Crystal's Wishes

by Crystal Wishes

First published

Crystal Wishes thought she was content just writing about ponies falling in love. While her career takes off, her love life is somewhat... lacking. Can she be happy living vicariously through her stories or will she find her own happily ever after?

A head full of romance is what many Canterlot ponies would call a frivolous waste of time. Everypony was meant to play by the rules of high society: keep your nose in the air, laugh at important ponies' jokes, and attend all of the right parties. Upper Crust and Jet Set had been diligent in raising their daughter Crystal Wishes to be a pony everypony would know, but she wanted more out of life than that. She hoped she would someday meet a handsome prince and fall in love, just like in the stories she wrote.

Crystal knew life wasn't as easy as a foal's tale, but that didn't stop her from dreaming. All of the wishes, hopes, and dreams inside her heart escaped into her precious notebook as she wrote about princesses in power and dashing knights. So long as nopony found out her secret, she could continue to play the part of a dutiful daughter while waiting for her own love story to begin.

Sparks of the Beginning

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Everypony who was anypony lived or at least had a vacation home in Canterlot. There were some exceptions, of course, as the less fortunate, ungifted, or otherwise fashion-challenged found their way into the city, much to the chagrin of the snobbier inhabitants. And much to her chagrin, Crystal Wishes was the daughter of Upper Crust and Jet Set, two ponies who should have been listed in the dictionary as the prime example of snobs. She had already checked; they weren't.

Her parents were both notable ponies that everypony knew in the fashion industry and high-class society, which meant a lot of eyes on her wherever she went. The fillies and colts in her class at Canterlot Elementary all said the same, shallow things every day before school started:

"It's so cool that your parents are the trendiest ponies in all of Equestria!"

"I wonder what kind of cutie mark you'll get! Probably something in fashion!"

"Or something extravagant!"

If only they knew what her parents were really like. She sighed and looked up when the teacher entered the classroom. Although she wanted to focus on that day's lessons, sugar-coated praise melted into judgmental whispers behind her back in true Canterlot style. It was impossible to focus with their sharp-edged words piercing her concentration.

"It's a shame that such cool parents have to have such a lame daughter."

"Yeah, I mean, how can she still be a blank flank?"

"Her parents must be so embarrassed!"

Crystal groaned and sank down in her seat, though a sarcastic smile crawled onto her face. At least they had something right.

In between Ms. Austere Tutor's lessons, Crystal heard the barbed whispers jabbing into her back. Her classmates smiled to her face, but she knew it was only because of her parents. None of them were her friends; she didn't have any of those.

Eventually, she protected herself the only way she knew how. She gave up on trying to focus and instead started to write in her notebook.

Where had she left off? Oh, right, the wicked stallion was going to steal the princess! A smile curled her lips as the quill started to dance across the page, continuing the story of Prince Bascule and Princess Shy.

The stallion felt his heart race when he saw her: a beautiful mare with eyes like rubies, a coat of silver, and a flowing mane of pink velvet. "I must have her," he whispered, slipping out of the crowd to retreat home—but he would be back.

From her perch on the balcony, Princess Shy shivered and stepped closer to Bascule.

"What's wrong?" he asked and looked down at her.

"I don't know," she said as she closed her eyes. "But something bad is going to happen."

Brring!

Crystal blinked a few times as the bell sounded, bringing her back to reality.

Ms. Tutor smiled, a little wearily, and moved to stand by the door to watch each of her students hurrying out of their seats. "All right, my little ponies. I'll see you tomorrow. Remember to practice your mathematics; we have a quiz on Monday!"

Crystal slipped her precious notebook into her saddlebags and hopped down from her seat to blend into the crowd of fillies and colts rushing for the door. While they cheered and immediately set about playing in the courtyard, she trotted straight for home.

It was a large house on one of the main streets, which was quite the notable thing, as most ponies in the town lived in condominiums just to make the claim that they were citizens of Canterlot. Above all else, no matter the cost, her parents were relentless when it came to ensuring their high status in society was boldly stated.

She willed the door open with her magic as she walked up to it and tried to step as quietly as she could, hoping to not be noticed. She winced at the sound of her mother's airy voice coming from the other room.

"Oh, darling, you're home! What did you get your cutie mark in?" Her mother trotted through the doorway between the kitchen and the living room, then froze mid-step. "Oh." Both her expression and her voice dripped with disappointment.

Crystal tried to smile. "No cutie mark today, either, Mom."

Upper Crust raised a hoof to her muzzle to hide her frown, but Crystal had already seen it.

Crystal forced herself to keep smiling, then an idea brought a bright sincerity to her face that she quickly tried to smother. "It's awful, Mom!" She turned her head to look at her bare flank, lips puckered in an exaggerated pout. "I'm the only pony at school without a cutie mark! Amber Joy just got hers last week."

Jet Set leaned his head through the doorway into the room. "Did you say—"

"—the only pony?" her mother finished while her father walked over.

Crystal sighed and nodded. "Yes, the only pony! But if my dearest parents insist, I'll keep working on getting my cutie mark so I can fit in and be like all the other ponies."

Upper Crust waved a hoof. "Now, now, darling, let's not be so hasty!"

Jet Set nodded. "Absolutely! A rare commodity must be valued, you know!"

"Rare commodity?" Crystal beamed up at them. Her eyes shimmered in the light from that calculated angle, a skill any true Canterlot citizen knew by the age of three. "Me?"

"Why, of course, my darling," her mother cooed as she stroked Crystal's blonde and pink mane. "Who else but our little pony could be so special?"

Crystal nodded. "Great, I'm glad that's settled!" She galloped through their legs and up the stairs. "I'll be down for dinner!"

Jet Set hurried to the bottom of the stairs to call up after her, "Try not to discover any pesky talents while you're up there! We'd hate for you to be like everypony else!"

"Kay, thanks!" She closed her bedroom door and flopped on the bed.

Crystal remained there for a few silent moments before she realized she had started to cry. She rolled over to stare at the ceiling with a blank expression—as blank as her now-special flank—and begged herself to calm down before one of her parents came in.

"I'm just not good at anything," she muttered bitterly.

She sighed and rolled back onto her stomach. One of her saddlebags' flaps opened and her notebook lifted out of it, wrapped in her pink magic. She floated the notebook over, willed it open, and raised the quill from where she had left off.

"Let's see." The quill's feathered end rubbed against the underside of her chin. "So, when the princess goes missing, the prince will be distracted by—" She scrunched up her nose, then gasped. "By another princess! Ooh." She shivered as the quill furiously scrawled along the notebook paper. "But, of course, he'll realize that she's not the one. Right?"

The quill stopped taking notes. Crystal looked around her room for an answer. All along the walls were posters of scenes from her favorite foal's tales where the prince and princess finally fall in love. She looked at the classic 'love at first sight' moment from Snow Whinny and the Seven Foals with flowers and butterflies encircling the pair, as well as 'true love's first kiss' before the setting sun in The Little Mermare.

She sighed and lowered the quill before she rolled over onto her back. Above her bed was a single poster of her most favorite of them all: Sleeping Mare. She stared up at the idyllic scene that featured the beautiful Aurora, disguised as Briar Rose, dancing in the forest with her love-to-be, both gazing fondly at each other.

Crystal frowned. "True love is real, isn't it?" She turned her head and stared at the notebook where almost a hundred pages of prose rested. "Oh, I hope it is."

A knock came from the other side of her door and she gasped. The notebook slammed shut, and she flung it into her saddlebags as quickly as her magic could send it through the air.

"Darling, dinner is ready," her mother called.

"Okay, Mom!" She glanced at the saddlebags and her magic flared to cover the notebook with some textbooks. Feeling safe, she left her room to go downstairs and joined her parents for dinner.

A few days later, a classmate stopped her outside the school, which wasn't all that unusual. It was almost routine at that point to have some filly or colt try to suck up to her for their parents' sake. What was unusual, however, was that as soon as Crystal looked up, she realized she was completely surrounded by wide, prying eyes.

The filly in front of her gawked. "It's true!"

The small gathering of fillies and colts around them gasped, and a quiet buzz of murmuring filled the air.

"I can't believe it!" a colt exclaimed.

Crystal glanced nervously around and squeezed her notebook to her chest. "Believe what?" Her heart started to race and her chest ached from its pounding.

A filly turned to another and whispered, "She is the only pony in school without a cutie mark! I'm so jealous!"

Her white coat did nothing to hide the sudden flush she felt when all the eyes in the courtyard landed on her rump. All at once, realization hit her and she groaned, "Oh, no."

This wasn't good. Her parents must have bragged to their friends, who went home and scolded their foals about having a cutie mark.

Crystal hadn't thought things through at all.

Another filly muttered somewhat bitterly, "My mother told me that not having a cutie mark is in this year, but I already got mine."

"Wow, Crystal Wishes! You're so lucky," cooed the most popular filly in their class, Golden Pants. She sidled up to Crystal and batted her long eyelashes. "Can I sit by you in class?"

Oh, this was worse than before. Much, much worse.

Crystal lowered her head and hurried through the gossiping crowd into the school. She slid into her seat and set her notebook safely on her desk where she could keep an eye on it.

"Good morning!" an unfamiliar voice exclaimed from the seat beside hers. "I'm Velvet Step!"

Crystal turned her head and blinked at the filly sitting there. She was smaller than Crystal, which was odd, given that earth ponies were generally bigger than unicorns. She had a soft pink coat and deep violet eyes, the colors of which complemented her bubbly voice. Her mane and tail were a darker mauve in color, both cut at an angle so they were long in the front short in the back.

"Good morning," Crystal finally replied.

Velvet beamed at her. "I just transferred here from Manehattan!"

Unceremoniously and without thinking, Crystal glanced down at Velvet's flank and smiled brightly. "Oh! You don't have a cutie mark!"

Velvet's tail curled around herself to hide her rump, her ears fell, and tears almost immediately welled up in her eyes. "Sh—Shoot," she stammered, her voice suddenly fragile and void of its previous cheer. "I thought—I mean, I knew somepony would notice eventually, but—"

Crystal interrupted her with a wave of both hooves. "No, wait, look!" She wiggled in her seat to angle her own blank flank into view. "Neither do I!"

Velvet sniffled and looked down at Crystal's rump. Her ears twitched upward in surprise. "Oh! You don't!"

Excitement filled Crystal's little chest that she did her best to contain with a giggle. Maybe today wasn't going to be so bad after all.

"Okay, um, so, things are going to be really confusing for you." Crystal giggled again and held out her hoof. "Anyway, I'm Crystal Wishes. After school, let's go to Quills and Sofas so I can explain, okay?"

Velvet stared at the hoof for a moment. Slowly, the tears and sniffling subsided and she finally smiled as they shook hooves. "Okay."

The quiet moment was abruptly interrupted when their classmates, who had been hovering at the door, finally poured in to surround them.

"The new student doesn't have a cutie mark!" one cried.

"They're, like, an unstoppable duo now!" another cheered.

"Will you come over to my house after school?"

"Can I be your friend even though I have a cutie mark?"

Velvet looked to Crystal for help while they were bombarded with what were understandably confusing questions. Crystal simply smiled and offered a light shrug, which only confused her further.

Once school was finally over, Crystal grabbed Velvet's hoof and hurried her out of the classroom. They outran the mob of their newly converted fans and ducked into the quaint little shop of Quills and Sofas, which was a pretty straightforward store.

Canterlot had the largest school system in all of Equestria, so quills were always in high demand. Sofas were, too, since they were considered the 'centerpiece of the home' and furniture fashion changed on an almost monthly basis. Why they were sold in one store was a mystery, but they had been in business all of Crystal's life, so she guessed it worked well enough.

"Well, good afternoon, Crystal Wishes!" the proprietor, Mr. Quills, exclaimed from behind the counter. "Need any more—"

"Nope," Crystal hurriedly interrupted, nodding her head at Velvet. "I just need a place to sit and talk, if that's okay, please?"

Mr. Quills chuckled. "Ah, I understand," he said with a wink. "Of course it's okay. There are some older sofas in the back that you can use. Nopony usually goes that far back in the store, so it'll stay quiet."

The store was normally quiet, as quills and sofas didn't tend to encourage a lot of conversation, but Crystal smiled nonetheless. "Thanks, Mr. Quills!"

The two fillies walked through the rows of sofas on display and picked one resting along the back wall, then hopped onto it. The worn cushions were particularly springy, and—as young fillies are wont to do—they immediately started bouncing up and down, their giggles echoing throughout the store.

"Okay," Crystal said in a serious tone and stopped bouncing of her own will, though the cushion sprang her back up a few more times before it finally settled. "So, you're probably a little confused."

Velvet stopped bouncing as well and sat down on her haunches. She did her best to match Crystal's tone, but she seemed to have a cheery voice by nature. "Uh-huh."

Crystal sighed and flopped down onto her stomach, her little legs splayed haphazardly in each direction. "I kind of convinced my parents that not having a cutie mark is cool, 'cause other than you now, everypony else in our class has one, and my parents were upset that I didn't."

"How did you do that?" Velvet asked slowly, cautiously.

Crystal rolled over onto her back and closed her eyes. "Well, I pointed out that I was the only one. And then they said it was special and rare, and then I guess they bragged to everypony else. Which I sorta should have seen coming."

"What?" Velvet's voice rang with clear skepticism.

Crystal opened her eyes to look up at Velvet upside-down. "It's true! That's what it's like here. If you can get one pony to believe that calling the sky purple is fashionable, then everypony is going to do it." She groaned. "So, now, not having a cutie mark is in."

Velvet fidgeted as she mulled the new information over. She flopped forward onto her half of the sofa. "That's so—" She paused, then lifted her head, her ears perked straight up. "Awesome!"

Crystal frowned up at her, brow furrowed. "But you saw what it was like! Nopony would leave us alone all day!"

"So? It's way better than what it was like in Manehattan!"

Crystal rolled over to sit upright and asked in a tentative voice, "What was it like?"

Velvet was silent for a moment while her excitement deflated. She turned her head away to stare out into the dimly lit store. "The ponies are really mean there. The bullying got so bad that—well, that's why my parents decided that we should move here for a fresh start."

Crystal leaned forward and extended a hoof to place it on Velvet's shoulder. "I hope you take this the best way possible, but—" She gave Velvet a serious look when she turned back to meet her gaze. "—your parents totally picked the worst city to move to if you want to avoid bullying."

Velvet shrank back and her ears drooped low. Her chin trembled some as she whimpered, "Really?"

Crystal nodded. "Yup. Canterlot is full of ostentatious ponies and—"

Velvet blinked. "What?"

Crystal blinked back at her. "What, what?"

"Osten—what?"

"Ostentatious." After a pause, she flushed lightly. "Um, stuck-up ponies. Sorry."

Velvet tilted her head. "Where did you learn a word like that?"

"Oh!" Crystal waved her hooves. "You know! I like to, uh, read, so, well, I guess I picked it up somewhere. From some book. That I read."

"You read? Like, for fun?" Velvet scrunched up her nose. "I thought reading was just for school."

Crystal hesitated for a few moments, then bowed her head in shame, ears pinned against her mane. Right. Reading was for nerds, and nerds weren't cool. Writing was for—she didn't even know who, but somepony worse than a nerd.

Velvet looked around in slight panic and hopped up to stand on all fours. "I, uh, I mean, what do you read? Maybe I should start reading! It sure sounds like a lot of fun!"

Crystal avoided her gaze. "Anyway, so, that's why school was so weird today. It'll get better once everypony finds something new to be the cool thing." She hopped down off the sofa and started toward the front of the store. "I need to head home. I'll see you tomorrow."

"Oh, okay," Velvet mumbled with a sigh.

Worry buzzed in Crystal's head. What did that sigh mean? Was she embarrassed that she'd made friends with the lamest pony in school?

Crystal stopped by the counter and forced a smile for Mr. Quills. "Can I get my usual now? Still three bits, right?"

"Of course!" He reached over for a small, plain-looking box that held three quills inside and slid it across the counter, which she levitated up and into her saddlebags. He took the bits she dropped in the box's place. "Thanks as usual!"

"Bye, Mr. Quills." She waved before she left the store. Her smile fell once she was out of sight and she sighed, shaking her head.

If Velvet thought it was weird she was just reading, how would she react if she knew Crystal was writing, too? Well, as long as she remained vigilant, she'd never have to find out.

The Trembling Truth

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The next day, Crystal Wishes dragged her hooves as she walked to Canterlot Elementary. She hadn't been able to write anything the night before, plagued with indecision about the disparity between her interest in writing and her desire to have a friend. She headed straight for the classroom, and her ears fell when the seat beside hers was empty.

Certain that she had flubbed the brand new friendship, she slumped against her desk and sighed.

"Crystal!" the bubbly voice of Velvet chirped rather suddenly, startling Crystal upright. "Oh my gosh, you were right!"

"I was?" Crystal blinked at Velvet, whose face was almost uncomfortably close to her own. She blinked again when a book was shoved in the small space between them: Prima Donna and the Mansion Mystery.

"I read this book by Rose Quartz! I borrowed it from the library after you left, and read it last night, and I couldn't put it down! It was amazing! There's this pony who's an earth pony just like me, but she went on this awesome adventure and, and, and it felt like I was the pony!"

Crystal stared at the cover with uncertainty for a moment. A lithe earth pony mare stood on one hindleg, the other arched back to touch her forelegs stretched over her head, her whole body forming a near perfect circle. Silky curtains fluttered behind her with devious eyes peering from behind them.

Slowly, the book was lowered and she watched the excitement plastered on Velvet's face start to deflate from the lack of a response.

"Um, so," Velvet continued, the joy in her voice fading away, "I just wanted to say, reading is really fun, so thanks, and I'm sorry."

So many thoughts raced through Crystal's mind. Velvet went out and got a book to read? Why? Because of her? The idea filled her with more excitement than she'd ever felt before and a smile crept across her muzzle. "Did you really like it that much?"

Velvet perked back up. "Uh-huh! Prima Donna is so cool! By day she dances ballet and by night she fights crime!" She heaved a dreamy sigh. "I wish I could be her." She flushed, shook her head, and moved over to her seat beside Crystal's. "It's a shame I have to give it back to the library when I'm done. I wish I could keep it forever!"

"If you want, um." Crystal trailed off, her insecurity bubbling up in her chest. She shook her head to chase the feeling away. "I have all the books in that series at home. I can bring you the next book in the series tomorrow, if you want."

Velvet stared at her, eyes wide. "You—There—" She looked down at the book in her hooves. "This is a series? You mean, there's more?!"

Crystal laughed. "There's, like, twelve more!"

Velvet's eyes fluttered and she looked as though she might faint. She made a small squealing sound and hugged the book even closer to her chest. "So awesome! I want to read them all!"

"Settle down, my little ponies," Ms. Tutor called as she walked into the room. She started each day with the same look of hope for the lessons that would eventually subside into defeat. "Let's get class started."

The months went by in a happy blur for Crystal and Velvet. They would hang out at Quills and Sofas after school, where Velvet would talk about Manehattan or they'd discuss Prima Donna. Sometimes, Velvet would even try to mimic her new idol, striking various ballet poses and fighting invisible criminals.

After lessons were over one particular day, Velvet turned to Crystal as they started to pack up and head to the door. "So," she started cautiously, "it's my birthday next week, and I was wondering if, maybe, um—if you'd want to have a sleepover at my place."

Crystal gasped. "Your birthday?!" She bounced with every step, a big grin spreading across her face. "Definitely! Absolutely! I'll be there!"

"Great! My parents are trying to invite all our classmates, but I don't think they'll show up, and I wanted to invite you myself before you heard about it from—"

A honey-laden voice interrupted, "Good afternoon, sugarlump!"

Velvet's joy soured. "—them."

Standing outside the school were two simple-looking earth ponies, both of them holding colorful invitations that they passed out to every filly and colt that walked out the doors.

The mare's blue eyes widened with excitement, the blonde curls of her up-do bouncing as she trotted to greet them. "Ooh! Sweetums! Is this the little filly you were telling us about?"

Velvet winced as she glanced between them all. "Yeah, Mom, this is Crystal Wishes."

"Hello, Crystal! Thank you so much for being our little girl's friend!" Velvet's mother leaned down closer to her.

"Mom!" Velvet whined, trying to put herself between them. "Could you please not thank ponies just for being my friend?"

The mare waved a hoof. "Oh, sweetie, she knows I didn't mean it in a bad way." She smiled and returned her attention to Crystal, continuing, "I'm Sunbeam and this is my husband, Pepper Ridge. It's so nice that our baby girl made a friend on her very first day, and especially one who doesn't have a cutie mark!" She beamed innocently at Velvet. "Not having one is all the rage here in Canterlot, sugarpop!"

Crystal's cheeks puffed as she tried to contain her laughter. When she saw that Velvet looked as though she might cry, die of embarrassment, or possibly both, Crystal choked down her giggles and smiled sweetly. "It's really nice to meet you, Mrs. Sunbeam and Mr. Ridge!"

Pepper Ridge, whose demeanor was more relaxed as he stood beside his bubbly wife, held out one of the invitations. "You must come to Velvet's birthday party. It wouldn't be the same without you!"

"I'll be there for sure!" She hugged Velvet and whispered in her ear, "I promise I'll come, even if your parents are weird." As she pulled back from the embrace, she said, louder this time, "I'll see you tomorrow, Velvet!" She finally released her pent-up giggle and bounded off toward home.

Could life get any better? Crystal hummed to herself, a skip in her step. She had a friend who had nice parents that weren't like anypony else's in Canterlot. Maybe even all of Equestria!

When she arrived home, she discovered a note taped to the front door that read:

Crystal — we are out for a quick dinner at the Toity residence. We will likely not be back until dinner. Summer is nearly upon us, so please set the table accordingly to refresh your memory of social graces.

Crystal groaned and turned the knob, her spirits dissipating like a snuffed candle flame. Summer meant charm school, and charm school meant hours of intense boredom. She knew all about proper society already! Her mother had made sure of that years ago.

As she levitated plates and silverware from the china cabinet to the dining table, she mimicked her mother's voice. "The plate must be positioned so that the pattern faces its diner." She set the plates down and folded the napkin to rest in their centers.

The forks—salad, then dinner—went to the left of the plates; the knives, teaspoons, and soup spoons went to the right. It was so arbitrary. Why did any of it matter? The food would taste the same no matter the order the utensils were in. But, if she didn't get everything perfect, she'd have to do it over and over again for hours until her mother was satisfied.

Once she begrudgingly finished setting the table, she broke out into a gallop to hurry up the stairs, then took a right to head into her parents' room. She rummaged through the hope chest sitting at the foot of their bed, moving aside family photo albums and foal blankets until she found an old journal at the bottom. "Bingo!" She hopped up onto the bed, the journal floating after her.

Carefully, she set the journal in front of her and opened it. The book showed its age with a worn spine, but the finely inked writing was still quite legible. Crystal took a deep intake of air, slowly let it out, and fondly read aloud.

Dear Diary: It's me again. I just don't know what to do. I don't think any of the cool stallions in my class will ever like me. I'm stuck wearing these braces until after I leave Canterlot Academy. Braces are definitely not cool, no matter what I accessorize with to try and distract from them.

Crystal paused to look over at the chest. She raised a yearbook from it, which she laid beside the journal and opened to a specific page. There, in the class roster, was her mother: an awkward, average-looking young mare with bright, shiny braces and over-sized earrings. She giggled at the sight and returned to the diary, flipping forward a few pages.

Dear Diary: You won't believe what happened! Jet Set asked me out to the Fall Formal! What am I going to wear? What am I going to do about these braces? What if he tries to kiss me?! I'm so nervous… and excited.

She looked back at the yearbook, this time focusing on her father. He hadn't changed much since his youth despite how many years had gone by. He was even wearing a sweater tied around his neck, just like he did every day.

She giggled and turned a few pages to the pictures from the Fall Formal, where her parents had been voted the Queen and King. Upper Crust was wearing an over-the-top gown, but the look on her face was pure and simple: she was in love with the stallion she was gazing at.

Crystal flopped over onto her side with a heavy sigh. "Oh, I never get tired of this story!" She rested her hoof on the journal. "It has everything! True love! A common mare rising up from the shadows to be with her stallion! They live happily ever after, perfect for each other!"

She paused, then rolled her eyes. "And then they have the coolest daughter in all of Equestria, just like them. Or—not."

The yearbook returned to the hope chest, but she was lost reading the diary for hours until she heard the front door open. As quickly as she could, she put the diary back at the bottom of the chest, moved the blankets and albums over it, and closed the lid.

"Hello?" her father called. "Dear? We're home!"

Crystal just barely made it out of their room before they started up the stairs. She trotted over to peer down at them. "Welcome home!"

Jet Set smiled. "Your mother found the most darling dress. We heard that you're invited to a birthday party next week—"

Crystal frowned curiously, then rolled her eyes. Why was she even surprised? They knew every event, big or small, that was happening anywhere in Canterlot, ever.

"—and we had to make sure you are the best-dressed pony there. We knew you'd not want to go in any of your old party dresses."

Jet Set smiled as Upper Crust presented the dress with haughty pride, though it was wrapped in a protective cover.

Crystal gave a strained smile despite the urge to groan. "Oh, thank you, Mom and Dad. That's exactly what I was hoping for!"

Upper Crust's magic carried the dress alongside her as she walked up the stairs and into Crystal's room to hang it up. "Now, make sure you don't get it wrinkled before the party, darling."

"Yes, Mom." She hopped down the stairs but stopped halfway when Jet Set cleared his throat.

"Be a dear and go back to the top of the steps to try that again, Crystal."

She groaned. "Yes, Dad." She walked back up, turned to face the stairs, then raised her chin. With prim and proper poise, she delicately dropped each hoof without a sound on each step as she walked down, gaze upward and expression blank—save for a slight, irritated furrow of her brow.

Jet Set clapped his hooves together. "Much better, dear. You'll be the belle of the ball!"

When she reached the bottom, her poise fell and she frowned. "But it's not a ball. It's a birthday party, and it's not even my birthday."

"Ah, ah, ah, shh." He patted her on the head. "Every social gathering is an opportunity to make us proud."

"Right." Crystal feigned a smile. "I won't let you and Mom down, I promise. Cross my heart and hope to cry, else I'll live in a pig's sty."

"That's a good girl. Come along now, let's have dinner."

"Crystal!" Velvet cried as she burst into the classroom, then panted and gasped for air. The rest of her words came out as a high-pitched wheeze as she exclaimed, "We have an emergency! A really, really big emergency!"

Crystal's eyes widened. "What happened?!"

"Everypony is coming!" Velvet sprung into the air, as if the declaration took physical effort to say.

"Huh?" Crystal blinked.

Velvet waved her forelegs and stared at Crystal with wide, frantic eyes. "Everypony in our class is coming to my birthday! I thought none of them would want to come, because, like, none of them are even my friends, and it would just be you and me, and—"

"Of course they're going to come." Crystal stared at her with a blank expression, then sighed. "It's an event. Canterlot ponies have to go to every event they can. It's, like, um, well—It's their thing."

Velvet sat down at her desk, despair dragging her face down. "But I don't want everypony to come. I just wanted to have a sleepover with you. Now it's going to be awful and ruined and I just want to cancel the whole darn thing!"

Crystal blinked a few times at the sentiment. She flushed lightly and giggled, waving her hooves. "We can have a sleepover anytime, though!"

"Really?" Velvet's ears perked upright.

"Um, yes? I mean, I think so." Crystal paused, then nodded and added with more certainty in her voice, "Yeah, of course we can. That's what friends do and we're friends!"

"Oh." Velvet shifted almost uncomfortably. "So then, after this horrible birthday, we can have a sleepover?"

Crystal nodded. "Sure!"

Velvet sighed and slumped against her desk. "This is going to be the worst birthday ever in the history of birthdays."

"Maybe it won't be so bad." Crystal tried to give her a reassuring smile.

With perfect timing—after all, Canterlot foals were well-trained by their parents in the art of always listening for juicy gossip—Golden Pants turned in her seat to beam at Velvet. "Velvet Step! I'm really looking forward to your birthday tomorrow. I just can't wait to see your house!"

Velvet responded with the strangled sound of a whimper. Crystal noticed a distinct look of dread on Velvet's face, but before she could try to comfort her, Ms. Tutor walked into the room and everypony fell silent.

Crystal flicked one ear and managed to make eye contact with Velvet, then mouthed, "Are you okay?"

"No," Velvet's eyes said with the way they were on the verge of tears and how her lower lip trembled.

After a quick glance to see that the teacher was focused on the blackboard, Crystal reached across the aisle to give Velvet a quick but reassuring pat on the shoulder. Was she embarrassed about her parents? Or maybe it was her house, since Golden had brought it up.

Oh, wait—Crystal got it. It was because Velvet didn't have a house, not exactly; they lived in a small condo in Sunshine Villas. It was a nice enough neighborhood with a few trees between each brightly colored building, but it wasn't where rich ponies lived. Rich ponies didn't even visit there if they could avoid it.

Crystal sighed lightly. Well, it was too late to do anything about it now. She would just have to make sure she was extra attentive to Velvet to try and keep her birthday from being a total disaster. It would be fine. What was the worst that could happen, anyway?

Okay, Crystal could easily think of a few things, but she tried to push them out of her mind and hope for the best. In reality, she knew that whenever her classmates were involved, the best she could hope for was just not the worst.

Consort in the Chaos

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Velvet's birthday had finally arrived. Everypony in their class was talking about it, and, with each word that reached Velvet's ears, she seemed to sink lower and lower in her seat.

Crystal cleared her throat to bring Velvet's attention to herself and levitated a small present from her saddlebags. "Happy birthday!" she quietly exclaimed as the box floated over to rest on Velvet's desk.

Velvet gave a small gasp of excitement. Her hooves gently pulled the ribbon and sparkly pink giftwrap, then opened the box inside. A mane clip rested on a velvet pillow, featuring a group of crystals in the shape of a flower with white, fully plumed feathers set on top.

"Oh my gosh, is this—" Velvet looked over at Crystal with wide eyes.

"It is!" Crystal nodded with enthusiasm.

Velvet matched her enthusiasm with a squeal, then gingerly picked it up and clipped it into her mane. She raised her head with pride and gazed fondly at Crystal. "Oh, it's perfect! It looks exactly like Prima Donna's signature mane clip! How did you find it?!"

Crystal giggled. She rested her chin on one hoof and waved the other. "It's a secret!" She winked.

Velvet bounced excitedly before springing from her chair to knock Crystal over with a big, tackling hug. The two were laughing and giggling just as the teacher walked in.

"Velvet Step," she said, clearing her throat. "I know it is Friday and your birthday today—and happy birthday for that—but, please, it is time for class."

Velvet flushed and hurried back to her seat. "Yes, Ms. Tutor."

Crystal climbed into her own seat, chiming in, "Sorry, Ms. Tutor."

"Very good, then. Let's begin today's lesson."

Throughout the day, none of the glances her way or suspicious whispering seemed to bother Velvet at all. She swung her hindlegs and kept a goofy, happy expression on her face the whole day—and Crystal couldn't stop smiling, either.

There were definitely some benefits from having parents as well-ingrained in the affairs of the city, especially when it allowed her to commission the local jeweler on short notice. It had used up most of her allowance for the month, but the look on her friend's face was more than worth it.

At the midday lunch and recess, Crystal and Velvet sat at their usual spot under a tree in the playground. Crystal already knew what was in her lunch, since she had packed it herself, just as she did every morning. She leaned over to peek in Velvet's brown paper bag, much more interested in what goodies Sunbeam and Pepper Ridge had included.

"Ooh," Crystal cooed as Velvet unveiled a strawberry-and-cream-cheese-filled croissant. "That looks amazing!"

Velvet giggled. "Of course it does! Dad's the best." She glanced between the croissant and Crystal. "Do you want to share it?"

"Uh, of course?" Crystal giggled and retrieved her simple peanut butter and daisy sandwich. "But I don't have anything to exchange for it. Just this, an apple, and some carrots."

There was a pause as Velvet plucked a strawberry from the sandwich and nibbled on it. "I'll ask Dad to make two next time, if you want."

Crystal quickly shook her head. "Oh, no, that's okay! It's fine. I—"

Her ear flicked at the sound of approaching hoofsteps and she looked to see a group of fillies headed their way with Golden Pants in the lead.

Crystal groaned. "Oh, no."

"Huh?" Velvet blinked and followed Crystal's gaze. "Who are they?"

"Trouble," Crystal muttered under her breath, then smiled when Golden Pants was within hearing range. "Hi, Golden."

Golden regarded her with a snubbed nose. "Hi, Crystal." She focused her blue eyes on Velvet and sneered. "So, Velvet Step, I see you've got a new mane clip."

Velvet beamed at them, oblivious to the small frown on Crystal's face or that a group of Canterlot fillies was something to be wary of. "Uh-huh! Isn't it great?"

"Yeah, I guess." Golden Pants rolled her eyes. "If you didn't know anything about fashion, anyway."

Velvet deflated slightly at the somewhat sinister tone and looked to Crystal for help. "What?"

Crystal moved to put herself between the bullies and Velvet. "It is high fashion, if I say so myself." She put her training to good use and inclined her head to give the impression of looking down at Golden. "And I would hope that you would appreciate that, Golden Pants. Your father certainly does. I think my parents are attending the Wonderbolt races with him tomorrow, are they not?"

Crystal gave a small, dramatic pause to feign thinking before she added, "Hmm, it would be a shame if they mentioned your poor taste."

Golden's eyes widened. She leaned to look around Crystal at Velvet once more, then straightened up with an expression of surprise. "Yes! I just didn't get a good look at it at first, but it's definitely high fashion!"

The fillies behind her nodded and murmured their agreement.

Crystal smiled. "After all, it is one of a kind."

This spurred a chorus of gasps and exchanged looks of surprise before Golden's entourage stepped forward to get a better view.

"One of a kind?" one squeaked. "Velvet, you're so lucky! I'm so jealous!"

"Hey, Crystal," another said with a flutter of her lashes, "my birthday is next month! Can I get a mane clip, too?"

Crystal flipped her mane over her shoulder with a hoof. "Maybe, maybe not. I am feeling a little tired and would like to spend some time with my dear friend, though."

"Of course!" the fillies exclaimed in unison, backing away. Golden shot Crystal a dirty look before sticking her nose in the air and trotting after them.

Once they were gone, Crystal rolled her eyes and dropped the airy voice back to her regular one. "Ugh," she groaned, sitting down and raising her sandwich. "That is why I hate Canterlot."

Velvet stared at her with her ears folded back, dismay on her face. "What just happened?!"

Crystal sighed. She put a foreleg around Velvet's shoulders. "One of these days, I'm going to have to write a manual on living in Canterlot. For now, um, just be grateful that you have me!" She gave her a playful nudge.

"I guess." Velvet sighed. "I feel like you just said a whole bunch of words, but none of it made any sense."

"Pretty much!"

Velvet poked at her lunch with one hoof. "Is that what my birthday's going to be like tonight?"

"Yup. But don't worry. I won't let it get too bad. Cross my heart and hope to cry, else I'll live in a pig's sty!"

Velvet smiled and took a bite of her croissant. "You're the best!"

When they parted ways once school was over, Crystal gave Velvet a big, tight hug and a heartfelt assurance that she'd be there as soon as she could, then raced home.

"Mom! Can you help me get ready?" she called as she burst through the door, tossing her saddlebags off and running up the stairs. "I want to be the first one there!"

"Oh, certainly not, darling," her mother said, walking out of the kitchen. "You know the rule. One must always be fashionably late so as not to seem too eager and give away the advantage, but not too late to garner gossip of disinterest."

Crystal ground her teeth as she paced in a quick circle. "But she's my friend! Maybe even my best friend!"

"All the more reason to not tip your hoof and show too much favor to this filly. Think of what the others might say!" her mother called from the living room.

In the privacy of being around the corner on a different floor, Crystal dropped down on her haunches and tugged at her cheeks in frustration. She made a few different sour and irritated faces, then called as sweetly as she could, "Yes, Mom, you're right, of course!" She gave another roll of her eyes before quietly storming into her room.

"Aggh!" She threw a pillow across the room. "But if I'm not there, they might be mean to her!" She sighed as she flopped down onto her bed. "Though, the meanest of the mean will be fashionably late, too, so maybe it'll be all right." Reassuring herself with a curt nod, she closed her eyes and tried to calm down.

An hour later, her mother came into the room and frowned lightly when she saw Crystal sitting on the floor, reading the next book in the Prima Donna series. "Crystal, darling, books are for practicing your balance, not for reading. But if you are going to read, could you, at least, read something with a little more substance?"

Crystal glanced up from the book. "But this is Velvet's favorite series! I'm—" She paused to think carefully on what she was going to say. "—studying. So that I can talk of her interests with her in front of everypony. That way I'm the most prepared for conversation."

"Oh!" Upper Crust smiled. "Well, in that case, I'll let you keep reading. It won't hurt to be a little bit later than late—"

Crystal hopped up onto all fours. "Nope! I'm all caught up on my studying and ready to get dressed!"

"If you're sure, darling." Her mother walked into the room, levitating various containers of different kinds of makeup behind her. "Sit pretty and let Mommy make you a star."

First, the dress was lifted and carefully pulled over her head and tied in the back. It was varying shades of blue, starting with a bodice of the darkest, then a tiered skirt of frilly layers, each a shade lighter than the previous. The last layer of sheer tulle draped over her tail and down to the floor. It was itchy against her back legs, but she would survive one evening of it.

Next came the makeup. Crystal hated the smell and feel of makeup, but there was no way around it. A shiny coat of pink lipstick was gently dabbed across her lips and she smacked them together when instructed. Blue powder was applied to her eyelids and thick mascara to her thin lashes. Her mother fussed with her mane and tail for a while, though Crystal refused to let her undo the braid she so carefully put together every morning. Even the most well-mannered ponies had their limits.

Then her mother pulled out various accessories, such as a tiara which Crystal immediately shot down and clip-on crystal earrings that she allowed. None of the necklaces seemed to please her mother, so she decided that Crystal's neck would be 'fashionably bare'.

Finally, after parading about to prove she could carry herself with proper posture, she was allowed to leave.

"Bye, Mom! Bye, Dad!" She levitated her sleeping bag that contained sleepwear and clothes for the next day. Her parents insisted on them, both of which were expensive brands. They had to get in every opportunity to flaunt, of course. "I'll be home tomorrow! I promise I will have a full report on the other ponies for you."

"That's a good girl! Remember to smile, but not too much!"

"Yes, Mom!"

"And eat only things that won't stain your teeth!"

"Yes, Dad! May I go now?"

They both nodded and waved her off as she walked gingerly down the street with her bag floating beside her. Her journal was tucked safely between her bed cushions, and she prayed to Celestia that her mother wouldn't go snooping around while she was gone.

She shouldn't have been as surprised as she was when she arrived at Velvet Step's condominium building to see a group of uncertain fillies loitering outside. Crystal put on her airs and walked toward them. "The party is inside, you know," she said, one brow raised.

"Yeah, but, I mean, look at the place," one whined, pointing at the colorful balloons tied to the door. "My parents would disown me if they saw me in the vicinity of such basic colors."

"Hmm, really?" Crystal eyed the balloons. "Well, I wouldn't want to be in your horseshoes when you go back and tell them you missed out on the opportunity to mingle with Golden Pants and High Horse. Oh well!" She trotted past them and they quickly followed in step.

She started to feel a bubble of nerves as she walked up the stairs to the door. Was Velvet okay? It sounded like more ponies had arrived before her than she had expected. When she thought about it, however, the eagerness to learn more about the new family probably outweighed the desire for fashionable lateness. She rolled her eyes as her head started to spin with the politics of high society ponies and she opened the door.

"Crystal!" Velvet exclaimed and rushed over before Crystal could respond. "I'm so glad you're here!"

Crystal knew what was wrong before Velvet could explain. She assessed the situation in a split second. The ponies were drilling Velvet’s parents for information, which they were more than happy to fumble through giving. They were good-hearted, simple folks with the best of intentions, but in a cutthroat world, they were giving away too much that could be used to embarrass Velvet later.

Crystal gave a curt nod, patted Velvet on the shoulder, and stepped into the center of the filly- and colt-filled room. She cleared her throat.

"Mrs. Sunbeam! Mr. Ridge!" She smiled with all the charm she could muster as a room full of eyes turned on her. "Such a marvelous place you have. It's so—"

She looked around at the quaint, somewhat under-decorated room. What it lacked in expensive furniture, however, it made up for in pictures of a happy, smiling family. This brought a sincere smile to her own face.

"Warm and loving!" Crystal raised a hoof to gesture at the pictures. "I only wish I could have so many happy memories captured in photographs!"

As usual, if one strong voice took the lead, others would follow. Velvet watched in confusion and wonder as expressions lightened and words grew kinder. Soon, she was swarmed with ponies asking how she got such nice and loving parents.

Crystal gave a victorious pump of her foreleg. One crisis averted, and the party was just starting! Well, for the fashionably late, anyway.

Sunbeam and Pepper Ridge walked over to Crystal with tears in their eyes.

"You are the sweetest little filly!" Sunbeam exclaimed, hugging Crystal close. "You didn't have to say such nice things about our little family!"

Crystal giggled. "Trust me, I did. When I write a Canterlot manual, I'll make sure you all get a copy."

Pepper Ridge leaned in toward her. "Oh, you're a writer, Crystal Wishes?"

All semblance of color drained from her and her ears folded down. She shrunk back a few steps. "No, it was just, um, a joke."

Velvet's senses seemed to tingle and she rushed over the moment she saw Crystal's face. "Mom! Dad!" She glared up at her parents. "What did you say to Crystal?"

"We just asked—"

"It's nothing, Velvet!" Crystal interrupted with a big smile. "I just remembered that I left something at home!"

Velvet looked at her with suspicion. Pepper Ridge and Sunbeam looked at her with slight confusion. Crystal tried to smile wider. "I was going to bring Velvet the next book in the Prima Donna series, but I forgot to bring it."

This seemed to assuage the tension surrounding her. Velvet's parents nodded with understanding while Crystal giggled nervously.

"That's nothing to panic about. You can just bring it Monday." Velvet looked up at her parents. "I think the punch is running low."

The pair gasped and hurried off to go check the table of snacks and drinks while Velvet sighed and shook her head. "They are so weird sometimes. I'm really sorry about that."

"Don't worry about it. Now, let me get a better look at you." Crystal took a step back and examined Velvet from head to hoof.

She was wearing her mane tied up curly twin tails. The Prima Donna clip was attached securely just behind her ear, which flicked from time to time whenever the feathers tickled it. Her dress was simple and pink, with a big ribbon in the back.

Crystal couldn't stop a small giggle from escaping at how uncomfortable Velvet looked when she was being studied. "You look so cute!"

"You're just saying that," Velvet muttered, her cheeks flushed. She rubbed her hoof against her foreleg. "You look amazing! I just look silly."

Crystal raised one brow and put a hoof to her chest. "Are you accusing me, Crystal Wishes, daughter of the ponies with the most fashion sense this side of Canterlot, of lying about fashion?"

Velvet's mouth hung open as she tried to think of a response. "I, uh, well, uh—"

"I'm just joking!" Crystal giggled and lowered the hoof to wave it. "You do look cute, though, and I mean it. With your mane like that, you look even more like Prima Donna!"

That brilliant smile returned to Velvet's face and put Crystal at ease, at least until she saw tears start to well up in Velvet's eyes.

"Velvet?" Crystal blinked. "Are you okay?"

Velvet raised a hoof and rubbed at her eyes. "Sorry, I'm just—I've never had a friend before!" She hiccupped. "I don't know what to do!"

Crystal smiled softly and sat back on her haunches. "You eat yourself sick on cake, 'cause it's your birthday, and then we play some games!"

Velvet nodded. She sniffled, then looked over her shoulder at the other foals. "I dunno if I want to play games with them, though."

"Don't worry about it. We'll kick their flanks in a game of Twister! I mean, think about it. Half of them are wearing ridiculous dresses that definitely aren't going to flex well."

Velvet giggled. "Yeah, you're right." She hugged Crystal, then started toward the others. "Let's have some cake!" she announced.

Crystal remained where she was, sitting on her haunches with her forelegs folded over her chest. Things were going pretty well, if she did say so herself! Of course, the party had only begun, and there was still a whole night's worth of a sleepover to get through.

But, in the meantime, she was going to enjoy some cake and games with her best friend.

Fading Moonlight

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While Velvet's parents were serving the fillies and colts slices of cake, Crystal surveyed the room with watchful eyes like an overprotective second mother. She did her best to keep things together, but only one filly against a crowd of foals couldn't stand strong forever.

The cake was two layers of soft pink and deep reddish purple, matching Velvet's coat and mane, respectively. The frosting was smooth, and when they cut the first slice out of it, a rich, moist chocolate cake underneath was exposed.

All the foals licked their lips with mouth-watering anticipation as plates were given out.

"Wait," one cried out before anypony had taken a bite of their cake. "This doesn't have butter in it, does it?"

The word 'butter' earned a collective gasp from nearly everypony in the room. One colt dropped his plate right onto the ground and backed up in terror as though it had suddenly come alive and bit him. All of them turned their wide eyes on the unsuspecting Sunbeam and Pepper Ridge.

Sunbeam smiled sweetly. "Of course! What is a cake without butter?"

"Butter is like, basically fat!" a filly cried. She set her plate on the table and turned away with her nose held high. "I won't be able to fit into my dress if I eat that stuff."

"My mom said butter is the first step to giving up." A colt looked at his cake longingly, but set it down anyway, as did every other foal.

Sunbeam and Pepper Ridge glanced at one another with mirrored uncertainty and confusion.

"But I eat my parents' cooking all the time, and they use lots of butter," Velvet said, frowning.

High Horse snickered. "Even if you're short, you should really consider taking better care of yourself and laying off the butter."

The others giggled and whispered. Velvet looked down at herself with worry crossing her face, stirring Crystal into action.

"She's smaller than you are, High Horse, so I don't really know what you're trying to prove," Crystal chided, pacing alongside High Horse. "I thought you looked fine, but now I'm not so sure. How much butter do you put on your toast every morning?"

Sunbeam interjected in a soft voice, mostly unheard by the little ponies, "Butter isn't bad for you in moderation."

Crystal took a moment to glance around the room. She seemed to have their attention, so she looked back at High Horse to gloat with a smug grin. And that was when her feeling of superiority was suddenly squashed.

High Horse was starting to cry, her expression open with sincere pain. Crystal was caught off-guard and, unfortunately, it showed. She felt the shift in power like a shiver down her spine.

"Now that was uncalled for!" Amber Joy put a foreleg around High Horse's shoulders and pulled her close. "Crystal, you can be so mean sometimes!"

Crystal choked. She had no response. She looked around the room for help and for a moment, she felt alone in a sea of sharks.

"Well, High Horse was mean first, though," Velvet said, stepping up to stand beside Crystal. "So, if she apologizes, then Crystal will apologize." She glanced up a little worriedly at her. "Right?"

"Right. Actually, no, I'll apologize first." Crystal bit her lower lip. "I'm really sorry, High Horse."

High Horse sniffled and shook her head. "S'okay. I'm sorry, too."

The tension was diffused for the time being; however, the cake was still boycotted by the fillies and colts. Pepper Ridge moved about the room to gather up the plates and clean up any dropped slices, his ears folded back and an openly hurt look on his face.

Crystal turned to Velvet to ask if he'd be all right, but the look of hurt on Velvet's face stopped her question dead in its tracks.

"I know you were just trying to protect me, but," Velvet started. She hesitated, and Crystal jumped in to finish for her.

"I know. I'm sorry. I took it too far." Crystal lowered her head and gave a sheepish smile. "I don't care if High Horse doesn't actually forgive me, but will you?"

Velvet smiled and nodded vigorously. "Of course! After all, it's my fault you had to say those things anyway, right?"

Crystal paused to consider the question. Velvet's smile faded the longer she thought. Velvet was from a happy family who was completely naïve to Canterlot society. How could she even begin to understand?

Finally, she explained slowly and carefully, "Well, I mean, yeah, I started because I wanted her to stop picking on you. But that's just how it is here. You have to be strong or everypony will turn on you."

"Who cares!" Velvet flushed at how loudly she had exclaimed. She glanced around before continuing in a softer voice, "I just want to have fun with my friend. That's all I want."

Crystal smiled and nodded. "Then that's what we'll do. Twister?"

"Twister!"

The game of Twister was brought out, and most of the ponies took turns playing in groups of five while the others snacked on the fruit and tiny sandwiches after confirming there was indeed no butter in fruit. Pepper Ridge tried to make the case once more that butter wasn't evil, but Sunbeam put a hoof on his shoulder, sighed, and shook her head.

"I'm so bored," Golden Pants whined as loudly as she could while waiting for her turn.

"Don't worry!" Sunbeam smiled and gestured to a box of games lying beside the snacks table. "We have more games! Do you like Monopony or Candy Land?"

Golden Pants inclined her head toward the box, gave it one look-over, then rolled her eyes. "Those games are for little foals and poor ponies. Don't you have anything more interesting?"

Velvet's ears fell. "But I like these games."

"Of course you would." Golden snorted. "But that's because you're both of those things."

Crystal leaped forth and put herself between the two. "Hey, now—"

"Oh, look, surprise, surprise. The little blank flank wants to protect the other blank flank." Golden started to walk in a small circle around Crystal. She smirked, her eyes glinting with a dark mischievousness.

Crystal took a deep breath and let it go through her nose, but her gaze didn't waver. She firmed her jaw and narrowed her eyes to visibly hold her ground. She just needed to stay calm so she could get back to playing Twister.

Sunbeam and Pepper Ridge glanced at one another helplessly, and Sunbeam asked with earnest confusion in her gentle voice, "I thought blank flanks were cool this year?"

Golden sneered and rolled her eyes. "No way. Ponies thought they were cool, like, months ago. It turns out Crystal just spread that rumor so she could try to stay cool. Blank flanks have never actually been cool."

"I did not!" Crystal narrowed her eyes. "That's a lie, I just—"

"Whatever, Crystal Wishes." Golden turned sharply and put her face right in Crystal's. "You can't ride on your parents' coattails forever, especially if you keep wasting your time on little foals like her." She gestured lazily, dismissively at Velvet.

"Now, girls, that's enough!" Pepper Ridge put his hooves down and tried to separate the two, but it was too late.

Something snapped inside Crystal's chest and a flood of emotions poured forth.

"You're one to talk, Golden Pants! What do you do except follow Daddy Fancy Pants around and repeat everything he says? You're worse than a show pony! You're just an accessory!"

"Well, at least accessories know their place, unlike little ponies with no talent!" Golden bit back, snarling.

"Girls!" Sunbeam shouted with a force of anger behind her voice. The room fell silent from the drastic contrast to the mare's normally soft-spoken and honey-laced tone.

The foals' silence allowed a single sound to be heard: a soft, sniffling sob. Crystal felt her heart drop into her stomach as she slowly turned her head to look over her shoulder. Velvet's shoulders trembled and she clenched her eyes shut in a failed attempt to keep tears at bay.

"That's quite enough," Sunbeam said, hugging Velvet to her chest and stroking her back with a hoof. "I think we can all agree this party is over." Her voice and frame shook slightly as she looked at the crowd of foals with narrowed eyes.

On one hoof, canceling the sleepover was for the best. There wasn't enough room for everypony to set down their sleeping bags without encroaching on each other's personal space, which would have inevitably started a fight later anyway.

On the other, Crystal felt like the worst friend in all of Equestria.

As the ponies gathered up their bags and started for the door, quietly complaining on the way out, Crystal stood frozen in place. She raised a hoof and opened her mouth, but Sunbeam glared at her before she could speak.

"I know you meant well, Crystal," Sunbeam said and gestured with one hoof, "but I think you should go, too. I think Velvet just needs to be alone right now." She glanced at her husband, who nodded in agreement.

Crystal's voice caught in her throat and came out as a quiet, "Okay."

She looked at Velvet's sobbing form and wanted to cry herself, but she pieced herself together enough to levitate her bag and walk out the door. At the bottom of the stairs leading up to that floor, Golden Pants and High Horse waited for her—waited to rub salt in the wound.

"Good job, Crystal Wishes," Golden sneered when Crystal reached the bottom of the stairs. "You were really the belle of the ball tonight."

"Just leave me alone." Crystal bit down on her tongue as she tried to keep her cool. She started to walk past them, but a hoof landed on the skirt of her dress so that she stumbled and fell forward. She trembled at the merciless laughter that followed.

Golden raised a hoof, examined it for a moment, then patted Crystal on the head. "There's no reason to be upset. I'm sure your parents will understand when they hear about what happened! I mean, they are really cool, after all!"

Golden smiled daggers down at Crystal and continued, "Well, anyway, see you on Monday!" With her nose upturned, she turned and walked away. "Come on, High Horse. Let's go to my house and have a real slumber party."

High Horse glanced at Crystal. She hesitated, a flicker of regret crossing her expression, then trotted after Golden. "Yeah! Coming!"

Crystal remained on the ground for a while, watching their retreating hooves as her heart sunk lower and lower. Normally, she could hold her own against them. Her chin trembled and she looked up at the condominium building.

The problem was she wasn't just fighting for herself anymore. She was fighting for Velvet, which meant she had all that much more to lose. And Golden had taken advantage of that.

She sighed as she finally stood, raising her bag off the ground, and started the long walk home. She couldn't help but feel that if she were a character in a story, it would have started raining right at that moment. With a wince and a hesitant pause, she glanced up at the evening sky, then breathed a small sigh of relief at the distinct lack of clouds.

The delicate tulle was shredded and, with every step, it scratched at the back of her hindlegs. Her knees ached from hitting the ground. One of them might have been scuffed. She just kept walking, tears rolling down her cheeks.

Why was she so ugly inside? Velvet was kind, inside and out. Crystal wasn't. Canterlot was in her blood. She'd breathed its toxins ever since her mother taught her how to walk properly. Now she didn't know how to act any other way.

When she opened the door to her house, Crystal tentatively called out, "Mom? Dad?"

She exhaled, relieved when there was no response. Of course, there was no note either, as nopony would have thought to leave one for a filly that was supposed to be at a party. A party which she helped ruin. Her chest felt suddenly tight with regret, but she staved off the tears and walked upstairs. After she washed off the makeup and climbed out of her dress, she hopped onto her bed and buried her face in the pillow.

How would she fix this situation? Could she fix it, even? If she started going with her parents again to events to build up her social credibility, she wouldn't have as much time to spend with Velvet, assuming she still wanted to be friends after her outburst.

She wouldn't have blamed Velvet if she didn't want to associate with her anymore. After all, even though her heart had been in the right place—or so she told herself—she was still just another loud, mean-spirited filly vying for power.

She sniffed and rolled over onto her side to look at one of the posters on the wall. There was a time, only a few years ago, when they were all too young to be caught up in their parents' social intrigue. She remembered playing in the sandbox with Golden Pants and High Horse and the names of their parents had no meaning.

Back then, everything was happy and carefree, just like a foal's tale. She wished things could be like that again.

But once their parents had started sending them to finishing school, everything had changed. And now, all of a sudden, she missed those simple sandbox days.

After a while, Crystal closed her eyes. She needed sleep, but it seemed to be far beyond her reach. Her mind buzzed with all sorts of thoughts that just repeated over and over. Why was she this way? Why couldn't she just be nice like Velvet? She wanted to be nice, so why wasn't she?

She shifted on the bed to hide her face again, the pillow enveloping her in its downy embrace.

Crystal wasn't sure when she had fallen asleep, but she was startled awake by the sound of her parents arriving home. Groggy and a little disoriented, she glanced out the window to see the moon sitting high in the sky. It must have been pretty late in the night.

"That was absolutely horrid," she heard her mother's voice say downstairs. "I swear, some ponies have no sense of class."

"Quite right, my dear." Her father heaved a deep sigh. "After that ordeal, I believe I am going straight to bed."

"I'll join you in a minute, darling."

She listened to their hoofsteps until she heard nothing more, then tried to go back to sleep. The silence was suddenly deafening and she struggled just to keep her eyes closed.

Finally, she sighed and crawled over to the edge of the bed. She pulled up the cushion with one hoof and reached with the other for her journal. Once she had it in hoof, she levitated it up with her magic, opened it to the page marked by the quill, and started to read from where she left off.

The prince looked upon his beautiful bride-to-be with a strange, hollow feeling in his chest. She smiled at him but it brought him no joy; at once, he realized that he didn't love her. He looked out the window and tried to remember something that was nagging at him in the back of his mind, begging him to recall what it was. Something… or somepony was missing.

She stared at the words, the quill hovering at the end of the sentence, waiting to continue. When her mind drew nothing but a blank, she groaned and dropped the journal. "Oh, what's the use? It's not like anypony's going to read it, so why keep writing?"

Rolling onto her side, she clenched her eyes shut and tried not to think about the story she was working on. Instead, she tried to think about Velvet and what she was going to do on Monday, or if she would try to go over and see her before then, but it was no use. Her mind was full of uncertainty and fear.

Slowly, she rolled back over to face her journal. The quill hesitantly lifted and started to write.

"Excuse me, my dear," he said and walked away before she could respond. "I need to get some fresh air."

Prince Dashing walked down the corridor, ignoring the mare's calls for him to not leave her. It was the day before their wedding and she wanted to be near to him more than ever. She had grown increasingly needy, now that he thought about it. Just leaving her sight seemed to cause her a great deal of stress. He felt as though he should be touched and flattered by the sentiment, but he instead felt suffocated.

Crystal paused. She reread the words she had written and shifted to sit upright. "Suffocated, huh?" She scrunched up her nose. "Wait a minute, am I writing a love story, or am I just complaining about life?"

She set the quill back down and looked around the room at her posters. Until Velvet, they had been her friends, comforting her and convincing her that a wonderful life of love and happiness awaited when she was older. Now, they were just posters hanging on the walls, and she felt lonelier than ever.

Perhaps she would go over in the morning and try to see Velvet and her parents. Would they want to see her, though? After all, that seemed like the first real, raw taste of Canterlot that Sunbeam and Pepper Ridge had received, and she had brought on the brunt of it.

She shook her head vigorously and dropped back down onto the bed, burying her face against the pillow. "She's still my friend," she muttered. "And I want to see her."

She clenched her eyes shut, begging for sleep to bring the morning faster. The sooner she saw Velvet's face again, the sooner she'd know what to say. She was sure of it.

Fluttering Hope

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By the time Crystal awoke again, her parents were already gone—which was no surprise. After all, the weekend was prime time for social events, and that suited her just fine on that particular morning. She didn't want to deal with explaining to them what had happened or face whatever consequences her actions would bring.

She lifted her copy of the next volume in the Ballerina of Crime series, Prima Donna and the Lost Lagoon, and ran out of her room with it trailing behind her, enveloped in her light pink magic. It was still early, but sitting and waiting would drive her crazy. She arrived at the condo door in record time, pausing to pant and gasp for air, before she raised a hoof to knock. The door opened slowly, hesitantly.

"Hello? Oh…" Sunbeam looked down at Crystal with a mixed expression. "Good morning, Crystal." She glanced over her shoulder. "Perhaps now isn't the best time."

Crystal couldn't help but look through Sunbeam's legs. Pepper Ridge and Velvet were sitting at the coffee table, which had the cake from the party sitting on it between them. Never in her life had she seen such sad faces on ponies eating cake. For breakfast.

"Please, Mrs. Sunbeam," she pleaded, looking back up at Sunbeam. "I need to talk to Velvet!"

Velvet's ears twitched at the sound of Crystal's voice. "Crystal?" She ran over to the door and Sunbeam stepped out of the way. "Yeah, I need to talk to you, too." The stern look on her face was unnerving, especially the puffy, tell-tale eyes of a night spent crying.

"Velvet, I—"

"No, I wanna talk first." Velvet sniffed. "I don't know who you are. Are you a mean pony like last night or are you a nice pony like I thought you were?"

Crystal's ears fell. "I—I want to be the nice pony."

"Then why were you so mean? You're so nice to me, so why did you have to act like that?"

"Because that's how you have to be to survive in Canterlot!"

The answer didn't seem to satisfy the filly, who just stared at her.

Crystal sat down and hung her head. "I don't like being mean, but if you're not mean, you'll be walked all over. And I couldn't just stand back and let Golden talk about you that way!"

Finally, Velvet uttered one word that Crystal didn't expect. "Why?"

She paused to think it over. "Because you're my friend, and—"

"No, I mean, why do you have to be mean?"

"Becau—" She stopped mid-word when she realized she had no good answer. "Because, that's just the way it's always been."

"Why?"

Crystal looked up at her with a furrowed brow. "I dunno why."

Velvet stepped closer. Her voice was softer, more pleading than interrogating. "So then why be mean?"

"Be—"

Velvet raised a hoof and shook her head. "'Because' isn't an answer, Crystal."

Crystal sighed and rubbed the back of her neck. "Well, then, I guess, maybe—I mean, I don't want to, so, if you really make me think about it, then I don't have a good answer."

"So why not stop?"

There was a heavy moment of silence between them before Velvet wrapped her forelegs around Crystal in a tight hug. The sudden embrace startled Crystal out of all thought and sense of self, so much so that she lost her concentration and the book she had brought hit the ground with a loud thud.

"You're my only friend, Crystal! But I can't be friends with you if you're going to be mean. I can't stand it, 'cause I know that's not what you're really like! If you'd just be nice to everypony like you are to me, then we could all be friends!"

Crystal said nothing. She doubted that it would be that simple, but—why wouldn't it? After all, she responded to mean words with more mean words. She had never tried responding with nice words. Perhaps—

"I'll try." Crystal finally returned the hug. "I won't be mean anymore to anypony. I promise. Cross my heart and hope to cry, else I'll live in a pig's sty."

Velvet squeezed her tight, then pulled away and looked at her with a small smile. "Then I forgive you. Do you wanna have some cake?"

Crystal giggled. "You mean the cake with the evil butter in it?"

Pepper Ridge looked up from his plate with a downtrodden expression. "Butter isn't evil," he muttered.

"Oh!" Crystal's smile fell and she gave a serious nod. "I know, Mr. Ridge. At least, I think I know. They don't make a lot of things with butter here. Not since butter went out of style."

"How does butter go out of style?!" He buried his face in his hooves. "It's—It's butter!" He sighed heavily. "I'm beginning to think moving here was a mistake."

Crystal had no idea how to respond to that. She quietly, tentatively lifted a forkful of cake to her mouth. Her eyes widened when the moist, spongy chocolate and soft, smooth buttercream graced her tongue.

"Oh. My. Celestia!" She hopped up on her hindlegs to rest her forelegs on the table so that she could be that much closer to the cake. The fork flew back to a slice and retrieved another bite for her. "This is the best cake I've ever had in my life!"

"Thanks," Pepper Ridge said, though his voice held no joy.

"You made this?" Crystal looked up at him with sparkling eyes. "Really?"

"He bakes, I decorate," Sunbeam said, sitting at the table. "We had a small bakery in Manehattan. Things weren't great, but they were good enough. We were going to try to open one here, but nopony will let us rent a storefront to even try."

Crystal rolled her eyes. "Ugh, Canterlot is kinda dumb that way. It's 'cause nopony knows who you are. You've got to get your name out there first."

"And how are we supposed to do that without a store, not to mention the fact that everypony hates butter?" Pepper Ridge poked his slice of cake with a fork. "I can't bake without it. It's not the same."

Crystal was silent for a moment as she thought on the matter over a few more bites of cake. Canterlot elites were such a paradox. They loved to be the first doing or wearing something, but they hated to try new things. Her brow furrowed and she grumbled, "You know, if you could just get ponies to try it, I know they'd love it."

Sunbeam shook her head. "I'm sorry, sugarbeet, but we won't lie about using butter, so—"

"Wait! Mrs. Sunbeam." Crystal looked up at her. "It's like you said last night: butter in moderation is okay. So…" She dropped her gaze to the small bit of cake remaining on her plate. "What if you made cupcakes?"

They all stared at the cake with varying degrees of enthusiasm: Crystal and Velvet were the most excited, Sunbeam looked hopeful, and Pepper Ridge seemed uncertain. All eyes turned on Pepper, waiting for him to decide.

Crystal bit her lower lip in anticipation and asked quietly, "Please, Mr. Ridge?"

"Please, Dad?" Velvet's ears drooped.

Sunbeam clasped her hooves under her chin. "Please, dear?"

"All right," he finally said with soft chuckle. He turned his cautious yet gentle gaze on Crystal. "I'm listening."

Crystal threw her hooves in the air. "Yay! So, my parents are sponsoring an event next week. I'll convince them to let you cater the desserts! And if they eat some, then other ponies will try it, and they'll all love it!"

Sunbeam put her hoof on her husband's foreleg. "It's worth a shot, dear. It's better than giving up, right?"

He looked at his wife with uncertain eyes that lightened as he smiled. "Cupcakes, huh? I can do that." He looked back at Crystal. "Are you sure you want to do this? What if the ponies don't like them and it ruins your parents' event?"

"Pfft!" Crystal laughed. "I promise it'll be fine. No, it'll be perfect! Now,"—she nudged her plate forward—"may I have another slice?"

Velvet smiled from where she sat across the table, ears wiggling. Crystal started to smile back, then jumped up with sudden realization.

"Oh! I forgot!" Crystal pivoted on her hindlegs and ran for the front door. Sitting outside on the ground was the book she had brought with her, sitting and waiting patiently despite its abrupt abandonment. She levitated it up and trotted back into the living area. "I brought you the next Prima Donna book, Velvet."

Velvet gasped and nearly jumped over the table, but contained her excitement just enough to run around it. "Thank you, thank you, thank you!" She grabbed the book out of the air and hugged it to her chest. "I'm gonna start reading it right now!" She smiled a little sheepishly at Crystal. "Um, do you wanna read it with me?"

Crystal nodded. "Sure!" As they scurried into Velvet's bedroom, she called over her shoulder, "Thanks for the cake, Mr. Ridge!"

For how cute and sweet Velvet was, her room was even cuter and sweeter. The walls were covered in Prima Donna posters, feathery pillows adorned her light pink bed, and even the stand of her lamp was shaped like a ballet slipper.

And yet, it felt so different from Crystal's own room. Velvet was obsessed over Prima Donna, an icon for preteen fillies. It was appropriate for their age. Foal's tales weren't.

Especially not foal's tales about princesses and true love.

Swallowing her bubbling insecurities, Crystal focused on the book that Velvet set down on the floor and had spread open to the first chapter. "Ready?"

"Totally!" Velvet squeaked, splayed on her stomach and kicking her hindlegs in excitement.

Crystal plopped down beside her. One well-trained ear twitched at the sound of Sunbeam and Pepper's voices out in the living room.

"Maybe we shouldn't think about moving to Ponyville just yet," Sunbeam said softly, but not softly enough.

Ponyville? No, no, no! If they moved to Ponyville, then—

"I don't know." Pepper Ridge sighed. "The way the girls acted last night? That's not a healthy environment for Velvet. I've heard Ponyville is a nice, simple town."

Completely oblivious to Crystal's world potentially coming to an end, Velvet read aloud, "The wind howled. The shutters creaked. Prima Donna had to tune these sounds out, however, for there was one hiding underneath them—hoofsteps, and not her own."

Crystal wanted to focus on her friend, she really did, but her pounding heart and alert ears were much more interested in the conversation outside. They couldn't move. They just couldn't!

"I think Crystal is good for her," Sunbeam replied, "and I think Crystal needs Velvet, too. Let's just see how things go at her parents' event before we make any decisions."

Their silence was filled by Velvet's excited voice. "Oh my gosh! Page two and she's already in a fight?"

Crystal feigned a smile. Forget the book. For the first time in forever, a stupid social event was the most important thing in her life. Her friendship was on the line! What would she do without Velvet? The very idea sent Crystal into a cold sweat.

"I just want her to be happy," Pepper mumbled, his voice only audible from Crystal's intense focus.

"I knew she was going to do that!" Velvet exclaimed. "Prima Donna is so cool!"

Sunbeam chuckled. "She sounds happy to me, dear."

"She does, doesn't she?" Pepper sighed, but this time with more levity. "All right. Well, let's put away the rest of this cake and start thinking on some flavors for the cupcakes!"

Cupcakes. Crystal knew next to nothing about them. When she left, she'd have to go to the library and research as much as she could.

She also needed to get the guest list from her parents. No matter what, she had to make sure the cupcakes were perfect. Knowing her audience would be paramount to achieving that goal.

For now, however, her best friend was looking at her expectantly. Maybe the cupcakes could wait a little while longer.

"What? Don't stop reading!" Crystal batted a hoof at the open book. "Keep going!"

Velvet beamed and looked back down at the words. "Sweat glistened on her hooves, but she continued on. Nothing would get in her way."

Crystal sat quietly at dinner with her parents, listening to them talk about the various events they had been to that day while they ate in the smallest of bites. She hoped to go unnoticed for the evening until the time was right, but when she felt her father's gaze on her, she knew she wouldn't be so lucky.

"So, dear," Jet Set started. "I heard you had quite the evening at Velvet Step's party. Would you care to explain?"

Crystal swallowed and didn't look up. "Well, um—"

Upper Crust sighed. "Darling, don't stammer. It's unbecoming. And please, do look at your father when you're speaking to him."

Crystal raised her head and tried not to look him directly in the eyes. Instead, she stared at his forehead. It was much less intimidating.

"I got in a fight with Golden Pants," she said as clearly as she could, burying the fear.

Both of her parents made sounds of varying disapproval.

Upper Crust shook her head. "A lady does not fight."

Jet Set lowered his fork and pushed his plate away. He did not acknowledge his wife, instead keeping his gaze and focus firmly on Crystal. "From what Fancy Pants informed me, Golden Pants was the one misbehaving that night."

Crystal blinked, mouth agape until her mother chided her about it. "Um, yeah?"

"Mind your stammering."

Jet Set continued to stare at Crystal. "Yes. According to him, she came home crying, saying that you had verbally attacked her and humiliated her in front of everypony.

"As he and I know, my daughter would never misbehave of her own accord." His gaze hardened. "She is far too well-trained for such things."

Crystal swallowed. Her throat was dry.

Surprisingly, his face lightened and he smiled. "Golden Pants admitted her fault and that she provoked you." He tapped his hoof on the table. "Never start a fight, but never turn tail. That's my girl!"

Upper Crust rolled her eyes. "I fail to see how fighting of any nature is lady-like at all."

Jet Set finally looked at his wife. "Would you have our daughter be a doormat and walked upon?"

Upper Crust huffed. "Certainly not!"

"Then you should be glad for our strong little girl."

Crystal stared at the food on her plate as the conversation returned to normal, though her heart was still pounding in her chest. It was commonplace for her mother to scold her, so much so that it held little meaning or fear for her.

However, her father rarely involved himself in punishment. Sure, he would correct her behavior from time to time, but to receive an actual lecture from him was terrifying. The fact that the lecture she was expecting suddenly turned into praise did not calm her already frightened heart.

Meanwhile, her parents discussed the guest list for the upcoming event, which Crystal had been waiting for to have a chance to interject on behalf of Velvet's parents. She just had to play her cards exactly right.

It was to be a formal-attire photo gallery of Photo Finish's latest work. All the big names were mentioned, including Photo Finish herself. Crystal glanced up a few times as the conversation meandered topics. She needed an opening, some kind of way in.

"—and Donut Joe offered to cater the desserts."

And there it was.

"Donuts!" Upper Crust scoffed. "At our event? Can you imagine? I told him to promptly reconsider his offer, for his own sake."

Crystal cleared her throat. "Well, I did hear about this brand new bakery. Actually, it's so new, they haven't even opened their doors yet!"

"Brand new?" her parents asked in unison, their eyes on her.

Crystal nodded. "Nopony's heard of them, even!"

Upper Crust leaned in closer. "You must tell me their name, darling. Our event could use something new to help draw more interest."

"It's called Sunridge Sweets. They make cupcakes!"

"Cupcakes?" Jet Set raised a hoof to straighten his glasses. "How quaint! You can't find decent cupcakes in Canterlot these days. Are they any good?"

She beamed up at him. "The best cupcakes I've ever had!"

"Well, you must get us in touch with them so we can book them immediately, assuming they haven't already been snatched up."

"I already had them pencil us in," Crystal said, smiling as sweetly and innocently as she could. "I'll let them know to ink the date!"

Upper Crust reached over and patted her on the head. "What a good, thoughtful daughter you are. Now if you could just curb your fighting, you would be a perfect little filly."

"Yes, Mom." She fought the urge to roll her eyes and returned to her dinner while her parents resumed their event planning discussion.

The following Monday, Crystal could hardly keep still in her seat as she waited for Velvet to arrive at school, a grin plastered on her face.

"What are you so happy about, Crystal Wishes?" Golden Pants sneered as she walked past Crystal's desk. "You ruined my weekend."

The grin fell into a somber, straight line. "I'm sorry."

"Yeah, I bet you are." Golden rolled her eyes and stepped up into her seat.

"No, Golden, I'm really sorry." Crystal shook her head. "I shouldn't have said what I said. I know how hard it is to be the daughter of a Canterlot father."

Golden stared at her with irritated confusion. "What? My daddy is the best. I don't know what you're talking about!" She turned up her nose and faced the front of the classroom.

Crystal opened her mouth to respond, but closed it instead. It would take time. She'd just have to be patient.

Out of the corner of her eye, she saw the familiar colors of light pink and mauve. "Velvet!" She waved her hooves to urge Velvet over faster, who obliged with a gallop across the classroom. "Great news!"

Velvet jumped into her seat. "What?"

"My parents agreed to it!" She smiled. "Your parents get to cater the desserts!"

Golden's attention was snapped back to them. "What? They're going to let some noponies ruin their event?"

Crystal shook her head. "It's going to be awesome, just wait!" She drummed her hooves against the top of her desk. "Just wait 'til you try one, Golden."

"Like I'm going to ruin myself with her parents' fat cakes." Golden rolled her eyes and turned away.

Velvet and Crystal both sighed, looked at each other, and giggled.

"Don't worry," Crystal assured her. "It'll be perfect."

Velvet rested her chin on her hooves. "I know. I mean, I'm nervous, but I know it'll work out."

Crystal hesitated, then scooted in her chair to be a little closer. "Um, so, if it's okay, I'd like to come over Wednesday."

"Sure, but why?" She tilted her head.

"I'd like to help with the flavors and decorations." She raised her hooves. "Not that I don't trust your parents' judgment or anything! I just, well, I mean, I know the kind of ponies that are gonna show up, and, so—"

"That'd be great!" Velvet nodded with enthusiasm. "Mom was just talking last night about how she had no idea what they were going to do! I think she'd really like the help making decisions."

Crystal lowered her hooves back to her desk, folding them neatly. "Then it's settled! I'll go home with you and we can have a baking party."

An Intimate Affair

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The day before the event, Crystal went home with Velvet as planned. The last time she saw the condo, it was immaculately clean and tidy. That day, however, it looked like a bakery had walked in, exploded, and left without so much as an apology.

Baking tins, some empty and some still holding cupcakes, were sitting on every surface available. Some tins were stacked on top of other tins. Cupcake wrappers were tossed about haphazardly, some used and some still safe in their original packaging. Once-bitten-and-then-rejected cupcakes were sitting everywhere, discarded and rejected.

Sunbeam was sitting on the couch with her forehead resting on her hooves while she stared at a magazine for inspiration. Pepper Ridge was in the kitchen. The smell of every kind of cupcake flavor imaginable filled the air and while the idea seemed pleasant, the reality was a confusing cacophony of scents that overwhelmed her nose.

Crystal took a moment to regain her thoughts after walking into a crime scene of cupcake mishaps. Velvet cleared her throat to get her mother's attention.

"Huh? Sugarpop, did you bri—" Sunbeam looked up with wide, tired eyes. "Oh, thank Celestia you are here, Crystal! My husband has gone mad, and only you can save him."

Pepper skidded into the room, standing on his hindlegs, stirring a bowl of batter with his forelegs. "Crystal! What do Canterlot ponies like?!" His eyes darted about the room. "I've made everything. Try it all!" He gave a lopsided smile before returning to the kitchen.

Crystal blinked a few times, then put her hoof to her face. "I should have come sooner." How was she supposed to get them under control? Well, she had seen royal guards get yelled at before, and that seemed to work for them. She sighed, then took a deep breath and shouted, "Mr. Ridge! Mrs. Sunbeam! Stand at attention!"

Startled at the power behind her voice—and, if she was being honest, it startled her, too—they both hurried over to her.

Crystal glanced at the mixing bowl Pepper was still holding. "Put that bowl down, Mr. Ridge!" After he did so, she started to pace back and forth in front of them. "All right, listen up, Mr. Ridge! Canterlot ponies are concerned 'bout their health. So chocolate is right out!"

Pepper nodded meekly. "Makes sense."

"Stick to more delicate flavors that you won't find normally." She stopped and pointed a hoof at him. "What are some flavors you can put in a cupcake that you'd find at a formal event?"

He looked down at the floor, then back up at her. "I can make a pink champagne cupcake."

Sunbeam suggested, "Your tiramisu cupcake would go over well."

"I really like your red velvet cupcakes!" Velvet chimed in.

Crystal continued pacing. "Pink champagne, tiramisu, and red velvet." She stopped and faced Pepper. "You got that, chef?"

"Yes, ma'am!" Getting into a more cheerful spirit, Pepper saluted and puffed out his chest. "Right away, ma'am!" He trotted back into the kitchen in a much saner manner than how he had skidded out of it.

Crystal turned her attention on Sunbeam. "Mrs. Sunbeam!"

Though she still looked weary, Sunbeam smiled at Crystal's enthusiasm. "Yes, ma'am?"

Crystal thrust a hoof at the couch sitting against the wall. "March back over there and get some rest while Velvet and I clean up!"

"Thank you, ma'am." She patted Crystal on the head, then went over to collapse on the couch.

"All right, Velvet," Crystal said, turning to look at her, "it's up to you and me to put this place back in order."

Velvet stood as tall as her little frame allowed. "Yes, ma'am!"

By the time Pepper had baked a batch of each flavor, Crystal and Velvet had finished cleaning. Sunbeam rose from the couch and joined them in tasting each one while she contemplated the decorations.

The pink champagne cupcake received a delicate, light pink frosting with small pink edible pearls. The red velvet, naturally, paired well with a fluffy cream cheese frosting and garnished with a chocolate figure in the shape of bit signs to match Upper Crust's cutie mark.

Lastly, a mascarpone frosting was selected for the tiramisu cupcake, with a dusting of cocoa powder guided by a futuristic airship-shaped stencil that Sunbeam made with Crystal's help.

Pleased with their decisions, and with how everything was finally in order, Crystal gave each of them a hug before she left to return home, spirits renewed.

After school the next day, Crystal walked out to find Upper Crust waiting for her. Smothering the urge to groan, she smiled half-heartedly. "Hi, Mom."

"Hello, darling." Upper Crust waved a hoof to motion her over. "I came to ensure you didn't dawdle with your friend." She paused to acknowledge Velvet with a glance. "Hello, Velvet Step. Goodbye, Velvet Step."

Crystal managed to give Velvet a quick, brief hug before she was ushered away by her overeager mother.

"I have very little time to doll you up, so there's certainly no time for you to idle precious minutes away." She sighed. "I wanted to pull you out of school today so that we could go over everypony's names, but your father insists that you are old enough to remember them by now. I hope he is right."

"Yes, Mom." She trotted alongside her, her snout raised high in the air so that she matched her mother's pose. It hurt to keep her head tilted back that far, but if she didn't, she would just have to hear about it.

"I also noticed that Sunridge Sweets belongs to your friend's parents. More than anything, I hope you have the decency to not let your friendship cloud your judgment and embarrass us with a false recommendation."

Crystal lost her poise as she stopped, looked at her mother, and frowned. "No! Their cupcakes are really, really good, and I promise you'll like them!"

Upper Crust gave a small roll of her eyes. "You needn't raise your voice, darling."

Crystal grumbled softly under her breath and resumed her uppity walk. "Yes, Mom."

Unfortunately, when they finally arrived at the event, Crystal was forced to stand beside her parents and—as her mother repeatedly instructed—smile and look pretty. She was occasionally prompted to talk, which was even worse than just standing and smiling.

For the most part, however, she spent the first hour of the photo gallery standing, smiling, and giving polite responses when questioned. Crystal was convinced that all of her parents' events were boring, but this one seemed especially so.

They had the entire royal gardens to themselves, but kept it confined to a small clearing with a circle of easels making up the perimeter. Photographs of famous supermodels in the most ridiculous outfits faced inward so that guests were literally surrounded by fashion.

Photo Finish stood in the center of it all, responding to all inquiries with one-liners in her heavy accent. "Da magicks," she said more than anything else.

Nopony knew what that meant, but they all nodded and agreed with her anyway. That was just how it was in high society. Agreeing with the pony above you no matter what was the only way to survive.

When her parents had greeted everypony at length and it was nearing dinner, they made their way to the banquet table. Sunbeam and Pepper had just started laying out the assortment of cupcakes on the very end of the table next to the fruit bowl.

"Hello, Sunridge Sweets." Jet Set smiled cordially. "I've heard great things about your cupcakes, and if I do say so myself, they look quite delicious." He raised his hoof to his glasses and his smile widened. "The decorations are spot-on! Good show, I say."

Sunbeam and Pepper gave respectful bows of their heads. Pepper was shaking slightly, so Sunbeam spoke for them.

"It's an honor that you would allow us to debut at your event, Jet Set, Upper Crust." She smiled. "We're very grateful. Please, by all means, you should have the first ones."

Jet Set levitated the tiramisu cupcake and was admiring the shape of an airship while Upper Crust eyed the one modeled after her cutie mark with slight interest.

The attending ponies started to crowd around, all eyes on Jet Set and Upper Crust, awaiting their review. Crystal and Velvet stood off to the side inside the circle of ponies. Velvet trembled beside her, terrified of what the judgmental and influential ponies would think. Crystal grabbed one of her hooves and gave it a small, reassuring squeeze.

"It'll be okay," she whispered to Velvet. "I promise."

Velvet started to smile when another filly's voice rose above the soft whispering of the crowd.

"I'd be careful. There's tons of butter in those cupcakes."

Crystal's head turned in what felt like slow motion as the whispering grew louder. Standing beside Fancy Pants was the innocently smiling filly, Golden. Crystal felt her heart sink in her chest and the hoof she held trembled again.

Pepper's expression was a mixture of defeat and anger, but he kept his mouth shut when Sunbeam put a hoof on his shoulder.

"I apologize," she said in a voice that neared a strained whisper while all eyes—each narrowed and disapproving—were on them. "I thought you already knew."

"I'm afraid I wasn't informed of this mishap." Jet Set frowned down at Crystal, who shrunk back under his gaze. "Butter is terribly fattening and not something we condone in Canterlot."

Upper Crust opened her mouth and turned her head to also look at their daughter, and then froze.

Crystal stood beside Velvet as they held each other's hooves to seek mutual comfort. Her ears were folded back and both of them had tears in their eyes. Crystal looked between her father and her mother, waiting for the scolding, for the harsh words, for the insults.

But instead, she gazed into her mother's eyes, and Upper Crust gazed back. It was a moment in time Crystal would never forget. It was the first time she had ever felt that her mother saw her not as an accessory or a doll, but as her daughter in need of her support.

The air was tense and hung thick with gossip that died down into a few gasps as Upper Crust lifted a cupcake, pulled back the wrapper, and took a bite. The smile that followed was another thing Crystal would never forget: a sincere, earnest smile, with no pretenses or ambitions. She smiled purely and simply, and it was the most beautiful she had ever been in Crystal's eyes.

"It's delicious," she exclaimed and took another bite.

Jet Set looked at his wife in surprise. "But dear—"

"Oh, it's only a little cupcake. How much butter could it possibly have in it?" Upper Crust raised a brow.

Sunbeam gently chimed in, "In moderation, butter is fine, and these cupcakes are perfectly sized for moderation."

"Wonderful news!" Upper Crust turned that smile on Sunbeam, who smiled back.

Jet Set cleared his throat and lifted his cupcake back up. All focus was on him as he followed suit. When his eyes widened, he turned to the crowd of ponies around them and announced, "We are pleased to share with you fine ponies this afternoon, the best dessert in all of Canterlot!"

Fancy Pants was among the first ponies in line for a cupcake. He nudged Golden forward with a hoof, his expression calm and collected as he asked her, "Now, sweetheart, which cupcake do you want?"

"I don't want any of them," she muttered bitterly at her defeat.

"I didn't ask if you wanted one, I asked which you wanted." He looked down at her with a stern frown. "I am loath to call a dessert a punishment, but since you must fight it, then I must insist!" He looked back up at Sunbeam and Pepper with a charming smile. "Please do forgive my daughter. She is a good filly, but she can be a bit of a hoofful at times."

"Oh, please, think nothing of it!" Pepper quickly responded, overwhelmed by Fancy Pants's suave manner. "I only recently learned that butter is met with contempt here. Please, let me apologize!"

Sunbeam hid a small giggle behind a hoof. "We have tiramisu, pink champagne, and red velvet."

"Sweetheart, you like Donut Joe's red velvet donuts, don't you?"

"Yeah, but those don't have—" Before she could continue, Fancy Pants had levitated a red velvet cupcake and stuck it in front of her face. She groaned, rolled her eyes, and took an agonizingly slow, tiny bite.

Her ears perked straight up and stepped back to stare at the cupcake. "It…" She mumbled the rest.

Fancy Pants leaned down his head and tilted it to angle his ear toward her. "What's that?"

"It's—" She glanced around to see how many ponies were near, then finally finished, "It's far better than Donut Joe's donuts."

"That's a good girl." He patted her on the head, selected a cupcake for himself, and guided her out of the line.

Off to the side, Velvet finally let go of the breath she had been holding for too long and gasped for air.

"I can't believe it!" Velvet shook her head. "Even Golden likes them! I—I think my parents will be able to open a bakery after this! Crystal, I can't thank you enough!" She looked at her and hesitated. "Crystal? Why are you crying?"

Crystal blinked a few times and rubbed her eyes with a hoof. "Um, sorry, I'm listening." She paused. "Actually, no, I'm not. I'm sorry, give me a moment, okay?"

She ran away and through the crowd, gaze darting around. Her father was talking to Hoity Toity—High Horse diligently at his side but otherwise ignored by him—as they enjoyed their cupcakes, but Upper Crust wasn't with him. She stopped to look in all directions and finally caught sight of her mother. "Mom!" She ran toward her. "Mom, um, I—I—"

Her mother was facing away from her, but she could easily imagine her expression: cold and rigid as it always was. "Stammering."

Crystal took a small breath. A tremble ran through her, but she pushed through the fear, ducked her head low to stare at the ground, and said, "Thank you."

Upper Crust was silent for a long, awkward moment. "Please don't thank me just for being a mother. Now, darling, don't just leave your friend standing over there all alone. It's rude."

Crystal hesitated. "Okay." She stepped forward and wrapped her forelegs around her mother's hindleg in a tight hug, then ran back to the buffet table to join back up with Velvet. "I think this is a total success!"

"Right?!" Velvet sprung into the air with the exclamation. "This is the best day ever!"

Smiling brightly, Crystal looked around to see Sunbeam and Pepper talking to the elites of Canterlot. It was such good publicity for them! Her smile widened when Fancy Pants approached them and she heard the words 'business proposal'.

Her gaze darted over to where her mother still stood away from the crowd, one of the cupcakes designed for her held in her magic. Upper Crust plucked one of the little bit sign decorations from where it rested in the frosting and ate it. After a pause, she looked over her shoulder and made eye contact with Crystal.

A soft smile graced her mother's lips like the one before; it was just as beautiful, if not more. Crystal wished Upper Crust would always smile like that, but for the time being, she'd just be grateful for what she had accomplished for her friend's family.

A New Flame

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Just before the grand opening of Sunbeam and Pepper's bakery, Crystal was invited to a small pre-opening party at the brand new shop. It was perfectly located off the main street next to Chapeau! and Upper Regalia. The sign hanging outside proudly said in a fancy script: Sunridge Sweets — Serving Fresh, Perfectly Portioned Pastries.

When she walked in, she was greeted by an excited Velvet, who threw her forelegs around her. "Crystal! Isn't it great?! Doesn't it look awesome?!"

Crystal looked around with a bright smile. "It's really nice!"

It had taken all of the summer break to get up and running, with Crystal coming over after her finishing school classes to help with the painting and decorating. Now it was complete, and totally magnifique, as her mother would say.

The walls were a soft, dappled pink from how they had been painted with sponges. Chair railing went all along them, with white and reddish-pink stripes going down from the molding to the floor.

The counter and display case stood against the back wall to give plenty of room for what Crystal knew would be an ever-busy line of hungry ponies. The rest of the floor space was occupied by round tables and tall chairs like a fancy Prench cafe, with one corner dedicated to tiny and colorful foals' furniture. Cupcakes were adored by ponies of all ages, after all.

Fancy Pants stood at the counter, conversing with Sunbeam and Pepper. After her parents' party, he had approached the two with an offer to sponsor them so they could get on their hooves. Despite being one of the most influential ponies in Canterlot, Crystal realized he was one of the nicest, too. It gave her some hope that she might be able to be like him when she was older.

"Ah, little Crystal!" Fancy Pants smiled at her when he noticed her in the room. "Excuse me, Mrs. Sunbeam, Mr. Ridge." He nodded at them before walking over to Crystal. "I have to say, sticking your neck out there for your friends like that is quite admirable. I do wish you and my daughter could be better friends. I believe she would benefit from your good influence."

Crystal rubbed her hoof against the other leg and forced the words despite the bitter feeling in her chest. "I'll try my best, Mr. Pants."

"Very good, then!" He patted her on the head. "Well, I must be off. Best of luck to you, Sunridge Sweets! I look forward to your success."

He gave a small bow of his head before he left the bakery. Velvet squealed and hopped in a circle around Crystal, her legs kicking as she frolicked about.

"I can't believe this is really happening!" She tackled Crystal to the ground. "You're the best friend I could ever have! Thank you so much!"

Crystal laughed and squirmed out from underneath her. "You're welcome!" They stood up and she affectionately nuzzled Velvet's cheek before trotting to the counter. "I'm so glad for you all, Mrs. Sunbeam, Mr. Ridge."

"It's odd to say as an adult to a filly, but—" Sunbeam smiled. "We are in your debt, Crystal."

"Huh? Oh, no! No way!" She sat on her hindlegs to wave her forehooves. "It was just a favor for a friend!"

Pepper pushed a small box across the counter toward her. "Please, at least let us give you this. It's a vanilla and rose cupcake that we're calling Rosy Wishes."

Crystal giggled as the box raised up off the counter and lowered to her eye level. The lid opened to reveal an off-white cupcake topped with light pink frosting, piped and arranged to look like a blooming rose. She had to tap one of the petals to ensure it was indeed frosting and not a real blossom on top, then licked the frosting off her hoof. It was velvety smooth with a delicate flavor, the taste and texture exactly like a rose petal gliding over her tongue.

"It's perfect!" She trotted the box over to the nearest table and hopped up onto a chair. "Which of you knew that I like roses?"

Velvet giggled and hopped onto the stool next to her. "I told them! I mean, it's kinda obvious, since you always smell like them."

Crystal pulled some of her hair to her nose and sniffed. She did take a bath with rose petals every other night, but she hadn't really noticed that the scent had soaked into her coat and mane. "Huh, you're right."

As they enjoyed the rose cupcake, Crystal allowed her gaze to wander the bakery. It was perfectly neat and tidy—thanks to Sunbeam, she was sure—with the gentle aroma of baking cupcakes and sugary frosting in the air. She couldn't wait to see it full of ponies enjoying the sweet treats Sunbeam and Pepper would make. She just knew it was going to be a success.

Crystal smiled and looked back at Velvet. "So, have you ever heard of Nightmare Night?"

Velvet shook her head. "Uh-uh. What is it?"

"Ponyville has this really interesting festival every year called Nightmare Night where everypony dresses up in costumes and goes around getting candy from all the houses in town! It's being held next month. We should take the train to Ponyville and sneak in!"

"Huh? Won't we get in trouble?" Velvet's ears folded back with uncertainty. "We don't live in Ponyville."

Crystal grinned. "We'll be in costume, so nopony will know where we live or don't live!"

Velvet tapped her chin as she thought on it for a moment, then turned her head to look at her parents. "Mom, Dad? Is it okay if Crystal and I go to Ponyville next month?"

"I don't see why not!" Sunbeam poked her head out from the kitchen and smiled. "As long as it's fine with her parents."

Velvet looked to Crystal, who shrugged and said, "I'm sure I can convince them, one way or another!" Crystal rested her muzzle on her hooves, a grin on her face. "Ooh, I'll bet you a cupcake I know what you're gonna dress up as!"

They sat in silence, Velvet tapping her chin and Crystal continuing to grin. Velvet mulled over her options, then gasped and both fillies exclaimed at the same time, "Prima Donna!"

"I can be Prima Donna?" Velvet bounced in her seat. "Really?!"

Crystal nodded. "Yeah! You can be anything you want on Nightmare Night!"

Velvet squealed, throwing her hooves into the air. "I can't wait! It's going to be the best night ever!"

Crystal giggled and reached across the space between them to hug Velvet, then hopped down from her seat. "All right, I gotta go, but I'll see you tomorrow at school!" She turned her head to address the mare and stallion behind the counter. "Good luck with your grand opening, Mrs. Sunbeam and Mr. Ridge! I know it'll be great!"

"Thank you, Crystal!" they called, waving as she left the bakery.

The buzz generated from the event and Fancy Pants's sponsorship brought in more customers than they could count. Bits were piling up and conversation was filing in the air as ponies had two or three cupcakes each.

Each pony who stood in line said the same thing: "Well, they're just so little that one more couldn't hurt!"

Eventually, Sunridge Sweets became the Canterlot destination for sweet treats; however, there was always room for Crystal and Velvet to hang out after school, which they did frequently.

Velvet Step sighed happily as she looked around the busy bakery. "I still can't believe it. It's like straight out of a movie."

"Isn't it?" Crystal mused, a shy smile on her lips that she tried to smother.

She had already started writing a short story based on Sunridge Sweets and its rise to fame. Though, of course, she had changed the whole cast to instead consist of a poor stallion struggling to get his bakery off the ground and a wealthy mare that helped him out of the kindness of her heart—and a secret love for the stallion.

It was her first time not writing a typical prince and princess tale, and she hadn't gotten sleep some nights because she was too busy writing. Something about it just sang in her heart and the words flowed effortlessly.

"Hey, what's that goofy look on your face for?" Velvet leaned in with a curious smile.

"Nothing! Just, um—" She glanced around, then pointed at a suspicious figure. "That!"

The figure, no larger in size than them, wore a cloak with the hood drawn up and kept glancing about nervously. The attempt to go unnoticed just made them stand out all the more.

Velvet lowered her voice to a whisper. "Who do you think it is?"

"Gotta be somepony from our class," Crystal offered. "Probably too embarrassed to admit they're here."

Velvet nodded in agreement. "But I wonder who?"

Before they could wonder for too long, the figure had ordered their cupcake and was in the middle of running away dramatically until they stepped on the hem of the cloak and fell flat on their face. The pastry box tumbled to the ground and the cloak flopped forward, revealing the tell-tale cutie mark of two interlinked horseshoes, one bronze and one silver.

"High Horse?" Crystal hopped down from the stool and trotted over, but the filly hurried back up to her hooves. "Are you okay?"

"I think you have me confused for some other pony!" came High Horse's unmistakable voice from under the hood.

Crystal tilted her head. "It's okay. You don't have to hide it or be embarrassed. Velvet's parents' cupcakes are really, really good!"

The poorly disguised High Horse shook her head frantically. "Golden said we couldn't be friends anymore if I got caught buying sweets from Velvet's parents!"

Velvet frowned from where she still sat. "Huh? But I thought Golden said she liked them at the party."

Crystal frowned as well. "Now that I think about it, I've never seen Golden with Fancy Pants when he comes to visit."

High Horse was trembling where she stood. "That's why she sends me to come get them." The sound of a hiccup came from the shadows under the hood. "Oh, I've said too much! She's going to be mad at me for sure!"

Crystal's expression lightened. She shook her head, then said with a wink, "She'd only be mad if she found out! And I certainly didn't see you here. Did you, Velvet?"

Velvet was already looking in the other direction, humming playfully. "Huh? See what?"

High Horse lifted her head, allowing the light to pour in and show her face. She stared at Crystal with a muddled look of confusion and suspicion. "But—I don't understand?" She took a small step back, levitated the cupcake box off the ground, and ran for the door.

Crystal sighed as she climbed back into her seat. "Poor High Horse."

"What do you mean?" Velvet glanced at her.

"I think Golden is her only friend, and I don't think she's a very good friend to her." She sighed again. "I'm trying to be nice to them, but I don't think it's getting anywhere."

Velvet's ears folded back. "It's okay! You just have to keep trying," she tried to say as reassuringly as she could. "Nightmare Night is in a few days, right? Let's talk about that instead!"

"Yeah." She smiled. "So, how is your costume coming along?"

"Great! The pin you gave me for my birthday really helps bring it all together." She clapped her hooves together. "Have you thought about your costume?"

"Oh, yes." Crystal's smile turned playfully evil. "I have it all prepared. But it's a surprise!"

Velvet tilted her head but smiled nonetheless. "Okay?"

