower's perfect poker face staring back at her.
"And the goal," Wallflower started to ask for the third time, "is to amass fifteen points?"
Winterspear groaned while Iridescence smiled politely. "Yes, ma'am."
"I see." There was a pause before Wallflower laid down a card. "Then all ponies will pass a treasure to their left, and because of my affinity, I choose what is passed. I will take Iridescence's diamond. That puts me at fifteen points and I win." Her ears pinned back. "How is this fun?"
Crystal tried to hide her smile. "It's usually even more fun when you win like that."
Wallflower sighed and pushed her chair back to rise to her hooves. "I think we can cross this off as another hobby that is not for me." As she walked into an adjoining room, the muscles along her sides and flank twitched with nervous agitation.
"We've tried everything," Winterspear said, dropping her head to the table. "That's it. Give it up. My mother is incapable of enjoying herself."
Iridescence rubbed her partner's back. "Aww, sorry, honey. I was sure that time we had her hooked."
Crystal idly gathered up the cards into their appropriate decks. She glanced up at Iridescence and asked, "Still no word on when he'll return?"
Iridescence's light smile fell and she shook her head. "Nothing that anypony will tell me, anyway."
Wallflower leaned back into the room, her brow furrowed and her tone hesitant as she asked, "I'm sorry to interrupt, but is this Princess Luna and Silent Knight on the cover of this book?"
All three mares jolted upright and stared at each other in perfect silence.
Wallflower waited before she looked at the novel in her hooves. "Is this a romance novel... about my son and a princess?"
Crystal finally sputtered, "I-it is a romance novel, yes, ma'am."
"But it's not Silent Knight," Winterspear cut in. "It's just a royal guard."
Crystal nodded. "That's right. Sir Chevalier's eyes are violet."
"Exactly, his eyes are—" Iridescence stopped to stare at Crystal, one brow raised, a puzzled grin on her lips. "What?"
Wallflower walked past where they sat at the dinner table to seat herself on the couch. They watched while she flipped the book open and paused to stare at the inside cover. One ear started to turn toward the mares before it flicked back into place.
"I'm so sorry," Winterspear whispered. "That's Silent Knight's copy!"
Crystal swallowed, chewed her lip, then shook her head. "It's fine. There's nothing to be embarrassed about. I only signed it with my full name trying to impress a stallion I thought was cute." She frowned and muttered, "Me and my stupid past self."
They all turned to look at Wallflower again, whose gaze was focused on the book. Iridescence reached over and patted Crystal on the shoulder while she and Winterspear gazed at her with pity.
The only saving grace that came to Crystal's mind was that the story was tame and aside from having her little secret revealed, there was nothing inherently embarrassing about it. The back of her neck started to feel hot as a few other, much more incriminating pieces of work came to mind and slowly, she buried her face in her hooves at how utterly inappropriate of a moment it was to think of them.
It was nearing three weeks and there was still no sign of Silent, which was becoming an ever-increasing source of stress—not in the family life, which had settled into an odd normalcy, but in the war of Crystal's mind.
She sat in the privacy of her bedroom, rereading her secret, unpublished short story. When she had written it, it had quelled the uncomfortable sparks of heat. Now, however, was a different matter. Her inner turmoil made everything so awkward. She wanted to run her hooves through his mane, to know what it was like to have his weight against her... and lately, those thoughts nearly sickened her.
With a frustrated sigh, she threw the notebook across her room and flopped onto her side, burying her face into her pillow. It was wrong! They were only dating and, to make matters worse, she was waiting for him to return so they could tell him his father was dead. There could not possibly be a worse time to have such heated thoughts.
Her eyes widened and she jolted upright. She needed a distraction, and a game store had just recently opened up not too far away from home. All she had to do was pick a nice, boring strategy game and take it over to play with Winterspear and Iridescence. Being around his family would remind her embarrassing little voice of just what sort of situation she was in.
