“So who’s in charge of this?” Icon asked his brother as the two stallions neared the athletic field at Pony Pride University. The white stallion had come to Dream Valley to spend the weekend with Vanguard and Sugarberry.
“Medallion, the athletic director at Pony Pride, will be overseeing the day’s events although Wigwam and Fetish are coaching the respective teams.” An interest in lacrosse, a sport of Native Pony origin, had blossomed in the area, and today’s display was the beginning, hopefully, of some local teams, one being sponsored by local businesses, the other by Pony Pride.
“So who’s playing?” the white stallion queried, looking over the rather brown and dreary landscape that lay exposed due to the mild temperatures that had cut into winter’s white cover.
“Whoever shows up,” Vanguard grinned. “It just an informational meeting with a little hooves-on experience with the rules and the equipment.”
Vanguard, spotting Poeticus standing a little apart, headed to his location. “Have we missed anything?” he asked.
Poeticus looked relieved to see a friendly face, even though there were a number of other teachers from Pony Pride. “Hi, Vanguard. Good to see you again, Icon. What do you think? Are they going to get enough interest to pull this off?”
“It looks like a good turnout,” Vanguard stated. “Wigwam wasn’t sure what the results would be.”
“Lacrosse is an exciting sport,” Icon readily assured them.
Poeticus looked perturbed. “I watched a game once; it looked rather brutal to me.” The stallion would rather isolate himself with pen and paper than face a mob of opponents on a sports field. As a matter of fact, his mind had been filled with lines of a new sonnet when Medallion had asked him if he would be interested in trying his hoof at lacrosse, and Poeticus had distractedly said yes before he realized that he really had no interest whatsoever in the enterprise. Yet he had felt obligated to attend the first session as a matter of principle.
“Who’s that severe looking stallion over there?” Icon asked with a nod of his head toward a turquoise pony in the company of Fetish.
“Jalap, Fetish’s cousin.”
“He sure looks disturbed about something.”
Vanguard scrutinized the stallion in question. “He’s always looked that way, the few times I’ve met him.”
“He’s a shaman. I guess it carries its responsibilities.”
Icon laughed. “Well, Dr. Toby is a healer, too, and he seems to be enjoying himself.” The purple stallion was currently engaged in a wrestling match of sorts with Brandon. “How are his matrimonial plans coming?”
Raising a brow at his younger brother, Vanguard commented, “You haven’t asked so many questions since you were a two-year-old toddling around the house in my shadow.”
“I can take a hint,” Icon said, absenting himself from his brother’s side and hunting up Wishbone.
When Medallion called everyone to attention, the stallions gathered in a loosely-knit group around the athletic director as he welcomed their attendance and expressed his hope that they would go on to become dedicated and talented players. He called their attention to the fact that the Dream Valley Chamber of Commerce had funded the equipment while Pony Pride was supplying the playing field. Then he turned the field over to Fetish and Wigwam who would be coaching the stallions on the finer points of lacrosse.
“Lacrosse is the oldest organized sport in Ponyland,” Fetish began, “and it’s a hard, fast game. The Native Ponies used the sport to resolve conflicts as well as to form strong, virile stallions. The Native Pony contest could involve many, many ponies over a huge territory that could last for days, but it has become more refined in modern times.”
Wigwam took over. “Lacrosse is a game that requires coordination and agility, not brawn. As we go over some of the plays today, we’ll expect everyone to follow the rules and participate to the best of their ability... but safely.” He seemed to be eyeing Barnacle as he talked.
“What be the fun in that, I be thinkin’?” the pirate chortled.
“You do understand, Barnacle, that the crosse is not to be used with excessive force against another player, don’t you?” Quarterback queried, grateful that he would be a teammate rather than an opponent of the explosive pirate.
“For information’s sake,” Jalap spoke up, his voice soft but riveting, “the Native Ponies intended the game to be a rough, brutal sport; it was not uncommon for sticks to be used to strike the opponents.”
Poeticus groaned. “He’s not going to be playing, is he?” he whispered to Vanguard.
“I hope you’ve all become familiar with the rules,” Fetish said.
“For instance,” Wigwam backed him up, “there is to be no slashing, tripping, holding...”
“At least not any that’s detectable,” Butch said under his breath.
The stallions soon had the wooden sticks in hoof and were practicing the moves that would be needed in the afternoon’s practice. Brightblade and Barnacle expressed an interest in trying their talents as goalie for the Dream Valley team while Caravel and Digger trained for that position for Pony Pride. The field was a riot of color and motion as the action continued, each stallion learning how to handle the crosse and to throw, catch, or carry the ball in the net on the head of the stick.
