written by Sugarberry and Tabby
The dark-haired, middle-aged stallion stopped with his hoof on the doorknob to the motel room, looking back at the other occupant. “This may take awhile.”
“Let me go with you!”
“No!” He saw the pained expression on the face of the pony standing across from him and added in a softer tone. “No. It’s better if we don’t attract attention. You know that.”
“Go then. Do what you have to do.”
The stallion left the room quickly and quietly.
* * *
Wigwam’s Casino stood at the outskirts of Dream Valley on a plot of land that encompassed enough acreage to insure a panoramic setting for the architectural uniqueness that was the casino. Designed to complement the legacy of the Native Ponies, the casino’s outline, as seen from a distance, gave the impression of a grouping of tepees huddled together- and this against a backdrop of towering evergreens that dominated the property to the north, eventually merging with the Dark Forest.
Behind the casino and before the pines, within a comfortable walking distance down the gently-sloping grounds now cloaked in snow, rested an ice-covered lake, spring-fed, that offered a beautiful respite for the eyes of those who frequented the casino’s enticements, whether those being the gaming rooms, the banquet hall, or the private dining chamber. This frozen wonderland was the scene of much activity on this cold January morning with temperatures in the low teens on the Fahrenheit scale.
“You wouldn’t feel the cold if you worked harder,” griped Wishbone as he and Wigwam moved a sturdy wooden bench along the shore of the lake, passing an empty-hoofed stallion who had taken on the role of supervisor of the beehive of activity around him.
Tightening the muffler around his neck, Hawkley only grinned. “Someone’s gotta make sure this gets done right.”
“The least you could do is help Chocolate Chip and Garnet with setting the fence in position,” suggested Wigwam.
“Now that’s an idea,” agreed Hawkley, heading immediately for the two mares.
Wishbone groaned. “Great! As if he needed inducement to flirt with the girls!”
Chuckling, Wigwam concurred. “That’s one thing Hawkley has a high efficiency rating on.” He could find it amusing when it was Wishbone’s fiancee with whom Hawkley was carrying on his current dalliance.
As the denim blue stallion made his way to the point where Chocolate Chip and Garnet were setting up an array of iron posts at a safe distance around the open area of the ice under which the spring gurgled, he was constantly darting around the colorful bodies of the Bushwoolies who were energetically carting firewood across the ice from the forest to feed the bonfires that would roar into use after dark when the skating party would commence.
“Sorry, yeah, yeah,” said one of a pair of Bushwoolies as they careened into Hawkley, sending him skidding across the ice.
“Yeah, sorry,” said the other.
“No problem,” Hawkley said, brushing bits of bark off his side. “Just try to avoid any casualties.”
But the Bushwoolies were already out of hearing range.
Coming upon the two mares as they tried to embed the poles in the solid ice, Hawkley offered his advise. “You need one of those rigs that ice-fisher ponies use to drill through the ice.”
“And just why didn’t you mention that when we were organizing this affair?” queried a slightly miffed Chocolate Chip.
“I seem to remember the words, ‘How hard can it be?’ spoken by one of you two at our planning meeting,” Hawkley grinned, meriting a scowl from the brown mare and a twinkle of the eyes from the red one.
“Besides,” reasoned Garnet, “an auger would be overkill for this project.”
“What can we do to help?” asked a voice from behind the three ponies.
“Caravel! Petal! Chip!” sang out Chocolate Chip as she turned to observe the new arrivals. “Your timing couldn’t have been better.” She relegated the ice spud in her hoof to Caravel with a relieved smile. “My hooves are freezing.” Without waiting for a reply, she took off for the sanctuary of a warming shelter a short way from the lakeside.
“Fair-weather friend,” muttered Garnet, staring after Chocolate Chip with enough fire in her eye to warm the chilly temperature by a couple of degrees, no matter that the brown mare was simply a volunteer while Garnet was an employee of the casino.
Hawkley was quick to note her exasperation. “Just direct that look at the spot where you want a hole, and you’ll have it melted out in no time.”
“If that’s all the help you’re going to offer,” flared Garnet, “then I suggest that you find someone else to aggravate!”
“We’ll give you a hoof,” stepped in Chip. “I go ice-fishing with my dad when I’m home.” He took the simple tool from Caravel and proceeded to demonstrate the proper use of it, soon creating a suitable hole of the proper diameter to hold one of the anchor poles for the orange plastic fencing that laid stretched on the ground at lakeside.
“So that’s how it works,” observed Garnet, visibly lightening. “You wouldn’t mind if I left you guys to finish this off, would you?”
“I take it we’re fencing the dangerous area of thin ice?” asked Caravel.
“Even I could figure that out,” quipped Petal.
Before the guys could weasel Petal into trying her hoof at chipping out holes, Garnet pulled her aside. “How about helping me to check on the food inventory for tonight?”
Glancing at Chip, Caravel, and Hawkley- and determining that she had no desire to stay any longer than necessary on the cold ice- Petal acquiesced. “There’ll be plenty of hot chocolate, I hope,” she shivered.
