My Little Pony Monthly Issue 83 (February 1, 2004)

My Little Pony Monthly
A publication of Nematode (Electronic) Publishing
Established June 1997
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Issue 83
February 2004

1. Contest
2. Survey
3. Welcome to Ponyland Part 4 (by Skye)
4. Agatha vs. Caprice, Round Two! (by Tabby and Sugarberry)
5. Dinner, Dancing, and Diamonds (by Sugarberry)
6. Wolfgang (by Clever Clover)
7. Silent Are the Bells Chapters 22-24 (by Sugarberry)

Congratulations to the winners!

Baby Dibbles (
Berry Brite (
BJ (
Cherie (
Jaye (
Lil' Whiskers (
Lofty (
Mudd (
Nibbles666 (
PikaChan (
Skye (
Sweet Tooth (

It was the Moochick, in the first My Little Pony television special of oh-so-many-names, who gave Megan and the rest of the ponies the Rainbow of Light. It's a very strange name for him, though, isn't it? Shouldn't a "moochick" be a creature crossed between a cow and a chicken?
And now, to announce the winner of the Avon prize:

Lofty! The Peachy Sheen lipgloss has YOUR name on it now! E-mail me your address and I'll send out your prize ASAP.

In honor of Valentine's Day, Hollywood the Flutter Pony banded with me to select the prize for Februrary. From Avon, it's a "Be My Valentine" eye gloss compact in a pretty lavender color (duly called "Hollywood", of course!) This creamy eye color gives eyes "a hint of sheer, pretty color". The compact comes filled with .12 ounces of eye gloss. Or, if you're a guy, you'll have a chance at a favorite toiletry item of the Big Brother Ponies: Wild Country soap-on-a-rope! To enter the contest, answer the following question correctly:

True or false: Squirk was a giant lobster (from the episode "The Ghost of Paradise Estate").

Tell me the answer by e-mailing mailto:TabbyMLP@aol.comor entering through the form at

THE RULES! *ANYONE* can enter. That means anyone as in anyone. Even if you've already participated in the past, you can enter; in fact, I encourage you to do so. You don't even have to be a subscriber of MLP Monthly in order to enter. But if you're not a subscriber, you're probably not even reading this. ^.~
However, now that we've introduced *real* prizes, we will be putting a limit on how many times you can be entered in the drawing for that. If you've already been selected to win one of our prizes in the past, you can't be entered again- BUT, you can still participate and get your webpage graphic! So just because you've won something in the past doesn't mean you can't have any fun at all with our contests anymore. And, of course, if eventually all contest participants are ones that have won a prize, it's fair game for everybody again!
On the contest form at, you will be able to select your gender so we'll be able to determine which prize you get. Or, if you'd prefer to be opted out of the prize drawing, you can select that on the form as well. You'll still get your webpage graphic, however.

What, we asked last time, was your favorite pony name?

Pika-Chan ( says...
I've always really liked the name "Moondancer". It's hard to explain why, I've just always thought it was very pretty.

Jaye ( says...
Oh, there are so many good ones! But I think the one that really stands out for me is Up, Up, and Away.

Skye ( says...
Hippity Hop SO adorable and one of my favorite ponies to boot! I even named a pet rabbit after here when I was younger.

And what random survey question have I come up with for this month...?

What is your favorite episode of the My Little Pony series?

The URL to enter at is:
Welcome to Ponyland
Part 4
by Skye (

Blue Belle was the first to awaken early the next morning. She yawned and stretched, and her light coating of fur rubbed against something. She remembered suddenly the new friend that could talk to her and turned her head to find she was still present by her side.

"Thought I left you in the night, did you?" Compassion asked with a slight smirk.

"Yes," the pony stated abruptly.

"Perhaps someday I might, but not today," she replied, leaning against the pony. "Why don't you have some grass and then we shall begin?"

"Begin what?"

"You'll see, but first you must eat." The Wish Fairy's voice was soft and pleasant, and her laughter made Blue Belle smile. It felt good to smile, and when Compassion began stroking her mane, that felt even better. She melted against the sensation and sighed with enjoyment. She was enjoying it so much she had to be reminded to continue with her breakfast.

"I've never felt anything like that," Blue Belle confessed.

"Well, you're very young," Compassion laughed again before standing. She took a couple steps away from Blue Belle and then turned back toward the pony. "Are you coming?"

"I can't move."

"You haven't tried this beautiful day. Try."

Blue Belle struggled to move cramped legs and stiff shoulders; and surprisingly, she found she could. She stiffly rose up on her legs, stretched, and then took a step toward her friend.

"See what you can accomplish when you try?"

* * *
The green pony had slept under the tree the night before and continued to doze under its protective branches when the smell of apples filled her nostrils. She felt warm rays of sunlight against her skin and struggled to remain in the comfortable position, but the smell was just too inviting. She opened her eyes and found a small pile of apples had been collected for her nearby. She didn't question her luck until she noticed the strange creature nearby. It was watching her. She didn't like that.

The pony, a lighter color than grass, was surprised for a moment as she had never seen anything like it, but quickly grew angry at the uninvited guest. She screamed, reared, and charged at the trespasser.

"Now that is no way to act," the creature told her and disappeared from sight. The apples followed; the pile was gone. In fact, all the apples that had been scattered on the ground under the tree were gone.

The pony charged around the tree several times and then resorted to kicking it, hoping to loosen an apple from the supple branches. Angered, the Ancient Apple did not let a single one fall free. He shook his branches angrily at her, the leaves seeming to hiss. The pony grew frightened and retreated back a moment, trying to comprehend what had just happened.

The pony nickered softly to the tree and then stomped her hooves when it ignored her plea for a fresh apple. A crunching sound came from behind her, and floating in the air was the creature and the apples! The pony approached it by running in circles and jumping at the gathered delectable. Laughter followed her attempts, and this further angered the pony. She screamed again and lunged but could not get her hooves high enough in the air to kick her antagonizer.

"Stop this behavior, little miss, or no more apples for you. Ever!" This statement filled the little ponies ears and she froze in place, understanding what it meant. "That's much better," the Wish Fairy told her and tossed an apple in her direction. The green greedily devoured it along with a few clumps of sweet grass, and then stomped her hooves, demanding another. "You have much to learn, little one."

* * *
Back in the castle, the pink pony was visited by her own Wish Fairy. At first she appeared before the injured creature as a great ball of glowing light but then settled before her in the form she most commonly wore. She reached out gentle hands toward the frightened pony and touched her mind as her fingers touched her pink fur. Do you know what the hardest thing to earn but the easiest to lose is? The answer is Trust, and that is who I am. If you trust me, I can heal your wounds.

Cotton Candy was desperate and miserable. At that time she would have agreed to about anything to make the throbbing pain in her knees cease. She shook her head in agreement and the Fairy's hands fell toward her knees. The glowing light covered the bloodied wounds and they quickly began to heal.

"How did you do that?" she asked as the wounds closed and the aching went away.

"If there is trust between friends, anything is possible, Cotton Candy. I am here to show you that."

* * *
As soon as the sun woke up the pair of violet ponies, they were back to their old tricks again and began sparing in the field. Two Wish Fairies appeared between them. The sudden appearance startled the pair and sent them running in opposite directions. The Wish Fairies each took a pony and followed, making sure the cruel pair would not reunite for further battling.

The one that followed the lighter of the two kept a reasonable distance away while the other chased and lunged at the darker.

"Blossom," the Wish Fairy called out neither too loudly nor too softly. "Blossom, please be my friend." The lavender shook her head and continued a steady pace from the floating creature. She eventually grew tired but she continued her retreat. The Fairy stayed close by and did not push her. She did not want to frighten the pony; she just wanted her to accept her.

As for Snuzzle, she was accosted by her pursuer who not only chased her but attacked her as well, pulling hair and swatting her back end with twigs. It wasn't until Snuzzle charged back and attacked the Wish Fairy that he stopped his pursuit of her.

The Fairy landed, graced her with the deepest of bows, and said, "I knew you out of all the others were most like me. You are courageous and I admire that in any creature. In the battle ahead you will need your wits and bravery. Come, Lady Snuzzle, let us make peace and I will teach you all you need to know." Snuzzle's head cocked as she wondered if she should trust the strange-looking creature.

* * *
Perfection admired the golden pony and sought her company, but the pony was not to be for her. Justice claimed Butterscotch for himself and Perfection would not admit Compassion had been right about the newcomers needing to know their past and their purpose to understand their place in the world. She would never admit to that, but she did continue to admire the golden just the same.

Justice made his claim and sought out the golden; but just as the others had done and would do, he would put her through a test. Nothing too dramatic, but he needed to test her heart even if he already knew what was in it. He needed to see if the pony herself knew. He created a little scene in the forest, one he would make sure she discovered.

* * *
Blue Belle was enamored with her new friend. She frolicked like a baby running in tight circles around the Wish Fairy. Compassion joined the game and eventually climbed on her back. At first the sensation startled her and she reared up.

Compassion floated off of her, but the pony coaxed her back. "I'm sorry, I was just startled. It seems so strange that I have never done these things before. Everything is so new. Please climb back on my back."

Compassion nodded her reply and remounted. The light blue pony took a few steps, adjusting to the weight and the sensation of the Wish Fairy's legs rubbing against her sides. Next, she trotted around in circles, Compassion holding her thick mane for support.

"Am I hurting you, Blue Belle? Am I pulling your hair?"

"No, not at all. Tighten your legs around my waist; I'm going to do some flying of my own."

The Wish Fairy did as she was told, but before she could explain that earth ponies could not fly, Blue Belle bolted from her position and charged across the fields. A rhythm overcame them and the pair were in harmony as she took on a more steady gallop. She changed direction and darted into a lightly treed forest, gathering up a herd of antelope. They accompanied the pair across the meadows, through puddles of water, and even up a gently climbing hill.

Once reaching the top, the pair stared over the land, admiring its beauty. The antelope settled, sensing the running game was over. They thanked Blue Belle for the enjoyment and went back to grazing.

"I don't understand their language," Blue Belle told her friend.

"Very few do," she replied, stroking her neck for comfort. "When encountering new creatures, you need only know what lies in their heart. If you know this, then you know what they are saying. Look for your friends for help and know your enemies. Remember me and what my name means when you encounter new creatures and places. To have Compassion for others will guide you in the right direction, and it will expose your enemies for what they are. Compassion is a very powerful tool if you know how to use it."

"I will try, but I don't understand."

"I will explain to you tomorrow. Try not to worry; let us just enjoy the day."

"All right, I'll try."

* * *
It wasn't long before Butterscotch found the area; it was the noisy commotion, really, that alerted her to it. She followed the noise and saw before her a small band of antelope picking on an injured rabbit. The animals were kicking at it and stomping about trying to crush it under their cloven hooves. A few others poked and prodded it with their sharp horns.

Why would antelope be bothering a rabbit, and what set them off in the first place? Questions such as these did not enter into her mind; the only thing that did was that it was wrong and she was going to stop it. She balked, then charged at the gathering, crashing right into the long horned animals. She screamed and lashed out with teeth and hooves until they fled from the area. The rabbit, no longer injured, ran up and thanked the pony. It hugged her legs and then scurried off, leaving her alone.

Butterscotch smiled, feeling good and useful for the first time since her arrival to this strange world. She suddenly thought of the others that were with her and turned back to the river which she followed to get into the forest. She charged back through the forest and then raced back along the river toward the castle.

Justice, who had been floating about the scene the whole time, smiled and returned home. His work there was done. Butterscotch now had a purpose. She knew what it was and so did he.

* * *
The green stomped again at the Wish Fairy. "When has that ever worked?" it asked her. She snorted and trotted off, tired of the apple sharing game. This creature was annoying her and it was smart enough not to get near enough for her hooves to make contact. She had to do things the Wish Fairy told her in order to get what she wanted. She knew she was being manipulated and she didn't like it. She reasoned that if there was one apple tree, there might be another; and she was going to find it rather than tolerate this thing floating above her head.

"Where are you going? You can't leave now; I'm not done and there are tons of apples left." Minty ignored the Wish Fairy and charged down the hill to begin her search. "Is it really that hard?" the Fairy asked, blinking in front of the green.

Averting a collision, she veered left and skidded to a stop, her rump hitting the ground as her back legs went out from under her. "Ouch!" Minty wailed.

"I'm sorry, but I didn't want you to leave just yet," the Wish Fairy told her.

"Why not? Who are you?"

"I'm Patience, something you need a good lesson in."

"Leave me alone!"

"You didn't answer my question."

"What question?" she asked sourly as she rose from the ground, her rump stained a darker green from the grass marks.

"I asked if it was hard?"

"If what was hard?" she snapped crossly.

"Saying 'please'."

"Why should I? I found this tree yesterday, so why should I ask for what's mine!"

"Because it's not yours. The Ancient Apple is its own. It shares its apples because it likes you, so you better stop kicking it or it may never drop another to the ground for you and the others."

"What do you want? Why do you keep bothering me?"

"I want to be your friend," she told the pony.

"You can't be my friend. You're not a pony. A pony can only be a pony's friend."

"Well, that is silly; but if that is all that is stopping you from being my friend, then I can fix the problem." The Fairy disappeared and in place of her was a pony. She was exactly like Minty in every way including her clover birthmarks, except that she was a darker shade of green. "Does that help? Now can I be your friend?"

"I don't need a friend. What is a friend good for anyway?" Minty continued to charge down the hill.

"Friends are good for lots of things! Like racing!" She galloped behind Minty, slowly catching up until they ran side by side. Minty would veer and the other followed; it quickly became a game for the two. She charged back up the hill and around the tree. Minty taught the Wish Fairy pony her catch-leaf game, and they had a contest of who could catch the most.

Later, the pair ate and rested under the Ancient Apple, listening to the soft rustling of its leaves. "You know what?" Minty asked her new friend.


"I think friends are good to have after all."

"Me too." The pair lay side by side, heads supporting each other as they fell asleep.

* * *
Violet eyes watched her friends, her family, frolic in the flowering fields of the secluded valley. She had not wished to ruin their enjoyment of the day, but it was time, this she knew. Change was upon them; she had been ignoring the signs for days and it could no longer be delayed. She rose from her quiet place of rest and overlooked the beautiful valley in a moment of silence. She gazed at it as if it was the last she would see of it. Perhaps she was right, perhaps not. She knew many things, but this she did not know. She snorted away her doubt and then called to her friends.

The timekeeper called, and all came to hear her speak, as she very seldom did. Even Water Lily abandoned her pond, Cosmos her shadowy dark forest, and Morning Glory- who was rarely ever seen after the noon setting of the sun- now raced alongside the others until they reached Holly, who was standing on her large rock which oversaw the entire valley.

"It is now time, my friends, my sisters; we must go back," she announced to all.

Daffodil shuddered while Chrysanthemum held her breath against the news. "Are you sure now is the time, Holly?" Carnation, the unofficial leader, asked.

"I'm positive," she replied confidently. "The others have arrived. They will need us; this I'm sure."

The group shook their heads in agreement, including Daffodil and Chrysanthemum, who more so than any others dreaded this day of all days. They looked toward the darkening sky in the East and shook their heads again. Holly took her place among the others, jumping down from the rock. They said their goodbyes to their valley and their friends who lived within it. They promised to return if they were able.

Carnation, leading the others, began down the steep hill through the valley and up over the other side heading West. They would return to the castle where they came from and face whatever peril might meet them there.

Agatha vs. Caprice, Round Two!
by Tabby (
(with most of the luncheon scene by Sugarberry ( )

What, I struggled with the problem of, could I do to lighten up a potentially tedious and serious court session? Then the answer came to me: Bushwoolies.

"Oh, Elaine! Come in, come in. I haven't seen you in ages," Tabby greeted her sister-in-law effusively. "What brings you here? I have just been dying for someone to gossip with!"

Elaine giggled. "That's funny; I thought we just saw each other the other night at Mom's. Actually, Thomas said you might like the company. And apparently he was right!"

"I am quite bored out of my skull," Tabby affirmed.

"Well, how are you holding up?" Elaine asked, unwinding the scarf from around her neck. "The time between now and June will be gone before you know it! What does Faline think of having a little brother or sister?"

"Oh, I told her it would be like having someone like Banderol to boss around all the time. She's quite looking forward to it."

Elaine laughed. "I'm sure she'll make an admirable big sister. It's so exciting, though! Aren't you just thrilled?"

"Yes, but I'm also dreading it, thinking of what my mom will do with another grandchild," Tabby sighed languidly.

"Oh, I've heard you and Agatha have been having some misunderstandings about that," Elaine said carefully.

"Misunderstandings!" Tabby repeated scornfully. "Yes, that's a nice way of putting it... but it's really quite dreadful what my mother is doing! Caprice is the nicest of ponies, but Mom must insist on her exclusive rights to Faline. I am beginning to wonder if she even thinks I should have any time with Faline," she said, laughing hollowly.

"Oh, is it really that bad?" Elaine said sympathetically. "There must be a way to work things out between everyone, though, isn't there?"

"If you think of anything, let me know," Tabby said, unconvinced of an easily viable solution to the grandmother rivalry. "I don't suppose you and Alan have any news in that quarter? Perhaps my mom would lay off some if Caprice had a grandchild from the Fairfax side of the family..."

"Oh, no, not yet," Elaine said, although she colored up a bit. "Though I hope..." she trailed off.

"Yes, you'll have fun with baby ponies of your own," Tabby mused. "At least Alan's sister already has about a few million kids; there shouldn't be too much competition between grandparents for yours," she said idly.

Elaine laughed at the exaggeration. "Constance only has four, which hardly constitutes 'a few million'. But I'm sure she wouldn't mind that many!"

"Hmm," said Tabby, her mind wandering off.

"What will you be doing for your birthday?" Elaine changed the subject.

"Oh, probably quarreling some more with Mom. She'll say, 'Oh, I'll be glad to baby-sit Faline and get her off your hooves for awhile. Won't that be a special treat for your birthday!' And then she'll get all huffy when I try to explain it would be more of a special treat to actually have Faline with me. And then-"

Elaine sighed in commiseration. "I feel so bad that you have to worry about such conflict all the time! I would hate to be on such shaky ground with my mother. Surely you'll work out your differences soon!"

"You are very idealistic, but unfortunately it is very unrealistic," Tabby shook her head.

* * *
Elaine's visit prompted Tabby to, in her free time, visit the rest of her female friends to catch up on recent happenings, since she had not seen some of them- at least on terms of a private gossip- for some time. Her cousin Tamara was first on the list. Tamara had eloped with a rock star several years ago, but Philippe had since given up the more exacting career of a stage star for a more quiet life as a songwriter living in Dream Valley with his wife and their son.

"Hi, Tabby! Hi, Faline!" Tamara greeted her cousin and daughter to her home. "Hugh is playing in the living room if you want to join him," she confided to the baby pony.

"Okway," said Faline, darting past Tamara into the house.

"Hugh has been so excited ever since I told him Faline was coming over," Tamara grinned, leading Tabby into the house at a more leisurly pace. "He is quite impressed with her."

"Faline has quite a following of admirers already," Tabby agreed. "She can boss both Banderol and Hugh around to her heart's content, and they'll do anything she tells them to."

"Hmm... something like her mother, isn't she?" Tamara hinted. Before Tabby could reply, she steered the conversation onto safer ground. "Geneva had her litter on Friday. I'll let you take a peek at them if you promise not to disturb them."

"Ooh! Kittens!" Tabby squealed. "Show me!"

Tamara rolled her eyes but led her cousin into the basement of the old house, which housed Tamara's home business- a cattery of fine show-quality felines. Tamara bred and raised the finest breeds to find homes among the more affluent families of the area.

"There's one mare flying all the way from New Pony next week to see about adopting one of my Siamese," Tamara boasted proudly. "Her aunt had adopted one from me last year and gave her niece such rave reviews that she's willing to come such a distance, just to adopt one of mine!"

"You are getting so high-class!" Tabby said. "But where are the kittens... oooh!!" She broke off as she saw the specimens in question. "They're so c-yute!" A litter of five newborn Burmese kittens wriggled and squirmed around their mother.

"Shhh," Tamara warned, patting Geneva on the head. "No loud noises."

