Christmas in Dream Valley 2000
written by Tabby and Sugarberry

"Don't you look utterly native," crooned Sugarberry as she arrived at the Bushwoolie Bargain Books outlet at the mall where Wigwam's book signing event was to take place this cold December Saturday. A light sprinkling of snowflakes had fallen on her walk over, setting her in a holiday frame of mind. She shared Wigwam's delight in having his first book published; and now, seeing the orange stallion with his impressive headdress, she felt even more lighthearted.

Not so the stallion. He was feeling tense, not knowing what reception his work would have with the citizens of Dream Valley; for that reason he had no response for the strawberry-patterned mare. The publisher had assured him that his book was a perfect Christmas gift, and would be a big seller before the holidays. But the time to prove that theory was here, and he was not as assured of the outcome of sales as the publisher was. His stern expression under the headdress, however, gave him such a traditional look of a Native Pony chief that his appearance commanded attention from anyone passing by; and a crowd was already gathering around the table set up with a fine display of his book, Native Pony Tales.

Leaving him to his customers, Sugarberry went deeper into the shop to find Chocolate Chip who was holding down the fort, so to speak, along with Chumster and Friendly. Seeing the chocolate-colored filly straightening books on the clearance table, she greeted her with a compliment. "Your exhibit of Wigwam's books is beautiful, Chocolate Chip! I'm sure Wigwam was impressed with all the hard work you put into it."

"Thanks." The filly smiled briefly but kept on working with the books before her.

"Things are no better between the two of you?"

"No, Sugarberry, and they never will be," admitted Chocolate Chip.

Sugarberry absently picked up a book on wildflowers and flipped through the vibrant pages. "I'd have thought you'd have worked things out by now."

"You can't work out a complete breach of trust, Sugarberry. I thought he liked me for who I was, and it was a shock to discover that he was only hanging out with me because it gave him access to you and Wishbone and all the goings on involving Giorgio." Chocolate Chip turned and moved to another rack of books and began pointlessly moving them about.

"You know that's not true, Chocolate Chip."

"Do I?" She looked up with a smouldering anger in her eyes. "All I know is that he was working for Tawny in an undercover capacity when he so conveniently struck up a friendship with you and me."

"Vanguard asked him to keep an eye on me; he didn't trust Giorgio, knowing what his background was," Sugarberry reminded her.

"That doesn't change the fact that Wigwam let Wishbone walk into that cheating scandal without even trying to turn him aside. If he had truly cared about me, he would have done something to protect my brother. As it was, he used me, just like Giorgio used..."

Sugarberry had no need to be reminded of her experience with Giorgio. She had misread his intent; but she still held on to the belief that somewhere within him there had been some sincerity toward her, and that the friendship that had emerged from the original distrust was not entirely artificial. No further comment could be made, however, as Chumster ran up to Chocolate Chip. "Help, help!" he chattered. "Too many customers!"

The mare and the filly had been so caught up in their conversation that they hadn't noticed that a rather long line of ponies had formed at the check-outs to pay for their autographed Native Pony Tales books. Chocolate Chip scurried off to help the Bushwoolies handle the load, and Sugarberry sighed deeply.

Chocolate Chip had been eagerly anticipating this day of the book signing, as proud of Wigwam's accomplishment as the stallion himself was. But when the truth about the cheating scam at Pony Pride and Wigwam's part in gathering pertinent evidence concerning it was revealed, Chocolate Chip had broken all ties with him on the assumption that his friendship had been merely a coverup to gain information. She had returned to her home in Neighberry for the Thanksgiving holiday with her brother so as to avoid spending the feast with Wigwam which had wounded the stallion deeply and caused him to pull back from trying to soothe Chocolate Chip's ruffled pride. The end result was that both of them were downhearted.

"Sug-berry! Sug-berry!" Sugarberry came out of her preoccupation as Baby Noddins and Baby Falling Leaves ran up to her. "Look what Wigwam wrote!" The foal held up one of the slick, shiny volumes open to the inside page where the author had inscribed a personal note. May all the words you speak someday fill the pages of a book.

Sugarberry grinned to herself. With Baby Noddins, her words would fill an entire library already! Baby Falling Leaves also had an autographed copy, and both foals were ecstatic. "Isn't he so very handsome!" exclaimed Baby Noddins. "If only he had a last name!"

Punching her friend, Baby Falling Leaves took a more practical approach. "Now that we have our books, let's ask your mommy to get us an ice cream cone!"

Smiling over the backs of the two foals, Sugarberry greeted Frostflake who was coming to round up her two charges. "I imagine you will be kept busy reading stories to these two for the rest of the day."

"We've already worked out a plan... one story per day. That way the book will last a lot longer."

"Oh, but Mommy," Baby Noddins began, "can't we read two stories tonight? Wigwam said that the story he told special for me last spring was the second story in the book, and I want to hear it again."

"We'll talk about it, dear," Frostflake said as she herded the two energetic foals towards the door. "See you later, Sugarberry," she called.

* * *

A deep blue unicorn sat at the nearby food court trying to look inconspicuous sipping on her glass of water while she had a keen eye trained on the crowd around Wigwam's book signing. Sapphire frowned at the sight; it was tougher competition than anyone in her family had expected. Wigwam's Native Pony tales had been presumed to be inferior to Driftwood's recipes... at least, that was what the Fairfaxes had convinced themselves of after losing Wigwam's genius to the Monk publishing house.

The elders of each respective family had made a few strides lately to patch things up between the other, but old feuds like this one between the Fairfaxes and the Monks died hard. Each family had picked-up a new and aspiring author from this city of Dream Valley– the Monks with Wigwam and the Fairfaxes with Driftwood– and they had both rushed publication of their new book to get theirs out before the other family had a chance to. As it was, they had tied. The publication date was so close that the main publicity stunt for each-- a book signing-- landed on the same day, in the same city, in the same mall. But each opposing force was still determined to outsell its enemy.

Sapphire had a high position in the Fairfax publishing company, and had been sent to Dream Valley to help Driftwood with his book signing, as well as to keep an eye on the Monks' venture and, if need be, steal some of their potential customers. At least Driftwood's book was selling well as of yet, too; if anything, sales were at a tie. Plus, Sapphire was happy to note that the Monks had not thought of printing an attractive bookmark for Wigwam's sales such as the Fairfaxes had done for Driftwood.

But, Sapphire was not just going to sit around all day watching her enemy. There was more she could do than that. Standing up and tossing her cup out, she exited the food court and casually strolled through the mall. She knew what she had been sent here to do.

Hoping she looked discreet, Sapphire leaned up against a poster advertising Wigwam's book. Being careful to ensure she wasn't detected by anyone, she slowly began working the adhesives on the corners of the poster away from the wall. Expertly, she peeled it off and crumpled it into a ball without anyone noticing any suspicious activity. Throwing it in the nearest trash can, she walked on. It might not help her cause a lot, but every little bit did count.

* * *

Happy to see that the flow of ponies stopping by Wigwam's table was unabated, Sugarberry decided to spend some time browsing the mall. She wanted to get some books to give as Christmas gifts, but would wait until things quieted down. She noticed that Friendly was already replenishing the supply of books at Wigwam's side, which boded well for the success of his endeavor.

Feeling somewhat abandoned, Sugarberry headed to Lemon Treats' Boutique to see what new fashions and accessories might have arrived for the holiday season. Lemon Treats, seeing her enter, immediately called her to come back to see the latest shipment from Vulcanopolis. "Clare's fashions are the best!" she declared, lifting some of the festive pieces into view. "How about a matching hat and scarf for when Vanguard gets home?" She held out a lovely blue ensemble in a soft, delicate knit that sparkled as if fresh snowflakes had just alighted on it.

"That's awfully pretty," Sugarberry agreed, taking the scarf in her hooves. "It would feel cozy on those cold winter days ahead!"

"Shall I ring it up for you?" asked Lemon Treats.

"Yes. Go ahead."

While the transaction was being completed, Sugarberry mentioned the good turnout that Wigwam's book signing was having which reminded Lemon Treats of a bit of news that she had heard. "There's going to be a new aisle store moving into the mall next week; the mall management hoped that it could be set up in conjunction with Wigwam's affair, but the owner couldn't make arrangements soon enough."

"How does it fit in with Wigwam?"

"Well, from what I hear, everything is hoof-made by Native Ponies, all authentic crafts. Wouldn't it have been neat to be able to buy one of Wigwam's books and then get a souvenir item to go along with it?"

"What a great idea! I guess everyone will have to come back next week to see the new shop."

Lemon Treats handed Sugarberry her package. "By the look of the clouds today, you might need these by the time you go home."

"Yes. There were snowflakes in the air when I came. But the weather pony predicted sunny skies."

"Figures," grinned Lemon Treats as she moved off to help a new customer.

No sooner had Sugarberry stepped out the door when she spied Tabby and Thomas coming down the corridor. "Tabby!" she called. Thomas she saw every day at the vet clinic, but time with Tabby was becoming more scarce as the two unicorns adjusted to married life and the responsibilities of the mansion that they had received as a wedding present from Tabby's parents.

"Sug!" squealed Tabby. "Don't tell me you broke down and bought something." She eyed the parcel Sugarberry held inquisitively.

Sugarberry laughed. "Well, you know how I'm always complaining about how cold it is, so I got myself a scarf and matching tam."

"Sissy-wear," Tabby scoffed. This was a pony who would never wear a head-covering no matter how hard the winds blew or how low the thermometer dipped. "But anyway, why not join Thomas and me at the food court? We had an emergency case at the clinic, and haven't had lunch yet."

So while the three discussed the problem of Bowtie's cat's broken leg, they found a place to dine in the crowded melee of shoppers. "And I'll never forget how the two of you worked together to save Raptor's life after the big snow storm late last winter," Sugarberry reminded them.

"See Tabby? Your special touch with animals is proven in the case of Raptor." Thomas directed to his wife.

"Raptor's so sweet, he'd love anyone," Tabby countered.

"He's not always as angelic as he appears to be when you two are visiting," enlightened Sugarberry. "He prides himself on finding new ways to steal food off the kitchen counter when my back is turned. As long as I keep an eye on him, he sits virtuously on the floor as if he has no interest in what I'm doing; but as soon as I forget about him, he's up on the counter looking for edibles. And speaking of food, you two should come over for supper some night soon."

"Name the time and we'll be there," commented Tabby.

"How about tomorrow night then?"

"It's a date."

* * *

When she had stripped the mall of approximately half of Wigwam's posters, Sapphire saw a sight that made her blood run cold. And to make it worse, she knew he was up to the same tricks that she was, only it was hurting her company. But old family feuds didn't entirely figure into this rivalry; Macarius and Sapphire were arch-enemies and would stop at nothing to upstage the other.

Spying on him from the opposite side of the wall, Sapphire could see exactly what he was doing: While standing in front of a sign advertising Driftwood's book signing, he was passing bills out to ponies that strolled by and instructing them to go buy one of Wigwam's book with the jangles. Macarius disliked Sapphire as much as she did him, and would do just about anything to succeed over her; even if he had to pay out of his own pocket, the glory was worth it.

"Good day, Macarius," Sapphire said cooly, walking up and facing him directly.

"Why, good day, Sapphire," the stallion smirked, knowing instantly who it was. He held out a bill. "Care to buy a copy of Native Pony Tales?"

"Shut up, Macarius," Sapphire snapped. "You'd better not be planning on doing that all day."

"But what have you been doing, Sapphire? You've only been stripping all of our posters down. I think it's fair, don't you?"

"You're a jerk, Macarius."

"Now, now Sapphire. Our families are supposed to be on better terms with each other now, aren't they?"

"Look, Macarius. I know we're not supposed to get at each others' throats now, but we're still mortal enemies, okay? Don't forget it."

"I wouldn't have it any other way, my dear Sapphire," Macarius said sarcastically.

"Good." Sapphire turned on her heel and turned to go.

"Oh, and Sapphire?"


"The bookmarks were a good idea, but there's no way to beat the Monk superiority."

Sapphire seethed and didn't bother looking back at him as he resumed his routine to passing shoppers.

* * *

A temporary gap in activity caused Wigwam to look up to see an attractive unicorn of a shade of orange slightly paler than his own-- but with a deep, lustrous shade of orange hair and mane-- approaching his stand. "Good afternoon," he said in his deepest, most profound Native Pony voice.

The mare smiled at him, but centered her attention on the book that lay upon the table. "Native Pony Tales," she read softly. "The cover art is wonderful."

"Not my own, sorry to say," grinned Wigwam. "Although the idea was mine, inspired by some Native Pony art on a cave wall in the area."

"Fascinating! And is that cave accessible?" Her eyes had lit up at the mention of authentic renderings by the Native Ponies.

"Actually, no," Wigwam admitted. "There is a need to excavate the cave at some future time."

"Oh." The pony's attention returned to the first edition again. As she ran her hoof down the list of chapter titles and continued to thoughtfully peruse the book, Wigwam took the opportunity to pensively scrutinize the mare. Her symbol, a dream catcher in the colors of turquoise and magenta, alerted him to the possibility that this was another Native Pony like himself.