Before long, the desire to put their teams to the test became everyone’s goal; Wigwam was not sure they were ready for organized play, but he and Fetish also realized that a little competition would be the best way to promote their interest in the sport. Positions were assigned to the various ponies according to their strengths and abilities. Barnacle was given the first opportunity as goalie for the business ponies, while Caravel was placed at the opposite goal.
The face-off to begin play was explained to the players, and Quarterback and Wishbone were positioned at center field to begin the contest. Medallion blew the whistle, and Quarterback did manage to gain control of the ball which set in motion a wild scramble of not too adept ponies at playing lacrosse.
Wigwam shook his head. He knew it was not going to be easy, but the disorder on the field was a disaster waiting to happen as no one seemed to be listening to the officials whistles. Fetish, however, his voice authoritative, finally managed to regroup the stallions for an assessment of their actions.
“Butch, there is to be no body checking against players without the ball,” he reminded one pony while Wigwam constrained Caravel who was angry with Ages over his defense of their goal.
“What am I supposed to do?” Ages complained. “You think I’m going to risk my job by out-playing my boss?” He sent a thunderstruck look at his teammate.
“Just because Whisk is your boss when you’re at the Estate Manor doesn’t mean you have to mollycoddle him on the field!” Caravel griped in return.
Poeticus, who had not put himself into the game with much enthusiasm, had learned one thing in this first mad scramble-- he had no desire to become an aggressive lacrosse player. He looked yearningly at the sidelines, but before he could make a move to substitute one of the onlookers for himself, Medallion’s whistle once again started play; and before he knew it, Icon had gained control of the ball and flipped it in Poeticus’ direction.
By some unexpected reflex, Poeticus was able to catch the ball with his crosse; but he was no match for Butch who had soon blocked him; and before Poeticus knew what had happened, the play was centered at his team’s goal as Butch, Whisk, and Quarterback showed everyone how to score a goal.
“Look who’s mollycoddling, now!” Ages flung at the disappointed Caravel.
“Don’t let anything interrupt your concentration,” Fetish advised the goalie. “Remember to keep your eye on the ball.”
Further play had Barnacle threatening Digger, and both Wigwam and Fetish had to remind the pirate that unnecessary roughness was not allowed.
“You be thinkin’ I was playin’ rough, now, do ya? I’ll show ya rough!” A threatening stance was directed at Poeticus who happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time, but Hubert, who was helping to referee the practice, interfered.
“Your style, Barnacle, reminds me of the manner of the natives of Coolumbardo, and I don’t think you want to be connected with their kind.”
Whatever experience Barnacle had gone through with those particular island inhabitants, it did succeed in mellowing his fierce determination. “Me be keepin’ me temper in control,” he grumbled.
Wigwam looked at Jalap. “You know how to play this game; why don’t you take over someone’s position and show them how it is supposed to be done?”
Poeticus did not hesitate in offering his place to the grim-visaged Native Pony and quickly retreated to the sidelines where he would be safe while Jalap and the Pony Pride players squared off with the business tycoons of Dream Valley. Jalap was not only qualified but also fearless, and he was not intimidated even by Barnacle’s riotous technique; the action on the field intensified, but remained civilized.
Visitors to the scene of the action began to accumulate in larger numbers as friends and family came to watch the combat; one of those present was Becca, a mare who worked with the Chamber of Commerce. She had a camera in hoof, her plan being to get some shots of the sport in progress to drum up further interest among the business ponies in town. She positioned herself near the edge of the field and snapped pictures when things got exciting.
Hubert was patrolling the sidelines near Becca when a big play developed on the field. Roland was attempting, quite vigorously, to defend his goal against an intense attack by Jalap, Wishbone, and cronies; and a loose ball sent him careening across the field to a point where Hubert was watching the play. Hubert had to scuttle out of Roland’s way, while that stallion earnestly pursued his mission.
Once Hubert had moved beyond harm’s way, Roland had a clear shot at controlling the ball; but he had no chance at controlling his momentum in regard to an unnoticed obstacle on the field. Becca had taken advantage of the flow of motion to capture an action shot, and she had placed herself in Roland’s direct path.
By the time the stallion saw the mare, he was too close to stop; he had the presence of mind to drop the crosse and put out his hooves to repel as best he could the impact against Becca, but the force of his movement propelled the two of them across the sideline and into the crowd where their tumbling bodies were stopped only when they careened into Poeticus; and all three ended up in a tangled heap on the ground.
Poeticus and Roland were spared the crush of the impact, but Becca had been caught in the middle. As Roland extricated himself from the point of impact, he was appalled to see that Becca was not moving. Her forelegs had raked across Poeticus’ side as they went down, and that stallion was now supporting Becca’s weight across his shoulder. Poeticus stayed put, not wanting to move for fear of adding to Becca’s problems, and Becca herself seemed to be temporarily out of breath.