"Anyway, I should head home." Crystal started to slide out of her chair when she saw Velvet's face. Her brow was furrowed and she wasn't looking her directly in the eyes. "What's wrong?"

"I was just wondering, um—" Velvet rubbed her hoof against the back of her neck. "You've never, ever invited me over. We either hang out here or at my house." Her gaze darted everywhere but at Crystal. "Why is that?"

Crystal stared at her much like a deer facing an oncoming carriage. "Oh, um, well, you see—"

"Aren't we friends?" Velvet asked softly.

"Of course! Best friends!" Crystal shrunk back under the weight of Velvet's gaze when it finally turned on her. "It's just, if you came over, we'd have to go into my room, and—and you'll laugh at me." Her heart pounded in her chest.

Velvet blinked a few times. "Why? What's wrong with it?"

Crystal took a breath in and slowly released it. "I guess, if you really want to, you can come over today."

This didn't seem to be the answer Velvet wanted, but she nodded. "I dunno what you're afraid of, but I think I have to come over just so you can see you're being silly." She smiled as she trotted toward the door. "I'm going home with Crystal, Mom!"

"Oh, all right!" Sunbeam looked past the customer she had been helping. "Have fun, sweetums!"

Crystal walked nervously alongside Velvet as they made their way to her house. Velvet had never really talked about foal's tales, princesses, princes, or anything that Crystal loved. She was downright terrified of what Velvet would think of her lovey-dovey room.

Upper Crust was the only one home when they arrived. Magazines of all different kinds were spread out on the couch in front of her. "Hello, darling." She smiled, albeit only lightly. "Hello, Velvet Step."

"Velvet's just fine, ma'am," Velvet said with a polite nod.

"As is Upper Crust." She returned her gaze to her magazines. "I presume you two are here to play?"

"We'll be quiet, Mom," Crystal chimed.

"That's a good girl." Upper Crust flipped the page, though her ears were still facing them.

As they walked up the stairs, Velvet whispered, "I thought you said you two were getting along lately?"

"We are!" Crystal whispered back, grinning. "That was great! I think she finally likes you!"

Velvet rolled her eyes and giggled, then put on a serious face when they stopped just outside Crystal's bedroom door. Crystal hesitated, rubbed her hoof against the other leg, then opened the door.

Velvet gingerly stepped into the room with as much care as she could manage. Her eyes widened. "Oh, wow!" She bounced forward a few steps in the direction of the bookshelves lining one of the walls. "Look at all these books!"

Crystal remained where she was. She blinked a few times. "Huh? Well, yeah. What about, um, the posters?"

Velvet stopped and inclined her head. She hummed thoughtfully, swaying from side to side, before she finally said, "They're from princess stories, right?"

Crystal couldn't help a small smile at the choice of words, which fell into an embarrassed frown. "You mean foal's tales."

"Pfft!" Velvet hopped onto the pink beanbag chair and settled in, much like a cat. "They're all from the ones about princesses and princes, right? I mean, if you had something like Foal in Boots or The Stallion's New Clothes, it'd be foal's tales, but these are all the princess ones." She batted her eyelashes. "Do you wanna be a princess?" She giggled.

Crystal sighed and walked into the room, shutting the door behind her. She flopped onto her back in the middle of the plush rug to stare at the ceiling with her legs stretching all in different directions. "I just really like them, even if it's foalish."

"Well, we are still kinda foals, you know. I mean, compared to our parents, anyway."

Crystal tilted her head to peer at Velvet. This seemed to be going much better than she had expected.

You still like these silly foal's tales? You're way more of a nerd than I thought you were! How lame!

Crystal rolled her eyes. How could she even think Velvet, the nicest pony she knew, would say something like that? She finally smiled. "So it's okay?"

"Of course it's okay! I mean, if that's all you talked about ever, then maybe it'd be annoying? But you don't, so it's totally okay." Velvet made a weird face, scrunching up her nose. "Why would you think it wouldn't be okay?"

"I dunno. I've never had anypony besides my parents in here, so—" Crystal rolled over onto her stomach. "So, how far are you in Prima Donna and the Dastardly Desperado?"

"I really like it! Though, honestly, I feel like Rose Quartz is trying to put Prima Donna and Dastardly together as a couple, which I think is kinda weird."

"Oh—yeah? Why's that?" Crystal winced, one ear folded back, the other staying strong and upright.

Velvet stuck out her tongue and scrunched up her nose. "I just don't wanna read Prima Donna turning all dumb because of a stallion. She's supposed to be a super cool, super awesome, super independent mare! Why does she need to fall in love?"

Crystal's gaze briefly flickered to her bed as the other ear fell, where her notebook lay hidden between the cushions. Even though she knew in her mind that Velvet was too nice to outright hurt her feelings, she couldn't stop her heart from feeling even more guarded now. She sighed and turned her attention back to Velvet, trying to keep her smile from faltering.

Well, at least she found out the easy way that Velvet wasn't interested in the same kind of story as her. It saved them both from an awkward moment, even though it was hard to let her in this far and still have to keep secrets.

Mare of the Night

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Crystal trotted up the condominium steps to the floor Velvet lived on, a skip in her step. She knocked on the door and hurriedly stepped off to the side. Out of sight from the door, she pressed up against the wall, a grin on her lips.

The door burst open. "Hurray, you're here!" Velvet excitedly jumped out onto the landing, then blinked at the lack of anypony standing there. "Um, hello?"

"En garde!" Crystal exclaimed as she sprung out from the shadows. She was dressed in a black pinstripe suit, a mask over her eyes, and a fedora with a red feather stuck in the ribbon. Her mane was tied into a bun to be hidden under the hat, which also covered her ears and horn. She struck a pose on her hindlegs and mimed pulling out a sword from an invisible sheath at her side. "Prepare yourself, Prima Donna!"

Velvet squealed in delight. She was dressed exactly like Prima Donna, from the feathered mane clip to the light blue leotard with a tutu that trailed over her tail and down her legs. She got up on her hindlegs as well and spun in a well-practiced pirouette, the delicate material of the tutu catching in the light and fluttering through the air. Crystal had to pause to admire the graceful spin before she returned to her evil expression.

"You have foiled my plans for the last time!" Crystal swung the imaginary sword.

"Mais non!" Velvet parried the make-believe swing with a high kick, then burst into giggles. "Oh my gosh! You're Fencer Felon!" She dropped onto all fours and bounced up and down. "Our costumes match!" She froze, her expression falling into a curious frown as she asked, "But isn't there something else you'd rather be? Like, I dunno, a princess?"

Crystal, committed to the act, mimed sheathing her sword before she fell out of character. She shrugged and replied, "This seemed like more fun!"

Velvet tentatively accepted the response with a slow nod, then she leaned back through the front door to call, "Mom! Crystal's here! Are you ready to go?"

Sunbeam smiled as she walked over. "I promise I won't get in the way of your fun!" She paused, then tilted her head. "Crystal, you are—?"

Crystal puffed her chest and sneered, "I'm one of the villains from the Prima Donna series!"

"Oh!" Sunbeam's smile returned and she grabbed two empty sugar sacks on her way out the door. "How cute. Well, then, shall we go?"

The fillies ran ahead without a further word. Sunbeam had to maintain a light trot to keep up with them and their excitement. The whole way to the station and while waiting for the train to arrive, they babbled about all the fun they hoped to have.

Once they got on and were seated, however, they fell into an almost unsettling silence.

Sunbeam glanced between the two after a while. "Is everything all right, sugarlumps?"

Crystal and Velvet looked up at her with the same uncertain expression on their faces.

"What if no one gets my costume?" Velvet asked softly.

"And what if ponies think I'm a colt?" Crystal looked down at herself.

At this, Sunbeam laughed softly, raising a hoof to try to smother it. "Oh, that's all right. As long as you two are having fun, it doesn't matter, does it?"

They had to think on this for a moment before Crystal nodded first.

"Yeah. After all, what kinda colt has a tail as lovely as this one!" she stated in a playfully pompous tone, stroking her blonde and pink tail.

Velvet, however, was not so easily swayed. "Maybe I should've done something simpler and more obvious."

"No way!" Crystal threw her hooves in the air. "If you had seen that awesome spin you did, you'd know that you were totally meant to be Prima Donna for Nightmare Night! It's, like, your destiny!"

"Really?" She flushed. "I guess I've gotten better at not getting dizzy."

"If I didn't know you weren't, I'd think you were a real ballerina!"

"Well, it helps that Rose Quartz is really descriptive when Prima Donna is performing. I just read those scenes over and over." Velvet sighed dreamily.

The rest of the ride was filled with talk about the book Velvet was currently reading. Sunbeam did her best to participate in the conversation but, having not read the stories herself, she had a little difficulty keeping up with them.

Finally, they arrived in the quaint town of Ponyville. When they walked into the main square, they were amazed at the Nightmare Night decorations all over—paper bats, silly paper mâché skulls, oversized pumpkins, and glowing green lanterns. Ponies were dressed up as all sorts of creatures, such as scarecrows, devils, vamponies, and witches.

Crystal and Velvet stared in awe, then glanced at each other a little nervously.

"You both look adorable," Sunbeam said, nudging them forward. "Now, take your bags and go trick-or-treat." After giving them their bags, Sunbeam walked over to a bench. "I'll be here, girls, when you're ready to go home."

Velvet smiled. "Thanks, Mom. Let's go, Crystal!"

At first, they were nervous going from door to door, glancing around and waiting for somepony to call them out. However, aside from a few scare pranks, they received nothing but candy. They got into the spirit and, after filling their bags with all sorts of sweet treats, they went to the town square to check out the games available.

There were all sorts of activities for them to try: spider tossing, pumpkin chucking, apple bobbing, and costume judging. Though the spider tossing was a little fun, and pumpkin chucking was certainly exciting, they both agreed that apple bobbing was right out. Neither of them were particularly interested in dunking their heads in the same water that other ponies had.

However, the Ponyville residents seemed to have no problem with doing so, which made both Crystal and Velvet question how much living in Canterlot was really influencing them.

All that seemed to be left was an ongoing costume competition, which wasn't so much a competition as it was a stage for ponies to show off what they had put together.

Velvet rubbed her hoof against her leg nervously. "I don't know if I want all these ponies staring at me, though."

Crystal giggled and bumped her flank against Velvet's. "Nopony has any idea who we really are! What's the worst that could happen, they laugh at us?" She grabbed her by the hoof. "Come on! Our costumes together are way better than any other I've seen up there!"

Velvet had no choice but to follow after her, though her ears were folded back. When they stood behind the curtain in line to go on stage, Crystal turned to face her.

"Would Prima Donna be scared?" She leaned in. "Doesn't Prima Donna go on stage almost every day, whether there's a performance or not? Even if she just spent the previous day fighting crime and is super tired?"

"But I'm not Prima Donna!" Velvet cringed away from her.

Crystal puffed out her chest. "You could be if you wanted to."

Velvet was silent until they were next in line. Finally, she lifted her head and said with inspiring certainty, "I can be Prima Donna."

Crystal giggled in delight and stared at the curtain that separated them from the stage. The pony in charge of keeping the line moving gestured them forward.

"Good luck, girls!" the pony, dressed as a bumblebee, said with a smile.

"Thanks!" Crystal hopped onto the stage while Velvet walked with her head held high.

Once they were on the stage, Crystal stood up on her hindlegs and pulled out her imaginary sword. "Prepare yourself, Prima Donna!" she bellowed in a loud, clear voice. "Today, you either join up with me, or I'll feed you to the timberwolves!"

"C'est pas vrai!" Velvet got up on her hindlegs, raising her foreleg to her forehead as she looked away. "I would never!"

Crystal smirked in a smug manner with her head cocked to the side. "Aw, c'mon doll, it ain't so bad."

Velvet turned to face her, all the while moving her legs to strike a perfect arabesque. When Crystal made a lunge with the sword, Velvet lowered her raised leg to help balance herself as she jumped back, twirled in the air, and landed with her right leg straight, the left bent at the knee to rest her hoof against the other's ankle—sur le cou-de-pied.

Crystal put a hoof to her chest and stumbled backward, then fell to her knees. There was a stunned pause until the crowd hooted, hollered, and stomped their hooves. Crystal got back up and Velvet lowered herself down. Both of them bowed, glanced at each other, and ran back off stage giggling.

"That was amazing! You must take a lot of lessons, little filly!" The bumblebee beamed at Velvet as they walked by. "You're a wonderful ballerina!"

Crystal nodded in agreement. "See? I told you that you were really good! Like, really, really good!"

Velvet blushed. "I—I really love doing it. It feels like I've been dancing my whole life!"

Suddenly, it felt as though everything went silent, even though it was only the three of them that quieted. Crystal and Velvet stared at one another with wide eyes.

"Wait, you don't think—"

"I don't know!" Velvet looked down at her hooves and shuffled them. "I didn't think I was that good at it until now! But now I just realized that I don't want to just pretend to be Prima Donna, I want to be a real dancer!"

The bumblebee glanced between the two fillies, realization slowly spreading across her face. "Oh my! Did somepony just get their cutie mark?"

Crystal and Velvet gasped. Velvet started to spin in a circle, trying to look at her flank, but Crystal put both hooves on her shoulders to stop her. Excited and nervous, she stepped over and stretched her neck to tentatively look through the sheer tutu. She squealed with delight and jumped in the air.

"Oh my gosh! Oh my gosh!" Crystal felt like crying from her excitement. "Velvet, you've got the cutest cutie mark ever!"

Velvet whined and spun in one more circle before she sat on her haunches, grabbed the tutu with both hooves, and yanked it out of the way. Just like Crystal, she squealed. Adorning her flank was a pink ballet slipper, the ribbons intertwined.

The bumblebee giggled as the fillies began to bounce in circles around each other. She backed away and returned to her station by the curtains to let the two enjoy the moment together.

"You're going to be the best dancer ever!" Crystal plopped down and sighed dreamily. "Just imagine, you'll be standing on the stage, the spotlight on you, being showered in roses and love letters!"

Velvet dropped down beside her, now a worried look on her face. "But I don't wanna be in the spotlight!"

Crystal nuzzled their cheeks together. "You'll be wonderful!"

Velvet's worried look fell into one of despair. "And now you're the only one without a cutie mark."

"Huh?" Crystal blinked, then laughed and waved a dismissive hoof. "I don't care about that! I'm just happy for you!"

Velvet was silent for a few moments before she turned on Crystal with a serious expression, placing both hooves on her shoulders. "Think really hard! What do you like to do? Like, really like? No, what do you love to do?"

Crystal laughed and pushed her hooves aside. "I'm okay, really! We have to go show your mom. She's gonna be so excited!" She got up, grabbed her candy bag, and started to trot away.

Velvet remained where she was at first, frowning before she sighed and followed after her.

When they got back to the bench where Sunbeam was resting and reading a magazine, she looked up with a bit of confusion. "Are you done already, girls?"

Crystal started to bounce as she ran. "Mrs. Sunbeam! Mrs. Sunbeam! Look!" She skidded to a halt, sat on her haunches, and pointed both forelegs at Velvet.

Velvet flushed, but dropped her candy bag and jumped up onto her hindlegs. She spun in a pirouette, then stopped with one hindleg crossed over the other and held her position.

Sunbeam started to applaud with a small smile before she noticed something new. "Velvet!" She jumped from the bench. "You got your cutie mark!" Her eyes started to gloss over with excited tears. "You're going to be a ballerina?"

Velvet smiled and ran over to her mother to hug her around the middle. "Yup! Crystal and a bumblebee helped me realize it!"

Sunbeam glanced at Crystal in a moment of confusion before she embraced her daughter. "I'm so happy for you, sweetie!"

Crystal remained where she was, smiling as she watched the two. She couldn't help but wonder if this would change anything between her and Velvet. After all, now that she knew her special talent, she'd probably have to actually start taking dance lessons and working toward a career in ballet.

What if their friendship got lost along the way?

The Faltering Step

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The next morning before class started, Crystal watched with a small smile as Velvet was swarmed by ponies with questions. They all wanted to see her show off some of her ballet moves and to know what she planned to do now that she knew her special talent.

"Well, I guess you're all alone now," Golden said as she trotted past Crystal's desk with her snout upturned. "Maybe you're not a blank flank after all. Maybe your cutie mark is just nothing because you have nothing you're good at."

Crystal forced a strained laugh, averting her gaze. "Wouldn't that mean I could do anything I wanted, though?"

Golden rolled her eyes. "D'uh, no. It'd mean you couldn't do anything at all."

High Horse, taking the seat beside Golden, nodded. "Exactly. You'd be really good at nothing."

Crystal sighed and looked at High Horse, resting her chin on one hoof. "Oh, Horsey, I know you can be better than that. Why can't you be nice?"

High Horse's ears snapped back and she turned to look at Crystal with a muddled expression. "Horsey?"

"It's, uh, it's a nickname?" Crystal tried to smile, but it didn't seem to help any.

"I don't have a nickname." High Horse frowned.

"Well, now you have a lame one." Golden sighed and put a hoof to her forehead, shaking her head. "Congratulations."

High Horse glanced between them before she faced the front, away from Crystal, her ears pinned against her dark brown mane.

Crystal gave a small sigh, though she smiled lightly. Her gaze returned to Velvet just as the teacher walked in and all the fillies and colts scurried to their seats.

Velvet sat down beside her with a sigh of relief and muttered to Crystal, "I thought they'd never leave me alone."

"That's what you get for earning your cutie mark." Crystal giggled. "Welcome to popularity! Are you sure you can even sit by me now?"

Velvet glared at her. "Oh my gosh, don't you start, too!"

Crystal just grinned back at her.

Ms. Austere cleared her throat from the front of the classroom and raised her chalk to the board. "That's enough, my little ponies. It's time for classes to begin."

Before anypony could approach them at lunch, Velvet grabbed Crystal by the hoof and took her around the corner to the back of the school. She sat down and gave an exasperated groan.

"I don't mind being friends with more ponies, but this is ridiculous!" She buried her face in her hooves. "They don't want to be friends with me, just my cutie mark!"

"Don't worry about it too much." Crystal patted her on the back, then opened her lunch bag. "Something will happen in a few days and that'll be the new talk of the schoolyard."

Velvet looked up at her with hope in her eyes. "Really? So I only have to put up with this for a few more days?" When Crystal nodded, she relaxed. "Oh, thank Celestia!" She opened her bag and instead of pulling out a sandwich or an apple or anything Crystal would have expected, she pulled out a rolled up piece of parchment.

"What's that?" Crystal tilted her head.

"It's my super-duper list of Crystal's favorite things that I know of!" She put on a playfully serious face and turned toward Crystal as she unrolled the paper. "If I'm going to be popular for a few days, then you are, too!"

Crystal laughed. She levitated the paper out of Velvet's hooves and raised it up for her to read aloud. "Reading, talking about reading, roses, cupcakes, braids, pink, princesses—" She lowered the paper so she could look at Velvet with one brow raised. "Princesses? What would that cutie mark look like?"

"I dunno." Velvet shrugged. "Maybe Celestia's face?"

"Oh, yeah, 'cause that's what I want on my flank." She burst into laughter, prompting Velvet to laugh as well.

"Okay, okay, so I just wrote down everything I could think of, all right?" Velvet wiped a tear from her eye as she relaxed into giggles. "A pretty pink rose would look good on you, though!"

Crystal turned her head to look at her bare flank. She squinted, trying to imagine everything from the list taking up residence on her creamy white coat.

Reading would be—a book? She'd like that, actually.

'Talking about reading'? She frowned. A conversation bubble with a book in it? She shook her head.

Roses? She did have to agree that a pink rose would be cute, especially if it matched the pink in her mane and tail.

Velvet similarly stared at Crystal's flank, though instead of imagining cutie marks, she was probably waiting for one, as if the list would spark an epiphany.

However, Crystal burst into laughter once more when she reached 'princesses' and imagined Celestia's face staring up at her from her flank.

"What?" Velvet pouted. "What's so funny?"

"A Celestia cutie mark."

Velvet's mouth tightened into a line as she tried to stave off her own laughter, but it wiggled, squirmed, and finally widened into a grin as she laughed, too.

The parchment returned to Velvet's hooves and Crystal took a bite of her daisy sandwich once her giggles had calmed. She looked up at the sky in thought while Velvet put away the list and started on her own lunch.

"Maybe Golden's right," Crystal finally said in a soft voice. "Maybe I don't have a special talent."

"Don't say that!" Velvet reached out and lightly smacked Crystal on the back of the head. "You'll never discover what it is if you think like that. Everypony has something they're good at, and I know you're good at something. You're just too caught up in your head to see it."

A small smile spread across Velvet's lips as she continued, "I don't think I'd ever have discovered how much I liked ballet if it weren't for you. So, now I'm going to return the favor." Her gaze fell to the ballerina slipper on her own flank. "It's really nice, knowing for sure I'm good at something. It's like Celestia herself came down and said, 'This will work out.'"

Crystal watched Velvet's expression in slight awe. The peace of mind from the assurance that there was something out there that she was meant for showed as a youthful sparkle in Velvet's eyes. It was the wishful feeling of hope she used to get from her posters, a feeling that she had long since lost.

She gave a brief shake of her head and smiled. "Well, I'm sure it'll come to me someday. For now, let's just worry about what you're going to do with yours!"

"Huh?" Velvet tilted her head. "What do you mean?"

"Well, you're gonna have to start going to classes now, right?"

"Yeah. Why is that a worry?" Velvet tilted her head the other way.

Crystal poked at her lunch bag. "That sort of thing takes up a lot of your time. You're really good already, since you're meant to do it, but you still have to learn routines and practice with other ballerinas. We won't get to hang out as much."

This brought silence to both fillies as they pondered this. Velvet glanced up with a shy grin. "Until you discover your talent, you could always come to lessons with me. Who knows! Maybe you'll be a ballerina, too!"

Crystal laughed and stroked her chin. "It can't hurt to try, I guess."

"Great! My first lesson is next week. I'll have Mom see if she can get you added, too!"

Crystal blinked a few times. "Wow, next week? Well, I guess we're going to find out pretty soon if I have what it takes to dance beside you, huh?"

Velvet giggled and playfully punched Crystal's shoulder. "Don't worry! What's the worst that could happen?"

"So, it could have been worse." Velvet tried to smile. She sat in a chair beside a bench in the locker room where Crystal was lying on her back. "You could have broken it." She glanced at the instructor examining Crystal's hindleg. "It's not broken, right?"

The mare shook her head. "It just looks like she twisted her ankle, that's all." She got up onto all fours. "Some ice and rest will take care of it. I'll go get some." She trotted out of the locker room.

Once the mare had left, Velvet's composure fell. Her ears drooped, her lower lip stuck out, and her eyes glossed over with tears. "This is all my fault!"

Crystal laughed softly. "No way! I shouldn't have tried to do a split so soon. Even the instructor said not to!"

"But you wouldn't be here if it weren't for me suggesting it."

Crystal reached out a hoof and placed it on Velvet's shoulder. "I had fun, honest! Well, until I lost my balance and took a face dive and Serenity stumbled over my leg and—" Her gaze fell to the swollen ankle.

Velvet looked as though she might wither away. "I'm sorry." She sniffed.

"Now, now, there's no need to fret, little pony," the instructor said as she walked in with a bag of ice. She placed the ice carefully and gingerly on the ankle. "She'll be fine as soon as tomorrow, so long as she stays off it and rests."

Velvet's gaze darted back and forth before she lifted her head, ears perked up. "I'll just spend the night at your place to make sure you get lots of good rest!"

Crystal paused to consider this, then smiled. "It's been awhile since we had a sleepover."

"Then it's settled!" Velvet threw her hooves in the air. "Sleepover it is! I'll let Mom know. She should be here soon to pick us up."

"I just got here, sweetie. They told me what happened." Sunbeam walked over, looking at Crystal with sincere concern. "Are you all right, pumpkin pie?"

Crystal smiled and nodded. "Yup! I discovered that I am definitely not a ballerina!"

This garnered a small smile in return from Sunbeam. "Come along, you can ride on my back. I'll carry you home."

"I'd normally decline and say I'm fine, but I think we all know I'd be lying, so thank you, Mrs. Sunbeam." Crystal carefully climbed onto Sunbeam's back, wincing as her ankle jostled the wrong way.

Velvet walked alongside her mother as they made their way to Crystal's house, glancing every so often at the injury, worry never leaving her face. Sunbeam raised a hoof to knock on the door, but when it opened seemingly of its own accord, she blinked, startled.

"Oh!" Sunbeam smiled after only a second of thought. "Sometimes I forget you unicorns can do that."

Crystal muttered a small sound of acknowledgment. All the movement, despite Sunbeam's careful steps, had her ankle throbbing with pain all over again. Sunbeam carried her inside and set her down on the couch.

"Dear, is that you?" Jet Set walked out onto the landing and gasped. "What in Equestria happened!" He trotted down the stairs and over to the group. "Who did this to you?"

"Myself, Dad." She winced as she shifted to try and get comfortable. "Can you get me some more ice? Also, Velvet's gonna stay over." She looked up with a weak smile. "Thank you, Mrs. Sunbeam."

"Just feel better, sweetums." Sunbeam smiled down at Crystal, then looked at Velvet and patted her on the head. "We'll see you after school tomorrow, then, I suppose?"

Velvet nodded. "Say hi to Dad for me." She hugged her mother, then turned her attention to Crystal's ankle.

Sunbeam excused herself while Jet Set walked back into the room with a dish towel filled with some ice.

"If this is what's going to happen, then I must say I don't know if I approve of these ballet lessons." He paused to glance at Velvet. "No offense, Velvet."

"None taken." Velvet nodded curtly. "I agree with you, anyway."

Crystal groaned and rolled her head back to stare at the ceiling. "I'm fine, honest! I might need some help getting up to my room in a bit, though."

"Certainly. Just call when you're ready." He paused, then raised a hoof and waved it. "So, I hope we're in agreement that there will be no more ballet lessons for you, dear?"

"Not anytime soon." Crystal lifted her head to look at Velvet after Jet Set left them alone. "Velvet, if you want, you can grab a book from my room and we can read it together. That sounds safe and restful, right?"

Velvet straightened and saluted. "Yes, ma'am!" She hurried up the steps, disappearing from Crystal's sight.

Crystal couldn't help a nervous gulp. Velvet would be alone. Alone in her room. She would just go in and grab a book, right? Her secret would be safe, wouldn't it?

Velvet paused once she was just inside Crystal's bedroom, glanced over her shoulder, and looked back into the room with a grin. She sat on her haunches, rubbing her hooves together with a determined look in her eyes.

"All right, Crystal's room," she said in a low whisper as she surveyed her neat and orderly surroundings. "It's just you and me now."

A Secret Discovered

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Although she hadn't meant for it to be so soon—nor for it to be with the cost of an injury—Velvet had to admit she couldn't have planned it better. She had plenty of time to feign deciding on a book from one of the many bookshelves while she searched for Crystal's secret. Somewhere in that bedroom had to be the clue to Crystal's passion.

Her gaze drifted over everything as she took it all in. The bookshelves would have to be her last resort, as trying to scan and process all of the titles would take too much time. She had to be quick. She walked over to the dresser and pulled out the bottom drawer as quietly as she could. There wasn't much out of the ordinary among the assorted clothing except for some long, thin boxes stacked to one side.

Velvet carefully pushed one of the boxes' lids aside to spy a fresh quill resting on satin. It was perfectly pristine and unused. Just to make sure, she opened another box and found another quill.

She frowned as she closed the boxes and shut the drawer. Quills? That meant—writing! She smiled as she turned to face the rest of the room. Which meant Crystal had a diary somewhere. But where?

Excited, she checked first around the bedside table, but found nothing incriminating. Then, when she looked under the bed, she spied a box pushed against the far wall, almost out of hoof's reach. Thankfully, her small size allowed her to squeeze into the space between the bed and the floor, and she batted at the corner of the box until it was close enough to pull out.

Velvet took a brief moment to breathe in. She was violating her best friend's privacy, but it was for a good cause! Surely Crystal would forgive her in that case. Right?

As she exhaled, she lifted the lid to the box. Inside, there were six notebooks of different colors. The covers were adorned with a number, the highest at the top and, as she dug down, the lowest at the bottom.

Velvet paused in awe of how much writing the notebooks contained, then pulled out the one labeled '1' and closed the lid.

After returning the box to its spot under the bed, she slid the notebook under the dresser so she could retrieve it more easily the next morning

"Everything okay up there?" Crystal called, some concern in her voice.

"Yup! Just having trouble deciding!" Velvet responded before she quickly grabbed a random book from the shelf and hurried out of the room.

When Velvet climbed onto the couch and held out the book, Crystal blinked a few times.

"Velvet?" Crystal glanced between the book and Velvet. "This is a guidebook on societal etiquette."

Velvet smiled, not skipping a beat, though her heart did. "I know! I thought it might be a nice change of pace!"

Crystal laughed and opened the book, titled Proper Form. Much to Velvet's dismay, it was a how-to on the most boring of high society rules: how to be a host, how to be a guest, how to be a customer, how to be anything but normal, apparently.

Velvet would never understand how Crystal seemed to know all of the rules by heart even before they turned to the appropriate page. Memorizing mathematics and grammar was hard enough, but pointless and silly rules on when to eat which part of a meal? However, she smiled and feigned as much interest as she could to avoid giving away her mistake.

The next day, before Velvet left for school, she managed to sneak the journal into her saddlebags without getting caught. Crystal still wasn't feeling up to walking just yet, so Upper Crust gave Velvet a note to take to school that explained the absence.

All Velvet could think about the whole morning was the diary. She was so excited to finally return all the favors and kindness Crystal had given her! Once she figured out her friend's passion, it would be her sole mission to help Crystal realize it for herself. Throughout the teacher's lessons, her gaze wandered to her saddlebags, where the simple pink notebook was hiding.

"Since Crystal Wishes isn't here to steal your time, why don't you hang out with us for a change?" Golden offered, interrupting Velvet's thoughts. She gave a smile that was too innocent to believe.

Velvet blinked at her. She looked around the room, then back at the two fillies in front of her. "Huh? Is it lunch already?"

"It is!" High Horse said with excitement that died down when Golden glared at her. "I mean, yes. It is."

"Ugh." Golden rolled her eyes before she smiled again. "Why don't you tell us what happened yesterday? I heard Crystal hurt her ankle, the poor thing. So sad." Her voice dripped with venomous sarcasm.

Velvet frowned. "Why are you so mean, Golden?"

"What are you talking about? I was just asking what happened!" Golden put a hoof to her chest. "There's no need for unjust accusation! But if that's how you're going to be, then fine. Come on, High Horse." She turned and started to walk away, but stopped when she realized she wasn't being followed. "High Horse, I said come on."

There was a moment of silence before High Horse's voice said in a near-broken whisper, "No."

"What?" Golden turned her head, eyes wide in surprise.

High Horse raised her chin and stared at Golden straight on. "I said no."

Golden stormed back over to her to shove her face in High Horse's. "What do you mean, 'no'?! We're going! What part of that don't you get?"

High Horse's ears started to fall back, but she forced them straight and held Golden's gaze. "I'm tired of having lunch with you. All you do is complain or pick on me and my lunches, or—or both." She bit her lip before she said in a louder, more forceful voice, "I'm done being friends with you, Golden, if we even were friends to begin with!"

Golden's expression was at first confused, then infuriated. She made an unintelligible sound of frustration before she turned away. "Fine!" she yelled over her shoulder. "I'll just find myself a new friend! You're not irreplaceable!"

Velvet sat there in shock, not sure if she should try to console High Horse. Was she even supposed to have seen all of that? She just stared, her mouth hanging open.

High Horse broke the silence with a sniffling sob. "We—We've been friends forever," she whispered.

Velvet quietly listened, her panic falling into a somber lull of pity.

"Everything used to be fun and happy, but then her mother sent her to a summer camp to learn how to be a 'power pony'." High Horse hiccupped. "She's never been the same since then. I don't know what a power pony is supposed to be, but I don't like who she's become. She's always mean to me, and I thought it was okay, as long as we were friends, but—"

High Horse turned her head to look at Velvet and continued, "She had me follow you and Crystal to your ballet lessons and spy on you two, and when Crystal hurt her ankle, you rushed right to her and never left her side."

Tears were welling up into big drops before they fell down High Horse's cheeks. "I'm just tired of not having what you and Crystal have."

Velvet slid out of her seat and went over to High Horse. She said nothing and simply wrapped both forelegs around her in a tight hug, one hoof stroking her mane.

They remained like that for a while until High Horse's tears subsided and she pulled away, rubbing at her puffy eyes. "Anyway," she whimpered. "I'll leave you alone."

"Wait!" Velvet smiled. "Why don't you have lunch with me?" She retrieved her lunch bag and waggled it. "Crystal's mom made it for me. It was really funny to see her face. I guess Crystal packs her own lunches, 'cause Upper Crust had no idea what I was talking about."

High Horse returned the smile, though hers was much weaker. "You don't have to have lunch with me just because you feel bad for me. I'll be okay by myself."

Velvet shook her head. "No! Well—I mean, yeah, I do feel bad about what happened, but I really would like to have lunch with you. If Crystal were here, she would, too."

There was a long pause before, slowly, High Horse nodded. "Okay. If you're sure."

"Absolutely!" Velvet trotted for the door. "C'mon, it's more fun to eat out in the sun!"

Once they had found a spot and settled down, Velvet opened her bag and burst into giggles. When High Horse glanced at her, she tilted the bag to show its contents.

Inside the bag was a single, lone apple wrapped in plastic wrap.

"Really?" Velvet lifted the apple and started to peel the wrap away. "I mean, really?"

High Horse smothered a giggle. "Maybe Jet Set is the one who does the cooking?"

"You know, I never actually paid attention. I asked the wrong pony to make my lunch!" Velvet gave a dramatic sigh before taking a bite.

High Horse pulled out her sandwich, which was already cut in half, and offered one of the halves to Velvet. "Here. I'm supposed to be on a diet, anyway."

Velvet blinked. She opened her mouth, blinked again, closed it, then frowned. "What? A diet?"

High Horse averted her gaze, biting her lip, and nodded.

"Nuh-uh." Velvet rolled her eyes. "I dunno who's telling you that, but diets are for our parents. We've got years before we need to worry!"

"You really think so?" High Horse stared at her sandwich, then looked down at herself.

"I do." She smiled. "I've learned a lot since I came to Canterlot, but mostly I've learned that all the fillies and colts in our class keep trying to act like adults. What happened to having fun? I thought that's what being young was about. And anyway, I'll just go by my parents' bakery after school and have a late lunch there."

Slowly, High Horse started to smile, brighter and brighter until she was practically beaming. "Then, I'll eat all of my sandwich!" She nodded triumphantly. "And I'll go to Sunridge Sweets and get a cupcake, too!"

"Yay!" Velvet cheered, giggling. "Don't you feel happier now?"

High Horse nodded again. "Uh-huh."

"Good." Velvet smiled and took another bite of apple, saying around it with a hoof over her mouth, "I'm glad."

High Horse had never smiled so earnestly before, and Velvet was happy to see it.

Once she was home that evening, Velvet went straight to her room and tossed her saddlebags on her bed. She jumped up to land next to them and opened one of the flaps, pulling out the journal.

"At last!" She rubbed her hooves together, then traced the '1' on the cover. "Hmm." She tilted her head.

When she and Crystal were still only tentative friends, now that she thought about it, Crystal was always carrying a notebook like the one in front of her, though she was pretty sure it was a different color.

However, the more they had spent time together, the less she brought it around. In fact, when was the last time she had seen Crystal clutching it protectively to her chest?

Velvet's eyes widened. That must mean, somewhere in one of them, was a secret that Crystal was guarding! Her ears folded back. "Is this really okay?" she wondered aloud. Her hoof started to tremble as she opened the journal. "I mean, my intentions are good, so it must be okay, right?"

Her gaze landed on the first page and it was too late to turn back now.

"Once upon a time," she read, then stopped. "Once upon a time? That's a funny way to address a diary." She shook her head and continued, "there once was a beautiful unicorn princess." She giggled. "I knew it! Crystal wants to be a princess! Oh, Velvet, focus!" She cleared her throat. "She was a lonely princess, locked away in a tall tower in the far reaches of Equestria's wild."

Velvet's smile fell. "Wait, this isn't a diary." She flipped a few pages and gasped. "It's a story?!"

A Secret Shared

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"Hello?" Crystal asked. "Velvet? Are you there?"

Velvet blinked a few times as a hoof was waved before her eyes. She looked around, confusion plastered on her face. She was in the classroom, in her seat. That much she knew for certain. It was morning, or maybe early afternoon. She blinked again and focused on Crystal sitting beside her.

"What happened?" Crystal tilted her head. "You look exhausted!"

Velvet tried to smile. Slowly, her eyelids started to slide down, but she shook her head and forced them back up. "Oh, um, nothing. I just was up really late reading." She yawned. "I think I got some sleep somewhere in there, maybe?"

"Really?" Crystal glanced at the front of the class. The teacher seemed quite preoccupied with her lesson, not noticing them whispering back and forth. "What was it?"

"Oh, uh." Velvet stared at her. "Uh?" She furrowed her brow. "I'm so sleepy, I can't remember, but I know it was good?" Her grin was forced, but Crystal didn't seem to find it suspicious. "I borrowed it before I left yesterday. Do you mind if I come by and borrow another?"

Crystal raised one brow. "I don't know if I can be an accomplice to anything that makes you look so—"

"Miss Crystal Wishes!"

Crystal winced and turned toward the front. "Yes, Ms. Tutor?"

"Is there something you'd like to share with the class?" The ever-present hint of a frown had fallen into a near scowl. "Or would you like to join us in this lesson that you're so disinterested in?"

Crystal's ears folded back. "I'm listening, Ms. Tutor! Honest!"

"Then what did I just say?" She tapped one hoof on the floor.

The question brought a small grin to Crystal's lips, but she quickly smothered it by clearing her throat. "You were teaching us the intricate and confusing rules of the order in which 'e' and 'i' are present in various words, Ms. Tutor."

The mare gave a small sigh and turned back to the chalkboard. "Correct, Miss Wishes. Please help me out and make it more apparent that you're listening from now on."

Velvet surfaced out of her exhaustion just enough to smile. "How do you do that?" she whispered as quietly as she could.

"Practice," Crystal whispered back, keeping her eyes forward. She continued with her nose upturned and a quiet voice reminiscent of Upper Crust's, "One must always keep an ear on another conversation from one's own, lest one miss out on crucial information."

The two giggled softly before Crystal paid attention while Velvet just tried to keep her eyes open. It was a struggle, but she managed to survive until lunch. Barely.

Before Velvet could remember to catch Crystal up on the previous day's happenings, High Horse shyly walked to the door, cringing from the weight of Golden's glare as their paths intersected.

Crystal glanced at Velvet. "What—"

Velvet yawned. "High Horse and Golden broke up so now she's our friend."

This seemed to be all that Crystal needed. She sat up straight in her seat and waved her forelegs. "Hey, Horsey!"

High Horse's ears perked and she lifted her head. "Huh?"

Crystal beamed. "Let's have lunch together!"

"Really?" Horsey started to smile. "You don't mind?"

Crystal waved a dismissive hoof. "Why would I mind having lunch with friends?"

"But, you and Velvet—"

"Now it's me and Velvet and you!" Crystal levitated her lunch bag, slid out of her seat, and trotted for the door. "C'mon, Velvet, the sun will perk you up, I'm sure!"

"Mm." Velvet dragged her hooves as she followed behind the two figures she hoped were her friends.

Once they were seated, High Horse and Crystal started to eat their lunches while Velvet leaned against Crystal and closed her eyes.

"What was so good about the story that you stayed up all night reading it?" Crystal asked before she took a bite of her sandwich.

Horsey looked up suddenly. "Oh, so she's just tired from staying up? Thank goodness," she said with a smile. "I was worried she was sick and nopony was going to mention it."

Velvet opened one eye. "Uh, it was really well-written. I couldn't go to sleep without knowing what happened."

"Really?" Crystal tapped her chin. "Was it Of Mice and Mares?"

"No." She closed the eye again.

"The Chronicles of Neighnia?"

Velvet paused. That sounded like a story that might have a sequel, right? Her heart started to race as she placed her bets and gambled, "Um, maybe."

Crystal smiled. "Oh, that's a really good series!"

Velvet felt a small bit of relief. "So can I borrow the next one?"

"Of course!" Crystal paused, then amended, "Though maybe I should just bring it to school tomorrow. You should go home and rest right after we get out."

Horsey nodded in agreement. "I don't mean this in a mean way, but I think you could really use some sleep."

"No, I want to come over," Velvet whined as she pressed her face into Crystal's neck.

Crystal laughed, shaking her head. "Okay, okay, but only if you promise to not stay up all night reading it."

"Promise!" Velvet yawned. She straightened up and looked in her lunch bag. "Oh, look, it's a real lunch today!"

When Horsey giggled, Crystal glanced between the two. "What?"

"Nothing," they said and giggled together.

Crystal frowned at first, but lightened into a smile. "I'm glad you're our friend now, Horsey."

Horsey flushed lightly. "Me, too."

The lunch went by relatively easy after that. It was especially good that Horsey was there, as Velvet's attention was floating in and out, so Crystal had somepony to hold a conversation with until they were called back into class for the rest of the day's lessons.

Velvet mustered all of her energy on the walk to Crystal's house, which was made easier when they walked in the door and Upper Crust called Crystal into the kitchen, leaving her alone in the foyer.

"Darling, I've been looking into these 'school lunches' and, evidently, I'm supposed to make them for you," Velvet heard Upper Crust say. "Why didn't you inform me of this sooner?"

"Oh, Mom, it's fine, really," Crystal replied. "I don't mind making them myself."

Velvet quietly tip-hoofed across the living room. She craned her neck to see around the corner and into the kitchen, where Upper Crust seemed to have Crystal's full attention. Excitement giving her a rush of adrenaline, she hurried up the stairs and into Crystal's bedroom. She squeezed herself under the bed and tugged on the box to move it closer to the reachable side.

When her head popped out from underneath the bed, however, she was staring at Crystal's hooves.

"Oh, uh—" Velvet blinked a few times. "Hey, you."

Crystal furrowed her brow and tilted her head. "What are you doing under there? You startled my mom with how fast you ran up the stairs all of a sudden." She rolled her eyes and mocked with a hoof daintily raised, "'Go tell your friend a lady never runs.'" Her gaze focused back on Velvet and one ear twitched, though she smiled softly. "So, this is weird."

Velvet's guilt was clear on her face as she glanced at the box she had pushed almost all the way out. Crystal followed her gaze and gasped. Panic overtook her eyes and she thrust the box to the far side of the bed with her magic, her over-attention causing it to hit the wall with a loud thump.

"What were you doing with that?" Crystal took a step back. "You didn't open it, did you?"

Velvet bit her lower lip before she crawled all the way out from under the bed and stood as tall as she could. "I did, and I'm not sorry!"

Crystal's ears folded back. "Why—You—"

"I'm not sorry because they were the best stories I've ever read, not just since I started reading, but, like, ever!" Velvet bounced in the air for emphasis of her excitement. "But the last one was cut off 'cause I guess you ran out of pages and I need the next one!"

Crystal stared at her, jaw slack as a flush crept over her face. "Wait, that's what you were up so late reading? My stories?"

Velvet nodded with so much enthusiasm that her ears flopped wildly. "Yes! I couldn't stop!"

Crystal's flush started to crawl down her neck. She raised a hoof to hide her face. "You're just—"

"I am not! If I was 'just saying that' then I would have gotten some sleep last night." Velvet stepped closer to her. "Please let me borrow the next one!"

Crystal fell back onto her haunches and covered her face with both hooves. "No, they're not that good! Honest! Anyway, how can you like them?" She tentatively parted her hooves just slightly to peer out with one eye. "They're about romance."

"Huh? Why would that be a problem?" Velvet blinked, one brow raised and her nose scrunched up.

"Because you didn't like Prima Donna and Dastardly Desperado being together."

"Oh, pfft!" Velvet waved a hoof to dismiss the notion. "That's because I didn't like Dastardly. He was just a bad pony. But the stallions you write about, oh!" She started to flush herself. "It makes me want to be a mare!" She put her hooves on Crystal's and pushed them away. "If you don't believe me, then write a story and leave it on Ms. Tutor's desk without your name on it."

Crystal's flush vanished. "What? No! What if she finds out it was me?"

Velvet rolled her eyes. "That's why you leave your name off it, d'uh!"

Crystal groaned under her breath as she fought with the idea. Finally, she sighed and tried to smile. "I guess if she doesn't know it's me, then I've got nothing to lose."

Velvet squealed and hopped onto the bed, dropping her head down onto one of the pillows and closing her eyes. "Great! You work on that while I close my eyes." She paused, then cracked her eyes open to peer at Crystal. "Do I still get to borrow the second book?"

"I—I guess, if you want to."

"Double great!" She yawned, closed her eyes again, and drifted off almost immediately. She had been working hard, and it was time for a slumbering reward.

Crystal started to pace around the edge of the fluffy pink rug before she threw herself on top of it and internally screamed. Ms. Tutor? Reading one of her stories? It was hard enough turning in assigned essays

She rolled over onto her back and stared up at the ceiling. She took a deep breath in, then slowly released it as she levitated a quill and a blank sheet of paper from where they had rested on her little desk up against one wall.

"Hmm." She tapped her chin, focus overtaking her nerves. "What to write?"

Slowly, the quill dipped into the inkwell and started to scrawl across the paper. "In every class," she mumbled under her breath. "there is one special pony that comes to school every day with hope in her heart…"

Velvet's ear perked and listened to the story as it was written, a smile on her face.

An hour later, Crystal was sitting on the bed with Velvet resting against her, reading over her shoulder.

"And—done!" Crystal lowered the last page onto the small stack of ten written pages.

"That's a really sweet story," Velvet said softly. She reached out a hoof to touch the edge of the papers, careful not to smear the still-wet ink. "I think Ms. Tutor is going to love it."

Crystal shrugged. "I guess." She hopped down onto the floor. "Come on, it's getting late. I'll get Dad to walk you home."

After a brief hug at the door, the two fillies said their goodbyes for the evening, Velvet with excitement and Crystal with dread.

The next morning, Crystal arrived at school as early as she could to beat out anypony in their class. She glanced around to double-check that the room was empty before she slid the ribbon-bound papers out of her saddlebags and onto Austere Tutor's desk. She moved a few other papers on top of it to make it seem less obvious, then ran back outside to wait as unsuspiciously as she could for Velvet to arrive.

Not long after, a few of her classmates wandered into the schoolyard, including High Horse, who blinked a few times when their gazes met. "Crystal?" She trotted over. "Why are you here so early by yourself?"

Crystal smiled sheepishly. It would take some getting used to having a third friend around. "Mom and Dad had somewhere to be this morning, and I got bored sitting around by myself." It wasn't entirely a lie, so she didn't feel too bad about it.

"Oh." High Horse nodded and smiled. "Do you think Ms. Tutor would let me, um, move to sit by Velvet?" Her gaze and smile faltered. "It's really awkward still sitting beside Golden."

Crystal gave a firm nod. "I'm sure it'll be fine if you explain the situation to her! Ms. Tutor is only scary most of the time."

"Excuse me?" came the very mare's voice.

The hairs on the back of Crystal's neck stood tall and she jumped in the air. "Ms. Tutor!" She whirled around to face her. "I'm sorry!"

Ms. Tutor frowned. "What a wonderful way to start off my day. Thank you ever so much, Miss Wishes." She gave a small snort before she walked into the classroom.

Crystal put a hoof to her chest to ensure her heart was still beating. "She's never this early!" Her gaze darted about. "Why is she here so early?"

High Horse tilted her head. "Didn't you know?"

"Know what?" Crystal looked at her with panic. "What?"

High Horse shrank back and offered a weak smile. "Ms. Tutor always comes to school early, then patrols the schoolyard before class starts to catch any stragglers."

"Oh, Celestia." Crystal slapped a hoof to her forehead. "I'm dead."

"Huh? Why?"

Crystal shook her head and dragged her hooves as she started to walk away. "Nevermind. Just—" She looked over her shoulder with dramatic flair, though she was sincerely worried. "Remember me fondly!"

As Crystal paced around the courtyard and High Horse watched her with concern, the minutes went by and the teacher didn't emerge from the school. Her panic rose and her pacing grew more frantic until—

"Miss Wishes, I would like to speak with you a moment," Ms. Tutor called from the doorway and turned to walk back into the school.

Crystal whined, stomped her hooves, and took a breath. Well, she had no choice now but to face the inevitable. Austere Tutor had a particular fondness for literature and was quite the critic when it came to even the simplest of writing assignments. How had she let Velvet talk her into this? It was going to be humiliating. It was going to be—

"Wonderful!" Austere exclaimed as Crystal walked into view. "You wrote this?"

Crystal froze and stared at her with wide, frightened eyes.

"Miss Wishes, I don't know why you neglect to bring such flair to your essays and have insisted on torturing me with unimaginative writing all these years."

Crystal said nothing, though her mind was moving rapidly through too many thoughts to keep track of.

"I must say, if you modeled this—" She straightened her reading glasses. "Blossom Mentor after me, then I am most flattered!" She looked back at Crystal. "What, little pony?" She smiled. "Did you think I wouldn't recognize your quillmanship?"

"I—I—" Crystal swallowed. Her throat was dry. "I need some air."

Austere blinked a few times, but had no opportunity to speak before Crystal ran out of the classroom and back into the schoolyard.

Just at that moment, Velvet rounded the corner and was happily trotting up the pathway. When she saw the look on Crystal's face, her own happiness fell and she quickened her pace, calling out, "Crystal?"

High Horse walked over as well. "What happened?"

Velvet skidded to a halt in front of Crystal. "Did she read it?"

High Horse glanced between the two of them with a curious frown. "Read what?"

Crystal slowly lifted her head and looked at Velvet with a blank expression. "She—She liked it."

"Liked what?" Horsey's voice grew quiet and she took a step back, her ears falling.

Velvet giggled and embraced High Horse. "Crystal's discovered her special talent!"

"She has?" Horsey tried to incline her head to look at Crystal's flank, but the tight hug made it hard to move. "Really?!"

"Really!" Velvet paused. She let go of Horsey to look at Crystal, who hadn't moved. "Right?"

Crystal finally moved to sit down and look at her hooves. "I—I wrote something, and Ms. Tutor called it wonderful." She looked up at the two. A smile started to spread across her face, just like the warmth that started in her chest and spread throughout her little body. "She called it wonderful! Something I wrote! And you liked my writing, too!"

Velvet bounced up and down as she squealed with excitement. The explosion of Velvet's feelings overwhelmed Horsey and she began to bounce as well.

"Look!" both of them cried, pointing one hoof, bouncing on the others.

Crystal didn't look. She was almost too scared to. A cutie mark was permanent, and in a way, boastful. She had kind of grown to like being a blank flank and fading into the background, but her gaze betrayed her when it snapped down and to the side.

There, on her flank, was a quill overlaying the outline of a pink heart, the same pink that was present in her mane and tail—her favorite pink in all the world.

She had always wondered about the incomprehensible magic of a cutie mark. At that moment, she realized that however it worked, it worked perfectly. She couldn't have dreamed of a better mark to adorn her flank forever.

The sound of the two fillies' squealing returned to the forefront of her mind. She jumped up onto all fours and started to bounce with them. "I got my cutie mark!" she exclaimed as loudly as she could. "And I love it!" She jumped forward and nearly knocked them over with a sudden hug that they quickly returned, all three laughing happily.

Crystal let go of them and spun in a circle as she tried to keep an eye on her cutie mark, then fell over onto her side and squirmed in the grass. Finally, she gave a small, content sigh as the other two laid down with her.

"I wish I could always be this happy," she said softly. "Wouldn't that be nice?"

They nodded, and she nodded along with them.

"Yeah, that'd be perfect," they all agreed aloud, then giggled at the sound of their voices in harmony.

Delicate Time

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"But, Mom!" Crystal whined, hopping from one hoof to the other. "All the mares are going to be looking like this. I don't want to be the only pony at Canterlot Academy that still looks like a filly!"

The braid that she once cherished had been replaced by a fluffy ponytail tied off to the right side, the pink and blonde of her mane mingling in playful waves. Around her hindlegs were pink legwarmers, and a bright rainbow of bangles adorned her forelegs.

Upper Crust raised her brow. The teacup in front of her lowered to the end table beside the couch. "That sort of attitude is not what I would expect from a proper young lady."

Crystal groaned. She raised a hoof to her forehead to calm herself. When she opened her eyes, she smiled, her posture and tone shifting into what her mother expected. "I don't understand the issue, Mother. It's the current fashion."

"Yes, for ponies your age, perhaps." Upper Crust sniffed with distinct disapproval. "But you will be going to events with us, not with ponies your age. Nonetheless, it is not good enough to simply blend in. You must shine, my darling. How else will you find a good stallion? Do you want an average stallion as your companion?"

Ever since the summer break started, her mother had become more and more unbearable about being a 'proper lady', tearing down all the progress their tentative relationship had made. The extensive training was getting to a point where some things were ingrained into her subconscious.

"If the good stallion only notices me because of what I'm wearing, then is he really a good companion at all?" Crystal narrowed her eyes just slightly. "What if Dad had been that shallow and hadn't asked you to the Fall Formal?"

Upper Crust had just been raising her teacup to take a sip when the question hit her and knocked her focus off track. The teacup started to fall, but Crystal's magic caught it before it hit the ground, though the tea had already spilled onto the floor.

Upper Crust put a hoof to her forehead and shook her head. "Crystal Wishes," she said with a sigh. "I need another cup of tea, if you will." She paused, then added, "And you certainly will, after that unbecoming display."

Crystal rolled her eyes and walked into the kitchen, the teacup floating after her. As she set about the task of making a new batch of tea, she grumbled under her breath, "No stallion will ask me to the Fall Formal, regardless of how I dress." She paused to look down at her muddled reflection in the water just before she closed the lid to the kettle. "Not unless they're blind."

Once the kettle heated up and whistled its readiness, Crystal poured it into the teacup. She added a bit of sugar, squeezed out a few drops of lemon, and—just for fun—a sprig of mint. Feeling pleased with her creation, she carried it back out into the living room and offered it to her mother with a smile.

"That's better." Upper Crust brought the teacup to her lips, gently blew on it, and took a sip—which she immediately choked on. "Crystal! Tea is intended to be savory, not sweet!"

Crystal's ears fell and she sighed. "Yes, Mother."

"Try it again. I am surprised that you would still make such a simple mistake after we've worked so hard all summer." She sighed, shaking her head. "A stallion can tell a good mare from a poor one by the quality of her tea. Remember that."

"Yes, Mother." Crystal tried not to drag her hooves as she returned to the kitchen, sighing heavily in defeat. Out of sight, she made all sorts of exaggeratedly irritated faces at the tea kettle, even sticking her tongue out.

"And don't sigh so loudly. It's unbecoming."

Crystal bit back a sarcastic response, instead saying as cordially as possible, "Yes, Mother."

That afternoon, Crystal met up with Velvet and High Horse for a picnic. Every time they found time to get together, it felt like they had all aged a year, and she could hardly believe how much they had all changed.

Velvet had her mane pulled back with a colorful bandanna and slicked up in the most impossible curls. She had even started wearing makeup, her eyelids colored in a bold splash of both blue and purple hues.

Horsey, on the other hoof, seemed to be less rebellious toward her parents, who were undoubtedly pressuring her just the same as Crystal's. She had certainly added volume to her mane, the same as every other pony their age, but it was still straight with only a hint of gentle waves that whispered of defiance.

"Can you believe it?" Velvet beamed at Crystal and Horsey before she settled down on her corner of the blanket. "Next week, we start at Canterlot Academy!" She clapped her hooves together. "I'm so excited! No more Canterlot Prep School for us mature mares!"

Crystal's gaze flickered off to the side, but she smiled nonetheless. "Did you know that not every town has an academy?"

Horsey nodded. "Yeah! In Ponyville, ponies our age have jobs already."

"Wait, really?" Crystal blinked. She looked down at her hooves. "I don't think I'm ready to be an adult."

"Me neither." Velvet giggled. "I just want to make friends, have fun, and still enjoy doing ballet before it becomes a job and I don't have any time for friends or fun."

Crystal raised a brow. "What're you talking about? How can something you love not be fun?"

This time, it was Velvet's gaze that faltered. "You know what I mean."

"Anyway," Horsey said, clearing her throat. "So, what clubs are you two thinking of joining?"

Crystal smiled. "I might join the writing club."

Just talking about it made her heart start to race. It had been pretty easy to enjoy writing when there was no pressure to share it. The idea of being in a club with other ponies who wrote, looking at each other's' work, realizing how far she had to go before she could call herself a writer, and—

"'Might'?" Velvet asked, pulling her back to the moment. She scrunched up her nose. "Why in Equestria would you not?"

"Oh, all right, I will join it." She laughed softly. "I was also thinking of joining theater, just for something different."

"Oh! I was thinking about theater as well!" Velvet clapped her hooves together. "Horsey, you should join, too! That way we'll have some time together for sure!"

Horsey nodded, staring down at her sandwich. "Okay. What else?"

"I'm going to join the dance club, of course." Velvet held her cup of punch in both hooves and lifted it up.

Crystal's ear twitched in slight annoyance at the sound of Velvet slurping the drink like a foal, but she just tried to smile wider to cover up her irritation.

"I was also looking at the varsity cheerleading team," Velvet continued. "I don't know if I have what it takes, but it can't hurt to try out!"

Crystal lifted her tiny sandwich. "Good for you!" She took a bite, dabbed her lips with a kerchief, then looked at Horsey. "What about you?"

"Well, I guess I'm joining theater with you two." Horsey giggled. "I, um, well, was thinking of…" She trailed off in a mumble.

Crystal and Velvet leaned in toward her, heads tilted curiously.

She started to flush. She sat up on her haunches, tapped her hooves together, and looked at them with an almost guilty expression. "You'll laugh at me."

"I promise we won't," Crystal said with a serious expression, crossing a hoof over her chest. Velvet nodded and repeated the gesture.

Horsey sighed heavily. The blush across her cheeks grew darker as she said in a quiet voice, "I want to join the LARP club because there's a stallion I like that I know is going to be in that club."

"Really?!" Crystal and Velvet exclaimed together.

"Who is he?" Crystal's eyes were wide and almost sparkled with interest.

"How did you meet him?" Velvet grinned.

Horsey hid her face. Her ears folded back as the blush crept all the way up to them. "I overheard him and his friends at Sunridge Sweets a couple weeks ago talking about the club. I've kind of had a little crush on him—well, since a few years ago, I guess, so I feel like this is finally my chance."

Crystal was bubbling with elated giggles as she squirmed, pressing her hooves to her cheeks. "That's so cute! It'll be a dream come true, I'm sure of it!"

Velvet snickered. "Yeah, you'd know! You're the expert!" She nudged Crystal's side with her elbow.

Crystal's excitement died down as quickly as it erupted and she shot Velvet a look. High Horse noticed—just as she seemed to notice every silencing glance Crystal gave Velvet in situations like this—and her gaze fell.

Crystal tried not to show the guilt she felt; though they had been friends for years by that point, she would only admit to loving writing itself and not the particular, specific subject of romance.

"Well, I have to get back to my piano lessons," Horsey said as she got up onto all fours, rolling her eyes. "Apparently that's what my mom is really into right now."

"Okay! I guess the next time we see you will be the first day of school." Velvet practically wiggled with excitement. "I can't wait!"

Horsey hugged Velvet first, then Crystal, and trotted off home.

Velvet's smile fell into a stern frown and she turned on Crystal almost predatorily. "Crystal, you're ridiculous." She sighed. "We've all been friends for so long. You know, High Horse thinks you don't actually like her."

The kerchief Crystal kept at the ready fell as she looked at Velvet, startled. "She what? Why would she think that?" She turned her head to look at the retreating figure, her brow furrowed as she considered calling out to her.

"Because she knows you're keeping a secret from her. It hurts her feelings."

"Oh." Crystal's ears drooped. "I didn't know she felt that way." It was a lie. Of course she knew. How could she not?

Velvet got up and started to pack the remains of the picnic back into the saddlebags. "Well, now you know. She told me in confidence, but I can't stand to see friends hurting." She smiled at Crystal and put a hoof on her shoulder. "I know you'll make it right. You always do."

Crystal was quiet as she helped Velvet pack, then sat back down. When Velvet gave her a curious look, she explained, "I'm just going to sit here for a while. It's a nice day."

"All right." Velvet slipped the saddlebags onto her back. "I'll see you at school." She nuzzled her cheek against Crystal's affectionately, then trotted away.

Crystal waited until she could no longer hear the fading hoofsteps before she dropped her head down and closed her eyes. "I'm a terrible friend," she muttered.

She remained there as the sun started to dip down toward the horizon. Her mind was a blank slate; she wanted to mull over the issue, but she just felt drained of energy. All that buzzed in her mind was the indistinct sound of guilt.

The sky shifted hues and once it reached an orange-pink color, she got up and started the walk home with a heavy heart and no answers for how to fix things.

Waiting for her in the living room were both of her parents. Jet Set had a small frown on his face, while Upper Crust looked fashionably uninterested.

"Crystal, you're late." Her father tapped a hoof against the floor. "You know how important it is to your mother and I that we sit down and help you decide on what clubs you'll join."

Crystal smiled, lifting her head and putting on proper airs. "I'm so terribly sorry, Father. I got caught up in my picnic with Velvet and High Horse."

Jet Set walked over to the couch. Strewn across the coffee table were countless flyers, each for all of the different clubs that Canterlot Academy offered.

"It's good to socialize," he said, his tone lighter, "but you're going to need to widen your social circle, you know."

"Yes, Father." She followed after him while Upper Crust took the chair opposite them. "Anyway, I know for sure that I want to join the writing club."

Jet Set nodded. The writing club's flyer was already moved off to the right side of the table, away from the others.

"Of course! It is your talent, after all. I do hope you'll consider the color guard when you're eligible in your sophomore year." He smiled. "Your mother was wonderful in it. In fact, that is where I first saw her as the beautiful mare she is, putting all of her passion into her flag."

He looked across the table at Upper Crust, who blushed ever so faintly, and he added, "It would be nice to make it a family tradition."

Crystal blinked as she glanced between them. "Really? I knew Mom was in the color guard, but I didn't know that part of the story." Her gaze fell to the flyer. "I suppose it can't hurt." She smiled. "Oh, I want to join theater, because Velvet and High Horse will be in it, and…"

By the end of the evening, Crystal found herself with five clubs to join over the course of her academic career: writing, theater, color guard, calligraphy, and tea. She tried to feel excited about the list and the opportunities it held, but instead she was filled with a sense of dread.

Perhaps Ponyville had it right—she knew what she wanted to do, so why waste her time in lessons and clubs unrelated to her talent?

Her gaze landed on the color guard flyer while her parents went into the kitchen to prepare dinner. She smiled, her cheeks heating up. Then again, maybe she would meet the stallion from her dreams. Her hoof traced the design on the flyer as she started to imagine her parents' story as her own: her true love attending the performance, their eyes meeting, interrupted only by the fluttering of her flag as it spun around.

She couldn't help a small squeal as she trotted toward and up the stairs to her room. Canterlot Academy could be her own dream come true!

The Unwilling Stallion

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It was exactly as she had imagined. Everything about the moment was perfect: the sun was bright, yet not blindingly so; a breeze drifted by, just strong enough to catch in her mane; their eyes met, and the world fell away. She was a first-year and he was a senior, but in that instant, his gaze told her that things would work out. A smile broke across her lips and she tried to hide her face as he walked over and whispered in her ear,

"Crystal, class is over."

Crystal blinked a few times.

"Hello? Equestria to Crystal?" A hoof waved in front of her face, separating her from what she had been writing in her notebook.

She looked up to see Velvet smiling at her. "Huh?"

"You were just sitting there, staring. Are you fantasizing again?"

Crystal smiled sheepishly and closed the notebook, giving a small nod. "I can't help it. I'm so distracted that I can't even write straight." She giggled. "Stallions from all over Equestria come to this school, and some of them are really—" Her gaze wandered off as a few of their male classmates walked by. She finished in an airy voice, "dreamy."

Velvet laughed wholeheartedly and slapped Crystal on the shoulder. "Well, why don't you introduce yourself?"

"What? Oh, no!" Crystal cleared her throat and gathered her belongings. "No, I couldn't just do that."

"Then how do you expect to meet your stallion in shining armor?"

"Shining armor?" Crystal mused aloud as they walked together, out of the classroom and down one of the halls. "You know, there is something pretty appealing about a stallion in uniform."

Velvet glanced at a group of the hoofball players hanging out near their lockers and she grinned. "I'll agree to that." She quickened her pace. "Come on! If we're late to theater club, Horsey might have to partner with a stranger, and you know how she is about that."

Crystal fell silent as Velvet filled the conversation. So far, theater club consisted of mostly partnered recitals. Velvet was pushing Crystal to partner with High Horse while she herself used the opportunity to meet new ponies. In fact, Horsey and Crystal were spending a lot of time together while Velvet socialized with others. Although she'd never tell Horsey, she kind of felt lonely without Velvet around as much.

"There you two are!" Horsey rushed over to them, a slight trill of panic in her voice. "Something awful is happening!" She glanced behind her at the other ponies waiting for the club to begin. "They're pairing us up with stallions. Mandatory!"

Velvet gave an excited squeal. "Really?! There you go, Crystal! Now's your chance!" She bumped Crystal with her flank. "Go find your prince!"

Crystal stumbled forward a few steps and shot Velvet a frown, receiving an innocent smile in return. "Why are we pairing with stallions?"

"Because today we're going to practice for Julimare and Romehorse." Horsey's ears fell. "I'm not comfortable with this at all!"

Crystal froze, her cheeks hot and red. "Really? What scene?" She leaned in toward Horsey, grabbing her by the shoulders to keep her from flinching away. "What scene?!"

"I don't know!" Horsey blinked a few times. "I'm sorry!"

Crystal let go of her and started to pace. "This could be big, or it could be nothing. Horsey, you're going to have to flee. It might be the infamous kiss scene, and you have to save your kiss for 16-Bit!"

It was Horsey's turn to flush. Without another word, she ran from the auditorium. Velvet couldn't help a giggle, though she tried to cover her mouth to hide it. "You take romance so seriously, Crystal!"

"The first kiss is of the utmost importance," she said in a serious tone while her eyes surveyed the ponies in attendance. "If they're going to have us reenact the kiss scene, then she can't be here."

Velvet laughed louder as she walked past her and down the steps toward the stage. "Really? Well, what about you? Are you ready to give away your own first kiss for theater club?"

Crystal's mind went blank. She hadn't even thought about that. Her gaze started to wander to the door when—as if somehow sensing her desire to flee—the club president called, "Crystal Wishes, please come to the stage so we can begin!"

"Oh, ponyfeathers," she muttered under her breath and trotted down the steps.

It turned out the scene was rather tame and involved no touching of any kind. Though she was relieved, she found herself in another quandary as ponies started to pair up. She blinked a few times and looked around.

"Um, hi, I—" She winced as the stallion, not noticing her, was approached by another mare. "Oh, uh." She cleared her throat and looked at another. "Hi, I need a partner."

"Sorry, I just paired up." He smiled and nodded his head at the mare beside him.

"That's fine!" She took a step back. "Good for you! I'll just—" She looked around and sighed. "—give up, I guess."

Standing alone, she stood out more than ever, and that caught the club president's attention.

"Hmm." The club president, Spectrum Splatter, walked over. "Don't worry, Crystal Wishes. We'll just have a stallion run through the lines twice. We're fresh out of partn—oh!" She smiled and, strangely, she had a distinct look of fiery amusement burning in her eyes. "Aha! Wait, there is one after all."

Spectrum cleared her throat, then raised her voice to call out over the mares and stallions chatting excitedly with one another, "Silent Knight!"

Crystal followed her gaze. Off to the side and standing somewhat out of view was a white pegasus stallion. He wore the school's recognizable hoofball jacket and held a hammer in his mouth. When he lifted his head and looked over, he merely raised one brow in response.

"I think the props can take a break," Spectrum said sweetly. "Why don't you actually engage in some of the acting today?"

Silent Knight lifted a hoof and pointed at the hammer, a serious look on his face. Spectrum's smile fell.

"Yes, yes, I know you said you just wanted to do props and not actually perform, but this mare here needs a partner, and you can't just build props all year without any participation in our recitals."

They exchanged an unrelenting, silent staring contest before the pegasus dropped the hammer and walked over to stand beside Crystal.

Spectrum smiled with clear self-satisfaction on her face. "Good!" She made her way to the front of the stage and hopped down to take a seat in the first row. "Okay, everypony, line up so each of you gets a turn."

Crystal's cheeks were red and she found it hard to stay still with a stallion so close to her that was totally her type. She stole a quick glance up at him to get a better look at his features.

He had his blue mane slicked up and back, a few strands resting forward against his ears, which were notable in of themselves. Her gaze returned to him to get a better look, lingering this time. The very tips of his ears were—fluffy? She couldn't help but tilt her head. Was that word appropriate to use with a stallion's ears?

She nearly fell forward when the mare behind her nudged her ahead. "Hey, pay attention, will you? The line's movin'!"

"Sorry!" She hurried to regain her balance and place beside Silent Knight. She had to focus now that she realized she and he were only a few ponies away from their turn. Could she do it? Could she recite those famous lines to this complete stranger? Her heart raced and she started to fidget in place.

Finally, it was their turn. The pegasus's expression remained focused, yet emotionless. He stood, not quite facing her, but not quite facing the front, either. All in all, he seemed completely uninterested in the task.

Crystal took a moment to find her voice. Her gaze wandered to everywhere but at him. "Oh, Romehorse, Romehorse! Wherefore art thou Romehorse? Deny thy father and refuse thy name; or, if thou wilt not, be but sworn my love, and I'll no longer be a Capubit."

She raised her eyes, a part of her hoping to meet his.

He hadn't moved. He didn't seem like he was going to speak, either.

Crystal cleared her throat, hoping to get his attention and prompt him into action. Instead of a response, his eyes darted to her, then looked away again.

Perhaps he had forgotten his lines? She glanced around, then whispered, "Shall I hear more…"

His ear twitched in acknowledgment. Her brow furrowed. Was he mute? Was that why he was called Silent Knight? Surely, if he were mute, then Spectrum wouldn't have put him on stage.

Smothered snickers started to fill the awkward silence.

Crystal bit her lower lip, then moved to stand beside him, opposite of the front of the stage, and called out in the most masculine voice she could, "Shall I hear more, or shall I speak at this?"

The snickers rose into brief laughs. She couldn't help a small grin herself as she resumed her spot. Silent Knight looked down at her, brow raised again, but didn't seem inclined to stop her as she continued her lines, then hopped back out of view beside him.

Even Spectrum laughed as Crystal bellowed, "I take thee at thy word! Call me but love, and I'll be new baptized; henceforth I never will be Romehorse."

"All right, all right, that's enough!" Spectrum wiped a tear from her eye and waved the other hoof. "I think we get the point."

Crystal faced the front, gave a small curtsey of her forelegs, and trotted out of the spotlight. Silent Knight seemed to follow after her, but when she stopped and turned to address him, he kept going, heading back to the prop he had been putting together.

Her heart started to fall until he stopped, turned his head, and nodded at her.

Crystal lit up. "You're welcome!" He didn't acknowledge her further, and that was fine with her, as Velvet suddenly hugged her from behind.

"That was hilarious!" Velvet giggled. "In my opinion, you're a shoe-in for playing Romehorse."

"Oh, ha, ha. Thanks." Crystal nudged her off, rolling her eyes. "That really helps my self-esteem."

Velvet giggled again and walked with her over to the auditorium seats. "Horsey's gonna be really sad she missed that. That was priceless!" She glanced around, then leaned in closer to her. "Now, your partner was good-looking!"

Crystal nodded. "Oh, super. But he's really focused on—something. I'm not sure what, but it's definitely not theater or mares." Her gaze drifted over to the darker part of the stage where she could just barely make the stallion out as he worked. "I don't really think he's on the market."

"What a shame! Oh well." Velvet sighed. "So, I failed my cheerleading tryouts this morning."

Crystal's expression dropped and she turned to face her completely. "What? I'm so sorry!"

"It's fine. Ballet and cheerleading are two completely different worlds! It was fun, though. It also means I have some free time in my schedule, which is good, because the girls in dance club want to get together to practice outside of club hours!"

Crystal hesitated and took a quick intake of air. She had to be happy for her friend, even if she wanted to be selfish. Velvet had always wanted a bigger circle of friends than Crystal was comfortable with, and she just had to be okay with that.

"That's great, then." Did she sound sincere? She hoped so.

"Yup!" Velvet stretched her forelegs over her head. "Why don't you, Horsey, and I get together at Sunridge Sweets after school sometime? It's been a while since we hung out there."

"I'd like that a lot." Crystal turned her attention back to the stage as the last pair finished reciting their lines. "I need to spend more time with Horsey."

"Mm. Well, yeah, but"—Velvet frowned—"what you really need to do is just be honest with her. I think it'd be a good first step, anyway."

Crystal's gaze fell to the floor, then slowly raised back up. "I'll try. No promises, but I'll try."

She spent the rest of the club hours hardening her resolve. Horsey was a friend, just like Velvet. If she couldn't let a friend know about her true passion, then how could she ever make a career out of it? She nodded to herself.

First thing she'd do when she saw Horsey at Sunridge Sweets would be to tell her the whole truth.

Princess in the Mirror

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Crystal drummed her hooves lightly against the table. She looked around the bakery while Horsey enjoyed an oat smoothie. Finally, her gaze landed on the clock on the wall and she sighed.

"Well," Crystal mumbled, "I guess Velvet isn't joining us. Again."

Horsey kept her gaze down, focused on her smoothie. "Oh." There was an awkward pause before she started to slide out of her seat. "I'll just, um, leave, then."

"What?" Crystal looked at her. "We can still hang out without her!"

Horsey gave her an odd look—she almost looked skeptical. "Are you sure?" However, she did climb back into her seat, so there was a silver lining of hope to the skepticism.

"Yeah!" Crystal smiled, but her lips slowly fell into a somber line. "Look, I'm sorry. It was easy when we were kids, but—" She sighed.

Crystal raised her hooves and rested her chin on them, gazing forlornly somewhere indistinct past Horsey as she continued, "I just don't know what to do or say when Velvet's not around. I was so confident as a filly, but I feel like that part of me disappeared somehow, and she's become the confident and outgoing one. I don't really know who I am or how to act anymore around ponies, or around you."

Horsey took this all in with a serious expression before she inclined her head. "Look behind you."

Crystal blinked, then turned her head to look in the direction Horsey was facing. Behind them was a group of fillies, laughing and sharing a cupcake, frosting smeared on their muzzles. She frowned at the sight.

"See? That." Horsey pointed a hoof at her when Crystal turned to look at her again. "You used to act just like them, but now you do that."

"Do what?" Her ears folded back.

Horsey waved her hoof as she spoke. "You've changed. When Velvet slurps her drinks, you wince. When you see somepony chewing with their mouth open, you groan. You—" Her confidence wavered and her voice grew softer. "You're turning into our parents."

The words knocked the wind right out of Crystal's lungs. She had to take a moment to regain her breath and senses. "No." She shook her head, raising her hooves to her forehead. "I'm not! No way! I don't care about those things at all! I—"

Her vision grew blurry and she shook her head again in an attempt to clear her thoughts. She tried to refute the accusations, but a part of her knew, and now she had to acknowledge it. "I can't believe you're right. What's happened to me?"

Horsey carefully moved from her seat to the one between them and put a hoof on Crystal's shoulder. "I'm sorry." Her expression and tone matched her apologetic words. "I know it's not your fault, that our parents do this to us. I just—" She bit her lip. "When it started, and Velvet didn't say anything, I thought I was just being paranoid after what happened with Golden Pants."

Crystal wasn't sure what frightened her most: becoming her mother, or becoming Golden. In all the years since elementary school, Golden had only grown more cold and cruel toward others as she pursued her modeling career. She had even gone so far as to say everypony in their class 'would only drag her down out of jealousy' and hadn't made any friends after High Horse.

Sometimes, Crystal felt bad for her. She must have been lonely.

She shook her head and returned her thoughts to her own situation. Who was she kidding? She was lonely herself, and she was making it worse by keeping her distance from Horsey. Now with Velvet spending less time with her and making new friends, she was going to end up all by herself, just like Golden, unless—

Crystal lifted her gaze. "I write lovey dovey romance stories."

This was evidently—and unsurprisingly—not the revelation Horsey was expecting. She furrowed her brow, tilted her head, and pursed her lips. "Okay?" Then, all at once, she gasped and flung her hooves to her mouth, her eyes wide. "Wait! Is that why—"

"Yeah." Crystal shrank back in slight fear. "That's what Velvet knows, what I've kept a secret from you. Well, from everypony, but more importantly, from you."

Horsey's gaze darted back and forth, only briefly meeting Crystal's before flickering away. Finally, she lowered her hooves and gave her an odd look of muddled confusion. "Why is that a such a big deal to you?"

A blush glowed across Crystal's cheeks. "Because it's embarrassing. Ponies our age are interested in dating around and having a good time, not reading about the hardships and rewards of love. All I can think about is meeting my true love. How silly does that sound?"

Horsey shrugged. "I think—" She paused. "I think, as somepony who also doesn't talk about what I want to do with my life, I can totally understand."

Crystal blinked, then leaned in toward her. "What?" Her eyes widened and she recoiled, a hoof clamping over her mouth. "Oh, Celestia, you're—I've never asked! In all these years, how have I never asked?!"

Horsey giggled and shook her head. "I wouldn't have told you even if you had. I—" She glanced around and lessened the gap between them, lowering her voice. "I want to be a model, like Golden, but I don't want to be lonely and mean, like Golden. So, I'm scared to pursue it."

An excited grin parted Crystal's lips. "You would be great! I've never put it together, but you have a perfect gait when you walk down the halls at school. And I've never seen you trip or stumble, not once!"

It was Horsey's turn to blush. "That's one thing, but being pretty enough to be a model is the problem."

"Oh, don't worry, you have that covered, too." Crystal lifted her spoon and held it up toward Horsey. "See?"

Horsey giggled. "I see a really goofy, stretched out, upside-down pony with eyes the size of her face."

Crystal turned the spoon to look at the same side. Her reflection was scrunched up and stretched out like a funhouse mirror. "Okay, so this isn't the best." She set the spoon down. "Why don't we go to my house? My mom may be overbearing, but she does wonders with makeup. I want to show you something when she's done, but you'll just have to trust me until then."

Horsey mulled it over, then finally shrugged. "Sure, why not?"

They slid out of their seats and, after waving goodbye to Pepper Ridge, trotted out of Sunridge Sweets together.

It wasn't a very long walk, but it was plenty awkward; Crystal didn't know what to say to Horsey, and Horsey had never been a conversation starter.

When they finally arrived and walked through the front door, Crystal called out, "Mom, I'm home."

Upper Crust lifted her head, looking over from where she had been resting on the couch. "Mm? Darling, you're home earlier than I expected." She smiled, noticing Horsey. "Oh, hello there, High Horse." She sat up and straightened her mane. "What a pleasant and wonderful surprise. How is your father?"

"Fine." Horsey glanced at Crystal, a nervous look in her eyes.

Crystal placated her with a brief smile before regaining her composure. "Mom, I need a favor."

Upper Crust's smile softened and she stepped off the couch to walk over. "Yes, darling? What is it?"

Crystal pointed a hoof at Horsey. "Can you give Horsey one of your makeup specials? She doesn't think she's pretty."

"Hey!" Horsey winced. "You didn't have to say that much."

Upper Crust gently laid a hoof on her shoulder, a sparkle in her eyes. "Don't worry, dear. I had to go through the same struggle with Crystal. And now look at her." She paused, glancing her daughter over. "Well, except for her current style of fashion. But you're much more confident now, aren't you, darling?"

"Yeah." Crystal forced a smile. "One of the prettiest mares in all of Canterlot, just like you said."

Her mother frowned. "Only Canterlot? What a shame. Just last week it was Equestria." She shook her head. "No matter. I'll help you later. For now—" She walked over to the stairs. "—come along, High Horse. We have work to do. Crystal, why don't you stay downstairs until we're ready? We can have ourselves a little fashion show."

Crystal giggled and hopped onto the couch. "You'll be just like a model, Horsey!"

"Just like?" Upper Crust poked her head over the railing to raise a stern brow at Crystal. "When I'm done with her, she will be a model, not merely 'just like' one."

Horsey shot Crystal a desperate, uncertain look. She silently mouthed, "Are you sure about this?"

Crystal nodded. She waved her hooves to usher Horsey along. "You'll be fine!" she called just as Horsey vanished up the stairs. She grabbed one of the fashion magazines lying around and spent the time idly looking through it.

By the time she had read through three magazines, Upper Crust came down the stairs. She cleared her throat and raised a hoof.

"Mares and gentlestallions, please divert your attention to Canterlot's up-and-coming star: High Fashion."

Crystal watched with anticipation as Horsey came down the stairs, though she was unable to make anything out through the railing. When Horsey came around the corner, walked a few paces, and struck a pose, Crystal wanted to clap her hooves together, but she was too busy staring.

Horsey was dolled up almost beyond recognition. A special foundation masked her innocent, filly-like freckles, leaving her coat perfectly smooth. Her eyelids were colored with a shimmery silver eyeshadow, and her cheeks had the slightest dark purple hue from blush. A string of white pearls tied her mane into a loose bun, with a white silk lily tucked behind her ear. The dress was pinned together in the back, though she tried to angle herself to hide the excess cloth. From the front, however, it seemed to fit perfectly: a slinky black dress with blue highlights.

"Rawr!" Crystal finally exclaimed, stomping all four hooves in thunderous applause against the couch cushions. "High Fashion for model of the year!" She threw her forehooves in the air. "Ooh! Aah!"

Horsey blushed while Upper Crust stood with her nose raised high in the air. "My work here is done." She dismissed the two with a wave of her hoof as she walked out of the room and into the kitchen.

Horsey fidgeted uncomfortably. "I feel silly."

"But you look amazing." Crystal hopped off the couch and over to her. She grabbed her by the hoof and dragged Horsey right back up the stairs and to her room.

Romantic posters no longer decorated the walls, which were now bare—save for one spot that was home to many small hooks on which various pieces of jewelry were hung with care. The little desk that used to sit across from her bed was replaced by a vanity littered with mane products and accessories.

Crystal led Horsey over to the vanity and stood off to the side, smiling. "Take a look," she said softly.

High Horse lifted her tentative gaze from the floor to her reflection and gasped. "Is that me?!" When Crystal nodded, she stepped closer to the mirror. "That's amazing! You're right, your mother did make me look like a princess!" She turned her head a few different ways, blushing.

"All the models wear makeup. If you ever saw one without it, they look just like you and I normally do." She giggled. "You know that new model that just got her first photo shoot, Fleur?"

"Oh, yeah! Golden's dad took her under his wing. Or, hoof?" Horsey shrugged, then nodded. "She's really, really pretty."

Crystal shook her head, grinning. "I saw her without any of her makeup on a couple weeks ago. She's got a big brown birthmark on her snout that looks kinda like a bug. And she's got really bad acne."

"What?!" Horsey burst out into laughter. "No!"

"Yes!" Crystal laughed with her. "I thought my mom was crazy when she said that Fleur was going to be the next pony that everypony should know!"

Horsey tried to smother her giggling. "But I saw her in an ad in one of my mom's magazines. She's flawless!"

"Her makeup is flawless." Crystal's laughter died down and she smiled again. "You can't just compare yourself to how she looks in magazines if you're not dolled up, too. Trust me, both of you au naturel? You're way prettier than her."

Horsey looked back at her reflection. She angled her head a few different ways, then nodded and raised a hoof to remove the silk lily. "Thank you." She reached out and clipped it into Crystal's mane. "I'll do my best if you do, too."

Crystal glanced at the mirror. The lily was off-center, but she smiled in spite of that—or perhaps because of that. She had to be less caught up in silly things, after all. "Maybe when we're all a little older. I just don't think now is the time for romance stories."

"Why not?" Horsey started to wipe off her makeup with a tissue.

Crystal stared at her, one brow raised. "Are you really interested in reading about a mare finding her true love in the stallion she thought was her greatest enemy?"

Horsey was quiet as she thought the question over. "Hmm. Not really?"

Crystal's ears started to fall. "Exa—"

"But that doesn't mean much. I'm just one pony in our entire school. There are a lot in our class that are really into this Julimare and Romehorse play. I'm sure they'd love to read your work." Her eyes started to widen and she jerked her head to look at her. "What if you started a new club? Authors Anonymous?"

"Authors Anonymous?" Crystal tapped her hoof to her chin, her ears perked back up. "That's kinda catchy. I wonder if the principal would let me make a club this late in the semester?"

Horsey smiled. "What have you got to lose?"

"What have I got to lose?" Crystal laughed softly. She turned her head to look at her bed and pointed. "That's what I said, back when we were fillies. Velvet was pushing me to write a story for Ms. Tutor, and that's when I discovered my cutie mark."

Horsey glanced at the bed, then back at Crystal. Biting her lower lip, she said in a soft, somewhat uncertain voice, "Well, then, maybe it's my turn to be the friend that pushes you?"

Crystal nodded. She paused, thought about it, then nodded again. "What have I got to lose?" She stepped toward Horsey and hugged her. "Let's do our best!" She squeezed a little tighter and added quietly, "Thank you."

Horsey smiled and returned the hug. They remained that way for a while until Crystal stepped back and looked at her reflection in the mirror while Horsey went to the bathroom to wash off the rest of the makeup.

"Prettiest mare in all of Canterlot," she whispered, moving closer to the vanity. "Prettiest mare in all of Canterlot. Prettiest mare." She challenged herself to a staring contest.

Of course, she blinked first and sighed at the defeat. She turned away from the vanity with another small sigh and went over to sit on the bed.

The quill on her bedside table lifted, dipped into the inkwell, and hovered just above a scrap piece of paper. "Let's see." She smiled. "A club for ponies to share their writing with the comfort of anonymity? So they don't have to worry about being judged and can explore new topics. Actually, this is a really good idea."

Nodding to herself, she started to jot down notes for her presentation to the principal. Horsey came back in not long after and quietly sat on the bed beside her, peering over her shoulder, saying nothing.

When Crystal finished writing, they both squealed with excitement and began discussing their plans for success: Crystal with her club, and Horsey with talking to her dad about modeling for his company.

At least for that one evening, the future seemed bright and full of hope.

The Brave Resolve

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To say that Crystal was nervous would be like saying that she was 'just a pony'. It was true, of course, but it did not accurately describe her. She was terrified, so much so that she was pretty sure her heart was pounding so hard against her ribs that they might break. She paced up and down the hall, levitating her notes in front of her and reading them over and over.

"Crystal Wishes?" The principal leaned out of his office to look at her. "You may come in now. Thank you for waiting."

The notes were flung into the air and fluttered all around her as she jolted in surprise. "Yes, Principal Demeanor." Her gaze darted about. She bit her lip, then left the scattered paper behind and walked into the principal's office.

Principal Demeanor was already sitting behind his desk. He looked at her with a calm smile that was neither friendly nor unfriendly. "So, Miss Wishes, what is it you wanted to speak to me about?"

Crystal shifted from one hoof to the other. "I—I—" She swallowed. "I want to start a new club."

He paused, then repeated slowly, "Start a new club?"

She nodded.

"I see." He tapped his hooves together. "What kind of club?"

Crystal closed her eyes just a moment to calm herself. She lifted her head and opened her eyes again. "I'd like to propose an Authors Anonymous club, where ponies can share their stories with others without fear of judgment."

The principal raised one brow. "Isn't there already a writing club?"

She nodded. "Yes, Principal Demeanor, there is. The writing club is solely focused on things like grammar and tips to improve one's writing. There's nothing wrong with that, but nopony is confident enough to share what they've written."

"Hmm. And you think this deserves its own separate club instead of talking to the writing club president?" His gaze held hers firmly. "This sounds more like a club event than an entirely separate club."

Crystal looked down at the floor in thought, then lifted her gaze and shook her head. "I didn't think of that, sir."

The principal smiled. "Then I'm going to have to decline your request, as it is well past the time for creating clubs and I feel this is more suited to the existing club."

"Yes, sir." She nodded. "I understand." She started to back out of his office.

"Oh, and Miss Wishes?"

She froze. "Yes?"

"You may want to pick up your notes or I'll have to cite you for littering." He winked.

She forced a laugh and quickly nodded. "Yes, sir."

Shutting the door behind her, she sighed and shook her head. She was a little embarrassed, of course. Why hadn't she thought of that herself? After all, she wasn't even really sure she wanted to be a club president in the first place. Between all her classes and clubs she was already juggling, plus attending her parents' events, time was scarce enough as it is.

Smiling, her horn glowed pink as she started to gather up the notes she had left behind. Why had she wanted to start a club in the first place? This was much easier and way less work.

Crystal spotted her lunch bag in the locker and turned her head to look at a clock in the hallway. It was still lunch, albeit already halfway over, but if she hurried she could still eat with High Horse. She retrieved the bag, then quickly made her way down the hall and around a few corners to get to the cafeteria.

She had no trouble spotting Horsey, as they typically ate at the same table every day, but she was startled to see Velvet sitting there as well. Why wasn't she off with her other friends?

Velvet spied her and waved both forelegs to usher her over. When she was close enough, Velvet said with her ears folded back, "Crystal! I'm so sorry. I completely flaked yesterday and got caught up with the girls from dance club! I'm really sorry."

"It's okay." Crystal couldn't bring herself to look at Velvet out of guilt for the angry jealousy that burned in the back of her mind. "It happens."

Velvet smiled. "I'll make it up to you, okay?"

"Don't worry about it." Crystal started to open her bag and empty its contents.

"So—" High Horse leaned in. "—how did it go?"

Velvet blinked, glancing between the two. "How did what go?"

Crystal shook her head. "He said no."

"Oh, I'm sorry, Crystal." Horsey reached across the table to put her hoof on Crystal's. "I know you were really excited about it."

Velvet's brow furrowed. "What did I miss? Who said no to what?"

Crystal still didn't look at her. She kept her gaze focused on folding her lunch bag neatly before she raised an apple. "I don't know if I was excited about the club part or the activity part, actually."

"Part of what?" Velvet's tone had a hint of irritation to it.

Crystal sighed. "I talked to the principal about starting a writing club."

"Isn't there already a writing club?" Velvet asked, tilting her head to one side. "And aren't you in it?" She flinched back when she saw Crystal roll her eyes. "What?"

"Nothing." Crystal rubbed her forehead. "I'm sorry. I'm just—" She released a drawn out groan and turned to finally look at her. "How could you forget about us? About me? When it was your idea to meet up at the bakery in the first place!"

Velvet's gaze faltered and her voice grew soft. "I'm really sorry!"

"I know, and I'm not really mad about that specifically." Crystal shrugged. "I had a great time with High Horse that I probably wouldn't have had if you came by."

Velvet tried to smile. "So maybe it's good that I forgot?"

Horsey started to slowly lift a leg over the bench, then the other. The two were too preoccupied with each other to notice that she was quietly escaping to leave them alone.

Crystal shook her head and looked at her again. "How can it be good to forget, regardless of what happened? I thought—" She bit her lip. "I thought we were still friends. That's what I'm mad about."

"What are you talking about?" Velvet's eyes glossed over. "I thought we were, too!"

"Then why don't you hang out with me anymore?" Crystal wasn't sure if it was the sight of Velvet starting to cry or her own feelings thundering in her chest, but she was unable to blink her blurry vision clear.

"Even though I'm making new friends, you're still my best friend!" Velvet shook her head. "Someday, you and Horsey'll be my only friends because I won't have time for anypony else, so I want to have a lot now while I can."

They stared at one another in confused silence before Crystal dropped her head, her bangs falling to hide her eyes. "I'm sorry, Velvet. I guess I doubted you because I was jealous."

"No, I'm sorry, too." Velvet threw her forelegs around Crystal's neck and hugged her tight. "I was being selfish. I wasn't even considering the way you might feel at all. I—I just assumed that you knew we'd always be friends, no matter what."

"We will. I know we will, but—" Crystal buried her face into Velvet's shoulder and closed her eyes. "Sometimes, and it doesn't have to be all the time, I just need you to spend time with me, okay? Nurture our friendship just like you do with other ponies," she mumbled softly.

"I can do that. I promise." Velvet squeezed her tighter, then let go. "We should probably go figure out where Horsey ran off to, though."

"Oh, gosh, we completely ignored her." Crystal laughed and rubbed at her eyes. "I hope she's okay." She looked around the cafeteria.

Velvet slid off the bench. "She and I are in the same class after lunch, which is almost over anyway, and you haven't eaten a thing. You eat and I'll take care of Horsey." She started to walk away, then paused, turned around, and quickly hugged Crystal one more time before trotting off.

Crystal looked down at her lunch with a small frown. She wasn't hungry anymore, though she knew she should eat anyway. She managed to take a few bites of her sandwich before putting everything back in the bag to save for later.

After her last class, she headed straight for the room where the writing club met. The nervousness from the morning returned, but she kept her head high. She was already this far, so she had to at least see it through. As usual, the club president, Bright Orange, was standing at the chalkboard preparing the on-board notes for that day's discussion.

He had a brilliant, emerald green mane and a smooth goldenrod coat that stood out against the dark chalkboard. Like Velvet, he had come to Canterlot from Manehattan, but unlike her, he had not left to escape bullying. He was only there to study at Canterlot Academy and would return to his hometown after graduation.

"Bright Orange?" Crystal asked as she stepped toward him. "May I have a word with you?"

He turned his head to look at her. He blinked a few times and then smiled. "Ah, Crystal Wishes! I always have time for dialogue. What is it that seems to be troubling you?"

Crystal took a quick intake of air and said, "I had an idea. I like being in this club, but I think it might be helpful if we had an anonymous way to share our work."

"Oh?" He inclined his head at a curious angle, though the smile didn't leave his lips. "It is quite onerous to keep things anonymous, you know. How do you propose we implement this idea?"

Crystal looked away from him and muttered under her breath, wishing she had brought her notes. She returned her gaze to him and said slowly, "My idea was to have a box that ponies could put their story into, with the first page just being the title, then you distribute them at random. The readers could write their feedback and include that with the story they return to you. Then ponies could come to you after club hours to get their story back."

Bright Orange rubbed a hoof along his chin. He made a small, thoughtful humming noise as he looked at his unfinished notes on the chalkboard, then back at her. "You know, I think today's agenda has changed." He picked up an eraser and started to clear the board. "Today, we shall commence an anonymous authors' event! Hmm. Authors Anonymous has a nice cadence to it."

Crystal lit up and tried not to grin. "I think that's a perfect name. Thank you so much, Orange!"

Facing away from her, he said, "Think nothing of it. I am sure everypony will welcome the change of pace!" He wrote 'Authors Anonymous' in large, decorative letters across the top of the chalkboard, then began to write the process in a much more eloquent way than she tried to explain. He had a knack for finding just the right words.

"I hope so!" She trotted happily over to her usual seat. She set down her bags and pulled out her notebook.

There was only one other pony there that early: Midnight Poem, a unicorn stallion that usually kept to himself. He had a dark blue coat that almost blended with his black sweater. He pushed his bangs, which were only a few shades lighter than his coat, behind his ears and got up from his seat to walk over to Crystal.

"If you want," he said in a quiet voice, startling her upright. He rarely spoke to her, or anypony for that matter. "I can read over your work and give you some feedback." He winked. "Anonymously, of course."

Crystal closed her notebook and looked at him, her brow furrowed. "How would that be anonymous at all?"

He laughed softly. "It wouldn't. I was joking."

She blinked a few times, glanced at her notebook, and put a hoof on it almost protectively. A part of her knew that, by having her guard so visibly up, she was being suspicious, but there was no way somepony she barely knew was reading her work. At least, not just yet.

He seemed to notice this, but leaned in closer despite her standoffish behavior. "It can't be that bad, Crystal Wishes! You always have such insightful comments. And it is your special talent, after all."

"Just because I'm good at something doesn't mean it's good." She frowned. "What if my talent was stacking firewood? I'd be good at it, sure, but it's not very impressive."

He held the close distance between them before he pulled back with a small sigh, though he still smiled. "I understand now. You want the anonymous story sharing because you're not confident in your own writing, not because of other ponies in the club."

Her ears fell. "Um—"

"Don't worry." He stood up out of the chair. "I hope it helps you gain that confidence. I'd really like to read your writing."

Crystal tilted her head one way, then the other. "Huh?"

He looked over his shoulder to smile at her and her heart skipped a beat. The look on his face was one she had described several times. It was strong, confident, and inviting. One brow was raised to add a bit of mysterious intrigue.

Was this her moment? Their eyes were locked, neither looking away, and neither noticing that he was taking one too many steps until he stumbled over a chair. He grumbled under his breath and faced away, rubbing his leg with one hoof.

She couldn't help a small giggle. Maybe she was just imagining things. Maybe he was just being too polite to look away and she was being creepy. However, when he glanced at her again and smiled lopsidedly, she blushed and looked down at her notebook, hiding her face behind a hoof.