"You have very nice kittens," Tabby pronounced to Geneva, patting her also. "I'll be back to see them again when they are older and your mistress here trusts me to handle them." She waved merrily to the family and then made her way through the rest of the room, looking in on the rest of the inhabitants.

"Oh, you didn't have this Bombay before, did you?" Tabby exclaimed, coming to one enclosure. "What's her name?"

"It's a he, and his name is Merle," Tamara revealed.

"What a handsome fellow!" Tabby nodded her approval. "Speaking of Bombays, do you know what Tiffany has done with her Theodora?"

"I believe she's been established at Guido's villa; that stallion is so smitten with his bride that he relented on his 'no pets' rule," Tamara smiled. "I actually just got a postcard from Tiffany herself, and she and Guido are finally enjoying their honeymoon in the Ponyland Riviera after she finally cleared her calendar of any prior commitments. Tiffany could use a good long vacation with Guido, with all the vigor she's been working the past year!"

"Such a strange turn of events!" Tabby said. "I hope she comes back to Dream Valley again sometime. I need to see what this newest version of Tiffany is like. From all reports she's found her niche at the halfway point between ultra-snobby and ultra-charitable. I must admit her ultra-charitable side was beginning to get to me."

"Guido will be good for her," Tamara agreed. "Hopefully she'll throw fabulous parties like she used to do! It was nice seeing her so giving of herself, but I do miss those lovely, glamorous balls at the Royal Paradise!"

Tabby laughed suddenly. "I wonder what it would have been like if I had married Guido all those years ago."

"What? You would actually have been so callous as to jilt Thomas when Guido came into the church like that and protested?" Tamara asked incredulously.

"Oh, no," Tabby waved her hoof through the air. "He had asked me before, you know. It was really very funny, too, because I was that close to accepting..."

"What?" Tamara gaped. "I thought you didn't like him!"

"Oh no, we were great friends ever since college together in Italy," Tabby said complacently. "Of course, I never thought of marrying him until I went back to visit again. Butextraneous circumstances prevented that, fortunately."

"I'm glad you went with Thomas instead, but to pass up a marriage proposal from the richest stallion in Ponyland-!" Tamara shook her head. "You probably have no comprehension of the envy other mares would have for you if they knew."

"Hey, don't complain. You scored a rock star, remember?"

* * *
Meanwhile, Faline was puzzling over what kind of game to instigate with the items in Hugh's toybox. She scorned the mundane blocks, stacking rings, and chunky plastic ponies. These were not worthy of her attention, and there was very little else left. She turned back to Hugh with a dire announcement. "Your twoys are all bowing. There is nwothing I can do with thwem." She shut the lid on the toybox purposefully.

"Okway, F'wine," Hugh said dutifully, bowing to her superior knowledge. "What we do?"

Faline sat on the floor and gave this considerable thought, but then started as her gaze settled on a new decoration adorning the fireplace mantle. "Oooh, what is thwat?" She climbed up onto a nearby chair to get a better look at the lava lamp Philippe had brought back from a recent business trip.

"Wava wamp," Hugh supplied.

"This is vwery fwascinating," Faline murmured in awed accents, entranced by the neon green gobs of goo floating in dark blue liquid. So intent was she that she forgot all about Hugh, who got bored and wandered off. Like the author of this story, who got bored of this scene and became entranced by HER lava lamp.

* * *
"Tabby!" Bolivia opened the door of the Dark Forest shack to admit her friend. "How nice to see you! You came alone? In your condition, shouldn't you-"

"I was bored," Tabby explained, entering the shack. Well, at least the place finally had some homey aspects added to it to better recommend itself to visitors now that Butch had a wife. With Bolivia's touch, the two-room shack now boasted curtains, rugs, some decorative knick-knacks, and an overall more orderly appearance than when it had been a bachelor's abode. "So, how are things with you?"

"Oh, I'm afraid Butch is up to no good again by the way he has been going out all the time," Bolivia sighed, shaking her head. Tabby wondered if she was speaking of her husband or son. "He is so very... consistent with mischief."

Tabby nodded wisely. "He always makes out all right, anyway, though. I wouldn't worry about it. Hah-hah, I always like seeing him put Tex in his place..."

"Those two scoundrels!" Bolivia said, but smiled fondly at the recollection. "They did liven things up in my homeland when they came, though. They must have caused a lot of trouble when they were growing up here, didn't they?"

"Well, we didn't see much of Butch," Tabby admitted. "He didn't show up at school often. But Tex, oh, he was the worst. Putting worms in my lunchbox, and following me around, striking up uncomfortable conversations, asking me out-!" She shuddered. Yes, Tabby did like to brag about her past conquests, no matter how distasteful she made them sound.

Bolivia giggled. "You should have been flattered by his attentions. I certainly was. I couldn't make up my mind for a long time over who I loved most, Butch or Tex."

"And what finally tipped the scales?"

"Well, Butch was the first to return to my country after he and Tex had moved on- they had both made me a similar promise before they left Bolivia, you see, that they would return as soon as they could to claim my hoof," Bolivia explained. "Well, I had to wait eight years, without a word from either of them, and by then you may be sure I had written them both off as unprincipled miscreants-! But then Butch turned up on my doorstep again, and I just couldn't hold it against him." She sighed blissfully.

"How romantic!" said Tabby.

"Yes, and I am very happy to be his wife, even with all the worries he causes," Bolivia agreed complacently.

"And how is Baby Butch?" Tabby asked. "Is he here or with his father?"

"Napping in the crib, thank goodness!" Bolivia said passionately. "Butch hasn't started involving him in his schemes, yet."

"Hopefully you'll have at least another year before he goes outlaw," Tabby reassured her.

"Yes, if that long," Bolivia agreed, shaking her head again.

* * *
"Tabby!" Sapphire exclaimed, running up to her cousin-in-law in the Pony-Mart toy section. "I'm so glad I ran into you! I need your help!"

Tabby was staring up at the display of My Little People, thinking if she stared long enough new characters would appear. "Oh?" she said curiously.

"A rival firm out in New Pony is putting out a My Little People collectors' guide later this year," Sapphire said in a hushed voice. "Fairfax/Monk needs to publish a better one before that. Are you up to it?"

"Ooohhhh!" Tabby said slowly. "You want me to do a My Little People guide?"

"Yes! You're the best expert on them that I know, anyway," Sapphire beamed. "That's excellent! I'll have Chicory get in touch with you to talk about the details."

"Sure!" said Tabby brightly. She liked spur-of-the-moment arrangements. And oh, there were so many ideas for a My Little People guide...

"Hey... there hasn't been anyone asking for me, has there?" Sapphire asked abruptly before turning away. "I mean... maybe not asking for me, but looking for me-?"

"At the vet clinic, you mean?" Tabby said, cocking her head in puzzlement. "No... why?"

"Oh, it's just that... it's nothing, really," Sapphire concluded. "I'm probably just being silly. But if you see any stallions that are, you know..." she trailed off. "Well, I've gotta run! See you later!"

"Ooookay," said Tabby to herself, wondering what was up in Sapphire's world. Was that a romantic intrigue she had detected...?

* * *
"Oh, hello, Marina," Tabby said a bit warily, meeting her co-worker while out shopping. "I haven't seen you outside of work for awhile."

"Yes, I've been experimenting with a fascinating new medical concept," Marina said eagerly. "I just had to step out of my apartment quick to pick up some supplies." She gestured towards the shopping bag she held. "The results so far are promising, judging from Way-Loh's reaction to the treatment."

"Wah-Loh?" Tabby echoed. "You have a Furby?"

"Yes, and he makes a most obliging test subject- lab assistant, I mean," Marina corrected herself.

Tabby paled, and stepped back. "What sorts of things are you doing to him?"

"Oh, nothing that dangerous," Marina said vaguely. "And he loves helping. He always says 'big fun!' when I tell him it's time for another test!"

"Well, I guess as long as he's happy," Tabby said skeptically.

"Oh, he's very happy," Marina assured her. "And I must tell you that you were totally right about coming here to Dream Valley. Neil is so supportive of all my endeavors, and he totally understands where I'm coming from. I've never met anyone like him before; he is the greatest stallion imaginable," Marina sighed happily. "Of course, it was no thanks to you that I ended up finding him. If I had left it up to you, I'd still be waiting for the perfect stallion to come into my life."

"Well, pardon me," Tabby said stiffly. "Your demands were very exacting and difficult to meet."

"And yet you never thought to introduce me to Neil," Marina shook her head in wonderment. "Well, gotta run. See ya later!" The rather unusual veterinarian scurried off again before Tabby had time to reply.

* * *
"What lovely frosting!" Tabby sighed in rhapsody.

The cake under consideration was waiting on the counter at Chocolate Chip's home while a number of mares milled about the kitchen and great room of the impressive house that until recently had been Wigwam's domain alone. Tabby didn't really understand why everyone was so interested in the house when there were lovely frosting roses to contemplate.

"I never knew that Wigwam had such a splendid place," commented Fern, eying the dinette with an assessing eye.

"I did not think that any of Butch's friends had such enormous houses," agreed Bolivia in wide-eyed awe as she rubbed her hoof along the fine woodwork that framed the doorway.

"He never talked about his house," Sugarberry noted, "so no one really gave it much thought. It is beautiful, though, isn't it? Chocolate Chip has done well for herself." She grinned at the chocolate brown mare who was hosting this birthday luncheon for Tabby and Tamara, a spontaneous respite from the snowbound days of late.

"Your mother can't have any complaints about your status in life now," Tabby stated cheerfully.

Chocolate Chip giggled. "She was rather like Elizabeth Bennett who only began to look at Darcy with approval after she saw his grand estate."

"That's not how I remember it," Tabby argued, recalling her high school book report on Pride and Prejudice. "Elizabeth had been inclined to think better of him before that; it just took time to get over the fact that Wickham had insidiously lied about Darcy's character! It wasn't just seeing the estate; though granted, that would be a definite bonus."

"The view is fabulous!" Marina approved, interrupting the literary discourse. She stood looking out the patio doors to the deck which faced the not-too-distant Dark Forest. Everyone else agreed with her assessment.

"Thank you all for your compliments."

"Could I bring Alan to visit sometime?" queried Elaine as she sat down. "We'd like to build a house in the near future, and this place can give us lots of ideas."

"My cats would love to run up and down that open stairway!" Tamara sighed. "By the way, Chocolate Chip, have you and Wigwam given any more thought to acquiring a feline house-mate?"

"Umm, to tell the truth, we really haven't talked about it," the newlywed mare admitted, not wanting to take on the chores that accompanied the keeping of a house cat, pedigreed or not. Happy to change the subject, she invited the mares to take their places at the dining room table.

"Where's your husband?" asked Sapphire.

"Someone has to work," Chocolate Chip grinned at her sister-in-law, Garnet, who was playing hooky for an hour or two from the casino.

"You keep plenty busy managing Tiffany's charitable finances," that mare returned.

"It has become quite a responsibility now that Tiffany divides her time between Dream Valley and Vulcanopolis," Chocolate Chip admitted.

"It's too bad Tabby never got around to introducing me to Guido, either," sighed Marina, casting an accusatory glance at the unicorn. "There are so few stallions out there that are truly suave and handsome and..."

"Rich?" supplied Tabby, causing a tinkle of laughter from the others. Marina merely tossed her curls.

"I like the rough edges on my stallion," Bolivia said complacently.

"That would explain your former interest in Tex," Tabby put forth. Bolivia took no offense.

"It's a good thing we all have a different criteria to judge the perfect stallion," smiled Sugarberry, "or we'd all be after the same guy."

Merry Moments agreed. "We've done pretty well for ourselves, haven't we?"

"All except Marina and Sapphire," Tabby pointed out.

"You know that Neil and I have become very good friends," Marina retorted, tossing her curls again. "No thanks to you, of course."

"And that's a good thing?" teased Tamara. Dr. Neil was a proficient- but unorthodox- physician.

"He and I have a lot in common," defended Marina. "He is just so understanding and clever and ingenious and adventurous and..."

"And what of you, Sapphire?" Tamara wanted to know. "Have you met anyone since coming to Dream Valley?"

The mare blushed slightly. "No one I could name," she hedged. That evasive comment caught everyone's attention, especially Tabby's.

"I've witnessed some strange behavior from you recently," Tabby charged her. "As Thomas' cousin... and as it's my birthday... you owe me an explanation."

"Yes! Do tell!" added a chorus of voices.
"I don't mean to be secretive," explained the deep blue mare. "It's just... well... I've been getting gifts from a secret admirer."
"Ooh!" said Tabby. "What kind of gifts?"
"Oh, just little things," Sapphire said vaguely, not wanting to divulge the rather guarded secret of her past, that she used to have aspirations as a flute player, and her secret admirer had picked up on this. "But he seems to know me so well!"
"And you have no idea who this pony is?"
"Not the foggiest. Although..."
"Although what?"
"Remember your Halloween costume ball, Tabby? There was an astronaut there and he was kind of attentive... I never found out who he was, but I've always had this feeling that he was the one sending the gifts," Sapphire shared.
This piece of information caused an eruption of chatter as the mares tried to recall this particular party animal. "An astronaut, you say? I remember him!" exclaimed Marina. "I tried to interest him in a dance, but he blatantly refused... said he was looking for someone."
"Oh! How romantic!" cooed Fern. "He had eyes only for Sapphire!"
"I vaguely remember the costume, but I don't think the pony was there for the midnight unveiling," Merry Moments recalled.
"If he sends gifts, you must have seen his hoof-writing," reasoned Garnet.
Sapphire shook her head. "Everything's been computer generated."
Unable to go any further with this ongoing mystery, the girls turned to other matters, much to Sapphire's relief.
"Who's watching your twins?" asked Elaine of Merry Moments.
"Their dad. So if I seem kind of nervous, that's the reason why."
The other girls giggled. "Quarterback doesn't take well to this father business?" Fern queried.
"Oh, he's great with them... as long as they're sleeping," Merry Moments revealed. "He's a little leery yet of feeding them, however, or of keeping them entertained when they're awake."

"The foals must be, what... about a month old?" asked Bolivia, herself the mother of a seven-month-old colt.

"Three weeks exactly," beamed the mother.

"What are their names?" Marina asked.

"Lombardi and Lambeau," smiled Merry Moments. "Lombardi is white with green and gold hair; his sister is gold with green hair."

"I've never heard names like those before," Bolivia admitted.

"Quarterback chose them... of course," Merry Moments rolled her eyes. "The names have to do with his favorite football team, the Green Bay Packers. Lambeau Field is where they play and Vince Lombardi was their greatest coach ever."

"How did Quarterback become such a fan of a human football team?" Chocolate Chip wondered.

Merry Moments grinned, having heard the story direct from her husband countless numbers of times. "When he was a young colt," she explained, "one Sunday afternoon, watching TV, there were some freak satellite interferences that caused the television set to pick up a station out of the human world. A Packer game was playing then, and Quarterback was enthralled with their skill and energy! He's been a huge fan of theirs ever since and follows their progress as closely as he can."

"Why didn't he become a football player here in Ponyland?" Tamara asked. "He certainly has the name and symbol to go with it!"

"I guess he just prefers watching it from afar rather than actually taking part," Merry Moments said. "Though his brothers are big football fans, too; and they both became instrumental in setting up an organized Ponyland football league."

"Oh yes, Score and Touchdown!" Sugarberry said. "They've made big names for themselves. And to think we went to school with them!"

"Are they older or younger than Quarterback?" Fern asked.

"Score is a couple of years older, and Touchdown one year younger," Merry Moments filled in.

"We ran into them a lot at school functions, though," Sugarberry reminisced. "Tabby, in fact, was sweet on Score for awhile!"

"What!" Tabby burst out, having been rather quiet since Quarterback's brothers had been mentioned. "That's nonsense!"

"I thought it looked like you two were more intimately acquainted than what you let on, Tabby, when Score was in town for his brother's wedding," Tamara pondered.

"Hardly that!" Tabby protested. "I knew him... a little. It wasn't like I had a crush on him or anything!" This was one conquest- if indeed it were a conquest- Tabby would not talk about.

"We never accused you of that, Tabby," Tamara said, hiding a smile.

Sensing her friend's discomfort, Sugarberry began on a new vein. "Cockleburr came to babysit with Banderol the other evening, and he brought Teddy with him."

"Hmm, I would have thought he had outgrown stuffed animals by his age," Tabby commented.

"Not a teddy bear, Tabby; Teddy, the colt." Sugarberry rolled her eyes. "Anyway, Teddy saw Banderol's Puffalump and recognized it as one he had found on Christmas Eve lying in the path where Banderol must have dropped it when we left for Woodlawn."

"So why did he toss it away in the park?" queried Tabby in disgust. "I knew that colt was untrustworthy!"

"Actually, he gave it to Baby Noddins."

"And Baby Noddins threw it away? Wait until I see that filly again!"

"No, no, no, Tabby. I did some checking, and it seems Noddins passed it on to Baby Curlylocks who gave it to Gavel when he was recovering from his surgery."

"Strange names, no meaning..." Tabby said vaguely.

Sugarberry ignored her friend. "And Gavel had a houseguest who was feeling depressed, so he gave him the Puffalump, thinking it would cheer him up. But... Dangler, I think his name was, turned it over to that young mare that works at the bank..."

"Adalee?" Chocolate Chip prompted.

"Yes, Adalee. And Adalee was watching Mesquite and the foal fell in love with it, so she let him take the Puffalump home."

"So Mesquite lost it in the park!" Tabby determined.

"That's right," concurred Sugarberry. "And you, fortunately, recovered Kitty-Kitty and returned him to Banderol."

"Springtime was telling me that Morning Sunrise has acquired a favorite blanket already; it has a fringe that she rubs across her nose when she's falling asleep," Fern said.

"I wonder how little Morning Sunrise will feel when she's older and realizes that her brother and sister are royalty and she isn't?" mused Garnet.

"The princesses must have all been very disappointed to find that Springtime's next foal wasn't royalty like the twins! They quite had their hearts set on welcoming another little princess into the world, and couldn't believe the lack of sparkly hair and medallion symbol," Tabby smirked.

As Sugarberry was leaving the table to help Chocolate Chip clear for dessert, Bolivia- her eyes twinkling- asked, "We've discussed all the recent births, and we know Tabby is due in June; is anyone else willing to admit that they're expecting?"

"That's crass, Bolivia," Garnet, her own heart skipping a beat, chastised the mare while eying the others openly for some sign that would reveal just such a future occurrence. The idea having been planted, everyone was scrutinizing her neighbor in a blatantly snoopy way, hoping for an inside story. It did not take long for all eyes to settle on the one mare with flaming cheeks and downcast eyes.

"Cousin dear!" Sapphire accused. "You've been holding back on us!"

"I thought you've been hiding something!" Tabby exclaimed. "Why didn't you tell me?!"

The gentle mare peeked up shyly. "I'm still adjusting to the news myself," she admitted.

"Well, when's the happy event to occur?" Bolivia was unperturbed by Garnet's erstwhile discipline.

The mare confessed meekly. "In September."

"It's about time!" Tabby reveled. "Thomas will be thrilled. I can tell him for you, right?"

"Oh, but we haven't told Mom and Dad yet," worried Elaine.

"You'll have to tell them soon, or they'll hear it second hoof," Merry Moments pointed out.

"I'll invite them over for supper," Elaine decided, getting up to make the call.

The table having been cleared, Chocolate Chip moved the extravagant birthday cake to center stage in front of Tabby and Tamara. "We bypassed the candles, girls, as some of the guests have to get back to work."

Tabby scowled. "Are you insinuating that we have too many candles to blow out in time?"

"Basically," grinned the chocolate brown mare. "Now, who wants to lead us in singing 'Happy Birthday'?"

As the mares sang the birthday song, not entirely on key but certainly with lots of enthusiasm, Tabby covered her ears while Tamara joined in with her sweet soprano. Merry Moments captured the event with her camera. "Be sure to get a good shot of the cake," Tabby ordered. Then, Chocolate Chip turned the knife over to Tabby, allowing her to cut the confectionary delight; the pink unicorn, her lavender eyes aglow, naturally managed to end up with the most heavily frosted piece of the cake.

"This is so good," she mumbled with her mouth full.

