Silent didn't move at first. Even from across the room, Crystal could read the look on his face. He knew something was wrong, and it broke her heart more than she had prepared herself for.
"Mom?" His gaze darted about to all the mares in the room, then settled on Wallflower. "Mom, what's going on?"
Winterspear slowly lowered herself to sit on one of the chairs by the kitchen, the tips of her wings nearly touching the floor as she practically melted. Iridescence gestured for Dot to come to her and, understanding the gravity of the situation, the filly quickly complied.
The silence and stillness in the room made Wallflower's deep breath in all the more noticeable. She closed her eyes, held the breath, and, when she opened her eyes again, her expression was as close to calm as could be expected. "Silent Knight, while you were gone, your father had an accident. You know how he is..." Her voice hitched, an audible chink in her armor. "Blind or not, he always thinks he can do anything."
Silent turned to the side to tear his gaze away from them and removed his helmet. Some of his mane was matted against his forehead with sweat. "How bad?" he asked, setting the helmet on the table. There was no reply at first, so he looked over at them and repeated, "How bad is it this time?"
Winterspear stood rather abruptly. She moved toward Silent, pausing only to glance at Wallflower for a brief moment, and pulled him into a tight hug.
With both of her children in front of her, Wallflower's composure wavered. She blinked a few, rapid times, shifted on her hooves, and tried to hold her head higher. Finally, she said in a soft voice, "Silent, this time it was too much. His injuries were too severe."
Crystal raised a hoof to keep her mouth shut as a whimper bubbled up into her throat when Silent gasped. Surprise and shock tore across his expression, followed quickly by angry disbelief. "What?!" He pushed his hooves against Winterspear's chest, but she held on tighter. "What does that mean, too severe?!"
Winterspear whispered two words that froze him in place. "He's gone."
Silent stood there perfectly still, until a quiver of his lower lip rippled the surface and sent the rest of him into light trembles. The muscles along his jaw tightened to force his face into rigidity and for a while he just breathed. When the shaking stopped, he pushed himself out of Winterspear's forelegs. "Excuse me, please."
Wallflower nodded and took a step back, raising one hoof to gesture for Winterspear to do the same. "Of course."
As he walked to his room, all eyes followed him. The moment the door shut, Winterspear released a choking sob she had been biting back and Iridescence left Dot in the kitchen to rush to her side.
The sound of armor clattering against itself as Silent likely dropped to the ground broke the quiet and Crystal jumped to her hooves. She had to go to him. She had to be by his side. The last thing he needed to be was alone—
"No," Winterspear whispered, grabbing Crystal before she could walk past her.
Crystal whirled around to glare at the mare, but the pain in the eyes staring back at her quelled the fire, and she dropped her gaze to the floor. "But—"
"No." Winterspear shook her head. "Just... give him some space."
Crystal's hind legs gave out and she tried to sit rather than collapse. Her vision went blurry as tears stung at her eyes then fell one by one. This wasn't the plan. The whole reason she was supposed to have been there was to be there for him, and now she was supposed to leave him alone? Her shoulders started to tremble, and that was when she snapped her head up. She wiped the tears from her cheeks, took a deep breath, and dug deep.
It wouldn't change anything to cry. This was the life of the wife of a soldier, and if she truly intended to be one, then she had to buck up or pack up.
The sentiment repeated a few times in her mind until the pain dulled and her eyes, though still sore, dried. In some ways, it brought her a small measure of peace. If she were weak, he would be strong to support her, so she would do the same.
Silent's door opened and she rose to her hooves, turning to look at him along with the others. His gaze darted between them all before it landed on his mother and he walked over to her.
Wallflower's expression softened when he hugged her and she wrapped her forelegs around him as she whispered, "I'm sorry, Son."
Silent nodded. "I know. Me, too, Mom." He pulled back and looked between his mother and his sister. "What still needs to be done?"
"Not much, honestly," Wallflower said. "Stratus wanted a headstone in one of the Royal Guard cemeteries. He also wanted to follow tradition and be cremated and scattered to the winds."
Silent nodded again. "All right. I can get with veterans affairs for the headstone."
