Fate's Finale
written by Sugarberry

Andrew and Ribbons n’ Lace had made a quick journey to Woodlawn from New Pony once Andrew had explained to his wife their son’s confession concerning his love for Chiffon and the mare’s obstinate refusal to have anything to do with the stallion. Having found Chiffon to be a level-headed and personable pony when she had met her at Christmas, Ribbons n’ Lace was ready and willing to promote a match with Tribute, especially since she had nearly given up her dream of seeing her eldest son properly settled with a home and a family.

Needing an excuse to descend on Tribute’s new territory so unexpectedly, Andrew and Ribbons n’ Lace had decided to tell their son that an unanticipated endowment had been received with the stipulation that it be used to further the efforts of the Woodlawn medical expansion, the only stricture being that the monies be delegated immediately. As Ribbons n’ Lace thrived on dispersing funds through her philanthropic organization, Tribute barely raised an eyebrow when his parents were ushered into his office late Friday afternoon with the windfall

“You made good time,” Tribute said, kissing his mother’s cheek and taking his father’s hoof in a firm grasp. “You must have been on the way to the airport when you called.”

“Yes, we made good time,” Andrew replied prudently. “Your mother was anxious to see your new home.”

“You’ll find that my apartment isn’t much to look at, but it’s comfortable; and as I spend most of my time here, it’s quite adequate.”

“We were hoping you could give us a tour of the facilities,” Ribbons n’ Lace smiled. “The benefactor who is behind this particular donation will expect a full report when we arrive back in New Pony.”

“Just who is this almsgiver? Blake would like to kiss the ground he walks on.”

“He would...” began Ribbons n’ Lace at the same moment her husband started to speak.

“She would...”

Ribbons n’ Lace hurriedly corrected the discrepancy. “They’d rather remain anonymous, dear.”

Tribute looked from one to the other, then shrugged his shoulders, curious as to who this paragon was who could fluster even his sophisticated parents. He was not about to hound them for the name, however.

Instead, Tribute set out to occupy his parents’ time while he continued with his work. “I’ll not be free from my desk until later, but let me get in touch with Heart Blossom; if she’s not busy, she can show you around the complex.”

“Heart Blossom?” queried Ribbons n’ Lace warily.

“She’s our very efficient administrator,” Tribute grinned. “She’ll be able to fill you in on the possible disbursement of the endowment. And as she and I were planning on having dinner together this evening, we’ll simply expand our arrangements to include the two of you as well.”

Ribbons n’ Lace sent one quick glance of dismay at her husband, then forced a pleased smile upon her son. “Lovely.”

* * *

Once settled into their motel room later that night, Ribbons n’ Lace sighed heavily, immediately gaining her husband’s attention, her thoughts going over every moment of their dinner with Tribute and Heart Blossom and every nuance of those ponies’ words and actions.

“Something wrong, my love?”

Sighing once again, Ribbons n’ Lace finally spoke. “Tribute and this Heart Blossom seem to be on very close terms.”

Tribute’s mother did not add that she had not found the hospital administrator’s personality to be nearly as pleasing as Chiffon’s. Certainly capable of dealing with the myriad responsibilities at the hospital, the mare did not appear to have the warmth and humor needed to make a comfortable haven of retreat for leisure hours; she would take her work home with her and never relent of her precise, competent manner. Indeed, Ribbons n’ Lace could not picture Heart Blossom as the cozy center for her son’s home at all. And foals? Ribbons n’ Lace shuddered.

“They’re both working to make the Woodlawn Hospital the best medical facility in this part of Ponyland; a shared goal would tend to draw the two of them together.”

“But what about Chiffon?”

“What about Chiffon?” Andrew looked at his wife in puzzlement.

“Did our flight here to help nudge the two of them together come too late?”

Momentarily blank, Andrew finally realized where his wife’s thoughts were headed. He grinned. “Our son is not romantically involved with Heart Blossom, if that’s what your thinking.”

“And how can you be sure of that?”

“Tribute would not have kept his eyes on the doorway all through dinner if he was even remotely interested in Heart Blossom as other than the hospital administrator; I read it that he was hoping that Chiffon would show up there as well, just so he could get a glimpse of her.”

“Do you honestly believe that?” Ribbons n’ Lace asked hopefully.

“Take my word on it, my sweets. I still watch doorways to catch sight of you.”

After all these years of marriage, Ribbons n’ Lace could still blush. “Andrew, you’re a sweetheart.”

* * *

Tribute was surprised on Saturday morning when he arrived at the motel to meet his parents for breakfast to find that his mother did not appear to be her usual cheerful self; she seemed distracted, almost listless, and was paler than normal.

“Are you sure you’re feeling okay, Mother?” he asked solicitously.

“Umm... oh, what, dear?”

Glancing at his father worriedly, Tribute repeated his question.

“Your mother is a bit worn out from the trip is all. She had a hectic week and hasn’t had a chance to recuperate,” Andrew explained. “A little rest is all she needs.”

“Yes, if you two don’t mind if I remain here at the motel while you’re off gallivanting, I’ll be right as rain by this afternoon,” Ribbons n’ Lace assured the stallions.

“Why don’t you rest at my apartment while I take care of my rounds at the hospital?” suggested Tribute. “By then, maybe you’ll feel more like seeing the sights.”

“Yes, dear, rest is what you need,” agreed Andrew, patting his wife’s hoof. “Why don’t you lie down while I join Tribute on his rounds? I’d like to become more familiar with your work here, son,” he added with a fatherly beam at Tribute.

“You two run along, then,” Ribbons n’ Lace said, practically shooing them away from the table. “I could use some time to myself.” She smiled stiffly.

“You’re sure, Mother?” Tribute asked one last time.

“Just go,” Ribbons n’ Lace snapped. “The sooner you two are out of here, the sooner I can take a nap.” She fluttered her hoof to hasten their dismissal.

Defeated, Tribute turned to leave and missed the wink that Andrew gave Ribbons n’ Lace before he, too, marched out the door.

* * *

Impatiently waiting until she was sure that her son and husband were out of sight, Ribbons n’ Lace finished her coffee, then jumped to her hooves and headed for the door. She looked both ways before exiting and- finding the coast clear- took off in the opposite direction on the path her family had followed.

The day was beautiful with a warm sun shining overhead and a blue sky providing a vivid backdrop for the soft green leaves on the trees; bird song filled the air, and the fragrance of springtime flowers wafted gently on the breezes. Ribbons n’ Lace took a deep breath and grinned. It was on just such a day as this that a stallion’s mind would turn to love. Hopefully, it would work the same on a particular mare.

For an instant, Ribbons n’ Lace felt a touch of uncertainty over her and Andrew’s plan. They had never interfered in Toby’s or Tendril’s search for a mate; but Tribute, for all his sophistication, seemed to need help. Ribbons n’ Lace had given up hope on her first-born’s chances to ever find an appropriate spouse until Andrew had informed her that Tribute had admitted a fondness for Chiffon... a fondness that the mare did not seem to reciprocate. That was why it was so necessary for Ribbons n’ Lace and Andrew to help things along if they could.

Setting her hoofsteps in the direction of Chiffon’s house, having ascertained the address from the motel’s phone book, Ribbons n’ Lace enjoyed her solitary walk through Woodlawn. She was charmed by the park that she crossed, stopping for several minutes at the arched stone bridge to watch the gentle flow of the water and to admire the beds of tulips and daffodils that decorated the grassy lawns. Sharing friendly greetings with the other ponies who were out on this fine morning, Ribbons n’ Lace found herself in perfect harmony with this small town atmosphere.

Approaching the address for which she was searching, Ribbons n’ Lace approved of the stately white house with the welcoming front porch and the neat trim of colorful blossoms from the bordering flowerbeds. A lilac bush hugged the east end of the porch, its dark purple blossoms swelling, anxious to release their beauty. An orderly row of peony bushes, not yet in flower, followed the front walk.