"Umm-umm," agreed Tamara as she, too, devoured a hefty portion.

When everyone had partaken of their fill of the birthday dessert, Merry Moments asked if there was any interest in viewing the informal photos she had taken at Wigwam and Chocolate Chip's wedding. Marina, Elaine, and Sapphire had to get back to their offices, but the remainder of the guests were only two happy to move into the capacious great room to find comfortable spots on the sofa grouping; Tamara brought out her satchel and unloaded a generous amount of pictures. Chocolate Chip was allowed to view them first before sending them around the circle of friends.

"Wigwam looks so... Native Ponyish... with that braid in his mane," Tabby commented as she stared at a picture of the wedding couple.

Fern giggled. "I should hope so."

"Oh, this reminds me," said Tamara. "I got to see Dawn and Perry's wedding photos just yesterday. Princess Dawn was kind enough to show them off, knowing that Philippe and I were out of town the weekend of their wedding."

"That was awhile back, wasn't it?" asked Bolivia. She and Butch had not been invited to that wedding.

Merry Moments, the upbeat photographer of choice for the ponies in the area, answered. "It was the first Saturday in December."

"Oh! I definitely want a copy of this one of Wishbone and me at the dance!" Garnet exclaimed, her eyes starry.

"And I want one of each of these you got of Philippe singing his new wedding song at the reception," Tamara stated.

"It was so romantic," Sugarberry sighed, remembering the dance she had shared with Vanguard while Philippe premiered the love song.

"Garnet, you look ready to ring a peal over your dad's head in this one," Chocolate Chip noted. "What was going on?

Taking the picture from her sister-in-law, Garnet grimaced. "Dad was all excited about his latest endeavor to make a buck off the internet. I remember his exact words." The red mare assumed a deep, masculine voice to say, " 'You don't even have to leave the house now to scam ponies, Garnet. What a life!'" She shook her head. "He'll never learn."

"I can just imagine that lop-sided grin of his while he was saying it," Chocolate Chip giggled.

As the last picture made the rounds, Fern sighed. "Your wedding was so beautiful, Chocolate Chip. You must be very happy."

"Indeed I am," Chocolate Chip admitted.

"What I want to know, Chocolate Chip, is why you didn't marry Wigwam sooner if he was this rich," Tabby waved her hoof in the air to indicate the elegant surroundings as she took the brown mare to task.

"Hey! I thought you were the one who was discouraging the match."

"Well, yeah, but I didn't know he had money! That changes everything."

After the laughter settled down (with Tabby looking confused, as she didn't understand what had been so humorous), Tamara looked at her watch and groaned. "I hate to break up the party, but I promised Sandy that I'd pick up Hugh Alexander before three. Thanks so much for this birthday bash, Chocolate Chip." She turned to hug Tabby. "Happy birthday, Tabitha." A light flashed as Merry Moments caught the moment on film.

"Happy birthday, Tammy," Tabby replied. "And thanks, Chocky. This was way cool."

* * *
"But Mom!" Tabby protested as she was accosted by Agatha in her office later that afternoon, after returning to the clinic from Chocolate Chip's luncheon, which had actually extended for a long time past the noon hour for those of the guests who did not have pressing jobs to return to. "I told you I don't need you to watch Faline today!"

Faline, seeing the signs of another argument concerning her about to break out, tried to sneak out of the room in order to take refuge somewhere until the threat of being whisked away by her grandmother again was over. Agatha's sight, however, was sharp, and she called her granddaughter back. "Oh, Faline, stay here! I'm going to want you soon!"

"But I want her to stay here!" Tabby said adamantly. "Please just accept that, Mom!"

"Would you deprive me the simple pleasure of spending time with my own granddaughter?" Agatha sighed remorsefully.

"Noooo," said Tabby carefully. "But I wouldn't mind seeing her once in awhile myself. I am her mother, you know."

"Of course," Agatha sighed again, "I know what caused all this. It's those things I told her about Caprice, isn't it? You're still holding that against me, aren't you? You were never so strict before that."

"Well, yes, I suppose that is one of the reasons," Tabby admitted. "Faline was quite broken up when she believed her grandmother Caprice was plotting against her family. I wouldn't want her to go through that or something similar again."

"You know I only had her best interests at heart," Agatha wheedled.

"That may be," Tabby said, "but I cannot approve of your methods. You simply must learn to accept the fact that you are only one of Faline's grandmothers!"

"Caprice can never have as important a claim as myself on Faline," Agatha retorted.

"Nor can I," Tabby agreed.

"Exactly!" Agatha said. "Or, I mean- well, of course you have a very important claim on her yourself. But in your condition you must remember not to exert yourself overmuch. I only mean to alleviate as much stress as possible from your life by watching Faline for you whenever I can, don't you see?"

"I do nwot cause stwess," said Faline bitterly from the sidelines.

"No, of course you don't," Agatha said soothingly. "Nevertheless-"

Tabby was about to plead a headache, but realized her mother would take that as an easy excuse to whisk Faline off before her eyes. "There is really nothing more to be said," she pointed out instead. "We could talk around in infinite circles and never get anywhere farther than where we are now."

"You mean-" Agatha's eyes lit up.

"No," Tabby said flatly. "Faline stays here."

"But Tabitha-"

Round Two was fortunately stalled by the entrance of Thomas into the room. "Hello, Agatha. I didn't know you were here," he said reservedly, guessing what had been occurring by the way he subsequently found two females- namely, Tabby and Faline- clinging to him for protection.

"Of course, I couldn't wait until evening to see my dear Tabitha on her birthday," Agatha said warmly.

"I see," said Thomas, observing the indignant glare Tabby was directing at her mother. "Well, that was a thoughtful gesture. I suppose we'll be seeing you again for dinner tonight?"

"Why, of course!" Agatha beamed. "Family dinners are always the best part of a birthday, I think. And it may be the only chance I'll get to see Faline again for quite some time, the way Tabby has been prohibiting me lately." She looked at her daughter disdainfully.

"Prohibiting you! More like keeping you under control!" Tabby seethed, goaded into stepping forward closer to her mother again.

"Let's try to keep this civil, ladies," Thomas said warningly, stepping between the two.

"Well, she doesn't have to make me feel guilty for not letting her have Faline one day out of the week!" Tabby gestured wildly at Agatha.

"And there's no need for her to make me out to be such a villain every time I see her now!" Agatha snapped back.

"Perhaps it would be best to finish this fascinating conversation at some later date," Thomas suggested. "Agatha, we'll see you later..."

"I can certainly tell when I'm not wanted," Agatha sniffed, stalking past them towards the door. "Very well, I will wait to see you all later." The door slammed shut behind her.

"Oh, thank goodness!" Tabby exclaimed once the door had closed. "I thought she'd never give up! It's madness... insanity... intolerable!"

"She's gone, so just put it out of your mind now," Thomas advised. "It is your birthday, after all. You should be enjoying it."

Tabby laughed mirthlessly. "Enjoy it? When I'll have to face her in another couple of hours and put up with the same criticisms from her all over again? Oh yes, that will be very enjoyable indeed!"

"If you can't bring yourself to enjoy yourself then, you ought to make en effort to enjoy the time before that to its fullest instead of thinking about it."

"That is very easy to say, but difficult to do," Tabby said, pacing back and forth. "The only thing.... oh, Thomas, do let's go to Atlantis!" she burst out suddenly, whirling around to face him.

"Atlantis? Now?" Thomas said, taken aback.

"Well, this weekend. I'm sure the Sea Ponies could take us tonight, and there aren't any pressing engagements or anything, are there? It would be so nice, wouldn't it, to get away from everything, even for just a little while... jut you, and me, and Faline..." She sighed longingly.

"When you put it that way, how can I resist? Very well. Let's do it."

* * *
"What?! What do you mean, the Queen's Court won't hear my case?" an outraged Agatha demanded of the Royal Paradise secretary, placing her forehooves on the desktop forcefully. "I demand to see Queen Serena about this!" It was about time to settle things between her and Caprice, and gentle persuasion had done nothing. Agatha was forced to resort to the judicial system. And with Tabby out of town for the weekend, well, it was a good time to set things in motion.

"Your case must go through the lower courts before the queen herself can hear it," the secretary explained.

"The lower courts?" Agatha drew back in dread. "You can't mean..."
"Yes. The Bushwoolies' Court."

* * *
Unwillingly, Agatha went to see the Bushwoolies about hearing her case. She was not pleased about having to go through them but realized that it was inevitable. The Bushwoolies, being spontaneous and prone to action, elected to hold the hearing that very afternoon. Before Agatha had even had time to agree, they had hopped off to ready the courtroom and collect the necessary players.

* * *
"Agatha Fershund, along with her husband Hubert, is suing her daughter's mother-in-law on grounds of spending too much time with her granddaughter," the Bushwoolies' Court announcer introduced the prosecutor later that day as Agatha walked with stately bearing into the courtroom and took her place at the front left of the room with Hubert in her wake. "Agatha says that the defendant, Caprice Fairfax, is destroying a valuable relationship between her and her granddaughter. Though Mrs. Fairfax is also grandmother to the said granddaughter, Agatha professes to have an earlier and more important claim on her. Money isn't the object in this case, Agatha says; all she wants is more time with her granddaughter that is her due."

Next, a rather timid and bewildered Caprice entered the courtroom, shadowed by her husband Dietrich. Needless to say, it was disconcerting to be come upon by a pack of Bushwoolies on a quiet Saturday morning and find that you were being sued in court that afternoon. "The defendant, Caprice Fairfax, protests that she never tried to come between Agatha and Faline and spent no more time with her granddaughter than was her right. She doesn't hold any hard feelings towards Agatha, Caprice says, but wants the situation resolved so that they can all live happily and in peace with one another."

With the preliminary introductions out of the way, the bailiff, Bouncer, a rather tough-looking white Bushwoolie, stepped forward. "All rise for the Honorable Judge Happy!" All the Bushwoolies in the audience momentarily paused their chattering to stand up and watch. The doors in the back of the room swung open once again, and a pink Bushwoolie clad in a black robe entered. He made his way to the front of the room and took his place behind the desk facing everyone else.

"Uh..." Judge Happy consulted a paper in his hand before continuing. Crumpling the paper and tossing it aside, he announced, "A song! Yeah!" All the Bushwoolies cheered as the judge led them in a boisterous rendition of an old favorite, "Be Glad You Are Who You Are", which Megan had taught them many years ago.

Agatha bent her head downwards and shook it back and forth slowly.

Finally, the mayhem quieted down and Judge Happy moved onto other matters. "What," he charged the lawyer who had been assigned to Agatha, a green Bushwoolie named Funny, "is the problem? Yeah."

"The pony here... uh, Agatha," Funny recalled, "has a granddaughter. Yeah."

"Call forth the first witness!" Judge Happy said.

"Okay, yeah..." Funny turned and scanned the crowd behind him. "Flory!"

A green Bushwoolie with a flower in her hair bounced forward and took her seat as a witness. "Does this pony have a granddaughter, yeah?" Funny asked, gesturing wildly at Agatha.

"Yeah!" Flory said, smiling broadly as she waved at the camera filming the proceedings.

Happy banged his gavel down on the wooden desk. "Prosecutor found guilty!! Yeah!"

"This is nonsense!" Agatha blustered, standing up. "Funny here is hardly qualified for this job. I demand we start over at the beginning!"

"I didn't know the prosecutor could be found guilty," Hubert mused. "Interesting..."

Agatha stood over Funny domineeringly and eyed him with contempt. The Bushwoolie lawyer stared back at her with fear in his eyes and slid out of her way as she made to present the case herself.

"I have a darling granddaughter," Agatha began her plea, "who is the most precious thing in the world to me. Not even my designer originals compare to her worth!" She paused for a moment for the full meaning of this comparison to sink in on her listeners. "As this demonstrates, my dear Faline is beyond price. However, most cruelly, the bond I have built between me and Faline since she was born, nearly three years ago, has recently come under attack. Caprice here, who had been absent from civilization for eight years, suddenly presumed to come back to her family. She had not even taken any pains to find out if she even had any grandchildren when she returned, but with the worst attitude imaginable attempted to become the dominant figure in Faline's life and push me out of the picture! So far I have been able to ward off her attacks on the bond between me and Faline, but I fear I will not be able to hold out forever. Caprice must renounce any rights she may have to Faline!"

"Faline is just as much my granddaughter as she is yours, Agatha," Caprice said, sniffling loudly. "I never meant to come between you, but I'm sure you're being too extreme! Isn't there room for two grandmothers in her life? Can't we work together to nurture and love her? If it had been in any way possible for me to return to my life in Ponyland, I would have come back long ago to be reunited with my family."

"Yeah. What she said, yeah," Earnest, Caprice's lawyer, said in regards to his side.

"Call forth a witness!" Judge Happy demanded, making use of the gavel again.

Agatha had re-seated herself, proud of the impression she had made and sure everyone would be sympathetic with her. Cautiously, Funny came out from under the chair he had been hiding under and resumed his duties. "Yeah! I call forth..." he paused for effect, "...the assassin!"

A pony dressed entirely in black with a black mask entered the room. The Bushwoolies clapped and cheered, as was their wont to do whenever a new character entered the room. "Were you hired to send these ponies to the next dimension?" Funny asked.

"I can neither concur not deny," the assassin said concisely.

"I'm sure you can be a little more specific!" Agatha complained.

"Yes, I'm sure," the assassin replied.

"No more questions, yeah, Happy... your honor," Funny concluded.

"Does the defense wish to cross-examine the witness?" Judge Happy said eagerly.

Earnest glanced at the assassin and then shook his head. "Nope, looks fine to me, yeah, yeah." The assassin slipped out quietly.

"Wait a moment, your honor!" Agatha exclaimed. "You're not making them swear!"

"Really, Agatha, is that necessary?" Hubert protested. "This will be aired on television!"

"I mean," Agatha snapped, "the witnesses are not being made to swear to tell the truth. You know, 'Do you swear to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth'."

"Oh, yeah, yeah!" Judge Happy recalled. "Sorry. Yeah."

"All right, let's get on with it!" Agatha said irritably.

"Yeah, next witness!" Funny exclaimed. "Ah-Loh!"

A sky blue Furby with tufts of light pink hair came whizzing through the door amidst the cheers of the crowd. "Whahoo! Big party!" he cried out as he alighted in the witnesses' chair.

"Do you swear, uh... to tell the truth, yeah? Oh, and the whole truth, yeah, and nothing but the truth?" Judge Happy charged Ah-Loh.

Ah-Loh twitched his ears pensively. "Me see... maybe... yes," he decided.

"Yeah!" said Funny. "Do you like Agatha?"

Ah-Loh burped. "Hee, hee." Agatha's frown deepened.

"Where were you last week?" Funny continued.

"Oh-too-mah! Sound very good!" Ah-Loh explained.

Funny jotted down some random scribbles in the notebook he held. "That's enough, yeah. No further questions, your honor."

"Now the defense! Call forth the witnesses!" Judge Happy decreed, turning his attention to Earnest and his clients.

"Really, your honor, this is providing no information whatsoever," Agatha complained. "The situation really doesn't require witnesses. Only look at our own testimonies, and I'm sure you can reach a conclusion in my favor!"

Judge Happy ignored her and banged the gavel. "Defendant's witnesses, yeah!"

"Cheery!" Earnest exclaimed.

The pink Bushwoolie came rolling up to the front of the room. "Yeah! I'm on TV!"

"Do you swear to tell the truth, whole and nothing, yeah?" Judge Happy abridged the question.

"Yeah!" said Cheery.

"Were you there on the date in question?" Earnest asked the witness.

"Yeah, yeah. Me there. Yeah," Cheery nodded vigorously.

"What... what date is in question?" Caprice spoke up hesitantly.

Earnest looked confused. "Uh, don't know, yeah."

"Yesterday, yeah!" Cheery said helpfully.

"No, last week, yeah," Earnest argued.

"What happened last week, yeah?"

"Don't remember, yeah."

"The date in question obviously has no bearing on the case, whatever it may turn out to be," Agatha spoke-up impatiently. "Pray continue."

"No further questions, your honor," Earnest concluded, and Cheery left the stand.

Agatha could barely suppress her irritation with the next witness Earnest called. "Where did you find this clown?" she spoke-up angrily.

"At the circus. Yeah," Earnest nodded repeatedly.

Needless to say, the clown did not offer much in the way of evidence and was soon dismissed.

"Any more witnesses?" Judge Happy asked after the clown had left.

"No, yeah," Earnest said.

"Oh," said Judge Happy, thinking. "Okay... deliberate, yeah!"

"Deliberate. Deliberate, yeah, yeah. Lots to deliberate," the jury chattered noisily as they got down to business. It was not long before they announced they had come to a decision concerning the case. Bouncer went over to them and took an object which Eager passed over to him; he then solemnly presented the spherical black object to Judge Happy.

Happy picked up the object and squinted at it. "I find in favor of... uh..." He paused and studied the object intently. "Future is foggy at this time." Banging the Magic Eight Ball down on the desk, Happy announced, "Court in recess! Recess, yeah!"

"Woohoo! Recess! Fun, yeah!" As one body, all the Bushwoolies- audience, jury, lawyers, bailiff, and judge- high-tailed it to the door and made their way to the nearby park playground. Agatha glared at the retreating mass.

* * *
Some time later, exhausted Bushwoolies started trickling back into the courthouse. Judge Happy, his curly wig askew and his robe grass-stained, took his place at the bench. "Court back in session!" he declared with a pounding of the gavel.

"Found another witness, yeah," Funny spoke-up eagerly.

"Yeah! Bring 'im in!" Judge Happy cheered.

"I present... Baby Noddins!" Funny introduced as the little lavender unicorn came prancing up the aisle.

"This is so exciting!" Noddins enthused. "Well, ask me questions!" She sat down and waited expectantly.

"Okay, lemme see, yeah..." Funny flipped through a file of papers. "Favorite food, yeah?"

"Chocolate cake," said Noddins promptly. "But what does that have to do with the case? Shouldn't you be asking stuff like if I was there on the date in question, or saw or heard something, or stuff like that?"

"Then, were you there on the date in question?" Funny demanded.

"Well, I was with Falling Leaves and Leaper at the Satin Slipper Sweet Shoppe yesterday, and that was sorta a date," Noddins said. "Falling Leaves said it was, anyway. But Leaper just looked freaked out when Falling Leaves said something about him being her boyfriend. So I think it was just an accident he ran into her there."

"Good, yeah," Funny nodded. "Did you see or hear anything, yeah?"

"Yes! The SSSS was really full," Noddins said cheerfully. "There were a lot of ponies and a lot of talking. I even saw Miss Hackney and I didn't know she ever went there! She's a teacher, you know! And I heard some ponies in the next booth over from us, and they were talking about this place they went to, and it sounded really cool, because it-"

"Your honor," Agatha complained loudly, cutting Noddins off. "This case is going nowhere. How can you expect any of these witnesses to offer any useful information?"

"Didn't see any problems, yep," Judge Happy disagreed.

"Well, I do," Agatha snapped. "This is an exceedingly ineffectual way of doing things. How can there be any justice out of this mayhem?"

"How can there be any justice when there are ponies like you, Agatha, who are so jealous and spiteful as to imagine yourself sole recipient of a pony's affection," Dietrich spoke-up bitterly. "Your bond with Faline must be weak indeed if you fear losing it to another so badly."

The Bushwoolies stared at each other, and finally Judge Happy decreed, "Okay, okay. We'll figure something out, yeah. Offense and defense, come up here for a meeting. Yeah!"

The four ponies made their way to the bench, and Agatha just continued the bickering that had been begun before. "How dare you accuse me of such a thing, Dietrich!" Agatha said heatedly. "I only fear the underhanded means you and your wife may employ to turn her against me! I have been with Faline since the day she was born; it is quite obvious that I have a higher claim to her than do you, who missed nearly the first three years of her life!"

"And if we could have been here then you may be sure we would have been!" Dietrich snapped. "Unfortunately you're too close-minded to consider extraneous circumstances!"

"They do have a point there, Agatha," Hubert conceded. "Being held captive by Yetis is no easy situation to escape once you have incurred their wrath."

"Let me do the talking, Hubert!" Agatha said irritably.

