From This Day Forward
written by Sugarberry

The early morning light was just a vague shadowiness when Wigwam suddenly opened his eyes. There had been a sound, a familiar sound, yet one that had been buried in his subconscious. The stallion listened intently; had he been dreaming?

There it came again-- a low mumbling tone, a whining accompanied by a brisk scratching. Jumping from his bed and rushing to the front entrance, Wigwam gained control of his excitement before opening the door so as not to frighten the one who was on the other side.

"Manitou!" he uttered upon catching sight of the grey wolf sitting on the front porch, nearly invisible in the equally grey dawn. "What is it, boy?"

The wolf, his yellow eyes staring at Wigwam, thumped his tail on the wooden boards as if to acknowledge the greeting. These two had been close companions until Manitou had come to the rescue of a wounded she-wolf and had taken it upon himself to protect and nurse her with the help of Dreamcatcher who lived at the edge of the Dark Forest.

"Where's Halona and the rest of the gang?" Wigwam asked, peering beyond the wolf into the steadily breaking dawn. An answering grunt focused his attention on the she-wolf at the bottom of the steps, her litter frolicking around her in carefree abandon.

Wigwam smiled in absolute contentment at this unexpected reunion with Manitou and his family. He went out and sat on the top step; Manitou sat beside him, and the two, along with Halona, looked upon the pups in joint admiration. The four pouncing youngsters, slightly darker in coloration than either of their parents, were entirely carefree under the watchful eyes of Manitou and Halona.

As he sat enjoying the quiet camaraderie of the wolves, Wigwam remembered something that Fetish, Dreamcatcher's Native Pony friend, had anticipated: the possibility of Manitou and his mate moving the pack to a more isolated home now that it was time for the pups to learn to hunt. Wigwam put the question to Manitou. "Are you moving on, ole' boy?"

As if in answer, Manitou stood up. The wolf licked Wigwam's face and wagged his tail enthusiastically; Halona stood, too, and the four pups stopped their play to look on in expectation.

Wigwam set his hoof gently on Manitou's shoulder. "Take care, Manitou. You and Holana will do a great job raising your family." He walked the group for a short distance until the wolves stopped and turned their faces to him for a final farewell. "We'll see you again," Wigwam whispered as the furry beasts cut into the open meadow and set a path for the Dark Forest. They would stop only briefly at Dreamcatcher's tepee before venturing more deeply into the heart of the woods and beyond.

Watching until there was no more sign of the wolves, Wigwam walked slowly back to his porch and sat down again on the steps. His mind was reliving his first encounter with Manitou and the dream that had preceded it, a dream that ushered in the appearance of Manitou and the inescapable bonding of the two of them into a kindred sort of relationship. With the arrival of Halona and the birth of the pups, the wolves would once again roam the Dark Forest and environs as they had in the past-- as they had in the dream.

"And what about the brown mare?" Wigwam wondered. "She came to me in the dream with food and water." Wigwam sat up in hopeful understanding. "Manitou is ready to return to the wild just as Hubert had foreseen when Halona first appeared. The predicted cycle is complete! What, then, is to prevent Chocolate Chip from coming back to me now?"

The stallion tossed back his mane and took in the splendid June morning with the birds singing exuberantly in the trees with their predawn refrain. It was the birds that brought him to his senses-- "Today is Sugarberry and Van's wedding day!" At that precise moment, the sun broke over the eastern horizon, bathing him in its golden rays.

* * *

Later that morning, the sunbeam found Sugarberry and her mother out in the garden clipping flowers for the wedding brunch. "It's a day of flowers," commented Strawberry Shortcake, thinking of the bridal bouquet, the headpieces, the boutonnieres, the altar bouquets, the table arrangements. She looked at her daughter surrounded now by the cosmos, delphiniums, cleome, and phlox in her own patch of flowers; Sugarberry's face was radiant with anticipation of the day's events.

The slamming of the back door caused both ponies to look toward the house; Strawberry Baskets was coming to join them. "Good morning, Dad," Sugarberry grinned. "How are the food preparations coming?"

"By the smells in the kitchen, I think your aunts have everything under control." He hugged his wife and daughter. "This is going to be a grand day!"

"I'd better go see if Cherry Delight and Peach Cobbler need any help," said Strawberry Shortcake. "You help Sugarberry with the rest of the flowers." She handed her husband the basket and left father and daughter alone in the mild June morning.

A pair of goldfinches nesting in a nearby elm tree serenaded the two ponies from the safety of the white wicket fence that backed the flowers, taking time from their hectic schedule of feeding the brood that had recently hatched, while a robin searched for breakfast in the cultivated vegetable garden; a chickadee searched for seeds under the birdfeeder, calling out its "chick-a-dee-dee-dee" at various intervals.

Sugarberry added some daisies to the basket, and Strawberry Baskets watched as she searched out the freshest, fullest blossoms. Many thoughts crowded through his memory of this, his youngest daughter. Always shy, she had clung to him many times in her early years. Even in her high school experience, she had fallen back on his guidance and gentle nudges to face up to those tumultuous times. Yet when he and Strawberry Shortcake had made the decision to move and begin a new business in Berryville (where their oldest daughter, Gooseberry, had settled with her husband) Sugarberry-- just graduated from high school-- had opted to remain alone in Dream Valley. She had done well on her own and had now come to the next big milestone in her life-- marriage to the stallion who had entered her world at the country retreat, Birdsong.

As if on a parallel journey of thought, Sugarberry said, "Birdsong would have been beautiful this time of year, if not for the storm."

"Don't let Birdsong's problems worry you."

"Lilac made me promise I would not let their misfortune interfere with my wedding day."

"You're satisfied with putting your honeymoon on hold until Birdsong is ready for business again?"

"The main thing is that Vanguard and I are getting married. We'll just have the visit to Birdsong to look forward to." She grinned. "And we'd better get back to the house before we miss the entire day!"

There were so many things Strawberry Baskets wanted to say to his daughter before the hustle and bustle of the upcoming event engulfed them, but the only words that were spoken said it all. "Never forget how much love the two of you have for each other at this moment, Sugarberry; never let it grow old."

"You and Mom have been good teachers," Sugarberry smiled. "But if I ever forget, don't hesitate to set me straight."

* * *

The kitchen was alive with activity; Chocolate Chip and Raspberry had joined the preparations, and Wishbone and Driftwood were testing samples of the food while two of Strawberry Shortcake's sisters fussed with wonderfully aromatic food dishes. Driftwood, Raspberry's fiancé, grinned at Sugarberry as she came in with her dad. "Any last minute apprehensions?" he asked. "I could always deliver a message to Van if you've changed your mind." This stallion had made it a point to torment Sugarberry since the those long-ago days when he had known her as Raspberry's little sister.

"Don't you have a wedding dinner to see to over at the church dining hall?" Sugarberry attempted to look stern.

"I have delegated authority to all the right ponies; I have nothing to worry about... at the moment."

"I should be heading over to Van's place," Wishbone realized after a glance at the clock. "His mom is fixing some sort of spread over there for us guys. See you girls later." He gave his sister an affectionate hug.

"Don't forget that Mom and Dad and Lollipop are at the motel."

"As if they'd have time for me," Wishbone sneered. "Although maybe Dad would appreciate getting away from all Mom and Lollipop's make-up and finery and fuss." He winked as he made a quick escape from the room, headed for the front of the house.

A babble of voices outside the back door caught everyone's attention; Gooseberry, Grapevine, and their three foals had spent the night with Hubert and Agatha; the entire household was coming to join in the pre-wedding festivities. At the same time, Wishbone came back from the front door in the company of Icon and Chiffon.

"Good morning, everyone. I'm just here to drop off Chiffon," Vanguard's younger brother said.

"Does this mean Van is still serious about marrying Sugarberry?" asked Driftwood.

Chiffon, a graceful pale green mare, smiled. "My cousin can't wait to get to the church and finalize this commitment."

"Maybe I should go and start seeing about dinner preparations."

As Wishbone made a second attempt to leave the house, this time in the company of Icon and Driftwood, he met Tabby and Thomas at the door. "Hi, Tabby! Hi, Thomas! Come on in!"

"How's Sug holding up?" queried Tabby.

"More to the point, how is Tabby holding up?" replied Sugarberry as she came across the room to greet her friends. "She's been resting like she's supposed to, hasn't she Thomas?"

Tabby rolled her eyes. "The baby isn't due for another month; I'm fine, the baby's fine, everything is fine."

Thomas agreed with his wife. "Tabby wouldn't miss being in your wedding for anything, Sugarberry, and the baby is perfectly content to bide his..."

"...her..." Tabby interjected.

"...time until July," Thomas finished.

"All the same, you better come and sit down, Tabitha," Agatha fussed. "This will be a long day for you."

"Yes, mother." Tabby allowed her mother to escort her to a waiting chair. "What smells so good? I'm starved."

"The food is set out in the dining room," Sugarberry directed all the guests. "It's buffet style so make yourselves at home." She turned to the group of stallions who were preparing once again to move on to Vanguard's apartment, with the addition now of Thomas. "Don't be late for the wedding!" she admonished as they were going out the door.

* * *

The crowd had thinned out. Strawberry Baskets and Hubert had gone with Grapevine and the unwilling foals back to Hubert and Agatha's house to settle Baby Gooseberry down for a nap and to allow some quiet time for Huckleberry and Wineberry. All three were excited to be in the wedding party, and it was no easy task for the three stallions to convince them to spend some time away from the excitement. Huckleberry was the most forlorn of all; he insisted that as ringbearer, he should be with the stallions on this special day. "Vanguard said it was a very important job," he had insisted, but his father had held firm that the colt needed to rest in preparation for the big afternoon ahead.

