Christmas in Dream Valley 2004
written by Sugarberry
"Any calls?" Adriano asked as he entered his office on the campus of Pony Pride.
Mattie looked up from her computer screen and smiled. "It's been very quiet here." That was the truth, as far as it went.
"The campus cleared out quickly. Everyone's gone home for Christmas."
"Do you regret your decision to stay in Dream Valley for the holidays?"
"No... no... not really." A note of sadness- wistfulness- crept into his voice.
"What are your plans for Christmas Eve?"
"I'm... I'm not sure."
"Well, why don't you come with me to the living nativity at the park? Everyone will be there, and I'm going to meet some friends for some Christmas cheer. We'd love to have you join us."
Adriano did not answer immediately. Instead, he walked to the window and stared out, not really seeing the snow-covered lawn around the campus buildings or the powder-draped branches of the evergreens. The shoveled walkways were barren, however, of both snow and ponies... as barren as Adriano's heart.
The Vulcanopolis stallion had met lots of ponies since coming to Dream Valley to head the mathematic's department in Vanguard's absence; of those ponies, many were, of course, students and faculty; a few were speaking acquaintances by choice rather than necessity; and several of them had become true friends. There was one, however, who had connected with Adriano's soul; and he doubted if she even knew it.
His eyes settling on a building across the way, Adriano wondered if Heidi was still in her office, wrapping things up for the semester break. He had thought that by coming to Dream Valley and escaping his mother's apron strings, he would have an idyllic life free of all complications. It had never occurred to him that he would simply fall under another mare's sphere of influence.
"Adriano? Shall we plan on including you in our party?" Mattie pressed. "No one should be alone on Christmas."
"Alone? Oh, no... not alone," Adriano said softly, as if speaking to a spectral vision. It seemed there was not a moment in the day when his awareness of Heidi did not haunt him. Then, coming back to the reality of Mattie's question, he looked at his office assistant guiltily. "Not alone at all. Sugarberry and Vanguard will be back for the holidays. Already invited me to join their festivities."
"They'll have a big gathering; our small group will be more... relaxing." Mattie moved closer to the stallion. "You'll come... won't you?"
The mare batted her lashes, and Adriano heard himself acquiesce. "Of course, I'll come." He blinked as Mattie smiled brilliantly at him.
What had he done?
* * *
"I'm so glad you're still here to help me with this cleaning," Caprice told Licorice as the two ponies moved the sofa back into place after Caprice had vacuumed... an unnecessary chore, Licorice thought, knowing full well that Caprice had kept the house spotless in Sugarberry's absence. That, and she had kept both him and Adriano well supplied with cookies and other desserts as well, so Licorice complied with the mare's wishes.
"Mom and Dad wanted to see the new foal, so they decided to come and then escort me home... as if I need it." The young stallion grimaced, not entirely agreeing with the idea that he was unable to make his own way home.
"You'll be glad of the company," Caprice chided, "especially if the weather turns bad... although the forecast is for sunny skies."
"Yeah, I suppose so," Licorice granted. He was looking forward to seeing his folks and spending the holiday back at Birdsong with his brothers, Tramples and Buck. His niece, Victorian Violet, at fifteen months, would find the season a magical time. With Columbine expecting again and Tramples to be wed to Hollyhock in the spring, the Birdsong family was growing.
"It's too bad Snapper can't go with you."
"If it wasn't for his brat of a sister, he'd have been able to come. It was her idea for the two of them to go ice fishing."
Caprice shook her head. "The poor boy, to take such a dunking. He's lucky not to have pneumonia."
"He's sick enough as it is... and, to top it off, Boxey gets all the credit for pulling him out. She's the one who should have gone in!"
"I thought the two of you were getting along better," Caprice noted.
"We would be, if she'd use her head," Licorice grumbled.
"Well, she's young yet. And Snapper should have known better himself."
"Have you ever tried to talk sense to Boxey?"
"No," Caprice admitted. "And neither Thomas or Elaine were difficult children." The mare grinned. "I'll bet Agatha had her hooves full with Tabby, though." Her daughter-in-law was spirited, to say the least.
The sound of hooves on the front porch drew Caprice and Licorice's attention. The door opened to admit Adriano.
"Ah, Caprice. The house looks great." He shared a wink with Licorice as both stallions were aware that Caprice would never stand for anything less than a spotless environment.
"Why, thank you, Adriano. Licorice has been a big help. Put the vacuum away, dear," she directed Licorice, "and we'll all have cookies and milk in the kitchen. "
As if on cue, the two feline residents came out from hiding, Fluff from the top of the stairs and Raptor from the direction of the study. The roar of the vacuum always sent them scurrying, but the word milk had a magnetic pull. Fluffy steered around Adriano but wrapped his fluffy body around Caprice's legs. Raptor went to the kitchen door and sat patiently waiting.
"What's that wonderful smell?" Adriano asked, sniffing the air.
