In a Vulcanopolis town house of pink stucco, Sugarberry put the finishing touches on dinner just as Vanguard came in the door.
"Something smells good," he said, sniffing the air. He grinned at his wife. "Something looks good, too." He hugged the strawberry-patterned mare and was intent on kissing her when Banderol tugged on his father's foreleg.
"Me need 'elp," the foal demanded several times before Vanguard released his wife with a sigh.
"What can I help you with, Bandy?" he asked his son while noting that the colt had a bundle of sticks clutched in his hooves.
"Me wanna make bwdie nes'," the colt replied, holding up the work materials.
"Ahh," Vanguard voiced, casting Sugarberry an accusing glance.
The mare laughed. "Don't blame me. We visited Hydrangea this afternoon, and there is a turtle dove nesting in a tree off her patio. Banderol expects to construct a nest to attract his own bird. He and Dante hunted up the nesting materials."
Looking at the pile of sticks his son had dropped onto the table, Vanguard picked one up, then said to Banderol, "A bird's nest is quite a special home. Only the parents know how to build it so that it's comfortable for their babies."
His small hoof patting his father's foreleg, Banderol trustingly replied, "Daddy pawent... Daddy buiwd nes'."
That vote of confidence caused Vanguard to sit down and rake his hoof through his mane. Drawing the foal onto his lap, he attempted to illustrate the problems involved with nest building. Setting out some of the sticks in a circular pattern, he asked Banderol, "Do you think these will stay together out in the wind and the rain?"
Touching the sticks and watching them collapse, Banderol thought hard. "Gwu," he decided, slipping off his father's lap and running to his activity box to retrieve a bottle of glue. Returning to Vanguard, he crawled up on the chair next to him and began rebuilding the nest.
Sugarberry, in the meantime, had set the food out on the table and now intercepted Banderol's project. "Come on, sweetie, and eat your supper. You can work on the nest afterwards." She gently settled the foal on his booster chair and filled his plate.
The foal whined at first, but soon found the supper his mother had prepared too tempting. He ate heartily while his parents shared events of the day.
"Hydrangea suggested that we all get together and take the foals to the park for a picnic on Saturday," Sugarberry informed Vanguard.
"And just who is 'we all'?" the stallion asked.
"Well, besides us and Hydie and Pacificus and their boys, there'd be Clare and Giorgio with Calla, Iveta and Giles with Jacopo and Trent, and Mooncurl and Nello with Baby Sunsprite. She's a month old already, which means we've been over here nearly that long."
Mooncurl's little daughter had been born only four days ahead of Sugarberry and Vanguard's arrival in Vulcanopolis for their year's stay while Vanguard temporarily assumed Giorgio's position at Leonardo University and Sugarberry worked on a fashion industry book for Monk-Fairfax Publishing. Clare's number one model, Mooncurl had abdicated her position in the public eye in lieu of motherhood, although she still maintained an advisory position with the fashion house which took up much of her time. Her photographer husband, Nello, was an indispensable part of Clare's Creations as well.
"Saturday sounds like it'll be a busy day," Vanguard commented.
"Aren't they all?" Sugarberry sighed.
Since their arrival in Vulcanopolis, the days had sped by. Having opted to live in the town house that belonged to Giorgio so that she and Vanguard would be close to their respective jobs, Sugarberry had spent several days acquainting herself with the three-floor space and in renewing her acquaintance with the friendly mare next door, Iveta, who was kept running by her three-year old, Jacopo, and her seven-month-old, Trent.
The first week had also encompassed the stay of the honeymoon couples from Woodlawn, Icon and Splotch along with Chiffon and Tribute. The two couples had been gifted the use of the country home of Giorgio, Sr., and his wife, Enrica, so they had a delightful living experience with all the amenities, including the housekeeping services of Prisca and Donato, but had made the time to explore some of the scenic places in and close to the city with Vanguard and Sugarberry.
Enrica and Giorgio, Sr., had also held a reception of sorts in their own villa to introduce the newly married pairs to their family and other close friends.