At Sugarberry's house, the bride and her attendants were immersed in the myriad details of make-up and hair styling with the help of Fifi, Strawberry Shortcake, and Agatha. In the midst of it, Chiffon handed Sugarberry a note from Vanguard which captured everyone's attention. "Read it out loud!" begged Chocolate Chip.

"He probably wouldn't want it broadcast to everyone," Gooseberry surmised.

"If he didn't, he wouldn't have sent it over with Chiffon," observed Tabby. "Let's hear it."

"Just everyone be quiet and give Sugarberry a chance to read it," ordered Strawberry Shortcake.

Sugarberry had already opened the envelope and had the note in hoof. "Sugarberry, my love," it began, "from this day forward, all my dreams are fulfilled in you... you are all that my heart desires. Love, Vanguard. P.S. Will you marry me... today?"

"What did it say?" asked Raspberry, sneaking a peak over her sister's shoulder. "'Sugarberry, my love..." she read before Chocolate Chip confiscated it from Sugarberry's hoof and proceeded to read the note out loud.

"How sweet!" said Tabby.

"I didn't know that Vanguard could be so romantic," Chiffon stated.

"I need to call him," Sugarberry decided, abandoning Fifi's work on her mane to cross the room to the telephone. The call was answered on the first ring, and it was Vanguard himself. "Yes!" she affirmed. "I'll meet you at the altar in two hours!"

"Sugarberry, this day is going unbearably slowly."

"Thanks for taking the time to write that wonderfully romantic note."

"That's what love can do to a guy."

"I look forward to many more." She caught sight of Fifi's frowning face. "Fifi says if I'm going to be at the church on time, I've got to hang-up. I'll see you soon!"

"Not soon enough!"

As Sugarberry settled herself under Fifi's expert styling once more, Agatha asked, "You haven't had any Guido-type stallions in your past, have you, Sugarberry?"

"If you mean are any stallions going to interrupt the ceremony-- no!" answered Strawberry Shortcake for her daughter.

"Did Guido really expect you to desert Thomas, Tabby?" asked Chiffon.

"He expected his jangles to impress me," Tabby grinned.

"You should have heard Tabby cut Guido down to size and sing Thomas' praises," added Sugarberry. "It was great!"

"Quarterback doesn't have any false hopes, does he?" asked Gooseberry. "He was awfully interested in Sugarberry at one time."

"He has Merry Moments now, and they have been hinting at a wedding in the future themselves."

"And let's not forget Raspberry and Driftwood's marriage in the autumn," reminded Strawberry Shortcake.

"Berryville gets a brand-new restaurant out of that deal," Gooseberry added.

"Who will manage the Estate Manor?" worried Agatha. "It is the best place to dine in Dream Valley."

"Whisk is going to be in charge, but Driftwood will make sure that the quality remains the same... or better."

"Chocolate Chip, how is Prime doing in New Pony?"

"Very well, obviously," the young mare answered. "He called at the last minute to tell me he wouldn't be coming back for the wedding as he had promised."

"It would be a long trip, and he only left a short time ago," Strawberry Shortcake pointed out.

"He said that something came up that he had to attend to, but he wasn't willing to give me any particulars."

"Well, it's his tough luck," Fifi commented. "You look beautiful."

"You all do," Agatha agreed as she fussed with Tabby's red mane. Fifi had attached artificial braids of hair of contrasting color into each of the ponies' manes, working them into their real hair to appear quite natural, yet adding a bit of pizzazz.

"Where are your cats, Sugarberry?" Chiffon asked. "You have two of them, right?"

"Yes. Fluff's at the top of the stairs wondering when you are all going to leave so he can relax, and Raptor is probably in the kitchen with Aunt Cherry Delight and Aunt Peach Cobbler helping them to clean-up."

"Are any of Vanguard's friends from Vulcanopolis coming to the wedding?" asked Gooseberry.

"Tiffany and Guido, of course, and Clare and Giorgio are coming along with Hydrangea and Pacificus," Sugarberry replied. She grew thoughtful. "Can you imagine that a year ago, Vanguard was over there and Giorgio was here? And Hydrangea was working at the Café Carousel, not knowing that she was Giorgio's sister?" She grew quiet as she pondered the sequence of events that had disclosed the fact of Hydrangea's adoption and led to her discovery of her birth parents. "But, anyway, Giorgio, Sr., and Enrica are coming with them."

"I'm surprised at that," Agatha commented. "Enrica never appeared in public much; being in a wheelchair, she preferred to stay in her home."

"Since her husband and son are on better terms and she has been reunited with her daughter, she is more eager to get out," Sugarberry explained. "Clare asked if they could bring her to the wedding because she was curious to see where Hydrangea had been living and where Giorgio had been an exchange teacher. It became sort of a family vacation for all of them."

"It's time to put on those necklaces Sugarberry gave us," said Raspberry, holding up a glittering golden chain with entwined hearts dangling from it.

"Jewelry!" scoffed Tabby. "I'll never see the sense of it."

"You wear your wedding ring, and that's jewelry," teased Chocolate Chip.

"That's different!" Tabby touched the band wonderingly. "It means something."

"Tabby's getting sentimental," Gooseberry observed.

"That's what pregnancy does to a mare," Agatha stated. Then she giggled. "And to Hubert, too. He missed Tabitha's birth, you remember, so he's really looking forward to this first grandfoal."

"Granddaughter," Tabby corrected.

Chiffon, being a newcomer to Dream Valley affairs, asked Agatha, "Your husband wasn't home when Tabby was born?"

By the time that story had been told, the mares were all ready for the finishing touch. "There's no wind to batter the blossoms today, so I had the headpieces delivered here while your bouquets will be waiting at the church," Fifi said, holding up on of the flowery circles. "We can get these fixed in place much more easily here before we leave." Soon she had each of the attendants crowned with her floral adornment.

A knock on the door brought a new face to the scene: Strawberry Basket's sister, Blueberry Baskets, a real estate agent in New Pony. She brought with her an effervescent enthusiasm that nearly smothered the entire gathering. "Strawberry Shortcake," she purred, giving her sister-in-law a hug before embracing Sugarberry. "What a gorgeous day for a wedding! And Raspberry, you'll have me flying out again soon, won't you? Where's that family of yours, Gooseberry?" She paused for a breath. "Agatha, you're looking great, and what's this? Tabby's expecting a foal? My, my! Who would have thought... I can't wait to meet your husband, dear." Her gaze settled on Chiffon. "Who is this, Sugarberry?"

"Aunt Blueberry Baskets, this is Chiffon, Vanguard's cousin. She and Vanguard grew up together in Woodlawn."

"How nice to meet you, Chiffon. And this lovely filly?"

"A dear friend; Chocolate Chip rooms here while she's attending Pony Pride University."

Blueberry Baskets stared at Chocolate Chip closely. "Pony Pride... where did I hear about Pony Pride just recently?" The mare stood lost in thought for a moment, giving the group a chance to gather their own thoughts. Blueberry Baskets was not finished, however. "I remember now; there was a nice young stallion next to me at the theater the other evening, and we fell into a conversation; he told me he had just transferred from Pony Pride."

"Prime?" Chocolate Chip breathed. "You saw Prime?"

"That was his name; I knew the young mare he was with... Frilly Hearts. Her father is one of the instructors at New Pony University and a good friend of mine; he obviously has taken this Prime under his tutelage."

Chocolate Chip shot a glowering glance at Sugarberry. "Frilly Hearts," she muttered under her breath.

Fifi had watched the entrance of Blueberry Baskets with a disapproving frown and now spoke up. "It's high time that we left for the church, girls."

"Fifi!" Blueberry Baskets said the name as if she had just now noticed the presence of the hairdresser. "Still coiffing the mares of Dream Valley with your quaint styles, are you?"

"No one has been complaining," Fifi replied.

"You should see the hair styles in New Pony," breezed Blueberry Baskets, tossing her own highly-styled hair. "You would be amazed at the artistic ability that is used there."

The arrival of Strawberry Baskets with Wineberry and Baby Gooseberry averted any further friction between the two mares. "Huckleberry finally convinced Grapevine to take him over to Vanguard's place; he promised he wouldn't be any trouble," Strawberry Baskets explained to Gooseberry before welcoming his sister.

Agatha wisely suggested that Strawberry Baskets take Blueberry Baskets into the kitchen to allow for some catching-up on family affairs while Fifi was gathering her supplies to move the wedding preparations to the church. The wedding party set off with a sigh of relief to leave behind the talkative aunt and to make it one step closer to the highlight of the day.

* * *

"Fr. Isaac and the guys are finally in position," Fifi hissed. She had just re-adjusted Baby Gooseberry's floral headpiece for the umpteenth time and would be relieved to finally send the tot down the aisle. "But not yet!" she cried, grabbing the toddler who was determined to be the first one to promenade.

Chocolate Chip, her brown tresses accented with pink braids and corresponding pink flowers in her headpiece and trailing throughout her mane, began the entrance processional to join her brother, Wishbone, at the front of the church. Wishbone met her with a wink, and the two walked to the foot of the altar and parted to take their respective places at either side.

Chiffon followed with a smattering of purple braids and flowers in her yellow hair; she was received by Wigwam. Next went Raspberry with her dark blue hair adorned with red flowers and braids, joining with Icon; then the yellow-braided Gooseberry walked up the aisle to pair with Vanguard's oldest brother, Stillwater.

Tabby, as matron of honor, was the last of the attendants; Fifi adjusted the position of a blue braid and nodded to Tabby to begin. The unicorn seemed to hesitate, then, looking forward to where her husband awaited her, she progressed up the aisle.

"She was daydreaming about her own wedding last summer, I'll bet," Sugarberry whispered to her dad as she saw Tabby waver for that brief second.

