written by Sugarberry
"Dad, have you had a chance to go over the medical history that I forwarded to you?"
"Yes, Toby, I did. Your patient's case looks interesting; I wish I was available to come to Dream Valley to offer my assistance."
"That's the reason I'm calling; I'd hoped that you could take some time off so that we could collaborate on this."
"That's out of the question, Toby. Your mother and I already have plans; we're going to Vulcanopolis to attend a medical conference and relax for a few days. We'll be leaving on Sunday."
"Vulcanopolis? Sunday?" Toby choked and was silent.
"Is there a problem?" his father asked in concern.
"Dad, the patient is in Vulcanopolis, and I'm scheduled to fly over there myself on Sunday!" It was Andrew's turn to remain speechless, so Toby went on. "Surely you can spare a few hours to look into this case while you are right there. I would certainly appreciate your input."
Toby's father gave in. "I guess this is out of my control... the coincidence of us both going to Vulcanopolis the same day would seem to indicate that our paths are linked for some reason. I'm curious to see what develops."
"Me, too, Dad. From the beginning, Enrica has exhorted an imperceptible persuasion on those whom she feels will benefit her cause."
"This Enrica... does she have a family?"
"She and her husband have a son and a daughter, both of whom are getting married this fall. They are quite affluent; Enrica's husband, Giorgio, Sr., is the administrator of Vulcanopolis."
"I've heard of him," Andrew replied. "There was some bad publicity in connection with his son awhile back."
"That's all in the past; any problems have been resolved; the family is very close now, although..."
"Let's hear it."
"From what I've been told, Giorgio, Sr., won't be thrilled with Enrica's quest to regain the use of her legs."
"That could be a difficult complication."
"His future daughter-in-law assures me he will be behind them by the time I reach Vulcanopolis."
"Let's hope she is right, Toby."
* * *
The night before his flight, Toby took Fern to dinner at the Estate Manor. The previous weeks since Snuzzle's charity gala had been hectic for the young mare. The first Monday morning after the dance, she had been poring over the help wanted ads and organizing her plan of attack when the phone had rung; it was Lemon Treats.
"I hope I'm not bothering you, Fern." The capable business pony had jumped right into the reason for her call. "I've heard you are looking for work, and I'm looking for a worker. Would you be interested in helping at my shop?"
"Are you kidding?" Fern had gasped. "I'd love working there!"
"Oh, you don't know how happy that makes me! Now... when could you start?"
"Anytime; when would you want me there?"
"How about right now? Can you be at the shop in half an hour?"
"Y... yes... sure," Fern had stuttered.
"Great! I'll be watching for you."
Fern had set down the phone unconsciously. She had been dreading an endless trail of applications with the undeniable result: "I'm sorry, but you don't meet our qualifications." Now, she was already assured of a job and at the premier boutique at the mall. Coming abruptly to reality, she rushed into the room she occupied at Snuzzle's house and made herself presentable, stopping only long enough to call Toby's number and leave a message on his machine.
Upon arriving at Lemon Treats' Boutique, she found the energetic and vivacious mare leaning against the counter, her pale face anything but chipper. When Lemon Treats saw Fern, she slumped into a chair.
"Are you okay?" Fern asked, coming around the counter to minister to the obviously unwell mare.
Lemon Treats sighed and closed her eyes, then suddenly opened them, jumped up, and disappeared to the back of the shop and through the door marked "Mares."
Fern stared after her in consternation, then found herself helping her first customer decide between a blue or purple ribbon. Fern was pleased to see that the cash register was the same as one she had used for a brief sojourn on one of her short-lived employments; she rang up the purchase with no problem and efficiently finished up the transaction. Then, worriedly, she went to see how Lemon Treats fared.
The door opened before Fern got that far and Lemon Treats emerged more pale and drawn than ever. Fern immediately put a foreleg around her and guided her back to the chair she had previously abandoned. Lemon Treats sat with a groan. "At least the morning sickness waited until after the rush of the big dance." She smiled weakly.
"Morning sickness?" repeated Fern. "You're expecting a foal?"
"Assuredly," Lemon Treats said. "Three months along, feeling better than I ever have, then-- wham!-- this hits; and all Toby does is smile and say, 'You'll get over it in time,' and Poeticus smiles and says, 'Any precious little foal is worth a little inconvenience.'" Her eyes lost their bleary look for a moment as she snapped, "Easy for him to say!" Her face clouded again. "And then there is Tabby who went through the entire pregnancy without one day of morning sickness." She groaned again. "Not one day." She ended her tirade by rushing to the back of the shop again.
Fern couldn't help but grin; she agreed with Lemon Treats' husband-- a foal would be worth the inconvenience; but she had no time to speculate further as several mares came into the shop, and Fern was called upon to assist them in their choices. She only saw Lemon Treats briefly as the mare passed by with one quickly worded order-- "Take care of the shop; I'm going home. If I'm still alive later, I'll come back; if not, you're on your own." And she was gone.
