Change of Heart
written by Sugarberry
Sugarberry was home alone when the knock came at the front door causing Fluff to scurry out of the room and Raptor to jump to the top of the sofa to get a good view of forthcoming events without being too obvious. The mare had been deep in concentration on a twist of events in her current story, and she softly groaned as the abrupt sound at the door caused her to lose all the elusive threads that she had been trying to latch on to.
Saving the information on her computer screen, Sugarberry stood up just as a second knock sounded. As she crossed the room muttering “I’m coming! I’m coming!” her mind kept busy with the intrigue and mystery of her manuscript so she should have been prepared for the unexpected; but when she opened the door and saw who was standing there, she was totally flustered to see a dark green stallion before her. “Giorgio!” she exclaimed in surprise.
“I hope I’m not imposing on you, Sugarberry, but I need to talk with you about some problems Wishbone is having,” imparted the unanticipated visitor. “May I come in?”
A bit of the old apprehension of this pony from Vulcanopolis swept over Sugarberry, and for an instant she entertained the thought of closing the door in his face to avoid any confrontation with him; then remembering his more amicable bearing on the evening of the apple festival-- not to mention her concern over Wishbone-- she responded, “Come in,” opening the door wider to allow him to enter her home.
A smile softened Giorgio’s strict features as if he could read the struggle playing out within Sugarberry as he came into the front room. But she was in control now, and indicated to him to be seated; Sugarberry herself sat in her wooden rocking chair, finding its familiarity comforting. She didn’t notice, however, that Raptor had dropped from his upright inquisitive posture to a more menacing attack form, his tail twitching.
“I understand that Wishbone lives under your care?” Giorgio opened the conversation without any preliminary small talk.
“Yes, he does,” Sugarberry confirmed.
“That’s why I’ve taken it upon myself to speak with you concerning the difficulty he’s having in his math class; he is not learning the material as easily as I’d hoped.”
“I’m aware that he’s been struggling with the assignments,” affirmed Sugarberry. “His sister says that math was never his strong subject.”
“That was not obvious when I recommended him for the higher level class. His former grades and the results of the summer test-out implied that he was ready to be challenged,” Giorgio tersely defended his decision.
“Wishbone needs to move more slowly through some of the concepts; bumping him up has broken the chain of learning for him,” suggested Sugarberry rationally.
Giorgio appeared slightly put-off by the mare’s argument, but smiled gratuitously. “You have had teaching experience?” he queried.
“No, I haven’t, but...”
Giorgio cut her off. “Well, then, let’s leave it to the experts; I personally have been in the field long enough to know when a student is not working up to his potential.”
“But he does study hard! I know that for a fact! And his sister is very patient explaining things to him,” argued Sugarberry, but feeling very intimidated by an educator of Giorgio’s stature.
“Irregardlessly, that does not fit the facts I see on his assignments. His work is far below what I expect from my students.”
Sugarberry continued to defend Wishbone. “He’s passed the tests, hasn’t he? He can’t be doing that badly.”
“Granted, he has passed the earliest tests, but just barely. He’s not showing me a good grasp of the course work. But my reason for talking to you goes deeper than Wishbone’s ability to learn the material.”
“Such as?” Sugarberry prompted as Giorgio grew silent. Before answering, he stood up and began pacing the room. Raptor’s head movement followed him, and his tail kept up a steady beat. Sugarberry began to get a nervous feeling as she realized that what Giorgio was going to say was not going to be something she wanted to hear.
Coming to a halt before Sugarberry, Giorgio-- to his credit-- tried to soften the blow. “It is a noble thing for you to take such an interest in Wishbone and his problems, Sugarberry.” But seeing the concern and torment in her eyes as she contemplated the worst, he hurriedly went on to disclose his suspicion. “I’m afraid that Wishbone has been cheating on the last two tests taken.”
Sugarberry leaped to her hooves, defiance showing on her face. “That’s not true!”
“I wish it wasn’t, but the facts tell me a different story. He’s gone from very inferior work and mediocre grades to straight A, knowledgeable work on the tests. He has definitely employed some manner of deceit to improve this drastically.”
“What if all that he’s been learning has finally started to make sense to him? It all came together, and now he can handle it.”
“I gave him the benefit of the doubt, Sugarberry; I didn’t indiscriminately accuse him tonight on a hunch.”
“What do you mean?”
Giorgio began his pacing again as if it pained him to have to enlighten Sugarberry to any further information that would bring her sorrow. “I gave several surprise quizzes covering some of the same problems as were on the test. Wishbone failed miserably.”
Sugarberry didn’t know what to say. She wished for Wishbone to get home at this moment so he could defend himself... so that he could tell Giorgio that he would never stoop so low as to cheat on a test, or on anything else, for that matter. But she stood alone.
“I’m sorry if I’ve upset you,” Giorgio said as she remained silent. “But I thought it would be better if you knew what troubles the young stallion has gotten himself into.”
“I’ll have to discuss this with Wishbone. I’m sure he will have an explanation that will set everything right,” she reasoned.
“I hope that your faith in him is justified,” Giorgio concurred. “I will withhold any action from the department until you’ve had a chance to talk with him.”
“I’d appreciate that.”
In the silence that followed, Giorgio seemed hesitant to end his visit. Catching sight of Raptor on the sofa, he professed, “Oh! You have a cat.” He reached out a hoof to pat the black tiger-striped feline only to be met with a warning growl that changed the stallion’s plans. “He doesn’t like strangers, I gather,” he said with a grin at Sugarberry.
“Raptor does have a rather discriminating taste,” fibbed Sugarberry. She had never seen Raptor dislike anyone, unless it was his former owner, Gauntlet.