"Your ancestors were Native Pony, too, weren't they?" he asked with genuine interest.

"I am a Native Pony," she replied with apparent pride in her voice.

"Of course you are, and so am I."

She appraised him swiftly and responded reproachfully. "You wear the headdress of a tribal chief, but I suspect that you are not one."

"Well... no... but it makes a good impression."

"Our heritage is nothing to take lightly."

"Granted. That's why I wanted to write this collection of stories that have been passed on from generation to generation in the verbal tradition of our forefathers."

This statement softened the mare's attitude somewhat. "Yes. From what I've glanced over, the stories are true to our roots. You have recorded them faithfully."

"Thanks! Would you like me to sign a book for you?" Wigwam picked up a fresh copy and opened it to the title page. "What's your name?"

She smiled at him. "My name is Dreamcatcher."

"Dreamcatcher." Wigwam repeated the name as if spellbound; his gaze held hers for a long moment before he was able to tear his thoughts back to the signing. "Mine's Wigwam."

The mare laughed. "I gathered that from the book cover."

"Yes, but now we've been formally introduced." He scrawled something on the page before him, then asked, "Are you in Dream Valley on a visit?"

"No, actually. I've moved here to open a shop at this mall."

"A shop here? What will you be selling?" He finished the message in the book, and handed it over to her.

"Many different items. But what they all have in common is that each and every one will have been handcrafted by a Native Pony. My store is called Native Dreams."

"It sounds great. How did you decide to come to Dream Valley?"

"A family crisis necessitated my leaving my hometown, and I did some research on prospective locations and settled on Dream Valley as a viable option."

"Your family must have been disappointed to see you go."

The unicorn's face clouded over as if reliving an uncomfortable situation. "More the reverse of that; I was so disappointed in them that I decided to leave. Would you believe that my parents became partners with several other Native Pony investors to open a casino? I feel very strongly that such a move is a direct insult against the traditions that I firmly believe we must uphold."

Wigwam squirmed uncomfortably. "A casino, you say?" He saw a budding relationship withering under the burning sun of revelation.

"I believe that we Native Ponies should live in the spirit of those who have gone before us, living closely with nature. I refuse to compromise the values that were such an integral part of their lifestyle. Don't you agree, Wigwam?"

"Just how far do you go in upholding the old ways?" Wigwam asked uneasily.

"I live my entire life as the Native Ponies did; my home is a tepee I have set up in the Dark Forest; my food is supplied by the forest as well."

"I'm impressed," was all that the stallion could think to say.

"And I weave baskets and form pottery which I sell through my shop, along with consignments from a network of other crafters who honor the traditions as I do."

Thankful for a chance to steer the conversation in a safer direction, Wigwam asked, "When will you be set up?"

"If delivery is as expected, I'll begin on Monday."

"I'll make it a point to stop by. Monday evening is my night off."

"And where do you work, Wigwam?"

A titter arose from the ponies who had gathered, waiting for their turn to inspect Wigwam's book and obtain his personal signature. They had been intently following the conversation between the two Native Ponies, finding the exchange interesting. Most in the crowd knew Wigwam's occupation well enough to realize that the stallion was in serious trouble with Dreamcatcher's latest question.

"I have my own business on the outskirts of town," he intoned with a disturbed glance over the waiting group. He sought to silence them with mental telepathy, and he may have succeeded if two in the gathering had not been Quarterback and Tex. The opportunity this situation presented to that duo was priceless.

"Aww... come on, Wigwam. Don't be so modest," Tex called out. "This lovely mare deserves a better description of your occupation than that."

Wigwam tried to squelch the impending problem before Tex could say more. With a concerned attitude, he directed Dreamcatcher's attention to the current lull in activity at the checkout counter. "If you act fast, you won't have to wait in line to pay for the book."

But Dreamcatcher had caught a certain inflection in Tex's tone that warned her that something was slightly amiss. She turned to the yellow stallion behind her and queried, "Just what does Wigwam do for a living?"

It was Quarterback who supplied the answer. "Well, for a clue, the name of his establishment is Wigwam's Casino."

The ensuing silence was like a tangible substance that held time in suspension. When the spell broke, Dreamcatcher riveted Wigwam with a piercing glance that evoked frost on a sub-zero morning. Without averting her gaze, she set the book down on the table, pushed it across to come to rest in front of the author, turned on her hooves, and left the area.

"Was it something we said?" chortled Tex, with Quarterback guffawing at his side.

"I'd be angry with the two of you if it wasn't apparent that she'd have had to find out sooner or later anyway," Wigwam philosophized as he watched the unicorn disappear into the mass of holiday shoppers. "As it is, I expect you guys to purchase books to make up for my lost revenue." He set aside the copy that Dreamcatcher had so recently discarded.

"I was planning on buying one anyway," revealed Quarterback. "Merry Moments thinks it will look good sitting on her end table. She says the colors on the cover match her decor."

"You're supposed to read it, not use it in your decorating scheme."

"Don't lecture me. She's the one who suggested that I get it for her as a Christmas gift."

As Wigwam was signing the copy to Merry Moments, Tex continued to torment him. Picking up a copy of Native Pony Tales, he asked, "Did you get your pony tails with a tomahawk?" The congregated ponies responded with laughter as Tex proceeded to go through the motions of scalping Quarterback.

"Actually, I leave that to you, Tex. I've seen the prices you charge on that salsa of yours." More laughter ensued, and Tex was finally silenced.

The clamor for his book continued, and Wigwam was kept busy, but his glance often scanned the faces of the ponies passing by in the walkway, hoping to see again the orange-coated unicorn who had both intrigued and irritated him.

* * *

Sapphire had decided that taking posters down wasn't enough after her encounter with Macarius. She decided to follow his idea, but a little more subtly. Checking out the merchandise in various gift stores, she had found some nice cookie-cutter sets and bought the entire bulk stock that the storekeeper had. These were promptly set out as freebies next to Driftwood's bookmarks, and hopefully it would attract a wider range of customers.

But Macarius had his spies everywhere– like Sapphire had hers– and there was no keeping secrets. He not only had hunted-up some Native Pony bookmarks, but also a stock of attractive beaded hair-clips. Whatever one did, the other was sure to copy.

It was really no use offering more freebies if Macarius would only top whatever she did. Sapphire finally submitted herself to fate, and offered no more resistance to Macarius. It was all in the hooves of the customers now. Who would come out the winner? Sapphire could hardly keep her nerves under control. She was beginning to feel hysterical.

But then she caught sight of someone, and her spirits rose as she recalled another matter of "business" she had been instructed to look into on her trip here to Dream Valley. This would keep her from being driven out of her mind.

She quickly dashed out into the crowd and placed a hoof on the shoulder of a white unicorn stallion whom she recognized from pictures she had been shown. "Oh, Thomas! How nice to run into you like this! It is you, isn't it?" She looked at him anxiously.

Thomas turned to face her. "Yes..." he said tentatively. "Do I know you?"

"I'm your cousin Sapphire; don't you remember?" Sapphire realized that he would not remember as they had never met before, but it didn't matter. She also noticed that the expression on the mare's face next to him became much more relaxed at these last words.

"Oh, I see," Thomas nodded. "We ran into Macarius earlier; are you with him?"

"You talked to him?" Sapphire gasped. Darn, she thought, he beat me to Thomas, too! "Oh, no, we're not together at all. He's a Monk and I'm a Fairfax. There's a big difference. Oh... I'm sorry, I didn't mean to say that. But we're mortal enemies, you see, and it has nothing to do with that whole feud. So... I'm not with him."

"Ah." Thomas tried to sound like he understood. "Well, it's a pleasure to meet you, Sapphire."

"Uh-huh," Sapphire said cheerily. "And this is your wife?"

"That's right!" Tabby said brightly, answering for herself. "But try to remember that it's Tabby, not Tabitha, okay? And I know how it is with those mortal enemies. They're dreadful, aren't they?"

Shortly the three found themselves in deep conversation, having a lot to catch up on from never having seen each other before. Sapphire was easier to get along with than Macarius had been, and Thomas felt much more at ease with her.

"I don't suppose either of you do any writing?" Sapphire asked the inevitable, looking at both of them inquisitively in turn. Receiving only two shakes of their heads, she promptly tried to persuade them otherwise. "But Thomas! You're a veterinarian; surely you have many tales to tell. Why, you could be the next James Herriot! And Tabby, you work with toys, don't you? Some price guides would be lovely!"

"Hmm..." Tabby contemplated the idea. "It would be neat to organize all the information I have into a book."

"Great!" bubbled Sapphire. "I can advise you every step of the way; won't this be fun?"

Thomas wasn't so sure. "Tabby's busy enough now with her job at the Pokémon Center and keeping up the mansion. I'm not sure I want her buried under a ton of notes every free minute she gets."

"But I don't do anything to keep up the mansion anyway! Elaine does all that. I'd have plenty of time," Tabby protested.

"Oh, Thomas, Tabby can handle it. Can't you Tabby?"

But by this time, Tabby's mind was on other things. "Did you just hear a Furby? I'm sure I did. Let's go over to the toy store and see which ones they have."

* * *

Sugarberry was on her own again; while deciding what to do next, her attention was drawn to the entrance of Bushwoolie Bargain Books as a commotion ensued. Too far away to know what was causing the stir, she could only watch in wonder as an orange unicorn broke through the ranks surrounding Wigwam's position, and stalked angrily away. Sugarberry noted the dream catcher symbol; could this be the owner of the shop that Lemon Treats had mentioned?

Observing that the unicorn was headed toward the food court, Sugarberry maintained her seat, nursing a cold and bitter cup of coffee. A quick scan of the available places around her assured Sugarberry that if this piqued pony were to be looking for a seat, she would find no vacancies. Waiting for the proper moment when the orange mare had purchased her refreshment and came wandering through the sea of spirited ponies, Sugarberry caught her attention as she was about to pass by and offered to share the table with her.

Dreamcatcher looked relieved to have found a compassionate face in the crowd and accepted Sugarberry's invitation. "I appreciate this," she said as she sat down. "Is the mall always this busy on a Saturday?"

"The book signings have a lot to do with it," Sugarberry informed her.

"Signings?" Dreamcatcher asked. "By the way, my name is Dreamcatcher. And yours is..."

"...Sugarberry. And we have two local authors here today autographing their books."

"I met one." Dreamcatcher shot a heartless glance in Wigwam's direction. "Who is the other?"

"His name is Driftwood, and he has recently had a cookbook published."

"A cookbook? I won't have a use for one of those."

"And why not?" quizzed Sugarberry.

"You wouldn't believe me if I told you."

"But I'd be interested to hear your story, if you're willing to share it with me."

"Better get a refill on that coffee first," Dreamcatcher grinned.

Returning to the table with a fresh cup of coffee, Sugarberry noticed Dreamcatcher writing on a daily planner that she carried with her. "You must be very busy," she stated to her newly-found friend.

"Actually, I am. I'm going to set up a new store on Monday; it will be completely stocked with Native Pony crafts."

"I heard that a new business was moving in from Lemon Treats over at the boutique. This must be very exciting for you."

"Exciting, yes, but very demanding as well. There have been so many arrangements to set up, and now I have to fret that everything won't run as scheduled," worried Dreamcatcher as she jotted down still more notes.

"If you need extra help to get things ready, I could come in Monday after work; and there are others who would be happy to help as well."

"Thanks for the offer," Dreamcatcher smiled gratefully. "If you could drop by, I'd be glad to see a familiar face if nothing else."

"Where are you staying, or have you found a home for yourself already?" Sugarberry asked.

Dreamcatcher was silent for a moment before answering. "I set up a tepee in the Dark Forest."

"You what?!" Sugarberry gasped. "In the Dark Forest?"

"From what I was told, it is public land."

"A large part of it is, but still..." Sugarberry was unsure how to say what her feelings were, "...the Dark Forest is rather... strange."

"I believe in living my Native Pony heritage to the fullest," explained the unicorn. "The forest is an ideal setting for my home, and it supplies what I need."

Sugarberry's eyes grew round as she visualized what that meant. "You don't eat the animals, do you?" She had visions of the flocks of turkeys that had so recently spent the Thanksgiving holiday in Ponyland for their personal safety and wondered if any of them had met up with this unusual mare. And what of Butch's pet duck? The unknown creatures of the Dark Forest made the forest a dismal enough place on their own; Sugarberry was unsure how she felt about a hunter among them.

"I've found plenty of berries and nuts and fruits that I've hoarded away just like the squirrels," she smiled reassuringly. "And the river that cuts through the forest yields plenty of fish, clams, and snails."

"Oh, I see. But won't you be awfully cold out there when winter settles in for good?"

"A forest has plenty of firewood," stated the indomitable unicorn. "And I would be a sorry example of a Native Pony if I couldn't weave warm blankets for myself."

"Of course," agreed a rather overwhelmed Sugarberry. "You sound very self-sufficient."

"As we all should be."

Sugarberry steered the conversation onto a more comfortable course, or so she thought. "It's great that you could be here today when Wigwam is signing his book. Did you get a chance to talk with him?"

