“So... it’s settled, then?” Wigwam stretched out his hoof to Dreamcatcher, and the pale orange unicorn hesitated only for a fraction of a second before meeting his clasp.
“I’ll do everything in my power to make sure that you don’t regret your decision,” she smiled.
“With you and Bittersweet running the show, I count on a huge return for my initial investment,” said Wigwam, his twinkling gaze coming to rest on the mocha mare at her sister’s side.
Bittersweet, the driving force behind today’s special meeting between Wigwam, Dreamcatcher, Fetish, and herself, felt a frisson of trepidation course through her body as the finality of the negotiations hit her. She was the one who had hounded Wigwam into embracing her scheme for a new establishment in Dream Valley to be built in the shadow of Wigwam’s Casino and to be occupied by Dreamcatcher’s business, Native Dreams. Her reasoning behind her plan was to allow the Native Pony crafts that made up Native Dreams’ inventory to have a more accommodating home than at the limited kiosk at the mall, thereby increasing sales and profits for Dreamcatcher and her family- and, by default, for herself.
Wigwam had studied her proposal and had found it to be a sound business venture for his already flourishing casino complex, especially with the new art center going in adjacent to his property. Patrons of the arts would appreciate the outlet for Native Pony expertise as well as enjoy the opportunity to try their luck at the various games at the casino. It was a win-win situation.
But, all of a sudden, Bittersweet had butterflies in her stomach.
“You’re quite sure you’re comfortable with this, Wigwam?” she asked anxiously, studying the stallion’s face for any sign of doubt.
Wigwam only laughed. “Getting cold hooves at this late date, Bittersweet? That’s one thing I never expected.”
“What if Native Dreams fails?”
Winking at Fetish before responding to the distraught mare, Wigwam responded in his most masterful voice. “It won’t fail, Bittersweet. I have complete confidence in both you and Dreamcatcher to make this venture a success. I wouldn’t have put my jangles on the line if I didn’t believe in it. Now smile!”
Looking to her sister for support, Bittersweet did smile, although tremulously. “We will succeed... won’t we, sis?”
“I have every intention of doing so. And that means that both of us have to get started right now in lining up merchandise to fill those shelves that we’ll be renting from Wigwam. Fetish and I will be meeting with Red Fox this afternoon while you relieve Dyani at the mall.”
Fetish swung Tamarack up into his forelegs from where the foal played; then, leading the group out of the teepee that graced a natural clearing near the edge of the Dark Forest, he extended an invitation to Wigwam. “We’ll be celebrating Tamarack’s first birthday on Sunday; you’re welcome to join us.”
“Yes, Wigwam; please do.” Dreamcatcher’s invitation joined her husband’s. “If the weather is nice, it’ll be outdoors here; if not, we’ll hold it in the cabin.” She nodded her head toward the rustic log cabin that had been raised last fall to accommodate the family and provide amenities throughout the harsh winter. The family, however, still spent a majority of its time outdoors, especially now that the weather was once again favorable.
“How about it, Tamarack?” asked Wigwam of the little colt; in answer, the foal leaned toward the stallion, his forelegs outstretched. Wigwam laughed as he swung the foal out of his father’s care and high into the air. Tamarack squealed in delight. “And what would a little fledgling like you want for a gift?”
“There’s one of Manitou and Halona’s pups he’s partial to,” Fetish suggested.
“That’s out of my hooves,” said Wigwam, meeting Dreamcatcher’s gaze. Dreamcatcher and Wigwam had crossed swords over the wolves in the past, and Wigwam had no desire to rattle their newfound partnership. “Manitou and Halona will have to decide what they think is best.”
An intelligent and handsome wolf, Manitou had first come to Wigwam as a pup at the conclusion of Wigwam’s dream quest, aligning himself to the stallion as a constant shadow, only to find himself drawn away from his pony companion when a she-wolf, Halona, had appeared in the Dark Forest, wounded and alone and in need of a mate. The Dark Forest now had a veritable pack of wolves that lived free and wild, yet in harmony with the little ponies. It was from this year’s litter that Tamarack had found his boon companion.
“The cub is proving to be a great pal for Tamarack,” explained Dreamcatcher, “as my son is often without the company of other pony playmates.”
“He needs a sibling,” suggested Wigwam.
“We’re working on that,” grinned Fetish.
* * *
Eight days after Tamarack’s natal day, the friends came together once again to celebrate another birthday, this time in Sugarberry’s back yard in honor of Vanguard. A bounty of spring flowers framed the lawn in vibrant color, making a perfect backdrop for the festivities. A tent also lent its brilliantly tinted canopy to the open area of the lawn in case the threatening showers fell. The party was well-attended with local ponies as well as Sugarberry’s and Vanguard’s parents, those couples having stayed over from their Mother’s Day visit to Dream Valley.
“The tent will stay up for the week,” explained Sugarberry, “as Chocolate Chip’s graduation party will be held here, too.” She looked fondly at the chocolate brown mare who had shared her home while attending Pony Pride University and now was ready to take her place in a demanding position at New Pony.
