Though the sounds of the city could still be heard—hollering of businessponies, rattling of taxi cart wheels, and general hullabaloo of Manehattan—there was a sense of peace and tranquility in the evening air. The smell of rich soil, ripening vegetables, and fresh herbs was all around Crystal as she sat in the little community garden.
Violet and Blue Belle played off to one side in an empty plot. Their pent-up energy was put to good use as their little hooves made steady work of the soil, turning it over when they would wrestle and stomping it flat when they would run. Petal supervised from her spot, perched on top of a juicy tomato.
Orchid Bouquet paused her work to wipe the sweat from her brow and looked over at Crystal with a smile. "I'm sorry. You were asking me something before this patch of weeds called my name?"
Crystal blinked, turning her attention away from the fillies. She had almost forgotten herself from watching their vivid imagination at play. Blue Belle was, currently, a three-headed lizard and Violet was a mouse with four wings. The roles seemed irrelevant as regardless of what they claimed to be, they just ran around until one tackled the other.
"Oh." Crystal blinked again, then smiled. "Oh, yes. I was just curious how this little garden came to be."
"I know!" Blue Belle squealed and bounded over. "Mommy beat up the city!"
Crystal's eyes went wide, but Bouquet laughed and said, "That's one way to look at it, I suppose." She shifted on her haunches to balance herself while she leaned over a raised plot of dirt, one hoof propped against the wooden planter. "I don't care for grocery stores, and the farmer's markets are too few and far between to feed my family fresh food."
Blue Belle sidled up to her mother, giggling. "F! F! F! What begins with F!" she singsonged.
"Yes, sweetie, Mommy used a lot of words starting with F. Now go play with your sister before she steals the green sapphire."
"Huh?" Blue Belle looked over at Violet. "No, she's tryinna steal the Great Cheese, not the green sapphire. The green sapphire was yesterday."
Bouquet patted her daughter on the head. "Well, then, go protect the Great Cheese."
"Okay!" Blue Belle chimed, bounding back off toward their empty plot.
Bouquet watched the two of them for a moment before she smiled and shook her head. "When Cocoa was born, I made the decision that it was time to do something about it."
Crystal shifted to sit more comfortably on the makeshift seat of a paver stone and nodded.
"This land used to be a clothing store that went out of business. The moment it did, I went to one of the town hall meetings to argue that it should become a community garden." Bouquet ran her hoof along one of the leaves of a nearby flowering bush. "I was laughed at, at first. So, while it was still unoccupied, I set up a little garden right outside. It was very small, just a couple of planter boxes, but I went around to the ponies in the nearby apartments and offered to sell them a box."
Bouquet wiped her brow again and continued, "Most ponies weren't interested because they didn't have the time to garden, they said. They argued the grocery store was easier. Of course, that was short-sighted thinking on their part! But I didn't get mad. I changed my offer." She chuckled. "I'd maintain their planter for them and grow whatever they liked, and they only had to pay for the produce they wanted. That idea stuck."
A buzzing sound caught Crystal's ear and she glanced away to watch Petal flinging herself from plant to plant, chasing after a butterfly, using her wings—which Crystal didn't really realize the mantis even had—to move along faster.
"You can attest to it." Bouquet's gaze shifted to her and Crystal quickly snapped her own forward to make eye contact. "Tea made from fresh herbs has a much stronger, more vibrant flavor. Apply that to all of your food and you realize the beauty in fresh produce."
Crystal bobbed her head. "Oh, yes. Your chamomile tea was one of the finest I've ever had!"
Bouquet clapped her hooves to dust them off and smiled. "When somepony wanted to buy the store, I closed up shop. It didn't take long for the ponies to make a pretty loud case for the community garden." She gestured at their surroundings with both hooves. "I won! And now I can provide for my family, both in finances and in food."
Crystal giggled softly. "That's amazing, you've accomplished so much!" She looked around at the lush vegetation, organized into a grid of separated, raised plots. "It's something to really, truly be proud of."