Over-all, that first day went well and Fern soon fell into a standard routine, relieving Lemon Treats for the morning and afternoon while Lemon Treats found that by evening she felt equine again and was able to conduct business until closing.
By the end of the first week, Fern had also located an apartment-- small and compact, but comfortable. She found the days moving swiftly along with little contact with Toby as he, too, was busy getting ready for his trip to Vulcanopolis. This evening at Estate Manor was a reprieve for both of them.
"I wish you were coming with me, Fern," Toby said after their order was placed.
Fern smiled. "You have your work cut out for you in Vulcanopolis; I could be of no help to you whatsoever."
"That's where you are wrong; just knowing you were near would be a great help to me."
"Lemon Treats needs me at the shop; I can't let her down."
Toby could not deny that. "You're enjoying your work there?"
"Oh, yes. It's a pleasant place and the customers are super. Lemon Treats is a very efficient manager, so everything runs smoothly."
"And how is your composition class coming?"
"I'm glad I'm starting slowly with college; one class is all I could handle what with working and all. You aren't disappointed in me, are you?" Her eyes searched his for an honest answer.
Toby set his hoof over hers on the linen-covered table. "How could I ever be disappointed in you, Fern? You are acclimating yourself to a whole new life here; you need time to make the right decisions. I'm very proud of you." He squeezed her hoof and released it as the waiter came with their salads.
The rest of the meal was accompanied with light-hearted conversation that knew no end as they tried to fill in for the days ahead when they would be apart.
* * *
Toby had flown out of Dream Valley in the early morning darkness and now waited for his parents, Andrew and Ribbons n' Lace, at the New Pony Airport. Their arrival was a touching reunion as they had not seen one another for some time; after the initial hugs and basic greetings, they scurried to make their flight now boarding for Vulcanopolis. It was only after they were well above the shrinking view of Ponyland that the conversation became more personal.
"Juniper called the other day," Andrew began. Juniper was the wealthy and distinguished father of Miranda, a new mare in town who had vied for Toby's affection. "He had some disturbing news for us."
"I haven't seen ol' Nipper since I was in medical school," Toby replied nonchalantly. "What financial crisis is he facing now?"
Taking a deep breath, Andrew came to the point. "He has heard some news from Miranda that has upset him, Toby. Juniper says that you have been blatantly rude to his daughter since her arrival in Dream Valley, and that you are associating with a totally unacceptable young mare there. He thought your mother and I should be aware of your... irresponsible behavior."
"We'd like to hear your side of the story, Toby," Ribbons n' Lace added, a look of concern resting on her son's face.
"According to Miranda's view of things, I'm sure she is right. But I've never shared Miranda's notions about life, have I... or I would have become a lawyer, not a doctor."
Grinning, Andrew replied, "You and Miranda never did hit it off too well, although Miranda could never see that."
"Never is right," Toby admitted. "She came to Dream Valley expecting to find a perfectly amicable stallion who would bend to her every wish. I was polite and helpful," he glanced at his mother, "but I was not willing to fall prey to her outrageous expectations."
"She was always a difficult child," Ribbons n' Roses sighed. "She was spoiled by both Juniper and Tinsel; it was inevitable that she would become so demanding."
The three ponies dropped into silence as they explored their own memories of the stubborn and opinionated Miranda, but Andrew broke the reverie. "Is there any truth to Miranda's assertion about a young mare?" Ribbons n' Roses was turned to her son as her husband asked the question, so she saw full well the look of joy that lighted his face; and her mother's heart already loved the mare that could do that for him.
"Yes. I've met the one with whom I'd be very contented to spend the rest of my life." Toby made the declaration with a hint of wonder lacing the edges as if he could hardly believe it himself.
"Tell us about her."
Toby began at the beginning: finding Fern unconscious in the park, rescuing her, finding himself inexplicitly drawn to her, and discovering that she was interested in him, too. "And she has the bluest eyes," he finished, suddenly feeling very vulnerable with that admission.
Andrew and Ribbons n' Roses exchanged a glance. "She sounds like a beautiful pony, Toby," Ribbons n' Roses said, patting his hoof.
Andrew, however, wanted to know more. "Juniper indicated that this... Fern... is too young for you."
"The number of years between Fern and me is the same as between you and Mom," Toby was quick to reply.
Ribbons n' Roses smiled at her husband. "He was ready for you on that one, Andrew."
Andrew knew he had been beaten. "We'll look forward to meeting this mare," he said benevolently.
The conversation moved on to family topics including Tribute (the eldest son of Andrew and Ribbons n' Roses) and Tendril (the youngest and only daughter who was married to Copper and had two foals, one only ten months old). That supplied enough material to keep Toby and his parents comfortably occupied for hours.