Whispers of Maidens

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Crystal, Velvet, and Horsey were all nestled onto pillows that were placed in a circle on Crystal's bedroom floor so that they could face one another. The arrangement made it easier to hold a conversation, but more importantly, it made it easier to share the large bowl of popcorn set between them. The lights were dimmed to add a dramatic flair to their late-night conversation.

"It was pretty heartbreaking," Horsey admitted with a heavy sigh. "He said I'm a good friend." Her ears drooped. "Just a friend!"

Velvet winced. "Ouch." She tossed a few pieces of popcorn into her mouth. "You've been put in a friendship zone. That is really hard to get out of, especially when a stallion puts a mare there."

"But you shouldn't give up hope!" Crystal tried to reassure her, shooting a quick glare at Velvet.

Horsey shook her head. "It's my fault. I was doing really well in the LARP club. Too well, I think. Now they see me as one of the stallions." She slapped a hoof to her forehead and groaned. "I shouldn't have tried so hard! I should have just been a little damsel so he'd see me as a mare."

"Well—" Crystal rubbed her hooves together. "We could always try to put together a situation where he would have to see you that way."

Velvet nodded. "Yes! If you just, say, stumble and hurt your—"

Crystal raised a hoof, stopping her mid-sentence. "No, no, we don't want him to think she's weak," she said with a growing smile. "What we have to do is make sure Horsey gets the part of Julimare for the play. 16-Bit will see her on stage and held by another stallion. Then he'll realize his feelings when he becomes jealous and rush the stage to snatch her away!"

Horsey frowned, her brow furrowed. "Crystal, that kind of stuff only happens in your stories."

Crystal stuck out her lower lip in a pout. "It could happen in real life, too." She crossed her forelegs over her chest. "Okay, what's your great idea, then?"

Horsey pondered for a moment then shook her head. "I guess I don't have a better idea, but I'm pretty sure it won't work." She smiled. "And I need to get used to being in the spotlight anyway if I want to be on the runway."

"Hurray!" Velvet clapped her hooves together. "At least one of us has to get a special somepony. Otherwise, that is just really, really sad." She looked at Crystal just in time to see her blushing and gasped. "Crystal?!"

Crystal jerked her head to the side, raising a hoof to hide her face. "What?"

"You're blushing!" Velvet pointed at her.

Horsey pointed as well. "You are! Oh my Celestia!"

"What happened?!" Velvet grinned. She scooted closer to cuddle up against Crystal. "Tell us! Come on, tell us!"

Crystal laughed as she was nearly cuddled off the pillow and onto the floor. "All right, all right! There's not much to tell." She waved a hoof at Velvet to shoo her back to her own pillow. "There's a stallion in my writing club, Midnight Poem."

"Oh, just his name alone is attractive," Horsey cooed.

"He's never really talked to me before—"

Velvet raised a hoof to her cheek and squealed, "How cute! He's shy!"

"—but I think he may have flirted with me."

Horsey and Velvet squealed with excitement, looking at each other with big grins and then back at her. Crystal laughed and waved her hooves.

"But he hasn't talked to me since, so maybe I was just reading too much into things!" She sighed, lowering her hooves back down, her gaze falling with them. "Or maybe I said the wrong thing and chased him off. I'm not sure, to be honest."

"Well, did you flirt back?" Velvet asked.

Crystal fidgeted uncomfortably, not meeting their gazes. "I might have been too confused at the time to flirt."

"Come on!" Horsey buried her face in her hooves and laughed. "How can you, the sole expert on romance in the room, be confused?!"

"I mean, well, it's like you said." With a sigh, Crystal crossed her forelegs and dropped her head down to rest on them, staring forlornly at the bowl of popcorn. "This is real life. My stories are just stories, nothing more."

"So you are just going to assume that a stallion can't be interested in you for whatever stupid reason?" Velvet reached out and lightly swatted the back of Crystal's head. "You are more hopeless than romantic!"

Horsey pulled the bowl of popcorn closer to herself and munched on some while she pondered their situation. "What are you going to do?" she finally asked. "Wait, first of all, do you even like him?"

Crystal shrugged. She flopped over onto her side and stretched out all of her legs, giving a low, whining groan. Her legs dropped down and she curled them close to herself. "I don't know!" She closed her eyes and buried half of her face into her pillow. "I mean, it didn't feel like love at first sight or anything. My heart only skipped one beat! Just one! Sure, I blushed, but I just didn't feel any magic. How can I know if there's no magic?"

"What about Violet Bloom?" Velvet pulled the popcorn bowl over to her side of the circle. "She didn't fall in love with her stallion at first sight."

"True." Crystal rubbed her hoof against her leg. "It was a lot of fun to write that special moment when she realized that Charming Nectar was her one true love. Maybe I just have to give Midnight Poem a chance."

Horsey squealed. "That takes care of me and you!" She turned on Velvet with the narrow-eyed look of a hungry predator. "What about you? After all, you're the most popular of the three of us. Are you really going to tell us you don't have anypony after your heart?"

Velvet scrunched up her nose, shaking her head. "Nope! I'm not really interested in a special somepony. It just won't work out long term." Crystal and Horsey looked at her with sympathy and she laughed, waved away their concerns, and continued, "And I'm okay with that! Who wants to wait around while I'm touring with a ballet company?" She puffed out her chest. "I have my eyes on the Royal Ballet of Equestria, you know."

Crystal looked at her with slightly widened eyes. "Really? You need to start tryouts now, then! I've heard it takes years to get a spot in their company."

"I've been practicing under Shimmering Waltz, so I think I have a good head start." Velvet shrugged.

"Who's that?" Horsey asked, grabbing the popcorn bowl.

"Only the first ever prima ballerina assoluta of the Royal Ballet of Equestria!" Crystal exclaimed, her eyes glittering. "I didn't know she was your teacher! Oh, that absolutely improves your odds!"

Both Horsey and Velvet gave her a look, the latter asking, "How did you know that?"

Crystal grinned sheepishly. "After you discovered you wanted to be a ballerina at Nightmare Night, I did a lot of research so I could make sure we'd still have something to talk about."

"Really?" Velvet flushed. "You did? For me?"

"Of course! I figured you'd be learning ballerina stuff, so I didn't want to get left behind."

Horsey gave a playful pout. "Is that so? What about me?"

Crystal turned her head and looked at her with a serious expression. "Breezy Ribbon, Veiled Orchid, and Sunset Radiance."

Velvet glanced between the two. "Who are they?"

"Wow!" Horsey stared at Crystal with a distinctly impressed look on her face and in her voice. "They're all models that my dad's boutique sponsored."

Crystal nodded. "Breezy Ribbon was famous for her signature thousand-yard stare that nopony could look away from. Veiled Orchid came over from Saddle Arabia and enchanted Canterlot with her exotic fashion. Sunset Radiance was controversial because she was a little overweight, but she had the most unique eyes."

The other two applauded her effortless recital while Crystal sat up on her haunches and bowed.

"Thank you, thank you," she said in a haughty tone as she curled back up on her pillow. "You don't have to say it. I'll say it." She raised her nose in the air. "I'm a much better friend than both of you."

Horsey laughed. "So just because we don't know any famous authors we're not good friends?"

"Oh, I didn't say that. You did!" Crystal winked.

"Or maybe you're not a good friend, you're just crazy." Velvet rolled her eyes, giggling.

"Whatever." Crystal laughed, raising a piece of popcorn and bringing it to her waiting mouth. "You two just don't understand me."

A companionable silence fell on the girls as they shared the popcorn, each musing their own situations. Finally, Crystal cleared her throat.

"So, we're all good friends that can share secrets, right? All three of us?"

Horsey and Velvet nodded, both looking a little curious. Horsey tilted her head while Velvet leaned in.

Crystal fidgeted on her pillow. "I bought something. But both of you have to promise not to tell anypony about this. Ever." When the mares crossed their hooves over their chests, she opened her mouth, then closed it. The start of a blush heated up her cheeks. "Well, um—"

"What?" Velvet grinned. "You're blushing again! What is it now?!"

Horsey gasped. "You can't just leave us hanging like this!"

Crystal's whole face grew hot, but she stood up and trotted over to the chest of drawers. "I thought it looked really cute in the magazine so I ordered it, but…" She trailed off as she retrieved something black and pink from one of the drawers she pulled out. With her back to the other two, she took a deep breath, then turned around. When she held up the item in her hooves, both of them gasped.

"Is that—lingerie?!" Horsey exclaimed.

Sure enough, Crystal was holding up a pair of black, lacy undergarments with little pink ribbons tied into bows on the sides. Her face was bright red as she quickly explained, "It looked really different on the model! I honestly thought it was sleepwear for warm nights or something!"

Horsey's face was similarly red and she looked at a loss for words. Velvet, on the other hoof, doubled over with laughter.

"Oh—my—Celestia!" Velvet managed between gasps for air.

"It's not that funny," Crystal mumbled. "What am I supposed to do with them? It'd be a waste to throw them out, but I can't wear them!" She clutched the undergarments to her chest almost protectively. She had paid a fair amount of bits for them, after all.

Velvet sat up, clutching her sides. She got her wits about her just long enough to wheeze, "You—You could wear them—to school. I'm sure—Midnight Poem—would flirt with you then!" She burst into laughter again.

If it were possible for Crystal's face to get any redder, it would have. She picked up her pillow and threw it at Velvet. It hit her right in the face, knocking her over onto her back.

Horsey gasped. "Crystal!" A grin crawled onto her lips and she stepped off her own pillow to pick it up and throw it at Crystal.

Crystal caught the pillow before it hit her face and returned it with the same force back to Horsey. By that point, Velvet was upright again and holding a pillow with both hooves. With a playful heft, she swung the pillow around and smacked Crystal upside the head with it. Startled squeals and surprised laughter filled the air while pillows were flung around as weapons and raised as shields.

Eventually, when one of the pillows ripped open and feathers scattered all about, the mares fell to the floor in such a fit of giggles that the battle came to a forced draw.

Once they were able to breathe again, Crystal and Horsey used their magic to gather up the feathers while Velvet plucked a few out of the bowl of popcorn.

"I guess it's true what they say, huh?" Velvet commented from where she sat, watching the feathers magically collect into a pile.

"What's that?" Crystal and Horsey asked at nearly the same time and giggled at their unison.

"I think it'd be pretty clear from how that was like, the best time we've ever had." Velvet flicked a piece of popcorn at Crystal and grinned. "Mares do just want to have fun."

While Crystal groaned and put a hoof to her forehead, Horsey picked up her pillow and threw it at Velvet, knocking her over as they all laughed once more.

Flirtatious Fancies

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Throughout the school week, Crystal prepared herself for flirting. After a weekend of planning with the girls, she was ready to give it a shot, though exactly how she was going to find Midnight Poem was another matter entirely.

They shared no other clubs or classes, and she knew so little about him that she didn't have the faintest idea on where to look for him. She could never spot him in the cafeteria or the halls between classes, either. She resigned herself to waiting until the next club meeting, and that suited her just fine, as it gave her time to daydream. She would flirt with him and not be confused or creepy. She would be cute and he'd be charming. It would be perfect!

"Crystal Wishes, the assignment was to write the sentence on the board," the calligraphy club president said from over Crystal's shoulder. "Not, well—"

Crystal blinked and looked down at her parchment. Scrawled across it was, in perfect cursive that became sloppy toward the end, the sentence 'The quick brown fox jumps over the Midnight Poem' followed by a heart. She blushed and scratched out the words as quickly as she could. "Sorry! I was distracted!"

"I see that." The club president flashed a knowing smile. "Try to stay focused for another half hour, all right, lovebird?"

A couple of nearby eyes turned on her and she ducked her head as her whole face turned red.

"Oh, Celestia," she muttered. "Just kill me now."

However, the princess of the sun did not seem to be answering prayers that afternoon, as Crystal survived the rest of the calligraphy club without injury to herself, other than her pride.

"All right, everypony," the club president said, clearing her throat. "We'll be switching to brushes next week. I think we've all mostly gotten quills figured out. It's about time for a new challenge before the year is over!"

Crystal sighed as she started to put away her supplies. Calligraphy and tea were most important to her mother and least important to herself, though she certainly liked tea club more. She was at least permitted to experiment with new and interesting flavor combinations that her mother would hate, and that gave her a rebellious satisfaction.

Calligraphy, however, was extremely dull. She tried to get excited by reminding herself she was getting practice for signing books, but it didn't lessen the boredom by much.

She paused just before she had put away her inkwell. Her quill lifted out of her bags and dipped its tip into the ink, then wrote in her fanciest lettering on a scrap piece of paper: Crystal Wishes. She smiled, proud of her signature, then finished putting everything away.

Finally, it was nearing the end of the school day. Crystal excitedly trotted down the halls toward the writing club's room. As usual, Midnight Poem was sitting in the seat at the back of the class in the corner, looking down at his notebook and writing something. She giggled to herself. Well, they certainly had that last part in common.

She cleared her throat as she walked over to take the seat beside his. He looked up at her and blinked a few times.

"Oh, good afternoon, Crystal Wishes." He smiled.

She waved a hoof in a playfully dismissive way. "Please, call me Crystal."

His smile softened and he nodded. "All right, Crystal."

There was a moment of silence as they stared at one another, each waiting for Midnight to say something. She cleared her throat.

"So," she started, gaze darting about. "are you nervous about getting your story back today?"

"Hmm?" He shook his head. "No, I didn't write a story. I wrote a poem."

Crystal waited for him to say anything else. She leaned in expectantly, then gave up and asked, "Are you nervous about getting your poem back?"

Midnight tapped a hoof to his chin as he hummed thoughtfully. "I don't know if I'm nervous about that." He looked at her. "What about you?"

"Very," she admitted in a soft voice. "Velvet's the only one who's really read my work. Well, my serious work. I have no idea what to expect."

"I wouldn't be too worried." He smiled again. Though it was hard to tell with his dark coat, his cheeks seemed to flush. "You're talented and smart."

Her heart skipped a beat. "But—"

"And hopefully, once you get your reviewer comments back, you'll be confident, too. You owe it to yourself to be proud of your work."

She gazed at him before ducking her head and hiding her eyes behind her bangs. All of the cute, witty lines she had prepared vanished and her mind drew a blank. "I—I hope so, too."

"All right, fellow word slingers!" Bright Orange called out, interrupting the moment between them.

Crystal looked around, startled to see how many ponies had wandered in without her noticing. She fidgeted some in her seat and did her best not to glance at Midnight.

"I have received all of the stories back from everypony and am ready to return them, so today will be a self-guided lesson." Bright Orange gestured to the stack of papers on the desk, each bound with a ribbon. "I will remain at the front of the class, so if you all would like to come up in succession, that would be most appreciated." He walked around the desk and took a seat. He crossed his hooves in front of him on the desk, looking around somewhat curiously. "So, who shall begin?"

There was a shared hesitancy among the ponies until one stood up and walked up to the desk. Bright Orange looked past the stallion at the others with a brow raised almost sternly, but his gentle smile kept him from seeming too serious.

On cue, everypony turned to their neighbor to chat or focused their attention on their notebooks, giving the two at the front of the class a fair amount of privacy. The stallion quietly indicated which story was his own and returned to his desk. As he put the bound papers in his saddlebags, another pony went to the front.

Crystal's hindhoof tapped the ground nervously. She watched as the number of stories in the pile dwindled down before she couldn't wait any longer. She got up out of her seat and went to the front of the room. The remaining stories were spread across the desk, only their titles visible.

Bright Orange smiled wider when he noticed her. "I wondered when you would decide to wander up here, Crystal Wishes! I hope this works out for everypony. I am on tenterhooks waiting to hear if this helps confidence within the club or not!" He tapped his hooves together. "All of that aside, please take yours."

"Thanks!" Her gaze wandered over the titles until she recognized her own and lifted it up. "It'd be great if it works out."

Crystal returned to her seat and sat there for a moment in complete stillness, the bound papers placed upside-down so the title, Secrets of the Heart, was hidden. There were no secrets about her heart in that moment. She was nervous. What if the reviewer hated it? Was she really ready to read negative criticism?

She took a deep breath and retrieved one of her textbooks. She opened it up and stuck her story inside it to act as a cover so that she could read with some privacy. Her heart raced as she turned the pages to find the comments.

Wow, what a way to start a story. Your characters are unique, and I really enjoyed the way you characterized them in the context of the story. Your writing is quite good and reads smoothly. Suffice it to say I've really enjoyed what I've read so far, and I hope to see more in the future. Seriously, that was excellent. May your creative spark burn ever more brightly! You owe it to yourself to be more confident.

The noise around her suddenly vanished into deafening silence as realization hit her like a runaway carriage. She read the last words a few times before her head turned slowly and woodenly toward Midnight Poem. He wasn't looking at her; actually, it seemed like he was making a great effort to look at everywhere but her.

"You—"

"I know!" He raised his hooves and nearly fell backward out of his seat as he put some cautious distance between them. "It was a coincidence, I swear! I started reading it and I just saw you behind the words. I wasn't completely sure, of course, but, well, it just seemed like something you'd write." He swallowed, his gaze flickering to her. "And, well, I'm guessing I was right?"

Crystal stared at him. Words escaped her. She had a confusing mix of embarrassment and doubt bubbling in her chest. "You were." She stared at the comments he had written. "So, you wrote this so I'd have more confidence?"

"No! Well, yes, but I meant what I said—wrote." He reached out a hoof and set it on her shoulder. "It was really good. I wrote my feedback as I was reading, and I didn't start to think it might be you until I was halfway through." He smiled. "I'm glad I got to read your story."

She glanced at him, away, then back at him. "What did you like?"

His face lit up. He pulled his hoof back and tapped them together. "The characters in your story were believable. I felt like I could run into them here in the real world, not just in literature." He hesitated. "If I had to be honest—"

Her heart sunk. "What?" All of the scenes raced through her mind. Which was it? What didn't he like?

Midnight looked up at the ceiling. His dark cheeks were darkened further by a red flush. "It made me a little sad."

"Sad? But it has a happy ending!" Her horn lit up as she frantically flipped the pages. "Doesn't it? It's supposed t—"

He shook his head. "No, no, no, it's not that at all." He grinned lopsidedly. "I just, ah—I wish I could be more like Arid Silver. He was bold and charming and certainly wouldn't have been too shy to ask you on a date."

Crystal's ears perked straight up. Her face turned red and she looked around the room, then back at him and tried to smile. Her heart fluttered with excitement. Carefully thinking her words over, she scooted in her chair to lean in toward him and said, "Well, you practically just did, so why not go ahead and ask?"

Midnight swallowed. "All right." He looked directly at her with a weak smile. "Would you go on a date with me?"

A giggle bubbled up from her chest. "Sure." She rested her chin on her hoof. "When and where?"

After fumbling through some vague plans, they had a date. He would come by that Saturday to pick her up and the rest would be a surprise, much to her delight. She could hardly wait for club to be over before she trotted on the tips of her hooves out of the classroom. She stood by her locker, glancing up and down the halls in barely contained anticipation.

"Where are they?" she muttered. "Come on, come on."

"Crystal!" Velvet surprised her with a hug from behind. "Well? How did it go? Did you ask him out?"

Crystal squirmed out of the mare's embrace to turn and face her. She tried not to give herself away by smiling too wide. "Nope."

"What?" Horsey asked as she walked over to them. "Did I hear that right? You didn't ask him out? After all our planning?"

"Nope, I didn't ask him out." Crystal danced from one hoof to the other, her smile growing wider.

Velvet tilted her head in confusion. Then, slowly, a smile formed on her own lips. "Oh! You seem awfully excited for somepony without a date!"

Horsey gasped and jumped up and down. "Did he—"

"Could it be—"

"Yes!" Crystal finally squealed. "He asked me out!"

The three girls squealed and bounced up and down. Velvet and Horsey hugged her from both sides.

"You'll have to tell us everything!" Horsey exclaimed as she stepped back. "When is it?"

"Saturday." Crystal nuzzled her cheek against Velvet's before they pulled apart. "He's going to come by to pick me up on Saturday."

"Then let's all meet up on Sunday and you can spill all the details!" Horsey clapped her hooves together. "Let's meet at Velvet's house so we can have celebratory cake."

Velvet's eyes widened. "Ooh, yes! I'll have my dad bake a date cake!" She grinned and winked. "It'll have dates in it! Get it?"

Crystal laughed and waved a hoof in her face. "You're so silly." She sighed, then nodded. "Okay, Sunday, let's meet for lunch at Velvet's house."

At the end of the week, Crystal hopped in a circle around her bedroom and sing-songed, "I'm going on a date to—mo—rrow! My first date!" She sat down in front of the vanity and squirmed, hardly able to contain herself. "Oh, I need to look my best."

Curlers lifted up out of a basket and started to wind locks of her mane tightly into several rolls. "I wonder where we're going to go?" She sighed dreamily as her magic worked on her mane. "I can't believe it. My first date!"

A knock came from the door. "Hello?" called her mother's voice from the other side.

"Yes, Mom?" She stared at the reflection of the door as it opened and she smiled.

"I couldn't help but overhear that you seem to have a date." Upper Crust walked over, her magic taking the curlers and setting them aside to replace them with a brush. "Tell me about this stallion."

Crystal giggled. "He's shy and a little reserved. But I think he'll come out of his shell with a little coaxing. Oh, and he's a poet."

Upper Crust raised her brow. "A poet?"

"Yes." She nodded and repeated, "A poet."

"What about his family?" She brushed out a few knots in Crystal's mane before rolling in another curler. "Who are his parents?"

Crystal was quiet for a moment as she thought the question over. "I don't know, but I'm sure they're fine, Mom."

Upper Crust paused. Her hooves lowered. "What do you know about this poet?"

Another moment of thoughtful, cautious silence. "I know that he asked me out on a date and that it would be rude to turn down a willing stallion."

Her mother nodded and continued her primping and preening. "You've been paying attention to your lessons well, I see."

"I learned from the best, Mom."

"What a good girl." Upper Crust patted her on the head. "Well, I hope you have a pleasant date. Please do let me know how it goes when you come home."

"Yes, Mom." She looked up at her. "I'm going to go to bed, now."

"Of course." Her mother took a step back and started out of the room. "Remember to wear something nice, darling."

Crystal tried not to sigh. "Yes, Mom." Once her mother had left and shut the door, she allowed a quiet groan. "Yes, Mom. Yes, Mom. Yes, Mom." She rubbed her forehead with a hoof. "Such a nag."

Flopping onto the bed, she hugged a pillow to her chest and curled around it, closing her eyes. She started to smile. Her very first date. She couldn't possibly be more excited!

The Dangerous Date

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Crystal paced the living room while she waited for the clock to chime the hour. Her mane was dolled up in voluminous curls and she wore a fluffy white shawl draped over her shoulders, kept together by a silver brooch. It wasn't anything special, but it sparkled in even the dimmest light, so she couldn't help puffing up her chest to ensure the brooch was as visible as possible.

"Oh, darling, you look beautiful," Upper Crust commented while she walked down the stairs. "If this stallion doesn't fall head over hooves the moment he sees you, then he certainly isn't worth your time."

Crystal trotted in a circle, practically walking on the air. "I know!" She turned sharply to strike a pose and her tail snapped to whip the air. "I—" She choked on her words when realization struck her. "Wait! What are you doing here, Mom? I thought you had that event this morning and you and Dad would be gone by now!"

Upper Crust raised her brow and said, "You sound almost as if you don't want me here, dear."

"I don't." She marched up to her mother with a stern frown. "You're going to embarrass me! Or him! Or both of us!"

"Why, Crystal Wishes!" Upper Crust put a hoof to her chest. "Your false accusations wound me, truly. I merely wish to meet the stallion with whom my daughter will be spending her time today. Did you expect to run off with a mysterious colt of whom I know so little?" There was a hint of amusement in her haughty tone.

Crystal rolled her eyes, turned away, and huffed. "I'll wait for him outside." She started toward the door, but froze when a few knocks resounded. "Oh, ponyfeathers," she muttered.

Upper Crust walked past her, saying all too happily, "I'll get it."

"No, Mom—"

Upper Crust smiled as her magic opened the door. Midnight Poem blinked a few times as he looked through the doorway to see an angrily shocked Crystal and a mare smiling like a hungry fox.

"Well, hello there," Upper Crust purred as she offered a hoof. "So delightful to meet you. Why don't you come in and have some tea before your date with my daughter?"

"Act—Actually," Midnight stammered, bowing his head politely before glancing between them, "we have a bit of a tight schedule to keep, though it's nice to meet you, ma'am." He tried to smile, but it looked more like a nervous twitch.

Crystal's eyes lit up and she bounced forward a few steps. "Really? A schedule?"

Upper Crust slowly lowered her hoof. "I see." Her smile softened. "Do take care of my little girl, young stallion."

Crystal groaned under her breath and pulled the door closed behind her as she walked out. "Bye, Mom!" Once outside, she put a hoof to her forehead. "I swear," she muttered, then looked up at Midnight with a smile. "Sorry about that."

"It's okay." He offered the crook of his foreleg to her. "Shall we go?"

"Certainly." She hooked her foreleg with his.

They started to walk down the street, Crystal glancing up at him periodically. He continued to look straight ahead. She tilted her head one way, allowing her curls to bounce and fall into her face. When he still didn't look at her, she puffed out her chest so the brooch shimmered in the sunlight. There was still no response. Her confidence deflated and she returned to her normal posture, her gaze returning ahead.

"So, where are we going? What's this 'tight schedule'?"

"Oh." He bit his lower lip. "That was a bit of a lie. I mean, we do have a schedule, it's just not a tight one. I was just scared of your mom. I've heard a lot of stories about her."

Crystal felt a small pang of disappointment, but she laughed. "You're right to be scared of her! She has been nagging me nonstop about you."

He glanced down at her. "Really? She has?"

"Well, of course. She wants to know if you're rich, if your parents are rich, what they do for a living, what you plan to do with your life." She paused when she noticed his ears were pinned back, then quickly added, "Not that I care about any of those things."

Midnight laughed nervously. "That's good to know." He stopped and looked ahead of them. "So, this is the first stop."

Crystal stared up at him for a moment. She flipped her curls over her shoulder, stuck out her chest, and inclined her head to peer at their surroundings. While he remained ignorant of her fishing for a compliment, she tried to figure out what exactly the first stop was.

"We're at an antique shop?" she finally inquired.

His face lit up with foal-like excitement. "Yes! The most magical place in Canterlot, if you ask me!"

While Crystal could have easily listed five places she considered more magical, the expression on his face was too cute to not smile at. "Well, then, lead the way, monsieur."

Midnight let go of her foreleg to open the door for her. He bowed his head politely. "After you."

Once they were inside the dimly lit shop, Midnight took a deep breath of air. She followed suit and tried not to cough. It wasn't necessarily unpleasant, but it was a little dusty. The air tasted old, which wasn't entirely surprising for an antique store. She raised a hoof to delicately rub her nose to stave off a sneeze.

"Isn't it wonderful?" Midnight asked as he exhaled. "It's the smell of the ages, of time gone by, all stowed away in this little store."

Crystal gazed at him, then took another deep breath, this time with his words in mind. She held the air in her lungs before exhaling with a small cough. It still tasted dusty and stale.

"It's—unique," she said cautiously.

"Certainly." He trotted down a crowded aisle. "Come with me!"

She stepped lightly behind him, careful not to bump into anything that was spilling out into the walkway. He moved effortlessly through the disarray of mismatched items as though he had been there his whole life. She paused in mid-step. Perhaps he had! One of his parents—or even both—might be in the antique business. She smiled and continued to follow him.

"Here we go," he announced. He stepped to the side and gestured with a hoof. "What do you think?"

She stopped. Three bookshelves lined the wall they had come to, all of them nearly overflowing with old silk-bound tomes. Her jaw hung open as her gaze drifted across the gilded spines, some of them written in scripts she didn't recognize.

Midnight glanced between the books and her. She didn't move or speak. His hoof slowly lowered and he asked in a quiet voice, "You like books, right?"

She blinked a few times and looked at him. "I love books!" Her face brightened with a smile and she stepped closer to the bookshelves. She carefully raised a book off its shelf and levitated it closer for inspection. "These are so, well, old! This book was transcribed by hoof by old earth pony scholars!" She stared at it in awe. "What if my magic damages it? Do you think that could happen? I've only read this story in modern collections, copied effortlessly by unicorns. But somepony, some time ago, had to carefully write out each word, translating it without losing the meaning!"

Midnight's own magic pulled the book closer to him. "You want this one, then?"

Crystal stared at him with wide eyes. "Want it? It must cost a fortune! A book this old, with this much care—"

"Then I'll buy it." He started toward the desk at the front of the store, the book following behind him.

"Wait! No, it—" She choked. When the book rotated and left to follow him, the back cover faced her and the price tag was in sight: three bits.

Confusion bubbled in her chest. Only three bits? Her gaze darted around and she found herself surrounded by ridiculously low-priced items. Seven bits for a grandfather clock? Five for an end table? How could this store stay in business?

The real confusion stemmed from her own feelings, however. She was both relieved that he was only going to be spending three bits on her, but at the same time, she was a little underwhelmed by the gesture now that she knew the cost associated with it. She shook her head furiously and walked after him. How could she even think such things? It wasn't the money that counted; it was the thought, and the thought was sweet.

She walked up just in time to watch the clerk wrap the book with care and put it in a box while Midnight put his bits on the counter. "Thank you," she said softly as she stopped beside him. "I'll treasure it."

Midnight beamed at her. "I'm glad." He looked around the store. "Is there anything else you want?"

Crystal eyed the simple, unassuming box as it was placed on the counter. "No, that's more than enough for me."

The clerk, an older earth pony with no remarkable features, chuckled and leaned against the table, one brow raised. "Are you two on a date?"

Crystal flushed and glanced up at Midnight, who nodded and responded in a matter-of-fact tone, "Yes, we are."

"Well, then, for the special occasion, I'll throw in a little something special." The clerk pushed off the desk, walked around a corner, and rummaged through some things. "Here it is." He returned to the desk and set a mane clip on top of the box. It was a small rose, encrusted with rubies for the petals and emeralds for the stem.

"Why don't you put it on the little mare?" the clerk suggested with a wink.

Midnight raised the mane clip and turned to face her. His gaze darted about her face as he tried to decide where to place it. Crystal's heart pounded in her ears and she tilted her head in practiced form, the dim light catching in her eyes. It was too perfect of a moment to not use her special eye-glittering technique!

However, he seemed relatively unfazed, instead smiling and attaching the mane clip just above her ear, which twitched when his magic tickled it.

"There," he said. "That looks nice, don't you think?"

The clerk gestured at a mirror behind Crystal, and she turned to look at her reflection. Although the mane clip certainly did look nice, she wanted to pout. What about her? Didn't she look nice, too?

Despite the thoughts, she smiled. "It's lovely. Thank you so much, sir." She turned back to face them and nodded at the clerk.

"Absolutely, little miss. You two run along now, 'fore it rains."

"Rains?" Midnight blinked a few times. "I didn't hear anything about any rain scheduled."

The clerk nodded. "Nope, but my knees tell me it's going to rain. I can feel it. This old stallion's knees never lie."

"I don't doubt you, but I hope you're mistaken." Midnight glanced at Crystal, then at the door. "We should hurry along if it does rain, though."

"Oh, all right!" Crystal smiled at the clerk. "Thank you again!" She trotted after Midnight out of the store, the box trailing behind her.

Midnight stopped a few paces down the street and tilted his head back. "The sky is perfectly clear," he muttered. "I can't imagine it's going to rain."

Crystal sidled up to him, her shoulder pressed to his. She fluttered her eyelashes a few times. "Is the next destination outdoors?"

"Yeah." He shuffled his hooves together as he started to blush. "I wanted to watch the clouds."

She paused, her head tilting one way, then the other. "Watch the clouds?"

"Together, of course," he said, his voice growing softer. "I'm sorry. I've never been on a date before, so I'm just—" His gaze darted away from her. "Well, taking you to the places I like to go. I hoped you might like them, too."

Crystal giggled. "Then let's go watch clouds. Together." She bumped her shoulder to his before she started to trot forward. "Where's a good place to watch them?"

Midnight smiled brightly as he hurried ahead of her. "This way!"

He led her through the streets, all uphill, taking them into the higher sections of Canterlot until he took a turn that kept their altitude. They walked into a small park, more of an untouched green space than a cultivated area, and he flopped down onto his back rather unceremoniously.

Crystal hesitated as she focused on setting the box down carefully beside her, then looked at the grass. Midnight stared obliviously up at the sky. She raised a hoof to her shawl, then to one of her curls. She had worked so hard to pretty herself up, but it didn't seem that he noticed anyway, so what the hay? She folded her legs beneath her before rolling onto her back.

"What do you think that one looks like?" Midnight pointed in a vague direction toward the sky.

Crystal squinted. "Which one? There are three clouds where you're pointing."

"The one that looks like a puppy."

Crystal stared for a moment longer, then laughed. "I don't see a puppy anywhere! I see a sword, a hoofball, and a bird."

"Hmm." Midnight lowered his hoof to tap his chin. "I could see a bird in my puppy."

They were silent while both stared at the cloud in question until Crystal gasped.

"I see the puppy now!" She clapped her hooves together. "You're right!"

He turned his head to look at her. "Nopony's right about cloud watching. I'm sure if you tried, you could see something else, too." He looked back upward. "It's just perspective."

"Oh." She tilted her head some. "Well, I see—That one looks like a crescent moon. And those little ones—" She giggled. "That's an ellipsis! And, oh."

"What?" He was gazing elsewhere in the sky, his hooves folded neatly over his chest.

"That one's angry."

He started to rotate his head. "Angry?" When he saw the dark, ominous grey cloud she was gesturing at, he furrowed his brow. "Yes, that one certainly does look angry, doesn't it."

She squirmed. "And it's getting closer."

Midnight started to sit up. "It is, isn't it."

Crystal glanced between the nearing cloud and him. "Should we take cover?"

Before they could come to a decision, the cloud stopped just near them. A head popped out of the cloud, sage green with a spray of brown mane showing.

"Oh, hello there!" Crystal called.

The pegasus's ears pinned back and he disappeared into the cloud again. It swiftly moved closer to them and the stallion jumped back out all the way, his wings flapping to keep him aloft. He stared down at them, scowled, and reared up his hindlegs. With all his might, he bucked the cloud to start a downpour of rain—directly above them.

The rain stopped just as quickly as it had begun, and the pegasus perched on top of his cloud, looking rather smug. Midnight tossed his head to shake the water out of his mane, wincing when most of the spray hit the already soaked Crystal.

"Sorry," he said softly and raised a hoof. He held it in the air, though, as it seemed rather futile to try to help when she looked at him with wide, shocked eyes.

She stared at Midnight another moment, then down at herself. Her coat clung to her skin and when a breeze drifted by, it chilled her to the bone. Her gaze rose slightly to her shawl. It was definitely ruined, so she took a moment to unclip the brooch. The shawl fell to the ground with a squishy thud. Her head lifted all the way to stare straight ahead, now noticing the once-curls clinging to her face, a few bedraggled strands drooping over her eyes.

Finally, she turned her head to the side and looked at the box, now a crumpled mess from the weight of the water. Her magic lit up and lifted the lid, though she knew what she was going to see. The water had seeped inside and the book was surely ruined.

After taking all of this in—and sure that her makeup was running, too—she looked back at Midnight. He winced and withdrew his hoof. She took a small intake of air before she broke down into tears.

Wounded Recovery

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Midnight stared at Crystal while she cried, a look of panic on his face. Seeming to be at a loss on how to console her, he instead turned his gaze up to the sky where the offending pegasus was still sitting on his cloud.

"You!" Midnight shouted in a strong voice.

The pegasus blinked and leaned his head forward to peer down at them. "What?"

Midnight stood up and pointed at him. "Who are you?"

Shifting his forelegs, the pegasus frowned. "I could ask you the same."

"What?" He paused, then put the hoof to his chest. "Fine. I'm Midnight Poem. Now, who are you?"

"I didn't ask for your name."

Midnight's ears twitched. "But you said—"

"I said I could ask you the same," the pegasus retorted, rolling his eyes. "Not that I would." He stretched his legs out before standing up. "Well, this has been fun, but—"

Crystal jerked her head up rather suddenly and shouted, startling both of them, "Oh, no you don't!"

"Huh?" the stallions responded in unison, then glared at one another.

"You—You—" She trembled some as she got up onto all fours and stomped closer to the cloud. She wiped her face with a hoof, lifted her head to stare up at him, scowling. "You ill-mannered, barbarous, pigeon-brained brute!" The anger behind her voice caused her to hop just slightly off the ground as she barked out the last words.

Midnight sat on his haunches, watching the scene unfold. He stared at Crystal with an almost frightened expression.

The pegasus glanced around a little nervously. He shrunk back into his cloud. "All right, all right. My name's Rossby Waves." He added in a low mutter, "Yeesh."

Crystal panted. "Your name?" She shook her head. "I don't care about your name!"

Rossby frowned as he dropped his head down to rest his snout on his hooves. "Then why—"

"We're on a date." She gestured at Midnight. "He asked me on a date. My first date! And his, too!" She dropped her rear down and threw her hooves in the air. "It was going to be perfect. I spent all morning getting my mane and makeup ready, and I bought this shawl yesterday." Her gaze fell to the white mess lying in a crumpled pile beside her. "It used to be a shawl, that is. I dressed up as prettily as I could so Midnight would be impressed."

She rolled her eyes, which started to gloss over again. The world around her became blurry, but she pressed onward. "Not that he noticed. But I was okay with that. Then he bought me a book! Oh, but that's ruined now, too."

The more she spoke, the more her voice wavered, cracking in and out as her breathing grew uneven. "We were having a good time watching clouds until you brought your angry cloud here with your boorish attitude and—"

Tears were falling down her cheeks while her shoulders trembled. "And now everything is ruined thanks to you!"

Other than her whimpers and hiccups, the three were silent. Midnight and Rossby glanced at each other, seeming to find a temporary camaraderie in their shared confusion over how to handle a crying mare.

Rossby remained still. Though the look on his face was regretful at first, he jerked his head to the side and scowled. "Yeah, well." He huffed. His wings started to spread and flapped a few times, guiding the cloud away from them. "It sounds like you two have some problems to sort out yourselves, so I'll leave you to it." He shot Midnight a serious frown. "Good luck." With that, he pushed his cloud off into the sky and out of their vicinity.

Midnight stared at Crystal as she cried freely and uninhibited with her face buried against the crook of her foreleg.

"Um, Crystal," he offered in a soft tone, hesitated, then prompted more clearly, "Hey."

Crystal sniffled, raising her head just enough to look at him out of the corner of one teary, narrowed eye. "What?"

He winced, but tried to speak with some strength behind his voice. "I'm sorry." He crossed his forehooves over one another and bowed his head down low. "I'm really, really sorry."

She hiccupped a few times as she mulled over his apology. Finally, she muttered, "I know. You didn't do it on purpose. Neither of us knew what to do or expect." She lowered her gaze. "We both were wrong."

"I still think you're pretty." He glanced up at her before returning his gaze to the ground. "Before, during, and after. You're a pretty mare. I should have tried to learn more about you before taking you on a date, though. That's all I really knew. You're pretty, and you write. I thought that was enough, but—" He hesitated, gaze falling.

"It didn't really feel like a date," she finished for him, smiling when he nodded with some reluctance. "I know. It felt more like friends hanging out, huh?"

His ears drooped low. "I'm sorry!"

She shook her head. She paused to rub her eyes before turning to face him and putting a hoof on one of his. "It's okay. I had way too many expectations of you. Maybe we should just be friends, at least until we learn more about each other."

Midnight slowly sat up and looked at her, his brow furrowed with uncertainty. "Can we just, do that? Be friends after all this?"

Crystal smothered a laugh by trying to clear her throat, but a bit of a giggle slipped out. "I don't hate you, silly stallion. Of course we can still be friends!" Her expression fell. "I mean, unless you don't want to be?"

He nodded. "I do! I just, wow. I really messed this up, didn't I?" He sighed and hung his head. "I don't know anything about mares."

She hummed softly in thought, swaying a little from side to side. "Well, maybe if you're friends with one, you'll pick up a thing or two." She held out a hoof. "So, friends?"

He looked at the offered hoof, then took it with his own and smiled. "Friends."

Her gaze wandered over to the wet box lying near them. Her horn lit up and brought the book out and over so she could examine it. "The book's not actually destroyed. It mostly just ruined the cover." She sighed as the book rotated to show him the soggy front. "They don't make silk-bound books anymore."

"Why don't we go back to the shop? They had a lot more. I'll buy you a replacement as an apology."

Crystal hummed in thought, then nodded. "All right, but on one condition." She raised a hoof to brush her wet mane out of her face. "First, we go to a salon. I am in desperate need of a quick spa visit."

"Spa visit?" Midnight frowned, skeptical. His words were slow and cautious as he asked, "Do stallions visit the spa?"

"Why, of course they do! Come along. It'll be my treat."

After their simultaneous but separate treatments, they were both led to a common area with chaise lounges. Crystal flopped down and rested her head on a pillow, letting out a long, contented sigh. Her coat was a shimmery white from the mare care products used and her mane and tail were both silky once more.

"Don't you just feel so relaxed and refreshed?" She fluttered her eyes open to look over at Midnight, who carefully sat down on the chaise beside hers.

"I'm just happy to be dry." He looked at his hooves. "I don't think I ever want a hooficure again, though. That was just weird."

She laughed softly. "They're an acquired taste." She sat up, tossing her mane over her shoulder. "It's not easy being a lady, you know."

Midnight hesitated before he offered a weak shrug. "I don't know. It sounds like you go to a lot of unnecessary effort."

"Unnecessary effort?" She frowned. "Oh, so you're saying I could just go out without any primping or effort and you wouldn't care in the least?"

"Well." He swallowed and paused to choose his words carefully. "I can't speak for other stallions, and I appreciate the effort, but I think that's what I'm saying, yes."

She huffed and turned to face away from him, laying back down. "I don't believe you. Stallions only look at mares that are dolled up."

Midnight laid down on the chaise and stared up at the ceiling, twiddling his hooves, frowning in thought. "I don't know. The first thing I noticed about you was that you were always smiling and happy. The way you act with your friends is so carefree. It's pretty."

"That's why you think I'm pretty? The way I act? Not my mane or my makeup?"

In a tone that suggested fear for his own safety if he answered incorrectly, he mumbled a meek, "Yes?"

"Stallions!" Crystal threw a hoof in the air. "I'll never understand them!"

They rested in a companionable silence until Crystal sat up again.

"All right," she managed through a yawn, stretching her forelegs over her head. "Let's go back to the antique shop." The wet box raised from its place on the table beside her chair. The rose mane clip floated up as well, pinning in her mane, just beside her ear.

Midnight followed alongside her as they walked through the streets. Arriving at the antique shop, they went straight to the counter.

"Well, hello again, lovebirds!" The clerk smiled at them in welcome. "What brings you back here?"

Crystal giggled while Midnight explained, "We ran into a bit of trouble with an unfriendly pegasus, so I'm here to buy a second book."

The clerk looked at the book with a forlorn expression. "Guess I was right about that rain." He stroked his chin. "Look, I'm sure I can get some use out of it. Why don't we just do an exchange?"

Midnight's eyes widened. "Really? Are you sure?"

"Of course." The old stallion chuckled and waved a hoof. "You're one of my best customers. It's the least I can do."

Crystal smiled fondly, reflecting on her relationship with Mr. Quills. They'd had conversations quite like this in the past, with broken quills needing replaced or finding herself just a bit or two short.

"Thank you," Crystal said. "I really appreciate it." She walked with Midnight over to the bookcase, this time taking a moment to scan the titles rather than grabbing one at random.

Finally, one caught her eye: Brydlestrata by Aristopones. "Oh, I love this story," she mused under her breath as her magic gently lifted the book off the shelf and floated it closer.

"Really? I don't know this one." Midnight inclined his head to peer at it. "What is it about?"

"It's about—" A sudden red flush crawled up the back of Crystal's neck and she hurriedly said, "Oh, I wouldn't want to spoil it, but it's quite interesting." She cleared her throat. "I'll take this one."

Midnight blinked a few times, then shrugged. "All right." As they made their way out, he waved to the clerk and they stepped back into the bright sunlight.

They merely stood there at first, Midnight seeming to be searching for something and Crystal too tentative to interrupt his thoughts.

He broke the silence with a light sigh and started down the sidewalk. "I'm really sorry your first date didn't turn out how you wanted."

"I could say the same for you." She gave a quick shrug of her shoulders without losing stride as she followed after him. "I think it's okay, though. I have a new friend now. That's more than enough."

Midnight mused on this quietly for a moment. He caught sight of a butterfly drifting on a breeze, crossing their path and landing on a stray blade of grass.

Clearing his throat, he glanced down at her and recited in a lyrical manner,

"A colored splash upon a wing, like perfection most sublime.
"Words we speak in passing; we share a moment in time.
"We think these most ephemeral: a single crystalline chime,
"A butterfly's aerial, a simple moment in time.
"You have my great gratitude, a memory in its prime,
"Impressed with your attitude in this clear moment in time."

Crystal squealed and hopped on all hooves. "That was beautiful, Midnight!" She winked. "You'll make a mare very happy someday if you do that on your next date!"

He nodded, a small grin on his lips. "I'll do my best to remember that." He gently bumped his shoulder to hers. "Thank you, Crystal. It's been an enlightening day."

"You can say that again," she murmured, giggling softly and shaking her head.

The sun dipped low in the sky as they journeyed through the streets of Canterlot with no direction in mind, simply enjoying light conversation and each other's company. He eventually walked her home and, when they stood outside the door, offered a hoof. She looked down at it, laughed, and threw her hooves around his neck in a friendly hug before she went inside.

"I'm home!" she called as she shut the door behind her.

"Darling!" Upper Crust looked up from the couch. "How was he?"

Crystal smiled, walking to the stairs. "A good friend."

Her mother blinked a few times. She may have said something in response, but Crystal didn't hear it, instead giggling to herself. It had been a terrible date, but things seemed to have turned out all right.

Flopping onto her bed, she pulled out her notebook with her most recent work. Her good cheer deflated as she flipped the pages, scanning over the romantic prose she had written.

Midnight Poem was not her perfect, romantic special somepony, but stallions like that existed, right?

Yearning History

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Crystal knocked on the door to Velvet's condominium and waited, shifting from one hoof to the other. When the door was opened, two grinning, eager faces were shoved in her own.

"Hi, Velvet. Hi, Horsey," she said with a small smile.

Velvet rolled her eyes. "Hi? Hi?!"

"We don't want a 'hi'!" Horsey stomped a hoof. "We want information! Is he your special somepony now?"

Crystal opened her mouth to respond, but Velvet pushed against Horsey's side to be closer. "Are you two going to trot off into the sunset together and live happily ever after?!"

Crystal stayed her tongue as long as she could while they stared at her before she burst into giggles. She waved a hoof and pushed her way past them to get inside. "No, nothing like that at all."

Velvet's ears fell. "But, Crystal!"

On the coffee table sat a dark brown cake with a light caramel sauce drizzled over it, a couple candied dates sitting on top in the very center.

"Is this the date cake?" Crystal trotted over to it. "It looks delicious!"

Horsey followed alongside her. "Forget the cake! What happened? What went wrong?" she practically begged, a faint sound of desperation tracing her voice.

The knife resting by the cake glowed, surrounded by the pink aura of Crystal's magic. It raised up and started to carve out a slice. "Well, we went to an antique store, then watched clouds before a cantankerous pegasus decided to literally rain on our parade." She raised the slice. "We decided we were better as friends, 'cause—" She turned her head to look at the two girls, trying to smile, but it was a weak attempt. "There was no magic. No spark. It wasn't romantic or special at all."

Velvet sighed heavily. "Aww, no way."

"I understand," Horsey said in an almost uncomfortably serious voice. She put a hoof on Crystal's shoulder. "Things between 16-Bit and I are, well." She took a bite of Crystal's cake slice.

"Wait, are you two dating?" Velvet sat on the other side of Crystal, but leaned forward to look at Horsey. "Since when?!" Following suit, she took a bite of the floating cake slice as well.

Crystal glanced between the two of them with a playfully irritated look, then finished off the slice in one large bite before they could take any more of it.

Horsey shook her head. "No, we've just been hanging out more after LARP. But it's not just him and me. It's his friends, too. So we're usually never alone, except one time last week, and it was so awkward."

Crystal, her cheeks puffed like a chipmunk's, struggled to swallow. Once she did, she gasped for air briefly, then wheezed, "Really? Oh, wow." Her head fell forward while Velvet started to cut the cake into individual slices. "They say mares are complicated. Well, stallions are just one big disappointment."

Velvet fumbled with the knife in her hooves and stared at them with a stern gaze. "Come on, you two! Just because you both happened to chase after the wrong stallions doesn't mean they're all bad!" She sighed. "You just have to try again until you find the right one."

Crystal shook her head. "I think I'd just rather write about them." A sheepish grin spread across her lips. "At least until a stallion can give me a guarantee that he won't disappoint. I just want to be swept off my hooves."

The three fell into silence as they ate the cake. There was nothing more to say, and they knew it.

"You know, girls," Sunbeam said softly. The trio looked up, startled by the sudden break in the silence. "Pepper Ridge wasn't what you'd consider a 'perfect stallion' when I met him."

"Really?" Crystal, Horsey, and Pepper Ridge asked in unison, one looking much more confused than the other two.

Velvet sat quietly. Her ears were pinned back and her gaze was focused on the cake slice in front of her.

Sunbeam walked over to sit at the coffee table with the girls. "Let me tell you a story."

"You don't have to," Velvet muttered, but she was dismissed by a gentle hoof on her shoulder.

"Now, now, sugarpop, I know I'm your mother and you don't like to think about this, but I was a teenage filly once, too, you know." Sunbeam winked.

Velvet groaned while Crystal and Horsey leaned in, smiling curiously.

"So, how did you two meet?" Crystal asked.

Sunbeam folded her hooves in her lap. "Well, he was the only stallion in our home economics club. He was kind, sensitive, a great baker. Let's just say, we thought he preferred eclairs to cake."

"Mom!" Velvet threw her hooves to her face as she cried out, her cheeks turning red. "Really?!"

Pepper Ridge stood frozen in the doorway between the kitchen and the living room, almost as red in the face as Velvet was.

Crystal covered her mouth. "Oh, my." She started to blush as well.

Horsey glanced between them all, quietly taking in each reaction with a blank expression. In a hushed voice, she mumbled, "I don't get it."

Crystal started to snicker. Sunbeam stared at Horsey with a look of hesitancy as she pondered her words very carefully. Before she could come to a conclusion, however, Velvet said rather bluntly, "Only stallions have eclairs, jeeze."

Horsey furrowed her brow. She started to look more upset than confused as the three stared at her expectantly. Finally, her eyes grew wide and her cheeks pink. "What? Oh. Whoa!"

"Do we really have to talk about this?" Velvet whined, her face still hidden behind her hooves.

Sunbeam patted her daughter on the shoulder again. "The worst is already over, sweetie. I might as well finish now." She giggled to herself. "He became an honorary mare in our eyes, and we would invite him to our mare's nights out. He was such a good listener and never took advantage of his position."

Crystal leaned in with interest clear in her eyes. "Then? Then what?"

Sunbeam waved a hoof. "It seems silly now, but I was talking to him about my stallion troubles. I was just like you girls, chasing after a crush but not feeling anything. With Pepper Ridge, I was always so calm and secure." She paused for dramatic effect. "So then, suddenly, he kissed me. Out of nowhere!"

Horsey and Crystal gasped while Velvet groaned.

Pepper Ridge slowly walked over to the table. A strange look was on his face: it resembled both realization and disappointment. "Is—Is all of that true?"

Sunbeam blinked up at him. "Hmm? Why, of course."

Pepper Ridge sat beside her and stared at the others, lips pursed. "I thought I was a stud."

Sunbeam broke out into chimes of delicate laughter.

Crystal grinned at him. "Tell us your side of the story, Mr. Ridge!"

"Yeah." He still seemed somewhat distraught by the revelation. "Yeah." He cleared his throat. "Well, like she said, I was in the home economics club. I thought I was smooth and dashing because all the mares would invite me over for their get-togethers. They talked about everything! Everything! I—" He coughed and turned his head to the side.

At that point, Sunbeam had fallen over backward as her laughter shook her whole frame. Horsey started giggling despite her best efforts, and Crystal absorbed every word he spoke.

"I just assumed they all liked me," he said in a quiet voice. "That's why I kissed Sunbeam. I just figured that's what a stallion does when he's got lots of mares after him."

"Oh, sweetheart." Sunbeam remained on the ground, wiping a tear from her eye while reaching out her other hoof to rest on his. "You were very mistaken."

Pepper Ridge muttered, "I see that now."

Sunbeam smiled. She tugged on his hoof to pull herself up and kissed his cheek. "Don't worry. It worked out in the end, didn't it?"

"Hmm." A smile pulled at his lips and he nuzzled her. "Yes, it did."

Crystal watched the happy couple, Horsey was still giggling, and Velvet was stuffing her face with cake trying to ignore all of it.

"That's so wonderful," Crystal said with a sigh. "I hope my special somepony comes along soon. I'm ready to be in love!"

Sunbeam's smile softened some. "It'll happen when it's time, dear. I was a senior when Pepper Ridge kissed me, though I was just about you girls' age, now that I think about it. School in Manehattan isn't as long as it is here, after all."

Crystal's ear flicked. "My parents met while they were in school."

"Oh, really?" Sunbeam tilted her head. "How?"

"They—" She blinked a few times. "Well, I know bits and pieces. My dad fell for my mom when he saw her in the color guard, but I guess he didn't do anything until he asked her to the Fall Formal Gala in their senior year." A frown pulled her small smile down. "And I know my mom liked him, but I don't really know much, now that I think about it. I'll ask them when—"

"Dohnn!" Velvet cried in a cake-muffled voice as she jerked her head up. She paused to swallow. "Don't! You don't want to know! They're your parents." She glanced at her own. "It's weird when it's your parents."

Crystal giggled and nudged Velvet's side with her elbow. "It's not weird at all! It's romantic!"

Horsey tapped her hoof to her chin. "Come to think of it, I know nothing about my parents and how they met. I've never thought to ask."

Crystal turned her gaze on Horsey. "You'll have to tell me what their story is when you find out!" She squealed, clapping her hooves together. "I just love love!" She raised a slice of cake and took a happy bite from it.

"I'm glad you're in better spirits," Sunbeam said as she stood up. "Now, I'll leave before Velvet refuses to speak to me for a week. Again." She giggled softly and walked toward the kitchen. "Come on, dear."

Pepper Ridge followed after her, leaving the three girls alone around the nearly finished cake.

"I know they were ponies before they were my parents, but it's weird to think of them as ponies," Velvet admitted with her nose scrunched up.

"Yeah, but it's also kind of interesting to think about, too," Horsey said. "They had lives before we came along."

Crystal hummed and tried to listen to the two as they talked, but she was much too excited by the prospect of learning her parents' full story. She knew the minor details, but not the big plot points! She just had to find out the whole truth.

When Crystal arrived home, she smiled at the sight of her parents in the living room. Upper Crust, as usual, was lying on the couch with a fashion magazine opened and resting over her forelegs while her magic lazily turned the pages. Jet Set was sitting in the recliner chair, a newspaper levitating in front of him.

"Hi, Mom! Hi, Dad!"

Jet Set looked up to greet her with a smile. Upper Crust's ear flicked in vague acknowledgment.

"Welcome home, dear," her father said as the newspaper lowered. "How were Mrs. Sunbeam and Mr. Ridge? I know their bakery is doing well, from what I've heard."

Crystal trotted over and sat down on the floor, placing her snout on the arm of his chair to gaze up at him. "Oh, they were wonderful as always, Dad. They made a wonderful date cake."

"A date cake?" He paused, then laughed heartily. "I see! A date cake to celebrate your date?" His expression sobered rather suddenly. "Your mother told me your date did not go well."

Crystal smiled as sweetly as she could. "It was fine, Dad. He just wasn't the right one."

Jet Set patted her on the head. "I'm sure you'll do better next time. Keep your chin up."

"Yes, Dad." She paused, then started to wiggle and squirm before she asked, "Can you tell me the story about how you and Mom fell in love?"

"Can he? Darling, of course he can, but will he?" Upper Crust raised her brow.

Jet Set stared down at Crystal's eager grin with a polite frown. "Why do you want to know something like that?"

Crystal batted her eyelashes. "Because Mrs. Sunbeam and Mr. Ridge told me their love story, and I'd like to hear my parents'!"

Her father seemed unaffected by her charms. The newspaper opened up, blocking her view of him. "Perhaps some other time."

She blinked one, two, three times. He flipped to the next page of his newspaper. "Oh." Her ears folded back while her brow furrowed and she stood up. "Um, okay." She started walking toward the stairs, pausing to glance over at them. Neither looked up from their respective reading material. "I'll be in my room until dinner, then."

"All right, darling." Upper Crust ran her hoof over an article to keep her place. "I'll call you when it's ready."

Crystal hesitated at the foot of the stairs. "Okay." She went up to her room, uncertainty and confusion rumbling in her chest. Something was up and she wasn't sure what, but it made her feel suddenly uneasy.

Treasure in the Moment

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Crystal took a quiet but deep breath of air and slowly released it through her teeth. She sat with her hindlegs folded beneath her, facing a row of her peers that sat in a similarly formal fashion. Her mane was tied in a tight bun to ensure it stayed out of her way throughout the ceremony.

Silently, she bowed. The five ponies before her returned the bow before one washed their hooves in a stone basin, then slid the basin down to the next pony. Once each had washed their hooves, they returned their full attention to Crystal.

Using only her hooves, as tradition required, she pulled one of the small bowls in front of her closer with one hoof. A green tea powder had already been spooned into each bowl, so she carefully raised up a ladle from where it was resting in a pot of hot water.

For a unicorn, using one's hooves generally required much more concentration than using magic. Basic levitation became second nature once a foal got a handle on it. Holding and manipulating objects with a hoof or a mouth, however, was trickier. She imagined it was how pegasi felt when they had to run or walk for extended periods of time as opposed to simply flying about.

Crystal blinked a few times. She had gotten lost in thought and spilled a few drops of water on the floor.

"Ooh, you goofed up," a voice playfully hissed in her ear, which twitched both in irritation at the words and her own lack of focus.

"Velvet!" Crystal hissed back. She paused to focus on pouring the water while the ponies sitting across from them snickered.

Watching the ceremony in prior silence was Velvet, lounging on a pillow behind Crystal. "What?" She had her head propped up on one hoof and grinned when Crystal glared at her. She waved her free hoof. "Is it really that hard for you to use your hooves? You unicorns, spoiled by your magic."

Crystal dropped the ladle back into the pot. "Okay, well, I failed already. I'll clean up so the next pony can have their turn."

The snickering clubmates nodded and stood up from their formal poses.

"Well, it was a nice try," one offered.

"At least you didn't drop the ladle on the floor this time," another said with a small giggle.

Crystal's magic reached up to pull the clip out and undo the bun, her mane falling in gentle waves to her shoulders.

"You should keep your mane down more often," Velvet mused aloud. "It's really pretty like that."

"Hmm?" Crystal inclined her head to look down at her own mane. The locks of pink were woven into her tresses like vines of pink ivy scaling a blonde wall. "Oh, may—no! Don't change the subject." She frowned. "I said you could watch if you were quiet and didn't interrupt."

"Yeah, but you did that to yourself without any help from me." She giggled.

Crystal sighed, shaking her head. Despite, she smiled as she started to clean and empty the bowls, free to use her magic now to make the task go by quickly. "There are only two months left in the year. We're going to have a tea festival the week before the last one of school. I want to get it right in case my parents show up."

Velvet raised her brow. "Your parents? What are the odds that's going to happen?"

Crystal shrugged. "I dunno. Mom's the one that pushed me to do this club, so I thought, maybe—" She sighed and dried off the last bowl. "Anyway, why are you here?" She scooted away from the ceremony setting to sit beside Velvet on the sidelines while another pony took her place.

"Dance club is canceled today, so I've got nothing better to do than watch—"

The stallion that was starting his attempt interrupted her with a hissing shh.

Velvet grinned, then lowered her voice to just barely a whisper. "—you and your friends play pretend with—"

"Shh." The stallion glared over his shoulder, taking the whole thing quite seriously.

Velvet paused, then mimed a tea kettle by bending one foreleg to rest her hoof on her hip and curving the other one for a spout. She then tilted at the waist to pour imaginary tea and stuck out her tongue.

Crystal raised a hoof to dismiss the antics with a quick wave. She nodded and—in complete silence—drew the hoof across her lips, pointed at the ponies in front of them, and gestured between her eyes and them.

Velvet rolled her eyes, but faced her gaze forward nonetheless.

By the time club ended, they had watched three ponies practice the ceremony. There were only eight total ponies in the club, but the practice attempt took forty minutes at the most and few managed to get very far. The tea club president seemed somewhat distraught.

"We've been practicing for three months, ponies! How are you still making rookie mistakes at this point?" She sighed and rubbed her forehead with a hoof. "Well, I'll see you all later this week. Please try to practice at home."

Crystal stood up and whispered to Velvet, "It takes years to master the tea ceremony, so I don't get why she's so surprised."

Velvet shrugged. The two walked out of the room and once they were in the hallway, Velvet inclined her head. "So, what's up with you? You seem a little on edge."

"Hmm." Crystal made her way to her locker and opened it. A mirror was affixed to the inside of the door, which she gazed into while she pulled her mane up into her usual side ponytail. "Another stallion asked me out. I said yes, but—"

"But?" Velvet tilted her head.

Crystal shut her locker door and turned to look at her with a small frown. "I don't know. I just want to feel that magic spark, you know?"

"I don't, but I know you do." She tapped her chin in thought. "You know, the last home hoofball game of the year is next week. You, Horsey, and I should go. Watch stallions be stallions, you know?" She winked.

It didn't take long for Crystal to imagine it. Hoofball players, running across the field, sweat clinging to their coats, their muscles flexing in the afternoon sun—

"I'll take that expression as a yes." Velvet laughed and patted her on the shoulder. "Oh, by the way." She hesitated a moment before offering in a cautious voice, "I know you have another club meeting, but the girls from my ballet group and I are going to go bowling at Looney Lanes. If you want to come after your meeting.." She trailed off, her smile falling.

Crystal's gut reaction was to come up with an excuse and decline as she always did when faced with a social outing with unfamiliar ponies. They were Velvet's friends, not hers; she'd be an awkward third wheel and that didn't sound like any kind of fun to her. However, something about Velvet's expression made her say instead, "Sure, I'll head over there as soon as I get out."

Velvet's eyes widened and she smiled wide. "Great! We'll have a lot of fun!" The smile widened into a playful grin. "It's hoof-only bowling, so you'll get lots of practice using your hooves for the tea ceremony thing."

"Oh, great." She rolled her eyes but smiled nonetheless. "I can't wait."

"Me neither!" Velvet trotted down the hall. "See you then!"

Crystal had barely made her way through Canterlot before she was filled with nagging regret. Had she ever bowled with her hooves? For that matter, had she ever gone bowling at all? Perhaps once when she was young, but she certainly didn't remember a thing about it. Velvet frequently went to Looney Lanes with her other friends, so that meant they would all be good at it. She groaned and kicked at a small rock on the otherwise even cobblestone streets.

The sound of glass shattering nearby made her ear twitch and her head jerk to the side, startling her out of her thoughts. Even more startling was seeing Midnight Poem outside of a flower shop, panic on his face as he waved a hoof at a cowering mare.

"Stop!" he exclaimed. "Wait, hold on!"

The mare stared up at him with wide eyes, trembling all over. She was a delicate thing, light green in coat with a dark green mane and tail. Her hooves, which were raised to try to defend herself from a perceived attack, had dark brown around them, likely from working in the dirt.

Crystal furrowed her brow. "What the hay?" she muttered under her breath and started to trot over. "Midnight, what—"

"—is going on here?" a stallion's commanding voice spoke over her own, halting all three of them.

The mare looked up with a sudden, relieved smile. Midnight looked over with uncertainty and a bit of fear. Crystal stayed where she was, not sure if the voice was addressing her or the suspicious scene. When a guard walked past her, she relaxed, then tensed up again. The tall stallion was completely unfamiliar to her. He was well-built, with muscles showing in his legs and shoulders from beneath his armor. His serious expression and firm tone, admittedly, made her more than weak in the knees.

Midnight's mouth flapped open and shut a few times before he stammered through an explanation. "I didn't do anything, sir! I promise! I just said hello, and she dropped this vase, you see, an—and, well, I don't know, but she won't stop looking at me like that!" He gestured at the florist. Whatever relief the other stallion's presence had brought her was quickly overwhelmed by Midnight speaking again.

There was a pause before the stallion broke the tension with a chuckle. "Is that all?" He stood just at the edge of the area of broken glass and looked at the mare with one brow raised. "I see. Well, then, assuming there's no issue, I'll get back to my rounds."

"I—I—I'm sorry," she stuttered, her voice just as delicate as her disposition. Her ears flopped down and she ducked her head in embarrassment. "There's no issue."

The stallion gave a cordial nod before trotting off. Crystal watched him leave, biting her lower lip as her gaze traced his sturdy form moving effortlessly despite the armor he wore, then shook her head to bring herself back to the present moment.

She trotted over and, with a quick sweep of her magic, collected up the glass shards into a pile. "Midnight, honestly," she chimed in, standing beside him. "You'll never find a special somepony if you go around scaring mares like this."

Midnight sighed. "I didn't mean to."

Crystal put her airs back on and smiled at the mare. "I apologize for my friend. I hope there wasn't much damage done?"

"No." The mare swallowed. "I'm sorry. I'm Leafy Roots, the florist for this shop." Her gaze turned to Midnight. "Did you need some flowers?"

"Well, yes, but, now it's not a surprise, so, perhaps not." He glanced at Crystal with a shy grin.

She paused. Was he there to buy her flowers? She nudged him in the side, grinning playfully. "What are you playing at, Romehorse?"

Midnight shook his head. "I'm not playing at anything! I just thought I'd pick up some flowers." He paled slightly. "Friendly flowers, like daisies. Not roses or anything romantic. Honest."

"Oh, I have daisies," Leafy Roots offered. "Let me get some for you. Just one second, okay?" She bobbed her head and ducked into the store.

Only a moment later, the mare came back out with a daisy chain, which she raised up and placed on Crystal's head. She had a shy smile on her lips as she explained when given a curious look, "Since he said, well, not romantic, this seemed more suitable, maybe?" Her smile wavered slightly.

Crystal inclined her head to look in the shop window at her reflection. It was a little hard to see in the daylight, but she got enough of a view to smile. "How sweet."

Midnight laughed and retrieved a pouch of bits from his saddlebags. "It's perfect! How much do I owe?"

"Four bits, I guess?"

Crystal blinked. "Is that all?"

Roots flinched, glanced between them, then down at the ground. "Well, normally it'd be, um, six bits, but with how I acted, I want to give a discount."

Midnight raised six bits out of his pouch and placed them in her hoof. "Six it is, then. Thank you, Miss Roots."

Roots looked up at him with a growing smile. "Thank you for your business! Please come again, okay?" She bowed her head, then went into the store to put away the bits.

Crystal sighed and gazed over her shoulder with a pout. "I didn't even get that stallion's name. He seemed so nice!" And he was good-looking, but she wasn't about to say that part aloud.

"Huh?" He blinked a few times.

"Nevermind," she said with a laugh. She turned to face him completely and bounced from hoof to hoof. "So, you bought me flowers, huh? Why?"

"Why else?" He sighed. "To apologize for that disaster of a date."

Crystal giggled. "You didn't have to, but I appreciate it." She started to walk down the street in the direction of the bowling alley, nodding her head to gesture for him to follow. "I'm going to Looney Lanes to go bowling with Velvet and her friends. Which are all mares." She winked. "Why don't you come along?"

"All mares?" He flushed as he walked beside her. "Are you trying to set me up?"

"With any luck, I won't be trying!" She giggled.

"Well, I didn't have any plans." He smiled a little sheepishly. "And it might be fun."

"Then it's decided! Operation 'Find A Mare' is a go!" She trotted ahead with an excited skip in her step, suddenly much more excited about bowling. After all, a ballet dancer seemed like the perfect muse for a poet. Every ballet move was poetry in of itself! And being the only stallion in a group of mares, he was bound to catch at least one's attention, she was sure of it.

The Sound of Silence

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"You did this on purpose." Velvet stared at Crystal, both pairs of legs crossed over each other, ears pinned back. One of her hindlegs swung up and down to tap on the floor in rhythmic irritation.

"What? No!" Crystal beamed innocently at her as she fumbled with picking up a bowling ball. Hooves only. Why did it have to be hooves only?

Velvet rolled her eyes, though she started to grin. "Well, congratulations, you're in third place." She turned her head to look at Horsey, who was staring at the ground with her ears folded over. "You're in fifth, so that's still good, considering there's nine of us!"

Horsey raised her head and gestured with both hooves at the gaggle of mares surrounding Midnight Poem. "I'm behind Azure Dance, and she's not even paying attention when she bowls!" she exclaimed, exasperation clear in her voice.

"What? Huh?" The mare in question turned to look in Horsey's direction. "Did somepony say my name?" When Velvet shook her head, the mare returned her attention to Midnight. "Recite another poem, Midny!"

Midnight smiled lopsidedly. He cleared his throat and said, a little nervously, "Well, ah. When the white hooves of dancers beat across the stage, the sound is like the wings of birds at dawn, fluttering."

Horsey dropped her head back down with a groan when a chorus of feminine sighs filled the air.

Crystal walked carefully on her hindlegs, balancing the ball on her forehooves before she shifted its weight to just one. She pulled her hoof back, then started to sling it forward to send the ball down the lane.

"By the way, why didn't you like 'Midny' again?" Velvet called.

Crystal winced and tossed the ball straight into the gutter. "Oh, come on!" She whirled around to face the snickering mare, nearly stumbling over her own tail when it wrapped around her legs from the sudden motion. She dropped down onto her forelegs, kicked her back legs to untangle them, then trotted back to the seating area. "Seriously?"

Velvet blinked with utmost innocence. "What? No!" She laughed briefly, then put a serious face back on. "Really, I don't get it." She looked over at the stallion as he tried to pay attention to each of the fawning mares around him. "He's cute, he's nice, and he writes really good poetry. What's wrong with him?"

Crystal sighed and sat down between her two friends. "Midnight! It's your turn!"

"Huh?" He smiled. "Oh, right! Excuse me, pardon me—yes." He picked up his ball and tried to focus while several pairs of eyes bore into the back of his head, eagerly watching his every move.

"So—?" Velvet pressed.

Crystal shrugged. "You're right, he is all those things. But I just don't feel that way about him, all right?"

"I think that's fine," Horsey said quietly. "I mean, Crystal is pretty, nice, and writes really good stories, but I don't want to date her." Her eyes glimmered with mischief as she leaned forward to peer at Velvet. "What about you?"

"Huh? Oh, Horsey!" Velvet laughed and waved a hoof. "That's totally different!"

"I'm just saying—"

"All right, your turn, Velvet," Midnight said, walking back to his spot.

Velvet looked over at the pins just as they were being brushed away. "You got a strike? Oh, curse you, Midny!" She laughed and stood up. "You're only in first place because you're trying to show off."

When Velvet was about to throw her bowling ball, Horsey called out, "Don't forget that she has a nice plot, too!"

"What?!" Velvet and Crystal cried, both turning to look at the laughing mare. The bowling ball went sailing across the floor, narrowly avoiding crashing into the ponies in the next lane over.

"Sorry!" Velvet winced before she hurried over and gave Horsey a furrowed, confused stare. "Horsey, you don't normally talk like that! What's up with you?"

Horsey's laughter faded and she rubbed her cheek with a hoof. "Yeah? Oh. Sorry."

"Is this because Velvet's mom talked about eclairs and cake?" Crystal asked. Her cheeks were still red and her tail had curled around herself to hide her rump from sight, but she grinned nonetheless. "Have you been corrupted?"

Velvet gave a loud groan. "I do not want to talk about my mom and what she said, okay?"

"Okay." Crystal held up her hoof. "No more messing each other up, okay? Morning Grace just got a spare and now Horsey's in sixth place."

"What?!" Horsey looked up at the scoreboard and whined, "Oh, horseshoes!"

They took a breath of air and, simultaneously, drew their hooves across their chests, reciting together, "Cross my heart and hope to cry, else I'll live in a pig's sty."

Nearly an hour later, the game finally ended with Velvet close behind Midnight to achieve second place, Crystal in fourth, and Horsey scrambling just barely ahead of one of the ballet mares for fifth. The trio stood together, pausing so that Crystal could turn and address Midnight.

"I guess you'll have to walk a couple mares home, huh, stud?" She winked.

Midnight tried to smile. The attention seemed to be a little overwhelming for the shy stallion, but, judging by the blush on his cheeks, not entirely unwelcome. "It—uh, it seems so." He looked at the three mares standing beside him, the rest having already left. "Ladies first."

"Oh, give us another poem for the walk home, Midny," Azure Dance cooed, her eyelashes fluttering. "Please?"

Crystal watched while he departed with his small group of fanmares. "It's going to be Azure," she predicted aloud. "She really likes him."

Velvet nodded in agreement as the three of them started to walk for the door. "I'm not surprised. Azure's on the cheerleading team and all she talks about is how tired she is of jocks."

"Really?" A tingle ran down Crystal's spine and she shuddered, a coy smile on her lips. "I can't wait for the game next week. I think I like a stallion with a bit of muscle."

"Is that why you didn't hit it off with Midnight?" Horsey asked with a playful tease in her tone. "Too much brain, not enough brawn?"

"Maybe," Crystal commented wistfully, already elsewhere in a daydream with muscular stallions.

Velvet laughed and bumped her flank against Crystal's. "Well, maybe when you're in the color guard next year, you'll have the chance to get up close and personal with the hoofball players!"

Crystal said nothing, merely giggling in excitement, her gaze focused on nothing at all.

Horsey rolled her eyes, but smiled softly. "I'm just glad she's drooling over stallions again. It was weird having her be mopey about it."

"Agreed. Now let's just make sure she gets home safely without—"

Lost in her thoughts, Crystal stumbled over her own hooves on a bit of uneven cobblestone, prompting Horsey and Velvet into laughter.

"Let me see your game face!" Velvet cried excitedly from the other side of the Crystal's bedroom door. "Come on, Crystal!"

"I'm almost ready!" Crystal applied the last stroke of makeup before she walked to the door and opened it. Seeing Velvet, she gasped. "Wow! You went all-out!"

Velvet stood with her head held high, decked out in full school spirit regalia: her face was painted in the school's colors, a large foam hoof with '#1' painted on it was over one of her hooves, and colorful streamers were woven into her mane.

"It's the last game the boys will be playing here in Canterlot. They need our support!" She paused to look Crystal over.

Crystal wore makeup in the school's colors but hadn't gone above and beyond like Velvet had. That said, she had dyed blue streaks into her mane, most of the natural pink locks hidden underneath the vibrant blue color.

"Hmm." Velvet walked in a circle around Crystal, examining her from head to hoof. "You'll do. Let's go pick up Horsey and head to the stadium!"

Crystal levitated a small flag behind her and they made their way together to the house of Horsey's parents, Fine Line and Hoity Toity. A few moments after they knocked on the door, Fine Line opened it and peered at them before offering a cordial smile.

"Oh, hello there." She paused, glancing Velvet over, staring at Crystal, then turning to shout, "High Horse, your friends are here, and they're dressed in school spirit! Do you need time to get ready?"

"What?" Horsey's voice squeaked from somewhere in the house. She galloped into view, pushing her head past her mother to gape at Crystal and Velvet. "I didn't know we were supposed to dress up!"

"Don't worry," Crystal said, smiling. "You're kind of blue, so you're already in school spirit."

Fine Line looked down at Horsey, then sighed. "Crystal, be a dear, would you?" Before Crystal could respond, Fine Line's magic tugged the flag out of the pink magic and levitated it over to tuck behind Horsey's ear.

"Mom," Horsey whined softly.

"Now you're ready." Fine Line patted her on the head. "Just be sure you're home in time for dinner. You three have fun, all right?"

Velvet clapped her hooves. "Let's go, girls! We don't want Crystal to miss the pre-game stretching!" She laughed and took the lead in an excited gallop down the street.

Crystal's cheeks flushed and she started running as she yelled, "Hey!"

"Bye, Mom!" Horsey called over her shoulder, trotting after the two of them.

When they arrived at the outdoor stadium—which was really more of a field with tiered benches all around it—they were pleasantly surprised to find space in the second row from the sidelines. The home team's players were already on the field, stretching and preparing their bodies for the exercise ahead.

"Perfect," Crystal cheered as they sat down. "This day is going to be perfect!"

Velvet grinned and nudged her side with an elbow. "Calm down, frisky britches. You don't want to scare the stallions before they've even started!"

"Oh, you," Crystal mumbled with a playful pout. "Can't you just let me be happy?"

Horsey smiled. "You two are really good friends, you know that?"

They paused to stare at her for a quiet moment.

"Huh?" Velvet blinked a few times.

Horsey laughed softly and shook her head. "Sorry, I just mean, it's really funny to watch you two."

"I see what you mean." Crystal scooted closer to Horsey and nuzzled their sides together. "Are you jealous of our PDA?"

"What? No!" Horsey shook her head again. "I'm just glad, is all. I mean, the year is coming to a close, but we're still friends."

"Of course," Velvet started cautiously. "Why wouldn't we be?"

Horsey shrugged. She turned her attention forward when the opposing team walked onto the field. "There's no reason. I'm just feeling sentimental, I guess."

Crystal tilted her head to rest it against Horsey's neck. "It's okay," she cooed in a quiet voice. "I know you're really just jealous. I'll give you extra attention to make up for it." She inclined her head in such a way to keep the physical contact and peered at Velvet, sticking out her tongue. "Don't you get jealous, too, now."

Velvet grinned. "Why should I be? Now I've got me all to myself, just as I planned!" She placed her hoof on her giant foam hoof and sighed in a playfully dreamy way. "Oh, me!"

They all laughed, then their laughter changed into cheers when a pony wearing a black-and-white-striped shirt came onto the field and started the game.

The first quarter was intense—the Wondercolts came out in full force. An announcer with a megaphone exclaimed that the starting lineup consisted of Indigo Steel as the quarterback with Silent Knight and Defender Bronzewing as his left and right guards. They were a fearsome trio: nopony on the defending team was able to get near Indigo Steel until both Silent Knight and Defender Bronzewing were tackled to the ground.

"Silent Knight, huh?" Velvet mused, turning to look at Crystal, who was almost too engrossed in the game to hear her. A flick of an ear acknowledged that at least some of her attention was diverted to listening. "Isn't he the stallion always causing trouble 'cause he refuses to participate in the Julimare and Romehorse play?"

"He participates," Crystal responded idly. She tore her gaze away for a moment to look at Velvet and shrug. "I mean, he builds sets. I think that's enough." She winced when Silent Knight slammed his shoulder into an opposing player's chest, knocking the latter to the ground. "I don't think stallions like him can act very well."

"What about that Defender Bronzewing, though?" Horsey giggled. "He seems like your type."

Crystal made a sound reminiscent of a purr. The stallion in question was noticeably larger than the others, with a well-defined build that made him perfect for defending the quarterback.

"Yeah," she said simply. "He's nice."

Though the away team was able to score a few touchdowns, the score was dramatically in favor of the Wondercolts. At half time, the color guard came out followed by the marching band. At one end of the field, cheerleaders bounced around with enthusiastic cartwheels and flips while choreographed flags were twirled in the air, all set in time with the small but equally enthusiastic band in the center.

"Look, look!" Velvet pointed excitedly. "There's Azure Dance!"

"And?" Crystal tilted her head. "What about her?"

At that moment, they watched the mare pause and blow a kiss in one direction. They followed her gaze and saw Midnight Poem sitting in the crowd. His cheeks turned a bright red when several other eyes turned on him, but raised a hoof to catch the invisible kiss.

"Aww!" Crystal squealed, pressing her hooves to her cheeks and smooshing her own face. "Tha's shoo cyute!" She pulled her hooves away and turned back to Velvet, a menacing force behind her lowered voice as she asked, "And you promise that Azure Dance will be a good mare to him, right?"

Velvet dismissed her with a wave of her hoof. "Don't worry! I mean, she's not perfect, but she's not bad, either. As long as he's happy, who cares?" She pointed at the field, teasing in a tone that one would use with a puppy, "Look, girl, look! Stallions! Does the pretty pony want to watch the stallions? Huh?"

Crystal paused, considering a snarky response, but admittedly, she did want to watch the stallions. She played along by lolling her tongue out the side of her mouth and giving a resounding, "Woof!"

Horsey and Velvet laughed, nearly falling off the benches into the row below while nearby ponies gave them concerned, wary glances.

Crystal hooked her hooves together in a begging posture and panted, wiggling her rump to wag her tail back and forth. "Woof, woof!"

This sent all three of them into hysterical laughter that they could barely rescue themselves out of when a horn sounded, signaling the start of the third quarter.

Velvet wiped a tear from her eyes. "We'll have to make sure to get together and not have a repeat of last summer."

"Yeah," Crystal agreed with a firm nod. "I won't let my mom send me to summer finishing school this time."

There was a pause before Horsey simply said, "Yeah."

After the game, by sheer coincidence, both the trio of mares and the entire hoofball team were at Sunridge Sweets for post-game treats. The stallions were loud, forgivably so after such an overwhelming victory over the visiting team. They cheered and egged each other on in contests of hot cocoa drinking and cupcake eating—both very stallion-like activities when paired with deep-voiced cheers of "chug chug chug" and "chow chow chow", of course.

From their usual table off in the corner, Velvet gave the stallions' antics an amused snort, Crystal openly checked them out, and Horsey stared down at the oat-and-daisy milkshake the three of them were sharing.

"They really are all brawn, huh?" Velvet commented as one stallion cried out in surprise at how hot his hot cocoa was while the other stallions laughed.

Pepper Ridge hurried over to deliver a tall glass of cold milk to the scalded stallion, an even smile on his otherwise worried face.

"You can say that again," Crystal murmured, resting her muzzle on her hoof, her eyes wandering across the buffet of muscular males.

"I'm—I'm moving to Ponyville," Horsey said in a quiet voice hardly above a whisper, her gaze firmly fixated on the table.

Suddenly, the noise from the excited stallions faded away as Crystal and Velvet stared at Horsey with wide eyes, both shocked into silence.

Torn Illusion

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Crystal swallowed, her throat dry. There was a faint, high-pitched ringing in her ears as the words played over again.

I'm moving to Ponyville.

Velvet broke the silence between them. "When? Why?"

Horsey actively didn't look at either of her friends. She just kept staring at the table. "After the last day of school. I—"

"Are your parents making you do this?" Crystal interrupted. "You're a grown mare, they can't just—"

Horsey returned the favor of interruption. "No!" She finally looked up at them, and they flinched at the sight of tears in her eyes. "It's not my parents. This is my decision. I'm—I'm just not happy here."

Velvet and Crystal looked at each other, then back at her.

"What do you mean you're not happy?" Crystal asked in a soft, confused voice. "Is it because of us?"

"No, no, no!" Horsey gave a quick, irritated shake of her head. She groaned and pushed the milkshake aside to lay her head on the table. A sigh escaped her. "Just let me talk, all right?"

The other two said nothing. There was a pregnant pause while Horsey seemed to be working through her thoughts for the right words, and they remained quiet to let her think.

"I asked 16-Bit out on a date. He laughed." Her voice cracked. "And I started to cry, right in front of him. It was so embarrassing! He tried to apologize, but I just ran away."

"But—" Velvet started to speak, but Crystal raised a hoof to cover her mouth and shook her head. Velvet reluctantly nodded and the hoof was lowered.

Horsey sniffled. "You know how we talked about me asking my dad for a chance to model for his boutique?"

Crystal winced, a pang of guilt gripping her heart. She had never asked how that went, and the uneasiness in the pit of her stomach told her that she wasn't going to like the news.

"He said there was no way. He doesn't want to show 'favoritism,' he said." She sat upright and slammed her hooves on the table. "It's not favoritism if he just lets me at least try! And my mom, oh, my mom!"

Though Horsey's eyes were still wet with tears, her voice carried a surge of anger as she impersonated her mother. "Sweetie, don't you think you should lose some weight first?" She dropped her head back down. "Ugh. That's all she talks about. That's all Golden talked about. My weight. Well, what's wrong with my weight, huh? Why is everypony so obsessed with that?"

Horsey sighed heavily and closed her eyes. "I just can't do it anymore. I'm tired of my parents. I'm tired of Canterlot. When you guys aren't around, things just—they suck. So I went to Ponyville and found a job. I don't need to finish school for it, and the academy is just an excuse to be groomed into this perfect little mold our parents want us to fit into, anyway. Well, I'm apparently too fat for it, so I'm moving."

Velvet and Crystal looked at one another, wincing at the sight of tears in each other's eyes. Crystal was the first to speak.

"Ponyville's not that far," she said softly. "We can come visit you."

"And write lots of letters," Velvet added. She scooted her chair around the table and leaned against Horsey. "Well, Crystal will write them with her stupid unicorn magic."

A short laugh escaped Crystal while she followed suit, moving her chair the opposite way to lean against Horsey's other side. "If this is really what you want to do, then do it." Her voice lowered, becoming softer and sadder. "I'm just sorry that we didn't know."

Horsey sat up with a small smile on her face though her cheeks were wet. She tried to wipe them dry. "I didn't want either of you to know. You both are usually so happy and carefree that I didn't want to bring either of you down."

Velvet grunted and nuzzled her cheek to Horsey's. "Well, thanks, I feel a lot better knowing that you didn't feel like you could share your feelings."

Horsey's ears folded back. "I didn't mean it like that, I—"

"It's okay." Velvet got up from the chair. "Anyway, we still have a while until you move, right? So let's make the most of it."

With a wicked grin, Velvet trotted over to the group of stallions. "Hey, boys!" she called over the loud banter, all of their eyes turning on the little mare addressing them so casually. She hopped up onto her hindlegs and leaned against the table most of them were at, a coy look on her face. "Which one of you fine stallions wants to buy a couple of cute mares a cupcake?"

There was a pause before the stallion to her right asked, "Don't your parents own this place?"

"And?" She looked up at him. "What's that got to do with making a mare smile?"

Crystal and Horsey were doing everything they could not to burst into laughter, managing to suppress their amusement into muffled giggles.

Velvet put her hoof on her hip and looked around the table at the uncertain expressions. "Who's it gonna be?"

Finally, one of the stallions slid off his seat and walked around the table. Once he was out from behind the others, Crystal gasped. "That's Defender Bronzewing," she whispered with a quiet squeal of enthusiasm. "Oh my gosh, oh my gosh!"

Bronzewing stepped toward Velvet. Even if Velvet had been of average size for a mare, she would still have to incline her head to look up at him. As it was, she had to crane her neck all the way back.

"Just one cupcake?" he asked, lifting one brow and grinning playfully. "Is that all I have to do to make you smile?"

Velvet took a moment to regain her composure and fluttered her lashes. "Well, if you're going to eat with us, we just might need two cupcakes."

Another stallion nearby chuckled and got out of his own seat. "Make it three, then. I'm not going to let my left guard have all the mares to himself."

Horsey giggled and nudged Crystal's side. "Isn't that the quarterback? You're not going to faint, are you?"

Crystal opened her mouth to make a snarky remark, but she snapped her jaw shut. Thinking a moment, she shook her head. "Any other day, maybe, but I would rather spend time with just the three of us, considering…" She trailed off. If she said it aloud, she might start crying all over again.

Horsey shook her head. "Don't worry about me. I'd rather us be laughing at you than crying about me."

"Oh, well, in that case, rawr." Crystal pawed at the air in the direction of the two stallions walking over to their table, each carrying a cupcake.

The other hoofball players had returned to their antics while Bronzewing and Indigo sat across the table from Horsey and Crystal. Velvet, carrying the third cupcake, sat on the other side of Horsey again and set the cupcake down.

"So," she started, gesturing with one hoof, "this is Horsey and Crystal. Crystal might start giving you two 'the look,' but ignore her, because Horsey is the one having a bad day."

Crystal blushed. "Velvet!"

Indigo looked at Horsey with a sincere, concerned frown on his face. "Why are you having a bad day?"

Horsey quickly shook her head. "Oh, don't mind Velvet! She—"

Velvet slapped a hoof over Horsey's mouth and smiled at both stallions. "Horsey's modest. I think it's one of her cute features. What do you think?"

Indigo looked between the two, then at Bronzewing. "Uh—?"

Bronzewing chuckled and patted his friend on the shoulder. "Don't worry, mares don't bite." He inclined his head toward Crystal and winked. "Well, that one might, apparently."

Crystal's blush grew brighter and she hid her face behind her hooves. "I will not!"

"Daffy, you're embarrassing the poor mare." Indigo leaned forward and pushed his cupcake toward Crystal. "There you go." He crossed his forelegs over one another on the table, looking back at Horsey. "So, what can we do to make your day better?"

Horsey twiddled her hooves, staring down at the table again. She paused, glanced at Crystal, then at them with a shy grin. "Well, if you could get the other one in your little hoofball trio over here, that'd make Crystal happy, which would make me happy."

"The other one?" Bronzewing tilted his head.

"Oh!" Velvet beamed. "Yeah, you know, the other guard. The right guard. Silent Knight."

Bronzewing and Indigo looked at each other, then laughed.

Horsey's ears dropped down. "What's so funny?"

"No, no, it's not that, it's just…" Indigo trailed off.

"Yeah, Silent Knight, well—" Bronzewing rubbed the back of his neck, his wings twitching nervously. "He's a great hoofball player."

"Uh-huh?" Crystal furrowed her brow. "We know that after watching the game."

"He, uh—" Indigo glanced at Bronzewing.

Bronzewing, having no other opportunity to stall, dropped his hoof down. "He's a bit antisocial. He's not called Silent Knight for nothing."

Indigo nodded. "Honestly, I'm surprised he's even here. He rarely comes with us for post-game celebration. He usually goes back to campus to train, I think."

The three mares turned their heads to look over at the other side of the bakery. In the crowd of stallions, they spotted the pegasus in question, sitting quietly among his peers and drinking from a mug. Although he didn't look unhappy to be there, he didn't look happy, either.

Crystal blinked a few times as she remembered the question that brought them to the subject and waved her hooves. "Well, that's all right! Two stallions is enough for me." Her cheeks heated up. "I mean, er, no, what I mean is—"

The others at the table broke out into various laughter, ranging from chuckles to snickers to giggles.

"Oh, ponyfeathers! See if I ever talk again!" Crystal smiled in spite of her words.

Horsey rubbed at her cheeks with both hooves. "I really am all right, so you two can go back to celebrating with your friends."

"And pass up the chance to talk to some pretty mares?" Bronzewing asked, grinning as all three blushed. "Do you feel like taking off, Indigo?"

Indigo folded his hooves behind his head. "I'm comfortable right where I am, Daffy."

Even Horsey joined in a chorus of giggles, none of the three mares able to keep the joyous sound muffled. While Crystal flirted, her friends teased her, and the stallions enjoyed the attention, they were able to forget reality, at least for a while.

At the end of the evening, once Sunridge Sweets was closing down and all the hoofball players had left, there were no more distractions. They sat in silence while Sunbeam swept the floors. None of them looked at each other, instead staring at the empty wrappers of cupcakes eaten and gone.

"I'm going to miss you both," Horsey finally said.

"Yeah," they replied in quiet unison.

"But I think I'll be happier in Ponyville." She looked up at them. "I really do. I've taken the train to visit there a couple times, and everypony is so friendly. You guys know that really nice restaurant, Le Bernardin?"

Velvet shook her head, but Crystal nodded. "My mom loves that place."

"Mm." Horsey tapped her hooves together. "Well, the maître d' there that told me he has a brother in Ponyville who would let me work as a waitress."

"Really?" Crystal tilted her head. "I didn't know Hors D'oeuvre had a brother."

"His name's Savoir Fare and he was really nice—like everypony else in Ponyville." A small smile pulled at her lips and she looked between Crystal and Velvet. "This is what I want to do, girls. I feel happy and accepted when I go there, and I want to feel that way not just when I can be with you two, but every day."

"Then we totally support you," Velvet said as she climbed out of her seat. "Gonna miss you like crazy, though."

Horsey followed suit, as did Crystal, and the three walked toward the door together.

"It's only a few hours on the train if we pitch in for the direct line," Crystal offered.

"And we definitely would!" Velvet added, smiling. "I'd rather see you sooner than save some bits and take the overnight train. Sleeping on a train sucks."

Horsey giggled. "So, we'll still be friends?"

"Absolutely!" Crystal and Velvet exclaimed as they stopped to hug her tightly from both sides. In perfect mirror of each other, they pulled back, sat on their haunches, and crossed their hooves over their chests.

After they walked Horsey home and before they parted ways, Velvet and Crystal stared at one another in hesitant silence. Velvet started to tear up, which broke Crystal's resolve and they both started to cry.

"I can't believe she felt this way the whole time," Velvet said, bitterness at the edge of her voice. "And we just kept laughing and smiling while she—"

Crystal put a hoof on Velvet's shoulder. "Hey, she didn't want us to know, okay? We got to have a lot of fun together because we weren't constantly worried about her, and that was what she wanted."

The words fell from her lips almost hollow and empty. She was just reciting them to Velvet because she wanted to believe them, but her chest ached from the reality. They had lived their lives, ignorant of Horsey's pain and suffering.

Velvet sighed. "Maybe, but I still feel guilty."

Crystal hugged her tight, then tried to smile. "We'll just have to visit her twice as often in Ponyville."

"I guess so. I'll see you at school tomorrow?"

"Yeah."

With heavy hearts, they walked away to their separate homes. Crystal went straight to her room and sought comfort by hugging her pillow tight. All she could think about was how miserably Horsey's parents treated her. For all of their faults, Jet Set gave her every opportunity he could, and Upper Crust? She tried to encourage her, even if her methods weren't exactly what Crystal would call 'kind'.

Crystal quietly went back downstairs and climbed onto the couch, crushing a magazine in the process of curling up against her mother. Before Upper Crust could scold or question her, Crystal mumbled, "Thank you, Mom."

High Hopes

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Now striving to be more attentive to Horsey with the time they had left together in Canterlot, Crystal noticed that even though Horsey had gotten a part in the play, her parents didn't even show to support her. Crystal's heart sunk when she saw the empty seats they could have filled.

Horsey played the Nurse, which was quite a notable role—and, in hindsight, explained the otherwise meek mare's more vulgar commentary at bowling night. Backstage, Crystal and Velvet helped her get into the costume, which consisted of a simple tan dress with flared sleeves and a white wimple. Once she was dressed, they stepped back to get a good look at her.

"You look like a sweet old mare!" Velvet beamed at her, trying to cover up her grin with a wide smile.

Horsey stuck out her bottom lip in a childish pout. "I don't think that's really a compliment."

"We'll be in the first row rooting for you, old mare," Crystal teased as she trotted for the stairs off the stage, Velvet following after her. "Break a leg!"

"You're not helping, either!" She stomped both of her forehooves, but smiled nonetheless.

The play went about as well as could be expected for a rag-tag group of ponies with theatrically-inclined talents as well as those who just filled a necessary role. There were some rough patches, such as when Countess Maris forgot her lines and wasn't successfully able to improvise, or when Julimare dropped the vial before drinking from it. However, everypony in the audience gave a heartfelt applause when the curtains fell.

When they returned to the backstage area to congratulate her, both Crystal and Velvet stopped dead in their tracks. Horsey held a bouquet of yellow roses and in front of her stood 16-Bit. The stallion was rubbing the back of his neck and they had walked up just in time to catch the last of his words.

"—so, I'm sorry."

Horsey's expression and tone were strangely guarded. "It's okay." She didn't look directly at him. "Thanks for the flowers, though."

16-Bit bobbed his head. "You're welcome." He looked like he wanted to continue, hesitated a moment instead, and scuffed one of his hooves against the wood floor. "Will you still come to LARP over the summer? You're our best paladin."

"Probably not," Horsey muttered.

"Oh." 16-Bit's ears fell and he dropped his gaze. "Well, anyway, you did great today. I'll see you around, High Horse."

As he walked away and Crystal and Velvet hurried over, they heard her mumble, "Probably not." She looked up and smiled when she noticed the two approach. "Oh, hey!" She puffed out her chest. "What do you think? Was I great or was I great?"

"I think you burned a bridge with that stallion," Velvet muttered, glancing over just as he walked out of sight. "He bought you roses and you just totally shot him down!"

Before Horsey could reply, Crystal shook her head and said, "No, he bought her yellow roses." They both looked at her curiously and she explained matter-of-factly, "Yellow roses usually just mean friendship."

"Really?" Horsey looked down at the bouquet she held in the crook of her foreleg. "Well, it doesn't matter. He burned that bridge, not me."

"Let's forget about him and focus on how awesome you were. You didn't stutter once!" Crystal smiled. "Are you sure you want to be a model? Maybe you'd be a great actress!"