Nudging Wineberry and Baby Gooseberry forward, Fifi sent the two flower girls on their way. Wineberry held the basket of petals with one hoof and clutched one of her sisters hooves in the other while Baby Gooseberry gaily tossed fragrant petals in reckless abandon. Huckleberry proudly followed with the carefully guarded rings.

It was only now as she and Strawberry Baskets stepped into center position that Sugarberry could see Vanguard as he waited for her. Her heart skipped a beat as their eyes met. This was the moment! She felt her dad squeeze her foreleg, and they set off on this most memorable walk.

Sugarberry's propensity for worrying was suspended for the day; never in her life had she been so positively sure of her direction and of her goal. Never had she been so confident that the choice she had made was the correct one. Now, walking up the aisle beside her father, she was so completely happy that she glowed.

The focus of her attention was the country blue stallion with seagreen hair who waited for her in assured expectation. For him, too, this was the moment of wonder. He beheld his beloved as the center of his universe, yet he had never seen her as beautiful as she was now. It wasn't only the white flowers and braids in her red hair or the filmy white veil crowned with pearls and lace or the calla lily bouquet she carried, but the aura of encompassing love that radiated from her. From this day forward... my wife, Vanguard thought to himself.

As Strawberry Baskets presented Sugarberry to Vanguard, the beaming father kissed his daughter gently and relinquished her hoof to the groom. Vanguard accepted his charge, and he and his bride looked at one another in such total communion that in that instant their souls touched. The smile Sugarberry gave Vanguard would always be the light of his life, and now he returned it in kind. Together they proceeded to their spot before the altar where Fr. Isaac awaited them. The priest welcomed them and their guests and began the Mass.

The prayers and readings had never meant as much to either Sugarberry or Vanguard as they did now kneeling side-by-side before God and the community to begin a new life together. Fr. Isaac's homily impressed upon all present the hopes and responsibilities that this formal exchange of vows would encompass.

When the priest called them forward for their exchange of vows, the bride and groom were ready. Tabby and Thomas, as matron of honor and best man, took their places to witness the exchange. Fr. Isaac addressed them appropriately, ending with the question: "Vanguard and Sugarberry, have you come here freely and without reservation to give yourselves to each other in marriage?"

Both responded promptly. "I have."

"Will you love and honor each other as stallion and wife for the rest of your lives?"

"I will," they echoed their commitment.

"Will you accept foals..."

As the words were spoken, there was a pain-filled moan as Tabby slumped to the floor; Thomas, as if he had been keeping a close eye on her, was at her side instantly. "Tabby... what's wrong?"

"A pain," Tabby gasped. "A really bad pain." She looked up self-consciously as she realized her predicament; the pain was gone now, so why was she creating this fuss at Sugarberry's wedding? But Thomas was profoundly concerned; and Dr. Toby, who had come forth from the wedding guests as soon as Tabby showed distress, was obviously worried as well.

Tabby, for her part, was sure that things would be okay and was determined to get the ceremony back on track. However, as she struggled to rise, she was overcome by another contraction; she abandoned herself to the pain. "Thomas," she groaned, holding his hoof tightly.

Agatha, Hubert, and Elaine had joined the worried circle around Tabby. Sugarberry was next to her friend and brushed the hair from Tabby's forehead. Thomas was impassioned. "We've got to get her to the hospital!"

"There's no time," Toby determined. "Fr. Isaac," he said, looking up at the black pony, "we're going to need to borrow a room in your rectory."

Fr. Isaac was used to the unexpected, and now he simply set aside the prayer book he had in his hooves and led the way for the stallions who were supporting Tabby; her parents and Elaine accompanied them, and Snuzzle came forth to help with the impending birth.

The solemnity of the occasion was ruffled with the sounds of worried voices of the guests; Vanguard had gathered Sugarberry to him as she watched helplessly as Tabby had been taken away. "She'll be all right," he whispered to his bride. "Thomas will make sure of that."

Having escorted the involved ponies to the spare room in the attached rectory, Fr. Isaac returned to the wedding in progress. "Tabby's doing fine and is in capable hooves," he informed the waiting congregation. Then he looked at the bride and groom in front of him. "What would you suggest we do from here?"

"I think we should say a prayer for Tabby and the baby," Sugarberry said, looking at Vanguard for his input, who nodded his approval.

Fr. Isaac led them in a prayer that rejoiced in the miracle of life; he had no sooner finished when Hubert appeared through the doorway that led to the rectory. The look on his face was impossible to read, but the message he had to deliver was soon announced. "It's a girl!" he stated as he broke out in a grin. "It's a tiny little girl, and she and Tabby are both fine!"

The announcement was met with spontaneous applause as the wedding guests reacted to the good news. Vanguard hugged Sugarberry, and Sugarberry had to wipe the tears from her eyes. Tabby and Thomas had a baby girl! All this had been set in motion at their wedding last August; this was where the blessing of the married couple led.

Fr. Isaac waited for the guests to quiet down before he once again turned everyone's thoughts to the business at hoof. Gooseberry and Stillwater were commissioned to stand in as witnesses in Tabby and Thomas' place. Then he continued the ceremony: "Sugarberry, Vanguard, with what has transpired here this morning, you know full well what you are getting yourselves into when I ask this question of you." He smiled at each of them before asking, "Will you accept foals lovingly from God?"

"I will," responded Vanguard.

"I will," Sugarberry concurred.

"Since it is your intention to enter into marriage, join your right hooves, and declare your consent."

Vanguard and Sugarberry joined hooves, each experiencing the solemnity of the moment to such a degree that for them, they were the only two ponies on the face on the earth. Vanguard looked into Sugarberry's eyes as he said, "I, Vanguard, take you, Sugarberry, to be my wife. I promise to be true to you in good times and in bad, in sickness and in health. I will love you and honor you all the days of my life."

Sugarberry repeated the vow, holding Vanguard's gaze in the depths of her heart. "I, Sugarberry, take you, Vanguard, to be my husband. I promise to be true to you in good times and in bad, in sickness and in health. I will love you and honor you all the days of my life."

"You have declared your consent before the Church. May the Lord in his goodness strengthen your consent and fill you both with his blessings. What God has joined, ponies must not divide."

The response of the gathered ponies was a proper, "Amen!"

This was Huckleberry's time to shine, and he fulfilled his duty admirably; he came forward with the rings, presenting them to Fr. Isaac for his blessing. The colt watched his aunt and new uncle closely to make sure that they carried through with the proper exchange of rings.

Vanguard took his wedding ring for Sugarberry and placed it on her foreleg with the words, "Sugarberry, take this ring as a sign of my love and fidelity."

He watched as Sugarberry did the same with her ring for him. "Vanguard, take this ring as a sign of my love and fidelity." She slipped the band over his foreleg and looked up at him with radiant eyes that attested to the sincerity of her pledge.

When Fr. Isaac said, "Vanguard, you may now kiss your bride!" the groom responded promptly after which Fr. Isaac introduced the new couple and they made the return walk down the aisle together as husband and wife.

* * *

The joyousness of the occasion was shared with family and friends as Vanguard and Sugarberry received the congratulations and best wishes of their guests, including Sugarberry's grandparents, Warren and Laurel, and Red Rocket and Strawberries and Cream, followed by Vanguard's, Dynasty and Golden Charm, along with Rembrandt and Windflower.

"This is my aunt, Apricot Turnover," Sugarberry introduced Vanguard to a family member he had not yet met. "She's a dentist in Hilton."

"It's so nice to meet you, Vanguard," the mare said. And to Sugarberry: "I think you've made a delightful choice!"

Vanguard was further inspected by Cherry Delight and her husband, Saffron; Peach Cobbler and Lone Flute; and Strawberry Shortcake's only brother, Mulberry Pie along with his wife Radiant Rose. Strawberry Baskets' family included his sister, Blueberry Baskets; and two brothers, Melon Baskets married to Lilliput; and Blackberry Baskets and his wife, Sweet Pea.

Sugarberry met her fair share of scrutiny by Vanguard's side of the family: Floral Breeze's only sibling, Velvet and her husband, Charger, the parents of Chiffon; and Whirlpool's brothers: Eddy with his wife, Iris; Current and Gypsy Heart; and Swirl, married to Cornsilk.

Countless cousins came through the line with their mates and their children. Sugarberry's mind was a whirlwind of names: Ruffles, Stormy, Daydream, Aladin, Marmalade, Bramble, Ruby... the list was endless. She knew she could never keep them all straight. It was always a relief to see a familiar face.

"Hydrangea! How does Dream Valley look to you after being away all these months?" Sugarberry asked as the two mares greeted one another. The grey unicorn at Hydrangea's side could be none other than Pacificus, Sugarberry realized. She had never met the stallion, but she knew he had befriended Vanguard in Vulcanopolis. "It is so nice to meet you, Pacificus," she said.

"The pleasure is all mine," Pacificus responded with a smile. "I understand now why Vanguard was so homesick while he was in Vulcanopolis."

Hydrangea was excited to introduce her newfound parents to the newly-weds. "Van and Sugarberry, this is Enrica, my mother," she said with pride.

"This has been a wonderful experience for me," stated Enrica. "This is my first visit to Ponyland, and I am finding it to be a very friendly town." She smiled at the bride and groom. "My best wishes to both of you, and I must thank you again for including my husband and me in your personal celebration." She reached out for her husband's hoof and looked up at him with a sparkle in her eyes.

For a split second, Sugarberry went back in time-- back to her first meeting with Giorgio last summer and even further back to a confrontation between her own parents when she was just a foal, a confrontation caused by a picture of this stallion with Strawberry Shortcake. The unknowns and the misconceptions from both those encounters were clear now and of no further consequence, yet the meeting of Giorgio, Sr., reignited old memories.