* * *
"I've felt an undercurrent of secrecy," Giorgio, Sr., growled, glaring at the two mares before him, "but I was naive enough to believe it involved plans for the weddings coming up. That grand occasion obviously isn't keeping you as occupied as one would think." He sat down behind the desk as if to put a barrier between himself and his antagonists, Clare and Hydrangea.
The two mares had come to Giorgio, Sr., at his home office to broach the subject of Enrica's desire to put her future in Toby's hooves. They had expected a fight, and they were not to be disappointed.
Clare recognized the flashing in her future father-in-law's eyes; she had seen the same sparks time and again in Giorgio's eyes when he was trying to control his temper. She braced herself and said, "Enrica asked us our opinion, and we both agreed with her; it's time she sought outside help."
Giorgio, Sr., stood up and rapped his hoof on the desk. "Why couldn't she have come to me with this idea of hers! I'd have been able to stop it before she got her hopes up so high!"
Hydrangea looked at Clare, and Clare looked at Hydrangea. Hydrangea was the one who turned to her father and said, "That is exactly why she didn't come to you; she knew you would try to protect her by stopping her plans."
"Of course, I want to protect her!" Giorgio, Sr., cried. "Can't you understand?" His face wrinkled in anguish.
Moving to her father's side, Hydrangea placed a hoof on his shoulder. "Mother is willing to take the chance; she knows it might not get her anywhere, but she's willing to try."
The stallion was not appeased. "And what happens when Toby fares no better than the doctors who have looked after her for years? Who will pick up the pieces then?" He glowered at the two mares angrily.
"Enrica will," Clare stated softly. "She truly believes that she will walk again. We can't stand in her way."
"So instead we stand back and watch her get hurt again?" Giorgio, Sr. was not budging.
Taking over, Hydrangea tried a new angle. "Mother says that sometimes in therapy she can almost take a step on her own, but something blocks it. What if there is something amiss that can be corrected and give her independence again?"
"That won't happen!" Giorgio, Sr., barked in anger.
No one had heard the wheelchair come into the room, and all were startled to hear Enrica's voice. "Even my very life is not worth seeing those I love argue over me. There has been enough of that already." Her steady gaze subdued the three quarreling ponies, and they each attempted to defend their opinion, but Enrica raised her hoof to silence them and closed her eyes.
When the room was quiet, the mare raised her lids. "I will no longer entertain these thoughts of mine that urge me to stand up and walk as I once could. I have decided not to bother Dr. Toby with my uncertain hopes; therefore, I want the three of you to stop your bickering and concentrate on happier things."
Like three naughty foals, Giorgio, Sr., Hydrangea, and Clare stood contrite; but Clare was not to be held down long. "Toby will be here today, Enrica. You can't back out now." She flashed a daring look at Giorgio, Sr.
Enrica sighed. "Dr. Toby can spend his time enjoying our city's hospitality; he won't be out anything but his time." She suddenly drew within herself. "If you will excuse me..." And she turned her chair to leave.
Moving quickly to her side, Giorgio, Sr., stopped his wife. "Enrica..." He paused, unsure of what to say; but then, as if any doubt was instantly erased, he went on. "Enrica, we can't have Toby used as some pawn in a petty game; if you truly want this new examination into your malady, I will support you completely."
While Hydrangea and Clare hugged one another, Enrica stared at him; she asked softly, "With your entire heart and soul?"
Giorgio, Sr., lifted her hoof to his lips and kissed it. "I will support you, my darling, with every fiber of my being."
Clare and Hydrangea grinned. "I told you so," Clare whispered glibly.
* * *
After arriving in Vulcanopolis, Toby, Andrew, and Ribbons n' Roses checked into lush accommodations reserved for them and, after a brief rest, walked across a section of the city to Giorgio, Sr., and Enrica's villa to put themselves at Enrica's disposal, allowing her to show them a warm and gracious welcome.
Dinner was served in style with Giorgio, Clare, Pacificus, and Hydrangea in attendance to show their mutual support for Enrica's decision. The following day's schedule of tests was verified and the flow of events that would hopefully free Enrica was set in motion. Now there would be no turning back.
* * *
Tuesday came and went with Toby and Andrew conferring over the medical data and reviewing every step of the procedure that would correct the problem that kept Enrica without the use of her legs. Andrew was confident that recently discovered data by a research team in New Pony would rectify the cause; Toby was more cautious in his outlook, but he felt assured that even if not a complete reversal, Enrica would have more use of her legs than now. When the two doctors finally quitted their seclusion to meet Ribbons n' Roses for a late dinner, they were in good spirits, looking forward to a successful surgery.