"There's a roast in the oven," Caprice said as she got the milk from the refrigerator. "I want a good meal ready when Sugarberry and Vanguard get here." Her eyes grew thoughtful. "Banderol will have grown, and the new baby..."
Caprice's words were cut off as commotion was heard coming from the front of the house. With a questioning glance at Licorice and Adriano, she went to investigate... and squealed with delight when she found the aforementioned travelers on the doorstep. "You're early!"
"I miscalculated the time difference," admitted Sugarberry, her voice muffled as Caprice embraced her and the blanketed bundle she carried.
"It's so good to see you!" Caprice purred, moving on to hug Vanguard and scoop Banderol into her forelegs. "How's my boy doing? Why, you've grown so big!"
Banderol soaked up the mare's attention while Adriano and Licorice greeted the new arrivals until Sugarberry, bursting with pride, cleared her throat. "Caprice... Licorice... Adriano... we'd like you to meet the newest member of our family." With a loving glance at her husband and a tender smile for Banderol, she drew back the blanket that covered the foal's sleeping face. "Everyone, may I introduce you to Coppice."
The gathered ponies gazed down upon the now nearly six-week old colt, admiring his apple green color and the tawny curls that framed his chubby face. As if sensing the attention focused upon him, the foal opened blue-green eyes, gazed at his audience, screwed-up his angelic face, and let out a plaintive wail. The ensuing laughter of the adults only succeeded in further upsetting the foal, who sought consolation in his mother's familiar warmth.
"Oh, sweetie," Sugarberry cooed, gently rocking the fussing baby, "these ponies are all part of our family, too. You'll learn to love them soon enough." Little Coppice, hearing his mother's voice, slowed his crying to listen, his eyes fastening on hers as if to a lifeline.
"What an angel," Caprice murmured, gently stroking a soft wisp of hair off his cheek. "Come to Caprice, little darling." Sugarberry transferred the now docile colt over to the mare, and Caprice headed for the rocking chair to become acquainted with the new addition.
Banderol tugged at his mother's foreleg. "Me hugwy, Mommy."
"As always," Sugarberry rolled her eyes. "Licorice, have you left any crumbs in the cookie jar?"
"Better than that," Licorice grinned. "Come on, Bandy. We were about to have some cookies and milk when you arrived." He hoisted the two-year-old up over his head, causing the colt to giggle in delight, and carried him to the kitchen.
"Well, Adriano, have the Pony Pride students been on their best behavior for you?" Vanguard asked.
"Most of them have," Adriano admitted, "but there are a couple of problems I'd like to discuss with you when you have the time." He smiled. "And I'll be interested in hearing of your experiences at Leonardo."
"A number of students asked me to wish you a Merry Christmas." Vanguard's voice faded into the other room as he and Adriano joined Licorice and Banderol, leaving the mares with the foal.
"Another of God's miracles," Caprice said, nodding at Coppice who was intently engaged in surveying her purple hair.
Sugarberry pulled up a chair to sit next to Caprice and gaze at her son as if she would never get her fill of looking at the child. "Each little one is a blessing," Sugarberry agreed. "I'm sure you're enjoying all three of your granddaughters."
"Oh, yes. Faline is as precocious as ever, and Nymph can't wait to do everything her big sister does. Alanna is three-months-old now and as gentle in disposition as Elaine ever was, but with Alan's coloring."
"I can't wait to see them all!"
"Well, I think you'd better rest first; I've got supper in the oven for you, so you won't have to mess with any cooking your first day home. Then you better get to bed. I'm having a buffet luncheon at my house tomorrow so you can catch up on what's been going on."
"Caprice, you're too good to us! I can see that you've kept the house in excellent order; and from the brief view I got of Fluff and Raptor, you've taken good care of them, too. I can't ask you to play hostess for me as well."
"You didn't ask, dear. I volunteered. And it's been a pleasure keeping an eye on the place and making sure Adriano and Licorice were well fed. I've enjoyed every minute of it. Now," she said, rising, "it's time we got some of those cookies for ourselves before they're all gone!"
Laughing, Sugarberry hugged the mare. "My, it's good to be home!"
* * *
"I feel like I'm visiting a pre-school," noted Licorice the following day as Caprice led him to a vacant chair, his hooves full of food from the buffet. Faline was helping Banderol set up the Little People castle while Nymph waved a green plastic dragon through the air; Coppice and Alanna lay nearby, watching their playmates and listening to their chatter.
"Get used to it," Trendy, Licorice's father, retorted, referring to their own growing family. He and Lilac had arrived that morning from Birdsong and would accompany Licorice back home for the semester break.
"Having the grandfoals around will keep you young," Lilac reminded her husband.
"I'm not complaining, Lilac. I just want Licorice here to realize that with Victorian Violet running around the house, he may have to make some adjustments."