"Long enough to find out that he is not what he pretends to be," Dreamcatcher responded with a return of animosity in her eyes that reminded Sugarberry of the same look she had seen in Chocolate Chip's earlier, causing her to wonder how the stallion had succeeded in firing hostility in both ponies. "He is merely masquerading as a Native Pony; his life does not bear out his heritage."

"But how can you say that?" Sugarberry replied defensively, feeling sorry for Wigwam's seemingly unfortunate destiny with mares these days. "He's done an excellent job in retelling the old stories that otherwise might have been forgotten."

Dreamcatcher looked at Sugarberry speculatively. "You and he aren't..." Her glance dropped to Sugarberry's front left foreleg.

"Wigwam and I are friends, and I helped him to get his manuscript ready for publication. You don't know how strongly he admires the Native Pony culture, or what a kind and caring stallion he is."

"I know all I need to know, Sugarberry. He runs a casino."

"And wait until you see it! He has it decorated with Native Pony artifacts and he even has an authentic tepee set up in the main lobby that is as educational as it is beautiful."

"But don't you see? Would any of his Native Pony ancestors have condoned such an enterprise?"

"I don't know," admitted Sugarberry. "But I think they would have been proud of what he has accomplished."

The two mares were interrupted as a third one trotted up to their table and dropped familiarly into a seat. "Hi, sis," she directed at Sugarberry. "What's up?" The visitor looked curiously at Dreamcatcher.

"Hi, Raspberry. This is Dreamcatcher, a Native Pony who will be setting up her own shop here next week; Dreamcatcher, this is my sister, Raspberry. She's a close friend of Driftwood, the cookbook author," Sugarberry completed the introductions.

Sharing the usual small talk, the mares enjoyed a pleasant round of conversation before Dreamcatcher excused herself as she had a meeting with the mall manager for some last minute exchange of information. Raspberry watched her leave, and grinned at Sugarberry. "I like her. She seems to be very self-assured."

"That she is," agreed Sugarberry. "She lives alone in the Dark Forest."

"She what?!" That piece of information stunned even the level-headed Raspberry. "Doesn't she know what kind of reputation that place has?"

"She knows, but she doesn't care. She lives like her ancestors did, and that's what is important to her."

"More power to her," commented Raspberry. "And, by the way, Driftwood wonders why he hasn't seen you yet. He has a book reserved for you."

"I walked by earlier, but the place was packed. Wigwam's been doing well, too." Both mares looked toward the Bushwoolie's store, and saw that customers were still frequenting the stallion's site. "I have yet to get copies of Native Pony Tales for the folks. What time is it getting to be, anyway?"

"Nearly time for the book signings to end," verified Raspberry. "But with the way the two publishing houses have been trying to outdo each other all afternoon, I wouldn't be surprised if they made our authors stay until the mall closes."

The sisters decided to cover the mall together once before going their separate ways again and when Sugarberry returned to the bargain outlet, she had a copy of Driftwood's Recipes and Revelations along with her other purchases. As the dinner hour was approaching, the mall horde was thinning out, and Sugarberry saw her opportunity to purchase the gift books she wanted.

"Do you have any books left?" she queried of Wigwam.

"Sure. Plenty of them. How many do you want?" the stallion answered with a grin.

"Three for sure. I figure I can always buy more later if I need to, and force you into signing them for me. Four, if you've decided not to give me one for all my hard work on your behalf."

"I have your copy at home; I'll deliver it some evening this week. So three's all you'll need. Who are they for?" Wigwam stood posed and ready to write.

"The first one is for Mom and Dad."

"To Sugarberry's parents," Wigwam repeated what he wrote. "If you find any errors in the typing, it's your daughter's fault. Sincerely, Wigwam."

"Am I to assume that you are getting tired of writing sweet, sentimental thoughts to your customers?"

"You got that right," grimaced Wigwam. "A pony can only be proper so long."

"Well, the next one is for Vanguard's folks, so try not to say anything I'll regret," Sugarberry teased.

"I'm sorry, but I don't remember their names," admitted Wigwam.

"Whirlpool and Floral Breeze," Sugarberry reminded him.

After writing a suitable message, Wigwam picked up a third book. "Who's next?"

"That one's for Enrica."

Wigwam looked hesitantly at Sugarberry. "For Giorgio's mother?"


"Why, for heaven's sake, are you getting a copy for her?"

Sugarberry met his troubled gaze without wavering. "Giorgio had planned on buying one for her, but he's not here so..."

"And why isn't he here?" Wigwam broke in. "Because of his treacherous plans that threatened your family, Sugarberry. If he hadn't been so blasted hard-headed, you'd have Vanguard at your side right now, and I'd have Chocolate Chip!" He looked across the room as he finished his tirade to where Chocolate Chip remained busy at the checkout, and felt keenly the separation; the blame for the problems they were now having he placed directly at Giorgio's hooves.

When his thoughts came back to Sugarberry, he handed her the unsigned book. "I can't sign it now, Sugarberry. I'll do it when I deliver your copy. Maybe you can write me a script."

"I understand," the mare smiled bleakly. "I'll pay for these, and then maybe you can get away from here." She glanced around to see only a couple of ponies waiting to talk with Wigwam; but further along the mall aisle, she saw her sister and Driftwood coming in her direction.

"What, they released you from your bondage?" Sugarberry asked of Driftwood.

"Actually, I escaped when they weren't looking," the beige stallion grinned. "As much fun as this book signing was, I'm ready to say enough, already."

"Just be grateful that you had customers willing to buy your book," Sugarberry retorted. "You'd really have something to complain about if no one showed up."

"I had nightmares about that," admitted Driftwood. "But those Fairfaxes made sure the market was ready."

"Are our plans to hit the Satin Slipper Sweet Shoppe still on?" queried Raspberry as Sugarberry payed Chocolate Chip for her purchases. "Driftwood wanted to treat us at the Estate Manor, but I put my hoof down to that. He'd end up working in the kitchen all night." With a grin, she added, "You're invited, too, Chocolate Chip."

"That'd be great, but..." Chocolate Chip was caught by a customer who needed help locating a title.

Sugarberry, Raspberry, and Driftwood idled their way to the store front to wait for closing, and Wigwam helped Chumster and Friendly move the unsold books and the other props into the store before making his way to Chocolate Chip. "I'm leaving my headdress here until tomorrow," he told her.

"I'll make sure it's safe," she replied.

"And I wish you'd reconsider accepting this copy I signed especially for you." He held out the book, open to his uniquely scrawled message of which the closing-- Love-- played a prominent part.

The young mare looked at it briefly, but shook her head. "No, Wigwam. I've gotten myself an unsigned copy."

Wigwam wasn't about to give up. "Come to the Satin Slipper Sweet Shoppe with us." The filly's eyes lit up which brought hope to Wigwam's face, but what he didn't know was that the object of Chocolate Chip's attention was the spirited stallion approaching from behind him.

"Ready to go?" a male voice that Wigwam recognized asked. Wigwam swung around to face Prime, who nodded briefly at the stallion, but centered his attention on Chocolate Chip. "The movie starts in fifteen minutes."

"I'm just ready to lock things up," Chocolate Chip informed him, her gaze swinging to Wigwam, "as soon as everyone's out of here. Goodnight, Wigwam. Glad your day was a success." And she turned to verify the day's receipts with Friendly, leaving Wigwam cut-off and alone.

* * *

"We've got enough books here to start our own library," giggled Sugarberry as she, Wigwam, Raspberry, and Driftwood headed out of the mall. All four had copies of both new books to give as gifts to various ponies on their shopping lists.

"That's one way to make sure your own publication becomes a success..." observed Driftwood, " enough personally so that sales look good."

"I only bought a cookbook because Sugarberry forced me into it," acknowledged Wigwam with a grin. The stallion had vowed to himself that nothing was going to spoil the celebration of this day's first book signing, even if the look of dismissal from Chocolate Chip haunted his memory.

"That's funny," countered Raspberry, "because I had to do the same to get Driftwood to purchase Native Pony Tales as well."

"I bought more than anyone, and I'll certainly appreciate the favor returned when my next novel gets published," Sugarberry stated.

The foursome was just approaching the mall doors when they noticed another pony headed for the same exit. "Dreamcatcher!" called Sugarberry. "I hope your meeting with Brandon went well."

"It did; everything is arranged for set-up Monday."

"And this is Driftwood, Dreamcatcher," Raspberry went on to introduce the two ponies. "He's the owner of the Estate Manor nightclub here in Dream Valley as well as the author of Recipes and Revelations. Dreamcatcher is opening a native pony craft outlet and makes many of the products that will be for sale."

"It's nice to meet you," Dreamcatcher murmured.

Not wanting to miss the opportunity, Wigwam spoke up. "I just happen to have your book here." He offered her the copy that she had left behind, but Dreamcatcher shook her head.

"No, thank you." And she turned to go.

"Why don't you join us at the local ice cream parlor?" asked Sugarberry, attempting a reconciliation. "It's been a long day, and Scoops makes the best banana splits!"

"Yes. Please come with us," Wigwam backed up the invitation.

Dreamcatcher's eyes flickered over the group and ended on Wigwam. "No, thank you," she said once more. "I have many things to do yet this evening. Goodnight."

Watching her leave through the automated door, Wigwam sighed. "What's the old saying... 'You win some, and you lose some'? Personal experience proves that wrong." So saying, he dropped both Chocolate Chip's and Dreamcatcher's books into the garbage receptacle and quickly walked outside.

Sugarberry shrugged her shoulders as Driftwood and Raspberry looked at her for an explanation. "His personal life hasn't been as profitable as his business life," she enlightened, fishing through the garbage for the abandoned books. Recovering them, she placed them on the stack she carried. "We'll just have to cheer him up," she advised, leading the others to join him on the sidewalk. "As the Furbys would say, let's party!"

* * *

Wigwam wasn't the only one feeling depressed that evening. Earlier in the day, two ponies had approached the front door of the Royal Paradise expecting a royal welcome, and one of the two at least had been dreadfully disappointed. "Where is everyone?" complained Princess Tiffany to the yellow stallion at her side. "I sent word that we were coming!" She pounded on the door in a less than princessly manner.

"Here. Let me try," offered Guido as he pushed on the doorbell one more time. A rush of footsteps could be heard from inside, and soon the door was unceremoniously opened by Hugster, the Bushwoolie. "What you want, yeah, yeah?" he growled, obviously in no mood to be polite.

"What I want is a little respect!" responded Princess Tiffany sharply.

The little furry Bushwoolie forgot his own problems at the sound of the familiar voice of the long absent princess. He focused on the white pegasus before him, and opened the door wider. "Sorry, yeah. Come on in."

"Are the others gathered in the reception room to welcome me?" she asked of Hugster as she and Guido entered the home of the Dream Valley princesses. She looked eagerly up and down the hall for any sign of life.

"Nope, nope, yeah, yeah," truthfully admitted the Bushwoolie. "All gone. Except Queen Serena, yup yup."

"No one's here except for Serena?" dismally asked Tiffany. "What's so important that no one is here?"

At that moment, the beautiful Queen Serena appeared on the scene. "I thought I heard your voice, Tiffany! What a pleasant surprise! And you, too, Guido. Come on in." Serena led a puzzled Tiffany into the living room.

"Didn't you get my letter?" the princess asked. "I wrote that we'd be coming to Dream Valley for the holidays."

"We received a letter, yes. But you didn't indicate just when you'd be arriving, and there are still several weeks until Christmas."

"I told you that we should have cabled before the cruise ship came into port," Guido reminded his fiancee.

"Oh, I guess you were right," moaned Tiffany. "I just thought that everyone would be so anxious to see me..." Her voice trailed off forlornly.

"All the princesses are looking forward to seeing you again, Tiffany," assured Serena. "But they could hardly be expected to put their lives on hold until you showed up."

"So what important plans did everyone have?" asked Tiffany as she sat next to Guido on the sofa.

"Well, let me see. Royal Blue had a hair appointment, Dawn went to Friendship Gardens to see Perry Winkle, Pristina and Moondust took a trip into New Pony to shop, Sparkle and Misty were volunteers at the hospital, and the rest were going to hang out at the mall, I believe."

"The mall would seem so dreadfully boring after the shopping experiences I've had in Italy," responded Tiffany. "What do the princesses see in that place?"

Serena smiled, remembering the hours that Tiffany had spent in the past at the mall. "There was a special occasion today-- two local authors were unveiling their first publications and signing them personally."

As Tiffany and Serena discussed local goings-on, Guido maintained an outward display of listening while inwardly calculating profits and losses on his varied business ventures. The mention of book publishing pushed him to consider expanding into that field as well.

Serena, as the time grew later, began checking the clock at increasingly swifter intervals until Tiffany couldn't stand it any longer. "Serena, what are you waiting for?"

"I'd promised Springtime and Melonball that I'd spend some time this evening at their home with the little prince and princess," she admitted. "It's nearly time for me to leave."

"How are they progressing?" asked Tiffany. "Baby Springtime has so much potential; I'm sure she will be a credit to us all."

"Both of the young royalty are coming along fine," stated Serena as she stood up to end the conversation.

"Tiffany and I were planning to dine at the Estate Manor this evening, so we should be on our way, too," Guido related to Serena.