Each step along the cobblestone streets seemed to land with a heavy weight as her thoughts spun around and around. Perhaps her mother had been right and writing romance novels was a 'tawdry affair' and would 'corrupt her mind'. Why couldn't she just keep these feelings under control a couple months longer?
The Crystal Delicacy, she discovered upon arrival, was quite the classy establishment, which wasn't much of a surprise given the more upscale district of Canterlot it was in. Crystal paused just inside the doorway to look around the posh interior, wide-eyed.
Most of the shelf space was filled with beautiful crystal figurines carved into the most wondrous of designs. Some were of the Crystal Palace while others were of the much more familiar Canterlot Castle. The other figures ranged from the well-known princesses to the more obscure Starswirl the Bearded, as well as mighty creatures such as dragons, chimeras, and more.
The further she walked into the store, the more the merchandise transitioned into the gaming world. The crystal figurines became painted miniatures and the shelves displayed all manners of games. Her gaze drifted over the selection of strategic war games and though she had convinced herself that was what she needed, each one looked terribly boring to her.
"Hello," a voice called to her right and Crystal looked to see a light red mare standing behind the counter. "Welcome to Crystal Delicacy. My name's Ruby Moon." She smiled. "May I help you find something in particular?"
Crystal shook her head. "Oh, no, I'm fine. I'm just browsing."
Ruby's two-toned pink mane bounced as she bobbed her head. "All right, just let me know if there's anything you need."
Crystal nodded and returned her attention to the collection of games. She spied the base set for Airship Armada and couldn't help a smile. Perhaps she'd buy it for herself and try to get interested in it, but on the other hoof, it was one of the ways Runic and Silent bonded. She struck that from her list of options and continued looking.
Off to the side of the second bookcase, on one of the higher shelves, a title caught Crystal's eye: Fantasy Affairs. Her ears stood straight up when she read the rather suggestive blurb and noticed the other games around it, such as Bedroom Bucks and the very unsubtle SexXx.
"Something catch your eye?" Ruby asked, her voice a little deeper than before, a cat-like grin on her face. "I recommend Bedroom Bucks if your partner is a stallion. If you have multiple partners—"
"That's quite all right!" Crystal practically shrieked, looking at Ruby with wide eyes. "I-I was just looking. Now I'm looking at other titles." Her magic grabbed the first game with a soldier on it she saw. "Now I'm buying this!" She almost slammed the box onto the counter.
Ruby chuckled as she lifted and dropped her shoulders in a lighthearted shrug. "If you're sure. I have even more intimate games in the back if you're—"
"N-not interested!" Crystal fetched the bits from her bag and picked the game back up, tossing the coins in its place. "Thank you!"
After she hurriedly left the store, she slapped her hoof to her face. That was the opposite of what she wanted! With a heavy sigh, she started the walk home.
Clearly, the distraction technique wasn't going to work. She had to face the issue head-on... but how?
A thought struck her and she changed her course to head toward a different set of condominiums. Doubt wriggled its way into her determination the closer she got, however. What if she was making a mistake? Could she really handle looking a pony in the eye, telling them what was going on in her mind, and accept their judgment? However, the better question was, could she handle letting these feelings fester and having something happen at the wrong time?
Crystal stopped to take a breath and, after a moment of hesitation, knocked on the door. When it opened, she dropped her gaze to stare at the floor.
"Crystal?" Sunbeam asked, then smiled. "What brings you by?"
Crystal shuffled her hooves. "I wanted to see you, if you're not busy."
"Not at all! Come on in!" Sunbeam stepped to the side to free the entryway. "Pepper's at the store shopping for the bakery, so it's just me and Red right now." Her tone grew a little silly as she called to the foal, "Look who's here! It's Aunty Crystal!"
Crystal froze when she locked eyes with Red. He was too young to understand regular conversation, right? Perhaps she'd just wait until he needed a nap. He was still of the age where those were a frequent occurrence.