“I thought the weather pony predicted a warm front moving in,” grumbled Garnet, rubbing her forelegs as she and Petal met with Wishbone and Wigwam.
“Just be glad it didn’t arrive too soon and melt the ice,” countered Wigwam. “The skating party would have been ruined.”
“Besides,” added Wishbone, “if it holds off until evening, it might bring some snow with it. That would be a nice touch.” He sent a silent message to his fiancee.
As Wishbone and Garnet had found that walking in the falling snow was a prime time for sharing hopes and dreams for the future- as if they were harbored in their own private snow-globe where no one else could intrude- they found the frequent snowfalls in Dream Valley this winter to be a blessing to their spirits.
Wigwam caught sight of several stallions coming toward them loaded down with cables and tool boxes. “Well, finally, our electrical help has shown up.” He waved and called, “Good morning, Quarterback... Sparky. All set to get to work?”
“Just point us to the main power source,” Quarterback stated.
“Follow me,” said Wigwam. “Garnet, you and Wishbone can cart out all those lights.”
“They’re already waiting.” Garnet pointed at the series of wood-stained gazebos that graced the east end of the lake; three octagon shelters rose gracefully, each one slightly smaller than the previous one and connected with suspended walkways. The sloping roofs, pillared supports, and protective railings were already outlined in clear Christmas lights left in place after the holiday, but patio lights to provide illumination and safety for this nighttime party were to be set in place by Quarterback. “I brought them out first thing this morning.”
“You’re efficient,” smiled Wigwam at his assistant.
“Of course I am,” retorted Garnet. “You know you couldn’t get along without me.”
* * *
The dark-haired stranger from the motel walked the streets of Dream Valley in a direct course to 17A Vine Avenue, the address listed in the phone book as Garnet’s address; taking up an inconspicuous position across from the small but functional house, the stallion began a silent vigil, discreetly keeping an eye not only on the blank windows of the first-floor unit but also on the approach of any other ponies. The residential area was fairly deserted at this time of the morning, with most ponies already gone to their day’s destination and the foals waiting for warmer temperatures before venturing forth to play in the snow.
When several young ponies did round the corner and come in his direction, the stallion quickly shifted the attache case in his hoof and set off across the street, scrutinizing the domicile of interest to him with keen eyes. Noting that there seemed to be no sign of activity in the building, he shrugged and continued on his way, headed in the direction of Main Street.
A warm and welcoming eatery called the Café Carousel caught his eye; remembering that he had foregone breakfast when he had the chance, the outsider turned aside to take advantage of the spicy smells emanating from the establishment. Once inside, the stallion surveyed the occupants of the tables with a look that could only be called shifty, then helped himself to a small corner table.
After placing an order for a cinnamon chip muffin and a cup of steaming black coffee, he settled in to listen to the talk going on at neighboring tables and soon came to realize that most of the conversation was centering on a skating party to be held this very evening at the casino. If the excitement of the ponies was any indication, it sounded as if everyone in Dream Valley would be in attendance at the outdoor festivity, whether for the skating or simply to enjoy the hot chocolate around a warm bonfire and the atmosphere of a merry winter party.
On the way out of the cozy restaurant, the swarthy pony noticed a poster on a window advertising the skating extravaganza; studying it for a moment, he seemed to come to a decision.
“Interesting...” he mused.
Smiling a rather wicked-looking smile and taking a quick look around him, the stallion departed and continued on his way, checking out the rest of Dream Valley’s main street, the mall, various hotels and motels other than the one he was registered at, the police station... for some reason, the stallion seemed to be fascinated with and yet at the same time averse to this center of law and justice.
This combination of an attraction and a repulsion delayed him as he appeared to seesaw between the desire to learn all he could about the place and a self-preservation that urged him to a safer- from his point of view- part of the city. It was only after he caught a glimpse of the police chief, Tawny, flanked by two officers, leaving the building, did the stranger melt into the shadowy cover of a neighboring building and slip out of sight.
His wanderings led him to the site of the casino; and again from a discreet distance, he checked the layout of the building and the grounds. Observing that the activity was occurring behind the casino and catching sight of one vibrant red mare who seemed to be in the center of the planning, he grinned his derisive grin; after some time in acute contemplation that focused on Garnet, the stallion departed, taking himself off down the street.
Finding the visitor’s bureau open, the stallion made a stop to fine-tune his knowledge of the city.
“Good morning, sir,” sang out a chartreuse mare with lime green hair. “How may I help you today?” She stumbled over a step-stool as she came toward him.
“Just looking for a way to entertain myself and a companion while we stay in your lovely city,” the stranger said, bestowing the most unnerving smile on Becca as he steadied her, preventing a tumble.
“Why, your timing couldn’t be better,” she admitted, pointing to a prominently displayed poster. “Our town is celebrating winter with an old-fashioned skating party on the grounds of Wigwam’s Casino this very night.”
“That’s the extent of what this town has to offer?” the stranger asked with a lifted eyebrow.