"I'd like to freshen up first," Tiffany smiled at Guido. "And I'll need to instruct the Bushwoolies what to do with my luggage when it's delivered."

"Ah... yes. About your room, Tiffany..."

"You have kept my room for me, haven't you?" an agitated princess spat.

"Why, of course. It's just that, well, while it was empty and all, some of the princesses have been making use of the space for storage."

"My room has been turned into a garbage dump?"

"Now, Tiffany. It's not that bad. It's just some of their early Christmas shopping and things like that. I'll direct Hugster to move those things out when he moves your luggage in."

"I would appreciate that," Tiffany stated stiffly.

"Well, if you'll excuse me then, I'll be on my way," Serena said, giving Tiffany a hug and Guido a hoofshake. "It's nice to have you home," she flung back from the doorway before disappearing from sight.

"Big homecoming," muttered Tiffany. "They've all forgotten me."

"That's not true," consoled Guido. "They will all be delighted to have you back once they know you are here. Now, you go up to your room and check things over while I call the Estate Manor for reservations."

With a weak smile, Tiffany followed Guido's suggestion. She walked down the hallway and up the echoing stairway, then down another hallway to reach her room. The door stood open, and the princess stared in dismay at the assorted bags and boxes that stood helter-scelter around her space. Angrily she trod into the room, kicking at the first obstacle she encountered and succeeding in stubbing her hoof painfully.

As she sat on the edge of the bed to massage the throbbing hoof, she noticed a movement near her writing desk. She looked to see her sleek black Bombay cat, Theodora, watching her intently, her tail swishing rhythmically back and forth.

"Theodora!" squealed Tiffany, forgetting her pain at the sight of someone who would certainly extend her a loving welcome. The princess stood and went toward the cat anticipating a fond reunion with one of her house mates anyway, but received another rejection as the feline streaked in apparent fear toward the door and out of view.

Splashing water on her face and reapplying some eye liner and blush, Tiffany finished her primping and was just returning downstairs when she met Hugster and Cheerful with the first pieces of her luggage. "Set them next to my bed," she instructed, "and make sure that all those boxes and bags are removed by the time I get back!"

"Yeah, yeah," Cheerful responded. "We work hard."

"No problem," concurred Hugster. "At your service, yeah, yeah."

Rejoining Guido, Tiffany was pleased to hear that they had reservations for dinner. "And I called Regal Ridges, and our parents would prefer to eat there tonight. So we are on our own."

Guido and Tiffany, in the company of Vincentia and Pietro, had left Italy several weeks earlier on a cruise ship bound for Dream Valley via several exotic ports along the way. One of those stops had been at Paradise Island where Tiffany's parents had settled after leaving Dream Valley many years earlier; Clarissa and George had joined the other two couples on the journey that would culminate in Dream Valley in time to prepare for the holiday festivities. The venture was intended to allow the two sets of parents to get to know one another before the serious preparation of wedding planning for Tiffany and Guido's marriage began.

The engaged pair left the Royal Paradise for the Estate Manor, and Tiffany reveled in reacquainting herself with old sights and sounds. By the time they reached the restaurant, she was in good spirits once more, happy to be home.

It was a new maitre'd who ushered them into the dining room, and although he did his job impeccably, Tiffany was disappointed that Driftwood, as owner of the establishment, had not personally greeted the royal princess and her affluent fiancé. "Where is Driftwood?" she asked snappishly of the waiter who was serving them.

Ages, the pale azure-blue history major, provided her with the answer. "Driftwood had his own recipe book published and today was the book signing at the mall."

"Oh," frowned Tiffany. "This day has been all wrong because of those authors."

"Now, now, Tiffany," Guido patted her hoof. "I'm rather grateful to have this time with you without your friends hovering over you."

Tiffany ignored the tender thought and looked sulkily around the room. "Maybe your mother was right in the first place, Guido. Maybe Dream Valley is the wrong place for our wedding."

Used to the princess's mood changes, Guido continued to encourage her. "You're just tired. After a good dinner and a good night's rest, you'll see things in a whole new light."

"We'll see," she sighed, scanning the room of indifferent faces. "I just thought it would be different somehow." Her focus finally centered on the attentive stallion whose ring she wore, and his smile finally evoked a like response. "But maybe you're right," she agreed as Ages came with their first course. "Maybe tomorrow will be better."

But for Tiffany, it got better before the day ended for when Guido delivered her back to the Royal Paradise, the majority of the princesses had returned home and heard the news of Tiffany's arrival from Serena and were awaiting her reappearance. The princesses showered Tiffany with all the affection that she had dreamed of, and they treated Guido with the respect due a prince. By the time Guido said his goodnight and returned to his suite at Royal Ridges, Tiffany was once more assured of the undying devotion of her peers.

* * *

Darkness was already falling when Sugarberry hurried from the vet clinic after closing on Monday and directed her steps to the mall to check-in with Dreamcatcher and see if the unicorn could use some help with her new venture. Elaine and Tabby were to join her later, and she was looking forward to a companionable evening with her friends. The air was cold, but the lack of wind made the evening chill bearable, yet she was grateful to finally access the comfort of the sprawling building that housed the mall.

Stopping first at Bushwoolie Bargain Books, she found Chocolate Chip still hard at work along with Friendly. It never ceased to amaze Sugarberry that the seemingly carefree Bushwoolies could succeed at this business venture, but their operation was always one of the busiest stores. "Hi, guys!" she called to them both.

"Yeah, yeah. Hi!" returned Friendly before resuming punching tallies into the computer.

"Sugarberry!" Chocolate Chip grinned. "If you can take time for something to eat, I'm due a break."

"Sounds good to me," replied the mare. "What are you hungry for?"

"Pizza!" declared Chocolate Chip, coming around to the front of the counter. "See you in fifteen minutes, Friendly."

"Yeah, yeah," Friendly waved.

"I've seen Dreamcatcher's display, and she's got some really cool items," the chocolate-brown filly informed Sugarberry.

"Is she all set up then?"

"Oh, no. She had a good share of her wares out; but I guess some of the shipment had gotten held up along the line, so she was still waiting for some of her boxes to arrive."

"Once I'm done eating, I'll help her if she needs it."

"She probably will. So many customers were stopping by that she really didn't have time to unpack more novelties."

"Have you spoken with Wigwam since Saturday?"


"Are you sure you want to cut him off like this?"

"I'm not cutting him off, Sugarberry. We still maintain a ... friendship... of sorts."

"Rather a shallow friendship, from what I've observed lately."

"It was shallow from the start. I was the one who didn't realize it."

Sugarberry sat in silence, nibbling on her slice of pizza. Then, smiling, she asked, "Remember how nervous you were to invite him to your dad's dinner party last summer?"

"I was happier then than I'd ever been," Chocolate Chip admitted. "But I wasn't aware of what was really going on."

"Oh, sweetie..." Sugarberry stopped as Chocolate Chip's expression turned dark. "Just make sure of your feelings."

"I know where I stand with him; it hurts, but the pain is better than going on living a lie." She got up to return to her duties at the book store.

Sugarberry finished eating and headed for Dreamcatcher's shop. She found the orange unicorn surrounded by unopened boxes, an exasperated scowl on her face. "Problems?" Sugarberry queried.

"These boxes were to have been delivered by ten this morning; they got here half an hour ago."

"But you've got some wonderful things here already!" observed Sugarberry, examining some hoof-etched ceramic pots decorated in soft hues of blue and green.

"Fortunately my products were coming from different sources so some of my inventory came on time."

"Well, I'm here to help. What do you want me to do?"

"If you're serious, you can open this box; it should have seashell jewelry in it, and each piece has to be verified on this list." She handed a neatly hoofprinted sheet of information to Sugarberry.

As she sliced open the box, Sugarberry informed Dreamcatcher of more helpers on the way. "Two friends, Tabby and Elaine, are coming by later. They'll love getting first peek at this neat stuff." She reached into the now open box and lifted out a dainty string of white shells neatly strung between bits of lustrous pink shell pieces.

"That'll be great!" Dreamcatcher answered. Soon she was caught up in explaining the Native Pony crafts on display to several new customers who had stopped to admire the inventory; Sugarberry had became engrossed in unpacking each unique trinket when a impertinent voice caught her ear.

"I thought we were supposed to help set-up, not drool over the merchandise!" the pink unicorn called, waving her hoof in greeting, as she and Elaine approached the area. Sugarberry introduced the two newcomers to Dreamcatcher.

"It's nice to meet another unicorn," Tabby remarked. "There are so few of them, don't you know?"

Dreamcatcher laughed. "Would you believe I was the first one in my family for two generations?"

"A variation," Tabby, using her toy-collecting terminology, nodded wisely, and caused the mares to giggle.

Dreamcatcher set Elaine and Tabby to work, each with a separate box she was in charge of. "You really should computerize your records," Tabby commented as she glanced down the hoofprinted tally that Dreamcatcher gave her to work with.

"I try to stay away from modernization as much as possible," Dreamcatcher explained.

"Dreamcatcher likes to do things as closely as possible to the way her ancestors did," added Sugarberry.

"You mean no VCR to record the new Pokémon episodes?" Tabby gasped.

Even Elaine found that piece of information about Dreamcatcher surprising. "And no modern medicine?" she asked.

Dreamcatcher smiled. "I access medical technology if I need it, and I obviously take advantage of developments like this mall; but in my day-to-day living, I stay rooted to past traditions of the Native Ponies."

Tabby by this time had unearthed the contents of the box she was to unpack. "Oh, look... what is it?" She lifted up a wooden object, long and smooth with holes in the side.

"That's a Native Pony flute," explained Dreamcatcher. "They're carved from cedar wood."

"Can you play us a song?" asked Elaine, pausing as she struggled to open a box.

"A simple one," Dreamcatcher shrugged. "Don't expect too much." Putting the flute to her lips, she proceeded to perform a haunting melody that evoked the solitude of a peaceful forest glen. The others stood transfixed by the sound, and shoppers in the area came to listen to the distinctive music.

As Dreamcatcher ended her song, applause broke out from those assembled causing her to blush. She handed the flute back to Tabby.

"That was beautiful," murmured Elaine. "I could almost smell the pine trees and feel the touch of the breezes."

Tabby looked down at the object without much interest. "I see. Well, I'll stick with the Stingers."

Several ponies who had listened in to the impromptu performance purchased a flute and the accompanying book of techniques and transcriptions. As Dreamcatcher handled those transactions, Tabby and Sugarberry continued with their work; and Elaine finally was able to access the items in her carton. Pulling back the plain brown paper that covered the contents, she jumped back as she saw what was inside.

"Th... these are... animal skins," she stuttered, a shocked look on her face. She looked to Dreamcatcher for an explanation.

Turning from her last customer, the orange unicorn looked down at the box. "Great! Several ponies were asking for those today. I wish they had arrived earlier."

"Oh, cool," Tabby said, peering over Elaine's shoulder.

"B... but how did you get them?" Elaine's voice quavered as she asked.

"A stallion from back home traps the animals and processes the skins," Dreamcatcher explained as she lifted one of the soft, plush hats from the container and rubbed it across her cheek. "They are not only decorative, but warm as well."

Sugarberry cringed slightly as she saw the telltale rings on the tail that signified a raccoon's distinctive pattern; she had always thought they were endearing animals with their black face masks and waddling furry bodies, and she hated to think of the demise of the creature that was now only a lifeless skin before them. But she had to admit that it was a striking piece.

Tabby looked up at the fur, remembering a pet raccoon that Scuttle from outside of town had once brought into the clinic. "Oooh, raccoons. They have teeth, don't they?" she offered, rubbing her hoof in recollection.

"What else is in here?" questioned Elaine, peering into the box as if expecting the ghosts of the animals to rise up out of it.

Dreamcatcher thought a moment. "Hmm... there should be several rugs made from squirrel pelts..." But before she could go further, Elaine interrupted.

"Squirrels?" she asked, her voice rising in displeasure. "Someone traps the poor little squirrels?"

"... and rabbits," finished Dreamcatcher.

The two mares stood facing one another, Elaine's face shadowed by revulsion, Dreamcatcher's merely business as usual. "You sell the skins of animals?"

"Of course," Dreamcatcher replied evenly. "In our way of life, Native Ponies make use of the bounty that nature provides. We get our food that way, and use the rest of the animal in a variety of ways."

The color bleached out of Elaine's face. "How can you be so cruel?"

Tabby stood back and watched the exchange of words with a puzzled look on her face. "Umm..."

"Cruel?" echoed Dreamcatcher. "We are simply following the law of nature. And besides, if we didn't catch the rabbits or the squirrels, a fox or a wolf would certainly make short work of them; and you wouldn't have a lovely pelt to show for their trouble."

"I can't believe that you feel that way," argued Elaine. "Thomas and I would fight in any way we could to save the life of one of these creatures, but you just take that life? What right do you have?"

"It's the way of the Native Ponies," Dreamcatcher shrugged.

Tabby cocked her head, not understanding the concern of Elaine and Sugarberry. "I don't get it. What's so bad about skins? You eat meat, don't you?"

"But those little animals are defenseless," continued Elaine. "They have their lives to live, too."