Roland had a fleeting flashback of his first and last experience with Becca when she had fallen and hurt herself after conducting a classroom seminar for his students and winced to think that this time it had been entirely his fault for causing her grief. But that thought was immediately run out of his mind by the realization that the mare had no right to be on the playing field, and he frowned at her as she shook her head and groaned, “What happened?”
“You nearly...” Roland began to say, but he was pushed aside as Toby and Jalap and others came to see what damage had been done. Wigwam helped Poeticus to extricate himself from beneath Becca, and Toby checked her over for breaks or bruises. Bruises she would have plenty of, but she was fortunately found to be of sound limb. Vector rescued the mare’s camera from where it had flown to land some distance away.
The other players, seeing that no permanent damage had been done, returned to their game, while Toby and Jalap hovered over Becca while she attempted to stand and move to one of the available benches where they applied some cold compresses to her wounded body. Roland watched, waiting for a chance to do one of two things, he wasn’t sure which: to apologize for having run her down or to blast her for being where she should not have been in the first place.
Toby, however, felt it was necessary to check Roland for any injuries, and Jalap offered the same assistance to Poeticus; by the time the stallions were assured that everyone would suffer no lasting harm, Roland’s anger was appeased enough so that he could offer Becca a friendly smile.
“I’m sorry about running you over that way, Becca.”
“It certainly wasn’t your fault,” Becca retorted. “I wasn’t paying attention. Well, I was paying attention because I was trying to focus in on the action, but I didn’t realize how things were going until it was too late.” She rubbed an upper foreleg where a bruise was already spreading it’s purple hue to her chartreuse skin. “At least the camera isn’t broken,” she smiled shakily.
Roland sat next to her. “You should be drinking some of this soda like Toby told you.” He offered her the can, and she accepted it with trembling hooves.
“It’s... cold all of a sudden... and dark,” she uttered, dropping the can and putting a hoof to her forehead; she seemed about to slide off the bench. Roland called for Toby, and the physician came running just in time to ease Becca back down to the ground.
“She’s fainted.” He administered to her while directing Roland to get a glass for the soda and Becca’s eyes were soon open once more. “Take some of this,” Toby said, putting the glass of liquid to her lips.
After a sip or too, the mare seemed to have become more coherent. “You must think I’m terribly wimpy.”
“Just drink this stuff; the sugar will do you good.”
Dreamcatcher and Merry Moments took it upon themselves to come to the mare’s rescue. “We’ll watch over her,” Dreamcatcher advised Toby.
Toby looked at the unicorn for a long moment before relinquishing Becca’s care to her. “All right. I think she’ll be okay now.” As he stepped away, he caught Jalap’s attention and walked a short distance with the shaman. “I’m aware that you are watching over Dreamcatcher’s pregnancy; what exactly are you doing to insure her health and that of the foal’s?”
“Everything that is necessary,” the shaman answered.
“She is looking rather wan for someone who is normally so energetic,” Toby worried. “Is she getting the proper vitamins she needs?”
“Her diet supplies all that,” Jalap briefly replied.
“I would feel better if she would come to see me or one of the other doctors at the hospital,” Toby continued, “but she doesn’t seem to want to entrust herself into our care.”
“I’m aware of that.”
“Maybe you could suggest to her that it wouldn’t be a bad idea to get a second opinion...”
“I know what is best for her,” Jalap intoned and moved off to rejoin the game.
Toby looked after him and considered the situation. He found it frustrating to suspect a problem where he could do nothing to substantiate his fears. Fetish had already been approached, but his hooves were tied as strictly as Toby’s, for Dreamcatcher had made it clear that she placed no value in modern medicine where her foal was concerned. Jalap had her trust and her care in his hooves.
Toby made one more attempt, however, before the day was through when he found himself with another chance to talk with Dreamcatcher. “How are you feeling? It must be getting close to your delivery time.”
“Several months yet,” the mare condescended to impart.
“Oh, yes, I remember Lemon Treats saying that you are due after she is.”
“Jalap says that May will bring my foal to birth.”
“Dreamcatcher, you know that I only want that birth to be a healthy and safe one for both of you. Have you given any more thought to coming in for an exam with me or Aurora?”
“I appreciate your concern, but I have complete confidence in Jalap.”
“You realize that an ultrasound would prepare us for any unforeseen complications...”
Dreamcatcher smiled and raised her hoof. “Spare your words, Dr. Toby. We will be fine.” And the mare left him standing; all he could do was watch her disappear into a crowd of ponies and hope that his worries were unfounded.
* * *
As the practice session wrapped up, Icon and Vanguard in the company of Wigwam and Chocolate Chip-- the mare had arrived after all the excitement was over-- were preparing to leave the field when they noticed Roland standing alone, looking in the direction of where Becca sat with Toby who was checking her condition one more time. Dreamcatcher had moved off to join her husband and Jalap, and Merry Moments was in conversation with Quarterback and Barnacle, so when Toby parted from the mare with his final admonition to take it easy and to call him if she suspected any problems developing, Becca was left unaccompanied.