“Oh, but it’s going to be such fun! You simply must attend!”
“Who’s in charge of it?”
“The casino is sponsoring it, but the students of Pony Pride are involved in making it a success; and their young enthusiasm has garnered everyone’s excitement.”
“Wigwam’s Casino,” the stallion muttered. “Is this Wigwam in charge of tonight’s party?”
“Well, he’s at the head of things; but his general manager, Garnet, probably is as much in charge as anyone.”
“His general manager...” Going to the poster and studying it with the greatest interest, the stallion finally asked, “And the casino itself... will it be open?”
“Why, of course. But I assure you, the action will be out by the lake tonight.”
“Yes... yes, I suppose it will,” the stallion said more to himself than to the mare. Then, quickly bestowing his awful smile upon Becca, he thanked her for her time and left the building.
Satisfied with his morning’s work, the stallion returned to the motel. Upon entering the shared room, he was immediately questioned by the waiting pony, “Well?”
“Tonight... tonight, we act.” His infernal grin spanned the distance between them like a portent of doom.
* * *
“Many hooves make light work,” intoned Garnet as she looked with satisfaction over the lakeside activities. Benches had been set at convenient rest spots. The orange safety fence was neatly in place. Stacks of firewood stood ready. Beacon lights were mounted at key locations. The ice was being swept clean by a troupe of Bushwoolies who seemed to be enjoying their work tremendously. Quarterback and Sparky were putting the finishing touches on the electrical preparations. The pony helpers were beginning to congregate around the refreshment area as if in expectation of some commiseration for their efforts.
“Once Quarterback has the electricity on, we’ll fix some hot chocolate for everyone in the shelter,” announced Garnet, smiling gratefully at all the ponies who had so willing given of their time and talent to get ready for the skating party. “And I think Wigwam sent Hawkley out to buy donuts.”
This information brought renewed smiles to the faces of the ponies and cheers from the Bushwoolies.
“Quarterback says that we’ll have power in five minutes,” Caravel conveyed.
“And here comes Hawkley with the food,” said Petal, motioning to the stallion and several cohorts coming across the snowy landscape with a large quantity of bakery boxes.
“Knowing Bushwoolie appetites, I’m glad to see you got plenty,” Garnet said to Hawkley as the stallions approached.
Atlas, Lariat, and Hawkley grinned. “If these donuts taste half as good as they smell, they’ll be gone in a jiffy... even without the Bushwoolies,” Hawkley stated.
Wishbone came on the scene with a message from Quarterback. “He’s taking care of the final details now; he says to watch the lights.”
Everyone turned their attention to the myriad of lights strung around the gazebo and extending outward to encompass the lake and the surrounding parkland and encircling the shelter. A gathering of clouds overhead was dimming the earlier sparkle of the snow-encased landscape, so the lights would show rather well.
If they lit.
After several minutes, Sparky appeared from around the gazebo. “Umm... We’re experiencing some technical difficulties...”
“What’s wrong?” wailed Garnet, envisioning all these preparations spoiled because of a lack of luminescence.
“Nothing to worry about,” Sparky mollified. “Quarterback is checking the wiring; he just wanted you to know that it may take a little longer than he originally expected..” His eyes rested on the donut boxes that looked so inviting.
Garnet was in no mood to feel sympathy. “Well, get back to work!” she snapped, sending Sparky flying.
“Temper, sweetheart,” Hawkley said, patting Garnet’s hoof. “It’s only a minor setback.”
“I’m not your sweetheart,” Garnet growled.
“Of course not, but allow me to dream,” responded Hawkley.
“Garnet, look at the lights!” exclaimed Wishbone, extracting his fiancee to a safer position. “They’re operational!” The area had instantly gone from a drab, colorless environment to one of sparkling brightness that flaunted the overcast afternoon. “And the wind has shifted; the warm front is moving in. I’ll betcha we have snow by nightfall.”
“That will make all this work worth it,” sighed Garnet, imagining the frozen lake alive with colorful skaters, the bonfires alight with orange flames, and the fragrant smell of chocolate hanging in the air, all enveloped by a shower of sparkling snowflakes. She turned her gaze to Wishbone. “Don’t let me get so caught up in overseeing everything that I forget to skate with you.”
“You think I’d let an opportunity like that pass me by?” Wishbone queried softly.
Hawkley rolled his eyes and transferred his attention to several of the Pony Pride fillies nearby. “Libby, Patience, would you like to help me check all the light bulbs to make sure none of them are burnt out?” he asked smoothly, accompanying his invitation with a bright smile.
“Sure! We’d be glad to!” chorused both of the girls, their eyes lighting up as much or more than their electrical counterparts overhead.
Now it was Chocolate Chip’s turn to roll her eyes. As she watched Libby and Patience walk away with Hawkley, one on each side of the stallion, she noted, “Those two were supposed to be helping me with the food.”
“We’ll fill in for them,” said a voice belonging to Memoria; she was with another teacher from Pony Pride, Medallion. “We’d heard so much about the skating party from our students for the past couple of weeks that we thought we’d stop by to see how things were progressing.”