Furthermore, Sugarberry knew that Giorgio and his father were almost exactly alike, except for the lock of white hair in Giorgio, Sr.'s, otherwise dark blue hair. Knowing and seeing, however, were two different things. She found herself staring at the older Giorgio as her thoughts and visual images churned within her until she felt Vanguard's gentle touch on her hoof. She watched as the two stallions shook hooves, and by the time they were through exchanging civilities, she was in control of her emotions again and could extend her own hoof to Giorgio, Sr., with no reserve. "I've looked forward to meeting you," she said with a smile.

"And I to meet you," he returned her smile and held her hoof. "After I had become acquainted with your parents, I often wondered what their expected foal would look like. You are as beautiful as I always imagined you to be."

Sugarberry blushed under his scrutinizing gaze but managed to respond. "Your daughter is a beauty herself."

"My daughter," he repeated. "I still find that to be a magnificent-sounding phrase." He turned then to take in Giorgio behind him in the receiving line. "And my son, too."

Sugarberry's eyes were drawn to the dark green stallion; this was the first time she had seen him since his hurried departure last November. She could still hear the last words he had said to her: Please don't hate me.

Now he spoke to her again, but in a much more lighthearted tone. "My dear Sugarberry, it's wonderful to see you!" He took her hoof and kissed it gallantly and, like his father, retained possession of it.

"Giorgio." Sugarberry was vaguely aware that they were being closely watched by Enrica and Giorgio, Sr., to see how this friendship that had been tested by adversity would fare. Wigwam, too, had turned his attention to this encounter between the two ponies; he had not approved of Giorgio's friendship with Sugarberry while Vanguard was in Vulcanopolis. Interestingly, Clare was not concerned; she was hugging Vanguard in a cheerful reunion.

Sugarberry had not known what her feelings would be on her first encounter with this stallion who had rattled her equilibrium by his presence in Dream Valley a year ago. She had detested him and valued him within the course of their acquaintance which had ended so abruptly. Now as he stood before her, his eyes twinkling, Sugarberry could only remember the good times. She grinned. "It's good to see you back."

"You don't hate me then?"

"Far from it; I have only happy memories of your time in Dream Valley. Remember the day we spent at the toy museum?"

His eyes twinkling, Giorgio did recall that day. "We were a couple of foals again for those hours."

"I knew I had no reason to doubt you after that day."

Giorgio looked at her a moment before giving her a brief but significant hug. "Thanks, Sugarberry," he whispered.

Lemon Treats and Poeticus were next in line, accompanied by Grammattica who also taught at Pony Pride. "Charming ceremony!" Lemon Treats attested. "And Tabby has a foal; have you heard yet what the baby looks like?"

"Not a word," replied Sugarberry. "But I hope to get a peak at her before too long."

Wigwam was still nearby, and Sugarberry took a moment to call him over. "Would you check on how Tabby and Thomas are doing and find out if Vanguard and I could visit them after the wedding pictures are taken?"

"Sure thing," he replied and left immediately to fulfill his errand. He was soon back, however, with Elaine at his side.

"How's Tabby by now?" Sugarberry asked.

"She's fine; she and Thomas are still reveling in the beauty of their daughter."

"Hubert's proud announcement of the birth didn't disclose any of the pertinent details, Elaine. What color is she?"

"She's pink, like her mother, but with light pink hair."

"And a unicorn?" asked Vanguard.

"Yes, a unicorn! Tabby and Thomas couldn't be happier! You'll have to take some time to check in on them when you can."

Lemon Treats had lingered to listen in on the news. "What are they going to name her?"

"They've chosen the name, Faline."

"ARR!" There was no doubt who the next pony in line was. "What kind of name is that bein'?!"

"Barnacle! So glad you could get away from Calimadad Island!"

"ARR! I be thinkin' there are gettin' ta be too many of these weddings! Seems the only time I ever get back ta Dream Valley is ta see somebody else get hitched."

"So when are you getting married, Barnacle?"

"ARR! Marriage isn't a thing for a pirate to be thinkin' about."

"So you haven't yet met anyone you'd consider for a wife?"

"ARR!" Barnacle said, his eyes suddenly taking on a distant look. "There was this one mermaid once who tried to wreck my ship and drag me and my crew to a watery grave." He sighed longingly and continued. "I look for her every time I go out to sea, but I have yet to find her again."

"Umm... are you sure that would be the healthiest relationship, Barnacle?" asked Sugarberry with an amused look on her face.

"ARR!" Barnacle said, suddenly snapping back to reality. "Oh... good luck to you two." And the pirate wandered off, returning to his own private thoughts.

Clever Clover, Spike, and Friendly came through as a group. "Great wedding so far," Clever Clover stated. "Of course, the food will determine whether or not it makes the record books."

"Driftwood assures us that his culinary expertise will guarantee an excellent meal."

"All I care about is if the food is good," Spike commented.

"Yeah! Yeah!" Friendly concurred.

"And Tabby's having her baby during the ceremony was a nice touch," Clever Clover smirked. "The foal is obviously just like her mother-- strong-willed with a mind of her own."

"Best wishes, Sugarberry. Congratulations, Vanguard." Dreamcatcher offered her felicitations followed by Fetish.

"Thanks. We haven't seen much of you two since you came back from your weekend with the announcement that you had gotten married."

"You're simple little peasant ceremonies are so... unpretentious." Tiffany stifled a yawn.

"Van, it's great to see you settling down with such a lovely bride," offered Guido with more civility than his royal fiancee.

Towards the end of the line was a pony that caused Sugarberry to cringe, but she masked her feelings and retained her gracious smile. "Gauntlet, how nice of you to come."

This particular stallion, although a friend of Vanguard's through Pony Pride University, was not one of Sugarberry's favorite ponies. An art teacher, Gauntlet had acquired possession of a young cat which had escaped his home and ended up living on the birds which frequented Sugarberry's birdfeeder. After capturing the kitten and housing it until its owner could be found, Sugarberry had become hopelessly attached to him and suffered when Gauntlet claimed his charge. The kitten's return to his former home was short, however, when he was accidentally poisoned on some of the artist's painting supplies. The ensuing crisis of recovery for the kitten had endeared him to Sugarberry; she was only too happy to adopt him when Gauntlet decided that he no longer wanted to be bothered with the feline. However, she still blamed Gauntlet for endangering the kitten's life in the first place.

It was with a sigh of relief that Sugarberry turned to Vanguard when the last guest had been welcomed, but there was to be no moment to themselves. Strawberry Shortcake reminded the couple that Merry Moments was waiting to take the formal wedding portraits while the guests were gathering in the church hall where Driftwood and company were preparing the dinner.

As the wedding party gathered for the pictures, Sugarberry noticed that although Wigwam was conversing with Chiffon and Stillwater, his gaze was most often centered on Chocolate Chip who was carefully avoiding any direct contact with the orange stallion. The filly seemed to be enjoying herself, yet she never let her guard down where Wigwam was concerned. The stallion had condescended to wait until Chocolate Chip could forgive him for what she considered a breach of faith, but Sugarberry could not help wondering how long his patience would hold out. There would be a fair number of eligible mares at the reception; would one of them possibly catch his eye?

* * *

When the photos were deemed finished by Merry Moments, Sugarberry and Vanguard commandeered her and slipped away from the group to search out Tabby, Thomas, and their new foal. They found Agatha and Hubert hovering outside the bedroom that had become the birthing room. "Toby is trying to convince Tabitha that she should spend some time in the hospital, but Tabitha is adamant that she's going home," Agatha explained with a worried expression.

"I think we know who will win this battle," Vanguard grinned.

Toby came out of the room shaking his head. "Home it is," he acquiesced.

"May we go in to see them?" Sugarberry asked the doctor.

Just realizing what events he had missed, Toby smiled. "Hey, congratulations, you two. I'm assuming, of course, that the ceremony went off without any further dilemmas."

Thomas, hearing the voices, came out to greet them as well. "Congratulations! Sorry we missed it!"

"Please! Can we see the baby?" Sugarberry begged.

"Of course!" Thomas returned to Tabby's side as Sugarberry and Vanguard followed him into the room where Tabby was comfortably settled. In her forelegs nestled the small pink unicorn that had dared to interrupt the wedding with her untimely arrival.

Tabby's look of pride was dazzling. "Look, Sug. Isn't she wonderful?" The new mother lifted the foal into Sugarberry's waiting forelegs.

"Oh, Tabby, she's beautiful!"

"You say that about every foal you see, Sug... but this time you're right," Tabby grinned.

The little pink pony suddenly opened her eyes for a moment and seemed to look directly at Sugarberry, then yawned before closing her eyes once again. "She's perfect!" Sugarberry cooed, gently touching the tiny hooves.

"Congratulations are certainly in order for the two of you," Vanguard noted. "This one is a sweetheart."

"We think so," Thomas grinned.

"We hear that you're going straight home from here, Tabby."

"I want to get Faline home to the mansion as soon as possible; lying around here is boring."

"Would you mind if Merry Moments got a family portrait of you three? You are still part of our wedding, and I'd like to have your presence noted."

The new parents willingly complied, and Merry Moments secured some special shots of the happy family. Then it was necessary for the bride and groom to make their farewell and return to the site of the continuing wedding celebration. Driftwood's menu was well received and although Sugarberry was too excited to eat more than a couple bites of each item she was able to compliment the chef. "It wasn't half bad, Driftwood," she said to him later.

"I slaved in the kitchen for hours, and that's the best you can say?" he glowered at her, but his eyes sparkled.