Roland made his move. “I can walk you home, Becca.”
Becca smiled at the stallion. “Thanks, but Merry Moments said she would go with me. And I feel fine now anyway.” She stood up to prove her point and only winced a trifle.
“You don’t look okay,” Roland said, eyeing the bruises that decorated her body.
“They’re nothing,” Becca said. “I usually have a bruise or two-- you know that I’m a klutz.”
“Now whatever gave you that idea?” Roland grinned. “Besides, we haven’t had a chance to talk since the last time you got hurt in my company.”
Becca grimaced. “Don’t remind me.”
“How about we stop at the Satin Slipper Sweet Shoppe before I take you home?” Roland coaxed, knowing that ice cream was the mare’s downfall, so to speak.
The mare brightened. “I’d like that; it’ll get my mind off the pain.”
“I thought you said you were feeling fine now.”
“Well, someone with my predisposition to accidents is bound to have a pain somewhere at all times anyway,” she giggled.
They had not gotten far before they were overtaken by Vanguard and friends, and Icon moved up beside Becca and struck up a conversation. “Van tells me you do a lot of publicity work for the Dream Valley businesses; maybe you should think about coming to Woodlawn-- our advantage being that we don’t have a lacrosse team... yet!”
“Maybe I’ll do that,” Becca teased. “At the rate I’m going, Dream Valley will be glad to be rid of me.”
Roland found himself replying, as if from some other body, “We are perfectly happy to have Becca here, Icon. You can look elsewhere.” He shot the stallion a hostile glance and wrapped a foreleg around the mare, causing Becca to blush furiously.
Icon was not about to be subdued; he enjoyed a challenge. “Our Chamber of Commerce could use some new ideas, and someone with your enthusiasm would go a long way in getting things happening in Woodlawn.”
“You’re not serious, are you?”
“No, he’s not,” Roland answered for Icon.
“But I am!” Icon countered. “We’re actively looking for someone to coordinate our affairs. Would you consider it?”
Becca thought only for a moment before answering. “No, it’s tempting, but I like it here in Dream Valley.”
Chocolate Chip, who had been listening to this exchange, cornered Icon. “Becca does a great job for Dream Valley, Icon. Don’t try to tempt her away.” She looked at Becca and Roland. “Why don’t you two join us for Friendly’s birthday bash at the Satin Slipper Sweet Shoppe? That’s where we’re headed.”
“That we can handle,” Roland responded, his foreleg still around Becca. He looked at the mare beside him and suddenly pulled away as if he just realized what he was about. “What do you think, Becca?”
“As that’s where we were headed anyway...” she said distractedly, wondering why Roland had relinquished his support of her.
But Icon was quick to step into the breach. “Are you feeling a little weak, Becca? Let me help you.” And he graciously took over where Roland had left off. “If you need to stop and rest, let me know; the two of us could send this crew on ahead.”
Vanguard looked at his brother’s smiling face and at Roland’s scowling one. “How are you feeling, Becca?” he asked, trying to defuse any animosity that Roland might be feeling.
By this time, Wishbone overtook the group in the company of Petal and Caravel. “What’s up?” he asked, sensing some unspoken tension in the air and, seeing by the look on Icon’s face that he had the upper hoof, Wishbone placed his bet on Icon. He cut between Becca and Roland, and expressed his concern for Becca’s “having been trampled on,” as he phrased it, upon which he and Icon began regaling her with stories of sports-related injuries they had sustained over their lifetimes.
Roland fell back with Vanguard. “How long is your brother going to be in town?” he asked.
“Not long,” Vanguard shared. “Just a couple days.”
“A couple too many,” Roland muttered under his breath.
* * *
Friendly’s birthday celebration was a big success. The array of ponies present at the ice cream shop was reminiscent of earlier days when these ponies had spent most of their evenings in the congenial atmosphere of Scoop’s welcoming establishment.
“Tiffany’s the only one missing,” Tabby observed, glancing around the room.
Quarterback, who was nearby, laughed. “Don’t tell me you’ve forgotten about Tex already.”
“Who?” the pink unicorn innocently asked, causing a guffaw from Butch.
“That’s the spirit, Tabby. Dream Valley is better off without him.”
Sparkler frowned at him. “No one has heard from Tex, which seems extremely odd.”
“Maybe he went back to Bolivia,” Tabby offered matter-of-factly and did not notice the aggrieved expression that crossed Butch’s face.