Looking around the room as if searching for some further excuse to delay his departure, Giorgio’s gaze fell on a framed portrait of Sugarberry and her family that had been taken at Tabby’s wedding. Crossing the room to where it sat on the credenza, he reached out and picked up the picture. “Your family, I presume,” he asked with sparkling eyes.
“Y... yes,” Sugarberry stuttered. “It is.” She wondered if he was comparing it to the one that had been found by Vanguard in Giorgio’s town house back in Vulcanopolis. Or had Giorgio even seen the older picture? It was possible that the book had belonged to his father, and the picture had been forgotten long ago. But something kept her from mentioning the coincidence; that earlier photo had too many negative vibes connected to it.
“You and your sisters are Twice-As-Fancy, but your mother isn’t, I see.”
“No, she isn’t,” Sugarberry weakly echoed, some alarm triggering her to be aware of this clement side of Giorgio.
“And this is...?” Giorgio pointed to Strawberry Baskets.
“That is my father,” Sugarberry disclosed.
“Your father...” Giorgio repeated, his voice trailing off as if trying to see something from the past. “Have your parents ever visited Vulcanopolis?”
“Oh, no,” Sugarberry shook her head. “Dad hates traveling any great distance.”
“And your mother never ventured that far on her own?”
“Mom would never travel without Dad,” responded Sugarberry, feeling more and more uncomfortable with all the personal questions. But Giorgio seemed to find some release in this discussion of family to invoke him to become more open with his own background.
“My father would have been delighted to have three such daughters,” he stated pensively.
“My dad was delighted.”
Giorgio looked at Sugarberry searchingly. “Did you get along well with your father?”
“We were very close... all of us. He and Mom both cherished family above anything else... and still do.” Sugarberry’s statement seemed to subdue the stallion in some way, sparking her curiosity about him. She had never really considered him as a pony, only as a hindrance to her and Vanguard. “How about you and your dad? I hear that you two look alike.”
If his mood had turned a little melancholy, Giorgio threw it off as he heard Sugarberry’s question. Grinning, he retorted, “So I’m worth discussing, at least.” He seemed to enjoy the soft blush that brightened Sugarberry’s cheeks, but he gave her an answer to her question. “We may have looked alike, but that’s where it ended. We had nothing in common while I was growing up. Dad was always too busy...” Here he stopped, as if he felt he had said too much. And Sugarberry respected his reticence. After a pause, Giorgio renewed his interrogation. “This is a rather recent photo, isn’t it?”
Sugarberry hesitated, but saw no harm in answering the question. “It was taken in August, at Tabby’s wedding.”
“Yes. I heard about that wedding... the vet and the Pokemon nurse, wasn’t it?”
“Tabby and Thomas...”
“The photographer did an excellent job.” Giorgio seemed more intent on the photo than on the festivities surrounding it. “Was it taken by someone here in Dream Valley?”
“No, actually. Merry Moment’s studio is in Friendship Gardens.”
“Friendship Gardens. I see.” Giorgio set the picture back on the credenza. Seeming to realize that his questions may have gotten too far off the purpose of his original intention, he came back to Wishbone. “I’ll be in touch concerning your discussion with our wayward student.”
“I may not see him tonight,” Sugarberry replied, perceiving just how late it was getting, and wondering where her boarders were.
“I’ll give you time,” Giorgio smiled compassionately. “But I’m afraid I already know what you will find out.”
Sugarberry’s attention had moved from the family portrait to the companion one that stood on the far end of the sideboard... the one of her and Vanguard. Giorgio followed her gaze, and chuckled. “Admit it, Sugarberry. You are thinking that if Vanguard was here, this unfortunate affair would not have occurred.”
Sugarberry smiled, but made no response. She couldn’t tell this outsider how much she missed Vanguard, how she yearned for him to be back home, and what confidence she had that he could right any wrong.
Still hesitant, Giorgio moved to the door with Sugarberry following behind him. He reached for the doorknob, but then suddenly turned towards the mare, putting them face to face. Impulsively taking her hoof, Giorgio said what was on his mind. “Sugarberry, would you attend opening night of Romeo and Juliet with me tomorrow night?” His eyes met hers.
Sugarberry stuttered in confusion. “R... Romeo and Juliet?” This was the last thing she expected. It was true that her feelings for Giorgio weren’t as harsh as they had once been, but she had no desire to cultivate those feelings. Yes, she had shown an interest in him with her question earlier, but that certainly didn’t open any doors for a romantic involvement. “No,” she finally stammered, attempting to disengage her hoof from his grasp. But the stallion wasn’t going to be put off that easily.
His eyebrows lifted as if he read her thoughts, and he laughed. “My dear Sugarberry, far be it from me to infringe on Vanguard’s territory. I’m only asking for the pleasure of your company for an evening. Surely a visitor to your lovely city deserves even that.” Feeling completely embarrassed now, Sugarberry was at a loss for what to respond. As if the scenario secretly amused him, Giorgio continued to entice her. “It would give us an opportunity to discuss further the situation with Wishbone...”
Her resolve beginning to waiver, Sugarberry quickly weighed her options. As the gang never attended these sorts of functions, it was probable that no one that she was close to would even have to know that she had attended the play with Giorgio. And deep from within her, a twinge of jealousy began to work on her. During Clare’s business-related visit to Dream Valley earlier in the month, she had revealed the evening out with Vanguard at Guido and Tiffany’s engagement ball; she had described the surroundings and the dance in such detail that Sugarberry had felt very much like a second-rate fill-in. Clare had been vivid in expressing her pleasure at having Vanguard’s strong shoulder to lean on, and how she could depend on him for comfort. She had even gone so far as to refer to him as her knight! Sugarberry had tried to suppress her feelings, but now-- in the matter of a few seconds-- she decided on a new course.