Dreamcatcher was unsure as to how to proceed. Her way of living depended on what she could procure from the land, and she had no qualms about securing what she needed. But she was compassionate enough to realize that the mare before her was from a different background and found this rustic way of life less than perfect. She offered her simple wisdom. "We each have a different path to take, Elaine."

"I would never walk yours!"

"Hey, hey, let's just calm down, guys..." Tabby interjected.

"Do not be too hasty. Consider the benefits that come from the Native Pony way."

"Benefits? I hardly think there would be any, not from the animals point of view, especially so."

"I would never take more than I needed for survival, Elaine. And by taking a few of the creatures, I allow a healthier life for those that remain. With less competition, the remaining animals have more to eat and a better environment."

"But they should be left alone to live their lives, too."

"Which for many of them is quite short."

"It just seems so cruel," Elaine whispered. "I don't like it."

Dreamcatcher was tired of arguing her point. "Ask your parents sometime how they feel about the innocent little rabbits that eat all their lettuce and beans from the garden."

The tension that surrounded the situation climaxed at this reference to Elaine's parents; Elaine, her courage collapsing, broke out in tears and ran from the kiosk.

"What did I say?" asked the bewildered Dreamcatcher, staring off after the distraught mare.

"Oh dear," Tabby murmured before turning and trotting off to follow Elaine's new trail of tears.

Dreamcatcher looked beseechingly at Sugarberry. "I didn't mean to upset her. Why did she react this way?"

"Her parents took a boat trip several years ago, and were never seen or heard from again. She misses them very much," Sugarberry explained softly.

"Oh! I'm so sorry. I wouldn't have said what I did if I'd known."

"I realize that, Dreamcatcher. Elaine was already upset about the animals, and then to have her parents memory brought into the conversation was just too much. But there was no way you could have known."

"What do I do?" groaned Dreamcatcher. "What can I say to her?"

"Tabby will calm her down. She'll be okay."

"I feel terrible about this," fretted Dreamcatcher, absently stroking the fur of the raccoon hat. "This is so much a part of my life..." Her voice drifted off as she stared down at the pelt.

"Everything will work out," Sugarberry heard herself saying those empty words that she knew from experience never offered any consolation when a spirit was in turmoil. "Elaine will feel better after a good cry." That advice she could vouch for.

Several ponies passing by were drawn to the Native Pony crafts, so Dreamcatcher's thoughts were brought back to business. Sugarberry emptied the jewelry case and was working diligently on finishing the flutes when Tabby returned with Thomas at her side. "How's Elaine?" both Dreamcatcher and Sugarberry asked.

"Toby took her home," Tabby explained. "He and Thomas had come over to see how we were doing. And by the way, Dreamcatcher, this is Thomas. He's my husband and Elaine's brother. Thomas, this is Dreamcatcher, the owner of Native Dreams."

"I'm sorry that I upset your sister, Thomas. I didn't know that your parents..."

Thomas and Tabby exchanged a glance, and Thomas responded. "Elaine asked that we apologize to you for her sudden departure. She will get in touch with you herself another day."

"I'm the one who owes her an apology. I hope she doesn't think too badly of me."

"My sister is a very forgiving pony. The two of you will be friends yet." Thomas smiled at Dreamcatcher, setting her mind at ease. "You've got a novel display of Native Pony pieces here," he added, picking up a piece of pottery and admiring its form and color. "Tabby, wouldn't this look good on the hall table?"

"Hmm..." Tabby deliberated. "I think the one with more pink and green would be better."

"Okay. We'll take that one," Thomas stated, pointing to a geometrically patterned specimen.

"Are you sure?" Dreamcatcher asked.

"Don't look a gift horse in the mouth," snickered Wigwam who had arrived at the booth in time to hear the conversation.

Sugarberry shot him a warning glance, but Dreamcatcher had already pinned him with an unimpressed stare. "So, it's you again."

Not to be intimidated, Wigwam replied, "I told you I'd be stopping by tonight."

Dreamcatcher ignored him as she shrouded the pottery in tissue paper and placed it carefully in a bag with a dream catcher logo on it and the bright red words, Native Dreams. "Thanks for your purchase," she said as she handed it to the waiting pair. "And please tell Elaine that I will look forward to seeing her again."

"You must join us at the Satin Slipper Sweet Shoppe some evening," Tabby invited. "It's the best spot in town to meet the local folk."

"I'd like that," Dreamcatcher replied.

"Well, Sug, I'm going home with Thomas now," Tabby stated. "Sorry we didn't get more work done."

"You were all a big help," Dreamcatcher replied. "I wouldn't have gotten anything unpacked without you."

After Thomas and Tabby's departure, Sugarberry grinned at Wigwam. "How about lending a hoof?"

"I've nothing better to do," he said as he looked at the controversial box of furs on the floor. "What's the procedure?" He directed the question to Dreamcatcher, but she ignored him on the pretense of reorganizing the display.

Sugarberry instructed the stallion on the method they were using; and Wigwam, upon seeing the hoof-printed pages, quietly whispered, "I take it computers are off limits just like casinos?"

Jabbing him in the side, Sugarberry softly admonished, "Just get to work and keep quiet."

Wigwam raised his eyebrows at her, but proceeded to unpack the box Elaine had opened. Then he and Sugarberry checked in a box of woven beadwork in a variety of stunning patterns, and before they knew it, it was closing time.

"I'll treat you both to a snack at the Satin Slipper Sweet Shoppe," Wigwam declared as they prepared to leave the mall.

"I must get home and rekindle my campfire," Dreamcatcher replied. "I appreciate your help tonight, Wigwam," she added, almost as if it hurt her to say it. "And yours, too, Sugarberry." And she was gone.

"Does it suddenly feel colder to you?" Wigwam asked wryly.

Sugarberry giggled. "She likes you. She just doesn't want you to know it. It would ruin her image of the self-sufficient Native Pony."

"And what about your image? Would Vanguard object to the two of us being seen together at the ice cream shop?"

"We can ask him in only twelve days, Wigwam! Imagine that! Twelve days and he will be back!"

"And what Christmas gift do you think he will bring you?"

"I don't speculate about such things."

"You're fibbing," Wigwam grinned. "One thing I've learned these past months is that you always blush when you're afraid of being caught in a lie."

"If that's the case, most everything I say must be a lie," she retorted, a pink flush highlighting her cheeks.

"Granted, the blush I'm talking about is accompanied by a furtive downward glance that betrays you." He looked at her so intensely under the streetlight that the blush grew deeper and her gaze dropped. "Everyone in Dream Valley expects the two of you to be engaged before the new year..."

"Then they know more about it than I do," Sugarberry stated.

"... and if you're not, I may have to take matters into my own hooves."

Sugarberry was glad they had reached the Satin Slipper Sweet Shoppe and the chatter and company of other ponies. She and Wigwam joined Butch and Sparkler at a center table at their invitation.

"You're just the stallion I wanted to see," explained Butch as Wigwam sat down across from him. "Have you been out to the Dark Forest lately?"

"No, not for a week or two. Why?"

"There's some Native Pony living out there. Has her house set up right near the spot where Bitter Creek nearly turns back on itself."

"I heard someone was out there," Wigwam admitted. "Have you had any association with this pony?"

"Ran into her one evening; she was out collecting firewood. Pretty little unicorn," he winked at Wigwam.

Sparkler chimed in, "She's going to run a shop at the mall."

"Actually, we've met her," Sugarberry volunteered. "She seems to be a very level-headed pony." She glanced at Wigwam, whose only response was to shake his head.

"Ya gotta admire the mare for facing a rough life like that in this day and age," Butch said.

Both Sparkler and Sugarberry shuddered. "There's no way I'd live in the Dark Forest," admitted Sugarberry. "Even if I had a solid house, I'd still be scared."

"Me too," concurred Sparkler. "But Butch here maintains it's as safe as Dream Valley."

"Nothing's happened to me living there," Butch reminded them.

"How's Quackers?" asked Sugarberry, referring to the green-headed duck Butch had acquired indirectly from Tabby.

"Fat and sassy," Butch declared. "That duck eats constantly, except when he's quacking at me to tell me he's hungry."

"Have you seen Tiffany since she got home?" Sparkler asked of Sugarberry in an attempt to steer the conversation to a more worthy subject; so as the guys talked forest talk, the girls gossiped about local news. "That ring she's wearing must have cost a bundle!"

"From what I know of Guido, he can afford it."

"And after their wedding in Dream Valley, they're going to have a second reception in Vulcanopolis. Tiffany is fairly bursting with pride over that."

The evening wore on over discussions covering a wide assortments of issues before the ponies parted ways for the night. Wigwam walked Sugarberry home through the dark but starry night.

"I've never really thanked you for watching over me on Vanguard's behalf," Sugarberry remarked.

"Not that I did that good a job."

Sugarberry smiled. "At least it explained why you always looked so disapprovingly at me whenever I mentioned Giorgio."

"It gave me a few sleepless nights wondering how I was going to explain things to Vanguard: 'Funny thing, but Sugarberry fell in love with Giorgio just like that!' "

"Sounds like something Tabby would say."

"Now that scares me!" Wigwam grinned. And they both laughed.

When they got to Sugarberry's lighted front porch, Sugarberry invited Wigwam in. "Chocolate Chip is obviously home." She pointed to the lighted windows.

"I stopped to see her before I came by Native Dreams; she informed me that she would be studying all evening for a test tomorrow."

"Well, it's time for her to take a break then."

"Okay, Sugarberry. You can see for yourself that she has written me off for good."

They found Chocolate Chip and her brother, Wishbone, in the kitchen, both with a pile of books at the table. "You both have a test tomorrow?" Sugarberry asked as she began making hot chocolate for them all.

"Two for me," griped Wishbone. "But I'm ready for 'em." He closed his books and got up, offering his chair to Wigwam. "I'll get the marshmallows."

While Wishbone and Sugarberry worked at the counter preparing the refreshments, they worked slowly to allow Wigwam some time with Chocolate Chip; Wigwam settled into the chair and tried to regain the rapport the two had shared. "I've missed you, Chocolate Chip."

The dark brown filly had no choice but to acknowledge his sentiment; she closed the book in front of her and looked at this stallion who had been her best friend, her confidant, her mentor; he had shared her happiness and her sorrows and supported her through uncertainties. He had made her laugh... and cry. "I've missed you, too." Her voice sounded close to tears. "But that doesn't change the fact that I can no longer trust you, Wigwam. Trust. That's what it was all about. Now what we had together is gone. I'm sorry, but there is nothing left for you and me." A tear slid down her cheek. "This would be easier for me if you'd just pretend like we had never been friends." Chocolate Chip ended her dialogue, looked one last time at Wigwam, and left the room.

The silence was dynamic as the three ponies stared at one another, shocked by the finality of Chocolate Chip's statements. Wigwam got to his hooves and headed for the back door. With one hoof on the doorknob, he turned and looked back at Wishbone and Sugarberry. "You heard her. It's over." Here his gaze rested on Sugarberry. "So no more trying to patch things up, okay?"

He opened the door and stepped out into the lonely night.

* * *

With Pietro and Vincentia and George and Clarissa in town, Agatha was quick in organizing a small dinner party to invite them to in order to catch up on all the latest news... especially that pertaining to their children.

The two aforementioned couples were happy to accept Agatha and Hubert's invitation, and Agatha reveled in once again playing hostess. The six exchanged all the regular and generally boring small talk such as how nice it was to see everyone again, what their lives were like now, and what the weather in everyone's current residence was. Hubert found it all to be most tiresome, but the other five were quite adept at this mindless drivel and seemingly enjoyed it.

At last they were able to concentrate on the topic foremost in all of their minds, and that was the fate of their children. There were a great many details to share on all sides.

"Isn't it a simply wonderful thing about our Tiffany and Guido?" Clarissa sighed. "I could never understand how our dear daughter was attracted to that doctor– Toady, was it?"

"And you remember all those grand times we had, Agatha, scheming to match up Guido and Tabby?" Vincentia smiled fondly. "My, my! We were so determined then."

"Yes, of course," Agatha smiled in return. "We did come up with a great many schemes, didn't we? But I think it has all worked out well for everyone."

Even the stallions tired of this sort of talk, and went off on their own train of discussion, which was equaling boring to the mares.

"You still think Tabitha chose wisely, then?" Vincentia pressed.

"I don't know why I wouldn't," Agatha said confidently. "Thomas has been a wonderful influence on Tabitha. I couldn't think of her with anyone else now."

"I must agree that I'm happy that your plans for Tabitha and Guido fell through," Clarissa nodded. "Tiffany will be a much better wife for him than Tabitha could have been."

Agatha frowned to herself. Of course she had withdrawn her favor of Guido, but she did not like what Clarissa had just implied of her daughter. "Certainly they're not as compatible as we once thought, but it doesn't mean Tabitha couldn't have–"

"Those are my thoughts exactly, Clarissa," Vincentia said brightly. "The plans Agatha and I had were extremely silly looking back at them now. It is obvious Tabitha could never have been as good for Guido as Tiffany is."

Agatha's annoyance deepened to anger, and she tried to defend her daughter's name which had so abruptly been ridiculed. She tried to interject several times, but Clarissa and Vincentia were fantasizing in their own world and had no time to listen to Agatha's comments. This of course only infuriated her more.

