Velvet sighed from across the small dining table. It wasn't wistful, sad, disappointed, or a daydreaming kind of sigh; it sounded much more like a release of irritation trying to be disguised as something else. Crystal had brushed it off the first two times, but three was her limit.
"Is everything all right?" Crystal asked, setting down her notebook.
Velvet looked at her with slightly narrowed eyes. "Of course. Why do you ask?"
Crystal gestured at her with a small, circular wave of one hoof. "You're giving off a pretty bad aura."
"Aura?" Velvet rolled her eyes. "Since when did you believe in auras?"
"Since you started having one." Crystal folded her hooves on the table and leaned in. "So, what's the matter?"
Velvet's ears flicked and her gaze darted away. The muscles of her face tightened as she made a clear attempt to keep a straight face. "Nothing, nothing at all. I love sitting here and running through pretend questions with you for some interview where you have no idea what they'll ask. This is totally not a waste of time."
Crystal blinked a few times. "You didn't seem to mind the last time we practiced for an interview."
"Who says I mind?" Velvet raised her hooves in exaggerated defense. "I certainly didn't say I mind!"
"Velvet!" Crystal snapped. "Would you cut it out and just talk to me already? What is this about? Is it about me going to the faire in Ponyville when Silent Knight gets home? I can cancel."
Velvet pushed herself up from the chair and stormed over to the kitchen, where she busied herself by cleaning a teacup from that morning's tea. "Oh my gosh, Crystal, not everything in my life revolves around you and your coltfriend."
The hairs on the back of Crystal's neck and around her shoulders started to bristle. "You know I despise how juvenile that term is, but, all right. So if this isn't about Silent Knight and me, then—"
"It has nothing to do with you at all!" Velvet jerked her head to the side to glare at Crystal. The tears now visible in her eyes that she knew Crystal saw settled the tension into an awkward pause before Velvet turned back away. "I've got my own life, you know? Independent of you."
"Okay." Crystal stood and walked over with gingerly placed hoofsteps, as if approaching a wild animal. "So what's going on in that life of yours?"
Velvet's shoulders trembled just slightly and she dropped the teacup into the sink to bury her face in her hooves. "I can't do it anymore. I—I'm going to quit ballet."
"What?!" Crystal shrieked, then cleared her throat and repeated, "What? Why? But Velvet—"
"There's no working with Perennial," Velvet muttered. "The bridge is too burned at this point and I'm miserable every day I'm around her. Which is every day. I love working at my parents' bakery, so, I'm just going to do that full time."
Crystal put a hoof on Velvet's shoulder. "I knew you two didn't get along, but, to quit? Velvet, you've loved ballet your whole life!"
Velvet shrugged the hoof away as she turned to face Crystal, her back resting against the counter to prop herself up while she wrapped her forelegs around her chest. "So? So what? Horsey is happy as can be and she doesn't follow her cutie mark as far as I can tell. Not all of us can be like you and just have everything work out."
At first, Crystal bristled again. Then she sputtered, rolled her eyes, and, finally, huffed. "I quite literally just went to Manehattan on this very topic of how things don't just work out for me!"
"Oh, boo hoo, you're not famous." Velvet glared at her. "Really? You're going to compare not being famous to being miserable and hating the pony I work with? You've got Sunset Coffee as your lovable agent who does like, everything he can. He bends over backward for you. Perennial wouldn't even lift a hoof to help me if I asked for it." She shook her head. "Whatever. It doesn't matter. I'm going to quit and that's final."
Though her heart was racing with irritated adrenaline, Crystal took a deep breath and held it as long as it took for her mind to latch onto something logical rather than emotional. "There's another ballet company in Canterlot."
"D'uh? And it's like, the most prestigious in Equestria."
Crystal's lips curled into a smile when the program from the Pomane opera-ballet flashed through her mind's eye. "And their audition exams are at the end of next month!"
"Audition exams for the most prestigious in Equestria," Velvet repeated with venomous emphasis.
Crystal jabbed a hoof against Velvet's chest. Her smile widened into a beam. "You should try out!"
Velvet glared down at the hoof. "What part of most prestigious do you not get?"