Ribbons n’ Lace was just about to step up the front steps when a lavender mare with deep blue hair walked around the corner from the backyard carrying a trowel in one hoof and a bucket in the other. As the mare’s attention was focused on the flowers- or more exactly, on the occasional weed that dared raise its defiant head- Ribbons n’ Lace had a moment to study the pony undetected and determined that this must be Chiffon’s mother as she appeared to be of the same age as Ribbons n’ Lace herself. It was only then that the mare became aware of a visitor and looked up to find a stranger’s eyes on her.

“Good morning,” the lavender pony said, her glance taking in the rather regal pink pony before her.

“Good morning,” smiled Ribbons n’ Lace. “I didn’t mean to startle you. I’m looking for Chiffon.”

“You’re acquainted with my daughter?”

“Oh. Excuse me for not introducing myself. My name’s Ribbons n’ Lace; I met Chiffon last Christmas in Dream Valley at Sugarberry and Vanguard’s.”

It took only a fraction of a second for Velvet to connect that name with Tribute’s. So this was that nice doctor’s mother! Velvet broke into a welcoming smile. “Ribbons n’ Lace! How nice to meet you! I’m Velvet, Chiffon’s mother.”

The two mares began chattering like two long-lost friends even though they had not set eyes on each other before this meeting. Both had entertained dreams for their offspring, however, and a hope of bringing those dreams to reality dissolved any hesitancy they might have felt in claiming friendship. As it was, they became co-conspirators from the start. By the time the two mares made their way back around the house to face Chiffon, they had reached such a melding of minds that it would have been impossible for Chiffon to ward off their plans.

“Look who’s here, Chiffon,” Velvet trilled as Chiffon, busily grubbing in the flowerbed, lifted her head.

“Ribbons n’ Lace!” Chiffon gasped, getting to her hooves and brushing the dirt from her body. “How nice to see you.”

“It’s nice to see you again, too, Chiffon.” Her gaze dropped to the plot of soil in which Chiffon had been digging. “I’m sorry if I’m interrupting.”

“Not at all. I was just finishing. Do you enjoy flowers?”

“Assuredly. In fact, I’ll have my hooves full once Andrew and I get back home.”

“You’ve come to visit Tribute, I’d imagine.”

“Yes, dear. We’ve been hearing so much about Woodlawn and the improvements at the hospital that we just had to come to see for ourselves.”

“Where are the stallions that you’re out wandering the town by yourself?” asked Velvet.

“Where would you expect to find two doctors?” laughed Ribbons n’ Lace. “Tribute couldn’t wait to introduce his father to his duties. Why, last evening, we even dined with the hospital administrator.” She kept her eye on Chiffon as she made that statement and was pleased to see Chiffon flinch at the news.

“We’d be delighted to have you join us for tea and biscuits,” invited Ribbons n’ Lace. “Can you stay awhile?”

“Thank you. That would be wonderful. I was wondering what I could do for the rest of the morning,” smiled Ribbons n’ Lace. “And Chiffon, you seem to know your flowers; maybe you could tell me why some of my tulips refuse to bloom...”

* * *

It was nearly lunchtime before Ribbons n’ Lace left to meet Tribute and Andrew at the motel, but she was very pleased with her progress this morning. She had met Charger once he returned from the hardware store and found him to be just as agreeable as his wife; she would have no qualms in seeing their offspring united. And as for Chiffon herself, Ribbons n’ Lace had found her to be every bit as charming as she had remembered.

She giggled as she recalled the blush that had suffused Chiffon’s face when Velvet had extended an invitation for Ribbons n’ Lace, Andrew, and Tribute to join them for supper that evening. Ribbons n’ Lace had, of course, accepted the invitation with alacrity; she was looking forward to seeing for herself just what would pass between her son and Chiffon. She had seen signs this morning that indicated that Chiffon did have feelings for the stallion; all that was left to do was to bring those feelings to the surface so that Chiffon would be willing to act on them.

Arriving at the motel, Ribbons n’ Lace found Tribute pacing the lobby floor with Andrew sitting in a chair reading the newspaper. Tribute pounced on his mother the moment she entered the room.

“Where have you been?” he nearly shouted. “We were worried about you running off like that when you weren’t feeling well!”

Andrew lowered the newspaper, his face crinkled with a feeble attempt to glower. “Yes, dear. Where did you get off to?”

“I tried to nap,” Ribbons n’ Lace fluttered, “but I just couldn’t. So I thought some fresh air might be just the thing. I took a long walk around some of Woodlawn’s quieter neighborhoods and feel much better now.”

Tribute stared hard at his mother, sensing something that he could not quite put his hoof on; yet she did look better than she had earlier; there was healthy color in her cheeks now and she seemed to be relieved of her earlier megrims. He smiled.

“I’m happy to hear that. Are you up to lunch at Betty’s Buffet?” he asked.

After happily nibbling on tea cakes and several varieties of cookies half the morning, Ribbons n’ Lace was not overly hungry; but she readily agreed. “Yes. You and your father must be starving. Come, Andrew, let’s go.” She held out her hoof and allowed both of her knights to accompany her from the motel, a pleased grin informing her husband that their plan was moving ahead as contrived.

* * *

Lunch proceeded comfortably, even though Tribute several times questioned his mother’s lack of appetite. Was she hiding the fact that she still did not feel quite up to par? he worried. When he mentioned some activities for the afternoon, he found her rather lackadaisical in her response. It was only when he mentioned eating at Fernwood again this evening that Ribbons n’ Lace perked up.

“Oh! I forgot to tell you! I ran into the loveliest mare this morning while I was out walking, and you’ll never guess who it was!”

Tribute looked at his mother sharply. There was something in her voice that promised a surprise... but good or bad he could not determine.

“As we’ll never guess, why don’t you tell us?” Tribute drawled, glancing at his father and seeing a glimmer of laughter in his eyes.

“Her name’s Velvet; and, imagine, she’s Chiffon’s mother. You remember Chiffon, dear; she was at Sugarberry’s last Christmas?”

“I remember Chiffon, Mother. I’ve met her a number of times around town.” He raised a brow, waiting for more.

“Well, I had an enjoyable visit with Velvet, her husband, and Chiffon; and Velvet asked us to join her family for supper tonight. I hope neither of you mind, but I did accept her invitation.” She looked from one to the other of the stallions with a hopeful expression on her face.

“It sounds good to me,” Andrew spoke up. “A pony can only take so much restaurant food. A tasty, home-cooked meal wouldn’t go amiss, I’m sure. What do you say, son?”

It took Tribute a few moments to collect his thoughts. His voice was harsh when he began to speak. “Number one, Mother, I’d advise you never to take to the stage.” He glared menacingly at her for a moment. “Number two, I would be pleased to dine with Velvet and Charger... and Chiffon.” His cloudy face cleared as a radiant, dimpled smile lit his face; and his voice softened. “And number three, thanks, you two, for trying to help.”

* * *

As her father had disappeared down the basement steps and her mother was putting the finishing touches to a sauce that only she could pull off correctly, it was left to Chiffon to answer the doorbell when it rang. She took a moment to check her appearance in the hallway mirror, practicing a welcoming smile that did not appear too welcoming, then opened the door.

All the proper small talk was conveyed between the ponies as Ribbons n’ Lace, Andrew, and Tribute entered the house- Andrew with a bottle of fine wine and Tribute with a bouquet of flowers.

“For your kitchen work on our behalf,” Tribute said of the flowers as he offered them to Chiffon.

“How beautiful!” Chiffon breathed as she smelled the riotous bouquet which included daisies, tulips, roses, and carnations, among other things. “Thank you. I hope our humble supper will do the flowers justice.” She looked up into Tribute’s eyes.