“You’re right, of course,” she smiled at Giorgio. “It would be a chance to address the problem without the possibility of Wishbone’s interference.”
Having held her hoof all this time, Giorgio now made use of it by brushing it with a kiss. “You have given me something to look forward to,” he declared gallantly as their eyes met; Sugarberry’s glance faltered as an apprehensive shiver went down her spine, and she immediately regretted her decision to accompany this stallion on Friday evening. But as he had tarried before, Giorgio was now in a hurry to be gone, and he bid an immediate goodnight.
As the door clicked shut, Sugarberry vaguely heard a thump behind her as Raptor jumped off the couch and padded across the floor; the young cat stood up against the door, a growl rising from his throat. Sugarberry scooped him up to reassure him, but found herself doubting her own confidence that everything would be alright. She began pacing the floor, questioning her motives and actions.
Why had she accepted Giorgio’s invitation? It wasn’t that many weeks ago that she couldn’t be in the same room with him without suffering emotional trauma. So why did she now feel that he was no more of a threat to her than any other pony in Dream Valley? She couldn’t explain her shift; she couldn’t see the logic of it.
She thought back to the apple festival; whatever had precipitated a change had occurred that mild autumn day. Had she seen Giorgio in a new light because of his charitable actions for the earnings of jangles at the dunk tank? Or had it happened later, when they were alone for those few minutes at the Estate Manor? He had seemed companionable that evening, almost as if he was reaching out to be friends, almost as if he was a little lonely so far from home.
That thought triggered more than Sugarberry wanted to contemplate. Vanguard, too, was more than a little lonely so far from home, and he had Clare to... Sugarberry shook her head. I will not let my jealousy turn me into some sort of suspicious shrew, she chided herself. “Oh, why did I tell him I’d go to the performance with him?” she groaned out loud in agony of spirit.
At that moment, Chocolate Chip slipped through the opening door. “You’re still up?” the filly asked of Sugarberry.
“Obviously, I am.” The mare tried to sound unconcerned.
Looking right and left, Chocolate Chip seemed confused. “I though I heard you talking to someone as I came in.” She looked at Sugarberry sharply.
“Just practicing a line for my story,” rationalized Sugarberry as she tried to make it the truth. “And you’re all alone.”
“Wigwam had to get over to the casino.”
“And Wishbone?” Sugarberry ventured.
“Hmm. He was at the Satin Slipper Sweet Shoppe with Sable earlier, but they disappeared at some point. I don’t know where he went.”
“He’s not home yet,” frowned Sugarberry.
“Well, don’t stay up worrying about him,” Chocolate Chip hugged her surrogate mother. “He will be okay.”
“I know,” Sugarberry responded. “But you better not study too late. I’ll have to talk to Wigwam about your hours.”
Chocolate Chip grinned. “We studied at the library before we went for ice cream, so I’m going straight to bed. See you tomorrow!” She went off up the stairs.
Sugarberry waited until her eyes began drooping shut; then she got ready for bed. Hearing the sound of the opening door, she quickly and quietly returned downstairs; but Wishbone had already disappeared to his basement room, so she went back upstairs and fretfully fell asleep.
* * *
Chocolate Chip was up and out of the house early, but Wishbone had not shown up for breakfast when it was time for Sugarberry to leave for work. She left a message on the clinic phone telling Elaine and Thomas that she had some business to take care of, but she would get there as soon as possible.
Sitting at the kitchen table with a cup of coffee, Sugarberry waited patiently-- although the thoughts in her mind were disjointed and fretful-- until Wishbone made his entrance from his basement domain. Surprise showed on his face when he saw Sugarberry still in the house.
“What, a vacation day, Sugarberry?” he quipped as he dropped some bread in the toaster and poured a glass of milk before sitting down across from the mare.
“I need to discuss something with you, Wishbone,” Sugarberry began.
“Uh-oh. What did I do?”
“How are you doing with your math class by now?” she asked.
“Much better,” Wishbone grinned. “All of Chocky’s tutoring has paid off.” He jumped up when the toaster signaled and buttered the browned bread before Sugarberry continued.
“Giorgio paid me a visit last evening.”
Wishbone took that news with a surprised-- or frightened-- glance at Sugarberry, but he recovered quickly. “I didn’t know you were that close to him, Sugarberry.” He continued to wolf down his toast and gulp his milk.
“Wishbone, he accused you of cheating on your last two tests.”
“What?” Wishbone looked totally aghast at such a thought. “You’ve got to be joking!”
“Giorgio seemed to be quite sure of his facts, Wishbone. I told him I didn’t believe it, but I need to hear it from you.”
“Sugarberry, trust your judgement! Do you think I’d stoop so low?”
“He said your work on the tests didn’t match your work on the quizzes.”
“Anyone will tell you that Giorgio’s quizzes are monsters. Even Prime usually messes up on the pop quizzes in the class he’s taking. That’s no big deal.” Throwing a granola bar into his backpack, he reassured Sugarberry. “Don’t worry about this. I’ve got everything under control.” And he dashed out the door.
Sighing heavily, Sugarberry thought back over the conversation she had just had. What had she actually learned? Wishbone had not admitted to-- or denied-- cheating in Giorgio’s class. She muttered to herself, “I don’t know anymore than I did last night. He never gave me a direct answer. Now what am I supposed to do?”
Looking at the clock, she realized that at this point in time all she knew for sure was that she was due at the vet clinic. Dumping her coffee down the drain, she, too, dashed on her way.