“Yes,” added Medallion, “and it looks like we missed the hardest work.”
“If your offer of helping serve was genuine, I won’t turn it down,” smiled Chocolate Chip. “The cups are in that box behind the counter and the marshmallow bags need to be opened up. When everything is ready, we’ll begin to feed the hungry hoard.”
“Do I smell hot apple cider?” asked Memoria, sniffing the air appreciatively.
“Yes, the Bushwoolies prefer that to hot chocolate... or so I’m told. I’ve seen them put down equal amounts at any gathering I’ve been to.”
The tempting smells were drawing in all the volunteers who had spent the past hours preparing for the upcoming evening’s festivities, and soon the shelter was abuzz with companionable chatter. Quarterback and Sparky were debating on which one of them had been responsible for overlooking a blown fuse; the wide-girthed Lariat was extolling the best points of each type of donut on display with Atlas; Hawkley was continuing his flirt with Libby and Patience... and several other Pony Pride beauties; Garnet was going over the details of the evening with Wigwam; and Petal, Wishbone, and Caravel were mingling with the helpers to thank them for their efforts to ensure a pleasing setting for the winter festival.
Garnet was just helping herself to a mug of apple cider when Hawkley moved to her side. “Now that Wishbone has spoken for you, Garnet, I was wondering if you might have a sister or two somewhere waiting for the perfect stallion.” He accompanied his words with an infuriating grin.
Exchanging a glance with Chocolate Chip, Garnet sassily retorted, “As if this perfect stallion actually exists.”
Laughing, Hawkley persisted. “You know all about my history thanks to Fern’s aunt over the holidays supplying enough stories of my school days to scar me forever; and I wasn’t even here to defend myself. It’s time I heard something about your background. So I ask again, any sisters?”
“One. But she’s older... too old for you.”
Hawkley arched a brow. “I’d be the one to determine that.”
“She’s also married.”
“Surely someone with your qualifications can’t be having a problem meeting eligible females in Dream Valley,” commented Chocolate Chip.
Eying her closely, Hawkley asked, “What qualifications are you referring to?”
Blushing becomingly, Chocolate Chip stuttered. “You... your... ah...”
“You’re cute, Hawkley, and you know it,” assisted Garnet, grinning at her friend’s embarrassment.
But Hawkley seemed not to notice Garnet’s compliment. He was focused on Chocolate Chip.
“And, besides, Patience and Libby both seemed fascinated with you earlier,” Garnet continued as she sipped her cider, wondering about the current- and not an electrical one- that seemed to be running between Chocolate Chip and Hawkley.
“They’re way too giggly and immature for me,” Hawkley finally responded, not taking his eyes from Chocolate Chip’s face. “I want someone who knows what’s she’s after and is still willing to have a little fun along the way.”
“Chocolate Chip, do we have any more of those plastic spoons?” quizzed Memoria, breaking the spell that had somehow overpowered the brown mare’s sensibilities.
“Wh... what? Oh, spoons. Sure. There’s another package around here somewhere.” Chocolate Chip turned her back on Garnet and Hawkley as she busied herself with mundane activities to rid herself of the riotous emotions rioting inside of her.
“Have a heart, Hawkley,” reprimanded Garnet as she led him away, fully aware of Chocolate Chip’s confusion. “Chocolate Chip doesn’t need a practiced flirt like you messing with her mind right now.”
Hawkley grinned. “Does that mean you’re jealous, Garnet?”
“No, Hawkley. It means that Wigwam is both your boss and your friend; don’t get involved.” The red mare patted his hoof, and left him to meditate on her advice.
* * *
“Oh, Wigwam,” cooed Sugarberry. “It’s like a fairyland!” She and Vanguard, with a well-bundled Banderol, stood by the orange stallion on the gazebo overlooking the scene of merriment where ponies of every hue and color milled about in carefree abandon to enjoy the winter festival. “You did good.”
“Thanks to Garnet and Wishbone getting everything organized and any number of other volunteers who got things done,” admitted Wigwam. “And the snow is just an added plus.”
“Chocolate Chip was helping today, wasn’t she? She seemed to be in a pensive mood at supper tonight, and I wondered if something happened to worry her.” Sugarberry held out her hoof to catch one of the drifting snowflakes, large and fluffy due to the warmer temperatures. .
“No. Not that I’m aware of. Of course, she doesn’t hold me in confidence as much as she used to,” Wigwam wryly stated, searching the crowd for the brown mare who had turned down his proposal of marriage on Christmas Eve.
“I saw her going into the refreshment stand a little while ago,” Vanguard volunteered, reading his friend’s mind.
“Maybe I’ll go and see if she wants to skate,” sighed Wigwam. “It all seems so romantic now after dark.” He turned and left without another word.
Tucking Banderol’s blankets more tightly around him, Sugarberry smiled at her husband. “I’ll bet Cocklebur will watch Banderol for awhile if we ask; Wigwam’s right about the romantic setting.”