Wigwam, one of the first to arrive as he knew that Chocolate Chip would not skip out of the party for Vanguard and Sugarberry’s sake, beamed at the young mare. “And a well-deserved party that will be, too; you’ve worked hard to earn that diploma, Chocolate Chip, while Vanguard did nothing special to merit this party. If anyone should be acclaimed today, it should be Floral Breeze; she’s the one who suffered the birth pains.”
“I’d be the first to turn the party over to Mom,” Vanguard agreed, looking around the back yard, “if I knew where she was.”
“She took Banderol in the house for a nap; Dreamcatcher’s settling Tamarack down, too.” Sugarberry looked at Vanguard. “But as far as this party goes, it’s my way of showing the world how special you are to me, my darling husband.”
“And you’re going to enjoy it whether you like it or not!” Wigwam chortled, earning himself a dark expression from Sugarberry but a grin from Chocolate Chip. He turned to his companion and invited her to accompany him to where the foals were playing games on the grass. “If we gang up on the smaller ones, we’re sure to win a prize.”
Chocolate Chip rolled her eyes and grimaced, but set off with the stallion in the direction from which the happy shouts of the children were coming.
“The party’s worth it just to see the two of them together,” Sugarberry whispered to her husband, her gaze following their progress across the yard and noting that Wigwam had succeeded in making Chocolate Chip laugh, a sound that was not heard with any frequency as of late.
“I haven’t seen Wigwam this happy in ages,” Vanguard agreed. “And I am enjoying the party, my love; I appreciate all the effort you put into it.” He brushed her cheek lightly with a kiss.
“Van, Van, Van,” admonished Wishbone, shaking his head and his hoof as he and Garnet came to join them. “You’re not being a very good role model for some of the impressionable youngsters around here.” To prove his point, he turned to Garnet and kissed her.
“It’s my birthday; I have rights,” Vanguard countered. “You, on the other hoof, have none.”
“That’s what I keep telling him, too,” laughed Garnet.
“The closer it gets to our wedding, the feistier she gets,” Wishbone mockingly confided. “Will I be hen-pecked or what?” The adoring look he gave his bride-to-be denied any fear on his part.
“How many days is it now?” queried Sugarberry.
“Not nearly enough,” sighed Garnet. “There’s still so much to do.”
“Way too many,” contradicted Wishbone. “It can’t get here quickly enough for me.”
Tabby and Thomas joined the group, overhearing the last of the conversation.
“What are you going to do when both Chocolate Chip and Wishbone are out of your house?” Tabby questioned. “You’ll have, like, two spare rooms.”
“I’m going to miss them both terribly.” Sugarberry was already misty-eyed thinking of it.
“Don’t feel bad, Sugarberry,” Wishbone consoled. “Garnet and I’ll still come often to eat... like Tabby and Thomas.” He chortled.
“I’ll have you know that my wife is becoming quite an able cook ,” Thomas countered, “due to her interest in the Iron Chef shows.”
“Yes,” agreed Tabby. “I’ve learned that I’m, like, totally unqualified to use salt. And I cook meat way too long.” She giggled. “No, it’s only Clever Clover that pays attention to that stuff. But Chairman Kaga’s outfits are sooooo cool, aren’t they?”
“Overkill, I’d say,” Vanguard stated.
Tabby could only stare openmouthed in horror and shock at this blasphemous comment.
“Chocolate Chip will be too far away to come back for meals,” complained Sugarberry.
“Just as long as she comes back for our wedding,” Garnet stated. “She is the maid-of-honor, after all.”
* * *
Chocolate Chip observed the pitcher, Nugget, as the colt waited for his little sister, Cara, to receive some advice from Wigwam on how to hold the bat. A smile curled her lips as Cara swung the bat and hit Wigwam in the leg, causing the stallion to drop to the ground as if he had been mortally wounded, only to grab Cara in a bear hug when she leaned over him, near tears at having hurt him. He tickled her until the little filly was laughing too hard to hold the bat, then wrapped his forelegs around her to guide her; Nugget threw the ball, Cara and Wigwam swung, and the ball dropped lifelessly to the ground.
“We’ll hit the next one,” Wigwam promised Cara. “We’ve got the feel for it now.”
Watching as the duo successfully hit a ground ball past Nugget and ran to first base, Wigwam carrying Cara, Chocolate Chip sighed. He was so good with foals, he should have a house full of them, she thought. As she had turned down his offer of marriage, she found herself wondering who would come along to capture his heart in the future. And, as always when her thoughts followed this path, she felt strangely numb inside at the idea that some other mare would someday claim his heart. I will always love him, her own heart cried out. But it was only a matter of days now before she would pack her bags and leave the town that had become her home... leave the town and all the ponies who had made up her world for the past four years.
As exciting as it was to think ahead to her new responsibilities waiting for her in New Pony, Chocolate Chip knew that the leave-taking was going to prove very difficult. So many things that she would be doing this week were for the last time, and it wrenched her heart to contemplate life without all the familiar haunts and friends and activities in Dream Valley; the only consolation was that she would soon be settling into her new surroundings and meeting new ponies, setting the stage for another series of wonderful memories.