* * *
Later in the morning at the clinic, Sugarberry had gotten caught up on her duties and was sharing some small talk with Elaine as they waited for the next client. “...and by the time Agatha and Hubert arrived, the kitchen was filled with smoke.”
“Poor Tabby.” Sugarberry was truly empathetic. “She tried so hard to impress her folks with a home cooked meal and ended up burning it instead. I wish it had a happier ending.”
Elaine giggled. “It worked out fine; Hubert and Agatha treated us to supper at Pizza Hut, and Tabby was able to get her fill of lettuce-less salad.”
“So you are doing most of the cooking at the mansion?”
“Yes. I’m not that great, but I can remember to keep an eye on the progress of what I’m preparing. I believe Tabby was checking an auction on eBay.” Elaine winked at Sugarberry and went on with the charts she was updating.
Sugarberry attempted to do something constructive, but could only concentrate on Wishbone’s reticence concerning her questions and her date with Giorgio. A shiver went through her just as the telephone rang.
The voice on the other end of the line was that of Giorgio; Sugarberry immediately felt so guilty that she cast a glance at Elaine expecting to find her shaking her head in disapproval. But the vet was engrossed in her own work, and paid no attention to Sugarberry’s trials.
“Good morning, Sugarberry.” Giorgio’s voice was pleasant. “I just wanted to verify our date tonight... I suspect that you might be having second thoughts, but I want you to know how much I’m looking forward to our evening together... please don’t let me down.”
Rather than reassuring Sugarberry as to the propriety of what she was doing, Giorgio’s words only heightened her discomfort. But even if it was humiliating to her on a personal basis, she knew it would be a relief for her to talk to him about Wishbone; she needed someone’s advice on how to proceed with the problem, yet didn’t feel she had the right to reveal the young stallion’s possible indiscretions to anyone else. With a forced cheerfulness, she affirmed their plans. “There are some things we need to discuss.”
“Such as Wishbone?” he clarified.
“Yes,” was all she could respond with Elaine so close by.
“Tonight then, at seven-thirty,” the stallion verified. “I’ll see you later, Sugarberry.”
Setting the receiver down, Sugarberry stared off into space; Elaine looked her way and was instantly alerted to a problem weighing down the mare. “Is something wrong, Sugarberry?”
Coming back to reality, Sugarberry smiled in what she hoped would appear to be a nonchalant manner. “Nothing much,” she replied. “One has to expect some friction occasionally with two college students in the house.”
Their conversation was thankfully cut off as Princess Dawn entered with her feline for its routine exam and shots. Due to necessity, Sugarberry set her personal problems aside.
* * *
The end of the work day found Sugarberry more than slightly nervous as the time of her meeting with Giorgio grew nearer. She and Chocolate Chip shared a quiet supper; Sugarberry suspected that Wishbone was conveniently avoiding her. When the dishes were done, she called Tabby to invite her, Thomas, and Elaine for supper the following evening; the short call did have a revitalizing effect on her mood as a chat with Tabby usually did.
Wigwam arrived to take Chocolate Chip bowling, but-- to Sugarberry’s dismay-- they decided to watch some television first; Sugarberry settled down at the computer in an effort to look busy, but found herself watching the time as seven o’clock came and the two were still in the house. She didn’t want them to know of her outing tonight, and began to have alarming visions of Giorgio arriving while Wigwam and Chocolate Chip were still there.
But by seven-fifteen, the two were ready to set out; Wigwam extended an offer for Sugarberry to join them, but she politely refused. “There are lots of ideas bombarding me,” she explained, gesturing to the computer screen where her manuscript was taking form.
Seeming satisfied with that answer, Wigwam and Chocolate Chip departed, sending Sugarberry into a frenzy of activity to get her mane and tail combed and a new bow fastened into place; she was grateful that she had showered as soon as she had gotten home from work. She was perusing the results of her efforts in the mirror when Giorgio’s knock came at the door.
“You look lovely, as usual,” the stallion complimented her immediately upon the door being opened.
“Thank you,” Sugarberry murmured, feeling very self-conscious as his eyes swept over her. “Shall we get underway?” Calculating that the sooner the evening got underway the sooner it would end motivated her sense of urgency.
Giorgio, discerning her discomfort, appeared mildly entertained; but he refrained from saying anything to further add to her uneasiness. Rather, he brought up the topic that was foremost on Sugarberry’s mind-- “How did your discussion with Wishbone go?”
“Not so well,” Sugarberry admitted. “He evaded my questions, and made me feel guilty for doubting him.”
“I see,” considered Giorgio. A period of silence elapsed before he shared his deliberations with Sugarberry. “I did some thinking about this problem since last night; and to give your trust in the stallion a fair chance, I’ve decided to give him one more chance.”
“You’d do that for him?”
“No, but I’d do that for you, Sugarberry.”
“I appreciate it.”
“I want you to understand up front, however, that I will build a surefire trap into the next test that will unequivocally tell me what I need to know.”
“I... I understand.” Sugarberry only wished she felt more positive concerning Wishbone’s integrity
“Now, let’s put that behind us,” Giorgio suggested, “and make the most of this time we have together.”
As they walked side-by-side to The Tableau for the play they were to view, their conversation centered on general topics that put Sugarberry at ease. Giorgio admitted a complete ignorance of bird species as Sugarberry enlightened him to the finer points of bird watching; he acknowledged having noticed a bird or two using the feeder outside the apartment, but he had never known-- or cared-- what kind they were. He smilingly promised Sugarberry that he would be more alert in the future. He was very interested in the story of the bird feeder itself, and how it had been a gift from the ponies at a place called Birdsong where Sugarberry and Vanguard had first met, and how Vanguard based his decision on accepting the position at Pony Pride because of Sugarberry.