“My thoughts exactly,” returned Vanguard.
* * *
A short time later, Sugarberry and Vanguard were enjoying the freedom of the ice with only occasional glances shoreward to where Cocklebur- several jangles wealthier for his trouble- was sitting on a bench with Banderol in his forelegs and several other young ponies to keep him company.
“Have I told you lately how much I love you?” Vanguard murmured in Sugarberry’s ear.
Sugarberry cocked her head in mock contemplation. “Not since this morning, unless you count the note I found in my mailbox when I went online this afternoon; but that was actually sent yesterday.”
“Well, then, the sentiment is long overdue.”
* * *
“Can you spare some time to get out on the ice?” asked Wigwam of Chocolate Chip where she was serving up drinks for Baby Falling Leaves, Baby Leaper, and Baby Noddins.
Chocolate Chip cast him a grateful smile. “I only came in here to get myself a hot chocolate, and somehow I ended up behind the counter. As the big chief around here, you can effectively rescue me.”
“My pleasure.” He extended a hoof to the brown mare. “Chocolate Chip is needed elsewhere right now,” he told Libby with authority while drawing Chocolate Chip out with him.
“We’ll manage,” muttered Libby, her disappointment hard to disguise. She had just seen Hawkley come into the shelter, and she had entertained hopes that he would invite her to take a turn on the ice. That stallion, however, seemed not to notice her.
Hawkley stood to the side as Wigwam escorted Chocolate Chip to the icy lake. What was the story behind those two, he wondered to himself. He had been out of town over the Christmas holidays and had expected on his return to hear of Wigwam’s engagement to Chocolate Chip. Not a word was said about any such happening, however, nor did the brown mare wear a ring. And to top it off, it appeared to Hawkley as if there had been a perceptible cooling in the relationship between the two ponies. It was a disappointment, then, to walk in tonight to see Chocolate Chip in close company with Wigwam once more.
Frowning, Hawkley remembered that moment earlier in the day when he and Chocolate Chip had seemed to experience an awakening that boded well for them both. He had looked forward to this evening in hopes that he could begin to solidify a deeper friendship with the chocolate brown mare who had intrigued him from the time he came to work in Dream Valley this past summer; her obvious ties with Wigwam, however, had prevented him from taking action in that direction; but when Chocolate Chip had looked at Hawkley this afternoon with such obvious admiration in her eyes, Hawkley had changed his game plan, only to find that the object of his attention was now in the forelegs of Wigwam once more. Maybe Garnet was right... it was best to say clear of such a volatile situation. Hawkley shrugged and went in search of new quarry.
* * *
Chocolate Chip and Wigwam skated in silence until they were both comfortable with their
momentum over the ice. There were many skaters of all ages and abilities, but Wigwam managed to steer his and Chocolate Chip’s direction to the far side of the lake where there was less activity. The snow falling around them was like a soothing balm that negated any past difficulties between them, and Wigwam pulled the mare closer to him.
“I miss our quiet talks,” Chocolate Chip admitted as she allowed herself to relax against his nearness.
“So do I.”
“Things have been so hectic; there’s so much to see to before graduation.”
“And you’ll manage to get everything taken care of in your usual efficient way,” Wigwam reassured her.
“I wonder at times... it’s like everything familiar is crumbling away,” confided the mare.
“It doesn’t have to, you know.”
“It’s tempting to take the easy way out, Wigwam; but I’d always wonder what could have been.”
“I’m not trying to change your mind; I just want you to remember that you do have options.”
For a moment, Chocolate Chip allowed her head to rest on Wigwam’s shoulder. It would be so easy to fall into his plans for them, to get married and live with all that was familiar here in Dream Valley. But if she succumbed to that warm and fuzzy feeling of familiarity now, she would have regrets later; for how could she know what might have been if she did not break free and forge her own path through life? No one would ever convince her to give up her dream... never.
But- if just for this moment- would it be such a show of weakness to forget about making her mark upon the world and simply enjoy the comfortable sameness that enveloped her in Wigwam’s presence as they floated over the ice?
* * *
Some time later, Hawkley finally spotted Chocolate Chip in the uncomplicated company of Petal and Caravel. He excused himself from the group he was mingling with to hasten to the brown mare when he witnessed a depressing sight.
Someone- he was not acquainted with the stallion- had approached Chocolate Chip from the side and tapped her on the shoulder, startling her for a brief fraction of a second before launching her into the stallion’s forelegs as if... as if they were very close acquaintances. Hawkley muttered under his breath as he drew closer to determine the meaning of this obviously joyful reunion.
Dark lemon in color with light green mane and tail, the stallion was close in age to Chocolate Chip, Hawkley noted. They seemed to share a genial relationship if the number of hugs exchanged in the first few minutes of their reunion meant anything, he also observed with a frown.
“Who’s the stallion?” asked Hawkley of Atlas, who seemed to be in company with the new arrival.
“That’s Prime, the math whiz. He attended Pony Pride for a few years before transferring to New Pony.”