Horsey scrunched up her nose and tilted her head. "What? No." She paused. "Maybe?" She started to wriggle her way out of the wimple and dress. "I mean, I got my cutie mark when I was in a beauty pageant and I realized how much fun I was having." Once free of the clothing, she looked at the interlocked horseshoes on her flank. "Is it possible I misunderstood my own cutie mark? Can that even happen?"

Velvet shrugged. "Well, being a model and being an actress are kind of really similar, aren't they? Being on stage, putting on a show."

"Honestly, isn't a cutie mark about what you love to do?" Crystal added. "So if you do some acting and it turns out you love that, then that's all that matters, right?"

Horsey nodded slowly. "I'll have to think about it, I guess." She looked back at them with a smile. "Thank you both for coming, by the way."

"Like we'd miss seeing our best friend in her big debut!" Crystal wrapped a foreleg around Horsey's shoulder. "We're here for you."

"Always!" Velvet added enthusiastically, hugging the both of them.

The gathering of ponies at the tea ceremony festival—as well as the general feeling in the air—was quite different from the night of Horsey's play. Soft, gentle music played over the quiet conversation and sounds of tea preparation.

Each member from the tea club sat in the proper, formal posture at their respective stations and wore traditional Jibanese attire: kimonos for the mares and hakamas for the stallions. Crystal herself wore a white kimono adorned with a flurry of pink cherry blossoms.

She shook her head, bringing herself to the reality of the moment and not its frivolous details. Her parents and friends were sitting in front of her, washing their hooves, and it was almost time for her performance.

Tea wasn't her special talent. She hadn't even really wanted to join the club in the first place. All in all, none of it mattered, so unlike during practice, she wasn't worried in the least.

For Celestia's sake, tea ceremonies weren't even a thing in Canterlot, and she had no plans to move to Jiban anytime soon. Once the stone basin was pushed aside, she pulled a bowl closer and picked up the ladle.

It almost amused her enough to break her composure and giggle at how easy things were when she didn't focus so much on them. Hooves weren't that tricky as long as she let them do their thing.

One of the five seats at her station was empty. She started to imagine that if she had a stallionfriend, he would be sitting in that seat, his eyes focused solely on her while she tried to remain calm. She felt her cheeks heat up as she imagined the weight of his gaze, the quiet anticipation as she served him tea, hoping he would—

"Darling?" her mother's voice interrupted. "Darling, you can stop preparing tea now," she whispered.

Crystal blinked down at the bowl into which she had started to pour water. It was the last bowl for the empty space. She did her best not to sigh. The empty space where her non-existent stallionfriend sat, not watching her, not waiting to be served.

"Of course," she replied quietly and started to clean out the bowl. "I was just so focused—"

"Shh, now. Only guests speak; the host remains quiet. Surely you haven't forgotten that."

A petulant frown broke across Crystal's otherwise calm face, but she quickly stifled it. Velvet and Horsey did their very best to keep their own expressions neutral as they raised their bowls, savored the smell, then quietly sipped, as did Upper Crust and Jet Set. Once they all had finished their tea, they set the bowls down and bowed. Crystal bowed in return, completing the ceremony, and the formality almost instantly dissipated.

"I do not like green tea," Horsey said, scrunching up her nose and sticking out her tongue.

Upper Crust looked at the young unicorn out of the corner of her eye. "It is an acquired taste for fine palettes. I'm surprised your father hasn't been more diligent in refining yours."

Horsey couldn't resist rolling her eyes. "Yes, Mrs. Crust."

"Please, do call me Upper Crust."

"Yes, Upper Crust," Horsey mumbled.

Velvet looked down at the bowls as Crystal cleaned them. "I thought it tasted earthy."

Upper Crust's gaze shifted to look at her. "Well, it's not exactly a shock that you would describe it so—simply." She smiled politely.

"Mom!" Crystal hissed through her teeth. "Really?"

"What?" Her mother put a hoof to her chest. "Velvet doesn't have the proper training like you and High Horse. You don't need to be so defensive over facts."

Crystal grumbled incoherently under her breath.

Jet Set finally cleared his throat to speak. "This was a delightful little outing, I do believe, but we must be off. Come along, dear." He stood and offered a hoof to his wife, helping her to her hooves.

"Good performance, darling," Upper Crust said, then raised her snout into the air in proper form as she and Jet Set walked off.

"I take it back. I definitely take it back," Crystal mumbled and buried her face in her hooves. "I thought I liked my parents, but I was wrong."

Horsey smiled. "They're not as bad as you think they are." She turned her head to watch them walk away. "They're just Canterlot citizens, is all."

Velvet glanced at Horsey, rubbing her foreleg. "So, just two more days before you leave, huh?"

"Yup." Horsey's smile widened further. "I'm really excited!"

Crystal pulled her mane out of the tight bun and stood up. "Well, I'm going to go change out of this stuffy clothing. Then let's make the most of the rest of today!"

The remaining days flew by much too quickly for Crystal and Velvet's liking, both of them dreading the week's end more than anypony else. The excitement of summer vacation did little to lift their spirits.

When they arrived at the train station, the look of pure joy on Horsey's face brought smiles to their own. Whatever loneliness they would feel suddenly paled in comparison to the idea of Horsey's misery staying in Canterlot. They galloped the rest of the way onto and across the platform.

"Oh, Horsey!" Crystal wrapped both forelegs around her. "Write as soon as you get settled so I know where to send our letters."

"I will, I promise!" Horsey nuzzled her cheek to Crystal's. "I can't believe this is really happening!" She pulled back from Crystal just in time to be nearly knocked over by Velvet's hug. "It feels like my life is finally starting. Like I'm finally going to be moving forward."

"I wish we could come with you, but—" Velvet sighed and shook her head.

"It's okay," Horsey said with a smile.

Crystal sat on her haunches and frowned. "I think my mother would burn down half of Equestria if I tried to leave. I'm not willing to risk the lives of innocent ponies just for you, Horsey," she finished with a teasing grin.

Horsey giggled. She put her hoof on her suitcase and looked at it with a mixture of a soft smile and sad eyes. "I think I'm ready to stand on my own for a little while, anyway."

The conductor leaned his head out of a window and hollered, "All aboard, last call! We're 'bout ready to leave fer Ponyville!" The train whistled to punctuate his statement.

"Well, girls." The reality of the moment made Horsey's eyes well up with tears, but she smiled in spite of them. "Come visit me soon, okay?"

Crystal and Velvet nodded vigorously. "We promise!" they exclaimed with one final, tight hug, and then let her go.

Horsey's suitcase rose effortlessly despite its hefty size, courtesy of her magic, and followed behind her. With her head held high and a burst of confidence, she walked forward and onto the train.

After she had found her seat, she could be seen in one of the windows. She waved, and they waved back as the train pulled out of the station. Soon, she was out of sight, but neither of them cried. It was hard to feel too sad knowing that the train was taking her to a happier life.

They sat there for a while, neither saying anything.

Finally, Crystal broke the silence. "You know, I never really considered that we could work at our age."

Velvet blinked up at her and tilted her head. "Huh?"

Crystal kept staring after the train. "I mean, it's like Horsey talked about. Ponies our age in Ponyville already have jobs. They're already doing what they love. I'm spending my time learning tea ceremonies and trigonometry." She turned her gaze to Velvet. "I think I'm ready to start writing for real."

Velvet pursed her lips. "I thought you already were writing?"

"I mean, I want to start publishing my work, so other ponies can read it."

With a loud gasp and wide eyes, Velvet threw her hooves into the air. "Really?! Are you serious?!"

"I think so." Crystal looked away again. "I don't know. I guess I'm just—oof!"

Velvet collided with her, sending the both of them sprawling to the ground, and she hugged Crystal tight. "That's great!" she squealed. "I thought I was going to have to publish your stuff for you, but this is way better if you do it willingly!"

Crystal's startled laughter at the sudden embrace was cut short. She stared up at Velvet with one brow raised. "Wha—"

"Just kidding!" Velvet laughed, then grinned in a playfully evil way. "Or am I? Equestria may never know!" She sat up, put her hooves on her hips, and tossed her head back with a maniacal cackle.

Crystal started to laugh again, but the sound died out as soon as it had begun. Softly, she mumbled, "Velvet, are you trying to overcompensate your excitement about this so you don't start crying about Horsey again?"

"Nope." Velvet stood up, her demeanor returning to a normal, even calm. "I'm trying to overcompensate so neither of us cry about Horsey again. Now, come on, let's get an anti-depression milkshake already." She turned and started to trot away.

Crystal stood up and hurried to catch up with her. After a quiet, thoughtful moment, she asked, "Wait, were you really going to publish my stories without my permission?"

"Maybe." Velvet winked. She trotted on the very tips of her hooves and hummed.

Velvet had always been terrible at keeping secrets. Every time there was something she was hiding, she hummed a particular tune, and at that moment, she was humming that very tell-tale tune.

Crystal paused again, then lowered her tone to an almost menacing level. "Velvet. What did you do?"

Velvet quickened her pace, saying nothing.

"Velvet!" Her right eye twitched as she repeated louder, "What did you do?!"

Velvet squealed and ran ahead. "You'll have to beat me to Sunridge Sweets to find out!"

Rendezvous with Reality

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"Olly olly pony free!" Velvet squealed right as she burst through the doors to Sunridge Sweets. "I win!"

Crystal lagged a good many paces behind her, panting and gasping for air. Although she was petite, Velvet was involved in dance and ballet, so she worked her legs, lungs, and endurance every day. Crystal never realized how out of shape she was until she was barely able to push open the door and stumble into the bakery.

"I—I—hah! I got you," Crystal managed in heavy breaths before she collapsed against Velvet, who hadn't even broken a sweat.

Velvet crumpled under the exhausted weight and laughed. "Too slow!"

Crystal grunted. Her chest rose and fell as she took quick, shallow breaths. She dropped her head on Velvet's and closed her eyes. "Maybe so, but I'm not budging until you talk."

Both remained willfully ignorant of the confused and somewhat judgmental stares they received. Velvet squirmed and tried to get her hooves planted firmly enough on the ground to pull herself out from underneath Crystal, but to no avail.

"Crystal! G'off me!"

Crystal shifted to put more of her weight on Velvet. "Confess your sins."

"Never!" Velvet laughed and managed to free one of her forelegs. "You lost the bet, fair and square." She wiggled her hoof against Crystal's side to search for a weak point.

"That won't work," Crystal mumbled while she bit her lower lip. Her muscles twitched from the tickling, she began to tremble, and her eyes started to water. Finally, uncontrollable laughter poured forth and she reflexively squirmed away, wrapping her forelegs around her stomach to try to defend herself. "Stop, stop!"

"Girls," Sunbeam said as she approached the two. Velvet stopped her tickle attack, but Crystal kept laughing, the tingling sensation lingering. "Is everything all right?" Her tone was hesitant. After all, she was more than aware from what and where they had just returned, and their behavior was understandably unexpected.

"Yup!" Velvet sat up and beamed at her mother. "I won a race!"

Crystal swallowed the remainder of her giggles. She rolled over upright and wiped a tear from her eyes. "But that doesn't mean you're off the hook."

Sunbeam raised a hoof, then slowly dropped it back down. After a moment, she smiled. "I'll go get a milkshake ready."

"Thanks, Mom!" Velvet trotted over to an empty table and took a seat.

Crystal took the seat across from her and sat with her shoulders bunched up, brow furrowed, and lips pursed. "Velvet."

Velvet hummed that guilty tune again. Her gaze wandered around the bakery while she blatantly avoided looking at Crystal.

"Velvet. You know I'm not going to let it go."

Velvet's humming stopped and she beamed at Crystal, clapping her hooves together. "Okay! I know, I know. I just want you to be so riled up that when I tell you the truth, by comparison to whatever you think I've done, it seems better."

Crystal raised one brow. "Uh-huh."

"So." She swung her legs. "You know that magazine, Mares Monthly?"

"Mares Monthly?" Crystal paused to think it over, then nodded. "Yeah." Her heart pounded even louder in her ears. Mares Monthly was, as its title suggested, targeted toward the fairer sex and published once a month. It usually contained mare care product advertisements, articles on what to do to attract a stallion or how to improve one's body image, and the like.

"In the last issue I read," Velvet continued, "there was a letter from the editor saying that they were going to start featuring literary works that included strong female leads. Well, the mares in your stories aren't always the typical damsels in distress, so—" She threw her hooves in the air and finished quickly, "I submitted some samples of your work to Mares Monthly."

The pounding stopped for a brief moment, then grew more intense. Her chest tightened from the sudden panic that overwhelmed her. "You did—what?!"

Velvet dropped her hooves back down onto the table and pulled herself up to move her face closer to Crystal's, a serious frown on her lips. "Look, you can't become a famous author if you just sit around and never do anything! So I did it for you!" The frown lifted into a smug grin. "It's my job as your friend to look out for you, you know."

Crystal stared at her, mouth agape. She struggled to swallow around the lump that formed in her throat. As if on cue, a milkshake was set between them.

"Here you go, girls," Sunbeam chimed before she walked back behind the counter.

Velvet's grin fell when she noticed Crystal was starting to tremble. "Hey, Crystal, it's okay! I submitted it myself, as your representative. Your name's not on it. I just said it was by my client, C.W."

"C.W.?" Crystal dropped her face into her hooves. "Oh, Celestia. What if they accept it and my mother reads it?"

Velvet tapped her chin, then smiled. "What if they accept it and you get published?"

Silence fell on them. Crystal lifted her head just long enough to sip the milkshake, then dropped back down. Finally, she mumbled softly, "That would be—it would be totally awesome."

"Yeah?" Velvet's ears perked straight up. "Wouldn't it?!"

"But what if they hate it?" Crystal looked up at her.

"What if they love it?"

"What if—" Crystal was cut off by Velvet's hoof clamped over her muzzle. She mumbled the rest of her sentence incoherently, brow furrowed.

"When have I led you astray, huh?" Velvet smiled softly. "I have a good feeling about this, just like when we were fillies." There was a pause before she giggled. "Maybe I misunderstood my cutie mark, too. Maybe the slipper represents kicking your plot into gear." She winked. "Nicely, of course. Thus the pink."

Crystal laughed after the hoof moved to let her do so. "Okay, okay. I'll try to trust you." Despite her words, her heart continued to thump painfully against her ribs. "So when do you hear back, Miss Representative?"

"I'm not sure." Velvet pulled the milkshake closer to herself and took a sip. "I hope soon. I think it'd be a great start to a great career."

"Career, huh?" Crystal mused quietly. "It's weird to think about having a career."

"Yeah, I know. I just hope you'll take time to remember us little folks when you're up in your mansion, writing prose and sipping wine." She grinned.

Crystal rolled her eyes. "Of course I would, if that ever happened. You know authors don't make very much money, right?"

"Really? Oh." Velvet paused for another sip. "Well, I hope I'll take time to remember you when you're living in a cardboard box."

"Thanks a lot," Crystal said in a playfully bitter tone, rolling her eyes but smiling nonetheless.

Crystal paced around her bedroom. All of her notebooks were strewn across the bed and floor, each open to different parts of different stories.

"If I'm going to be writing for real," she muttered aloud and continued to pace, "I need to write something great. Wonderful. Amazing!" She stopped and turned to her notebooks. "Which of you wants to inspire me to write my best work?"

The notebooks, as one would expect, gave no response. She frowned before she raised one up, rotated it, and flapped it open and closed while she said out of the side of her mouth, "Oh, Crystal, everything you write is inspirational!"

Her tone returned to normal. "Thanks, Notebook #17, but you just don't understand. If this works out, then ponies all over Canterlot are going to read this! Maybe even Equestria!"

"But Crystal," she said in her notebook's low voice, "your special talent is writing, so as long as you pick up that quill, you'll be just fine."

She stared at the notebook. If it had eyes, it would have stared back. "Go home, Notebook #17. You drank too much hard cider." She sighed while her magic dissipated and dropped it to the floor. She could have sworn she heard a tiny ow! when it landed.

She returned to her pacing, more frantic this time around until she skidded to a halt. "That's it! Inspiration comes from around you, right?" She walked out of her room and trotted down the stairs. "Mom! Dad!" She received no response. "Mom?" She reached the bottom of the stairs, frowning. "Dad?"

"What is the matter, dear?" her father asked. He sat up in his recliner, yawning.

She blinked a few times. It wasn't like him to nap during the day, and certainly not in the recliner. "What is the matter with you?"

Jet Set chuckled. "Ah, worry not for your dear old dad. Your mother was up all night talking about an event today."

"Oh?" She walked over to the coat hanger and put on one of her mother's fancy hats, giggling at her reflection in the mirror. "Is that where she is?"

"Yes." He yawned again. "Now, what did you come down here for?"

Crystal smiled ever so sweetly and returned the hat to its resting place. "I'm trying to work on a new story, Dad. I'm just not sure what the topic should be."

"Is that so?" He rubbed his chin. "Crime novels are rather popular right now, you know. A good thriller will put you right on the bestsellers list!"

She did her best not to groan at the mere idea of writing something that gritty. Velvet and Horsey were the only ponies at that time who knew the particular brand of story she liked to write. It was easy for others to infer that the heart simply represented her passion for writing and she was fine with keeping it that way. Romance novels had a bit of a stigma in Canterlot for their often salacious content, and she couldn't imagine what her mother would say if she knew the truth.

She shook her head quickly to return to the moment at hoof. "But if they're popular now, then by the time I write it, it won't be popular anymore." She walked over and sat down by his recliner. In typical doting daughter form, she rested her snout on the arm of his chair and peered up at him through her eyelashes. "I want to write something more real. Something—" She hesitated. "Something about romance, maybe?"

"Romance?" He chuckled. "Oh, dear, you're simply caught up in the love-struck years of your youth. No, you should pursue a more substantial literary topic."

Her voice caught in her throat like a heavy lump that she couldn't swallow. "But," she mumbled before trying to regain her composure. "I mean, don't you and Mom have a really sweet love story? I'm sure a story like that would be wonderful."

Jet Set was quiet as he stared at her in intimidating silence. He sighed, raised his glasses off the bridge of his nose, and set them aside. "I see."

She flinched. "See what?"

"You're still stuck on wanting to hear the story, aren't you?" He smiled, though it was somehow distant. "My dear, why don't you take a seat on the couch."

The pit of her stomach twisted up in sudden knots. She moved over to rest on the couch, now no longer able to meet his gaze.

"You're almost a fully grown mare now." He leaned back into his chair. "You're old enough to know that some things are better kept from ponies like your mother. As you know, she is a very particular kind of mare." He turned his head to look at her.

Crystal flinched under the weight of his stare and nodded. "Yes, Father."

"Good." He crossed his hooves over his stomach. "Well, then. How much do you already know from peeking in your mother's hope chest?"

Her cheeks heated up with embarrassment. "Not much, um, just a little."

Jet Set chuckled. "It's all right, dear. We both know you were always messing about in there as a filly." He closed his eyes. "Your mother was a very simple mare. You know that her parents are not quite of the same caliber as mine."

Crystal slowly nodded. She had never met her grandparents on her mother's side. Upper Crust always spoke ill of them, so she knew next to nothing about who they really were, but she did know that they didn't live in Canterlot anymore. The Jet family, on the other hoof, went back several generations and had a substantial role in the invention of the first Equestrian airship, though Jet Set seemed much more interested in high society than his family's accomplishments.

"I didn't lie when I said the color guard was when I noticed her, nor was your mother lying in her diary when she wrote that I asked her to the Fall Formal Gala." He shifted his hooves, almost uncomfortably, making Crystal feel even more uncomfortable herself. "My parents wanted me to marry a fine mare from a fine family and work at Jet Ventures. I was a bit of a rebellious young stallion, not much unlike yourself." He chuckled. "You do give your mother quite the headache."

One eye cracked opened to peer at her as he continued, "The mare I knew back then wasn't learned in all the formalities of Canterlot society, and I knew it would be a thorn in my parents' side, so to speak." He inclined his head to look at the ceiling. "Of course, they threatened to cut me off from my inheritance. I dare say I almost believed them, but I called them on their bluff."

Her ears started to fold backward. This wasn't sounding at all like what she had envisioned all these years. Risking his inheritance was a romantic gesture, but she had a sinking feeling there was little that was romantic about it at all.

"Not long after we started dating, she began to change into exactly what I was trying to avoid. She so desperately wanted to be one of the elite, after all. And I did nothing to keep her the way she was. It made her so happy to be the pony everypony should know, and I eventually grew to love that joy in her eyes."

Crystal couldn't keep her mouth from voicing her thoughts. "Grew to love?"

Jet Set nodded. Both of his eyes opened halfway. "I'm quite aware that you love the idea of romance, dear. But that isn't how it works in Canterlot, I'm afraid. You grow to love the pony that best suits you."

"No!" Crystal surprised herself at the volume of her own voice. "But," she said, quieter, "you love Mom, don't you?"

"After a few years of marriage, I discovered that I did, yes. I still do."

The idea was so shocking to her—so polar from the notions she held dear—that she felt as though she might be sick. The room was suddenly suffocating and she bolted upright. "Thanks for the talk, Father. I'm heading out."

Jet Set's expression shifted to an apologetic one, but he smiled and nodded. "All right, dear. Just be home in time for dinner. Your mother worries when you stay out so late, you know."

Crystal was already halfway out the door. "Yeah," she called over her shoulder.

Tears pricked at her eyes. What sort of love story was that? She stormed down the street, each hoof falling harder than the last while a confusing, bubbling turmoil of anger and sadness boiled in her chest. That wasn't romantic at all! Upper Crust wasn't what his parents wanted and that was enough? It had taken years for him to even feel love for her?

The more she wandered, the more she started to feel a hollow sense of calm. She stopped to sit on a bench and buried her face in her hooves. A part of her, though it was a sickening realization, understood. After all, could she honestly say that she wouldn't spurn a stallion Upper Crust had picked for her purely out of spite? Or that she wouldn't look at another stallion and think about how it would ruffle her mother's sensibilities to bring him home?

She looked up and noticed that she was across the street from a cafe. A hot cup of a tea sounded wonderful to her right then, so she trotted over and inside.

The cafe was fairly quiet. Most ponies were deep in thought, pondering over books and magazines. They all seemed to be too lost in their own worlds to notice her wandering gaze. After she ordered a cup of tea, she took a seat at a table for two.

She closed her eyes, took a deep breath of the tea's aroma, and held it to let it calm her from the inside out. She released the breath through her teeth. Feeling much more relaxed, even the air around her seemed different once she opened her eyes. Her table was right by a window, so she looked outside, watching the world go by.

Most ponies walked in proper form with their noses in the air, but she noticed a few that were different. There was one couple that walked slowly, hoof in hoof, gazing into each other's eyes. It brought a small smile to her lips and she took a sip of her tea.

A stallion stopped to open the door for a mare. They smiled, and for a brief moment, their worlds connected, only to be pulled apart by heading in opposite directions.

A small giggle escaped her. Tea always had that effect of making everything seem warm and fuzzy. Perhaps she was just overreacting. She knew as well as anypony that Canterlot was not a city of passion, but that didn't mean these love-starved, socially-obsessed ponies couldn't appreciate the stories she wanted to share. In fact, a little romance might be just what the love doctor ordered.

"Yeah, I'm so lame," she muttered to herself, giggling, and took another sip.

A Friendly Word

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Crystal closed her eyes and, seeking inspiration from within, tried to get into a character. Any character. After a moment of soul searching, she imagined the aroma of coffee not as bitter and heavy, but the sweet nectar she needed for her stressful job.

Suddenly, she was a reporter, taking a break from her desperate search for answers to questions nopony had thought to ask. Perhaps she was there to scope out a suspect and had just made eye contact with him. He knew who she was and why she was there, so he walked over and asked, all suave and debonair, "Excuse me, is this seat taken?"

"Hmm," she purred under her breath. The hairs on her neck stood up as goosebumps tickled her forelegs. Her imagination was so vivid sometimes that she could actually hear a stallion's voice saying—

"Crystal Wishes?"

Her eyes fluttered open, then she gave a startled squeak. Standing beside the table was an unfamiliar brown stallion. His blonde mane was fluffy in the front, reminding her of some kind of plumed quail. He smiled dashingly down at her and gestured toward the empty seat.

"Huh? Oh." She smiled. "I don't mind company."

He nodded and sat down. "Thank you. You're just the pony I wanted to talk to." He flashed that practiced, dashing smile again. "I'm Trenderhoof."

The way in which he said his name implied that it should have meaning to her, but her face must have given away that it didn't because his smile wavered.

"But you can call me Trend." The smile resumed its brilliance.

He had the same tall, lanky build as Midnight Poem, but his demeanor was much different and, in her opinion, not for the better. His voice had a forced smooth tone to it that most stallions had in Canterlot. At least when Midnight spoke, he was earnest. However, she smiled as best she could.

"I'm Cry—"

"—stal Wishes, I know." He chuckled. "I said you were the pony I wanted to talk to, did I not? Hmm?" He tossed his bangs out of his eyes with a flick of his head. "I do hope you can help me out."

"With what?" She fidgeted somewhat uncomfortably.

"You see, I'm a struggling artist. A struggling author, if you will." He sighed and gestured at the window with a dramatic sweep of one hoof. "Canterlot is my home, but my heart belongs on the road, traveling from city to city, documenting the most interesting things in Equestria before they become interesting! It is my calling, but I simply can't catch a break."

Crystal furrowed her brow and said slowly, "O—kay?"

Trenderhoof's sweeping hoof returned to him, pressed to his chest while he raised his eyes to the ceiling. "If I could only rub elbows with the elite of Canterlot, surely my name would make its way to a very important pony! Thus, Miss Wishes, I must request your kind assistance." He looked back down at her. "I've heard that your parents are hosting the Canterlot garden party again this year. An invitation is all I ask. I can handle the rest."

There was that plastic smile again. She tried not to roll her eyes and instead smile sweetly. "Oh, but of course. I would be delighted to help. Trenderhoof, correct?" She rose from her seat. "I will be sure to pass your name their way."

"You truly are a crystal among mere pebbles in this city, my dear!" He clapped his hooves together. "I am forever in your debt!"

"Certainly." She bowed her head and turned to leave. "Have a nice day."

Once she was outside, she allowed her eyes to finally roll and groaned under her breath. Canterlot ponies really knew how to get on her nerves! Just when she was feeling calm and relaxed, he had to come along and utterly spoil her mood.

"I'm home!" Crystal called as she closed the door behind her, then sniffed the air. "Oh! That smells delicious!"

"Doesn't it?" Upper Crust replied from the couch. "Your father was cooking when I got home, which is so very nice because I am so very exhausted from today."

Crystal muttered, "Tell me about it." She trotted into the kitchen. "What are you making?"

Jet Set didn't look up from the stove. He jostled the pan to keep the noodles from sticking to it. "Broccoli pesto fettuccine." He briefly glanced at her out of the corner of one eye.

"That's my favorite!" She beamed, then quickly looked somber and walked closer to him, lowering her voice. "You're making that on purpose, aren't you?"

Her father cleared his throat. "We have not had it in a while, and I knew your mother would be in no mood for cooking."

Crystal took a deep inhale of the smell and sighed happily. "I accept your apology." She placed a quick peck on his cheek. "Thanks, Dad!" She returned to the living room. "Mom, do you know of a pony named Trenderhoof?"

Upper Crust raised her brow. "Do I? Darling, I know everypony in town. Of course I know who Trenderhoof is." Her upper lip curled as she said in a cautiously disapproving tone, "Please don't tell me you're—"

"No!" she quickly interrupted, waving her hooves. "Celestia, no! I just ran into him. Or, rather, he ran into me." She paused. "Or maybe he was stalking me."

"Darling, you're rambling. Please do get to the point." Her attention started to return to the magazine, though one ear was still facing her.

"Right." She sighed. "So, this Trenderhoof fellow asked me to ask you to get him an invitation to the Canterlot garden party this year."

Upper Crust flinched. Her head slowly turned in a jerky motion like a poorly oiled joint. "He—wants—what?"

"An invitation," Crystal replied flatly and braced herself.

"He wants an invitation?" Her voice raised and her eyes narrowed. "To our prestigious, elite event for the prestigious and elite? Does he believe that just because it is not the Gala and our tickets are not gold that he can just waltz his way in?! What a pompous, self-involved as—"

"Dear!" Jet Set interrupted from the kitchen doorway. "Your manners are slipping."

Just like that, Upper Crust's calm expression snapped back into place. "Oh, my." She coughed. "Well, I suppose if he went to the trouble to ask you, then I can consider it."

A small smile crept onto Crystal's lips. She did her best to not break out into laughter. Instead, she just shook her head and allowed a small chuckle.

She jumped a few inches off the ground when a series of quick knocks rapped against the front door. "Oh!" She turned. "I'll get it!" Her magic pulled the door open to reveal a stallion, wearing the traditional frock of a mailpony, standing on their doorstep.

"He—Hello!" the stallion said cheerfully despite his light stutter.

She blinked a few times before she smiled. "Good evening."

He held out an envelope. "I have a letter here for a Miss Crystal Wishes."

"That would be me!" She took it from him, then paused. Curiosity nagged her to say, "The mail isn't usually delivered this late."

"Well, we mailponies can't make every delivery during the day, can we?" He grinned and lowered his head. "Actually, I'm just filling in for a friend, and I prefer the night."

Crystal's gaze flickered to the envelope her magic held and she gasped. "Wait, this is from Ponyville?! I bet it's from Horsey!" She flashed a brief smile at the mailpony. "Thanks, but I have to read this right away!"

"Oh, that's fi—" The door slammed shut.

Crystal bounced around in a small circle as she tore the envelope open. "It's Horsey! It's Horsey!"

"Dinner is ready, darling. The letter will still be here, but your food will get cold without you." Upper Crust and Jet Set were already at the table and waiting patiently. "Your father made this just for you, after all."

"But—" She interrupted herself with a whine, trotting in place before she set the letter on the coffee table. "Okay, okay, I'm coming." She hurried into her seat, then took a moment to collect herself. Prim and proper, just as her mother wanted it, or else she'd just have to hear another lecture.

Although she calmly twirled the noodles around her fork and ate with grace, her gaze was fixated on the corner of the folded parchment peeking out from where she had torn its envelope. She didn't even hear the words her parents spoke in their casual conversation.

It had been a few days since Horsey left and this was the first letter. The letter which would determine if she and Velvet had to storm Ponyville to rescue their friend or celebrate her liberation. The letter which was sitting in the other room, its contents unread, Horsey's fate unknown.

Jet Set cleared his throat, bringing her attention to him. "I do say, it might be nice to hear a little Ponyville news over dinner, don't you think, dear?"

Upper Crust sighed. "As long as it doesn't turn into mere country drivel."

Crystal lit up so brightly that she barely even heard her mother as Jet Set's magic carried the letter to her. She tossed aside the envelope and held its contents in her hooves, which trembled in anticipation.

"Dear Crystal and Velvet," she read aloud. "I'm sorry it's taken me this long to write to you. Oh, she better be sorry!" She giggled. "I've started working at Savoir Fare's restaurant already. He's letting me stay with him until the Mayor finds a place for me to live. Mayor Mare is awfully nice."

"How scandalous," Upper Crust said with an indignant huff. "Staying with a stallion not of blood or marriage!"

"Mom, I'm sure there's nothing going on." She shot her mother a quick glare, then smiled. "I think it's cool that she knows the mayor!"

"I'm sure everypony knows the mayor in such small-town living, darling."

Crystal groaned before she continued, "When I arrived in town, a pony named Pinkie Pie threw me a welcoming party. Everypony in town came! I've never felt so welcomed in my life. No offense." This elicited another giggle. "I hope you two can come visit soon. I've already made friends that I want to meet my best friends. Always yours, Horsey."

Jet Set clapped his hooves together. "Wonderful news, then! Your little friend is enjoying her new little home."

"Yeah." Crystal rubbed at her eyes and set the letter down, resuming her meal with a bright smile she couldn't calm. "She deserves it. I'll have to talk to Velvet tomorrow and figure out when we can go see her."

"Tomorrow?" Upper Crust nearly choked on a piece of broccoli. "Darling, tomorrow you're supposed to start finishing school."

"Oh. About that." Crystal twirled her fork, then winced as she braced for the impact that was sure to follow what she said next. "I don't think I'm going to go to finishing school this summer."

At first, there was no response. The only sound that broke the tense silence was the clink of Upper Crust's fork falling onto her plate. Her mother stared at her with wide eyes.

Crystal tried not to look directly at her. "I know all the material, Mom. You've been training me my whole life on proper manners for living in Canterlot. And I'm sort of going to start writing for a magazine, maybe, if I'm lucky, so I'll need all the time I can get to focus on that."

Jet Set continued to quietly eat, leaving the matter to the mares. Upper Crust kept staring before she stuttered, "But, you, I—I—"

Crystal couldn't resist. She fought every urge not to grin. "Stammering, mother."

"Darling, you cannot simply drop out of social graces!"

"It's not dropping out if I don't go at all, though, is it?" She swallowed and finally met her mother's piercing gaze. "Mom, writing is really important to me."

Upper Crust went quiet again. Her expression was one of desperation before she made a small, frightening sound. It was a quick, short chuckle. Crystal's heart sank when she heard it.

"All right, darling." Her mother lifted the fork back up and looked down at her plate with a self-satisfied smile. "But only if you agree to attend the garden party with us." She smiled wider. "After all, your manners are surely refined enough for such an event, aren't they?"

Crystal bristled at the mere idea of attending the garden party. Spending time with the snobbiest of snobs, enduring their pointless conversations, having to smile for hours on end—just thinking about it made finishing school suddenly seem like a much more likable option.

She relented, however, with a hesitant nod. "Of course, Mother."

This seemed to please Upper Crust far more than Crystal wanted. She even lightly tilted her head from side to side in a subtle victory dance. Nothing good ever came from her mother doing such a dance, and she was certain that this one was no exception.

The Step Forward

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"Crystal, oh my gosh!" Velvet exclaimed as she threw open the door just after Crystal knocked on it, not even giving her a moment to speak. "Oh my gosh, oh my gosh! I got the letter!"

Crystal smiled, then frowned. "Wait, what? But she addressed the letter I got to both of us. She sent you one, too?"

"Huh?" Velvet blinked. "What? No." She grabbed Crystal's foreleg and practically dragged her inside. "Come on in already!"

"Okay, okay!" She laughed and walked over to sit on a pillow by the coffee table. "What letter did you get?"

Velvet stared at her with a blank expression. Crystal stared back, her brow starting to furrow. Velvet made a slow gesture, as if trying to physically pull the answer out of her.

Finally, Crystal's eyes lit up and she exclaimed, "Oh! Wait, you mean, the letter? From Mares Monthly? Already?!" Her hooves flung to smother a startled squeal. "Oh my gosh, what did they say?! What did they say?!"

Velvet pointed at the letter sitting on the table, all the while grinning nearly from ear to ear.

Crystal turned her head to read it, mumbling under her breath, "Dear Miss Step—we are writing—reviewed the samples—" Her tone rose higher and higher as she continued. "—pleased to write that we would like to interview your client?!" She jumped up and started to bounce around in a circle. "Oh my gosh, Velvet! You did it!" She threw her forelegs around Velvet's neck and hugged her tight.

"Don't get too excited just yet!" Velvet chided as she squirmed against the embrace, though she was still grinning. "You're on your own from here, my esteemed client. You've got to nail that interview first."

"An interview!" Crystal let go of her and turned to look at the letter again. "It says I can drop by their office in Manehattan at my convenience. Well, that's convenient." She settled down onto the pillow, hooking the crook of her foreleg over her muzzle, clenching her eyes shut. "Okay, okay, we can take the direct train to Ponyville, then you head back to Canterlot and I'll take the overnight train to Manehattan. I'll have plenty of time to be back before the garden party."

Velvet sat behind her on the same pillow and leaned backwards to rest against Crystal, back to back. "I thought you didn't go to those?"

Crystal rolled her eyes. "Ugh, I don't want to talk about that. What I do want to talk about, however, is the letter I received."

"Oh, yeah, you mentioned that." She paused, then gasped. "Wait, did you get a letter from Horsey?!"

"Yup!" Crystal puffed her chest. "She's doing really well, it seems. Somepony threw her a welcoming party. Already made friends." She sighed wistfully. "Our little Horsey's all grown up." She inclined her head to peer back at Velvet out of the corner of one eye. "She wants us to come meet her new friends in Ponyville."

"Then what are we waiting for?" Velvet got up onto all fours. "Let's pack your things and get on that train!"

After arriving in Ponyville and getting directions to Savoir Fare's restaurant, Crystal and Velvet walked with their noses in the air. They both wore one of Upper Crust's most ridiculous hats and oversized sunglasses, and they did their very best to not giggle or grin.

"I do say," Crystal said in her best Canterlot elite impression, her voice airy and hollow. "Shall we stop in here for a nip, darling?"

"Yes, this little eatery will do just fine." Velvet straightened her glasses, which were ridiculously big on her.

Crystal set their luggage down beside one of the tables and poked at the pile of hay serving as a makeshift chair. "Oh, my, how—rustic."

Velvet sat down and clapped her hooves, chortling like a goose. "My dear, I believe we are roughing it! How quaint!"

An earth stallion walked out of the restaurant and over to them. He had his blue mane slicked back with what they could only imagine was several hooffuls of styling gel.

"Oh my gosh," Crystal whispered, raising a menu to hide her face, "he looks exactly like Hors D'oeuvre. Do you think—"

"Bonjour, mademoiselles. My name is Savoir Fare. May I start you off with a drink?"

Velvet glanced up from her menu. "Why, I say, do you happen to have cucumber water in this charming little town of yours?"

Savoir Fare raised one brow. "Mademoiselle, you must be from Canterlot." He offered a polite smile. "Oui, of course. We have the cucumber water here in our—'charming little town'."

Crystal tapped her hoof on the table. "Cucumber water for me as well, darling."

"Oui. A waitress will be out shortly with your drinks." He turned and walked back into the building.

Once they were sure he was out of earshot, they whispered quickly back and forth.

"Oh my gosh, do you think Horsey and he—" Velvet covered her mouth with a hoof.

"No—Do you?!" Crystal lowered her sunglasses to peer over them.

Velvet only gasped. A few moments later, Horsey walked out the doors, carrying a silver platter. She set a glass of water with cucumber slices in front of Velvet and said, "Here you go, Velvet."

"Why thank y—aww!" Velvet pouted.

"And here you go, Crystal."

"Aww, come on!" Crystal snatched the sunglasses from her snout and looked up at Horsey with a puppy dog pout. "Couldn't you at least pretend that you didn't know who we were?"

Horsey broke out into a sheepish grin. "I could hear both of you all the way in there. It's only been a week! Do you girls really think I'd forget your voices?" She glanced down, then back up at them, her grin widening. "Or, y'know, your cutie marks?"

Both mares looked down at their own flanks.

"That's a good point," Velvet muttered. "I was having fun being all snobby, though."

Crystal sighed and pulled her glass closer. "You were a wonderful snob, Velvet." There was a brief pause before both of them looked at Horsey with bright smiles.

Horsey lit up with her own, even brighter smile. She set the tray on the table and hugged both of them. "Oh, Celestia, I'm so happy to see you two! I have to introduce you to everypony. How long are you staying?"

Velvet shrugged. "I can stay the night, but we gotta get Crystal on a train to Manehattan today."

"Manehattan?" Horsey blinked and looked at Crystal. "Why are you going there in such a hurry?"

Crystal twiddled her hooves. “Well, you see, I have an interview with somepony from Mares Monthly."

"Oh my gosh!" Horsey glanced over her shoulder, back at them, then ran into the restaurant. She came back out a few minutes later, no longer wearing a serving apron, just as Crystal and Velvet were becoming concerned. "Okay, we just have to go to Carousel Couture. If you've got an interview, then you'll need to look your best. We can talk once we get there!"

Crystal stood on a platform while the boutique's owner, Rarity, stared at her with a discriminating gaze. "So," she started, but was promptly shushed.

"You simply mustn't move an inch!" Rarity insisted while she rubbed her chin. "I’m creating the most impressive look I can so that your fashion alone will stun the interviewer into giving you that writing job!"

Horsey and Velvet were doing their best to not giggle, but a few sneaked out around their smothering hooves. Crystal stood as still as she could while Rarity's magic tossed various articles of clothing around, holding them up to Crystal and throwing them aside.

"No—no—no—perhaps!" Rarity gasped. "Perhaps indeed! What do you think of this, girls?" She twirled around to look at the other two. "Serious, but chic? Professional, but feminine?"

They immediately put on cool, calm expressions.

"Definitely serious," Velvet said, nodding.

"But still very feminine," Horsey agreed.

A single, simple pink scarf hovered in front of Crystal's neck. Rarity smiled wider. "Yes, yes, it's perfect, isn't it? Not too flashy at all!" She turned back to Crystal. "Now, what ever shall we do with your coiffure?" She moved a hoof in a circle to gesture at the whole of Crystal's head. "This simply won't do, you know. Such bold and colorful fashion went out years ago." She paused to look at each of them individually. "Oh, no offense intended, of course. I went through the phase myself."

"She looks really nice with her mane down," Velvet offered. "And she used to do this cute little braid when she was a filly!"

"Huh?" Crystal tilted her head. "Hmm."

She removed the scrunchie and her mane fell from the side ponytail down to her shoulders. A few locks lifted in her magic's glow and started to weave into two carefully orchestrated braids, ensuring that all the pink tresses were pulled in. The separate strands parted around her left ear in the shape of a heart and met back behind her head to form into a single, combined braid.

Crystal looked back at them. "Like this?"

"Ooh!" Rarity clapped her hooves. "How cute!" Her voice lowered while her hoof raised to rub her chin again. "I'll have to remember that little trick. It could come in handy with my next fashion line." She paused when she felt all their eyes on her and laughed nervously. "I mean, is that all, darlings?"

Crystal looked over at Horsey and Velvet with one brow raised. They shrugged, and she nodded.

"Wonderful! The scarf will be seven bits, if you please."

After paying and leaving the boutique, Crystal looked down at the pink scarf tied around her neck. "We just spent a half hour so I could walk out with—with a scarf?"

Horsey grinned sheepishly, her magic carrying their luggage. "She's the best designer in Ponyville, and it does look really cute on you."

Velvet bounced with each step she took. "Since the mane was my suggestion, does that make me a designer, too?"

"Let's not waste any more time," Crystal diverted, giggling. "I have two hours before I need to be at the train station. You still haven't introduced us to your new friends!"

At the first house they visited, a little pink filly answered the door.

"Hi Horsey!" the filly exclaimed, then looked at Crystal and Velvet with wide eyes. "Ooh. Pretty mares!"

The two giggled while Horsey explained, "These are my friends from Canterlot."

"Oh, okay! My name is Piña Colada!"

Crystal glanced at Horsey curiously, who shook her head, halting any questions.

"Is your sister around?" Horsey looked over the filly to peer into the house. "I was hoping to—"

"Here!" a slurred voice came from elsewhere inside the house before a plum-colored mare stumbled into view. "I'm here, yeah." She smiled. "'Sup?"

Horsey smothered a playful grin. "Berry, aren't you hitting the bottle a little early?"

"Pfft." The mare dismissed her with a vague wave of her hoof. "Ha ha, very funny. Thanks a lot for the great first impression with your friends." She turned her gaze toward Crystal and Velvet, her cadence unmistakably drunk. "I'm Berry Punch. It's nice to meet ya."

"And these are the girls I told you about from Canterlot, Berry." Horsey patted Piña Colada on the head, smiled at Berry, and waved. "Anyway, we've got to get around town before Crystal has to leave, but I'll see you later!"

As they walked away, Horsey explained in a quiet voice, "She makes wine for a living and has a speech impediment, so it seems like she's dipping into the goods, if you know what I mean."

"Oh," Velvet started, her ears drooping. "Now I feel like a jerk for giggling."

Horsey shook her head. "It's okay. She makes fun of herself more than any of us. She came up with her own nickname, too—Pinot Noir."

They made a circuit around town, Horsey introducing them to three more mares once she tracked them down: Cloud Kicker, Sassaflash, and Golden Harvest.

As they started toward the train station, Crystal sighed. "All of your friends seem really nice," she said, smiling at Horsey. "So I guess you're here to stay?"

"Yeah." Horsey looked down at the ground. "Life here is just so much better than in Canterlot."

"I'm glad." Velvet nuzzled her cheek against Horsey's.

Horsey turned her head to smile at Velvet, then at Crystal. "You both are still my best friends no matter what. And Crystal, I'll have my hooves crossed for your interview!" Her smile widened. "That's so exciting!"

"And nerve-wracking," Crystal mumbled. "I've never done an interview before."

"Don't worry about it." Horsey nodded and stopped to set down Crystal's luggage once they were at the station. "I mean, your talent is writing, so it's not like you can be bad at it. You're kind of guaranteed to succeed, right?"

Crystal glanced at her cutie mark, frowning playfully. "I certainly hope so, otherwise I'm lodging a complaint against Celestia."

The three girls laughed and exchanged hugs. Once the train arrived, there was another round of hugs and well-wishing, then Crystal stepped on and took a seat. She waved at them through the window, smiling when they waved back.

This was it. This train was going to take her all the way to Manehattan and there was no turning back. Well, of course, she could bail and just not go to the interview, but how could she do that after Velvet worked to get it for her? She drew her hoof across her chest, muttering the foalhood sing-song promise under her breath. No matter what, she was going to make Velvet's efforts worth it.

Gateway to the Future

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The city of Manehattan was overwhelming. It made up for what it lacked in Canterlot's splendor with imposing buildings that reached into the sky. Crystal guessed that inattentive pegasi were at risk of crashing through windows with the buildings being as tall as mountains. She gazed up at the towers of glass that glittered in the midday sun.

"Move it or lose it, lady!" a gruff voice said. The stallion brushed past her, his shoulder hitting hers a little harder than necessary.

Crystal blinked and her focus fell from the skyscrapers to the crowd she was in. A moment ago, the sidewalk only had a few ponies on it, but now it was like a river full of confused but determined salmon going up and downstream. Her ears pinned back as she tried to wriggle herself into the flow heading further into Manehattan.

"Excuse me!" she called above the noise of hoofsteps and grumbling ponies. "Excuse me! Could somepony tell me where Eminence Tower is?"

A mare beside her snorted. "Really?"

Crystal looked at her with the most innocent eyes. "Really!"

The mare raised a hoof and pointed. Crystal's gaze followed the direction to see the exceptionally tall building in the center of the town. A golden stallion's bust was perched at the very top of the tower, overlooking its domain with extreme indifference.

"Oh." Crystal blinked. "The super tall one, got it. Thanks!"

Now with her destination clear, she navigated through the busy streets, eventually breaking out of the stream and landing on the steps leading up to the tower.

She looked up at the double glass doors. Hesitation halted her and she gulped, her ears drooping as her confidence faltered. So many fears ran through her mind all at once: flubbing the interview, not being as strong of a writer as she thought she was, or sneezing right on the interviewer. She took a moment to swallow her worries then, holding her head high, strode up to the doors.

The lobby was absolutely stunning. Considering all of the harsh metal and glass with which the buildings of Manehattan were constructed, she felt like she had just been transported somewhere else. The floors were marble and a luxuriously soft, red carpet guided her from the door to the front desk. There was no steel or silvery metal visible; instead, anywhere metal was necessary to be shown, it was either gold-plated or pure gold. She was no expert in such things, so to her it all seemed to be the real deal.

"Hello," the mare said from behind the rich, dark mahogany desk without looking up from filing her hooves. "What can I help you with?" Her tone was rather matter-of-fact and it gave Crystal a hesitant pause. A moment later, she glanced up with a frown at the lack of a response. "Yes?"

"I'm here for an interview with Mares Monthly," Crystal said a little too quickly, but the other mare nodded nonetheless.

The receptionist returned her attention to her hoof care. "Floor 63."

"Thank you." Crystal smiled and started over to the marbled stairs with gold railings. She paused just at the bottom of them and inclined her head to look up the tower. From her vantage point in the lobby, she had to guess that the ceiling extended thirty floors up. She stared in awe for a moment longer, then started the long trek up the stairs.

By the time she reached the sixty-third floor, she was out of breath and sore all over. She spied a water cooler resting against a wall and hurried over to it, filled up a small paper cup, and downed it in one go. The cold water refreshed her just enough for her to regain her composure.

"All right," she mumbled and looked around, still somewhat out of breath.

The doors were made out of the same mahogany as the receptionist's desk and one was adorned with gilded lettering that read: "Mares Monthly". Excitement bubbled up in her chest and gave her the extra energy necessary to walk over and inside.

Another bored receptionist sat at the only desk in the room, but at least she looked up to acknowledge Crystal's entrance. "Welcome to Mares Monthly's main office," she said in a tone that was anything but cheerful. "Do you have an appointment?"

"Yes—No—" Crystal bit her lower lip, then quickly scolded herself inwardly. She put on her most confident appearance. "I received a letter to drop by for an interview regarding serial publication in your magazine. I'm Crystal—er, C.W."

"I see." The receptionist gestured at a row of chairs as she stood from her own. "Please take a seat and you'll be called in shortly." She walked into the next room and mumbled something inaudible to somepony before returning to her desk.

Crystal sat in the chair as best she could. It was far from comfortable and there was no way to sit naturally in it at all. She had to dangle her legs off the front, but there was no room to rest her forehooves on the seat, which felt a little immodest, so she draped her tail over her lap.

The quiet, awkward minutes ticked by. She could hear muffled voices on the other side of the wall, but she couldn't make out exactly what they were saying. Finally, a stallion leaned in through the doorway and smiled at her. He had on a collared white shirt and a green tie, though the knot was loosened to hang a few inches from where it should when properly affixed.

"Hello! So glad you could make it!" The stallion waved a hoof and disappeared back into the other room. "Come along!" When his ear twitched at the sound of her following, he continued, "Welcome to the main Mares Monthly office. Here is where we make,"—he spun around and stood on his hindlegs to wave his front ones—"the magic!"

Crystal blinked a few times. "The magic?"

The stallion frowned a little at the lackluster reaction and dropped back down, turning away and walking forward. "You know, the writing, the researching, the printing."

"So, the opposite of magic?" She giggled.

"Well, I suppose as a unicorn, 'the magic' has a whole different meaning to you," he said with a chuckle and shook his head. "It's a figurative but special magic! The magic of making mares happy all over the world." He stopped outside an office. "Come on in."

Crystal glanced around the room. Papers were strewn about and the walls were covered in various charts, articles, and pictures, all thumb-tacked into place. She took a seat in the first chair while he shut the door and sat on the other side of the desk.

"If I remember correctly," he said while he opened, closed, and tossed aside manila folders until he came to one that made him smile. "Your agent reached out to us about having you be a part of our upcoming serial team?"

"Yes, sir." She nodded. "That's correct."

"Sir? Oh! Forgive me." He flashed a smile. "I'm Sunset Coffee. Don't ask why; weird parents." He looked back down at the papers, his gaze skimming over them. "From the notes here, it looks like the reviewer says you clearly have a knack for this sort of thing." Somewhat unceremoniously, he tilted his head to look at her flank. "Not a surprise there, eh?" He winked. "Hard to argue with a cutie mark."

Crystal flushed. "I guess so, Mr. Coffee."

Sunset Coffee laughed wholeheartedly. "Now that's even worse than sir! Just Sunset's fine. It's a little feminine, but Mr. Coffee makes me sound like a coffee maker." He closed the folder. "Anyway, this is more of a formality so I could meet you. I'll be your main contact from here on out."

"My—?" She blinked slowly.

"Main contact. Of course you're going to get the job." He folded his hooves and rested his snout on them. "There're just a few things we need to hammer out, then I'll be waiting for your pitch."

Crystal still hadn't caught up quite yet. "I got the job?"

Sunset paused curiously, then smiled. "You betcha. Like I said, can't argue with a cutie mark. That'd be like denying your destiny, after all!"

She swallowed an excited squeal like a heavy lump in her throat, but allowed a wide smile. "Thank you, Mr. Sunset!"

"Sunset." He squinted. "I'm only a few years older than you, so it's just Sunset."

"Really?" Crystal glanced around his office. "Not that you seem, um, old, exactly, but, well—"

"It's quite all right," he interrupted, the smile back in place. "You're from Canterlot, so it makes you feel younger."

Her brow furrowed. "What does that mean?"

Sunset gestured vaguely in a wide circle. "Here in Manehattan, secondary school is half as long as yours, so we get jobs much sooner. Canterlot keeps ponies in school longer than anywhere else." He stretched his forelegs above his head, then folded them back on the desk. "I don't have your exact age in the profile your agent sent, but it said you'd be finishing your first year, so that'd mean you'd have already graduated here."

Crystal's gaze slowly fell to her lap as she mulled it over. "That's kind of depressing, actually. I feel like I just aged three years."

He chuckled and dismissed her with a wave of his hoof. “Still plenty young enough to start your glamorous career as an author here with Mares Monthly! Now, about those details I mentioned.”

She looked back up at him. “Oh, right, yes.”

“First of all, your representative just wrote down C.W. as your name. I’m fine with keeping things anonymous, but it’s not exactly common to have a pseudonym consisting of only initials. Do you have a family name or something you'd like to use at the end?"

She twiddled her hooves, considering the options very carefully. This was her future she was talking about! She couldn't pick something that she'd end up hating—"Step." She smiled. "C.W. Step."

Sunset picked up his pencil and scribbled down a note. “Mmhm.” He spat the pencil out onto the table. “Where would you like correspondences mailed to?”

“Correspondences?” She tilted her head.

“You know, letters. All of our editors receive regular mail for their articles, and you’re bound to receive fan mail as an author.”

“Fan mail?” The words fell from her lips as if from a foreign language. “Does that really happen?”

Sunset shrugged. "It depends on your popularity." His expression turned suddenly serious. "Do you think you won't be popular?"

Crystal straightened up. She needed to be confident—or at least appear that way. "Of course I will."

He stared at her a moment longer, then laughed. "There's that Canterlot confidence! Don't worry, it's in my best interests to make sure you're popular. Your success is my success now."

"I didn't know that." She pursed her lips in thought and muttered, "Well, I didn't discuss this with her, but I'm sure she'll be fine with it." She nodded in agreement with herself. "For now, I think it'd be best to use my representative's address."

"Sounds good." He made a note of that. "The last question I have for you is regarding timeline. Do you think you'll be able to get a pitch and a draft of the first installment within the next month? Obviously, this month's issue is out of the question, but if you've got a good story from the get-go it might make it into next month's."

Crystal fidgeted somewhat nervously. She had been trying to think of what she was going to write ever since Velvet had first mentioned Mares Monthly, and so far had come up short. Fear started to grip her chest tight that she would continue to not find any inspiration.

"I can try my best, Sunset," she finally said.

"Works for me!" He reached across the desk to offer his hoof. "I'm looking forward to hearing from you, C.W. Just send a letter when you've got a pitch and if it passes, I'll need a draft as soon as possible."

"Absolutely!" She smiled at him, shook his hoof, and started for the door. "Thank you so much for the opportunity!"

Sunset waved from his desk. "Have a safe trip back to Canterlot!"

Crystal nodded. She navigated her way out of the office area, through the Mares Monthly lobby, and to the stairwell. When the door shut behind her, she looked around to ensure she was alone before she bounced in a small circle. "Yes, yes, yes, yes, yes!" She stopped just as suddenly as she began and started the trek down the massive staircase with poise and grace in every step.

She had done it. Velvet had started it, but she was going to finish it. All she had to do was figure out what she was going to write, but her life was finally heading in the direction of her dreams.

The sound of a piano resonated under the current of meandering conversations. Ponies were gathered from the highest rings of Canterlot society, all dressed in their finest garments. The occasional titter or chortle stood out against the velvety tones of the solo pianist's music.

Crystal wasn't sure what plagued her mind more: the plastic smile that she hadn't been allowed to drop for an hour straight, or that her mother had been waiting for her when she got off the train. Upper Crust had likely all but outright interrogated Velvet for her whereabouts, because Crystal sure hadn't told her mother when she was returning. She had planned on spending her spare time before the party with Velvet.

Her mother, of course, had other plans. She endured three days of what was essentially social cram school. In some ways, she understood. They had hosted the Canterlot garden party for two years in a row. Any mishap on her part would knock them off their self-made pedestals. So she just kept smiling—and smiling— and smiling.

Fancy Pants approached her. "I say, Miss Wishes, as always, your parents are quite the perfect party hosts. It must be delightful having their care and expertise guiding you into adulthood." He straightened his monocle. "You are turning quite into the charming mare."

"Quite indeed!" his wife, Lyrica Lilac, agreed with an emphatic, single nod. The others nearby nodded with her.

Crystal smiled. Of course, she was already smiling, but she had to remind herself to continue doing so. "Why, yes, I am quite grateful to my parents, of course."

The nearby mares gave the hollow chortle of geese. Fancy Pants chuckled.

"It's a shame Golden couldn't make it," Crystal continued, her eyelashes fluttering. "I hear her modeling career is doing well."

Fancy Pants's chest swelled with pride. "Why, yes, it is! She's quite busy these days. I'm very proud of her."

"Excuse me," came the sweet and airy voice Crystal dreaded most of all, approaching them from behind her.

Crystal clenched her teeth together. The smile faltered briefly, but thankfully all eyes had turned on her mother. She inclined her head to acknowledge her mother's presence. "Hello, Mother."

"Pardon my intrusion," Upper Crust said in a perfectly apologetic tone. "If I may, I would like to borrow my daughter for a moment."

"Certainly!" Fancy Pants nodded. "Always a pleasure, Miss Wishes."

The other ponies nearby followed him as he walked away to talk to other guests.

Slowly, Upper Crust circled around to Crystal's front. A sly smile was on her lips. "A very important guest has just arrived and I would so very appreciate you greeting him. As is polite, of course."

"Of course." Her ears flicked to pin back against her mane. She forced them forward with some effort while she walked alongside her mother. "Who is this guest, anyway?"

"Why, Prince Blueblood himself, of course."

The Royal Pain

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Crystal went weak in the knees at the mere mention of his name. Prince Blueblood! A real live prince! She quickly raised a hoof to her mane to ensure it was still properly styled. Perhaps she could forgive her mother's self-guided actions if she became a princess! A giggle escaped her at the mere idea. For once, she almost wanted to even thank her mother for the opportunity.

As they approached the stallion, she went through a mental checklist. Dress still clean? A glance down confirmed that. Mane in place? She had already checked, but she felt it one more time to be certain. What about the lighting? It was natural sunlight, which was a little trickier to work with, but she tilted and lowered her head at the precise angle and height so that the light sparkled in her eyes without needing to squint. Lastly, how was her voice? There was only one way to find that out!

"Good afternoon, Prince Blueblood," Upper Crust said. Her forelegs curled underneath her as she bowed lower than Crystal previously thought possible. "We are positively honored to have an esteemed guest such as yourself at our garden party."

"Hmm, yes." Prince Blueblood surveyed them with only mild and brief interest.

Crystal bowed with all the grace her trembling knees could muster. She was a mere breath away from royalty! From where she was, she could reach out and touch him.

"This is my daughter, Crystal Wishes." Upper Crust straightened back up and gestured toward her. "I'm afraid I have matters to attend, but I'm sure my daughter can keep you company." As she turned to leave, she looked down at Crystal, her lips curled into a smirk.

Crystal hardly noticed her mother's look, what with her own eyes locked on the prince. She took a step closer to him and her heart began to beat faster. "Is everything to your satisfaction, Your Royal Highness?"

Blueblood lowered his gaze to her. "Is the only thing deemed fit to serve as a beverage that repugnant purple punch I see?" Without waiting for a response, he walked past her. "I'll have sparkling water."

"Of—Of course, sir." She blinked a few times and watched him leave before she broke into a near-canter.

Sparkling water? Where was she going to get that on short notice? She saw one of the castle servants walking across the courtyard. "Hello!" she called out as she hurried to him. "Hello, I'm sorry to bother you, but I am in need of a glass of sparkling water."

The servant raised his brow. "Excuse me, but—"

"It's for Prince Blueblood," she interrupted, a hint of desperation in her voice that she didn't quite intend, but seemed to work in her favor.

"Oh, I see," he said, his own voice tinged with distaste and flashed an exaggerated smile. "Of course. Wait right here."

Crystal tapped one hoof while she waited. The longer she was gone, the more opportunity some other mare had to swipe his attention! "Come on, come on," she muttered under her breath, glancing over her shoulder at the party.

The servant returned with a crystal chalice on a silver platter. The water inside the chalice bubbled happily. "Here you go, madam."

"Thank you ever so much!" She smiled and started to levitate the chalice, one hoof raised to sprint back to the party.

"Oh, no, no, no," the servant half-chided, half-chuckled. "Believe me, you will need the platter."

Crystal glanced between him and the platter, then raised it up from his hooves to hover underneath the chalice. "Oh—thank you."

He bowed his head. "Best of luck, madam." He turned sharply and trotted away.

Suspicion started to bubble around her excitement just like the sparkling water she carried back to the party. She had limited exposure to modern-day royalty despite living in Canterlot. When Princess Celestia addressed the public, she was always calm, cool, and well-spoken. In all honesty, not much was known about Prince Blueblood at all, other than he had a very distant and weak relation to Princess Platinum. He usually remained inside the castle and only attended the annual Gala.

Her heart had regained its normal pace by the time she found Blueblood in the sparse crowd. It was almost funny how different he seemed to her all at once: no longer were his eyes shining with charm, but instead clouded with self-importance, and his good looks dripped with the effort of servants he likely treated with contempt. She wondered if there was anything about him that didn't suddenly turn her stomach.

"Here is your sparkling water, sir," she said, the words rolling off her tongue as feathery as possible. "I hope it is to your liking."

Blueblood's horn lit as he took the chalice from her magical grip, along with the platter, which he turned on its side and raised to his eye level. As he sipped, he gazed at his reflection, a smile curling his lips. "It is quite—" He inclined his head one way, then another. "—refreshing."

Crystal swallowed a snide remark that almost got away from her. "Are you enjoying yourself, sir?"

The smile fell and he rolled his eyes. "Please, this event may be considered second to the Gala, but it is far from it." He took his gaze off his mirror-self long enough to survey the surroundings. He paused at the sight of the solo pianist providing the music for the evening. "What in Equestria is she doing?"

She looked over at the stage as well. The pegasus mare in front of the piano wore an elegant silver gown that contrasted with her black coat, her white mane tied up an intricate series of curls. Her looks were one thing, but the truly eye-catching part was that her hooves rested neatly in her lap while the tips of her primary flight feathers danced across the ivory-colored keys in almost impossible ways.

A sincere smile finally graced Crystal's tired face. "Oh, my mother found her. Her name is Musical Dreams, I believe. The way she plays is amazing, is it not?"

"I have never seen anything like it." His gaze flickered away from both the pianist and Crystal. "I wonder if she will play at the Gala! I will have to ask Aunt Celestia." Without seeming to remember she was even there, he started to walk away. "To have her talent showcased at this little gathering is quite a waste."

Crystal's smile twitched. Not even so much as a nod in her direction? A new emotion rumbled in her chest: irritation. Before it could boil to the point of saying something, her mother was by her side.

"He's leaving already, darling?" Upper Crust asked, watching the retreating stallion. "My, you really do need to go to finishing school, it seems."

The temperature escalated and it was all she could do to not yell the words she muttered through clenched teeth. "Mother, dear, perhaps you should have spent a little more time with him." Her brow knit, her lips pursed, and her eyes narrowed as she glared daggers at her mother. "He's an insufferable louse that even you wouldn't be able to stand for the sake of marrying into royalty."

Upper Crust gasped. Her mouth opened, then quickly shut as she thought better of her retort and instead walked forward. "I'm sure you're being over-critical, darling. I'll set things straight with that fine gentlestallion."

"Gentlestallion, my tail." Crystal rolled her eyes. "My hooves are crossed for your success." She made her way over to the buffet table and poured herself a glass of the supposedly repugnant punch. It was a little too sour for her liking, but it was more refreshing than nothing.

Her ear twitched at a vaguely familiar voice exclaiming her name much too close, but she didn't let her surprise show. She turned her head and smiled politely at Trenderhoof. "Oh, hello."

He returned her smile with a bright, beaming grin. The sincerity was charming. "I cannot thank you enough! This garden party has opened so many doors for me. I might begin my travels as soon as next week!" His muscles tensed and relaxed as excitement visibly coursed through him. "This is the start of my career, thanks to you!"

Crystal giggled and waved a dismissive hoof. "I am certain you would have found your way into this event one way or another." She stilled the hoof to offer it to him. "Nonetheless, congratulations, Trenderhoof. I wish you the best of luck."

In all honesty, she was truly happy for him, but she couldn't show too much excitement. She had to remain calm and cordial. There were far too many wandering eyes nearby just waiting to catch and spread the next juicy gossip, and it wasn't going to involve her.

However, her mother didn't seem to keep that in mind as she stormed across the garden toward them. Crystal was familiar with every practiced expression her mother was capable of maintaining and the one she was wearing was certainly not one of them. Her cheeks were puffed out and her ears were pinned back.

"Go away," Upper Crust practically hissed at Trenderhoof.

He gaped at her in surprise before a glare sent him nearly scurrying away with his tail between his legs. Her eyes turned back to Crystal and at their closeness, she could see tears in the very corners of her mother's eyes.

"I give up. I've tried everything I can to ensure your comfort in life but clearly, I don't know what's best for you!" She struggled to keep her voice low. "I just assumed you spurned that buffoon prince out of spite toward me. I was wrong. He—He—" A shiver ran down her spine. "As always, you were right. Darling—" The irritation in her voice washed away and she set a hoof on Crystal's shoulder. "I'm sorry."

Crystal just stared at her, wide-eyed. Around them, the party continued with spurious laughter, gossiping whispers, and gentle piano. However, she could hardly hear any of that, instead putting all of her focus on her mother.

"I just want to be certain that you find the happiness I found in your father," Upper Crust continued, sighing. "Will you at least promise me you will stay away from that swine Blueblood?"

Crystal nodded numbly. When was the last time her mother had been this open with her? No, the better question was: what the hay had Blueblood done to make her mother change her attitude so suddenly?

"That's a good girl." Her hoof moved to cup her daughter's chin and tilted her head up. "Now, smile, darling. Our audience is waiting."

Another emotionless nod of Crystal's head.

Upper Crust patted her chin before she turned and walked toward the nearest group. "My, what a lovely dress! Where ever did you…" Her voice faded into the background.

Crystal's hooves started to move of their own accord in the direction from which Upper Crust had arrived. It wasn't exactly accurate to say she was thinking "he'll pay for making my mother cry," but rather that she simply wanted to find out what he had said to upset her that much.

Finding him, however, proved more difficult than she originally thought. He stood out against the high-class commoners attending, so she should have spotted him easily, but it became apparent to her that he had stepped away from the party entirely. She rolled her eyes. He probably saw something reflective and chased his own handsome face.

While one ear passively listened to the nearby voices, the other swiveled, searching for anything out of the ordinary.

"Bluebie, stop it!" a squealing voice said a little too loudly somewhere to her left, then squeaked and mumbled something else.

Crystal raised one brow and turned her head in the direction of the voice. It was far from the party, located somewhere in the flora-laden part of the garden. Carefully, she walked with the lightest hoofsteps away from the open spaces and onto a narrow path through the bushes and flowers. A giggle jerked her head to the side and she stepped toward it, pushing a branch aside and gasping at what she saw.

Blueblood and a mare she could swear she recognized from somewhere were close. Very close. His muzzle was hardly an inch from hers. They seemed to be much too involved in each other to notice her nearby presence.

"Bluebie, you need to go back," the mare managed between giggles. "They're going to notice you're missing."

Blueblood pulled his head back and rolled his eyes. "Oh, please, those addle-minded gryphonbrains wouldn't notice their own hooves missing." A smile that made Crystal nearly swoon graced his lips. "Are you trying to imply you do not want to spend time with me, Raven?"

Raven. In an instant, Crystal figured out where she knew the mare from: Raven was the personal aide to Princess Celestia herself! Crystal did her very best not to gasp again. She was lucky enough that they didn't hear her the first time.

Raven covered her blushing face with both hooves. "Oh, you. Go back to your party." She dropped her hooves and pushed herself up with her hindlegs to place a kiss on his cheek. "I'll see you later—maybe."

He sighed dramatically. He started to walk away, saying over his shoulder, "Maybe indeed."

Crystal watched as Raven's lower lip quivered. The mare dropped down to sit on the ground, her gaze lowering.

"Oh, Raven," she muttered to herself, "what are you going to do?"

Now was the time to make her quiet exit and give the mare some privacy, though curiosity nagged the back of her mind. She took a careful, slow step backward. When Crystal let go of the branch she had held out of the way, it swung forward then back again to snap her in the face. She let out a startled cry, tripped on her dress, and fell to the ground.

Raven almost screamed at the sounds of unexpected company. She scrambled to her hooves and stared at Crystal with horror. "What did you see?!"

Crystal jumped up from her sprawled position. "Perhaps a bit more than I should have, but cross my heart, I won't tell anypony!"

Raven's expression did not remotely suggest belief in a spying stranger.

"I'm so sorry, but I just can't help myself." Crystal took a step forward. "Are you dating Prince Blueblood?!"

Whatever suspicions the mare had were momentarily dismissed by a rush of embarrassment, her cheeks turning bright red and gaze darting about. "I, well, I—"

Crystal stepped closer. "A princess's aide and a prince? It's so romantically avant-garde!" Her words and imagination began to run away with her faster than she could think things completely through. "I've never heard of it before! Is such a relationship even allowed? Do you have to keep it secret?"

Raven blinked a few times, slowly lowering her guard. Finally, she smiled, if a bit sadly. "I suppose I can't convince you it's not what it seems after that, and I think I would feel better if I could finally talk about it with somepony." She twiddled her hooves and continued in an even softer voice, "Yes, I am in a relationship with Prince Blueblood."

"Oh my gosh." Crystal quickly collected some nearby moss together in her magic and lowered herself onto it like a cat upon a silken pillow. "Tell me everything."

The Mare's Temptation

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The suspicion crept its way back into Raven's eyes and she took a step away from Crystal. Her brow knitted and her eyes narrowed, she asked, "Wait, who even are you?" She shook her head and laughed almost bitterly. "You're just trying to stain Blueblood's good name!"

Crystal pondered the various responses she could give to try to prove herself, but her mouth had a different idea. "What good name?"

Raven gaped at her with wide eyes. Then, her ears fell and she averted her gaze, muttering, "That is a fair point." The fire reignited at another thought and she raised a glare. "So, then, your angle is to defame me? Strip my job away with scandalous gossip?" She stomped a hoof. "What do you want?!"

"A love story," Crystal explained honestly and plainly. "I'm a—well, I'm hoping to become a romance author." She crossed her forelegs over one another. "My parents did not have an inspiring romance. My first three dates have all been disappointments. I simply want to hear and write a true love story."

Raven blinked a few times, seeming taken aback by the explanation. "That's all?" The tension in her expression and shoulders started to ease. Slowly, she settled down on the ground and sighed. "I don't know if this is the true love story you're looking for, Miss—"

"Crystal Wishes."

"Miss Wishes," she continued. "How much do you know about Prince Blueblood?" She stared at Crystal with a sort of cool, almost cold seriousness.

Crystal shifted a little uncomfortably in thought. "Well, to be honest, I only know what little I've gleaned from today." She didn't meet Raven's eyes for fear of her words being offensive. "He seemed narcissistic, boorish, not very highly regarded by a servant I met, and he said something distressing to my mother."

"To your—" Raven's eyes widened. "Oh, dear. Is your mother, by chance, Mrs. Upper Crust?" When Crystal nodded, Raven winced. "Yes, he did say something rather cruel to her."

"Did you hear?" The incessant pull of a mare's heart toward gossip made her ears perk up. "What did he say?"

Raven waved her hooves quickly and dismissively. "Oh, no, I didn't hear what he said, but I saw the look on his face and how she reacted. After so many years of being surrounded by Canterlot elite, he has come to find a—a twisted amusement in making a game out of it."

"A game?" She paused, then slapped her forehead and groaned. "I see. Like making a mare run around to get sparkling water because he refuses the punch?"

Raven offered a weak smile. "Yes, something like that." The smile fell. "But, well, I can only assume your mother hit a nerve and he called her out on her intentions. He is not blessed with patience, among other things."

Crystal nodded as she thought the situation over, then shrugged and settled back into proper posture, forelegs crossed. "Well, she had it coming, so it's fine." Her eagerness sparked once more and lit a smile across her face. "So tell me more about you and the prince!"

The mare's cheeks reddened. "Well, I have been in the castle all my life. My parents are part of the staff, so I was going to end up working there one way or another. I've known him since he and I were both foals, though our paths rarely crossed." Her gaze wandered away from Crystal, growing distant while a nostalgic smile started to form. "He was always busy, you see. He is the first stallion of the original Canterlot bloodline in over fifty generations, so he is special, and his parents made sure he knew that, even if he is only a prince in title."

Raven's smile faded. "Of course, when one is told they are special and treated as such, that mentality takes root in their heart and grows like a weed. He was rude to everypony, including his own parents, and he brought many mares to his chambers when he was of age to be interested in that sort of thing.

"I hated him. In the beginning, anyway. I worked hard every day to make my parents proud while he trotted through the halls, ensuring nopony forgot how 'special' he was." She rolled her eyes, her tone somewhat bitter. "And he sensed that, so he always singled me out for teasing. When Princess Celestia made me her personal aide, he was there, laughing and making fun of me." She continued in a mockery of his voice, "'Her? Your personal aide? Why, Princess, she can hardly see past her own hooves without those ridiculous glasses!'"

Anger overtook the mock tone and she looked directly at Crystal. "What do my glasses have to do with being an aide, huh?! Ugh!" She shook her head as she settled back into a calmer mood. "Because I was always with Princess Celestia, that meant spending more time with him, too. I don't know when it happened, but I started to not mind his teasing as much. In hindsight, I should have realized it sooner, but—" Slowly, she smiled. "I was falling for him."

Crystal stared at her with glimmering eyes and a big grin, waiting for her to continue. When she didn't, she pressed, "And? And?"

The smile dropped. "And what? We see each other in secret. Sometimes I feel like he might propose, right then and there, and other times I just feel like a toy for his amusement." She turned her head away and sighed. "Since we started this confusing relationship, I haven’t been with another stallion, but I don't know if I’m his only mare. Yet something about him keeps my heart in his hooves despite my better judgment. I could focus on my career and stay by Princess Celestia's side until I grow too old to see even with glasses, but I look at him and I want something more. He's my temptation from the right path, I suppose."

Crystal was silent, and Raven said nothing further. She bit her lower lip as she waited for more and, finally, she mumbled, "Have you, well, asked him?"

"What?" Raven frowned at her.

"You know, had a chat with him about your relationship." She waved her hoof in a circle. "Talked about your feelings, figure out what you both want. You might be surprised." Her mouth wriggled. She tried to keep it pursed while her lips threatened to curve into a playful smile. "After all, you may not have noticed it, but I saw the way he looked at you."

The flush from before returned twofold and her cheeks were bright red. "You think so?" She fidgeted nervously and looked at the trees, in the direction of the party. "No. I mean—no."

Crystal shrugged. She stood up, stretched all of her legs, then shook out the moss in her mane and tail before she smiled down at Raven. "Well, nonetheless, I'd like to write a happy ending for your story. I'll change the names and situations enough that it shouldn't point to you, of course, and I'll send you the draft that I'll be sending to Mares Monthly for your approval."

Raven, still recovering from her embarrassment, nodded meekly. "Yes, thank you. I would really rather not have that kind of attention if you wrote about me specifically."

"Then it's a deal! I'll call it—" She paused, rubbing her chin, thinking on as much of Raven's exact words as she could. "The Mare's Temptation." She grinned. "Oh, I like that!" Pride and excitement in every step, she practically pranced her way back to the party. "I wish you the best of luck, Raven! And I'll be in touch with you soon!"

Crystal's pitch was prepared and in Sunset's hooves. She had her pink scarf tied around her neck and her heart-shaped braid in place. Already both simple things—a scarf and a braid—were becoming good luck charms in the superstitious part of her mind, and she wasn't going to risk blowing this opportunity just to spite herself.

She sat as still as she could, watching his gaze sweep across the pages. After the garden party, it was as though a muse had taken residence in her mind and sang an inspirational aria long into the night. The pitch was no problem; it only had to be of the highest level detail, after all. It took her only about an hour to figure out and write down the characters and plot. She even drafted a first chapter, which Raven had approved with surprisingly emphatic glee.

While a clock ticked off every second of unnerving silence that passed, Crystal tried to calm herself by thinking of the mare. Raven had agreed that, if The Mare's Temptation was going to move forward, she would be given a brief tour of the castle to ensure it was properly represented. More than that, she also offered to give advice for portraying the main characters, Sable and Prince Highborn, in a manner befitting of a castle servant and a prince. She would be lying if she said she wasn't totally giddy at the opportunity.

Her mind flew back to her current situation in an instant when Sunset finished the last page and looked up at her. She tried to smile.

"This—" He stopped.

Her smile wavered. "Yes?"

Sunset stared at her a moment longer, then dropped his gaze to the papers. "I'm not a mare, so I can't speak for them, but I do a lot of research in mares' interests. Of course. Kind of a requirement when you work for Mares Monthly, eh?" He chuckled.

Although his tendency to ramble was amusing most of the time, right then, it was just making her sweat. Was he stalling? "Of course," she said, her voice cracking with nerves.

"What I'm trying to get at is I'm no expert, but I know a lot about what mares like, and this—this—" He finally looked back up at her, his smile making her heart race faster. "It's going to be an absolute hit!"

"Oh my gosh," she said quickly as she released her held breath. "You scared me, Sunset!" She giggled. "Couldn't you have said that a little faster?"

Sunset sputtered and waved a dismissive hoof. "Oh, pfft! What, I can't have a little fun?" He leaned to the side to holler out his office door, "Paper Pusher!"

A young stallion bounded into the room, his eyes glittering with an eagerness to please. "Yes, boss?"

Sunset held out the papers Crystal had given him. "Take these to Kahuna and tell her it's got my approval."

"Right away, boss!" Paper Pusher rolled up the papers and stuck them into his saddlebag, then bounded back out.

Sunset crossed his forelegs on the desk and returned his attention to her, his expression growing serious. "So now that you've got a pitch that I'm sure my boss will approve, it's time to talk about a contract. First thing's first!"

Most of what he discussed went over her head. She understood the basic gist and that the most important thing he stressed was that by working with Mares Monthly, she wasn't allowed to publish under the name C.W. Step with another magazine. The second important thing noted was that if she missed a deadline, The Mare's Temptation would move further to the back of the magazine with each overdue installment until it was dropped completely.

Finally, he slid the contract across his desk toward her. "It's up to you now, C.W. Please put your residence here, and print and sign your full name here." He gestured to lines on the parchment as he spoke. "You can still back out and take your pitch elsewhere. If you decide to join up with us and your story is a hit, we are partnered with a book publisher for this project. They're looking to bring more mare-targeted stories to market, you see."

Crystal's eyes widened. "Do you mean to say there is a chance I could go to a bookstore and see my own story on the shelves?!"

Sunset grinned and tapped on the contract, winking. "There is if you sign."

The quill lifted, held by pink magic, and danced across the paper while Crystal nodded. "I'm in."

"Great to hear, Miss—" He paused to read her name off the contract, then smiled up at her and offered a hoof over the table. "Miss Wishes! Welcome aboard!"

"Crystal's fine, Sunset." She took his hoof in her own. "Miss Wishes makes me sound old." There was a pause before the both of them laughed and she continued, "Though honestly, I will be getting quite the workout from now on whenever I have to come to your office."

Sunset's smile didn't waver, but his tone inflected with curiosity. "Why is that?"

"Those stairs!" Crystal put a hoof to her forehead, feigning a dramatic sigh. "The first time I went up them I thought I might die!"

"The stairs?" His smile fell.

Her smile fell, too. "Yes. You know, the stairs leading up to this floor. There are so many that I'm honestly surprised you could forget them."

Sunset said nothing, instead quietly standing up and walking around his desk. He motioned for her to follow and walked out of his office, out of the main area, and out of the Mares Monthly suite. Crystal followed behind him with concern and confusion pounding in her chest. Finally, he stood outside two gilded doors.

"And these are?" she inquired quietly, almost afraid of the answer.

"Doors to the elevator." He finally broke out into laughter. "You really don't know what an elevator is? Good grief!" He pressed a button, which lit up happily. "Have a nice day, Miss Wishes! Work on that draft. If my boss doesn't approve it, I'll make her. I'll send word by courier if there are any issues. For now, let your inspiration flow freely on paper!"

A small ding! resounded, catching her attention and drawing her eyes from Sunset to the mysterious elevator. Crystal hardly heard the rest of his goodbye, awestruck by what lay beyond those shiny golden doors.

Ups and Downs

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"—and beyond the doors was this little room that was as glamorous as the rest of the building!" Crystal waved her forelegs dramatically in a wide arch. "There was a bench against the back wall that had the most comfortable pillows. And there was a chandelier hanging from the ceiling!"

Crystal gestured toward the ceiling and swept her hooves in the shape of an hourglass figure. "But the most amazing part of all was that when the door closed"—she brought her hooves together—"there was a unicorn inside who moved the room down the building!" With a sigh, she hooked one hoof over the other and rested her chin on them. "I don't know how somepony so powerful could be stuck in a tiny room all day."

Velvet was doing her very best to not laugh, but her cheeks were puffed and a hoof was pressed to her mouth to keep it shut. Her eyes watered from the pressure building within until she toppled over backward, laughing hysterically. "Oh—my—Celestia! Are you—serious?!" she managed between gasps for air and bouts of laughter.

Crystal pouted, her forelegs dropping to her lap. "What? It was totally awesome!" She paused as a thought hit her and her eyes widened. "Hey, wait, you used to live in Manehattan, right? Why did you never tell me about elevators before?!"

Velvet rolled onto her side and hugged her aching stomach. "Crystal!" She gasped for air. "Crystal, elevators—Oh my gosh." Her frame trembling, she propped herself up with the crook of her foreleg and grinned. "Would you talk about stairs?"

Her brow furrowed. "No."

"Exactly! Elevators are everywhere in Manehattan." She had to pause periodically to allow fits of giggles to escape. "I mean, what, do you expect me to have said, 'Oh, Crystal, darling, this two-story building is in dire need of a faster, expensive, more complex mode of travel'?" She shook her head. "You really have never heard of an elevator before?"

The pout returned and she looked down at her hooves, which she drew across the carpet in small, wobbly circles. "Well, no. I've not traveled much, and, well, no."

A giggle erupted into a full-blown laugh. "Okay, I'm no expert or anything, but the elevator operator isn't as powerful as you think." She paused to wipe the tears from her eyes. "It's kind of like, you know, a scale?"

Velvet gestured the idea with her hooves, raising one and lowering the other, then continued, "It's a system of cables, pulleys, and weights that make the elevator go up or down." She shrugged and lowered her hooves back down to rest on her pillow. "I mean, there's a lot more to it than that, but that's the basic idea anyway."

Crystal took a moment to consider the new information. Her ears slowly fell to the sides. "So it's not totally amazing?"

Velvet grinned and shook her head. "Not really. Not to me, anyway. We earth ponies are pretty creative, don't you think? There's a lever to trigger the system that anypony like you or I can use, so an operator isn't necessary at all, but the bigger buildings like Eminence Tower can afford to employ them, so they do."

Crystal grumbled to herself, a little embarrassed, but the feeling was overtaken by a gleeful grin. "Anyway, I signed the contract!"

With all of her time being eaten up by travel, the garden party, and writing, the two hadn't yet had time to chat, and Crystal was nearly dying to share everything that had happened.

Velvet matched her enthusiasm in an instant. "It's official?!"

"Yup!" Crystal puffed out her chest with pride. "C.W. Step is on her way to the bestsellers' list!"

This gave Velvet a startled pause. Her head tilted one way, then the other. "C.W. Step?" she asked somewhat cautiously.

"Oh, right." Crystal grinned. She looked up at the ceiling and rubbed the back of her neck. "You don't know about that. So, I had to make some decisions while I was there. Sunset said—"

"Wait, what?" Velvet interrupted. She leaned in closer, grinning and wiggling her ears. "Who's Sunset? Is he cute?"

"Pfft—no." Crystal swatted a hoof at her. "He's my—agent? Boss? Helping hoof? I'm not sure what he is, exactly, but no. Focus, would you?" She smiled. "Anyway, Sunset said I needed a last name for my pseudonym."

The grin faded into a trembling smile, her voice becoming equally soft. "So you picked—"

"—a name I knew that I'd never hate," Crystal finished with the returned favor of interruption.

They stared at one another for a moment, Velvet's lower lip quivering before she threw her hooves to her face. "Oh my gosh, Crystal, that—you—" She sniffed and mumbled, "I—Thank you."

Crystal smiled, though it slowly curled into a grin. "You've always been there for me, so this is my way of ensuring you never leave me!"

Velvet laughed. "Way to ruin the moment!" She sniffed again, rubbed at her eyes, then leaned forward to hug her. "Like there's a chance I'd leave my best friend in all of Equestria, anyway."

"Mmhm. Exactly as I planned." Crystal gave a playful cackle before she fully returned the hug. "So how are your ballet lessons going?"

"Well, about that." Velvet pulled away to reveal a sheepish expression on her face, not quite meeting Crystal's gaze. "I may be dropping out."

Crystal gaped at her. "What? Why?!"

"The Canterlot Ballet is hosting auditions next week. If I get in, then I won't need lessons anymore, or, well, school." She rubbed the back of her neck. "Horsey's decision really got me thinking, you know? I know what I want to do—no, I know what I love to do, and I'd already be graduated if I were still in Manehattan, so why am I wasting time here?"

"Because you said you wanted to enjoy having friends and free time," Crystal offered quietly.

Velvet shrugged. "I had a great year, and I don't have any regrets, but when I saw the flyers for the Canterlot Ballet I got way more excited about that than all the bowling nights and dance parties combined." She smiled and shook her head, asking with a playful hint of sarcasm in her voice, "I mean, you're not going to try to pursue your writing career and still go to school, are you?"

It was Crystal's turn to not meet Velvet's gaze. She bit her lip and looked anywhere but at Velvet. "I don't really have that freedom. My parents finished Canterlot Academy. So did their parents, and—We may not always get along, but I'm not ready to burn that bridge, I guess."

"Oh." Velvet snapped her mouth shut, blinked a few times, and hesitated. Finally, she smiled. "Well, if that's really what's important to you."

The words sunk into Crystal's mind like stones into a lake. They settled at the very base of her thoughts and started to weigh heavily on her, but she shook her head quickly to dislodge them for the time being. "That's great for you, though! So your parents are okay with it?" She laughed at her own words. "Nevermind, of course they are. Your parents are actually reasonable ponies."

"I know, right?" Velvet sighed wistfully. "Sometimes, I don't know how you can survive without parents like mine!"

"Rub it in, why don't you?" Crystal giggled and shifted on her pillow almost uncomfortably despite her happy tone and expression. "Does this mean I'm going to see you less and less now?"

Velvet hummed in thought, tapping one hoof on the ground. "Probably, but you're going to be so busy with school and writing that I doubt you'll even notice I'm missing."

Crystal's ears folded back and she muttered intentionally loud, "I'd at least find time for you."

"Yeah, yeah." Velvet scrunched up her face and stuck out her tongue. "If I end up touring Equestria with the ballet company, I'll do my best to send you postcards or something."

"Gee, thanks." Crystal stuck her tongue out right back at her.

They held their expressions for as long as they could until Velvet succumbed to giggles, prompting Crystal to join her. As their laughter slowly quieted, their optimism started to deflate, shown in their sobering expressions.

"Crystal?" Velvet asked quietly.

"Yeah?" Crystal glanced at her.

"Things are going to be different from now on, aren't they?"

Crystal paused to think of the best yet still honest response she could, eventually landing on, "Yeah."

"Oh." Velvet got up and moved closer, settling on the available space remaining on Crystal's pillow and curling up against her. "That sucks."

Crystal shifted and rested her muzzle on top of Velvet's head. "Yeah." She paused, then continued, "But it'll be a good kind of different, I think."

Velvet closed her eyes, starting to smile again and muttering softly, "Yeah."

Crystal waited outside the palace and tried her best not to look suspicious, wearing her nicest sundress and a pink ribbon in her mane. After all, who could look like a threat to the kingdom while wearing a pink ribbon?

The guards stationed outside the palace were either well-trained in not showing that they were watching her or had accurately deemed her not a threat. She kept smiling, however, and admired the courtyard. She had been to the castle before, but only to the garden party or the ballroom. Today, Raven was going to show her so much more. The smile started to grow wider, but she cleared her throat to keep herself looking pleasantly calm. Too much excitement might draw the attention of the guards.

She glanced at them again to ensure they weren't approaching to drag her away, looking over just as the doors opened. Raven stood there a moment to scan the courtyard before she saw her. Crystal froze the instant their eyes locked. The uncertain, guarded mare from the garden party was not the one walking over to her with a steady gait and stern frown. There was a coldness in her eyes that sent a shiver down Crystal's spine.

"Good afternoon, Miss Wishes." Raven hovered a clipboard and pencil between them. "Please sign here agreeing to not stray into restricted areas, to not touch anything without granted permission, and to not interrupt any of the castle staff. Know that by signing, I am responsible for your actions while inside the palace walls in lieu of a guard escort, so act accordingly or you will be forced to leave the premises."

Though she knew she should never sign anything without reading it herself first, the seriousness in Raven's eyes and voice made Crystal forget herself long enough to sign on the dotted line.

"Very good. Follow me." Raven's magic drew the clipboard back to her and she turned to walk to the still open castle doors.

Crystal blinked a few times and quickened her pace to walk alongside Raven. "I thought this—"

"It's still a tour, yes," Raven interrupted, "but you will be entering areas of the castle not privy to the public eye, so I have just taken responsibility for you."

Crystal started to frown. "Can I just—"

"No." She sighed and stopped, turning her head to look at Crystal. "I have a very busy day and don't have time to answer questions not relevant to your research." Her tone lowered suddenly to a whisper. "Please don't forget that I work here and am particularly attached to my job, so I require as much professionalism between us as possible while we are here."

The frown lifted as the gears clicked into place. As the personal aide to the princess herself and in a secret relationship with a prince, Raven guarded her outward appearance more seriously than most. If she believed her actions reflected on the princess, then Crystal would respect that. She smiled, nodded, and drew a hoof across her lips. This earned a brief smile from Raven.

"Thank you. Now, first we shall go to the kitchen so you are familiar with where Sable will spend her working hours, then…"

The castle was, in one word, magnificent. Crystal kept an ear on Raven's every word to file them away while she admired her surroundings. Guards were posted outside most doors, observing the pair or just staring at the wall in boredom. The sweeping, grand architecture made the greatest impression on her, but she could only store so much information on it. After all, while she herself had rarely been that far into the castle, it would be Sable's every day, and she had to keep that in mind.

The smell of fresh herbs and roasted vegetables filled the air. There was the slight tinge of parmesan cheese floating underneath the heavier rosemary, but when all of the scents combined, even Sable's mouth watered at her own creation. She arranged the zucchini, yellow squash, and tomato slices on the plate in a perfect spiral, then tapped her hoof against a bell hanging from the ceiling.

Like clockwork, a servant walked through the doors, swept the plate up onto one hoof, and left to serve the princess. Sable watched the double doors swing back and forth before settling in the closed position, and she let a sigh escape. What she wouldn't give to see Princess Divina's face just once, to know if the princess enjoyed her food even half as much as she enjoyed preparing it.

"No, no, no." Raven looked across the cafe table and slid the papers back to Crystal. "The princess despises rosemary. Sable would know this."

It had only taken her a day after the tour to put together a more complete draft of the serial installments that made up the first chapter. Raven had agreed to meet during her lunch break at a cafe off grounds to discuss the accuracy of the chapter's details, which Raven cared about much more than Crystal did.

Crystal shifted in her seat, unable to help a small bit of exasperation in her voice. "But this isn't Princess Celestia. It's a different princess."

Raven gave Crystal a frown. "I did not go over our allotted tour to detail the princess's likes and dislikes for you to invent a whole new princess entirely."

"But if my princess has all the little details of Princess Celestia, and she happens to—she forbid—read it, won't she send the Royal Guard after me for being a crazed stalker?"

Raven waved a dismissive hoof. "The princess is far too busy, and she would have no way of knowing that you originally used rosemary."

Crystal stared at her a moment, then broke out into giggles. "All right, all right. I'll change it to parsley. Parsley wasn't on the list of dislikes." She raised a pencil to scribble notes across the draft. "Satisfied?"

"Very." Raven took a victorious bite of her sandwich and continued in a softer voice after swallowing, "I'm sorry for being such a nitpick about your story. I just can't help myself. My job is dedicated to ensuring precise and accurate details."

"I understand." Crystal smiled. She flipped to the next page. "You'll really help me out on portraying Highborn's character accurately. I'm struggling a little with that so far. This is the first time I've written such an arrogant, pompous prince and I'm not sure how to redeem him." She laughed softly under her breath.

Raven blinked a few times. "Really? What sort of princes have you written before?"

"Daring, kind, brave, passionate ones," she replied simply, as though it should have been obvious.

A heavy blush lit up Raven's cheeks and she looked down at her sandwich. "Oh, I see." She glanced around them. They had picked a table away from the other cafe occupants, but she still seemed nervous of eavesdroppers. "Could I—I mean to say, would you mind if I borrowed some of your other works?"

Crystal looked up at her with wide eyes that narrowed playfully after a moment of thought. "I don't know. The details might not be accurate enough for your liking," she teased.

Raven's blush grew a darker shade of red. "I—you—I'm just curious!"

"Uh-huh." Crystal winked. "Well, every mare is entitled to fantasizing. I'll see what I can do."

The embarrassment seemed to be too much for Raven as she stood abruptly, not looking Crystal in the eyes. "I—I believe my lunch break is over, so if you will excuse me, I must get back to work."

Crystal watched her hurriedly leave the cafe and tilted her head. Perhaps she had gone too far? After all, their relationship was still very tentative. Raven didn't seem to have any friends, what with the way she took her job so seriously—especially with her romantic secret—and how none of the servants in the castle seemed to regard her in any way but professionally courteous.

Crystal sighed and levitated the remnant of her sandwich and finished it off with two bites. Well, making a copy of some of her better romances featuring princes could be a good first step toward some sort of friendship, or it could be an embarrassing mistake. She hesitated, then smiled at the thought of what Velvet would say.

There's only one way to find out!

Moving On

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Crystal sat on the stool in front of her vanity, examining her reflection. Everything seemed to be in place: her mane was brushed and adorned with her now-signature braid, her face was washed and powdered smooth with foundation, and her eyelashes were thickened and elongated with mascara. Yet, somehow, she felt incomplete.

She raised a hoof to touch her cheek, scrunching it up then pulling it back down. "Hmm." A small brush raised from its container, dipped its tip into a container of black makeup, and painted a small heart near the corner of her left eye.

She smiled at her work. Now she felt ready to leave her room.

As she descended the stairs, she offered a light "Good morning" to her parents.

Jet Set looked up from his newspaper with a smile. "I thought you'd never come down, dear. You missed breakfast."

Crystal flicked her tail. "I have a meeting at the cafe this morning. I had to be sure I was put together."

Upper Crust was focused so intently on the magazine draped over her forelegs that her ears didn't even swivel to acknowledge the conversation.

Crystal waited a moment, then raised one brow and said in a louder voice, "I'm leaving, Mother."

Upper Crust's whole body flinched with surprise and she jerked her head up. "Darling! Darling, have you seen the latest issue of Mares Monthly?" She paused. "And what is that on your face?"

"Nevermind that, Mother." Her heart pounded in her chest, but she kept her face locked in the intrigued position. "What's this about Mares Monthly?"

"Oh, yes." Upper Crust slipped a hoof out from under the magazine to tap on a page. "They've started publishing literature in place of their informative articles." She frowned down at the helpless text. "If I wanted to read fiction, I would go to a library." There was a pause before she chuckled and added, "Or to your room."

Crystal hesitated. The little filly in the back of her mind wanted her mother's approval, but the mare she was now knew it wouldn't happen. Her mother had a strong opinion about fiction, and it wasn't positive.

With a dry swallow, she fought back the filly's cries and smiled. "Then simply don't read the literature, Mother."

Upper Crust closed the magazine and tossed it onto the coffee table. "Certainly not."

Crystal took a step forward when it landed coverside up. "Oh! It's Golden Pants!" She smiled.

The mare was perched on the cover with a coy look, wearing a dress that blended perfectly with her golden coat. It was almost as if she was one with the slinky, shimmery fabric that swept off to one side of the page. What Crystal noticed most of all, however, were her blonde tresses, bleached to an almost platinum color.

"She dyed her mane?" Crystal mused aloud.

"Of course, darling." Upper Crust tossed her own mane over her shoulder. "She's known as Au now."

"Au? That's Prench, isn't it?"

Upper Crust clicked her tongue against the roof of her mouth. "Yes, as well as chemistry, darling. AU is gold. It's a very clever and sophisticated name. Everypony is talking about her, you know."

"I see." Crystal pursed her lips but shrugged off the rest of her thoughts. "Well, good for her, and all that. I've got to leave for my meeting now."