One day, Clare, the chic owner of Clare's Creations, the fashion house that Sugarberry was using as the basis for her book, had invited Sugarberry, Chiffon, and Splotch to her office and given them the grand tour of the company, showing them every level of fashion planning and treating them to a lavish lunch at Coppoli's along the river-front. The day had proved so stimulating that both Chiffon and Splotch were envious of Sugarberry's opportunity to work on such a glamorous assignment.
However, it also brought the scope of Sugarberry's commitment fully to her mind, casting her into a jittery state of combined anticipation and dread as she tried to see the project not only through her own eyes, but through those of Macarius, the editor-in-chief. Sugarbery was so preoccupied with her responsibility to Macarius that she was able to see the Woodlawn ponies off with nary a tear, even as Icon teased her about birthing so far from home that the foal could only be considered alien.
Personal friends with Giorgio and Clare as well as work-related peers, Sugarberry and Vanguard spent time with them outside of the office sphere, allowing Banderol and Calla to cement a friendship that had begun within hours of their births, as Calla had made her entrance into the world the morning following Banderol's arrival while Giorgio and Clare were in Dream Valley to promote one of Princess Tiffany's charitable extravaganzas. The petite yellow filly and the country-blue colt had bonded as soul mates from the start.
The social whirl was enhanced by other friends Sugarberry and Vanguard had made on previous trips to Vulcanopolis: Angela and Gabriel; Carlo and Primula; Eugenia and Federigo; Guido and Tiffany, when in town; plus Agatha- who spent most of her time recently in Vulcanopolis- and Hubert.
Sugarberry had also made the time to see Dr. Trinci, who had received her medical history from Dr. Toby, in preparation for the coming birth of her and Vanguard's second foal in the fall.
Once Sugarberry had commenced gathering information for the scheduled fashion book that Macarius had a driving interest in, her time became compressed into segments of gleaning information at Clare's Creations, caring for Banderol and the town house, attending and hosting social gatherings, and keeping current with Vanguard's involvement with the university as interim head of the mathematics department. The mare, in an effort to please everyone all the time, was having a difficult time keeping sane.
"I thought the pace of our lives would be slower over here," Vanguard admitted, reaching across the table to take Sugarberry's hoof in his. He had foreseen quiet, intimate evenings at home and rambling, peaceful walks through the parks, not this frenzied activity that all too often separated the two of them or thrust them upon well-meaning but over-zealous friends... or put them under the control of the urgent demands of a precious foal.
"We'll wash the dishes while your mother relaxes for awhile, and then we'll all go to the store to buy some lumber to build a bird house," Vanguard informed the foal, looking to Sugarberry for approval.
The mare smiled her consent, grateful for the chance to sit in relative peace and quiet for a spell. It would give her a chance to organize her most recent notes on the fashion industry gleaned from her time spent so far at Clare's Creations. Plus she had to make a shopping list for the supplies she would need for Saturday's picnic and write some letters to the ponies back home. Oh, and there was that recipe she had promised to write-up for Iveta... and the phone call to Macarius to assure him that things were progressing on schedule.
Sugarberry rubbed a hoof across her forehead. "So much for relaxing," she muttered as she set to her tasks with a wistful glance at Vanguard and Banderol who were already up to their elbows in sudsy water. Washing dishes never looked so fun.
* * *
"Well, what did you think?" Clare asked Sugarberry as the two mares left a weekly planning meeting of the designers who worked for Clare's Creations.
"My mind is boggled trying to remember that the things you are discussing now won't be in the stores until next spring. You have to plan so far ahead."
"We do have to be able to foresee the future," Clare smiled. "And sometimes we miss the mark. Here, let me show you."
The orchid mare led Sugarberry to the elevator where they went down several floors before exiting, and then traversed a long hallway, eventually coming to a large storage room where boxes of ready-to-ship merchandise perched in orderly stacks. Clare preceded Sugarberry to a back corner of the room where a number of cases sat in isolation.
"These," Clare said, pointing to the forlorn boxes, "were slated to be last spring's hot new item. However, it proved to be less than exciting by the time it hit the shelves... and downright wearisome in retrospect." She opened one of the boxes and grinned as she lifted out a ragged bandana. "My only consolation is that Mirabella's dingy denim flopped as well."