“Math... so that’s the attraction,” mumbled Hawkley.
“What?” queried Atlas.
“Chocolate Chip’s a mathematics major, so I suppose she had classes with him when he was attending here,” Hawkley mused.
“Well, there was that, of course.” Atlas smiled as if there was more to the story.
“And...?” prompted Hawkley, not adverse to gleaning information so blatantly. After all, his immediate future was on the line here.
But before Atlas could reveal the complete history of Chocolate Chip and Prime, Chocolate Chip herself intervened.
“Hawkley, come meet Prime, currently of New Pony. He’s a friend from Pony Pride. And Prime, Hawkley is a fairly new arrival in Dream Valley; he works with Wigwam at the casino.”
“Nice to meet you,” Hawkley lied. “What brings you to town?”
“Well, I’m taking a break after finishing up on my Masters; and when I got word about the skating party, it seemed like a good time to visit my old alma mater.”
After sharing some polite drivel with Prime, Hawkley moved away to rethink his situation.
Chocolate Chip had introduced Prime as a friend while she had referred to Hawkley as merely Wigwam’s associate. That fact did not set well with the denim blue stallion. He brushed a hoof through his violet hair in a nervous motion, dislodging a shower of snowflakes in the effort. It was bad enough to have to worry about Wigwam’s interest in Chocolate Chip; what complication did Prime bring into the equation?
He stood sulking, watching Prime and Chocolate Chip make the rounds of all their mutual friends- Atlas had seemed to abdicate his job as Prime’s escort- when he became aware of two mares wending their way toward him. Taking one look at Garnet’s smug smile and another at the hopeful mare at her side, Hawkley knew he was going to have to endure Garnet’s attempt at matchmaking.
“Hawkley!” Garnet greeted him with sugary sweetness. “You look like a lost soul standing here all by yourself.” She blatantly winked at him
“One of us has to keep an eye on things to make sure everything is running smoothly,” he answered her stiffly.
“That’s what I like about you, Hawkley! You’re so committed! I was just telling Falda here how much Wigwam and I appreciate your input at the casino.” She put heavy stress on the name, Wigwam. Drawing the pale blue pegasus forward, she continued. “Falda is in charge of Ideographic Imaging; Wigwam bought our digital copier there last fall.”
“Of course,” Hawkley smiled. “Your business has an impressive reputation.”
“Thank you, Hawkley. We consider customer satisfaction to be our primary concern.”
“Oh!” voiced Garnet. “Wishbone’s beckoning for me at the refreshment stand. I’ll bet they ran out of cider or something. Excuse me!” She left without looking back, so she missed the dark look Hawkley cast her way.
“It’s a lovely party,” offered Falda in the oppressing silence that followed Garnet’s leaving.
“Yes. Isn’t it?”
If Falda wondered at the irony in Hawkley’s voice, she shrugged it aside. “I’ve always enjoyed ice-skating,” she intimated, turning to watch the skaters skimming by on the frozen lake. “It gives one such a feeling of freedom.”
Let her throw out all the hints she wanted, Hawkley fumed. He was not going to bite. Not when the mare he was most interested in was currently laughing and talking with Prime at a mile a minute.
“I was with the White Ice Flyers for several years,” she divulged, her wings softly brushing against Hawkley’s side as she gazed out over the ice, reliving her top performance with the troupe.
Hawkley cast her a cautious glance. Her eyes were dreamy with her musings. Her rainbow mane, wet from the snowflakes that still floated through the air, curled becomingly around her face. Maybe, Hawkley pondered, it would not hurt to accompany her around the ice just once.
Falda turned to face him just then, lowering her gaze demurely as she caught his eyes on her. When she lifted her clear blue eyes to him again, she asked, “And what about you, Hawkley? Have you had much experience... on the ice?”
Did she bat her eyelashes at him coquettishly... or simply blink away a snowflake? Hawkley never determined the answer. He heard himself instead invite her to skate with him.. And from some rampant cord, his treasonous voice added, “That way, you can tell me just how experienced I am.”
From some distance behind the two, Garnet playfully jabbed Wishbone in the ribs and laughed, “I told you so!”
* * *
At the fringe of the activity going on around the lake stood the two strangers from the motel; they were discreetly concealed behind a yew hedge, giving them a fair view of the proceedings without revealing their presence. The dark haired pony stared menacingly at the many figures milling about the grounds, then spat when he caught sight of the particular pony he was searching for.
“Over by that building, close to the door,” he said quietly to his companion.
“That’s her, all right. And just look how she’s puttin’ on airs as if she owns the place!”
“She’s honed her skills since the last time we kicked up a row.” The pony tossed his black mane back with a derisive motion.
“Well, we’ll see how fine she acts when she finds out we’re on to her.”
The first pony sneered. “She’ll think she’s caught in her worst nightmare.”
“What’s your plan?”
“We’ll wait until she’s alone; I’d prefer there were no witnesses.”
“It might be a long wait.”