"Oh, Agatha," Caprice sniffled, "why did you have to do this to our family? We could all have been happy without this trouble! If, but for the sake of our children, let us declare an end to this hostility!"

"All you need is love! Yeah!" Judge Happy finally intervened, standing up in his chair and spreading his arms wide.

In unison, all the Bushwoolies in the audience started humming and weaving back and forth in their seats. Happy, Bouncer, Funny, Earnest, and all the jury members joined hands and started dancing in a circle while singing:

"All you need is love.
All you need is love.
All you need is love, love.
Love is all you need.

All you need is love (all together, now!)
All you need is love. (everybody!)
All you need is love, love.
Love is all you need (love is all you need).

Oh yeah!
She loves you, yeah yeah yeah.
She loves you, yeah yeah yeah."

"Bushwoolies, compose yourselves!" Agatha cried out, not being able to contain herself any longer. "You're supposed to be making a decision!"

"Decision, yeah, yeah. Decision," the Bushwoolies mumbled, breaking up the "meeting" and returning to their seats.

With great dignity, Judge Happy banged the gavel and announced, "Done here! Court adjourned!"

"That's all?" Agatha said in shock. "Aren't you going to declare them guilty?"

"Nope, yeah, yeah," Judge Happy said cheerfully. "Case done. Now we party! Party, food, yeah!"

"Party, food, yeah!" the rest of the Bushwoolies echoed, and another exodus to the doors was made. Soon the ponies were left by themselves again.

"Well, the voice of justice has spoken," Dietrich said drily, breaking the silence.

"Thank goodness it's over!" Caprice said in heartfelt thanks.

"I knew no good would come from the Bushwoolies Court!" Agatha fumed. "How dare Queen Serena direct me here instead of hearing the case herself!"

"Well, I'm with the Bushwoolies," Hubert declared, making for the door himself. "I'm heading for the Satin Slipper Sweet Shoppe for some food."

"But Agatha, this is wonderful!" Caprice said, quickly emerging from her despondent state. "Surely you won't go against the court's decision. We're both completely justified in spending time with Faline, so there's nothing to hold against one another!"

"That isn't what I got out of it," Agatha muttered, angrily stalking after her husband.

* * *
On Sunday evening, a rather tearful Caprice met the return of her son and daughter-in-law. "Oh, thank goodness you're back!" she cried out. "While you've been gone- well, it's so confusing and painful to tell you- I've been so beside myself!"

"What happened, Mother?" Thomas asked, all solicitude.

"Oh, Tabby, I feel guilty having to say these things about your mother," Caprice sniffled, "but-"

"My mother? What did she do this time, Caprice?" Tabby said, with sinking heart.

"Well, it was on Saturday, and the Bushwoolies came.." With effort the whole story came out, of Agatha's radical approach to the problem and the outcome of the bizarre court case. Tabby was not really concerned with the verdict, only with her mother's most disgraceful actions taken to such an embarrassing degree!

"I am so sorry, Caprice," Tabitha said, humbling herself before her mother-in-law. "It is exceedingly mortifying and enraging to me to learn to what heights my own flesh and blood will go to cause conflict and infamy. Can you ever forgive me?"

"Oh, Tabby, it's not your fault," Caprice said helplessly. "And I don't want to come between you and your family. I of all ponies should know what heartache comes out of that! I would have spared you the telling of this if I didn't know you'd be bound to find out about it anyway..."

"Of course you did the right thing, Caprice," Tabby, who had gone quite white with suppressed rage at her mother, said. "And rest assured that that is not my mother. Not the one I remember, at least. Not the one I remember..." Her eyes showed anger mixed with infinite sorrow, and with that she left the room before she was overcome with any more emotion.

* * *
"Agatha," Thomas said bluntly upon being admitted into his mother-in-law's mansion, "we have to talk."

"Why, certainly," Agatha smiled warily. She could guess what this was about. Nevertheless, she would stand her ground. "You and Tabitha are both well? Your trip was enjoyable, I trust?"

"Very," said Thomas wanly. "And I have heard reports about your own adventures of this weekend."

"Oh, have you," Agatha said, feigning indifference. "And you are here to reprimand me, I suppose."

"Throwing accusations at one another will hardly resolve anything," Thomas stated. "So I will say no more on that point, no matter the disappointments now held on either side."

"That sounds reasonable," Agatha said crisply. "The less said of it the better."

"Nevertheless," Thomas went on, "I am concerned about Tabby's current state of mind. To be blunt, she is quite furious with you and I can't see that mind-set changing anywhere in the near future as long as she is in your company. In her condition I especially cannot like the state of stress she is in."

"And what would you suggest to rectify the matter, if I may ask?"

"You do like to travel, don't you? An extended vacation in another country wouldn't be seen as unusual."

"Leave? Now? Impossible!" Agatha protested vehemently. "I will not allow you to dictate my actions in this manner!"

"It was solely a suggestion. For the sake of your daughter and grandchild, though, it is worth thinking about, at least."

"Well, perhaps there might be something in it after all," Agatha concluded reluctantly after several minutes' pause. "Quite clearly there is nothing I can do to change Tabitha's mind, as I have tried everything possible. Perhaps after a separation of a time she will be ready to see things more clearly."

"Indeed," Thomas said ambiguously.

"You understand, of course, that even if I should take this 'extended vacation', as you put it, I will return in time for the baby to be born," Agatha went on sharply.

"But of course, I would expect no less," Thomas said wryly. "I will leave you, then, to think over your plans for the future. I trust we will be on easier terms the next we see each other. Good day." And with that, he took his leave.

Agatha stood there for some time, tapping her hoof thoughtfully on the tile floor. Finally she came to a decision and wheeled around and headed for her husband's study on the second floor, where he was sure to be found.

"Hubert," she announced to him suddenly after throwing open the door, "what would you say to taking an extended stay in Vulcanopolis?"

It did initially cross Hubert's mind to ask "why?", but this was soon crowded out as the possibilities that such a destination held occurred to him. "Vulcanopolis?" he echoed. "Within easy access to the Pompeii ruins! Excellent idea, Agatha, excellent! Just the thing to devote my studies to next!"

Agatha smiled grimly. "Lovely. I will start making arrangements immediately." And she exited the room and headed for the phone.

Dinner, Dancing, and Diamonds
by Sugarberry (

"It's very sweet of you two to help Pampas babysit," grinned Sunny at the two stallions she had just been introduced to, both of whom grimaced at the designation of "sweet" being used to describe them. "I'm sure you can think of more exciting things to do."

"After a hard day of work, collapsing on the sofa with some popcorn seems mighty appealing," the orange-maned pony replied.

"But you're staying with Roy's parents, aren't you?" queried the mare, looking from one to the other, her gaze settling finally on Roy.

"Have you ever met my mother, Sunny?"

"No, I haven't had the pleasure."

"Well, you might not find the experience such a pleasure," grinned Roy. "She has a sharp tongue; so even though she insisted that Dangler and I stay at the house while we're working on the library renovation, she's constantly letting us know just how much our presence is putting her out."

"She's a great cook though," Dangler added justly.

"How's your dad doing now that he's back to work?" Pampas asked of Roy.

"You'd never know he'd been laid-up. And because he's not around the house convalescing, Mom has even more time to harp on me and Dangler... just like when we were colts."

"I think you're being too hard on your mother," Sunny remarked, giving in to Mesquite's whining for a cookie. "I'll bet you put her through any number of trying times over the years."

"You've got a point there, but she was the reason that Dangler and I moved out-of-town to open our remodeling business when we were finished with school."

Their occupation being carpentry work, Dangler and Roy had become acquainted with Pampas, who was in a related field, while working on the library improvement project. It was Dangler's casually asked question of Pampas if he knew a mare in Dream Valley named Adalee that had precipitated Pampas' invitation of the two friends to spend the evening with him while Sunny went out. Although Dangler did not divulge whether his query was prompted by a desire to see the mare or to avoid her- he had, in fact, clammed up when he learned that Pampas was actually a neighbor of the mare- Pampas was not above giving fate a little nudge, just to see what fireworks might ensue.

"Well, you guys have fun," Sunny said, giving her husband a quick kiss and little Mesquite a warm hug. "I should be home by ten."

* * *
As Pampas suspected would happen, Sunny did not come home alone. As she had intended to walk with Adalee to the performance by the high school drama club, Pampas was fairly sure that Adalee would stop in for a snack before continuing on to her own apartment next door. The two mares arrived, laughingly discussing the play they had seen; but Pampas was quick to note the bemused look that settled on Adalee's face when she glanced at the company and noted who was there.

It was Sunny, who knew nothing of any prior connection between Adalee and Dangler, who made the introductions, first to Roy, then to Dangler.

"Hi, Adalee," Dangler greeted. Then to the others, he explained, "We met last Christmas when her nephew took an unauthorized walk in the park." With a grin for the apricot-colored mare, he asked, "How is Tommy doin'?"

"T... Tommy's as energetic as ever," Adalee found her voice to say. "W... what brings you back to Dream Valley?"

As Roy and Dangler described their part in the remodeling project at the library, Sunny helped Pampas set out cookies and milk; and soon everyone was sitting informally around the kitchen table. Mesquite, hearing the sound of Adalee's voice from where he had fallen asleep on the couch, groggily came to find her, crawled up onto her lap, grabbed a cookie, then fell back to sleep nestled cozily in her forelegs.

Under the pretext of prying the now crumbling cookie out of Mequite's small hoof, Adalee did not participate in the conversation going on around her; her mind drifted back to that chance meeting with Dangler over a month ago. She had enjoyed their impromptu sledding excursion with Tommy more than she cared to admit and had hoped that the stallion had enjoyed it, too. But she had received no further word from him.

More annoying yet, she had overheard Roy's mother talking at the grocery store about Dangler's recent engagement. That information had stifled any hopes Adalee had left for a further acquaintance with the stallion. Now, seeing him again, she could only regret more deeply the missed opportunity.

"Here, let me take Mesquite off your hooves," Pampas offered, coming to take the foal from Adalee's grasp. "I'll put him to bed."

"Oh, it is getting late!" Adalee was startled out of her reverie. "I should be getting home, too."

"I could walk with you," Dangler was quick to suggest.

"Yeah, we should head home; Mom will be sitting up waiting for us, even though she warned us not to make any noise when we came in that might disturb her sleep," Roy chuckled.

Dangler looked annoyed that Roy would make a threesome when he would have much rather had a chance to talk with Adalee alone, but there was not much he could do at the moment that would not appear very rude or embarrassingly obvious. So it ensued that both he and Roy walked Adalee the short distance to her apartment door and bade her goodnight.

* * *
"Pampas thinks Dangler is sweet on you," Sunny informed Adalee the following evening. Pampas was going to be late getting home, and Sunny and Mesquite had called on Adalee to talk over the previous evening.

The mare snorted. "Dangler's engaged," she stated emphatically.

"He couldn't be!"

"Well, he is. I heard it straight from Roy's mother one day at the grocery store."

"I didn't realize you knew Sadie," Sunny puzzled.

"I don't, personally. But she was talking to someone while I was shopping, and she conveyed the news that Dangler had proposed to some mare on Christmas Eve."

"That doesn't make sense. He's told Pampas that neither he nor Roy have anyone special in their life."

"Which is a good example of the old adage, 'Out of sight, out of mind,'" sniffed Adalee, tossing her minty mane in defiance.

Sunny was in the middle of her defense of Dangler when the phone rang, and Adalee went to answer it.

"Hi, Adalee. It's me, Dangler; and I was wondering if you'd like to catch a movie at the theater tonight.'

Adalee shot a speculative glance at Sunny while covering the receiver with her hoof. "Dangler," she whispered; then talking into the mouthpiece, she sweetly acquiesced. "Sure. I've nothing better to do."

"Great! I'll pick you up about seven, then?"

"Sounds fine. See ya."

As she set the receiver back in its cradle, Adalee cast a brittle smile at Sunny. "Before this night's over, I'll know all there is to know about Dangler's fiancee."

* * *
Adalee tried, she really tried, not to be drawn in by Dangler's devastating smile or his charming manners, but she failed completely. By the time the movie was over and they were on their way to the Café Carousel for a slice of lemon pie and some hot coffee, the mare was as infatuated with the stallion as she had been on the day of their first encounter. The month that had elapsed seemed not to have intervened. They had settled into a comfortable camaraderie that felt completely right to Adalee.

Once they were seated with their desserts, however, Adalee knew that she could delay the inevitable no longer. Taking a deep breath, she asked as dispassionately as possible, "I've heard that you proposed to your sweetheart on Christmas Eve."

Chagrined, Dangler dropped his gaze momentarily, then lifted his head to face Adalee squarely. "Yes, I did."

Adalee's heart plummeted to her hooves, but before she could gather her thoughts to make a congratulatory remark, Dangler continued. "It was the best thing that ever happened to me when she turned me down."

"T... turned y... you d... down?" Adalee's violet eyes widened in disbelief. She thought back to the day she had overheard Sadie and another mare discussing this topic at the grocery store and now remembered that the two mares had gone out of her hearing with Sadie's last statement of Dangler asking the mare to marry him; she had not heard what the answer had been, but why would that answer not have been yes?

"She'd met someone on one of her business trips who had promised her the world. All I could give her was a home and my heart." The stallion grinned. "I was devastated all of thirty-two hours; then I met you." He reached across the table and lightly touched her hoof.

For a moment, Adalee could do nothing but stare into his eyes; then she flushed and averted her gaze. When she had regained her composure, she asked, "Did you truly love her?"

Dangler sat back in his chair and sighed. "I thought I did." He raked a hoof through his hair. "Roy, Trisha, and I were always the best of friends; we grew up here in Dream Valley and put our parents through every form of deviltry we could devise. When Roy and I made our break from home, we did some research and decided Stableton was in need of some good resident carpenters; so we moved there. Trisha followed us when an advertising agency needed a good copywriter. She said life was too boring without Roy and me to liven things up."

"So you were just good friends all that time?"

"Yeah, I guess you could say that. Then last summer my brother took the plunge and got married; I saw how happy he was, and it got me to thinking that maybe it wouldn't be such a bad idea to settle down. And Trisha was, well, convenient."

"And you decided a diamond would make your Christmas shopping a breeze."

"Something like that... rather foolish, huh?"

Trying to look at the situation fairly, Adalee mused, "It sounds like a natural outcome of such a close and long-standing friendship." She squinted and a mischievous smile lighted her face. "Were you and Roy ever at odds as to who would win the mare?"

Shaking his head in the negative, Dangler explained. "Roy is adamant that he'll never get himself shackled to a managing female like his dad did. His sister isn't much better than Sadie, either. He doesn't want to run the risk of choosing unwisely... says you can never be sure until it's too late."

"I suppose there's some truth to that," grinned Adalee.

"And I suppose it depends on which female it is that's doing the managing," Dangler grinned back.

* * *
The following morning, Saturday, Dangler was awakened early by a none-too-pleased Sadie. "Trisha's in the front parlor wantin' to talk to you," she grumbled.

"Tri-sa?" Dangler moaned from his bed, rubbing the sleep from his eyes. He was silent a moment, then sat up quickly and barked, "Trisha?"

"In the flesh," Sadie snapped.

"What's she doin' here?" Dangler's eyes looked rather glazed.

"I didn't ask," drawled Sadie. "I've got no time for entertainin' your guest." The mare turned and left.

Grumbling, Dangler crawled out of bed, ran a hoof through his mane, and hurried downstairs. He did not fully believe Sadie until he entered the parlor to find Trisha pacing impatiently in front of the picture window. Before Dangler could so much as say good morning, the mare got down to business.

"I've decided to accept your proposal after all, Dangler. Where's the ring?"

Tongue-tied with shock, Dangler could do no more than stutter, "Th... the ring? I... I took it back."

"You took it back?" Disbelief showed on Trisha's face, then satisfaction. "No problem. Now I can choose one that I like."

"B... but you..."

"Don't worry! You can afford it!" Her face grew dreamy. "I'm thinkin' somethin' big and very sparkly." She hugged the stallion. "Everyone'll think you have excellent taste in diamonds! I'm going over to the mall right now and see what Sparkler has available. I'll talk to you later!" With a kiss to his cheek, Trisha was gone.

Dangler watched the door close and groaned. "Trish, I don't want to marry you!" Running a shaking hoof through his mane, he plopped down on the couch, confused and angry. "I'd rather marry Adalee!" he whispered.

Sadie came in from the kitchen, a mixing bowl and spoon in her hooves, and looked around the room. "Who you talkin' to? Trisha's gone."

"Tell me I only dreamed she was here," Dangler pleaded.

Sadie did not pretend that she had not heard the entire exchange between the two ponies. "It was worse than a dream, Dangler. The way I see it, it was a nightmare." With what could only be called a cackle, she returned to her baking.

* * *
Adalee was in alt. Not only was she to see Dangler tonight for bowling with Roy and several other ponies, he had already claimed a dinner date with her for the following Saturday, Valentine's Day.

Having learned that Dangler had not gotten himself involved in a Christmas engagement had opened a dreamy future for Adalee, and she was not about to waste a minute of it. Feeling in perfect harmony with the world, she had accepted her sister's last-minute invitation to spend the morning with her and the energetic Tommy at the mall. After all, her reason for moving to Dream Valley over a year ago was to be closer to her sister, Caralee, whose husband had been transferred to a new job in Dream Valley the previous year.

The two mares were currently perusing the merchandise at Lemon Treats' Boutique while Tommy tugged at Adalee's forehoof, begging her to take him to the toy store, when Adalee, as if sensing the stallion's presence, glanced up to see Dangler, who was looking neither right nor left, hurrying past the entrance of the shop. Knowing that her sister would spend at least another half-hour debating the merits of each and every hat on display, Adalee informed her that she would be back in a minute and took off after Dangler with Tommy trailing behind.

Dangler's hurried steps had already taken him far down the corridor, but Adalee noted the store that he suddenly entered; it was Sparkler's Jewelry Store. She fought an intense battle with herself on the propriety of chasing after a stallion to such a destination- she had to admit that Dangler appeared to be quite determined in his errand- but her curiosity was now engaged, so she kept on the trail.

When she rounded on the entrance to the jewelry store, she wished she had stayed in bed this fine morning. The scene upon which she became an unwilling spectator was of Dangler sharing a very warm hug with an attractive baby-blue mare, her canary yellow hair cascading over the stallion's shoulder. And on her left foreleg, plainly visible to Adalee, was a sparkling diamond.

As Dangler had described Trisha the evening before, Adalee had no doubt as to the identity of the mare he now held in his forelegs. As dismayed as she was at what she was seeing, she could not move her eyes from the sight. As she stood there, motionless, Dangler felt that burning gaze and looked her way. Their eyes met only briefly before Adalee found the ability to flee, dragging an unwilling Tommy with her. The colt had recognized his friend and would have liked to spend some time with him.

Dangler was left with an unwanted burden in his forelegs and the memory of the undeniable anguish he had seen in Adalee's eyes. Before he could address this latest fiasco, however, he had Trisha to contain.

* * *
"Trisha, put the ring back on the counter. You and I have to talk."

"If it's the price, I'll help pay for it," Trisha pouted.

"It's not the price... entirely." Dangler shuddered, however, having seen the numbers. He smiled apologetically at Sparkler. "Maybe another time." Grasping Trisha's foreleg, he led her from the store while she continued to cast longing glances back at the cases of glittering gems. The stallion did not release her until they reached the relatively quiet food court where he settled the mare in a chair and took the one next to her for himself.

"Trisha, when I proposed to you on Christmas Eve, you turned me down flat."


Dangler raised a hoof for silence. "Not only that, you gloated over your good fortune in having discovered the perfect stallion. I believe you indicated that no one would ever be able to come near him in your estimation. What happened?"

A stubborn look settled on Trisha's pretty face. "He took off for Vulcanopolis yesterday for an extended stay, breaking our date for Valentine's Day."

"And..." prodded Dangler.

"What more do you want?" Trisha growled. "The most romantic day of the year, and he deserted me!"

"That's it?"

"He left me without a date for Valentine's Day after promising me an elegant dinner in Hayton and our attendance at the Valentine Ball there. Instead, he runs off to some faraway place for ten days and leaves me all alone."