* * *
Knocking on Fern Feather's apartment door, Chocolate Chip waited impatiently for an answer. Knocking once again with more force, she was finally rewarded with an opening door. Fern stuck her head through the narrow aperture. "Hi," she said somewhat disconsolately.
"You haven't forgotten that we're catching that musical tonight, have you?" The brown mare pushed open the door farther to allow her to squeeze past Fern. "You don't even have a bow in yet; let me help you pick one out."
Chocolate Chip stopped short as she crossed the frugal lodgings. "What's going on?" she asked of Fern, her brow furrowing.
Fern closed the door and slumped on the couch. "What does it look like I'm doing?" she muttered.
Chocolate Chip fumbled through the open backpack which contained almost all of Fern's possessions. "It looks like you're going away." She looked at her friend with obvious disapproval.
"I'm thinking about it," she admitted, glancing at Chocolate Chip for a split second before lowering her eyes forlornly.
Chocolate Chip went to sit by her side. "What happened?"
"Miranda stopped by just when I got home from work."
"And you let her come in?"
"She asked how I was doing; I thought she was sincerely trying to make-up for her venomous attack at the ball." Fern leaned her head back against the couch and let out a long sigh. "She wasn't."
"You know what she's like, Fern. Why are you letting her get to you like this?"
"Because what she said made sense."
Chocolate Chip sat forward. "What did she say?"
Fern hesitated, remembering word for word what Miranda had said, and her own helpless feeling of agreement that what the mare put forth was true. Eventually, she started speaking. "She pointed out that I'm too young and inexperienced for a match with a well-established physician... I haven't even been to college, I don't have a career, I don't have any money, I don't even have a family anymore."
Chocolate Chip tried to halt the flow of negatives, but Fern would not be stopped. "She pointed out that Toby deserves someone who could be his equal and move comfortably in the same circles he does, someone who could help his career– not hold him back."
Unable to restrain herself any longer, Chocolate Chip burst in. "Fern! Listen to yourself! It's the same garbage she fed you at the dance; Toby has already told you that none of that matters to him!"
"But Miranda's right; she's right about everything. If I really love Toby, I should let him go." She collapsed into a torrent of tears.
Chocolate Chip hugged her sobbing body to her. "That only works if the feelings aren't mutual, Fern. You can't forget that Toby loves you, too."
Through her tears, Fern choked a reply. "When I'm near him, I have no doubt of that; but what if he only feels compassion for me... some long-forgotten chivalry for the maiden in distress?"
"You know that's not true. If he was only concerned about your health and well-being, he would have sent you on your way by now. He loves you, Fern. Don't let your foolish pride get in the way of that."
The force with which Chocolate Chip said those words caused Fern to look at her sharply through her thinning tears. "Y... you... s... sound like you've been there," she stuttered.
"I tried to believe that Wigwam's love wasn't real," the chocolate brown pony admitted. "I tried to kill my own love for him."
"You didn't succeed, obviously." Fern attempted a tremulous smile.
"I couldn't do it; no matter what I tried, I couldn't do it. And you can't either, Fern. If you love Toby, then you have to forget Miranda's warped sense of reasoning. Do what your heart tells you."
"I try," she sniffed, "and I thought I'd buried all her innuendos; but when she showed up at my door, I lost it."
Chocolate Chip handed her a hoof full of tissues and offered a suggestion. "You're too isolated here by yourself with Miranda running loose. Why don't you come over to Sugarberry's with me until Toby's back in town to curb the vixen?" She had a frightening vision of Fern slipping away in the night.
Her eyes brightening, Fern responded with a positive, "I'd like that," but then she added, "I can't just walk in on Vanguard and Sugarberry; what if they don't want me there?"
Laughing, Chocolate Chip picked up the phone. "I'll ask first," she said, dialing the number. "Vanguard," she said upon reaching the house, "would it be okay if Fern Feather spends the next couple of nights in a spare bedroom?" Covering the mouthpiece, Chocolate Chip whispered to Fern. "He says it's fine with him, but he's checking... It's fine? Great! We'll be there after the performance at Pony Pride tonight. Bye!" She grinned at Fern. "See? No problem! And you're already packed, so we can get out of here."
"You're the greatest!" Fern responded. "Without Toby, there's no one else to care about me."
"Don't be silly," Chocolate Chip chided, picking up the satchel and pushing Fern toward the door. "You've got plenty of friends here already who would do anything within reason to protect you from Miranda." The door closed behind them. "And don't you forget it," Chocolate Chip winked with a smile.
* * *
"Your house makes me feel right at home, Sugarberry," Fern said after she and Chocolate Chip arrived and were comfortably ensconced with fresh cookies and milk. "Granny's house had a turret, too."