"Thankfully," Sugarberry winked.
From behind them, a male voice intervened. "So this is where you're hiding out. I thought we had a lunch date."
Clare swung to meet her husband's gaze, an affectionate smile softening her pretty face. "Giorgio! I was just showing Sugarberry that all my decisions aren't necessarily wise."
"Some skeletons are best left in the closest," he grinned at his wife, then turned to Sugarberry while escorting the two mares back to the front of the building. "How goes the book?"
"Clare's giving me free rein here on the premises is making my job easy now, although it's all so intriguing that I'm afraid I'm going to have a difficult time later cutting my notes down to size."
"So you're enjoying yourself? I'd hate to think that I had upset your life by asking Van to help me out over here."
"I've been too busy to be homesick," Sugarberry admitted; and as they had reached the main lobby, she prepared to part from her friends. "Have a lovely lunch."
"You could join us," Clare offered.
"Thanks, but Iveta is going to hold the foal's lunch until I get there." After a quick glance at the clock, she grimaced. "And I'd better hurry or Banderol and Jacopo will be starving." With a quick wave, she darted toward the door.
* * *
Working at his desk at Leonardo University, Vanguard was immersed in paperwork when a soft tap sounded at his door. Looking up, he was pleasantly surprised to see an attractive olive mare standing there, her peach-colored mane falling over her left shoulder in soft waves. The spectacles perched on her nose only highlighted the color of her aquamarine eyes. Her competent and self-assured manner had Vanguard on his hooves in no time.
"May I help you?"
The mare smiled as she moved toward his desk. "If you are Giorgio's temporary replacement, yes, I suppose you can help me." She extended her forehoof over the desk. "My name is Lyssa Monti, and I'll be joining your staff for the fall semester."
Having been informed of the hiring of a new teacher due to begin her duties in September, Vanguard was not surprised; yet, he had not expected to meet the mare this soon. He smiled his welcome, however, and verified his identity, then gestured for her to have a seat as he himself sat.
"I've reviewed your file and was most impressed," he confided. "You'll be a valuable asset to the university."
"I look forward to teaching here," Lyssa replied, assessing the stallion before her. "I had other options, but Leonardo seemed to hold the most potential..." The mare removed her glasses. "... especially now."
Those last two words were said with such a seductive warmth and with a look that conveyed such a blatant invitation that Vanguard was put on his guard. "Leonardo University always maintains the highest teaching standards, and the students are of top caliber," he offered in his most business-like voice. "But I'm sure you know that."
Lyssa sniffed, granting that round to Vanugard. "From what I know of Giorgio Guardini, I would expect no less."
Vanguard looked pointedly at the clock on the wall. "Is there anything in particular that I can help you with today?"
A cat-in-the-cream look crept over the mare's face. "Well, as to that, I merely wanted to take a peak at my office and familiarize myself with the campus; however, seeing it's time for lunch, I could use an escort... my treat, you understand." A deliberate flutter of painted lashes punctuated the offer.
Vanguard ignored it. "I'm sure Bea, our office assistant, can show you around. As for lunch, the cafeteria has a tolerable menu." Vanguard spoke as he crossed the room. From the doorway, he motioned to Bea. "Ms. Monti would appreciate your guidance over our facilities for the next hour or so; and as she knows this will interfere with your lunch break, she's kindly offered to take you to Pietro Commons to eat. Does that sound acceptable, ladies?" He looked from one to the other of the mares, registering Lyssa's frown and Bea's happy grin.
"I will see you later," Lyssa said, slipping her glasses back in place and riveting Vanguard with a challenging gaze.
"Of course. We'll be sending out letters outlining the time and place of the first faculty meeting for the fall semester," Vanguard assured her. "You can verify your address with Bea before you leave." With a polite smile, Vanguard ushered Lyssa out of his office and closed the door behind her.