When they arrived at the stylish brick edifice that housed The Tableau, it dawned on Sugarberry that Giorgio had gleaned a great deal of information about her, whereas she knew nothing more about him. She vowed to herself to correct that before the evening was over.
The play was entertaining and well-performed, and prompted tears from Sugarberry even though she had actually concentrated more on who was in attendance in the audience than on the characters on the stage; she needed to reassure herself that no one was present who could use her being with Giorgio to torment her endlessly-- her worst fear was to see Quarterback. But to the best of her ability in scanning the crowd, she was safe in that regard.
As they worked their way to an exit after the show, Sugarberry had one terrifying moment as she caught a glimpse of a blue stallion working his way in their direction, but it turned out to be another teacher from the university that Giorgio only shared a business-like salutation with. The strawberry-patterned mare breathed a sigh of relief when she and Giorgio were finally well away from the throng of attendees.
Giorgio looked at her quizzically and stopped under a street lamp. “You seem relieved to have that over with,” he grinned.
“I was feeling claustrophobia back there with all those ponies,” admitted Sugarberry. “I’ve never been comfortable in a crowd.”
“Then my plans for the rest of our evening out should work out perfectly,” the stallion stated smugly.
“R... rest of our evening?” stammered the mare who had assumed they were on their way home.
With that amused look that Sugarberry was beginning to find beguiling, Giorgio responded lightly. “The Cafe Carousel is seldom busy at this time; I find it a relaxing atmosphere to wind down at the end of the day. You will certainly not deny me your company over a light supper, will you?”
Finding no reasonable excuse to politely end the evening, Sugarberry acquiesced; the two continued to the Cafe Carousel where they were greeted rather coolly by Hydrangea who worked with Flower Bouquet in running the establishment, although Hydrangea was usually responsible for the office work rather that the floor work. After showing them to a table, Hydrangea went off to get water and menus, but Sugarberry excused herself to freshen up. When she was washing her hooves, Hydrangea appeared through the powder room door.
“What’s the deal with Driftwood and your sister?” the blue mare fumed.
Drying her hooves carefully, Sugarberry pondered what to reply, but Hydrangea continued.
“He and I were becoming the best of friends when-- suddenly and without warning-- he is committed to a mare in some dinky little town!”
“I’m sorry, Hydrangea, but Driftwood and Raspberry were friends way back in high school; they’re just getting re-acquainted after some years apart. So it actually isn’t sudden at all.” Sugarberry attempted to leave, but the stalwart mare blocked her path.
“Are they serious?” she queried, her eyes dark and angry.
Taking a deep breath, Sugarberry responded, “Yes, Hydrangea, I think they are.”
“What’s she like?” Hydrangea snapped.
“My sister is a hard-working, compassionate mare who helps at Dad’s orchard and at Mom’s bakery.”
“Is she pretty?”
Sugarberry was getting annoyed with the interrogation, and answered somewhat peevishly. “Driftwood certainly thinks so!”
Turning in a huff, Hydrangea preceded Sugarberry from the room; and Sugarberry realized it was with alleviation that she returned to Giorgio’s company. He stood at her approach, and holding her chair, expressed his concern.
“That mare seemed intent on exchanging words with you, Sugarberry. I couldn’t very well come to your rescue under the circumstances; I hope she hasn’t upset you.”
Sugarberry smiled. “It was a bit disconcerting, but nothing to worry about. She is upset because she has been rejected-- in her opinion-- by Driftwood for my sister, Raspberry.” Before she realized it, Sugarberry had shared another chapter or two of her life with the dark green stallion who at one time would have been able to evoke only the barest dialogue from her.
Their food having been delivered by a less than courteous Hydrangea, Sugarberry and Giorgio began their repast in silent companionship while Sugarberry considered how best to wheedle information from Giorgio without sounding prying. But he saved her the trouble by providing an opening himself.
“This place reminds me of my favorite haven back in Vulcanopolis,” he shared. “That’s why I like to come here.”
“A haven?” Sugarberry wondered at his choice of words while filing the fact that he, too, was homesick for familiar surroundings just as Vanguard was.
“A place to be alone without being alone,” he offered. “My foalhood was lonely with Dad being gone most of the time and Mom being unwell. I became used to solitude at an early age.”
“Yet you strike me as someone who is very at ease with ponies under any circumstances,” Sugarberry reflected. “You couldn’t have developed into such an outgoing stallion by shutting yourself from life.”
“School fulfilled that function. I hated it, but I was... a quick learner. I realized early on that the faster I absorbed the material, the sooner I could be done with it.”
“And you chose teaching as your career?”
“I didn’t know what I wanted to do with my life, so I let Dad push me into his career field. It was an easy way to avoid any confrontation with him-- I was still underage when I graduated from Leonardo.”
Raising her eyebrows, Sugarberry registered respect. “Everyone says you’re a genius, so I guess it’s true.” Giorgio laughed, and Sugarberry realized that it pleased her to see Giorgio respond spontaneously as if he were more at ease with her just as she was more at ease with him.
“I was branded with that label on my first day of school, and my dad never let me forget it. He wanted me to succeed in ways he never could have. So I, of course, dragged my hooves at every opportunity.”
“So you didn’t get along even when your dad was around?”
It was several moments before Giorgio answered, as if he was unsure of too much being said. Finally, he replied. “I resented his absences so much that you would think I’d value the contact we did make? No, Sugarberry. It only deepened my resentment, brooding over all the thinks he’d missed... that I had missed.”
He again fell silent, and Sugarberry respected his reflection. How different our foalhood’s were, she thought to herself. One of us was enveloped with love, the other by indifference. Eventually, she rekindled the conversation. “How did your dad move from teaching to politics?”