Chocolate Chip’s attention was suddenly caught by the approach of Bittersweet, the mocha unicorn who seemed to be forever dominating Wigwam’s time- not that it mattered, Chocolate Chip assured herself- but Bittersweet was forward to the point of annoyance. Even now, her eyes were following Wigwam’s movements like a hawk. Did Bittersweet suspect that Wigwam was waiting for Chocolate Chip to leave town before he would commit himself to her? If Chocolate Chip had been a cat, her claws would have come out now.
Completely unaware of the path Chocolate Chip’s thoughts were taking, Bittersweet turned her gaze from Wigwam to the mare and smiled.
“I just heard Sugarberry mention that you’ll be graduating next Saturday; I hadn’t realized how fast the time was flying. You’ll be out of here in no time.”
“One day at a time, Bittersweet; I’ve got six days yet.”
“They’ll be gone before you know it! I just graduated in December, and the last several weeks on campus are nothing but a blur to me.” Her attention was averted as the shouting of the foals brought attention to Wigwam and Cara’s successful return to home base. “Excuse me, but I have something I must ask of Wigwam. We’ll talk later.”
“Not if I can help it,” Chocolate Chip muttered under her breath as she waved her hoof at the departing unicorn, then turned away as Bittersweet drew Wigwam from the foals. She could not abide to watch the proprietorial way in which Bittersweet claimed the stallion’s attention... or the accommodating manner in which Wigwam allowed it.
It’s all for the best. Chocolate Chip sighed. He won’t even notice when I’m gone. And that’s what I want... isn’t it?
* * *
“Where is your brother?” Bittersweet hissed at Wigwam when she had maneuvered him away from the crowd. “He was supposed to be here!”
“Hmm... I know he planned on coming; but, now that you mention it, I haven’t seen him.”
“I haven’t had a chance to tell him about the plans for Native Dreams. Or have you told him?”
“I don’t see much of Teepee these days,” Wigwam admitted. “He seems to have turned into a hermit since the weekend promo out at the site.”
“You’re telling me!” Bittersweet rolled her eyes. “He’s been sleeping-over there since Fetish and friends put up that teepee.”
“And how would you know that?” queried an interested Wigwam.
“I don’t know for sure, but I do know that he hasn’t been taking any calls at home, and Dreamcatcher said he bought some mats and blankets from her to put down in the teepee, plus cooking pots and other stuff.”
“Well, when I see him, I’ll tell him you’re looking for him.”
“Don’t bother!” Bittersweet tossed her mane. “He’s probably forgotten I exist!” She turned and stalked off in the direction of the tent.
Wigwam shook his head, but wasted no time in worrying about the mare, not Bittersweet anyway. He looked to where Chocolate Chip had last been standing and found that she was nowhere in sight. For a sickening moment, he thought she might have left the party; but a hurried scan of the area found her talking with Clever Clover, Friendly, and Spike. Wigwam promptly gained her side, although he kept a wary eye on Minoko who was with Clever Clover; he always got the impression from that mare that she was up to no good.
Chocolate Chip, too, seemed nervous in the company of the black and red pony whose volatile temper often set off conflagrations- both vocal and physical- and gladly allowed him to escort her to the refreshment table for a glass of lemonade before finding a place to sit and talk.
The warm look in the stallion’s eyes ruffled Chocolate Chip’s composure; she had hoped they could get through this afternoon without touching on their personal commitment to one another- or lack of commitment, as the case was since Chocolate Chip’s refusal of his marriage proposal last Christmas; but Wigwam could not let the opportunity pass without at least reminding the mare of his feelings.
“Remember, Chocolate Chip, that my offer still stands; at any time you’re ready to take me as your husband, just say the word. The engagement ring is yours for the taking... I’d rather it was on your foreleg when you left for New Pony.” The hopeful look on the stallion’s face caused Chocolate Chip a moment of doubt in her well-laid plans, but she forced her emotions under control.
“Wigwam, you know my reasons for not accepting your proposal. Nothing has changed. In one week, I’ll be on my way to start a new life of my own choosing. Please understand that it’s very important for me to do this on my own.”
“And that’s exactly why I’m having a hard time accepting your decision; I don’t want to see you go off by yourself this way. New Pony isn’t like Dream Valley. You don’t know what you’ll be facing, and who’ll you turn to if something goes wrong?”
Chocolate Chip gave the stallion a condescending smile. “You forget that I do have some friends; I already consider Fabia and Tarn at my new place of employment as such. And don’t forget that Prime is still in New Pony; and Sugarberry’s Aunt Blueberry Baskets is aware of my pending arrival... as are Toby’s folks. It’s not like I’ll be abandoned, and I’m not completely without discernment.”
“I don’t mean to imply that you won’t be able to handle things. It’s just that I can’t help but worry about you.”
“Now you sound like Sugarberry,” laughed Chocolate Chip, reaching out to touch Wigwam’s face as if to wipe his frown away.
Wigwam captured her hoof in his and kissed it. “I’ve never fully understood her penchant for fretting until this moment,” he whispered. “It’s in direct correlation to how much she loves.”
“Oh, Wigwam, please don’t make this any harder than it already is.” She pulled her hoof from his grasp and rubbed a telltale teardrop from her cheek.