You do them justice, Chiffon,” he smiled, revealing the dimples that so impressed the mare.

Charger’s arrival to greet his guests interrupted the moment; and Chiffon introduced her father to Andrew, with those two stallions immediately falling into a friendly conversation that took them into the living room where they could sit comfortably. Ribbons n’ Lace had retrieved the wine from her husband’s hooves and set off through the house to find Velvet, leaving Tribute alone with Chiffon.

“I should get these in water,” Chiffon said, then found that she could not convince her muscles to take the necessary action to propel her away from Tribute. She could not take her eyes off the stallion, having him to herself... and so close.

“I could help you,” Tribute offered. Reaching out to touch the flowers, his hoof brushed against Chiffon’s and she felt the familiar tingle race along her skin at his touch. It was the realization of just how vulnerable she was to this stallion that motivated Chiffon to turn toward the kitchen, but just then the doorbell rang once more.

“This will be Blake,” explained Chiffon to Tribute, relieved to have such an innocuous statement to make. She quickly moved to the door and opened it to admit not only Blake but Silver Frost as well.

The two cousins hugged as Silver Frost prattled. “It was so sweet of Aunt Velvet to include us in your dinner party,” she bubbled to Chiffon. Then turning to Tribute, she continued. “We haven’t met, Tribute, but Blake has told me so much about you and your family that I feel I know you already.”

Tribute, casting a questioning eye at Blake, was more fully enlightened by his friend.

“This is Silver Frost, Tribute. She’s a cousin of Chiffon’s, teaches at the high school, and is one of the two prettiest ponies in Woodlawn.” Here Blake’s glance encompassed both Silver Frost and Chiffon.

“It’s nice to meet you, Silver Frost,” Tribute acknowledged. “And just how are you and Chiffon related?”

“My father’s Velvet’s brother.”

“His name happens to be Tribute, too,” Blake added. He then conveyed to Chiffon a box of chocolates. “A token of my appreciation for this invitation,” he grinned.

“How sweet!” Chiffon winked at Blake in accepting the candy. “And that reminds me that these flowers will be craving some sugar water of their own. Silver Frost, why don’t you show Blake and Tribute to the living room while I locate a vase for these blossoms.”

Chiffon made her retreat before Tribute could respond.

* * *

Dinner had been a success... good food, good companionship, good conversation. Now, as the evening dusk fell, Silver Frost and Chiffon were slowly swaying in the porch swing, both mares adorned with a flower from Tribute’s bouquet. Each of the stallions had swiped a rose to present to their favorite mare. Chiffon was still experiencing an occasional shiver as she recalled the sensation of Tribute’s hooves latching the flower in her hair behind her ear. She had tensed at his nearness, but she could not very well forbid him not to place the flower with Blake and her cousin chuckling and giggling. She had breathed a sigh of relief when he had gone to join Blake lounging against the porch railing, however.

Thankful for her cousin’s ability to keep a conversation moving, Chiffon refrained from contributing her own thoughts, content to study Tribute discreetly as Silver Frost led him and Blake over a variety of topics of local interest. She wondered at her earlier opinion of the stallion that had labeled him as arrogant and unbending, for he easily joined in the light chatter that Silver Frost foisted on the two stallions. Whereas Chiffon would have once found his comments on the lives of the local way of life disparaging, she now saw that he had a insight into the individual foibles of ponies as a whole that was enlightening, whether they lived in the city of Grayton or the small town of Woodlawn. And he could find humor in almost any circumstance, although his was of a droll variety rather than the outright preposterous sentiments of both Blake and Silver Frost.

“And what do you think, Chiffon?”

Coming out of her musings, Chiffon realized that the three ponies were looking at her for an opinion on something of which she was completely unaware. “Excuse me, I was wool-gathering.”

“You were what?” asked a bemused Blake.

“Daydreaming,” responded Tribute with a grin, his eyes alight with laughter as if he knew where her thoughts had been centered.

“Castle-building,” retorted Silver Frost, noting with a sly smile that Chiffon had been inordinately interested in Tribute.

“Ahh, our discussion must have bored you, Chiffon,” Blake drawled.

Discomposed by this tormenting banter, Chiffon looked beyond the stallions and was allayed by the sight of two ponies walking by the house; to draw attention from her predicament, she hailed them with a heartfelt greeting and a wave of her hoof to entice them to join the circle on the porch.

The two ponies- another of Chiffon’s cousins, Icon, and his dearest friend, Splotch- quickly responded to the summons and met Chiffon at the top of the porch steps. “Let me guess,” Chiffon said to Icon. “Your mother just served up all your favorite dishes.” Floral Breeze and Whirlpool, Icon’s parents- Floral Breeze being Velvet’s and Tribute’s (Chiffon’s uncle, not the doctor) sister, making Chiffon, Icon, and Silver Frost first cousins- lived only several houses away.

“Actually, it was Dad’s night in the kitchen... his special lasagna,” Icon grinned.

“And he still refuses to give me the recipe,” Splotch complained. “He says it can’t go out of the family.”

“Well, there’s an easy way to solve that problem,” Chiffon smiled at the two.

Splotch sent a speculative glance at Icon, who only laughed. “There may be news in that department one of these days,” he promised.

“You both have met Dr. Tribute and Silver Frost, but have you been introduced to Dr. Blake?” queried Chiffon.

Acknowledging the other ponies on the porch, Icon admitted to a dubious acquaintance with Blake due to their membership on rival teams at the bowling alley; and Splotch and Blake were soon presented.

“We were on our way to Hood’s Place to meet with some of the theater group,” Icon shared, a trace of regret in his voice. He was aware that Chiffon has seemed intrigued by Tribute when the doctor had first come to town and had been disappointed that his cousin had not followed through on her apparent interest. He was curious now to see if anything might yet develop on a personal nature between the two ponies.

Chiffon herself looked rather downcast at Icon’s words, fearful of losing the support of Icon and Splotch; the two would have proved a convenient barrier between her and Tribute if she found herself becoming too drawn to his beguiling personality. Splotch, however, noticing Chiffon’s tribulation, spoke up.

“I don’t think anyone will miss us at the ice cream shop,” the magenta mare noted. “I mean, how often do we get the opportunity to mingle with Woodlawn’s upper echelon?” She sat down on the top step.

“I never realized, Splotch, that you held me in such high regard,” preened Silver Frost, teasingly.

“She doesn’t,” scoffed Icon. “I’ve told her about the time you...”

“Never mind, Icon,” Silver Frost growled as a quick glance at Blake showed him all ears to hear of her embarrassing escapade. Smoothly turning the conversation, she asked, “Has your group decided what play it’s going to perform after the huge success it had with ‘The Merchant of Venice’?”

Successfully drawing Icon’s attention to a subject that he enjoyed, Silver Frost breathed a sigh of relief, although Blake’s laughing eyes assured her that she would not be spared an inquisition later.

Icon sat next to Splotch on the porch steps and Blake moved to sit with Silver Frost in the swing, leaving Chiffon with two choices- to join Tribute who was still leaning against the railing or find an excuse to escape.

“Would anyone care for a soda?” she asked, opting for the latter of the two options.

After determining what each of the ponies wanted to drink, Chiffon set off for the kitchen, only to find Tribute holding the door for her and following her into the house. “I am at your service,” he smiled, briefly touching her foreleg.

“Th... that’s not necessary,” she ineffectually protested, his light touch once more detracting her to no end.

“That may be so, but I refuse to have you wait on us hoof and... hoof; I’ll carry my fair share.”

Reaching the kitchen, the two soon had served up icy glasses of soda, a bowl of snack chips, and a cluster of green grapes, all of which went on a solid serving tray. Chiffon, who had been uncomfortable with being alone with Tribute among such mundane matters as fetching ice cubes and munchies, breathed a sigh of relief when their work was finished and they could return to the company on the front porch.