“He had always been interested in public office; even as a teacher, he spent all his spare time on political issues. That’s why mom and I saw so little of him. After he became chancellor, which put him in the limelight, it wasn’t that big of jump to the political arena. Dad was well-liked; he had a certain charisma about him that evoked ponies’ trust. I always hated that about him.”
He looked at Sugarberry as if expecting a reprimand, but she said nothing except, “Go on.”
“There’s not much else to tell... Dad became a success and I’ve been holding my own. I wouldn’t want him to think that his long-distance influence over me paid off in the end, although I’ve gone on to earn my master’s and doctorate degree as well.” He grinned at Sugarberry rather like a rebel school-boy
“Your father is popular with his constituents, so he must have shown more empathy with them than he ever did with you...”
“Or my mother,” Giorgio finished for her. “Sometimes I wondered if he even loved her.”
“Don’t say that!” Sugarberry fretted.
“You are right. I shouldn’t have said that. She worships him, even though she is unable to stand by his side.”
“Her health is still compromised?”
“She’s an invalid, Sugarberry, confined to a wheelchair since I was four years old. And her pride prevents her from making her situation public. It is her choice. Dad would have her more involved-- I give him credit for that-- but she would rather stay in the background. I think she is so used to it by now that she doesn’t even resent it.”
“You don’t hold the prejudice against your mother that you feel for your father, do you?” Sugarberry probed.
“You think poorly of me; I am not heartless, Sugarberry!” he repeated the words he had stated the day of the apple festival as if saying them enough would make them true.
“I would hope not,” Sugarberry replied with a smile, then added, “Your mother deserves to have a son she can be proud of.”
Sugarberry’s words seemed to hit a sore spot in the stallion. He turned his face away from her, and appeared deeply affected by something that her statement had brought to mind. But as quickly as his agitation had overcome him, it also left him.
“Dad’s up for re-election this fall,” Giorgio asserted with only a slight waver in his voice; his eyes avoided meeting Sugarberry’s as if afraid she would read something there that he didn’t want her to be aware of. “That’s why I chose this time to be away from Vulcanopolis; I can’t be held accountable for what I might say or do when I’m there in the thick of it.”
“And that’s why Vanguard isn’t here with me now,” she couldn’t stop herself from saying, suddenly feeling a wave of loneliness wash over her.
Giorgio leaned forward, and surveyed her intently. “For that, my dear Sugarberry, I’m very sorry,” he stated sincerely.
Hydrangea appeared to ask if they wanted dessert, and Giorgio deferred the decision to Sugarberry; she admitted to a craving for something sugary which seemed to please Giorgio. They both settled on apple pie with ice cream; and when the thick wedges were delivered, they both groaned at the size of the servings.
“I’m up to it if your are,” Giorgio teased Sugarberry, taking his first taste.
Throwing caution to the wind, she followed suit, giggling as she revealed the experience she, Driftwood, and Elaine had with too much of a good thing at the apple festival. Giorgio laughed with her as she described their anguish after the fun.
“I’ll never learn,” lamented Sugarberry as she leaned back in her chair after polishing off every last crumb.
“But it was delicious,” he smiled at Hydrangea as she cleared the dirty plates. “And we’d like a fresh pot of coffee, please... decaf.” Grinning, he admitted to Sugarberry, “I don’t want this evening to end.”
Rolling her eyes, Sugarberry informed him, “If we don’t leave soon, Hydrangea will kick us out.”
“Hydrangea is a pretty name, right up there with Sugarberry,” Giorgio mused playfully. “I suppose she can be more pleasant than I’ve seen from her this evening?”
Sugarberry giggled, but remained close-lipped until Hydrangea had set the coffee carafe on the table with a thump and moved off across the room. “She’s a sensible, well-educated pony who usually is very charming and good-humored. She’s just feeling slighted now.” She was pleased to see Giorgio’s interest in the other mare.
“So you were telling me earlier of your recent visit to your parents. Were you originally from... Berryton... is it?” Giorgio directed the talk back Sugarberry’s way.
“Berryville. But, no, Dream Valley has always been my home. Mom and Dad moved there when a chance came for them to buy the orchard and berry acreage; I was eighteen at the time.”
“So your parents have always been interested in pomology?”
This led to a discussion of family matters that seemed to highly interest Giorgio, who was an avid listener. It was late, and Hydrangea was impatient by the time the two ponies exited the cafe and turned toward Sugarberry’s house. They talked of the sights, sounds, smells, and feel of the long-lasting autumn. The nighttime air was cold and vibrant. Before she knew it, Sugarberry was on her front porch saying goodnight to Giorgio under the glow of the porch light.
“I hope you enjoyed the evening as much as I did,” Giorgio murmured, taking her hoof for a kiss, but lingering over it.
“It was very enjoyable; I’m glad to know you better,” Sugarberry admitted, not adding that hearing more of his life story had assuaged the fear she used to feel.
“I’m glad,” the stallion replied, and for one brief moment, Sugarberry thought he was going to draw her to him for a more ardent kiss, but due to a tensing on her part or a flicker of anxiety in her eyes, Giorgio released her hoof-- not willing to jeopardize their newfound friendship-- and said goodnight.
Sugarberry immediately went into the house in anticipation of retiring to her bedroom to ponder over the events of the evening. Instead, she met friction.
“Where were you?” Chocolate Chip came from the kitchen followed by Wigwam and Wishbone. “We were worried about you!”
Sugarberry didn’t know whether to laugh or cry; the fact that someone was worrying about her for a change seemed incongruous and humorous; but the realization that an honest answer would raise a barrage of questions and incredulous looks frightened her. She tried to keep to the middle road. “I was out walking.”