"Licorice is great with the foals," Sugarberry noted. "He and Banderol are true pals."
"Speaking of pals, Licorice, how is Snapper doing?" asked Lilac.
"His fever's down, but he's still got a bad cough and a sore throat," Licorice informed his parent. "Plus, he has nightmares about falling through the ice."
"The poor thing," commiserated Lilac. "And how's Boxey?"
"Boxey's fine; she barely got her hooves wet."
"Now, everyone, don't be shy about having seconds," Caprice reminded her guests. "There's plenty of food."
"Enough for an army, Mother," Thomas grinned.
"I made the bean casserole," said Tabby, looking over the plates of the ponies near her. "Alan, you didn't take any." She scowled at the stallion.
"Yes, I did, Tabby; it was just so good that it was the first thing I ate," Alan teased.
"Everything is delicious," Elaine added.
"Yes, it is," agreed Sugarberry. "Thanks again, Caprice, for such a lovely welcome home gathering."
"There were days while in Yeti confinement that I thought I'd never get to see my children again," confided Caprice. "Having the opportunity to entertain them and their friends is a gift I'll never tire of."
"That's the truth," Dietrich said, smiling at his wife. "We've got a lot to be thankful for."
From across the room, Agatha sniffed. "The Yetis, most likely, were grateful to see the last of them."
Hubert cleared his throat to cover his wife's spiteful words. "Tabby and I've been discussing a return journey to the island home of the Yetis."
"Tabby, you wouldn't seriously consider that!" Sugarberry admonished. "Think of your girls!"
"Faline loved our first visit there, finding her grandparents and all," Tabby responded brightly while glaring at her own mother. "Nymph needs some adventure, too."
"I wouldn't go out of my way looking for it," worried Elaine.
"We evaded the Yetis once; we can do it again," asserted Tabby.
"The sledding party for the foals is our next project, however," Thomas said, wisely changing the course of the conversation as everyone joined in, enumerating all the tasks that yet needed to be finished before Christmas.
* * *
The next day found Sugarberry, Vanguard, Banderol, and Coppice at a gathering of friends at Chocolate Chip and Wigwam's house. It was, again, a lively bunch accented by a plethora of foals.
"Licorice would freak-out with all these babies!" giggled Sugarberry as she watched Banderol playing with Tamarack and Baby Butch. Sugarberry herself was holding Coppice, and Dreamcatcher had Chenoa in her forelegs. Chenoa's twin, Paco, was with his father while Garnet and Wishbone's twins were in the care of Wigwam who was "practicing juggling two babies- just in case." Both little girls were currently asleep.
"Piece of cake," Wigwam said, grinning across the room at Wishbone.
Wishbone snorted. "Just wait until Amber Waves wakes up. You won't be smiling then."
Wigwam's smile grew wider. "We'll see, now, bantling, won't we?"
Garnet cast a sassy glance at Wigwam and winked at Chocolate Chip who was due in January. "I give him eight seconds... tops."
"Oh, you of little faith!" retorted Wigwam, cuddling both sleeping foals more closely to him. The motion- and the taunting and teasing voices around him- disturbed the twin's sleep; and Amber Waves- true to form- began a frantic crying. For one so small, the volume was intense.
Cradled in Wigwam's other foreleg, Amethyst Falls, normally of mild disposition, heard her sister's wail of distress and joined the melee. Wigwam now had two dynamos to control, and a curious gallery of onlookers watched to see how he would handle the dilemma.
A look of genuine dismay had crossed Wigwam's face over this unexpected barrage of vocalizing from his two charges, but he quickly took control of the situation. With the dexterity of one who had years of practice behind a dealing table at the casino, he shifted the two wailing bundles and began rocking slowly back and forth while crooning a haunting Native Pony chant.
The sound of the deep voice and the unfamiliar vocalizations caught the attention of Amethyst Falls who now focused on the orange stallion in fascination, one little hoof entangled in his mane. Dreamcatcher picked up a carved wooden flute that rested on the entertainment center and added her sweet melody to the song. Following her lead, Fetish took up a drum and began beating out a subtle undercurrent. Bittersweet joined her voice to that of Wigwam's, her honeyed tone softening the melody, and Bolivia's trilling followed suite. Teepee and Butch filled in the background by shaking rattles.
The crying of Amber Waves lessened as the musical sounds penetrated her senses, and soon her teary eyes were as concentrated on Wigwam as her sister's, although she continued to whimper. When the musicians shifted from their low-key lullaby to Red Nativity's powerful Three Shaman, the foal's tears ended entirely and she listened in rapt fascination.
When the song faded out, Sugarberry was enthralled. "That was beautiful, you guys! You should perform at the living nativity!" The others who had listened to their friends' impromptu performance agreed, but Wigwam ignored them and raised his voice above theirs.
"Well, bantling, your daughters seem perfectly satisfied in my care," he grinned a challenge at Wishbone.