She was not to be so quickly removed from Tribute’s solitary presence, however. Before she could lift the tray, Tribute leaned over the counter toward her. “Your flower is slipping,” he noted, embedding the stem more securely in her mane, taking his time to make sure it was anchored well. “Perfect,” he said when he was satisfied, his eyes holding her gaze, his smile revealing those dratted dimples that set her pulse racing.

“Perfect,” she heard her voice echo softly... and immediately dropped her gaze and felt a fiery blush spread across her cheeks.

Tribute would have liked to continue this tete-a-tete, but Velvet and Ribbons n’ Lace happened to enter the room at that time, also in search of some refreshments. Both of the mares wished themselves anywhere but in the kitchen when they saw the tender interlude they had interrupted, but Chiffon would not let them escape.

“Icon and Splotch stopped by,” Chiffon explained hurriedly, as if she was a foal caught in some mischievous act.

“Well, Ribbons n’ Lace, you can meet my nephew and his sweetheart. You two go on, we’ll get our own drinks.” Velvet effectively shooed Chiffon and Tribute out of the room.

Although Tribute was unable to finagle any further time alone with Chiffon that evening, he was satisfied that she had not succeeded in entirely eluding his attentions. And when he had leaned close to whisper in her ear on parting that he would call her during the week, hadn’t she smiled and nodded her assent? Yes, life was looking up.

* * *

Several weeks after Ribbons n’ Lace and Andrew’s visit to their oldest son in Woodlawn, another member of the family could be found on his way to that town with his wife at his side. Having just passed through a sudden spring shower, Toby and Fern shared a tender kiss before collapsing the umbrella that had cozily protected them from the brunt of the storm.

“Now, aren’t you glad I remembered the bumbershoot?” queried Fern of her husband.

“Decidedly, yes, as I would be concerned if you had gotten soaked in your condition.”

“You mean if it wasn’t for my condition, you wouldn’t have cared a fig whether I got wet or not?” Fern teased.

Fern’s condition, of course, was that she was with child. As thrilling as that piece of news had been to her and Toby, it had also transported Great-Aunt Maisie into rapturous planning for the advent of a wondrous little newcomer into a family (on Fern’s side) that had experienced far too many tragedies and comparatively few births. The news had also been joyously received by Ribbons n’ Lace and Andrew when they had stopped by Dream Valley on their way back to New Pony. Grandparents twice over from their daughter and her husband’s offspring, now five and two years of age, Ribbons n’ Lace and Andrew looked forward to another infant to snuggle and love.

And Ribbons n’ Lace, in her new role as matchmaker, had discerned an opportunity to increase Tribute’s suit with Chiffon. Ribbons n’ Lace had rightly surmised from her time spent in Chiffon’s company that the mare was too used to her independence to take the chance on giving her heart totally to Tribute... too set in her ways to be open to the possibilities of a life lived in partnership with another. So what better way to entice Chiffon than to expose her to a successful and happy marriage in the form of Toby and Fern with the added incentive of a new foal on the way to bring further joy to the union? Maybe, just maybe, Chiffon would open her eyes to the potential happiness that could be hers and Tribute’s.

Fortunately, Toby and Fern had been planning to visit Tribute in the near future anyway, so they fell into Ribbons n’ Lace’s scheme quite willingly. And except for the rain shower, their journey had been enjoyable.

“I’m a little nervous about playing cupid,” Toby admitted to Fern as they came into Woodlawn.

“I think your brother and Chiffon will have done very well for themselves since your parents’ visit. It’s not as if Tribute doesn’t now how to court a lady.”

Tribute would be the first to doubt Fern’s optimistic statement. He had called Chiffon after his parents departure to invite her to dinner, but she had sweetly refused, giving the deadline for her publication as her reason; she had assured him that when that responsibility was fulfilled, she would be more readily available.

Each succeeding call had met with the same response. Tribute had tried cajoling her, pointing out that she had to eat sometime; and he would be sure to get her home again in good time. Chiffon had said no. He had sent an invitation to her accompanied by a bouquet of flowers, only to receive a polite thank you with the added information that there had been some set-backs in her work due to a failed computer. He had coerced Blake into including him and Chiffon in a trek that Blake and Silver Frost planned to a neighboring town’s spring festival, but Chiffon was by then caught up in the end of the school year tasks that could not be neglected.

Tribute had never in his life come up against such a stubborn female. He would have been totally disillusioned if it were not for the memory of the look in her eyes on the night he and his parents had been guests at Chiffon’s home. There had been no misreading the tenderness in her eyes when they met his; she was wary, but she did respond to him, of that there was no doubt. The only problem now was to convince Chiffon to spend more time with him so that she would find that he was indispensable to her happiness. But how?

Greeting his brother and sister-in-law with enthusiasm, Tribute realized that he was more lonely in Woodlawn than he had been aware. He was busy enough with his responsibilities and the new friends he had made, but there was no family for him to rely on. Having Toby to talk to was a welcomed release; and he perceived now that he had never really gotten to know his sister-in-law, and found Fern to be a delightful and amusing companion.

Tribute cringed when he thought back to the days when he had taunted his brother’s dependence on this mare; now he envied the closeness that Toby and Fern shared and wanted more than anything to have the same kind of relationship with Chiffon. Hearing of the anticipated blessed event in Toby and Fern’s future, Tribute was made more aware than ever that he wanted his life to take a new direction.

It was late when the reunited brothers and Fern said goodnight, and Toby and Fern retired to their reserved room at the motel.

* * *

The following morning found Fern deserted, both stallions having gone off to the medical center. Fern was not disturbed, however, having met several of the Woodlawn inhabitants through Vanguard. She had assured her husband and her brother-in-law that she would have a wonderful time hunting up the ponies of her acquaintance.

Tribute had accepted Fern’s plans with an open mind. He was aware that his parents had stopped in Dream Valley to see Toby and Fern after their visit to him, so he was fairly certain that his problems with Chiffon had been discussed. He was also aware that it was very probable that Fern, like his mother, would do what she could to bring about a meeting with Chiffon to further his cause. And with his zero success rate in that department, Tribute could only hope that Fern would have better luck than he himself.

Being Saturday, Fern’s telephone call found Chiffon at home; Fern, after explaining her abandonment and her desire to visit with Vanguard’s parents, soon found herself on the way to Chiffon’s house.

Having never met Velvet and Charger, Fern spent an enjoyable half hour over coffee learning about Chiffon’s family before she and Chiffon set off for Floral Breeze’s house several doors down the street, with the admonishment, however, from Velvet that she expected the two of them back for lunch. On the way, Fern casually mentioned that Tribute was treating her and Toby to dinner at Fernwood; and would Chiffon like to join the party so that she, Fern, would not have to sit on the sidelines while her husband and brother-in-law dominated the conversation with discussions of medical matters?

This was a wonderful opportunity, Chiffon reasoned, for her to fulfill her promise to Tribute that she would dine with him, while not putting her in the predicament of having to face the stallion alone. She quickly accepted Fern’s invitation, and found that her heart was racing over the simple fact that she would see Tribute tonight. Why, oh why, did this stallion discombobulate her so?

Floral Breeze and Whirlpool made Fern feel right at home; Vanguard’s parents and Chiffon were soon filled in on all the newest accomplishments of Banderol, and Floral Breeze was put in the possession of a sentimental photo of her son and grandson lying nose to nose on the fresh spring grass with the luscious lavender blooms of a lilac bush providing a soft backdrop. “Sugarberry’s quite proud of the picture,” Fern informed them, a soft smile lighting her face. “She loves them both so much.” Fern could not help but anticipate the pleasure of having her and Toby’s foal to snuggle and love.