"Could you make sure that a variety of food gets sent over to Tabby and Thomas' house? They aren't going to want to take the time for cooking today. And hold off on that until you can include some of the cake."

"With lots of frosting," added Vanguard.

"Just wait until you taste your very traditional vanilla cake," Driftwood winked. He had found Sugarberry's choice to be too mundane for his liking, but he had bowed to her judgment.

"Your reputation is on the line," Sugarberry shot back. "It better be good."

"It looks good," commented Vanguard, admiring the ornate confection that was covered in a cascade of sugary strawberry blossoms.

"What you see isn't always what you get," Driftwood winked as he disappeared into the confines of the kitchen.

"I'm scared," winced Sugarberry. "The cake is his gift to us, but somehow I have a bad feeling..."

"You're not to worry," Vanguard grinned. "I'll take the first bite."

The wedding couple mingled with their guests until the time for the dance was upon them, and they took their place center stage whereupon Vanguard led his bride in the first romantic strains of the music. "You and me, husband and wife, from this day forward," he said softly.

"Husband and wife," she said slowly, wondering at the reality of it, and smiled. "You and me, from this day forward." They glided to the music in perfect harmony of rhythm and spirit. When Strawberry Baskets took his turn at the dance, Sugarberry curiously stated, "I noticed you and Mom in deep conversation with Giorgio and Enrica; I take it that there are no past rivalries to contend with."

"The administrator of Vulcanopolis is an intriguing character; I can deal with that."

Soon it was time for Vanguard to dance with his mother, Floral Breeze, and Sugarberry with her father-in-law, Whirlpool, and the festivities continued. It was some time later when Vanguard noted with some concern, "Icon hasn't been around for awhile; I wonder what he's up to?"

"He was dancing with Chocolate Chip earlier." Sugarberry looked around the room. "Gooseberry and Grapevine are missing, too."

They were approached by Clare and Giorgio, and as a new song was starting, Clare led Vanguard away to dance and Giorgio quizzically looked at Sugarberry. "May I have this dance?" Sugarberry smiled and offered her hoof, and the two joined the other couples on the dance floor.

"I'm very happy for you and Clare announcing your engagement."

"She's good for me, and I hope I'll be good for her."

"She appears to be quite satisfied. I would imagine your wedding plans are in full swing."

Giorgio grinned. "Can you imagine the fuss involved with this double wedding involving my parents, Clare's and Pacificus', as well as Hydrangea's adoptive parents? There is never a dull moment."

"You and your father have come a long way since... last fall."

"The changes in my life, Sugarberry, have been tremendous. Not only have my father and I reconciled, but Mother is so entirely happy; and having a sister like Hydrangea has been a very real blessing. And Clare... well, Clare is everything I could have hoped to find."

"You will be very happy together."

The music came to an end, and the next dance was taken by Merry Moments and Quarterback. As Quarterback swept Sugarberry away, she remembered a time when he had been a seemingly possible match for her; but the arrival of Vanguard in her life had quickly dispelled any notions to that effect. She was happy that Merry Moments had fitted the pursuits and personality of Quarterback so perfectly.

As the dance ended, Quarterback said, "It's obvious how happy you are to be Van's wife; I wish you all the best in life."

"That's awfully sweet of you, Quarterback. Thanks."

"But I'll still always wonder what it could have been like," he grinned. Sugarberry only punched him in the shoulder.

Merry Moments, who had been a guest at Birdsong at the same time that Sugarberry and Vanguard had been there, was reminiscing with Vanguard. "Remember how the three of us sat in the gazebo at Birdsong and visited? Who at that time would have thought things would turn out as they did?"

"I had hopes," Vanguard said, looking at his wife as she came toward him. "Dreams do come true." Sugarberry had not heard the words he said, but the look in her eyes as they met his mirrored the absolute contentment of their oneness of spirit.

Merry Moments commented on their compatibility. "Seeing the two of you so happy makes me believe that wedded bliss is attainable." She shot a glance at Quarterback who remained silent.

"Just remember not to give up hope," Vanguard admonished with a grin.

Quarterback, as he and Merry Moments headed for the dance floor, turned and-- never satisfied until he had gotten the last word-- remarked, "You know what they say, Van: 'A stallion is incomplete until he's married; then he's finished.'" This time it was Merry Moments who punched him.

"He'll never change," Sugarberry said. She caught sight of Icon and Wishbone entering the room; by the looks on their faces, they were having a good time.

Vanguard followed her gaze and groaned. "They've been up to something, Sugarberry."

"Why do you say that?"

"Icon has that look about him that means he's privy to some information the rest of us don't know."

Gooseberry and Grapevine came through the door next, and Sugarberry could see the same look on their faces. Wherever they had been, it was secret information; Gooseberry's face was flushed and Grapevine had a smug expression. She glanced at Vanguard questioningly but there was no time to ponder the circumstances as the voice of the DJ called for everyone's attention; whatever mysterious occurrence was impending would have to wait until later.

The music master was Vanguard's cousin, Charter, son of Swirl and Cornsilk, and he explained his interruption. "Vanguard requested that I play one particular song for his bride: Will You Marry Me; I told him it was too late for him. But he insisted that he wanted it for today, not only for himself but for some of you out there who may have been procrastinating in asking that one special mare that all-important question. This song is for all of you who have asked or intend to ask Will You Marry Me." Charter paused before adding, "And from what I've gleaned from family gossip, Vanguard could have used a little prodding in this direction about a year ago. "The song Sugarberry asked for makes a perfect compliment to Vanguard's request. We'll follow Will You Marry Me with the bride's choice, From This Moment. Any of you who have your true love with you today are asked to join Vanguard and Sugarberry for this set of dances."

As the music began, Vanguard took Sugarberry into his forelegs and they began to glide across the floor, the words speaking their innermost thoughts.

Say that you'll marry me, sometimes carry me,

And I will be there for evermore for you.

And if you marry me, I will give everything;

And I will do anything that you need me to.

You'll know the love in my eyes and the beat of my heart; I'll be there.

You'll know 'cause you'll never be lonely again, anytime, anywhere.

This I promise if you'll marry me.

It was a day for love, and the varied couples present were willing to proclaim their feelings; the dance floor was filled with those who had found the pony of their dreams: the relatives and friends whose lives bore witness to their love and those newly committed to that life of sharing and caring with the adventure ahead of them.

It was from the sidelines that one couple watched, although their feelings matched those of the dancers. Giorgio, Sr., and Enrica held hooves as the words of the song spoke their hearts. But Enrica-- who from long solitary moments had learned to read other hearts as well-- noticed that the pretty brown bridesmaid was not participating in the dance nor was the orange groomsman who stared at the filly from across the room. There was a yearning and a sadness between them; Enrica felt it, and it opened her mind to an intuitive understanding of their situation.

The song Sugarberry had requested followed.

From this moment, life has begun; from this moment you are the one.

Right beside you is where I belong, from this moment on.

From this moment I have been blessed; I live only for your happiness.

And for your love, I'd give my last breath, from this moment on.

As a star-dazzled Sugarberry finished the dance, Charter's voice again addressed the assembly; the cake-cutting would be forthcoming and he asked that everyone gather around to see the bride and groom jointly cut the first piece.

"What's the big deal?" asked Huckleberry. "Mommy lets me and Wineberry cut the cake at home all the time."

The cake was a gorgeous creation, and Vanguard made sure that everyone knew that Driftwood was the talent behind the masterpiece. Vanguard and Sugarberry cut the first piece and Sugarberry shot a glance at Driftwood. "It's not vanilla." The cake was a lovely pink color with darker flecks of red.

"It's a strawberry cake, made especially for the bride-- even if she was adamant about settling for the mediocre," he stated. "There's just something about you, Sugarberry, that made it imperative that your cake be strawberry flavored."

"I stand corrected; it smells delicious." As she and Vanguard took their first bite, they found out that it tasted scrumptious, too. Merry Moments got all the pictures she wanted, and Vanguard and Sugarberry moved away to speak with Agatha and Hubert.

"I'm so glad you were able to get here for part of the festivities," Sugarberry smiled. "Are Tabby and Faline safely home?"

"Home and quite comfortable," Hubert replied.

"Let me guess," said Vanguard, "Tabby is introducing Faline to each of the My Little People dolls."

"Tabitha and the baby are resting, and Thomas can't be persuaded to leave their side," Agatha smiled. "It was all I could do to get Hubert to come over here."

"I missed seeing Tabby so small and helpless," Hubert defended himself. "I certainly should be allowed to watch my granddaughter every chance I can get."

Sugarberry hugged them both. "You two will be excellent grandparents for the darling little girl."

It was then that Vanguard whispered in Sugarberry's ear. "I think Icon's privileged information is about to be revealed whether we like it or not."

The mare looked around her with some bewilderment. There was a certain air of expectation around them, and Sugarberry noticed that her and Vanguard's parents were watching them with knowing smiles in the company of the ponies from Vulcanopolis. "What is it?" she asked of her husband.

"I don't have the faintest idea, but we're going to find out."

Giorgio, Sr., had asked Charter to hold the music; the stallion, with Enrica by his side, proceeded to explain the proposition that apparently was known by a privileged share of the wedding guests already. "Vanguard and Sugarberry, Enrica and I would like to thank you for extending your hospitality to us today on this splendid occasion. We were troubled, however, to hear that you had to cancel your honeymoon plans because of the natural disaster that struck your point of destination and the lateness of the date which prevented you from scheduling any alternate arrangements.

"Enrica and I have a gift to offer to you, Vanguard and Sugarberry, that we hope you will accept. We have a country house near Vulcanopolis that is standing empty at the present time, and it is our wish that you would use it as your own for the days ahead. It is simple but comfortable and situated such that you can explore the countryside or take advantage of the sights and tastes of Vulcanopolis."