The rose-red stallion, however, felt a new respect for his brother-in-law and looked at him in admiration. "Umm... well, now... about the three-o'clock feedings..."
Wigwam got to his hooves and placed the foals in their father's forelegs. "My job here is done," he said, punching Wishbone in the shoulder. "The rest is up to you."
Vanguard chuckled. Taking Amethyst Falls from Wishbone, he advised, "Just remember... they grow up way too soon." He settled the little filly, then caught his wife's gaze. "Every moment is precious... even those at three in the morning."
"I can't wait," sighed Chocolate Chip, sidling over as best she could so that Wigwam could join her on the couch. She rested her head on his shoulder. "I can't wait to see what our baby looks like."
"As beautiful as her mother," Wigwam stated, kissing his wife's cheek.
"Or as handsome as his father," Chocolate Chip returned.
"Argh!" Butch moaned. "This is getting way too sentimental for me." He shook the Native Pony rattle he still held. "Let's party!"
* * *
A gentle snow was falling, giving the town of Dream Valley a Christmas-card look. Although the sky was dreary, the lighted trees that adorned the lawns of many of the houses spread a radiance that reflected on the falling flakes of white creating a sparkling and peaceful setting for the holiday.
Inside Sugarberry's house, this comfortable scene was repeated. A bedecked evergreen graced the living room where the mare sat gently rocking Baby Coppice while music of the season softly sounded. Fluff was asleep on the couch; Raptor watched the motion of the rocking chair with half-closed eyes.
The only discordant note in the room emanated from Adriano who sat in a chair in a corner of the room across from Sugarberry; his hoof tapped the arm of the chair or raked through his mane in agitated gestures while the frown on his face and the sadness in his eyes tore at Sugarberry's heart.
"Is something bothering you, Adriano?" she finally broke the silence to ask.
The stallion jumped at the sound of her voice. "Bothering me? Nothing. Nothing at all. Perfectly splendid day." He stood and began pacing.
"I suppose you miss your mother now that Christmas is nearly upon us."
"Mother? Oh, yes, mother. Suppose I do... miss her." In fact, his neurotic parent had occupied very little of his thoughts of late.
"I'm sure she misses you, too," said Sugarberry, gazing at her newborn lovingly, before glancing at Adriano. "But don't worry about Imogene. She's adjusted to your absence quite well, I think."
"My mother... adjusted?" queried Adriano in disbelief. His duty-calls to her were always rewarded with sniping remarks about her ungrateful son and the agonies she was suffering without him there to wait on her.
"I met her several times; she's a very gracious lady."
Sugarberry giggled. "Yes, your mother, Imogene. She was at one of Agatha's parties, and then we met again when dining out at Agostino's; she was with Gino..."
"Gino?!!" Adriano spun around, aghast.
"A very cultured stallion who seems to have taken your place as your mother's confidant."
"How could she?" Adriano almost wailed.
Sugarberry looked at him in surprise. "How could she what?"
"That stallion... Gino... was in love with my mother before she married my father. How dare he take advantage of my absence... and my father's absence... in such a shoddy manner!"
"You misunderstood me," Sugarberry assured the irate Adriano. "It's nothing like that. They're just good friends who enjoy the same social functions."
Letting that information sink in, Adriano stood in deep thought. Suddenly, however, his face contorted. "Mother seldom left the house; too busy... being cantankerous. Always expected me to fetch and carry for her. Made my life miserable. And Dad's before that."
Now it was Sugarberry's turn to be lost in thought. Finally, she expressed her opinion. "Maybe your mother needed you to leave so she could find her independence again. She seems perfectly content..." Sugarberry grinned, "...although she does harp on Leandra- Your cousin, is she?- who seems to ignore Imogene and go her own way."
"All my life, I've been a slave to my mother's wishes. Do you mean to say that if I'd walked out on her years ago, I'd have been spared her demeaning attitude?"
"I don't know," Sugarberry admitted. "But she does seem to be doing quite well."
"Wonder... if Dad knows."
"She mentioned that he'll be back from his expedition early in the new year."
"What will he find waiting for him?"
Sugarberry chose her words carefully. "Maybe Imogene realized what she was doing to her family by being so demanding. Seeing first her husband and then her son abandon her because of her unpleasantness might have caused her to take a long look at her life. I'd like to think that she's decided to face life head-on rather than vicariously."
"And what of Gino?"
"He's helping her to find her place in society again. And if she makes her husband jealous in the process... well, maybe he'll be more likely to take notice when he does arrive back in Vulcanopolis."
"Do you really think so?"
"After what you've told me about how much your mother has changed since you left, yes, I think it is a possibility."
Adriano grinned at the mare. "I'd like to be there when Dad returns." Then he sighed and turned away.
Disappointed to see that she had not succeeded in lifting the stallion from his doldrums, Sugarberry prodded, "Now what's wrong?" She shifted the sleeping foal on her lap to ease the tingling in her foreleg.