"What? He's such a loose fish that he has a mare in every port... or what?"

"Really, Dangler" Trisha rolled her eyes. "Marty's not so rude as that."

"So what's he doing in Vulcanopolis?"

"I told you at Christmas that he's a buyer for Tatters."

"So this was a business trip?"


"So what's the problem? The guy has to make a living if you expect dinner, dancing, and diamonds."

"But over Valentine's Day?" Flabbergasted, the mare looked at Dangler as if he was suddenly a complete loon.

"Are you saying you decided to marry me because this Marty had to cancel a date with you?"

Trisha gave it several moments thought, then grinned. "Bare bones... yes. I wanted to show him that he couldn't take me for granted."

"You were using me to get at him? Well, then, I have no qualms in telling you that I retract my proposal. I don't want to marry you after all, Trisha."

"Then why did you propose in the first place?"

"I want a home and a family. We've known each other forever, and you seemed as good as choice as anyone to settle down with."

"I'm flattered," Trisha smirked.

"Maybe we've both taken advantage of our long-standing friendship. Thanks for saying no."

Trisha finally made the connection. "Hey, if you've changed your mind about marrying me, that means you must have met someone else!"

"That's another story."

"Tell me!"

"I'm not sure yet that she'll have me; so to spare my pride, I'd rather not talk about her right now."

"I told you about Marty."

"And Cockpit and Slinger and Mooch and..."

"Enough already. Is your special mare here in Dream Valley?"

Dangler looked heavenward. "Forget it, Trisha. Are you staying at your folks? Let me walk you home." The stallion stood up, anxious to leave. It was urgent that he make contact with Adalee and explain the scene she had seen in the jewelry shop.

Trisha pushed back her chair. "Okay. Walk me home. But don't think for a minute that I'm going to give you any peace about the identity of your latest flame."

"Peace? From you? I'm not stupid, Trish."

* * *
With a potted flower arrangement in one hoof, Dangler knocked on Adalee's door and tapped a second hoof impatiently, wishing her to hurry so that he could get this explanation over with. After what seemed an eternity of time, the door finally did open; and Adalee stood before him.

Every line he had rehearsed on the walk over deserted him. "Hi." So maybe I am stupid, he chided himself. Remembering the flowers, he held them out to her. "For you." Then he accidentally did the best thing he could do... he smiled. As it always did, that simple action melted Adalee's heart.

"Thank you." Unable to resist, she returned the smile and moved aside to allow him entrance.

"The florist said the blue flowers act as a messenger." He pointed at the dwarf iris in the bouquet, "and the white ones represent hope. After that scene at the jewelry store, I'm hoping you'll let me explain what happened."

"I won't deny that it first seemed to disprove everything you told me last night." The mare sighed. "But when I looked back on it more rationally, I realized that you didn't appear to be as elated as Trisha was. For the life of me, though, I can't figure out what was taking place if that wasn't your engagement ring she was wearing."

"Well, sit down and get comfortable. This rendering may take awhile."

* * *
"Why didn't you just tell Trisha flat-out that you'd changed your mind when she came to see you this morning?" Adalee asked after hearing the story.

"Getting awakened by Sadie doesn't put a stallion in the best frame of mind," Dangler chuckled. "I wasn't thinking straight when Trisha hit me with her intent; once you get to know Trisha, you'll realize that she can be a whirlwind when she's fired-up. She didn't give me a chance to say a word."

Adalee sniffed the snowdrops and the iris that she still held in her hoof and met Dangler's eyes over the white and blue petals. "Are you sure she understands that the two of you aren't engaged now?"

"She understands perfectly, and she's dying to meet you. If I know Trish, she's badgering Roy right now about your identity; and it's a good bet that she'll finagle herself into our plans for tonight so that she can see you for herself."

"I look forward to meeting her, too... I think." A glance at the clock gave Adalee an idea. "Cara expected me to stay with her and Tommy for lunch, and I sort-of deserted her after the jewelry store." She crinkled her nose, remembering her sister's dismay over the disjointed excuse she had given to cover her harried exit and Tommy's squeals of anguish at losing his ordinarily amenable aunt. "We could still meet her and Tommy at the food court in time for lunch," she suggested hopefully.

The mare did not have to twist Dangler's foreleg as the stallion himself was thinking fast for a way to extend their time together even further. "And we could take Tommy sledding this afternoon," he offered.

"Tommy will be thrilled when he finds out!" Adalee jumped to her hooves, setting the flowers on the nearest table. "I'll be ready in a minute."

Watching the mare as she left the room, Dangler smiled appreciatively. Apricot and mint were beautiful colors for a pony. And speaking of colors... what had the florist said? That red roses expressed love? He would have to remember to order a dozen of those for Valentine's Day, and maybe a supper club with dancing would be appropriate as well... by Trisha's standards, anyway. He grimaced as he recalled the importance in which she held dinner, dancing, and diamonds.

A diamond... that might be presumptuous at this point, he realized; but in the not-too-distant future, it held definite possibilities. A smile returned to the stallion's face. The idea of spending the rest of his life with Adalee was much more satisfying than his earlier ill-conceived notion of marrying Trisha.

As Adalee returned to the room with a perky blue bow in her hair and a delicate scent of vanilla surrounding her, Dangler got to his hooves, a besotted a look on his face. Yes, he could certainly go for a lifetime of beautiful memories with this mare by his side.

Happy St. Valentine's Day!
by Clever Clover (

Clever Clover leapt aside as Minoko's energy ball streaked toward him. The red orb changed direction to follow him. He raised his axe and batted the attack aside. The energy orb impacted a snowbank, vaporizing it. Clever Clover then raised his axe and charged Minoko. He swung the axe in a mighty arc, but Minoko disappeared. She reappeared behind the purple prince and thrust with her unicorn horn of pure magical energy. Clever Clover parried the attack and launched one of his own, but failed to connect. The two ponies charged each other. Energy horn clashed with steel axe.

"You're getting better, Clever Clover."

Clever Clover lowered his axe. "You too, Minoko. What do you say we call it a day?"

"Sure. After a good workout out in the cold, I could go for some cuddling in front of a nice, warm fire."

"Ah, I'm not sure about that." Clever Clover trotted across the snowy field to where Belle Star and Morning Glory were sparring. "How's it coming along?"

"Oh, we're doing fine!" reported Belle Star enthusiastically.

Morning Glory nodded. "Yes. I'm really getting the hang of this."

"How'd you all like to grab a bite to eat?"

* * *
Across town, ponies went about their daily business as usual, barely noticing the large stallion wearing a wolf's pelt draped over his shoulders. The wolf-clad stallion stood in the middle of the lane and looked about in annoyance. He lifted his mighty hoof and dropped it with such force that the earth shook. Now, the ponies of Friendship Garden stared with awe and fear at the strange stallion. He grinned a wolf-fanged grin. "Good. Now dat I have your attention, vill somevone tell me vere to find da prince called Clever Clover?" No one answered; some fled in terror.

"Very vell den, I'll have to make him come to me." The giant stallion lowered his head and charged a nearby house. He struck with such force as to reduce it to splinters. The stallion walked from the wreckage unscathed. "Go! Tell Clever Clover dat Volfgang has come for him!"

* * *
Before long, a crowd of panicked ponies reached the restaurant where Clever Clover and company relaxed. Minoko looked around at the fleeing masses. "Wonder what's got them so worked up?" she mumbled.

Just then, Ivy came running in. "Oh! Clever Clover! There you are! There is a huge pony smashing houses across town! He says he's looking for you!"

"Wha!? A huge pony? He wouldn't happen to be wearing a wolf skin, would he?"

"Uh, as a matter of fact, I think he was."

"Oh!" Belle Star gasped. "It must be Wolfgang!"

"You mean one of those losers that Nightshade broke out of Kuramitsu Fortress?"

Clever Clover stood up. "That's the one. I guess we'd better take care of this before he causes too much damage."

And so the foursome, still armed from their sparring earlier, set out to face Wolfgang. They circled around the outskirts of town in hopes of luring Wolfgang out of the city. It didn't take them long to find him; the giant made no effort to hide himself. It didn't take long for Wolfgang to spot them, either.

"Vell, it took you long enough. Now ve vill see vhat you are made of."

The four friends stood side by side to face the mighty wolf-clad stallion. "Vhat's dis? I thought you goody two shoes types alvays fought fair."

Clever Clover shrugged. "I don't know; I'd say, pound for pound, we're pretty evenly matched."

"Ha ha ha! I like you, prince. Too bad I have to kill you now."

Clever Clover held his axe at the ready. "Heh, I'd like to see you try."

Wolfgang lowered his head and grinned. Then, faster than Clever Clover's eyes could follow, he rushed the purple prince. Almost before he knew what was happening, Belle Star threw herself between Clever Clover and his assailant at the last second. Wolfgang's massive forehoof caught Belle Star in the mid-section. The force of the blow sent her flying into a deep snowbank some distance away.

"Belle Star!" cried Clever Clover.

Wolfgang sought to take advantage of Clever Clover's distraction; but before he could act, Minoko head-butted the behemoth, knocking him off balance. Wolfgang lashed out at Minoko who leapt into the air where she floated safely out of reach of the giant. Clever Clover charged with his axe, but Wolfgang batted aside the ancient blade and kicked the purple prince in the gut. The wind knocked out of him, Clever Clover collapsed. Wolfgang reared up on his hind legs, preparing to drop his mighty steel-shod forehooves on the helpless prince; but before he could land the decisive blow, Minoko showered him with a barrage of red energy spheres.

While Wolfgang was distracted, Morning Glory rushed to Clever Clover's side, the holy sword of the Spirit Clan in hoof. The lupin giant struck his hoof against the ground with such force that a shower of dirt, stone, and ice shot up at Minoko, interrupting her attack. Then Wolfgang turned to Clever Clover and Morning Glory. He struck at them with all his might, but his hooves merely slid off of the invisible barrier from Morning Glory's sword.

Clever Clover was recovering from the blow he had taken and had regained his hooves. But Wolfgang was not deterred. He struck the ground again, shaking it so violently that Clever Clover almost fell over again. The purple prince pulled himself up to his full height, which was still barely half that of Wolfgang. An orb of blue energy appeared above Clever Clover's forehead. It settled onto his brow and a whorled horn sprang forth. He charged Wolfgang, striking him with enough force to drive him back several yards, but the giant maintained his footing. Clever Clover charged again, catching Wolfgang's head in a pincer between his horn and axe, but Wolfgang shrugged it off and struck back. Clever Clover fell to his knees. As Wolfgang was about to land another attack, the prince rolled to his right and sprung to his hooves once more.

Clever Clover, barely able to lift his axe, surveyed the situation. Minoko hovered just out of Wolfgang's reach; her attacks had to this point been little more than an annoyance to the behemoth. Morning Glory hid behind her holy sword's barrier, safe from harm but unable to launch any sort of attack. Wolfgang swaggered arrogantly toward the purple prince.

"So, you are the mighty prince dat has been giving Jack O Lantern so much trouble? I don't see vhat all the fuss vhas about."

Clever Clover struggled to lift his axe over his head. "Oh, I think you're about to find out just what kind of a fuss we can make. Minoko! Heads up!" The purple prince hurled his axe with all his might, right past Wolfgang.

"Vhat? You tink dat I vill spare you just because you have trown away your veapon?"

Clever Clover grinned defiantly. "I think...that you should look behind you."

"Come, come, prince. I vill not fall for such an old trick."

But if he had turned, he would have seen Minoko catch Clever Clover's magical axe with tendrils of magic from her forehead. Then the axe seemed to melt, the wooden handle and metal blade twisting together, taking on the form of a whorled horn. The axe-turned-horn settled onto the pirate pony's forehead with a noise like thunder that shook the very Earth. Minoko's eyes glowed a fiery red as she lowered the horn toward Wolfgang. Then an aura of flame erupted around her body as she dove, striking the ground in front of the giant, causing an eruption of rock and fire with such force that it drove even the mighty Wolfgang back three times as far as Clever Clover's attack.

"Vhat's dis? Von of you developed a backbone? Dis might be more fun dan I expected."

Minoko's cold gaze betrayed no emotion. A wave of energy shot out from the horn, throwing Wolfgang like a rag-doll.

The lupin giant cried out in rage. "I vill destroy you!" He charged Minoko who stood her ground, unflinching. She batted him aside with the horn as easily as one would brush aside a blade of grass. The mighty behemoth landed with a mighty thud. Minoko stood over him and leveled the horn at his face.

"Now, I'll send you to the next dimension."

A sphere of darkness enveloped Wolfgang and vanished, along with him. Minoko reared back her head and surveyed the area with fiery eyes.

Morning Glory cautiously lowered her sword and walked over to Clever Clover. "What just happened?"

"I'm not exactly sure. I think we won, but that looked like Jack O Lantern's teleportation spell. Minoko might have gotten the better of Wolfgang, but he got away."

"Oh," Morning Glory leaned close to Clever Clover and whispered, "but are you sure it was a good idea to give Minoko your axe? She's more frightening than ever."

Minoko turned her fiery gaze to Morning Glory. Then the whorled horn untwisted and fell to the ground in its true form, that of an ancient axe. The fire faded from her eyes. "I'm glad that's over. How are you guys?"

Clever Clover's strange horn faded away. "We're fi...Belle Star!" Clever Clover rushed off to check on his fallen friend.

"Minoko," said Morning Glory. "I'm impressed that you were willing to give up such power..."

The pirate shrugged. "That was nothing compared to when I had my real horn. And Clever Clover's father was still able to get the better of me. Imagine what Clever Clover could be capable of."

Clever Clover dug through the snowbank until he uncovered Belle Star's still form. He shook her gently. "Belle Star, are you all right?"

Belle Star's eyes slowly opened. "Huh? Wha? Clever Clover? Is it morning already? It's awfully drafty in here."

"Ah, we were fighting Wolfgang, remember?"

Belle Star's expression went blank for a moment, then her eyes went wide with fright. "Oh! Oh! Wolfgang! Where is he?"

"Don't worry, we took care of him. But why did you throw yourself in front of Wolfgang like that?"

"I'm your bodyguard. It's my job to protect you."

"But...but if you get yourself killed...I don't think my life would be..."


"Well, Belle Star, there's something I've been wanting to say to you for a while now; but I just haven't been able to find the right words, and I haven't seen the ring since that New Year's party..."

"Huh? Ring? What are you talking about?"

Clever Clover helped Belle Star to her feet. "Oh, nothing. Forget I said anything."

"Okay! Gee, I didn't get to finish my dinner; I'm hungry."

"Yeah, I could go for a bite to eat too."

Silent Are the Bells
by Sugarberry (

Chapter 22 of 28
Harsh Truths

"This is so strange," Dorian muttered, running a hoof through his mane. "I can see the look of disbelief in everyone's eyes when I ask questions that I suppose I've asked in the past; it's really quite disconcerting." He leaned his head back in the chair and closed his eyes.

"All your clients understand," Sloan assured the stallion as he gathered up several used coffee cups. "You're a celebrity of sorts." He looked at Dorian closely. "Are you sure you should even be here at the office? You look kind of peaked. Maybe you should have waited until the cast comes off next week."

"Dr. Delaney said I should be able to manage half-days, and I'm actually more comfortable here than at home... and the time goes faster."

"Well, as it's now one o'clock, I suggest you call it a day."

"It's really that late?" the stallion asked in surprise. "What did I say! The time really does go faster!"

"We can head over to Grady's for lunch; the crush should be over by now."

"Sounds good," Dorian consented.

The two stallions escaped the office and beat a hasty retreat to the classy restaurant at the hotel. The maitre'd welcomed them and, learning that they were not to meet any clients, offered them a tip.

"Miss Manning has just been seated; should I inquire if she'd accept your company?"

Exchanging an almost guilty glance, both stallions agreed- although somewhat dully. Sloan was still suffering from regrets over his indiscreet blunder in becoming too transparent in his feelings for Brietta; and Dorian was feeling like a traitor in that he could not relinquish himself to the fate of matrimony to this- and he had to admit that she was beautiful and charming- mare.

Brietta, too, seemed to hold off Sloan and Dorian with a certain amount of reserve; but she smiled and said all the right things so that by the time the orders had been delivered, the three were on congenial terms once more. When the food had been amply enjoyed and the work at the office duly reviewed, however, an uncomfortable silence settled over their table. It was Brietta who garnered up the courage to address her particular interest.

"Dorian, if you have the afternoon to yourself, I was thinking that we could spend some time together visiting places that you and I frequented." She glanced forbiddingly at Sloan before going on with her idea. "It stands to reason that the physical surroundings might jostle your memory." She ignored the flinty look in Sloan's eyes and concentrated on Dorian's intensely blue but unreadable gaze.

"What about your appointments with clients?"

"There's been a cancellation, and I'm sure my father will help me out... for a worthy cause."

"Well, if that works, I guess I feel up to a walk down memory lane," Dorian quipped, wishing that he could manage some enthusiasm for the impending experiment. But he grinned at the mare, recognizing the import of his regaining those missing weeks in time.

* * *
"This was where we came for Egan and Kelli's anniversary celebration," drilled Brietta as she led Dorian into the old gymnasium that on this day stood empty and forlorn. "You remember them... they visited you at the hospital."

"I heard a few things about that party," Dorian acknowledged, a grin lighting his face. "A chorus dance on stage was one rumor."

"A well-founded rumor; you dance very well."

"That talent should be unhindered, once I get this foreleg out of the cast; we'll have to try it as soon as possible."

Brietta looked at the stallion with pleasure; his rejoinder showed a spark of his spontaneous response to life that was such a part of his mystique- a factor that so endeared him to her. She was encouraged enough that she forgot to use discretion in saying, "You danced with Finella that night, too." She had meant it as a jest, but she saw immediately that it conjured up a pleasing possibility in the stallion's mind.

"I did, did I?" he murmured, narrowing his eyes as if to better envision that scene.

Brietta immediately felt a chill pass over her, realizing it had been a stupid comment to make; anything she had gained with Dorian by coming here was now lost; she knew it by the smug expression that now rested on his face. How could this be happening? she chided herself. There was a time he had eyes only for me... now he sees nothing worthwhile when his gaze rests on me. It's Finella now... So unconsolable that she was afraid that tears would engulf her, Brietta made her way to the open doorway and went outside.

It was not the wisest move she could have chosen, for her memories of that earlier evening became painfully evident as she crossed the same manicured lawn that she had stumbled over in her frustration when Sloan had abruptly dismissed her- not once, but twice- against this same backdrop.

For a moment, she was so distraught that she thought she would go mad; it took all her resolve to face her predicament with a lawyer's calm understanding. Coming to the same tree that had proved a steady support in the past, she leaned against it heavily and drew a steadying breath, forcing herself to think clearly, to stoically allow the emotional upheaval to spend itself. I will not cry, she told herself.

The touch of Dorian's hoof on her shoulder was almost her undoing, but Brietta bit back the tears. "There are so many memories for me here, but none for you. It was a mistake to come." She dared not look at his face.

"I've let you down, haven't I?"

"I've been expecting a miracle," she admitted, finally allowing herself to direct her gaze to his eyes. "I love you so much."

The stallion held her gaze and, although it was not love he felt, he did experience a pang of sympathy that impelled him to gather her to him as best he could with one functioning foreleg; he kissed her forehead, then her nose, then found her lips. It was a noble effort, and Brietta responded in kind.

"I should thank you for that, I suppose," the mare breathed as she opened her eyes.

Dorian grinned. "It was mutually enjoyable, I think."

"Is there hope for us?"

"Time, Brietta; let's give it a little more time."

Brietta sighed. " Time..." she echoed. But how much time did she have before Finella wove her magic spell so securely that Dorian would be lost to her forever?

* * *
"You are coming to supper tonight at Whitehall Place, aren't you, Dorian?" Brietta asked between appointments. "Anna's very displeased that you backed out yesterday."

Dorian- his bruises fading, his abrasions healing, and his foreleg functioning once more- was beginning to look like his former healthy self; he had handled well the half-days at the office, and Dr. Delaney had allowed him to resume his normal schedule; Dorian had found activity to be the best medicine he could have had. His memory had not returned, but he was building a foundation of new remembrances to replace those that eluded him.