A troupe of Bushwoolies scuttled by, creating havoc, as their idea of celebrating involved an abundance of hyperactive motion amidst a constant assault of chatter with Friendly at the center of the confusion. Sugarberry shook her head as she stood guard over the birthday cake that she had baked, and Garnet had decorated. “I’m glad this party isn’t being held at our house,” she said to her husband.
But Vanguard did not seem to be aware of the noise or confusion; his attention was focused on Icon who was across the room and still at the side of Becca. Wigwam and Chocolate Chip, along with Wishbone and Garnet, filled up the table. Roland had been relegated to the background where he found himself keeping Baby Noddins and Baby Falling Leaves company as they had discovered that he had once lived at Limestone Ridges which just happened to be an area on which they were to write a report for their social studies class.
“My brother is really coming on strong,” Vanguard said to Sugarberry.
“They seem to be having a good time,” noted the mare. “Don’t you approve?”
“I don’t think Roland approves.”
Sugarberry’s gaze sought out Roland. “He does seem to be paying more attention to what’s going on with Icon and Becca than he is to Baby Noddins’ questions,” she admitted. “But I haven’t seen the two of them together for ages.”
“He was worried about her after he knocked her down, I know.”
“I saw those bruises,” Sugarberry shivered. “She took quite a tumble; but she seems to be enjoying herself now.”
Standing next to Sugarberry, Elaine suddenly exclaimed, “Well, look who’s here!” Coming into the shop were Princess Tiffany and her Italian prince. There had been a time when Elaine would have cowered to see the white princess’s arrival, but the source of that antagonism had become a mute point since Toby was no longer fair game, and both mares were happily involved with stallions of their own.
The regal bearing of the princess and the arrogant demeanor of the stallion cast a stifling effect on the exuberance of the Bushwoolies as Tiffany gifted Friendly who had served her well as her personal attendant with a lavishly wrapped birthday present; the other Bushwoolies gathered around their buddy and watched in uncharacteristic silence. Friendly smiled broadly to receive such an impressive beneficence and immediately set about removing the ribbon and wrap to uncover a state-of-the art laptop loaded with extras courtesy of Guido’s Macrohard company.
As Tiffany and Guido moved off to mingle, the Bushwoolies renewed the party atmosphere and the Satin Slipper Sweet Shoppe was once more filled with noise and merriment. Tiffany, condescending to make small talk with the ponies she encountered,, worked her way toward Tabby, Guido following in her wake.
“Good evening, Tabitha. You’re looking... well.” The white pegasus ran a critical eye over the perky pink unicorn.
“Hi, Tiff! I didn’t think you were going to make it!” Tabby completely ignored Guido’s presence. Tiffany did, too, so Guido wandered off to speak with Vanguard and Thomas.
“I didn’t either, with so much going on in Vulcanopolis, but things worked out in the end.” She glanced around questioningly. “Where’s your daughter?”
Tabby waved her hoof carelessly. “Somewhere... I guess with the Bushwoolies.”
Tiffany’s eyes widened. “Is that wise?”
“Why wouldn’t it be?” Tabby said, cocking her head. “I mean, she already spends all her time with Shelbys and Furbys and Pokemon.”
“But, Tabitha, she will pick up all sorts of bad habits! You should be protecting her from such influences and teaching her to be cultured.”
“Oh, but she’s picking up lots of culture this way, Tiffy!”
Tiffany gave up as Sugarberry approached the two. “It’s so good to see you again, Tiffany,” the strawberry-patterned mare said. “I overheard Guido say that you had a smooth trip.”
“Having a personal jet at one’s disposal does make traveling a trifle less hectic,” the princess admitted. Then she lowered her voice. “Have I missed out on any good gossip lately?”
The mares discussed the news and views of the Dream Valley ponies thoroughly before Sugarberry commented to the princess, “You must be deluged in wedding planning yourself.”
“Oh, yes. My plans are going quite well... except for that little fiasco with the caterers.”
Guido, Vanguard, and Thomas had just come up to the mares, and Guido laughed at Tiffany’s statement. “Her little fiasco,” he shared with the others, “was caused by Tiffany’s insistence that the entire complement of cooks, waiters, and other assorted workers were to fly to Dream Valley to prepare for the wedding here which would have necessitating them having to drop several other engagements in Vulcanopolis.”
“Guido took care of it,” Tiffany sniffed. “He bought out the entire business so that now they have to do it my way.”
“You can’t be serious!” Sugarberry exclaimed.
“Of course, I’m serious,” the princess responded with a frosty look. “It solved everything.”
Merry Moments came up to the group accompanied by Quarterback whereupon Tiffany and Guido extended the couple congratulations concerning their Valentine Day’s engagement. Merry Moments, however, had another project on her mind.
“Some of us mares are talking about starting our own lacrosse team; we can’t let the guys have all the fun!” she enthused. “Are any of you interested?”
