Shattered Trust
written by Sugarberry

"Mateo wants us to stay sharp, Wigwam. Whatever's going to happen in Vulcanopolis has to happen before the election on Thursday."

"It can't be too soon for me," Wigwam admitted, then added tersely, "but I'm afraid of the results for everyone involved."

"You and me both, buddy. You and me both."

* * *

Thinking ahead to the Thanksgiving feast on Thursday put Sugarberry into a retrospective mood. Agatha and Hubert along with Tabby and Thomas were hosting the dinner at the mansion, and all the guests were excited to be dining in the elegant surroundings of the spacious home.

Preparing supper for Chocolate Chip and Wishbone gave her plenty of time to think; and her deliberations meandered down many paths, some more difficult than others. Her mother and father had invited her to join them for the holiday, along with Raspberry and Driftwood and Gooseberry and Grapevine; but Sugarberry had resisted the idea for purely self-centered reasons.

She stopped for a moment and peered out the window, seeing nothing but a distant impression of a country blue stallion separated from her by an impossible chasm. She shook her head vigorously to bring herself back to reality.. and to the pot of water boiling over on the stove.

Rectifying the cooking problem was a simple task; if only all life's troubles were that easy! As the Twice-As-Fancy pony put the pealed potatoes into the hot water, she re-assessed her excuse for not joining her family's Thanksgiving celebration. She simply could not face the happy reunion without Vanguard at her side.

Her reasoning stemmed from a series of givens: Her parents had each other; Raspberry had Driftwood; Gooseberry had Grapevine, not to mention Baby Gooseberry, Huckleberry, and Wineberry. She knew that she by herself would be a depressing influence on an otherwise lighthearted party. Just seeing everyone else secure in their love would do nothing but unravel her sanity. She wasn't proud of her feelings, but she couldn't help them; she missed Vanguard desperately.

The opening door accompanied by the chatter of Chocolate Chip and Wishbone forced Sugarberry to leave her temporary melancholy behind. "Hi, you two!" she greeted them with a smile on her face.

"Sug, look at this!" Wishbone handed her several sheets of paper stapled together.

"It's your math test!" Her eyes moved to the top of the page. "Ninety-one percent... Wishbone! You did great!" She hugged the young stallion and patted his back before facing him. "I knew you could do it."

"Not too shoddy for a loser, I guess," he joked.

"And look," Chocolate Chip pointed to the bottom of the last page, "Giorgio complimented him on the 'fine work' he's been doing."

"I'm so happy!" enthused the strawberry-patterned mare. "Your hard work has paid off, Wishbone, and I hope you are proud of yourself."

"I couldn't have done it without you two," he murmured. Then, having enough of sentimentality, he asked the age-old question, "What's for supper?"

It wasn't long, with the help of many hooves, before the food was on the table and the three sat down to eat. The conversation was steady as they shared their lives.

"I'm getting so excited about Wigwam's book-signing in a couple of weeks," Chocolate Chip admitted. "I can't wait for the books to arrive!"

"Wigwam promised me a complimentary copy with a special autographed message," grinned Sugarberry. "But I suppose you'll get that, too, even if you didn't do all the typing for the manuscript."

"I'm going to buy one to give to our grandparents for Christmas," planned Wishbone. "Wigwam will have one sale anyway." He dropped his fork as Chocolate Chip punched him none too delicately in the foreleg.

"The book is going to be a best seller," Chocolate Chip reprimanded her brother.

"Yes, because I know for a fact who will buy the second copy." Sugarberry winked at Wishbone. "I talked Giorgio into coming to the book-signing to get an autographed copy."

"Giorgio?" Wishbone raised an eyebrow. "He doesn't seem like the type who'd go for native pony tales."

"It's for his mother, to give to her when he goes home at Christmas time."

"You mentioned once that she's confined to a wheelchair," Chocolate Chip interjected.

"Yes," verified Sugarberry. "I think she'd enjoy being transported via the pages of a book to the early days of Ponyland for a change of pace. Wigwam's retellings will put her right in the middle of their world."

The incessant sound of the telephone cut into the chatter. "You two have dessert; I'll take the call," Sugarberry stated as she left the room to pick up at the desk phone. "Hello?"

"Sugarberry. It's me, Giorgio." The stallion's voice carried the sound of tragedy in it, and Sugarberry's heart began to pound.

"What's wrong?"

Several seconds passed endlessly before she heard his answer. "My mother has been taken seriously ill."

"Oh, Giorgio. I'm so sorry."

"I'm at the Dream Valley airport now and will be going home to see her. I won't be joining you for Thanksgiving. Please give Tabby and Agatha my regrets."

"Of course I will. And I'll be praying for your mother, Giorgio."

"Thanks, Sugarberry." There was a moment of hesitation. "And whatever happens... please don't hate me."

"Why would I hate you?" was cut off as Giorgio's voice silenced hers. "I've got to run; the plane is boarding. Goodbye." The receiver blurted out the dialtone as Giorgio hung up the phone. Sugarberry stood-- stunned-- feeling his anguish and wondering what he meant by those last oppressive words, Please don't hate me.

"Sugarberry, what is it?" Wishbone and Chocolate Chip came into the room, their eyes filled with concern upon hearing only one side of the conversation.

"It was Giorgio. His mother has gotten terribly ill, and he has to go to her."

"That's too bad," Chocolate Chip commiserated. "I hope she'll be okay."

"Me too," Sugarberry softly stated. "He is very close to his mother, even if he and his father didn't get along."

"It'll be okay, Sugarberry," Wishbone tried to cheer the mare. "Things will work out."

She smiled at the young stallion who could still hold an optimistic viewpoint. "You're right, of course. It's in God's hands now."

* * *

Wigwam and Tawny met once more after learning from the airport personnel that Giorgio had purchased a ticket to Vulcanopolis. "His leaving Dream Valley seems to be a change of plan," Wigwam related. "He had been planning to spend the holiday with Sugarberry."

"And you were comfortable with that arrangement?"

"Short of telling her the truth about Giorgio, what was I to do? She thinks he is a loner that needs watching over; I'm sure he's leading her on for his own purposes."

"It looks that way. The family-based plan for Thanksgiving would have given him an excuse to ignore what's happening in Vulcanopolis on Thursday."

"Yes, with his dad's election at stake, he more than likely wanted to put on a cool front so as not to draw suspicion to his part in its intended failure."

"So what's happened to send him flying home?" Tawny mused, rubbing his chin with a front hoof. "Or were his disclosed plans just another ruse?"

At that moment, Quizzer came into the room. "It's an urgent FAX, Chief... in response to your message to Chief Matteo." The deputy set the paper down on the desk.

After reading the content of the message, Tawny skidded the paper across to Wigwam while verbally telling him what it said. "It appears that Giorgio's mother has experienced some kind of medical problem that has landed her in the hospital in bad shape."

"That would explain Giorgio's sudden departure."

"Yes. And it's something even the imperturbable Giorgio couldn't control."

"With Giorgio back home, will there be any change to the blackmail that Matteo expects Giorgio, Sr. to receive?"

"There could be some repercussions to his being there; it won't look good if it breaks right after he gets into town. But he can't wait too long with the election only a few days away." The chief tapped his hoof on the desk for a moment before taking action. "Quizzer," Tawny ordered the deputy who stood silently waiting for instructions. "Signal everyone to keep alert; something is bound to come through soon; then we can pull down this cheating scam in short order... once Matteo gives us the go ahead."

"I want to be there when Sable is collared," Wigwam glowered. "He has the makings to become a bigger scoundrel than Giorgio."

"We'll get him," Tawny replied. "He'll wish he'd stayed at Binks before we're through with him."

"It would be helpful if this was all resolved before the students pull out for their Thanksgiving vacation." The stallion stood up to leave. "Are you sure Matteo is ready to pounce on the blackmailer before any of that mess goes public?"

"He seems confident that they are ready to stop it once a move is made, but he did express some concern that the main player-- this Zaverio that's running against Giorgio, Sr.-- may be a slippery one to catch. He makes sure all his underlings do the dirtiest work."

"Interfering with the election process is a rotten enterprise," Wigwam snarled. "They better catch him."