The morning speeding by, Fern and Chiffon returned to lunch with Velvet and Charger, then set out to visit Vanguard’s two brothers, Fern with personal messages for both of them from Vanguard and Sugarberry. They caught Icon just on his way out to pick up Splotch for an excursion to the nature center; the mares walked with him to Splotch’s apartment where they shared news of import before Fern and Chiffon continued their social calls, their next stop being the new home on the edge of town of Stillwater and Morning Dew.

An architect, Stillwater had designed the dream home that Morning Dew had been fantasizing over for years, and the reality was breathtaking. Fern was notably impressed; and as Sugarberry and Vanguard had not yet seen the edifice, she attempted to remember every detail so that she could convey a spirited report back to Dream Valley. Little Droplet became enamored of Fern during her visit, and the toddler dominated Fern’s lap while the mares and Stillwater conversed.

“We’re to have another little one,” Morning Dew admitted, with a doting glance at her husband. “He or she is due in November.”

“Floral Breeze didn’t say a word,” Chiffon chided.

“Mom has learned that Morning Dew likes to spread the word herself,” grinned Stillwater.

“With Droplet, Stillwater told his parents; and, as she was their first grandfoal, the next day the whole town knew. I never got to tell a soul,” defended Morning Dew. “Everyone told me!”

Chiffon laughed. “You could put an announcement in the paper.”

“One pony at a time, Chiffon. That’s how I intend to spread the news.”

“Does that mean Fern can’t take the good news home to Sugarberry and Vanguard?” Chiffon queried.

“As to that, we just happened to talk to them this morning on the phone, so they’ve been officially notified,” Morning Dew stated, then looked shrewdly at Fern. “And she did mention that she had a friend due at the same time.”

Chiffon turned to Fern in surprise. “You and Toby...”

Fern’s green cheeks turned apple red. “I was going to tell you; it was just hard to get a word in edgewise.”

Stillwater chuckled; Chiffon and Morning Dew did have a reputation for being garrulous when they were together, both ponies sure of themselves and their opinions.

As Chiffon walked with Fern back to the motel, Fern chattered about her and Toby’s life and the added joy of becoming parents and Toby’s support of her continued education and the complications that sometimes arose from being a doctor’s wife. Fern’s pride in her husband’s dedication to his patients was obvious. “But,” she added, “I won’t be surprised if it’s Dr. Neil or Dr. Aurora in the delivery room with me while Toby’s off with some other emergency.”

Parting from Fern with the admonition that the young mare should get some rest while she could, Chiffon returned home, surprised to find how much she was looking forward to tonight’s dinner, and even allowing herself to dream a little of what it might be like to be a doctor’s wife.

* * *

Stunned to have learned from Fern that she and Chiffon had spent the entire day together, Tribute had huffed in displeasure; the mare had not been able to find a half-hour to spend with him. “Of course,” Fern explained, “she sent off her publication yesterday, so that worry is taken care of. And she was perfectly satisfied to join us for dinner,” she added, with a coy look at Tribute.

Now in the elegant setting of Fernwood, Tribute had a hard time taking his eyes off Chiffon’s face as she and Fern prattled on about nursery designs, a topic they had not succeeded in exhausting earlier in the day; both mares were animated and ignored the male half of the dinner party.

Toby grinned at his brother. “I’m afraid you’re not finding the dinner conversation very stimulating.”

Overhearing the remark, Chiffon turned to the stallions, her eyes twinkling. “What theme would you suggest for a foal’s first room?” Her gaze rested on Tribute.

“Something pink for a girl, blue for a boy,” he offered.

“More specific,” Chiffon prodded.

“Something with... stethoscopes.”

Fern and Chiffon giggled. “That might solve your problem, Fern; it’s definitely gender neutral.”

The mares allowed the stallions to take control of the dinner talk which proved to be quite entertaining so that none of the ponies were in any hurry to end the meal; they were all surprised, therefore, by the unexpected advent of dessert as delivered by the chef himself and an assistant.

“Good evening, Dr. Tribute... Chiffon. I’ve been informed by Blackstone that you are joined by your brother and his wife.” The chef nodded to Toby but his gaze rested on Fern with apparent pleasure, causing Toby to frown in disapproval and Tribute to arch a brow over such insolence.

The chef looked vaguely familiar to Toby; but for the life of him, he could not place where he had seen the stallion. It was Chiffon who noticed his confusion and provided the answer.

“Toby, you might remember meeting Biscuit at Sugarberry and Vanguard’s wedding; he’s another of Vanguard’s cousins.”

“I certainly remember you, Toby,” grinned the chef, Biscuit, “but then everyone at the wedding was familiar with the doctor who delivered Tabby’s foal. I also remember that you danced more than one dance with Chiffon that day. But the reason I’m here is that Blackstone overheard that your wife’s name is Fern, and Fernwood couldn’t let the opportunity pass; in honor of such a lovely namesake of the restaurant, I’m presenting you, Fern- and your party, too, of course- with the signature dessert of Fernwood.” A flourish of his hoof brought Biscuit’s assistant to the fore with the tray of luscious chocolate desserts, each delicately etched with the representation of a fern.

“Wh... why, thank you!” smiled Fern, wide-eyed with childish pleasure at such particular notice.

“The pleasure belongs to Fernwood,” Biscuit replied majestically. “It is a rare day when our restaurant is graced with such a stunning example of its very heart.” He bowed then and slipped away back to his kitchen.

“My goodness,” breathed Fern.

“I’ve never known Biscuit to be so gallant,” mused Chiffon.

“Fern, have you ever met Biscuit in the past?” queried a slightly rattled Toby.

“And you Toby... dancing with Chiffon?” Tribute caustically asked, finding the fact that his brother had held the mare in his forelegs slightly disconcerting.

Silence then reigned over the group for several seconds before the whimsicalness of the situation dawned on the four ponies, and they laughed in sudden harmony. Toby laid his hoof over Fern’s, concurring with Biscuit’s judgement that she was the loveliest Fern in Ponyland while Tribute whispered to Chiffon that he felt it was his due to share at least an evening’s worth of dances with her in the near future, leaving both mares with rose-colored cheeks that only endeared them all the more to the stallions.

The dessert was as flavorful as it was pleasing to the eye and was thoroughly enjoyed by the ponies; with a final expression of gratitude to Biscuit, the restaurant’s guests ended their evening, Toby and Fern heading for their motel and Tribute happily left in the sole company of Chiffon. They had traversed only a short ways, however, when they met another couple coming to Fernwood for a late supper.

Chiffon had never formally met Heart Blossom, but she had seen her from a distance and taken a dislike to her simply because she and Tribute were often the object of conversation in the local gossip mill. That Heart Blossom was in the company of a different stallion this evening did nothing to assuage a twinge of envy now that the two mares stood face-to-face.

Sharing a warm greeting, Heart Blossom and Tribute appeared to be on very good terms as far as Chiffon could see. She acknowledged her introduction with a polite smile but was thrown into confusion when the unknown stallion was introduced as Heart Blossom’s fiancé. She looked at Tribute with wonder, expecting to see a stricken look of despair there, but was only further confounded when she heard him say, “It’s nice to meet you, Seascape; Heart Blossom has spoken of you often.”

Listening with only partial attention to the conversation of Seascape’s weekend visit to Woodlawn, Chiffon’s mind tried to sort out the implications of the fact that Tribute and Heart Blossom had obviously not been dating as a love-interest but merely as friends. Finding herself immensely relieved to learn this fact, Chiffon was forced to identify the emotional trauma that afflicted her each time she was close to Tribute. She loved the stallion.

Chiffon found herself considering the possibility that maybe... just maybe... it would be worth sacrificing her independence for a life lived with a stallion who could share the joys and the trials that up until now Chiffon had taken upon herself as her responsibility alone. And if the mere touch of his hoof could evoke such a warm feeling within her, what would it be like to kiss...

Abruptly, Chiffon became conscious that her name had been mentioned. This lack of concentration was happening too often when she was in Tribute’s presence. She forced herself to listen to the words that Heart Blossom was speaking.