“Alone? After dark?” Chocolate Chip was aghast. “You’re afraid of the dark, for Pete’s sake!”
As distressing as Chocolate Chip’s concern was, Sugarberry was more put off by the look of bewilderment that she saw on Wigwam’s face and disbelief on Wishbone’s. Why don’t I just admit where I was... and with whom... she wondered to herself. False pride, came the answer from deep in her conscious. But still she stuck to her defense. “I needed to clear my thoughts and get out of the house for awhile. I assumed I’d be back before you got home, but time slipped away. I’m sorry if I worried you.”
Chocolate Chip was not to be mollified. “It was bad enough when you disappeared the day after the apple festival; at least you left us a note. But tonight you were gone without a clue!”
Wigwam laid a hoof on Chocolate Chip’s shoulder. “Chocolate Chip, Sugarberry explained where she was; give it a rest, okay?” His eyes never left Sugarberry’s face while he spoke, and she shriveled up a little inside to think of betraying his trust.
Fortunately, his words reached Chocolate Chip and she looked rather shamefully at Sugarberry. “I’m sorry, Sug. I guess I overreacted. Forgive me?” She came to the mare and hugged her.
“It’s nice to know you care that much,” she smiled, caressing the filly’s mane. Looking beyond Chocolate Chip to the two stallions, Sugarberry smiled. “I hope I didn’t ruin your evening.”
“It was rather fascinating,” admitted Wishbone, “being on the other side for a change.”
Sugarberry thought back to their conversation-- was that only this morning?-- and wondered if she had been unfair to him. Wigwam only shook his head as if still trying to figure out what happened.
Sugarberry accompanied the three back to the kitchen where Chocolate Chip pulled her into a chair next to her own and poured her a cup of coffee from the pot on the table. The thought of more coffee nauseated the mare after the filling meal and uncountable cups with Giorgio, but she accepted it with a smile and listened to the banter of the ponies until she could safely excuse herself, dump the brew, and escape to her bedroom.
Finally alone and unwatched-- except for Raptor and Fluff who were preening for the night-- she was able to look back over her evening with Giorgio from the moment he had picked her up until he had left her on the porch. She had survived. She could put behind her the premonitions that had haunted her since her first meeting with Giorgio; all of the portents of danger had disappeared. She had been exposed to the real Giorgio, not the one from her childhood trauma in connection with the picture of Giorgio’s father. She found him to be a kind, sensitive stallion who felt alone in a world in which he moved freely, yet uneasily tied to frustrations connected to his father’s misguided sense of priorities from his foalhood.
Sugarberry could no longer even resent him for taking Vanguard away; she knew now that this separation would only serve to strengthen their love. Clare was not a threat, nor was Giorgio. Any future meeetings with Giorgio would have no need of secrecy. And in a relatively short amount of time, Vanguard would be home. She fell asleep with that comforting thought on her mind.
* * *
The phone was ringing at the late hour that Wigwam arrived home; he caught it before it stopped. It was Tawny.
“Wigwam, I was at the opening of Romeo and Juliet tonight over at The Tableau. Could you fill me in on what’s going on here?”
“It’s a romance, Tawny. Didn’t you study Shakespeare in school?”
“Can it, Wigwam. What I’m asking is why was Sugarberry there with Giorgio like they’re the best of buddies now?”
Wigwam for once was speechless. “Sug... was there... with Giorgio? Are you sure?” But he knew Tawny was right; that was what Sugarberry was trying so hard to hide.
“She’s the only Twice As Fancy I know of with strawberries, and if I can’t recognize Giorgio by now, I should have my badge revoked. What is this going to do to our investigation having her in the way? Not to mention what Vanguard is going to say. This is a development I never planned on.”
Wigwam was slow in recovering. “I don’t know what to think. I’m as blown away by this as you are.”
“You’ll have to learn what’s going on, but be discreet about it. I can’t very well go asking her about her relationship with the stallion we’ve been monitoring all these months-- it would ruin everything, and we’ve come too far for that.”
“I’ll do what I can, Tawny. I’m sure there’s a logical explanation; we were so cocky about our having all the evidence we need on this end that we must have let our guard down. We both know what to do about that.”
“Stay on it, Wigwam. Let me know as soon as you hear anything. I only wish Matteo was finished up over there in Vulcanopolis; then we could close this case. But he maintains that he needs more time to get further information that’s connected to Giorgio, and until then, our hooves are tied.”
“I’ll give it some thought, Tawny. Stay in touch.”
“Same for you, Wigwam. Goodnight.”
* * *
Sleeping better than she had in weeks, Sugarberry woke up feeling refreshed. It had gotten colder during the night and a coating of sparkling white frost glimmered in the early morning sunlight, she observed from her bedroom window.
It was Saturday morning which meant that Chocolate Chip would have some of her college friends over to prepare breakfast. It would be a leisurely morning for Sugarberry, except for the grocery shopping for tonight’s supper with Tabby.
Entering the kitchen, she found it full-- besides Chocolate Chip and her brother, Wishbone, there were Prime, Chip, Snowdrift, and Frilly Flower. Prime was at the stove with Chocolate Chip doing most of the work while the others were haphazardly preparing the table. “G’morning, Sugarberry.” their voices echoed upon her entrance.
Chip held a chair for her and Wishbone poured her coffee; they spoiled her on Saturday mornings and she loved it. By the light of morning, the coffee was a hot, welcome drink; she sat back and doted over the hustle and bustle of the kitchen and the constant chattering of voices.