“It can’t get any harder,” Wigwam retaliated gruffly, then immediately regretted his words as Chocolate Chip quickly stood up to leave him. His next words restrained her precipitate flight, however. “I’m sorry, Chocolate Chip. I promise not to say another word on the subject.”
“Not ever?” she smiled, though her eyes were moist with unshed tears.
“Not unless you broach it,” he assured her, returning her smile with a weak one of his own. He had the impression that he was burning some very essential bridges behind him.
“Okay, then. Let’s try our hooves at the volleyball net. I see Wishbone and Garnet are already there.”
The stallion had no choice but to follow.
* * *
Wednesday evening found Sugarberry and Vanguard at the Royal Paradise in the company of Princess Tiffany and a number of other ponies who were parents, prospective parents, or interested parties in the birth of Tiffany’s brainchild: the production of a monthly newsletter for new parents to aid them in caring for their offspring.
As the founder and main force behind this enterprise, Princess Tiffany had garnered the expertise of the Dream Valley Hospital- and financial input and technical advice from the Fairfax/Monk Publishing House- to assemble the latest facts on foal development, care and feeding, appropriate playthings, medical facts, and any other information that new parents might have need of to provide their children with the best care they could give. With the first issue now off the presses, Princess Tiffany wanted the advice of actual parents who could give her feedback on the benefit- or downfalls- of her pet project.
“I like the way the newsletters will come at the appropriate age for each new foal born at the hospital,” Snuzzle offered when Tiffany asked for comments. “The parents will have easy access to just the information of which they are in current need.”
“And everything is written so concisely,” added Lemon Treats. “I don’t have to waste time scouring any number of magazines to get the facts I need.”
“I would suggest stressing the fact, however, that not all foals will develop at quite the same rate, so some leeway should be given to allow for individual timetables,” Toby offered.
“I appreciate the information on discipline,” grimaced May Apple as her little colt scuttled across the floor to pull Tamarack’s soft green mane.
“Any information on a foal’s behavior is beneficial to a new parent,” admitted Vanguard.
“How not to spoil them is what I’d liked to know,” confessed the tender-hearted Poeticus.
“And, like... well, I don’t take anyone’s advice to begin with,” Tabby, who was at this meeting mainly to see if “the new Tiffany” was for real, interjected. “But will two-year-olds and stuff be covered?” Faline was fast approaching the advanced age of two.
Bluebonnet, the mother of six, agreed that the toddler years brought many new challenges, and commended Princess Tiffany on the insight that had gone into the project so far.
Gratified with the input on the newsletter’s first appearance, Princess Tiffany was exhilarated and primed to implement the suggestions which would further enhance the project. After discussing a forthcoming rummage sale to earn monies for the disbursement of newborn gift baskets, Tiffany directed her guests to the refreshments that the Bushwoolies had generously prepared.
“Bluebonnet,” Tiffany restrained the motherly mare, “Sugarberry suggested that you would be a good choice to write an article for each of the newsletters on the practical experiences of raising foals, as you have a surfeit of experience in that area.”
The blue mare’s expression took on a hunted look. “Me? Write an article?”
“Yes; nothing professional, mind you. What I’m looking for is some practical, down-to-earth advice or amusing incidents that would correspond to each monthly newsletter, something that would set the new parents at ease and give them something to relate to.”
“But... but I’ve never written for an audience before.”
“Well, give it some thought, Bluebonnet,” smiled Tiffany. Then, coming up with a brainstorm, she added, “Talk to Sugarberry; maybe she’d be willing to aid you in the writing... at least until you become more comfortable with the task.” The princess patted Bluebonnet’s foreleg and left her to contemplate the proposed plan.
“You look stranded,” teased Firethorn, coming to his wife’s rescue.
“The princess asked me to write for the newsletter.”
“She couldn’t have asked a more knowledgeable pony,” Firethorn grinned.
“But the most I’ve written in years are letters to relatives,” complained Bluebonnet. “Who’d be interested in my thoughts and experiences?”
“As to the first part of your objection,” Firethorn pointed out, “you give helpful advice to the children on their school reports all the time. And there can be no doubt that your insight into motherhood would be interesting and educational... I’ve seen that journal you keep of every little thing that any of the foals every do.”
“That’s for me... not for the world-at-large.”
“Well, maybe now’s the time to go public,” Firethorn teased.
Bluebonnet grew thoughtful. Maybe Firethorn was right. Maybe she could do it.
* * *
“Vanguard,” Sugarberry quizzed her husband as they walked home after Princess Tiffany’s meeting, “what are the chances of Chocolate Chip coming to the realization that her place is right here in Dream Valley before she takes off for New Pony next Monday?”
Shifting the sleeping Banderol in his forelegs, Vanguard frowned. “You’re not still harboring hopes that she’ll marry Wigwam without trying her wings first, are you?”
“Of course I am!” Sugarberry retorted more adamantly than was normal for her. “I think she’s making a horrible mistake.”
“If it is a mistake, she’ll have to learn that for herself,” Vanguard pointed out.
“But she’s going to hurt both of them.”
“I hurt you when I left for Vulcanopolis, but that doesn’t necessarily mean it was the wrong choice.”