“... so I was wondering if you would call my office early next week to set up an appointment for us to discuss it.”

Heart Blossom was waiting for an answer, and Chiffon had no idea what the question had been. Fortunately, Tribute came to her rescue. A provoking hint of laughter in his eyes, he answered for Chiffon. “It might be best to give Chiffon a week or two to finish up with school issues before she commits herself to our project,” he said, seemingly pacifying Heart Blossom’s request.

“I’ll await your convenience, Chiffon.” Shifting her attention to Seascape, she pronounced that she could not wait another minute for dinner, and the ponies made their farewell.

Chiffon immediately questioned Tribute when they began their walk home. “What, pray tell, am I to discuss with Heart Blossom?”

Tribute chuckled. “I hadn’t been aware of how susceptible you were to wool-gathering when we first became acquainted.”

“You have that effect on me,” Chiffon admitted.

“You find my company that dull?”

“No... no, of course not.” Quite the contrary. “There have just been too many demands on my time.”

“But with your workbook sent to the publishers and with school nearly over, I thought you’d be languishing for something to occupy your idle hooves.” And I’d like to be that something.

“I’ve been looking forward to spending more time with my flowers and the garden.” Among other things.

“I hope I didn’t speak out of bounds, then. You see, Heart Blossom mentioned one day that she was in need of a responsible pony to arrange the open house festivities that will accompany the completion of the building program at the hospital and clinic. I suggested your name.”

“So that’s what she wants to talk to me about?”

“Yes. I don’t want you to feel obligated to accept. It will entail a fair amount of work, I know. It’s just that I thought you’d handle the function quite well.”

“In my pertinacious manner, you were undoubtedly thinking.”

A low chuckle met her words, and Chiffon caught the glimmer of both dimples as they passed under a streetlight. Tribute leaned close as he said, “You can be obdurate if I can be arrogant.”

“What a pair we’d make,” giggled Chiffon. She blushed as she realized how brazen that sounded.

“As to that,” Tribute drawled, “I think the pair of us would get along quite well together.”

He immediately regretted saying it, however, as Chiffon seemed to withdraw from him and remained silent. He could think of nothing more to say for fear it would sound utterly inane after making such a personal innuendo and could have kicked himself for isolating the mare when they had seemed to be making progress in building a connection.

Arriving at the house in an uneasy silence, the two ponies were approaching the door- Chiffon disgusted with herself at having found Tribute’s statement too unsettling to respond with even a joking remark, and Tribute foreseeing an abrupt dismissal with Chiffon slipping into the house without so much as a polite goodnight; and how could he stop her when experience had taught him that she would rebel against his touch. The need did not arise, however, as the front door opened from the inside to reveal Icon just making his farewell to his aunt and uncle.

“Finally!” he grinned at Chiffon and Tribute as they stepped into the house. “I’ve been waiting for you two for the last hour... not that I wasn’t well treated,” he added with a fond glance at Velvet, “as your mom let me feast on her fresh peanut butter cookies.”

“So there are none left?” twitted Chiffon.

“Unfair, Chiffon.”

“Yes, dear. He only had four... at last count.” Velvet patted her nephew affectionately.

“And besides,” Icon defended, “I wanted to leave some for our picnic tomorrow.”

“Picnic?” queried Chiffon.

“That’s what I came over for... to see if you and Tribute, along with Toby and Fern, would like to join Blake and Silver Frost and Splotch and myself on a picnic at Westwind.”

Tribute and Chiffon exchanged a questioning glance which obviously contained a positive message as Tribute turned to Icon and said, “Sure thing; we’re in.” He then added, “I should run it by Toby and Fern just to be on the safe side.”

“Call them now,” suggested Charger.

When Tribute’s call had been placed and an affirmative answer received from Toby, the talk turned to what foods to bring, all deciding at the lateness of the hour to take the easy way out and purchase items from the deli department at the grocery store after church in the morning.

“Except for Aunt Velvet’s cookies,” Icon recollected.

With no reason to delay his departure, Tribute left with Icon, disappointed that he had not had a chance to... Well, a kiss would have been nice... if Chiffon had allowed it. Tribute found himself wanting very much to find out if she would.

* * *

The walk to the park known as Westwind proved to be a pleasant experience; the lovely weather was mirrored in the contented faces of the ponies who were sometimes walking in pairs, sometimes grouped randomly, but always chattering. By the number of picnic baskets, it would appear that the outing would encompass more than the eight ponies involved; everyone had made sure that their favorite foods were included and in generous proportions. The grocer was smiling smugly when that particular group left his store.

Blake had brought a kite to provide entertainment, and Splotch had her easel and paints to capture the day on canvas. Icon was wearing his baseball cap while Blake had on a rather worn fedora that gave him a rakish air. Two of the mares, Chiffon and Splotch, had donned wide-brimmed woven hats of their own, Splotch’s decorated with some greenery with a tiny bird’s nest complete with resting robin and Chiffon’s with lavender organdy ribbons and a sprig of lilac. Her delicate lilac-scented cologne fit perfectly with the headgear and the day.

The picnickers seemed in no particular hurry to reach the selected picnic spot, rambling along so as not to miss any of the beautiful vistas available to them or to lose track of any of the conversation going on around them. A plethora of laughter accompanied the group as Icon and Blake kept everyone amused as their boisterous and nonsensical natures ran wild.

Chiffon was thoroughly enjoying herself as the day’s excursion brought back fond memories of many like it as she grew up under the protective guidance of her three cousins, Stillwater, Vanguard, and Icon. The four of them, along with a varied group of other neighborhood fillies and colts, had often ventured into the parkland for a day of frolicsome adventure that had led to many scrapes and misguided decisions, but always a lot of fun.

This time out was special for Chiffon, however, because it was the first time she had been accompanied by a stallion for whom she was feeling a rather tender regard; she found the experience highly exhilarating, especially as Tribute paid her such particular attention. She found it highly satisfactory to contemplate the stallion through the eyes of love rather than the suspicious and aggravated mode that had first dominated their acquaintance. She thoroughly liked what she saw and hoped that Tribute would see in her someone with whom he would be willing to grant admittance to his tidy, snug life.

Not that Chiffon was naive enough to think that there would be no problems in their pending relationship. Both were too used to a life lived independently of any outside complications. Both were set in their ways. Both had rather strong opinions. But, Chiffon mused, glancing at Tribute where he walked beside her, she was finding it very difficult to imagine her life without him now. Whatever difficulties they would have to overcome would be offset by the love they would share.

Chiffon’s pondering was interrupted as Tribute happened to glance in her direction at just that moment and caught the wistful softness of her eyes; his heart thumped heavily, for if he was right, that look mirrored his own reflections of the moment. He grinned at the mare, his dimples flashing their unfair charisma that sent Chiffon’s senses into complete chaos.

“Icon’s idea of a picnic is commendable, but I find myself wishing that it was just the two of us on this venture,” Tribute stated.

Giggling, Chiffon responded. “I highly doubt that we could feasiblely lose six ponies.”

“Ahh... but you’re not taking into account that those six ponies most probably have the same mind-set as we do.”

Feeling her cheeks flush, Chiffon turned her head so that the wide brim of her hat hid her face, but Tribute would have none of that. He lifted the brim and peaked at her face, causing the blush to deepen and spread. Chuckling, he said, “Never hide your blushes, my dear; I find them all too enchanting.”

Chiffon stared at the stallion. My dear... Enchanting... Had Tribute really said those words, or was she growing faint from lack of food and had misunderstood...

“And now what’s with this wide-eyed doe look?” he queried, obviously not finished with disconcerting her. He moved to stand in front of her, impeding her progress along the path. He settled the slightly disheveled hat on her head, then met those eyes that were filled with wonderment again. “It should come as no surprise to you that I find you very... appealing.”