"Let's just concentrate on doing our part here at Pony Pride," Tawny cautioned. "Matteo will do all in his power to crush Zaverio and his plan, and that includes Giorgio."

"Crushed... and Sugarberry will be caught in the middle."

* * *

Why would he tell me not to hate him? Sugarberry had been pondering that statement of Giorgio's incessantly. Whatever happens, don't hate me. She could hear those words resounding through her mind whenever she closed her eyes and couldn't figure out what they meant.

She had to admit that when Giorgio had come to Dream Valley, she had felt something deeply akin to hate for him as she blamed him for taking Vanguard away. And when she had first met the stallion, he had prompted a very uneasy tension that had worried her; discovering her mother's acquaintance with Giorgio's father and the telltale picture that had usurped her peace of mind had only strengthened her dislike for him. He personified the turmoil she had suffered as a foal who had been unaware of the less idyllic side of life until the photo had torn at her parents' precious love; providentially, they had put the incident behind them, and life quickly returned to normal. Unexpectedly, however, Giorgio had re-ignited those smothered anxieties in the sensitive mare.

But over the course of the summer, Sugarberry had tempered; the aura of doom no longer encircled Giorgio, she realized. Discovering that he could be kind and empathetic and amiable had fascinated her; and she allowed the two of them to become friends.

Thinking back to their day spent roaming the Toy Museum caused Sugarberry to smile; they had become foals again for the afternoon, reliving episodes that had been forgotten but were resurrected by the assault of action figures, My Little People dolls, and building blocks. Laughing and joking over their assorted memories, the two had bonded. Giorgio alone in a new town, Sugarberry adrift without her anchor-- the two had filled a mutual need for each other. No, she no longer hated him. Why then the parting entreaty?

Unless... Sugarberry had a moment of panic as she recollected Thomas' observation that Giorgio's feelings for her might be stronger than hers for him. Could he have thought that she would take his sudden leaving as some sort of rebuff? But she was sure that he, like herself, had simply gained a friend, nothing more. He was probably just referring to the fact that he had reneged on the Thanksgiving Day plans, the mare finally decided, putting the incident behind her.

Sugarberry calculated the length of time before Giorgio would arrive in Vulcanopolis and the time difference between the two cities, and finally determined when to call Vanguard to inform him of recent happenings. She dialed his number and waited impatiently for the call to go through.

Hearing the receiver pick up on the Italian side caused Sugarberry to smile, but the sound of the voice quickly dampened her spirits for it wasn't Vanguard's but the musical one of Clare. "Good evening."

"C... Clare! Is that you?" Sugarberry stuttered.

"Sugarberry! How nice to hear from you. How is everything back in Dream Valley?"

"Not too bad. But I would like to talk to Vanguard. Is he there?"

"Well, of course he's here. Just a second. I think I hear him coming down the stairs."

After a pause and the background sound of muffled voices, Vanguard finally was on the line. "Sugarberry? This is a pleasant surprise. I didn't expect to talk with you until Thursday."

Obviously, the slightly resentful mare whispered silently, never once equating her friendship with Giorgio as a similar menace to Vanguard. What she did say was rather cool. "That was the plan, but something has come up."

"Nothing's wrong, I hope."

"Not here. But Giorgio called to tell me his mother was taken ill, and he grabbed a flight over to be at her bedside."

"I heard on the radio that something had happened. With the election so close, it's big news."

"So what is the latest?" Sugarberry asked fearfully.

"She's resting comfortably; that's all they say."

"Do you know what happened?"

"No. The media doesn't seem to have much information."

There was a time of silence which was broken with Sugarberry's question. "What's Clare doing at your place?"

"She wanted to have a Thanksgiving dinner for me as I was missing the one back home. Have Rex and his family shown up yet?"

"Not yet. So you and Clare are... dining alone?"

"No, Sugarberry. Clare's maid, Alda, did the cooking with help from Clare and Angela. You remember my telling you about Angela, don't you? She and her brother, Pacificus, are here. And we're just waiting for another couple to arrive before we sit down to eat. Tonight is the only night everyone was free, so our Thanksgiving is a little early."

Sugarberry had stopped listening at the words "another couple". So what arrangement of couples was there-- Vanguard and Clare, or Vanguard and Angela? Either way seemed a bitter image for Sugarberry to envision. "It sounds... delightful." She bit her lip to prevent the truth of her feelings coming out.

"It is rather festive," Vanguard admitted. "Are you still planning on spending Thanksgiving at Tabby's?"

"Yes." That twinge of jealousy that slithered through her emotional jungle suddenly erupted, causing her to disregard anyone's feelings but her own. "Giorgio was going to accompany me there; but, of course, he won't be able to now."

"Giorgio..." Vanguard was taken aback. From her letters, he had known that Giorgio and Sugarberry's paths were crossing with more frequent regularity, but this was unforeseen; it was like he was already a member of the family. "He was to be your escort?"

Sugarberry weighed her words carefully while the sing-song voice of Clare in the background hardened her heart. "He had nowhere to go, so I asked him to join me; I guess Clare and I were thinking along the same lines-- the lonely stallion in need of companionship."

The bite in her words did not escape Vanguard. "Sugarberry," he turned away from the noisy group now welcoming Federigo and Eugenia into the house. "I love you. That's a fact."

His pledge stirred remorse quickly to the surface. "I love you, too," she replied, tears now escaping down her cheeks as a healing balm. "That's why this is so hard."

"How many days now? You haven't stopped counting, have you?" he wheedled her back to a more optimistic frame of mind.

With some effort, Sugarberry was able to control her mute weeping. "Friendly programmed my computer to keep a countdown going," she sniffed. "It stands at thirty-three now."

"No time at all, Sugarberry. I'll be home for Christmas."

"And I'll be waiting."

She stood over the phone after the call was completed imagining the lively group dining at Vanguard's residence in Vulcanopolis. And try as she might to focus on Vanguard's face in the crowd, it was always Clare's that intervened.

* * *

The flight had given Giorgio plenty of time to organize his thoughts about many things; he was not looking forward to showing up in Vulcanopolis at this time, but his mother was one pony whom he would not desert at any cost. If his coming home complicated matters for Zaverio, then so be it. He would handle things somehow.

He fervently hoped that he would find his mother in an improved condition once he arrived; maybe his father had over-reacted to the situation. If all went well, he would be back in Dream Valley when classes resumed after the Thanksgiving holiday.

He grimaced as he imagined Sable handling things unsupervised at Pony Pride; his trust in the young stallion had been seriously shaken because of the matter with Wishbone, and he found himself anticipating some sort of crisis when he returned.

And then there was Sugarberry. What would the mare think of him if his father did not react to the blackmail as expected and a scandal involving Strawberry Shortcake hit the press? Giorgio knew now that there was no truth to the assumptions he had made so many years ago when he had fueled the anger that he felt for his father with concocted ideas of what story was behind the picture he had discovered. In his months at Dream Valley, he had examined the birth records of the time period in question, and he had found all to be in order-- Strawberry Shortcake and Strawberry Baskets were the parents of both the girls in the picture and of Sugarberry, too.

Turning to look out the window at the expanse of clouds through which the plane traveled, Giorgio saw the incident from his past as clearly as if it had transpired yesterday. He was a young colt at the time, explosive about anything that touched on his father but very committed to the well-being of his mother. When he had walked into the library of the spacious home that the family occupied and had come upon her crying as if her heart would break, he had been bewildered and saddened; he had quietly left his mother to her misery, uncertain as to what to do to comfort her. But he had seen what she held in her hooves, and when she had left the room, he returned to see if he could trace down the cause of her sorrow. It had been a thin book his mother had been clutching-- a thin book with a bright red cover.

He knew where to start his search. His mother had been in her wheelchair close to his father's desk that commandeered one wall of the library. Walking slowly to the exact spot where his mother had been, he surveyed the desk top but saw no book amidst the folders and papers that lay in neat stacks. With a look at the door to make sure no one would see him, he experimentally tried a drawer to see if it would open; the desk was normally locked, and he was surprised to feel the drawer pull back easily. But there was no red book inside.