He stopped to allow the invitation to sink in. Sugarberry looked at Vanguard with an open-eyed gaze of astonishment; they had been disappointed when Birdsong had become off limits to them but had resigned themselves to a quiet time adjusting to their togetherness at home in Dream Valley. That option had actually become quite attractive as the days passed, and now the alternative of flying off to Vulcanopolis was rather overwhelming.

Giorgio, Sr., continued. "We realize that this is short notice-- you're booked on this evening's flight-- but we want you to know that arrangements have already been made by members of your own families to guarantee that any hesitancy you might have against so hasty a departure have already been taken care of."

"That explains Icon and Wishbone's shenanigans," Vanguard said under his breath, imaging the two of them at his apartment packing a bag for him. But he grinned at his wife. "Shall we go for it?"

"Can we just take off with no planning?" The first note of worry on this day crept into the bride's voice.

"Yes, we can." Vanguard reminded her that Vulcanopolis had been considered as a honeymoon spot, but Birdsong had won out. "We've got time off, so why not take advantage of the offer?"

Sugarberry's mind filled with reasons why not-- the birth of Faline and the care of her cats being topmost in her consideration-- but she held her tongue. It was an offer too good to refuse, and the thought of roaming Vulcanopolis with Vanguard suddenly seemed irresistible. "Why not?" she concurred with a grin.

"We accept!" Vanguard told Enrica and Giorgio, Sr. "And thanks."

"Yes, thank you very much!" Sugarberry hugged Giorgio, Sr. "This is awfully kind of you." She leaned down to hug Enrica, too.

"Just be sure to enjoy the house and gardens," Enrica smiled. "And maybe by the time we get home later in the week, you and Vanguard would consent to join us for dinner some evening."

"We would be delighted," Sugarberry assured her.

Sugarberry stood for several moments trying to imagine what their sudden departure would entail; but Raspberry and Gooseberry and her parents crowded around her to congratulate her on her good fortune, and she was soon fired with excitement. Gooseberry and Grapevine had gone to the house already to pack a suitcase with any necessities she might need, and it had been delivered to the airport along with Icon and Wishbone's contribution. Giorgio, Sr., had thought of all the details that would make this unplanned journey a smooth operation; all that Vanguard and Sugarberry had to do was show up at the airport on time later in the day.

* * *

The cake was finally served and the dancing continued. In the swirl of conversation and activity, Enrica sought out a quiet corner of the room and beckoned her children to her. "The author of the Native Pony Tales was in the wedding party, I believe; I'd like to speak with him about how much I enjoyed his book," she said to Hydrangea. "Would you ask him to join me here?"

"Of course, Mother," she said and set off at once.

"Giorgio, do you know the pretty brown pony that was also a bridesmaid?"

"That's Chocolate Chip; she was in one of my classes at Pony Pride."

"I'd like to get to know her better," Enrica said thoughtfully. "Maybe you could bring her to me?"

"You're scheming," Giorgio grinned. "But, yes, I will ask her to come sit with you for awhile."

Enrica sat and waited for the ponies of her interest. She was content to be left alone and in comparative silence for a moment; her solitary years since her confinement had made her comfortable with what might seem like isolation to some; she had become adept at observing her surroundings and at studying the ponies who flitted through her realm. She had tuned into the reserve that existed between Chocolate Chip and Wigwam, but she also sensed the deeper feelings that were buried under whatever had come between them.

Memories washed over Enrica. So many years of animosity had gone by between her husband and her son; she had been helpless to rectify the situation-- or so she had thought-- just as she had been helpless when her daughter had been born and taken from her. When Giorgio and his father had finally shook off the resentment that had held them apart and Hydrangea had been reunited with them as a family, Enrica had realized the need to help others avoid the wasted years of feuding and misery.

Upon finding Wigwam with Chiffon, Hydrangea managed to draw the stallion away with her; Wigwam, however, was not happy with the situation. He held a deep grudge against Giorgio; it was due to Giorgio's activities in Dream Valley that Chocolate Chip had cut all ties with Wigwam. That anger spilled over onto Giorgio's family by association. Wigwam did not want to share a sociable conversation with Enrica and he was on the point of declining Hydrangea's summons when he caught sight of Sugarberry and knew that he would be in serious trouble himself if word ever got to her that he had been inhospitable to Enrica. He forced a smile and consented to visit for a minute with the mare.

Hydrangea escorted Wigwam to her mother and, after the introduction, left them to themselves. Enrica's praise for his book was warm and Wigwam found himself facing a knowledgeable pony who had read everything she could get her hooves on about the Native Ponies of Ponyland. They were deep in conversation when Giorgio finally arrived with Chocolate Chip and presented her to Enrica. The three ponies-- Giorgio, Wigwam, and Chocolate Chip-- portrayed an uneasy triangle of unresolved feelings for each other. It was an uncomfortable encounter, but all three maintained a mannerly appearance for Enrica's sake.

Giorgio excused himself from their tete-a-tete, and Wigwam caught a brief glance from Chocolate Chip. The braids and flowers took him back to their first real date; he thought she was beautiful then, and he thought it yet.

Enrica was questioning Chocolate Chip about her schooling, her family, and her work and eventually brought the talk back to the Native Pony culture. "Do you have any local sites that preserve the heritage of the Native Ponies?" she asked.

Wigwam explained about the cave in the nearby hills with its artwork and artifacts. Chocolate Chip's mind wandered back to the day she had seen the cave; it was the day she had begun to see Wigwam not as Sugarberry's friend, but as someone special in her own life.

Wigwam felt her gaze upon him and smiled at her; that simple action touched her more than she would care to admit. Oh, how she had missed their friendship! She nearly returned the smile, but her defenses went up again. She dropped her gaze. It had become automatic to rebuff him; did she even remember why anymore? All she knew for sure was that it hurt. She looked at him again, but he was talking to Enrica. Chocolate Chip realized that Enrica had asked him for a story, and Wigwam had readily complied. She began to listen.

"... so he went to the maiden's father who was the chief of the tribe to ask for his permission for them to marry. The chief, who knew the young brave's honesty and integrity, did not turn him down but did ask for his help with some tribal matters to prove his worth before the chief would give him an answer.

"The chief sent the brave to reconnoiter a neighboring village as word had been received that the ponies of that village were discussing the possibility of attacking their neighbors to increase their holdings. The brave carried out the chief's request unbeknownst to the maiden he loved; it was, therefore, with distress that she heard his report to the tribal council of what he had seen and heard. The ponies to the west were definitely preparing for battle; the brave suggested that the chief should prepare for immediate conflict.

"The maiden heard his words but did not believe them. 'Those ponies are our neighbors,' she cried. 'They would not harm us!' She urged the council to ignore the brave's errant message and to maintain peace at all costs. But the council supported the brave's report and geared for war.

"Distraught, the maiden ran from the lodge and the brave followed; he tried to explain how he had secretly watched the actions of the villagers and covertly listened to their plans under the direction of the chief and for the security of his own village. He was sure he could get her to see the necessity for arming themselves, but the maiden was not to be appeased. Instead, the maiden became angry and accused the brave of betraying the trust of the ponies; she maintained that if trouble was brewing, the tribes should talk out their problems. As neither the brave or the maiden would compromise on the subject, the maiden stated her intent to break all ties with the brave. 'I never want to see you again.'" At this point, Wigwam's gaze rested on Chocolate Chip, she was looking at the dancers, but he knew she had been listening to his words by the flush on her cheeks.

"The brave could not accept this as her final word but was too proud to beg her understanding. He simply told her that he would wait by their meeting rock every evening at dusk for her to change her mind. True to his word, he waited at the craggy red granite boulder that same nightfall but was sadly disappointed."

Looking at Chocolate Chip all this while, Wigwam could not read her thoughts. She was staring at the floor now while fumbling with a flower that had dropped from her mane. He noticed that Enrica was watching her, too. Wigwam continued with the story.

"The attack came very early the next morning and if not for the brave's warning, the marauding ponies would have been unstoppable. But the defenses had been prepared and the attack was repulsed after a long and earnest battle. By nightfall, the chief was able to gather his warriors in victory.

"Rather than celebrating with his tribe, the brave went to the waiting rock, but he waited in vain. The maiden would not soften her opinion of him, and Native Ponies say you can still see him waiting there when dusk is falling."

There was silence as the story ended. Both Wigwam and Enrica had their sights on Chocolate Chip, and the filly was lost in her own private ponderings. After a moment, Enrica turned to Wigwam and took his hoof in hers. "Thank you so much for sharing the story. It has made me wish I could see those drawings on the cave wall so I could identify with your brave and the maiden."

"If you have time during your stay here, I'm sure Clever Clover would be happy to show you his photographs of the cave; he documents everything."

Giorgio, Sr., approaching his wife after verifying some final details in regards to Sugarberry's and Vanguard's trip to Vulcanopolis, smiled at the threesome. "You have kept Enrica in good company; I can tell by the sparkle in her eyes. But you young ponies should be out on the dance floor. Isn't that right, Enrica?"

"Very true, dear," Enrica responded as the strains of another slow love song began. "And if you could do me a big favor..." Her eyes rested on Chocolate Chip, who responded willingingly with a nod of her head before hearing the request. "... would you and Wigwam dance this dance for me?"

Chocolate Chip's look of surprise and her hesitation were over-ridden by Wigwam's immediate offer of his hoof which she could not politely refuse; she half-heartedly allowed him to lead her to the dance floor.

Meanwhile, Sugarberry had finished the previous dance with Toby; as they and Vanguard talked, Sugarberry caught sight of Wigwam and Chocolate Chip in Enrica and Giorgio's company and saw Wigwam draw Chocolate Chip to the dance floor. "Look!" she said to her companions, nodding in the direction of the couple. "Are they on speaking terms finally?"