Thinking her heart would never beat again, Chiffon was speechless with emotion. He’s going to kiss me, right here on this public byway...

Whether that was Tribute’s plan was not to be known, however, for the rest of the group, now some ways ahead of Tribute and Chiffon, had realized their comrades were lagging and called back to ascertain what the problem might be. With all eyes on them, Tribute and Chiffon had no choice but to end their private tete-a-tete, Tribute waving a hoof to the others with the statement that they had simply seen something of interest that they needed to further explore.

No one was fooled. Icon snickered, Toby grinned, Blake muttered something under his breath. Fern, Splotch, and Silver Frost exchanged knowing glances, all three pleased to see Chiffon responding so favorably to Tribute’s attentions. Chiffon was embarrassed beyond reasoning, while Tribute was smugly satisfied that, for once, he had completely stunned the mare into complete and total silence.

Even now with the rest of the ponies moving on, Chiffon was unable to take a step, feeling as if she had lost all control of her life and limbs. She wanted to catch up with the others; she felt terribly vulnerable alone with Tribute; yet, she yearned for his touch. She shook her head, hating the indecision which held her in its grasp, then fixed a fiery gaze on Tribute as he stood watching her, a contented smile on his face.

Tribute had watched the play of emotions across the mare’s face, following them only too well. The look of longing followed by dismay, then a see-sawing that ended in an almost angry disavowal of all that had gone before. He had pushed her too hard, too soon. Before she could say anything, he sighed and offered an apology. “I’m sorry if I behaved unconscionably. Will you forgive me?”

This contrite stallion before her was at such odds with the arrogant pony who had first earned her ire at Sugarberry’s Christmas get-together that Chiffon’s mortification dissolved in an instant. “I’m not sure there was anything that needed forgiveness. We are friends now, aren’t we? At least, I hope we are.”

“Friends,” Tribute agreed, although not as wholeheartedly as he might have. He had designs on an entirely different kind of relationship. Of course, wasn’t marriage based on friendship? As he and Chiffon set off to gain their place with the others, Tribute resolved not to rush his fences; as impatient as he was to make her his wife, she would have to be won slowly.

He could handle that.


* * *

The picnic lunch was eaten in a sheltered glade with a small stream providing a bubbling backdrop, a variety of trees edging the perimeter with dappled shade, and a spreading purple lilac in full bloom regaling the senses. It was a perfect setting to lay out the picnic cloth, retrieve the food from the picnic hampers, and settle down to a leisurely meal complete with excellent companions. Ideas were exchanged on a wide range of topics with only minor disagreements occasioned by differences of opinion that were soon set aside. Everyone had plenty to eat, and the surplus would keep several of them in food for another day or two.

The ponies lounged around the picnic site once they were satiated, Velvet’s peanut butter cookies having been the finishing touch. For the moment, all speech had subsided so that the only sound was that of the water gurgling over the stones in the creek bed and the lilting song of a warbler with the sporadic scratching of Splotch’s pencil as she worked to capture the impression of the glade on her drawing pad for later study. Fern’s eyes were closed, her head resting against Toby’s shoulder, his foreleg protectively around her.

Blake was stretched out, staring at the sky where his kite floated lazily, worrying a blade of grass in his mouth. Tribute was admiring the dedication of a colony of ants that were salvaging all the crumbs they could gather. Chiffon, barely able to keep her eyes open after the trek and the meal, dreamily wondered what it would be like if Tribute would encircle her the way Toby nestled his wife.

Of all the ponies, only Icon and Silver Frost seemed fully cognizant of their surroundings, Icon checking his watch as if anticipating something. At a nod of his head, Silver Frost got to her hooves and cleared her throat, garnering everyone’s immediate attention.

“I realize you’re all feeling at peace with the world right now,” she began, “but Icon and I don’t want all those calories you’ve absorbed to clog your system, so we’ve set up a treasure hunt that will necessitate the use of those calories to your advantage.”

“What’s the treasure?” asked Blake from his recumbent position as if only something extraordinary would convince him to move anytime in the near future.

“The thrill of victory. You’ll find a silver chest with four coins, each numbered; the first one to find the treasure will take the number one coin and so on so that we have verification of what order each couple discovers the hiding place.”

“How’s this search going to work?” queried Toby.

“You’ll each get a different clue that will lead you to another clue that will progressively bring you closer to the treasure,” answered Icon. “Silver Frost made up the ones for Splotch and I, and I made up the ones for her and Blake. Chiffon and Tribute will have a third set; and the ones for Toby and Fern, because they’re both new to the area, have been modified with an accompanying map so that they’ll have some idea of what might be involved in figuring out the clues.”

“You’ll have to follow your clues in order, as each one will lead you to the next clue, and eventually to the treasure.”

“Is the treasure buried?” Chiffon wanted to know.

“Um... yes, it is.”

“How did you manage this in such short order? We only heard of this picnic last night,” wondered Fern.

Silver Frost shrugged. “Icon and I were planning something like this for awhile; having Toby and Fern in town seemed like a good time to give it a shot.”

“And we were up with the sun this morning to get everything in place,” added Icon with an exaggerated yawn.

“Do both of you know where the treasure is?”

“Only Icon knows,” Silver Frost grinned. “And he has to promise not to help Splotch with the last clue.”

“I’ll be asleep by then,” Icon intoned, pretending to sway on his hooves.

“Well, what are we waiting for?” asked Blake, finally lifting himself from the ground. “Where’s our first clue?”

Suddenly invigorated, Icon swiftly distributed the appropriate clues to each of the pairs of ponies; he and Splotch put their heads together and were off down the path in seconds.

Toby looked blankly at the clue he had received while Fern studied the map; once they had exchanged papers, Fern giggled. “Come on, Toby! It’s perfectly obvious!”

Blake and Silver Frost both muttered over the clue left to them by Icon. “He made it especially hard on purpose,” Silver Frost ranted.

“The scoundrel...” Blake began, then grinned as enlightenment hit him. “It’s not so hard after all.” He grabbed Silver Frost’s hoof and took off.

Tribute and Chiffon were still bent over their clue; but in all honesty, Tribute was not concentrating on the words inscribed on the paper but on the nearness of the mare at his side: the feel of her mane brushing his skin, the smell of the scent she was wearing, the appearance of a wrinkle across her forehead as she contemplated the message, the pursing of her lips as she considered all the angles. He was still focused on those lips when she looked up, her orchid eyes twinkling.

“I have it!” She jumped to her hooves and beckoned.

Shaking off his own plans, Tribute got to his hooves and followed.

* * *

The enthusiasm that Chiffon radiated in finding the hidden clue prompted Tribute’s interest in the pursuit of the treasure, and he found that the time spent with Chiffon studying the clues, following the leads, and ferreting out the elusive slips of paper was intensely satisfying. Any previous disagreements had been forgotten as the two combined their mental prowess to track down the treasure. The walks between clues afforded plenty of time to discuss Chiffon’s teaching experiences and Tribute’s work at the hospital (and he admitted to Chiffon that the reason he had suggested her name to Heart Blossom for the open-house committee was completely selfish in that he knew it would necessitate her spending more time at the hospital, thereby giving him more opportunities to see her).

By the time they had uncovered the last clue that would lead them directly to the prize, they were in complete charity with one another, having discovered something much more important than any treasure that Icon had buried earlier in the day. Having set any preconceived notions behind them, the two ponies found that they had much more in common than either of them realized; they also found that there was no place in the world they would rather be than right here, in each other’s company, sharing their thoughts, working together for a common goal, and helping each other over any difficulty.

Arriving at the towering pine which they had determined to be the site of the buried treasure, both ponies looked in dismay at the wide expanse of ground beneath the tree littered with a thick cushion of dead needles that showed no recent excavation; after several seconds, their eyes met.

