Friendship Gardens was blanketed in snow. The sun had just set and the stars were starting to sparkle in the night sky. At Clever Clover's home, preparations were complete for the Christmas party, and the guests had already started to arrive. The first guest was, of course, Clever Clover's fiancee, Belle Star. Not far behind were her rivals for the purple prince's affections, Morning Glory and Minoko. Next to arrive was Lady Moonshine and her new apprentice, Hemlock. Lady Moonshine naturally brought several bottles of her most very special tea, with which she promptly spiked the punch.
Belle Star's good friend Coral couldn't make it since her agent had scheduled a Christmas day showing of her art in New Pony, but she promised to be free next year. She had invited Belle Star to the showing, but after the events of the last year, Belle thought it best to have a simple holiday at home with Clever Clover.
The guests gathered in the living room, sipping punch (except for Minoko who was drinking tea right from the bottle) and making small talk.
"You certainly have done a nice job of decorating," Lady Moonshine observed. "It's somewhat reminiscent of the great hall at Malachite Castle."
Clever Clover nodded. "Belle Star fell in love with the great hall decorations when we were at the royal wedding, what was that, three years ago already? And when I asked for her help decorating for the party, it just turned out that way."
"Oh yes! That was the best Christmas ever! So romantic," Belle Star sighed. "Clever Clover! Maybe we could have our wedding next Christmas at the castle!"
Clever Clover shrugged. "We'll see."
"I think it's a fine idea," Lady Moonshine contributed. "I can't imagine a more romantic place for a wedding than a castle. What do you think, Hemlock?"
Hemlock's mind had been elsewhere. He shook his head clear and shrugged. "I... suppose."
Lady Moonshine scowled at her apprentice. "I may let you get by with that answer in your lessons, but we are Clever Clover's guests. Try to be more polite."
The young pony bowed to Clever Clover. "Forgive me, I..."
Clever Clover shook his head. "Don't mention it. It's not like this is some formal shin-dig. We're just a bunch of friends getting together for the holidays."
Lady Moonshine shifted her scowl to Clever Clover. "Maybe you could use some etiquette lessons, too."
Morning Glory nodded knowingly. "Yes, yes. That is the one thing he had in common with that Shadow Clover, no sense of etiquette."
Clever Clover hung his head. "I wish Oak would get here; I know he'd be on my side."
"I need some more punch," said Belle Star, as she sprang up from her seat.
"Now there's a pony who's got her priorities straight," observed Minoko. "Hey, Ryo, could you bring me another bottle?"
"Meow," the lop-eared rabbit sighed and shook her head.
Minoko took the last swallow from her bottle and flung it aside. "Some pet you are."
"Don't worry, I'll get you another drink!" Belle Star, who was already at the refreshment table, dispensed some tea into a small serving bottle and set it along with her own cup of punch and a saucer-shaped teacup onto a tray. As she turned to rejoin the party, the tan pony tripped over Clever Clover's vulpix, Pixie. Belle Star twirled about, trying to regain her footing without spilling the drinks on her tray. She gyrated through the living room and half falling, half bowing, planted the tray soundly on Minoko's lap. "Here is your tea, Minoko."
The red and black pirate pony scowled. "I wanted a big bottle."
"Oops, my mistake." Belle Star took her punch and returned to her place next to Clever Clover on the loveseat.
Minoko took the bottle and cup and, setting the tray aside, got up and walked over to Clever Clover. She was just about to seat herself on the arm of the loveseat next to the prince when there was a knock at the door.
Clever Clover stood up. "I wonder who that will be."
"Merry Christmas!" Enchantment beamed as Clever Clover opened the door. "The royal party is not far behind, but I got so excited I just rushed on ahead!"
"Come in, Enchantment, and help yourself to some punch. Ah, but go easy on it."
"Lady Moonshine got to it already?"
Clever Clover nodded.
"That means Hemlock is here!" The eager filly rushed past her host into the living room.
"Merry Christmas!" the gathered guests greeted her in unison.
"Merry Christmas to you all!" Enchantment replied with a polite bow. "Especially to you, Hemlock."
Hemlock rose from his seat on the sofa. "It's good to see you again. Um, how are your studies going?" he asked, nervously.
"They're going well." Enchantment stepped closer. "How about you?"
Hemlock smiled shyly. "Ah, well..." He snapped his hooves and glanced upward expectantly, but nothing happened.
Enchantment giggled. "Is this what you were trying for?" She snapped her hooves and a sprig of mistletoe appeared above their heads.
"Yeah..." Before he could say more, Enchantment pressed her lips to his. Hemlock blushed as the guests oohed and ahhed.
After what seemed to Hemlock like an eternal moment, Lady Moonshine stepped forward. "All right kids, break it up. I think you've had enough for one night."
* * *
Meanwhile, a short distance from Clever Clover's, three travelers trudged through the snow. "I'd like to thank you for inviting me to the party," said Ironwood, captain of the royal guard. "But I feel like I'll be out of place. I mean, it is a prince's party and I'm just a guardpony..."
King Oak shook his head. "Oh, nonsense! Clever Clover is not the type to worry about such things. Besides, I have a special mission for you."
"A mission, your highness?"
"Aye, if our host is to enjoy a pleasant evening with his fiancee, someone is going to have to keep Minoko from getting between them. As Clever Clover's guest lists are always heavy on the fillies, I figured it couldn't hurt to have an extra stallion around to run interference."
"I see... I'm to 'run interference' with Minoko?"
"That's it exactly! I can imagine less pleasant ways to spend the holiday, or rather I could before I met my lovely Gooseberry."