* * *
"There, how does that look?" Vanguard asked of Sugarberry and Banderol who were supervising the placement of the newly-finished birdhouse in the ivy that crept up the stucco walls of the town house. The second floor balcony off the home office and the comfortable living room had seemed an appropriate and convenient location for the nesting box, a location that Banderol could monitor often.
"It looks comfortable and inviting," Sugarberry approved, assessing the rustic-looking home crafted of aged lumber colored in various shades of gray. "What do you think, sweetie?" she asked of her young son.
"Where's bwdies?" queried the foal, waggling his front hooves in the air as if to lure in some homeless avian. "Me want bwdie!"
"It may take some time for the birds to find the house," Vanguard informed the impatient little boy. "It'll take a few days for the smell of newness and ponies to be replaced by the natural smells out here in the open air."
Banderol took a deep breath. "Me smell fwowfers," he said, looking at the potted roses that graced the balcony with their showy, fragrant blossoms. Pale pink clematis peaked over the wrought iron railings, having climbed the trellis from the ground. In the opposite corner stood a severely pruned evergreen, its artificial form softened by a variety of flowers at its base. "Bwdies wike fwowfers, don't dey, Mommy?"
"I can't imagine any living being not liking flowers, Banderol. I'm sure all the bright colors will attract some tenants soon."
"Bwdies, Mommy... not twenants," Banderol clarified with a shake of his head.
"Yes, birdies," Sugarberry grinned.
"And now, Banderol, it's time for you to get ready for bed," Vanguard said, noting the time.
"And for me to get some writing done," Sugarberry sighed. "Macarius wants me to e-mail him some solid copy. He's not satisfied with the vague outlines I've been sending him."
"You've only begun to research the topic of fashion design," objected Vanguard. "Surely he knows that!" The stallion sighed in turn. "But I know you want to keep him informed. I'll give Banderol his bath and read him a story. Then we can have some time to ourselves." He kissed her lightly on the nose.
"Hmm..." Sugarberry's eyes sparkled. "I like the sound of that."
* * *
Having watched his son play in the frothy bath with a pair of plastic crayfish (Where did Tabby find these unusual tub toys, anyway?), Vanguard towel-dried him and delivered him to his mother at the computer for a goodnight kiss- Vanguard got one too... a long, lingering one- then carried him to his bed and tucked him in before sitting down at the edge of the bed and retrieving the storybook that rested on the blankets.
He had not gotten far before Banderol voiced a concern completely unrelated to the plot of the simple story that was unfolding. "Do bwdies sweep at night?"
"Most of them do. Some, like the owls, however, do their hunting at night."
Banderol's eyes widened. "Owws find house 'night?"
"The owls would be too big for the house we made; the birds that move into it would have to be smaller. And they would be asleep already so they could get up early to start their house-hunting."
That hint sunk in. "Me sweep, too, Daddy." The foal obediently closed his eyes with thoughts of getting up with the birds.
Vanguard went back to the story and, when he had finished, found Banderol deep in dreamland already. He spent several minutes just looking at the sleeping foal, so much like himself- country blue with seagreen hair- and with one lock of his mother's bright red hair to tie him to both of them. What a joy this little pony was! Vanguard brushed the colt's mane back from his closed eyes and gave him one more tender kiss before turning out the light and retracing his steps to his wife's side.
"How's it going?" he queried.
"I think even Macarius will be satisfied with this," Sugarberry replied happily. "Just give me a minute to send it off, and..."
The phone interrupted, and Vanguard answered, a smile crossing his face as he listened to the voice on the other end of the line. "And Raspberry's doing well, too, I presume?"
Sugarberry swung around to face her husband at the mention of her sister's name. "The baby came?" she asked impatiently.
"Driftwood, I'm going to give the phone to Sugarberry so you can tell her the news yourself." He matched his words to his action.
"Driftwood?" Sugarberry trilled. "What's the good word?"
"A little girl, Sugarberry. A regular trooper, if her first hour in the real world is any indication," the proud papa answered.
"She's right here tending to our sweetheart and she looks great. She says a single birth is a piece of cake."
"Who's taking care of your twins?"
"Your folks have Custard and Cream at the moment. Mine will be arriving tomorrow to meet their newest grandfoal."