“Could we be wrong?” queried Chiffon. “I was positive it would be here.”

“Let’s study the clue again,” Tribute suggested, holding up the last slip of paper they had found.

“Read it,” instructed Chiffon as she walked slowly around the tree, attempting to determine a discrepancy in the feel of the needles and soil beneath her hooves that might indicate that the area had recently been disturbed.

While the west wind...

“The west wind definitely hits this side of the hill,” Chiffon mumbled.

...caresses the proud feather...

“There’s bound to be a bird in the tree somewhere.” The mare waggled her hoof skyward.

...that adorns the viridian armor...

“You’re sure viridian is green?” she inquired of the stallion.

“Yes; nearly positive; and the tree is green.” Tribute grinned, then continued with the reading of the clue. “...under the arms of the ancient one...

“You can see that this tree is old- look at the size of the trunk! And it was huge when I was a foal, too. It’s always been here.”

...who stands as guardian of Westwind’s populace...

“Westwind is a forest, so its populace is trees; and this tree towers over all the others, so it must be the guardian.”

...in the dun cover...

“Dun is a brownish color.” Chiffon kicked at the pine needles at her hooves.

“That is a discrepancy,” Tribute noted. “The needles are more of a rusted red.”

“It depends on how the light is striking them; in the shade, they’re brown. And besides, the soil beneath the needles is brown, and that’s where the treasure would be buried.”

Both ponies stood lost in thought. The world was very quiet so that the only sound was the whispering of the breeze through the lofty branches overhead. Tribute looked up to admire the natural canopy when it occurred to him that the tree bark itself was also a washed-out shade of brown.”

“‘...in the dun cover’ might refer to the tree itself,” he noted.

“It couldn’t be,” Chiffon disagreed. “What’s the last part... something about buried.”

“It reads, ‘...you will unearth the object of your quest.’ Does that necessarily mean it’s buried underground? Unearth could simply mean that it is covered somehow.”

“But Silver Frost specifically said it was buried.”

“Think about it, Chiffon. Blake found his raffle tickets buried under the mess on his desk last week; his office hasn’t quite reached the point where all those papers have degenerated to soil... not yet, anyway.” The stallion walked around the tree, taking stock of the rough bark.

“‘...in the dun cover, you will unearth the object of your quest,” Chiffon quoted softly as she trailed Tribute.

“In the tree then,” Tribute suggested.

“There are no apparent holes,” Chiffon observed. “At least, not within easy reach. But, look! There’s a feather sticking out of that nest up there! That must be the ‘proud feather’ the clue referred to.”

Tribute stared upward. “Who but Icon would hinge this entire quest on being able to climb the tree,” he grimaced. He took a leap at the lowest branch which was just out of his reach, but the thickness of the branch prevented him from securing his grasp.

“Could you use that rough spot on the side of the tree as a step?” Chiffon wondered.

Studying the knot from which a lower branch had once snapped off, Tribute finally agreed. “It’s worth a try.”

Lifting his hoof and settling it securely on the gnarled growth, Tribute prepared to transfer his weight to it to get a boost up; but when he did so, the burl suddenly detached itself from the trunk of the tree and fell downward, causing Tribute to lose his equilibrium and scrape against the rough bark. Both the burl and the stallion landed with a thump on the needle-covered ground.

“Are you okay?” a worried Chiffon asked, although her lips twitched as though there was laughter bubbling to the surface. Who would ever have expected to find the supercilious Tribute covered in pine needles at the base of a tree which had just thwarted his heroic plans?

“Just a slight abrasion,” the doctor said, getting to his hooves and brushing off the pine needles, wincing slightly as he touched the damage done to his hip.

“There’s a first-aid kit in one of the picnic baskets. We should head back there.”

“Not yet,” said Tribute, his gaze on the tree trunk where the gnarled stump of branch once rested. “That burl just might have been what was hiding our treasure.”

Following his gaze, Chiffon saw what he meant. The tree trunk now had an exposed cavity within easy reach. Both ponies stepped closer to have a better look. From deep within the heart of the tree, they could make out the barest outline of a small, metal chest. Reaching in, Tribute pulled it forth; and upon opening it, found the four coins. Chiffon lifted out the disk prominently displaying the number one after which Tribute nestled the silver box back in the tree trunk cavity.

“I’m surprised no one else has shown up yet,” Tribute commented as he settled the gnarled bole back into the tree.

Taking a survey of the surrounding countryside, Chiffon observed Icon and Splotch just coming through the trees from the east. She giggled. “Icon and Splotch are headed here; Splotch is leading, so I guess it’s safe to assume that Icon didn’t help her out.”

“Blake and Silver Frost are coming from the other direction,” Tribute noted.

“Oh, good! We can heckle them as they try to figure out exactly where the treasure is.” She straightened out some of the disrupted pine needles with her hoof to make sure the successive ponies would not have an advantage.

Tribute, however, glanced at his hip which was now showing signs of irritation. “I’d like to get back to the picnic spot so I could take care of this scrape.” He did not voice the fact that such a move would allow him to spend an additional amount of time with her alone; he had the unsettling impression that the newfound harmony between himself and Chiffon would be somehow shattered once they had rejoined their group.

“Oh, Tribute! You should have spoken up sooner! Of course, we’ve got to take care of you first.”

With no trouble at all, Tribute was able to direct the mare into the cover of the trees, completely bypassing the other couples.

* * *

Having washed and medicated Tribute’s minor wound, Chiffon dropped down onto the grass at the stallion’s side, her hat abandoned in the course of the activity. “It was a wonderful day, even if you ended up getting hurt.”

“A minor inconvenience,” Tribute assured the mare. “This is such a peaceful setting for a picnic; we’ll have to come here often.” Just the two of us.

“Stillwater and Vanguard found this place when they were growing up, so we often came her to play out our fantasies. Knights and maidens of old... Robin Hood was a favorite, too. Sometimes we’d go on a jungle safari... pity the poor little rabbits! We scared a good many of them into their holes back then.” She smiled wistfully at Tribute. “What did you and Toby and your sister pretend?”

“I’m afraid I didn’t go in for that kind of stuff,” Tribute admitted. “But I did play football, as did Toby. Tendril was more into things like My Little People dolls.”

“And I imagine the only reason you liked football was because you could tend to the injuries,” Chiffon teased.

“Mom says that I had my mind set on being a doctor since the day I was born. My father has always been my idol.”

“I’ve noticed that he’s very proud of you.”

“He and Mother care about each of their children very much. And I got the strong impression that...” He paused, seeming hesitant to say what was on his mind.

“That what?” queried Chiffon, her attention fully on the stallion.

“...that they would be perfectly willing to have you as part of the family, too.”


Afraid that the mare was going to put a stop to all his plans, Tribute reached out and took her hoof in his, that action effectively cutting off her words as she gasped and stared at him, her expression unreadable. “You once told me not to touch you.” His gaze dropped to her dainty hoof now in his possession, then returned to search her eyes.

“I said that?” she whispered.

“Yes. Why?” Tribute was looking so deeply into her eyes that Chiffon was mesmerized, caught in something she could not fight any longer... something that she did not want to fight.

“Because of the way...” She stopped, mortified at what she was about to admit.

Tribute moved closer. “Because of the way... What? His voice questioned softly enough, but there was a power behind it that allowed for no temporization.

“B... because of the way... your touch makes me feel,” Chiffon acknowledged in a subdued voice.

“And just how does it make you feel?” he persisted, taking possession now of her other hoof as well.

Chiffon caught her breath. “Like... like... the rest of the world disappears... and you and I are the only two ponies left in the universe.”

“Is that a bad thing?”

“It frightens me.”

“Are you frightened now?” He pulled her gently closer.

Chiffon shook her head. No, she was not afraid now.

Her eyes assured Tribute of that fact just before she closed them to receive his kiss.

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