"You've been having an awful lot of 'meetings' lately." Her mother raised her brow. "Are you seeing a stallion that you don't want us to know of? Is he the reason for the smudge on your cheek?"

Crystal groaned and levitated one of the hats by the door onto her head. "No, Mother, it's nothing like that! I'll be back later!"

Happy to shut the door behind her, she let out a heavy sigh. She was growing tired of having to explain herself whenever she left the house. It was difficult to feel like an adult with her mother questioning her every move.

When she arrived at the cafe near the castle, she easily spotted Raven sitting at the usual table in the corner.

"Good morning, Raven!" she chimed as she sat down in the seat across from her. "I was surprised when you wrote that you wanted to meet so early. Do you have a busy afternoon?"

Raven wasn't looking her directly in the eyes. She shook her head. "I simply wanted to see you sooner rather than later."

Crystal's smile sobered. "Why is that?"

Raven said nothing, instead simply lifting a folder onto the table and sliding it over. Crystal, after a hesitant moment, opened it to peer at its contents, then looked back up at Raven.

"Um." Crystal tried not to grin when she saw the bright blush lighting up Raven's face. "Well?"

Raven sputtered, "I, ah, I—" She covered her mouth and glared at Crystal, though there was no malice in her gaze. "Is there more?"

Crystal giggled and flipped through the copies of her prose that she had dropped in the mail for the mare. "Oh, plenty. This was some of my better work, so I must warn you that it's fairly downhill from here." She put the folder into her saddlebags and took out the draft of her recent work on The Mare's Temptation. "I think you'll like what I have planned for the next few installments, however."

Raven's ears perked straight up. "Oh?" She leaned in, easily accepting the change of topic. "What's that?"

"The Grand Galloping Gala!"

Raven paused and raised her hooves, staring at them as she mouthed indiscernible words to herself. Crystal waited patiently for the mare to look back up.

"It fits with the timeline, if I recall the previous chapters correctly," she finally said. "But you've only just had the first installment published, haven't you? How many chapters ahead is this now?"

Crystal nodded. "I'm trying to get as much written as I can so I have a good buffer built up. There's not much downtime available between publications with the editing and approval processes, so." She waved a hoof to dismiss the topic. "Anyway, here you are." She set the papers down in front of Raven.

While Raven carefully pored over the writing, jotting down notes here and there, Crystal ordered tea for herself. She was halfway through her cup when Raven looked up at her. Crystal expected a smile or, at least, a straight face, but the mare looked almost sad.

"What is it?" Crystal asked, nearly dropping her cup in surprise. "Did I get something wrong again?"

"No," Raven responded in a soft voice. She looked back down at the papers. "It's quite accurate. I think you've perfectly captured Blueblood's personality."

Crystal bit her lower lip. "Is it too accurate?"

Raven hesitated, then shook her head. "No. I'm sorry, I just—" Her voice cracked and caught in her throat. She shook her head again. "I apologize. After reading your previous work, it's startling to read such a vastly different prince."

"Perhaps, but don't worry!" she hurriedly assured and offered a smile. "I promise, they're still going to get the happy ending I planned from the beginning. It'll work out for them."

Raven glanced between the papers and Crystal and mused softly, "They will, won't they?" She straightened her glasses. "Moving on, I've written down some corrections and feedback. Shall we meet again in two weeks?"

"Oh, sure." She watched the mare start to stand up. "Do you have to go back to work?"

Raven blinked at her. "What?"

Crystal swirled the honey-dipped stirrer around the teacup. "I just thought it might be nice to sit and talk."

Slowly, Raven's rump lowered back to her chair. "About?"

"Anything? Nothing?" She shrugged. "I don't know."

Raven frowned. "If you don't know, then why did you suggest it?"

"Because friends don't really have an agenda in conversation." She sipped her tea. "They just sit and talk."

Raven stared with open confusion on her face. Her voice was slow and careful as she asked, "When did we become friends?"

Crystal smiled lopsidedly. "I think of you as a friend. Maybe not a best friend, but, well, I'd be happy if you were happy, and I'd be sad if you were sad. So, I think that puts you in the ballpark, at the very least."

"Oh."

They sat in relative silence. The stirrer occasionally clinked against the side of her teacup, and there was the buzz of nearby conversations filling in the quiet.

Finally, Raven spoke up. "I have a dog. His name is Duke."

Both of them were surprised at how excitedly Crystal responded, "Really? Tell me everything about him!"

A smile brightened Raven's hesitant expression. "Well, he's a little terrier. I've had him since I was a filly." She paused, then corrected, "No, he's been my friend since I was a filly. I feel bad, sometimes, because he always looks at me like I'm breaking his heart when I leave in the morning, but he's always there at the door to my room to greet me whenever I turn in for the night." She smiled, looking somewhere past Crystal. "The way you talk about your friend Velvet is the way I feel about Duke. He's always there for me, even if he can't exactly talk."

Crystal listened quietly but eagerly as Raven told a few stories about growing up with the dog. It wasn't long before the mare insisted she had to return to work, but she left with a smile that gave Crystal hope. She remained at the cafe to read the notes over another cup of tea before she packed up and went home.

Crystal yawned as she walked to the front door that somepony was frantically knocking on. "All right, all right!" she called once she was near enough to be heard on the other side. "Calm down, I'm coming!"

When she opened the door, she was abruptly knocked to the floor by an overexcited Velvet.

"Crystal, Crystal, Crystal!" Velvet sat on Crystal's stomach and held up three envelopes in the space between them. "Look what arrived!"

Crystal squinted. "You attacked me at this hour of the morning to show me that you got mail?"

"No, you got mail!"

"What?!" Crystal squirmed, knocking Velvet off and jumping to her hooves. "I did?!"

"Why did Velvet get your mail, darling?" Upper Crust asked from the stairs as she descended them. "Did the mailpony have a mishap?"

"I guess so, Mother." Crystal mouthed 'be quiet' to Velvet, who nodded in response, then looked over her shoulder with a smile. "I'm going to walk Velvet home since it's still dark out."

Upper Crust looked at the pair with clear suspicion, but she said nonetheless, "All right, darling."

Once the door shut behind them and they had walked down the block and around the corner to be out of sight of any spying mares, Crystal turned on Velvet like a starved timberwolf. "Is it from Mares Monthly?!"

"Yes!" Velvet beamed at her. "Open them, open them!"

Crystal's magic nearly ripped the first envelope in her hurry to get it out of Velvet's grip and she tore it open. Her gaze scanned the neat hoofwriting as quickly as her mind could process the words, then she giggled.

"What does it say?!" Velvet leaned against her to read it for herself. "Oh! I must say, this is brilliant!"

"Can you believe it?" Crystal sighed dreamily. "I have been endlessly entertained by this first installment. Curious to see where this is headed." She tucked the envelope back into Velvet's hoof and lifted the second one.

There was a pause while both mares eagerly read the letter, then squealed together.

"I do say you've done a good job here, and I look forward to reading more." Velvet fanned herself with the envelopes. "This is so exciting. What's the next one say?!"

After exchanging and reading the last letter, the mares bounced up and down, giggling like fillies.

"All in all, a very good start, and I can't wait for more. Oh my Celestia, Velvet, it's only been a week and I've got three fan letters!" She grabbed Velvet by the shoulders. "Do you realize what this means?!"

"That three ponies out there like your work?" Velvet grinned.

Crystal paused, then muttered, "Well, yes, but you were supposed to say 'what' so I could say it myself."

Velvet smothered a giggle, scrunching up her nose and asking in a mock curious tone, "What?"

"Three ponies out there like my work!" She grinned, then laughed. "Thank you for letting me say it." She glanced up at the horizon. "Do you think your parents would mind it if we dropped by before they're open?"

Velvet rolled her eyes. "Have they ever?"

Crystal nodded and started to trot in the direction of Sunridge Sweets. "Then celebratory cupcakes for breakfast it is!"

Every time Velvet received mail for Crystal, she hurried over right away. After Upper Crust's suspicious reaction the first time, however, they learned to be much more subdued until they had left the house and were out of sight before letting their excitement show.

"Crystal, it's not even been two months and today you got seventeen letters!" She raised a hoof to lift the flaps of her saddlebags. "You got eleven yesterday. This is getting ridiculous!"

Crystal danced from one hoof to the other. "Ridiculously awesome, you mean!"

Velvet gave a smile, but it wasn't as full of mirth as it normally was. "No, what I mean is, my parents wanted me to talk to you about it. They don't know what they'll do with your mail after I move out."

"Move out?" She blinked a few times. "But that's—I mean, move out? That's not for a while, so why talk about it now?"

"Because." Velvet rubbed one hoof against the other leg. "I got into the Canterlot Ballet."

Crystal gasped and threw her forelegs around Velvet's neck. "Oh my gosh, Velvet, that's amazing! How can you say that in such a nervous manner?!"

Velvet giggled softly, returning the embrace with one leg. "Because." She pushed Crystal away to look her in the eyes. "I'm going to move out. Like, soon. Probably really soon."

They stared at each other in an awkward moment of silence until Crystal simply said, "Oh."

Moving In

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Velvet smiled. "So, I was wondering—"

Crystal nodded quickly, interrupting, "Yes, I'll absolutely write!"

Velvet's smile fell and her brow furrowed. "Huh?"

"Of course I'll write! And I'll keep an eye on your parents, and let you know how the bakery's doing, and—" Her words caught in her throat. She rubbed at her watering eyes. "And, and—"

"Oh my gosh, Crystal, calm down!" Velvet put her hooves on Crystal's shoulders and gave a small shake to bring her back to the moment. "What the hay are you talking about?"

She struggled to say it. If she said it, then it was real. Softly, she whispered, "You're moving." The tears fell down her cheeks the moment the words left her lips.

Velvet shook her head. "Yeah, but I'm not moving away! Celestia's sake, I know I didn't exactly present it properly, but I'm just moving out of my parents' house. What I wanted to ask was if you'd move in with me."

Another silent pause fell on them, interrupted only by Crystal's sniffling while she processed the new information. Velvet just stared at her, smiling and waiting expectantly.

"You mean," Crystal finally started, "move out of my parents' house, too?" She bit her lip. "Where?"

"There's a condominium in the complex down the road from my parents' that just became available. The pony who owns it has to leave Canterlot before next week and is offering cheap rent if we move in by tomorrow." Velvet grinned sheepishly. "I figured, with me starting my career, I won't get to see you very often. So if we move in together, that ensures we'll have to spend time together at some point. Right?"

Crystal's eyes widened. "Velvet, I—" She turned away to stare down the street. It was hard to think clearly with Velvet right there in front of her; how could she say anything but yes to her best friend's face?

Velvet allowed Crystal to think for a minute or two longer before she offered, "It's okay if you don't want to. I just wanted to make the offer, is all."

Without seeing her face, Crystal could tell just by Velvet's voice that she was disappointed. "It's not that I don't want to!" She hesitated, then looked at her and continued quietly, "I just don't know how my parents would react."

"Your parents?" It rarely happened, but Velvet actually scowled. "Oh, Crystal, I'm tired of that excuse! You can't live under their hooves forever!" She stomped against the cobblestone. "What do you want to do? What's important to you? That's all I care about, and the same should go for you!"

Crystal took a startled step backward. "What?"

"Do you want to keep living with your parents? It's a simple question, Crystal." Velvet stared her down. "Forget about the moving in with me part; just answer that question."

Crystal breathed in and held it. "No," she mumbled, releasing the breath suddenly. Like a small crack in a dam, words started to spew forth faster and louder than she intended. "Of course I don't! I never feel at ease, not even in my own room, because Mom just barges in whenever she feels like it! She judges and criticizes everything I do. She's always watching me, and if I make even the slightest error in proper form, she snaps it up as though she's starved for excuses to scold me!"

The torrent of words calmed to a gentle stream as she continued in bitter mumble, "I'm sick of it. I'm trying to move forward with my life, but I feel like I'm getting nowhere. It's like I'm still a filly and always will be."

Velvet kept a neutral expression as she said, "All right, good. Now let's get back to the moving in with me part."

"Of course I'd love that! You're my best friend in all of Equestria. Why wouldn't I want to be your roommate?!"

Finally, Velvet smiled again. "Then let's do it!"

Crystal nodded. With determination clear on her face, she started to trot in the direction of home. "Yeah! Let's do it!"

"All right!" Velvet cheered, following after her. "We're going to be roommates!"

Crystal said nothing until she opened the front door and stepped into the living room. "Mom! Dad! I've got some news for the both of you."

Jet Set looked over at Crystal with mild surprise from his usual spot on the recliner. "You don't look happy, dear," he said rather simply, blinking. "Is everything all right?"

Crystal blinked. Her determination faded, easing her expression, but also softening her voice. "Um, yes." She cleared her throat and tried to relight some of the fire that had been burning just moments before. "I'm moving out."

Upper Crust nearly fell off the couch in her hurry to get up and over to her. "You're what?" She paused just a few paces away from her daughter, stopping to look past her at Velvet. "Oh, of course." She smiled, though without warmth. "I'm not surprised it would come to this, darling, what with the way you two have been sneaking off lately." She waved a hoof. "I won't allow it."

Jet Set slowly rose from the recliner. "Dear, perhaps we should—"

“I’m not a filly anymore, Mother.” Crystal scowled. “I’m a mare and you should start treating me like one. I've made up my mind and I'm moving in with Velvet.”

"Nonsense." Upper Crust huffed. "I won't have any of this nonsense. I wasn't going to say anything because it seemed fairly harmless at first, but I'm putting an end to this silly little C.W. Step game you two have going on."

"I—" Crystal choked. "You know about that?!"

Upper Crust looked down her snout at her with a slight frown. "You may think me addle-minded, darling, but it's not so difficult to put the pieces together. Really, which one of you thought 'C.W. Step' was a clever pseudonym for your tawdry little fantasies?"

Velvet took a step forward and placed herself ahead of Crystal, though not quite in between mother and daughter. "Hey, they're not tawdry! Crystal's a great writer!"

Upper Crust gave Velvet a withering stare just as Jet Set interrupted, "Now, now, I think this is escalating past the point, don't you think?" He smiled. "Crystal, dear, you were trying to tell us that you wanted to move out. Let's discuss that concern first." He glanced between each of the mares. "Like civilized ponies."

The tension hung thick in the air. Velvet didn't back down from Upper Crust's stare, and Upper Crust didn't stop giving it. Finally, Crystal broke the momentary standstill by walking between them.

"I'm moving out," she said without missing a step in her stride. "I'm getting my things, and I'm moving out."

Jet Set's smile fell. "That's not really a discussion, Crystal."

"You're right." She paused to stop at the stairs and frowned at them. "It's not."

Upper Crust finally broke the standstill to look over at Crystal. "Darling, what are you going to do about school?"

Crystal rolled her eyes. "Obviously, I'll have to get a job to help pay rent, so I'll drop out."

The moment the dreaded words hit their ears, Jet Set and Upper Crust looked at one another in open fear.

"Now, Crystal, let's not be so hasty, dear," Jet Set started.

"I understand if you feel like there is tension between us, but that's no reason to ruin your life," Upper Crust continued.

"If money is the concern, then we'll send you an allowance to cover the rent as long as you stay in school."

"Yes, we'll—what?" Upper Crust glanced back at her husband. He gave her a steady, stern stare and she finished in a lower voice, "We'll send you an allowance."

Crystal's face scrunched up. "An allowance? Like I'm some sort of filly? I don't need your charity!"

Velvet, who had been content to simply stand there after winning the staring contest, sprung back into the conversation by running over to Crystal. "Wait, wait, wait!" She grabbed her by the neck and tugged her down to whisper in her ear, "No, take the money."

"What?" Crystal whispered back.

"Crystal, you don't make much yet, and I just barely started my career. We're going to be totally poor." She repeated with heavier emphasis, "Take. The. Money."

After a moment of uneasy hesitation, Crystal groaned and finally said, "All right, I'll accept the money. Thanks, Mother, Father."

"Certainly." Jet Set straightened his glasses. "Shall we hire Two Stallions and a Cart to move your things?"

Upper Crust turned on him. "Darling," she started, her voice humming with strain as she struggled to keep it even and calm. "Crystal wants to be an adult. Shouldn't we let her handle things on her own now?"

Jet Set replied with a simple shrug of his shoulders and said nothing further, instead looking back at Crystal for an answer.

"I—I can hire them myself. I have some bits from my 'tawdry' job." She rolled her eyes and climbed the stairs. "Come on, Velvet."

Velvet hopped up the stairs behind her. "Yup!"

Once in her room, Crystal dumped a box of makeup out onto her bed, then started to fill it with her more important possessions. The rest the movers could handle, but she didn't trust them with her precious books, notebooks, and assorted keepsakes.

"Can we move in today?" she asked, her back to Velvet.

Velvet was sitting on the bed, looking through the discarded makeup. "Hmm?" She glanced up at her. "Oh, yeah. I was going to move in with or without you, so I already paid the deposit. Well, my parents did, but I'll pay them back when I can."

Crystal sighed. "You're so lucky," she muttered.

"Hey, your parents are going to cover our rent!" Velvet grinned. She picked up a bottle of hoofpolish and put it against one of her hooves, murmuring, "Oh, this is a nice color."

Crystal looked over her shoulder to see what she had, smiled, and returned to her packing. "You can have it. I guess we'll be sharing a lot of things from now on, huh?"

Velvet tucked the bottle into a pocket on her saddlebags. "Yup!" She started to swing her hindlegs. "This is going to be a good kind of different, I can feel it."

"Me, too." Crystal closed the box and levitated it onto her back. "Okay, let's stop by Two Stallions and a Cart. Then I want to see our new home!"

When Velvet said the condominium complex was down the road from her parents', she had exaggerated some. It was a good three blocks away, further into the residential area of Canterlot and away from the hustle and bustle. It was much quieter than what Crystal was used to, and she rather liked it.

Velvet stopped just outside a door that Crystal guessed was to be theirs. "I've already seen it, so you go in first."

"All right." Crystal turned the doorknob and gasped.

The interior wasn't anything extraordinary. The walls were painted the normal creamy off-white color that every condo Crystal had been into sported. The hardwood flooring seemed to be well taken care of; it even looked recently polished. Three doors were set against two of the walls, open just enough to reveal a bedroom and a bathroom straight ahead and a second bedroom off to the right.

The main area was an open concept of living room and kitchen with enough room for a small dining table. Everything seem to be of a humble size, appropriate for two mares with no sizable incomes to speak of. The living room she was gazing into was perfectly empty, except for one blue-and-chestnut detail smiling at her.

"Welcome home!" Horsey squealed, throwing a bunch of confetti into the air.

"Oh my gosh, Horsey!" The box nearly fell out of Crystal's magic when she rushed forward to tackle Horsey with an excited hug. "I haven't seen you in a month!"

"A month and a half," Horsey corrected, giggling. "But I'm definitely not counting or anything."

Crystal pulled back to look at her with a mixed expression of confusion and happiness. "Are you moving back to Canterlot to live here with us?"

Horsey shook her head. "Oh, no, I'm just visiting to help unpack and celebrate your independence. I'm very happy in Ponyville, thank you very much."

"Aww." Crystal smiled nonetheless, hugged her once more, then took a step back to look around the room. "Well, the movers will be here in an hour, so I guess we'll just have to wait until then."

Velvet trotted over and flopped down onto the floor beside Horsey. "So I won the bet."

Horsey looked at her with wide eyes. "Really?!"

Crystal glanced between them. "What bet?"

Horsey flushed while Velvet explained, "Horsey didn't think you'd tell your parents off." She puffed out her chest. "I knew you had it in you!"

Horsey rubbed the back of her neck, grinning sheepishly and looking down at the floor. "Well, I mean, I couldn't even talk to my parents when I moved to Ponyville. We still haven't talked since. I just assumed—"

"Really? After all this time?" Crystal furrowed her brow. "Not even one letter?"

Horsey's grin started to fall. "Nope. But it's all right. I'm happy just getting letters from you and Velvet."

By the time the three of them had covered the recent events in their lives, the movers showed up as if on cue. Velvet and Horsey sat out of the way, giggling and gossiping about the well-built stallions while Crystal directed her furniture around her new room. It didn't take long, as the stallions were able to carry and move the furniture with ease until she was satisfied with the arrangement.

"Thank you so much!" she chirped as she offered them both a tip of a couple bits each.

"Not a problem, ma'am," one replied. "Anything else we can do for you three ladies?"

Horsey and Velvet erupted into a fit of giggles. Crystal, although she certainly felt her heart throb at the muscular studs standing in front of her offering their services, kept her manners about her and smiled politely. "Oh, no, I think we're fine. Have a great day!"

They both nodded and walked out the door, shutting it behind them. Once they were alone, Crystal's legs quivered and she nearly swooned.

"Oh my goodness, girls, I do declare!" she said in a playfully dramatic tone. "I wanted to have them keep moving my bookcase for hours just to watch those muscles in action." She grinned.

Horsey giggled. "You still like that kind of stallion?"

Velvet rolled her eyes, waving one hoof. "Are you kidding? Crystal leers at guards like a famished timberwolf!"

Crystal stuck her tongue out at the both of them. "It's a victimless crime! Besides, it's not my fault Raven can't go too far from the castle, so I spend a lot of time near lots of guards. Lots of handsome guards," she practically purred.

"How can you tell what they even look like under all that armor?" Horsey tilted her head.

"The fact that they can move with all that armor is enough for me. It must be heavy, so they must be strong." Crystal paused before she laughed. "Anyway, I've got some boxes to unpack!" Her magic lifted the box she had packed herself over and she pulled open the flaps.

Horsey and Velvet scooted closer to peer inside.

"Oh!" Horsey's hooves flew to cover her mouth as she gasped in surprise. "You still have that?!"

Crystal smiled, her gaze immediately landing on the item in question. A silk, white lily mane clip sat at the very top of the pile, as it was too delicate to pile things onto. "Of course. It's when we finally, really became friends."

Horsey stared at her for a silent moment, then slowly smiled. "Yeah. I still remember that day."

"And what's that?" Velvet pointed.

Crystal followed the hoof's direction to the silk-bound book. "Oh! This was from the disappointing date." She laughed. "Midnight bought it for me. It's Brydlestrata by Aristopones."

Velvet's ears perked. "I've not heard of that one."

Horsey shook her head. "Me neither."

"It's really good!" Crystal carried the box into her room to actually start unpacking, the girls following after her. "It's a story about a war, though that's not the focus of the story. Brydlestrata is a cunning, intelligent mare whom all the other mares confide in and listen to."

She started with unloading her favorite books onto the bookshelves first, then the assorted books the movers had packed.

"They all miss their husbands desperately," Crystal continued, "so she concocts a plan to force the war to end by keeping the stallions at home."

"What plan?" Horsey asked. Velvet nodded in mutual curiosity.

Crystal looked over her shoulder with a coquettish grin. "She convinced all the mares to tease their husbands, but not give them any so they'd be too frustrated to go back to war."

Velvet laughed while Horsey just stared in confusion and quietly asked, "Give them any, what?"

Crystal and Velvet looked at each other, both waiting for the other to explain, when it was Horsey's turn to laugh.

"Gotchya!" Horsey shook her head, grinning. "Come on, girls, I'm not that naive anymore!"

Just as Crystal wanted to pry into exactly what that meant, there was a sudden, rapid knocking on the front door. "Who could that be?" She looked at Velvet. "Another surprise of yours?"

Velvet shook her head. The knocking repeated. "I don't know who it is."

Crystal shrugged. "Maybe it's a neighbor or something." She trotted out into the living room and called, "Coming!"

When she opened the door, the pony standing outside startled a yelp out of her. Velvet and Horsey hurried out into the living room at the cry of surprise, but they both froze when they saw the visitor.

"Raven?!" Crystal exclaimed. "What are you doing here? No, forget that question. What's wrong?!" She stepped out of the way to gesture her inside.

Raven stood on the landing with tear-stained cheeks, her chest rising and falling with ragged breaths. She took a few trembling steps to get inside, then dropped her rump down.

"I—I'm sorry, Crystal." She covered her face with a hoof. "I may have caused trouble for you. I went to your parents' house, and they directed me here, but your mother, she—"

Crystal wrapped a foreleg around Raven's shoulders. "Don't worry about that."

Raven sobbed openly as her whole frame trembled with each shuddering breath. "I can't do it anymore. I either can't be with Blueblood, or I can't help you, but I can't do both."

"But why?" Crystal furrowed her brow.

"I'm jealous of Sable," Raven spat out with a bitter laugh. "I'm jealous of their happy ending! Can you believe it? A mare my age being jealous of a fictional character. A fictional character that's supposed to be me!"

Crystal was at a loss for words, so Raven continued in a softer voice when the silence ticked on a moment too long, "I'm sorry. I just—I was reading your draft of the last chapter, and I couldn't stop crying." She touched her hooves to her tear-stained cheeks. "Sable gets her prince, but what about me?"

Crystal rubbed a small circle into Raven's back and looked to the Velvet and Horsey, but neither had anything to offer. "Well," she started. She paused to bite her lip, then pressed on, "Sable doesn't get her happy ending without working for it. She confronted Highborn and got him to be honest about his feelings." She looked back at Raven. "Perhaps that's what you need to do. Stop letting him have all the control."

Raven frowned up at her. "It doesn't work like that. It's not that easy."

"Why not?" Horsey's eyes widened, startled at hearing her own voice. When all eyes turned on her, she continued, "I mean, I don't see why not. If I've learned anything, it's that if you want happiness, you have to grab it yourself."

Raven slowly shook her head. "You don't understand. He's—I—" Her guard started to fall as the tears started again. "I'm scared of his response."

Crystal cleared her throat and looked at Velvet. "Velvet, why don't you and Horsey go get some ice cream from the store?"

"Huh?" the three mares responded in varying degrees of confusion.

"I think we need a mare's night in." She smiled. "And some ice cream is necessary for that. I'll stay with Raven while you two get supplies, if that's all right?"

Raven offered a weak shrug. "I've already lost my dignity here. What is there to argue with at this point?"

Crystal patted Raven on the back, then gestured for Velvet and Horsey to head on. Raven seemed disinclined to speak, and Crystal had no intent of forcing her to. They merely sat together, silent and uncertain of the future.

Normally, Crystal knew just what to say. She had been raised to be quick on her tongue to appease anypony in any situation. This time, however, she had nothing. Every word of comfort that came to mind seemed empty and hollow, and she smothered them all.

When Velvet and Horsey returned nearly half an hour later, they had saddlebags full of containers of ice cream, as well as a special surprise: a bottle of blueberry wine. Glasses were poured and drinks downed. It wasn't long before tipsy, loose lips started to wander them into more personal conversations.

"No way!" Crystal gasped.

"Oh my," Horsey smiled behind a hoof.

Raven giggled and shook her glass at the three of them. "It's true! He did. Only once, but he did. I—I—" She scrunched up her nose. "I just laughed at him. I don't know if he was trying to be romantic or serious, but seeing him with a bow tied over his plot, I couldn't stop laughing. He didn't look at me for weeks after that."

Crystal whispered as loud as a whisper could get, "Psst, you know what? You know what?"

Raven grinned lopsidedly. "What?"

Crystal looked at Velvet and Horsey. "Don't you agree?"

Horsey simply shrugged. Velvet nearly snorted the sip of wine she had just taken and said, "You haven't said anything yet to agree to."

"Pfft." Crystal rolled her eyes. "It's totally obvious." She looked back at Raven. "I just explained this to Velvet and Horsey earlier. What you have to do is tease him, but don't give him any. It'll frustrate him. It ended a war, so why can't it end the war—of your heart?" She wiggled her ears.

Velvet fell off her pillow, laughing. "Crystal!"

Raven levitated the bottle and emptied it into her glass, then took a sip. "I don't even care. If he doesn't want to be with me, then I don't want to be with him. When I see him tomorrow, I'm gonna say—" She leaned in, her face close to Crystal's, her expression serious. "Bluebie, do you want me?"

Velvet and Horsey snickered while Crystal tried to mimic Blueblood's haughty look.

"If you want me, then no more games. Be mine and only mine." She held the seriousness for a moment longer, then laughed and withdrew. "Or, well, not. Who cares?" She finished off her glass and looked at it forlornly. "Who cares."

"Yeah!" Velvet raised her glass in the air. "Forget stallions! Who needs 'em, anyway?"

They all joined in with their own glasses raised in a toast to happy lives without stallions, then laughed. It wasn't the perfect first night as roommates that Crystal had imagined, but all four mares slept soundly on the blankets and pillows that were spread out on the living room floor, each wishing for a better, brighter future.

A New Chapter

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Crystal smiled as she walked into the living room with a whistling tea kettle levitating beside her. "How many lumps of sugar would you like with your tea, Trend?"

"Two, please." Trenderhoof flashed a polite smile. "Thank you."

Travel had done the stallion a lot of good. He had broken the plastic mold of Canterlot society and found his own stride. He was sincere, genuine, and confident. Some said he was a little too confident, but he had certainly earned the right to be. It had been about a year since she had last seen him and if she were into the lanky type, this would be a tempting encounter.

"Certainly." Crystal nestled down onto the pillow across from Trenderhoof and poured the hot water into the two cups. She maintained eye contact with him, preparing the tea easily by relying on rote memorization. "I appreciate you agreeing to have the interview here."

Trenderhoof shook his head. "It's no problem at all. I don't normally do this kind of article, but for you, I'm more than happy to oblige your request!" He paused, then added with an earnest smile, "I've had the pleasure of staying in all manners of places, but it's nice to spend some time back home in the comforts of Canterlot architecture. Besides, your condo is so very well-maintained that I couldn't possibly complain."

Crystal waved a hoof, laughing softly. "I can't take full credit for that. My roommate does most of the cleaning."

"Your roommate?" His ears pointed forward, alert and recording. "A live-in coltfriend, perhaps?"

"Oh, no, nothing of the sort." She laughed softly, though she panicked on the inside. She had to be more careful with her words around journalists. "She's my best friend."

"I see," the stallion said in a tone that suggested more than Crystal meant, though she couldn't reason why.

"We've been friends since we were fillies."

"I see." There was that tone again. The pencil and pad lifted and he jotted down a note.

Crystal tried not to break her smile. She dropped the lumps of sugar into Trenderhoof's tea. What in Equestria did he think was going on? She tried to peer at what had been written, but the pad tilted out of her view.

He smiled. "So, Crystal—or, should I say, C.W.? That's what you prefer to be called, is it not?"

"I do, yes. If you don’t mind—"

"Of course. I understand that you authors prefer your anonymity and I respect that." He chuckled and continued, "C.W., not even a full year ago, you were an unknown author whose first chapter of The Mare's Temptation was just published in Mares Monthly. The series took off rather quickly and is now being published as a novel. Are you an overnight success? Has it changed you?”

Crystal giggled and waved a hoof to dismiss the notion. "Oh, no, I certainly hope I'm still the same mare. I can't speak to the success part; as a serial, I was delighted by letters from fans, so I would dare to say there is a good chance The Mare's Temptation will do well as a novel, too."

Trenderhoof nodded. "Now, my usual audience is mainly interested in travel, culture, and cuisine. As a blossoming author in the romance world, how can your story relate to their interests? More importantly, why should they buy your book?"

Crystal crossed her hooves in proper lady-like form, trying to keep her muddled feelings of excitement and nervousness under control. It was a question she had prepared herself for after reaching out to a travel writer. Sunset Coffee had suggested the idea of having an interview done to advertise the release, and she knew Trenderhoof owed her a favor, as conniving as it was to think.

"On the whole," she said, her gaze drifting over to the bookshelves along one of the condo's walls, "books are the easiest way to travel. They can take a pony anywhere in the world without having to leave one's home. They can also provide a deeper view into a new, unfamiliar culture."

She returned her gaze to him and smiled. "For your readers who are not familiar with Canterlot culture, I would dare to say that my story will open their eyes. I have lived in Canterlot my whole life, born and raised by two ponies very well-ingrained into this society. In The Mare's Temptation, you will learn many of our city's secrets that you will never discover by simply visiting.”

Trenderhoof's smile widened as he listened to her. "My, my! How eloquently stated. Well, why don't you tell me more about The Mare’s Temptation, then?"

Crystal nodded. "I am very humbled by my story's success. It was well-received by the Mares Monthly audience." She smiled as she fondly reflected on the most recent fan letters she had received. "It has been a wonderful journey from a brand new serial to a novel picked up by Reindom House. They've all been very helpful and accommodating through the process of publishing my first book."

Trenderhoof transcribed her words while he nodded and sipped his tea. "From what I researched after you reached out to me for this interview, The Mare's Temptation has caused quite a stir among the romance community. Why is that?"

"Oh, my." She raised a hoof to hide a soft laugh. "Well, the main characters are a chef in the Canterlot palace and a prince. It's a bit unconventional, but on the whole, I believe it has been well-received. After all, doesn't every mare dream of finding a prince?"

The pencil continued to glide over his notepad. "Why did you choose a chef as the leading mare? Is she, perhaps, inspired by somepony you know?"

This gave her pause. She had tried to anticipate everything he might ask. "There—" She swallowed. "There was a bit of real-life inspiration in her character, yes." Was that a good answer? Would he ask more about it?

Trenderhoof's ears perked and he leaned in. "Is that so?" There was a glimmer of curiosity in his eyes. "And did your inspiration have a happy ending like Sable and Prince Highborn?"

Crystal shifted on the pillow and laughed nervously. "Yes, I am happy to say that she found a happy ending."

He tapped a hoof against the hardwood floor. "How wonderful!" The pencil furiously scribbled across the paper as if on a mission of its own. "What would you say was the most difficult part of getting your story published?"

"The most difficult part?" Her gaze wandered the room while she hummed in thought, then she smiled at him. "I would say waiting for the finished cover. I didn't have too much input in the selection of a cover artist, which suits me fine because I didn't have anypony in mind for the job. Though I was able to meet with him to discuss my ideas, it was largely up to his creativity to design the cover. I feel he did a wonderful job capturing the feel of the story as a whole."

She looked at a copy of the book resting on the nearby coffee table. The cover boasted a detailed scene of Sable standing on a balcony and gazing at a moon, her expression perfectly capturing Sable's hopeful nature. Transposed across the night sky was the mare's dream: a vision of her holding hooves with Prince Highborn, a gold wedding band around his horn and a matching one around her dainty hoof.

Trenderhoof followed her gaze and smiled. "I would have to agree there." He looked back at her. "And, on the other hoof, what was the most exciting part?"

"Getting the letter in the mail that Reindom House was going to pick up my novel, of course," she said with an excited giggle.

He paused to look at his notes, mumbling to himself for a moment. "Hmm. Well, I appear to have enough to work with, so why don't we finish off with a question I'm sure your fans are dying to know the answer to?" His lips parted with a grin. "What's next on the horizon for C.W. Step? Do you have another gripping romance to share?"

Ah, another question she was prepared to answer. She smiled, though her heart fluttered in her chest. "I will certainly assure you that The Mare's Temptation will not be my last story."

"How did it go?" Velvet asked the moment she walked in the door. She tossed the bag containing her ballet gear into her room before returning to the main area. "Did you remember all the responses we practiced?"

Crystal looked up from the mess of papers scattered around her. "It went fine." She smiled. "How was practice?"

"Fine, huh?" Velvet mused, ignoring the question. "What happened?"

"Oh, well." She twiddled her hooves. A weak grin pulled her lips out of the gentle smile. "He asked about my next novel."

Velvet settled down on the pillow beside her. They didn't have a couch or any chairs because they weren't something either of them could afford when they first moved in. Then it turned out that pillows were much more comfortable, so they never invested in 'proper' sitting furniture.

Velvet started to paw through some of the papers lying on the floor. "What did you say?"

Crystal raised and dropped her shoulders in a slow, heavy shrug. "That Temptation wouldn't be my last story, just like you suggested."

"Yeah." Velvet started to stack the discarded papers that were filled with crossed-out lines. "So." She grinned sheepishly. "I guess that's still up in the air right now?"

"Ugh." Crystal lowered her head to bury it against her hooves, the quill she had been holding in her magic falling to the ground as her concentration was lost. "I have no ideas! Nothing! Sunset keeps asking for the next proposal, but I'm drawing a total and complete blank every time I try to think of something." She lifted her head to look up at Velvet with despair in her eyes. "What if I'm a one-hit wonder and that's all I'll ever be?"

"Oh my gosh, Crystal," Velvet muttered and rolled her eyes, though she still grinned. She reached out and tugged on Crystal's cheeks to force her lips into a smile. "You're just feeling the pressure, that's all. It'll be fine! You just need to stop thinking about it for a while and boom! It'll come to you all of a sudden." She stood up from the pillow, pausing to stretch her limbs, then trotted to the kitchen. "Are you hungry? I'm starving."

Crystal remained where she was and grumbled just loud enough to be heard, "What do we have left? More eggplant lasagna?"

Velvet giggled as she opened the freezer to look over its contents. "You liked the eggplant lasagna last week, so I got a lot of that, yeah." She grabbed two of the pre-made meals sitting on the shelf and set them on the counter. "What, you don't like it anymore already?"

Crystal started to clean up the mess she had made with her fruitless idea session, gathering up all the papers into a single pile. "All the Hungry Mare meals are starting to taste the same. I mean, it's better than the noodles in a cup, but it's also more expensive."

After putting the containers into the oven and setting the temperature dial, she walked back into the living room. "Well, we can get the noodles again for a while, then come back to Hungry Mares. Would that make Miss Grumpy happy?"

Crystal stared at Velvet with a scrunched-up pout. Velvet returned the expression until she giggled first, prompting Crystal into giggles.

"All right, all right, you win," Crystal said and waved a hoof at her. "I'm sorry. I'm taking my stress out on you."

"No, you're taking it out on the food, and it did nothing wrong." Velvet hesitated before she continued in a softer voice, "Maybe you should get out more."

Crystal raised her brow. "Get out more? I go to school every weekday."

Velvet hesitated again. She returned to the kitchen and peered through the glass at the slowly cooking meals. "That's not really getting out, though, is it?" she finally said. "You go, you sit, you come back. You don't talk about making any friends or—"

"What are you trying to get at?" Crystal finally got up off the pillow with a small grunt, her muscles sore from the extended time spent sitting, then walked over.

Velvet turned to face her with an openly concerned expression, her brow knitted together. "I'm just worried that you're going to turn into a hermit crab if you don't get out more."

"Into a—" Crystal laughed, though she quickly regained her composure when Velvet didn't laugh with her. "Okay, I'll try to make a friend or something. I'm sorry to worry you."

"Promise?"

Her tone was serious, so Crystal responded earnestly, "Cross my heart and hope to cry, else I'll live in a pig's sty."

Finally, Velvet smiled again. "You're darn right. If you break your promise, I'm moving out. Just see how long this place stays clean without me!" She reached for the oven mitts, but the oven door opened and the meals lifted out, all with a pink glow. "Oh, you and your unicorn magic," she huffed with a playful roll of her eyes. "Thanks."

"Yup." Crystal set them on the counter, then raised a fork to stab at a piece of eggplant. It barely held onto the silvery prongs, more mush than anything else.

After Crystal took a bite and made a distinctly displeased face, Velvet giggled. "I get it, I get it. I'll get the noodle cups next time I go to the store." She paused, then corrected, "No, you will."

Crystal blinked at her. "Huh?"

"It's a perfect opportunity to get you out of the house! Besides, it's so much easier for you to carry groceries home than me."

"Oh." Crystal took another bite, struggling to swallow. "Okay, sure."

Crystal hadn't gone grocery shopping by herself in a very long time. It took her no less than thirty minutes after she finished lunch to psych herself up to leave the condo. By herself. Alone.

When they had first moved in together, she would go with Velvet to the store. Lately, other than going to school, she just sat around the house, writing drafts for half-baked stories that never fully rose in her mind's oven.

Her brow started to furrow as she trotted along the cobblestone street. She really was becoming a hermit crab, wasn't she?

As she walked into the store, she idly pondered when the last time she had visited Horsey was. They exchanged letters frequently, of course, but all three of them were becoming so busy. She nodded to herself. She'd make a day trip down soon.

"Afternoon," the clerk offered from behind the counter, a well-practiced smile on his face. "Anything I can help you with?"

"No, thank you." She returned the smile with one of her own. She tried to make it sincere, but it was a bit of a challenge when his interest flickered away.

The store was cleverly arranged with all of the more expensive items facing the front, right where customers would see them first. Her mouth watered as her gaze drifted across the various fruits on display. They were brought in by train and were the freshest they city could get. They were certainly fresher than the frozen Hungry Mares, but ate up more bits, too.

She shook her head rapidly and headed straight to the iceboxes at the back of the store. Velvet still seemed to like them, so she grabbed a couple different meals, then raised up a box of noodle cups. Each individual Hungry Mare cost seven bits. A box of twelve noodle cups cost four. With the money they'd save buying the latter again, she could splurge on some fresher foods.

She hummed in thought as she walked past the produce barrels and hesitated, her eyes locked on the delicious fruit. An apple or two would be a nice treat. There might even be some cheap chocolate that they could melt down to make it extra special. Having a book published would mean more bits in their saddlebags, but it was still too soon to go crazy just yet. Two apples and a bar of chocolate was hardly going crazy, right?

After bringing her haul up to the counter, the clerk scribbled down the values of each item, muttered some math to himself, then smiled at her. "Thirty-seven bits, ma'am."

Crystal hesitated. "Could you perhaps, sir, please consider thirty-five bits?"

The clerk's eyes widened before they narrowed. "Listen, lady, I'm running a business here. The prices are not negotiable."

"Right," she muttered, then smiled and raised her voice to a normal tone. "Of course. Thirty-seven bits it is."

Velvet moaned after she dipped the tip of her hoof into the small bowl of melted chocolate and licked it off. "Oh sweet Celestia," she purred. "You are totally the one going shopping from now on if you bring back wonderful ideas like this each time."

Crystal flicked one ear. "Yeah." She finished slicing the second apple and brought the plate over to the coffee table. "Hey, Velvet?"

"Hmm?" Velvet eagerly eyed the apple slices, licking her lips.

"I was thinking—" She set the plate down and Velvet snapped up a slice to dip it into the chocolate. "The Summer Sun Celebration is being held in Ponyville this year, right?"

Velvet nodded, her attention momentarily drawn away from the snack. "Do you want to go and celebrate with Horsey?"

"I want to, certainly." Crystal's magic raised an apple slice.

Velvet shrugged. She dipped the apple, took a bite, then said, "Maybe we should go down after. I don't want to be rude to the Ponyville ponies. They deserve to have their day without us sneaking in, you know?"

Crystal grumbled a little bitterly, but she smiled nonetheless. "I'm trying to get out like you asked, but now you're telling me no? You're sending me mixed signals!"

"I'm not telling you no!" She laughed. "Just wait an extra day! So you'll see Horsey in six days, not five. She'll still be there."

In the days leading up to the Summer Sun Celebration, Crystal made an effort to leave the condo to work at different cafes. She didn't socialize too much, as once she sat down with a notebook she was lost to her thoughts, but she did at least breathe the fresh air. Admittedly, she enjoyed the change of pace.

In the twilight hours before the celebration, the whole city of Canterlot was alive with excitement. Tall buildings were renting their upper floors to ponies wanting to watch the sunrise with the best view, but Crystal took Velvet to a small park in the higher section of Canterlot. It was a small, untouched green space that was perfect for watching clouds, though at that hour it was better for stargazing.

Velvet spread out a blanket for them to lay down on their backs to look up at the night sky.

"It's beautiful," Crystal murmured as the twinkling lights of varying sizes and brightness danced in the sea of deep blues and violets.

Velvet giggled. "It looks the same as it does every night."

Crystal tilted her head. "Do you think so?" She spread out her forelegs and gestured at the view. "I think it's more beautiful than usual."

"Uh-huh." Velvet giggled again. "And when was the last time you looked at the night sky at this hour?"

Crystal paused to ponder this, then scrunched up her nose. "Oh, hush, you. It's more beautiful than usual."

"You know what would be beautiful?" Velvet crossed her hooves over her chest, yawning. "Having the sun rise so we can go to bed."

Crystal rolled her eyes. "Spoilsport."

They rested in companionable silence for a while. Velvet's eyes slowly closed while Crystal continued to admire the stars.

"Velvet?" Crystal asked softly.

Velvet snorted, startled out of her half-asleep state. "Mm?" She yawned.

"Thank you."

"Mm?" She rolled her head to look at Crystal. "For what?"

"I just—thank you." Crystal smiled up at the sky. "I can't imagine how my life would have turned out if we hadn't become friends."

Velvet chuckled sleepily and shifted to lie on her side, closing her eyes again. "We'd both be lonely adults with blank flanks. I owe you just as much as you owe me, you know."

Crystal paused. Something caught her attention in the sky, but she didn't see it clearly enough to know what it was. She suddenly felt alert, however, and her gaze darted about to try to spy it again. Then, she saw it.

"Velvet?" She reached out a hoof and nudged her a little more forcefully than she intended. "Velvet, wake up."

Velvet groaned and rolled onto her other side. "Ugh, just a few more minutes, please."

Crystal went silent. It was too strange to try to explain to the weary mare. Four stars were moving. Stars weren't supposed to move, were they? Shining brighter than the other stars, they slid across the sky toward the full moon before disappearing behind it, or into it—she wasn't sure which. Her eyes widened and she gasped when she beheld an even stranger event.

"Velvet!" she exclaimed. "Look!"

"What?" Velvet lifted her head to squint at her. When she saw her pointing, her gaze followed the hoof's direction toward the sky. "What?!" Her body tensed up and she jumped to her hooves. "What happened to the moon?!"

Crystal worriedly glanced between the moon and Velvet. "I don't know! The Mare in the Moon just suddenly vanished!"

Velvet bit her lip. "Maybe it's just part of the Summer Sun Celebration? Maybe Princess Celestia is doing something special for Ponyville."

Crystal stood and started to pace. "I have a bad feeling, Velvet. I have a very bad feeling."

It wasn't too long after that her fears were confirmed. A team of pegasus royal guards zipped by overhead, their armor rattling from the speed at which they flew, the metallic sound ringing out an unofficial alarm.

"They came from Ponyville," Crystal said in a dry voice that nearly caught in her throat. "Oh my Celestia, what happened?"

Velvet put a hoof on Crystal's shoulder. "I—I'm sure it'll be all right."

Soon, guards descended from the castle into the city in a professional but hurried swarm. Each one called out the same thing: "Citizens of Canterlot, return to your homes immediately. Citizens of Canterlot, return to your homes…"

The guard that approached them was large and well-built, but Crystal's panic prevented her from even caring. Tentatively, he asked, "Velvet Step?"

Velvet blinked, both in surprise and to ward off her tears in an attempt to see more clearly. "Huh?"

The stallion had a copper-brown coat underneath his royal guard academy uniform, a white blaze on his snout and similarly white socks extending up his legs.

"Citizens of Canterlot," a nearby guard hollered, "return to your homes immediately."

The stallion's wings twitched nervously as he said, "Velvet, you need to go home, now." When she just stared at him in confusion, he explained, "Sorry. We went to school together, sort of. Defender Bronzewing." He shook his head. "But now's not the time to catch up; you need to take—" He paused. "Crystal? Crystal, take her home and get yourself home, too."

Velvet grabbed Crystal's hoof and held it tightly in her own. "What happened, Daffy?"

He swallowed. "I can't say. Please, get yourselves home."

Velvet hesitated a moment longer before she complied, tugging Crystal to follow her. They walked at first, but as the never-ending call of the guards continued from all angles and echoed throughout the slowly emptying streets, they both broke out into a full-on gallop.

"Citizens of Canterlot, return to your homes immediately…"

Once they were inside their condo, Crystal and Velvet sat on their respective pillows, quietly trembling without any words between them for a long while. The calls of the guards could still be heard until they slowly faded away, presumably after the streets were cleared.

The silence was deafening, but neither could think of anything to say that wouldn't immediately bring them both to tears.

All's Quiet in Canterlot

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The citizens of Canterlot were kept in their homes for a full day, which—given the seriousness of the guards the night it happened—seemed somewhat underwhelming. The sun rose to banish the night, the guards informed them that all was well, and life returned to normal. It was almost as if nothing had happened at all, and that feeling was more unnerving than the initial panic.

Nopony talked about the events outright, but, of course, the citizens of Canterlot were experts at gossip. The sun had hardly reached its zenith on the day of its return before Velvet came home with conflicting news.

"So," Velvet said as she walked through the door and shut it behind her, "it seems that either a new alicorn appeared and foalnapped the princess, or the princess turned into an evil alicorn. Either way, everypony seems to agree that there was an evil alicorn involved."

Velvet pranced into the kitchen, continuing, "And the guard tried to rescue her, or turn her back, or whatever, but some other ponies beat them to it and became heroes. Or some ponies got in the way of the guards but Princess Celestia defeated the alicorn herself." She paused to scan the contents of their fridge.

"What?" Crystal blinked. "That doesn't make any sense."

Velvet shrugged lightly. She picked up an apple and said around a mouthful of the fruit, "I'unno, I jus' tellin' you wha' I heard a'prac'ice."

"You clearly need better sources." Crystal sighed and got up off the floor, walking over to the window and peering out into the city of Canterlot. "Did anypony know if Ponyville is all right?" she asked softly.

"You mean if Horsey is all right?" Velvet nodded. "Other than Princess Celestia supposedly disappearing, nopony talked about anything really happening in Ponyville. From what I can tell, it got blown way out of proportion." She resumed eating her apple.

Crystal breathed in through her teeth. "We should go to visit her, then."

"I figured you'd say that." Velvet smiled and walked into her room. She called over her shoulder, "You should go pack an overnight bag. I don't think either of us want to make it a quick visit!"

Horsey looked at both of them with tears in her eyes. "Gosh, I'm so happy to see both of you! It was so scary!"

"Yeah." Velvet glanced at their cheerful surroundings. "So, about that. What exactly happened? Everything seems fine here."

Horsey hesitated a moment. She glanced around as well, though more nervously than Velvet. Without a word, she waved for the two to follow her, leading them into the restaurant proper and up the stairs to the living quarters above. For how modern and sleek the downstairs was decorated, the upstairs was much more rustic, as if straight out of the idyllic Prench countryside. Or, at least, what Crystal had seen of Prance in magazines, anyway.

Horsey sighed after she shut the door to her bedroom behind them. "Okay, so here's what happened."

Velvet and Crystal set down their overnight bags and turned all of their attention on Horsey. "Yes?" they asked together.

Horsey sat on her haunches, twiddling her hooves. "We all gathered for Princess Celestia to be introduced and to raise the sun, but she wasn't there. Then, a strange alicorn appeared, talking on and on about the night lasting forever and her rightful place after a thousand years or something."

"Then?" they both leaned in.

Horsey shrugged rather meekly. "Then she left. The guards that were there, some of the pegasus ones flew to Canterlot while the rest stayed to urge us back to our homes. I don't know much else, but everypony here is talking about Princess Celestia's student, Twilight Sparkle, having something to do with the return of Princess Luna."

"Princess Who?" Crystal tilted her head and furrowed her brow.

Velvet rolled her eyes. "Oh my gosh, Crystal, do you seriously not pay attention in Equestrian History?"

"No?" she responded flatly, returning the eyeroll. "It's never really mattered—well, up until now, I suppose."

"She's Princess Celestia's sister," Horsey explained. "She was banished to the moon a thousand years ago. And now she's back."

Crystal was silent while Velvet and Horsey talked, her gaze wandering the room. Princess Celestia had a sister? She'd have to get her hooves on that history textbook sooner rather than later. "Where—" she started to ask but cut herself off. "No, Raven probably would know more, actually."

"Huh?" Horsey blinked. "What about Raven?"

Crystal waved off the question dismissively. "When we get back to Canterlot, I'm going to try to get an appointment with Raven. If anypony knows exactly what's going on, it'd be her." Her gaze refocused on Horsey and she smiled. "I know I already said it when we got here, but I'm really, really glad to see you."

Velvet nodded and hooked a foreleg around Horsey's neck. "She cried," she whispered loudly.

Crystal snorted. "Hey! You cried, too!"

Horsey smiled and hugged Velvet, then pulled away from her to hug Crystal next. "It's okay. I cried when I thought we were going to—"

"Nope!" Velvet shook her head. "Everything turned out all right, so let's not talk about it anymore. Hey, Horsey, do you think you could sneak some sweets up here from downstairs?"

"You want me to steal from my own job?" She looked at Velvet with one brow raised.

"No, not at all," Velvet said, pulling away and waving her hooves. "I want you to steal for your best friends from your own job. It sounds better that way."

Crystal laughed. Her horn lit up, raising bits from her bag and floating them over to Horsey. Pale blue magic overtook pink and she dropped her focus. "There. Now it's not stealing, right?"

Velvet giggled and, while Horsey got up and left to go downstairs, threw her hoof to her forehead and exclaimed in a dramatic way, "I'm surrounded by ponies with morals!"

It proved rather difficult to find time in Raven's schedule for a visit. She had returned Crystal's letter with an ominously short reply of "I'll be in touch." The week was nearly over when it became evident why she had heard nothing since from the mare.

"Do you think Princess Celestia is gathering us about what happened at the Celebration?" Velvet whispered to Crystal as the two walked side by side toward the castle courtyard, along with the rest of Canterlot's citizens.

Crystal shrugged her shoulders in a mid-step gesture, her gait unchanging. "What else could it be?" she whispered back. "If it really was the return of an alicorn, then that would be the first thing I'd have a large, public address regarding."

They filed into the courtyard with the rest of the ponies and awaited Celestia's arrival. They didn't have to wait long before the princess stepped out onto the balcony and was welcomed with a swell of cheers that she quieted by raising one hoof.

"Thank you all for gathering here today," she began, her soft yet unwavering voice falling upon them like a gentle rain. It was cool, calming, and steady. "As many of you already know, this year's Summer Sun Celebration was interrupted by a mare known as Nightmare Moon."

There was a sudden buzzing of raised voices that echoed against the courtyard and castle walls, but her hoof raised again and they fell to a soft murmur.

"The forces of disharmony that once consumed her have been banished. Princess Luna has returned to her rightful place of rule beside me."

No hesitation or pause followed her words. Everypony cheered and stomped their hooves against the stone and the grass. Though they couldn't see it from their position below the balcony, the smile on Celestia's lips could be heard in her voice as she finished her address.

"Thank you all for gathering here today," she repeated in an even more sincere tone than before. "I request—Nay, I beg of you, my little ponies, to welcome my beloved sister, your Princess of the Night, home after a thousand years."

The stomping and cheering rose into the air again and Celestia waved before she turned and walked back into the castle.

"Wow! So there really are going to be two princesses from now on. How cool is that?" Velvet started to prance out of the courtyard, but stopped when she noticed Crystal wasn't following her. "Crystal?"

Crystal flashed a smile at her. "Head on home without me. I'm going to try to find Raven." She turned and walked against the flow of the crowd, toward the castle. "Hello!" she chirped at the guards standing outside the main doors. "Is the castle open to the public yet?"

One of the guards shook his head. "No, ma'am."

"I see." She flicked her tail. "What about the castle gift shop?"

The same guard nodded. "That is open, ma'am."

"That will have to do. Thank you!" She trotted away from the main doors and over to a building that adjoined the castle, but had a separate entrance.

The castle gift shop was busier than usual, to no surprise. Ponies that worked in the castle were shuffling about, restocking shelves with new merchandise. All of what they were unloading that Crystal could see was dark midnight blue in color: mugs that read 'I Love the Night' and hats that featured crescent moons prominently on the front.

This only got Crystal more excited and curious. "Hello!" She approached one of the staff. "I'm looking for Raven. We were supposed to have lunch together, but what with Princess Celestia's address, I'm afraid I can't find her."

"Really? She's been so busy lately that I didn't know she even had lunch anymore." The stallion chuckled and set the box down he had been unpacking. "I'll inform her that she's forgotten her lunch date."

Crystal smiled as sweetly as she could. Guards were such sticklers for rules and regulations; castle staff that worked in a mere gift shop, however, were much more compliant with a mare who smiled.

She waited long enough to make up her mind on buying a few pieces of Princess Luna merchandise the next time she came to the gift shop, especially a couple of the mugs. They were large and of good quality, so she was sure they'd be great for hot cocoa in the slowly upcoming winter season.

"Crystal?" Raven asked as she approached. Her voice was somewhat strained as she continued, "We don't have a lunch date."

Crystal offered a sheepish grin. "I know, but I really need to talk to you, Rav."

Raven flushed and glanced around them. "Crystal! We're in public. I'm Raven, thank you very much." She cleared her throat. "I don't have time for lunch, but you're welcome to follow me if you are able to walk and talk." She turned and made her way right back out of the gift shop.

Crystal hurried to catch up with and walk alongside her. The sheepish grin turned somewhat playfully coy. "You let him call you Rav. I heard it last time the four of us went to dinner."

Raven's white coat showed her increasing blush. "Crystal!"

"Okay, okay." She giggled and had a small skip in her step before she looked at Raven with a serious expression. "What is the true story behind Luna's return?"

"Princess Luna's return is not something I am at leisure to discuss at length." Raven nodded to a pair of guards that held open a door for them. "Could you not consult with your local librarian on this matter?"

"I don't want to know the past, Raven. I'm interested in the present. I want to know who she is, not who she was. I—" She swallowed dryly. "I can't explain it other than I'm infatuated with the idea of her. Poetic Pen writes short stories featuring sun princesses exclusively. I've never read one of a beautiful, mysterious princess of the night."

Raven shot her an almost suspicious glance. "You want to write a romance novel about Princess Luna?"

Crystal was quick to dismiss the notion, waving both of her forehooves. "No, no, I just—I want to know more about her so I can consider the idea of writing a romance novel about a princess like her."

Raven's expression grew more distrustful. She paused to give some papers to a mare behind a desk. Crystal similarly paused to look around, having not even noticed they had walked into an office.

Once they were back out in the main hallway, Raven said in a low voice, "Are you attempting to capitalize on the return of Princess Luna to bolster your career?"

Crystal rubbed her temple and shook her head. "No, I just—augh! All right, could you make time to meet over dinner? It appears that no, I cannot walk and talk."

Raven came to a halt halfway down the hall and turned to face Crystal. She eyed her up and down before she relented with a sigh. "I'm sorry. I'm under a lot of stress right now with the princess's return. Until Princess Luna finds one herself, I am serving as aide to both princesses. Despite the addition of only one more princess to my care, it's more than doubled my usual workload. But—Perhaps, dinner would be nice. The four of us, or just you and me?"

Crystal smiled. "Oh, Velvet and I would never turn down the chance to have dinner with your—" She glanced around to see who was near. "—special somepony involved. He always pays." She giggled.

That made Raven smile briefly. "I will let him know that we will make time for dinner tomorrow night. Is that acceptable?"

"Okay!" She stepped forward, then paused. "Oh, wait, is hugging not allowed for you while you're in business mode?"

Raven said nothing, but she did raise one foreleg and gestured her closer with a half-smile. Crystal embraced her, then trotted toward the nearby main doors and out into the courtyard.

Le Bernardin had a reputation for being at the top of Canterlot's fine dining list. It was also conveniently close to the palace, making it the go-to for dinners with Raven. They didn't get together for dinner often, so when they did, Crystal didn't feel too terribly guilty about eating at such an expensive place on somepony else's bit. It also helped ease the conscience when the food was beyond phenomenally good.

Velvet could hardly keep from drooling at the smells that filled the restaurant while they waited for Raven and her stallion to arrive. They would be discreet as always; Raven was still fiercely protective of her image and how it could affect Princess Celestia.

"You're sure she said tonight, right?" Velvet looked around, her ears twitching to and fro. "Because we can't afford to eat here, but I'm not leaving without getting my hooves on some mushroom risotto."

"I'm sure." Crystal giggled. "She'll be here any—oh!" She sat up straight in her seat. "There they are!"

Raven approached them in her off-hours 'disguise'. Her mane was down and she was wearing a different pair of glasses than normal. Knowing her for as long as Crystal had, it was easy to recognize her, but a passing glance would hardly discern who she was.

"I'm sorry we're late," Raven said in a quiet voice. "I just—Well, things became busy, and—"

"You always apologize, dear," the light blue stallion beside her coaxed, putting a hoof on her shoulder. "We've all been friends for too long to warrant so many apologies." He smiled down at her, then over at Crystal and Velvet. "Good evening, ladies."

"Good evening, Sir Pony Moore," Velvet said in an airy voice. "It's always so wonderful to see you!"

Sir Pony Moore chuckled and took the seat beside Raven. "Charmed, as always." He inclined his head, raised a hoof, and flagged down the nearest waiter. "A round of Chardonnay for myself and these lovely ladies, if you please, my good sir."

The waiter nodded and walked away.

Moore returned his attention to the mares across from him. "And for what reason do I owe the honor of dining with you two tonight?"

"Crystal wants to talk about the recent castle events, and Velvet wants the mushroom risotto," Raven answered for them, smiling.

Velvet nodded without a hint of shame. "Yup! I'm just here for the food."

Moore hooked his hooves and rested his snout on them. "The recent castle events, hmm? That sounds like a conversation for you and Crystal." His gaze flickered to Velvet. "I suppose that leaves us to fend for ourselves."

"That leaves you to fend for yourself, you mean." Velvet leaned back in her seat. "I can sit here and think about what I'm going to have for dessert until the waiter gets back by myself just fine."

Moore laughed softly while Raven stared expectantly at Crystal.

"Okay," Crystal started. She placed her hooves on the table and leaned in. "I'm completely without inspiration. Everything I try to write, when I reread it, is flat and without feeling. There was so much emotion behind The Mare's Temptation that I'm not sure if I can match it."

Crystal gave a serious frown, as if they were discussing their health or finances, and continued, "But something draws me to Princess Luna. I feel like—It's as though I am trapped in darkness, and her beautiful moonlight has shone down to reveal that it is not darkness at all, but a mysterious yet alluring night that surrounds me."

Flushing as she felt all their eyes on her, Crystal drew a small circle with her hoof against the white tablecloth. "It sounds strange, I understand, but I want to put that feeling into a story."

Moore broke the silence with a clap of his hooves. "How wonderful! Rav, weren't you just complaining that the castle has become mad with trying to promote and heighten Princess Luna's image? This would be a perfect opportunity for both of you, would it not?" He smiled at his mare.

Raven tried not to look at him, but she couldn't help it. She stole one glance into his blue eyes and quickly turned her head away, as if burned. "I—I do agree, but what if it backfires? What if—" She cut herself off, sighed, and looked across the table. "I read your interview in Wanderlust. I know you're struggling with finding a new idea."

Crystal dropped her gaze, unable to reply.

"What if you pounce on this idea out of desperation and it backfires? Crystal, if you ruined your career, I wouldn't forgive myself for allowing you to write such a thing." Raven reached over and placed her hoof on Crystal's.

Velvet cleared her throat. "You know, she is really good at writing."

Moore nodded. "Quite right. I think this is just the thing Canterlot needs. After all, word on the grapevine is that even with the castle's efforts, including Princess Celestia's address, ponies are still unnerved by the recent events."

"I can—No, I want to write this." Crystal offered a timid grin. "I am not fully aware of what 'this' is just yet, but I can feel it in my soul. The bright romance of the sun princess is losing its luster."

Crystal's grin shifted into a soft smile. "After all, is not night the hour of lovers? A rendezvous of hidden passion occurs under the watchful but silent gaze of the stars. We meet tonight under the veil of night for the sake of privacy. The night is truly the most romantic thing of all."

Raven's resolve faltered and she relented with a slow shake of her head. "All right, all right. It's hard to argue with you when you're like this."

"She's pretty much impossible to deal with when she's set her mind on something," Velvet added, giggling.

Moore glanced between the three of them. "Then it's settled?" When they nodded, he smiled. "Wonderful! To celebrate, tonight's dinner is on me!"

"Dinner is always on you, dear," Raven said and laughed softly.

"Ah, true." He sighed. "That does somewhat lessen the impact of the celebration, doesn't it?"

Crystal raised the dessert menu and glanced it over, mumbling, "That said, you could offer to buy us each two desserts. To celebrate, of course."

Moore's smile returned in full force. "Two desserts it is!"

While they waited for and then enjoyed their meals, the conversation wandered to lighter topics. They discussed Velvet's budding ballet career as well as Moore's business in stock trading. The former was much easier to digest than the latter, which was met with slow nods and confused smiles. After their double course of dessert, the four of them left the restaurant to part ways in their respective pairs, but Raven hesitated.

"I'll be right behind you, Moore," Raven said over her shoulder. He nodded, waved farewell to them, and walked away. She turned her head back to Crystal and Velvet. "Thank you for pestering me into coming out tonight."

"Thank you for agreeing to help me with my next novel once I decide exactly what it will be." When Raven opened her mouth to interject, Crystal spoke over her. "I know, I know. I must handle the situation with great care given the circumstances." She raised a hoof and dismissed the concerns. "I will send you the premise as soon as I have one."

Raven smiled. "I look forward to it. Good night, Crystal." Her gaze shifted Velvet. "And good night to you, as well. It was nice to see you again."

"Yup! You, too." Velvet waggled her hips to draw attention to the take-out bag balanced on her back. "Thanks for lunch tomorrow!"

Raven laughed a soft but earnest laugh and trotted off to catch up with Moore. Crystal bumped her shoulder to Velvet's before starting to walk in the direction of home.

"So, any idea at all what you're going to call this night princess novel?" Velvet asked in between happy little hums for having a happy, full stomach.

"Nope." Crystal sighed and lifted her gaze to the night sky. "But just like Temptation, when it hits me, I'll know it for sure."

The Princess of the Knight

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Crystal sighed and sank lower into the steaming bathwater. Rose petals floated on the surface that rippled with her movement, sending them gliding up and down along the little waves. There was silence all around her once the water stopped lapping against the sides of the porcelain tub, save for the sound of her own breathing.

Nothing relaxed her more from a stressful day than a bath with rose oil, but not even the addition of petals was enough to keep her ear from occasionally flicking in irritation.

The front door clicked and creaked open. "Hello!" Velvet called from the living room. "I'm home!"

"In the bath!" Crystal called back in response.

A moment later, Velvet poked her head into the bathroom. Her nose scrunched up at the sight. "Another bad day, huh?" She walked in and sat on a small stool beside the tub.

Crystal nodded and mumbled, "I went to a cafe, just like I promised."

"That's a good little hermit crab," Velvet teased as she leaned against the tub and smiled, resting her head on her folded forelegs. "And?"

"And nothing. I went to a cafe. I sat there and had a cup of tea, then I had a cup of water because their tea is too expensive. My notebook is blank." She paused, then added, "I was thinking that maybe we should get a sofa."

Velvet raised one brow. "Uh-huh. And where are you going to get the bits from? 'Cause I'm pretty sure they don't make food cheaper than the noodle cups, so the money's certainly not coming out of the food budget."

A small groan escaped Crystal. She sank a little lower so that her mouth dipped under the water line, blew some bubbles, then raised back up to say, "I don't know. Maybe I'd work better on a couch than on the floor."

"Oh, all right. We'll just keep buying furniture until you find your muse." She giggled and flicked a hoof against the water to lightly splash Crystal. "Why don't you go to Quills and Sofas and see if they have a cheap one?"

Crystal rubbed at her cheek that had been aquatically attacked, smiling. "Quills and Sofas? Wow, how long has it been since we went there!"

Velvet grinned. "I went just last month when you needed a new batch of quills. You haven't gone in a very long time."

"Does Mr. Quills still run the place?" She straightened up and reached with her magic to pull the stopper and drain the water.

Velvet held out a towel, which Crystal accepted. "Nope. His son runs it now. Mr. Quills retired when he started having hip problems."

This gave Crystal pause. She quietly dried off before wrapping her mane in the towel and retrieving a bath robe. "I really need to get out more. I didn't even know he had a son."

"That's what I've been trying to tell you all along, Hermie." Velvet left the bathroom and flopped down onto one of their living room pillows. "My parents were asking about you yesterday. They just got their hooves on that interview Trenderhoof wrote about you and asked all sorts of questions."

"Oh?" Crystal went into the kitchen and filled up the kettle with water, then set it on the stove. "We should drop by the bakery sometime."

Velvet rolled over to look at her. "Crystal, I hate to sound like a broken record, but you need to drop by the bakery sometime. I visit them at least once a week."

Crystal stared down at the circle of flames that licked the bottom of the kettle. Her ears slowly folded backwards. "I'm sorry. I don't know why I've become such an introvert."

"Really?" Velvet giggled. "You don't?"

Crystal glanced at her. "You do?"

"Well, yeah." Velvet cleared her throat and said in an overly serious tone, "You grew up under constant pressure from your parents, which made you want to leave the house all the time. I'm way too nice of a roommate, so you don't feel a need to leave." She playfully pawed at the air. "If you want, darling, I can create a hostile environment here."

"Please, dear Celestia, don't." Crystal laughed and looked back at the kettle.

Velvet looked at the kettle as well, then dropped her head down to the pillow. "A watched kettle won't boil, you know."

"Huh?" Crystal didn't look away. "Of course it will. Being watched doesn't affect the heat."

"Can you prove it?" Velvet grinned and gave a playful flick of her tail. "You're the one that doesn't pay attention in school, after all."

Crystal giggled. "All right, all right." She walked over to the living room and sat down on one of the pillows. "So when do you get to actually perform in a show? All you do is practice."

"Well, I have to earn a spot. I'm still only somepony's understudy, after all." She sat up straight. "Actually, it should be soon. Princess Celestia reached out to the company about putting on a special performance for Princess Luna—"

The soft whistle that had gone unnoticed beneath their conversation suddenly interrupted as it gained strength. The spout cover flapped and bobbled, releasing steam with a shrill squeal.

"See?" Velvet grinned. "You stopped watching it!"

Crystal rolled her eyes and got up off the pillow after having just gotten comfortable. She poured two cups of tea and brought them over, setting them on the table to let the leaves steep.

"Anyway," Velvet continued. "It's a short notice performance, and some of the girls are making excuses to get out of it, so there's a chance I could get on stage."

"Making excuses?" Crystal scrunched up her nose. "Do ponies really find Princess Luna so unsettling?"

Velvet shrugged. "Seems that way. So, you better find your inspiration soon, because the suspicious attitude ponies have is already getting old. It's not fair for us to punish her like this when she already paid the price of a thousand years or whatever."

Crystal looked at her with a soft smile while her magic raised and gently bobbed the tea infusers in the still-steaming cups. "Yeah. I'll go look at sofas and try to find the most inspirational and affordable one they have."

Quills and Sofas had certainly changed since the last time Crystal visited. Mr. Quills's son had rearranged everything so that the quills occupied an equal share of the floor space as the sofas, which was a rather impressive feat. Many of the ones that Mr. Quills used to keep on shelves behind the register or in a back room were on display, with lights illuminating the various styles available.

There were plenty of the type of quill she preferred, which had thin vanes and no downy barbs so that she could see what she was writing with minimal obstruction. She did wander down the aisle to admire the other options available—after all, she was already there. Most quills had the barbs stripped, but there were some more decorative options that had some still intact. There were a few that had fancy, full plumes and, in her opinion, seemed rather impractical, but she was secretly tempted to buy one just because.

She sighed and tore herself away from the quills to look through the available sofas. None really spoke to her, though she did pause to sit on a few that looked comfortable enough. She auditioned several of them, sitting on each for a few moments with the notebook she had brought, gazing at the blank pages, waiting for inspiration to strike.

No sofa seemed to carry with it a complimentary muse, however, and she started to lose hope. It was a somewhat silly notion, after all. She walked to the back of the store where the discount sofas still rested and smiled. If she didn't know any better, she'd swear one of the sofas along the back wall was the very same springy one that she and Velvet had bounced on as fillies.

A chorus of gasps resounded throughout the store. Crystal started to turn to see what was going on when a mare's voice rung out in the Royal Canterlot manner, "We are just browsing."

Crystal nearly dropped her notebook. The very princess that had been dancing at the edges of her mind was walking over to a row of quills. Standing just a few paces behind the princess, on her left side, was a guard in the still-unfamiliar armor of Princess Luna's House Guard. The wave of initial shock that went through her was quickly replaced by a tsunami of excitement.

"Stay calm, stay cool," she whispered and clutched the notebook so close that she could have sworn her heart was pounding directly against the cover. If she looked as excited as she felt, the guard might notice her and she didn't want to be noticed.

As if on cue, the guard surveyed the room and made eye contact. She tried not to smile. She repeated her mantra, this time only in her mind. Being caught whispering to herself was definitely more suspicious than smiling too happily.

The guard's attention left her and she breathed a sigh of relief, then she looked over at Princess Luna and her relief rose back to elation. Perhaps it was because Princess Celestia had been around her whole life and Princess Luna was new and different, but the princess of the night was truly magnificent to behold. Her mane shimmered of the night sky and moved as though caught in its own gentle breeze.

The princess smiled to herself while she perused the aisles of quills, selected some, and went to the counter. That was when Crystal's attention was drawn to Mr. Quills's son, who stammered, "Twen—Twenty-five bits, please."

Crystal glanced around at the other ponies in the store. All of them were trying to not be seen by hiding behind sofas or staying almost perfectly still, save for light trembling. She started to frown and looked back at the princess and her guard just as they were leaving.

Her mind was made up. She hopped onto the nearest sofa, flipped the notebook open to a blank page, and started to furiously scrawl her overflowing thoughts across the paper.

Crystal paced the castle courtyard, sweat beading down her neck from nerves that fluttered like butterflies in her chest. Raven couldn't meet for lunch, but she had agreed to read the story notes in her spare time. Today, she was supposed to return the notes with feedback, and Crystal felt much more nervous about what the mare would say about this than Temptation.

"Crystal?" Raven's voice asked from behind her.

Crystal nearly jumped out of her coat. "Oh! Raven!" She turned to face her, smiling crookedly. "How are you?"

Raven raised one brow. "No time for pleasantries. Let's walk and talk."

Crystal's heart sank, but she nodded and matched Raven's brisk pace. She thought she knew what to expect: they would walk down a series of hallways and corridors until Raven felt secure enough to quietly discuss the matter at hoof. However, when they turned down the hall of offices belonging to members of the Royal Guard, Crystal grew both curious and excited. She couldn't keep from glancing through any open doorways to see the armor-clad ponies inside, most of them busy with paperwork.

Raven stopped outside a door. She gave a serious glance at Crystal that brought her focus back to the moment, then knocked.

"Come in!" a mature, older mare's voice called from inside.

Raven's magic turned the knob and pushed the door open. "Sergeant, this may be an odd request, and according to my schedule, it is about time for your normal rounds. While you are out, would you mind the use of your office?"

The mare didn't look up from the paper on her desk. She had a pink coat that contrasted with her gold armor. Her red mane, which held the slightest hint of grey, was braided and draped over one shoulder. "Of course, Miss Raven, but if I may ask—" She halted when she looked up and saw the extra mare standing in her office. She recovered with a smile. "I see. Private, unofficial meeting?"

Raven nodded. "Yes, Sergeant."

"Well, you've certainly come to the right office." The sergeant winked and turned her gaze to Crystal. "I'm Radiant Orchid." She offered a hoof.

"Crystal Wishes." Crystal nearly stumbled over her own hooves trying to quickly reach out and take Radiant Orchid's. "It's an honor to meet a member of Princess Celestia's House Guard!"

Radiant Orchid's brow raised and she smiled wider. "I'm sorry, have we met before?" She glanced at Raven somewhat expectantly.

Raven hesitated before she explained, "Crystal is a novelist. I am aiding her as she conducts some research into castle affairs for her writing."

Radiant Orchid laughed softly. "Is that so? Well, I'm sure it must be all right if she has your oversight." She carefully put on her helmet, tucking her braid underneath, and stood from her chair. "Permission granted, Miss Raven, as I do indeed have my rounds." She offered a nod of her head before walking out of the room.

Raven shut the door behind the sergeant and, before she could speak, Crystal asked, "Why are we in a sergeant's office? I know there are meeting rooms, so why are we not in one of those?"

"Because a sergeant's office is much more private." Raven took a seat in one of the chairs on their side of the desk. "The doors are more secure, and other than Sergeant Orchid returning, there is close to no chance of somepony walking in."

"Oh." Crystal sat in the other chair. "That makes sense." She twiddled her hooves a little nervously.

"So," Raven began as she retrieved Crystal's pitch and levitated it over. "I read through what you've written a few times."

The papers hovered between them until pink magic overtook and set them on Crystal's lap, where she started to poke at them like a shy filly. "Yes?"

"I've thought very carefully on the words to use." When Crystal glanced over, she saw a heavy blush on Raven's cheeks. "I work in close quarters with Princess Luna, and it has become difficult to work with her without thinking about the secret, torrid affair you describe between her and her House Guard commander."

After a pause to let her nerves settle, a smile slowly started to form on Crystal's face. "Then, you like it?"

Raven nodded. "Absolutely! I would dare to say almost too much. Yet, there is a small problem I noticed."

The smile fell. "What is that?"

"It just—ends. Do they get together or not?" Raven's brow furrowed. "Do you plan to write a sequel, and that is why there is no resolution?"

Crystal turned her head away and said nothing.

"What?" Raven leaned in toward her. "What's wrong?"

"Raven, how can you even ask me whether they get together?" Crystal asked softly, still looking at the wall. "You know they don't. They can't."

Raven's ears perked before folding back. "And why not? It's a work of fiction, after all."

Crystal sighed and shook her head. "But fiction should have an element of plausibility to it in order for readers to not lose their suspension of disbelief." A small groan rumbled in her throat. "And I just don't believe that Princess Selene can end up with a mere guard, commander or otherwise."

Raven gave her an incredulous stare for a quiet moment. "I ask again: and why not?"

"Because she is the Princess of the Night, a co-ruler of Equestria." Crystal shot Raven a light glare, as if that would solve everything. "She is held to a high standard, higher than that of a prince who is only a prince in title with not even a parcel of land to his name, and look what happened with you. How can I write a happy ending that could never come true?"

To Crystal's surprise, Raven smiled. "Is that all? Crystal, readers don't care about that. They don't want the truth." She reached out and put a hoof on Crystal's. "They want to believe in the happy ending that you wrote for The Mare's Temptation, and it's your job to let them." Her smile turned almost mischievous. "I'm also being somewhat selfish, honestly. If Princess Selene and Sir Chevalier do not end up together, I will burn your manuscript, because I am in love with their relationship."

Crystal finally relented with a small smile. "I thought you were a stickler for accuracy."

"Oh, some things must be flexible." Raven waved the notion away. "I am perfectly happy with how my story turned out. You know that. Moore is the perfect stallion for me, and I would never have met him if I hadn't let go of Blueblood. And anyway, Selene and Chevalier are perfect together." She cleared her throat and leaned back into her seat. "That aside, I do have something important to discuss on the matter of this novel, whether you end it my way or my way." She winked playfully.

Crystal giggled and nodded. "All right, and that is?"

"The timeline. Moore was right when he had said that this could do extremely well for Princess Luna's image. When The Mare's Temptation took off, there was a small but noticeable increase in Princess Celestia's approval ratings. Despite her being a side character, your portrayal of her had a positive effect on her image among your readers. The increase may have been a coincidence, but I believe it wasn't and that this will help Princess Luna."

Crystal blinked, then shook her head quickly to try to shake off the torrent of thoughts that jumped into the fray. "There are approval ratings for the princesses? It's not as though we can vote them out, so why does it matter?"

Raven raised her brow. "Of course it matters! Unrest is quite unhealthy, so we have ponies dedicated to keeping a hoof on the pulse." She waved her hooves. "Nonetheless, that's not what's important. How quickly can you turn this around?"

"I don't know." She rubbed the back of her neck and offered a weak shrug. "But I will do my best. I'll schedule a meeting with Sunset Coffee and see what he can do for me."

"Please do." Raven stood up and started toward the door. "You already know the basics of the castle, so you shouldn't need too much from me. Oh!"

Raven stopped just before she pulled the door open and looked at Crystal over her shoulder. "There is one other request. Princess Luna, due to her extended absence, still speaks in Early Modern Equestrian. If you could consider writing Selene's dialogue as such, it may also help her be more accepted in that regard as well."

Crystal scrunched up her nose as she gathered the papers. "I can try, though I certainly make no guarantees about that."

Raven nodded. "That's good enough for me. Thank you, Crystal." She added with a wink, "I look forward to your drafts as soon as possible."

Sunset shut the door to his office once they were both inside. "Always good to see you! What can I do for you today?" he asked as he rounded his desk and sat down.

"I have a pitch ready for my next novel," she responded, her chest puffed with pride. "If you could—"

"Next novel?" He steepled his hooves. "Do you want me to set you up with a meeting at Reindom House?" He smiled. "You've already made it into the big league; you don't need to slow your novels with Mares Monthly, though my boss would certainly appreciate it. But, as a friend, you'd do better going straight to print."

"Oh." Her ears drooped and she lowered her gaze to the desk between them. "So, I don't get to work with you anymore?"

Sunset hummed as he tapped his forehooves together in thought, then settled on asking, "Does that mean you want to work with me?"

"Absolutely!" She emphasized her response with a curt nod. "You've taken such good care of me with Temptation that I couldn't imagine working with somepony else."

Sunset started to shuffle some papers on his desk to clear the space in the center, then leaned across and lowered his voice. "Then you can hire me as your agent. I work for Mares Monthly, but I can also work as your agent, as long as you plan to continue to publish with Reindom House. Since they're our partner, it won't be too much of a problem."

Crystal leaned in as well. "Then you're hired."

"Splendid!" He settled back into his seat and gestured with a hoof for her to give him the papers she carried. "So then, as your agent, let me see your pitch."

The minutes that followed after he unfurled the papers stirred the nervous butterflies in her again. She swung her hindlegs and looked around his office in hopes of a distraction. She had seen it many times before, but she tried to preoccupy herself with its contents one more time. Articles and charts were hooftacked up on every inch of wall space, some even with color-coded string to link them together. Sunset took his job very seriously, more like some sort of business analyst than a mares' interest researcher.

Interspersed throughout the work-related documents were a few crudely drawn pictures, composed of bright crayons and the occasional happy sticker. She smiled and looked at the picture on his desk of his family: a beautiful wife, himself, and three foals. One had just been recently added to the Coffee family not two months ago.

"How quickly can you finish this?"

Crystal blinked, returning her gaze to him. Had he asked the question, or was she just hearing Raven's question, but in his voice? He was staring directly at her, though, so—

"Oh." She blinked again. "I'm not sure, why?"

"I was going to send you this brochure in the mail." He slid a tri-folded glossy paper to her. "The Equestrian Writers Convention is coming up in just under five months. We have several booths available for our writers, and I can still get you in." He grinned lopsidedly. "Actually, I was supposed to reach out to you sooner, but I've been busy catching up on what I missed after my time off for Violet's birth."

Crystal scanned the brochure, though she had heard enough to get so excited that she almost felt sick to her stomach. A convention? A booth? Was she ready to do something so public?

Sunset seemed to pick up on her nervousness. Perhaps it was because she was staring at the paper with the expression of a cat that had just fallen in water. "It's completely optional, of course," he said. "We'll still be hawking The Mare's Temptation, but it'd attract a lot more attention if you were there yourself. You can still go incognito. A pair of glasses and a hat can go a long way, you know."

She simply nodded dumbly.

He chuckled and looked back at her pitch. "Anyway, I mainly ask about your turnaround time because if you could have this finished with, at the bare minimum, a month for the approval and editing process, Reindom House could publish just enough copies to debut at the convention. It's a very tall order, but a story like this would be an instant bestseller. I don't know of any stories out there like this. Let's strike the anvil while it's still hot!"

Crystal felt rather nauseated. Was the room spinning? It was a lot to suddenly consider, but—

She nodded, this time with more confidence. "I'll do it. And I'll have this story done in time."

Sunset clapped excitedly. "All right! Then, don't let me keep you any longer. You have a market-changing bestseller to write!" As she stood, he stood with her. "Do you have a working title yet?"

Crystal stopped at the door. She did, though she was a little nervous to say it aloud. "The Princess of the Knight."

"The Princess of the Night? Isn't that a little heavy-hoofed?" He raised his brow.

"Oh, I mean, 'knight'. As in a, um, guard?" Her ears drooped. "It had seemed like a good pun at the time, so—"

"Ah-ha!" He gave a soft laugh and patted her on the shoulder. "I see what you did there! Very clever, then. No pressure, but I'll need the first draft as soon as possible to make the convention deadline work."

No pressure, indeed. She smiled as best she could and walked out of his office. Once she was out of sight, her knees felt weak and her head spun with dates. If she dropped out of school, that would certainly free up more time to write, but what was she going to do about money? The allowance-bribe from her parents was their main source of income. She sighed and made her way to the elevator.

The next few months were going to be stressful, that was for sure.

At the Gala — First Dance

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The door to Crystal's bedroom abruptly opened, sending a wave of rushing air through the room and scattering the papers she had strewn about.

"What the hay?!" Crystal jerked her head up to frown at Velvet, who was standing in the doorway. "You could have knocked! Or—"

"Crystal, I'm sorry, but this is getting way beyond ridiculous," Velvet interrupted, stomping one hoof to accentuate her point. "You've been cooped up in this room for weeks! I thought you were going to go out more? How many times do we have to have this fight?"

"Fight?" Crystal scowled, though it was a reaction more of shock than anger. "When have we fought? We've debated! You have one opinion and I have another. What's wrong with that?"

Velvet shook her head with a frustrated jerkiness, as if a fly were in her ear. "Fight, debate, whatever! Either way, you know it's not healthy for you to do this. I'm amazed you still go to classes, honestly, because we haven't hung out since you got back from Manehattan."

"Well, I don't know what you want from me! I have to finish this novel, find a cover artist, make whatever edits I have to, and prepare for a convention in an almost impossibly short amount of time." Crystal dropped her gaze down to her working manuscript. "I'm under a lot of stress, and finding time to get some social exposure isn't a priority right now. I'll get to talk to a lot of ponies at the Equestrian Writers Convention; isn't that good enough?"

Velvet waited for the silence to grow heavy between them before she finally relented with a grunt. "Fine. But you can't agree to another crazy deadline like this again, okay? You look terrible."

Crystal blinked. "I'll keep that in mind. Anyway, I've still got a lot of work left, so if you don't mind—?"

Velvet snorted and started to shut the door, backing out of the room. "I'll have dinner ready in an hour. Please try find a spare moment to join me this time, okay? I didn't ask you to be my roommate so I could eat alone."

The door clicked shut, giving Crystal no chance to respond. She tried to return her attention to her writing, but she was already out of the zone. She sighed and got up, releasing a pained sound that almost rivaled the groaning of her stiff joints. How long had she been curled up on the floor? It felt like she hadn't moved in days.

She winced. Perhaps she hadn't. Though she knew she went to classes each day of the week, it certainly didn't feel like it. The obligation of attending school was a blur washed away by the storm of writing, so much so that it was hard to remember when she had last stood up. With a tight limp in her gait, she hobbled over to the vanity and tentatively peeked at her reflection. It was almost comical how tired the mare in the mirror looked! Her lids were dark and droopy, her eyes were bloodshot, and her mane was a frizzy mess.

Velvet was right. She looked downright awful. Her gaze returned to her papers and a small pang of guilt gripped her chest. The manuscript absolutely had to be finished. All of the effort had to be worth the lost time, otherwise she'd really be letting Velvet down.

For that evening, however, she would have a proper dinner with her friend rather than absentmindedly eating while the quill worked furiously under the pressure of her magic. She washed her face and put herself together: foundation, mascara, and beauty mark were all carefully applied. Once her mane had been brushed into silky submission, she walked out into the main area.

Velvet looked up from the stove and over at her with a bit of surprise. "Oh, hey!" The surprise lifted into a sheepish grin. "Look, Crystal, I'm sorry for yelling at you. I know you're working really hard." She rubbed the back of her neck and returned her attention to the pan cooking on the burner. "I was just feeling crabby and took it out on you."

Crystal blinked. She walked over and hopped up to sit on the empty counter space beside the stove. "What's wrong?"

Velvet idly stirred the vegetables that were in the pan. "Some of the girls in the company have tickets to the Gala and have been talking about it nonstop. I'm downright sick of hearing about it."

"The Gala?" Crystal's ears fell and her eyes widened. "Oh, sweet Celestia, is that soon?"

"Yeah?" Velvet snorted. "It's less than a week away. Are you really not paying attention to anything at all outside of your room?" She offered a weak but playful smirk. "How do you plan to even pass your exams for school if you don't even know the Gala is next week?"

Crystal waved the question away. "Forget exams! This is worse!" She slid off the counter and started to pace just outside the kitchen. "My parents will expect me to go, but I have no time for that!" She stopped pacing to frown at Velvet. "They're going to show up any day now to pester me. You have to tell them I'm sick. Or dead. Whichever lie is easier to tell."

Velvet laughed softly. She transferred the sautéed vegetables to a plate and took the pan to the sink. "Oh, yeah, because the second one'll go over real well. I'll just tell them you're busy; I'm sure they'll understand." She paused for comedic effect, then said dryly, "Wait, this is your parents we're talking about. I don't think you being dead would stop them from dragging you to the Gala."

"You're right, of course, but—" Crystal slumped against the wall. "But I really, really have no time."

Velvet paused, this time out of sincere hesitancy. "It's just one evening, isn't it?"

Crystal shot her a withering stare.

Velvet offered her hooves in a peaceful gesture. "I'm just saying! It's one evening. Maybe it wouldn't be so bad to get out and cut loose."

The withering stare intensified. "Velvet, what do I say every year when you ask me how the Gala was?"

Velvet raised her voice in a playful mimicry of Crystal's. "How would you feel about being surrounded by all the worst examples of Canterlot society for hours?”

“Exactly.” Crystal crossed her front legs over her chest. “So, when my parents come over, and they will soon, you’re going to say what?”

“Don't worry, Mrs. Crust and Mr. Set!” Velvet chirped excitedly, shoving her shoulder against Crystal’s and knocking her off-balance as a distraction from the off-script response. “She’ll definitely be there!”

Upper Crust smiled. “Thank you for your reassurance, Velvet Step.” She levitated the envelope containing the golden ticket over and onto the table. “I see you understand that the Gala, of all events, is the most important to Crystal’s well-being.”

Jet Set cleared his throat and put his wife’s hat back on her head. “We have somewhere to be, don’t we, dear?”

“Quite right.” Upper Crust straightened the drooping sleeves of the sweater tied around her neck. “We should do lunch sometime, darling.” She paused, then added cordially, “And Velvet Step, too.”

As Upper Crust let herself out, Jet Set lingered behind. He turned his gaze on Crystal and smiled softly. "Your mother and I are very proud of your accomplishments, Crystal."

Crystal ducked her head. His tone and words sounded sincere, but she could only believe half of his statement. "Thanks." She shuffled her forehooves. "It's working out pretty well for us."

Jet Set nodded slowly. He seemed to hesitate, but instead shook his head and started for the door. "We'll see you at the Gala, then, dear. Always a pleasure, Miss Step."

"Yup! Have a great night!" Velvet waved him off.

When the door shut, Velvet continued waving, purposefully not looking at Crystal.

Crystal, on the other hoof, was looking directly at her. "Velvet."

"Yes?" Velvet responded, still waving, though the motion was slowing down.

"I thought we had an agreement." Crystal tapped a hoof against the floor. "You realize that if I don't go, they'll blame you."

"Exactly!" Velvet turned to face her with a sly grin. "Which, in turn, means you're now obligated to go for my sake. And I'm doing this for your sake, so really, you're doing it for you."

Crystal made a few unintelligible sounds of irritation before she finally settled on groaning, "Velvet, I swear to Celestia—"

"Hear me out." Velvet put a hoof on Crystal's shoulder. "You're pretty far along with the manuscript already, right?"

Crystal eyed her warily. "Yes, but—"

"And you're probably going to make the deadline, right? Don't respond just yet. Think about it seriously."

Crystal did and, after a moment, she gave a small nod. "Probably."

Velvet smiled, moved closer to Crystal and nuzzling her cheek. "Plus," she whispered in her ear in a playfully coy voice, "you might run into Princess Luna there." Velvet jumped back, laughing while Crystal gasped with realization.

"I didn't even think about that!" Crystal started to trot in place as excitement overtook her. "Oh my gosh, I need a dress! And what am I going to do with my mane and tail?"

Velvet laughed even harder. "That's the spirit!" Her laughter calmed down to intermittent giggles. "Why don't we go shopping? You just got your royalty check for this month, right?"

Crystal's excitement faltered, her eyes closing halfway as she did the math. They were cooking with fresh produce now, and she certainly wasn't going back to eating Hungry Mares. If she took out the usual cost of groceries, how much did that leave for a dress? What about accessories, if she didn't already have shoes or jewelry that matched?

Her lips moved to silently mouth the numbers zipping through her head. "Yeah. As long as we don't go over budget, it'll be fine."

"Then let's go shopping!"

It was a beautiful night. Crystal stood on the road that led to the castle, which was lined with red rope held up by silver stands. The blue-purple hues of the sky above were glittering with stars. The night sky was more wonderfully and carefully arranged than Crystal had ever seen it before Princess Luna's return. She truly was a Princess of the Night.

"At the Gala!" several voices suddenly cried out in unison, nearly startling her right out of the silver shoes on her hooves. Just as the sky was filled with stars, the space around her was filled with ponies marching together and singing.

The Gala was notorious for repeating the same traditions every year with no surprises or deviations from the established norms. The ponies of high class society knew what to expect and reveled in that constancy, as it guaranteed their idea of a great event.

The refined mares and stallions, who were all dressed to the nines, marched past her in step and in song. She rolled her eyes, counted the beat, and joined in.

"At the Gala!"

Then, for the first time that she could remember, a voice sang out of place.

"At the Gala, in the garden, I'm going to see them all! All the creatures, I'll befriend them at the Gala!"

She glanced at the mare to her left and was met with a look of confusion that matched her own. Enough ponies chimed in with another "At the Gala!" exclamation, so Crystal shrugged and continued with the synchronized marching. By the time a third voice had broken out into its own song, they had found a rhythm of carrying on without losing tempo. In total, there were six unexpected verses, but they seemed to at least try to match the song's cadence, more or less. The song finally drew to a close.

"And we'll have the best night ever, at the Gala!"

After the melodious parade to the castle, they all formed a line to shake hooves with the princess before entering the Gala proper. Of course, every year prior that Crystal had attended, it was only one princess. Perhaps this year it would be plural! She could barely keep from bouncing up and down before the line moved forward one pony.

Her excitement deflated when the queue progressed enough that she was inside the main hall and could see up the grand staircase. At the top of the stairs stood Princess Celestia with a purple unicorn at her side that was distinctly not Princess Luna. Crystal sighed and tried to occupy her time by looking around the hall.

It wasn't as magical as it had been before she had started working with Raven. Now, all she could see was the hidden truths behind everything. The stained glass windows, for example, were cleaned three times a day to ensure that they always caught the light as perfectly as possible. Instead of admiring the way the stars could be seen shimmering behind the semi-translucent colored glass, she wondered how recently a castle servant had been by to wash them.

She stifled a yawn. There was more shuffling forward, waiting, then shuffling again. Finally, she had reached her turn at the top of the stairs.

"Good evening," Princess Celestia said and bowed her head, just as she did every year to everypony. "Welcome to the Gala."

"Thank you, Princess." Crystal bowed in return before proceeding past her, but not before stealing a quick glance at the purple unicorn. She felt like she knew her face from somewhere, but where? Being at the princess's side was a prestigious spot only for a special pony.

She made a note to ask Raven about it when she ran into her. The Gala was an opportunity for Raven to relax and enjoy the party, as Princess Celestia had a well-practiced schedule that never changed and didn't require an aide keeping her to it. For the time being, however, Crystal just wished she could see Princess Luna, even if only from a distance.

Unfortunately, the Princess of the Night was nowhere to be found. Crystal had searched all of the areas accessible to her, leaving only the VIP section. Standing just on the standard attendees' side of the rope, she did her very best to nonchalantly peruse the crowd of very important ponies, which consisted of Wonderbolts and their esteemed guests.

Just as she gave up and started to walk away, a rainbow-colored blur shot past her, sending a gust of wind through her mane and the ruffles of her dress. She gasped and threw a hoof to her carefully tiered braids to ensure they were still in place before she looked around to discover the disturbance.

A mare with a rainbow mane and dress seemed to be the most likely culprit. Just like the unicorn at Princess Celestia's side, this mare seemed distantly familiar somehow. From what Crystal could gather from the scene, the mare had dashed as quickly as she could to catch a pie before it hit the ground.

One of the Wonderbolts that stood near the mare exclaimed, "My pie! You saved it! Thanks!"

Crystal rolled her eyes and sighed, then did a double take at the stallion. He was furiously devouring the supposedly rescued pie with no sense of decorum or shame. She had been so determined to find Princess Luna that she had nearly forgotten there were eligible stallions attending the Gala! A flush started to crawl up her neck and to her cheeks as she glanced around, suddenly very aware of the several stallions in the crowd.

As if on cue, her mother's voice rang out sharply against her own thoughts. "Crystal, darling! There you are!"

Crystal looked over to see Upper Crust walking toward her with an unfamiliar blue mare. "Good evening, Mother." She glanced between the two, smiling pleasantly. "Would you care to introduce me to your friend?"

Upper Crust laughed in that awful, goose-like manner. "Oh, darling, I hope she'll be your friend. This is Four Step. She's a dance teacher. Isn't that nice?"