"And what's the name you've chosen"
"This one's Vanilla."
Sugarberry rolled her eyes. "Custard, Cream, and Vanilla. I'm getting hungry."
"The name is perfect, Sug. Vanilla looks like... well, ice cream."
Closing her eyes, Sugarberry said, "I'm picturing her all white then."
"You've got it."
"You could have called her Angel."
"Ah, but then who would now her father is the great chef who owns and operates The Berry Patch?"
"Make snide remarks if you want, Sugarberry, but I'm flying too high for you to shoot me down."
Driftwood finally passed the receiver on to Raspberry and the two sisters had a pleasant conversation centered around motherhood before the needs of Vanilla ended the long-distance conversation. Sugarberry shot her husband a teasing glance as she hung up the phone.
"Driftwood says to tell you that you're falling behind, three to one-and-a-half."
"We haven't gotten to the finish line yet, now, have we?" Vanguard drawled, the glint in his eye promising Driftwood a future run for his jangles.
* * *
Banderol was up early the next morning. Sugarberry found him in a chair in front of a window overlooking the balcony. "No bwdies," the foal pouted.
"We knew that we'd have to wait awhile," Sugarberry replied, silently wondering if the birds would ever find the little house tucked in the ivy, but not about to voice that uncertainty to the little colt. "Now, what shall we fix for breakfast?"
The thought of food effectively diverted Banderol's thoughts, and the news that he now had another cousin further lightened his mood. On the visits to Berryville, he was inundated with relations, three of whom had been born within several months of himself. Playtime was a rowdy affair, and one more little pony added to the mix could only mean more fun.
"What's your schedule for the day?" Sugarberry asked her husband as he came down the stairs from the third-floor bedrooms, following the sound of his family's voices. His hair was wet from his shower.
"Nothing as interesting as yours," he smiled. "This is the day of the fabric hunt, if I remember correctly."
"The fabric fair," Sugarberry corrected. "Claire is looking for new ideas for next year's fashions. The best part is that Banderol can come with me, as Clair is taking Calla with her. She says the fabric manufacturers set up a relatively informal display that allows for some amount of fun amidst the business. Giorgio will attend, too."
"Giorgio? I'd think he would be busy with his work for the city," Vanguard huffed, referring to that stallion's sabbatical from the university, a year in which he was going to be in charge of upgrading and enhancing the municipal computer system.
Try as he might, Vanguard could not entirely dismiss his jealousy of the influential son of Vulcanopolis' city administrator, although he admired and respected the stallion for his intelligence and ability to command the mathematics department at Leonardo University. Vanguard's job was comparatively easy, thanks to Giorgio's competent settling of affairs before turning the reins over to Vanguard for the year. And he owed the stallion the use of this house that was home while in Vulcanopolis.
Vanguard could not easily forget, however, the time Giorgio had spent in Dream Valley stalking Sugarberry; nor could he ignore the mutual admiration that Giorgio and Sugarberry had come to share. Try as he might to banish the jealousy that haunted him, it still reared its ugly head upon occasion, even though his outward manner toward Giorgio was all that was friendly and polite.
"Clare has come to place some value on her husband's fashion sense," Sugarberry giggled. "She maintains that he has an unerring eye for quality." Sugarberry preceded Vanguard and Banderol down the carpeted stairs to the first floor living area that encompassed the kitchen, dining room, and parlor. "I bought some pre-made pancakes that Iveta recommended... anyone game?"
As Iveta's expertise in the kitchen in no way equaled Sugarberry's, Vanguard was dubious; but Banderol set-to the pancakes with gusto and tempted his father to follow suit. Vanguard had to admit that the flat cakes were acceptable, especially considering the minimal amount of time involved and the dish washing they negated.
Having consumed his stack of flapjacks, Vanguard left his wife and son behind for a day of meetings and appointments at Leonardo.
* * *
Banderol and Calla were both safely perched on the chair in front of the balcony window as if watching a real life television screen, waiting for the arrival of a house-hunting bird, while Giorgio and Sugarberry sat back with glasses of lemonade in hoof as they relaxed after a rather hectic day at the fabric fair.