Grinning, Dorian responded lightly. "Does the meal include brownies?" Anna had done her part in reintroducing the stallion to all the foods that he had raved about before the time of his accident. If taste had proved to be a catalyst for regaining those months he had spent in Whitehall that had disappeared from his mental inventory, Dorian's amnesia itself would have been a forgotten memory.

"I believe she's making that disgustingly rich chocolate cake that you always rhapsodized about."

"I'll be there."

The meal had proved to be delightful, not only because of the good food but also because of the conversation. Dorian's renewed days at the office had allowed him to reacquaint himself with Conrad and Aiden so that he felt comfortable in their presence and enjoyed the verbal battles that Conrad liked to instigate. Lena contributed her motherly influence which Dorian seemed to appreciate; and Anna and Clarence insured a pleasant and comfortable setting.

Everyone was happy with Dorian's progress except Brietta, and she tried her best not to let her impatience show. She and Dorian were working together on a case that allowed Brietta plenty of time with the stallion, yet she sensed that their relationship was strictly that of colleagues. Granted, they were good friends up to a point, but she could not seem to nudge Dorian in the direction his feelings had once taken for her. So while smiling on the outside, Brietta felt a deep loss and a never-ending desolation that threatened to engulf her.

Dinner carried on in a leisurely fashion over dessert and coffee; and then Aiden and Conrad excused themselves to retire to their study, and Lena bustled off to go over her plans for a trip that she, Aiden, and Conrad were preparing to Grantsburg to attend an open house for a crony of Conrad's who was retiring. This allowed Brietta the pleasure of Dorian's complete and undivided attention, and she pounced on the opportunity at once so that the stallion would not have a chance to extricate himself from her grasp.

"Dorian, the designers have finished the bedroom and the kitchen and are nearly done with the living room; you've got to see how well the wall-coverings look now with all the trim in place." She steered him toward the sweeping staircase that led to the suite of rooms that would be their home-within-a-home after their wedding... if that ceremony ever took place.
"Maybe we should talk first."

Brietta, however, was already on her way up the flight of steps; and she ignored the hint of discomfort in Dorian's voice, going so far as pretending that she had not heard him at all. "When we were picking out the lighting for the kitchen, I wasn't sure your suggestions were appropriate; but now that the room is complete, I've found that you were right. And before you start preening, the fabrics I chose for the bedroom all match superbly, even if you doubted the use of pink; the teal sets it off to perfection and prevents it from becoming too prissy." Looking back to make sure he was following her, Brietta avoided eye contact for fear of what she might see. She, instead, kept up her running chatter.

"Shayla was here earlier in the week, and she was impressed with how well the living room was shaping up, considering I let you make all the decisions for that room. And don't pay any attention to the mess at the top of the stairs; the workmen put all their paraphernalia out of the way for the weekend, back against the bell tower door." Having gained the third floor where the work in question was occurring, Brietta stopped and turned to face Dorian. Her smile faltered when she saw the dispirited expression that met her.

"Brietta, we have to talk."

Feeling as if the wind had been knocked out of her, Brietta could only stare at Dorian for several moments; she knew her world was going to evaporate from around her if she did not do something. "Of course, we have to talk," she said as calmly as she could. Turning, she walked toward the developing living room. "There are still a million details to be worked..."

Dorian caught her foreleg, forcing her to look at him. "We have to face some facts, Brietta."

"Wh... what facts?"

"Important facts, like I have no recollection of being a part of this remodeling project nor do I remember committing myself to a marriage with you. I'm sorry if that sounds harsh, but it's the truth; and we both have to square up to it. The wedding is only a few weeks away, and a decision has to be made."

Feeling as if her insides were dissolving, Brietta tried to counter this rashness; but she could not get her mouth to form any words. She shook her head instead, trying to deny this confrontation. Dorian, however, was adamant.

"I know this is hard for you, but I can't force feelings that aren't there. Anything else I can do to help you through this, I'll do; but I can't love you."

"No! Don't say that!" Brietta heard her voice without being aware that she had vocalized her thoughts.

"I have to say it! We've been polite and considerate of one another's feelings for weeks now; but the bottom line is that due to that blasted concussion, I'm not the same stallion as I was before. You have to admit that I can't be held responsible for things that are out of my control."

Shaking her head as if that would negate his words, Brietta fought back. "But you are the same stallion; that's why I still love you so much! And if you loved me before, you can love me again. You said yourself that it might take time; that's all we need... is more time." She faltered, realizing the futility of her own argument.

"Under different circumstances, I might agree," said Dorian, running a hoof through his mane. "But as it is, I... well... I'm afraid that... Brietta, I'm afraid that it's Finella that I'm attracted to now."

There. It was said.

Brietta had seen it coming, but she could not believe the words now that they were spoken and hanging between them like a guillotine ready to separate them as cruelly and as irrevocably as that device was capable of doing. "Not Finella. You can't be serious," she whispered.

"Very serious. Finella and I..."

"But she and Sloan..."

"She and Sloan what? She assures me they are nothing more than friends."

"How can you believe that? She and Sloan have been inseparable since Sloan... first picked her up."

"Not according to Finella. And not according to what I've seen, either."

"What does that mean?"

"With my memory wiped clean as far as the ponies of Whitehall were concerned, I've been able to become acquainted with everyone all over again with no preconceived notions on what to expect. And although I've been told that Sloan is hot over Finella, I've seen no sign of it. As a matter of fact, I'd say that Sloan is more interested in you than either of you are willing to admit."

"That was true once... a long time ago! Not any more!"

"Brietta," Dorian said, placing a hoof on her foreleg, "stand back and look at this thing clearly. The stallion that I was when I proposed to you is gone now; I value your friendship and I admire you competence, but that's not love. I can't marry you under these conditions. I won't marry you, Brietta. Finella and I are in love now; and Sloan, I'm sure, still loves you. Do yourself a favor and take the blinders off."

"It's easy for you to stand there and order ponies lives around, isn't it? If you see things so clearly, then why do I feel like I'm dying inside?"

"Maybe because you've been lying to yourself, Brietta. Maybe way deep inside, you've known all along that you never stopped loving Sloan."

If Dorian's eyes had been blazing with anger or contempt or hatred, maybe it would not have hurt so badly; but Brietta could see that it was pity the stallion felt for her, and it made her blood boil. How could he stand there- so righteous!- and tell her what her heart was feeling? How dare he choose Finella over her? How dare he pretend to understand the situation better than she? How dare he!

In a blinding rage, Brietta looked down at the sparkling diamond that graced her foreleg; since Dorian's accident, it had been the one constant in her life... a symbol of all that awaited her if only she was patient and true. Now... With one violent swipe, she removed the ring, and hurled it to the floor.

"Take it and yourself out of my sight!" she spat, glaring at him as if by sheer willpower she could annihilate him.

Reaching down to retrieve the precious jewel, Dorian attempted to sooth the mare's violent response. "Brietta, once you've thought this through- given it some time- you'll see I'm right."

"Get out!" she reiterated. "Now!"

Seeing the fire in her eyes, Dorian turned to go. When he reached the top of the stairs, he turned to look once more at the mare, but she had already disappeared into one of the rooms behind her. Not wanting to leave her in such distress, he took a step to go in search of her, then thought better of the idea. She was too angry and hurting to listen to anything he could say at this moment. The discarded ring in hoof, Dorian walked down the stairs.

* * *
"Brietta?" Lena's voice was tense and questioning as she poked her head first into one room and then into another. Not a sound could she hear from the apartment that smelled of fresh paint and new carpeting, but she knew her daughter must be here somewhere. Lena stifled a moan as she considered the decisive turn Brietta's life had just taken. Never had she expected to hear those words from Dorian when he had come to the parlor where she, Aiden, and Conrad were relaxing, yet she had seen on his face that something was not right.

"Brietta and I have called off the wedding," he had said, his voice firm but not quite his own.

Aiden had jumped to his hooves while Conrad had not so much as set down his book; it was left for Lena to exclaim, "Dorian, no!" Her heart thumped heavily.

"I'm sorry. I had to tell Brietta that I... that I've come to realize that she and I will never be able to regain the relationship we once shared."

"But..." Lena began, but Dorian raised a hoof to command silence.

"I had to be honest with her now before the wedding gets any closer; my memory has not returned and there's no guarantee that it ever will. I hated to hurt her, but it was time for her to let go of the impossible dream she was clinging to. She returned my ring." He looked at the jewel glittering in his hoof. "She was very angry when she dismissed me, but I'm afraid that she needs someone to talk to rationally. Lena..."

No more needed to be said. Lena had rushed from the room to offer what support she could, leaving the chore of seeing Dorian out of the house to her husband.

Having tried all the rooms but one, Lena entered the small alcove that abutted the master bedroom, the niche that Brietta and Dorian had teased one another over since Lena's suggestion that it would make an excellent nursery. The room had not been included in the intense redecorating project as Brietta had said that she wanted to wait until it was needed before she made any decisions as to how to embellish it. Lena now found the mare standing desolately before the window, her head resting against the cool glass, her eyes staring but not seeing.


"Dorian's gone, Mother, and he's not coming back." Her words were hollow.

"He told us..."

A rasping laugh came from the mare. "How very noble of him."

"He was worried about you."

"Was he? He has a strange way of showing it."

Lena stepped closer to her daughter. Being familiar with Brietta's emotional reactions in the past, she was disturbed now by the placid demeanor that the young mare was presenting; she had expected to find her engulfed in tears- or ranting and raving- and found this eerie calm unsettling. Refusing to face the truth now would only prolong the inevitable. "This has been a shock to you, my darling. Let's sit down and talk about it."

"I've imagined the foals that would have populated this room, Mother," Brietta said, continuing her trance-like stare out the window. "Isn't it strange? I thought Dorian would be the perfect father. I loved him... I loved him. But it was all an illusion."

"Dorian didn't ask for this to happen, Brietta. If that Hazard hadn't come after him, he would still be in love with you."

"He's in love with Finella now; did he tell you?" Brietta finally turned away from the window to face her mother.


"What is it about that mare? It wasn't enough to cast her trance over Sloan; now she's wrecked everything for Dorian and me as well."

"I'm sure she didn't do this on purpose, dear. She's a victim of circumstance as surely as you and Dorian."

"And what about Sloan? Where does this leave him?"

Lena shrugged her shoulders. "If Finella really favors Dorian, Sloan will be honorable about it; he's had plenty of time to lock in his favor with her, but he never has. Maybe he regretted shutting you out."

"He had plenty of time to remedy that, too, but he never did." Brietta shivered.

"Dear, don't you think you should come downstairs? Your father and Conrad must be worried about you, and Anna could fix us all some coffee while we discuss things."

"I'm really very tired, Mother. I think I'd rather just go to bed. But tell Father and Grandfather that I'm fine; I did suspect that Dorian would decide against marrying me, so it wasn't a total shock." She cast a bleak smile in her mother's direction. "I was so sure that his memory would return and set everything right."

"I wish things had turned out differently."

"History repeats itself, Mother. Sloan threw me aside without any memory problems; I guess I shouldn't have expected more of Dorian."

"You weren't to blame in either instance. Why Sloan decided to abandon you, I've never been able to figure out. At least with Dorian, there's a legitimate reason for his change of heart."

"If I ever appear to be falling in love again, Mother, please shake some sense into me before I go off the deep end."

"We can only assume that what's happened has been for the best; as much as it hurts now, you'll see the righteousness of it some day."

"None of it makes any sense to me right now," admitted Brietta. "I'd just like to get to sleep and not have to worry about anything until tomorrow."

"I'll walk you to your room then."

Brietta's bedroom on the third floor of the mansion having undergone a complete facelift in preparation for her marriage, the mare had moved her personal belongings to an empty room on the second floor; and she now silently accompanied her mother there. At the door of the room, Brietta turned. "Don't worry about me."

"I can't help but worry. Which reminds me, your father and I and Conrad will definitely not be going on our trip tomorrow; I couldn't bear to leave you alone under these conditions."

"To tell the truth, Mother, I think you should go. I've got a lot of thinking to do, and I can accomplish that better alone." Seeing the downcast look on Lena's face, Brietta hurried to add, "It's not that your concern isn't appreciated; it's just that I need to come to grips with some things, and I can only do that on my own. You do understand, don't you?"

"We'll stay home just in case you need to talk; I promise to stay out of your way unless you want a shoulder to cry on or someone to listen."

"That's just it, Mother. What I really want is just to be alone... completely alone... so that I can rant and rave and cry and scream as much as I like without making anyone else feel uncomfortable. By the time you get home, I'll be ready to pick up the pieces and have a heart-to-heart talk with the greatest mother in the world." She hugged Lena close.

Releasing her daughter after the embrace, Lena smiled. "I'll check on you in the morning before we leave; if you've changed your mind by then, don't be afraid to say so."

"Good night, then."

"Good night, dear." Lena gave her daughter a quick kiss on the cheek, and left her to her solitude.

Chapter 23 of 28

Daylight had barely crept over the land when Lena softly entered Brietta's bedroom the following morning, but Brietta was already up, sitting in a chair in front of the window.

"Did you sleep?" Lena asked, surveying the mare with a mother's discerning perusal. The dark areas under Brietta's eyes told the story the mare would not admit to.

"More than I thought I would," Brietta smiled; but in truth she did not know if she had slept or not. She had spent the night reliving every moment that she and Dorian had spent together from the time of her homecoming party introduction until her angry disavowal of him as she returned his ring. She had tried so hard to hate him, but then would remember his touch, his kiss, and she would be overwhelmed once again with sorrow over what had been lost.

Brietta looked beyond her mother as Aiden and Conrad came into the room.

"I'm so sorry this happened, honey," Aiden said as he pulled his daughter into a tight embrace. "I'd give anything to turn the clock back before Dorian's trauma."

"Thanks, Father; but as that's impossible, I'll have to muddle my way through."

Conrad came forward to give his own hug. "Keep your chin up, girl."

Brietta grinned. "Look on the bright side, Grandfather. You won't have to listen to me trying to convince you to ring the bells for my wedding, now, will you?"

"If hearing the bells will make you happy, I'll ring them myself right now." He looked upon his granddaughter with such solicitude that Brietta gave him her own hug and kiss.

"That won't be necessary, Grandfather. As I told Mother last night, all I want is time to myself to get my thoughts straightened out. That's what I should do, right? Examine all the facts from every angle and accept the verdict?"

"Are you sure you want to do it alone? Your family only wants to help."

"You three have been looking forward to this trip, and there's no reason to change your plans now. With you all out of the way, I can roam the entire house and acreage without worrying any of you. I think I'll get over the melancholy mood I'm in if I face it straight out and get it over with. And, besides, Anna and Clarence will be around as usual; only Lissy has the weekend off; I won't be entirely alone."

"Well," said Aiden, "you've presented a good argument; I think that leaves us with no choice except to get moving. There are a couple of stops we want to make on our way."

"When can Anna expect you to be down for breakfast?" queried Lena, an anxious look wrinkling her brow as she followed her husband.

"If you'd be so kind, tell her I'm going to shower first."

"I'll do that." Lena cast one last glance at her daughter. "We'll see you later, then."

* * *
"You look like you haven't slept for days," Anna scolded when Brietta made her appearance in the breakfast room. The mare had affixed a perky turquoise bow in her mane in an attempt to look more cheerful. "And I'll tell you this much... if that stallion was here right now, I'd give him a good talkin' to, I would."

"Oh, Anna, I suppose it would make you feel better, but it wouldn't change anything."

"You know me and Clarence would fight for you."

"Yes, I do; and I appreciate it. But right now, what's for breakfast?"

Brietta was not sure she could eat... or if she succeeded in swallowing anything, if she could hold it down; but she knew Anna well enough to face the fact that until she managed some sort of breakfast, Anna would not leave her alone. So it was a few minutes later that she sat down to a plate of scrambled eggs, fresh biscuits, a sliced peach, and a glass of milk.

"Eat all of that, and you'll feel better," Anna said, lingering over Brietta as if she planned on standing guard until the plate was clean.

"Anna, I'll do my best; but I'm not sure I can handle this much food right now." Her stomach was churning already.

"Well, miss, I'd suggest that you eat as much as you can; you'll get all weak if you don't; and you're going to need your strength. I can see by your face that you've already been moping over that stallion, and that won't do you a bit of good at all."

"Yes, Anna."

"Now, eat up; I'll be in the kitchen if you need me."

It was slow going, but Brietta found that if she concentrated on something pleasant- like Finella running off with some hot-shot doctor from another town the night before her wedding to Dorian- she was able to take small bites of the food, and with careful chewing, even manage to eventually swallow it, but only if she took a sip of milk to wash it down. It was a long, slow breakfast; and she was glad when she was done, although she had the satisfaction of playing out in her mind at least five different scenarios of her spurning Dorian once his precious Finella had left him at the altar.

As she stood to carry her dirty dishes to the kitchen as proof to Anna that she had indeed eaten a healthy breakfast, Brietta was dismayed to recall the several pleasant breakfasts that she and Dorian had shared at this table; she could hear his voice, see his smile. The pain of remembering tied her stomach in knots, and she knew she was going to be sick. She abandoned the dishes and rushed to the nearest bathroom.

Leaning her head against the wall as the nausea finally passed, Brietta groaned. So this was what losing at love was like. She was in this fix because Dorian had lost his memory. She envied him- she would give anything to forget the reason for her aching heart and her agitated body. She cleaned up carefully, wanting Anna to have no knowledge of what had happened. If she found out, she would insist that Brietta eat something else which could only lead to another sick stomach. That would never do. To avoid a confrontation, Brietta slipped through the patio doors to gain some fresh air and some privacy. She found Clarence.

"Good morning, Clarence."

"G'morning to you, Miss Brietta." He looked at her cautiously.

"I've just had a lovely breakfast and thought I'd get some fresh air," said Brietta, stepping to the edge of the cobblestones and taking a deep breath. "It's a beautiful morning. We've had such a lovely spell of warm days for this time of the year."

"Weather pony says there'll be a change later today," Clarence revealed. "Got a cold front moving this way; supposed to get quite a storm."

"That's hard to believe right now," Brietta countered, looking at the blue October sky overhead. Then, remembering her parents' trip, she worried, "I hope Mother and Father and Grandfather don't get caught in it."

"It's not supposed to get here until after dark. They'll be home before then."

"I hope so."

"Speaking of traveling, I gotta run into town this afternoon to get some parts to fix the faucet in the kitchen. Can I get you anything?"

"No... unless you could pick up some super-glue." Clarence cast her a quizzical glance. "To mend a broken heart," she grinned.

Chuckling, Clarence responded. "If only it could be that easy."

"If only... but as it isn't, I'm going for a walk to clear my mind; I want to sit under the big old willow tree like I did when I was little and had suffered some setback. Don't expect me to return until at least lunchtime; tell Anna, okay?"

Brietta began a leisurely stroll across the dewy grass and for a time was able to enjoy the sights and sounds of nature around her, but it was not long before unbidden memories resurfaced... so many memories. We're to have a future together...we were meant for each other... I'll never give you reason to regret your choice...this family stuff- I'm beginning to like the sound of it... I love you, Brie!

Unbidden tears- tears that had eluded her last night- streamed down Brietta's face as she recalled all the tender words Dorian had spoken to her... words that she had built her life around, words that should have been carved in stone for all time, words that made her heart fly. Now the echo of those words cut through her painfully; they came back to haunt her; now they had assumed a menacing taunt that posited gigantic proportions as the words careened within her mind.

"Stop it!" she screamed across the tranquil surface of the lake. "Just stop it... please!" She sank onto the wet grass and sobbed until the convulsions in her body wracked her into a lethargy that quieted her mourning. She stayed where she was, perfectly quiet, her body temporarily numb. Her mind, for now, was empty.

A soft breeze played over her, rustling through her purple mane, bringing her slowly out of her stupor. She lifted her head and saw that the world still functioned around her. Insects droned over the water, somewhere a frog plopped into the water, a red-winged blackbird trilled from his perch, and the leaves rustled playfully with the wind. All nature was enjoying this reprieve of summer days.