Crystal turned her forced smile on the mare and offered a hoof. "Nice to meet you."

"No, no, the pleasure's all mine!" Four Step beamed at her and accepted the offer with a solid shake. "Your mother mentioned you have a friend in the Canterlot Ballet. Velvet Step, right? How funny, another Step who's a dancer! I wonder if she and I are related?"

This lifted Crystal's smile into sincerity. "Yes, she—"

Upper Crust cleared her throat, interrupting, "She is, but I'm sure you're more interested in talking about how you are also a dancer yourself."

Four Step giggled. "Oh, I don't—"

"She knows all the latest trends in dance so that her students are always the best," Upper Crust interrupted again. "In fact, I dare say she knows the trends before they become trends."

The smile fell into a barely lifted line. "Mother—" Crystal tried to regain her practiced composure, but her emotions were showing too much. "May I speak with you for a moment in private?"

"I'll go get some punch," Four Step suggested before trotting away to give them space.

Upper Crust looked down her nose at her daughter. "What's wrong, dear?"

"What are you trying to do?" Crystal returned the look with a frown. There was no pretense of civility as she continued in a seething voice, "You're scheming something. I thought you were through with this?"

"Nothing of the sort, darling! I'm simply trying to expand your little social circle. After all, you prefer having dancer—" She paused, then finished in an oddly lilting tone, "friends, don't you?"

For a moment, Crystal simply had no response. She finally shook her head to clear her head. "What? Are you—Do you—" Her brow furrowed. "Do you really not like Velvet that much?"

Upper Crust waved a hoof. "That's not it at all! I promise, darling, I am not trying to force anything on you; I'm simply showing you options."

Crystal sighed through her teeth and turned away. "I'm fine, Mother. I can make my own friends without your meddling."

Upper Crust didn't say anything further, nor did she try to stop Crystal from leaving. Instead, she simply stood there, watching her daughter's retreating form with a neutral expression.

Crystal groaned as she wound her way through the sparse crowd to the private gardens. She had learned several years ago that most ponies stayed away from there. While beautiful and well-maintained, they provided too much risk of stray leaves in one's mane or a mischievous branch to snag one's dress.

As they were every year, the gardens were a tranquil scene of magnificent flora and exotic fauna. Every once in a while, she could hear a distant bird in the trees and, when she was lucky enough, would actually catch a glimpse of a bright color moving among the foliage. Out of the corner of her eye, she spotted something large and red.

Hoping to sneak up on a bird, she walked as quietly as she could across the grass, nearing the red figure. When she was close enough, she froze. The figure was definitely not a bird.

An earth stallion sat in a small clearing off the main path, his head lifted so his gaze could drift across the branches above. Crystal carefully moved to get a better look at him from the side and spotted a sketchbook resting in one hoof, a pencil in the other.

An amused smile played across her lips as she watched him for a few moments. He was a big, strong example of a stallion, with black fetlocks and a white mane and tail. He also clearly didn't belong at the Gala. His features were much more suited to labor with his muscles and hooves which—judging by a quick glance at his cutie mark—had something to do with carts. However, there he was, somehow in the Gala and sketching birds.

Finally, she stepped forward, careful to make just enough noise with her movement to alert him without startling him too much. He tensed and pulled the sketchbook in toward him to hide his work, turning his head to look at her.

"Hello!" she said in a quiet voice. "My name is Crystal Wishes. Who are you?"

He eyed her with nervous suspicion. When she simply smiled back, he said low and cautiously, "Axel."

She waved a hoof to try to dismiss his concerns, but a mere gesture was hardly enough for that. "I saw that you were sketching the birds." She tilted her head. "I've been attending the Gala for years and hardly see any of them. How many have you seen?"

Axel clutched the sketchbook tighter. "Not a lot. I've only been sitting here a little while. This is—" His mouth clamped shut and he visibly tensed.

"Your first time 'at the Gala'?" She giggled. "How did you get in? No offense, but I don't believe you received a ticket." When he glanced away from her and hesitated, she added, "It's honestly all right. I know you have no reason to trust me, but I'm not going to turn you in."

He rubbed the back of his neck and relented. "I came to repair a cart that broke down, and, well—with all of the Gala preparations and distractions, nopony was really keeping an eye on me, so I just didn't leave."

"Really! Oh, gosh." She shook her head. "That's a little lax on security's part. When I just want to have a lunch date at the castle, I have to jump through so many hoops! But good for you, I guess?" She glanced at his sketchbook.

He looked between her and the book before he slowly held it out. "I'm not very good at it, but if you really want to see—"

"I do!" Her magic took the sketchbook from him with utmost care and gingerly flipped through it. Some of the sketches were rougher than others, likely having been based on a brief glimpse at a passing bird. One, however, gave her pause.

He took note of her stillness and asked nervously, "What's wrong?"

"Huh?" She blinked up at him. "Nothing's wrong, it's just—" Her gaze returned to the drawing. It was of some kind of parrot that, in black and white, would seem ordinary, but the amount of varying shades of grey the stallion had sketched in alluded to at least a few different colors. "I've never seen the bird this is of."

A smile broke out across his face. "Oh, that one was amazing! They're rainbow lorikeets. They're actually very friendly if you sit still long enough."

"Rainbow lorikeet? So it really is all sorts of colors!" She tapped a hoof to the page. "Anyway, these are really good. I like this one the most, but I guess that's just because you had more time to finish it." After closing the sketchbook, she held it out to him.

Just as Axel took it, a delicate voice chimed from somewhere nearby, "I'm so sorry to have scared you, my friends! But I'm leaving now, so you can all come out!"

Axel looked around, startled. Crystal stood, brushed off the dirt on her dress, and glanced at him with a smile.

"I'll make sure whoever that was heads in a different direction so you can enjoy your evening, Axel." She waved. "Good luck bird watching!"

"Thanks." He returned both the wave and the smile. "It was nice meeting you."

"You, too!" she called over her shoulder as she headed off in the direction of the voice.

At the Gala — Second Dance

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Crystal pushed carefully through the bushes in hopes of finding the owner of the voice. Luck was on her side, it seemed, when she spotted a yellow mare and an old grey stallion—the former of which she didn't know but felt like she should, and the latter she recognized as Mr. Greenhooves, the royal groundskeeper.

They were an odd couple, but she did her best not to judge too much. They seemed preoccupied with one another and not with venturing deeper into the gardens, so she gave them a wide berth as she made her way back to the party.

Just as she left the gardens, she slapped a hoof to her forehead. She had a golden opportunity for a private, secluded encounter with a stallion that was definitely her type and she had simply walked away! Her preoccupation with letting him sketch in peace had completely blinded her to the fact that he might have been an eligible bachelor.

She glanced over her shoulder, but shook her head and walked away. It was too late. He hadn't seemed interested in her, anyway; he was there to see exotic birds and she was neither. Her attention returned to the mingling crowd ahead of her.

Among the ponies, she spotted Raven all dolled up with shimmering jewels in her mane and a sparkling dress. Crystal inwardly squealed before walking over. "Raven!"

Raven squinted at her for a moment and Crystal realized the mare was missing something. "Raven, where in Equestria are your glasses?"

"Crystal?" Raven paused, then nodded to herself with recognition. "I—I wanted to try going without them." She blushed and continued in a lower voice, "I wanted to stun Moore with this ensemble, and the glasses were detracting from my effort. At some point, they fell out of my pocket, though, so—" The blush darkened, now with embarrassment. "I've been standing here for maybe half an hour trying not to bump into anything or anypony."

Crystal did her very best not to laugh. "Really?"

"Stop it! I can hear you thinking about laughing." A small pout tugged on Raven's lower lip. "Could you help me find him? I've given up on the return of my glasses at this point. I just want to find Moore."

"All right, all right." She giggled and started toward the castle. "Follow the blur."

Raven huffed as she walked just behind her. "From what little I can see, you're a very lovely blur tonight."

Crystal giggled. "Thank you, but I'm nothing in comparison to you. Has Moore seen you yet?"

"No," Raven replied with a small sigh. "We were supposed to meet up, but I'm sure he's been trapped in conversation. He can't go very far without somepony wanting to talk to him."

"Speaking of wanting to talk, I have a few questions for you." Crystal slowed her pace. "What is going on with the Gala this year?"

"What do you mean?" Raven's tone grew serious and she stopped entirely. "What happened?"

"Well, the parade had some—interesting additions." Crystal stopped as well, turning to face Raven. "And I noticed there was a mare beside Princess Celestia at the royal greeting."

Raven raised a hoof to her temple. She rubbed a small circle there and groaned under her breath. "Princess Celestia saw fit to invite her protégée, which of course involved inviting her friends, as well. They are the bearers of the Elements of Harmony, but they are also—well—"

With a sigh, Raven shook her head and continued in a mumble, "They're not all quite accustomed to Gala customs. I tried to warn Princess Celestia that they might disrupt the normal order, and all she said in response was, 'I know.'"

"Huh." Crystal blinked. "I thought I recognized her. She's the one in the newest stained glass window, isn't she? She and her friends?"

"Correct. Twilight Sparkle is her name." Raven sighed and gestured for Crystal to continue onward. "I hope Princess Celestia truly does know what she's doing."

"You know her better than almost anypony. If you're doubting her, then I'm really concerned." Crystal laughed softly and held the door open into the main ballroom.

Conversational noise bombarded them from all angles when they stepped inside. It sounded as if there were three times the amount of ponies in the room, and there were already a lot of voices without the echoing. She rubbed her suddenly ringing ears, shook out the pain, and scanned the crowd.

A stallion stood out from the others: Prince Blueblood. At his side was yet another vaguely familiar mare dressed in a gown fit for a princess. They were standing beside a puddle of punch that had been spilled and seemed to be debating.

Raven squinted, though it was no use.. "Do you see him?"

"Not yet." Crystal glanced at her, then back at the prince.

The mare at his side looked utterly offended as she raised the shawl from her shoulders and laid it over the juice. Blueblood walked over it and she neared a snarl as she picked it back up. Unceremoniously, she tossed the wet cloth over her back, then scowled at the prince walking on without her.

"I guess Blueblood is still up to his usual games?" Crystal sighed.

"Huh?" Raven blinked a few times. "Oh, I'm sure. The Gala is when he has more eager mares chasing his flank than at other events. Is he being pestered right now?" She grinned, a small hint of mischief lurking in the corners. "Good for him. Now, stop looking at him and find my Prince Highborn."

Crystal laughed a little too loudly at that. "All right, all right. Come on; maybe he's on the other side of the room. Stay close so you don't get lost and end up following nothing into a wall!"

"Very funny," Raven muttered and walked behind her.

Crystal craned her neck to try to spot his light blue coat among the crowd. Finally, she found the stallion in question surrounded by three other ponies, seeming to be deep in conversation. "Ah-ha! Wait right here."

"Oh, okay." Raven glanced around, but stayed in place as instructed.

Crystal approached the group and cleared her throat. "Excuse me, ladies and gentlestallions," she said in her best airy voice. "I found something that belongs to Sir Pony Moore and it requires his immediate attention."

Moore looked at her with a vaguely, secretly thankful smile. "Is that so?" He glanced at the others. "I'm terribly sorry to cut our conversation short, but this does indeed sound important."

"Certainly, Sir Moore," one of the ponies said, nodding politely.

Crystal led Moore over to where Raven waited and explained, "She lost her—"

"—glasses," Moore finished without a hint of surprise or concern in his voice. He reached into his tuxedo vest and pulled out Raven's unmistakable pair of large glasses—the thick lenses were a tell-tale giveaway. "I found them on the steps outside the ballroom." He held them out for Raven to take. "Here you are, my Canterella."

Raven blushed. She reached out a hoof to grab them, missed at first, and found them on the second try. "Thank you," she mumbled.

Moore waited a moment, then asked, "Aren't you going to put them on?"

Raven froze, so Crystal answered for her, "She's embarrassed to wear them because she thinks they ruin how she looks tonight."

"What?" He glanced between them. "Raven, don't be silly." He took the glasses back from her and gently forced them onto her face. "There. Now you look perfect."

"But they're so big and bulky," Raven muttered, raising a hoof to straighten them. "I wanted to look nice for you tonight."

"And you do." He placed a gentle kiss on her forehead.

Crystal smiled, trying to contain the squeal that was resounding in her mind. She would have to remember that moment and use it in her next story. She started to turn away to leave the two alone when she caught sight of a bright pink mare pulling out a large blue cannon.

In a frantic effort to look around for some kind of explanation, Crystal noticed a guard standing up on a balcony, overlooking the party. To her, the guard's presence overshadowed the cannon's for two reasons.

The first reason was that she or he was in the distinct armor of Princess Luna's House Guard. In an instant, she remembered her original quest and was going to turn to ask Raven regarding the princess's whereabouts; however, the second reason momentarily froze her in place. The guard was aiming a small crossbow at the pink mare.

"What?!" Crystal finally squeaked, backing up and nearly bumping into the happy couple behind her. "Do you see that?!" She pointed up at the balcony.

By the time they looked up, the guard had moved out of sight.

"Very funny." Raven huffed. "I have my glasses now, Crystal, so I can clearly see there is nothing there."

Crystal stared at her, wide-eyed. "There was a guard! With a crossbow!"

"A crossbow?" Raven paused to consider the notion. "Unusual, but not unheard of. Perhaps—"

"C'mon, everypony!" the pink mare shouted loud enough to be heard throughout the whole ballroom. "I know what will make you shake those groove thangs!"

A scowl darkened Raven's expression. "Pinkie Pie."

"Who?" Crystal asked, glancing up at the stage.

"Another one of Twilight Sparkle's friends," Raven grumbled, rubbing her temple again. "The guard was probably startled by—that." She raised the hoof she had been using to nurse her sudden headache to gesture at the mare dancing on the stage and singing the Pony Pokey. "She's harmless, but, well, excitable. I knew inviting them was not a good idea."

Crystal bit her lip. "Speaking of, well, I don't have a good segue, but where is Princess Luna tonight?"

"Not attending." Raven shook her head. "And now I don't blame her."

Crystal's heart sunk a little.

Moore chuckled. "Relax, Rav." He put a foreleg around her shoulders. "If things truly do get out of hoof, the guards will take care of it. How about I treat you to an apple fritter?"

"Apple fritter?" Raven whined. "That's not served at the Gala! This is not a county fair!"

Moore gently coaxed her to walk with him. "Aren't you the one who gave, ah, Applejack, I believe? Yes, Applejack. You approved the permit for her stand."

"I—I know, but—" Raven sighed and looked over at Crystal. "If I lose my job for this disaster of a Gala, will you hire me as your assistant?"

"Certainly!" Crystal giggled and waved. "Enjoy your apple fritter!"

Another sound of dismay escaped Raven, but it was soothed by a kiss on the cheek from her special somepony.

Crystal watched them leave with a light smile and a heavy heart. There was no Princess Luna, and she was alone. She shook her head and tried to raise her spirits by looking around. There were plenty of stallions nearby! They were also, once she thought about it, likely the kind of pony she hated the most.

"Crystal, is that you?"

Speaking of the kind of pony she hated the most! Crystal turned to offer a smile to the golden mare standing just a few paces away. Golden Pants casually closed the distance between them.

"My word, it is!" Golden flashed a brilliant smile that was much too white. "It's been so long!" She tossed her head to acknowledge the three mares following behind her with a glance over her shoulder. "Girls, this is my old classmate, Crystal Fishes."

"Wishes," Crystal corrected as politely as she could.

Golden laughed behind a hoof. "See? Proof that it has been much too long!" She pawed at the air. "What have you been up to these days?"

Crystal shifted somewhat uncomfortably. She masked the movement as simply facing the mare completely. "I'm a bit of a writer."

"Is that so? And that is clearly working so well for you." She laughed again. The gold earrings adorning her ears jingled and shimmered when she shook her head. "I'm sure you know about me."

"Oh, yes, Golden. You—"

"Golden!" She looked at the mares behind her. Their attention had wandered, but the moment she looked at them, they laughed on cue. "How cute! Nopony has called me 'Golden' in years." She looked back at Crystal while the other mares rolled their eyes and amused themselves by whispering to each other. "It's Au, sweetie."

Crystal tried not to bristle, but the hairs of her coat started to stand on end. For all of her fame and pompous attitude, Golden was in the worse position, and Crystal so desperately wanted to point that out. The mares behind Golden were hardly paying attention when she wasn't looking at them.

Before Crystal could finally formulate a response, Pinkie Pie screamed "Stage dive!" and flung herself into the crowd.

It was like watching a masterfully planned arrangement of dominoes. Having no interest in catching her, the posh ponies below fled, leaving an unsuspecting orange mare wheeling a giant cake to fend for herself. Pinkie hit the cart, flipping the cake and sending it soaring through the air. Ponies, Crystal included, followed the cake's journey over their heads and saw it aiming straight for Blueblood.

True to his nature, Blueblood grabbed the mare that had been following him with irritated patience and used her as a pony shield. This seemed to be the last straw, as she turned on him and began to yell her true feelings.

It was more than amusing to watch—until the mare shook like a dog. Pieces of cake and frosting splattered onto his white coat. He shrieked and fell over backwards, bumping into a large statue that then started to wobble.

The rainbow blur shot through the room and caught the statue just before it landed on a group of ponies too stunned to simply move out of the way on their own. However, though she saved them, the statue seemed to be too much for her to handle, as she lost her balance. She stumbled one way, then leaned the other and hit one of the decorative columns with one end of the statue.

It toppled over into another, which toppled into a third, and so on until all the columns that had been set up around the statue's original resting place came crashing down. To add insult to injury, after the dust settled, the statue on the mare's back broke in several places.

Everypony stared in shock. Everything had fallen apart in less than a minute. She wouldn't have believed it if she hadn't seen it with her own eyes.

"Well, this Gala is certainly the worst event I've ever attended," Golden said with a sneer.

Suddenly, the whole room began to rumble and shake. Golden, along with Crystal and several others nearby, cried out in surprise and fear. The doors to the gardens burst open with a loud bang and animals of all shapes, sizes, and kinds poured into the ballroom. The yellow mare from earlier stood in the doorway and panted before she screamed, "You're—going—to—love me!"

Screams filled the air. Ponies and animals alike ran, terrified of each other and of the uncertainty from the whole situation. It was absolute chaos, and as Crystal ran from the ballroom, the first thought that echoed in her mind was: "Raven is definitely going to have one hay of a fit over this."

When Crystal finally arrived home that night and opened the door to their condo, Velvet snorted awake from her spot curled up on one of the sitting pillows. Her ears twitched to different states of perkiness, one almost upright and the other drooping at a midway point. She yawned and said with a tired smile, "Welcome back! How was—whoa."

Crystal froze in the doorway. Her mane was disheveled and her dress was crumpled, even torn in a few places. She blinked slowly, then stepped all the way inside and shut the door.

Velvet blinked just as slowly.

Finally, Crystal said, "It was, um, different."

"That good, huh?" Velvet giggled. She got up off the pillow and stretched before she started to head to her bedroom. "Well, you can tell me all about it in the morning. Looks like you've got quite the story to tell."

"Yeah." Crystal remained where she was, staring at the door to Velvet's bedroom after it clicked shut. "It was," she continued to nopony in particular, "probably the best Gala ever."

A Great Wave

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It was done. At least, it was as done as she was hoping for before sending it off for the first round of editing. Crystal trotted out of her room and exclaimed, "The first stage is complete!"

The condo replied back with empty silence and Crystal sighed. Of course, Velvet was already at practice.

"Well, it is." She gathered up the loosely bound papers and straightened them into an orderly fashion before she slid them into a large manila envelope. "Which means it's time for the second stage. After I drop this off in the mail."

More than writing the story or getting it published, Crystal was excited for the second stage most of all. She had received permission to find her own cover artist, so long as she paid the difference from using the in-house artist. This story was special to her in a way that The Mare's Temptation wasn't. Temptation was certainly a work of pride, but Princess of the Knight was a labor of love.

She couldn't fully explain her fanmare-like obsession with Princess Luna, but the story had come from the simple beating of her heart rather than a muse whispering in her ear.

Conveniently, there was an art exhibit being held that week for artists local to Canterlot. On her way to the exhibit, she stopped at the post office on the corner, a bell ringing to announce her arrival as she pushed the door open.

"Hello!" a unicorn in the standard blue uniform said, offering a small wave. "What can I help you with today?"

"I need a copy made and sent off to Manehattan." Crystal set the bulky folder on the counter between them. "And, perhaps another copy for myself."

The unicorn nodded. "Yes, ma'am." He inclined his head and hollered, "Zerox! Got two copies for you to make!"

A second unicorn walked into sight. His mane and tail were of an off-white color, the former styled to one side and draping over half of his face while the latter hung limp. When his eyes met hers, however, his tail perked up and his sullen expression lightened.

"Zerox?" the postal clerk prompted after an awkward moment of silence held them all. He tapped on the folder. "Copies?"

"Huh?" Zerox glanced at his boss, the gloomy look returning. "Oh, whatever." He sighed and slid the folder over to where the blank pages were kept.

He tucked the wall of mane behind his ear so he could see more clearly. His horn lit up and his amber eyes glowed a brighter shade of yellow as the same color shimmered and enveloped both her pages and the blank ones.

His eyes tracked back and forth as he seemed to be reading the words on the pages. She knew he wasn't, however; copying magic took too much concentration for him to digest any of the content. The moment the words passed from his vision to his magic and onto the previously blank pages, they were forgotten to make room for the next ones.

When he reached the last page for the second time, the yellow glow disappeared from around the levitated pages. His eyes briefly flashed green and he looked over at Crystal. "Done," he said simply, turning and walking away, his mane falling back into his face.

The clerk chuckled and put the new copies in their own folders, then pushed all three back across the counter. "That'll be twenty-five bits, ma'am. Oh, you wanted one of these sent to Manehattan, didn't you?" He returned one of the folders to his side. "Thirty bits, then."

After she paid, she tucked away her folders and trotted out with a cheerful, "Thank you!"

Crystal was a few paces away from the post office before she heard hoofsteps nearing her rather quickly. She looked over her shoulder and spotted Zerox approaching her, though his gaze was focused somewhere off to the side. She blinked, slowed her gait, and asked, "Hello?"

Zerox froze in mid-step and winced. "Hey." His one visible eye glanced at her. "What are you up to?"

She tilted her head. "I'm going to an art exhibit. Why?"

"Oh." He rubbed one hoof against the other leg. "What are you up to after that?"

Realization started to set in and she turned to face him completely, smiling with just a little too much excitement. "I don't have any plans." She stepped closer to him. "Where should I meet you?"

"Do you like coffee?"

She didn't, but her eagerness overtook her and she nodded. "Sure!"

"Okay. Café au Lait at 4?"

"Sounds great!" She paused, then added with a giggle, "I'm Crystal, by the way."

A blush showed on his face at the sudden awareness that he hadn't asked himself. "Yeah, cool. I'll see you at 4." He turned and trotted back to the post office.

Crystal waited until he was out of earshot before squealing and continuing on her way with a skip in her step.

Once she finally made it to the exhibit, it wasn't difficult for her to tell the patrons apart from the artists. Patrons wandered, while the artists stood near their wall of collected work, noses held high. They acknowledged their art's onlookers with raised brows and snarky smiles.

Crystal did her best to look only mildly interested when she looked at paintings. Too interested and the artist might think her disingenuous, and not interested enough would seem, of course, disinterested.

Finally, one took the bait. "Do you like what you see, madam?"

Crystal offered him a casual glance out of the corner of her eye. "Hmm, well, I suppose when one's destiny is to make fine art, it's not a surprise when one does so."

The stallion huffed. "It takes much more than talent to produce masterpieces such as this!"

Well, that marked him off the list. She needed somepony that was talented, yes, but not full of themselves. There was no way she could work with a snob without eventually strangling them. "I see. Good day, then." She turned away and meandered across the room to another artist's section.

After several conversations with ponies much too interested in themselves, Crystal dropped her rump down to the rough carpet and slumped against the wall behind her. A heavy, downtrodden sigh escaped her while she rubbed her aching forehead. What had she been thinking?

"Need some fresh air after navigating that crowd of pompous self-glorification?" a voice asked from nearby, followed by the distinct sound of sipping.

Crystal lifted her head to spot a buttercream unicorn sitting a few paces away, her back nestled against the corner of the room. Her brown mane was tied into a short, loose ponytail and was adorned with purple and pink streaks, as was her tail. She peered at Crystal over a pair of glasses that were resting on her snout.

A mug of steaming liquid that smelled distinctly of coffee was nestled between both her hooves, which she raised back up for another sip. "What's wrong? Tongue tied up from talking in nots?"

The mare chuckled quietly to herself and gave a vague gesture at some nearby art. Her tone rose and fell to mimic other ponies' as she continued, "That's not a very flattering depiction. You're not really expressing anything with this piece. Well, you're not understanding my vision."

Her hoof returned to cradle her mug and she stuck out her tongue. "Unbelievable." She blew a raspberry to accentuate her point, then returned to a more normal expression. "By the way, hello."

Crystal blinked a few times. A short laugh escaped her as she finally caught on to the joke. "Hi." She scooted a little closer, rotating to face the mare. "I'm Crystal Wishes."

"Painted Wave." She shifted to similarly face her in return, her back now only against the one wall, and nodded cordially.

"I guess you don't much care for the kind of ponies that attend art exhibits?" Crystal sighed and looked around at what she could see of the room from her current position. "I don't blame you."

"I'd hope not. I didn't invite 'em, but I am, at least, enjoying the show." Painted Wave turned her gaze on a nearby patron. "Watch closely how the stallion nods at each piece. He thinks he understands it, but in reality, he just wants to impress the mare he's with."

Crystal's mouth wriggled as she tried to fight back another laugh. The stallion in question glared at the two of them and said, "Excuse me, but if you're not—"

"Oh, look, another not," Painted interrupted. "At least try something more interesting. Perhaps Coltic. Marerick Bend?" She waved a hoof. "Don't you mind us. Your date's gone."

The stallion glanced over at where his companion had been. He tensed from the surprise at her absence and walked briskly away to catch up to her.

Finally, the amusement escaped Crystal in a sputtering laugh, especially when Painted cackled a little gleefully.

"So," Painted asked, returning her gaze to Crystal, "what brings you to the exhibit?"

Crystal rubbed at her tearing eyes and shrugged. "Well, to be honest—" She eyed the mare, nervousness rising in her chest. "That is, I mean—" Her eyes lifted in an attempt to look at something that wouldn't look back at her and she gasped when her gaze landed on a painting hanging above Painted's head. "Wow!"

"Wow? You're here for wow?" Painted shrugged. "Well, there are some pretty talented artists here, so—"

"No, no." Crystal waved away the trail of conversation to pull Painted's attention back to her. "That!" She pointed at the painting. "That's amazing!"

Painted tilted her head back to look up at the painting above her. "Oh, that. I am a little proud of it."

Crystal's eyes went wide and she jumped to her hooves. "You?"

Painted looked back at her. "Well, who else would be proud of my work but me? Well. My mother, but that might be a bit too big for her to stick on the fridge."

Crystal stared at the art and its creator in awe, unable to react with so much as a grin. The painting featured a dramatic scene of a mysterious yet imposing mare surrounded by the vast and shimmering expanse of outer space. The expression on the mare's face demanded nothing less than respect while she was surrounded by a glowing aura. Trails of her aura were pulled across the painting toward a star that was on the verge of going nova, nearly black with a radiant, red halo.

"You—" Crystal's gaze wandered the wall to look at the other paintings.

They ranged from simple still life of fruits and vases to big and bold scenes like one piece that was different from the others. It depicted a battle between some sort of monstrous leviathan facing off against a battalion of small, nondescript ponies. The detail in the painting as a whole, however, coupled with the name plate that simply read 'Remember', sent a shiver down her spine.

"—are amazing," she finished, finally looking back at Painted.

Painted set her coffee mug aside and stood up, taking her time to stretch out her limbs and joints before she offered a smile. "If you think so, then it's so, but it doesn't answer my question." She stepped closer. "Why are you here? You don't seem like a typical patron of the arts." She chuckled. "Unless you came here specifically for me, then I suppose that was an answer."

Crystal nodded rather dumbly. "Perhaps I did!"

This caught Painted off-guard and she tilted her head, one brow raised. "What?"

Crystal avoided her gaze, scuffing one hoof against the coarse carpet. "I'm sorry. This may be awfully forward of me. I—"

"Not that I'm not flattered, but," the mare interrupted. She bobbed her head and glanced up at her own horn, where a silver ring rested.

"What?" Crystal flushed and waved her hooves wildly. "No, no! I'm sorry! I want to commission you, professionally and business-like!"

Painted blinked, then laughed. "Oh, is that all?"

"Yes." Crystal's face was still bright red. "I'm a bit of a writer, and I'm working on a new story and need art for the cover."

"I can consider it if you loan me a copy of the manuscript." Painted turned to retrieve her mug, but was stopped by a stack of papers rather suddenly thrust out of Crystal's saddlebags and offered to her. "Oh. Aren't you prepared?"

A bright white aura of magic overtook the manuscript to move it closer for Painted to see. Small lines of color rippled through the magical glow that enveloped the papers, giving the appearance of a watery surface slowly moving in gentle waves.

Silence fell between them, interrupted only by the occasional sound of the pages being turned. The coffee mug glowed as it was levitated and floated over to Painted so she could take a sip. Slowly, she started to sit down, continuing to read.

Crystal bit her lower lip. "So—"

Painted was quick to shush her, one hoof raised in demanded pause.

Crystal waited a few more pages and tried again. "If—"

"Shh." Painted tore her gaze away long enough to shoot Crystal a stern look. "Reading."

Finally, Crystal relented and sat down. She drew a small circle into the carpet with one hoof, then the other, then glanced at Painted. The number of other ponies attending the exhibit started to dwindle down until Crystal's nerves couldn't take it any longer. She took a sharp intake of air, then said quickly before she could be interrupted, "Will you do the cover art?"

Painted jolted, her muscles visibly tensing, and looked up at Crystal as if they were meeting for the first time. "Huh?" She blinked and recognition returned to her eyes. "Oh, right, you're waiting on me for something, aren't you?" She nodded. "I'll need to keep this manuscript, of course." The papers moved closer to her, almost protectively. "For research. Of course."

A sigh of relief escaped Crystal and she smiled. "Thank you so much! Yes, you may absolutely keep that. It's not been through editing, however, so it may be a little rough, but—" She shook her head and smiled again. "Thank you!"

"Mmhm." With a dramatically slow movement, she returned her attention to the papers. "Cover art." Her mug lifted and she took a sip. "Got it."

Crystal glanced at a nearby window to get a gauge on the sun's position in the sky. "I have to—" She was promptly shushed. Giggling, she pulled out a scrap piece of paper, wrote down her address and the ideas she had for the cover, and slid it across the floor over to Painted. "Thanks again," she whispered, then trotted out of the exhibit hall.

Crystal didn't spot Zerox's face in the crowd outside or inside Café au Lait, so she hurried to the bathroom to check on her appearance. Her reflection revealed that she was in dire need of more make-up and, as she realized that she had none with her, the visage in the mirror frowned. She made do by wetting her hoof under a faucet and smoothing her mane into place, then went back out into the cafe.

She had been gone long enough for Zerox to arrive, it seemed, as he was sitting at a table for two off to one side. She sauntered over, a small sway to her hips to swish her tail back and forth. "Hi," she said, inwardly cursing herself for not matching her coy approach with an equally coy greeting.

Zerox looked up and quickly looked back down. She saw a flush of red on his face before his mane shielded it from sight. "Hey."

Crystal took the seat across from him, smiling to hide her sudden panic. How long had it been since she had gone on a date? She had no idea what she was supposed to do. "Have you ordered yet?"

"No." He shook his head. "I was waiting for you."

"Oh!" She picked up the menu and started to look it over. "What do you recommend?"

Zerox glanced at his own menu, which laid in front of him on the table. "I guess, well, I just get espresso."

Crystal hesitated. She knew that espresso was particularly strong, but, beyond that, her knowledge of coffee was limited and she didn't want to admit that. "I see." She bit her lower lip. "How about—oh! A caramel macchiato!" She smiled, folding the menu and setting it back down. "That sounds delicious."

Zerox shrugged. "Too sweet for me, but I guess you're into that sort of thing." He got up and went to the counter to place their order, then returned to the table. "So, you're a writer?"

"Huh?" She straightened up and avoided eye contact. "What? Oh." She laughed somewhat nervously. "Yes, something like that, but what about you?" Her gaze refocused on him. "What do you do when you're not working at the post office?"

His face, or at least what she could see of it, scrunched up in clear distaste. "Not much. I listen to music. I don't really want to talk about me, though. I, uh—" He swallowed and his expression smoothed out. "I've made copies for you before. You're really pretty, so I wanted to get to know you better."

Crystal's whole face turned red. She fiddled with the menu absentmindedly, doing her best to not look as flustered as she was. "Oh, well, then, um, yes. I am a writer. I mailed off one of the copies you made to Manehattan, and just gave the other to an artist who I hope will do the cover." Her eyes lit up. "You should go to the art exhibit before the end of the week! There are some amazing pieces of work on display right now."

"I've already been." His ears fell to the sides.

Crystal furrowed her brow. A barista behind the counter called out Zerox's name and their conversation paused while he retrieved their drinks. She turned the cup slowly between her hooves, staring down at it, then looked up at him. "You don't seem, well, happy. What's wrong?"

Zerox sighed heavily. "Is it that obvious?"

Crystal hesitated, but was saved from answering when he continued on his own.

"How would you feel if your only talent was copying others' work for them? I can't write or draw or anything creative like that. My whole purpose is just to make copies." He raised a hoof and brushed his mane behind one ear to look at her with both eyes, which held the same bitterness as his voice. "It's pretty lame."

Crystal dared a sip of her macchiato. It was sweet and fluffy with the distinct taste of coffee behind it. It certainly wasn't tea, but it was something she could stand to drink. Finally, she slid the cup aside, folded her hooves, and looked at him with a gentle seriousness. "Have you tried?"

"What?" He frowned.

"Have you tried?" she repeated. "My talent is writing, but I can do other things, too. I can cook a little. My friend's talent is dancing, but she's a pretty good baker from helping out her parents. I'm just saying." She swallowed, suddenly nervous again. "Have you tried?"

He glared down at the cup of black liquid in front of him. "Of course I've tried. My writing is terrible and my art would make a foal look talented."

She bit her lip and pressed, "What else?"

This gave him a moment of pause. "I tried everything that I'm interested in," he admitted. His mane slipped out of place and covered his face again. "What else even is there?"

"So many things!" Hope sparked in her chest. "You could try cooking, or baking, or—" She gasped excitedly. "Music!"

He furrowed his brow and leaned back into his chair. "Music?"

She nodded, a smile working its way onto her lips though she tried to look calm. "You mentioned that you listen to music, so it must be important to you. Why don't you try that? There are so many instruments, and I know a lot of musicians in Canterlot if you found an instrument you liked, and—"

"Whoa, whoa, whoa." Zerox's eyes widened, one hoof raised to pause her. "What are you doing?"

"Huh?" She tilted her head. "I'm trying to help."

"Why?" His brow furrowed.

Crystal took a sip of her macchiato to ponder her response before she said simply, a small flush heating her cheeks, "Because you said I'm pretty."

He blinked a few times, then started to smile. "Oh. Well. It'd be cool to make music. I guess I'll give it a shot."

"Great! So, why don't we meet back here again in a week and see how it goes?" She glanced up at him.

He nodded. "Sure."

"Great," she repeated, trying to sound more excited than she felt. It wasn't quite what she had in mind when she thought 'date', nor was she certain 'meeting again in a week' would count as a second date, but it was better than nothing.

Tumultuous Revelations

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Crystal was startled awake by the sound of the train's whistle blowing, signaling the impending arrival at the Ponyville station. She yawned behind a hoof before she stretched as much as she could while still sitting on the bench in proper form.

The train's momentum slowed, the wheels starting to squeal as the brakes were applied, and soon came to a complete stop. Crystal's magic lifted her luggage into the air and she walked to the nearest exit.

However, something struck her as odd as soon as she reached the end of the station's platform: Horsey wasn't there to greet her like normal. Crystal paused to recall the letter she had sent and was fairly certain she hadn't written the day down wrong. Perhaps the restaurant was busy?

She shrugged and stepped off the platform only to be met with a sickening squish beneath her hoof. She recoiled and looked at the hoof that had touched the wet ground. Brown liquid clung to the feathery tufts on her fetlocks, simultaneously confusing her as well as reminding her that she needed to get them trimmed. It was too watery to be mud, and the skies were perfectly clear.

With a small groan, she tried to shake it off before gingerly stepping down again, doing her best to step where it seemed the driest.

Her attention was distracted from the moistness that invoked continuous whimpers at the unpleasant feeling, however, the closer she got to town. Something was off and, at first, she couldn't put her hoof on it. She thought it was the smell of chocolate in the air, but she disregarded that. Somepony was probably throwing a party. No, it was something else that bothered her, and she had to stop to think about it until—

"Oh, sweet Celestia!" she cried aloud when it finally hit her.

Ponyville was in disarray. Some buildings were missing patches of roofing, some of the gardens were upturned, and everypony in town was trying to clean up the scattered debris. Crystal's eyes widened and she hurried her pace toward Savoir Fare's restaurant. Though a few of the outdoor tables were broken or toppled over, the restaurant itself was still standing and in fairly good condition.

She skidded through the doors and nearly into the wall, her hooves slick with the brown liquid. "Horsey?!" she cried. "Are you okay?!"

The mare in question turned to look at Crystal with wide eyes. "Did you just get here? I'm so sorry! I completely forgot to go to the train station!"

"Forget that!" Crystal lost her focus and her luggage fell to the ground. "What the hay happened to Ponyville?!"

Horsey's expression was muddled at best, some sort of smile that gave up halfway through and fell lopsided. "Have you ever heard of Discord?"

"Discord?" Crystal paused. "As in, a lack of harmony?"

"No, as in, apparently, the spirit of chaos that likes to wreak havoc on little towns." She shifted her weight to her forelegs and bucked a toppled dessert cart upright. "I'm actually kinda surprised that the train still pulled into town. We've been upside-down all day."

Crystal stared at her. She walked closer and put the front of her hoof to Horsey's forehead. "Do you need me to tell Savoir Fare to give you the day off?"

Horsey snorted and waved the hoof away. "Okay, how would you explain the state Ponyville's in, huh?"

Crystal considered a few options, straightening some of the tables and chairs as she pondered. "Rogue weather pony?" she finally offered.

A short bark of a laugh escaped Horsey and she guided the dessert cart outside magically rather than physically, as two of its wheels were broken. "Come on. I have to take this to get it repaired." She glanced at Crystal. "How was Manehattan?"

"Not nearly as interesting as, apparently, your past few days were," Crystal mumbled.

"Day. This all happened today." Horsey shook her head. "At least, I think it only happened today, what with the sun and moon flipping faster than Savoir's pancakes. I don't know what's a worse: bullying from my parents, or waking up to a new disaster each week. The sky was filled with pink clouds that rained chocolate milk.

"Chocolate. Milk. And that's not as fun as it might sound. And just a week ago, Fluttershy and Twilight Sparkle were running all over town chasing a naked chicken or something and upsetting the guards." A low groan rumbled in Horsey's throat. "I know they're the Bearers of the Elements, but they get Ponyville involved in the weirdest stuff."

Crystal was quiet for a while, trying to take it all in. "I don't understand, though. I thought Ponyville was so quaint and quiet and easygoing."

"Tell me about it." The dessert cart bobbed as Horsey's focus wavered in and out. "Well, on the plus side, I've seen more of Princess Celestia than I ever did living in Canterlot. She drops by all the time to check in on the girls and, considering they defeated Discord, I guess they're important enough that it makes sense."

Crystal gave a quick shake of her head. "I don't even know where to begin with questions for all of that!"

Horsey released a long sigh. She dropped her head down low, ears drooping to the sides. "It's okay. I'm not sure I even really want to talk about it. I'd rather hear about how things are going with your new book. You said in your letter that you found a cover artist?"

"Oh! Yes, I did!" This added an extra skip to Crystal's step that she immediately regretted when a hoof landed a little too hard on a wet spot. She winced, but otherwise tried not to react so much that Horsey would laugh at her. "She's extremely talented and not a snob. Those were basically my only two requirements, but she's also…" She trailed off, mouthing a few words to try them out before settling on, "Wonderfully contemptuous."

Horsey stared at her with a furrowed brow. "I'm sure I don't have to tell you that not knowing what that means, it sounds pretty racy."

Crystal snorted. "She mocked a snobbish stallion to his face in ways you and I always dreamed of doing ourselves."

"Oh." Horsey paused, then repeated with more interest, "Oh! So, she's awesome?"

"Yup."

"That's good news, at least," Horsey said, mustering a smile.

The path grew less defined as they neared the outskirts of town. Cresting the hill, a wooden pole barn came into view. It was a faded red color and seemed a little worn down, but stood tall and sturdy nonetheless.

"Do you mind if I come visit you guys in Canterlot for Nightmare Night?" Horsey asked. "With all that's been going on the past few months, I just need a break. I don't know what will happen this time, but I'm sure it won't be normal."

"Sure!" Crystal flashed a smile at her. "I don't think Velvet will mind at all."

Nearing the building, Crystal could finally make out the writing on the sign that hung outside: 'Axel's Wheels and Wagons: Wagon Building and Repair'.

"Axel?" she mused under her breath, shaking her head when Horsey shot her a curious glance.

Her ears perked at the sound of chirping and her attention was drawn to several bird feeders that were set up in the lawn. A notable amount of wild birds were enjoying the free meal and tweeting to all of their friends about it.

"Hey," Crystal said as she looked at Horsey, "does Axel happen to be a big, strong red stallion?"

Horsey blinked. "Um, yes? How did you know and why do you ask?" A grin spread across her face when she noticed Crystal's posture stiffened. "Oh, I see. Well, he is totally your type!" She hopped ahead to beat Crystal to the door, calling out when she entered, "Hey, Axel! I've got two things for you to fix!"

Crystal's eyes went wide and panic overtook her. "Horsey!" she hissed. "Cut it out!"

Horsey giggled as a stallion approached them. His black fetlocks, larger than average build, and white mane confirmed his identity.

"What's broken?" Axel asked in a voice that was even more tired than the bags under his eyes, but he smiled nonetheless. A glance around the interior of the barn revealed the culprit for his exhaustion: numerous broken carts were lined up and waiting for their turn. "I'm a little backed up with work, but I can add it to the…" He trailed off when his gaze landed on Crystal and he froze.

Crystal found herself at an impasse. She had missed her opportunity the first time to discover his eligibility and she certainly didn't want to waste a second chance. However, considering what Ponyville had been through and, more than that, how tired he looked and overworked he was, she finally decided to just smile.

"Their dessert cart broke," she offered in a perfectly cordial manner. "If you could see to fixing it, we would all be appreciative."

Axel hesitated a moment, then nodded. "I'll have it fixed by the end of the day." With a chuckle, he added, "Assuming the day ends when it normally should this time."

"Right?" Horsey rolled her eyes. "This has been absolutely insane. Anyway, thanks, Axel! Just send the bill to Savoir Faire like normal!" She waved and urged Crystal with her outside. Once the door was shut and they were a good few paces away, she groaned, "So, what was wrong with him?"

Crystal stuck out her tongue. "A mare has the right to pick and choose!" She bumped her flank against Horsey's. "There was nothing wrong with him. It is the timing that was wrong. Did you see how many broken carts there were in there? He has other things on his mind, certainly. And besides, he clearly has set up his roots here in Ponyville." She glanced at the barn behind them then looked back ahead. "Mine are in Canterlot."

Horsey gave a heavy sigh, shaking her head. "You know, Velvet and I agreed we wouldn't date anypony until you found your special somepony. Maybe you could consider being a little less picky!"

"You two agreed to what?!" Crystal stared at her with wide eyes. "Why?!"

"Isn't it obvious? Crystal, you've been obsessed with having a coltfriend forever. How would you feel if one of us got one before you?"

Crystal stamped both forehooves. This time she didn't pay any mind to the squelch that followed immediately after. "Isn't it obvious?" she repeated sarcastically. "I'd be happy for you!"

Horsey stopped to stare at her with a stern frown. "You wouldn't be jealous or mopey that you, the most romantic one of the three of us, came in second or even third place?"

"It's not a race!" Crystal rolled her eyes. "Honestly, where did the two of you get an idea like that?"

There was a moment of silence before Horsey said softly, "Well, I don't know, I guess we just got to talking about it and—decided." She looked away, off in the direction of Ponyville. "You really wouldn't be upset by it?"

"Absolutely not." Crystal stepped toward her, suddenly grinning, and cooed, "Does somepony have a crush they've been holding out on?"

At the words, Horsey's face turned a bright shade of red and her ears stood straight up. "What? No! I mean, yes, but not solely because I thought it'd make you sad!"

Crystal squealed and hopped from hoof to hoof. "Oh my gosh, Horsey, I can't believe it! Is it Savoir? Tell me it's Savoir!"

"It's Savoir," Horsey admitted in a quiet voice that squeaked with embarrassment. "I tried really hard not to look at him that way because I'm living with him! I know Ponyville ponies are nice, but everypony gossips. I'm sure there's already lots of gossip about us. And he's several years older than me, and—I don't know—"

Crystal pursed her lips. "Do you really care what other ponies think?" When Horsey said nothing, she shook her head and sighed. "Then surely you care what I think."

This earned a meek nod in response.

"Well, I think you deserve to be happy, regardless of the living situation or age difference. So go get your stallion!"

Horsey shuffled her hooves as she resumed the walk back into town. "Maybe after things calm down," she mumbled. "I'm just not sure if he sees me as anything but an employee."

Crystal winked. "The only way you'll know is if you try."

"Says the mare who didn't ask a hunky stallion if he wanted to go on a date because of roots or whatever," Horsey chided with a playful grin. "Your advice is hardly credible!"

"Oh, that, you—" Crystal sputtered, trying to find her words. "That's totally different! Look, when you come to visit for Nightmare Night, Velvet and I will be prepared with plans to get you in Savoir's spotlight if you aren't already by then."

Horsey tried her best to stay stoic, but a giggle escaped despite her efforts. "Sounds like a plan."

They returned to the restaurant and spent the rest of Crystal's visit putting everything back in order, which was certainly no small feat.

As promised, roughly a week after their first meeting, Crystal returned to the coffee shop. The heavy, bitter aroma poured out like a gust of wind when she opened the door, but she pushed herself to enter. A quick glance around confirmed that, like last time, she had arrived first.

However, unlike the time before, she headed straight for the counter to place her order in advance. Though she was loathe to admit it, she was actually looking forward to another caramel macchiato more than the pseudo-date itself.

"Hello. Good morning. Welcome to SunBucks," a bored voice droned.

"Yes, I'll—" The rest of her words became strangled in her throat when she looked up. "YOU!"

The sage pegasus behind the counter regarded her with a look that spelled out apathy. His brow briefly furrowed. "Me."

Her heart pounded in her chest as a surge of emotions washed over her from the memory of her first date. "How—You—" Words continued to fail her.

The pegasus waited through a few more broken sentence attempts before he asked, "May I take your order, Miss Stranger?"

Though she wanted to reach across the counter and clock him right in the face, the lack of recognition snuffed the fire within her. Her tone was almost defeated as she replied, "Small caramel macchiato. Please."

"Yup. Five bits."

She paid, then skulked over to the pick-up counter. She shot the pegasus a few sour looks as she tried to process that he didn't remember her. Perhaps literally raining on ponies was such a normal thing for him that their encounter was unremarkable. The idea somehow made her even angrier, but when her drink was placed in front of her, she picked it up and went to a seat that took him out of her view. Out of sight, out of mind.

Not long after, Zerox walked in and over to her. Remarkably, his mane was pulled back with a maneband to expose his smiling face. "You were right," he said as he took the seat across from her. "I can do music."

Crystal stirred her coffee. "So what happened?"

"A stallion came in to make copies for a flyer. He was trying to put together a cover band." He rubbed the back of his neck. "I mean, normally, I would have just made the copies without paying attention, but he was talking about it, too, asking if I knew anypony that would be interested. I told him that I was thinking of getting into music, so I went over to his place and, well." He grinned. "I'm going to be a bassist."

"That's wonderful!" She clapped her hooves together. "You don't even need my help finding an instructor, then, do you?"

Zerox shook his head. "Not really. He ran me through a few lessons and I sucked at first. I mean, I still kind of suck. But if I listen to the music, I can—" He paused, then laughed a little nervously at the irony of his next words: "copy it."

Crystal couldn't help a small laugh, either. "Well, you seem a lot happier already, so I'm glad." She paused to sip her drink. "So—"

"We have to break up," he interrupted rather quickly, now not meeting her gaze. "I mean, between the post office job and now my time devoted to learning to play bass, I don't think it's going to work out between us."

Crystal blinked slowly. Her expression flashed through a few samples of the emotions she felt until finally landing on her best effort at a calm smile. "I understand."

He stood. He still didn't look at her directly, but from what she could see he looked earnestly remorseful. "Good luck with your writing, Crystal. Thanks for encouraging me. I'm just sorry it had to end like this." Before she could respond, he turned and left.

Once he was gone, Crystal had to clasp both hooves to her mouth to keep from laughing. "Oh—Oh, Celestia," she muttered between strained gasps for air that shuddered from the effort of holding laughter at bay.

At least she could say that she handled her first break-up with dignity and that it taught her something important: she definitely needed an older stallion that understood how dating worked.

Crystal marched at the head of the small group of herself and her two best friends. Painted Wave had written that the cover was ready for final approval and included her address. Coincidentally, it was ready right when Horsey was visiting to avoid Nightmare Night.

"I'm so glad the timing worked out like this," Horsey said. "I can't wait to see the cover!"

"Me neither!" Crystal marched at the head of the group to lead the way. Her chest swelled with all the emotions that caused her heart to flutter against her ribs. "And I'm excited for you two to meet Painted." She paused, then added a little quietly, "And I'm excited to finally get to see her place."

They climbed another set of stairs to reach a hallway that ended with a door marked by the precise number on the written address. As they approached the door, soft instrumental music could be heard from behind it.

Crystal took a sharp intake of air before raising a hoof and knocking three times in quick succession. The sound of something breaking followed by a few colorful words responded before the door opened to reveal Painted's face. A forced smile was on her lips, though Crystal couldn't noticed its strained corners at first.

What they noticed first and foremost was her almost comically disheveled appearance. The mare's coat was its own canvas, covered in splatters of differing purples and blues. A couple tufts of her mane stuck out at odd angles, held stiff in place courtesy of dried paint. Two paintbrushes were tucked behind her ear and fresh color dripped onto the upper rim of her glasses from the fully loaded bristles.

Just as they had finished taking in her appearance, her gaze focused on Crystal and her smile relaxed. "You're a little earlier than I expected. Are you that excited?"

She pulled the door all the way open. The bright interior poured light into the hall which, by comparison, seemed dim. The source of all the illumination became evident when Painted stepped to the side: windows stretched from the first floor to the open second and spanned two walls entirely.

"Come on in. It's safe." A drop of paint fell from one of the paintbrushes and landed on the plush, mint green carpet beneath her hooves. She looked down and regarded the mess with a small frown. "Well, mostly."

With polite greetings and introductions, the three of them walked inside. Horsey slowly inclined her head to look around with wide eyes while Crystal turned her attention on Painted.

"So, I guess you've been busy," Crystal teased.

"If you count—" The conversation was cut short by an exclamation of surprise piercing the air. They looked over to see Velvet standing in front of two easels that were spaced out to hold a single canvas.

The painting drew Horsey and Crystal over to stand by Velvet, the only sound the clicking of their hooves from where the carpet turned to paint-streaked hardwood as they observed in awe. It held a vivid nightscape that overlooked a distant castle outlined in the moon's light.

A pegasus stallion, clad in armor of varying purple hues, looked out into the night with undaunted determination. The white of his coat stood out from the purples and blues of the rest of the scene, but not so much that he didn't seem to belong. His gaze followed a blade he held in his left hoof that glowed in the moonlight, while his right foreleg was curled protectively—and perhaps possessively—around an alicorn mare that looked up at him with luminous amber eyes.

The alicorn was as gorgeous and mysterious as the night sky behind her. Her resplendent mane, brimming with stars, was caught in a strong breeze that twirled it up and behind the pegasus to sweep across the scene. A gown of glittering black chastely clothed her figure, and a modest crown and a bracelet, both a brilliant copper, stood out against the darker tones of her deep, royal purple coat.

Velvet and Horsey both glanced at Crystal while she simply stared, mouth agape. When she started to smile, so did they; when she started to hop up and down, so did they; and when she started to squeal with excitement, so did they.

Behind them, a stallion had started to walk out of the kitchen with a tray of freshly baked cookies and mugs of steaming tea; however, when he saw that he was vastly outnumbered by overly excited mares, his eyes widened and he slowly backed up and out of view.

Painted chuckled and walked over to them. "Does it pass inspection?"

"It's—I'm—speechless!" Crystal looked up at her. "I don't know how you took it from the concepts you showed me to this!"

"Well, obviously, I started with some paint." Painted shrugged. "This is your last chance for any changes."

While Crystal returned her gaze to the painting and studied it with extreme focus, Velvet found amusement in a rotund brown tabby with bold stripes that had wobbled over and pressed against her foreleg.

"Oh my gosh," Velvet said, giggling and stroking the cat's side when it flopped over. "You have a cat?!"

"Two," Painted corrected. "You've discovered Khan. Bonus points if you can find Panic."

Horsey gasped when what looked like a black pillow on the sofa suddenly moved. The cat turned his head to blink at her, then its eyes went almost ridiculously wide. Before she could announce her discovery, Panic held true to its namesake by springing from the couch, scampering across the floor, and disappearing up a spiral set of stairs that led to a partially open loft.

"And the points go to Horsey! You win a—" Painted paused. She inclined her head and peered at the kitchen. "Verd! What's taking so long?"

A stallion's voice responded, "Huh? Oh. Nothing." His head poked out to survey the main area. "I didn't want to, well, interrupt."

"Interrupt? As far as I'm aware, cookies and tea are a welcome interruption in most any circumstance." Painted gestured for him to come out. "Ladies, this is my brilliant-but-absent-minded husband, Verdant Wellspring."

"Hey," Verdant started with a small pout.

"Anyway," she continued, "help yourselves to some cookies and tea, but Horsey gets one more than the rest of you."

Crystal finally spoke as though nothing had happened during her examination. "Perfect."

Painted looked at her. "Hmm?" Her horn lit up, lifting one of the paintbrushes her ear held in place.

"I'm sorry." Crystal took a step back and nodded with determination. "What I mean is, it's totally, absolutely, positively perfect. I can't see a single thing wrong with it at all!" She turned to face Painted. "When can you ship it to Manehattan?"

The paintbrush returned to its resting place and she smiled. "As soon as it dries. I'm glad you like it."

Crystal giggled. "Like it?" She shook her head. "I love it. Now I can't wait for the writers convention just so I can show it off to everypony!"

Painted made a contemplative humming sound. She looked at the painting, then back at Crystal. "If it's all right with you, I think I'd like to attend, as well. Incognito, though. Ponies that see my work are more likely to be honest with their opinions when they don't know the creator's among them."

She paused, then continued, "I mean, if it is truly okay with you? Truth be told, I'd like to see their reactions about your writing, too." A big, genuine grin sprang across her face and creased the corners of her eyes. "And I want a copy!"

"What? Of course!" Crystal waved her hoof. "Absolutely, to all of it! I'll make sure you get one of the first copies. And, besides, it's not like I could stop you if you were intent on going." She returned the grin with one of her own. "If you went to the convention with all this paint on you, I'd not recognize you at all."

Painted tossed her head back to release a loud bout of laughter. "All right! Oh, and just one more thing." She turned her head toward a loaded palette. Her magic sprang to life, lifting plain white paint in a stream of droplets. Her eyes flicked upward to a large crystal that hung over the work area.

A low hum resounded as the crystal seemed to vibrate to life. A split second later, a bolt of light shot out and connected with the tip of Painted's horn. Her head lowered and she directed the light through the suspended paint. Like a bolt of lightning, the paint shot forward and onto a corner of the canvas. Instead of a splattered mess, however, what appeared was a signature that read 'Painted Wave' and shimmered with faint rainbow hues.

"There," she said, the crystal resuming its still, quiet state. "Now it's done."

Crystal stared at the signature, her mouth agape, then turned to look over at the others. "Horsey! Velvet! Did you see that?!"

Horsey nodded from her spot on the sofa, the plate of cookies resting beside her. "That was amazing!"

"See what?" Velvet looked up. She was lying on her back, the chubby tabby perched on her chest and when it started to knead, she giggled. "Oh my gosh, Crystal, we need one of these. I'm not even joking!"

Crystal put a hoof to her forehead. "We are not getting a cat."

While Velvet whined and hugged Khan closer. "But—"

"Why don't we have some tea and discuss the pros and cons of cat ownership?" Painted offered. Her magic lifted the mugs from where they sat and floated them over to the dining table. She sat down and cradled her mug with both hooves.

Velvet gently set Khan down before she took the seat beside Painted. "Pro: they're awesome."

Crystal took the seat across the table. "Con: we can't afford to take care of one."

Velvet fell quiet, her expression vaguely irritated, then she started to grin. Slowly, Khan's head crested the table as she lifted him up. "But Crystal," she said in an exaggerated voice one would normally reserve for the very young or the simple-minded, "look at how cutesy-wootsy I am. Won't you pet mah tummy?"

Horsey sat at the head of the table and steepled her hooves, a serious expression on her face. "I think I have a compromise." She paused for dramatic effect. "I'll get a cat."

Painted, who had been doing her best to not laugh during the negotiations, finally cut in. "That sounds fair to me." Her mug rose for a toast. "To cats?"

"To cats!" Velvet and Horsey cheered, clinking their mugs to hers.

Crystal rolled her eyes, though raised her mug as well. "To cats I don't have to clean up after!"

Varying giggles and chuckles went around the table. Painted and Horsey discussed breeds of cats, Velvet went back to playing with Khan, and Crystal looked between them all with a contented smile.

A mournful, pained wail resounded throughout the condo. Crystal fell off her pillow and onto the floor with a loud thump. She buried her face against her forelegs to muffle but not completely silence a series of less-than-polite words that followed.

Velvet nearly stumbled over her own hooves in her rush to go to Crystal's side. "Holy Celestia, what happened?!" She knelt down, gently touching her shoulder. "Are you okay?!"

"No," Crystal whined. "I'll never be okay again." One foreleg swept out to gesture at the letter she had dropped.

Velvet trembled as she picked it up and started to read. The trembling ceased, and her worried expression was replaced with a scowl that was quickly overtaken with laughter. "Seriously?! You're such a drama queen, I swear!"

Crystal rolled over onto her back and looked up at the ceiling. Her voice was bereft of joy as she muttered, "But this is possibly the worst news ever." She reached out for the letter and when given it, read once more to herself:

Crystal

Sooo… You'll find this out sooner or later, I'm sure. I figured it would be easiest to take coming from me.

It turns out something did happen in Ponyville for Nightmare Night. Princess Luna showed up and apparently bonded with the locals over games and pranks.

Apologetically yours

Horsey

Confessions at the Convention

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"Late, late, late," Crystal chided under her breath and trotted down one of the many halls of the convention center. "Sorry, excuse me!"

All of her convention supplies floated behind her, and her worried, distracted thoughts made their path unsteady. She repeatedly excused herself to ponies that were nearly bowled over by boxes wobbling through the air.

She narrowly avoided losing her balance when she stepped from the carpeted hall to the polished, smooth floor of the east wing. Booths were set up to form a labyrinth through the large, open room. She looked around at the numbers written on the nearby booths to get her bearings before she figured out which direction to go.

Most authors had already arrived and put their books and other merchandise out onto their tables. If she weren't close to passing the deadline to get set up, she would have loved to walk slowly and take it all in. Instead, she just did everything she could to not knock anything over in her hurry.

She skidded to a halt in front of the empty booth marked '1205' and breathed a sigh of relief. Her boxes lowered to the ground on her side of the table and she started to unpack them. Things had been so close to not working out that she hadn't even gotten to see the banner for The Princess of the Knight yet. Obviously, it was just an enlarged version of the cover, but as she unrolled it, she realized it was so much more.

It was a big, bold display of her accomplishment. Her chest swelled with pride as she hung the banner on the wall behind her seat. She took a step back to look at it in all its glory.

"Wow, that looks great!" a neighboring author commented.

"Thanks!" She beamed a smile at them, then returned to setting up her station.

Once all the copies of her two books were carefully arranged, she dropped her rump onto the seat and finally looked around. The 1200 row consisted solely of romance authors, so the displays within her view ranged from playfully coy to outright raunchy. One in particular made her flush and she jerked her attention back to her own booth.

There were only a few minutes left before the doors were opened to convention attendees. Her heart pounded, but she momentarily distracted it by straightening the quills resting behind the propped-up books.

Why was she so nervous? After all, she was in disguise. The pink streaks in her mane were tied up to hide under a beret, leaving only the blonde tresses exposed. She wore a black sweater with the proven-lucky pink scarf tied around her neck, but most importantly, she also wore a skirt that was just long enough to ensure her cutie mark remained out of sight.

The sudden and rapid click-clack of hooves against concrete filled the air like an approaching stampede. Before she knew what was going on, there was noise and bodies everywhere. The fans had descended upon the feast of trapped authors.

Many ponies were dressed up to resemble characters from their favorite stories. She recognized a few here and there, but for the most part she felt like she had been transported to a whole new world.

"He—Hello," a mare stammered as she approached Crystal's table. "You're C.W. Step, right?"

Crystal straightened up and smiled. "Yes, I am."

The mare pulled out a book from one of her saddlebags and set it on the table between them. Her face turned a bright red. "Could you please sign this for me? I've read it three times!"

Crystal's smile widened further. "Absolutely!" One of her trusty quills lifted and the book flipped open to the inside cover. "What's your name?"

"Gossamer, ma'am."

"Oh, you can call me—" She hesitated a moment. "C.W. is fine. Just C.W." Finishing the message of gratitude and her well-practiced signature, she offered the book back to the mare. "Thank you for being a fan!"

Gossamer gently touched a hoof to one of the copies of The Princess of the Knight lying on the table. "Is that an alicorn?"

Crystal swallowed, her throat suddenly dry. "Yes, Princess Selene is an alicorn."

With an almost guiltily pleased look in her eyes, Gossamer glanced between the book and Crystal before asking, "Would you sign a copy for me?"

The simple question soothed her worries in an instant. Her magic brought one of the books to her and she signed it, then exchanged it for bits. "I hope you enjoy it, Gossamer!"

Gossamer squealed as she bounced out of the way and Crystal was startled by a pony stepping up to take her place. Crystal blinked, then looked past the new pony to see a line. There was a line forming just for her. She did everything she could not to jump out of her seat with excitement.

"Hello!" she chirped to the pony that set a book on the table. "What's your name?"

After the rinse-and-repeat of meeting and greeting her fans—a few of which were stallions, much to her surprise—Crystal's stomach started to rumble. One fan wanted to discuss the details of her book, including their likes and dislikes, and though she earnestly wanted to pay attention, hunger was drawing her focus away from the conversation.

Her prayers were answered when a brown paper bag dropped onto the table. It smelled distinctly of hay fries and toasted oat biscuits. Crystal looked over to see Painted Wave standing at her side, grinning. Her saddlebags were nearly bursting at the seams with books, art prints, and other assorted merchandise.

Crystal smiled. "How is the convention on the other side of the table?"

"Fantastic!" Painted grinned. "It's a shame you're stuck here, though—" She glanced at the line formed for book signings. "—it seems like you've got quite a fantastic experience yourself."

Crystal opened the bag and magically grabbed four or five of the fries. They were hurriedly ushered to her mouth, which she hid behind a hoof so she could eat with some sense of decency. "Thank you so much," she said after swallowing.

Painted stared at her incredulously. "Who said that was for you?" When Crystal stared at her in wide-eyed horror, she laughed. "I'm teasing, I'm teasing. Of course it's for you."

"You are so cruel," Crystal muttered, albeit smiling. She turned her head to smile at the mare across the table. "I'm so sorry! Hello!"

The mare offered a copy of The Mare's Temptation. "Please make it out to Serendipity Doo!"

"Absolutely." She simultaneously signed the book while retrieving another fry. "Thank you for being a fan!"

"I'm just so excited that you wrote another novel. I'd like to buy a copy of that, too, please!"

While Crystal ate in between attending to ponies in line, Painted made herself a little nest on Crystal's side of the table. She rummaged through her haul with her ears swiveled back to listen in on the conversations. Once she had entertained herself both with her convention swag and with hearing anonymous feedback on her art, she stood rather abruptly.

"Do you mind if I leave my stuff here with you?" she asked as she started to unload her things into a neat pile.

Crystal glanced between Painted and her hoard, one brow raised. "It looks like you already are!"

Painted grinned. "I didn't ask if I could, just if you would mind it." She set her emptied saddlebags onto her back.

"Oh, you." Crystal sputtered a laugh and dismissed her with a wave. "Thanks again for the food!"

"Yup!" Happily, Painted trotted off into the crowd.

Crystal returned her attention to the waiting pony, sliding the signed book back to her. "Thank you!"

"No, thank you!" The pony hugged the book to her chest and stepped out of the way. Another pony took her place.

Crystal rubbed her aching neck. Her posture needed work if she was going to survive the convention; leaning over to sign books for hours on end was putting quite the strain on her muscles. She took a moment to glance down the row to see how many ponies were left and nearly jumped out of her coat.

Just three ponies back stood the very Princess of the Night herself. At her side was a royal guard—and not just any royal guard. The fates had to conspire against her even further. It was the very same royal guard from Quills and Sofas. Not many pegasi had long, tufted ears, and even fewer had blue primary feathers in their wings. They were standing, together, in her line. Her gaze darted to the books sitting on the table around her, each one boldly emblazoned with their likenesses.

"Hi! Can I get you to make it out to Fortunate Heart, please?" The mare picked up a copy of The Princess of the Knight and set it on the table between them.

Crystal offered her the best smile she could handle while her heart struggled just to beat normally. "Of course!" Her quill lifted while, simultaneously, she started to levitate books off the table, setting them out of sight on the ground.

"Thanks! I can't wait to read it!"

"I hope you like it," Crystal responded cheerfully while hiding the rest of the copies of said book.

The suddenly empty table garnered her a curious look from the next pony in line. Crystal returned it with a smile. "Hi! What can I do for you?"

"I was hoping to buy a copy of The Princess of the Knight. Are you sold out?" The mare's ears fell.

"Oh, certainly!" Crystal swallowed. Her gaze darted to Princess Luna and her guard. They were next. She was doomed. However, keeping her cool on the outside, she raised one copy and moved it across the table to the mare. "Thank you for your interest."

The mare put her bits on the table. "Can you sign it, too?"

One of her ears twitched as the panicked adrenaline rush made it hard to focus, but she tried to smile. "To whom should I make it out?" Crystal's quill lifted and wrote a courteous note of gratitude with the name given, then closed the cover. "Thank you!"

The mare squealed and bounced out of line, leaving her face to face with the princess, who was looking past her.

Horror was most certainly plastered on Crystal's face. She had written a romance novel about an alicorn princess of the night and was trying desperately to hide it. She had also completely forgotten about the large banner standing behind her with an enlarged version of the cover. "Princess Luna!" she said in a weak but calm voice, hoping to sound as though nothing was wrong. "What a wonderful surprise. I didn't know you attended conventions such as this."

Princess Luna simply stared with her mouth hanging open. Crystal stared at her with growing horror and dread. The guard stared at nothing in particular, his expression rather blank. Finally, the princess glanced between Crystal, the banner, and the guard.

The guard seemed to notice the eyes on him and inquired, "Princess?"

"Dost thou not see, Silent Knight? 'Tis clearly thou and I!" She pointed a hoof and glanced between them again.

Crystal started to sink into her seat. Was writing about the princesses considered treason? Well, perhaps prison wasn't all that bad. She just hoped prison was the worst thing she had to fear.

The guard followed her hoof and stared at the banner. Silence held them all still for a moment before he said with a raised brow, "No, Princess." He looked back at her. "That stallion has violet eyes. Mine are silver."

Crystal cracked under the pressure, not even acknowledging the guard's odd comment. "Princess, she is loosely modeled after you." She tapped her hooves together nervously. "I hope you don't mind. I—" Her gaze fell, then raised back up. If she was going to go down, she was going to do so with no regrets. "I just, I had to write about a princess of the night! I'm so tired of the same story over and over about the princess of the sun, and nopony was giving the night any attention. You and your night are beautiful and mysterious! I felt like it was your time to shine, so to speak!"

"What? Thou art a fan of ours?" Princess Luna put a hoof to her chest, blinking a few times before her expression grew soft and her voice gentle. "We—I mean, I am a fan of thou. I brought a book for thou to sign. Silent Knight?"

He retrieved a copy of The Mare's Temptation and set it on the table. Crystal's horror was washed away with a heavy mixture of disbelief, relief, and elation. It was not only a copy of her book, but a limited edition hardcover. She glanced between the princess and the book before she took it and opened the cover.

"This is a real honor, Princess," she said in a soft, sincere tone as she levitated a quill. She dipped it in the ink, then slowly began to write on the inside of the cover with the book tilted so that the words were private. The situation called for no ordinary message of gratitude, and she knew nopony in line would begrudge extra time being taken for the princess. "I cannot believe this is happening," she mumbled to herself.

A question from Silent Knight pulled her completely out of her thoughts. "What does C.W. stand for?" he asked.

She looked up just as the surrounding ponies within earshot gasped. His expression and his tone held no malice, but the innocent question garnered all eyes on him. The mare directly behind them in line fainted.

He looked around, the muscles visible that weren't covered by armor tense at the sudden attention.

Crystal couldn't help but laugh softly, shaking her head and returning her gaze to the book in front of her. "It's all right, Silent Knight. I'm sure you're not aware, but it isn't normally appropriate to ask an author what their real name is, especially in a public setting." She glanced up briefly and gave him another reassuring smile while he and everypony else started to relax. "It helps protect our anonymity."

He tilted his head. Not seeming to learn from the first time, he asked yet another naively and gasp-inspiring question. "Anonymity. Like an alias that a criminal might have?"

Princess Luna's hoof quickly raised and pressed to his muzzle to muffle any further words he might have. She laughed nervously, glancing around. "Nay, Silent Knight. Authors are celebrities and they do not have overzealous house guards to protect them." With her other hoof, she tapped on the book. "If thou couldst just make that out to Luna."

Crystal nodded. She finished the rest of her gratitude and signed it with her pen name, then added to the very top in her best calligraphy, To Luna. It made her blush just to use the princess's name so casually, even if only in writing. She closed the cover and levitated the book toward the princess.

"I thank thee," the princess said. She turned her head to look at her guard. "Come along, Silent Knight. We would like to see some more booths before we leave."

As quickly as she could, Crystal retrieved a copy of the new book and penned out Thank you for being a good sport. This will be our secret. — Crystal Wishes on the inside cover. She leaned across the table before Silent Knight had departed from the booth. He saw her movement and turned his head to assess the potential threat.

"Just for you," she said softly, levitating the book to him.

He nodded and said nothing. He simply put the book in his saddlebags, then followed after the princess.

Crystal slumped into her chair with a heavy sigh. She stared down at the books lying around her. "The princess is a fan of my work?" Her cheeks heated up and a small giggle escaped her. "The princess is a fan of my work!" she exclaimed louder.

The ponies near the table squealed, then resumed their line formation. Crystal cleared her throat and similarly resumed her signing duties and polite conversation as she returned the books to her table. The rest of the evening was a blur, as nothing could compare to the encounter with the princess.

When the convention hall was finally closing, Crystal was exhausted. She sold every single copy of her new book two hours before closing time, which meant she spent the last bit of the show disappointing some fans. Nonetheless, the whole day had been an amazing experience.

She gave her area one more look-over, packed up her things, and waited for Painted to return for her loot. She showed up not long after and the two of them headed off to their respective homes. When Crystal arrived at hers, Velvet was still awake.

"Welcome home!" Velvet looked up from the book in her lap. "How was the convention?"

Crystal yawned as she dumped her belongings rather unceremoniously on the floor, then with a similar lack of delicacy, she dropped down onto the floor beside Velvet. "Absolutely great. Who knew sitting all day would be so tiresome, though?"

Velvet reached out and stroked Crystal's somewhat frazzled blonde and pink mane. "You didn't come back with as many boxes as you left with. Did you get robbed or sell a lot of books?" She giggled.

"I sold all of them." Crystal stared up at her with wide eyes. "But that's the least exciting news. You won't believe who stopped by my booth!"

"Princess Luna?" she asked with a playful grin. Crystal just stared at her and she gasped. "Wait, really?!"

Crystal nodded. "Really! And as a cherry on top, the guard with her was the same one I saw at Quills and Sofas!"

This prompted a gleeful laugh. "Oh my Celestia, what are the odds?!"

"I don't know. Somewhere between unbelievable and embarrassing?" She rolled over onto her stomach. Looking around, she spotted a brush and levitated it over to start working on her mane. "Princess Luna seemed shocked at first. I mean, I was as well, but she had a better reason for it. And Silent Knight said the oddest thing, he—"

Velvet's ears perked. "Silent Knight? Where have I heard that name before?"

Crystal paused. Her brow slowly furrowed and she looked up at Velvet. "Wait, where have I heard tha—oh my gosh!" Her hooves flung to her mouth. Her focus was disrupted just long enough to cause her to drop the brush. "He was the hoofball player that I did the Romehorse lines for when we were freshmen! How did I not remember that the first time I saw him?!"

"If I remember correctly, you were a little busy with your obsessive fanmaring," Velvet teased. "So is he still handsome?"

Crystal was silent as thoughts whirled around until she shook her head to clear it. "What? Oh." She blinked. "Well, yes, but that's beside the point. The real point is, Princess Luna is a fan of mine. Do you realize how amazing that feels?" She resumed brushing and sighed wistfully. "That alone makes me feel like a success."

Velvet smiled. She took the brush from Crystal's magic. "Well, from the sounds of it, the convention was a success."

"It was. It really was." Crystal smiled softly. "It was a wonderful opportunity to jumpstart The Princess of the Knight. I couldn’t imagine it working out more perfectly."

A week later, Crystal was riffling through the daily stack of mail and discovered one that stood out from the rest. The sight of it caused her to gasp loudly.

"What's up?" Velvet asked from the kitchen.

"Le—Letter," she stammered. Her hooves trembled as she raised an envelope with the official seal of the palace for Velvet to see.

Velvet squinted. She turned the stove burner low to break away from her cooking and walked over. Recognizing the seal at a closer distance, her eyes widened. "What did you do?!"

"I wrote a romance novel about Princess Luna, that's exactly what I did!" Crystal practically wailed. She dropped the rest of the ordinary letters to put all of her focus on the special one. "This can't be good news."

"You don't know that! Open it and see what it is!" Velvet grinned as she bounced up and down.

Crystal moved with quivering hesitation. She slowly peeled the wax seal so as not to damage it or the envelope in the process.

"Oh my gosh, could you move any slower?" Velvet chided, interrupting her focus.

Crystal glared at her. "This could be a summons to go to court, you know!"

Velvet rolled her eyes and flopped down onto a pillow. "Crystal, I swear. There are tons of stories about Princess Celestia, right? Have any of those authors been tried for treason or executed? No? Then read the darn letter already!"

"All right!" Crystal finally pulled the letter out and unfolded it. "Crystal Wishes: It is our honor to inform you that you have been selected for…" She trailed off, her eyes going wide. The trembling started up again and she felt a tight, gripping sensation at the pit of her stomach form as nerves collided with excitement.

"Selected for what?" Velvet tilted her head.

Crystal raised her gaze to look at Velvet. "For an Equestrian Authors Award at the nomination of Princess Luna herself," she said in a monotonous voice, too many emotions battling inside her to vocalize one over the others. Her eyelids fluttered in an effort to clear her blurring vision. "I—I have to give a speech." She tried to swallow the lump in her throat.

"Crystal, that's amazing news!" Velvet cheered, throwing her hooves in the air. "Forget what I was cooking. We have to go out and celebrate!"

While Velvet went back to the kitchen to clean up, Crystal looked at the letter once more and muttered, "I'm not so sure this is better than being tried for treason."

The Silver Reward

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It was the day before the award ceremony, and Crystal had finally settled on the single yet overwhelming emotion of stressed. She was so stressed, in fact, that she found it hard to do anything but pace the condo with notes for what she might say.

Having worn herself out from so much pacing and stressing, she decided a nice, relaxing bath was in order. She hurried into the bathroom, her magic flaring to quickly throw her mane into a loose up-do. She turned on the hot water, but when she guided the bottle of rose oil to the faucet and squeezed it, nothing came out.

The water flicked off and she stormed out into the main area. "Velvet!" she called. "I'm going to Phial and Filly to get more rose oil! Do you need anything while I'm there?"

"Oh! More of that gardenia shampoo, please!"

Crystal wrapped a scarf over her ears and around the back of her head, tying a loose knot just under her chin. "Got it. I'll be back!"

She trotted out into the chilly autumn air. It wasn't quite cold enough to see her own breath, but she did shiver once she was no longer in the comforts of their heated condo. The brisk temperatures urged her hooves to move at an equally brisk pace.

A couple months back, a new store called The Phial and Filly Alchemist Supply had opened up just a few blocks away. The owner was a little eccentric and seemed to be more interested in rocks than potions, but he had struck gold with his ingenious mare care products. His rose bath oil, for example, was far superior to a more expensive brand she used to buy. It elevated a scented bath to the luxurious feeling of being in a warm, humid rose garden.

It was also the only way she knew how to relax anymore, and she was out.

The bell rung to announce her entrance and a friendly voice called, "Hello, Crystal!"

Crystal smiled and walked over to the counter. "Hi, Runic. How's business today?"

"Good, as usual," Runic Phial said with a frown.

She glanced at a small basket that sat beside the register and held rocks of various shapes, sizes, and types. "So, I guess that means still no interest in your rocks?"

"No, also as usual, it seems." He sighed, then his ears perked. "But I do have something that you might be interested in!" He stuck one hoof into the basket and rooted around for a moment before he held up a clear stone. "Ta-da!"

Crystal kept her smile in place while she tried to put the pieces together. Finally, she relented and asked, "What is it?"

Runic's wings, ears, and shoulders drooped. "It's a crystal."

"Oh." Her eyes lit up with realization. "Oh! A crystal for Crystal?" She laughed and took the stone, turning it over in her hoof. It shimmered in the light, and with some polishing, it had the potential to be quite the valuable gem. "What were you trying to make?"

The question brightened his spirits almost immediately. "Sandstone, of course!"

"Of course," she repeated with a giggle. "Let me just get the usual supplies." She started to turn toward the store, but paused and looked back at him. "Hey, have you considered getting into the bath bomb business?"

His eyes widened. He glanced around, leaned in, and asked in a low voice, "Into the what now?"

"Bath bombs." She smiled. "They're wonderful!"

"I see." His expression told her he clearly didn't. "And what do you do with a bath bomb, exactly?"

Her smile started to fall. "You put it in the bath, obviously."

"Why would you do that?" He crossed his forelegs over his chest.

"Because it makes the bath more exciting?"

He nodded slowly. "I imagine it would. Well, if you give me the details, I can put something together." He started to trace his hoof against the counter top, miming out some sort of mathematical equation. "So, I'll need a hydro combustible material to start." He looked back up at her. "Does it just explode?"

Crystal hesitated. She reached out and put her hoof on his to stop its movement. "Runic, what do you think I'm talking about?"

"A bath bomb," he replied flatly.

"Yes, but what do you think a bath bomb is?"

Runic hummed in thought before he grabbed one of the phials resting in his vest's pockets, raised it high up in the air, then threw it to the ground. The glass shattered and a sizzling sound followed, but nothing else happened. When Crystal leaned over the counter, she saw a foamy puddle of green goo shuddering on the floor.

"Hmm, wrong one," he mused and grabbed another. "I think this one's it!"

The phial was lifted and tossed with the same enthusiasm as the previous. This time, when it shattered, a large puff of smoke enveloped them, smelling of burnt wood.

Crystal coughed and covered her muzzle. "Runic!" She tried to wave away some of the smoke with her free hoof. "What was that?"

"What I think a bath bomb is! Well, minus the bath, and the explosions, and the likely fatal injuries, of course."

"Oh my Celestia," she muttered, then backed up a few paces to step out of the cloud. "Runic, a bath bomb is a little round ball of bath oils and scents and sometimes glitter. Not a literal bomb!"

"Oh." He flipped a switch and a fan turned on to slowly disperse the smoke. "That would make more sense. You don't seem like you have a death wish to me."

Crystal coughed through a small laugh. "Just forget about the bath bomb, all right?" She retrieved the usual bottle of rose oil, as well as Velvet's preferred shampoo. "I'll just take these, please." She set them down along with the crystal. "And this."

Runic pushed the rock back toward her. "That's a gift. The rest is—" He tapped the buttons on the register with the tips of his hooves. "Ten bits?" He shrugged.

"Only ten?" She started to count out the bits. "Is there a sale going right now?"

"What? Oh, no. I already have this month's bills covered, and you're a repeat customer, so." He smiled and held out the small bag with the bottles inside. "Only ten bits!"

Crystal paused, then just laughed. "Runic, that's not how running a business works! But, thank you. I'll see you next time."

"That's the plan!" he said with a wink. "Have a good day, Crystal!"

"You, too!" She waved just before turning and leaving the store to return home.

Crystal was stalking up and down the hall just outside the throne room, mumbling her lines under her breath, waiting for her cue. There were two royal guards standing by and she was sure she looked and sounded like a crazy pony, but she had more important matters to attend to.

Raven appeared around a corner. "Crystal?"

"Yes!" she squeaked a little too high-pitched. She winced at the sound of her own voice, cleared her throat, and corrected softly, "Hi, Raven."

Raven smiled and walked over to her. "It's going to be fine. We've practiced your speech three times already." She put a hoof on Crystal's shoulder. "As long as you don't faint—actually, that might be endearing. Perhaps you should faint a little bit." She laughed, withdrawing her hoof to straighten her glasses.

Crystal shot her a withering look before she cracked a smile. "You're laughing inside the castle? What happened to put you in such a good mood?" When Raven's cheeks turned bright red, Crystal pressed, "What is it?"

"We can talk about it later," she responded in a soft voice. "For now, you have an award to accept."

Crystal opened her mouth to protest, but a guard approached them. "Miss Wishes," he said, nodding to her. "Please come with me."

Raven and Crystal walked behind him, the former returning to her professionally stoic expression while the latter returned to her nervous mumbling. Just as they approached a pair of doors and before they were opened, Crystal paused to straighten her outfit. For the occasion, she had gone a step further than the convention's disguise to braid her tail, weaving the pink strands underneath the blonde ones.

The doors were pulled open to reveal the throne room. As she expected, Crystal recognized most of the ponies that turned to look at her from the usual circle that attended most Canterlot events. There were also unfamiliar faces in the crowd, but given their location toward the podium and the notepads they carried, she guessed they were reporters.

Crystal tried not to look surprised to see her parents among the crowd, regarding her with the same lackadaisical interest they did for every pony. She doubted they were there for her. After all, it was an official event, and they never missed those.

Raven gestured to Crystal to follow her while Princess Luna stepped up to the podium. "Citizens of Canterlot," the princess said in a voice that carried effortlessly across the large room, "we thank you all for your attendance, for 'tis a very special occasion. We could not be happier to, as our first decree, establish an Equestrian Authors Award to recognize and honor ponies that are making new strides in the literary world."

Princess Luna paused, slowly looking over the crowd to gauge their reactions before she continued, "We have nominated, and it hath been thusly agreed upon, a new face in the literary world to receive the first Award. It is our honor to now introduce this recipient: Miss C.W. Step." She stepped to the side and looked at Crystal with a smile while the other ponies stomped softly.

When their eyes met, Crystal thought she might faint, but Raven gave a small push against her shoulder to bring her back to reality. Crystal finally smiled back and took Princess Luna's place at the podium.

Though she placed her forehooves firmly on either side of the podium, her hindlegs trembled behind the base. However, her many years of training kicked in and her voice fell from her lips of its own accord, even and calm.

"Good afternoon, everypony." She turned her head to look at the princess at her side. "Thank you, Princess Luna, both for the honor as well as your inspiration." Her gaze returned to the crowd. "It is no secret that both of my published works are heavily influenced from life here within the castle.

"As a citizen of Canterlot, I am blessed with my home also being home to a marvelous palace with inhabitants consonant with its grandeur. It is something we are all proud of, as no other city or town can boast such a claim.

"My second and most recent novel, The Princess of the Knight, was a whirlwind project born from beholding a princess travelling with her closest companion: a guard from her House. It was a risk, I admit, one that I was quite nervous of taking, but I believe it has been a success and for that, I thank Princess Luna and her guard."

She stole a glance at Silent Knight, who was on duty along with another house guard, then looked at the princess and smiled. "Thank you, again and always, for the honor and the inspiration. I am humbled and grateful for both."

The trembling in her legs had stopped and she was able to bow her head without fear of toppling over. When she did, Princess Luna's magic flared just enough to lift and bring over a silver medallion on a midnight blue ribbon. The medallion featured the image of an open book with a quill draped across it.

Crystal's face heated up with excitement as the award was placed over her head and rested on her neck. "Thank you," she repeated in a quiet, more private tone.

Princess Luna simply nodded and returned to the podium to finish the address. Crystal stepped off to the side and inclined her head to look down at the hanging medallion that proudly shined back up at her.

"You went off-speech there toward the end," Raven whispered.

Crystal's ears flicked back and she guiltily looked straight ahead, not even glancing at the mare beside her. "Sorry."

Raven was quiet just long enough to make Crystal squirm uncomfortably. "I'm only teasing you. I know you were nervous. You did fine and it sounded sincere." She smiled. "Do you know what happens next?"

Crystal tried not to groan. "I have to mingle with the reporters and other attendees?"

The sound Raven made in response was a cross between a quiet cackle and a sinister chuckle. "Oh, no. It's much better than that."

When Princess Luna turned away from the podium, the applause of the ponies in the crowd filled the air. With regal grace befitting of her title, she walked over to them, her guards walking just two paces behind her. "C.W. Step?"

"Yes?" Crystal squeaked.

The princess smiled. "Wouldst thou care to join us for a private discussion?"

It felt as though all the blood had drained from her, leaving her cold and lifeless. "Yes." Her hooves moved to carry her as she followed behind Princess Luna and her guards, but she felt nothing. She turned to look at Raven for some kind of aid, but the mare simply smiled and waved. What was happening?

From all of her tours, she knew where they were heading. The hall they walked along led to Princess Luna's private wing. The door they approached led to her office. Her knees went weak with nervous excitement. On both official and unofficial tours, she had never been in either of the princesses' private wings.

When the doors opened and she was allowed inside, she couldn't help looking around like a filly at a fair. Everything was dark, but in an elegant way; the decor certainly wasn't morbid or depressing. The walls and furniture were of varying deep blue and purple hues as though they were crafted from the night sky itself, with accents of silvers and whites like the stars.

Crystal noticed Silent Knight take position against one wall and assume the rigid, statuesque stance typical of guards. The other house guard continued walking with Princess Luna over to a sitting area.

"With your permission, Princess," the guard said. When the princess nodded, she removed her helmet to reveal a bright blue mane with pink tips and sat down.

Crystal, who had been just about to sit herself, froze. Raven had never mentioned such protocol when in the company of a princess. Tentatively she repeated, "With your permission, Princess."

The princess laughed softly. "Thou mayest, and, please, call me Luna."

Crystal finished sitting down. "Thank you." She hesitated before she added, "Luna."

The mare beside her cleared her throat. "As a royal guard, I need her permission to deviate from protocol. As her guest, you don't. You see, some guards are strict and completely by the book." She looked over at Silent Knight. "They might take exception."

"Oh, I see." Crystal tried not to look at him as well. "So, then, Silent Knight will not be joining us?"

"Nay. Silent Knight is one of those 'by the book' guards." Princess Luna started to set out little teacups. "Likely, he feeleth somepony must be on security and, should I invite him over, he would be most uncomfortable. 'Tis correct, Silent Knight?"

"Yes, Princess," he replied.

Crystal hoped to not sound disappointed as she murmured, "Oh, what a shame." She put her focus back on the princess. "Thank you so much for this award, Luna. I was terrified when I met you at the convention, that you might be, um, upset when you saw The Princess of the Knight."

"Upset? Nay." She shook her head. "Confused at first, perhaps, as we—I am not very accustomed to being included." Her expression looked briefly remorseful. "Fitting in has been a struggle."

Crystal nodded. "I can understand that feeling. I never intended to publish my work because I was afraid of how ponies would react. I was worried nopony would understand or like it." Blue magic was replaced by pink when she accepted a teacup that Luna floated to her.

"I am glad thee decided otherwise." Luna smiled and sipped her tea. "We rather enjoy thy books, Iridescence and I."

"Iridescence?" Crystal furrowed her brow.

Luna gasped and glanced between Crystal and the guard. "I did not properly introduce ye? How rude of me! C.W., this is my friend and one of my house guards, Iridescence." She gestured toward the mare. "Thou already knowest Silent Knight, of course."

Crystal offered her hoof to Iridescence and they shook. "It's a pleasure to meet you." A little shyly, she added, "My name is Crystal Wishes."

Both the princess and Iridescence looked at one another, smiling. Crystal couldn't help smiling herself. The simple gesture of just sharing her name seemed to please the both of them.

"If it pleases thee, Crystal Wishes, wouldst thou share thy creative process for thy stories?" Luna leaned in with clear, sincere interest in her voice. "I write a bit as well, but it would be most appreciated to learn thine own process."

Crystal's breath caught in her throat. The princess was asking her for advice? She crossed her forehooves over each other to secretly pinch herself.

When she still remained in what had to be reality and not a dream, she said, "I don't know what to say, Princess, except that I am very much driven by inspiration. All of my better works, published and otherwise, were inspired by something around me." She shifted again, still in a state of uncertain disbelief. "What is something normal or ordinary that I can tweak? Then I simply write from there."

Iridescence and Luna nodded. Crystal continued with a soft sigh, "Admittedly, I idealize. I have lately found myself writing about guards and knights because I fantasize of meeting somepony like the ones in my fiction."

"But thou canst," Luna said, tilting her head and pointing over at Silent Knight. "He is right there."

While Iridescence snickered, Crystal's face turned bright red and she waved her hooves. "Oh, no! I mean, in the way I make them out to be in, say, The Princess of the Knight." She felt herself heat up significantly. "I doubt Silent Knight is anything like the brash, passionate, and dark stallions I write about."

"You've certainly got that right," Iridescence said, giggling. This prompted Luna to giggle and, unable to resist, Crystal followed suit.

"Then, perhaps, if it suits thee," Luna started once the bout of giggling had settled down, looking directly at Crystal. "I would like to extend an open invitation to visit when thou wouldst like, and if we are fortunate, thou wilt meet thy knight."

Crystal lost herself for a moment. Her head grew light and she thought she might really faint. She hurriedly shook her head just enough so she could answer clearly, "I would be truly honored, Luna."

Luna clapped and exclaimed, "Then 'tis settled! Before thou leavest, please meet with Raven to receive a pass with my blessing."

"I see. You have 'her blessing'?" Raven sighed, though she still smiled. "Princess Luna forgets that I need more than your word of her blessing to have a pass issued." She gestured for Crystal to follow her. "Luckily for you, I trust that she actually did say that. So, then, the meeting with the princess went well?"

Crystal trotted on the tips of her hooves as though she were dancing on air. "Well? Well? What an absolutely small word for such a momentous occasion in my life!" She laughed. "Nonetheless, don't think I've forgotten you, Missy Raven." She bumped her flank against Raven's. "You still owe me an explanation from earlier."

"An—oh, yes." The faint glow returned to Raven's cheeks. "I suppose I do."

Crystal waited a beat, then pressed, "Well?"

Raven stopped in the middle of the hall. "You must keep your voice down. It's very important that you do that for me. All right?"

"All right, okay." Crystal giggled and pawed at her. "Stop stalling."

Raven took a quick intake of air before she said quickly and quietly, "Moore asked me to move in with him and I'm considering it."

Crystal had to fight harder than she ever had before to keep to her agreement, though she wanted to squeal with delight. "Oh my Celestia, you two are getting really serious! Do you think he'll propose soon?"

Raven shook her head. "I don't know about that. Perhaps? This is a big first step, at least." She drew a small circle on the ground and glanced up at her shyly. "Should I agree? Is it not unbecoming to move in with a stallion, unwed?"

"Oh, pfft," Crystal sputtered, dismissing the notion with a wave. "These are modern times. Ponies live together before getting married all the time!" She paused, then added with a hint of seriousness to her voice, "However, if you don't intend to marry him, then it is somewhat misleading."

"I—" Raven shook her head, cleared her throat, and continued on down the hall. "I will give it some more thought. For now, let's get your pass so you can go home."

Crystal hummed as she trotted along the streets. She couldn't imagine a more perfect day! In fact, she was certain that even if a pegasus with a foul disposition were to kick a storm cloud above her, she would just take the opportunity to sing in the rain. However, the skies were happily clear and the setting sun offered her a brilliant display on the horizon.

"Oh, Velvet," Crystal chimed as she walked through the door and kicked it shut behind her, "I wish you could have been there! I had tea. With Princess Luna! In her private chambers! And look!" She stopped and puffed out her chest. The medallion glinted in the light while the permanent visitor's pass dangled rather plainly. "I have two new accessories!"

Velvet kept her back to her. "That's—that's wonderful."

Crystal deflated. "Velvet? What's wrong?"

"Nothing. I'm happy for you." Her tone strongly suggested otherwise.

Crystal lifted both the award and the pass over her head, setting them on the table by the door, and tentatively walked closer to Velvet. "Did something happen at practice?"

"No," she replied with a petulant bitterness. "Practice was fine."

Crystal stopped just a pace away from her. "Velvet, please look at me." There was a hesitant pause, but the mare complied and when she did, Crystal saw tears in her eyes. "What happened?!"

Velvet responded with the last thing she expected to hear: "My mom, she's—she's pregnant."

Close Encounters

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Crystal gasped and her expression lifted with excitement before falling into confusion. "Wait, what?"

Velvet rolled her eyes. "I don't know how to rephrase such an obvious statement."

"No, no, I mean, what—that's what you're upset about?" She sat down next to her.

"Just think about it a moment." Velvet stared at her, brow furrowed. "Can you imagine your mom being pregnant?"

Crystal pondered it just long enough for a chill to rush through her and she quickly shook her head. "Okay, it's a little weird, I'll admit that, but you're practically crying."

"Oh, well, yeah." Velvet slumped against the table where a half-eaten slice of cake rested. "I found out accidentally. I dropped by to check in on them and they weren't behind the counter. Some weird pegasus was managing the store and when I asked where they were he responded that they were 'at the hospital'."

Velvet jabbed a fork into the slice. "So, d'uh, I freaked out and rushed over. The nurses wouldn't tell me anything, just that my parents would be out soon and could talk to me themselves, so I just cried in the waiting room. Mom and Dad walked into the room, surprised to see me, and that's when I found out." She interrupted herself by shoveling a large piece of the cake into her mouth, then just sat there, chewing.

Crystal bit her lower lip before she gingerly pressed, "So—?"

Velvet continued after swallowing, "Apparently, they didn't want me to know yet. Like I'd be upset or something. Well, of course I'd be! They're practically replacing me!"

"Velvet, you moved out, what, a year ago, more or less?" Crystal asked a little hesitantly.

"That doesn't mean they can just have a new foal! I'm the foal!"

Crystal tried to argue herself out of saying it, but the words escaped in a playful tone. "You're certainly acting like one."

Velvet gasped and looked at her with wide eyes that quickly narrowed. "I am not!"

"Well—" Crystal hedged, raising her shoulders in a meek shrug and giving a similarly meek grin.

Velvet huffed, puffed, and stabbed the cake again. "So I'm just supposed to be happy for them?"

"Perhaps just be happy for yourself?"

"And why the hay would I be happy about this?" Velvet crossed her forelegs over her chest.

Crystal shrugged again. "Because you're going to have a cute little foal to play with that you don't have to take care of yourself?"

Velvet gave this serious consideration, tapping one of her hindhooves on the floor and staring at Crystal with a frown. Finally, she relented with a neutral face and muttered, "I guess that might be fun."

"So why don't we go see your parents so I can congratulate them and you can show them how mature you are about this?" She levitated the fork over to herself to steal a bite of cake, prompting a playful glare.

"I am mature," Velvet said and stuck her nose in the air. "Just watch how mature I'll be!"

Although Sunridge Sweets was closed by the time they made their way over, Velvet's parents could be seen through the glass still cleaning up. When Velvet knocked on the door, Pepper Ridge was the one to unlock it and let them in.

"Hi, sweetie," he said with a clear tentativeness to his tone. "We weren't expecting you to drop by." He paused, then acknowledged Crystal. "Evening, Crystal."

Velvet hesitated until Crystal bumped against her. "Is it a colt or a filly?" She glanced up at her father.