Sunbeam sat down on the floor, pressing her hoof gently to Red's muzzle. "Boop! And isn't it great timing that you just woke up from a nap, my little sugarcake?" Red squealed in delight and waved his forelegs to grasp at her hoof and Sunbeam giggled. "Yes it is!"
Or not. Crystal sighed and sat down across from her, staring down at the foal. Her heart started to beat faster as she searched through her mind for the words she wanted to say. She opened and closed her mouth a few times to start to speak, but kept deciding against it.
"Mrs. Sunbeam?" Crystal finally and tentatively asked, her voice cracking from the butterflies that were turning into little nerve storms.
Sunbeam's ears shot straight up and she looked at Crystal with a furrowed brow. "What happened to Mama Sunbeam, creampuff?"
Crystal swallowed. "S-sorry."
Sunbeam moved around Red so that he was no longer between them, then wrapped a foreleg around Crystal's shoulders and pulled her in close for a hug. "Sweetiepie, what's got you so worked up? I swear I can hear your heart pounding!"
"I just, there's something, well, there's something that I'd like to talk to you about," Crystal explained in a hurried mumble. "But I'm scared."
"Are you pregnant?"
"Wh-what?! No!" Crystal jerked away to give her a wide-eyed stare. "I—No!"
Sunbeam smiled. "Then what could be so scary?"
Crystal groaned, shielded her face with both hooves, and turned away. "I, well, that is. I've never had... the talk."
Sunbeam tilted her head. "The talk?" When Crystal just nodded in reply, she gasped and exclaimed, "Crystal Sugarsweet Wishes! Are you talking about"—she clamped her hooves over Red's ears—"being intimate?!"
Crystal tried to curl up into a tight ball, a shiver of fear running through her. This was a mistake. She couldn't go through with it! "I, um, f-forget it!"
"Crystal Candydrops Wishes, look at me when I'm talking to you," Sunbeam said in a stern voice. She put a hoof on Crystal's shoulder and forced the mare to face her, then pulled at the forelegs blocking eye contact. "Do you mean to tell me that you plan to be intimate outside of marriage?"
Crystal squeaked and clenched her eyes shut.
Sunbeam frowned. "Little Miss Crystal Wishes, what did I just say?"
Crystal cracked one eye open. "T-to look at you when you're tal-talking to me?"
"Exactly. Now, I would think that you, of all ponies, would know that intimacy outside of marriage is—"
An overwhelming feeling of regret, dread, and self-loathing washed over her. She should have known better. She had to face the music, which would be a stern lecture from Sunbeam.
"—perfectly normal and nothing to be ashamed of at all!"
"What?" Crystal blinked. All emotion drained from her body, leaving only a tingling numbness in her skull.
Sunbeam burst into a fit of giggles and squeezed Crystal to her. "Oh, sweetheart, of course it's fine! I just couldn't resist teasing you with how scared you looked! After all, you don't want to marry a stallion and then find out his eclair doesn't satisfy your pie, now, do you?"
Sensation of emotion still hadn't returned, so Crystal replied in a soft voice, "Mama Sunbeam?"
Crystal tilted her head to look up. "Can you please not use baking metaphors for this?"
"Oh, fine, fine." Sunbeam giggled again. "So, things are getting serious between you and Mr. Knight, huh?"
Crystal's gaze darted away when a pang of guilt was the first thing she felt. "I, I guess."
Sunbeam hooked her forehooves together and rested her chin on them. "Then what's the problem?"
Crystal sucked in a breath, held it, then muttered, "Everything. Everything is the problem." She sighed and shook her head. "We haven't been dating very long, but I can't stop... feeling this way about him."
"Sweetie, there's no set timeline for this sort of thing!" She winked. "Besides, haven't you been pining after him for just about a year now? It's really not a surprise at all, I think."
The pounding of her heart refused to stop and the words fell out more easily. "Well, yes, but that's just the thing, Mama!" She buried her face in her hooves. "We're waiting for him to get home so that we can tell him his father died! I don't want him to think I feel this way out of pity, or—or to work up the courage and he rejects me because of his dad, and—" Her breath hitched as panic set in. "I don't know what I would do if he rejected me! What if I missed my chance and now it's gone forever?"