“After seeing what happened to Becca today, no thank you,” Sugarberry said adamantly.
“Hey! Even Becca’s interested in playing the sport,” Merry Moments laughed. “You’ll have to come up with a better excuse than that, Sugarberry.”
“Besides, the mares’ game is much more docile than the stallions’ game,” explained Quarterback. “There’s no stick or body contact involved.”
“Small comfort,” said Sugarberry, looking to Tabby for guidance. “What do you think?”
“I’m sure some of my Pokemon would love the challenge.”
“Chocolate Chip is willing to try it, as well as Petal and Garnet and Mignonette. Baby Falling Leaves and Baby Noddins want to join; maybe we can work them in somewhere. Dreamcatcher is interested once the foal arrives. Plus, several of the Sweetheart Sisters are really enthused about the sport, so they’ll bring in lots of the Pony Pride students,” rationalized Merry Moments.
“I personally look forward to seeing you mares out on the field,” Quarterback grinned.
Meanwhile, Icon’s table was still flying high with Roland having managed to pull up a chair across from Becca from which position he could keep an eye on things- or more explicitly, on Icon, who, Roland believed, was pressing his suit with Becca way too confidently. Yet why this mattered to Roland, even Roland would have found hard to explain.
But when Roland saw that Becca was looking tired, he made his move to cut Icon out. “Becca, would you like me to walk you home now? You look beat.”
“Only because you ran her down,” Icon was quick to note.
Becca, however, smiled at Roland. “Yes, if I can walk; I think all my muscles have tightened up by now.” She tentatively stretched a foreleg and grimaced.
“Maybe I should accompany you, too, Becca,” Icon decided, flashing a wink in Wishbone’s direction. “We wouldn’t want you take another tumble.”
Wishbone concurred. “You wouldn’t want that to happen, Becca.”
“I don’t think...” Becca started to say, but Icon and Roland were already on their hooves, neither of them willing to back down. So she submitted to Roland’s help with her chair and the offer of Icon’s hoof as she stood. For a moment, she enjoyed the support of both of the stallions as her abused muscles fought her movement; but when she took her first step, she granted Roland’s foreleg the honor of bolstering her.
Icon remained ever attentive, however, and when the group left the shop, he held the door and then sprinted to Becca’s side to ensure himself that she was not going to faint or become a victim to any other weakness incurred from the day’s accident. Roland glowered, realizing that it was going to be a long walk to Becca’s place with the unwanted assistance of this eager stallion.
When Icon arrived back at his brother and sister-in-law’s house, he found Sugarberry and Vanguard, Wishbone and Garnet, and Wigwam and Chocolate Chip still chatting in the living room; six faces swivelled to observe his entrance.
“Did you and Roland get Becca home safely?” asked Vanguard.
“Of course,” Icon retorted, dropping lazily into a vacant chair. He grinned suddenly. “Roland will pursue Becca’s attentions with a little more determination from here on in, I would presume.”
“What’s that supposed to mean?” queried Chocolate Chip.
“It means that if Roland thinks he has competition, he won’t drag his hooves when it comes to courting Becca,” Wishbone supplied.
“Is that his intention?” Garnet questioned. “I didn’t even notice that he was interested in her.”
“After he had knocked her down, he couldn’t keep his mind on the game; he was always watching her,” Icon rationalized.
“I’d have thought that was because he was worried about her.”
“Maybe their run-in made him see her in a new light,” suggested Wigwam.
“Wait a minute,” said Sugarberry to Icon. “By the way you were acting at the Satin Slipper Sweet Shoppe, I though you had eyes only for Becca.”
“She’s fun to be around, but I was only trying to goad Roland,” the stallion admitted. “And I think I succeeded quite well.”
“That’s a lot like matchmaking,” growled Vanguard, “which is a out of your league, little brother.”
“What was your motive?” asked Wigwam.
“I was serious when I invited her to come to Woodlawn to help our business scene grow; when she turned me down and I saw how aggrieved Roland was over my making such a proposal, I decided it would be entertaining to give him a run for the money.”
“What if you had succeeded in winning her affection?” asked Chocolate Chip.
“That would have been choice,” Wishbone snickered, eliciting an icy stare from Icon and a yawn from Garnet.
“It looks like its time for this party to break up,” Wigwam observed. “I’ll save you another trip out, tonight, Wishbone, and walk Garnet back to her place.” He offered a hoof to Chocolate Chip as the chocolate-brown mare stood. “You I will see tomorrow.” He kissed her lightly on the cheek.
Wishbone accompanied Wigwam and Garnet as far as the porch steps, then returned to the house and retired to his basement room. Sugarberry was refilling the cat food dishes for Fluff and Raptor; Chocolate Chip had already disappeared upstairs, and Vanguard was turning off the majority of the lights.