“No,” Sugarberry grudgingly admitted. “But...”
“Chocolate Chip has to face some hurdles on her own, Sugarberry. Just because she’s leaving Dream Valley now doesn’t mean that she can’t return some day; but it has to be her choice.”
“My mind understands that, but my heart clings to the hope that she won’t leave for New Pony on Monday,” the mare sighed.
“She won’t change her mind at this late date. She’s committed to start work next week. She’ll be gone on Monday.”
In a manner of speaking, both ponies were correct.
* * *
Vanguard and Sugarberry had no sooner walked in the door of their house when they realized that something was not quite right. An inordinate amount of lights were on for the lateness of the hour, and a babble of voices and the click of hooves from upstairs bore witness to the fact that some agitation had crept into the normally serene household. Sugarberry looked at her husband in alarm and snuggled Banderol to her as if she could prevent whatever the upset was from the foal at least.
Before they reached the foot of the stairs, the hoofsteps and voices rounded the corner and began their descent. In the lead came Chocolate Chip, her face flushed, her eyes bright. Behind her came Garnet, excited yet dismayed at the same time. At the rear was Wishbone, his face set in a mulish fashion.
“Sugarberry! Vanguard! You’ll never guess! Fabia called from Worth Hydroshed Firkins and asked if I could revamp my plans; she wants me to report to work on Friday, so I’ll have to leave on Thursday after my last exam,” the chocolate brown mare explained.
Taking several seconds to assess the information, Sugarberry stood frozen, then, concentrating on the one fact she had some control over, wailed, “What about your party on the weekend?”
“I’ve thought of that, Sugarberry, but I can’t let my new employer down. It seems that one of the ponies quit unexpectedly, and Fabia is in desperate need of my help. She offered me a bonus if I could make it in time to help her finish up a project that needs to be completed.”
“You’ll miss your graduation ceremony,” Vanguard argued. “Is this bonus worth it?”
“I’ll admit that I was dismayed at first; but the more I thought about it, the more sense it made. This way, I won’t have to face all the emotional goodbyes.” Her eyes avoided Sugarberry’s at all cost.
“She does have a point, Sugarberry,” Garnet defended her friend. “She’ll graduate regardless of whether or not she accepts the diploma on Saturday.”
“But Mom and Dad won’t even have a chance to see her before she leaves for New Pony,” Wishbone disputed.
“As if that matters,” spat Chocolate Chip. “When have they ever cared in the past?”
“That’s not fair,” Wishbone rebuked his sister. “They’ve come a long way in the last few years at settling things with you.”
“Well, maybe it was too little, too late,” Chocolate Chip returned. “And besides, Mom will be impressed that Worth Hydroshed Firkins needs me so badly; she’ll have something to brag about to all her friends.”
“How will you find the time to tie up all the loose ends... your job at the bookstore, for one thing?”
“Friendly will understand if I can’t make it the last few days I was scheduled. And I’m already nearly packed. Garnet will take care of some of the stuff that I won’t be able to handle and the rest of it will just have to fall by the wayside.” The young mare grinned. “Sugarberry! I’ve made it! Worth Hydroshed Firkins needs me, and I’m not going to let them down!” She hugged the mare so vivaciously that Banderol woke up whimpering.
“Oh, Bandy!” Chocolate Chip took the startled colt from his mother’s forelegs. “Little sweetheart, don’t cry.” She kissed the foal’s puckered face and rubbed her nose against his. “Come on, precious. Be happy for your big sister.”
She quickly sat down in a nearby chair and buried her face against the now satisfied foal and hid the tears that had come unbidden to her eyes. It hit her hard in this moment that she was leaving the happiest haven she had ever known, the one place where she had been treated like a beloved daughter and not like a rejected misfit. All of a sudden, her resolve turned to jelly, and she could not restrain the tears.
Dropping to her side, Sugarberry put her forelegs around the mare’s shoulders. “Chocolate Chip, everything’s going to be okay.” She looked up at her husband to draw strength from him, then continued. “Your life is in New Pony now, and you’re going to be a great asset to Worth Hydroshed Firkins. They’d better appreciate you! And as to the party, we can call everyone and cancel it. Don’t worry about that. I’m sad to be losing those last days with you, but that’s selfish on my part. You’ve got to do what you deem is best.”
Chocolate Chip raised her head and sniffed. Garnet slipped her a handkerchief while retrieving Banderol. “I’ll put him to bed,” she whispered to Sugarberry and Vanguard, allowing them a chance to talk with Chocolate Chip unencumbered. Wishbone despondently followed the red mare.
Vanguard pulled up a chair and took one of Chocolate Chip’s hooves in his. “Are you sure this is the right decision, to run off without a chance to glory in your graduation with high honors?”
“Yes, I’m sure. But I didn’t know it was going to hurt so badly.”
Vanguard remembered Sugarberry’s words, But she’s going to hurt both of them, and doubted for a moment that Chocolate Chip’s decision had been wise. But the mare went on.
“I’m tired, that’s all.” She sniffed again, gathering her resolve around her like armor. She offered a teary smile. “I’ve been rushing around like crazy every since Fabia called; now I’m feeling the results. I think right now I just want to get some sleep.”