“The casino’s open... maybe we can win the jackpot... kill two birds with one stone, so to speak.” The evil grin spread across the stallion’s face again.
His companion nodded, and the two slipped through the shadows toward the casino.
* * *
“How long will you be in Dream Valley?” asked Chocolate Chip of Prime as she and the stallion shared a moment alone near one of the blazing bonfires.
“Only a day or two. I’m going home to spend some time with Mom and Dad before I start my job.”
“You are so fortunate to have reached your goal!”
“And what about you, Chocolate Chip? What’s in store for you?” He touched her cheek companionably.
“Everything is so hectic at this point, I’m not sure where I’ll end up.”
Prime looked perplexed. “Didn’t you and Wigwam get things patched up yet?”
Her cheeks already a deeper shade from the heat of the bonfire, they again darkened perceptively. “Yes, we’ve been the best of friends.” Chocolate Chip refused to meet Prime’s searching gaze.
“Somehow, I don’t think that’s what Wigwam wanted.” He gently put his hoof under her chin to oblige her to look at him.
“He proposed and I turned him down.”
“You said yourself that you didn’t have time in your life for a steady relationship just yet; can’t I be accorded the same prerogative?”
“I wouldn’t have stopped for anything if I’d met the mare I wanted to spend the rest of my life with,” Prime baldly admitted, then grinned to soften his words. “I must admit, you came pretty close.”
“And what about Frilly Hearts?” Chocolate Chip asked, too relieved to have the conversation move away from her and Wigwam to be annoyed at Prime’s less than flattering assessment of his own relationship with her.
“She was good company when I first got to New Pony, but I found her to be too intellectually minded after a time... her father’s influence on her, I imagine.”
“And he was a professor of yours?”
“Yes, and a big help in getting my job.”
Chocolate Chip smiled. “You’ll make a name for yourself, Prime; I’ll always be able to brag that I was a classmate of yours.”
“You’re going to do just fine for yourself, too, you know.”
“I’ll do my best.”
Suddenly they were surrounded by a group of ponies who had just come off the ice, all anxious to renew their ties with Prime; and Chocolate Chip allowed herself to be edged away from the warmth of the fire. She found herself beside Hawkley, who had lost Falda to some suave stallion from Friendship Gardens.
“Enjoying yourself?” he asked somewhat harshly.
“It’s been fun, but I’m about ready to call it a night.”
Hawkley looked at her closely. Maybe Prime was not such a good friend after all. “You haven’t skated with me yet.”
Unexpectedly feeling very shy under his searching gaze, Chocolate Chip pretended to be caught up in the antics of some foals who were roughhousing it in the snow; but Hawkley would not let her escape.
“Chocolate Chip.” The mare turned her head to look at the stallion and found her glance trapped by his smokey grey eyes. “Come out on the ice with me.” Without waiting for a reply, he claimed her hoof in his, and Chocolate Chip found no reason to resist.
* * *
“Hi! Cocklebur told us you were here; but with this crowd, it’s been difficult finding anyone,” Sugarberry said, coming up to Bluebonnet and her husband, Firethorn, who were at the gazebo with a young couple. Sugarberry’s ready smile encompassed the entire group.
“We saw you skating earlier and hoped we’d get a chance to talk,” the mother of six said, scooping Banderol from Vanguard’s forelegs, then looking apologetic. “Excuse me, but I feel so much more comfortable if I’m holding a foal.”
“Just don’t take him home with your crew and leave us empty-hooved,” warned Vanguard.
Sugarberry turned her attention to the young mare and stallion. “Where’s your little guy?” she asked.
“Princess Tiffany is babysitting,” Sunny explained.
“She practically threw us out so that she could have Mesquite all to herself,” added Pampas.
“But we really should be getting back,” worried Sunny, glancing at her husband. “This is the longest I’ve been away from Mesquite since he was born.”
“He’ll be fine,” assured Bluebonnet. “Princess Tiffany seems to have a gentle hoof when it comes to that foal of yours.”
“I’ll say,” agreed Sunny. “I don’t know what we’ve had done without her through all this.”
“You’re guiding star did well to lead you to the Royal Paradise on Christmas Eve,” smiled Sugarberry. “It’s been as good for Tiffany as it has been for you.”
Every since Princess Tiffany had gotten her hooves on the newborn baby unexpectedly delivered in her domain and had gotten a look into those innocent, trusting eyes, she had become a different pony... a change that was for the better in the opinion of everyone who knew her. Something in her heart had been touched by the helplessness of the precious little foal; and as she held him those early hours after his birth, she had promised him that she would always be there for him.
Her affection for the foal had expanded to include the foal’s parents, taking them under her wings as well. Finding out that Pampas was without work (he and Sunny were on their way to Hayton in hopes of finding employment when they had been caught with a more urgent predicament in Dream Valley on Christmas Eve), Tiffany had scoured the help wanted ads for any suitable job for him. Failing at that level, the princess had begun talking to everyone she knew to locate a possible position for the young, energetic, and talented builder.