The second drawer, on the other hoof, provided him with the object of his venture. The book, titled Poems of Life and Love, lay to the back nearly hidden; Giorgio picked it up hesitantly. Love poems were not something he would choose to read; yet if he wanted to find what had upset his mother, he had to check them out. He slowly opened the pages, and began reading.

Perusing the printed words, he scoffed at their tenderness and sentimentality. Who would write such stuff? he had asked himself of the love poems. But he found that the authors of those poems that touched on life seemed more down to earth, for they, too, found life to be unfair and cruel just as he did. He sat down in his father's chair and became absorbed with the verses, identifying with each melancholy mood that the poets portrayed in poignant expressions.

The ringing of the telephone had caused him to jump; and in so doing, something dropped from the book to the floor. Ignoring the phone, he reached under the desk to retrieve the paper; he found that the item was a photograph of a happy group of ponies by a pool. He sat back in the chair to look over the faces of the ponies, and found that the only one he recognized was the stallion-- his father. The mare and the two foals were strangers to him.

He studied the picture intently, and it slowly dawned on him that the reason for his mother's tears could very well have been this photo, not the book at all. He stared at the grouping that the camera had caught, and his questioning mind began its work. He was only remotely aware of the sound of hoofsteps in the hallway, and by the time he recognized his father's approach, he had to scurry to replace the book in its proper place and move away from the desk to begin nonchalantly reading the book titles available on the shelves as if he was innocently choosing a title to read.

His father, upon entering the room, went straight to the desk with his briefcase without seeing his son; Giorgio cleared his throat to let his father know that he was there. "Giorgio! I didn't notice you. How was school? You are doing well, I presume?"

"Sure. No problem," was all the colt responded. He had no difficulty with his studies but he was lonely most of the time. The other fillies and colts seemed to think he was some sort of maverick, and they had no time for him. But there was no sense in confiding that information to his father-- Giorgio, Sr. would have no concern for such a grievance.

The telephone rang again, and this time was answered immediately by the stallion. After a short conversation, he hung up the receiver and informed his son that he was needed at a meeting downtown. "Will you let your mother know that I won't be home for supper as planned?"

"What else is new?" Giorgio responded with angry furrows creasing his forehead.

"It can't be helped. I'll be home as soon as I can break away." Giorgio heard his father, but remained silent; he let his eyes convey the embittered message for him. "I'll see you later," Giorgio, Sr. sighed. But Giorgio knew that his father wouldn't be home until long after he had gone to bed; he and his mother would eat alone and play a quiet game of cards; then she would kiss him goodnight, and he would be excused to follow his own boring existence in whatever way he pleased.

He watched his father leave the room and stood feeding off his angry feelings for several minutes before returning to the desk and once more opening the drawer that contained the red book. He quickly scooped it up and closed the drawer. Taking the book with him, he beat a hasty retreat to the privacy of his room where he hid the book in his superhero comics before trotting off to join his mother for the evening meal; he would make sure that his mother never had to see the picture and cry like that again.

The stewardess's voice came through Giorgio's thoughts. "Sir? Sir? Would you care for your dinner now?" But he only waved her on, and sank back into his reverie.

Later that night, Giorgio had retrieved the book and, sitting on his bed, had taken the picture in hoof and stared at it intently. His father and another mare-- that was obvious enough. And what of the two foals with their Twice-As-Fancy coats? He could not understand what the picture represented, yet he knew it had caused his mother deep pain when she had seen it. His mind began to develop scenarios to fit the circumstances.

In his current black mood, the possibility that most intrigued him was that his father might have been married at some time in the past to this mare, and the two foals would therefore be his daughters. Giorgio contemplated that idea for a long while, and slowly began to believe it to be true, mainly because in his mind it answered so many of the questions he had asked himself over and over throughout his tender years. It explained why his father had never loved him, why he never worried about him, and why he was never home. It made perfect sense; it fit the facts.

Finding the picture and manufacturing its history had almost been a relief for Giorgio. Having a reason for his father's cold demeanor toward him was more bearable than simply being disliked on no logical grounds. He harbored his imaginings and built on them until he lived in his mind every detail of his father's second family, as he referred to it. Now when Giorgio, Sr. wasn't home in the evenings or on the weekend, Giorgio would invent an excuse for him involving one of the pretty little ponies in the picture. It somehow soothed his soul to direct his resentments toward the two foals who stood laughing at the pool side, obviously enjoying the company of his father, while he himself stood alone and unwanted.

Some slight turbulence caused Giorgio to surface to reality, and he checked the time on his watch, finding that he would be better off trying to get some sleep rather than staying awake nursing old wounds. Closing his eyes, he relived that day at Tabby and Spike's museum when he had felt happier than he had ever thought possible, sharing nonsensical recollections with the white mare decorated in a strawberry pattern who had, reluctantly at first, accepted him into her confidence.

That day, he had been able to put behind him all that was wrong in his life; he had been carefree as he had never been in his youth. He knew that he had come as close as he ever had to falling in love. He wanted to hang on to that memory for moments such as these when he felt so alone and so troubled. And he knew only too well that was all it could ever be-- a memory.

* * *

Leaving the terminal behind him, Giorgio headed straight for the hospital; he had traveled lightly, so had nothing but his backpack and laptop to worry about. It was a bright, mild day and Vulcanopolis would have been a feast of sights and sounds for most visitors, but Giorgio was so concerned about his mother and in what condition he would find her that he was unaware of the city around him. He hurried his stride down the long, slightly curving path that would lead him most directly to his destination.

Arriving at the hospital steps, Giorgio felt his first twinge of apprehension in meeting his father under these conditions-- not only with his mother's health but also with the impending blackmail. Maybe dad won't even be here, he rationalized to himself. He will probably be out drumming up votes for the election. The thought put him into a surly mood in which to face his father, and face him he did. Following the nurse's directions on how to find his mother's room, he rounded a corner and nearly collided with the stallion that mirrored him in looks-- deep green with dark blue hair.

It was his father who spoke first. "You made good time in getting here, Giorgio. I'm sure your presence will be beneficial to your mother."

"As a little more of your presence might have prevented this problem?" Giorgio allowed the venom in his voice to cut through.

His father looked at him sharply, but let the question drop. "Your mother's condition hasn't changed since I talked to you on the phone; the good news is that it hasn't gotten worse, at least."

"Where is she?"

Giorgio, Sr. led his son to the closed door of Room 2l8. "She hasn't spoken since this happened, except to say the word 'pitcher'. The one that was on the table next to her when she had this attack was knocked to the floor and shattered. It wasn't anything special, so I don't know why she is so worried about it. But when she does become conscious enough to speak, that is all she says."

Thinking immediately of an old, porcelain pitcher that his mother had always kept fresh flowers in to brighten her sitting room, Giorgio was overwhelmed with remembrances of warm summer days when he would be allowed by the gardener to cut his mother a bouquet of the sweetly scented blooms and her pleased reception of the offerings. She had always personally arranged them in the pitcher even though it tired her out, saying that it reminded her of her own mother who had always used a similar container for the blossoms she gathered from the fence-rows around her country vineyard.

Wishing that he had taken the time to pick up a bouquet of flowers from the gift shop at the front of the hospital, Giorgio walked into the sterile environment of the room. His mother, her fragile body dwarfed by the overpowering whiteness of the bedding, lay in apparent slumber; her shallow breathing was the only movement she made. Giorgio approached the bed and realized the tenuous hold on life that existed for any pony. A tear slid down his left cheek as he gathered his mother's small hoof into both of his strong ones. "Mother? It's me... Giorgio."

He was only remotely aware of his father standing beside him until Giorgio, Sr. pulled up a chair for his use and informed him that he would leave the two of them alone for awhile. When his father had closed the door behind him, Giorgio sat down and brushed the hair from his mother's eyes. "It's been awhile, hasn't it, Mother? But I'm back now for as long as you need me." He continued to speak to her about things from the past that he knew would interest her if she could indeed hear him. If she couldn't understand what he was saying, at least the sound of his voice might strike some point of recognition in her.