Hubert was still half-listening to the ramblings of the mares, and sensed the feelings of his wife. "Don't let them get to you," he whispered calmly to her. "Relax your thoughts."

"How can you say that, Hubert?" she hissed back. "Haven't you heard what they've implied of our Tabitha? You say something to them, at least. You'll make them listen."

"I don't instigate fights, Agatha. You know that," Hubert said cheerfully.

"I can't believe you sometimes, Hubert," Agatha fumed, and proceeded to sulk in her chair.

"I must say, though, I'm still concerned over the wedding taking place here in Dream Valley," Vincentia confided to Clarissa. "Are you certain this is a suitable town for such a grand affair?"

"Tiffany has spent most of her life here," Clarissa pointed out. "I'm sure it holds enough value to her to want to be married here as well."

"I hope it will work out," Vincentia fretted.

"Vincentia, you sound like a broken record," Pietro chuckled. "Stop worrying about the location of the wedding."

"You can trust Tiffany's judgement," George agreed. "Surely she would not have wanted it here if it were not in everyone's best interest."

"It will be so splendid to see that dear daughter of ours settled down." Clarissa wiped a sentimental tear from her eye. "And the wedding will be the grandest thing Dream Valley has ever seen."

"I'm sure it will make more of an impression on the guests than that of Tabitha and Thomas," Vincentia nodded in agreement. "More of a favorable impression, I should say."

Pietro nodded along with her. "The guests were, shall we say, not the cream of the social crop."

"If Tabby would turn down a stallion of Guido's stature for a mere animal doctor, it shows that her sense of values are all confused; but she always was flighty," Clarissa agreed, and punctuating her point with a high-pitched giggle.

This was too much even for Hubert to take, and the giggle just irritated his nerves all the more. It had not been a good move on Clarissa's part. Fire flashed in Hubert's eyes as he took his stand. "Tabitha may not be obsessed with money enough to win favor in your eyes, but I know for certain she has more of a head on her shoulders than this Tiffany you're so in raves over this evening. If she were as flighty as that she would have chosen Guido over everyone else years ago, but she didn't; and I'm glad of it, because Thomas is twice the stallion Guido is! So if I'm to hear one more word against them, you'll have to deal with me, understood?"

Normally, Agatha would have been horrified by such an outburst from her husband; but under the circumstances, she was rather proud of him. She held her head up as she surveyed the expressions of their guests.

"I think that perhaps we will be leaving now," Clarissa said stiffly, pushing her chair back and standing up and making George do the same. "Good evening, Agatha."

Agatha could read their thoughts as they departed: that Hubert was an uncivilized savage and how could she ever have even considered marrying him? But Agatha did not regret it in the least.

"We, too, should be leaving," Vincentia spoke up and urged her husband towards the door. "Thank you for the fine dinner." It was, of course, beyond their dignity to show disgust of any sort. They, too, were soon gone.

With an empty table before them, Agatha turned to Hubert. "What happened to 'relaxing your mind', Hubert?" she said dryly. "And that bit about 'not instigating fights'?"

"Deep within himself, a pony discovers a law which he has not laid upon himself, but which he must obey," Hubert stated. "He must strive to interpret the data of experience and the signs of the times assisted by his own conscience."

"Oh," said Agatha after a pause. "I see."

* * *

Later that week, Wigwam was headed for Sugarberry's house once more. He had called to verify that Chocolate Chip was at work; he only wanted to get Sugarberry's copy of Native Pony Tales to her and sign Enrica's copy so Sugarberry could get it sent off in time for Christmas.

As he walked, his thoughts covered the past months since he had been involved in the lives of Sugarberry and Chocolate Chip. When Tawny had briefed him about the facts concerning Giorgio and the cheating going on under his direction, Wigwam had thought it providential that Vanguard has asked him to look in on Sugarberry occasionally to set Vanguard's mind at ease over her safety and happiness while he was gone. And because of the common bond of writing, Wigwam had found the perfect cover to allow him access to her life.

But he had not counted on the personal feelings that had come into play. He found that he enjoyed being part of the social circle that mingling with Sugarberry allowed him access to. And he had been especially impressed by the chocolate-colored filly who shared her home.

He had been planning to ask Chocolate Chip out when he had been pleasantly surprised with a phone call from her back in those summer days months ago; he could still hear the anxiety in her voice as she explained that her dad was hosting a dinner at the Estate Manor for some of her friends, and would Wishbone like to accompany her? The memory made him smile.

And he remembered how she had looked when he picked her up that night; he had always thought she was beautiful, but she had succeeded in making herself even more lovely for the occasion. And he had been proud to have been her choice for the evening.

They had spent hours together throughout the last months celebrating the big times like Tabby's wedding and the apple festival, and the little times like walks in the park and recalling stories of the past; he had comforted her in her distress over her brother's cheating and had shared her joy when Wishbone got back on the right track.

But from there, the memories were no longer rose-colored. With the bust of the cheating ring and the publicity surrounding it, Chocolate Chip had unleashed her full anger against him as she saw his part in the undercover operation with Tawny as a transgression of faith. How could she think his attention was only a cover to watch Giorgio's actions? Hadn't she known that their relationship was more than that?

Wigwam shook his head as he recalled the scene when she had learned that Giorgio was not the proper professor that he led ponies to believe, and that Vanguard, Wigwam, Tawny, and the entire police force had been aware of it since spring. Her anger had centered on Wigwam because he was the one closest to Wishbone's part in the cheating. She alleged that if his feelings for her were sincere, he would have prevented Wishbone from becoming involved.

The scenario of that first meeting after the bust was over still had itself imprinted in Wigwam's mind. He had gone to Sugarberry's house when he was done with the police end of the happenings to explain the situation to Sugarberry and Chocolate Chip. Vanguard wanted him to break the news to Sugarberry personally partially because of her feelings toward Giorgio and partially due to an uncertainty how she would react to his not telling her the whole truth up front; Wigwam had concentrated on softening the blow to Sugarberry, not expecting the intensity with which Chocolate Chip received the news.

"And you knew of all this from the beginning?" she had asked accusingly as Wigwam finished up on a summary of the high points of the events surrounding Giorgio.

"Since Vanguard accepted the exchange position last spring."

She had honed in on the one point that Wigwam could not ignore. "You watched Wishbone get involved without lifting a hoof to stop him?"

"I was working for the force; I couldn't compromise the set-up. Secrecy was of the utmost importance, for all of us involved." He had taken a quick glance at Sugarberry to see how she was handling the enlightenment of Vanguard's sudden leaving; she appeared numbed, but not embittered. Chocolate Chip had a monopoly on that emotion.

"I thought you and I were open with one another. I don't like to find out that you withheld things from me that I could have used to protect Wishbone."

"Chocolate Chip, believe me. I didn't have a choice. I was working for the department."

"I trusted you, Wigwam."

"I had a job to do," stated the stallion, watching as the spark in Chocolate Chip's eyes flickered and died.

"Is that what our relationship was, Wigwam, a job?" Without even a tear, she had turned and left the room.

Wigwam looked at Sugarberry. "Your turn."

But Sugarberry had simply sat down in her rocking chair. "I'm just glad to have all my questions answered. It hurt me so when Vanguard announced he was leaving; it's simply a relief to know there was a serious reason that took him away."

"And Giorgio?"

"My first impression of him, if you'll remember, was that he was trouble. I should have listened to my feelings."

"And what about Chocolate Chip's reaction? What should I do?"

"She'll see things differently when she's had time to think about it," Sugarberry had advised.

But that didn't happen. Even after her time at her folks for Thanksgiving, she had not relented; in fact, the time in Neighberry had only seemed to strengthen her resolve against him. Every attempt he had made to right things between them had been spurned by the filly. The recent night at Sugarberry's had finally struck home; Chocolate Chip had no intention of reviving the friendship they had shared. And he would have to respect her decision.

Wigwam approached the front door of Sugarberry's house, and rapped his arrival. In no time, the strawberry-patterned mare let him in. He handed her the specially signed copy of his book, and she opened the front cover to read what he had written.

"Thanks, Wigwam," she grinned upon finishing it. "I look forward to volume two."

"Are you serious?" he asked. "Would you really go through that again?" He thought of the hours of work she had done in getting his notes in manuscript form.

"Sure. Look how well your first book turned out; it was worth it to decipher your hoof-writing." She directed him to the kitchen. "And now that I'm an expert in that field, it would be a shame to waste my experience."

On the table lay the copy of Native Pony Tales that was meant for Enrica. Wigwam slid into a chair, and accepted the mug of coffee that Sugarberry had poured for him. He waited until she sat down across from him, then asked, "How is that you don't seem to hold any animosity against Giorgio and his family?"

"I worked through all that during the summer, remember? I went from hating him to, well, thinking he was an awfully nice pony. And I still think that he's better than his course of deception would indicate; he could have gone through with his plan to end his father's career, you know."

"I know it with my mind, but I'm not sure I can so easily forgive him for the intent."

"He was trying to retaliate against a father who had let him down all his life, Wigwam. Can you imagine what his growing-up years were like?"

"No," Wigwam admitted. "Dad may not be perfect, but he never purposely let me down. But why didn't Giorgio just corner his dad and talk it out."

"I don't know. But maybe they were both so caught up in the shortcomings of the other that they refused to see the possibilities."

After trying to figure out that logic, Wigwam grinned. "Okay. I give up. What do you want me to say to Enrica?"

Sugarberry responded immediately. "In all times and in all places, the lessons of the past tie us to the future."

"Where did that come from?"

"Actually, it's from the book I'm working on."

"Run it by me again."

As Sugarberry repeated her line, Wigwam inscribed it in the book, adding a "Hope you enjoy these tales of the Native Ponies" to make it his own.

"Now, that wasn't so bad, was it?" Sugarberry asked as Wigwam turned the book over to her.

"It's done," was all he would admit. "Is your book coming along smoothly these days?

"Better these past few weeks. I've surprised myself at how much I've accomplished since Thanksgiving. Of course, it means I've only been sleeping a few hours each night." She yawned for verification.

"I think that's my signal to get out of here," Wigwam stated, standing. "And besides," he added as Sugarberry protested, "I want to be well on my way before Chocolate Chip gets home."

"I'm sorry that..."

"I'm sorry, too. But it doesn't change things, does it?

"I would change things for the two of you if I could."

"Always the happy ending? No, Sugarberry, real life doesn't work that way. But thanks for caring." With a final nod, he bid his goodnight.

* * *

"Are you sure I have to become a Pokémon trainer, Tabby?" Thomas asked skeptically.

Tabby shot him a glance that said quite clearly that, yes, he was expected to become a Pokémon trainer with no room for arguing.

"How am I even going to catch one without any to begin with?"

"That's what you're going to use mine for," Tabby said in exasperation.

"Then won't you basically be catching it, and I'll just be tagging along?"

Tabby refused to comment, and kept walking forward. "Just keep looking," she whispered forcefully.

It was on this fine winter's day that Tabby had finally decided that her husband needed to start training some Pokémon of his own. Of course, one couldn't train Pokémon one didn't have; and that was why Tabby had instigated this trip to the Dark Forest in order to obtain some. Of course, Thomas was probably right... Tabby was just catching Pokémon for herself and dragging him along with her.

Tabby was on the lookout, but there didn't seem to be any Pokémon out today. It was in fact Thomas who spotted the first one. "Tabby," he said softly, "there's something in those bushes."

"Really?" Tabby's eyes lit-up at the prospect. "Where?!" Her gaze darted every which way, but she couldn't seem to pick-up on anything. "I can't see anything!"

Thomas began to doubt that either of them would go back with any Pokémon if Tabby couldn't even see them. "Right in front of you!"

"I still don't– oh!! I see it! I see it!" She clapped her front hooves together, and inspected the specimen before her. The creature was still mostly shrouded in leaves and foliage, but its round, blank eyes showed through surrounded by an aura of pink. It stared back at Tabby while she stared at it, seemingly unafraid yet at the moment. Tabby was jubilant. "How delightful! But– hey, it looks sorta like a–"

"Snubble-snubble." With a rustling of leaves, the Pokémon stepped forth out of his concealment, and the sight was frightening– to Tabby, at least. In her mind, Barnacle's description of this Pokémon was the most accurate of them all– Snubble was a pink bulldog in a dress.

"It's a Snubble," Tabby gasped, taking some steps back.

"Aren't you going to battle it now?" Thomas inquired innocently.

"Battle that thing?" Tabby looked horrified at the thought. "No way, Thomas! It's totally freaky. You wouldn't want a Snubble, believe me.

"Snubble-snub." The thing continued to stare at the two with its frowning, expressionless look.

"Come on. We're getting out of here," Tabby ordered, scurrying back onto the main path. "Well? Aren't you coming?"

"Are you sure you won't someday regret leaving him behind?" Thomas said, a little mischievously. "Remember what happened with Mr. Mime?"

"Mr. Mime was a fluke," Tabby said stubbornly. "I am never going to have need for a Snubble. So let's leave it. Please?" The expression on Snubble's face was really getting to her, and she was growing impatient.