"What part of you can't succeed if you don't try do you not get?" Crystal's beaming smile grew even brighter. "Oh, Velvet, this is perfect timing! A month should surely be enough time to get yourself in peak condition!"
Velvet stared for a while in tense silence before, finally, her muscles visibly relaxed. "You really think I have a shot?"
Crystal huffed in playful offense. "Darling, would I lie to you?"
"I don't know." Velvet started to smile. "Would you?"
Crystal put a hoof on her shoulder, giving it a small squeeze. "Not unless I had to, and in this case, I truly think you should try. It's not often that I get the chance to push you to better yourself, so let me have this one, all right?"
A small bark of laughter escaped Velvet and she shook her head. "Okay, all right, fine. I'll try out for the Royal Ballet of Equestria. But don't get your hopes up, okay?"
"Okay." Crystal grabbed the other shoulder and pulled Velvet in for a tight hug. "And in the future, talk to me before you get this worked up, please? I really wanted to just slap you for a moment there and that wouldn't have done any good."
Velvet laughed again. "I'll try."
"Great!" Crystal pulled back, grinning. "Now, about my interview... ?"
"Yeah, okay, sure." Velvet walked over to sit back down at the table. "So, Miss C.W., what was your inspiration for Her Silent Love?"
There was some comfort in knowing that whenever she visited the Phial and Filly, she never knew what to expect. It was chaos she could rely on, and when she dropped by that particular evening, there was the scent of sulphur in the air. While the other guests seemed blissfully unaware, Crystal's shenanigans senses tingled.
Tentatively glancing around, Crystal approached the counter to find Rossby standing behind it. "What is Runic—"
"How could you think I'd like that story?!" Rossby shouted, then winced and glanced around.
Crystal blinked. "I'm sorry. What?"
"The Great Gaitsby," Rossby muttered, glaring at her. "That was a terrible story. They all died!"
Crystal blinked again. She was uncertain of what other reaction to have, really. "Oh. I'm sorry?"
Rossby crossed his forelegs over his chest. "You should be. I thought since you recognized the story it was going to be happy. It wasn't happy at all. What's wrong with you?"
"With me?" She huffed and sputtered, "Well, I, after all, I don't believe I said it would be happy at all! You made that assumption on your own!"
He sat quietly for a moment, then said, "I'm not going to read that other book you recommended."
"All right." She eyed him with her brow furrowed and lips pursed. "Would you like me to recommend one with a happy ending, then?"
Another long pause, then a silent nod.
Crystal clicked her tongue while she mulled over the options that immediately flooded her mind. Perhaps—"The Last Seapony by S. B. Stone?"
"Does it end happily?" he asked, more like a snarl than anything else.
She raised one hoof into the air and the other on her chest. "Filly scout's honor."
"What?" His eyes narrowed. "Were you even a filly scout?"
"No, but I can still swear on their honor." She offered a playful smile.
"I don't think it works like that, but—" He hesitated, then nodded. "Okay. I'll pick up a copy. But if this one is anything like the other, I'm never trusting you again."
Crystal's smile softened and she looked over toward the back room, her smile falling at the sight of black tendrils of smoke reaching out from under the door. "All right, that's fair. Now, back to the original matter at hoof. What is Runic doing today?"
Rossby shrugged. "Who knows? I don't get paid enough to keep tabs on him."
"I see." She took a few steps toward the door and paused. "You know what, nevermind." Her hooves retracted their steps while she shook her head. "I was lucky the last time with the corn. I'm not sure if I want to push my luck. Do you think you could be nice and tell him I dropped by?"
Her magic flared and lifted a few bits out of her saddlebags that she dropped on the counter. "Please?"
Rossby eyed the bits, then scooped them up and nodded. "I'll be sure to tell him you were here. Bye-bye now."
Crystal opened her mouth to respond but instead closed it, smiled, and waved. Sometimes, it was easier to just let the pegasus be fire and ice than try to argue with him. She had other things to occupy her evening, anyway; the summer faire in Ponyville was just one day away and she needed to go shopping for the picnic.