"Your flowers were spilled, I hear. But don't worry about that; I'll buy you a new pitcher and fill it with the most exotic flowers I can find." To his surprise, he felt a response to his statement in a small but definite jerk of her hoof. "Mother," he said urgently, "why does the broken pitcher bother you so?"

There was a faint flicker of movement in her eyelids, and slowly as if with great effort she gradually opened her eyes. "Mother, I'm here." He watched as her eyes torpidly focused him in. "I want you to get better. You can do that for me, can't you?" He found himself pleading his point like a foal fighting for something much bigger than himself.

"Pich-ure," the mare was finally able to feebly voice. "Pich..." She closed her eyes again as if the effort had exhausted her.

"I've already told you not to worry about that pitcher, Mother. It can be replaced. You just concentrate on getting well."

Her eyes opened more rapidly the second time. "Fa-ther... ," was a paramount effort for her to say. She seemed to shrink within herself from the exertion.

"Father?" Giorgio didn't understand the message, but it opened for him a vent for his total helplessness under the circumstances. If he did something to bring this on her, I'll... His angry thoughts were brought to an end, however, as a professional looking nurse with her perky white hat entered the room.

"I'm sorry, sir, but you will have to leave while I take care of some things for the patient." She eyed the stallion curiously, obviously not previously aware of the striking similarity between father and son. Giorgio kissed his mother on the cheek, and left the room.

His father, waiting outside the room, came to him quickly. "Did she respond to you?"

"She was able to mention the pitcher, and one more thing I found interesting... you, Father. I haven't yet heard the details of this attack that put my mother in the hospital. Maybe its time I did."

"I was at campaign headquarters at the time it happened," Giorgio, Sr. admitted. "Emma was the only one in the house with her, so all I have to give you are the facts that she told me."

"Why am I not surprised that you were not at home?" Giorgio stated the words with such cold anger that his father was temporarily speechless.

"If you're implying that I was deficient in my responsibilities to your mother, let me say that she and I had lunch together and she was in perfectly fine spirits when I left her in Emma's capable hooves."

"So what happened?"

"Emma says that a guest came to the house and asked to see your mother, saying that he was an old college chum of yours. Emma took the message to Enrica and she was delighted to have a visit from someone connected with you. Emma escorted the stallion in to the parlor where your mother sat; and at Enrica's request, she went to the kitchen to fix coffee and a plate of cookies."

"Who was this stallion?"

"He gave his name as Peppino; do you remember him?"

Giorgio frowned. He had known no Peppino's on a personal basis. The information gave him an intuitive warning of danger. "What did this stallion look like?"

"Emma remembers him as being straw-colored with jade-green hair. She didn't recognize him as anyone she had ever seen before."

The two stallions moved off to a quieter corner of the hallway as other visitors approached the room across the hall. Giorgio's mind was working its way down a haunting pathway of its own. "And did this stallion have an eagle as a symbol?"

"Yes. You know him, then?"

There was only one stallion that met the description that Emma had given, and his name was not Peppino; it was Renzo, and he was one of the "employees" that did the bidding of Zaverio when something devious needed to be done. Giorgio was well aware of his talents; he was one of the stallions that Giorgio had sent to Prisca's house some months back in the thwarted attempt to recover the picture...

In one awful moment, a blinding flash of realization hit Giorgio and took the breath out of him as if he had been physically punched in the stomach. The pitcher his mother was mentioning was not the porcelain pitcher that held flowers but a much more ominous picture that would have the power to do this dastardly thing to her. "What happened after Mother and this Peppino were together?" he asked of his father with sinking hope.

"Emma had returned to the kitchen after serving the refreshments; she said that Enrica was enjoying her conversation with the stallion and seemed to be in good spirits. Peppino had some stories to tell about your days at Leonardo as a student that tickled your mother's fancy."

"I would like to hear those stories myself."

Giorgio, Sr. turned away from his son to stare out a window that looked down into an enclosed courtyard below. "There was a crash, Emma said, and she ran into the parlor to see what had happened. The stallion was gone, and Enrica was on the floor unconscious, the toppled vase and scattered flowers in disarray. Emma called for help immediately, and notified me that the ambulance would be bringing her here."

"So Emma has no idea as to what took place between Mother and... Peppino?"

"Not a clue. She couldn't hear their conversation when she was in the kitchen, and she can't honestly say that Peppino was still there when your mother collapsed. All she knows is that Enrica was fine and enjoying herself when Emma was last in their company."

The two stallions now stood side by side looking out the window, each lost in private reflection. Giorgio could see only one reason why Renzo would have any interest in his mother, and that reason was something that she was supposed to have been shielded against. His first feeling of helplessness at realizing that it was the picture that had dealt his mother this traumatic setback now turned to uncompromising anger toward the individual whom he saw as the perpetrator of this fiasco.

"I've got some things to attend to," he said suddenly.

His father turned to him in disbelief. "You've just gotten home; don't you think you owe it to your mother to be here for her?"

Giorgio would have enjoyed the irony of the statement if it had been made under different circumstances, but now he only gave his father a withering glance before making his way down the hall to the elevator and out of the hospital to make contact with the one pony who would be able to explain to him what was going on.

It was a long walk to the building that housed the offices of Zaverio; this teal-colored stallion owned a well-known law firm, and he was making a bid for the office of city manager of Vulcanopolis, a position that Giorgio, Sr. had held for a number of years. While he walked, Giorgio paced himself to the thoughts that tumbled again from the past.

As he had grown up, he had stopped believing his imagined stories about his father and his second family as he saw the impossibility of such a set of circumstances. But he had never parted with the snapshot itself as he had begun seeing a purpose for it if he bided his time for the right moment when he could use it against his father. And that moment had come when Zaverio had approached him with his wild scheme to upset his father's winning streak in the Vulcanopolis election.

Zaverio had done his homework well, and knew of Giorgio's intense dislike of his father, so he played upon that clash of personalities to entice Giorgio into his game. When Zaverio had explained his well-thought out plan, Giorgio had succumbed to the chance for revenge and had informed Zaverio that when the fall election came, he would be able to provide the leverage to force his father into early retirement from the political arena.

Finding a link to the picture in Dream Valley through the Twice-As-Fancy mare, Sugarberry, had seemed like the perfect coincidence until Ivetta informed him that the photograph he wanted her to retrieve was missing. That complicated his part in Zaverio's plan, but he was too close to completion of his vendetta to allow anything to stop him. And with Sugarberry's unwitting help, he had uncovered a new piece of bait.

He trusted in his father's chivalrous spirit to spare Strawberry Shortcake and her family any unnecessary turmoil and to drop out of the election leaving a clear field for Zaverio. His debt to his father would be paid, and in return-- and this was the part that hurt-- Zaverio would remain silent concerning Giorgio's cheating scam which he had found out about in his search for dirt on local ponies. Giorgio's own operation was nothing compared to Zaverio's network of deception throughout Vulcanopolis, but Zaverio could make it hot for him if he found it to his benefit..

Giorgio entered Zaverio's office in an assumed calm but the sight of Zaverio smiling at him across the polished desk unleashed the pent-up feelings he had tried to suppress. "What did you do? My mother lies in the hospital, and the one word she can say is picture. Why do I get the sick feeling that you are behind this?"

"I changed plans a bit; that's all."

"That's all? You've toyed with my mother's life!"

"I'm surprised at your reaction; your time away from Vulcanopolis has softened you, Giorgio."

Giorgio, trying to regain his composure, stepped closer to the desk. "Just tell me what you hoped to accomplish by drawing my mother into this."

"I think it's obvious. I had hoped to impress on her to convince her husband to back down. I thought she would be more successful against your father than I ever could have been."

"But she was not to have known anything about this. My father was the target. He was the one to suffer."

"It's too bad what happened. Your mother collapsed before she could tell your father what our demands were," Zaverio stated in a business-like tone.

"Have you changed those demands as well as the method of seeking them?"

"No, Giorgio. We just have one simple request. Step down, or see this picture plastered all over Vulcanopolis by election day." Zaverio threw an eight-by-ten glossy on the desk in front of him, sliding it towards Giorgio.