Quietly, Crystal moved over to the couch and sat down, smiling lightly when Dot hopped up to join her. She reached out and patted Dot on the head, whispering, "You've been a good filly."
Dot simply nodded.
Winterspear broke the silence that followed when she asked, "What about you, Mom? This changes everything. Why don't you move here with us so we can all be together? Well—" She winced. "Almost all of us."
Silent nodded and agreed, "I think you should, Mom."
"Thank you both, but no." She shook her head. "As a mother, I'm happy to know you two have made a home here. You both have lovely"—she trailed just long enough for her gaze to noticeably linger on Iridescence—"partners, and that's enough for me. I've lived in Cloudsdale my whole life. That is where my home and my friends are." She waved a dismissive hoof. "At any rate, I don't believe I would enjoy Canterlot society." The hoof lowered and her lips raised into a soft smile. "You'll just have to come visit more often."
Crystal felt her heart sink when Silent's composure fell just long enough for his eyes to water over, but he quickly wiped a forehoof across them. "Of course."
Just as she lapsed into wanting to cry for him, he looked over at her. She stiffened to attention and tried to cover it up by hardening her expression, but he had already seen the sympathy in her eyes.
"Have you eaten yet?" Iridescence asked into the awkward silence. "Or did you just get back?"
Silent shook his head and started toward Crystal. "Not yet." He sat down between her and Dot, one wing stretching out to wrap around her while he reached down to ruffle Dot's mane. "I could eat, though."
Dot chimed in to agree, "Me, too."
Crystal hesitated, then leaned in and embraced him, her forelegs gently encircling his middle. With her ear now to his chest, she could hear his heartbeat. It was pounding hard and strong, a little elevated but not racing. That brought her some measure of peace and she relaxed against him.
"I'll make a little something, then." Iridescence started into the kitchen, Winterspear lagging behind her to take one more look at Silent before she dove into the task of cooking.
Wallflower settled onto the chair and looked at Silent Knight, then at Crystal. "It seems that every time we have met, it has been under unfortunate circumstances. I hope that won't dissuade you from sticking by my son."
"Absolutely not, ma'am." Crystal shook her head and straightened up some, her cheeks heating up when she realized how close she was snuggled to Silent. He kept his wing and one foreleg wrapped around her, however, so she couldn't put too much distance between them. "If anything were to come between us, I can assure you it won't be because of something like this."
Wallflower nodded. "You certainly are strong-willed. Iridescence as well. It is somewhat curious that both of my foals have similar taste in mares."
Dot snorted before she burst into a fit laughter. "You've got no idea, Mrs. Wallflower!"
A small gasp came from the kitchen and Iridescence shot a withering glare at her little sister while Silent just pulled Dot close, one hoof casually landing over the filly's mouth.
Wallflower regarded the scene with one brow raised but said nothing. Iridescence cleared her throat and asked, "So, Silent Knight, any interesting stories from your recent mission you can tell us?"
Silent bobbed his head. "Several, actually. It was a complete and total success. Just wait until you see Princess Luna. She's grown."
Crystal blinked a few times, tilting her head to look up at him. "Did you say she's grown?"
"I did, yes." He smiled. "She learned a lot of night alicorn magic where we went and, evidently, that makes her grow bigger."
Dot rose to her hooves and propped herself up against Silent's shoulder so that she could peer at him with her nose scrunched up. "You're lying. When I learn spells, I don't grow!"
Iridescence, in the middle of setting the table, stopped to snort and shake her head. "Based on your grades, I'm not convinced you're learning spells or anything else, for that matter."
Dot smiled brightly and chirped, "C is for complete!"
Winterspear held up a plate to hide her mouth, which was battling against a grin. "I'm not sure that's how it works, sweetie."
Wallflower clicked her tongue. "Grades are very important, Dot," she said in an unforgivingly neutral tone. "Especially if you plan to make something of yourself in life. Hard work is rewarded. Just take a look at your sister: she's a sergeant in the House Guard. That is a very important position and she didn't get there by scraping by."