Pepper Ridge blinked before he smiled softly. "Dear? Do you want to tell her?" He looked at Sunbeam, who was walking toward them.

The mare's stomach was just big enough that her gait had a bit of a wobble to it. "Oh, sugarpop, I'm so glad to see you!" She put a foreleg around Velvet's neck and pulled her close. "After the way you left, I was worried that we'd hurt your feelings."

Crystal stood quietly off to the side and tried to blend into the wall.

Velvet squirmed out of her mother's grasp. "Well, yeah, my feelings were hurt. You guys have known about this for a while, right?"

Pepper Ridge dragged a seat over and offered it to Sunbeam, who gladly leaned into it. She smiled down at her stomach, one hoof gently resting on the bump.

Her head lifted and she looked at Velvet, her smile softening as she said, "We really did intend to tell you, sweetie. I was just worried what you might think, since you've been an only child for so long. Your father and I both came from big families and we never felt like we got enough attention, so we agreed we'd only have one. That we'd only have you. But—" She shrugged. "Well, sugarpop, I don't know how to put it, but the house is just so quiet without you around."

"We still love you," Pepper Ridge interjected. "This doesn't change that one bit. We'll just have another little pony to love, too."

Velvet responded with a loud sigh that verged on a groan. "I know, I know, okay? Can you just answer my question?"

Sunbeam blinked a few times before a bubble of laughter erupted and she rubbed her stomach again. "Oh, the doctor confirmed it's going to be a c-c-cute… f-fabulous… c-curious…"

Both Velvet and Crystal—who had walked over to be a part of the conversation again—were leaning in with wide eyes.

"… f-fussy," Sunbeam continued, giggles making her feigned stutter legitimate. "… c-content… f-fantast—"

"Oh, come on already!" Velvet hopped into the air to stomp all four hooves against the floor. "Seriously, is it—"

"—a colt," Pepper Ridge said, only to receive a playful slap on the shoulder from Sunbeam. He laughed and raised his hooves to defend himself. "I'm sorry, but you were torturing them!"

"And I was enjoying it!" Sunbeam gave an indignant huff, then looked at Crystal and Velvet as the former squealed and the latter simply stared. "Sweetcakes?" she asked, a little worriedly.

Velvet stared directly at her mother's stomach. Finally, she took a tentative step forward, then lowered her head to be level with the bump. "Hey, are you listening?" Her ears pinned back. "Don't be cuter than me. Got it?"

Crystal laughed and pushed against Velvet so that she could talk face-to-belly. "Oh, don't mind her. She's just jealous because you're going to be oh-so-very adorable." She lifted her gaze to meet Sunbeam's, her voice softening as she continued, "Congratulations, Mrs. Sunbeam and Mr. Pepper Ridge. I'm so happy for both of you." Her smile widened. "Have you considered names yet?"

Pepper Ridge cleared his throat. "You know very well that it's tradition to keep the name secret until he's born. Don't want to jinx anything, now do we?"

"Oh, so you and Mom get to know, but I don't?" Velvet huffed. "I'm already starting to feel excluded."

Sunbeam reached out and ruffled Velvet's mane. "You'll be the first pony we tell, sugarlump. I promise." Her eyes widened suddenly. "Oh!"

"Oh?" Velvet and Crystal repeated in unison.

Sunbeam looked down at herself with a warm fondness. "Well, I'll be. I think he just told me that he intends to keep me to my promise."

Velvet tilted her head, stepping forward. "How?"

Sunbeam took one of Velvet's hooves in her own, then moved it over to and rested it on her stomach. "Wait for it." She paused, then muttered, "Come on, silly boy, don't hold out on your big sist—" She flinched and Velvet squeaked. "There it is!"

Velvet jerked her hoof away. "He kicked!" She stared at her hoof with wide eyes, as though it had performed a miracle.

"Can I feel?" Crystal asked, glancing between them.

"Of course, sweetie. You're family." Sunbeam waved her closer. "Just put your hoof right here and think nice thoughts!"

After a pregnant pause, Crystal jumped back with the same squeal Velvet had given. "Oh my Celestia!"

Sunbeam laughed. She reached out to take her husband's hoof in her own. He looked down at her and she looked up at him, both of them smiling while Crystal and Velvet just stared at their respective hooves in awe.

Though the city of Canterlot was covered in snow, the royal gardens were an exception for the evening. Four pegasi patrolled the sky to keep the laden clouds at bay and several royal guards stood at the edges of the garden space where a table had been set up. By the time Crystal arrived, Iridescence and Princess Luna were already seated and enjoying a cup of tea.

Stepping from the snow onto the grass was like stepping into a spring. Two of the unicorn guards alternated in keeping a small, simple barrier raised to block the wind, and there was a fire going near the table. The air was warm, still, and welcoming.

A servant approached her and offered one of his forelegs. "Your coat, madam?"

Crystal slipped the heavy coat off her shoulders. Underneath it, she wore a purple gown that draped just long enough for the effect of elegance but still short enough that it hadn't dragged in the snow. The skirt was tucked in at several intervals to give the illusion of fullness with large ripples.

"Huzzah!" Princess Luna cheered when she noticed Crystal. "Thou hast arrived safely! Officially, the mare's night out beginneth!"

Crystal smiled at both mares and took the remaining seat. Iridescence wore a long gown that nearly covered her tail entirely, adorned with sapphires that caught in the firelight. Given the short distance from the castle to the gardens, the length of the dress had not posed too much of a risk being ruined by snow. She looked everything like an amateur model and, without her armor, certainly nothing like a royal guard.

Princess Luna, on the other hoof, was dressed simply in black, but a second glance revealed a complex layering of different fabrics. Sheer tulle draped over her shoulders; shiny silk, luscious velvet, and other materials hugged her frame.

"I still can't believe you put all of this together just for us," Iridescence said, looking up at the patrolling pegasi. "We could have just dined inside the castle."

Princess Luna lifted her chin. "This is not to thy liking, then?"

"Oh, it's wonderful, but—" Iridescence shook her head and smiled. "No, I'll just stick to it's wonderful."

Luna turned her gaze to Crystal. "And what dost thou think, Crystal?"

Crystal blinked. She was still not used to the princess using her name so casually and it took her a brief moment to recover from the schoolfilly-like glee that filled her chest. "I'm just grateful that you thought to invite me, Princess."

"Luna," the princess corrected, then raised her brow. "Why would we not invite thee?"

After a servant poured her a cup of tea, Crystal nodded her head gratefully then took a sip to stall for time. "I suppose that is a fair question." There was a glimmer of hesitancy in her tone as she asked, "Why did you invite me?"

The princess turned her cup slowly on its saucer. "Perhaps we—ah, I wish to discuss the art of writing with thee."

Iridescence chuckled softly. "Oh really? I thought you really enjoyed Crystal's company and wanted to see about being friends."

"Iridescence!" Luna's voice raised to match the powerfully stern look she shot the mare. However, the darkening of her cheeks gave away the true feelings of embarrassment behind the reaction.

Crystal glanced between them, then giggled. She hid her mouth behind a hoof. "I am delighted, regardless of the reason."

This seemed to calm the princess, though she fidgeted with her teacup again. "In honesty, 'tis Raven who arranged all of this. She is quite talented in the skill of organization and scheduling."

"Oh!" Crystal's ears perked up. "Raven organized this?"

Luna regarded her with curiosity. Iridescence did the same and asked, "You sound like she's your friend?"

Crystal nodded. "Oh, yes. I owe a great deal to Raven. She helped me with both of my novels."

Luna leaned in, narrowing her eyes. "Then 'tis Raven I must accost for the manner in which thou wrote fair Princess Selene?"

"What?" Crystal felt the color drain from her cheeks as a wave of panic overtook her. "Oh, I mean, some of it was—well, artistic license, and—"

A chime of laughter escaped Luna and she clapped her hooves. "I am only teasing thee! Princess Selene was a most flattering imitation." She tossed her flowing, starlit mane. "We were most pleased with that."

Iridescence snickered into her tea. "Silent Knight's the one that should be upset, really. He has no chance of living up to the standard you've set for him."

"Is he still so serious and aloof?" Crystal asked, glancing between them.

Iridescence blinked a few times. "'Still'?"

"He was a senior when I was in my first year at Canterlot Academy," Crystal explained. "I didn't have much interaction with him, but from what little I did, I don't believe many ponies had much, either." A grin slowly curled her lips. "Actually, I was paired with him for a rehearsal of lines from Julimare and Romehorse."

Luna and Iridescence leaned in with differing expressions of interest. Luna seemed more earnestly curious while Iridescence's curiosity had a clear tinge of mischief to it.

"The club president rather forcibly paired us together because there weren't enough stallions to go around," she continued. "But when it was our turn to speak our lines, Silent Knight was rather, well, silent." She paused to sip her tea for a dramatic pause. "I recited my line and he simply stood there with this look of mild irritation. So, I jumped behind him and recited his lines for him."

Iridescence sputtered into a laugh. Luna kept her amusement to a smile and said, "Verily, that seems quite like our Silent Knight. But enough about stallions: 'tis mare's night!" She tapped her hoof to the table, looking over at the nearest servant. "Bring forth the champagne!"

The servant bowed and carried over a bucket of ice with a bottle resting in the middle. "Enjoy, m'lady."

Luna's horn lit up and she raised the bottle. She aimed it away from them and her magic tugged on the cork just enough for the trapped carbonation to send it flying. The mares laughed and bubbling, foamy champagne spilled out while Luna poured three fluted glasses and doled them out.

"To mares!" she cheered, raising her glass.

"To happiness!" Iridescence cheered back and raised her own.

Crystal hesitated, then followed suit and finished, "To friends!"

Their glasses clinked and each took a sip. Crystal giggled when the bubbles tickled the back of her throat. "It's been a while since I had good champagne," she said and set it down. "Now, then, on the topic of writing—?"

Luna shook her head. "Writing? Nay. The night is too young to delve into our normal conversation, I think. I would like to discuss something more personal." She hesitated, then continued cautiously, "Dost thou game, Crystal?"

"Game?" Crystal blinked. "I'm afraid I don't follow."

"She means tabletop games. Card games, board games, and the like." Iridescence retrieved a strawberry from the small plate of fruit sitting between them. "Would you believe that our Princess of the Night is the most avid gamer I have ever met?"

"Really! My friend Horsey used to be part of the Canterlot Academy's LARP Club." Crystal smiled into her tea. "She really seemed to enjoy it. I've not really done any gaming myself, though."

Luna seemed to squirm somewhat uncomfortably in her seat. She glanced at Iridescence, who smiled and nodded to approve of the unspoken question. "Then, perhaps, hast thou plans for Hearth's Warming Eve? We are having a gathering of friends to play games late into the night. Iridescence will surely be there, though I am currently uncertain about my own attendance." She looked at a mare standing off to the side.

Crystal looked over as well. The mare, noticing the attention on her, nervously walked over. "Yes?" she asked.

Luna regarded her with a vague air of disdain. "Hast thou arranged our schedule for Hearth's Warming Eve?"

The mare swallowed. "I still need to talk to Raven about that, Princess."

"Then perhaps thou shouldst seek out the counsel of Raven." Luna dismissed her with a curt nod of her head.

"Yes, Princess." She bowed her head and cantered away.

Luna sighed while Iridescence chided, "Princess, you shouldn't be so hard on her. She just started last week, after all. She needs more time to get used to you."

"We do not understand why we need a handler." Luna raised her nose in the air.

"A handler?" Crystal tilted her head, then lit up when she put things together. "Oh! Has Raven found you your own aide?"

"If that is what thou wishest to call Dawning Time, yes. However, we do not see why the change is necessary. Raven and Silent Knight are more than sufficient. He handleth what she cannot and we do not find ourselves wanting for more."

Crystal twiddled her hooves and bit her lower lip. "Oh, well, I may have some insight into that." When both of them looked at her, she reconsidered. "It may not be my place to say. Raven's personal life—"

"Wouldst thou withhold information from thy princess?"

"No!" Crystal shook her head and hurriedly explained, "I cannot say for certain, but I know that Raven and her special somepony are becoming more serious with one another, and perhaps she is trying to find more time for him."

Luna hummed as she considered the news before she relaxed into a smile. "That is good for her, then. I suppose I will give Dawning a more fair chance." She steepled her hooves and leaned in. "Now, to return to the topic of Hearth's Warming Eve?"

"I will be there. Absolutely." Crystal nodded. "And where is there, exactly?"

"Art thou familiar with the Phial and Filly?"

Crystal nodded again, more enthusiastically this time. "Oh, absolutely! No other store has better mare care products!"

Iridescence gasped. "I know! It's the only place I shop now!"

"Perhaps I shall have to try some of these products sometime," Luna mused before she cleared her throat. "Then it is agreed. I shall work with Dawning to make time in my schedule for Hearth's Warming Eve." She sighed, dropping her voice to a mumble again. "Lately, I have become more busy than I like. I forgot, I suppose, the strain of being a princess. Celestia is no longer shielding me from my responsibilities."

"You're doing fine, Luna." Iridescence smiled at her. "We have faith in you."

"The sentiment is appreciated, Iridescence. For now, shall we play a game?" A box floated out from underneath the cloth and rested on the spare space on the table. "To test thine interest, of course. 'Twould be a shame to arrive and discover thou dislikest tabletop games."

Crystal giggled. She helped move the items on the table off to the side to make room for the box's contents. "It would be an honor, Luna."

Hearths on Fire

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"Come on, already!" Velvet knocked on Crystal's bedroom door. "We're going to be late!"

Crystal pressed up against the door to ensure it couldn't be opened unexpectedly. "I changed my mind. I don't want to do this."

Velvet huffed. "It's for charity, Crystal. We already signed up! You don't want the guilt of disappointing foals on your conscience, do you?"

"No, but, I mean," she whined, burying her face into her hooves. "I just—Do we really have to wear these outfits?"

"Yup!"

Crystal groaned. Finally, she stepped back and pulled the door open. Velvet stood in front of her, both of them wearing the same white-trimmed outfit, she in green and Crystal in red. Striped socks adorned their legs all the way up to their knees, and pointed but floppy hats sat on their heads to keep their ears warm.

"Aww, see? You look adorable!" Velvet giggled and started to the front door. "Let's get to the meeting place before they start without us!"

Crystal sighed, following along behind her as they descended the stairs into the condominium's main lobby. "These outfits just feel a little wrong. We're going to be in front of little fillies and colts in these scanty dresses?"

"Oh, silly, that's not for the foals! That's for us." Velvet's tail swished from side to side as she pranced out into the snow-laden street. "Don't you feel sexy?"

A breeze chose that moment to drift by, sending cold air up their skirts. Velvet laughed when Crystal squealed in surprise and ran forward as if to outrun the wind.

"No, in fact, I do not feel sexy! I feel cold!" Crystal glared at the still-laughing Velvet. "Why did you sign us up for this, anyway?!"

"I did it last year and it was a lot of fun. Just trust me, all right?" Velvet grinned and bumped her shoulder against Crystal's. "When have I ever led you astray?"

Crystal stared at her suspiciously before relenting with a sigh and a roll of her eyes. "Fine, fine."

By the time they met up with the other mares, all dressed in the same red or green outfits, the brisk jog had warmed both of them up enough that Crystal no longer noticed the cold. The foals had yet to arrive, so the coordinator worked on arranging the mares in a semi-circle according to height and began practicing their harmony.

Slowly, families started to arrive one by one, and the caroling began.

"As with gladness, mares of old

"Did the warming heart behold

"As with joy, they hailed its light

"Leading onward, beaming bright

"So, most glorious Harm'ny

"May we evermore be led to thee…"

It didn't take long for the Hearth's Warming cheer to spread to everypony in attendance, caroler and otherwise. By the end of the afternoon, Crystal was almost disappointed when the coordinator came out to thank everypony and disperse the crowd.

"I know that face," Velvet chimed when she walked over. "I was right, wasn't I?"

Crystal beamed. "I never thought that would be so much fun! We have to do that again next year." She trotted in place. "Or can we do it again now? Is there another caroling?"

Velvet shrugged. "We could go door-to-door caroling, but we kind of have to be somewhere, don't we?"

Crystal stared at her a moment, brow furrowed, before her eyes widened. "Oh, yes! We do!" She hurried forward down the street. "And we're definitely not showing up in these little numbers!"

"Really? Why not?" Velvet grinned and walked alongside her. "I think this'd be a great way to catch a stallion's eye."

"Well, feel free to stay in your outfit, then." Crystal stuck her nose in the air. "I would prefer a gentlestallion, myself!"

There was a pause before Velvet said in a nonchalant manner, "I guess I would prefer a gentlepony, too."

Crystal glanced at her. They walked in silence for a while, then she finally asked, "Gentlepony?"

Velvet simply nodded.

"Oh." Another long pause. "So, does that mean—"

"I don't know, really," Velvet interrupted. "I've only ever been on three dates. I don't feel, like, weak in the knees when I see a handsome stallion or a pretty mare, but I'm not against the idea of either."

"Huh." Crystal blinked and walked quietly to ponder this new information. Finally, she gave Velvet a coy smile. "Are you trying to tell me that all this time, you've been secretly harboring feelings for me? Has there been romantic tension between us this whole time?"

Velvet managed to last through the questions without a sound, though her cheeks were puffed to hold back her laughter that escaped once Crystal was finished. "Definitely not!"

Crystal's ears drooped and her bottom lip stuck out in a pout. "And why not?"

"Because that'd be weird!"

"Oh, thanks." Crystal cantered ahead, her head and tail held indignantly high.

Velvet laughed again. "Not like that! I just mean that it'd be weird because you're basically my sister! I'm sorry, I'm sorry." She bumped against her side. "You're a very pretty pony, okay?"

"Bah humbug!" Crystal shot her a quick smile. "You bet I am! Anyway, let's get changed and head over to Runic's before we end up late."

The closer they got to the Phial and Filly, the more Crystal noticed Velvet started to change. The confident, boisterous mare she knew was growing strangely quiet. When Velvet's head lowered and her ears pinned back, Crystal stopped walking and stared at her.

"What?" Velvet stopped as well. "What's up?"

"I was going to ask you that, actually." Crystal tilted her head. "What's wrong with you?"

Velvet sighed. She turned to face her, took a deep breath, and said rather quickly, "I'm nervous about meeting Princess Luna."

Crystal blinked. "Huh? Why?"

"Why?" Velvet's eyes widened in disbelief. "She's an alicorn! She and Celestia are over a thousand years old with magic beyond my or your comprehension! I mean, I know we just call them our rulers and princesses and whatever, but aren't they basically, like, goddesses?"

"Um?" Crystal slowly shrugged. "I don't know? I've gotten that feeling from Princess Celestia, as though she's some kind of otherworldly being, but, Luna is different. She's much more down to Equestria, which is a little ironic, if you think about it."

Velvet sighed, shook her head, and continued walking. "Well, I'm glad you can be so relaxed about it, but I've got butterflies up to my ears."

Although most of the buildings were decorated with wreaths and tinsel, one stood out among the rest: Runic's shop was completely loaded to the point of nearly being ridiculous with every kind of Hearth's Warming paraphernalia.

A sign was propped up to announce, 'Closed for a Private Function.'

When they opened the door, the decorations outside suddenly seemed tame. It was nothing short of a holiday winter wonderland with fake snow and icicles as well as ornaments, ribbons, streamers, and candy canes. A table was set up against one wall that offered cookies of various types and a bowl of purple punch.

"Good evening!" Crystal called. "I hope nopony minds, but I brought a friend with me."

Runic smiled. "The more the merrier!"

She heard Velvet's breath catch when the mare stepped inside. She looked uncharacteristically nervous, which put Crystal ill at ease.

"Hello, everypony, " Velvet said softly.

Crystal shot her a confused look before explaining, "This is Velvet Step, my best friend since fillyhood." She started to point as she introduced the three ponies standing around, "Velvet, this is Silent Knight, Iridescence, and, as you know, Runic Phial."

Velvet bobbed her head. "Pleased to meet you all. I've heard a lot about both of you."

"Good things, I hope," Iridescence teased.

"Absolutely!" Velvet nodded quickly.

Crystal watched her friend exchange pleasantries with the group. Where Crystal knew her as confident and playful, around these new ponies she was shy and tentative. It was like seeing a completely different mare.

"—and Luna's going to be bringing some new game she just got," Iridescence said to Silent Knight, who simply nodded in response.

Velvet swallowed and asked, "So it's true that she'll be coming? How am I supposed to talk to her?"

"Don't worry, Velvet." Crystal put a hoof on her shoulder. "Iridescence can tell you just as well as I can that Luna's very sweet. And, honestly, there's a chance she might not be able to make it because of her increasing duties." She nodded her head. "Why don't we have some punch to calm your nerves?"

Velvet relented with a small nod. Once they were by themselves, Crystal asked quietly, "Are you okay?"

"I told you, I'm all pins and needles." Velvet allowed a small shudder, then picked up a small cup and filled it. "These are your friends, not mine. Don't you remember when I dragged you to one of my dance meets and how you just stood in the corner?"

Crystal scrunched up her nose. "Yes, but your dance friends were also really…" She trailed off uncertainly, shrugging.

"Uh-huh. Different?" Velvet gestured at the guards a few paces away. "Try being surrounded by ponies that would give their lives to save an alicorn that's going to be here like it's nothing, and one wrong word or move might mean a hoof to the face! What if I do the wrong thing and get arrested, or worse?!"

"Oh my gosh, they're not going to accost you." Crystal laughed and shook her head. "Just try to relax and have fun, all right? That's your mantra for tonight."

"Mmhm." Velvet followed her as they returned to the party. "Relax and have fun," she repeated under her breath. "Easier said than done."

Runic and Silent had stepped off to exchange their gifts, which prompted Crystal to reach into her sweater. "Here you are, Iridescence," she said and offered a small box wrapped with a silver ribbon. "Happy Hearth's Warming."

Iridescence's eyes glittered with delight. Her magic slipped the ribbon off the box and lifted the lid. "Oh, it's gorgeous!" She raised the moonstone pendant that dangled from a silver chain.

"It made me think of you, what with its iridescent appearance," Crystal explained with a small giggle.

Iridescence carefully undid the clasp and put on the necklace. "Thank you, Crystal. In return—" She raised a small green box. "Happy Hearth's Warming."

Inside the box was a little brooch in the shape of a quill. Crystal turned it over in her hoof and giggled. "It's so cute! Thank you!"

They were all startled by the sudden movement of Silent tackling Runic with a big hug. Iridescence rolled her eyes and said playfully, "Oh, stallions."

Velvet quietly cleared her throat. "Um, I'm sorry, I didn't know very much about you, so, well." She held out a little envelope. "Here you go, Iridescence."

Iridescence looked at her guiltily. "Oh, Velvet, I can't accept this. I didn't get you anything."

"You didn't know I was coming, but I knew you were, so." Velvet swallowed and held the envelope closer to Iridescence. "Please?"

Iridescence accepted it with a gracious smile before she opened it. Inside was a gift certificate for the spa that Velvet and Crystal preferred, when their budget allowed for such luxury.

"Platinum Salon & Spa?" Iridescence glanced between them. "I've never been."

"They work wonders, especially if you're stressed." Velvet rubbed her hoof against the opposite leg. "I just figured, given your job, it might be nice to be pampered."

Iridescence gave a short laugh, quickly covering her mouth. "Thank you. I can't wait to drop by."

At that moment, the bell chimed and a gust of wind blew in to alert to the door opening. Two ponies walked in, both clad in the recognizable armor of Princess Luna's House Guard.

Silent cleared his throat to address them. "Miley. Harvest."

They nodded to acknowledge him before they scanned the room. Deeming it safe, both stepped to the sides to allow Princess Luna inside.

"We wish a most glorious Hearth's Warming Eve to everypony!" she exclaimed, smiling brightly. "Art thou ready for the fun to be doubled?" She gestured to her saddlebags, both barely able to contain the board games she had brought. "We have brought games!"

Crystal heard a small sound like a whimper from her left and she glanced at Velvet, who stared at Princess Luna with wide eyes, her mouth hanging open just slightly from shock.

"Not what you expected?" Crystal whispered, grinning.

Velvet shook her head. "Not at all."

"Well, you're in for a whole evening of surprises, then." Crystal looked over at the others, who were setting up a table for gaming. "I think you're going to discover that Luna is very different from what you had in mind." She nudged Velvet forward. "Don't be rude, now. Say hi to the princess."

Velvet squeaked when Luna's ear twitched at her approach and the princess turned to look down at her. "He—Hello," she stammered, then bowed so low that her snout nearly touched the ground. "I'm—"

"Velvet Step," Luna finished, smiling. "Thou art Crystal's dear friend of whom we have heard many a good thing. We are quite happy to meet thee." She gestured with one hoof. "Please, there is no need for such prostration."

Velvet lifted her head and looked up at the princess with a tentative smile. "It is an honor to meet you, too, Princess." Her gaze landed on the hoof held out to gesture her up and, without a moment's hesitation, she leaned forward and kissed it.

All of them stared at Velvet with mixed expressions of either surprise, shock, or flat-out amusement. Iridescence was the latter and tried to smother her laughter as best she could. Luna peered down at Velvet, who froze when she realized all eyes were fixated on her.

Luna smiled and retracted her hoof. "We like thee very much already." She turned to look at the others. "Velvet shall sit by us tonight!"

Everypony began to take their seats. Velvet remained where she was, her eyes still wide in confused terror, and Luna's horn lit up to levitate her off the ground and into a chair.

"Let the night of games begin!" Luna proclaimed as she settled into the last remaining seat and raised up a pair of dice. "Roll for initiative, little ponies!"

Crystal grinned when Velvet looked to her for some kind of explanation. She simply shrugged, which did not quell the look of fear on the mare's face. "Have fun," she mouthed.

Velvet slowly nodded but didn't visibly relax in the slightest.

The air was tense with near silence, interrupted only by the sound of silverware hitting china to cut into the pieces of vegetables. Jet Set sat at the head of the table and Upper Crust was across from Crystal. The conversation had petered out after the usual, obligatory pleasantries.

Crystal swallowed. Her stomach was in knots from the tension that hung in the air. She pressed on despite the feeling, slowly moving her silverware from her plate to her mouth.

"So," Jet Set finally said. "How is Velvet, dear?"

"She's well." Crystal glanced at him. "She's trying out for a new position in the company. Hooves crossed, she will be a part of the corps de ballet and no longer an understudy."

Upper Crust chuckled. "That sounds like quite the improvement." Her tone was laced with poorly disguised sarcasm. "A backup pony into a background pony."

Crystal clenched her teeth into a smile. "It's a step up, yes."

Jet Set pushed his empty plate away and leaned into his seat. "And you two are still… doing well?"

"Of course. Why wouldn't we be?"

He hummed thoughtfully, then shrugged and smiled. "I just want to make sure my little girl is happy."

Following his cue, Upper Crust stood and collected their plates. She paused when she lifted Crystal's. "Are you not hungry, darling?"

"I'm fine, Mother." Crystal did her best not to sigh.

While Upper Crust cleaned the table, Jet Set tapped his hooves together and regarded Crystal with hesitancy. "So, dear, there is a very high profile event we plan to attend."

Crystal returned his hesitancy with caution. "Oh?"

He nodded. "You're aware that Lady Cadence and the Captain of the Canterlot Guard are to be wed?"

"Of course!" She flushed when the excitement raised her voice unexpectedly. "Who hasn't heard of that?"

"Mm." He chuckled and started tapping his hooves again. "If you would like, I am sure your mother and I could secure you a spot on the guest list." He blinked, then quickly added, "And Velvet Step as well."

Crystal's gut told her to snap up the offer faster than she could stop herself, but it was too slow. She held her tongue just long enough to think it over.

By accepting a favor, that put them in a position of power over her. She would owe them, and her mother would certainly use that against her.

With a pang of regret gripping her chest, she shook her head and said, "No, but thank you, Father."

Jet Set looked as though he would argue the matter. Instead, he smiled. "All right, dear. I simply wanted to make the offer. Are you going to be staying the night, or will you go back home?"

"I have some things I need to take care of," she lied. "Actually, I should probably head out now."

"Oh? Well, all right." He stood and walked with her to the door. "Happy Hearth's Warming, dear. Thank you for having dinner with us. Give Velvet our regards."

Upper Crust leaned into the room through a doorway. "Are you leaving already?"

"Yes, Mother." Crystal smiled at her. "Thank you for dinner."

"Mm." Her mother eyed her with one brow raised, then disappeared back into the kitchen.

After giving her father a brief hug, she walked out into the cold night. The moment the door shut, she released a frustrated sigh through her teeth, shook her head, and trotted home.

The lights were off when she entered the condo and everything was silent. Of course, that was to be expected when the place was empty. Velvet was celebrating Hearth's Warming with her parents and spending the night there.

Crystal sighed and didn't bother flipping the switch, instead using the glow of her magic to ensure she made it to her bedroom without bumping into anything in the darkness. Once safely in her room, she flopped onto the bed, buried her face into her pillow, and closed her eyes.

Whenever one wishes for sleep, however, their mind actively works against them, and Crystal's mind was no different that night. All she could think about was the wedding.

Lady Cadence was a unicorn like no other; there were several stories around Canterlot about her unique love magic. And her marriage to the Captain of the Canterlot Guard sounded like something straight out of a romance novel that Crystal would write herself! The wedding was sure to be a grandiose, beautiful event nopony would ever forget.

Perhaps it wouldn't be so bad to be trapped under her mother's hooves just one more time for the chance to attend.

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"And you told them no?" Velvet stared at her incredulously. "Why the hay would you do that?! This is a once-in-a-lifetime event!"

Crystal groaned and rested her foreleg over her muzzle, clenching her eyes shut. "Because I didn't want to owe them. Maybe I can find another way in?"

Velvet sighed. She returned to her morning routine, her hindlegs stretched in a perfect split. "What about Princess Luna? Couldn't you ask her for an invitation?"

"What? No!" Crystal's ears pinned back. "She might think that I'm only friends with her for personal gain. I'd much rather owe my mother than do that."

"Then just go back and ask them." Velvet tucked one hindleg in and kept the other straight. She leaned forward and reached for her extended hoof.

Crystal stood up and started to pace while mumbling to herself before she finally said, "No, no. If I know my parents, they'll likely try again. They don't give up so easily." She plopped back down onto a pillow. "I just have to wait."

And wait she did, but neither of her parents came by. Every pony at school and at her favorite cafe were talking about the upcoming wedding, and the whole of Canterlot was so excited that it was nearly impossible to avoid the subject. To capitalize on the surging interest, every store was stocking up on matrimonial merchandise, making it even harder to ignore.

The first sign of the impending marriage-pocalypse happened at the grocery store, where Crystal saw two cantaloupes dressed in wedded bliss. One wore a little tiara and a veil while its companion had a top hat and bow tie. She tried to buy the bridealoupe, but the accessories were removed before it was put in the bag, and Velvet didn't believe her when she tried to explain why she bought it in the first place.

In the window of a small gift store were several plushies in the distinct likenesses of Lady Cadence and Captain Shining Armor. Crystal stopped in her tracks to press up against the glass, looking at the plush toys in disbelief. They were made well enough, but what caught her eye most was that their forehooves were sewn together, forever joined—at least, so long as the stitching didn't come loose.

Crystal almost bought one, but when she stepped into the store, she was scared away by the wave of giggles that followed when a mare exclaimed, "Look! Their horns light up!"

Another week went by and Velvet came home with her latest espousal discovery. She set down the bag she carried in her mouth and exclaimed, "Crystal, you won't believe what I found!"

Crystal looked up from her magazine. "Hmm?"

Velvet reached into the bag and lifted a wrapped object. She removed the paper and, with a big grin, held up the find: a white, gold-rimmed china plate with Lady Cadence's face painted on it. "It gets better!" she squealed as she set down the plate to retrieve a second one that similarly sported the face of Captain Shining Armor.

Crystal squinted at her. "Why—You—How much did those cost?"

Velvet rolled her eyes. "How can you ask that? I mean, the obvious question you should be asking is which one do you want?"

"I don't know?" Crystal's voice cracked as she fought a smile.

Velvet looked down at the painted eyes gazing back up at her. "I can't wait to eat off their faces. Their beautiful, regal faces. Whoever thought this was a good idea did not think this through.

"You finish off your mashed potatoes and bam!" Velvet flipped the plate toward Crystal again for effect. "Stop right there, hungry scum! You forgot your peas!"

Crystal shook her head, finally allowing herself to laugh, and looked back down at the magazine. She idly flipped to the next page. "This is getting ridiculous. I am just as excited for the wedding as everypony else, but really? Plates?"

"Do you think this craze will last until Nightmare Night?" Velvet asked, flopping over onto her back to gaze up at Shining Armor's visage in a playfully longing way. "I'd hate to be accosted by royalty."

"Are you even listening to me?" Crystal rolled her eyes.

"Hey! We should eat in tonight and use these!" Velvet tilted her head back to look up at Crystal at an odd angle. "We can have an elegant dinner party with royalty!"

Crystal returned the look with a playfully sour frown. "If you say royalty one more time, I'm getting my thesaurus and read it to you."

Velvet stuck out her tongue to blow a raspberry. "You're just bitter because you don't get to go."

"That's not confirmed yet! I just… have to…"

Velvet hummed to herself before she noticed the trailing silence and looked up at Crystal again. "Huh?" Noticing Crystal's wide-eyed expression, she rolled over to lay right-side up. "What's up?"

"I almost literally cannot even begin to comprehend this," Crystal said flatly, tapping on the magazine laid before her, then read aloud in a haughty voice, "'Precreating the Royal Wedding: What Might Be'."

Velvet blinked slowly. "What?"

Crystal's eyes scanned the six-page article. There were several pictures of wedding gowns that Cadence was photo manipulated into, examples of extravagant cake designs they might have, flower filly dress options, bouquet choices…

Velvet rested her chin on Crystal's shoulder to read with her before she snorted. "Okay, you're right. This is kind of getting ridiculous."

Without another word, Crystal stood up and walked over to the door. She tried on a few hats before settling on one, a floppy, wide-brimmed white hat with a blue ribbon.

"Where are you going?" Velvet asked, still reading over the article. "They have potential gift favors!"

"I'm going to talk to my mother." Crystal's tail flicked with agitation. "And I'm going to get into that wedding!"

Velvet flipped to the next page. "Good luck! And if you see any more plates, we need them!"

Crystal snorted and rolled her eyes before leaving the condo. She walked at a casual pace, humming to herself. The streets were busy with ponies hawking wedding wares.

Normally, Canterlot had better taste and kept itself above such blatant commercialism and fanaticism, but the impending marriage seemed to have everypony crazed. Crystal sighed. She, too, had to admit that all the buzz was getting her in a rather romantic mood. What if she even had the opportunity to catch the bouquet?

However, more than the nuptial accosting in the streets was what loomed above. Just the day prior, a magical barrier had been erected around the entire city, supposedly as part of the increased security to prepare for the impending prestigious event.

The number of guards posted on the walls and patrolling the roads had nearly tripled. A glance up at the shining forcefield sent a small shiver down her spine, so she did her best to keep her attention on the task before her.

When she arrived at her parents' home, Crystal brushed a hoof over her mane and coat to ensure everything was in place before she knocked on the door. She then quietly counted under her breath. Her mother would answer the door no less than five seconds after an unexpected knock. One must never seem too eager and give another the power, after all.

On six, the door opened. Upper Crust smiled when her gaze fixated on her daughter. "Well, hello, darling. What brings you by?"

There was no tiphoofing around the subject. Her mother would see through any flattering deception in an instant. Crystal straightened up and kept a firm stance. "I was hoping to discuss the matter of the upcoming wedding."

Crystal's stomach tied up in knots when Upper Crust smirked. "Oh?" She raised her brow. "I thought you weren't interested, darling."

Crystal begged her ears to not fold back. Stand at attention, soldiers, she chided them. "I was concerned that my schedule wouldn't allow for it, but—"

"I'm so terribly sorry," Upper Crust interrupted, pawing at the air, "but we just assumed that when you said no, that meant no. We no longer have the option of inviting you. The gardener is so looking forward to it now, and we'd hate to disappoint him."

One ear disobeyed orders and flicked in visible irritation. "What? I—" She cleared her throat. "I see. You're upset with me."

"Me? Upset with you?" Upper Crust put a hoof to her chest. "Why ever would I be upset? Neither of us has the time for nor the interest in one another these days. You're not the only one who is busy, darling. Time doesn't merely stop when you leave and we wait with bated breath for your return." She chuckled softly, shaking her head.

Crystal nearly hissed. Instead, she stuck her nose in the air and started to turn. "I'm sorry for wasting your time. Good day, Mother."

Upper Crust started to close the door. "Good day, darling."

Crystal's gait slowly quickened until she broke into a full-on gallop toward the spa. Her throat was tight and sore as she choked down her desire to scream in frustration.

She was angry at her mother, but she was angrier at herself for getting so worked up over a mere event. Now she had given her mother exactly what she had wanted: power. Just the thought of Upper Crust back there doing a little victory head bob made her hooves move faster.

She nearly skidded across the smooth tile when she burst through the doors of the Platinum Salon & Spa, exclaiming, "Full package!"

A familiar sage pegasus stood behind the counter. He raised one brow. "Do you have an appointment?"

She gaped at him. Her mouth flapped open and closed a few times before she threw her hooves in the air. "I don't have the strength to be perturbed by you, you… you!"

"Uh-huh." He looked down at a clipboard. "I don't see any of those words on the list, so. You'll have to take a seat and wait."

"No, I—"

One of the spa ponies leaned in through a door. "Oh, Miss Crystal! Don't mind him, he's just a temp. Come on back."

Crystal shot the pegasus a withering glare. "I'll deal with you some other time."

The pegasus simply nodded. "You have a pleasant day, too, ma'am."

Crystal tried to leave her stress in the waiting area when she stepped into the spa proper. Gentle music floated through the air and the smell of lavender enveloped her. Twin mares approached her, one carrying a robe and the other a glass of cucumber water.

Golden Fish had a honey-colored coat and a creamy mane and tail while her sister Conch Shell was the opposite. Other than their colors and cutie marks, they were identical from their sapphire blue eyes to the gentle smiles on their faces.

"Hello," Golden Fish said in her silky smooth voice as she draped the robe over Crystal's shoulders. "Welcome to relaxation."

"Let us help you let go of your problems," Conch Shell continued and offered the glass. "Did we hear correctly that you wish for the full package today?"

Crystal paused to drink the cool, crisp water. The cucumber twist tickled her taste buds and she replied with a contented sigh, "Yes. The full package, ladies."

Fish and Shell smiled at one another, then said together, "Right this way, ma'am."

Crystal leaned back into the chair while the twins massaged her legs, a warm cloth draped over her eyes. The music floating in the air had shifted to a harp and its chords fell on her like a gentle rain.

"Both of you are from Canterlot?" she asked.

"Born and raised," one said.

Crystal groaned in the back of her throat. "And what of your parents?"

"The same," the other replied.

Crystal's magic lifted the corner of the cloth so that she could peer at the mare to her left, who turned out to be Golden Fish.

"I am having a bit of a struggle with mine," Crystal muttered.

Fish giggled softly. "Is that why you are so tense? Your parents?"

"Tsk, what other problem could a pretty, successful young mare have?" Shell chided her sister. "It must be the parents."

Fish merely shrugged.

The cloth lowered back to Crystal's face as she closed her eyes again. "They offered to get me an invitation to—to an event. I wanted to go, but I've also not been keen on owing them any favors since I moved out. But I also really wanted to go to the event, and they were my only way in."

Fish gasped. "You didn't say yes, did you?" She pouted when Shell glared at her. "I mean, please, roll onto your stomach."

Crystal obeyed and deft hooves started to work the knots out of her shoulders and lower back. She sighed and shook her head just slightly. "At first, I said no, but I went back and—"

"Oh, no, no." Fish shook her head, clicking her tongue against the roof of her mouth.

Crystal inclined her head to peer at Fish out of the corner of one eye. "I don't understand. How do you know it went poorly?"

Fish looked at Shell to silently ask permission. When her sister nodded, she looked back at Crystal and said, "Because that is how parents are, at least in Canterlot. Once you grow out of their mold, they cannot handle it, so that is how some cope. They lash out."

Shell added quietly, "They will get over it eventually, or at least, most do. It takes time." She smiled and her voice raised from a near whisper to a gentle murmur. "Why don't we listen to the music for a while? Your shoulders tell me this is hardly a relaxing conversation."

Crystal nodded and rested her face against the pillow, allowing her eyes to close though her mind still wandered on the topic of her mother.

It didn't take long for the soothing harp and skillful hooves to put her at ease, her stress slowly coaxed and massaged away.

The day of the wedding had finally arrived, and every day prior was only a warm-up for the insanity that came with the celebration. Ponies from all over crowded the streets just to say that they were in the same city as the happily wed couple to-be. It also made getting anywhere extremely difficult.

"Excuse me, excuse me." Crystal sighed, uncertain why she even bothered with the pleasantries. Nopony could hear her over the excited chattering that echoed from every angle.

She finally made her way to the Phial and Filly, which, she discovered once she was inside, was rather empty. A sigh of relief escaped her at how the interior was the same as it always was. There was no Eau de Cadence, no Bridal Braid Care, nor any other thematic merchandise. There was just good old fashioned mare care products like normal.

"Hey, Crystal!" Runic smiled from behind the counter, then frowned. "What are you doing here?"

"I need the ultimate relaxation concoction," she answered as she perused the section of bath oils.

"No, I meant—" He gestured at the wall that separated them from a view of the castle. "I would have expected you to be at the wedding." He blinked when she responded with a loud groan. "Uh, that is to say—"

"It's fine," she interrupted, shaking her head. "That's just the reason why I need to relax. I really wanted to go to the wedding but, well." She rolled her eyes. "Here I am!"

Runic pushed a rock around the counter with his hooves like a schoolcolt drawing in the dirt. "Well, I'm glad you're here. It's been kinda quiet lately."

Crystal stared at him. She looked out the windows from where the faint noise of squeals and shouting came. She then looked back at him with one brow raised.

He returned the look with a grin. "But since you're here anyway, do you want to see something that rocks?"

Her lips wiggled as she tried not to grin herself. "Is it a rock?"

"Nope!" He picked up a basket and set it on the counter. "It's a bunch of rocks!"

She finally giggled and trotted over, levitating a few to examine them. "And what's the story behind these?"

He blinked. "Huh? The story?"

"Oh." She turned the rocks she magically held around before setting them down. "Anyway, they're very neat rocks."

"Aren't they?" He lit back up. "These are some of my new favorites. My old favorites are in the back, where I'll put these, but I'm just not done looking at them yet." He sighed wistfully and wrapped his forelegs around the basket. "All of my most recent successes!"

She smiled, returning to the aisles to peruse his alchemical wares. "What are you going to do with the old rocks?" she asked as she tried to decide between two bottles in particular.

"Do with them? I'll keep them where they are in the rock vault, of course! Well, I might move a few around to put some of these in their spots, but I don't think you're interested in rock organization." His ears perked upright with a sudden spark of hope. "Or are you?"

Crystal cleared her throat and raised up the two bottles. "I'll be happy to listen after you explain to me the difference between luscious rose and silky rose shampoo."

Runic put on his most serious face, which still wasn't very serious on him. "How would I know? I just ask the thesaurus." The coltish smile returned. "So, you see, I like to organize my rocks first by their sizes with the big ones in the back so the little ones don't get blocked. That way, when I look into the vault I can see them all. Next…"

Crystal kept one ear facing toward him, making a note of his organizational preferences in case it ever came up later, or if he had a pop quiz to go with the explanation. It all seemed fairly straightforward until he started to delve into a lecture on the differences between arkose and greywacke sandstones.

That was when both his words and her concentration were interrupted by the two most unsettling sounds to ever grace their ears.

First, there were screams of terror that ran Crystal's blood cold. It wasn't uncommon for Canterlot ponies to overreact to something simple and scream at it, such as an array of mismatching hats or a spilled latte, but the pitch of the ones coming from outside were not in the dramatic range.

They were much further toward the terrified end of the scale.

Then came the buzzing. It hummed through the air and bore its way into her skull: a dull, throbbing annoyance. It grew louder, presumably closer, and as it did, the screams grew more hysterical. The sound gave the impression that a swarm of locusts were invading the city; however, Crystal had a very sinking feeling the source was no mere insect.

All at once, her breath caught in her throat and her eyes went wide. She knew then what was happening: whatever that ominous barrier had been keeping out had finally gotten in.

Crystal slowly turned, dreading what she might see, to look out into the streets through the windows. Ponies ran in all directions and black, terrifying figures zipped through the air after them. Her heart pounded and she backed up into the display behind her.

Her head jerked back to look over at Runic, who was no longer standing behind the counter. He was suddenly standing beside her, his eyes narrowed while he stared at the chaos outside.

Without looking at her, he asked a simple yet enigmatic question: "Do you trust me?"

Provocations

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Crystal shook her head quickly to get her wits in order. "What?"

Runic turned his head toward her and repeated, "Do you trust me?"

Her terrified heart pounded all the way up to her ears. "I—"

Thunk.

She jerked her gaze back to the windows. Two of the creatures were smashing themselves against the glass. One paused to peer back at her with shiny blue orbs for eyes, bared its fangs, and threw itself forward again.

Thunk, thunk.

"Of course!" Crystal's whole frame trembled. She pressed herself up against the table behind her. "I trust you, so please do something!"

Runic grabbed three of the phials from his vest pockets and held them out to her. "Then hold them off for just a moment!"

"What?!" Crystal nearly fumbled them in her hooves before her magic lit up to catch them. "But—"

He kicked off the ground and gave a powerful flap of his wings to propel himself through the doorway into the back room, giving her no option to argue the matter further.

Thunk, thunk thunk.

Her magic flickered as fear gripped her chest. A third creature joined the others and with the added pressure of its lunges, the glass gave an ominous crack. They looked at it, at each other, and then at her, all mirroring the same wicked grin. With one final push, the window shattered and all three creatures flew into the room.

Crystal screamed and grabbed a potion out of the pink aura beside her. She clenched her eyes shut and threw it blindly. It broke open and sent its orange contents into the face of one creature; upon contact with the chitinous exterior, the liquid expanded around it and solidified. The insectoid froze, no longer able to move its limbs or its wings, and fell to the ground with a useless thud. The other two paused to look at their fallen comrade, their multifaceted eyes growing even larger in surprise.

"I'm—" She choked. Why did she want to apologize?

At the sound of her strangled voice, the attention of the two still airborne flipped back to her and they hissed. The left one lowered to the ground, a grin spreading across its lips, and green flames erupted from its hole-laden hooves—or at least, what seemed to her like hooves, anyway. The flames spread up its legs and where they touched, its black skin turned into creamy white fur. Its wings disappeared while its tattered tail became pink and blonde.

Before she knew it, she was looking at a mirror image of herself. Her doppelganger sneered at her and stepped forward. Not knowing what else to do, she lobbed another potion at it—her? Bright green liquid splashed into its eyes and it emitted a high-pitched sound that was a cross between a hiss and a scream. Its hooves flailed in an attempt to wipe the liquid away and it stumbled into its remaining companion.

A hoof grabbed her own and she cried out in surprise. She went to swing at the potential attacker, but she stopped just short of punching Runic in the face. Her doppelganger let out another pained cry and she glanced between it and him.

"Was that acid?!" she asked, her ears pinned back.

"Huh?" Runic shrugged, took the remaining potion from her, and threw it to the ground. Smoke filled the shop and he guided her toward the back room. "Yes! Maybe! Acid or shampoo, but either way, it worked!"

Crystal glanced over her shoulder into the swirling purple haze. She could hear their wings buzzing, sending the tendrils of smoke in all directions, possibly in an effort to clear it. He slammed the back room door shut, slid a wooden security bar in place, and returned his attention to her.

"You okay?" he asked over a slight pant. "Did they get you?"

"No." She shook her head. "Are they—are they going to die from the potions?"

Runic simply shrugged in response. He put both hooves on her shoulders and looked her square in the eyes. "I don't know what they are or what they're after, but we have no choice. The front room's lost and I can't lose this one." He pointed at a steel door set against one wall. "Everything that's important to me is behind that door." He put a pair of goggles in her hooves and turned to the door that jolted from an attack.

Thump thump.

The creatures were trying to get inside.

Runic slid his own goggles down. "It's time to fight fire with fire!" He balanced one vial on a hoof and poured a second into it, mixing the two liquids. There was a puff of steam and he threw it at the door.

A cone of fire burst forth upon impact, searing a hole through the wood and shooting out into the main room. Runic pointed at the blast and smiled at Crystal. "Did you see that?!"

Crystal pointed as well. "Do you see that?!"

When Runic looked back, he frowned. "Oh."

A creature extended its head through the hole and snarled at them, half of its face blackened further with ash. It placed both forelegs on either side and braced itself as it tried to wriggle inside.

Runic shifted his weight to his forelegs and bucked the insectoid in the face. He winced at the sound of shattering glass when the invaders returned the attack by destroying his merchandise. He tossed another phial through to the other side before he ran over to a table covered in test tubes full of different-colored liquids. "Crystal!"

A puff of green smoke spilled into the room from the hole. It reeked of skunk.

"Yes?!" she squeaked, still fiddling with the goggles that didn't fit quite right.

"I'll brew them, you'll threw them." He grinned and lifted a tube.

"Threw? Throw!" she corrected before a loud hiss startled her. Without thinking, she reacted by grabbing and throwing a nearby potion in the sound's general distraction. It missed the door entirely and hit the wall, where it broke open and sent shards of ice in all directions.

Runic blinked as ice sailed right past his ear. He added in a quiet mumble, "You throw them… through the hole, please."

A groan of frustration escaped her and she sputtered, "Yes, I—of course! I just got scared!"

"Oh. I can fix that!" He tossed her a phial from his vest. "Drink this!"

Her magic caught it, but she backed up a few steps. "How do I know you know what this is?!"

Runic shrugged and set about making a new brew. "Then just throw it, I guess? Soon, perhaps?"

Crystal glanced at the hole to see a pair of narrowed orbs glaring at her. She got into position beside the table and, facing the door, she returned the narrow-eyed glare with one of her own. Her heart seized for a moment, but she pressed on through her fear. The creature backed away when she lifted the potion and flung it through the hole.

The still-lingering smoke illuminated with a sudden flash. Several figures stood out in the wispy brightness, ominous and looming and plentiful, though they recoiled from the blinding light.

"Runic!" she cried. "There are lots more of them out there!"

He slid a completed potion across the table and she just barely caught it before it hit the ground. "Sounds like you better get to work!"

Another came her way and she struggled to catch it with one hoof while she threw the first one at their attackers. There were several sparks before, for a brief moment, all she could see was fire.

"Some constructive criticism?" Runic offered while he worked on a new concoction.

Crystal glared at him. "About what?!"

"You're, well, a unicorn. Can't you just throw them with magic? It might be faster than using your hooves."

She hesitated, then mumbled, "I don't know why I didn't think of that." She nodded. "All right!"

The potions she had collected bounced around in the pink aura before one shot out, followed by another. A few resulted in colorful displays that sent plumes of smoke back into their room, bathing Crystal's coat in various streaks of red, yellow, blue, and purple.

Runic stopped to watch with wide-eyed interest. "I wonder if I can make some kind of device for rapid fire potion deployment."

Crystal coughed and wiped some of the powder off the lenses of her goggles. "Maybe wonder about that later? I'm out!"

"Oh! Right!" He returned his attention to the test tubes before him.

It was impossible to tell if the same creatures continued their barrage, or if their forces were so numerous that those who fell or fled were simply replaced. Either way, there seemed to be no end in sight. Even the more deadly concoctions that resulted in bursts of flame, shards of ice, or sprays of acid didn't seem to hinder their assault.

A mare's face appeared in the multicolored smoke, her coat and mane singed and covered in soot. "Help me!" she cried, sticking a hoof through the hole. "Please, help me!"

Runic gasped and started to move toward the door, but Crystal grabbed him by the back of his vest. "Wait," she whispered to him. "Those things can transform. It might be one of them!"

Runic frowned, but he nodded and stopped struggling against her grip. "All right," he whispered back before clearing his throat and calling to the mysterious mare, "How did you get inside?"

"What?" The mare gave a jerky shake of her head. "I don't know! Help me, please!"

He grabbed a potion out of Crystal's magic. "Wrong answer!"

The look of desperation on the mare's face fell into a scowl. "Stupid ponies!" it hissed, dropping the disguise and trying to lunge forward, but when Runic raised the bottle, the insectoid retreated into the smoky haze.

Crystal saw a flash of pink and felt a calming warmth course through her when an ephemeral force swept through the room. She looked over at Runic, who had the same confused expression as her. There were several thump sounds from the main room, followed by an eerie silence.

Everything was still and quiet, save for Crystal and Runic's heavy breathing. The adrenaline rush had finally subsided and she was overcome by a feeling of exhaustion. She struggled for a moment, then slumped against the wall. Her coat was matted with sweat and stained every color of the rainbow.

She lifted the goggles off her head, leaving behind the only spot on her that was still cream-colored. "Is it over?"

Runic shrugged. He tossed one more potion through the hole, which released another pungent surge of green smoke. There were no sounds from the other room. Nothing coughed or gagged or hissed.

"I guess it is," he said. A smile started to light up his face. "We did it!" He hurried over to the steel door and fiddled with the series of locks.

Crystal shook her head. "I don't think we did it, but I don't know if I really care right now." She grunted and forced herself onto her hooves, though she dragged them as she walked toward him. "What's in there, anyway?"

"Memories." He pulled the door open and smiled at its contents.

Crystal stared, then exclaimed in a way that sounded more like a squawk, "Rocks?!"

Runic nodded and picked one up to show it to her. It was a light grey, irregularly shaped rock full of little holes and, on the whole, seemed particularly ordinary. When he saw Crystal staring at him in disbelief, he explained, "Silent Knight gave me this. It's an extraterrestrial rock that he got me for Hearth's Warming. My first Hearth's Warming with friends." He turned it very carefully over before putting it back in the vault.

"And those," he continued, pointing at a row of closely grouped rocks, "are the ones I had made the day you and I kind of became friends, when you remembered my name."

Crystal blinked a few times. "Do ponies not normally remember your name?"

He stared at her and offered as a deadpan rebuttal, "How many shopclerks' names do you know?"

"I—" Her chest puffed up with indignation. "Thank you very much, but I think it's only polite to remember ponies' names!"

"Uh-huh." He shrugged. "Well, most mares just buy their strawberry perfume or gardenia shampoo and leave."

"Gardenia shampoo," Crystal muttered under her breath before she jolted upright. "Celestia's light, I need to find Velvet!" Her heart raced and she trotted in place. "I don't know where she is! Or where she would have been! Runic, I need to find her!"

Runic flipped the locks back into place, then walked over to her and smiled. "Don't worry. I'm sure she's fine. I'll help you look for her, in case there are more of those things out there."

Her breath caught in her throat. She looked at the door that separated them from the main storefront. "What are we going to do if there are?" she whispered.

He patted his vest, restocked with every concoction she had seen that afternoon. "I'll take care of them! You helped me defend my rocks, so I'll help you find your friend."

"Thank you." She smiled and held her head high in feigned bravado. "I don't live far, so let's check there first."

He pulled open the door, the remnants of the security bar sliding out of the slots and falling to the floor. Crystal gasped at the view that lay beyond it.

The shop itself was in surprisingly good condition if one ignored the burn marks, broken glass, and toppled displays. They stepped carefully around the debris and stopped when they saw the bodies. The creatures laid against one wall as if they had been thrown against it. After watching for any signs of movement, Crystal noticed their chests rising and falling just slightly.

"I think they're unconscious," Runic said. "Wait just a moment."

Crystal watched as he set about securing both the creatures and the back room. He rationed the contents of the purple phial, which turned into a sticky goo when poured, and used it as a makeshift rope around the creatures' legs, then patched up the hole in the door with the remaining gelatin. There was an almost sickening crackling sound as the purple substances hardened into their various positions.

Finally, he turned back to her with a smile. "Okay, let's go!"

When they stepped outside, they had to freeze once again. The once-crowded streets were empty and littered with wreckage. Whatever was breakable was broken: barrels and carts were smashed to pieces, while windows were either broken into or out of.

Crystal reached for Runic and grabbed onto his vest. "This is really bad," she said, her voice and frame trembling. "Why did this happen? What did they want?"

"Dunno." Runic patted her on the shoulder. He offered a small smile. "Let's just worry about finding Velvet for now."

She tried not to cry, but her vision started to blur and her chest tightened with fear. They walked in silence toward her condominium. Both of them stayed alert, ears twitching at any sound that remotely resembled buzzing or hissing.

The closer they got to the building, the more Crystal's pace quickened until she broke into a full-on gallop. Runic took to the air to fly alongside her just to keep up.

"Please be here," she whispered as she fumbled with the lock once they arrived at her condo. "Please be safe." She pushed the door open and it gave an ominous creak. "Velvet?" she called.

There was no reply.

Runic trotted over to the kitchen window, glancing out into the streets and up at the skies for any signs of movement.

The tears she had kept at bay finally fell down her cheeks. "Velvet?" She searched every room and under both beds. "She's not here!" she wailed, burying her face into her hooves.

"Does this building have any kind of basement?" Runic shrugged. "That's where I'd—" He blinked when Crystal gasped and took off running again. "—go? Hey! Wait up!" He jumped into the air and flew after her.

She nearly tripped over her own hooves in her hurry down the stairs, rounding each corner with a small skid. When she reached the basement level, however, a heavy door stopped her, refusing to budge when she pushed against it.

"Hello?" She banged her hoof against the door. "Is anypony in there?!"

At first, she heard nothing except for the echo of her knocking. Then, after a moment, a voice came from the other side.

"Who's there?"

It wasn't Velvet's, but Crystal smiled briefly at the sound of a familiar voice. "Mr. Grey?"

There was a pause before Earl Grey gasped. "Crystal? Is that you?" The old stallion's tone raised with excitement, then fell to a worried whisper. "Is it safe?"

"I don't know, Mr. Grey. I think so." She shook her head. "Is Velvet down there?"

"Velvet?" Earl Grey paused again to think. Finally, his voice called out in a different direction, presumably over his shoulder, "Is there a Velvet?"

"Velvet Step?" Crystal offered and he repeated the full name. Her heart pounded so hard she thought it might break her ribs.

At a distance from behind the door, a voice responded, "Yes! Yes, I'm here!"

"Oh thank Celestia," Crystal murmured. She felt like collapsing as the adrenaline drained from her once more. Her legs trembled and threatened to give out, but a firm shoulder pressed against hers and she leaned against it. She smiled up at Runic. "Thank you," she whispered.

Velvet's voice was closer when she said, "Who's out there, Mr. Earl?"

"I think it's Crystal," he responded.

"Oh my gosh! Crystal?!" Her voice had a small hitch in it. "You're okay! Thank Celestia!" She paused. "It really is you, right? This isn't a trick?"

Crystal's lips quivered as she tried to smile. "Cross my heart and hope to cry," she started.

"Else I'll live in a pig's sty," Velvet finished and laughed. "Mr. Earl, it's her! Please unlock the door!"

The locks turned and clicked until the door was pushed open. Velvet sprung forth and tackled Crystal to the ground, both of them laughing and crying.

Earl Grey leaned out and glanced around. "My word, it looks terrible out here."

Runic shrugged. "It's probably safe, though. See?"

He pointed at a patrol of guards that were sweeping through the streets, each one calling out, "Citizens of Canterlot, for your safety, please remain indoors."

"Or, well, perhaps more emphasis on 'probably'." Runic gave a lopsided grin. "I'm going to head back to the store, Crystal. Glad you found your friend."

"Alone?" Crystal looked up at him, still lying on her back from where she had been knocked down, her forelegs wrapped tightly around the trembling Velvet. "Will you be all right?"

"Of course I will!" He chuckled and spread his wings. "Even without my rapid-fire potion deployment device, I can still take care of myself! I'll see you next time you drop by!" After he waved to them, he turned and jumped into the air, his wings carrying him back in the direction of his shop.

Velvet stood up and looked down at Crystal. Though her eyes were glossed over with tears, she started to giggle. "You look and smell awful."

Crystal rolled her eyes. "Happy to see you, too."

"What? I thought we already established that part with the hugging and the crying?" She offered a hoof to help her up. "Come on. The guards said to remain indoors, so let's get back down in the basement. Besides, it looks like you have a really big story to tell."

Crystal glanced down at her colorful, sweaty self and shook her head. "You probably won't believe it, but all right."

Earl Grey shut the door behind them, then went about locking it. Crystal followed Velvet down the stairs to find a large group of frightened ponies huddled together, their attention quickly fixated on her. She took a seat on a barrel and, after a deep breath, started to regale the tale of the alchemical defense.

Repercussions

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Crystal tried to back up, but her hooves slid uselessly on the floor. Everything around her was fuzzy and something moved to her left. Suddenly, she was out in the streets, surrounded by buzzing, hissing creatures. They approached her slowly, each one grinning with a malicious wickedness.

Her eyes snapped open and she jolted upright. She was hot, even though she had tossed off the covers in her sleep. Heat, sweat, and fear left her feeling more than uncomfortable. "Ugh." She panted and wiped her forehead, then slid off the bed.

Water. She needed water.

When she stepped out of her room, she was greeted by the kitchen light that felt blinding to her at that early hour of the morning. She blinked and squinted into the brightness. "Velvet?" she asked in a manner more like a groan.

"Huh?" Velvet looked over at her. "Hey. Can't sleep either?"

Crystal blinked a few more times, still attempting to adjust to the light. "I just need some water."

Velvet nodded. She cradled a mug in both hooves, kept close to her face so she could inhale its aroma. Crystal sniffed; the air smelled of warm milk with cardamom and honey.

"I see them in my dreams," Velvet whispered.

Crystal walked over to her and put a foreleg around her shoulders. She nuzzled Velvet's cheek. "Me, too."

Velvet trembled against her. "I was so scared. So very, very scared. I was sitting on the roof with some other ponies that live here, and—and the barrier just shattered." She sniffled and took a sip of the milk. The cup shook in her hooves and Crystal readied her magic just in case.

A rapid series of knocks resounded from the front door and both mares screamed. Crystal's magic lit up and sent the mug flying out of Velvet's grip and against the door.

"Crystal?!" Velvet gave a strangled laugh. "What the hay?!"

"Magic-jerk reaction," Crystal snapped, then glared at the door. "Who is it?" she called.

"It's me, it's Horsey!" the unmistakable voice replied.

They gasped and scrambled to get the door. "Horsey!" they cried together, both embracing her.

"I'm so glad to see you two safe and sound!" Horsey hugged them back as best she could. "We heard what happened in Canterlot and I got so scared. The trains weren't running until today, and—and…" She trailed off, then asked, "Hey, girls?"

"Yes?" Crystal pulled back to look at her. Velvet stayed firmly attached.

"Um, so, is that mug on the floor what hit the door when I knocked?"

"Yeah, Crystal freaked out and threw it." Velvet finally let go and scowled at Crystal. "Is this going to be your thing now? You just throw my stuff when you get scared?"

Crystal huffed. She stuck her nose in the air and started to clean up the mess while Velvet walked Horsey inside, around the broken mug and spilled milk. "I said, it was a magic-jerk reaction. Horsey knows what I'm talking about."

Horsey settled down onto a pillow. "Sort of? I mean, it can get misdirected if I get startled, so I guess the answer is yes, I do."

"Salut?" a stallion's voice asked and Savoir Fare's head peeked through the still-open doorway.

Crystal stiffened and whirled around, then relaxed from recognition. "Oh, Savoir Fare!"

Horsey's cheeks darkened. "Sav, I'm so sorry! I didn't mean to run ahead and leave you behind."

Savoir Fare smiled. "Think nothing of it." His accent was far more pronounced than when he took orders at the restaurant, and as a result he sounded natural and relaxed. He turned his attention to Crystal. "Bonjour, mademoiselle. I apologize for the intrusion, but I did not want mon coeur to travel at such an hour by herself."

Crystal dropped the broken mug into the trash and walked over to the circle of pillows. She sat down on one, watching as Savoir Fare casually nestled onto the same pillow as Horsey.

He nuzzled behind her ear, then said, "So, then, your friends are safe and all is well."

Horsey flushed even more while her ear twitched from his touch. "Yes, they are." She glanced between Velvet and Crystal. "I hope we didn't wake you up, but I couldn't wait until a later train."

Velvet waved the notion away. She worked on a new mug of cardamom and honey milk. "Can I get anything for either of you?"

Savoir and Horsey shook their heads. "I'm fine," Horsey said. "Sav packed snacks for the train ride, so we had a really early breakfast."

Crystal turned her sights on Savoir and her eyes narrowed just slightly. "So, Savoir Fare. I don't believe we've had the opportunity to discuss your relationship with our dear friend."

Savoir regarded her with a raised brow. "Ah? And what would you like to talk about?" He put a foreleg around Horsey. "Your dear friend is also ma chère moitié, so I request you keep that in mind."

Crystal held eye contact with him before she broke into a chime in laughter. "I'm sorry! I wanted to be serious, but Horsey looks so terribly frightened that I can't help it." She pawed at the air. "As long as you don't make her cry, I'm just happy one of us has a special somepony."

Horsey flushed and glanced between them all. "Velvet, I changed my mind. Can I have some of that milk, too?"

"Coming right up!" Velvet giggled.

Savoir's expression relaxed into a gentle smile. "Mademoiselle Crystal, mon coeur tells me much of your success in writing."

Crystal bobbed her head in a halfhearted nod. When he arched one brow at the reaction, she said, "It's been somewhat difficult, in some ways. My first two novels are a success, which increases the pressure I feel to quickly write a third one, equal or better. But…" She sighed and shrugged. "I have yet to find inspiration." Suddenly, her ears perked up and her eyes glimmered. "Perhaps if I heard more of your story?"

Horsey cleared her throat. "I don't really want you to write a story about our awkward months and months of not-flirting."

"It was not so bad…" Savoir trailed off, thinking a moment, then amended, "It could have been worse." When Horsey groaned, he placed a gentle kiss on her cheek.

Velvet walked over and offered Horsey the warm mug of milk, then returned to the kitchen retrieve her own.

"Oh, Horsey," Crystal said, heaving a dreamy sigh. "I'm so envious."

Horsey smiled down at the mug in her hooves. "Don't worry, Crystal. If you of all ponies can't fall in love, then there's no hope for Sav and me."

Crystal huffed. "It's not my fault I can't find a suitable stallion."

"Uh-huh." Velvet took her place on the remaining pillow. "Then whose fault is it?"

"Stallions," Crystal replied with a curt nod. "None of them have the spark."

"The spark?" Savoir inquired, tilting his head, then smiled. "Ah, yes, that spark. I am afraid, Mademoiselle Crystal, that love is not something you find. It is something that finds you."

"Well, it is certainly taking the scenic route." Crystal crossed her forehooves and looked over at the nearest window, gazing at the night sky outside for a moment, then looked back at her guests. "I am afraid the condo isn't very well-equipped to accommodate company, though."

Velvet chirped, "My bed's bigger, so why don't you and Savoir share it? I'll room with Crystal for a night!" She clapped her hooves and beamed at Crystal. "It'll be like having a sleepover!"

"If you don't mind," Horsey said tentatively.

"Not at all," Velvet and Crystal responded together, then giggled.

Crystal stood. "On that note, I am going to sleep." She turned toward her door. "I'll see you two in the morning. Velvet, don't keep me waiting too long!" She winked over her shoulder.

Velvet tossed back her mug and downed the milk. "Actually, I'm pretty tired myself! Night, Horsey and Savoir!"

Horsey waved. "Good night. Thank you for letting us borrow your room."

"No problem!"

The door shut behind her and she hesitated, glancing at Crystal. "Is this a bad idea?" she asked in a quiet voice. "What if we keep each other up with nightmares?"

Crystal slipped under the covers and scooted to the far side. She patted the empty space beside her. "Maybe not being alone will make it easier to sleep."

"Mm." Velvet climbed into bed, moved toward Crystal, and snuggled against her back. "Good night."

"Night." Crystal just stared at the wall for the longest time. She was afraid to sleep, but eventually, her eyelids started to grow heavy and she was forced to drift off into slumber.

A pair of blue orbs leered at her from the darkness. Soon, she was surrounded by creatures, each one of them hissing as they drew closer…

Crystal trotted through the halls, proudly displaying her pass. The excitement she got wearing it still hadn't waned. She felt privileged, more so than she had ever felt attending any of her parents' events. They didn't have a special pass that gave them access to Princess Luna's chambers.

"Hello, Miley!" she chirped at the petite, dark-coated mare standing at her post inside, right by the door. "How are you today?"

Miley Hooves nodded with all the professional seriousness of a guard with her small stature could afford. "I'm fine, thank you, ma'am."

Crystal was in mid-step when she noticed the shiny new pin attached to the mare's armor. "Oh?" She paused to go through her mental catalog of ranks and their associated pins before she said, "I'm sorry, let me correct myself. Hello, Guard First Class Miley." She winked. "Congratulations on the promotion."

Miley's composure was broken by a bright smile. "Thank you, Crystal—ma'am!"

Crystal nodded and walked into the room. She spotted Silent Knight at Princess Luna's secretary desk and offered a small wave, but he seemed too preoccupied to notice it.

Luna looked up from her couch when Crystal neared. "Good eve to thee, Crystal. I am most glad to see thee well."

Crystal took the seat across from her and nodded. "And you, Luna. From what I heard, the castle suffered a much worse attack than the city proper."

"'Twas most unpleasant, yes." She peered at her with the soft eyes that Sunbeam had when she was concerned for Velvet. It was a gentle, motherly look. "How art thou faring?"

Crystal dropped her gaze to her hooves as they pawed at the cushion beneath her. "I have nightmares some nights," she admitted quietly. "Not every night, so I suppose it could be worse."

"Any nightmare is a cause for concern." She lifted her head and called to Miley, "Send for Raven, Miley Hooves."

Miley saluted and walked out of the room. She passed on the order to a guard standing post outside before returning to her own.

Luna tossed her starlit mane and asked, "Prithee, while we wait, wouldst thou like a cup of tea?"

"Oh, no, thank you." Crystal shook her head.

"Art thou certain?" Luna pressed, and smiled when Crystal nodded after a polite pause. "Thy manners, didst thou learn them from thy mother?"

Crystal shifted in her seat. "Yes, as well as many, many summers spent at finishing school."

Luna regarded her with an odd expression. If Crystal had to attempt to describe it, she would have to settle on the way a cat regards a new toy. "'Tis true?" She smiled. "Thou art quite the fine example of a Canterlot lady."

Crystal laughed behind a hoof. "Having spent my life with Canterlot ladies, I do not know if that is the compliment you think it is. Why do you ask?"

Luna's gaze wandered, growing briefly distant. Her voice lowered to a private level. "With thy proper upbringing, I am sure thou understandest what must be kept out of the vicious pool of gossip. Silent Knight hath suffered the involuntary end of his first relationship. I worry for him."

"Oh?" Crystal's cheeks felt hot and she did her best not to look over her shoulder. "I wasn't aware that he was seeing anypony. He seems so…" She trailed off, shaking her head.

Luna leaned in with clear interest on her face that confused Crystal further. "Yes?"

"Dedicated solely to the job," she finally finished after more thought.

The interest waned. "Yea, 'tis true." The near-predatory look returned and she leaned back into the couch. "Perhaps thou canst help. 'Twould be a good thing if he recovered from the blow."

The heat returned twofold, turning Crystal's cheeks visibly red. "Princess Luna, are you asking me to find a date for Silent?"

Luna waved the notion away. "Nay, I simply mean if thou happened to know a mare—" She smiled, looking up when the sound of hoofsteps announced a new arrival. "Ah, good evening to thee, Raven."

Raven smiled. When she saw Crystal, the smile grew more sincere. "Good evening, Princess. Hello, Crystal."

"Hi, Raven." Crystal returned the smile. "I'm glad to see you." She tilted her head to peer at the mare that followed behind her. "Who is your shadow?"

"Hmm?" Raven glanced at the mare—a pegasus, to be exact—and gestured somewhat vaguely. "Oh. Willowy Tempest is training to join my staff. She comes from Cloudsdale's very own Equestrian Weather Coordination Team, in fact."

Willowy Tempest smiled and waved. Her coral pink eyes stood out against her soft brown coat, half of her face covered by her two-tone green mane. "Hi."

"Nice to meet you," Crystal said.

Raven turned her attention on Luna. "How may I assist you, Princess?"

Luna eyed Willow before she answered, "We would like for Crystal to see a counselor. And while you are here, tomorrow, we would like to go have lunch in town. It should be a beautiful day and we do not wish to miss it."

Raven frowned. "I beg your pardon, Princess, but I don't think there is room in your schedule for a sudden change like that." She raised her planner and flipped through the pages while Luna rolled her eyes. "You have several meetings, and—"

"Excuse me?" Willow interrupted.

Raven glanced at her. "Yes?"

"Can I take a look?"

Raven hesitated, opening her mouth to argue, then decided against it and passed the planner over to her.

Willow stared at it in silence for a moment before she asked, "Is fifty minutes enough?"

Luna and Raven blinked.

Willow pointed at the schedule for the next day. "If you move this meeting up, then slide these other meetings over to this time slot, it frees up an extra thirty minutes to the allotted twenty minutes for lunch."

Raven glanced over the schedule as well and muttered, "I think that would work, actually."

Luna stared at Willow. The mare wilted from the intensity. Finally, Luna pointed at her and looked at Raven. "We shall have this one as our personal aide."

"What?" Raven gawked. "But she—"

"Thou wishest to be free of extra work, dost thou not? Then give us this one."

"I—I—" Raven blinked a few more times. "If that is what you wish, Princess."

Luna nodded. "Make it so." She waved her hoof to dismiss them and, after they left, she looked back at Crystal. "Raven shall find thee a counselor. For now, we have other matters to discuss." She tapped a hoof on a book on the table.

Its cover was black, save for the title Eventide and a pair of pale hooves holding a bright red apple.

"Hast thou read New Moon's latest book?"

Crystal scrunched her nose and nodded. "I was not interested in the lore of vamponies before, but any interest I may have had was quelled by the idea of sparkling vampony stallions."

The hours went by from the lengthy discussion of Eventide. Luna glanced at the clock on the wall and looked back at Crystal with concern knitting her brow. She lowered her voice to a whisper to say, "Crystal, by this time, thou hast normally left. Art thou worried of another attack? It hath been over a fortnight."

Crystal's gaze fell to her twiddling hooves. Her ears pinned back against her mane. "Yes, admittedly, I have been stalling to avoid leaving."

"Never thou mind," Luna said, waving to dismiss the notion. "I will take care of thee." She cleared her throat, then raised her voice to call, "Silent Knight?"

The stallion dropped a pencil as if startled, but his expression when he looked up and his voice when he spoke were both perfectly calm and collected. "Yes, Princess?"

"Wouldst thou be able to escort the fair Crystal Wishes to her home?" She smiled. "It is growing late and I do not wish for her to walk alone."

Silent Knight nodded. "Of course; I am off hours now." He rolled up the papers he had been working on and tucked them into his saddlebags, which he lifted and set on his back. "I leave you in Miley's capable hooves, Princess."

Crystal looked at him, then back at Luna. "All right, then, I suppose that means I'm leaving." She waved. "Thank you for your company, Luna. Have a pleasant night."

"And the same to thee, Crystal." Luna nodded.

Crystal walked over to the door just as Silent Knight did. He held it open and said after a small bow of his head, "After you, Crystal Wishes."

She paused to look at him. Up close, he was more handsome than she had realized. His eyes raised to meet hers and she flushed.

"Thank you," she said hurriedly and walked out of Princess Luna's chambers.

Just as she was used to, he lived up to his name. They walked through the halls and out into the main hall without a single word between them. She stole a glance to see the somewhat neutral determination on his face.

However, once they left the castle proper and were crossing the courtyard, he visibly relaxed. It was as though a switch flipped and he went from 'guard on duty' to 'stallion in armor'.

Armor that covered a well-built, muscular body.

Crystal felt her cheeks growing hot and she cleared her throat. The quiet between them continued until she could no longer stand it. "How do you like being a sergeant?"

Silent Knight shrugged. "It's weird. It is completely different than being a guard. In some ways, I'm jealous of Miley Hooves. She still has many more hours to go guarding Princess Luna."

"Is that so?" She smiled softly. "I find that success does not always bring us what we thought we wanted. Sometimes, it isn't what we dreamed it would be." Her gaze wandered their surroundings before landing on him again. He looked back at her with sincerity in his eyes and she jerked her head forward.

"Wow," he murmured. "I never thought of it like that, but that sums it up elegantly. Is that part of your writing talent?"

"Oh, no." She giggled and shook her head. "Nonetheless, here we are." She pointed at the condominium building. "I'll just—" Before she could continue, he started walking forward with clear intent to escort her to the building. She blinked, tentatively following after him. The only time a stallion would walk her all the way home was on a date, and even then not always.

He stopped at the foot of the stairs to let her lead the way. When they were just outside her door, she turned toward him. "This is my stop," she said with a small giggle.

Silent glanced down the hall, then down the other way, and finally nodded. "Good night."

Crystal looked up at him, into his silver eyes. Her heart didn't particularly flutter. Her knees didn't go suddenly weak. Instead, she felt an overwhelming sense of calm, as though her very soul trusted those eyes. It was a completely different feeling from what she read and wrote, but it was an unmistakable feeling all the same.

"Good night," she said softly, opening the door and walking inside. She stopped to watch his retreating form just before the door closed behind her. That was when her heart finally caught up to what she was thinking and started to do cartwheels in her chest.

"You're home late," Velvet playfully chided from her spot on the floor. She was in the middle of her usual stretches. "Did you have a good time at the palace, Miss Princess's Pet?"

There was a small skip in her step as she pranced over to the pillows. "Hmm? Oh, I suppose."

Velvet's ears perked. A coy smile played with her lips. "Did somepony do something naughty?"

"What?" Crystal blinked and her brow furrowed. "What? No!"

Velvet, remaining in a half-split, pulled herself along the floor and scooted closer to Crystal. "Then what's got you in such a good mood?"

Crystal stalled with a hum, looking everywhere but at Velvet. When the mare grabbed her face and forced eye contact, she grinned.

"Confess your sins!" Velvet grinned back at her.

"I felt it," Crystal said just barely above a whisper. "I think I may have found it. The spark I've been looking for."

Mare Contraire

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"I think you've used up all your sick days." Velvet stared down at Crystal, who was sprawled on her back and draped over one of the sitting pillows. "I don't want to get a note from your teacher and have to go to a parent-teacher meeting about your absence."

Crystal groaned. "Why? What's the point?" She rolled over and scowled. "I'm not learning anything. It's not required for what I do. We're doing just fine on what I'm making now."

Velvet scowled right back at her. "Because you're a part of society."

Crystal pointed at her. "J'accuse! So are you, and you dropped out!"

"Nuh-uh. I live in Canterlot, but I'm not part of its society." Velvet dropped down onto her haunches to cross her forelegs over her chest. "For better or for worse, you are. Ponies talk about you. Do you really want them to start talking about how you're a dropout?"

Crystal gave another groan, this one exaggerated and drawn-out. "I…" She hedged. Her lips pursed into a tight scrunch until she finally stood up. "Fine, I'll go to school, Mom."

"That's a good girl." Velvet grabbed Crystal's face by her cheeks and squeezed. "Now go be Mommy's little star and get all the good grades!"

Crystal rolled her eyes, but she smiled and nodded. "Yes, Mom." She waved Velvet's hooves away and trotted into her bedroom to retrieve her saddlebags, then returned to the main area to head to the door. "I guess I'll make dinner tonight, since I'll be home before you."

"Sounds good! Have a great day at school!"

"Yeah, yeah." Crystal sighed and walked out into the corridor.

The walk to Canterlot Academy was uneventful, which paralleled what the next six hours of her day would be like. Teachers taught topics completely irrelevant to her interests. Students pretended to listen but instead whittled the time away by sneaking in a few naps.

She tried to survive the only way she knew how: by writing instead of taking notes. However, that day, her mind wasn't in it. Every time she tried to guide words into ink, her quill kept writing the same scenes.

Eyes in the darkness.

Hisses from the shadows.

Crystal took a deep breath and released it through her nose. Focus, she demanded of herself. She couldn't get into another dry spell. An image flashed through her mind and the quill lifted, dancing across the page with ease while she melted into her seat.

His silver eyes caught in the moonlight as he gazed down at her. "Good night, Crystal," he said in a low, smooth voice.

He leaned down to place a kiss on her cheek, but she had a different plan in mind. Quickly, she tilted her head to the side and caught his lips in hers.

Before she knew it, her face felt hot and she glanced around to ensure nopony was staring at her while she furiously scribbled out what she had written. "Not that kind of dry spell!" she hissed under her breath.

The day crawled by and finally three o'clock rolled around, the bell resounding with cheer at her regained freedom. She trotted down the front steps, yawning, and started for home.

Halfway there, she stopped when she realized she was outside of Runic's shop and turned her head to look at it. The windows were back in place and displayed a bright, colorful sign that read: 'Grand Re-Opening: 50% off all mare care products!'

"Hello?" she called as she walked in the door. "Runic?"

She was a little surprised to see the store back to its original state. Ponies wandered the aisles and tried on perfume. The back door was whole and without a hole. It looked as though nothing had happened at all, and it gave her chills.

"Hey there!" Runic smiled from behind the counter, just like always. "Whatchya need today?"

"I just came to check on you and see how you were." She pawed at the ground. "So, how are you?"

Runic gestured at their surroundings with his forelegs spread wide. "Great! I had a repairpony come by. You unicorns and your magic work wonders!"

"Oh, only those gifted with a better grasp on their magic," she corrected, smiling. "But I am glad to see the shop back in order." She took a look around, then back at him. There was an awkward moment of hesitance before she leaned in and lowered her voice to ask, "You and Silent Knight are good friends, right?"

Runic smiled. "Cousins, in fact!"

Crystal nodded slightly. "Mm." She hesitated again. "How is he?"

"How is he how?" His smile fell to a flat line.

"What I mean is, you know about his… situation?" she pressed.

Runic shook his head. "Can't say I do."

Crystal sighed. She looked around once more, then finally said outright, "Luna mentioned that he recently went through a breakup."

Runic's eyes widened and his mouth hung open for a moment. "What? He broke up with Iridescence?"

"No, he—" She choked on her sentence to instead repeat, "Iridescence?"

Runic looked down at the counter between them and tapped his hooves together, shaking his head. "I had no idea! I wonder why he didn't say anything to me?" He sighed. "I guess that does explain why she just suddenly up and left. I assumed he was just sad that she was gone, but now…"

The hairs on the back of her neck bristled and she scowled. "She left after breaking up with him?" When he lifted his gaze, she snapped back to a more somber expression. "I thought that perhaps her schedule changed and that was why I hadn't seen her lately, but—"

She shook her head. "That's not the point," she muttered both to herself and to Runic, who was staring at her with a furrowed brow, and she raised her voice back to a normal tone. "The point is, you are the only pony I know who is close friends with him, so I wanted to make sure you were there for him."

"Absolutely!" His coltish smile returned. "If I'm bummed out and I wasn't even the one who went through a breakup, can you imagine how he feels? I'll have to throw him a bachelor party to help remind him that it's not so bad being single."

She blinked. "Runic, a bache—" She laughed and shook her head. "Yes, that sounds like a good idea."

He rubbed his hooves together. "A great idea, even! I know just what I'll do!" He grinned. "Silent Knight'll be feeling better in no time!"

A wistful sigh escaped her. "Oh, I hope so." She blinked a few times, straightened up, and cleared her throat. "I suppose I'll head home. Good luck with the bachelor party!"

"Thanks!" He waved her off.

Crystal waited for the door to shut behind her before she released an irritated groan. Her hooves scuffed the cobblestone street as she walked, her posture weak from her slouched shoulders and lowered head. The day started off sour, and it seemed it was going to continue that way.

When she crested the top of the stairs to her floor, a familiar mare standing outside her door caught her eye.

"Raven?" She perked up and trotted the rest of the way. "I'm sorry, how long have you been waiting?" Her magic worked the lock and opened the door.

Raven smiled. "Not long. I assumed you would come home straight from school, given how much you complain about it." She followed Crystal inside.

Crystal rolled her eyes, walking into the kitchen. "Would you like some tea?"

"A small one, please. I can't stay too long." She settled down on a pillow. "I just came by to give you the name of a counselor I found for you."

The cup clattered against its saucer as her magic dropped it a little too soon from surprise. She kept her back to Raven, staring down at the kettle that sat on the stove. "Oh."

"Don't sound so excited," Raven said with a small laugh. "I actually think I found you a perfect fit! I saw her name and knew she was the right one."

Crystal glanced over her shoulder. "What makes you so certain?"

"Well, I believe it will help that you already know her."

Crystal's ears twitched and perked. "I suppose that might help. Who is it?"

Raven smiled, looking very much like a self-satisfied cat. "Your cover artist Painted Wave apparently works as an art therapist. You should talk to her and see if she can help you."

"Really? I didn't know that about her." Crystal poured the rosemary-infused tea into two cups and carried them over. "But I'm fine, honest."

Raven regarded her with one brow raised, though she accepted the cup and sipped from it. "Princess Luna seems to disagree, and unfortunately for you, I take orders from her. I'll schedule the appointment myself if you don't." Her tone lowered to a softer, more concerned level. "In seriousness, Crystal, you're not alone or strange. A lot of ponies are suffering after the attack. It's okay to reach out for help."

Crystal didn't quite meet her gaze. "Mm." She sighed. "I'll think about it."

"Good." Raven took another sip and smiled. "So, how are you doing otherwise?" She waited and finally prompted, "What happened?"

"It's a little complicated. Not much has happened, per se, other than—" She sighed again. "I think I found the right stallion for me."

Raven nearly dropped her teacup in sudden excitement. She squealed and hopped forward to the edge of the pillow. "Crystal!" Her excitement deflated as quickly as it had swelled. "But why are you sighing like a lovelorn filly?"

Crystal shook her head. "He's been through a recent break-up, which is only a temporary issue of rebound concern. But the mare that he dated is so different from me that I'm not sure he'd be interested in me once he's over her." Her head dropped down to rest on her hooves. "She might as well be a model for punk fashion."

"Oh, pfft." Raven rolled her eyes. "Stallions don't only like one type of mare, you know. Moore dated a model before me. Can I compare to that? Certainly not, but I got him in the end. That's enough for me, and it will be enough for you."

Crystal shifted, still not looking at Raven for a moment longer before glancing up at her. "I suppose I'll cross that bridge when I know he's over her. After all, she broke up with him, so there is still a chance…" She trailed off and shook her head. "Oh, I'm not sure why I'm so hung up on him!"

Raven smiled. "That's how it is. Love is sudden and wonderful."

"Love?" Crystal's cheeks turned bright red. "Raven! That's a rather strong word! I barely know him—Well, I do, but he barely knows me! It's far too soon for the 'love' word!"

Raven laughed, standing up and setting her teacup on the table. "Maybe it is. There's only one way to find out!" She winked. "I expect to hear all about it as soon as you make a move on him. Who is the lucky stallion, anyway?"

Crystal swallowed. "I'm not sure if I'm ready to say just yet."

"So it's somepony in the castle, then?" Raven chuckled with an almost devious grin. "I'll be watching you, Crystal."

Crystal stuck out her tongue. "I didn't say it was!"

Raven opened and trotted out the door. "You didn't say it wasn't!" With that, she pulled the door shut behind her with one final, triumphant laugh.

Crystal stared at the door for a while, her face red and hot. She buried her face against the pillow and let out a small, muffled cry of exasperation.

"We're going out," Crystal stated, her nose high in the air so she could peer down at Velvet.

Velvet furrowed her brow and squinted. "Um, where exactly are we going with you dressed like that?"

Crystal huffed in mock offense. She wore copious amounts of glitter around her eyes over bright pink eye shadow, and her lips were colored the same shade of neon pink. Her hindlegs were wrapped in fuzzy green and pink legwarmers while her forelegs were adorned with bangles of every color of a rainbow on steroids.

"Clubbing, of course," she said, flicking her tail. "Where else?"

Velvet responded with loud, boisterous laughter. She fell over onto her side to clutch her stomach. Crystal rolled her eyes and tapped a hoof, waiting for the mare to catch her breath.

"Have—Have you," Velvet managed between gasps for air, "ever been to a club before?"

"No, but I've read about them in magazines, and this is clearly how clubbers dress. So get ready and let's go!"

Velvet took another moment to try and even her breathing. "Why are you so eager to go to a club all of a sudden?" When Crystal glanced away and hesitated, she pressed, "Crystal, what are you up to?"

"Oh, I need your help, but I thought if I told you, you might say no," she replied with a pout. "Don't make me say it."

"Crystal!"

"Fine, fine." She dropped her rump to the floor. "I'm utterly out of ideas for a new romance, and I thought, hey! I just need to be inspired by somepony around me! And, well, since Horsey is doing so well with Sav, but she doesn't want me to write about her…" She trailed off.

"Uh-huh. So you're going to take me to a club in hopes I find my special somepony there and you can write about it?" Velvet raised one brow. "This sounds really self-serving for you, but—" Her face lit up with a grin. "I'm in!"

Crystal's ears perked. "Really? Oh, great! Because I heard about the perfect place yesterday!"

Velvet trotted to her bedroom, leaving the door open so she could call, "And what's that?"

"It's called 'Mare Contraire' and—"

"What?" Velvet slowly leaned back through the door. "Crystal, you know what that place is, right?"

Crystal blinked a few times. "Um, a club?"

"Oh my gosh." Velvet laughed and went back to dressing up. "Well, you're in for a surprise tonight."

Crystal tilted her head one way, then the other, then just shrugged.

When they walked into the Mare Contraire, Crystal squeaked, gawked, and froze in place.

Velvet patted her on the back, grinning so wide it must have hurt. "I told you!" she whispered.

The club was full of mares, and the way a lot of them were cuddling or kissing gave away the club's target demographic. Crystal kept staring until Velvet bumped their shoulders together and started forward. She shook her head to clear it and followed Velvet toward the bar.

"Well, hi there!" the pink bartender said in a cheerful, friendly voice. "I've not seen either of you here before. I'm Dolly. Welcome to my little place!"

Velvet smiled. "Hi Dolly! I'm Velvet, and this is Crystal."

Dolly glanced between them, nodded, and leaned against the counter. "What can I get for you two buttercups?"

"Ooh." Velvet tapped her chin and looked at Crystal, then back at the bartender. "Well, Crystal likes roses. Can you make anything with rose water?"

"I sure can. And what about yourself?" Dolly smiled.

"An appletini for me, please."

"Coming right up, sugar!" Dolly moved away to begin mixing the drinks.

Velvet sat on one of the stools and turned it to rest her back against the bar, looking out into the club space. "So now what?"

Crystal squeaked. She scrambled onto the stool beside Velvet and glanced over her shoulder. "I don't know! I just thought we'd dance and maybe a stallion would come over and I would talk them into dancing with you. Or something. But everypony here already seems to be paired with somepony, and I don't know how to be a wing pony to a mare!"

"I guess just treat them like a really sweet stallion?" Velvet shrugged. "Anyway, we can stick to your plan of dancing and see what happens. That is, assuming you even know how to dance at a club?" She grinned at Crystal. "It's pretty different from your high class waltzes and foxtrots."

The song changed to one with a lively tempo and Crystal tried to bob her head with the beat. "I'll be fine as long as you lead, I think."

"Okay! But first—" She turned her head when Dolly set two glasses nearby. "Drinks!"

Crystal smiled at Dolly. "Thank you!"

"No problem, sweetie." She winked. "You two have fun while you're here and let me know if there's anything else you need, ya hear?"

The mares nodded and turned back to the dance floor with their drinks, Velvet holding hers with one hoof and Crystal levitating her own.

Velvet swung her hindlegs and sipped her green concoction. "So, have you decided what you're going to do about your knight?"

Crystal nearly choked on her own drink. She coughed, thumped her chest with a hoof, and glanced around. "Um, no. I haven't," she replied in a quiet voice just above a whisper. "I'm not even sure if there's anything to decide."

"Oh yeah? What happened to 'I felt the spark I've been looking for all my life'?" She took another sip. "You were super excited a week ago, so what happened?"

Crystal shook her head. "This isn't about me. This is about finding you a special somepony so I can write about it!"

Velvet laughed and tossed back the rest of her drink, then hopped off the stool and trotted toward the dance floor. "Okay, okay, then let's dance!"

Velvet was able to find the rhythm fairly easily and, though she certainly wasn't the best dancer in the room, she was much more coordinated than the spasms Crystal produced. While she bobbed her head, swayed her hips, and bounced from one hoof to another just like the magazines described, but on the whole looked more like she was shaking off ants than dancing.

A few moments later, Crystal gasped at the sight of what looked like Golden Pants out of the corner of her eye, but when she turned her head, a bright orange mane quelled that mistaken identity.

"Hi there!" the mare nearly yelled to try to be heard over the music as she approached them. "I don't think I've seen either of you here before! You both new?"

Velvet smiled and toned down her movements, limiting herself to a light bobbing and swaying. "Yeah! First time here! I'm Velvet, and this is Crystal!"

"Hi!" Crystal yelled somewhat dumbly before returning to her awkward dancing.

"My name's Sunny!" the mare replied. "Do you wanna go to the bar so we can hear better?"

"What?" Velvet tilted her head to angle her ear at the mare. When Sunny just pointed, she looked at Crystal and nodded her head in the bar's direction.

Crystal smiled. "Okay!" She followed them to the bar where they all sat down, and she leaned around Velvet to smile at Sunny. "Sorry, I didn't—" She cleared her throat, her raised voice still compensating for music that was no longer as loud. "Sorry again," she said, quieter. "Anyway, I didn't catch your name?"

"Sunny Day." The golden mare offered a wave. "I just wanted to introduce myself to a pair of cute little mares I haven't seen here before."

Crystal giggled and Velvet glanced at her, then shifted slightly to keep herself between them. "Do you work here?"

Dolly, who had sidled down to stand near them, laughed. "She might as well for how often she comes here!" She looked at Sunny. "You better cool off, hot stuff. These two came in together."

"Oh, she doesn't have to do that!" Crystal nudged Velvet with her elbow. "We don't mind."

Velvet swallowed and looked at Dolly. "Another appletini, please." While the bartender went about making a drink, Velvet cleared her throat and offered Sunny a lopsided smile. "So—"

Crystal interrupted, "Are you here alone, Sunny?"

Sunny giggled. "I am right now, but I won't be for long if I have any luck tonight." She glanced out into the sea of mares, an almost predatory look in her eyes.

Crystal nudged Velvet again. "I'm sure we can help with that."

"Crystal," Velvet hissed, glaring at her. Her drink was set in front of her and she took a quick gulp of the green liquor. She shot one more stern look at Crystal, who sighed, slumped forward, and drummed her hooves on the bar.

Sunny glanced between them, her head tilted and brow furrowed. "Well, then." She laughed, albeit a little awkwardly. "So, Velvet, I guess you're the wing pony, huh?"

Crystal rebounded with a perky smile. "Oh, no, I'm the wing pony, but don't mind me! I'll just be back over there rocking the dance floor. You two have fun!" She winked and slid off the stool.

As she wandered back toward the throbbing sounds of electronica, she heard Sunny ask, "Wow, she's rather open-minded, isn't she?"

"Yup," Velvet replied. "So, anyway, um, hi."

The rest of their conversation was drowned out by the music and Crystal returned to her full-body wiggling. She glanced at the potential lovebirds every once in a while until a pretty mare approached her and asked, "Hey there, cutie! Can I buy you a drink?"

Crystal blinked a few times, then chirped in response, "Sure!"

"Okay. Whoa there. Easy girl. One more step and"—Thump!—"and that's the floor." Velvet sighed, looking down at the sputtering and giggling Crystal.

"Oh my gosh." Crystal squirmed from her spot sprawled on her side, her hindlegs dangling over the edge of the stairs. "The world is, like, fuzzy."

Velvet shook her head. "That's the alcohol. Why in Equestria did you drink so many?"

Crystal stuck out her tongue and rolled over onto her back. "Is rude to say no! Pretty mares wanna buy me drinks? I say, pfft!" Her coherence degraded into an extended raspberry, then more giggling.

"Uh-huh. You know, you have classes tomorrow, and we just curbed your whole 'not going' habit." She pressed her hoof gently to Crystal's forehead. "You're going to have one hay of a headache tomorrow, but you're going, got it? Now, get up, 'cause I totally can't carry you."

Crystal groaned. She flailed one foreleg haphazardly in an attempt to swat Velvet's away, but ended up hitting the railing beside her. She whimpered, groaned again, and rolled over onto her stomach. With her rump hoisted in the air, she pushed her front half forward and scooted toward their door.

Velvet rolled her eyes. "Celestia, I'm never letting you drink again."

"Rude!" Crystal chided, stopping when she bumped her nose into the closed door. She waited for Velvet to open it, and when she did, she pushed herself to the nearest pillow and flopped over onto it. "G'night!"

"Uh-huh." Velvet retrieved a blanket from Crystal's room and draped it over the heap of a mare. "Remember, you're going to school whether you're hungover or not."