Giorgio looked down at the portrait knowing what he would see, but his face became livid as he took in the images that peered out at him. "That's not the picture I sent you!" he cried. "How dare you show this fabrication to my mother!" He grabbed the print off the desk and tore it to shreds. The picture had been of Strawberry Shortcake and her three daughters at the August wedding, but the stallion was Giorgio, Sr., not Strawberry Baskets. "Explain this to me!" he demanded as he threw the pieces down in front of Zaverio.

Zaverio smiled an ominous grin. "Computers are wonderful inventions, Giorgio. You can take any photos you want, and combine them into one masterpiece if you know what you're doing."

"No wonder Mother reacted as she did! You could have destroyed her!"

"And your father in the bargain. Isn't that what you wanted?"

Giorgio glared menacingly at the stallion behind the desk. "Our deal involved only my father; I was to supply you with the means to get him out of office. I did my part. You had no right to make your own rules."

"You'll get that you wanted. You have no reason to complain."

Giorgio leaned across the desk, both forehooves planted to support his weight. "You don't understand, do you? We're talking about a life or death situation here."

"Okay." Zaverio threw his hooves into the air. "I'm sorry about that. But what is done is done. I honestly didn't expect her to react so strongly. If your father is as bad as you say he is, I thought she might be glad to help us."

Controlling his temper as best he could, Giorgio stood fuming. "You've crossed the boundary of good sense, Zaverio. If my mother doesn't respond soon, I'm going to make you pay for this... and good."

"Now, Giorgio, what do you think you could do to touch me?"

"I know enough of your operation and the illegal things that you have been involved with and the ponies you have working for you to send you to prison if I should ever decide to take my information to the proper authorities. And from where I stand, the time for that is now."

Zaverio leaned back in his chair, the disgusting grin on his face again. "That's the beauty of this set-up, Giorgio. You can't take me down without you coming down with me."

The cold stare that Giorgio gave him was harsh. "I'll keep that in mind," Giorgio said before crossing the room and opening the door. But Zaverio wasn't through yet.

"Giorgio!" Zaverio recalled the stallion, making a show of looking at the dial on his wristwatch. "You might be interested in knowing that your father should be viewing this right now." He held up another copy of the conglomerate photo.

Taking a glance at the picture, Giorgio felt a sudden overwhelming sense of hopelessness. Zaverio was right. There was nothing Giorgio could do to stop the madness he had unleashed. Without another word, he left the office and made his way back to the hospital.

* * *

He found his father once more staring out the second-floor window, a more dejected look about him than Giorgio had ever seen before. I was right about his reaction to the picture anyway, Giorgio appraised to himself, but could find no satisfaction in the verification. He noticed the manila envelope clutched in his father's hoof and needed no enlightenment to know what it contained.

"So, bad news from the polls?" Giorgio asked as he came up next to his father.

Giorgio, Sr. didn't look at his son. Nor did he speak. He simply sighed and walked to a grouping of chairs in a quiet corner of the waiting area providently provided for patients and their families. Cheerful paintings of foals at play and magnificent landscapes assured those trapped within that life still continued in normalcy on the outside.

The two stallions sat down, and it was still several minutes before Giorgio, Sr. could speak. "Some ponies have a sick sense of what's right and what's wrong," he finally stated softly.

"Does this have to do with the envelope you're holding?" Giorgio asked innocently.

Looking at his son directly, Giorgio, Sr., seemed to weigh the propriety of confiding his predicament to a son with whom he had rarely shared even the most ordinary interaction. Yet, the need to get someone else's perspective on his dilemma was great. And if not a son, who could he communicate this too?

His first words caught Giorgio by surprise. "You're what now-- twenty-five?"

"Yes, sir."

"It's funny how memories can wash over a pony, released by... by some unexpected occurrence."

I've been experiencing a lot of that recently, Giorgio bitterly thought to himself. To his father, he said nothing.

"Before you were born, I traveled to Ponyland to attend a teacher's conference. It was a beautiful place and I wished your mother could have been with me. But you were on the way, and she wasn't able to travel, so I was alone."

"Did you go to Dream Valley?" asked Giorgio.

"No, it was another town over there, Hayton. Life was somehow slower there, leaving a pony with time to think and enjoy the sights and sounds that surrounded one. I met another family at the hotel I was staying at; he was a farmer of sorts-- grew fruits and vegetables and such. And I thought, 'What a simple life... to live off the land and not have to worry about the day-to-day turmoil of the city and a calendar of appointments and the constant interruption of the telephone."

"I'm sure his life had its share of problems," Giorgio stated, thinking back to Sugarberry's stories on how devastating a late spring frost could be or how welcome rain after a period of drought was.

"I envied that stallion and his family," Giorgio, Sr. continued. "During the afternoons when I didn't have conferences to attend, I was able to spend time with his wife and their two little daughters. Your mother and I were so excited to be expecting our first foal, and here was a couple with years of experience behind them on raising foals; Strawberry Shortcake was expecting again; I hoped your mother and I would be as good of parents as she and her husband seemed to be. And the two foals were Twice-As-Fancy, even thought their parents weren't; one had a gooseberry pattern and one had raspberries. I often thought that it would be great if the third foal would be a girl and covered in strawberries since her mother and father both had strawberries in their symbol. Today I found..."

It was at this point that Giorgio, Sr. could no longer continue his conversation. He suddenly stood up and strode once more to the window; and his son left him to work through his emotions by himself, calculating that it would be what he would want.

Giorgio took advantage of the opportunity to return to his mother's room. As he took her hoof in his and slid onto the bedside chair, he felt a slight squeeze of his own hoof from her which he found to be very comforting. Any sign of response on her part was a good thing, and he began talking to her about the times they had shared together when both of them were lonely and unable to reach out beyond each other.

The opening and closing of the door caused Giorgio to end his monologue. His father came across the room to stand opposite him on the far side of the bed. "Any sign of recognition?" His voice was heavy with worry over too many problems to face.

For a second, Giorgio felt sorry for him, but he smothered that tendency. "I'm sure she responded by pressing my hoof in hers."

"I wish she'd come out of this."

"That's what we both want, isn't it?"

Giorgio, Sr. looked at his son strangely. "Maybe for the first time in our lives, we want the same thing."

Not looking at his father, Giorgio blinked back a tear. He wanted to run from the room; emotions were beginning to swallow him and he didn't know how to handle them. He looked upon his mother's face and begged the Lord to bring her back. Once she could smile at him, he would be strong once more.

His father began talking again of the past. "We were so pleased when we found we were to be parents." He said the words as much to his wife as to his son. "Enrica, remember how happy we were? So much in love..." He stopped to brush the tears from his own cheeks. He pulled a second chair up by the bed and sat heavily. Giorgio noticed that the manila envelope was still in his hoof and wondered why his father hadn't done anything with it as of yet. And what would his reaction be when he realized that it was that picture that had put Enrica in this condition?

But a murmur from his mother brought his attention back to the reality before him. "Mother, what is it? Can you hear us? It's Giorgio; and Father is here, too." The ashen mare was so quiet that Giorgio grew concerned. "Mother, please look at me!"

With a visible amount of effort, Enrica opened her eyes, slowly focusing on the stallion before her. "Jo-Jo," she whispered the pet name that she used for him; her lips trembled into a difficult smile.

Giorgio kissed her gently on the cheek. "You're going to be okay, Mother."

"Enrica, that's my girl," her husband encouraged her as he brushed the mane off her damp forehead.

Turning her head ever so sightly away from her husband, she closed her eyes in dismissal. The motion was so small, yet the meaning was obvious, and Giorgio, Sr. was devastated. "You she has a smile for, and me she sends away." His patience snapped and he glared at his son. "I'll be outside." He left the room more forlorn now than before.

Watching him go, Giorgio noticed that the envelope had been left behind on the bed covers. He looked from it to his mother's face and saw her sad eyes watching him. His heart ached for her, and if he would allow himself to admit it, for his father, too.

"Mother," he confided. "I know what upset you so badly. It was a picture, wasn't it?" He waited as she lay there thinking back to the moment when her world had stopped turning and had exploded into too much pain to endure. Tears came from her eyes, and she whispered, "Yes."