They watched as their friends danced; Chocolate Chip, reticent, seemed to wish herself anywhere but in Wigwam's embrace; but as the dance continued, she became more at ease and allowed herself to be drawn closer to her partner; in time all uncertainty vanished. Sugarberry grinned at Vanguard as Chocolate Chip nestled her head against Wigwam's shoulder. "They're going to be all right from here on in."

Toby's attention had gone back to Enrica. "I always wonder if everything has been done to correct the problem of someone in her condition," he said to no one in particular.

"Why do you say that?" Sugarberry asked in surprise. "I'm sure that she receives the best of medical care."

"I'm sure she does," Toby agreed, but Sugarberry thought she detected an undercurrent of doubt in his voice.

Spying Chiffon alone and adrift, Vanguard drew her into the conversation. "Have you two met?" he asked of Toby and Chiffon.

"Not formally," Chiffon smiled. "But the doctor who attended Tabby is well-known."

Toby's look of warm approval took in the pretty mare. "And I have heard that your name is Chiffon; you are a lovely addition to the bride's attendants."

"Thank you, Toby," Chiffon responded brightly. "Are you a native of Dream Valley?"

"I feel like it by now, but I was born and grew up in New Pony."

Sugarberry and Vanguard prudently left the two to get acquainted and came upon a group of Vanguard's cousins who were having a spirited conversation. "Well, in the end she told him that they could play together for today, but she would definitely not ever marry him."

Vanguard raised an eyebrow. "May I ask who that interesting tidbit of information is about?"

His cousin, Ruffles, giggled. "This very young filly came by to talk with Coral Reef." Coral Reef was her and Hawk's oldest foal. "She appears to be about his age... rather a talkative young thing." Vanguard and Sugarberry exchanged a knowing glance that was verified by the subsequent disclosure. "The next thing we know, we overhear her asking Coral Reef if he has a last name. When he said he didn't, the filly looked very disappointed and asked him if he was sure that Reef wasn't a last name."

"Now it all makes sense," grinned Vanguard. "Baby Noddins is continuing her quest among the new faces available to her."

"She won't have much luck," mused Sugarberry. "Neither of our families has last names."

"Well," Coral Reef's grandmother, Iris, commented, "they're getting along quite well by the looks of it even without a last name." The two youngsters were dancing to an upbeat song.

"Do you still bake those wonderful molasses cookies?" Vanguard asked his aunt, remembering past days when he and his cousins would swarm into Iris' kitchen and beg for milk and cookies.

"She sure does," Biscuit, one of her younger sons, answered for his mom.

"It's the chocolate frosting that makes them so good," confided Gallop, another son. "But remember, Van, how we'd sneak in and eat them before they cooled down enough to frost?"

Casting a disbelieving look at her new husband, Sugarberry stated, "I have a cat that does that!"

"You'll have someone to cast the blame on, Van," Ruffles' husband, Hawk, responded with a wink.

"If the cookies disappear before I can frost them, it just saves me the trouble," Iris surmised. "And with five grandchildren now, I still do a lot of baking."

"I'd like to have your recipe for those molasses cookies," Sugarberry smiled.

"I'll write it up and send it on to you; and maybe that chocolate cake recipe that everyone eats up so fast."

"And what about that fudge with nuts that you used to make at holiday time?" Vanguard asked.

"I'll send that, too," Iris beamed.

Blueberry Baskets swooped down on Sugarberry and Vanguard in the company of Gauntlet; she was all smiles. "I just wanted to thank you two for introducing me to this intriguing stallion," she whispered. "He and I have a lot in common." And she was off again.

* * *

Wigwam was alone once more. Lollipop had commandeered her sister as soon as the music ended, and he had since lost track of their whereabouts. It bothered him that there had been no chance for him and Chocolate Chip to talk privately; no words had been spoken in the course of the dance itself. Wigwam wondered now if Chocolate Chip had only gone through the motions to please Enrica, yet he could not get the memory of the dance out of his mind. If there was any chance for a renewal of their friendship, it had to happen now; Enrica had set the wheels in motion to bring their paths together. How did she know of their estrangement? he wondered. More importantly, why did she even care?

He was working his way through the groups of chatting ponies, stopping to share an occasional comment, when he finally caught sight of Chocolate Chip. He stopped dead in his tracks. She was coming in his direction with a plate of cake and a cup of punch. It was exactly like the dream; the dream had ended with the approach of the chocolate brown mare with food and drink for him. He watched now, unmoving, unable to take his gaze off her face. Was this reality, or was he only reliving the image of the dream? Was there someone behind him that Chocolate Chip was catering to? Would she walk right by him?

The chocolate brown pony stopped when she was in front of him and offered him the food. "You look like you've seen a ghost."

"Maybe I have." He accepted her gift.

Chocolate Chip smiled. "Could we find a quiet spot and talk?"

"I'd like that." He followed her to an empty table and helped her to be seated.

"This isn't exactly the meeting rock, but if the pony maiden showed up, would the brave be there?"


"And what would he say?"

"That he had missed her."

"I've missed you, too."

"Then can we be friends again?"

"If you can forgive me."

"There's nothing to forgive."

"I was expecting something I had no right to expect. I was stubborn and wouldn't allow myself to see the truth."

"Maybe I didn't explain things well enough."

"As if I ever gave you a chance." She smiled ruefully.

Wigwam took her hoof in his. "May I have this dance?"

Whatever more the two had to say to each other was said under the spell of the music. Chocolate Chip's mother, on seeing them together, commented to her husband. "I've never seen Chocolate Chip look as pretty as she does right now." Drifter smiled; this was high praise from a mother who had been disappointed in her firstborn's plainness. He would have to share the compliment with his daughter at the earliest possibility.

* * *

"So, Icon, does your bad impression of weddings still hold out?" asked Vanguard of his younger brother.

"The reception hasn't been so bad," Icon grinned. "And, by the way, Wishbone and I packed some of your math books for you in case you run out of things to do while you're over there in Vulcanopolis."

"If that's the worst you did, I'll consider myself blessed."

"Right now, I'm looking for someone to dance with. Any suggestions?" Icon scanned the room for likely candidates. "Wishbone has taken a fancy to our cousin, Petal. Aunt Iris was already drilling me about his honesty and integrity."

"Yeah, she quizzed me, too. Petal is the youngest in the family so Aunt Iris and Uncle Eddy are more cautious in her regard."

"Sugarberry is the youngest in her family too, isn't she? And Strawberry Shortcake and Strawberry Baskets didn't disapprove of you."

Vanguard grinned. "That's because they know I love their daughter. And don't forget, you're the baby of the family, as well."

"I have no intention of getting married, so Mom and Dad won't have any worries there."

"Who's not getting married?" asked Clever Clover coming up to the stallions.

"All I want is a dance partner for one dance," grumbled Icon. "Is that asking too much?"

"Berry Bright, you'll dance with Icon, won't you?" Clever Clover asked of his companion.

"Why, of course I would," Berry Bright managed.

As she and Icon moved off, Sugarberry left the conversation she was engaged in with Butch and Sparkler. "What is the latest news from the dig site?" she inquired of Clever Clover.

"We've begun opening up the spot where the original entrance to the cave was."

"Any speculation on what you will find?"

"A tunnel, one would surmise," Clever Clover said with a grin.

Elaine came up to them. "I wanted to give you one last farewell; I'm going to go back to the mansion and see if Tabby and Thomas need any help with things."

"Driftwood sent a big care package of food to them; none of you will have to cook for a few days," Sugarberry informed her. "Why don't you stay awhile longer?"

"Hi, Elaine," Icon said; he and Merry Moments had finished their dance. "I didn't see you around earlier." He had met Thomas' sister at the Christmas party that Tabby and Thomas had hosted.

"Being a first-time aunt was so exciting that I couldn't tear myself away from Faline," she admitted.

"Let me guess. Faline is the cutest foal that was ever born. Am I right?"

"Yes!" declared Elaine, and she blushed. "But I'm sure you think the same of your little niece, too."

"You've seen one, you've seen them all," Icon retorted.

"That's not true!" Sugarberry disagreed.

Vanguard backed her up. "Every foal is unique right from the start."

"I stand corrected," grinned Icon, who then changed the subject. "Elaine, are you free for this dance?"

"D... dance?" she stuttered. But Icon did not give her a chance to refuse; he grabbed her hoof and led her off to the dance floor.

"Faline might not see her aunt until this party is over," observed Vanguard as he watched the two white ponies circle to the sound of the music. Elaine's blue mane mingled with Icon's black one as she bent her head to listen to the stallion; she obviously found his words to be entertaining as her soft laughter came back to the observers.

"She's only humoring him," Sugarberry countered, knowing Elaine's frame of mind.

"Well, humor me, my love. Let's join the dance."

* * *

"I be havin' a gift for you, Sugarberry, Vanguard." Barnacle cheerfully handed Sugarberry a white and teal object, the teal part looking rather like a clamshell with white fur on the top; two teal protrusions stuck up from the fur.

"Wha... what is it?" Sugarberry asked wonderingly as Vanguard touched its iridescent surface. Whatever it was, it suddenly moved; the shell opened up, and two deep blue eyes looked around in curious fashion.

"Me bad mood!" the creature said.

Barnacle looked at Sugarberry and said with a chuckle, "ARR, it's not surprisin' ya haven't seen these little critters before. Ya see, ever since I got that Atlantian ship last December, I've bin findin' these Shelbys in the hold. We don't know where they be comin' from or what they be doing, but we can't sell 'em fast enough when we come into port!"