"Like you, Sugarberry," Adriano said, glancing in her direction. "Easy to talk to."
"So, is there something else you'd like to talk about?"
Adriano crossed to a nearby chair, sat down, and took a deep breath. "There's a mare... teaches at Pony Pride... very nice... like her a lot..." Adriano stuttered over his confession, blushed, and came to a sudden halt.
Finding herself in the position to mentor the obviously love-stricken stallion, Sugarberry could not contain a wide grin... or her curiosity. "Who is this mare?"
"English Department... butterscotch colored... purple hair... name's Heidi."
Heidi... Heidi... Sugarberry called to mind her recollection of the trim, soft-spoken teacher. She immediately decided that the mare's friendship would be perfect for Adriano, gentle enough to allow him to blossom and steady enough to give him confidence in his newly-found freedom from Imogene's grasping love.
"I've heard only good things about Heidi," Sugarberry assured the stallion. "I met her only briefly at a writer's meeting last spring, but both Licorice and Wishbone have found her to be an excellent teacher. Have the two of you been dating long?"
Adriano's blush deepened and he shook his head vigorously. "No... no... not dating at all... just talked... both served on same committee... not dating... no."
"But you'd like to?" Sugarberry prompted.
The stallion's eyes met Sugarberry's directly. "Yes... like to."
"Well, then, ask her out!"
This time, Adriano's face blanched. "Don't know how... never had time to date... Mother always saw to that..." He gulped. "Wouldn't know what to say."
"Call her and ask her to dinner or a movie or whatever." Sugarberry's eyes lit up. "Invite her to go to the living nativity with you! You could..." Adriano's crestfallen look stopped Sugarberry's plans. "What is it now?" she asked almost brusquely.
"Thought she was going to ask me," he admitted. "Said she'd call me at the office. Didn't."
"Oh," said Sugarberry, wondering if Heidi had been nice to the stallion but without her heart being involved. But they would be perfect for each other! "Maybe something interfered with her calling you; that doesn't mean that you can't call her."
"Can't..." Adriano shook his head, sending his mane flying. "Told Mattie I'd go with her."
Mattie! Sugarberry was well aware of that little minx's wiles and would be eternally grateful that Mattie looked upon Vanguard as her boss and no more. Allowing Mattie to make the calls where Adriano was concerned would not go well for the stallion... not if he truly was interested in Heidi.
With Adriano sitting in front of her with a pleading look in his eyes that begged for her help, Sugarberry thought of a plan. With a smug expression, she patted Adriano's hoof.
"Don't worry about a thing. By Christmas Eve, you'll have a chance to impress your Heidi."
* * *
Sugarberry lost no time. As soon as Adriano went upstairs to his room, she got on the telephone, calling Mattie and inviting her to come to the house before the living nativity for an informal gathering with hot cocoa, caroling, and conversation. When Mattie tried to demur, Sugarberry purred out her desire to use this opportunity to thank the office secretary for her work for the Mathematics Department in Vanguard's absence and would not take no for an answer. Mattie had no choice but to acquiesce to Sugarberry's plan.
Successfully finishing that call, Sugarberry stood in meditative silence for a moment, her forehoof tapping her chin. With a sudden flash of inspiration, she called Heidi's number and profusely asked a number of grammatical questions of the teacher, siting her current work with the fashion book she was finishing as the basis for her need for information. After listening to Heidi's concisely correct guidance, Sugarberry channeled the conversation to the Christmas Eve celebration of the nativity at the park and ended by inviting Heidi to join their group.
When Heidi tried to beg off, saying that she would feel out of place in such a family gathering, Sugarberry put her on a guilt trip by explaining that since Heidi had been so helpful to her, she- Sugarberry- would be disconsolate if she could not do something in return; hence, before she knew what was happening, Heidi had agreed to come to Sugarberry's house for cocoa and cookies.
By the time Vanguard and Banderol had returned from their trek to Butch's cabin in the Dark Forest, Sugarberry had assured Adriano's future... or so she hoped.
* * *
Wringing her hooves, Heidi looked at the telephone. What had she done, accepting Sugarberry's invitation that way? Surely, Adriano would be at the house, too; and that meeting would be uncomfortable.
Hadn't she called Adriano's office like she had told him she would- and what had come of it? He had ignored the call. And when she had tried again, she had been informed by Mattie that Adriano would now be out of the office until after the holidays. Then the brazen mare had been cocky enough to suggest that Heidi would see him at the living nativity, because he had asked her- Mattie- to accompany him there. Heidi could hear the triumph in the little hussy's voice...
Brushing her hoof across her face in a concentrated effort not to lose her holiday goodwill, Heidi turned to more pleasant thoughts. The university teacher's committee that had worked to secure funds for the needy ponies of the area had succeeded beyond their wildest expectations, meaning that Christmas would be brighter, warmer, and merrier for a large number of unemployed families.