They were sitting in the living room which in recent months had sprouted the one feature that Sugarberry had always dreamed of– a turret designed by Vanguard's architect brother, Stillwater, who all the same held out the enticement of planning their dream home from scratch; but Vanguard and Sugarberry both had sentimental ties to this house that bound them to it. The addition of the turret and an additional room off the living room for office space had filled both ponies wants.
The turret extended to the master bedroom above, a cozy alcove where the strawberry-patterned pony and her handsome mate could retire for peace and privacy. The second floor over the office was an extension of their new bedroom suite– a future nursery in due time, was everyone's foregone conclusion.
Leaving Fern on the window seat with Fluff purring at her side and Raptor playing with her mane, Chocolate Chip confided to Sugarberry in the kitchen, "Miranda got to her again."
"That explains our houseguest." Sugarberry rolled her eyes. "Miranda needs a life."
Chocolate Chip replied, "Or at least a stallion."
Looking inquisitive, Sugarberry asked, "You've got someone in mind?"
"W... e... ll... There is that new business administration teacher at Pony Pride; he's available, from what I hear."
Arranging a refill of cookies, Sugarberry got a faraway look. "Hmm... That might merit looking in to."
* * *
Later that night, Sugarberry pensively watched her husband as they both sat in his-and-her matching chairs in their upstairs turret space; Vanguard was reading; Sugarberry was scheming.
"How's that new teacher doing, the one in business– Roland, I believe his name is?"
Involved in his book, Vanguard abstractedly replied, "Okay, I guess; he seems to be settling in."
"Do you see him often?"
"Is he good-looking and personable?"
Vanguard's eyes finally left the page they were on, and he fixed a penetrating look at his wife. "And why, my love, do you ask that?"
Sugarberry's face was angelic. "I realize I have been remiss in receiving some of our new citizens to Dream Valley; I think a small dinner party would be in order."
"And who would attend this dinner of yours?"
Sugarberry met his eyes guilelessly. "Why, Roland, of course. And possibly..." She seemingly mulled prospective candidates over in her mind. "Why not Miranda? We haven't made any attempt to make her feel welcome."
"Miranda... I see."
"Let's plan on the day after tomorrow. Chocolate Chip and Fern and Petal all have to work late, and Wishbone is going to take them out for supper." She added quickly, "It'll just be the four of us– you and me, and Roland and Miranda; we can get to know one another better that way."
"You're not fooling anyone, Sugarberry. Your strategy is painfully obvious." Vanguard's tone was severe, but his eyes were sparkling.
"And if it works, Toby will have one less worry when he returns from Vulcanopolis."
Vanguard set his book down. "Speaking of Toby and Vulcanopolis, we can't forget that tomorrow is a very important day for Enrica."
Sugarberry became serious in a heartbeat. "I haven't forgotten; she's a very brave pony; I wish a positive outcome was guaranteed."
"Clare called me at the university this afternoon; she'd tried to reach you at the clinic, but the line was busy and she didn't have much time. She asked for prayers for Enrica."
"She can be assured of those," Sugarberry vouched. "Fr. Isaac is holding a prayer service at the time of her operation; Thomas said he can hold the fort while Elaine and I attend. You'll be in class," she noted.
"Did the flowers get sent?" Vanguard asked as he stood up and offered a hoof to his wife.
"Yes. And the flower deliverers guaranteed a prompt delivery. I want Enrica to know we are thinking of her." Sugarberry leaned her head on Vanguard's shoulder as he hugged her close. "She's been through so much in her life; it would be beautiful if she could walk again." She pulled back to look Vanguard in the face. "What do you think– Will Toby succeed where others have failed?"
"I can't answer that, Sugarberry. You'll have to ask God about that."
A smile lit her anxious face. "Persistently," she responded.
* * *
The day of the surgery had begun hopefully, but Toby and Andrew both looked daunted after they had left the operating room and were washing up. Neither of them said a word; they both seemed to be delaying the expression of the thoughts that were running through their minds.
Toby spoke first. "The tests were wrong," he stated unbelievingly.
Andrew shook his head. "They couldn't have been," he countered. "They verified every other report made on this mare."
"What do we do now?" Toby asked, hoping his father would have an answer just like he always did years ago when Toby was a foal.
But this time, Andrew had no answer. "There's nothing we can do, Toby; this is out of our hooves now."
Toby looked at the older stallion. "And how do we tell her family?"
* * *
Tabby and Baby Faline were accompanying Sugarberry and Elaine back to the vet clinic after the prayer service when Elaine exclaimed, "Look, there's a rainbow!"
"How can there be?" asked Sugarberry. "There's no rain, not even a cloud." However, the prism of light arched across the sky.
"Weird," said Tabby. "Look Faline. See the pretty colors?"
The tiny foal looked where her mother pointed and smiled in apparent delight. "Ga!" she cooed, her little hooves seemingly waving at the ethereal apparition. "Ga!"