Less exotic than some Saturday menus, today’s fare was scrambled eggs with cheese and sunflower hearts, apple muffins, milk, and orange juice. When the meal was over came the best part of the enterprise-- in Sugarberry’s estimation, anyway-- the fillies and young stallions washed the dishes and cleaned-up the kitchen. It was a win-win situation on her part, although Wigwam maintained that it was also the reason he never joined in the Saturday ritual... that and the fact that he had confided to Sugarberry-- he wanted Chocolate Chip to keep her options open with her own age group.
Retiring to her computer as the students worked, Sugarberry immersed herself in writing until a knock sounded at the door; Chocolate Chip scurried out from the kitchen to answer it, and came to Sugarberry a few moments later with a silly grin on her face and a flower box in her hooves. “For you, Sug.”
“For me?” Sugarberry was wide-eyed in surprise, and took the box hesitantly. It wasn’t Vanguard’s style to send flowers unless there was an occasion to celebrate. Who would be sending me these? she wondered to herself and saw the same question reflected off Chocolate Chip.
“Hurry and open them!” Chocolate Chip squealed, as Snowdrift and the others gravitated into the room to see what the fuss was about. “Who are they from?”
“And it better by Vanguard,” Prime stated with a cocky grin.
“Not necessarily,” Wishbone commented. “Sugarberry has other stallion friends.” Sugarberry looked at him quickly; was her subterfuge last evening all for nothing? But she saw that he was only teasing. But it did cause her to grow very nervous about opening the flowers in front of this sharp-eyed group, for what if they were from Giorgio? It seemed the only possibility.
“Open them, Sugarberry,” Snowdrift pleaded. “I love flowers, especially ones from the Cloaked Flower Deliverers.” She cast a meaningful glance in Wishbone’s direction.
Untying the ribbon with trembling hooves, Sugarberry saw with relief that the card had slipped to the side of the box so that no one but herself would have to see it. She picked it up and opened it cautiously, saw a single “G” scribed on it, and slipped it back into its envelope.
“What did it say?” queried Chocolate Chip. “Who are they from? What’s the occasion?”
“Does love need a reason?” she sidestepped the question as she withdrew a bouquet of light tangerine-yellow roses with wisps of baby’s breath and Queen Anne’s lace from the box.
“Oh! Roses!” enlightened Frilly Flower for the stallions. “Yellow ones signify friendship.”
“Why didn’t he send red roses for true love?” worried Chocolate Chip. “I’d have thought Vanguard would be more romantic than that.” She eyed the enclosure card suspiciously.
But the guys were tired of girl stuff and Prime suggested getting to the mall as Chip needed some electronic supplies for a project he was working on. Soon the house was quiet, and Sugarberry was able to once more take the card from its envelope to see the “G” written by a strong, masculine hoof; then she shred it thoroughly before disposing of it.
The flowers were more precious anyway, and they could not reveal their sender. Sugarberry drank in their beauty and welcomed their meaning of friendship before making a trip to the grocery store for necessary supplies for the invited company.
Returning home an hour later, Sugarberry was dismayed to find that Raptor and Fluff had made short work of the exquisite blooms. The two rambunctious creatures had pulled every yellow rose from the vase and had dragged them down to the floor where they had proceeded to shred the radiant petals to disgusting pulp. Fluff had discreetly left the room when he saw Sugarberry enter, but Raptor sat calmly over the last rose, his paw resting on it with a “Take it if you dare” look in his eyes.
“Raptor!” Sugarberry used her most intimidating voice on the animal. “Get away from that flower!” Raptor looked at her with his all-knowing gaze, then lowered his head and picked up the blossom in his mouth. As he started off with his treasure, Sugarberry grabbed him and pried the rose from his possession. “Bad cat!” she scolded as she sent him on his way.
Returning the single rose back to the vase, Sugarberry carried the dwindled bouquet up to her bedroom, finding a home for it on her nightstand. Closing the door, she discovered Raptor sitting at the top of the stairs watching her movements as if he disapproved. But Sugarberry didn’t have time to pacify the critter; she returned downstairs and cleaned up the ruined flowers.
“Well,” she sighed, “at least I won’t have to explain where they came from to Tabby tonight.” She suspected that Tabby would have seen through her distortion of the truth anyway. With that in mind, she made a point of making up with Raptor as he followed her to the kitchen. He had forgotten about the flowers now; he sensed that Sugarberry was going to start supper, and that meant real food; for a hungry cat, that was all that mattered.
* * *
“Great meal, Sugarberry,” Thomas complimented the cook after a hearty feast. “Driftwood wouldn’t stand a chance if you were to open a restaurant.”
“But don’t!” added Elaine. “We need you at the clinic.”
Wigwam, who was there at Chocolate Chip’s invitation, concurred. “Excellent food and a superb receptionist.”
Tabby, however, only asked, “What’s for dessert?”
“Your favorite, Tabby-- lot’s of cherries!” said Sugarberry as she and Chocolate Chip cleared the table. “I slaved over it all afternoon!”
While serving up the tempting concoction, Sugarberry looked worriedly at the unused place setting at the table. “Where did Wishbone get off to that he’d miss supper?” she wondered out loud.
“He did leave the mall with Sable,” Chocolate Chip remembered. “Even Snowdrift is getting fed up with that stallion and his elusive errands.”
“Maybe he has found a new filly and doesn’t know how to break the news to Snowdrift,” suggested Wigwam.
“Not that it would matter much anyway,” observed Chocolate Chip. “Snowdrift seems to be spending a lot of time with Chip these days.”
“Let’s clean up the kitchen quick,” suggested Tabby. “I’ve gotten some new eighties videos that you’ll all enjoy. And I just happen to have them with me tonight.”
“Oh! Goodie!” Sugarberry expressed her delight. “Are these the Jem ones?”