Vanguard helped the mare to her hooves and hugged her to him. “Try not to think about this anymore tonight; in the morning, if you’ve decided to stay through graduation, you can call Fabia back and tell her.”
“I won’t change my mind,” Chocolate Chip sniffed. “I really do want to get started as soon as I can.” She pulled away from Vanguard and gave Sugarberry a hug. “I’m sorry I’ve become such a burden to you at the end.”
“Nonsense,” Sugarberry admonished. “You’ve never been a burden to us. And whatever you decide, you have our support.”
“Thanks, you two. You’ve been the dearest friends a mare could ever have.” She kissed them both, then ran up the stairs before the tears could engulf her again.
* * *
“We should call Wigwam,” Sugarberry fretted when she and Vanguard were alone.
“For what purpose? He can’t come over and talk to Chocolate Chip when she’s hopefully fast asleep, and he’d only lose his own night’s sleep brooding if he knew her current plan.”
“You’re right, of course. But he’s going to be devastated.”
“She was leaving anyway; it’s only a few days sooner.”
“But, Vanguard, it kills his hopes that much sooner.” She buried her face against Vanguard’s shoulder, remembering the desolation she had felt when Vanguard had left for Vulcanopolis. She understood exactly what Wigwam would suffer.
* * *
Both Sugarberry and Garnet called Wigwam the next morning with no success; all they could do was leave messages at both his home and work giving him the time of Chocolate Chip’s hastily arranged flight out of Dream Valley.
Chocolate Chip’s enthusiasm had blossomed by the time she had finished her exam; she excitedly finished all her last minute preparations for her trip with Sugarberry, Garnet, and Fern hovering around her to run errands and offer advice. Wishbone, trying not to let his disappointment in his sister’s decision show, hefted the laden suitcases to the front porch, a somber testimonial of the pending departure. Shirking his duties at Pony Pride for an hour, Vanguard arrived home in time to accompany the others to the airport, as much to support Sugarberry as to say one final goodbye to Chocolate Chip.
When it came time for Chocolate Chip to board the plane, a final round of hugs were made, accompanied by forced smiles and all the appropriate words. Sugarberry was the last to have her say.
“Oh, my girl, you’ve been such a blessing in our lives! We’ll miss you something fierce, so make sure you write often.”
“We can chat on-line, Sugarberry, just as if I’m right there,” Chocolate Chip reassured the mare. “I could never forget all your kindnesses to me.” For a moment, the young mare almost lost her composure, but she smiled bravely. “Give Banderol a kiss for me every day.”
The chocolate brown mare turned to walk away, then remembered something. “I still have my house key.” She rummaged in her backpack, but Vanguard stopped her.
“Keep it,” the stallion directed. “It will be a reminder that if you ever need a place for whatever reason, you still have a home here.”
With only a nod of her head as she knew that any words she tried to vocalize would open the dikes that held her tears, Chocolate Chip turned away and began her journey alone.
* * *
Unable to stifle her own silent tears, Sugarberry waved dolefully as the plane lifted off the field, the mare leaning into Vanguard’s steading strength. Fern, Garnet, and Wishbone, already having put the sorrow of parting behind them and now willing to celebrate the fun and freedom Chocolate Chip would have in her new life in New Pony, put more exuberance into their final farewell so that no one heard the approach of a pony behind them until a voice forlornly said, “She’s gone.”
Turning as one, the ponies looked back to see Wigwam dejectedly centering his gaze on the disappearing airplane.
“We tried to reach you,” Sugarberry offered, setting a hoof on his foreleg to convey her empathy.
“The contractor for Native Dreams called late last night to invite me to accompany him to Hayton to look over some construction projects there that would have some bearing on what we’ll be doing at the casino. We left before sunrise. I just got back and listened to my messages.” The stallion’s gaze did not waver from that point in the sky where the plane was now only a dark dot. “I get back, and she’s gone.”
“She asked me to tell you she’s sorry that she couldn’t say goodbye herself; she said she’ll write as soon as she can,” Sugarberry offered while brushing her own tears away.
Wigwam rubbed his hoof across his face as if he was having trouble comprehending the situation. “She’s gone, and there’s not a thing I can do about it.” Finally becoming aware of the troubled faces peering at him, Wigwam shrugged and attempted to shake off his depression. “Well, Garnet, I guess we still have a casino to run.” He made a brave attempt to smile which broke through the melancholy that had settled over the group at seeing the sad stallion, and the hushed tableau came to life with a mixed assortment of comments and motions all endeavoring to avert Wigwam’s thoughts from centering on his loss of Chocolate Chip.
The stallion responded as best he could to the well-meaning efforts of his friends as their momentum carried him back to his responsibilities at the casino, but he was able to sneak in one longing glance to the blue sky in the east, the same sun-warmed wind that was caressing his cheek also impelling a wispy white cloud across the azure expanse.
“I love you, Chocolate Chip,” he murmured. “Never forget that.”
He then picked up the shattered pieces of his heart and tried to fit them back where they belonged, only to find that the emptiness could not be filled.