"The picture was a fake, Mother. It was Zaverio who forged it from other photos that were completely unrelated. Father wasn't really there; it was all a lie." He held his mother's hooves tightly, willing her to believe him.

Enrica shook her head to deny his words. "Years ago," she said painstakingly, "he knew them. All this time, he knew them."

The last thing Giorgio had intended to do once he was back in Vulcanopolis was to defend his father, but now he found himself searching for a way to verify to his mother that his father was not guilty of the very thing he was helping Zaverio to use against him.

"Listen to me. The mares in the picture-- in this picture..." and he opened the envelope and pulled out the one Zaverio had put together "...and in that picture many years ago, live far away in Ponyland. Father only met them once at a convention he attended, nothing more."

He stopped to give his mother a chance to absorb this information; her attention was riveted on the portrait he held.

"It's not what it looks like. Zaverio only wanted you to think the worst about Father."

Enrica reached a trembling hoof out to touch the glossy image of the ponies. "You can be so sure?" she asked with a hint of hope returning to her voice.

"I'm sure. See this mare in the picture? Her name's Sugarberry, and she lives in Dream Valley where I've been teaching. She's a wonderful pony, and she has a mother and father and two sisters-- a picture perfect family. It was Zaverio's evil plan to combine the original with one of Father; he wanted to knock him out of the election."

It was then that Giorgio, Sr. returned to the room, and seeing his son holding the picture he had inadvertently left behind did nothing to further calm his spirit. "What do you think you're doing?" he asked angrily as he came to Giorgio's side and snatched it from him.

"This is the 'pitcher' Mother has been upset about; the pony you described to me works for Zaverio, and I'm sure he engineered the meeting that caused Mother to react as she did. I've explained to her that it's a fraud, but maybe she'd like to hear that from you, too." So saying, he patted his mother's hoof, laid his hoof briefly on his father's shoulder, and left the room. If his father had any questions about where he had gotten his facts, he would have to wait to ask them.

Once in the hallway, Giorgio began pacing the floor until one of the smiling nurses directed him to the waiting area and nearly pushed him down into one of the chairs. "You'll be much more comfortable here, sir." And she left him with a magazine in his hoof.

He glared at the retreating figure of the angel of mercy, then threw the magazine down, stood up, and continued the pacing. He was perplexed as he turned during one leg of his march to find a country blue stallion standing in the hallway watching him. "Vanguard! What are you doing here?"

Vanguard took several steps closer before answering. "Sugarberry wanted me to come. How's your mother?"

"Sugarberry?" Giorgio's eyes lit up as if the sun had just peaked from behind a cloud, and Vanguard did not fail to take note. "She asked you to come?"

"She was concerned about you and your mother; she was anxious to find out how things were going."

Giorgio found himself smiling in spite of the circumstances he was submerged in. "I think she's going to be all right. You can tell Sugarberry that her prayers helped."

"She'll be pleased to hear that." Vanguard stopped, but soon found himself saying, "You will be needing your house back while you're in town; I can make other arrangements for myself."

"Yes," Giorgio replied. "I could use a place to crash, but the town house is big enough for both of us. I'll sleep in the guest room. You won't even know I'm there."

Having discovered the secret of the bookcase in that room, Vanguard was not surprised by Giorgio's request. "You still have a key?"

"I do. So don't wait up for me or anything."

"Oh. These are for your mother..." Vanguard just became aware of the flowers still in his hoof. "...from Sugarberry and me."

"Thanks. I'm sure Mother will appreciate them," said Giorgio, accepting the bouquet for her.

The door to Room 218 opened, and Giorgio, Sr. looked out. "Your mother wants to see you," he related to his son, only faintly aware of the other stallion.

"I'll say goodnight then, " Vanguard stated, looking from the elder to the younger Giorgio. He had discovered that the two were not identically colored after all, as the father had a slight streak of white in his mane.

"Tell Sugarberry... tell her thanks," Giorgio said before disappearing with his father into the hospital room.

The mare that Giorgio found when he walked to the bed was much more animate than she had been earlier. Color had returned to her cheeks and there was spirit in her eyes. A nurse was straightening her pillows after administering her medication; the two stallions waited for her to exit before they approached Enrica.

"You look much better, Mother. The two of you must have had a good talk," Giorgio beamed.

"I believed what I knew couldn't be true," she stated solemnly. "It was my own fault."

"Enrica!" Giorgio, Sr. said sternly. "None of this was your fault."

"I should have known better," she insisted. "I should have torn up the picture and thrown it in the garbage and had Emma show the stallion the way out." That tirade exhausted her, but she looked pleased with herself for having said it. Catching sight of the bouquet in his hoof, she asked, "For me?"

"Oh, these. Yes, they are for you... from Vanguard, the teacher that I'm exchanging for; and Sugarberry, the strawberry-patterned pony in the picture." His eyes locked with his father's as he revealed that information, but they both let it slide in lieu of Enrica's peace of mind.

"They are lovely." She sniffed them as Giorgio held them close. "You will thank them for me until I am able to respond myself?"

"Already done."

Enrica settled her head back in the pillows. "Suddenly, I feel very tired."

"You sleep, Enrica." Giorgio, Sr. came to her bedside. "I'm going to sit here with you for awhile yet, but I think Giorgio better get some sleep, too. He and I have some things to discuss in the morning." The look his father gave him told Giorgio that there were some challenging questions to face in his future. He kissed his mother goodnight and slipped out into the hallway, and from there began a reflective walk home.

* * *

It was late when Vanguard, working at his desk in the second-story den, heard the entrance of Giorgio and the sound of his hoofsteps as he made his way to the kitchen. Some time later, the stallion came up the stairs, and stopped in the arched doorway. "Am I interfering with anything?" He had a sandwich and a glass of milk in his hooves.

"No," Vanguard stated. "I was just finishing up."

Giorgio made himself comfortable in one of the padded chairs and viewed the room. "You've been taking good care of the place. I can't tell that I've been away."

"You're welcome to the master bedroom while you're here; I can move my things into the guest room easily enough."

"No. No, I'll be perfectly comfortable in the little room. It will be a short night irregardless."

"I called Sugarberry. She said it's a relief to hear that things are going well."

"She said nothing else?"

"She mentioned that Agatha says that she will hold you to a dinner party when you return."

"Yes. We'll both be missing the big day on Thursday. I was looking forward to celebrating Thanksgiving with... with Agatha and... everyone."

"It will be a big day here in Vulcanopolis, too, with your father's election."

"He'll win. He always does," Giorgio responded, finishing off his snack and standing up. He took a step closer to the desk and picked up the framed photo of Sugarberry and Vanguard. "I could have won her away from you, you know; she's needed someone to lean on while you've been away." He flashed Vanguard a cocky grin as he handed him the picture and left for his room.

Vanguard stared after him, silently fuming. His confidence had been shaken since Sugarberry had come to terms about her former misgivings over Giorgio, and it didn't help to have the stallion himself add to his worries with his taunts. Just hearing her name at the hospital had visibly brightened Giorgio's mood; that in itself was cause for alarm.

But it had been Vanguard whom she had called, and her last words had been, "I love you." He remembered the ring he had seen in the jeweler's window and which was now on reserve for him, an exquisite piece that would be a sign to everyone that the two of them were made for each other. That was the one fact he had to cling to.

* * *

Waiting until Vanguard had left the house next morning, Giorgio began his day with a call to Ivetta. "I'm home for a few days, Ivetta," he told her, "and I have some work for you to do."

"Wh... what kind of work this time?" Ivetta stuttered, feeling a certain amount of dread knowing that he was suddenly back in her life.

"I want you to copy all the information concerning my business on to a CD, and then I want you to wipe everything that even remotely hinges on what we've been doing off your computer. When that's done, gather up any hard copy, the desk keys you have, the CD's, and bring them to me here. I'll be waiting."

"You want everything copied to a CD and then deleted?" she verified, hardly believing what she had heard.

"Everything, Ivetta. Don't leave any trace."

"Okay. I'll get right on it."