* * *
The waiting room was a somber place; Giorgio, Sr., paced from one window to the next, seeing nothing. Pacificus, from long years of his own mother's ailments, sat patiently holding Hydrangea's hoof as she watched her father's wanderings. Clare sat alone; Giorgio could no longer take the tension and had slipped out for some fresh air. Ribbons n' Roses sat at the back of the room, leaving the family their privacy.
The sound of an opening door caught Clare's attention, but it was not Giorgio who came into the room; it was Dr. Toby and his father. Clare's heart skipped a beat; the operation was scheduled to take much longer than this. She wanted to stand, but she could not move; all her strength had flowed out of her at the unexpected sight of those who should be at this moment with Enrica. She felt as if she was standing still and life was passing her by.
Feeling a hoof on her shoulder, Clare came back to reality; she turned to see that Giorgio had returned and was standing behind her, but his eyes were fixed painfully on the doctors. Hydrangea had risen and Pacificus supported her. Only Giorgio, Sr., was too lost in his own visions as he stared out the window– unseeing, yet seeing too much– to be aware of the two medical pones.
"Giorgio," Andrew said, his voice controlled and antiseptic.
The stallion turned from the window as if in a daze. "Enrica?" he choked.
"She's resting comfortably," Andrew assured him. "You will be able to see her soon."
"She's safe?" Giorgio, Sr., asked. "She's going to be okay?"
Andrew looked to Toby to supply the answer. Toby drew a deep breath and invited everyone to sit down. He looked from one to the other of the assembled ponies, took a bracing look at his mother across the room, and explained. "You understand what we were expecting to find, what we were prepared to correct. All the tests, all the images, showed us where the problem was; all we had to do was put things back to normal." He paused, searching for the right words. Andrew came to his aid.
"What we found is that everything is normal. All of our previous indications were already corrected; there was nothing we could do."
"There was nothing you could do... that means my mother will not walk again," Giorgio reproved.
"That's not what I said," Andrew clarified. "The problem that we were shown from all our technical equipment no longer exists; by all medical standards, Enrica should be able to walk now, as soon as she is out of the anesthesia."
"I... I don't understand," Giorgio, Sr., stood to face them. "You said there was nothing you could do; now you say she can walk, just like that?"
"We couldn't fix what didn't need fixing," Toby patiently explained. "Somehow... somehow Enrica's body has healed... itself."
Hydrangea gasped. "What are you saying?" she asked, her eyes large and dark. She moved to her father's side.
"What they are saying," Giorgio angrily burst out, "is that they weren't able to help our mother. Is that the bottom line?"
"Giorgio," Clare put a restraining hoof on the stallion's foreleg, her eyes locked on Toby's.
"We won't know for sure until Enrica is cognizant whether she can walk or not; but medically, she should be able to," Andrew elucidated.
Giorgio, Sr., spoke up. "I want to see my wife."
"It will be awhile before she is awake," Toby reminded him.
"I need to see my wife."
Responding to the stallion's distress, Andrew said, "Come; I'll take you to her."
As they moved off, Clare spoke. "Toby, what have you done?"
"That's the wrong question, Clare. You should ask, 'What has God done?'"
"You honestly believe that Enrica will be able to walk?"
"There is no reason for her not to."
Hydrangea came forward. "What you're saying, then, is that this is a miracle?"
For the first time since this day began, Toby was able to smile. "Yes, Hydrangea. That's the only explanation."
* * *
"Dr. Toby, Dr. Andrew.. What can I say?" Enrica rested against her husband, her cheeks wet with quiet tears; they stood in the recovery room, stood together as they had not done in years. "You've given me back my ability to walk."
Toby shook his head. "Enrica, you've heard what happened. You owe no thanks to my father or me. It was out of our hooves from the start, I believe. You're faith got you to this point."
"And to think I wanted her to be satisfied with her fate," Giorgio, Sr., looked at his wife in wonder. "You are exceptional, my darling."
"We have been blessed in an extraordinary way, Giorgio; I can walk, and these two medical ponies declare that it was not their doing. But I feel we owe them a deep debt for they were certainly part of this miracle. I thank God for their involvement."
"I think our work here is done," Toby said to his father. "The patient looks well enough to be released early; don't you agree?"
"Just wasting needed space here," Andrew chuckled. "Yes, we'd better take care of some paperwork; and you, Enrica, will be free to walk out of here."
"And what are you're plans?" Giorgio, Sr., asked of the stallions.
"I'm going to catch the last day of the medical conference," Andrew revealed. "I might have some insight after this experience that will be worth expounding on."
"And you, Toby?" Enrica smiled at the purple pony.
"You don't need a doctor's attention, so I will head back to Dream Valley first thing."