"Oh, and I am." Bouquet chuckled. She stood up and walked over to where her fillies were currently, as one had exclaimed, digging to the center of the world. They had accomplished a few inches before Bouquet scooped them up. "Now, now, girls, we talked about this. No digging unless it's for planting."
"Aww..." Blue Belle squirmed in her mother's grasp. "You're no fun, Mom!"
"No fun!" Violet squeaked, mirroring the squirming.
Bouquet walked back to Crystal, both fillies held to her chest with one foreleg. "Sounds like someponies are ready for bed. Crystal, do you mind watching Petal for me while I take Belle and Vi up to their rooms?"
Crystal nodded. "Certainly!" As soon as she said the word, she looked around. "As soon as I find her."
Bouquet laughed and started toward the gate that led out of the garden. "That's half of the fun! I'll be back shortly."
Crystal furrowed her brow. "Petal?" She stood up and walked slowly down one of the rows. "Petal, I—" Something crunched under one of her hooves and she squealed in surprise, jumped back, and looked down.
A beetle. She had stepped on a beetle. She shuddered as the sound replayed in her mind and her hoof felt the sensation all over again. Perhaps gardening was, in fact, not for her.
Petal buzzed into view, leaping from somewhere behind her to land on the path. Her forelegs shot out and she grabbed the beetle, held it close, and enjoyed the snack.
Crystal scrunched up her nose. "Oh, Petal, that's absolutely gross." She sat down on the nearest planter's edge. "But at least I know where you are, so don't wander off."
The mantis's head rotated to look at Crystal with unblinking eyes, then she took another bite.
"Can you, oh, nevermind. I'll just look away." Crystal cleared her throat, shifting her gaze to the nearest plant. "Well, Petal, your owner—"
Petal's wings buzzed with indignation. Or by coincidence. Crystal was still uncertain of how much attention the mantis really paid to her.
"I suppose you're right. She did say you were a member of the family. Your mother, then?" No buzzing interrupted her, so she nodded and continued, "Yes, your mother. Your mother is a very impressive mare."
Petal finished her meal and meandered in Crystal's general direction.
"I'm not sure if I have anything close to her strength of will." She sighed and tilted her head back to look at the sky. "Sunset Coffee had a good point last night, though it may not have been his intent to make it. It won't do much good to remove the anonymity if C.W. Step isn't really worth becoming... but I don't know if I want to spend all of my time away from home. Now, I'm frankly not sure what I want to do."
Petal climbed onto the planter edge and nestled into a knot in the wood beside her. The mantis ran its forelegs across its face and pulled its antennae down, seeming to be cleaning herself.
Crystal watched her a moment, then sighed. "I would gladly trade my life for yours. You don't seem to have much stress at all."
"Actually," Bouquet's voice came from behind her, "Petal is fairly high anxiety."
Crystal's ears shot straight up and she turned her head to look at the mare with wide eyes. "Oh! I'm sorry!"
Bouquet chuckled. "It's all right. Petal is a wonderful listener, so it's no surprise that you'd find yourself talking to her." She sat down beside Crystal with Petal in between them. "Now, why don't you try talking to something that can actually talk back?"
Crystal swallowed, shaking her head. "It's quite all right. I was just occupying my time."
"Hmm." Bouquet raised one brow. "But didn't I just hear you saying you wanted to become a mantis to avoid stress?"
"Well, yes." Crystal twiddled her hooves. "That is true."
Bouquet waited patiently before she pressed, "The fillies are tucked into bed, Cocoa doesn't want my company anyway, and Sunset's busy with one of his little hobbies. You're not keeping me from anything."
Crystal flashed a playful smile at the mare. "But we only just met! That seems awful fast to suddenly unload my problems on you."
"Hon, I have three fillies," Bouquet said, putting a hoof on Crystal's shoulder. "Cocoa complains about me, Blue Belle complains about Violet, and Violet complains about Blue Belle. I would love to hear complaints of substance that I can actually do something about."
Crystal eyed her, then nodded. "Well, all right." She folded her hooves in her lap and sighed. "The reason I came to visit was chiefly to talk to Sunset about my career." Her ears drooped. "Or, perhaps, lack of one."