Feeling somehow purged but very weak, Brietta stood and made her way to the confining branches of the weeping willow. Was that why this tree had become her haven in moments of pain and doubt? If it was weeping, it would better understand her own plight. Brietta moved among the slender, drooping branches that touched the ground, her hooves caressing the dainty leaves that stuck doggedly to the branch, defying the coming of wintery days. The play of breezes enlivened the fronds, giving the impression that they returned her touch. Closing her eyes, Brietta let the motion and the play of life around her sooth her tattered soul.

Sloan... Brietta's eyes opened. She had been so concerned with her own unhappiness, she had forgotten what Dorian and Finella's newfound attachment would mean to Sloan. He must be grieving, too, if Finella had been as brutally honest with him as Dorian had been with Brietta. And had not she wished this on him often enough, that Finella would leave him standing some day, alone and vulnerable?

When he had first deserted her at that high school dance, she had been ruthless in her imaginings on how justice would be served; but now, now that it was happening, she did not want to see her lifelong friend go through this morass of ambiguity through which she was wallowing.

What had Lena said? Sloan would be honorable. That was his way. The only time in his life that he was not honorable was the night he threw Finella in her face and squelched eighteen years of companionship. In all of his actions except that one, he had put integrity and nobility at the forefront. He could be relied on to take what was given to him and make the best of it. Any misery he might feel would be kept entirely to himself.

But he would suffer, of that Brietta was sure.

* * *
It was very close to noon when Brietta reappeared at Whitehall Place; she felt she had settled some ghosts, but was aware that her tender sensibilities could swing back to the depths of despair in the blink of an eye. To alleviate Anna's worry, however, she forced herself to assume a cheerful countenance- or at least one that did not look like she had succumbed to the doldrums.

"The design studio called while you were out; they've been unable to match that swatch for the draperies in the living room. They want you to come in today to look over some other options," Anna informed Brietta as she sat down to lunch- home-made potato soup, one of Brietta's favorites and something that might set more easily on the stomach. Anna had not been blind.

"Oh, my," Brietta breathed. "What are we going to do about the remodeling now?" She looked at Anna in consternation. "There's no reason to go on with it, but we can't just let it sit half-finished."

"I heard your mother and Aiden discussing that very thing this morning," Anna disclosed. "They both were of the idea that the project should be completed as planned. Your mother thought you'd enjoy having some space of your own to entertain your friends."

"I suppose Mother is happy to see something being done with those big, empty rooms; she always thought it strange of me to want my room up on that unused floor."

"You could accompany Clarence into town when he goes in," Anna suggested.

"Huh?" Brietta queried vacantly.

"The drapery sample," Anna reminded her. "They need a decision today."

"Oh, Anna, I couldn't," groaned Brietta. "The last thing I want to worry about is what color coordinates with that..." She fell silent, remembering how Dorian had latched on to that particular design for the curtains in the room he had been in full charge of decorating; she had laughed at his choice at the time, but he had convinced her that with the proper colors in the sofa and chairs and a complementing color on the floor, the entire room would be brought together in a relaxing ambiance. Glancing at Anna, she went on. "You take care of it, Anna."

"Me? What do I know about decorating?"

"Tell them we're throwing out the old plans for the living room and starting over; they'll suggest some fabrics, and you decide which ones to go with." At Anna's disbelieving look, Brietta added, "I trust your judgement."

"But I can't made a decision on how you're to spend your money!"

"You buy the groceries, don't you?"

"That's not quite the same and you know it!"

"It's all the same principle," Brietta waved her hoof. "You'll do fine."

"Brietta Manning..." The look of abandonment the mare sent her way caused Anna to check herself. "If that's what you want, I'll take care of it."

"Thank you, Anna." Brietta stifled a yawn. "I'm really getting sleepy, so with you and Clarence both going to town, I think I'll lie down for a nap. The soup was delicious, by the way. Oh, and Anna, have fun this afternoon." The mare smiled impishly at the cook, then exited to her upstairs haven.

* * *
To Brietta, it felt as if she had just settled her head on the pillow, but it had actually been much longer since she had walked up the stairs and sought the sanctuary of her quiet bedroom. Something had awakened her, and she resented the interference in her sleep. It had been a deep and dreamless slumber, and she wanted to return to that pleasant oblivion. She burrowed more deeply into her blankets and was just slipping back into that shadowy world when the sound came again- the musical medley of the doorbell which in her near sleep jangled her nerves.

"Go away!" muttered Brietta, covering her head with the pillow. Silence reigned; but Brietta was on edge, waiting for the next annoying summons. She had not long to wait.

Throwing the pillow to the floor, the mare sat up in the middle of the bed, dropping her head onto her hooves. "Let me alone!" she wailed softly, her mane surrounding her in a gentle cascade. "I'm not home!" And neither are Anna and Clarence, the mare realized. They would have left by now.

The bell rang again.

"Drats!" spat Brietta, throwing her legs over the edge of the bed and standing. She swayed slightly from the sudden motion, but soon regained her equilibrium. Tossing her hair back from her face, she headed for the stairs, her tread threatening. It dawned on her, however, that it was possible that her parents and Conrad had not taken a key; and if they had returned early due to the impending storm...

As Brietta descended, she ran a hoof through her locks to untangle them and fussed with the turquoise bow to straighten it. Reaching the front door, she peered through the thin strip of glass that edged the right side... and groaned.

It was Trey, Bram's obnoxious brother-in-law.

Brietta began to pull back, but Trey had already caught sight of her through the etched windowpane. He grinned in greeting and had the audacity to push the doorbell one more time. Aggravated, Brietta opened the door. "What do you want?" she asked as coldly as possible.

"Hi, Brietta!" the stallion smiled. "I was just passing by and wondered if you'd mind showing me around this palace; remember, you said to come visit sometime."

Brietta distinctly remembered not having extended an invitation to this boorish stallion. "This is not a good time, Trey." She began to close the door.

Trey was quicker than Brietta. His foreleg braced against the solid timbered door and pushed it back, shoving past Brietta to gain entrance to the house as he did so. He looked around at the ornate entry and the rise of the stairs before him and grinned. "Wow! This is even better than I expected!" Long strides carried him to the foot of the stairs.

Grimacing, Brietta followed, leaving the door open; it would be hard enough to get rid of the stallion as it was- she didn't want the door to close the two of them together, especially without Anna and Clarence on the premises.

"I really have other things to do..." she was saying when she received a sudden jolt from behind and felt powerful forelegs confining her movement. She twisted to see her assailant, but could only catch a glimpse of coal black hair. She was brutally pushed forward toward Trey while remaining firmly under the control of the pony behind her.

"What are you trying to prove?" she rasped, trying to control the fear that engulfed her. She attempted to strike out but was effectively stymied.

"Nothing much," grinned Trey, setting down the backpack he carried. He unlatched the main compartment and withdrew several sturdy-looking cords. Holding them up before her, he said, "You're going to be incapacitated for awhile, Brietta." He ran the thin rope around her forelegs and began tying it tightly.

"You're nothing but surprises," spat Brietta, trying unsuccessfully to thwart Trey's efforts. "I'd never have expected you to have a big word like incapacitated in your vocabulary."

A rumble of laughter sounded from behind her. "I've got to agree with the mare, Trey," the unknown pony stated.

Trying to push backwards away from the rope, Brietta found herself up against a seemingly immoveable object. Whoever the pony was, he was solid as a rock; but Brietta had never heard the voice before, and she was at a loss as to what was going on. The best her befuddled mind could do at the moment was assume that Trey was going to rob the mansion of all its valuables. She flinched as he tightened the rope.

"There!" he said a moment later. "Done." He turned back to his satchel, and Brietta lashed out in his direction, succeeding in throwing him off balance, but incurring an equal, opposite force as her assailant brought her up short.

"You're a feisty one, miss," he growled. "But I suggest you save your energy for later." He shoved her toward the stairs. Trey, having picked up his backpack, grasped Brietta's bound forelegs and began pulling her up the steps while the black-haired stallion moved to her side to make sure she cooperated.

Able to see the stallion for the first time, Brietta gasped. She had never made his acquaintance, but he had been described to her by Dorian- a red stallion with black hair and a scar across his cheek.

This was the infamous Hazard, the one who had aimed at obtaining ownership of Whitehall Place through his nefarious scheme; and failing that, he had executed his own form of retaliation by silencing Dorian, the one pony who knew exactly what Hazard's plans had been.

"You recognize me?" Hazard responded to her intake of breath. "I'm flattered."

Brietta had never felt so helpless. For all her efforts to resist the upward motion of the stallions, she was unable to fight against their strength and brute force. Trying to latch herself to the stair treads with her free back hooves slowed them down but caused Brietta to take some painful tumbles into the railing and prompted Hazard to pick her up and carry her once they had reached the landing on the second floor; the stallion continued up to the third floor with his unwilling load. There, however, he received a set-back.

"What's all this confounded stuff blocking the bell tower?" Hazard roared, dropping Brietta roughly to the floor where she quickly scooted away from the stallion in an ungraceful kicking motion, scuttling into Trey and being caught up by his rough grasp. "Tie her back legs!" commanded Hazard. "And anchor her to the railing while you help me clear this mess out of here."

Trey did as he was told, drawing the cincture so tightly that Brietta let out a moan. The stallion relented, and lessened the tension of the bindings somewhat; but the rope he used to secure her to the railing gave her no leeway to attempt an escape. Her mind racing, she watched the two clear a path to the bell tower door, Hazard invoking Trey to remember the placement of the items so that the ladders and paint cans and drop clothes could be replaced as before.

Had it been this lifetime in which she had wanted, had strained, to enter that portal, Brietta wondered. Not even knowing Hazard and Trey's ultimate objective, she was sure that she did not want to be taken there now. She redoubled her efforts to strain against her bonds, but she only succeeded in tightening them. She was completely at their mercy.

"The door is locked," she said, trying to gain some control over this mess she was in.

"No problem," Trey threw back at her. They had reached the door, and Trey withdrew a narrow black case from which he retrieved a slender metal tool with which he picked at the lock until, with an ominous click that sickened Brietta, the latch released. "Piece of cake!" Trey said, pulling open the door. He glanced into the interior of the tower. "And we even have lights." He flipped a switch, sending a low-power beam radiating its weak light.

A rush of stagnant air due to the warm weather rushed out to engulf Brietta. The narrow stairs beyond led up to the three bells that crowned Whitehall Place, their purpose in an earlier day being to call citizens to town meetings and to warn them of impending trouble. No one ever accessed the tower these days except for Conrad on a yearly excursion to inspect the bells for maintenance and upkeep, that being the first day of May in his unbending schedule. Only once had Brietta broken through his guard to ascend the stairs, only to be brought back down before she had reached the top. Today would be different. Brietta stared through the doorway and shivered.

It was Hazard himself who came to release the binding that held Brietta prisoner against the railing, but his grasp prevented her from gaining any ground toward total freedom. He barked at Trey. "Check out things up there." He motioned with his head at the tower. "We'll need a solid place to confine her."

Disappearing up the stairs without a word, Trey went about his business leaving Hazard and Brietta alone. "Why are you doing this?" Brietta asked, her voice trembling with well-founded fear.

"Why? For money, of course."

"Money?" squeaked Brietta. "How do you plan on emptying out Whitehall Place when anyone could walk in here at any minute and foil your attempt?"

A harsh laugh erupted from the stallion. "Use your brain, Miss Manning. You are the source of enough wealth to allow me to retire to some remote corner of the planet and lead the rest of my life as an exemplary citizen."

"Me?" Brietta whispered.

"Since my plan to legally obtain this mansion through an irregularity in the records of the first occupants of Whitehall Place failed due to Dorian's disclosing that strategy..."

"Dorian did not tell anyone about your plan!" defended Brietta. Yes, she had stumbled onto the information; but Dorian had not talked of his own volition.

"Be that as it may, your grandfather saw to it that all the loopholes were closed before I could make my move. I lost Whitehall Place..."

"And you tried to kill Dorian!"

"I tried to stop Dorian."

"Your methods are intense."

"My... assistants... enjoyed their work. But that's neither here nor there." He looked up as Trey came back down the steps.

"The place is in good shape, and there's a solid anchor in the wall that holds the bell ropes; it should do just fine to hold the mare in place," the stallion revealed to his boss.

"Well, then, let's escort her to it."

For all her exertion in trying to prevent the two stallions from forcing her through the doorway, Brietta had only scrapes and bruises to show for it. Trey and Hazard, although finding the steep and cramped stairs difficult with their struggling bundle, took little time in getting her to the top of the tower and thrusting her against the wall. Trey untied the bell ropes from their constraint while Hazard continued his conversation with Brietta as if nothing had occurred in the interim, the rumble of distant thunder providing a dreary backdrop.

"It dawned on me, Miss Manning, that having my primary scheme obliterated, you would provide me with a favorable alternative."

"You're crazy!"

"What are you worth to your parents?" Hazard grinned in return as Trey pulled Brietta down, restraining her further by roping the front and back hooves together and then proceeding to inhibit any motion from her whatsoever by latching her securely to the heavy iron brace to which the bell ropes had been attached.

"You're going to hold me here for ransom?" Brietta croaked when she could talk again.

"Your parents are away for the day. It was very helpful that your servants took themselves off as well; we had been hard pressed to discover the best means to immobilize them without alerting you to our presence. Everything worked out for the best- the old stallion and mare were spared an ordeal, and Trey and I will be on the premises for much less time than anticipated."

The stallion helped himself to Trey's backpack and withdrew two items: a piece of material rather like a hair ribbon and a white plastic box. He threw the cloth to Trey while he opened the box and removed a syringe and a vial of cloudy liquid. As Trey bound the strip of cloth around Brietta's mouth, Hazard continued to chat.

"When your parents get home this evening, they'll find a note... a note that will inform them that their darling daughter has been abducted and will only be released upon the receipt of a large sum of jangles. You realize the efficiency of this plan, don't you Miss Manning? Without having to remove you from your home, the chances of someone seeing Trey or me with you are nil. And we have the perfect hideaway right here over your family's heads; you will be unable to move or make a noise to alert them to your whereabouts, yet you will be perfectly safe... as long as your parents come through with the blunt."

While making his plan known to Brietta, Hazard had been filling the syringe with the drug; now, he stepped closer to the mare, the syringe held high, waiting. "The note will assure your parents that you are perfectly safe, somewhere that even they would approve of. And once I've got my money, I'll send another note notifying them where to find you." He grinned a malicious-looking smile. "And if they don't come through for me, you'll die right under their noses... so to speak."

"And just to make sure that you don't work that gag off your mouth or wiggle out of your bindings, I'm going to take out a little insurance. This," the stallion referred to the syringe, ejecting a tiny portion of the liquid that sprayed through the air, "will guarantee that you sleep soundly for a goodly amount of time."

He plunged the needle into her hip as Brietta watched in abject horror, unable to do a thing to stop him. Her wild eyes flew to Trey, who only grinned at her as he stood back to watch Hazard in operation. "Pay back time for that night at the ledge," he drawled, catching her gaze.

Hazard continued with his diatribe. "Now, this drug should start taking effect within a few minutes; trust me, you'll be glad I injected it before this is over- you'll be guaranteed some time to relax." Brietta already felt the effects tingling through her and could barely keep her eyelids from closing. She fought to stay conscious.

"Oh! And by the way, a pony can only live for a few days without water; you'd better hope your parents come through before then." The last memory Brietta had was of Hazard touching her cheek. "It would be a cryin' shame..." he mumbled, then reached for the bow in her hair and transferred it into Trey's waiting hoof. "When you leave here," he told the stallion, "take the path due north and make sure to lose this ribbon along the way; don't make it too obvious, but don't hide it so well no one will find it. I want them to follow a false trail so they'll waste their time on nothing." The stallion turned to leave and Trey followed after one final contemptuous look at the mare.

Brietta was fortunate in not hearing Trey ask Hazard as they were going back down the tower steps, "Are you sure that drug will keep her quiet long enough?"

Hazard responded with a devilish grin. "With the dosage I gave her, that girl will be lucky if she ever wakes up." He hit the light switch as he passed by, plunging the tower into darkness.

A roll of thunder growled to the southwest, joining with Hazard's and Trey's despicable snickers, as the mare's head dropped limply to rest on the weathered floor.

Chapter 24 of 28
Unanswered Questions

Only a few lights were on at Whitehall Place when Aiden, Lena, and Conrad returned from their journey to Grantsburg, the upper floors being in complete darkness except for the outside light that illuminated the bell tower itself. The early dusk was heavy with an impending storm that seemed to electrify the air, but the flashes of lightning appeared to be tracking the center of the storm to the south.

"Brietta must be clinging to her self-imposed isolation yet," Lena sighed as Aiden opened the front door and escorted her through.

"Maybe she contacted Shayla and went to confide her problems to her," suggested Aiden hopefully.

Conrad had, however, no sooner followed them into the house when Anna bustled from the back of the mansion with a somber face. "I'm so glad you're home!" she vented. "What with the storm coming and Miss Brietta being gone off somewhere..."

"Brietta's gone, and you don't know where?" Aiden interrupted, his voice stern.

"Clarence and I went in to town to run some errands," Anna began as her husband came to join them, his own face creased in a worried frown. "Brietta asked me to accompany Clarence to take care of a problem that the decorators were having," she added by way of explanation. "Brietta said she was going to sleep anyway- and she sure looked like she needed it- so Clarence and I went on our way." She stopped and sent a pleading glance at her husband. Clarence took over the explanation.

"When we got home, Anna went straight upstairs to check on the girl; but she wasn't in her bed, although it was mussed like she had been. Anna got me and we searched for her indoors and out, but she's nowhere around."

"And it doesn't seem like something she'd do, go off without leaving a note or something." Anna finished.

"Although there was something," Clarence picked up the tale. "The mail hadn't gone yet when Anna and I left for town- you know with all the new folks building their houses, the post office has been getting farther and farther behind- but when we got home, I picked up the mail before we came to the house. This was with it."

Clarence handed Aiden an envelope, white but slightly soiled. One word was scrawled across the front- Manning. There was no further direction, no return address, and no stamp.

"It was in our mailbox like this?" queried Aiden curiously.

"That's the funny thing," Anna took up again. "It was sitting amidst the other letters, but it couldn't have been delivered through the postal service without a stamp. It looked out of place."

Conrad took the envelope from his son and turned it over, searching for some clue to its origins.

"Could it be a message from Brietta?" asked Lena hopefully as she tried peering over her father-in-law's shoulder to get a look at the envelope. "She probably figured we wouldn't be able to miss it if she stuck it in the mailbox."

"It's not her hoof-writing," Conrad grunted, relinquishing it back to Aiden.

Aiden accepted the mysterious missive and moved more deeply into the house with the others following, going to his home office to access a letter-opener. Not a sound emanated from the onlookers as he slit the envelope... the tearing of the paper sounding loud and somehow uncanny. He quickly read through the contents, his face paling; his eyes went through the letter one more time, then he sat down in his chair as if his legs had failed to support him.

"My God! He's abducted her!"

Lena stared at her husband, her body instantly numb as she, too, collapsed into a chair. Conrad grabbed the note out of Aiden's hoof and read it himself, over and over, as if not comprehending the message. "Hazard!" he ejaculated, slamming his hoof onto the desktop. A maledictory phrase that erupted from the stallion hung on the air but was not contested by either Aiden or Lena. From nearby, a rumble of thunder accentuated the tenseness of the situation.

"The police," Clarence said from the sidelines where he sheltered Anna within his forelegs. "You've got to call the police."

The sensible words from the stallion spurred Conrad into action; grabbing the receiver from the phone, he punched in the emergency number and was soon connected with Police Chief Roberts. As succinctly as possible, Conrad conveyed the necessary information to the chief, then made a call to Sloan as well asking for his help. He sat down when the call was completed; dropping his head onto the support of his left hoof, he stared at the floor dejectedly.

"How could something like this happen?" he asked of no one in particular.

"Brietta was all alone," Lena's voice was barely audible. "He must have been watching for just such an opportunity."

"If I'd of stayed home..." Anna wailed.

"If you had stayed home," Aiden rebuked her, "there's a good chance you'd have come to harm yourself."

"Harm?" Lena cried, jumping from her chair. "Do you think he's hurt Brietta?"

Aiden was at her side immediately. "He wouldn't harm Brietta, not if he expects to get the reward he's asking for her safe return. I simply meant that to get at Brietta, he'd have had to decommission anyone who stood in his way."