"Certainly you could use some time off, Toby," Enrica chided him. "It would be our pleasure to entertain you and your parents tomorrow evening at our home; I think we owe our Creator a show of thanksgiving." She smiled coyly. "In addition, it would be refreshing to wait on my guests personally as I used to."
Toby's thoughts raced; he was anxious to get back to Dream Valley to be near Fern, but yet Enrica deserved this show of hospitality. He accepted her invitation.
Andrew approved. "You and your mother can spend some time together tomorrow while I'm off at the conference; I know she will find that a pleasant change. It's too bad that mare of yours isn't here, too."
Enrica looked at Giorgio, Sr., and a few questions were asked. Before Toby knew what was happening, Fern had received a command from the administrator of Vulcanopolis: Drop whatever you are doing; a seat awaits you on the next flight out of Dream Valley– destination, Vulcanopolis. You are invited to attend a formal dinner at the home of Enrica and Giorgio Guardini.
* * *
Toby went alone to the airport to meet Fern; he spotted her before she saw him and could therefore see the look of happiness that crossed her face when she finally did pick him out of the multitude. "Toby!" she called, wending her way toward him as quickly as she could under the circumstances. They met in a crowd of ponies and Toby took her hoof to lead her to a less congested space. "You didn't have any problems getting here?" he asked as he held her at forelegs length and studied her face, resting finally on her bluest of eyes.
"I feel like I've been time-warped," Fern admitted. "I'd never dreamed of coming to Vulcanopolis; yet here I am."
"You have experienced the power of Giorgio, Sr.," Toby grinned. "Get used to it."
"And what about Enrica? Your message was positive, but vague."
"Enrica is fine," Toby stated. "The operation wasn't as difficult as we expected." He put a foreleg around the green mare and escorted her toward the exit, explaining the remarkable events in detail as they went. Then, "Mom is waiting for us at the hotel; we'll have lunch, and Dad will join us this evening at Enrica's," he ended his story.
"Toby, before I meet your parents, I need to tell you something."
"And what is it?" he asked, his voice lighter than his mood at the serious tone of her voice.
"The reason I was staying with Chocolate Chip these last few days is because... because Miranda upset me again and I... I considered leaving town while you were away." She hung her head like a sad foal admitting a lapse in obedience.
Toby stopped and turned to face her. "What did Miranda have to say?"
"Nothing new, really," Fern admitted. "It's just that... well... without you there, her reasoning made a lot of sense." She glanced at Toby, but the feeling that she had let him down made her too timid to hold his gaze.
"Fern," Toby put his hoof to her chin and lifted her eyes to his, "if my mother accepts you, will you be able to put Miranda's poison remarks behind you once and for all?"
As the blue eyes met the turquoise ones, Fern suddenly knew that her future was irrevocably entwined with this stallion, and her spirit soared. "Yes, Toby. I will," she smiled.
Toby saw the new confidence and he smiled, too. "She's going to love you," he beamed.
* * *
Enrica was at her best; her skill as a hostess had not suffered over the years and her newly regained mobility made the effort a joy for her. She had opened her home not only to Toby and his parents and Fern but also to Clare and Giorgio, Pacificus and Hydrangea. The group was exceedingly happy to have Enrica on her hooves and able to do the everyday things that the others took for granted. The pegasus radiated a look of wonderment that was reflected in the faces of her husband and children. Every step she took was watched in a combination of fearful dread that it would all come to a sudden end and with blissful excitement that this was a gift too precious to doubt.
Toby's family experienced a lesser favor then Enrica's cure– Toby had been right in foreseeing Ribbons n' Roses acceptance of Fern as a delightful and becoming prospect for her son. Fern had faced the first moments in Ribbons n' Roses company with nervous dread, but the mare had set her at ease immediately; and Fern had relaxed into her amiable and soft-spoken self. Toby had sat back and watched as the two became comfortable with one another; and by the time lunch was over, he was confident that Fern would never again doubt her own value. Ribbons n' Roses was adept at honing in on the positive, and she found a lot to like in Fern. Andrew had barely had time to make Fern's acquaintance before the family set off for the Guardini's; but what he had seen, he had found refreshing. He spent his evening tallying up points of fact to stifle Juniper the next time that stallion began berating Toby and his choice of friends.
While Clare and Hydrangea took Fern for a tour of the gardens, Enrica probed Ribbons n' Roses years of charitable work in New Pony, sending out tentative feelers as to how she could repay the Lord for his wondrous intervention. Ribbons n' Roses was a veritable wellspring of ideas, leaving Enrica with enough possibilities to make a decision difficult.
When the time for parting came, Enrica extended an invitation to the visiting ponies to return in October to help celebrate the pending marriages. Hydrangea concurred. "After what has just happened with Mother-- and your part in it-- you will all have to get used to being counted as part of this family from here on in." She hugged Toby and Andrew in turn.