"I'm certainly glad you were there to watch the foals," Sugarberry said. "Those two have unbounded energy when they're together."
"They're quiet enough now," Giorgio noted, looking toward the two whose heads were nodding even as they kept watch. As close in temperament as they were in age, Banderol and Calla seemed to share an affinity that melded them. "So, what did you think of my choices today?"
"I have to agree with Clare's assessment that you have an superior sense of fashion. What's your secret?"
Giorgio chuckled. "I imagine Clare wearing something made out of the fabric in question; if I get goose bumps, I know it'll be a hit."
It was Sugarberry's turn to laugh. "Past sales seem to verify your method, doubtful as it seems. I'd question its veracity simply because Clare is so beautiful that anything would look good on her anyway."
"She's not the only one." The stallion narrowed his eyes. "I see the mauve silk on you."
"Yards and yards of it as my foal grows and grows," Sugarberry shot back with a grin, patting her mid-section. "And if you say you got goose bumps imagining that, I'll evict you from the house right now."
"This is my house, Sugarberry."
"Ah, but you told Vanguard and I to consider it..." Sugarberry was saying when Banderol's animated voice came from the window.
"Mommy, Mommy, bwdie! Bwdie!" Calla was wide awake now, too, adding her own voice to the chant.
Sugarberry and Giorgio hurried to the window to share the foals excitement and looked out to see a small blue-gray bird clinging to the clematis vine. It had a light orange belly and a distinctive horizontal black stripe which ran from its bill, across its eye, and continuing on to its neck, reminding one of a rash application of eye liner. It seemed to have a beak full of mud.
"Oh, it looks kinda like our nuthatches back home!" Sugarberry whispered. "I've got to get my bird book!"
She turned to cross the room, but Giorgio stopped her with a hoof on her shoulder. "Don't bother," he said. "Even I know that it is a nuthatch... Vulcanopolis style."
Sugarberry grinned at him. "I'm impressed... very impressed."
"What am I missing?" queried a strained voice from the doorway as Vanguard made his appearance. The look he sent Giorgio was chilling, and Giorgio dropped his hoof immediately. Sugarberry seemed unaware of any tension as she was as thrilled over the bird as the foals.
"There's a nuthatch checking out the birdhouse; at least, he's on the balcony. You must have done a great job on it to pull in occupants so soon!" She held out her hoof to draw Vanguard into the viewing group. "Why the mud, Giorgio?"
"That I don't know," Giorgio admitted as the bird flew out of sight in the direction of the bird house.
"Out! Out!" called Banderol, clamoring down off the chair and heading for the door to make sure the bird was setting up housekeeping.
Giorgio gathered up Calla before she toppled to the floor and followed Vanguard as he accompanied Banderol to the balcony where they could view the bird house butted up against the outside wall of the town house. Sugarberry fetched the bird book that Giorgio's mother had given her three years earlier when Sugarberry and Vanguard had honeymooned in Vulcanopolis and joined the others outside.
"The book says it uses mud to build up a rim around the entrance hole." She grinned at her husband. "And if you left any cracks, the birds will fill them up with mud, too."
"They'll be busy," Vanguard drawled
Laughing, Giorgio complimented the stallion. "The house looks very appealing. I wonder what Clare will think when Calla wants to add mud to our doorway at home?"
"Don't even mention it!" Sugarberry said in an exaggerated whisper. "I can see Banderol and Calla attempting such a thing. What a mess!"
That mind-picture caused Giorgio and Vanguard to share a glance that melted away any antagonism that Vanguard might still have been feeling. He and Giorgio had once rescued their precious offspring from the grasp of a conniving kidnapper and had found the two confined foals happily playing with their dinner, which meant they were coated in applesauce. Never had they been so happy to see the foals in mischief as at that moment, so relieved were they to find them safe.
"Oh, and the nuthatch can have up to nine babies. And this would be her second brood of the season," Sugarberry shared from the book.
"Very busy," Vanguard and Giorgio said in unison, and all three adults laughed.