Sunbeam reached out to pull her into another close embrace, stroking her mane with one hoof. "Oh, Crystal, dear, shh. Calm, now. It's going to be all right." She smiled softly. "Trust me, if you worked up the courage to proposition him, I guarantee you the last thing on his mind would be his father."
Crystal did her best to breathe evenly. "But what if I never work up the courage? I always thought it would be the stallion, that I'd come home to rose petals leading to the bedroom, or we'd have a candlelit dinner and after dessert he'd sweep me up and carry me off and—"
Sunbeam interrupted her with laughter, then laughed harder when she saw Crystal's pouting face. "Honeybear, I know you're a romantic, but honestly." She put her hooves to Crystal's cheeks and gave them a smoosh and a squeeze. "You're overthinking it. When the moment strikes, you'll know, and neither of you will be thinking about his father or how long you've been dating or if there's onion in your teeth."
Crystal continued to pout for a while longer before she slumped forward, hiding her face in Sunbeam's chest. "I don't know," she mumbled. "I just don't know."
"You will," Sunbeam reassured her. "Now why don't you get some cookies from the kitchen and I'll tell you everything you need to know about proper, safe intimacy."
The moment Crystal opened the door to Silent's place, white hooves grabbed her and tugged her off to the side.
"Make her stop," Winterspear hissed.
Crystal blinked a few times. "Hi. Make who stop?"
Winterspear glanced over at her mother, who sat on the couch with a book. "Mom is reading The Mare's Temptation. Do you know how awkward it is that she's reading romance novels?!"
Crystal followed her gaze to stare at Wallflower, whispering back, "Do you know how awkward it is that she's reading my romance novels?"
Winterspear squeezed Crystal's shoulders. "All the more reason to make her stop it! When you suggested finding her a hobby, I thought that was a great idea, but this is the worst hobby imaginable!" She paused, then added, "No offense."
"What are you two girls talking about?" Wallflower asked after she cleared her throat.
"Nothing important, ma'am," Crystal chirped in reply as she pranced over to the couch. "Winterspear, Iridescence, do you two mind making some tea?"
As the two mares reluctantly complied, Crystal settled in beside Dot. "Hi, sweetie."
Dot glanced up at her, then returned her focus to the coloring book in front of her. "I'm gonna be an artist."
"Oh?" Crystal smiled. "Is that what you've decided?"
Dot gave a curt nod. "Yup."
"Practice makes perfect," Wallflower cut in, then flipped to the next page of the novel.
Crystal giggled and leaned over to watch Dot color, blinking when the little filly exclaimed, "Okay, fine! You can help me, so stop hovering already!"
"Oh, um." Crystal tried to smile. "I don't—"
"But you gotta stay inside the lines," Dot said with a huff, offering a crayon. "I just got this coloring book and I want it to be perfect, like Mrs. Wallflower said."
Crystal smiled. "Don't worry, I'll do my best."
After a moment, Wallflower looked up to watch them coloring together. Her even expression softened into a faint smile. "Do you plan to have foals, Crystal?"
"Mom!" Winterspear exclaimed from the kitchen.
Wallflower merely kept staring at Crystal, waiting expectantly, so Crystal cleared her throat and replied, "I would like to someday, yes."
"I see." Wallflower returned her attention to her reading. "You'll make a fine mother."
Winterspear leaned around the corner to glare at her mother. "Mom, stop being—"
The conversation came to a sudden halt when the lock on the door clicked and the handle started to turn. Crystal's magic sent her crayon sliding across the page, earning a squeak of disapproval from Dot, but she, along with the other mares, was focused on the door.
Slowly, it opened, and a bedraggled Silent Knight froze in the doorway, staring at them just as they stared at him.
After a stunned moment, Wallflower snapped the book shut and set it aside. "Hello, Son," she said in a soft voice. "Why don't you come inside? There is something we need to tell you."