"Don't give them too much credit," Giorgio grinned. "Remember that note from Sugarberry with the flowers; storming heaven with prayers was the key."
* * *
Please, let this work out, Sugarberry silently prayed as she drummed her hoof nervously on the counter; dinner was ready, the cats were consigned to Wishbone's room downstairs, Roland and Vanguard were having a cup of... tea... and Miranda was late. The mare had called, explaining that the last client of the day had delayed her leaving the office, but that she would be there as soon as possible. In the meantime, the food was going from "done to perfection" to "overcooked and dry." Sugarberry groaned inwardly.
The sound of hooves on the front porch erased some of the anxiety from Sugarberry's face, and she checked her own appearance while Vanguard crossed the room to admit the final guest. "Good evening, Miranda," the host said. "Welcome to our home." He guided the lovely mare into the room and Sugarberry extended her own greeting before looking to an introduction with Roland. She was dismayed at what she saw.
Roland stood transfixed, strongly resembling a wide-eyed colt who had just discovered that fillies were... well... girls. Sugarberry was sure that the sophisticated Miranda would be displeased with this juvenile gawking, yet the mare seemed not to notice, and Roland regained his composure in time to take Miranda's pro-offered hoof congenially. Sugarberry visibly relaxed and Vanguard silently chuckled.
"Dinner is ready if you don't mind sitting down immediately," Sugarberry advised Miranda.
"That would be fine, if I can have some of that tea," the mare agreed, eyeing the rich liquid.
Sugarberry and Vanguard escorted their guests to the dining room. Even Vanguard had seldom eaten in this room as Sugarberry usually served family and close friends in the comfortable surroundings of the kitchen; but Roland and Miranda were neither family nor close friends– at least, not yet– so the dinner was served in a more formal atmosphere.
The first topic of conversation was the miraculous recovery of Enrica; Sugarberry related that Fr. Isaac's thanksgiving liturgy was overflowing as everyone wanted to be involved in some way with the wonderful event. When that topic had been exhausted, personal information about the two new ponies in Dream Valley was exchanged.
"New Pony?" Roland responded on learning that Miranda was, until recently, a native of Ponyland's largest city. "I went to graduate school there."
"At which university?" Miranda perked up perceptibly.
"New Pony U."
"Oh," she sounded disappointed, then added with pride, "I went to Treadwell."
"Can't do better than that," admitted Roland.
"Roland teaches business classes at Pony Pride," Sugarberry volunteered. "Where did you teach previously?" she asked, turning her attention to the turquoise stallion.
"North of New Pony at an out-of-the-way place called Limestone Ridge; they have a quaint little college, acceptable but rather staid."
"Limestone Ridge?" Miranda perked up again. "My father has property along the lake; we always spent our summers there in our cabin."
"I've seen some of those cabins," said Roland. "They would more appropriately be called mansions."
"Father's cabin is the one with tiers of wooden decks dropping down from the house to the beach."
"Wow!" Roland was impressed. "That's the most extravagant one out there!" He looked at Miranda with unconstrained admiration.
"Father likes his comfort even when he's roughing it," Miranda observed.
Vanguard could not resist stating," Toby's parents have a place there, too, I believe."
"Ah, yes, a little place back from the shore," divulged Miranda matter-of-factly.
"Who is this Toby?" asked Roland.
"He's one of the doctor's here in Dream Valley," Sugarberry offered.
"His father and my father have been friends since their college days," Miranda expanded.
"Oh," Roland frowned. "So you and this doctor are..."
"Acquainted," finished Miranda with a smile at Roland that brightened his world immensely.
When the dinner had been finished and the dessert appropriately enjoyed, the ponies moved to the living room. Sugarberry brought in coffee for two, excusing herself to tend to the dishes and inviting her husband to lend a hoof.
But Roland intervened. "Let me help you, Sugarberry. Vanguard was just going to show us through the house, but that's more in Miranda's interest anyway." He backed up his intent by leaving Miranda's side and moving next to Sugarberry.
"That's very considerate, Roland," the strawberry-patterned pony insisted, "but not at all necessary." She flashed a glance at Vanguard for his help but before he could say anything, Roland prevailed.
"Mom always said that the least us kids could do to show our appreciation for a good meal-- and I might say this was an excellent one-- was to clean up the kitchen afterwards. You can't ask me to disobey my mother now, can you?" He smiled engagingly.
"Of course not," Sugarberry acceded rather icily. The thought of her husband showing Miranda through their home did not amuse her; her gaze swept from the country blue stallion to the rosy mauve mare after which she turned and, accompanied by Roland, retreated to the kitchen.
"You're a great cook, Sugarberry," Roland said as he packed dishes from the dining room. "That key lime pie was superb."
"We didn't explore your history over dinner; how did you end up in Dream Valley?"