As she trotted down the cobblestone streets toward the grocery store nearest to the condo, she sighed softly. It would be nice to spend some calm, quiet time with him after he had been gone for three weeks. Ponyville was known for its intermittent episodes of unfortunate events, however, so she couldn't help but feel some amount of trepidation having a pseudo-date there.
On the other hoof, Princess Luna and a whole slew of house guards would be present, so at least she would be safe during whatever chaos Ponyville decided to host that day.
"Good evening," the grocer greeted when she walked in through the door.
Crystal bobbed her head and smiled. "Good evening, Mr. Del."
Delectable Viands returned the smile twofold. "What are you after today? I've got a great sale on pecans right now!"
"Pecans?" She paused to tap her chin in thought. "I could make a nice harvest cobb salad... It's a little early, but that does sound delicious right now."
Del clapped his hooves. "Great! I'll throw in a half pound for free if you buy a pound, too."
Crystal's brow raised as she walked toward the old stallion. "That's quite a sale. What's wrong?"
"Who said anything is wrong?" He offered her a wry grin. "Just trying to take care of a surplus of pecans." When she just stared at him with skepticism clear on her face, Del sighed and waved a hoof at her. "Oh, cut it out, cut it out already. There was a mix-up with my order and instead of cherries, I got pecans. Lots of pecans. I gotta move them off my shelves, all right?"
Crystal gave a light toss of her mane. "Well, I would be willing to purchase two pounds with an extra pound tossed in if you'll also consider lowering the price on your pumpkin."
"Lowering the price of my pumpkin? When autumn is right around the corner?" He scoffed. "Those are about to be my meal tickets in a few months! Besides, you know I have a strict policy against haggling."
"Three pounds of pecans would ease your abundance issue, I presume?" Crystal firmly held his gaze. "Don't think of it as haggling. Think of it as a solution to your problem."
He stood his ground, unblinking as they stared at one another before he sighed. "Three pounds of pecans and a slight reduction of price on a pumpkin. But just one."
Crystal clapped a hoof against the ground. "Great!" The hoof lifted to gesture at one of the larger pumpkins sitting on a nearby shelf. "I'll have that one, please."
Del sighed and shook his head, but chuckled softly under his breath. "Don't get any ideas in your head that I'm going to start haggling with you from now on. This is a special occasion."
"Oh, of course, sir." She turned her head to look at the other produce, levitating over the ingredients for the cobb salad. "I'll take these, as well, please."
Crystal lounged on the couch with one foreleg and her head draping off the side while she stared across the empty living room. Velvet was busier than normal lately and though she didn't want to complain, Crystal felt a little lonely. They usually at least had evenings together, but with her training for the Royal Ballet of Equestria, that time had disappeared.
The cobb salad was prepared, packed away with the other little snacks in a small picnic basket that rested in the fridge for the next day's faire. She was in no mood to write but—groaning, she righted herself—one of her personal goals was to push through the blocks. After all, did Orchid Bouquet give up just because she wasn't in the mood?
Well, to be honest, she had no idea what the answer actually was, but Bouquet didn't seem like the kind of mare who ever slowed down for anything or anypony. So, Crystal was content to believe the answer was that Orchid Bouquet would overcome whatever slump in which she found herself.
Magic brought over the notebook that contained stray scenes and ideas regarding Autumn Leaves and set it on the coffee table in front of her. "Let's see," she murmured, "what can I work on? What do you want to do, my muse?"
After a few false starts, her quill finally started to move across the page. A picnic. Charlie would prepare a quaint little picnic for Bellerose to surprise her for their first anniversary. Of course, Charlie was certainly no cook, so there would be a great deal of emphasis on quaint. Crystal giggled to herself, then jumped at the sound of a stallion yelling outside the condo.
The yell was immediately followed by the sound of an impact and something solid shattering. Crystal's heart raced. The voice sounded like Silent Knight's, which overrode her sense of self-preservation with worry and concern. She hurried off the couch and over to the door to see the familiar form of Silent out in the hall, facing away from her. His hoof was lodged into a decorative column, plaster scattered in the floor in front of him.
Her heart pounded faster while she gasped. "Silent Knight? Is everything all right?"
His head turned to reveal a dark expression on his face. There was something foreign about the look in his eyes, something she didn't recognize. However, just as it started to scare her, it dissipated, replaced by a look of regret.