Heidi smiled. It had been a joy working with her compatriots for such a worthy cause, and everyone had entered the spirit of the enterprise full-heartedly. Why, even Adriano, whose ties were with Vulcanopolis, had responded with compassion and enthusiasm, delivering Christmas joy to those less fortunate in worldly goods. He always had a warm smile and a kind word; and the way his mane always fell across his forehead and into his eyes...
The rat had chosen Mattie over her! Oh, why had she ever met that insufferable stallion! Heidi sat down in the nearest chair and cried.
* * *
Christmas Eve arrived, the sky clear and sparkling with stars that seemed to be shouting the message of the angels: Glory to God! The air was cold but not bitterly so; the wintry winds had apparently taken the holiday off; the snow underhoof crunched loudly in the quiet nighttime atmosphere.
At the front door, Sugarberry greeted the latest batch of guests: Mattie, Buttercrunch, and Ages. She extended her brightest holiday greetings and ushered them into the house where Mattie snared Adriano before that stallion could duck out-of-sight. The tormented look he flashed at Sugarberry as he lost all hope of sharing this evening with Heidi caused Sugarberry an apprehensive few moments; but before she closed the door, she took one more look down the street and saw a lone pony coming in her direction.
Closing the door behind her, Sugarberry walked out onto the evergreen bedecked porch and waited patiently for the slow-moving equine to reach the sidewalk. Then, with an enthusiasm that she prayed was not noticeably overplayed, Sugarberry greeted Heidi.
"Merry Christmas! I'm so glad you could join us. Adriano would have been so disappointed if you'd decided not to come."
Heidi ignored the remark about the stallion. "It's my pleasure to be here, Sugarberry. My family is out of town with relatives in Grayton, so I appreciate your invitation."
The mare did not reveal the fact that she had been so lonely since Adriano had ignored her call that she had contemplated following her family east in an effort to forget about the stallion, yet she knew that her arrival in Grayton would only broadcast the fact that she had misjudged Adriano's interest in her; she had no intention of garnering her family's curious glances. Half of her relatives would feel sorry for her, the others would tease her mercilessly.
"Then I'm glad I called you when I did; I almost waited until after the holidays, but I was anxious to get my questions answered. I appreciate your guidance." Sugarberry looked toward the door furtively, then continued. "I'd also like to ask you for further help."
"Ask away, Sugarberry. I'm honored to advise a published author."
"This favor is of a more personal nature, Heidi," Sugarberry admitted, grateful that the only light on the porch was from the tiny Christmas lights that decorated the evergreen boughs so that Heidi could not read her nervousness over such blatant maneuvering of the mare. "You see, I noticed this evening that one of the mare's I invited has been making a nuisance of herself with another of my guests. I'd like you to rescue one of the stallions from an uncomfortable situation."
"Oh, Sugarberry, that kind of thing is out of my league. Ask me anything about proper composition, and I'll give you a knowledgeable answer; but to put myself forward like that..."
Sugarberry silenced the mare with a shake of her head. "I'm not asking you to do anything obvious," she assured Heidi. That was up to Hawkley, who was in on her plan, too. "All you need to do is approach Adriano..."
This time it was Heidi whose head moved in the negative. "No. I won't do it."
"But Mattie is taking advantage of Adriano's... inexperience... and he's not happy at all. Surely you don't want to ruin his Christmas, especially when he's so far from home."
"Adriano's... not happy?"
Sugarberry sighed in relief that Heidi was now at least interested. "He's very unhappy. You see..." Sugarberry could be nothing but truthful, "...well, to be perfectly honest, Adriano was hoping to share this special evening with you; but Mattie caught him off guard and finagled him into her clutches."
"That's why he didn't call me back."
"You called him? He was terribly disappointed because you didn't call him!"
"I talked with Mattie and asked her to give Adriano a message from me," Heidi said through gritted teeth.
"Why, the..." Sugarberry lost any doubts she had about interfering in this situation. "Heidi, we have our work cut out for us."
* * *
Entering the house in Sugarberry's wake, Heidi immediately assessed the gathering and noted with a sinking heart that Adriano was nowhere in sight. Neither was Mattie. She was taken under Vanguard's care, however, and introduced to several ponies with whom she was not yet acquainted and then guided to the dining room where a buffet of Christmas cookies, bars, candy, nuts, and beverages was laid out for the guests' benefit.
Standing at the far end of the table stood Adriano, holding a festive plate on which Mattie was piling foodstuffs. His face was flushed, his posture tense, and his back was turned so that he could not see Heidi's entrance. As Heidi watched, Mattie, with a quick glance in her direction, called Adriano's attention to a luscious-looking display of various types of homemade fudge. "Oh!" she purred. "My favorite... peanut butter!" Selecting a piece, she added it to the plate, then claimed Adriano's foreleg. "Let's go find a nice, private place to sit and eat."