"Well, okay," Thomas shrugged, rejoining her on the path. "We might as well look for something else now."

"Snubble-snub?" The Snubble watched them, puzzled, as they departed; and decided that perhaps she would follow them.

* * *

"Oh, hooray!" Tabby said with delight a little later in the day, staring at the weakened furry Pokémon before her. "I've gotten an Eevee! And maybe I can get it to evolve into a Jolteon or a Flareon, or maybe even an Espeon, and wouldn't that be totally outrageous???? Good job, Hitmonlee!"

"Shouldn't you catch it now?" Thomas reminded her.

"Oh, good point!" Tabby recalled, reaching for an empty PokéBall. "PokéBall, g–" She abruptly paused as she became aware of voices nearby... one of which sounded strangely familiar, but she couldn't place from where. A cold aura now seemed to fill the air, and Tabby sensed that something was not right.

"PokéBall, go," she whispered quietly, tossing it softly in the general direction of the Eevee. She was confident in her aim and also distracted by what she heard, so she did not pay as careful attention to the ball as she probably should have. Now she turned her full attention to the voices she heard, and which were steadily becoming louder as the bodies apparently came closer. Tabby saw that Thomas had already become aware of them, and was staring out into the forest through a rather dense stand of small trees and bushes.

Tabby peered through the natural wall herself, but couldn't see anyone yet. "Who is it?" she asked of Thomas, hoping he had an answer.

"I don't know," he shook his head. "But they're coming closer." From the grim look on his face, Tabby suspected that he was picking up the same bad vibes about this that she was.

* * *

Meanwhile, back at the scene of the battle, Snubble had found herself in an interesting situation. She had continued to trail Tabby and Thomas, and had been hiding in the bushes while Tabby battled the Eevee. When Tabby had thrown the ball at Eevee, she had missed her back and the ball came to land closer to Snubble.

Snubble was resourceful, however, and decided to do something with the opportunity. She would catch herself in the ball and have some fun with the pony who seemed to be frightened of her. And catch herself in the ball she had.

Tabby would be in for a surprise.

* * *

When the two beings that they had been hearing came into view, Tabby could hardly suppress her gasp. One of the two she remembered well from several encounters years ago– it was the acclaimed Skeleton King, who had been laid to rest in this forest centuries ago! His companion was much smaller than the skeleton, and Tabby did not specifically know who it was– apparently it was a Bushwoolie, but a very starved and fly-covered one. He held a rough wooden staff in one hand, and the expression in his wide eyes never changed.

"Why, that's the Skeleton King!" Tabby burst forth excitedly, explaining things to Thomas. "You do know about him, don't you? He's buried in this cool tomb in the forest and he comes to life with certain magical items like the wands of the princess ponies. And the Bushwoolie I don't know about, but he certainly seems evil, doesn't he? I wonder what they're doing. It's all very interesting." Tabby's voice was rising steadily higher with excitement, until Thomas finally clamped a hoof over her mouth to get her to stop.

"Do you want them to find us?" Thomas whispered urgently, pushing her to the ground. "And stay down!"

"Okay!" Tabby said cheerfully, perking her head up a little bit so she could still see what was going on. The two crouched there in silence, and listened in on the conversation of the two intruders.

The Skeleton King waved his golden scepter wildly in the air while he walked along ranting to his silent companion. They were now almost directly in front of the two eavesdroppers. "A pirate, you said. A pirate! If you let a pirate ruin your plans before, what is it going to be this time?" the king ranted. "You'd better have a better idea this time. If it fails, I'd better get some compensation for the whole thing. So we're going to the island now? Great. You'd better not be expecting me to swim. You don't know what water does to these bones of mine. I'd fall apart! And that's another thing..." The voices gradually faded away into the distance.

Tabby and Thomas waited several more minutes after the two had passed to even think of moving again. "Ooh, that was interesting," Tabby said with appreciation.

"This could have serious implications, Tabby," Thomas said soberly. "We'd better look into it."

"They were talking about a pirate, weren't they? I wonder if it could have something to do with Barnacle," Tabby considered.

Thomas nodded. "You're right. We ought to get in touch with him. There's no telling what those two could be planning."

"Well, Barnacle should be in town sometime for Christmas, so we'll bring it up then," Tabby decided. "Oh, I think it's very interesting indeed. Maybe there's another adventure coming up! That would be truly outrageous. Now, let's see, the PokéBall..."

Arriving back at the battle scene, Tabby's eyes suddenly opened wide in realization. "Oh no!! I forgot to call Hitmonlee back! Where is he?! Oh, sweety, come back!" Tabby frantically surveyed the surrounding forest.

Tabby's Hitmonlee was a loyal Pokémon, however, and knew how to stay in control of the situation. Seeing that the Eevee had not been caught by the PokéBall Tabby had thrown somewhat carelessly being distracted by the Skeleton King, Hitmonlee had trailed after the Eevee as it tried to get away. Hitmonlee still hovered over the other Pokémon where it had fallen, too exhausted to go on, not far away from the original battle scene.

"Oh, Hitmonlee!" Tabby cried joyously, catching sight of him. "I'm so glad to see you! And– Eevee? I guess the PokéBall didn't get it. But you kept an eye on it while I was gone, didn't you? You dear, sweet Pokémon! You're wonderful, Hitmonlee!"

"Lee," he said modestly.

"Thomas, will you bring me that PokéBall on the ground over there?" Tabby called over to him sweetly. "It seems to have missed its mark."

"Sure," Thomas said slowly. "But–"

"Why, what's wrong?"

"It's glowing, like after you've caught something in it."

"Glowing? You're sure?" Tabby said, puzzled.

"Here, take a look for yourself." Thomas handed the PokéBall on to her.

"Why, it is glowing!" Tabby exclaimed. "But there can't be anything in it– the Eevee's still here. Oh, Eevee– I'd better catch it before it's too late!" Taking another PokéBall out, Tabby quickly threw it at the brown furry body at her hooves and successfully captured it. "I hope you're not mad," she said consolingly to the ball. "I'll treat you really good and maybe someday you can become an Espeon, and wouldn't that be nice?" She turned her attention back to the hero of the moment. "And you, too, Hitmonlee. Return!"

Tabby tucked those two balls away and then turned her attention back to the mystery ball. "Hmm," she frowned. "Maybe it's an error ball or something. But– let's see!" Holding the PokéBall high in the air, she cried, "Whoever's in there, come on out!"

To her surprise, there was someone it. She squinted her eyes as she watched a shape take form out of the pink light. Perhaps she had accidently grabbed a PokéBall that wasn't empty?

"Snubble-snubble," the creature announced.

"Thomas!!!" Tabby shrieked, jumping back. "It's that confounded Snubble again! How'd it do that? Make it go away!"

"I don't know," Thomas said thoughtfully, crouching down by the Pokémon. "Maybe it likes you."

"I don't like it," Tabby protested. "Snubble, go! Shoo!"

"Snubble-snub." The Snubble rubbed up against Thomas' leg.

"If you don't want it, then maybe I'll claim it as my own," Thomas said calmly.

"Are you kidding?" Tabby looked horrified at the thought. "You're out of your mind, Thomas! I don't want anything of its kind in my house."

"Actually, I think it would be a good idea," Thomas said rationally. "You can hardly expect to be a good Pokémon nurse if you're still prejudiced against certain varieties. With Snubble around, you could learn to be tolerant of them. What do you think of that, Snubble?"

"Snubble!" Snubble said brightly.

Tabby's eyes remained narrow.

"Besides, you said you wanted me to get some Pokémon of my own on this trip," Thomas pointed out. "I think Snubble is as good a start as any. Do you want to stay with me, Snubble?"

"Snubble!" Her answer sounded positive.

Tabby knew she was beat now. "Oh," she sighed in resignation. "What have I done to curse myself with this knack of attracting the attention of creatures I hate? Come on, guys. Let's go home." Without offering an explanation of what she really meant, Tabby turned and headed out of the forest.

"She really isn't so bad once you get to know her," Thomas offered to Snubble before following his wife.

"Snub-snub!" Snubble liked a challenge.

* * *

The cool but comfortable days in Vulcanopolis reminded Vanguard that the even sharper temperatures in Ponyland would seem harsh compared to the mild weather here in Vulcanopolis. He was due to arrive back home two days before Christmas, and was busily packing for the trip even though his flight wasn't scheduled until the following day when the doorbell rang.

Rushing from the second floor den down to the front door, Vanguard used his time well by carting down one suitcase that was ready to go. He set it next to the door before opening it to his unexpected visitor.

The pony standing on his front steps was no one Vanguard would have expected to find there. He was momentarily speechless, but found his voice in time to avoid an embarrassing silence. "Sir, come on in." He spread wide the door, and indicated with a sweep of his foreleg that the visitor was welcome.

Giorgio, Sr. entered the town house, noticing first the suitcase by the door. "It looks like I made it just in time."

"I've been packing since they released me from my responsibilities at Leonardo yesterday."

"Yes. I was surprised to hear that they had kept you so long past the end of the semester. I would have thought that you would be anxious to get home." Giorgio, Sr. eyed him curiously.

"They wanted me to take care of some of the problems due to... Giorgio's not coming back next semester."

"And that's why I wanted to drop by, Vanguard. Is there some place we could sit down?"

"Certainly," Vanguard led the way up to the living room that also occupied the second floor. "Would you care for some coffee or...?"

"No. This is fine," Giorgio, Sr. said as he made himself comfortable on the black leather sofa. He looked over the contents of the room as if seeing them for the first time, and for all Vanguard knew, maybe he was. He finally settled his focus on Vanguard. "Enrica and I wanted to extend our apologies to you for all the trouble you went through because of our son; we are sorry that his involvement in these... things... tore you away from your own responsibilities at Pony Pride."

"No apology is necessary."

"But we feel it is. Giorgio disrupted a lot of lives with this scheme of his with the cheating ring. It was his effort to get the best of the system without the system knowing it... and praising him for his achievements in the meantime. It was really his way to get back at me for not being a good father."

"A way to get your attention?"

"If that's what he wanted, he certainly failed miserably. I had no idea that anything like that was going on. But that's why he went for the picture; he figured he had a sure bet in that."

"I can well imagine."

"You can, can you? Which reminds me, Giorgio wondered if you were the one to find the original picture that he had stashed in a book upstairs?" He looked at Vanguard, waiting for his answer.

"Yes, I was."

"And what became of it?"

"I took it to Strawberry Shortcake when I visited Dream Valley last summer; she had me burn it."

"That's for the best. I should have done that years ago." He sat pensively for several minutes, and Vanguard did not interrupt his thoughts. "But Strawberry Shortcake and Strawberry Baskets are doing well?"

"Yes, they are. Sugarberry tells me that they will be with her by the time I arrive back home."

"Ah, yes... Sugarberry. Enrica thoroughly enjoyed the book that she received from her; it was a very thoughtful gesture on Sugarberry's part. But I would expect that from Strawberry Shortcake's daughter."

"She's very special." Vanguard hesitated before continuing. "And she was wondering when Giorgio would be free again to resume his life."

Giorgio, Sr. laughed. "You can assure her that the city administrator will make sure that he won't be confined too far into the new year."

"If she could broach the subject with you herself, I'm sure she'd remind the administrator that it would surely be best for all concerned if Giorgio was able to spend Christmas with his family."

Looking searchingly at Vanguard, Giorgio, Sr. contemplated that proposal. "She and her family feel that way knowing what my son was prepared to do?"

"Yes, sir."

"Then tell your Sugarberry that I will follow her advice, and Giorgio will be home for Christmas."

"Thank you from both of us."

Giorgio, Sr. stood up, signaling the end of his visit. "Your work here was much appreciated, Vanguard. I'm sure you'll be invited to return. And I hope you'll be accompanied by your Sugarberry, so that I can meet her for myself."

"If my plans work out once I'm home again..." Vanguard began.

"On that point, I feel I should offer you some advice," Giorgio, Sr. smiled. "When you find the mare that you want to spend the rest of your life with, don't let anything get in your way!"

"Don't thing I haven't learned that lesson the hard way," Vanguard admitted. "That's my top priority once I'm back in Dream Valley."

Stopping at the front door, Giorgio, Sr. looked at his watch. "I best clear out of here quickly; you won't have a lot of time to finish your packing."

"No problem. My flight won't be leaving until tomorrow; it was the only one I could get booked on."

"What?" Giorgio, Sr. snorted. "Leonardo University kept you here to the last minute, and then expects you to make your own connections? May I use your phone?"

"S... sure," Vanguard stuttered, not knowing what to think of this development. He busied himself with minor kitchen chores until the authoritative stallion had completed his call.

"How soon can you be ready to leave?" he asked of Vanguard.

"I just have to add my toothbrush to the suitcase," Vanguard admitted.

"Then do it, and I'll walk you to the airport."

"Wh... I don't understand."

"When you are the city administrator, you can get things done... expediently. There will be a seat for you on today's flight."

It took no more discussion to get Vanguard moving. He hurried through the rooms to make sure that he had not overlooked anything while Giorgio, Sr. waited by the door. In a matter of minutes, the rest of the luggage had been deposited by the first suitcase; and Vanguard, after adding a red ribbon-bedecked box to his backpack, declared himself ready to go.