"He's capable of anything," Lena mourned. "Look what he did to Dorian."

"Aiden's right, Lena," Conrad stated authoritatively. "He'll have to consider Brietta's well-being in all of this." He looked over Lena's head, however, to share a speaking glance with his son.

Aiden held his father's eye, then turned his bleak gaze toward Anna. "Coffee, Anna; we could all use some, I think."

Only because she was bidden by her employer did Anna move to leave the room. But Conrad called her back. "Anna, when you searched for Brietta, did you find anything out of place, any clue how Hazard got his hooves on her?"

"There wasn't a thing. Her bed had been slept in after I'd made it up this morning, but the rest of the house was completely in order."

"Were the doors locked?"

"Oh, yes. We wouldn't have left them any other way."

"And they were still locked when we got home," Clarence clarified.

"Well, Hazard got in some way; or Brietta went out."

"She'd spent the entire morning over by the pond," Clarence revealed. "Said she wanted to do her thinking under the old willow tree. She came back for lunch, then went upstairs to sleep."

"She ate some soup," Anna offered, "a little bit, anyway. She was awfully tired so she went straight up to her room when she was finished."

"How long were you gone to town?"

"An hour and a half," replied Clarence without hesitation. "We left at one o'clock, and I noted that we made it back just before two-thirty."

"So what went on here in those ninety minutes?" Aiden paced the floor.

The doorbell rang intrusively into their wayward thoughts. "That'll be Roberts," Conrad said, going to let the police ponies in. Aiden followed. "Get the coffee, Anna... please."

Lena stood alone in the center of the room, and Anna crossed to her. "Lena, our darling is going to be all right; the Good Lord will see to that."

"She has to be all right." Lena whispered in reply.

* * *
It was late when Dorian awoke to a heavy thumping sound; he had fallen asleep in front of the television, and it took him awhile to orient himself to his surroundings. At first, he thought the storm that had been threatening all evening had finally broken with turbulent thunder causing the windowpanes to shudder. The pounding came again, however, more violently than before; and the stallion recognized it for what it was. He jumped from the sofa and staggered to the door where visions of his last nighttime encounter encouraged him to caution. "Who is it?" he shouted above the din of the knocking.

"Sloan! For God's sake, open the door!"

The thought that he had misjudged Sloan's level of attachment to Finella crossing his mind, Dorian hesitated. By the sound of Sloan's voice, he was out for revenge. Dorian was not a coward, but he was not stupid, either. "Can't this wait until the morning?"

"No, it can't!" Sloan nearly howled. "This concerns Brietta."

"That ties it," Dorian muttered. "He's going to kill me."

Taking a deep breath, Dorian unlatched the door, stepping back as he did so, preparing to meet Sloan's wrath. The door burst open, admitting a stallion who- to Dorian's nervous eyes- appeared larger than life. In order to defend himself, he blurted, "I never intended to hurt Brietta."

"You? You're involved in this?" Sloan caught the stallion on his chin with such a forceful punch that Dorian reeled back against a bookcase, knocking tomes to the floor. Dorian had not regained his balance before he was caught in Sloan's unexpectedly powerful grasp. "Where is she?" he rasped.

"How am I supposed to know where she is? She isn't here, if that's what you're getting at. Why would she be?"

"I wouldn't expect you to hold her captive in such an obvious place; but if you know what's good for you, tell me now what you've done with her, or so help me God, I'll make sure you never talk again."

Dorian gaped at the distraught stallion. "What do you mean, hold her captive? I released her, if anything."

"Where? Did you just send her out into the night by herself after pulling such a stunt?"

"What are you talking about? She returned the engagement ring to me last night at her house after I told her that I wasn't going through with the wedding."

Sloan stared at the stallion as if Dorian had just started spouting Greek, but he did not relinquish his physical grasp. "You're not making sense."

"I thought it was about time for her to face up to the fact that I'm not in love with her and am not going to marry her regardless of what went on in the past; I also admitted that Finella and I are..."

"You and Finella are what?" Sloan growled, exerting even more pressure on the uncomfortable stallion.

"We're in love!" Dorian conceded, preparing himself for another hit. To his surprise, Sloan dropped his forelegs from him and stepped back.

"Then why did Hazard kidnap Brietta?"

Dorian's face, flushed from the combat, suddenly turned pale. "What's Hazard got to do with Brietta?"

"He abducted her this afternoon from Whitehall Place," stated Sloan, all the fight going out of him as he realized that he and Dorian had been warring over different windmills.

"Oh, my God!" Dorian uttered. "Brietta can't be pulled into this."

A sharp, searing pain coursed through Dorian's head as if a door somewhere within the depths of his consciousness had opened, and he was suffused with an avalanche of memories that engulfed him and mingled with his newly acquired sensibilities. Cradling his head, he fought against the nausea that suffused him, his emotions in an upheaval as past truths worked against the present reality. His face blanching, he whispered so quietly that Sloan could not make out his words, "Brie! No, God, not Brie!" His thoughts flew back to the night Hazard had dragged him to the ledge and how he had pleaded with his Creator to spare Brietta any of the repercussions of Hazard's wrath.

"Dorian! What's the matter?" Sloan asked, suddenly shaken to think that his attack on Dorian had caused the stallion further injury.

"I'd rather be dead than have him get his hooves on her." Dorian made it to a chair and sat down heavily. "I'd suffer anything to spare her from this."

"The cops will need to question you concerning anything you might know about Hazard; Aiden wants us out there right away."

"Give me a minute." Dorian struggled to regain some control over his rioting memories; was it only last night he had gone to Brie and declared his love for Finella? How could he have been so dense? He loved Brie! He always had and he always would! Why did his memory return now when he had tossed away all that mattered to him?

Observing the agony on Dorian's face, Sloan became more concerned. "Dorian, I'm sorry that I lashed out at you like that. Did I re-injure that gash on your head?"

"You could say that," Dorian said with a ragged sigh. "You jogged my memory, Sloan; I remember everything now, and I realize I was crazy enough to burn my bridges last night. Brie was everything to me."

"You've got your memory back, just like that?"

"You underestimate your right hook," Dorian grimaced, rubbing his chin.

"So you... you remember coming to Whitehall Place and starting work at the law firm and meeting Brietta and planning your wedding?"

Dorian nodded in the affirmative, coming to the crux of the matter. "Brie came to my apartment for a showdown on my involvement with plans she'd found involving Whitehall Place, and Hazard showed up at my door... Sloan, more than anything else that night with Hazard, I wanted to protect Brie; I was so wretched knowing that she might be at risk simply from association with me. I didn't care what Hazard threw at me... as long as his anger and his revenge ended there. Now you bring me the news that he wasn't satisfied with beating me to a pulp. What more can he hope to gain?"

Sloan raked his hoof through his mane in a restive gesture. "Money, Dorian. More money than you or I have ever seen."

"He couldn't have Whitehall Place, so he's after the Manning fortune." Dorian looked at Sloan with anguish as he realized the truth of Sloan's words.

"And Brietta is his pawn," Sloan replied. "Get moving, Dorian. We've got to get out there and see what's happening."

The two stallions exchanged a worried glance, then set off in the black cover of darkness. Far to the east, the thunder sounded as it moved away, a distant warning that all was not well.

* * *
The house that Dorian and Sloan arrived at was much different than the one Lena and Aiden and Conrad had returned to; now every light was on, the structure radiating beams from every window; all the outside lights were on as well, illuminating the grounds and house from the gardens all the way to the top of the bell tower.

"I turned to look at it last night as I was leaving, and it hit me how peaceful the place was bathed in light; I knew Brietta would find peace there; now, twenty-four hours later and knowing what we do, it's become a torturous inferno," grated Dorian.

"You know Hazard better than any on us, Dorian; what are Brietta's chances?"

"I'm scared, Sloan; really scared."

The bustle of ponies about the house could have indicated a party in progress except that the ponies were police personnel and the expressions on their faces were far from merry. Lena was prostrate with worry; Anna and Clarence stood waiting for the opportunity to do any chore or answer any question they could, their countenances haggard; Aiden and Conrad followed Chief Roberts, their funereal expressions saying more than words as to where their mental wanderings were taking them. They became more alert at the approach of Sloan and Dorian, but no more optimistic.

"What do you know for sure?" Sloan asked of Aiden, cutting him off from the bustle in the hallway.

"Brietta disappeared between one to two-thirty this afternoon while Clarence and Anna were away; Hazard left a message in the mailbox with the regular mail stating his demands: he receives a large sum of jangles by noon tomorrow and Brietta will be released unharmed. He's assured us that she's in a safe place and that he won't lay a hoof on her." Aiden stopped, running his hoof over his burning eyes.

"How did he get his hooves on her in the first place?"

"The lock wasn't forced, so we can only assume Brietta opened the door from inside, but that makes no sense. She certainly knew from Dorian's experience what Hazard looked like and what he was capable of. It appears she was interrupted from a nap in her second floor bedroom; if Brietta came downstairs to answer the door, Hazard must have been brazen enough to force her leaving that way, too. They're checking with the mail pony; she must have delivered the mail after Clarence and Anna left for town, because Hazard left his note intermingled with the other letters we received; maybe she saw something that can help us."

"I'd like to see the note," Dorian said.

"There's a copy of it on my desk; Roberts sent the original to the lab."

Dorian and Sloan moved away to get a look at Hazard's tumultuous words, neither one speaking as they sifted through the facts that Aiden had given them. After reading the missive, they looked at one another for a long moment; then Sloan said, "You told Brietta and me that night before Hazard showed up on your doorstep that he didn't have any concrete headquarters in this area; you always had to go to Capital City to meet with him."

"Which leaves me with no clue where he'd stash Brietta now."

"How brash is this guy to take her out of her own home by the front door in broad daylight?" ranted Sloan, running his hoof through already disheveled hair. He strode across the room to stare out the window while Dorian peered at the note as if he could somehow glean some hidden information from it if he stared long enough.

That is how Chief Roberts found them.

Roberts entered the room in the company of Officer Neil; Dorian took one look at Neil and dropped the letter on the desk, emitting a groan as he did so.

"Happy to see me, Dorian?" asked Neil.

"If you can find Brie... yes, I am."

"Miss Manning is the keystone here," Neil said, running his hoof across the mahogany desk top in front of Dorian. "And you and Miss Manning were obviously attached to one another... at one time. Does that still hold true, Dorian?"

"As you're asking, I'm sure you know it's no longer true; Brietta and I had called off our wedding plans."

"And when did this take place?"

"Last night."

"Was this Miss Manning's decision?"

"It was... mutual."

"Mutual, Dorian?" Neil raised an eyebrow while Roberts looked on with intense interest.

"I admitted that she no longer held my affection." Dorian nearly choked on the words that he now found so revolting. "She returned the ring."

"So you parted on friendly terms?"

"She was... upset."

"Did you see her again after last night?"

"No, I didn't."

"Does it seem strange to you that Miss Manning would open the front door- while home alone- to a stranger? But not really a stranger either, but one whom she would undoubtedly recognize from your description? And knowing what he had reeked on you, sir, do you think she would have admitted him to this house?"

"She wouldn't have done that."

"No. I don't think she would have either. Were you at the house this afternoon, Dorian?"


Neil made a point of walking across the room to examine a picture on the wall before turning back to Dorian. "Miss Manning would have opened the door to someone she knew, don't you agree... especially someone she might like to have further words with?"

"Now look here, Neil..." Sloan attempted to defend his friend, but Roberts silenced him.

"Did Miss Manning open the door to you this afternoon, Dorian?" the chief asked.

"I wasn't at this house this afternoon; I left last evening around nine o'clock, and didn't return until Sloan and I walked in tonight."

"Where were you between one and two-thirty?"



"Yes, alone."

"Any phone calls or visitors during that time?"

"A telemarketer called, but no one stopped by."

"No salesponies, no friends... male or female?"

Dorian scowled. "Unfortunately, my apartment isn't a social haven."

"How'd you learn of Miss Manning's abduction?"

"Sloan came pounding on my door about a half hour ago and informed me of that fact."

"Okay, Dorian. Make yourself scarce for a few minutes."

Dorian looked at Sloan who merely shrugged his shoulders, then Dorian left the room to search out Aiden and Conrad. Officer Neil honed in on Sloan.

"You went to Dorian's apartment tonight?"


"I realize this will be conjecture on your part, but did you get the impression that Dorian knew what news you were bringing him?"

If the situation was not so serious, Sloan would have laughed over the memory of his and Dorian's misunderstanding earlier, their conversation coming from two completely different points of view.

"No," Sloan said simply.


"He expected... a different reason for my visit; he was shocked when he learned about Hazard's latest escapade; it was quite a revelation, actually."

Roberts intervened. "Neil, I want you to check on something for me."

With a curt nod, Sloan was dismissed from their presence. The stallion took himself off, automatically drawn to the entryway where the police activity was most intense. There he found an uneasy scene.

"You think she was dragged down her from her bedroom?" Conrad roared while Aiden rubbed a hoof across his anxious face as if he could not bear to hear anymore.

"Either that, or she tried to get away and he went after her," the officer, Matie, said.

"What's going on?" Sloan asked of Dorian.

"They've found signs that would indicate Brie was forced down the stairs- there's a lot of her hair caught on some of the treads between the main floor and the second and rubbed into some rough spots on the bannister, as if she was fighting."

"Brietta's been up and down those stairs a lot on her own."

"Yes, but it seems that Anna vacuumed and polished this morning while Brie was outside; anything that's there now was put down since then."

"I'd throttle him if I had him here right now," Sloan growled.

"No you wouldn't, buddy. I'd have taken care of him first."

"Where is she?!"

"The detectives have been over everything inside and out- even the barn. They can't find a thing." The two stallions moved out of the way as Roberts and Neil came back, having been informed of the latest development.

"I keep thinking of the ledge; if that's where he tried to do me in, maybe he'd hold Brie there, too. Isn't there a cabin out there somewhere back in the woods?"

"There's a sort of utility shed and a couple of outhouses," Sloan considered. "I suppose he could make use of them, but there are always ponies in and out through that area, especially on the weekend."

Another officer came into the house, reporting straightaway to Roberts. "I found the mail carrier, and she did notice one thing; she said that as she came up to the mailbox, she observed that the front door was open and she saw a stallion going into the house. She'd never seen him before- said he was red with black hair; but she didn't give it a second thought because of all the work ponies who have been in and out doing the remodeling and decorating on the upper floor. She left the mail in the box at the end of the lane and went on her way; she never suspected anything wrong until I questioned her about it."

"Did she know what time that was?"

"One-twenty; she remembers looking at her watch because she was behind schedule."

"So all she could tell us is what we already know," complained Aiden.

"She's a witness that can place Hazard at the scene of the crime."

"Brietta will be able to do that herself," Conrad noted.

Roberts shared a glance with Neil at that statement, but refrained from commenting. Dorian took advantage of the silence to broach the possibility of Hazard's taking Brietta to the ledge, but Roberts only gave him a condescending look. "That possibility has already been covered," he informed the stallion, taking the little hope that Dorian had garnered and smothering it.

"Can we go upstairs?" Sloan asked suddenly.

Officer Neil looked up the run of steps. "They're clear; just make sure you don't touch anything."

Sloan started up, Dorian on his heals. "I followed Brie up here last evening; she was jabbering a mile a minute, trying to prevent me from saying what I went on to say, I suppose. I wish I'd of listened to her more closely."

"I wish a lot of things," Sloan muttered in return as he gained the second floor tier of rooms. "Do you know which room she was using since her own room got revamped?"

"Never visited it," admitted Dorian, "but she said it was one of the rooms in the guest wing."

There was still one detective going through that particular room; he glanced at the two intruders and, recognizing them, kept on with his task of searching for some clue as to what might have transpired here.

"If she was asleep and heard the doorbell, she'd have gotten up, let's say, and gone down the stairs. But when she saw who was out there, she wouldn't have opened the door; unless, as Neil says, there was someone else, someone she knew. Did Hazard have any other connections in Whitehall that you know of?"

"Not that I was aware. That's why he was so adamant in claiming my aid- he needed a confederate on the inside."

Sloan looked at him closely. "What about the night at the ledge? You remember who was with Hazard now, I take it?"

"I don't know their names... but, well..." Dorian nodded toward the detective, then out the door, indicating that he wanted to talk without an audience. When Sloan had followed him down the hallway to the foot of the stairs that led to the upper story, Dorian stopped. "Remember the time Brie and I were attacked on the way home from Capital City?"

"That was related to this mess?" There was anger in Sloan's voice.
"They were disguised that time, but it was the same two who did me in for Hazard at the ledge."

Sloan scowled. "You were aware of potential harm to Brietta then and didn't do anything to stop it?"

"One of the goons had intercepted me in Capital City; Brie didn't see him, but he made a point of talking to me while I paid the tab at the restaurant. He knew who I was but I never learned his name; he said he had a message from Hazard. When I asked him what it was, he said I'd get it later. I guess the attack was Hazard's way of warning me to keep my mouth shut about the plans he had revealed to me."

Dorian fell silent and Sloan waited for him to continue.

"I wasn't overly concerned then because I wasn't going to squeal on Hazard," Dorian admitted. "It was only later that I realized he wasn't going to let me walk away with just a promise that I'd keep my mouth shut. After that last visit to Capital City, I planned to let Conrad and Aiden know I was doing some research into the history of Whitehall Place and accidentally come across the same information that Hazard had already obtained; Aiden and Conrad would've seen the potential danger to Whitehall Place and corrected it; Hazard would have been thwarted before he gained a hoofhold in this area. But he showed up at my door instead."

"If you had gone to the cops then, none of this would have happened."

"Hazard hadn't done anything illegal in Whitehall at that point; anyone could have gone through the property claims and determined what he did. I thought he wouldn't dare to go any further with it, knowing that I would be watching. I underestimated him."

"And now Brietta's paying for it."

"Do you think I don't know that?" Dorian snapped.

Sloan turned away and went up the flight of stairs that took him to the unfinished apartment that would have been Dorian and Brietta's living quarters. He went from room to room, all of them still lit from when the officers had gone through them, looking for some clue as to what went on in the house while Brietta was home alone. He felt uncomfortable poking into what would have been the starting point for Brietta and Dorian's married life and soon made his way back to the stairs, finding Dorian sitting on the top step.

"We stood here and argued," Dorian stated in a flat voice, lost in his own misery.

Sloan felt no sympathy. "What's with all the junk here in the hallway?"

"Brie said the work ponies had piled their stuff there for the weekend. She was all excited about showing me how much had been accomplished up here, and I would have none of it."

"You said earlier that you burnt your bridges. I think you should leave them in ashes."

"And let you step into the gap?" Dorian came out of his melancholy state. "You're an enigma, Sloan. I've seen you and Brie from two sides now- as former sweethearts, with Finella cutting in and emerging as winner, and as a stallion who has spurned both Brie and Finella. You obviously were only playing some sort of game in letting Brie think you had a thing for Finella- what was it?"

"My private life is none of your concern!"

"It is if it affects Brie."

"I'll take care of Brietta; you can continue to develop your relationship with Finella."

"So you admit that you're in the running for Brie's affection?"

Sloan glared at Dorian, then seemed to realize the pettiness of their quarrel under the circumstances. "We have to find Brietta first, Dorian." He set off down the stairs.

Reverting to his unhappy thoughts, Dorian considered the facts. It was imperative that he find Brietta and talk with her, assuring her that his love for her was still genuine; he had only been befuddled by the amnesia that haunted him. She would have to forgive him and accept him back into her life.

But Brietta was missing; he could not tell her all that she meant to him. And how would she feel toward him after this experience with Hazard? Dorian knew that wherever the mare was being held, conditions would not be comfortable. She might grow to hate Dorian simply because of the association that he once had with Hazard. There might be no words that would convince her that Dorian had her best wishes at heart. As Sloan was so eager to point out, wasn't it because of Dorian that Brietta was in this dangerous predicament?

"Where are you, Brie?" Dorian whispered in anguish.

* * *
Slumped against the rough woodwork of the wall in the bell tower, Brietta slowly opened her eyes for a brief unseeing moment, then slipped once more into an alleviating unconsciousness.

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