Dot's enthusiasm deflated and she dropped down to sit on her haunches, her ears folding back. "I understand, Mrs. Wallflower. I'm doing better, honest."
Just as the smell of steamed vegetables filled the air, Iridescence called, "Dinner is ready, everypony."
Silent stood and walked over to the small dining table. His brow furrowed as he stared at it and the lack of appropriate seating. Wallflower walked into the kitchen, patting Iridescence on the shoulder. "Have a seat. I'll take care of the serving."
"Yes, ma'am." Iridescence moved to sit in the nearest chair.
Wallflower cleared her throat. "Not that one."
Iridescence paused, blinked at the mare, then scooted to sit in a different one. Crystal tilted her head and glanced between the chairs while Silent set about dragging the living room chair over to the dining table.
"Crystal, you can sit here, if you'd like," he said once the chair was in place.
Crystal nodded and stepped over the side to nestle onto the seat. "Thank you."
Winterspear emptied out one trash can into another, then flipped it upside-down and placed a pillow on it. "Sorry, Dot," she said as she set it next to Iridescence's seat. "This will have to do."
Dot jumped up and settled in. "That's all right! It's me-sized."
Once all the plates were served at each setting, Wallflower sat at one end of the table, gesturing to the other. "Sit down, Silent Knight."
When Silent looked at the seat and shook his head, Crystal smiled, watching him. "No, ma'am," he said as he sat instead beside her.
Winterspear hesitated, then smiled at Silent. She sat at what Crystal suddenly recognized as the head of the table and held her head high before starting on her meal.
They ate in quiet, but it was comfortably so. With the loss of Stratus, a new family hierarchy rose to take his place and judging by the way Winterspear smiled, in that regard things were for the better.
Finding ways to support a partner was easier said than done when that partner was a Royal Guard officer who threw himself into seemingly nigh endless piles of work. Crystal tapped her hooves together as she sat across the desk in his office, the lunch she had packed spread between them.
Nothing she ever said seemed to come out right. Navigating a conversation with him when he didn't want to talk about anything beyond the weather was more difficult than she had imagined. However, she was determined that she would not let him walk this road alone, even if she had no idea how to walk beside him.
"How are you feeling?" she asked and immediately cringed with regret.
Silent glanced up from his sandwich and replied, "Fine."
"That's good." Her gaze wanted to dart away, but she kept it focused firmly on him. "You're not overextending yourself with all this work?"
"Nope." He took a bite and chewed slowly.
She tried not to sigh, though it would have been more at herself than at him. She always knew how to comfort a friend, so why was this so hard? Her ears perked up at a thought and she smiled. If talking about him was no good, then she would try something different. "Horsey's wedding is just around the corner, and Raven's is not long after. Soon I won't be spending so much time running around for them and can spend a little more time with you."
"That's good," he said with an absent bob of his head before he paused, blinked, and looked up at her. "Wait. I thought Horsey was already married?"
"She is." A giggle escaped her. Slowly, one of his brows started to arch, and she explained, "She's having a wedding in Ponyville so the ponies don't feel like they were left out."
Silent nodded and pushed the plate in front of him aside to fold his hooves and put them in its place. Crystal blinked as his posture shifted to remind her more of the school's principal than her stallionfriend. "I'm sorry," he said with a slight frown, "but I probably won't be able to take time off. Things around here are—"
Crystal sputtered into giggles and waved her hooves. "It's fine! More than fine. It's quite all right. With you having been gone so long, I know how work is piling up." She gestured at the stack of folders sitting off to one side of his desk.
"Oh." He visibly relaxed and nodded. "Well, that was easier than I thought. You're not upset?"
"What kind of pony do you think you're dealing with?" She giggled and reached across the desk to lightly tap him on the nose. "I knew what this was. The job always comes first. And all of that aside, I don't think you've spent enough time with Horsey to warrant sitting through her wedding." She winked as she straightened up.
He smiled. It was so nice to see him smile that her heart nearly jumped into her throat with excitement. "You have a pretty good point, I guess."