When Sugarberry had finished with her chores, she bid Vanguard and Icon a goodnight, knowing that Vanguard wanted some time alone to talk with his brother.
“You haven’t said anything this trip about the lawsuit Macrohard is holding over your company,” Vanguard said to him. Icon and two of his friends had organized an enterprise, H.C.I., which acronym could stand for the owners’ names- Hodgepodge, Cachet, Icon- or the name they had adopted- Hot Computer Ideations.
“What’s there to say? We don’t stand a chance with a company that wields that kind of power, even though we’ve done nothing wrong except develop a better product.” Icon sighed. “The reason I came to visit you and Sugarberry this weekend was to put this Macrohard ordeal out of my mind. It worked, too, until Guido walked in on the party tonight.”
“I would never have guessed that you even noticed he was there.”
“I noticed, all right. I also noticed that you and he appeared to be pretty buddy-buddy.” Icon looked at his brother with an accusing glance.
“So you think I’m consorting with the enemy? When I was in Vulcanopolis, Guido introduced me to ponies who became very good friends while I was over there. I also include him as a friend.”
“That would explain why you don’t see him as an ogre as I do.”
“I understand your mistrust; why he feels threatened by the company that you formed is a mystery to me.”
“It’s because we fill a niche that ponies find helpful, and we do our job right.”
“I realize that, Icon, and I’m glad for your success with what started out as a home-based venture.” Vanguard took a deep breath before continuing. “Guido wants you to call him tomorrow between eight and nine at his hotel, Regal Ridges.”
Icon stared at his brother. “He talked to you about the lawsuit?”
“No. He just said that you were having too good a time to interrupt you with business last evening, but he does want you to get in touch with him before he goes to the Royal Paradise for breakfast with Tiffany. I said I’d give you the message, and I have.”
“Does he even know I’m part of H.C.I.? His lawyers, yes, but not Guido himself, I would think.”
“He didn’t get to where he is today without knowing his competition.”
“H.C.I. is hardly that. The dent we make in his earnings is laughable from his point-of-view, but it means a lot to me... and Hodgepodge and Cachet. I suppose Guido wants us to quietly fold our company and get out of his hair with no publicity over the fact.”
“Or maybe he wants to work out a compromise. He’s not entirely ruthless.” The words were no sooner out of Vanguard’s mouth when he realized that Guido’s discarding of Clare for the Princess Tiffany could very well count as ruthless; yet the eventual outcome was quite satisfactory in that Clare had ended up remarkably happy with Giorgio, so Vanguard did not feel it necessary to change his expressed opinion.
“I’ll have to take your word for that.” The stallion ran a hoof across his forehead as if clearing his mind, but the effort obviously failed. “I’ll never be able to sleep now; I’ll be worrying about what he’s got planned.”
“I could always heat up some warm milk for you.”
“You know I hate that stuff!”
“Well, you’d better try to get some sleep; morning will be here before you know it.”
“All too soon,” Icon agreed. Then he grinned. “Sugarberry promised me she’d make those chocolate muffins for breakfast. At least I have that to look forward to.”
“That’s the spirit,” Vanguard replied, flipping the last switch, leaving only the hallway light to guide them. “You’ve still got your priorities straight.”
Icon did succeed in sleeping well, and he enjoyed the breakfast that Sugarberry served; his Sunday in Dream Valley, therefore, was off to a good start. Even his phone call to Guido did not dampen it too much, as the Italian stallion had been amiable in his queries concerning H.C.I. and had surprised Icon by requesting an appointment to meet with those involved with H.C.I. so that he could see for himself the operation of their business; he would be in Woodlawn on Tuesday. Icon could only imagine that Guido was taking a second look at Macrohard’s lawsuit and finding it lacking in credibility. It was with a positive attitude that, after church, he treated Vanguard and Sugarberry to lunch at the Café Carousel.
The three took their places around a table, but Icon had no sooner gotten seated when a grin spread across his face. “Well, look who’s here,” he said, pushing back his chair and striding off across the diner.
“Who...?” asked Sugarberry, turning her head to follow Icon’s route.
“It’s Becca,” Vanguard, with a clearer view, informed her. “And it looks like she’s been invited to join us.” He stood up as Icon accompanied the mare to their table and held a chair for her.
“Icon said he didn’t want me eating alone,” Becca said apologetically as she sat down. “I hope I’m not intruding.”
“Not at all,” Sugarberry assured her. “But I’m surprised that you’re feeling well enough to be out and about.”
“I feel better when I’m walking; it loosens up the stiffness. So after church I came here. If I went home, I’d collapse on the sofa and fall asleep and never move again.”
“Much better for you to be here,” Icon grinned.