"Lack of one?" Bouquet blinked. "You've published two novels and are working on a third, from what Sunset's told me. Not to mention your serials in his Mares Monthly."
Crystal shrugged. Her ear twitched and she looked down to spy Petal assuming her floral disguise, splaying her legs and wings to resemble an orchid bloom. "I suppose. But I'm certainly not a famous author. I think I forgot that when I thought attaching my name to C.W. Step's would get me anywhere."
Bouquet let out a heavy sigh and raised her hoof to put it instead on Crystal's head. "That's how the world works. You get out what you put in." She turned her head to survey the garden. "Do you think it was easy maintaining the planters it took to sway the ponies of this neighborhood to my side of things? Sunset practically raised Cocoa on his own because I was here, outside the store, tending to tens of planters."
Crystal winced, but kept quiet. Bouquet didn't give her much of an opening to speak, anyway.
"Those planters grew into a whole community garden. Granted, in a city this size it's not very big, and ponies on the other side of town certainly don't know my name. But I didn't do this for fame. I did it because I believed in it, because I'm passionate about it, and because it's what's important to me." Her piercing yellow gaze shifted to look at Crystal. "Are you after fame, or passion?"
Crystal tried to hold the mare's gaze but flinched away and sighed. "I—I don't know."
A gentle smile lit up Bouquet's otherwise serious expression. "Then you have your answer."
"But," Crystal said, raising her head back up and making eye contact again. "I don't want to become complacent. My friend and my fiancé work hard for what they have, and I cannot in full confidence say that I work hard. I work, but I dilly dally sometimes." She shook her head. "I'm not content with that anymore."
Bouquet hummed in thought. Her hoof slid down from Crystal's head to pause at her shoulder, gave it a squeeze, then moved to rest in her own lap. "Then work hard. You're a smart, young mare." She chuckled. "Not too much younger than Sunset and me, actually, if I remember correctly. You've got plenty of time to figure out what you really want. But in the meantime, nothing bad can come of just working hard and worrying about who C.W. Step is later."
Crystal looked back up at the sky, smiling softly. "Then I'll work hard."
"I'm sure Sunset will be happy to hear that." She rose to her hooves and offered one to Crystal. "Come on, then. Let's wind down the evening with some tea."
"Nooo!" Blue Belle clung to one of Crystal's legs. "No, Cryssi can't go home!"
"No, Cryssi!" Violet cried, her forelegs wrapped tightly around Crystal's tail.
They all stood in what would have been a foyer in a larger home, Crystal with her back to the door, the large overnight bag at her side, and Sunset's family standing in a semi-circle around her. It had only been a few days, but the fillies' crocodile tears already tugged at her heartstrings.
Orchid Bouquet surveyed the impending tantrum with mild amusement tugging at the corners of her lips. "Girls, it's not too late for me to rescind the acceptance of Cryssi's gifts."
Blue Belle gasped and flung all of her legs in different directions to let go of Crystal as quickly as possible. "Cryssi can go home!"
Violet ran over to stand beside her sister. "Bye, Cryssi!"
Cocoa glanced between her family members, a light scowl showing on her face, until she met Crystal's gaze and her expression relaxed. "Hey, um, if I want more of that lotion, can you send me some?"
Bouquet frowned and warned, "Cocoa..."
Cocoa's ears pinned back. "What? So one gift is okay but two isn't?"
"The first taste is always free." Sunset chuckled from his spot at Bouquet's side, grunting when the mare jabbed him in the ribs. "I mean, Cocoa, you can do chores to earn bits that we can send to Crystal for more beauty products."
"Fine," Cocoa grumbled, staring at the floor.
Crystal's gaze wandered across their faces and warmth spread throughout her chest. "I'll be sure to come visit again," she promised in a soft voice. "Sunset, you have a wonderful family, and I'm terribly sorry I haven't taken any of your invitations before now."
Sunset waved a hoof. "Think nothing of it at all! Just have a safe trip back to Canterlot, and write to me when you've made a decision, all right?"