A snort and a giggle were the only responses Crystal could give. Velvet turned off the lights, shook her head once more, and started toward her room. "I'm going to write about this in my diary, you know. You'll never live this down!"

Crystal waved a hoof aimlessly in the air in Velvet's general direction. "Rude."

Thinking Out Loud

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A white, round tablet dropped into the glass of water and was engulfed in little bubbles that released a low, fizzy hiss. Crystal swirled the glass and glanced at Velvet, who stared intently back at her.

"I already said I'd go, so you don't have to watch me like a foal," Crystal muttered.

Velvet rolled her eyes. "Considering you got yourself drunk the moment I stopped watching you, I kinda think I do."

Crystal groaned and lifted the glass to take a long drink. The powdery flavor was unpleasant, but no more or less so than her throbbing headache. "So, I know how my evening turned out," she said, setting the glass down and turning toward Velvet. "What have you got to report?"

"I think you're going to have to look elsewhere for your next big hit." Velvet shrugged. "I dunno. Sunny and I talked, and I learned some things about myself. Then you dove off the bar into a group of mares and that kind of cut my evening short."

Crystal scowled and slowly made her way across the room. Each hoof lifted and fell with precision so as not to make a sound. "Yeah, yeah. What did you learn about yourself?"

Velvet dropped down from her high and mighty stature to nestle into the pillow beneath her. "I learned that I'm just not interested in being with another pony. At least, not right now, anyway."

"Oh." Crystal's ears fell. She levitated her bags onto her back and looked over at Velvet. "Why not?"

Velvet looked at her with a neutral expression. "Why not not?" She shrugged. "Why do you want to be with Silent Knight? Or anypony, for that matter? I just don't feel any motivation to find myself a special somepony at this point in my life."

Crystal stood by the front door. "That sounds like an awfully boring writing prompt, but I'll see what I can do." She grinned and waved before opening the door and stepping out.

Crystal hummed as she flipped through the latest Mares Monthly. Hearts and Hooves was still two months away, but the articles were already attempting to capitalize on the hype. And it worked.

"Ooh," she cooed. "Velvet, listen to this: Pack your bags and set sail for Maris, Prance, which has been voted as Equestria's most romantic getaway for this year. Discover exotic cuisine and beautiful scenery that will set your love on fire."

Crystal giggled and flipped to the next page, which featured several pictures of the Prench countryside. "Do you think I have time to get Silent Knight to like me enough to take me to Prance for Hearts and Hooves Day?"

Velvet laughed. "I think that might be overreaching just a little bit, sweetie. Maybe just work on a first date before jumping to expensive, romantic vacations?"

Crystal stuck out her tongue and flipped to the next page. "It could happen! I mean, it won't, but it could."

Three short, quick knocks came from the front door. They looked at each other and both of them shrugged, then Velvet quickly touched her hoof to her nose.

Crystal rolled her eyes and got up to walk over to the door. When she opened it, her heart jumped into her throat. "Oh! Sil—ergeant Knight!" Her ears perked upright. "What brings you here?" She tried not to purr the words while she gazed up at him.

Silent Knight nodded. "I apologize for the uninvited interruption, Crystal Wishes. I won't take long."

Crystal shook her head and leaned against the door frame. "Take as long as you'd like."

"I just wanted to request some of your time tomorrow evening. Iridescence's leave is up and I am going to Manehattan to escort her back, and I think it would help her re-acclimate if she had friends waiting for her at the train station."

Just as it had jumped with excitement, her heart sunk like a rock. "Oh." She straightened up, her tone falling soft. "Of course. I'll be there."

He smiled, if only slightly. "Thank you, Crystal Wishes. Have a good evening." With another nod, he turned and walked away with his usual, proper soldier's gait and posture.

Unlike usual, however, she didn't enjoy the retreating view.

Slowly, she shut the door, but didn't walk back to the pillow she had previously occupied. Instead, she simply stood there, staring.

"Crystal." Velvet bit her lower lip. "Hey, it may not be what you think it is."

"Isn't it?" Crystal's voice trembled. She blinked several times to stave off the tears. "I'm pretty certain he's not even aware I'm a mare because his attention is still on her."

"Then force his attention on you!" Velvet stomped a hoof. "You said Iridescence broke up with him, right? That means she already had her chance!"

Crystal shook her head. She turned and started to walk back toward where she had left her magazine. "And that means that he has unresolved feelings. I'm not interested in going down that path."

Velvet scowled and stalked toward her. "So that's it? All of that excitement and giggly puppy-love is suddenly over? No more spark?"

"Of course not!" She jerked her head to return the scowl, though hers was softened by the tears in her eyes. "But I'm also not going to get my hopes up if it's a hopeless endeavor."

Velvet released a heavy sigh and dropped down next to Crystal, nuzzling against her side. "You're kind of hopeless."

Crystal sniffed. "I know."

"Do you want me to come with you tomorrow?" Velvet grinned lopsidedly. "I can flirt with Iridescence so you can run away with your Knight."

"No, that's all right. I know you have practice around then, and—" She shook her head. "I'm fine, really."

Velvet leaned forward to look at the magazine still lying on the floor. "If you're sure. Oh, look at this: '7 Steps to Woo Any Stallion!' That seems pretty appropriate right now." She grinned. "Step 1…"

Crystal took a deep breath and knocked on the door. It opened a few moments later, and Painted Wave smiled down at her, blinked, then tilted her head.

"Crystal?" The smile returned. "I'm really sorry, but right now isn't a good time. I'm kind of expecting somepony."

Crystal nodded. "I know. It's me."

Without missing a beat, Painted's smile softened and she stepped out of the way to let her in, nodding. After shutting the door, she turned and stared directly at Crystal with an unnerving seriousness in her eyes.

Crystal held perfectly still until Painted nodded once more and said, "The changeling attack, eh?" She gestured for Crystal to follow her and started to walk toward the work area. "I'm not surprised. Civilian ponies like you aren't supposed to see that sort of thing."

Crystal blinked and glanced up at her. "Civilians 'like me'? What about you?"

Painted waved one hoof. "I typically use art therapy for clients. So!" She pointed at a canvas, a brush, and a paint palette tray already set up against one wall. "Don't tell me what's bothering you. Show it."

Crystal furrowed her brow and levitated the brush, turning it around to look at it from every angle. "I'm not much of a—"

"Shh." Painted sat down beside her. "Don't talk. We use words every day so much that we can say them without any feeling. I want you to use your feelings to express yourself so both of us can truly understand."

Crystal sighed, but nodded and dipped the brush into the black paint. As she coated most the canvas in darkness, her heart started to beat faster from the images flashing in the back of her mind. The strokes grew more erratic as she added various colors to fill the thin blank spaces between the darkness. Plumes of colored smoke. Two of the remaining gaps she painted with light blue. Eyes in the darkness. She dabbed bright white paint on the other two curvy gaps. Gleaming fangs, hissing in the shadows.

She swallowed, her throat dry, and set down the brush. It certainly wasn't a piece that was going to win any awards, but it was close enough to the vision that haunted her dreams and turned them into nightmares.

"Now, you can tell me: how do you feel?" Painted asked in a gentle voice.

"Scared," Crystal whimpered. "What if it happens again? What if I'm not somewhere safe next time? I was lucky. I was with Runic, and Velvet got to safety. What happens next time?"

Painted put a foreleg around her shoulders to pull her closer. "Oh, Crystal." She sighed. "This is so much harder to do when it's somepony I know!"

Crystal sniffed, rubbing her eyes with the crook of her foreleg. "I'm sorry. I didn't want to do this, I—"

"I'm glad you did. I'm just not sure if my normal method is going to help you."

Crystal's ears started to droop and she looked up at Painted. "What?"

Painted smiled. "You need to do two things, and my typical art therapy won't accomplish either. I know I said what I said about words, but you have a special way with them."

"What?" Crystal repeated, her brow furrowed.

"First, you need to realize you're not alone," Painted continued.

Crystal sighed and looked down at the floor. "That's what everypony keeps telling me."

"But you don't believe it, do you?"

There was a long pause before Crystal admitted in a mumble, "No. From what I can tell, everything has returned to normal, as if it never happened. Runic and his shop are perfectly fine. Velvet's gotten over her nightmares. I—" She blinked a few times when her vision blurred with sudden tears. "I feel very alone."

"There you go." Painted patted her on the head. "And thus, that is why you need to realize you're not. The second is that you need to let go of—this." She gestured at Crystal's painting. "And I have the perfect idea how." A grin tugged at her lips. "Write a story about it."

"What?" Crystal jerked her gaze up to meet Painted's. "I can't—I don't write that sort of thing!"

"C.W. Step doesn't," Painted corrected. "But a new pseudonym could. You already have a good relationship with Mares Monthly. I'm sure if you spun it right, you could get them to publish it under a new name."

Crystal felt suddenly cold as panic overtook her. Her breath caught in her throat and she looked at Painted with wide eyes. "Publish it?!"

Painted nodded. "That's what I said."

Crystal sprung to her hooves and backed away a few steps. "I can't do that! What if—what if it's horrible?"

"And that's why you use a pseudonym, of course!" Painted stood up and walked to the kitchen. "I'll make some tea while you start considering what that name will be."

While Painted worked in the kitchen, Crystal paced the living room, muttering to herself. The very notion had her muscles twitch in worry and agitation.

Finally, when Painted returned, Crystal squeaked, "Why?"

"Why?" Painted looked at the teacups she magically carried in front of her. "Because tea is rather calming, of course."

"No, I mean, why do you think this will help?"

Painted stared at her. "Because I think calming you down is a good idea." Crystal made a sound of frustration and Painted laughed. "I know what you mean. I do think some nice, calming tea is a good idea, but as to why I want you to write and publish your fears?"

Painted levitated a tea cup over to Crystal and continued, "By writing it down, you distance yourself from it. Your fears will be on paper, not just in your mind. By publishing it, you let go of it completely and allow others to realize they're not alone, either."

Crystal took a long, slow sip of the herbal tea. Finally, she mumbled, "I suppose I should trust you since you're the professional."

"That's a good reason, but I think I'd prefer it if you trusted me because I'm a concerned friend." Painted put a hoof on Crystal's shoulder. "At least consider it. All right?"

Crystal nodded. "I will." She smiled and took another sip. "Thank you."

"Oh, don't worry about it." Painted shook her head. "It's just a quick brew I threw together real quick, so there's no need to thank me."

"What? No, I mean—" She laughed when Painted grinned. "Oh, you."

In the near distance, the train whistled to signal its impending arrival. Runic played with a rock he had found on the way there, Winterspear paced, and Crystal stood next to Princess Luna. Harvest Moon and Miley Hooves were positioned on either side of the princess and just slightly behind her in standard, proper formation.

"I hope it went okay," Winterspear murmured. "I don't want to see his face if he comes back empty-hooved."

Runic shrugged. "She doesn't have a choice, does she?"

"It dependeth on how much she valueth her job on our House Guard," Luna said with an air of certainty. "We have faith that she will return with Silent Knight." There was a small pause before she looked down at Crystal.

Crystal felt the weight of the princess's gaze and was compelled to look up and meet it. Luna's eyes were soft and warm, and her smile was a comforting, reassuring sight. Crystal just didn't quite know of what she was being comforted and reassured.

"He returneth her to her duty," Luna added and returned her attention to the approaching train.

Crystal could only nod and follow suit, watching the train pull up to the station.

After the train hissed and came to a complete stop, the doors slid open. Silent Knight stepped out first as if to secure the way before Iridescence followed behind him. Runic was the first to cheer and Crystal followed suit, while Winterspear went directly to Silent's side. Even Miley broke regulation and stepped forward to welcome Iridescence back and, given the occasion, Princess Luna didn't seem inclined to correct her, so Harvest Moon said nothing as well.

"Welcome back, Iridescence!" Runic held out a small basket of different mare care products. "Look, I made a batch of your favorites!"

"Yay, you're finally back!" Miley chirped. "I hope you had a good leave!"

Crystal smiled and said, "Welcome home, Iridescence."

Iridescence looked between them all with tears in her eyes. The way her brow was knitted, however, gave her a look of guilt rather than of happiness. "Thank you all. I really appreciate it."

There was a bit of tension in the air as the three mares—Luna, Iridescence, and Crystal—nestled onto the couches in the seating area. Luna began to pour the tea that had been served and doled cups out to them.

"I apologize for my extended leave of absence, Luna," Iridescence finally said, accepting the teacup.

Luna waved a hoof. "We understand. The changeling attack was hard on everypony. We only hope that thou returnest recovered and whole again."

Iridescence nodded and crossed her forelegs. "It was nice to see my family again. But it is nicer to be back here."

"Sergeant Knight said that you were in Manehattan?" Crystal smiled. "It's one of the few places I've been outside of Canterlot, because of work. I'm sure you know of that big building, Eminence Tower?"

Iridescence gave a short bark of a laugh. "Yeah." She nodded. "I do. I'm sure everypony does, though, considering it's the biggest."

A scream tore through their conversation, followed by the sound of clattering metal on metal. They all jumped and looked up to see Miley Hooves clinging to the chandelier, which rocked both from the sudden movement and her trembling.

"Miley Hooves?" Silent Knight called from the secretary's desk. "Seriously?"

"I'm—I'm sorry!" she stammered. "I got scared!"

Silent sighed and flew up to retrieve her. She jumped toward him and threw her forelegs around his neck, nearly knocking him off-balance. He returned her to the ground and asked, "What happened, Miley?"

Miley straightened her helmet, then looked up at him. "There was a mouse. I jumped."

Crystal giggled behind a hoof. Iridescence and Luna looked at her, at each other, and smiled.

"I think of all your House Guards, Princess, Miley is my favorite." Crystal giggled again.

Luna arched one brow. "'Tis the truth?"

Crystal blinked a few times. She glanced at Iridescence, at Luna, then over at Silent Knight. In the brief moment that her eyes flickered to him, they made eye contact and she tore her gaze back to the mares.

"Well, one of my favorites," she admitted.

Iridescence opened her mouth, but before she could speak, the door flung open and in marched the pony Crystal recognized as Lieutenant Haze. He looked around, then started toward them.

"Sir?" Silent Knight asked as he moved from behind his desk to stand between the mares and the lieutenant. "Is there something I can help you with, sir?"

Lieutenant Haze grunted, "Not unless you're the princess, Sergeant. I need to speak to Princess Luna."

Silent Knight didn't budge. "Princess Luna has an appointment right now, as you can see, sir." He gestured to them. "But I can find a spot in her schedule to fit you into."

Haze grunted again and stepped forward. "As I recall, Sergeant, you work for me as a guard, not a secretary. Now act like it and move out of my way."

"Yes, sir." Silent bowed his head and did as he was told.

Haze advanced on them like a storm, his jaw set with rigid determination. "Princess." He bowed. "I need to discuss the current state of your House Guard. It's in sore need of improvement, and I have some suggestions on the topic."

Crystal and Iridescence sat perfectly still, both of them staring with wide eyes. Slowly, they turned their heads in unison to look at Luna as she rose to her full height, looking down her muzzle at the lieutenant and his wilting confidence.

"Of course, Lieutenant," she said in a firm voice. "As Sergeant Knight said, however, thou canst well see that we have an appointment at this moment. Wouldst thou check with the sergeant, we are certain he willeth find thou an opening." She smiled, though there was little friendliness in it. "We are sure thou art aware that Sergeant Knight is among those who receives a copy of our daily schedule to best leverage security assets."

"Princess, I think it would be best—" When Luna's smile fell and her stare grew more intense, he took two steps back. "I think that would be best," he corrected and turned away to head toward the door. "Sergeant, find me the next available opening." And with that, he was gone.

"Yes, sir!" Silent Knight returned to the desk and opened a book.

Luna returned to her couch and nestled against the cushions, though the air around her radiated with irritation. "Silent Knight?"

"Yes, Princess?" Silent looked over at her.

"We shall not have any openings for at least a week," she exclaimed in the Royal Canterlot voice that reverberated against the walls.

Silent cracked a smug little smile. "Yes, Princess." After he flipped through the pages and penciled in an appointment, he muttered to himself, "I know who I work for, but do you, you pompous gryphon-flank?"

Miley asked from her spot by the door, "What did you say, Sergeant?"

Silent looked up at the mares looking back at him. His eyes widened just a bit, but he quickly recovered by clapping his hooves together and saying, "Flank, Miley. You should always go for the flank when engaging a gryphon to wound their pride first!"

Miley nodded, Iridescence giggled, and Silent returned to his usual work. Crystal inclined her head to look at him out of the corner of her eye and caught him staring at her for just a moment. Her heart pounded and she felt heat crawl up her neck, but she tried to smile the fluttering nerves away.

"I'll have some more tea, please," she said and Luna obliged, refilling her cup.

She swallowed and kept her ears focused on the conversation between Luna and Iridescence. The princess was explaining the events that had happened around the castle during Iridescence's leave, including the start of Willowy Tempest's training. Crystal's attention, however, was on Silent Knight.

Occasionally, he glanced their way and from her position, it seemed as though he was indeed looking at her before he returned to his report. Was he writing about her? What sort of report was he working on, anyway? Her focus shifted to the mare beside her and the butterflies in her stomach went still at the reminder that she wasn't the only pony in that direction.

She shifted to rest on her right side, putting some distance between herself and Iridescence. Her gaze slowly crept to him and she caught him looking once more, still at her. The blush she had been fighting heated her cheeks and she jerked her attention back to the conversation.

"I do agree," Crystal slipped in without missing a beat. "Canterlot's cuisine is much better than what little I've sampled in Manehattan."

The butterflies returned in full force. Perhaps she would pretend it was true for the evening, because she rather preferred the idea of him looking specifically at her and her alone.

The Little Things

View Online

Crystal nibbled on the feathered tip of her quill, one brow furrowed and the other raised. She gazed at the blank parchment sitting on the floor. There were several balled up sheets scattered around her pillow and just as a few words were written on the paper, she groaned, balled the attempt up, and added it to the haphazard pile.

"Somewhere, a paper manufacturer is very happy right now," Velvet said, sitting across from her.

Crystal rolled her eyes. "Well, I might have an easier time with this if you weren't staring so intently. It's exceedingly off-putting."

Velvet swatted at one of the paper balls, then batted it between her front hooves. "I can't help it! I've never gotten to see you get all into your writing groove. You always do it in your bedroom or while I'm away."

"Perhaps there's a reason for that," Crystal muttered and tried to hide her grin by looking down.

"Whatever!" Velvet stuck out her tongue. "Honestly, I'm just really eager to see what you write."

Crystal's smile fell into a somber frown. "Why? I told you what happened the day it happened." She glanced up, then back at the new blank sheet.

"Why?" Velvet hummed a moment before she shrugged. "You talked about what Runic did. I know all about the potions, but you really haven't ever talked about what you did."

"I threw potions," she stated flatly.

Velvet sputtered. "Well, pff, d'uh!" She dropped her elbows to the floor and her chin onto her hooves. "How did you feel? What happened before the potions? What about after? What abou—"

The hair on Crystal's chest and around her shoulders bristled as she jerked her head up and snapped, "I don't want to talk about any of that!" She winced at the volume of her voice and lowered it to mutter, "No pony is interested in how I felt."

Velvet blinked a few times. "Obviously, one pony is, 'cause I'm interested. I was scared and I fled. Pretty much every pony around me fled, too. Then we just hid and that was it for us. But you fought them, Crystal. That's pretty interesting, at least to me..."

Before Crystal could respond, somepony knocked on their door and Velvet's hoof flew the short distance from her chin to her nose.

"Cheater," Crystal hissed with a smile and stood up. She took her time walking to the door, stretching out each of her sore legs, then opened it. "Oh! Horsey! ... Horsey?"

"I'm sorry," Horsey said, panting, her magic flickering as it barely kept an overnight bag aloft. "Things got out of hoof at the restaurant, but I got here as quickly as I could!"

Crystal blinked. "Huh?"

Horsey looked at her, past her, then back at her. "Um, I'm sorry, is this the right place? Because you don't seem nearly as lov—"

Crystal heard a distinct pssst sound behind her and she turned her head to see Velvet standing there, smiling exaggeratedly wide. Just as she started to turn her attention back to Horsey, she saw Velvet quickly shaking her head.

Horsey furrowed her brow. "What?" She glanced between them, then groaned and rolled her eyes. "Did something happen already?"

"Ix-nay on the alk-tay!" Velvet growled out while putting a foreleg around Crystal's neck and laughing. "It's so good to see you, Horsey! Why don't you come in while Crystal makes some tea?"

Horsey sighed as she brought her bag and herself into the condo. "No, seriously, what happened? What was suddenly wrong with this stallion?"

"Oh my Celestia, Horsey, it's not what you—"

Crystal giggled. "I think I get it." She shrugged off Velvet's leg. "Velvet wrote a letter saying that I found my special somepony?"

"Uh-huh," Horsey replied.

"And you rushed out here to celebrate and meet him and all that?"

"Yup."

Crystal walked to the kitchen. "I'll make some tea, then. It's a bit of a story."

---

Horsey kept her gaze firmly fixated on her untouched cup of tea, only a few lingering wisps of steam rising from it. She sighed and shook her head. "I'm so sorry for... well, for assuming what I did." She glanced up at her. "You've just been so gosh darned picky for so long that I assumed... I just..."

Crystal waved a hoof. "It's all right. I don't blame you."

Horsey clenched her jaw and jerked her head up, holding it in place rather than looking back down. "You should just tell him how you feel. I mean, you can't tell me to chase after my stallion while you just let yours walk away! So what if he likes this Iridescence mare? Why does she get to hurt him by leaving and you by coming back and everypony's just okay with it? Buck her and the trains she rode out and in on!"

Crystal and Velvet stared at her, both blinking a few times until Crystal cleared her throat. "W-well, I suppose it's more a matter of—"

"Crabapples. Whatever you're about to say is a load of crabapples." She pointed at her, eyes narrowed. "I'm not going to let you miss this opportunity after you helped me discover mine."

"Speaking of, how are things?" Velvet chimed in. She laughed nervously. "Last we saw they looked pretty good between you and Savoir!"

Horsey huffed, puffed, and grumbled, "I don't think now is the time to talk about that, given the current situation with Crystal."

Crystal quickly shook her head. "Oh, no, no, no. I'm more than fine with the change of topic."

"Temporary change," Horsey corrected before she smiled. "Well, if you really want to know—"

"We do!" They leaned in, wide-eyed and grinning.

"I do have some pretty exciting Hearts and Hooves Day news." She tapped her hooves together. "You know Savoir and his brother are originally from Prance, right?" When they nodded, she continued, "Their family still lives there, and..." She took a deep breath and said in one rapid fire stream, "His parents want to meet me so I'm going with him to Maris, Prance, for the holiday."

Both mares exclaimed "What!?" in different ways: Velvet with a squeal, and Crystal with exasperation. Horsey glanced between the two very opposite expressions facing her.

Velvet pushed against Crystal to knock the mare over and distract her. "Don't mind her, she's just so totally jealous!"

"Envious," Crystal muttered, straightening back up. "I'm envious."

"Tomato, so-same-o." She rolled her eyes and returned her gaze to Horsey. "You're going to Prance for Hearts and Hooves Day?!"

Horsey nodded. "I mean, it's mostly to spend time with his family, so it may be a disaster if they don't like me." She looked down at the floor and sighed. "I'm actually more nervous than excited, if I have to be honest."

"Don't be." Velvet reached out and bopped her on the head. "I think they'll just be happy Savoir found someone at his age."

Horsey raised her brow. "He's not that old, you know."

"Old or really old, my point still stands." Velvet grinned.

"Uh-huh..." Horsey blinked and dropped her gaze to the messy floor. "So, anyway, what's this all about?" She gestured vaguely around them.

"Oh. Crystal's trying to write a story about the changeling attack. It's going really, really well."

"I can see that." Horsey shifted to switch which leg was crossed over which. "Um, so, is that going to be your next story?"

Crystal shrugged. Her magic lit up and started to gather up the paper balls into a neater pile. "I don't think so. Not at this rate, anyway."

Horsey opened her mouth, then hesitated, slowly closing it. She bit her lower lip and finally said, "I think it's a good idea. You two hardly talked about it when Sav and I visited. I mean, the newspapers focused on what happened to the wedding, and I haven't heard much beyond what little you told me already..."

"See? I'm not the only pony interested!" Velvet pointed triumphantly at Horsey, looking at Crystal. "That's two out of two ponies that matter, so write already!"

Crystal sucked in a breath through her teeth, then slowly released it as a sigh. "Okay." She straightened up. "It's been two months, but I remember it clearly... too clearly, sometimes." Her vision became unfocused as memories overtook her, albeit briefly.

Beside her, Velvet picked up the quill and started to scribble some words down.

"Everything was perfectly normal," Crystal continued, "and then it just suddenly wasn't. It..."

Horsey listened intently while Velvet continued to write. By the time Crystal finished recounting what happened, she took notice that Velvet had written a significant amount, and leaned over to peer at one of the pages.

"Velvet?" Crystal asked.

"Yup?"

"Why did you write down everything I said?" Her brow furrowed.

Velvet beamed at her and placed the last period before setting down the quill. "I'm just helping out. Now you have your story." She slid the pages toward the other. "And all you have to do is put your flair on it."

Crystal scanned the inked words while Horsey said, wiping her eyes, "That's nothing like what you told me before! Why did you keep all that bottled up inside? That sounds so terrifying!"

"It was," Crystal muttered. "I don't think I can turn this into a story, though."

"Maybe... don't?" Velvet looked at Horsey. "I mean, that'd make a really great article, don't you think?" When Horsey nodded, she looked back at Crystal. "There you go! Just spruce that up and submit it as an interest piece. I'm sure Sunset could work something out."

Crystal slowly started to smile. The quill lifted up, wrapped in her magic, and made several marks on Velvet's notes. "It could work," she finally said and continued to write while Velvet and Horsey caught up on other recent events.

"Oh, there is one piece of news on our end," Velvet said, smiling. "I actually haven't even told Crystal yet 'cause I wanted to tell the both of you together."

Crystal looked up. "Huh?"

Velvet puffed out her chest. "Somepony finally made it into the corps!"

Crystal squealed and sprung to her hooves. "Oh my gosh! Velvet, that's wonderful!" She threw her forelegs around the other.

Horsey clapped, but tilted her head. "Um, what is the corps, exactly?"

"It's not a huge deal, but it's big enough." Velvet giggled, leaning around Crystal to look at the other. "I have a regular spot in the company, and I get to go on the next trip. It's only a weekend, but I'll be going to Las Pegasus!"

"We have to celebrate!" Crystal squealed again. "Huge deal or big deal, it's a deal enough for celebrating!"

Horsey giggled. "How about I treat the both of you to dinner?"

"Deal!" Velvet grinned and slipped out of Crystal's embrace to trot to the door, the other two following after her.

---

Crystal hummed to herself as she trotted down the street and toward the post office. "Hello!" she called when she walked inside. "Oh! Hi, Zerox!"

Zerox looked up from the counter. His mane was tied back to expose his whole face, which lit up with a smile. "Hey, Crystal. Been a while."

"Oh, you know how it is." She giggled. "I need a copy of this made and sent to Manehattan. The usual address, please." She set the stack on the counter and slid it toward him. "So, how is the band?"

"Really good. Actually, really, really good." His horn lit up and started to transpose the writing onto blank sheets. "We're one of the opening gigs for the Pony Rocks show." He looked up at her, his eyes flashing green as his spell completed. "I can get you tickets, if you want."

Crystal tapped her chin. "That's on Hearts and Hooves Day, isn't it?" He nodded and she shook her head. "I might not be able to make it... but! I do have a friend that might be really interested in going. How much for two tickets?"

"Do you really have to ask? After what you did for me, nothing. Just wait right here." He disappeared into the back room, then returned a moment later with a small envelope. "Here you go. Two tickets. They're not great seats, but—"

"That's more than I need." She accepted the envelope and tucked it into her saddlebag, along with the original article. "Thank you!"

Zerox smiled. "No problem. I'll get this in the mail for you. Thanks again, Crystal... I mean it."

"I'm just glad you're happy! Have a great day, Zerox!" She waved before trotting out of the building and back onto the street, this time heading in the direction of the castle.

On her way there, her ear twitched at an odd sound, but she paid it otherwise no mind; her focus was on the task at hoof. The sound was a crackling, rattling sound, like a cart with a broken wheel, which was exactly what it was. It was also a broken-wheeled cart that had fled its owner.

As the sound grew closer, she finally acknowledged it with a casual glance, which turned into a second, wide-eyed stare. A cry of surprise escaped her but her body otherwise didn't react, instead seizing up and keeping her right in the oncoming cart's path.

A flash of gold armor and white coat blocked her vision as a pegasus stallion jumped in front of her. He put his weight onto his front legs and prepared a mighty buck, which broke the cart in two. He dropped back down onto all fours and jerked his gaze toward Crystal, his eyes full of concern.

"Are you okay?" he asked in a surprisingly tentative voice for all of his bravado.

"Muh?" Crystal replied dumbly, blinking. "Muh—muh—ahh!" Her body finally rushed with adrenaline and she hopped from hoof to hoof. "What just happened?!"

The guard put a hoof on her shoulder. "It's okay, ma'am, just take a deep breath." She did so and he continued, "A cart got away from its owner. That's all. You're fine."

She swallowed. "Right. Obviously. I'm alive, so I must be. Thank you so much, you..." Her gaze fell and she gasped, pointing at his hind leg. "... you're injured!"

"Huh? I—" He blinked when he looked at the leg in question. "Oh, I guess you're right, but it's just a scratch." A small laugh escaped him and his wings twitched just slightly, drawing her attention to the metal braces that kept them sturdy. "I've had worse."

Crystal gaped, having no response as she looked between the scratch and the braces. Finally, she shook her head. "Nonetheless, you need to have that treated, else it might get infected."

"How about I escort you where you're going to make sure you don't get accosted by any more carts, and then I'll get it patched up?" He smiled.

Crystal scrunched up her face to complain, but before she could he mirrored the expression. They stared at one another until his determination won out over hers when she sputtered into laughter and started to walk forward.

"Why don't you go get patched up and I'll escort myself? After all, how many runaway carts in Canterlot can there be in one day?"

The guard trotted after her. "One can never be too careful. So where are we headed?"

She glanced up at him, then at the road ahead. "To the castle."

"Oh." He fell into step beside her and they walked in silence before he said, "I'm Astral Bolt, by the way."

Her ears shot straight up in surprise. "How rude of me! Crystal Wishes. Thank you, again, for saving me, but I really don't need an escort. I don't want you to get in trouble for leaving your post."

Astral shrugged. "I don't think they'll mind."

Crystal mused on this for a moment before she smiled. "They absolutely won't when I fill out a comment card explaining the situation!"

"Huh? You don't have to do that..." He rubbed the back of his neck. "But I won't say no, since it helps me out. I'm actually going to be trying out for the House Guard, since I heard there were some openings."

"Then that settles it." She glanced at his hind leg. The small cut had already stopped bleeding, and had barely bled at all to begin with. This gave her some peace and the tension in her muscles eased. "I hope you get in, by the way. The House Guard is a good bunch."

Astral tilted his head to look at her sideways. "Yeah?"

Crystal smiled up at him. "Oh, yes. I'm on my way there to talk to one of Princess Luna's House Guards, in fact." She almost purred as she added, "Two, if I'm lucky." Astral blinked at her in what seemed like disbelief and she laughed, lifting her pass out of her saddlebags and putting it over her head. "See?"

"Wow." He smiled halfway. "That's kind of cool. Well, if you do fill out a comment card, thanks." He stopped when they reached the gates that led into the castle's courtyard. "Have a cart-free day, Crystal Wishes."

"You, too! Don't forget to hold up your end of the bargain and get that wound treated!"

He chuckled, nodded, and waved her off. She hummed to herself as she trotted up to the doors and was let inside, where she made her way directly to Luna's wing.

"Hello!" she chirped to the first House Guard she came across. "Where is Miley today, Flash?"

Lightning Flash moved his head just enough to acknowledge her. "Outside the Princess's personal chambers, ma'am."

"Thanks!" She navigated the corridors until she spied the little mare standing straight and tall. "Hi, Miley!"

Miley's face lit up but she quickly regained her composure, overdoing it with an expression almost like a scowl. "Good afternoon, ma'am."

Crystal giggled and levitated the envelope from her bags. "I heard that a certain somepony is trying to get closer to a certain alchemist."

Miley looked between her and the envelope with wide eyes. "Um..."

Crystal produced the tickets and fanned herself with them. "If only that certain somepony would speak up, then I'd know who to give these tickets to."

Miley swallowed. "Tickets to what?"

"Oh, the Pony Rocks show on Hearts and Hooves Day. Some ponies might not consider that a very romantic getaway, but given that our alchemist is eccentric, and—"

"I'll take them!" Miley said, hopping as if trying to snatch the tickets right out of the air. "Please, please, please!"

Crystal laughed and floated the tickets back into the envelope, then offered it to her. "Have fun, all right?" She winked. "So, anyway, is Sergeant Knight working today?" She glanced at the door between her and Luna's chambers.

"Yup! He's at the desk, like usual." She turned. "I'll let you in!"

"Thanks, Miley." Her heart skipped a few beats when the door opened and cool air rushed out into the hall like a gentle breeze.

There, in her line of sight, he sat. His ear twitched at the door opening first before he looked up and smiled.

"Sergeant," Miley said, straightening to attention. "Miss Wishes is here to see you."

"Me?" His smile fell into a light, confused frown and he stood. "What can I do for you, Crystal Wishes?"

Oh, the many, many answers that flashed through her mind at the question. She giggled and looked up at him. Her mouth opened to speak, but no words came out. Instead, all of her mental gears ground to a halt at the sudden realization that the lighting in Luna's chambers was perfect. At that angle, her eyes had to be glimmering in the light.

Silent Knight waited expectantly, but patiently. If he noticed the sparkle in her eyes, he didn't make it clear.

Her mouth snapped shut and she tilted her head to one side in an attempt to cancel the glimmering effect, but she still felt the light against her eyes. He followed her motion after a moment, tilting his head as well. Her brow furrowed briefly and she tilted her head the other way, he tilting his as well. Still no good; the glimmer was persistent.

"... Miss Wishes?" He blinked.

Crystal gave a quick shake of her head and smiled. "Food." The smile darkened into a frown as she cursed herself under her breath and clarified, "Have you had lunch yet?" He shook his head and she pressed, "Would you like to get some? With... me?"

This gave him a moment of pause, but he smiled and nodded. "Yes, but a lady buying me lunch doesn't seem quite right."

"Oh, who said we weren't going to split the check?" She giggled and turned to walk out into the hall, a small skip in her step and a sway in her hips. "But I suppose if you insist..."

"I do." He followed alongside her. "But I don't know any places to eat that are suitable."

"Leave that to me, sergeant." She smiled.

---

"Wow." Silent Knight stared down at his empty plate with a look of regret and longing. "Just... wow."

Crystal giggled and fluttered her eyelashes. "So my recommendation met to your satisfaction, sergeant?"

He nodded. "Absolutely. You really do know your way around Canterlot. I've lived here a long time, but I've never taken the time to get to know it. Maybe I should rectify that if they've got this kind of food so close to the castle."

"I admittedly have an advantage, given my parents' drilling." She smiled, though it was less heartfelt than the others she had flashed over the course of their lunch.

He blinked, lifting his head from his plate to look at her. "Drilling? I didn't know your parents were military."

"What? Oh, no, no." She laughed behind a hoof. "They're not military, but they're very serious about the best places to go and the important ponies to know. In a way, it's similar, but instead of combat training it's social graces."

"I think I understand." He straightened up. "Did you enjoy game night on Hearth's Warming?" She nodded and he continued, "We're having another get-together tomorrow evening, if you and Velvet Step would like to come."

Crystal's ear flicked and she smiled. "I'll ask Velvet, but at the least, I'll most certainly be there."

"Great." He picked up his helmet, set it on his head, and stood up. "Thank you for lunch, Crystal Wishes. I'll see you tomorrow night in Princess Luna's chambers." He nodded and left to go pay at the counter.

Crystal watched him leave with a small smile, resting her chin on one hoof. Once he was out of sight, she turned her gaze to the window to watch the day go by. It was a lazy afternoon, but a small kerfuffle nearby caught her eye. A mare and a stallion were walking hoof-in-hoof down the sidewalk, gazing lovingly at one another, when a third pony zipped past them on a skateboard. As he passed them he kicked a leg into a puddle to splash them with the water.

"Teenagers," a voice said from beside her. "They have no respect these days, the rapscallions."

Crystal looked up to see a sage pegasus standing there, holding a tray with a teacup on it. She frowned. "Hi, Rossby."

Rossby raised one brow to acknowledge her greeting, then looked back out the window. "They grow out of it, you know."

"Who grows out of what?" She followed his gaze to watch the skateboard-bound pony laughing as he sped away from the upset pair.

"Teenagers and their lack of respect. It's just a stupid phase." He set the cup down in front of her. "But they'll grow up, so you can't hold it against them... forever, I guess? Anyway, here's your tea."

Crystal looked between the cup and the pegasus. Slowly, she smiled. "I didn't order any tea."

Rossby shrugged. "You were probably going to. You're not known here for spontaneity."

"I suppose..." She leaned back into her seat and folded her forelegs across her chest. "I have a question for you, Rossby."

"And I have an answer for you, customer."

She stared at him through narrowed eyes. "Why are you working at everywhere I go?"

"Why are you going at everywhere I work?" he retorted in a sarcastic mirror of her question. When she stumbled to reply, he shrugged and said before he turned to leave, "Have a nice day."

Crystal sighed and, after a brief moment of thought, she called after him, "I forgive you!"

His ear twitched, but he kept walking away. She laughed quietly to herself and took a sip of the tea, returning her gaze to the world outside the cafe.

---

Velvet grabbed Crystal's hoof and tugged on it to stop her from taking another step. Crystal looked at her, head tilted.

"What's wrong?"

Velvet shook her head. "I don't think I can do this."

"Why not? You came with me to game night last time."

"Yeah, and last time I made a total fool of myself in front of Princess Luna." Velvet swallowed. "What if I do that again? Or something worse?"

Crystal laughed and returned the tug to force Velvet forward. "Oh, come on. I already told them to expect you, so it would be rude if you duck out now."

Velvet shook her head again, this time with more panic. "Tell them I got sick! Or twisted an ankle! Dancers twist their ankles all the time. It's completely believable."

Crystal tugged again, this time with more force. "It will be fine, I promise!"

Velvet struggled once more but, with a heavy sigh, relented. She allowed herself to be led the rest of the way down the hall and to Luna's chambers. Crystal opened the door and when they walked inside, they were greeted by several cheerful voices. The rest of the group had already arrived and were in the middle of pre-game setup.

"Huzzah! Crystal Wishes and Velvet Step have arrived!" Luna called from the opposite side of the table. She sat while the others organized the various cards and game components for the evening's selections. "Now game night can officially commence!" She gestured to the empty seat beside her. "Velvet Step, we would like for thou to sit beside us once again. Thou wert our good luck charm on the eve of Hearth's Warming!"

Velvet squeaked and looked to Crystal, who simply smiled and nudged her forward. Velvet put on her best smile as she walked around the table to take the seat next to Luna.

"Worry not, Velvet Step," Luna said, smiling down at her. "We have picked games that will be more to thy liking. We understand that thou didst not like the Dungeons and Diamond Dogs game."

Crystal took the remaining seat, which was across from the very uncomfortable-looking Velvet.

"Tonight, we play Timberwolf!" Luna exclaimed and the cards were dealt.

"For the first round," Silent Knight explained, "there are only timberwolves and townsponies. To keep it simple. Look at your card to see what you are. We will then 'go to sleep' by closing our eyes. Any timberwolves will open theirs to see who else is a timberwolf, then close them again and we all wake up. We will have five minutes"—he gestured at a small hourglass resting in the middle of the table—"to determine who is a townspony and who is a timberwolf."

Velvet nodded, but her wide eyes showed she didn't understand. She followed suit with the others by looking at her card, then at Crystal in panic. Crystal smiled reassuringly at her, then looked at her own card. Townspony.

"And now we sleep," Luna said, her voice suddenly calm and soothing. Once all of them had closed their eyes, she said, "Timberwolves, awaken."

A moment passed before Luna said, "Timberwolves, to sleep... Everypony, awaken."

Two rounds later, Velvet still looked befuddled. Her brow never leaved the furrowed position and every time she had to speak, she just shook her head and said she was a townspony.

Finally, Velvet admitted, "I still don't think I understand the point of this game."

"If you're a townspony, you want to figure out who the timberwolves are," Crystal explained. "And if you're a timberwolf, you want to make a townspony look suspicious so they get picked instead of you."

"Exactly!" Winterspear chimed in. "As a townspony, I'm on the lookout for any suspicious behavior."

"But what's suspicious behavior?" Velvet asked, her confusion not visibly eased in the slightest. "We have all these other roles added now that I can't keep track!"

"An example of suspicious behavior would be being quiet. Like her!" Runic pointed at Iridescence. "She's been quiet this whole round. Too quiet, I say!"

Iridescence raised her hooves defensively. "What? No! I'm just quiet because I'm a boring townspony. If you want to talk about suspicious, look at Silent Knight. He's not doing any interrogating this round."

Silent Knight kept his usual stoic expression in place. "That's true, but I'm not a timberwolf. I'm a hunter, so if you kill me, I'll point at one of you, and if I'm wrong you townsponies are even more likely to lose." He looked across the table at Velvet. "I'd point at Velvet. She's feigning innocence and confusion to throw us off her trail."

Velvet gasped and looked at them all with big, pleading eyes. "What? No!"

Luna nodded. "We agree! The innocence is a deception!"

"It isn't me, I swear!" Velvet turned to Crystal for support, but at that point, the suspicion had already been cast. Crystal offered her a smile and a shrug.

The last bit of sand in the hourglass fell and Luna clapped. "It is time to vote, my ponies!"

Velvet panicked and pointed at Iridescence. Crystal pointed at Silent Knight, who pointed at Velvet along with everypony else. Velvet gave a small cry of surprise and shock before she frowned and revealed her card. She was a townspony.

Beside her, Luna cackled. "Mwuahaha!" She revealed her lupine role, as did Silent Knight. "Timberwolves win! The night is ours!" Lightning illuminated the sky outside the window and thunder bellowed after it.

Velvet disappeared under the table when their surroundings trembled. Miley, who was standing guard by the door, squealed and fell over. While most of the others laughed, Crystal slipped under the table.

"Hey." She smiled at the quivering mare. "Sorry, Luna does that sometimes."

Velvet stared at her with wide eyes. "I can't go back up there now," she whispered and jerked her head from side to side. "This is even more embarrassing than kissing Princess Luna's hoof."

"Aww, no, it isn't. Miley got scared, too."

"I don't think that's much of a comfort..." Velvet muttered, frowning.

Crystal held out her forelegs and gestured the other closer. After a moment of hesitation, Velvet crawled from her spot underneath the table over to Crystal and leaned into the offered embrace.

"There, there," Crystal cooed in a playful but soothing voice. "Is this more of a comfort?"

Velvet sighed. "Not really. Now I feel like a scaredy cat and a foal."

Crystal giggled and patted her back. "Oh, don't worry. I promise, no pony is going to say anything about it."

"Who is ready to play Canterlot Express?" Silent Knight asked as he returned to the table after helping Miley get back onto her hooves.

Every pony at the table groaned and Winterspear exclaimed, "Absolutely not! Playing a detective game with you is worse than spin the bottle with a gryphon."

Silent Knight huffed with mock offense. "I see! Fine, then. What do you suggest?"

Velvet called from her spot nestled against Crystal, "Something that's not scary, or where I can be on somepony's team! I really don't like being on my own all the time."

"What about Shadows Over Canterlot?" Runic suggested and after a general consensus, everypony returned to their seats to play.

The hours went by and Crystal was the first to break: she yawned. This prompted two of the others to yawn, and when Runic suddenly fell forward and snored, Luna raised a hoof.

"'Twould be best to bring the night to a close, we believe," Luna suggested.

"Iridescence and Winterspear, please escort Crystal Wishes and Velvet Step home," Silent said as he hoisted Runic onto his back.

Winterspear regarded him with a brow raised. "Who rolled over and made you boss?"

Silent looked at her with a blank expression. "Lieutenant Haze did, technically."

"Okay, that's true... But I don't report to you, so you'll have to owe me a favor."

Crystal cleared her throat and waved a hoof. "Don't worry about us. We can get home on our own just fine."

Silent shook his head. "I'm sure that's true, but please, humor me a little so I can have some peace of mind?"

"Oh..." Crystal hedged. She turned her head to look at Velvet. "Well, I suppose if it would give you peace of mind, then we can do that."

"Anything for Sergeant SK!" Velvet chirped.

Winterspear glanced between them, then grinned. Her ears wiggled, but her voice was even as she said, "Come along, then, ladies." She motioned to the door. "Let's get everypony home before we all turn into pumpkins."

---

With Iridescence following them, the conversation between Crystal and Velvet was kept deliberately simple.

"Did you have fun?" Crystal asked.

"Well, I don't regret going, if that's what you're asking." Velvet shrugged. "But maybe next time we don't stay out so late. I have practice in the morning."

Crystal smiled. "Gearing up for the trip?"

"Yup!" Velvet added a skip to her step. "I've never been to Las Pegasus. I hope I'll have enough time to actually see something while I'm there, but I might be too busy..."

"As long as you find time to bring me back a souvenir, I'm happy."

They laughed and returned to companionable silence, which allowed Crystal to hear the conversation behind them.

"So, how are you liking Canterlot so far?" Iridescence asked.

Winterspear paused before she replied, "It's pretty different from Cloudsdale, but I think I'm okay with that. Canterlot ponies are pretty... open."

"Oh?" Iridescence's voice raised to a playful tone. "And what does that mean?"

Winterspear laughed softly. "Well, pegasi are either weather ponies or warriors. There are exceptions, but for the most part, that's about it. Weather ponies are usually out dealing with, well, weather, and the warriors that aren't off on guard duty somewhere are busy roaming the city spouting off their parents' ideas. Which are their parents' parents' ideas, and so forth. It's a pretty rigid, old culture, really."

"I didn't know that... I think the idea of an old culture is neat." Iridescence sighed. "Canterlot's culture is so fickle. Something is cool one week and taboo the next. Living here is nothing like Manehattan at all."

Finally, they arrived at the condominium building and Crystal turned her head to the other two mares. "Thank you for escorting us home. Have a good night."

Iridescence smiled. "It's not a problem! I'll see you later!" She waved.

Just as the door was closing behind them, Crystal's ear twitched at Iridescence asking a very particular question to Winterspear: "So... do you want to get a cup of coffee?"

Once they were certainly out of any possible earshot, Crystal looked at Velvet with wide eyes. "Velvet, you don't think—"

"Oh, definitely." She nodded. "That was definitely a pick-up line." She grinned up at the other. "See? You should have let me come to the train station after all!"

Crystal's expression was muddled, somewhere between excited and confused. "I don't know if this is good news or not, honestly."

"Well, I think it's good! Anyway, let's talk about this tomorrow, okay?" She fiddled with the lock and opened the door to their condo. "I'm exhausted."

Crystal stood just inside the doorway, her lips still pursed, until she asked, "Do you want to sit with me a while?"

"Um... Sorry, but what part of exhausted implies I want to stay awake?" Velvet frowned, watching her friend walk inside and across the living room.

Crystal laughed and lifted her quill, levitating a parchment over while she nestled onto a pillow. "Nothing, but I just thought I'd offer, since I think I finally know what I'm going to write."

Velvet's ears perked up and she pranced over. Though her eyes were still tired, her voice was full of cheer as she said, "Offer accepted! What is it going to be about?"

Crystal smiled softly. The quill danced across the paper, putting her thoughts into words with flourishing sweeps and curves. "A tale about a mare and a stallion both trapped in an unrequited love, she for him and he for another..."

"Sounds pretty depressing," Velvet mused.

"I suppose it depends on whether or not she can capture him with Her Silent Love."

Protests of the Lady

View Online

"Double, double toil and trouble," Crystal chanted in a playfully low voice. "Fire burn, and kettle bubble."

She stood with her forelegs folded on the kitchen countertop, her head resting on them to gaze at the side of the silent tea kettle. Her tail swished lazily back and forth to the rhythm of her chant.

"Sprig of nettle. Balm of lemon. A rose's red hips. Leaf and root of the yellow'd dandelion. Root of ginger digg'd i' the dar—"

The kettle started to whistle and she gasped, her lips curling into a wide smile. She poured the already infused tea through a strainer and into a cup.

It was her third cup of tea and, consequently, her third experiment. Velvet's particularly sensitive nose didn't care for some of her more aromatic brews, and it had been a while since she had the freedom to throw some herbs together just to see what came out.

Once she finished pouring, she took her time to savor the scent alone. It was rich and full of all sorts of earthy tones: spearmint, rose hips, ginger, dandelion… She licked her lips and once her sense of smell was satisfied, she moved on to the main course of taste by taking a sip.

"Mm." She melted against the counter and sighed contentedly. "This is the life. Nothing can be better than this."

Whump. The little red ball hit the wall, rebounded toward the floor, and bounced back to Crystal.

"Bored." She threw it again. "Bored," she repeated when the ball returned and she threw it once more. Whump. "Bored, bored, bored."

She turned her head to look at the door that hadn't opened all day while the ball rolled past her and came to a stop. Her gaze drifted over to the nearest window and she sighed. The sun was still high in the sky. She had been alone for a whole three hours and she was ready for Velvet to come home.

Crystal rolled over onto her stomach, then stood up. Her joints popped from the motion that was strenuous by comparison to the morning's lack of activity. Her hooves scuffed the floor as she walked into the kitchen and checked the fridge.

"Oh, right." She frowned. "Velvet didn't go shopping." She rolled her eyes and shut the fridge door, turning back to the living room. "I'm too busy! I have to perform for a big crowd in Las Pegasus! Busy, busy, busy!" With a grunt, she flopped back onto the floor. "Well, I'm too lazy."

A paper and quill floated over to her and with her nose held defiantly high, she distracted herself with writing.

Her olive-green eyes flashed in the dim sum of light as she strode across the cream-colored sand, the waves lapping at her hooves like a cat lapping frothy milk. Selene's moon hung above her, a perfectly round white peach in a night sky of deep blackberry hues.

A low groan rumbling from the depths of her stomach alerted her that it was not going to comply with her stubbornness and she forced herself back onto her hooves. "Fine! I get it, I'm hungry!" Her stomach rumbled again. "I'm going already, jeeze."

She knew just where to go. There was one place she could count on to feed her until she was so full that she wouldn't have to go shopping all weekend. She trotted down the street, her legs weak with hunger but urged forward by the promise of food if they carried her just a little further.

The bell above the door chimed to announce her arrival. Pepper Ridge looked up and smiled. "Hi, Crystal! What brings you here?"

Crystal put a hoof to her chest, batting her eyelashes. "Would you believe me if I said your wonderful company?"

Pepper Ridge laughed. "Food it is, then. Come on back. Sunbeam will take care of you."

"You're the best, Papa Pepper!" She smiled as she walked past him and into the back room that doubled as a kitchen and storage.

Sunbeam was resting against a giant pillow, one foreleg draped over her stomach, the other dabbing a wet cloth to her forehead. "Oh, hello, sweetie." She smiled weakly. "I'm sorry, let me get you so—"

"No, no, no! I can do it!" Crystal raised a hoof. "You shouldn't be working at all. He's due in four months, isn't he?" She trotted over to the large fridge and retrieved a pitcher of lemonade. "You look like you could use some of this, too."

Sunbeam scrunched up her nose. "No, thank you. I can't stand sweets." When Crystal looked at her with wide eyes and a loud gasp, she laughed and corrected, "Right now, that is. This little guy's messed up my sense of taste all to Tartarus and back." She covered her mouth. "Excuse my language!"

Crystal giggled and poured herself a glass, then started to rummage around to make herself a tomato and cucumber sandwich. "It's okay. Pregnancy is that much trouble, huh?"

"Oh, I don't want you to think it's not wonderful!" Sunbeam sighed, shaking her head. "It is. I can't wait to meet this little guy. There are just some, well, side effects that I could do without." A grimace overshadowed her expression. "Like the nausea." She paused, glancing at Crystal, who was mid-bite. "Sorry, sweetie." The smile returned in full force. "So, Velvet left you alone with no groceries, huh?"

Crystal nearly choked. "How do you know that?"

Sunbeam's laughter chimed and she rolled off the pillow to land on all four hooves. "Because she said that if she didn't get the groceries before she left, we'd know it because you'd come here looking for food instead of going shopping."

"Her lack of faith in me is disturbing," Crystal muttered between bites of her sandwich. "I thought about going shopping, but I figured this would be more fun."

"Of course, of course." Sunbeam ambled over to the large table set against one wall where a row of bare cupcakes sat. She grunted, shifting her weight to raise one hoof and reaching for a frosting piping bag. Pink magic erupted around it, startling her back a step before she looked at Crystal. "Thank you, sugarlump."

Crystal smiled and walked over to peer at the cupcakes while the bag levitated just above one. "I don't know much about decorating, but I'm pretty sure you won't be able to do much when you can hardly get a hoof off the ground."

"Just keep it simple and it'll turn out just fine." She winked. "I'm going to go sit back down, if you don't mind."

"I don't mind, but I do mind that Pepper let you come in like this." Crystal stared hard at the cupcake as she slowly worked her magic around the piping bag to squeeze out a dollop of pink frosting.

Sunbeam grunted as she lowered into the pillow, then laughed. "Oh, he didn't want me to. I insisted and told him that if he left me alone in the condo, I'd start redecorating the nursery. He just finished doing it himself, so he's rather attached to his work."

Crystal glanced over at her. "I don't get it. Why do you want to be here instead of resting at home?"

"Why are you here instead of shopping?" She giggled. "Because it's better than being alone, of course!" She gazed at Crystal fondly, her eyes soft and smile gentle. "How is your special Silentpony?"

Crystal's ears perked straight up and her magic squeezed a little too hard. "How do you know abou—oh, Velvet, that scamp!" She shook her head. "I don't know. I can't even really explain it. It's not like he's given me any kind of signal whatso—oops, a little too much! Anyway. He's not flirted with me or anything. I have no real reason to like him. I just—"

"—do?" Sunbeam smiled. She patted the empty space beside her on the oversized pillow. "Sweetie, why don't you come here? Nopony's waiting on those cupcakes, anyway. It's a slow day."

Crystal sighed. She set the bag down and walked over, nestling in, squeaking when Sunbeam put a foreleg around her and tugged her closer.

"You know how Pepper and I got together. Well, what if I told you that there's just a teensy bit more to the story?"

Crystal looked up at her with wide eyes. "There is?" She swallowed.

"Oh, don't look at me like that!" Sunbeam bubbled into giggles. "Goodness, I'd swear you were love-traumatized or something if I didn't know you were obsessed with the darn thing, silly filly."

Sunbeam stroked Crystal's mane and sighed wistfully, looking up at the ceiling. "Pepper was the only stallion I felt so comfortable around. When he joined the home economics club and introduced himself, I didn't feel this great, strong, life-altering attraction to him. Poppyseeds, I didn't even feel that when he kissed me!"

Sunbeam laughed and tapped Crystal on the nose. "I know it doesn't sound believable to a pony like you that writes about romance, but I think filly flicks have it all wrong. Love isn't fireworks, because those fizzle out after their brilliance, don't you think?"

Her tone grew softer to continue, "It's constant and gentle, like a river. Dependable and strong." She blinked a few times and laughed once more. "I'm sorry, sweetie; I don't mean to suggest that what you write is wrong but—"

"It is. Everything I've written is wrong!" Crystal exclaimed, smiling in spite of her words. "Mama Sunbeam, you have no idea how much I needed to hear that right now!"

Sunbeam's brow twitched in an effort to not furrow. "You're welcome?"

Crystal threw a hoof around Sunbeam and snuggled against her. "I've been so confused because that's exactly how I feel and I've never heard anypony describe it like that! It's always magical and passionate, so I thought maybe I was mistaken, but how could I explain everything else I felt about him?" She sighed, shaking her head, still smiling. "Thank you, Mrs. Sunbeam. Really."

"I think I like 'Mama Sunbeam' much better." Sunbeam patted her on the head. "Now, why don't we pack you a basket of food to tide you over until Velvet gets home?"

Crystal sat up and slid off the pillow, then trotted over to the fridge. "Okay! I'll pack while you tell me more about you and Papa Pepper." She scanned the fridge's contents. "Ooh, radishes!"

After loading up with a basket full of food, Crystal spent a little more time talking with Sunbeam before she returned home. Though the talk inspired her to make some progress on the draft, it didn't take long for her to spiral back into the lazy comforts of reading magazines the rest of the day. The lack of Velvet's presence made it much easier to lounge around the condo, for better or for worse. Likely worse.

The door creaked open as Velvet walked inside, one hoof already covering her mouth in mid-yawn. "I'm home," she mumbled, her voice slurred from exhaustion.

"Yay!" Crystal leaned back to smile at her upside-down. "You're just in time!"

Velvet glanced at the window. The sun was in the process of setting, illuminating the sky with brilliant orange and red hues. "For what, dinner? Please tell me it's dinner. I didn't get to eat on the train and I am starving."

"Huh? Oh, sure, dinner, yes. Anyway, I need your help." Crystal straightened up and gestured at the coffee table, where two bottles rested. "Which do you like better: blue, pink, or both?"

Velvet dropped down beside her and squinted at the bottles. "Mane 'N Tail Dye? What do you need this for?"

"To dye my mane and tail, of course." Crystal beamed. "Help me pick what would look best! I think the blue might make me look too much like him, but the pink might not be different enough."

Velvet rubbed her temple. "Whoa, girl, slow down. Why are you dying your mane?"

"Because—" She hesitated, the excitement in her expression and voice deflating. "Well, why not?"

"If you don't want to talk about it, fine." Velvet stood up, grumbling as she walked to the kitchen. "But don't drag me into something half-heartedly, especially when I'm hungry, and—oh great, you didn't go shopping. Why would you?"

"We can go shopping after you pick my new mane color!" Crystal fluttered her eyelashes. "Pretty, pretty please?"

Velvet glowered at her. She puffed out her cheeks, growled, then turned and skulked toward the door. "I'll just get some fast food, then."

"Okay, okay, okay!" Crystal jumped to her hooves. "I want to be more punky!"

Velvet stopped. "Uh-huh? And?"

Crystal bit her lower lip and looked down at the floor. "Like Iridescence."

One of Velvet's eyebrows quirked. She slowly closed the door and walked back over, her expression calming from irritated to confused. "Why the hay do you—oh." Her hoof flew to her forehead and the irritation returned in full force. "Crystal! I leave you alone for two and a half days and this is what I come back to?

"What's going to happen when I leave next month for two weeks? You revert back to pre-Equestrian civilization?" She paused, her hoof lowering, her gaze raising. "Oh, by the way, surprise, I have another trip!"

Crystal blinked once, then two more times. "Two weeks? Next month? So soon?"

"Well, yeah. I'm part of the corps now. I told you I'd have to travel someday for work. Well—" She grinned lopsidedly. "It's someday!"

"Oh." Crystal dropped her rump to the floor. "I didn't realize someday was so soon."

Velvet sat in front of her and put a hoof on her shoulder, saying in a serious tone but with a soft smile, "It isn't soon at all. Crystal, we talked about this, like, almost two years ago."

Crystal sighed, keeping her gaze fixated on the patterns in the wood grain. "I know, but I've just gotten used to having you around. I don't think I'm ready to be alone."

"Then I guess we'll just have to make some progress on your Silent situation." Velvet looked over at the bottles of dye. "So, let's start with you explaining why you want to look like Iridescence."

Crystal followed her gaze and levitated the blue bottle, bringing it closer to them. "Silent Knight doesn't notice me as I am, so maybe if I look more like the kind of mare he likes, I can get him to look my way."

"So your grand, genius plan is to get him to like you because you look like his ex-marefriend?" Velvet asked, her tone deadpan.

Crystal fell silent for a moment. Slowly, she lowered the bottle back to the table. "When you put it like that, it sounds rather awful."

"Uh-huh. Logic tends to do that. But," she started, a grin overtaking her as she stood up and grabbed both bottles, "that doesn't mean I can't have a little fun!" She cackled and bounded toward the bathroom, shutting the door behind her.

Crystal slumped against the coffee table and waited. She didn't have to wait long, however, as a few moments later a shriek pierced the air. She jumped to her hooves, running to the bathroom door, which opened and a multi-colored Velvet ran out. They nearly collided, instead skidding past each other and turning to stare with mirrored wide-eyed expressions.

"Velvet, you're—"

"What the hay?! Is this some kind of prank?!" Velvet glared at her.

Crystal's feelings were bouncing between amused and concerned. A grin tried to take hold of her expression but she quickly tried to smother it. "No, I swear, it's not!" She cleared her throat and turned to the front door. "We have to get you to Runic. I'm sure he has a perfectly reasonable explanation and cure for this."

Velvet whined, shrinking back a few steps. "I don't want to go out looking like a rainbow farted on me!"

A bark of laughter escaped Crystal. She levitated a pair of sunglasses and a hat over to Velvet and headed out the door. "Come on, we should hurry in case there are side effects."

"Side effects?!" Velvet squeaked. She hurried after Crystal, tugging the hat over her face. "Oh my gosh, Crystal, if this is permanent, I am going to murder you."

They made it to the Phial and Filly in record time, Velvet running ahead with a panicked speed. She tugged on the door to no avail, banged on it with one hoof, then looked at Crystal. "It's locked! He's gone!"

Crystal gestured and trotted around the side. "He's probably in the back conducting"—a flash of light and a series of crackling pops came from an ajar door on the side of the building—"an experiment."

Runic stumbled out the door, coughing and gasping for fresh air. He turned his head to see Velvet rapidly approaching him. "Hello?"

Velvet grabbed him by the front of his vest. "Fix this!"

Runic smiled. "Fix what?"

One of Velvet's hooves let go of him to raise up and flick the hat off her head, then removed her sunglasses. She stared at him with narrowed eyes. "Me!"

"Oh, hi, Velvet!" His smile widened. "I didn't recognize you!"

"I know!" she shouted. Her right lower eyelid twitched.

Runic leaned some to look around her at Crystal. "Is she okay?"

Crystal shook her head, hiding her grin behind a hoof. "No. She used the mane and tail dye I bought from you."

Runic's gaze returned to Velvet. "But I only sold you pink and blue dye." He paused, then gasped. "Oh, did you use them together? You shouldn't do that."

Velvet seethed while Crystal asked, "Why didn't you tell me that when you bought them?"

"You said you were going to use blue or pink. You didn't say blue and pink, so I didn't recommend the kind that can be mixed because I assumed you knew."

Velvet shook him by his vest. "I don't care about that. I just want to be pink again!"

"Well, there's the easy way, and the hard way." Runic smiled. "Which way would you prefer?"

"I don't know." Velvet glanced at Crystal, who shrugged, then back at Runic. She replied with questioning hesitancy, "The easy way?"

Runic put his hooves on hers, lifted them away from him, and trotted inside. "Come on in! I'll just find my razor and we'll take care of your problem!"

"A razor? You're going to shave me? No, no, no, no!" Velvet grabbed his tail and tugged on it. "The hard way, then! No shaving!"

Crystal walked in and sat on a stool to watch with mild amusement. "Short coats are in for this summer, you know." She laughed when Velvet glared at her.

Runic sighed and changed his direction over to a table. "Fine, but the hard way involves this potion." He picked it up, paused to take a quick whiff, nodded, and held it out. "Drink this."

Velvet whined, "But using a potion is what got me in this mess in the first place!"

"No, you used mane dye, not a potion." He smiled. "Trust me! I had to develop this after Silent Knight kept turning himself pink."

Crystal sputtered, "P—Pink? Silent Knight? Why in Equestria—"

Velvet waved her forelegs. "Let's focus on the real issue here! How is this potion the hard way if you already had it made?"

"Huh? Oh, no, that's not the hard part. You have to drink it and, from what Silent Knight said, it tastes awful."

Velvet looked at the phial in her hooves. Her lower lip trembled the more she stared at it. Finally, her expression hardened along with her resolve as she tilted her head back and downed the greyish-blue liquid in one gulp. She tore the potion away from her lips once she had drained it.

"Ugh!" Velvet wiped her mouth on the back of her foreleg, grimacing. "That is—" She belched. Not just a little bit, either.

Her eyes widened in surprise at the sound that had escaped her and before she could apologize, a puff of steam rose from her whole body. The rainbow colors dissipated, leaving behind her natural pink and mauve self.

"—amazing!" Velvet stared down at herself in awe.

Crystal clapped. "It worked!"

Runic beamed at them. "Of course! Now, Velvet, if you really wanted to be blue and pink, I can get you some—"

"No!" Velvet shrieked and ran out the door.

Runic tilted his head, blinking a few times, then shrugged. "Oh well." He looked over at Crystal with a smile. "Anything else I can do for you?"

"Nope. That'll do it for today. Have a good evening, Runic!" She slid off the stool and trotted outside to chase down Velvet before she could flee the city in terror.

Silent Conspiracy

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Velvet followed closely behind Crystal, glancing around nervously. They walked down the halls of the palace, and once the armor of the guards they passed changed from the standard issue to the notable purple hues of Princess Luna's House Guard, Velvet whispered, "Are you sure this is a good idea?"

"Of course I'm sure." Crystal nodded. "Luna asked specifically if she could see you before you left. It will just be you, me, her, and maybe a guard, so you don't have to worry so much."

Velvet swallowed audibly. "I guess if I embarrass myself a third time, at least none of your friends will be around to see it." Her ears twitched and she frowned. "Well, except for your friend, the freaking Princess of the Night. No big deal!"

Crystal laughed, flashing a smile at the guard posted outside Luna's chambers, and led Velvet through the opened door. "Hi Luna!"

Princess Luna looked up from her desk. She smiled and stood up. "Greetings, Crystal." Her ears perked when she noticed Velvet. "And a most welcome greeting to thee, Velvet Step!"

Velvet stiffened. Her gait became wooden as she walked the rest of the way to the seating area. "He—Hello, Princess Luna."

Luna frowned, albeit playfully. "Please, Velvet Step, thou mayest call me Luna."

"I'm not sure I can do that Princess, um, Luna." Velvet twiddled her hooves and stared at the floor. "It doesn't seem proper."

"'Tis so?" Luna laughed and settled onto the couch across from them. "Thou remindest me of a guard." She winked at Crystal, who flushed.

Velvet perked up at the opportunity with a smile. "Oh yeah? Would that guard happen to also be a Knight?"

A grin spread across Luna's face that was almost out of place on her otherwise elegant and regal features. "Verily."

The tension in her muscles relaxing, Velvet scooted forward to the edge of her seat. "Does that mean you're my ally in this endeavor, Luna?"

"Thine ally?" The grin twisted into a smirk. "Nay, Velvet Step, I believe it is thou who art my servant in this endeavor."

"Then I am at your service, my lady," Velvet said with the best flourishing bow she could manage while sitting on a sofa.

Luna and Velvet held a moment of silence before the two of them burst into giggles while Crystal squirmed. "Are you both sure you're talking about the same thing?"

"Of course," Luna said, lifting her nose in the air. "The well-being and mental health of my subjects is a great interest of mine."

Velvet wrapped a foreleg around Crystal's neck and pulled her close. "It's going to take a lot of effort to get this one's mental health well."

"Hey!" Crystal pouted.

Luna looked between them a moment before she laughed. "'Tis a good and noble thing to have a friend such as thou hast, Crystal."

"I know," Velvet said, puffing out her chest. "But let's get back to the issue at hoof. Luna, how long have you been in on the Silent quest?"

Luna arched her brow. "How long?" She scoffed and gestured at Crystal with a vague, almost dismissive wave of her hoof. "Before this one was aware, certainly."

"What!" Crystal tried to hide her heavy blush by slouching against the couch and rubbing her cheeks. "Why is this happening to me?" she asked in a drawn-out whine.

"Then answer me this." Velvet leaned in, her eyes glinting with mischief. "Does the Knight know?"

Luna paused. She seemed to hesitate, glancing at Crystal, then at the door that led out of her chambers, then finally back at Velvet. "We do not feel it is proper to speak for our House Guard on personal matters."

Velvet sighed and slumped forward. "Aww."

"But," Luna continued in a higher, almost coy voice, "we do know that some guards oft have lunch late, or skip it altogether, and 'tis growing close to the midday hour." She winked as Velvet jumped to her hooves. "Left down the hall, second door on the right."

"Thank you, Luna!" Velvet chirped, grabbing Crystal's hoof and tugging her off the couch. "We're getting lunch!"

Crystal's face grew even redder. "Are you serious?"

Luna waved them off while Velvet urged Crystal toward the door. "Have a good afternoon!"

Once outside and the door closed behind them, Velvet let go of Crystal and pranced ahead to lead the way. Crystal sighed, trying to regain her composure, but her face remained flushed.

"I wanted you two to bond, but I didn't expect it to happen like this," Crystal muttered.

Velvet looked over her shoulder to flash a mischievous grin. "Me neither, but now I realize we're on the same team! I have to put personal fears aside when it comes to business, you know."

"I guess if you feel better, I feel better, too." She stiffened and her eyes widened. "Velvet," she whispered, "that's his office."

"Oh, it looks like—" Velvet tilted her head to the side. "It looks like all the other office doors. Who would've thought?" She walked up to it and knocked twice before pushing it open.

Silent Knight looked up from his desk, his gaze flickering between the two faces hovering at the door, and smiled. "Good morning, ladies." He stood up and straightened to polite attention. "What brings you by?"

Velvet jabbed her elbow into Crystal's side, grinning.

Crystal sucked in a squeaky breath, fought the urge to glare at Velvet, and forced a polite smile instead. "Hi, Sergeant. Velvet Step and I were thinking of getting lunch and Princess Luna mentioned you probably hadn't eaten yet." Velvet giggled quietly behind her and she continued, "Would you care to join us?"

Silent Knight paused. He glanced at a clock and blinked in surprise. "Princess Luna would be correct." He started to walk around the desk. "I'd hate to be a third wheel, but I would be happy to go to lunch with the two prettiest mares in Canterlot." He smiled and Crystal's heart fluttered.

Crystal playfully arched an eyebrow. "Oh, and since when did you learn flattery, Sergeant Knight?"

Silent's smile cracked and he admitted with a sheepish grin, "Mares Monthly. Winterspear leaves them around and I get bored sometimes, so…" He trailed off, shrugging.

Velvet hopped forward and chimed in, "Well, I can assure you that you definitely won't be a third wheel, so come along."

Silent walked ahead to lead the way. With his attention focused away from them, Crystal looked at Velvet and giggled. Velvet rolled her eyes, grinned, and nodded her head toward Silent.

"That plot," she mouthed.

Crystal turned bright red, but couldn't help stealing a glance as she bumped her shoulder to Velvet's. "Stop it," she hissed.

"Where do you recommend for lunch, Crystal Wishes?" Silent asked, his voice startling Crystal into a stiff, upright posture. "I really liked the place you chose before."

"Last time?" Velvet asked in a hushed tone.

"Shh." Crystal bumped her again and cleared her throat to reply, "Oh, if you have time, I know of a place you might like, but it's a little further from the palace."

The helmeted head in front of them bobbed up and down. "I always have time for the two of you."

This prompted Velvet and Crystal to glance at each other in brief confusion before Velvet just grinned and shrugged.

"Just head toward Sunridge Sweets," Crystal said. "I'll stop you when we get there."

The helmet bobbed again. "Yes, ma'am."

They walked in relative silence aside from Velvet's quiet giggles and playful teases that made Crystal blush and fidget. When they were just a block away from Sunridge Sweets, Crystal trotted forward to catch Silent's attention. "There it is." She pointed at a small cafe. "It's such a nice day, so we can eat outside, if you'd like."

"That sounds nice." He smiled and changed direction to head toward the cafe. He stopped to pull out a seat and gestured for Crystal to sit, then did the same for Velvet.

"Thank you, Sergeant." Crystal smiled and folded her hooves in her lap.

"Such a gentlepony," Velvet teased, giggling.

Silent sat across from them, took off his helmet, and set it on the empty seat. "I try."

Crystal turned her head to look at the street beyond the fence that defined them as 'in the restaurant' as opposed to loitering. "It's a busy day today, isn't it?"

Velvet rested her elbow on the table and her chin on her hoof. "Don't mind her. She likes to watch crowds."

Silent glanced up from looking over the food selections. "Oh?" He tilted his head just slightly. "Is it research for your novels?"

"Huh?" Crystal looked back at them. "Perhaps it's a little bit of that. I also just like pony watching, I suppose." She giggled and reached over to tap at a section on his menu. "Anyway, their grilled vegetables here are top notch."

"Then that's what I'll get," Silent said, closing the menu and setting it down. He glanced between their own untouched menus. "Do you two already know what you want?" When they nodded, he flagged down a waiter with a wave of one hoof.

"Hello, ma'ams and sir; are you ready to order?"

"I'll take a zucchini and avocado panini, please," Crystal said, sliding her menu toward the center of the table.

Velvet smiled when the waiter looked to her. "Grilled vegetables with feta and mint!"

"And you, sir?"

Silent hedged a moment longer before he decided on, "Grilled zucchini and onion on a sub roll."

"Very good. I'll have your orders out shortly."

Crystal smiled and, after the waiter walked away, her gaze flickered from Silent to the ponies walking by. "Zucchini is probably one of my favorite vegetables."

"Oh? It is definitely my favorite." Silent inclined his head to peer at the crowd with her.

Velvet glanced between the two of them with one brow arched. She let them carry on in silence before she cleared her throat. "So how are things as the, uh, first sergeant, right?"

Silent's ear swiveled toward her and his gaze met hers. "I seem qualified. My unit is great and I'm very proud of them all, so being first sergeant allows me to spend more time with everypony, including Princess Luna."

Slowly, Velvet's head tilted to the side. Crystal giggled and explained in a playfully loud whisper, "What he means is that things are good and he likes the flexibility."

"Oh." Velvet straightened up and smiled. "Good! So, what exactly is a first sergeant, anyway?"

"My rank," he said. "My position is unit sergeant, which is the senior-most, non-commissioned officer of the unit. The lieutenant's second in command, essentially."

There was a lull as Velvet's confusion returned. She looked at Crystal for help, but this time all she got was a smile and a shrug in response.

Silent cleared his throat. "Anyway, so from what I understand, your parents are known for the best sweets in Canterlot, right?"

"Yes!" Velvet chirped, beaming at him. "It's really an amazing feat that they've been known for their sweets for years, thanks to Crystal. She always keeps an eye on the fads and steers my parents in the right direction so they never go out of style."

Velvet's ears drooped and her gaze fell to the table. She added in an almost bitter mumble, "They're doing so well, in fact, that I don't really know why I don't just work at the bakery. I don't think I'll ever compare to their success."

Crystal frowned. "Velvet?" She leaned in and gently nuzzled her. "Are you that nervous about your new role in the big tour?" Both of their heads bobbed as Velvet nodded. "Listen, you've loved dancing your whole life. Now that you get to be on stage and you're going on tours, as long as you keep working as hard as you always have, everypony will know what I know: that you're an amazing dancer."

Silent nodded. "She's right, you know. Hard work always pays off." He tilted his head and asked, "What is the big tour, by the way?"

Velvet sniffed and pulled away from Crystal. "Thanks, you two." She rubbed at her eyes. "We just found out that I'm going to be playing Kitri in Don Quicolte. Beryl Waltz broke her leg and her understudy is sick."

Silent just stared at her with a blank expression and she elaborated, "It's a principal role in the ballet. Um, main? Important? Lieutenant?"

He chuckled and nodded. "I follow, but that sounds like something to celebrate."

Velvet sighed, her shoulders drooping. "It would be, if I didn't have only two days before I go perform for tons of ponies in all the major cities when I've only had a week and a half to practice it for real instead of for fun." She whimpered, and Crystal patted her on the shoulder.

Silent smiled. "Well, it seems to me like your hard work is already paying off if you got the role, so congratulations. I'll have to get tickets to one of your shows sometime."

Velvet managed a smile. "Thanks, I guess."

The waiter returned, balancing two plates on his back and one on his head. "Here you are!" He maneuvered the plates onto the table and slid them to their respective owners. "Enjoy your meals. Just let me know if there's anything else you need!"

Silent went straight to his meal while Crystal continued to try and reassure Velvet.

"You already know the role pretty well, don't you?" She raised her panini and took a bite.

Velvet poked at her salad with a fork. "Well, yes, of course. It's my dream role! I know all the girls want to snag a Giselle or Odette, but Kitri is so much more fun!"

"Then you'll be fine." She nodded curtly. "I'm confident in you."

Velvet paused, then frowned and said in a hushed tone, "Um, Crystal, you have a little…"

"Hmm?" Crystal didn't look away from her panini.

Velvet raised a hoof to gesture vaguely at her own cheek. "Ahem."

Crystal finally looked over and furrowed her brow. "What?"

Velvet sighed, rolled her eyes, and reached out a napkin to wipe off a bit of avocado that had gotten smeared on Crystal's cheek. "There."

Crystal flushed. One hoof flew to the spot where the rogue food had been and she looked at Silent with embarrassment plastered on her face. He looked distinctly at the table, continuing to munch on his sandwich.

A sigh of relief escaped her and she continued to eat, though with much more care than normal. Instead of the occasional dab with a napkin, she kept the white cloth hovering near her face and wiped the corners of her lips after every bite. Velvet hid her amusement by shoving more spinach in her own mouth.

Once she finished her sandwich, Crystal asked, "Did I hear correctly that Princess Luna's House Guard found a new lieutenant to replace Haze?"

Silent nodded. "Yes. I think he'll be a good fit and won't be a problem like the former lieutenant. He certainly won't interrupt any of Princess Luna's scheduled appointments, or book discussions."

"Yes. That was certainly—" Crystal paused, then finished, "Awkward."

"Indeed. It was awkward, inappropriate, and foolish." He looked down at his empty plate with a frown, then back up with a smile. "I should get back to work. I hope you two will forgive me for leaving so soon."

"Always, Sergeant Knight." Crystal smiled.

Velvet put down her fork and waved. "Thank you for joining us!"

Silent nodded, put his helmet back on, and went inside to pay for his meal. When he was out of earshot, Crystal sighed and slumped forward. "So, do you see what I mean?"

"Oh, you're just being too impatient. He's a stallion." Velvet laughed and waved dismissively. "You have to be patient with them!"

"Mm, I suppose." She turned her chair some to face Velvet. "What am I going to do without you around to keep my head level?"

Velvet flicked her square in the middle of her forehead, grinning. "You grow up, of course."

Crystal sputtered a few incoherent comebacks before she huffed, then wrapped her forelegs around Velvet's neck. "I'm really going to miss you, but I know you'll have a lot of fun. You have to write to me as soon as you get to your first stop, okay?"

"Yeah, yeah. There's just one problem."

"What?" Crystal pulled back to frown at her.

"Silent just walked by while you were hugging me. You don't want him to get the wrong idea, do you?"

"What?" Crystal repeated, this time in a high-pitched squeak. She jerked her head to the side to see Silent Knight walking away and frowned. "Wait, no, don't be silly. I've seen him hug Runic, and I didn't get the wrong idea."

Velvet giggled. "Runic's his cousin, though."

Crystal slid out of her chair and started toward the door, blowing a raspberry over her shoulder. "And you might as well be my sister, so it's essentially the same thing!"

After they paid for their meals and were on the walk home, Velvet heaved a great sigh. "Hey, Crystal?" She glanced at her. "Do you think our cutie marks are what we're good at, or what we love to do?"

Crystal shrugged quickly and without interrupting her gait. "Why can't it be both?"

"I'm just saying. I love dancing. I love being on stage. When I got into the corps, I thought that was enough and that I'd be happy with just being able to be on the stage every night, not just when they needed a stand-in. What if I really, really like playing Kitri, but I'm not good enough and I ruin my chances of ever being a prima?"

Velvet's words fell out faster and faster as panic rushed in behind her voice. "Not everypony with a dancing cutie mark can be great enough to go prima, or else there'd be no ponies in the corps or struggling as understudies! What if I never get a lead role again?"

"Whoa, whoa, whoa." Crystal put a foreleg around her, pulling her close. "Why are you so scared of this today? You've been excited all month for this tour!"

Velvet sucked in a ragged breath and shook her head. "That was before I got the role! Crystal, I'm sorry, but Celestia help me, I'm not prepared for a spotlight. Think about it, okay? Where would my parents' bakery be if it weren't for your help? Nowhere. Sure, I can get by if I'm in the background, but with everypony's eyes on me, judging my every move, I'm not so sure. I don't know if I'm strong enough to do this on my own, and I can't even go to you for help!"

"Velvet, listen to me." Crystal stopped Velvet in her tracks, stepped ahead, and turned around to face her. "Yes, I helped your parents out way back then, but I didn't get them to where they are today. Their cupcakes and cookies and milkshakes did, and I had nothing to do with that. I don't help you half as much as you help me, but if I'm going to do anything for you, it's this." She raised a hoof and slapped Velvet upside the head. "You're a great dancer and you'll do great."

Velvet yelped, then laughed. She rubbed at her eyes, mumbling, "I'm sorry. I'm just scared and it's really getting to me, I guess. I've never really been scared of something before. At least, not like this." She sighed and shook her head. "I've always been the one who kicked your rump into place, but who's going to do that for me when I'm halfway across Equestria?"

Crystal put on a serious face, her jaw set and her brow furrowed. "You will, because you're stronger than you give yourself credit for."

Velvet sighed. She shrugged and started walking toward the condo again. "I hope you're right."

"I know I'm right," Crystal corrected. "Now, we don't have a lot of time before you leave, but it sounds like you could use a spa day!"

"A spa day?" Velvet ruminated on the idea, clicking her tongue against the roof of her mouth. "That does sound nice, actually."

Crystal hooked her foreleg around Velvet's and tugged her off-course. "Then to the spa!"

Velvet slowly smiled, then perked up, trotting alongside her instead of being dragged along. "Thank you, Crystal."

Chocolate Roses

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Music drifted throughout the condo from a brand-new record player, quiet enough to not disturb any neighbors at that late hour of the night, but loud enough to move Crystal's hooves and hips almost of their own accord.

Slowly, slowly, you will fall in love, the recorded voice sang.

The path of love is difficult; it's bound by shyness

It's a strange war with myself; this heart worries all the time.

As she lifted a piece of paper and a quill, she mumbled, "Oh, Silent Knight, what am I going to do about you?"

The quill bobbed up and down as it scribbled along the page when she stopped talking long enough to focus on the story.

"You're no help, you know." She giggled. "You can write all these fanciful situations, but they'll never happen."

The quill added a period with an irritated plik.

"Yes, yes, I'm sorry. Let's see what you've done." She lowered the quill and scanned the page.

He put a hoof to her chin and forced her to look at him. "What are you trying to say?" She tried to pull away, but his hoof held her still, forcing her to confront him. "Talk to me, please."

She sighed and set the paper down on the coffee table. "Oh, I'd talk to you, big boy, if you'd just ask me to."

Her ear twitched at the sound of three short, quick knocks.

"Just a minute!" she called, her magic flaring. The record player shut off and she flipped a few more lights on before she went to the door and opened it. Her knees went weak and her breath caught in her throat as she squeaked, "Oh!" She swallowed.

There he was, standing in full armor, looking down at her with those calming silver eyes. A tuft of blue mane poked out from under his helmet, the only thing out of place in his otherwise proper appearance.

"Silent Knight," she breathed more than said as she struggled not to swoon.

Realization hit her and the love-struck warmth froze with a horrified chill. One hoof flew to her mane, which was pulled up in a messy bun, then lowered to the silky robe that was draped over her form. She was in embarrassing disarray.

"I'm so sorry, I'm a mess! Let me freshen—"

Silent shook his head. "No, you're fine, Crystal Wishes. It's my fault for disturbing you at this hour." He removed his helmet and tucked it under his foreleg. "I know that Velvet is away on her trip and I wanted to make sure you were doing all right by yourself."

Crystal blinked a few times, her hoof continuing to fidget with her robe. "Really?" She felt her face grow warm. "That's really sweet of you, Sergeant. Please come in. Would you like some tea?" She stepped off to the side and pulled the door all the way open.

"No, but thank you." He nodded and walked inside. He took a moment to look around, his expression an unwavering neutral, before he looked at her and smiled. "So, how are you doing?"

Crystal walked over to the pillows. "I'm perfectly all right. Won't you have a seat?" She settled down and gestured at the one across from her. Her gaze followed him as he walked over and carefully lowered himself, careful to not catch the plush material on the edges of his armor.

"I had known she was going to travel when we first moved in together," she continued. "I miss her, but I know it's good for her. Her last letter seemed very positive about her performance. At this rate, she'll be going on tour several times a year to perform in other cities." She smiled. "It's a wonderful opportunity and I only want the best for her."

Silent's eyes took on an unfamiliar softness as he said, "I know that you, of all ponies, truly mean that. You are one of the kindest ponies I know, Crystal Wishes."

Crystal couldn't fight the blush that she was sure showed through her off-white coat. "Oh, you flatterer." She giggled. "Thank you."

"Anyway, she'll be back soon, won't she?"

"Not soon enough." Crystal sighed. "But I am getting better at being on my own. Now, enough about me." She tilted her head. "You got off work late but still found the time to drop by just to check in on me, but you call me the kind pony?"

"It's an occupational hazard." He paused, then clarified, "I mean staying late. Seeing a good friend is a pleasure, not a hazard at all."

Crystal giggled behind one hoof. "I understand. So, what was the hazard today that kept you?"

Silent rubbed his cheek, a grin tugging at the corners of his lips. "Oh, well. You know Thunder Tumble?" She nodded. "Well, he got in a bit of a tussle with one of the new rookies on Princess Celestia's House Guard."

"What? Thunder Tumble?" She blinked. "But he's so sweet!"

"He is. Until somepony throws a punch." He chuckled and shook his head. One hoof raised to smooth his helmet-mussed mane. "From what I was told, they were having a debate over who had the best unit sergeant and some less than flattering comparisons were made regarding my rigidity. Thunder, well, he didn't take too kindly to what was said."

Crystal broke out into short but heartfelt laughter. "He was defending your honor?"

Silent seemed to fight it, his mouth wriggling a moment, before he laughed with her and nodded. "It seems so."

"And how did you handle having your honor defended like a maiden?" She tried not to grin.

"Honestly, it was a little embarrassing. Sunny Day and I managed to separate them and we agreed that we'd handle our respective guards ourselves." He shifted some, glancing down at the pillow beneath him. The one he had selected was a little small for a stallion his size, so he had to be sure to not shift himself right off it. "Thunder was pretty upset. It took a while just to get him to calm down enough just to talk about it rationally."

She almost laughed, but the sound instead came out as a chuffle when a thought struck her. "Oh, dear, he won't be in much trouble, will he? His intentions were in the right place, after all."

"Don't worry." Silent shook his head. "He'll receive a small slap on the hoof because he should have been the bigger pony. He really knocked the other guard down a peg or two, though. Off the record, just between you and me, I'm proud of him. He won the fight hooves down, no question about it."

"You're proud of him for winning a fight?" She laughed this time, but she did manage to cover it politely with one hoof. "I don't know that I understand stallions sometimes."

Silent shrugged and explained, "My father always taught me to never start a fight but if somepony else did, I had better finish it, and that's exactly what Thunder did."

Crystal paused. She blinked a few times, her gaze focusing on nothing in particular as a feeling of deja vu tickled the back of her neck before she shook her head once to chase it away. "That makes sense in some way, I suppose."

There was a small pause before Silent smiled. "Oh, how is your new book coming? Princess Luna is very eager to get her hooves on it as soon as possible. She said you're working on something special. I think she's your biggest fan, from what I can tell."

Crystal turned her head to look at the sofa. It was really an odd size between a sofa and a loveseat and it served more as a desk than a seating area. In fact, since she had bought it, she hadn't actually sat on it once. At that moment it was covered with pages, some blank and others full of notes.

She finally relented with a sigh, "It is, well, it's coming along. I'm trying something—how do I put it—new, you might say, but it's also somewhat unfamiliar territory for me." Her tail lashed to curl around her as she glanced at him. "I've been stuck on something for a few days now, actually. Every time I try to plan it, it either falls flat or feels forced. I could use a stallion's perspective, if you don't mind?"

Silent's ears perked. "Not at all. I'd be happy to help."

Crystal's heart broke into a thunderous pounding in her chest and her words caught in her throat. She took a small breath and forced the question out despite her nerves. "As a stallion, if you found yourself in love with two ponies, how would you choose between them?"

Silent looked at her with his brow raised in surprise. He blinked a few times and admitted, "You might not like my answer, I'm afraid."

With the way her heart pounded faster and her mouth went dry, she was fairly certain she was the one who was afraid at that moment. "Try me."

Silent shrugged. "Well, I would first make a list of why I thought I loved them. If it really was love, couldn't I explain why I felt that way? If I couldn't, that might make it easier to realize I only really loved one, or perhaps neither."

Crystal nodded slowly. He was right; the idea of an intangible list didn't help her much at all. She licked her lips and pressed, "So you make a list for the first pony, and another for the second. What then?"

Silent took a deep breath and released it slowly as he gave the question more thought. Finally, he answered, his voice low and careful, "I guess I would have to decide on the long-term traits I want in a partner. When I imagine being in love, I'm not worried about whether she's beautiful or rich. True love is a long-term commitment and those are temporary things. I'd love the pony that is patient and kind, who would put her desires after my own but know when to let me do the same for her. She would be my friend and confidant, somepony I could tell anything without her judging me."

He didn't look at her, instead looking at his hooves as they shifted to cross left over right. "Infatuation is one thing, but for true love, I'd take the mare who was sweet to me and looked out for me. That is how I'd know she was the one, since there can't be two ponies like that, can there? If I really had to make lists, then they would make it clear which one was true love and which was just infatuation."

Silence followed his words as Crystal stared at him, struck speechless. She started to smile and fought to keep it from growing to a full-on beam. She tried to speak, but her voice came out instead as a whisper. "I had no idea you were a romantic."

He shrugged. "Perhaps I am. Or perhaps I'm waiting for a pony that doesn't exist, but I can wait if she does. I'd rather get the right one later than settle for the wrong one just because she came along sooner."

"I am certain a mare like that exists, Silent Knight." Crystal reached out and put a hoof on his, lifting it to slip her other underneath so she could hold it gingerly. "And I'm certain you'll see her, eventually."

Silent stared at her, then smiled. "For some reason, I believe you." He slipped his hoof out of her grasp and stood up. "Anyway, I should let you get to bed. I didn't mean to keep you up so late. Thank you, Crystal Wishes."

Crystal blinked a few times and tilted her head. "Why are you thanking me?"

"I came here to make sure you were okay, but instead, you made me feel more hopeful about my prospects of love all of a sudden. So, thank you for that. You are the sweetest pony I know." He picked up his helmet and started to set it on his head.

Before he could revert back to his stoic self under the safety of his complete uniform, Crystal asked, "Oh, sergeant, out of curiosity, are you doing anything for Hearts and Hooves Day?" Her heart fluttered eagerly, excitedly.

Silent paused, then shook his head and replied, "Iridescence and Miley Hooves asked me to cover for them. They had plans and I didn't, so I'll be on duty. Why do you ask?"

"Oh." The fluttering calmed down, her excitement deflated in an instant. "I see. I suppose I will end up spending the day with Velvet, since she'll be back by then and I currently don't have anything else planned."

"I'm sure you two will have fun," Silent said with a smile and turned for the door. "Good night, Crystal Wishes."

"Good night," she called after him just before the door shut. She dropped her head down to rest on her hooves, letting the events roll around in her mind until they came to a boil and she sprung to her hooves. "I'm kind! I can put you before myself!" She started to prance around the room, her tail and head held high. "And I most certainly can continue to be patient!"

Her hoof landed on a loose sheet of paper and she slipped, stumbling forward but catching herself just before she fell. She glanced around to ensure the condo was still as empty as it should have been, then closed the distance between herself and the record player. The lights dimmed and the needle lowered to the record, which started to spin.

Have a little patience, my love

Take a deep breath, my dear

Crystal shifted her weight to stand on her hindlegs and began to waltz across the living room floor, the silk night robe sweeping behind her, reminiscent of a ball gown.

Go shoo all the fears away, my love

Life is too short for that

She had practiced the waltz and other ballroom dances more times than she would ever use over the course of her life, but the over-practice did mean that her legs could step and twirl without too much thought. It freed up her mind to focus on other things, like imagining her forelegs were wrapped around a strong, muscular stallion, and his held her securely but gently…

Slowly, slowly, you will fall in love, my dear

Slowly, slowly, you will fall in love…

The usual sounds of the cafe buzzed around them: cups clinked against their saucers, steam hissed from the espresso maker, and quiet chatter echoed from all directions. Crystal sipped her tea while Raven pored over the loosely bound papers levitating in front of her, held by her magic.

"Okay," Raven said once she finished reading and raised her head to peer across the table at Crystal, "so I'm fairly certain I know who Stoutheart is modeled after. Do you have something to confess?"

Crystal's ears perked straight up. "If you already know, then what point is there in confessing?" She smiled and took another sip of tea.

"To rid your conscience of guilt, of course." Raven leaned back into her seat and laughed. "So, should I take this to mean that since we last spoke, your situation has gotten better?" A coy smile curled her lips. "Will I be seeing even more of you at the castle now?"

"It's too soon to say." Crystal reached out and tapped on the papers. "But, about the matter at hoof?"

Raven blinked and looked down. "Oh, yes. It's a good start. It has a different feel than your usual work." She quickly raised a hoof. "Not in a bad way, of course. It's just clear to me that you're putting your feelings into this, instead of others'. The Mare's Temptation was a lot of me, and The Princess of the Knight was just—" She shrugged. "Fantasy?"

Crystal twiddled her hooves, staring at the table, her face heating up. "I suppose that's all true. This story is much more personal to me than the others." Her head jerked up and she frowned at Raven. "Do you think it's too personal? What if nopony can relate to it? What—"

"Oh, calm down." Raven laughed softly. "I said it was different and not in a bad way, didn't I? It feels real, and that's a good thing. You're growing as an author, and you should be proud of that." Her expression grew playful as she teasingly added, "You're also growing as a mare, and you should tell me more about that."

Crystal huffed. "This seems awfully familiar."

"It does, doesn't it? 'Oh, please, tell me about your love story, I'm so desperate to hear one!'" Raven laughed again, shaking her head. "Now you're the one with a love story who won't share the details, and we're friends! I was a complete stranger then and I told you about my love life!"

Crystal gathered up her papers and tucked them into her saddlebags, shaking her head. "There's not much to tell, at least, not yet. He's not aware that I have feelings for him, but I can be patient." She giggled. "I have waited this long to fall for somepony, after all, so I can wait a little longer."

"Hmm." Raven tapped her hooves on the table. "I can help out, you know. I run into him a lot, given how close he is to Princess Luna. Though, I suppose you'll want to make friends with Willow, given that, hopefully soon, she'll be taking over that side of the castle."

Raven sighed heavily. "It will be so nice to have some free time. Moving in with Moore has let me see him more,"—she giggled at the lyrical ease with which the sentence fell off her tongue—"but I'm still stressed by the workload. Willow is competent, though a little headstrong."

"Headstrong?" Crystal blinked. "She seemed fairly normal the times I've met her."

Raven let out a small sound that was a cross between a chuckle and a groan. "She's anything but! Granted, she can shift a schedule around in her mind like nopony I've ever met, but she takes the job too seriously. Princess Luna seems to like her, however, because Willow can always find time for the things she wants to do in between what she has to."

"I think you're just a little jealous because Luna might like her more than you." She giggled when Raven scoffed.

"Well, that false accusation aside, that does remind me. Velvet is back, isn't she?" Crystal nodded, and she continued, "How did her first big tour go?"

"Wonderfully. Just as I predicted, she wasn't laughed off the stage or anything dramatic like that. She made a few nervous fumbles the first night, but after a few performances I guess she got into a groove because she came back with tons of bouquets. We're still trying to find recipes to use them in so they don't go to waste."

Crystal laughed and added, "Anyway, do you and Moore have any plans tonight after you get off work?"

Raven's mood swung to that of a school filly as she twiddled her hooves. "Oh, yes! He said he made reservations for dinner, so I had to pack a nice gown to change into so I can go straight from the castle to there." She squirmed in her seat. "I know we've had dinner before, but this is our first Hearts and Hooves Day together, and he said it would be special. I can't help but be excited!"

Crystal gasped and leaned in. "Do you think he's going to propose?!"

"What? No!" She paused, then gasped as well. "Oh my Celestia, what if he does?"

Crystal stared at her with wide eyes, the corners creased from her growing smile. "You'll say yes, won't you?"

Raven returned the wide-eyed, wide-smiled expression. "Of course!" She patted her cheeks and cleared her throat. "Of course, that depends on if he asks. I don't want to get my hopes up and ruin an otherwise perfectly romantic evening." The smile crept back into place. "But I hope he does."

Crystal giggled and slipped out of her seat. "Let's have lunch again tomorrow so I can hear all about it, okay?"

Raven nodded. "All right. Good luck with your own stallion, and your new no