* * *
The canopy in Sugarberry and Vanguard’s backyard was once more filled with guests on the day of Chocolate Chip’s graduation, even though the mare herself was absent. Her parents, Twilight Jewel and Drifter, had agreed with Sugarberry to go ahead with the open house- which they were co-hosting- as it would provide them a chance to become more familiar with some of the ponies in Dream Valley who would also be in attendance at their son’s wedding later in the summer. It was also a chance for them to help Garnet and Wishbone with some of the wedding planning.
Another out-of-town guest at the party was Chocolate Chip and Wishbone’s younger sister, Lollipop. The vivacious and extremely pretty filly was herself anticipating graduation from high school in several weeks time and was thoroughly enjoying the company of a number of Pony Pride students who had come to partake of the festivities that revolved around a mare that was miles and miles away.
Across the lawn at the rose arbor, Sugarberry was with Drifter’s parents- and, therefore, the grandparents of Chocolate Chip, Wishbone, and Lollipop- who had also traveled to Dream Valley for the party; Sugarberry was showing off her flowers that were adding their glorious color to the lovely day. Elsewhere, Tabby and Thomas were chatting with Agatha and Hubert while Faline sat on the grass, using a blanket to play peek-a-boo with Banderol who found the pink baby unicorn to be great fun, gauging by the happy squeals he was making.
Judging the celebration of Chocolate Chip’s graduation without her in attendance to be an unconscionable act, Wigwam had tried to refuse to attend Sugarberry’s party that weekend. With Chocolate Chip in New Pony, having left without so much as a goodby, Wigwam’s spirits were at an all-time low; and even though he had striven to put his feelings aside, he could not disregard the fact that the mare that he loved was out of his reach. Sugarberry had convinced him that socializing with friends would help him to shake off his doldrums Now, however, as he mingled with the revelers, he found himself searching the crowd for the chocolate brown mare as if she would somehow materialize before his yearning eyes.
In an effort to get Wigwam’s mind off his troubles, Garnet pulled him into a discussion along with Vanguard, Lemon Treats, and Brandon which did succeed in reducing the bleakness of his attitude, at least temporarily.
Wishbone, Petal, and Caravel had set up the boom box and invited the younger ponies to dance under the trees which seemed to please the college crowd. Lollipop was soon surrounded by young stallions vying for her notice.
“That filly...” Twilight Jewel shook her head as if finding her daughter’s behavior annoying, but she beamed proudly. “She always seems to be the center of attention.”
“She’s very attractive,” acknowledged Agatha as she took a seat nearby, “and she has an agreeable personality. What are her plans after high school?”
“She’ll be taking some courses at the vocational school while helping us at the restaurant. Her dad and I are very pleased with her decision to learn all she can about food service.”
“And very proud, too, of Chocolate Chip, I should think. That young lady worked hard to graduate with such high standing, and to get employment with such a prestigious company as Worth Hydroshed Firkins is quite an achievement.”
“Yes, she’s done quite well for herself,” agreed Twilight Jewel, vibrant with her deep purple shading and pink hair, “... even though she has such a commonplace appearance. I always feared that she would find it difficult to compete with all the more fetching ponies.”
Agatha nodded. “I understand your concern that more shallow ponies would overlook her talents just because of her coloration. Nevertheless, she has shown herself to be a truly talented mare and quite committed to any job she takes on, not to mention that she is original in her beauty.”
“It’s very sweet of you to say so, Agatha, but anyone can see that a girl like Lollipop will have a much easier time making her way in the world simply because of her looks and her winning manners. Chocolate Chip is so... unpretentious.”
Wigwam, having overheard his beloved’s name, had turned an inquisitive ear to Twilight Jewel’s conversation with Agatha, and he scowled as he listened to Twilight Jewel’s demeaning remarks about her oldest daughter. If she had been looking at the stallion and read the anger forming there, she would not have continued in her current vein; however, she was on a topic with which she was very familiar- that of finding fault with her chocolate brown daughter- and her words flowed easily.
Agatha, much more astute than Twilight Jewel, settled back to watch the fireworks while Sugarberry, noticing with some apprehension the current state of Wigwam’s mood, moved closer to listen in on the ongoing conversation.
“I’ve done my fair share of worrying about Chocolate Chip since the day she was born, realizing from the first moment I laid eyes on her that she would be a special problem... nothing but brown from head to foot, mind you,” continued Twilight Jewel.
“The problem was not with your daughter,” Wigwam said in a deceptively calm voice laced with a touch of steel.
Twilight Jewel was at a loss, her expression one of open confusion. “I don’t see how you can say that, Wigwam. From day one, she was a sore trial to me.”
Sugarberry opened her mouth to intervene, but Wigwam was quicker. “The only trial involved, ma’am, was the one in which you pronounced your daughter guilty and convicted before you saw the evidence of what a particularly intelligent and loving pony she was.”
“Anyone could see...”