As Mattie led Adriano toward the doorway opposite the one in which Heidi stood, a denim blue stallion with violet hair breezed into the room. "Mattie!" he exclaimed. "Just the pony I was looking for. A couple of us stallions need someone to teach us that new dance step that's so popular in New Pony, and Abacus says you're the expert." He tugged at her free hoof, causing her to release her hold on Adriano.
"Hawkley! Adriano and I were just about to have something to eat!" she said, but with barely a glance at her escort. Quickly calculating the best potential for a good time, she considered her options. Hawkley was the most sought after prize by most of the mares in Dream Valley at the moment, and he was uncommitted. In the past, he had never given her a second look, which had often irritated Mattie. But now...
"Please, Mattie. We need to be ready for the New Year's Eve party at the casino."
It took the mare only a moment to choose Hawkley over Adriano. Without a backward glance, she abandoned him and her food and took off with Hawkley in the direction of the living room. Adriano stood statue-like, feeling a mixture of chagrin and relief, completely unaware of the other pony approaching him from behind.
"You're very hungry."
The sound of Heidi's voice hit Adriano like a lightening strike, and the plate of food shot from his hoof, colliding with the table leg and shattering to the floor. Aghast at having broken a piece of Sugarberry's holiday dinnerware, he stared at the fragments of china and sweets.
Moving to clean up the mess, Heidi smiled up at the stallion. "I'm sorry. I didn't mean to startle you."
That smile washed over Adriano like a healing balm. She was here, just as Sugarberry had promised. "I didn't know if you'd come."
"I only arrived a short while ago." She held up broken fragments of the plate. "Could you find something to put these in?" Again, that smile flashed.
Adriano blushed, then stuttered. "A garbage bag... I'll get one... wait here.." He started off, then stopped and turned. "No... no... might hurt yourself... take those with me." He reached for the pieces and blushed more deeply when their hooves briefly met. "I'll... I'll be back." The stallion disappeared into the kitchen.
A soft thump behind her alerted Heidi that she was not alone; she turned to find a black tiger cat approaching her. Raptor had been watching the proceedings from his favorite vantage point in the dining room, a side table now massed with evergreen boughs and holly berries but with enough room to allow the slim cat a cozy resting place that was not highly visible. Having tolerated Adriano for months now, Raptor had become accustomed to his presence in the house. Never before, however, had the stallion offered him such a tasty snack.
The cat stopped and sat just out of reach of Heidi, assessing the mare and noting the exact ingredients of the crumbly food products on the floor. Deciding that this pony was cat-friendly, Raptor moved closer and sniffed at her hoof which smelled of spices and chocolate and other yummy things. With a satisfied grin, he licked her hoof with his rough, pink tongue.
"Nice kitty," Heidi said softly, petting his back. Raptor was ecstatic. What more could a feline ask for than food and an accommodating pony? Heidi lived up to his expectations, offering the cat an entire piece of an oatmeal bar for his own. This act prompted the other feline resident of the house to come out of hiding and present himself for his share of the windfall.
"Heidi! Careful!" Adriano warned, coming upon the mare in such close camaraderie with the cats. Adriano may have learned to accept the feline occupants of his temporary home, but he did not yet completely trust them.
"What beautiful cats," Heidi murmured, stroking the newest arrival, a long-haired orange and white behemoth who gazed up at her with round green eyes. Once she had settled his share of food in front of him, Fluffy rubbed against her leg before settling down to eat. "I've always wanted a cat."
Adriano shuddered. "Don't trust them. Sneaky creatures, cats are." He leaned to pick up the rest of the mess from the floor.
Heidi frowned and patted both of the cats on their heads. "I can't believe you don't like cats."
Realizing he had made a tactical error, Adriano straightened. "Never said I didn't like cats. Just don't trust them. They hide and watch and sneak about."
Heidi laughed. "This orange one looks too big to hide or sneak." She scratched Fluff under the chin, and the cat purred his delight.
"The smaller black one... he thinks too much," Adriano defended, having often wondered what Raptor was pondering as the cat stared at him.
"This sweetie?" Heidi asked, gathering Raptor into her forelegs and standing to meet Adriano's gaze. "Why, he's an angel." Raptor curled against the mare's shoulder, his eyes nearly closed in bliss.
Adriano shook his head. "No... no... not an angel." He had seen too many devilish glints in Raptor's eyes. "Don't trust him."
Heidi pealed the black tiger from her shoulder and held him out to Adriano. "Look into his eyes and see if you can tell him that face-to-face."
Adriano's only experience with the opposite sex had been in the form of his domineering mother's manipulation of him, and from that he had learned to be pliable if he wanted peace. Adriano focused on Raptor's yellow eyes and read only the cat's perverse pleasure in having won over Heidi to the consternation of this stallion who had infringed on his space in the first place. Swallowing the words he wanted to say, he turned his gaze to meet Heidi's... and lied.