The search proved more grueling than the princess had imagined, for the time of year was not conducive to construction firms hiring on new help. Pampas himself scrounged out a meager job at Pony-Mart, determined to make what he could until Sunny was able to travel again; then they could get to Hayton where rumors had it that Bradley Electronics was hiring.
Tiffany thwarted any plans in that direction. If she had anything to say about it, Mesquite would find a home in Dream Valley where she could be involved with his life on a day-to-day basis. That meant that Pampas has to find work locally, not in far-off Hayton. And her persistence paid off.
Quite by accident, she learned of a company who was in need of someone experienced in dry-wall and plastering. She sent Pampas to talk to Gambrel, the supervisor; and without even having to use her royal influence, she had the pleasure of learning that Pampas had been hired.
The princess was delighted and now turned her attention to securing a small but comfortable apartment for the family which was not nearly as difficult as rounding up the job. By the time Sunny was strong enough to assume full care of Mesquite, Tiffany had located a cozy unit not too far removed from the Royal Paradise so that she could easily visit whenever she so desired.
She should have been happy when Pampas and Sunny had moved their meager belongings into the apartment and settled Mesquite in the freshly painted and decorated nursery (a gift from the princess), but she was not.
She found that now she had way too much time on her hooves.
She had spent so much of the last month helping Pampas and Sunny and enjoying Mesquite that now she found that her days were empty; and for some reason, her old pastimes of visiting the mall, indulging in pampering at the beauty shop, and dining out at the best places were utterly wearisome. Even the Satin Slipper Sweet Shoppe had lost its charm for her.
If she would have had her way, she would have spent hours with Mesquite daily, but even the princess realized that Sunny was the best mother for the little foal, so she limited her excursions to the small but orderly apartment to three times a week. Between those excursions, however, she felt adrift.
It was in one of these restless moods that the answer came to Princess Tiffany. She had been happily busy while trying to accommodate Pampas and Sunny into life in Dream Valley and when she had been meeting the needs of the helpless foal. That fact hit her like a brick.
She had been happiest while helping others!
It was, for her, a new direction.
All that was left to determine was what outlet her new penchant should take. That was what the princess mulled over these days: not which piece of jewelry to purchase from Sparkler’s Jewelry Store, or which scarf would best match her eyes at Lemon Treat’s Boutique, or which book from the Bushwoolie’s book store would give the best impression sitting on the coffee table when guests came to the Royal Paradise; but what could she do to best meet the needs of other ponies like Pampas and Sunny who needed someone to give them a helping hoof in their time of need. And one of these days, she would hit on the right answer.
“I hear that your crew was in charge of converting the picnic shelter here into a more suitable enclosure for this winter party,” Vanguard directed at Pampas.
“Yeah. Gambrel pulled us off the project we were working on so that we could get some temporary walls up,” Pampas explained.
“After the turnout for tonight’s bash, Wigwam might decide to make these skating parties a weekly thing,” commented Firethorn jokingly.
It was a perfect evening.
* * *
Wigwam was waiting at the edge of the ice when Chocolate Chip and Hawkley finished their skating; the orange stallion tapped his hoof on the freshly powdered ground as he tarried, watching the two ponies as Hawkley said something in Chocolate Chip’s ear that caused the mare to laugh musically, the sound coming to Wigwam’s ears like a tantalizing call of a siren. He gritted his teeth.
Garnet, trying to keep on top of everything that affected the success of the evening in any way, saw the anger in Wigwam’s stance as she and Wishbone also came off the ice, and she directed Wishbone to head in his direction. Both couples, therefore, arrived in front of the casino operator at the same time.
Caught up in the light-hearted banter that she and Hawkley had been engaged in, Chocolate Chip was unprepared for the cutting tone of Wigwam’s voice when he spoke or the dangerous gleam in his eye as he ran his gaze over the two of them.
“Sammy sent word out that things are heating up in the casino; there’s lots more patrons tonight than we expected, and he’s feeling out of his element with none of us up there. He also mumbled something about some shifty-eyed ponies that are making him nervous.”
“I’ll go handle things,” said Garnet, making a move to head up the hill to where the casino glittered.
“No.” Wigwam’s hoof stayed her while he kept his eyes on Hawkley. “Hawkley will take care of it.”
Wigwam looked at the stallion with such a despotic look that Hawkley found himself saluting. “No problem.” If he noticed the explosive wrath that encompassed Wigwam, he gave no indication. Turning to Chocolate Chip, he said goodnight with all propriety, marring it in Wigwam’s estimation, however, by sending the mare a wink before he turned and headed for the casino.
Wigwam was so disgusted that he turned to go in the opposite direction just to make sure he did not do something he would regret later.
A perfect evening? Well, maybe not quite.
* * *
Three little ponies on skates stood staring at the orange fence blocking off part of the lake.
“What do you suppose dat’s there for?” one (namely, Baby Noddins) said.
“It’s to keep ponies out of the area,” Baby Leaper said authoritatively.
“Why?” said Baby Noddins.