During the course of the meal, the ponies had an enjoyable time with Icon entertaining Sugarberry and Becca with various exploits that he and his brothers had engaged in during their growing up years, with Vanguard interjecting various details or denying certain incidents, some of which Sugarberry had never been apprized of before. Becca herself added some insight into her growing up years with stories of daring exploits that she and her siblings had staged which always ended with the young Becca being the one to suffer the consequences, of which her current dining companions had no doubt was the truth. Laughter reigned supreme.
Even when the table had been cleared of all but the coffee cups, the four sat in happy harmony, unwilling for time to cut short their enjoyment; but, eventually, even Icon could not ignore the hour of the day. “If I’m to get back to Woodlawn, I’d better get going,” the stallion finally admitted. “Excuse me while I pay the tab.” As he stood, he noticed a familiar form coming toward the table. “Hi, Roland,” he called before moving off to the cash register.
Becca’s face softened as she greeted the stallion who had just entered the restaurant with a newspaper in his hoof; and Sugarberry, seeing an opportunity, suggested that Roland take their place with Becca as that mare was still nursing a hot cup of coffee. Roland seemed to favor the suggestion, and Becca’s warm smile settled it for him.
When Icon returned to take his leave of Becca, he reminded her to give some more thought to resettling her career in Woodlawn, assuring her that she would find the ponies of that town quite to her liking. Becca laughingly said she would most certainly consider it, but that she hoped Icon would not be too disappointed if she declined such a move.
Roland got in the next punch. “From what I hear, Icon, you might be in need of that job yourself.”
The disparaging tone of Roland’s voice as much as the words caught Icon’s attention, and he turned his steady gaze upon the stallion. “And just what’s that supposed to mean?” he asked, sobering considerably.
The abrupt change in Icon’s demeanor unsettled Roland, and he attempted to moderate the utterance. “Your company is having some problems.”
“If you call having to scramble to keep up with the demand for our services, yes. If you mean something else, I’d like to know what it is.” The look on Icon’s face was severe.
Roland met the glare in silence for a few moments as Sugarberry, Vanguard, and Becca looked on; then, as if coming to some conclusion, Roland threw the newspaper down on the table in Icon’s direction. “Read the paper.”
As Roland watched Icon peruse the article in question, he realized no satisfaction from his actions and wished now that he had kept his mouth shut. He glanced at Becca, only to find her anxiously watching Icon. Vanguard had moved to his brother’s side to see what the paper had to report, and Sugarberry maintained a censuring look directed at Roland.
The first thing that caught Vanguard’s eye as he peered at the newspaper over Icon’s shoulder was a photo of someone he recognized. It was a shot of Guido, looking every bit the masterful entrepreneur that he was; the accompanying news article was brief, but enlightening.
Macrohard’s owner and C.E.O., Guido Casale, was in Dream Valley this weekend in the company of Princess Tiffany for a social engagement; but when questioned, he admitted that he had business motives in mind as well. When asked about the impending lawsuit against H.C.I., a rival company located in Woodlawn which has garnered Macrohard’s disfavor, Casale stated that he anticipated that all matters with that company would be brought to a conclusion within the week. H.C.I. was taken to task by Macrohard for infringing on development rights of their new spreadsheet package. Macrohard claims H.C.I. exploited Macrohard technology in their bid to capture some of the behemoth’s computer domain. Casale verified that steps were being taken to restrain the maverick company through the legal system, and he anticipates a favorable and prompt decision.
Icon finished skimming the article and pushed the paper back across the table to Roland. “Don’t believe everything you read in the paper,” he advised, his eyes dark and forbidding. “This account is a mite one-sided.” With a brief nod at Becca, he turned and left.
Sugarberry, with a wan smile and shrug of her shoulders for Roland and Becca, followed in Vanguard’s company. When they were outside the Café Carousel, Icon turned on them.
“Not entirely ruthless, Van? He already has us written off!” Icon fumed.
“The article said the matter would be concluded; you don’t know yet what the conclusion will be,” Vanguard argued, but not very credibly.
“I don’t know, but I can pretty well guess, can’t I? The smug look on that stallion’s face...” He pounded a hoof on the pavement.
“Icon, listen to Vanguard.” Sugarberry placed a comforting hoof on his shoulder. “Wait until you hear what Guido has to say.”
“More to the point, Sugarberry; Guido better wait until he hears what Hodgepodge, Cachet, and I have to say.” He shook off her hoof and took off down the street.
Sugarberry opened her mouth to call him back, but Vanguard shook his head. “Let him go,” he advised. “He has to work this out on his own.”
“He’s so angry,” she fretted.
“He’ll cool off. He knew it would come to this point sooner or later.”
Sugarberry’s expression was dark, however, as she remembered Tiffany’s explanation of how Guido had solved her problem with the caterers: “He bought out the whole company...” If he did that to make the princess happy, what would he do to maintain his own supremacy?