"I will." She leaned down and placed a kiss on Blue Bell's forehead, followed by Violet. "You two be sweethearts for your parents, all right?"
"Okay, Cryssi." Blue Belle drew a hoof across her hoof. "Flower power promise!"
"Flower power!" Violet chimed, mimicking the motion.
Crystal turned her attention to Cocoa. "It was nice to meet you, Cocoa."
"Yeah." Cocoa shuffled her hooves. "You, too, Miss Crystal."
Sunset took a step forward. "All right, we should get you to the train station before you end up being stuck here until the next one." He glanced over his shoulder. "Girls, behave for your mother while I'm gone."
Crystal breathed in, held it, and released a sigh but smiled nonetheless. "Goodbye!"
Her magic levitated the bag and she followed Sunset out of the apartment while a chorus of the two fillies reciprocated the word and Bouquet waved. Petal sat on the waving hoof, moving her own foreleg in a similar gesture.
Once they were a few paces down the hall, Sunset cleared his throat and said, "So, Bouqy didn't spook you too much, I hope?"
Crystal blinked. "What do you mean?"
"Ah, she's, well, a strong proponent for mare power and whatnot." He eyed her cautiously. "I know you and her had a talk about what you originally came here for the other night. She came into bed and said—" He cleared his throat and mimicked, "Hello, honey, I took care of the problem that you left hanging. You're welcome." He shook his head, chuckling. "Sorry if I gave you too many second thoughts, but I can only imagine and fear what she might have said to you. She can come on a little too strong sometimes."
"Oh." Crystal laughed and shook her head. "Oh, no. Actually, she gave me some much needed perspective on everything, no offense intended, of course." She stepped inside the elevator and watched him effortlessly pull the lever down. "I don't think I'm ready to be C.W. Step yet because she's not yet somepony I would be proud to say I am."
Sunset blinked. "Er, well, I—"
"So," Crystal continued, giggling, "I think what I need to do in the meantime is figure out what I'm willing to do in order to make C.W. Step the pony I want to be. I'm not sure if I'm ready just yet to go to all sorts of conventions every year and do constant book signings. I have a wedding to plan, after all."
The elevator dinged to announce their arrival and the doors slid open to reveal the lobby. Sunset bobbed his head as they walked out and toward the doors. "Understandable. Well, interviews are fairly non-invasive. When you release Her Silent Love, I'll see who I can book to do a few of those. I'll also see if there are any other avenues in Mares Monthly we can take advantage of." He put a hoof on her shoulder. "As long as that's what you want to do."
Crystal puffed out her chest and gave a firm nod. "That seems like as good a start as any to me. And fairly noninvasive."
"Great!" He held the door open for her. "Be sure to take a look at the notes I left on the drafts. I think you've got a real winner with that Autumn Leaves one about the ponies growing old together." He let out a wistful sigh. "It even got Bouqy feeling whimsical when I read some of it to her!"
Crystal's face grew hot and she jerked her head to the side. "O-oh, well, that one is admittedly a little different from my normal work, but—"
"Different is good! Sometimes. Not all the time. Okay, often times, publishers are very wary of different." He winked. "But you have good enough of a track record, so I'm sure I can pitch it to Kahuna no problem."
A smile crept onto Crystal's lips. She stopped in her tracks, and when Sunset paused as well to turn toward her, she wrapped a foreleg around his neck in a hug. "Thank you, Sunset. I really do appreciate everything you've done for me."
Sunset chuckled and returned the embrace with both of his forelegs, giving her a tight squeeze. "Hey! You picked me to be your agent, and I believe in only the best for my clients! Now, there's time to be sentimental later. I actually do think we're going to be late for the train at this rate."
Crystal giggled when he started to trot and she hurried after him. "All right, all right. If you're that desperate to be rid of me then let's not dawdle."
"Hey, don't put words in my mouth! That's my wife's job." He grinned at her and they shared a laugh.
She would definitely have to stay with his family the next time she came to Manehattan for a meeting. In the near future, however, she just wanted to get home and climb into her own bed.