The Shelby burped. "The shell is swell!" he exclaimed.

"How... novel," Sugarberry murmured. "It's a lovely gift, Barnacle; thank you for thinking of us." She looked to Chocolate Chip and held out the Shelby to her. "It looks like you'll have more than Fluff and Raptor to take care of for us while we're gone."

"ARR?!" exclaimed Barnacle with a scowl on his face. "Ya not be likin' my gift? Sugarberry! Ya can't just be givin' a Shelby away like that."

"But it might not travel well on the airplane, Barnacle. Wouldn't it be better off getting used to its new home? Chocolate Chip will take good care of it, I'm sure."

"The little critter has been half way around the world; he's a born traveler."

"But... but what would we feed him?"

"ARR, he be havin' a very simple diet."

Vanguard read between the lines. "How simple?"

"All he be needin' is a grub now and then."

Sugarberry suddenly handed the Shelby to Vanguard. "A gr... grub? You mean like those disgusting fat wormy things?" She shuddered.

"ARR, don't be thinkin' I didn't plan ahead." The pirate handed Sugarberry a glass jar nearly full of white grubs, but Sugarberry grabbed Shelby back and let Vanguard take the food supply. "It's too bad Tabby's not here for this," Barnacle snorted.

"Tabby!" Sugarberry seized on an idea that might spare her the company of a jar of grubs on her honeymoon. "Shelby would make a perfect friend for all her Furbys! And you need a baby gift for Faline anyway." Barnacle was still looking doubtful. "It would be better if you took this Shelby to the mansion today; you can bring Vanguard and me another one on your next visit to Dream Valley," she coaxed.

"Me want grub! Gimme Grub!" the Shelby stated. "Grand grub. Good grub."

"Well," Barnacle considered the idea. "It'd be worth it just ta see the look in Tabby's eyes when I be givin' her the grubs. ARR." He took back the jar from Vanguard and the Shelby from Sugarberry.

The Shelby was not impressed with the proceedings. "Boring, boring, boring."

The announcement by Charter of the bouquet toss ended the Shelby incident; Sugarberry, at the head of a group of smiling and vivacious fillies and mares, threw the flowers in a curving arc that even Quarterback could be impressed with. Sugarberry hoped that Chocolate Chip would catch the bouquet; Raspberry, Clare, Tiffany, and Hydrangea were already wearing engagement rings; she surmised they had no need for the subtle influence of this long-standing tradition. It might, however, give Wigwam the courage to speak up.

Coming down toward the extended forelegs and hooves that were eagerly reaching for the cascading flowers, the bouquet was deflected from one to the other of the grasping mares and fillies but never claimed with certainty. For a moment, it appeared that Chiffon had it; then it popped up again and was nearly contained by Raspberry; Clare had a hoof on it, but it took a bounce in Daydream's direction as it continued a creeping course toward the outer edge of ponies. Only once did Chocolate Chip have a chance to subdue the onward procession of the flowers, but she only succeeded in shunting them further out of reach.

Spring Song, who was working in conjunction with Driftwood's catering of the reception, was passing the area of the bouquet toss with a large tray loaded with dirty cups, plates, and glasses when the errant bouquet finally reached the edge of the clustered wanna be brides; with the total disregard of an insentient item, the flowers landed with a plop on the metal tray of the unsuspecting filly. Unfortunately, the mob mentality was strong in the excitable participants, and a surge of pony bodies enveloped Spring Song, inadvertently knocking her and her load of dishes to the floor causing an avalanche of receptacles to careen noisily in every direction.

Curling herself into a protective fetal position, Spring Song herself made not a sound as the mares and fillies searched high and low for the now invisible bouquet of flowers; the utter confusion and the mad-paced frenzy finally quieted as the quarry was no longer in sight of the hunters. The ponies retired from the site of the hunt with sheepish grins on their faces; complete silence fell over those involved as Driftwood went to Spring Song's aid and assisted the crumpled filly to her hooves; as she stood, the onlookers gasped in surprise.

Unknowingly, Spring Song had gained the prize. The bouquet of flowers, rather the worse for wear after its long flight and its ultimate flattening under the body of the filly, was nevertheless grasped in her hoof; she smiled dazedly. "Is this what you were looking for?" she grinned as her perception sharpened; she tightened her grip on the bouquet.

It had taken only a matter of seconds for the scenario to play out, yet Sugarberry found herself awestruck from watching the antics of the normally sedate and orderly friends and relatives. "So much for the social graces," she commented to Vanguard.

"It was almost as good as a football scrimmage," Vanguard replied.

"Disgusting!" Tiffany's voice was heard above the chatter and laughter that now prevailed. "I have not seen such chaos since Tabby's wedding last year."

"As if princesses are any more refined," observed Clever Clover who had come to Sugarberry's side. "I noticed that Princess Dawn was right in the thick of things." The pale pink princess was now sharing her experience with a chuckling Perry Winkle.

"I'm glad Clare and Hydrangea were involved, too," mused Sugarberry. "Otherwise, Enrica and Giorgio, Sr., might have gone home with a bad impression of us Ponyland ponies." But from the looks of things, Enrica's only regret was that she had been unable to be part of the fun.

It was Vanguard who reminded his bride of the time. "If you still want to stop by the mansion on the way to the airport, we should be leaving soon."

"And can we go by the house to say goodbye to Fluff and Raptor? They don't know that I won't be home tonight."

Vanguard shook his head. "We only have time for one or the other, Sugarberry."

She motioned for Chocolate Chip. "You've got to explain to the cats about my sudden leaving; be especially gentle with them so they know they are still loved."

"Don't worry about them; Wishbone and I will take very good care of them."

Wigwam had come to join the conversation; Sugarberry looked at him and Chocolate Chip, the two side-by-side with no anger or reproach between them, and smiled. She hugged Wigwam and whispered, "Your dream came true today, I see." And to Chocolate Chip she said, "I expect that you aren't missing Prime so much anymore."

The ensuing farewells to family and friends were an emotional scene; it was difficult to part company with so many who wanted to extend one final word. Giorgio, Sr., finally ended the salutations with an announcement that the bride and groom were expected at the airport; he firmly escorted them to the door and sent them on their way.

* * *

They had not gone far when an "ARR!" sounded in their ears. "If ya be headed for Tabby's house, we might as well walk together." The pirate came along side of them. "Ya sure ya won't be wantin' the Shelby with ya, Sugarberry?" he asked one more time. "He's good company."

"As tempting as it is to take a grub-eating creature with us, I'm sure that he will be much better off with Tabby and Thomas; their little daughter will undoubtedly love Shelby as much as her mother loves Furbys."

As they were now approaching the mansion, Barnacle said a few words to his little companion who retorted with a grumbling, "Back is itchy; scratch again, please."

It was Thomas who admitted them into the presence of Tabby who was curled up on the couch with Faline. "ARR! She bein' a mite of a thing," Barnacle observed as he looked at the foal. "She reminds me of a little barnacle." Faline looked at the rough-voiced pirate and began to smile.

Tabby's eyes shot sparks as she stated, "Barnacle! That's a terrible thing to say!" She prepared to whack him over the head.

But Thomas intervened. "I'm sure Barnacle meant it as a compliment, comparing Faline to himself."

Barnacle, however, blustered, "No, no! Tabby was right! I was scraping the little buggers off me ship just last week... but never mind, never mind! Before I be forgettin' why I'm here," he continued, "I'd like to present to you a gift for your Faline." He held up the teal Shelby who by now had fallen asleep.

Tabby was instantly appeased. "Oh! How cute!" Thomas instinctively realized that now Furbys would not be the only creatures overrunning the mansion.

Waving her forelegs in apparent happiness, Faline accidentally hit the shell of the Shelby, waking him up. "Gimme Furby! Where's Furby?" the teal denizen demanded.

"He's got quite an attitude," Thomas observed, watching in amazement as his daughter responded to the obnoxious animal with excited bubbling sounds.

Shelby seemed to appreciate her attention. "Knock, knock," he said.

"Goo, goo. Ga, ga," Faline responded.


Faline once again rapped Shelby on the top of his shell.

"Sherwood like some grub."

"ARR! I almost be forgettin'," Barnacle exclaimed, handing the jar of grubs to Tabby. "Shelby be havin' a gourmet appetite." With a shrill scream, Tabby jerked away from the disgusting larvae; but Thomas, with a grin, accepted the donation. "Ha, ha. Works every time," the pirate laughed heartily while Tabby retaliated by whacking him over the head for certain this time.

Pulling his wife gently toward the door, Vanguard extended an apology. "This is a lovely visit and all, but we have to get to the airport or we'll miss our flight to Vulcanopolis. We'll send you a card once we're there."

"ARR! Wait for me!" Barnacle commanded.

"Tabby, Thomas, take pictures of everything Faline does so I don't miss anything; and, Barnacle, we'll both be looking forward to having our very own Shelby as soon as we return," Sugarberry managed to say before Vanguard escorted her out the door, leaving Barnacle to experience Tabby's wrath on his own.

Once outside, Vanguard eyed his wife closely. "You, my love, would have spent our entire honeymoon helping Tabby with Faline if Giorgio, Sr., hadn't seen fit to bestow his generous gift upon us, wouldn't you?" he queried with mock indignation.

"She's so wonderful!" Sugarberry admitted with a sigh before turning a bright smile upon her husband. "But I can think of nothing better than spending these days ahead with you. I still can't believe we're actually going to Vulcanopolis!"

She repeated those last words again when they were in their seats and the plane was rolling down the runway. As it lifted up and away from the solid earth of Ponyland, Sugarberry looked at Vanguard and grinned. "It's just you and me now."

He kissed her softly as the plane gained altitude. "Just you and me, my love, from this day forward."

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