Giorgio hung up the phone and took some time to go out onto the terrace off the den. He had surprised himself by sleeping soundly once he had gotten to bed; and he felt a new resolve as he faced this day, the day on which his father would certainly put some difficult questions to him. But he had seen his mother's improvement, and that had given him the courage to forge on, ready to face anything to get the job done. He was no longer being driven by emotions but by a determination to tie this entire affair up as quickly and neatly as possible. He watched a lone goose winging its way across the pale blue sky, and felt the conviction of his actions.

He spent the morning with his laptop composing messages to countless addresses in his file, reserving them for sending at a later time. He expected a visit from his father, but none came. He assumed that he also had many things to catch up on after spending his last few days constantly at his wife's side. The one phone call he received was from Ivetta who had finished her task and was clarifying that it was safe to enter the house.

Giorgio waited in the spare room for the bookcase to open; it wasn't long before the unit swung about and Ivetta came into the room carrying the material he had requested.

"This is everything?" he asked as he accepted the contraband from her.

"Everything that I have," she replied, sensing that something was somehow different with her employer. "The files have been wiped from the memory; I have no record of any of... it."

"Good. Our association is finished then, Ivetta. I will expect no more collaboration on your part."

"It's over?" Ivetta couldn't keep the look of relief off her face.

"This is your last payment," the stallion confirmed, handing her an envelope. "And once you are back in your apartment, I am going to permanently disable the secret door. You will no longer need it."

For the first time in their acquaintance, Ivetta could have hugged this imperious stallion; but she settled for a verbal expression of gratitude. "This is the best news I've had since... well, Giles and I are going to have a baby, and I was hoping to get rid of this guilt over doing something that always seemed to me like... like it was wrong... but anyway... thanks Giorgio." After the rush of words, the young mare turned and beat a hasty retreat as if he might change his mind.

Giorgio grinned as the door locked into place, just now realizing how abominable he must have appeared in Ivetta's eyes. He got out a set of tools, and began to dismantle the operational functions of the concealed entrance.

* * *

The first thing Ivetta did when she was safely free of Giorgio was to place a call to Marissa. "Please be home," she pleaded as she waited for the mare to answer. The fifth ring was just sounding when the receiver picked up.


"Marissa, it's me, Ivetta! Are you free to talk?"

"I can barely hear you, Ivetta. Is something wrong?"

"No. Nothing's wrong. I just don't want to talk too loudly."

"Okay. So slow down so I can make out what you are saying."

Ivetta took a deep breath and closed her eyes. "Giorgio has dismissed me from his cheating scam!"

"What?" Marissa asked in surprise. "How can that be?"

"I don't know what he's up to, but he called me this morning from right next door..."

"I'd heard he was back in town."

"Well, it's true. He asked me to get all his stuff off my computer and bring it to him, and the keys, too. And get this, Marissa... he said that the secret door wouldn't be functioning any more!"

"This isn't making any sense, Ivetta. What are we supposed to do about the answer sheets we were going to prepare tomorrow?"

"I don't have a part in it anymore, Marissa. Whatever's going down doesn't involve me. It's like a dream come true!"

"I'm happy for you, but something isn't right about this. Are you sure you can trust him?"

"Never before have I trusted him; but for some reason, I feel I can on this."

"Okay. Thanks for letting me know. We'll just have to wait to see what happens."


Hanging up the telephone, Marissa began sorting through the facts. "This is unexpected. It's not like Giorgio to get rid of a subordinate in the middle of an operation. The only reason he could do without Ivetta's help is if..."

Grabbing the telephone once more, Marissa dialed and waited as impatiently as Ivetta had done shortly before. Her wait was not as long, however, as the receiver was picked up almost immediately.

"Matteo here."

"Chief, something strange just happened. Ivetta called, and it appears that Giorgio is up to something."

"What do you mean?"

"He asked Ivetta to give him all her records concerning the scam, and he told her that he wouldn't be needing her help anymore. He's even going to close off that secret entrance that she always used.

"That can only mean one thing."

"Exactly what I was thinking. He's going to make a break for it, taking all his files with him."

"And we haven't gotten the evidence we need to implicate Zaverio yet; we can't do a thing without that." Matteo ran a hoof despondently through his mane.

"Do you still want me to play my part as the naive college kid?" Marissa asked.

"Yeah, I think that would be best until we know for sure what's going on. Maybe you could hang out with Ivetta in case something happens there."

"Okay, Chief. I'll be in touch."

Matteo hung up the phone and pounded his hoof into the desk. "Everything is ready," he bellowed. "Why hasn't the blackmail attempt against Giorgio, Sr. been made yet?"

A knock came at his office door, and a timid looking officer peered in. "Is there a problem here, sir?"

"Yes, there's a problem! What we need is a solution!"

"Yes, sir." The young stallion, Privato, came into the room. "The officer watching Giorgio's house reports that his father just arrived there."

Matteo got to his hooves. "Maybe now, then, we'll get the answers we need."

* * *

"How's Mother this morning?" Giorgio asked of his father as he led him to the kitchen where coffee was brewing.

"Much better. She has improved drastically since... since you talked to her about the picture." He dropped the manila envelope on the table and it slid across the shiny surface, coming to a halt directly in front of Giorgio.

Ignoring it for the time being, Giorgio went to the counter and poured two cups of strong, hot coffee before returning to the table; he motioned for his father to have a chair, and he set the steaming cups at their places. How many times had he wanted the undivided attention of his male parent? Now that he had it, he was a little uncomfortable with it.

"How did you know that the stallion that visited your mother worked for Zaverio?" Giorgio, Sr. asked without further preliminaries. "And, more importantly, how did you know about the photograph?" He spoke calmly and deliberately as if he already knew the answers and was trying at all costs to somehow nullify them.

Stirring some cream into his coffee, Giorgio hesitated in answering. But as his father remained silent, he soon felt compelled to respond. "The stallion's name is Renzo; I know that he works for Zaverio because... because I do, too, in a way; and I've used his services myself."

A burst of breath escaped from Giorgio, Sr. as if he had been holding it; the two stallions, so much alike in outward appearances, scrutinized one another across the tabletop.

"You admitted last night that you know one of the ponies in the picture; does that mean you know where it came from?"

Giorgio's gaze at his father faltered only a brief moment before he responded. "Let me start at the beginning."

"At this point, I think that might be the best thing to do."

"This goes back a long way, back to when I was just a colt. Mother had found a picture in your desk that had made her cry, and I took possession of it so she wouldn't have to see it again."

"I remember the picture you must be referring to-- a snapshot of myself and Strawberry Shortcake and her two little foals."

"That's the one. I kept it all these years hoping..." Giorgio's voice broke; it was one thing to hate your father behind his back, but quite another to tell him of those feelings directly to his face. "You said at the hospital that you and Mother both looked forward to having a foal. What happened? Why couldn't you love me?"

If the words shocked Giorgio, Sr., it didn't show. He simply responded, "Maybe I didn't know how."

"That's a politician's answer," Giorgio shot back. "But that doesn't matter now. The truth is that I kept that old picture in the hopes of using it against you somehow and making you suffer just like you had always done with me."

This time the words hit home. "I never purposely would have made you suffer; surely you know that."

"The only thing I know for sure is that from the earliest recollections I have about my life you were never involved. You were never there for me."

"You had your mother. You didn't need me."

"But I did need you," Giorgio nearly cried the words. "And you never had the time to show you cared."

"Life got busy. But you had your mother, and she adored you. I guess I thought that the two of you were enough for each other."

"I love my mother, but it would have been much easier growing up to know that you cared... even a little."

Giorgio, Sr. sat in total confusion. "You certainly never showed any indication that you needed me with your self-willed, independent attitude. I thought you wanted your freedom."

Eyes filled with defiance as so often throughout his life when he faced his father, Giorgio brought the original topic back on line. He found it easier to discuss the facts rather than the feelings behind them. "Zaverio came to me when he had decided to run against you; he asked if I could supply him with something negative to ruin your chances at re-election." .

"And you thought of the picture."