"I—" The sound of more bits of plaster falling interrupted him and his ears flicked back. He shook his head. "I'm sorry. I got angry and, well, it's stupid. I'm sorry. I'll pay for the damage."
What could make him so angry that, for a moment, it took away the stallion she recognized? A hoof reached out and she mentally scolded herself when she felt it trembling. He noticed—she was sure of it. "Okay." Even her voice shook. "It's all right, Silent. Why don't you come inside so we can talk about what's wrong?"
His pupils constricted for a brief moment and he gave her the look of a cornered animal. When he took her hoof, however, his head dropped and his bangs moved into his face to obscure his expression. "Sure."
Crystal swallowed, though her throat was dry, and led him inside. "Do you want some tea?"
"Sure," he repeated.
Good enough. She needed to calm down before she could properly take care of him. "I'll put the kettle on, then," she said as her unstable hooves took her to the kitchen. Focus on the tea, then focus on the stallion. Of course, there was an awkward silence as she waited for the water to boil. "Welcome home, by the way," she offered.
Silent glanced up from his spot on one of the pillows. "Oh, yeah. Thanks."
"How is Luna?" She turned to look at him. His expression had returned to normal, but somehow that only worried her even further. No pony could go from that angry to normal again so quickly. Was he suppressing his feelings?
His wings twitched slightly and he bobbed his head in a light nod. "I don't think she was ready to come home, but it was necessary." There was a brief pause and before she could ask another question, he asked instead, "Did you know that Willowy was seeing somepony?"
"Willowy?" She blinked. "Willowy Tempest? Seeing somepony? No, I had no idea. Is she really?" Her lips curled into a light frown and she shook her head. "Oh, nevermind that." With a bit of hesitation, she walked toward him and stopped just a pace away. "Silent, what's wrong? What's going on?"
"Nothing." His gaze darted away from hers and he sighed. "I'm sorry, it's not nothing, that's a lie. But I can't talk about it. Not with you."
With a derisive snort, she retorted, "It's confidential, is it? That's what you're going with?"
"To be fair, most of what I do is that way." He shrugged. "Security reasons and all."
"Of course, because I'm certain my name is high on the list of security concerns." She dropped down onto the other pillow after a dramatic roll of her eyes. "Silent Knight, your burdens are my burdens." Her expression softened as she reached out to put her hoof on his. "I could accept feeling the weight of your stress if you told me why you and I are feeling this way."
He stared at her for a long while. Too long. She could see the gears spinning in his head as his brow remained a perfectly straight line. The agitated butterflies started to stir in her stomach. Had she said the wrong thing?
Finally, he shifted his hoof to squeeze hers. "No, my burdens are my burdens. But I appreciate the sentiment."
"It's not a sentiment," she corrected in a soft voice. "It's the truth. I'm here for you, Silent, so talk to me."
Another pause, though shorter than the first, followed by a smile she knew all too well was feigned. "Your water is boiling."
"What?" Her ear flicked, the sound of the hissing kettle catching her previously focused attention. "Oh, all right. I'll accept your diversion just long enough for me to finish the tea." She sighed as she rose to her hooves and turned away.
"I wouldn't mind some dinner, too," he said in a voice that was half teasing and half serious.
Crystal stopped to look over her shoulder and stare at him, her nose scrunched up. "Fine." With a flick of her tail, she walked into the kitchen. "Your diversion is a success tonight. Now, tell me about Willowy's special somepony, if you don't mind. This is news to me."
"There's not much to tell." There was a slight rustling of papers and she looked over to see him picking up her notebook. "What are you working on?"
"Oh, you know. Anything and everything to pay the bills." She laughed softly while her magic poured the tea and set a skillet on the stove, then added a little olive oil. "A little zucchini stir fry sound good?"
He set the notebook down after glancing over a few pages and looked at her with a smile. "Always does."
Though she returned the smile, her heart sunk even further at the unsettling feeling of forced normalcy. Was this yet another thing she would learn to swallow with pride? His mother needed to write a guidebook on the life of the wife of a soldier. Angry stallions refusing to give reasons why they were angry was not something for which she had prepared herself.