The queen laughed. "That was a nice save, my dear. But look, it seems we've arrived. I do hope Lady Moonshine is already there. After this brisk walk, some of her tea would go quite well."
"Oh, yes, indeed," the stallions agreed in unison.
As they approached the front door, Ironwood stepped forward to knock, but the king held him back. "Tonight we are all equals. You don't need to do anything for me that I am not capable of doing for myself." With that, the king rapped loudly on the door.
Belle Star opened the door and, seeing the royal guests, bowed low. "Oh! Merry Christmas, your highnesses, and Ironwood. Please come in."
"And a merry Christmas to you. But this 'highness' stuff isn't necessary. Tonight we are all equals "
"See!" called Clever Clover from the other room. "I told you he'd be on my side!"
"Right! Now that that's been taken care of, where's the punch? It's bloody cold out here."
Belle Star led the guests to the refreshment table. Once they had been served, they made their way into the living room. Minoko had moved into Belle Star's seat next to Clever Clover. Seeing this, King Oak nudged Ironwood with his elbow. The guardpony nodded and walked over to Minoko.
"Ah, hello, Minoko. Merry Christmas..."
"You're Metalwood, right?"
Minoko shrugged. "So, do you want something?"
"I thought maybe we could talk."
"Why would I want to talk to you?"
"Well, you were a pirate. I'd like to hear all about your adventures at sea."
"I AM a pirate. Just because those charges have been dropped doesn't change who I am."
"That's cool. Maybe we could go over by the fire and talk about it."
Minoko shook her small tea bottle, which was almost empty. "Yeah, whatever. But I gotta' get somethin' t' drink first."
* * *
While Ironwood was trying to lure Minoko away, Clever Clover had been catching up with the king and queen.
"It's nice to see you both again. But I see Foxglove and Raven couldn't make it."
The king nodded. "Someone had to stay behind and watch the castle. And with Jack O' Lantern in the dungeon, it had to be someone I could trust." The king turned to Lady Moonshine. "Speaking of Jack O' Lantern, how's Hemlock been coming along?"
"Oh, he's been doing quite well, haven't you?" She turned to Hemlock who was so lost in conversation with Enchantment that he was totally unaware of what was being said not five feet away. Lady Moonshine shrugged. "The boy does have a limited attention span, except when it comes to Enchantment."
The queen smiled. "That seems to be just right for a boy his age."
"He gets that from his father, I've heard," said Clever Clover.
"Oh, he doesn't talk much about his father to me. Just who have you been talking too?" Lady Moonshine asked.
"Oh, I don't remember where I heard it, exactly..."
"All right, be that way if you like. But see if I bring you any tea for New Year's."
There was a knock at the door. "That must be Key." If anyone would believe that I talked to the ghost of Hemlock's father, it would be Lady Moonshine, Clever Clover thought as he went to the door. But then, I'm not even sure I believe it.
As he had expected, Clever Clover found Key of the Pony Sea Patrol at the door. "Hi, Clever Clover. Now, I know you're not going to be very happy about this, but he is Belle Star's brother so I couldn't just leave him behind..." Key handed Clever Clover a gayly wrapped gift and slipped past him into the house. "Merry Christmas."
"So, you made it," Clever Clover addressed the tan stallion standing on the doorstep. "Well, I guess since it is Christmas we should at least try to get along, at least for Belle Star's sake." He extended his hoof as a gesture of peace. The tan stallion didn't even acknowledge his presence. "You're not still upset about getting your butt kicked, are you?"
"Oh! Beau! You made it!" Belle Star rushed through the door and gave her brother a big hug.
"It's good to see you, little sister. Though I am surprised that barbaric boyfriend of yours allowed you to invite me."
Clever Clover hung his head and returned to the living room.
"Come in, Beau. And have some punch! It's very good! How are Mom and Dad, and Grandfather?"
"Everyone is well, though they are concerned for you. I told them about the reception I got when I first met Clever Clover, and they agree he is a ruffian."
"Oh, you two just got off on the wrong hoof. I'm sure once you get to know each other you will see what a good pony he is!"
Beau sipped his punch thoughtfully. "We shall see."
The evening wore on. Party games were played, stories were told, and a good time was had by all, though Beau never said a word to Clever Clover. It was nearing midnight when Clever Clover noticed Hemlock sitting by a window, staring at the stars with a melancholy expression on his face.
"Hemlock, is something the matter?" Clever Clover inquired of his guest.
The young pony sighed. "I miss my sister. I thought I could make it through the party without letting it get to me, but seeing Belle Star and her brother..."
Clever Clover didn't know what to say. For a minute, he just stared out at the stars himself, trying to find some words of comfort for Hemlock. "I suppose, wherever she is tonight, she's under the same stars we are. She doesn't seem quite so far away if you look at it that way."
A small smile graced Hemlock's lips. Clever Clover wasn't sure if his words had actually helped, or if he was just trying not to laugh at the lame attempt to cheer him up. Either way, it was an improvement.
"I just wish I had some way of telling her 'Merry Christmas', to let her know that I'm thinking about her."
"I'm sure she knows that you'd remember her on Christmas, the same way I'm sure you know that she remembers you. Now come on, we've all still got gifts to open."
* * *
Meanwhile, on the Dark Isle, Nightshade sat on the side of the bed that had been her brother's. There was a small, sparsely decorated tree in the middle of the room with one gift under it. "Brother, I hope that you have found what it seemed you were always seeking, whatever it was. I know it is for the best that you've left this place, for both you and for our clan, but it is for the sake of our clan that I must stay, that I must see it out to the bitter end. So that I may have vengeance for what Zotikos did to you."