"Yes. But by that time, it had disappeared. Oddly, however, I had the perfect opportunity in Dream Valley to get an updated version that I knew would trigger the same noble response in you as the one from twenty-five years ago." He withdrew the photo from the envelope. "It was Zaverio's idea to alter it. I knew nothing of his scheme to put you in this picture, or of his diabolical plan to show it to Mother. You were the only one who ever needed to see it."

"So that is the bottom line? You detested me so much that you were willing to put an end to my career?"


"You were right about this one thing-- I will drop out rather than have the press run wild with this insane scandal. The one reason I was so drawn to Strawberry Shortcake and Strawberry Baskets was the simplicity of their lives; I'll not allow that to be violated. So I guess you have won." He pushed his chair back, and stood as if to leave.

"It's not that simple," Giorgio got to his hooves as well. "Zaverio will not stop at this. If he gets into office, his entire web of injustice will be unleashed. And as I'm the one that caused this situation to develop, I'm the one who must end it."

"And what do you think you can do now to bring this all back to normal? And why, now, do you even want to?"

"Why? Because seeing what this did to Mother tore my soul; I have to make it up to her. Zaverio did the one thing that could turn me against him; he unwittingly has brought about his own downfall... as well as my own. And as what I can do, I know enough of Zaverio's illegal dealings to supply Chief Matteo with ample evidence to close him down before the election."

The implication of what that meant was obvious to Giorgio, Sr. "If you have evidence on him, am I to assume you have been as treacherous as he has?"

For the first time since this discussion had begun, Giorgio smiled. "That, Father, is a long, long story."

* * *

It was with a heavy heart that Giorgio, Sr. accompanied his son to Chief Matteo's office. Giorgio's confession of attempted blackmail of his father set in motion the wheels of justice that had been waiting for this moment when the evidence the police needed to implicate Zaverio was in their hooves. Giorgio was able to supply more than enough to insure a strong case against him.

Matteo also personally notified Chief Tawny in Dream Valley and the other towns involved, and the net dropped over those included in the cheating scandal. Giorgio, Sr. was more dismayed by that disclosure than the previous one; if Giorgio wanted to see his father a broken stallion, he got his wish as he watched Giorgio, Sr. as he sat at his side throughout Matteo's questioning, sinking lower as each new revelation was uncovered.

Giorgio had been selling answer keys since he was a student; although he didn't need them himself, he got the thrill of beating the establishment of which his father was a part. The very fact that he could get by with it while his father was involved in the politics of the university and the city made it all worthwhile. Giorgio, Sr. learned a lot about his son this day.

But more importantly, perhaps, Giorgio learned something about his father. As disillusioned and heartbroken as he was, he stayed with his son without making judgement; and when the time came for them to part, Giorgio saw the tears in his father's eyes and knew that he genuinely did care. That made all the trouble he was now going through worthwhile. He wished he could say something to him to make up for the grief he had caused, but no words came. A lifetime of disillusionment could not be erased overnight.

At the last second when he was about to be led away, Giorgio found his voice long enough to utter, "Tell... tell Mother I love her and that she shouldn't worry about me."

"I'll tell her. And remember, we'll both be here for you, Giorgio. You can depend on that."

* * *

When The Vulcanopolis Vent hit the streets, the inhabitants of the city were variably affected. The blackmail of Giorgio, Sr. was not dwelt on and the picture was never revealed. But the cheating scam was broadcast in sweeping detail.

Those who knew and liked Giorgio were astonished by the news; those who had felt his rougher side were relieved. The ones who mistrusted lawyers were happy to see Zaverio fall from his position; the ones who mistrusted politicians assumed that Giorgio had learned his tricks from his father.

Prisca bemoaned the situation with Vanguard; she still respected Giorgio even knowing what part he had in the ransacking of her house. Ivetta, not implicated in the scam by Giorgio, nonetheless confided her part to Giles so that she could be completely free. Marissa, working undercover for the police, knew about Ivetta's involvement but convinced Matteo to leave her out of it.

Clare showed up on Vanguard's front step as soon as she could get away from her office, and dug all the details out of him about the affairs as he had experienced them. It was at her insistence that they inspected the secret door and found it no longer operational. No more would clandestine entry be gained through that route.

What Vanguard dreaded the most was his first contact with Sugarberry once she learned of all that had been going on without her knowledge. Wigwam called him once everything was secure in Dream Valley, and Vanguard was able to put through his call and face the outcome of the past six months.

The first words from Sugarberry eased his worry. "Are you okay over there?" There was no condemnation, no anger, no accusations, no mourning, simply concern.

"I'm fine. How's everything with you?"

"Relieved to finally know why you were so willing to leave me last spring."

"It wasn't something I'd have done without a good reason."

"My computer tells me that we are down to thirty-one days; that can translate into one month which sounds more manageable."

"Time for me to start packing!"

Sugarberry giggled, but she didn't say any more; Vanguard knew the reason, and came to her aid. "You know that Giorgio won't be coming back to finish out the semester."

"Wigwam explained it all to me."

He hesitated asking the next question, but he had to know. "How do you feel about that?"

"We had become quite good friends, or so I thought. I don't know what to think right now."

"He didn't go through with his plan; I think that says a lot for him." Why am I defending the guy? Vanguard wondered to himself.

"His last words to me before he left were 'Please don't hate me'. When Wigwam told me today what he had been up to in connection with a picture of my family, it all made sense. If he was just using me to get a copy of that picture, was everything else about him just pretend, too?"

"It seems his main reason for all he did was to hurt his father, but the two of them are working things out. From the gossip going on around here, I'd say that Giorgio'll come out okay in the end."

"I hope the same can be said for things around here."

Vanguard was dismayed by her words. "Sugarberry, what do you mean by that?" The distress in his voice caused Sugarberry to explain quickly.

"It's Chocolate Chip and Wigwam. When she found out that he knew what Giorgio was up to, and that he himself was actually working for Tawny, and he let Wishbone get caught up in the cheating knowing full well everything behind it, she got really angry with Wigwam and won't talk it out with him. He's really depressed and so is she. But she's not ready to forgive him yet. She maintains that Wigwam has broken their trust."

"Oh," Vanguard was relieved to hear that she had not been referring to their own relationship. "I know Wigwam sounded a little down, but I figured it was all the hype over the case catching up with him."

"He's really despondent; Chocolate Chip and he were going to celebrate Thanksgiving with Agatha and Tabby's big party, but Chocolate Chip is going home with Wishbone now for the holiday. I suggested that he could follow her there and maybe by then she'd have cooled down a bit, but he's too stubborn to consider it-- at least at this point."

Vanguard did some mental calculating, and came up with a disturbing consideration. Giorgio had been planning on accompanying Sugarberry to the Thanksgiving dinner at Tabby's, but had suddenly left town. Now Wigwam was without his date to the dinner; would he fill in where Giorgio had left off? "So where do your plans stand in all the shuffling?" he queried. Thirty-one days suddenly seemed like an eternity.

"I'm making the pumpkin pies for the big day," she offered, not seeing his point. Her thoughts jumped to Christmas. "Your folks will be here for your arrival home as well as mine," she reminded him, setting his mind at ease once more. "And your brothers and my sisters are going to make the trip on Christmas day."

"That's not going to be too much for you, is it?" Vanguard worried.

Sugarberry laughed. "With our mothers on the scene?"

"Okay, so you'll have plenty of help. But I'm seeing no time there for just you and me."

"Oh, poor baby!" she teased. "Driftwood's already thought of that, and he's offered a dinner out at the Estate Manor whenever we choose. Of course, he did mention something about having to wash the dishes."

"With you, even that would be fun."

"By the way, Rex and Nestor arrived last evening. They're having a problem with one of their poults."

"Nothing serious, I hope." Vanguard suddenly heard the sound of Tabby's voice in the background.

"Oh! Tabby and Thomas just got here for supper so I'll have to go. And Vanguard, when things quiet down, will you visit Giorgio just to see how he's doing?"

"It's funny you should suggest that. Clare thought it would be a good idea if we would check up on him one day. I think she sees the possibility of reforming him as her new mission in life."

"Hmm... Clare and Giorgio. That has some interesting possibilities..."

Vanguard laughed as he contemplated having both the stallion and the mare out of competition in his and Sugarberry's life. "It does at that."

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