"The cat's a wonderful creature... trustworthy and angelic as they come."
Heidi beamed such a look at him that Adriano could have hugged both the cat and the mare if Raptor at that moment had not decided that he had endured this encounter long enough and leaped from Heidi's forelegs onto the floor and out of the room.
The sound of voices and music and laughter from the other rooms seemed far away as the two ponies looked at one another, both realizing how alone they were. Heidi was the first to speak.
"Adriano, I tried to contact you that last day of classes."
"I was hoping we could spend some time together over the holiday."
"Yes, and here we are, together for Christmas Eve."
"We are. I'm glad."
"This will be my best Christmas ever."
"Yes, because of you." Adriano found that he and Heidi had somehow closed the gap between them during this conversation and realized just how easy it would be to lower his head over her lips and...
"Adriano!" Caprice called. "I just saw Fluff carry a cookie under the sofa. What's been going on in here?"
Both ponies jumped apart and Adriano stuttered, "N... nothing, Caprice. I... I just dropped a plate... cleaned up the mess... plate was broken... s... sorry about that..."
Adept at reading the stallion's blushes- and this one was as brilliant as any she had ever seen- Caprice realized what she had interrupted and tried to withdraw. "Not a problem, Adriano. I was just worried that Fluff was ruining the buffet. Carry on."
She had just reached the doorway when Wigwam, Vanguard, Thomas, and Dietrich blocked her exit. "I hope Fluff saved some food for us," Dietrich joked, heading for the buffet. "I've been craving those cookies ever since you took them out of the oven." He winked at Caprice. "It's warm enough in here that they should still have that fresh-from-the-oven goodness."
"I'm starved," Wigwam added, surveying the spread of food and picking out his favorites.
Suddenly, he seemed to notice Adriano and Heidi. "You two been enjoying... the treats?"
"Tabby was asking for you," Thomas noted, sparing a glance for Adriano. "Wondered if you'd gotten yourself into some kind of trouble."
"You've been missing Hawkley's dancing lesson," added Vanguard, "or have the two of you been practicing in here?" He raised a questioning eyebrow, causing Adriano's blush to darken and Heidi's face to color dramatically.
Caprice cleared her throat and tapped her foot menacingly on the floor. "If the four of you are quite through..."
"Oh, quite," said Dietrich, his plate satisfyingly full. He kissed his wife's cheek as he passed by. Thomas, Vanguard, and Wigwam only sniggered as they followed him out.
"The coast is clear," whispered Caprice as she checked for further intruders, "but, hurry." And they were once more alone.
Heidi turned dismayed eyes on Adriano. "They all think... They expect... They think we were going to... kiss!" She hissed the word.
"We were... weren't we?" Adriano asked, puzzled.
"Were we?" Heidi whispered.
"Never kissed a girl before," stated Adriano, bemused. "My mother, naturally. But a real girl... no, never." He gave the matter further thought. "Have you been kissed?"
"No." Heidi shook her head, then scrupulously added, "Not really."
"Not really?" What was that supposed to mean?
"Once a neighboring colt kissed me; I think someone dared him to."
"Oh. So not a real kiss."
"Then there was..." Heidi stopped and blushed. "But that wasn't a real kiss, either."
"What makes a kiss real?" Adriano wondered aloud.
"It has to mean something... special."
"I think you're special."
The conversation was interrupted as a number of those who had been practicing the dance steps demonstrated by Mattie came into the room looking for refreshments. Adriano and Heidi were separated in the bustle and could only wonder wistfully what might have ensued if they had been allowed a few more minutes to explore the possibilities.
* * *
It was much later when Adriano found Heidi seated in a relatively quiet corner with a mug of hot chocolate in her hooves; finally, he could speak to her without a crowd of onlookers. He sat next to her and looked around the room.
"It's getting late. Have to leave soon for the park."
"What would you be doing on Christmas Eve if you'd have gone back to Vulcanopolis?"
Adriano grimaced. "Running errands for my mother. Always do that."
"Surely you had some time to enjoy the season."
Shrugging his shoulders, Adriano stated the truth. "Couldn't harp on me while we were at church; it was the only peaceful time I had."
His face looked so sad over the memories that Heidi reached out to clasp his hoof. "I'm sorry. I wish things could have been better for you."
There was so much sincerity in her voice and so much warmth in her hoof that Adriano forgot all about his errant mother. "Things are better... here... now." He smiled. "Like being with you, Heidi."
"I feel the same about you."
"Then you wouldn't mind... our seeing each other... on a regular basis?"
"I look forward to it."
* * *
"Tabby, I'm so happy we could spend this Christmas together just like the old days," Sugarberry sighed as they left the living nativity to walk to Midnight Mass. Both of the mares carried their youngest foal while Thomas and Vanguard followed behind with Banderol and Faline. "I've missed you so much!"