"Of course I do." She huffed playfully and rose to her hooves. "I'll let you get back to work. Velvet didn't go grocery shopping yesterday, so I need to get that taken care of."
"Oh. All right." He stood with her, walked around his desk, and placed a kiss on her cheek. "Thank you for lunch."
She lifted his helmet to return the kiss. "It's my pleasure." As she lowered his helmet, she added, "Don't work too hard, Lieutenant Handsome."
He chuckled and raised his hoof in mock salute. "Yes, ma'am."
Velvet stared at Crystal with an incredulous look that seemed to be her go-to expression as of late. "Are you serious?"
Crystal shifted on her pillow and raised the teacup to her lips, nodding.
"Oh my gosh, Crystal." She raised her hooves and shook them. "You're graduating! You're becoming a full-grown mare! And you aren't going to invite him?"
"That is correct." Crystal set the teacup down on the table. "Graduating from this farce with no more or less education than I had before is not worth dragging him out of work."
Velvet rolled her eyes. "Oh, right, work. Because he hasn't been doing enough of that the past week. He doesn't even drop by for dinner anymore to make me feel like an awkward third wheel." She sighed, shaking her head. "It's beginning to feel like you're single again with how much he's been working."
Crystal shot her a light glare. "Velvet, he's working so hard because he's trying to cope with his father's death. I think that warrants a little more respect."
"Respect, my plot." Velvet jumped to her hooves and paced in a circle. "Look, I understand! It sucks! But from what little you've told me, it sounds like his father wasn't exactly a great pony. You're only going to graduate once, Crystal, 'cause there's no way I can picture you going for a higher education." She dropped down to sit on her haunches. "Why the hay aren't you more excited about this? I mean, isn't this the catalyst?"
"The—" Crystal paused, blinked, then tilted her head. "—catalyst?"
A grin started to work its way onto Velvet's face. "What, you think Mom wasn't going to tell me?"
There was another pause before Crystal stood, turned away, and marched toward her room.
"Aw, come on!" Velvet sprung after her, grinning even wider. "Crystal, this is like, the most exciting thing ever! You're going to become a full-grown—"
Crystal slammed the door shut.
"—mare after you graduate and—"
Crystal's face turned hot and she shouted, "Don't finish that sentence!"
Velvet squealed right outside the door, pawing at it with one hoof. "When are you gonna do it? Mom said you sounded pretty determined!"
Crystal grabbed one of her pillows and hugged it to her face so that it muffled her scream.
After a cackling laugh, Velvet called, "Okay! Okay, I'll be serious about it, okay?" There was a soft, resigned sigh. "Look, the reason Mom told me wasn't to embarrass you, but she just wanted me to keep an eye on you. To make sure you stayed calm, because what she really said was you were getting worked up and freaked out. So, let's talk, all right? I promise I'll only hold half of the things you say against you later."
Even though Velvet couldn't see it, Crystal shook her head. "No way."
Another sigh. "Fine, a fourth, but that's my final offer."
Crystal remained where she was, strangling the life out of her pillow, before she finally undid the lock on her door and turned the handle. Velvet squealed and pushed it the rest of the way open to jump into the room.
"On one condition," Crystal quickly said before Velvet could speak. "I'll talk to you on one condition. Okay?"
Velvet's brow arched. "I'm not agreeing without hearing the condition first."
"You have to be honest and tell me the truth." Crystal jabbed a hoof lightly but meaningfully against Velvet's shoulder. "Are you acting so excited to cover up another panic attack about Silent Knight and me getting serious?"
"Oh." Velvet rolled her eyes and pushed the hoof away. "No, I'm excited because I know how big of a deal this is if you went to my mom for advice." A smile lifted the corners of her lips. "You're not the only one that's been talking to her, okay? I mean, for different reasons, obviously. She put some stuff into perspective for me. I'm honestly fine, and honestly happy for you. Honestly."
Crystal just continued to stare at her, and after a moment, Velvet groaned and raised a hoof.
"Fine! Fine." She drew the hoof across her chest. "Cross my heart and hope to die, or I'll live in a pig's sty." The grin returned in full force when Crystal finally smiled. "So, tell me everything."