“Anyone could see what opportunities would exist for such a unique foal... if her mother had not judged her on such preconceived notions of what makes a pony... a pony.” (Wigwam had wanted to say “a very desirable and enchanting pony”, but settled for the entirely uncontroversial “a pony”.) “It takes more than the window-dressing and fluff that make up someone like... like Lollipop... to be truly beautiful. And Chocolate Chip has what it takes. If she had been assured of that from the time she was born, she would not now be in New Pony in an attempt to prove herself and win your esteem.”
Wigwam and Twilight Jewel stared at one another- Wigwam a study in steaming disgust and the mare one of considerable consternation- before Wigwam turned and stalked away across the grassy lawn. Sugarberry made a movement as if to follow him, but Vanguard effectively stifled that endeavor with a hoof placed severely on her foreleg. “Let him cool down a bit,” he advised the stricken mare as she turned her questioning gaze upon him. Seeing that her husband meant what he said, she turned her attention to the still shocked Twilight Jewel.
Although Sugarberry knew Wigwam was correct in what he had said, she was dismayed that Twilight Jewel had been set upon in such a public manner and while under Sugarberry’s hospitality. “Wigwam’s been under a lot of stress lately, what with Chocolate Chip leaving and a new building project beginning at the casino,” she offered in an attempt to placate Twilight Jewel.
Twilight Jewel snorted. “If that’s his true nature, I can see why Chocolate Chip turned him down.” The mare than began a new conversation with Agatha, completely unperturbed by the dressing down she had received from Wigwam, for she had missed its focus.
“What just happened?” queried a very curious Garnet and Wishbone of Vanguard as they arrived late on the scene after witnessing only from a distance the tense confrontation and the angry stallion.
“Wigwam resented some remarks your mother made concerning Chocolate Chip,” Vanguard hedged.
“Mom was at her best, I suppose,” Wishbone grimaced.
“I don’t know her well enough to determine her best,” stated Vanguard, “but she did say enough to bring down Wigwam’s wrath on her.”
“I hope he realizes it did no good,” muttered Wishbone. “You can’t change a tiger’s stripes.”
“No, I suppose not,” agreed Vanguard. “But I think it may have helped vent some of Wigwam’s angst so he can get on with his life.” The three looked to where the stallion stood, isolated at the far side of the rock garden, and hoped that the assessment was true.
* * *
As a matter of fact, the encounter had made another bystander want to vent some of her angst. A fiery-haired unicorn could be seen stalking towards Wigwam soon after his blow-out with Twilight Jewel.
Wigwam was staring down at the ground when Tabby came to stand before him, hooves on her hips and glaring at him like an avenging fury. “Wigwam,” she seethed, “I’ve had enough of this. It’s about time to face up to some certain truths.”
Wigwam groaned inwardly. He was not in the mood for sparring with Tabby, especially after his recent encounter with Chocolate Chip’s mother. “Tabby,” he said quietly, “can’t this w-”
“No,” Tabby snapped. “I’ve had enough of your stupid whining and moping. Have you thought about how you look, Wigwam?”
“If you’re talking about what I just told Twilight Jewel,” Wigwam said angrily, “I won’t take back any of it. It was all true. If she had been a better mother, Chocolate Chip would still be here with me.”
“That’s exactly the attitude I’m talking about!” Tabby glared at him. “It’s selfish of you to expect her to fall at your hooves and instantly vow to become your wife.... if she wants to see more of the world, why should you stop her? She’s being stifled here, you know.” Tabby was definitely warming to her subject. “Look at all the friendship and love she’s had here. Maybe she wants a break from it all, did you think of that? But no, you’re only thinking about your own happiness. If you truly love her, maybe you should think about her happiness for a change!”
“Why should she block out her friends?” Wigwam argued. “I tell you, she’s trying to prove herself to her mother! That’s all this is about.”
“You’re wrong, Wigwam! This has nothing to do with her parents! It’s bad enough that you’re moping around like this, but to take it out on other parties is simply in bad taste! Who’s to say she wouldn’t have done this even if she’d been smothered with love from the beginning? If you ask me, she would have wanted to get out that much sooner,” Tabby said volatilely. “You’re so possessive of her she didn’t have the chance to associate with anyone outside of the immediate circle! Distancing herself from you was the only way to see more of the world, don’t you think? How else would she have a chance? If she married you and settled down right away, she’d be under your constant surveillance. Maybe she doesn’t want that right away! And your attitude didn’t help at all. If you’d been more understanding, perhaps she would have come back to you eventually. But the way you’re selfishly carrying on, I wouldn’t blame her a bit if she never wanted to see you again!”
Wigwam could only stare at her open-mouthed. To receive one of Tabby’s set-downs usually left one speechless.
Tabby glared down at him condescendingly. “Think about it, Wigwam. It’s for your own good.” And then she turned on her heel and strolled away.
Sugarberry was eyeing her warily, so Tabby headed in that direction. “Hi, Sug,” she said cheerfully.
“Tabby! What did you say to him?” Sugarberry cried out in agitation.
“Just a couple of home truths,” Tabby shrugged.
“Well, he doesn’t look too happy...”
“No, but he needed to be told.”
Sugarberry looked doubtfully to where the stallion stood . Would Tabby’s home truths- and Sugarberry was certain that they were quite brazenly phrased- help raise Wigwam up out of the doldrums in which he found himself? She could only hope.