When the two stallions arrived at the airport, the paper that was Vanguard's pass home was waiting at the ticket counter; his luggage was whisked off for loading. An airport employee, with a respectful eye on Giorgio, Sr., escorted them to the loading gate where he bid farewell to Vanguard. "Have a very merry Christmas, Vanguard!"

"The same to you! And thanks for getting me on my way a day earlier than I'd planned." He turned and walked toward the loading ramp.

"Should I call someone for you and let her know you're on your way?" Giorgio, Sr. called out as Vanguard was ready to disappear from sight.

"No, I think I'd rather surprise her," he stated with a wave of his hoof. "Merry Christmas!"

As Vanguard buckled the seat belt and waited for the plane to taxi out to the runway, he thought about his days in Vulcanopolis: how uprooted he had felt when he first arrived; teaching at Leonardo University and building a rapport with the other instructors there; meeting his neighbors, Ivetta and Giles (and the impending birth of a foal that Giles had so proudly broadcast); finding friendship with Guido and Clare; living in a town house that made his own apartment look like an economy motel room; watching events unfold in connection with the cheating scam; and always... missing Sugarberry.

He wondered if he would stay in touch with those ponies who had made his days in Vulcanopolis bearable: Angela, Pacificus, Prisca, Donato, Matteo, Federigo, Eugenia, and even Marissa. The feigned college student had come to him to explain Ivetta's part in the scam when she had found out through Matteo that Vanguard knew of Ivetta's participation in Giorgio's operation; she wanted him to understand that Ivetta was not a willing player, and that he should not think of her in a bad light. And now he held Giorgio, Sr. in greater esteem as well for his help in speeding up his departure.

When the plane lifted off, he watched the city pass quickly by and wondered if he would ever return as Giorgio, Sr. had intimated. He would not mind coming back if... if Sugarberry was at his side. He smiled at the thought. Somehow, he knew that Vulcanopolis would be much more resplendent and intriguing with her to share it with.

His hoof rested on the backpack that held the gift he had for her, a solid reassurance that this time nothing would interfere with his intentions. For a moment, he worried that she would resent the fact that he had picked out a diamond ring without her input. But the purchasing of that ring had become very important to him while in Vulcanopolis; to have this tangible treasure of gold and diamonds calmed his mind, knowing that he was ready to offer his life to Sugarberry.

Was she ready to accept?

* * *

A gentle snow was falling as Wigwam walked up the path to Sugarberry's front porch; he carried a box wrapped in festive holiday paper, encircled with a blue ribbon and topped with a matching bow. As he walked, the stallion whistled "We Wish You a Merry Christmas" and the bounce in his step mirrored the joy of the season.

Wrapping on the door, the stallion knocked the snow off his hooves. The snow drifting past the porch light glittered like falling jewels, and Wigwam grinned out of sheer happiness to be surrounded by so much iridescence.

When Sugarberry finally opened the door, she was drying her hooves on a towel; and a smudge of flour on her flushed cheeks testified to the Christmas baking going on. As he stepped inside the house, the fragrance of freshly baked cookies was overpowering. "My timing was perfect," he quipped.

"If I'd have known you were coming, I'd have coffee ready."

"This was a spur of the moment thing. I was at the mall and saw that Chocolate Chip was buried in last minute gift-advising for the hoards, so I thought it would be a good time to get your gift to you." He handed her the package.

"Thanks, Wigwam. I wish I'd thought of buying you something!" The twinkle in her eye, however, gave her away.

"I have it on good authority that you wrapped something for me," he responded. "That's why I had to go out tonight and buy you this."

"You're bluffing," the mare retorted.

"Nope. Wishbone told me that my present is about this long and this wide." He held up his hooves to indicate the size.

Sugarberry rolled her eyes. "There's no keeping secrets around this house."

"Well, come sit down while I formally confer you with your gift," the stallion commanded as he led her to the sofa, and sat down facing her. Sugarberry looked at him quizzically, but waited for him to continue. "Sugarberry, there are a couple of things I need to say to you before the holiday madness makes private conversation impossible, and before Vanguard gets home."

"Something's wrong, isn't it?" Sugarberry jumped to a worrisome conclusion.

Now it was time for Wigwam to roll his eyes. "For once, don't start worrying, Sugarberry. Just listen. You're aware that Van asked me to watch out for you while he was gone off to Vulcanopolis, and your help with my Native Pony collection was an offshoot of that."


"We've shared some good times these past months, haven't we? Some of my happiest memories are those I have of you and me working on the manuscript. It makes me wish I'd have gotten to know you better sooner, before Van came on the scene."

Not liking the direction the conversation was taking, Sugarberry put up a hoof to stop him. "Wigwam, you're reading too much into..."

The stallion took her hoof in his. "Sugarberry, surely you've had some inkling of my feelings about you."

"You're confusing your sentiments for Chocolate Chip."

"Face it, Sugarberry. We make a good team, and I don't want anything... or anyone... to come between us."

Thoroughly flustered and a little frightened, Sugarberry tried to release her hoof from Wigwam's grasp, but he wouldn't allow her to move away. Instead, he reached for the package at his side with his free hoof. "What I'm trying to say here is..."

"Wigwam, stop!"

"... is would you look over these notes on a rough draft of a story idea, and tell me what you think its chances of publication are?" He lifted the lid, and pulled out a hoof full of sloppily arranged notes.

As his words sunk in, Sugarberry's agitation turned to sheer anger as Wigwam's sincere look dissolved into laughter. She pulled back and stood up, too irate to say anything. But Wigwam's amusement couldn't be contained. "I had you going there, didn't I? And don't look at me with that look."

"You scum!" she seethed. "How dare you play a stupid joke like that on me?"

"You asked for it the other night when you denied the fact that you expect a proposal from Van. I wanted you to face the truth; you're as committed to him as if he'd already popped the question."

"It would have served you right if I'd have responded to your 'proposal' before you got to your bottom line, and flung my forelegs around your neck and vowed eternal devotion to you."

"Hey, I could have handled that."

"You're impossible!" she spat, but the merriment in his eyes was contagious. "I'm just glad there weren't any witnesses," she stated as she allowed a smile to cross her face.

"I won't tell," Wigwam grinned. "And now..." he picked up a second package, "this is your real gift."

"For sure?" she asked, shying away from the bow-topped box as if it were poison.

"For sure. You know I meant all those things I said. Working with you on the book was great."

"And are those really ideas for a new book?" she asked, nodding toward the papers in the previous box.

"Yes, and I'd truly like to have your input."

"I'd be delighted." She then pulled the ribbon off the gift, pealed the paper away, and uncovered the nest of white tissue paper. After further digging, she disclosed a white marble kaleidoscope, and lifted it in awe. "I saw this at the gift shop at the toy museum; I thought it was the most beautiful thing!" She lifted the tubular shape and looked through the viewer; the random array of colored glass and beads changed constantly to form vibrant patterns of color as she turned the cylinder. "I love it!"

"Tabby told me that she had noticed that you were impressed with that, so I went for it."

"I've always been fascinated by these things, and this one is a beauty. Thanks, Wigwam. It almost makes up for your previous behavior."

"If only you could have seen your face, Sug," Wigwam chuckled over the memory. "It was priceless."

"In the spirit of the holiday, I'm glad you found pleasure in my trepidation." She trotted over to the Christmas tree that stood undecorated in the front window. "And although you deserve nothing buy a chunk of coal, I'll still let you have this." She picked out a gift and handed it to him.

"Um... why haven't you decorated the tree yet? Aren't you the one who puts it up as soon as Halloween is over?"

"I would usually have it done on Thanksgiving, but I wanted to wait until Vanguard was here."

"Aww... isn't that so sweet."

Sugarberry scowled. "Just open the present."

Wigwam had soon uncovered the gift Sugarberry had chosen for him: a decorative peace pipe from Dreamcatcher's shop. "Hey, this is cool!" He seemed to appreciate the keepsake.

"Dreamcatcher just got those in, and I thought it was an appropriate item for you. You and the orange unicorn aren't really on speaking terms yet, are you?"

"She wouldn't listen to me unless I sent smoke signals her way, which is something I'm not about to do."

Sugarberry grinned. "Well, think about some way to smooth the troubled waters. You two would have so much to talk about if only..."

"If only I'd sell the casino and move into a hovel in the Dark Forest? Forget it! I'm happy being civilized."

"So come into the kitchen and try a sugar cookie."

"Are you sure Chocolate Chip won't come waltzing in with one of her chums?"

"She has to stay at the book store until closing. And you and she have to learn to be in each other's company sooner or later; I'm not sacrificing either of you."

"It's just awkward," Wigwam frowned.

"Awkward?" Sugarberry harped. "As in the way I felt when you pulled your little stunt earlier? Don't expect any sympathy from me."

But as they entered the kitchen, Sugarberry's attention was no longer concerned with anyone's problems but her own as Raptor had made the most of the deserted cookie project to commandeer several of the delicately browned shapes, and he and Fluff now sat side by side gnawing their way through those that he had whisked onto the floor.

"What's going on here?" she groaned. "You two are bad cats!" The creatures knew by the sound of her voice that they were in trouble, and both beat a hasty retreat.

"Why do I bother?" the mare asked of no one in particular. "Those cats know better."

"Where's your Christmas spirit? They only took three."

"You clean up the mess then while I get some hot cider."

"So when is Vanguard due to arrive?"

"Not until Sunday afternoon; he couldn't get away any sooner. But Mom and Dad should be here tomorrow morning as well as Vanguard's folks. We're going to clean Vanguard's apartment before he gets here and stock it with food."

"Mine could use a good cleaning, too," Wigwam joked, at which point the back door opened to admit Wishbone.

"Hi!" the young stallion called. "I'm finished for the year at Pony-Mart; boy, does that sound good! Tomorrow, it's off to Neighberry for a well-deserved vacation." He shook the snowflakes off his back.

"What time are you and Chocolate Chip planning on leaving?" Sugarberry asked, mentally calculating the bustle of her house mates leaving and her parents arriving.

Wishbone grabbed a cookie off the counter. "Probably by nine o'clock. Prime is supposed to meet us here." He glanced at Wigwam. "We figured we might as well travel together."

"How long are you staying with your parents?" Wigwam queried.

"Through New Year's Day."

"I see."

A rap on the back door caused the three ponies to stare inquisitively; and when Wishbone opened it, Tabby and Thomas stood waiting. "It's snowing," Tabby called out. "Do I smell cookies? Why didn't you tell me? I always help you decorate them! What? You didn't even do sugar cookies this year? You're impossible, Sug!"

Thomas grinned. "We could actually smell them as soon as we left Hubert and Agatha's; I'm surprised the whole neighborhood's not here."

"Well, come on in; we'll find out if the cookies are as good as they smell."

"Already taken care of," Wishbone stated. "I've had three, and they were great!"

Wishbone helped Sugarberry prepare refreshments and trays of cookies, and the ponies gathered around the warmth of the kitchen table to enjoy not only the food but also the companionship of the moment. The hour was getting late when Wigwam excused himself from the group. "I'd better get out of here," he stated. "Any more cookies and I won't be able to walk."

Sugarberry accompanied him to the front door. "Thanks again for the present," she told him as he stopped to pick up the peace pipe she had given him.

"Even if the delivery was a little unorthodox?"

"Even so."

Wigwam opened the door to leave, and the sight that met his eyes put a damper on his holiday spirits; there in the glow of the porch light surrounded by the falling snow stood Chocolate Chip receiving a kiss from Prime.

"You two look like figures in a snow globe," giggled Sugarberry as Chocolate Chip stared in surprise; it was hard to tell if her red cheeks were due to the weather, the kiss, or Wigwam's presence.

"Prime walked me home," the filly explained unnecessarily, avoiding eye contact with Wigwam. Wigwam, for his part, couldn't take his eyes off her face.

"Hi, Sugarberry... Wigwam," Prime said. Then to Chocolate Chip: "I'll be here no later that nine tomorrow."

"Okay. Wishbone and I will be ready."

As Prime left the porch, Chocolate Chip tried to steal through the doorway without any further conversation, but Wigwam stopped her with a hoof on her foreleg. She tried to avoid his direct gaze, but his words forced her to make eye contact. "It's the season of peace, Chocolate Chip. Merry Christmas."

Her eyes could not hold. "Merry Christmas," she whispered as she slipped past him into the house.

She never heard the words that were uttered almost as a sigh... I love you.

* * *

The following morning did prove to be a hectic one for Sugarberry. No sooner had Chocolate Chip and Wishbone left with Prime than both sets of parents arrived. "Whirlpool and Floral Breeze came as far as Berryville yesterday and spent the night with us," explained Strawberry Shortcake as she hugged her daughter. "Merry Christmas, dear!"

"Got the coffee pot on?" asked Strawberry Baskets as he received his welcoming hug from his daughter.

"That, and the cookies are on the table," Sugarberry replied. Then, turning to Floral Breeze, she enthused, "I'm so happy you could come!"

"Thanks for letting us share Vanguard's homecoming," Floral Breeze responded. "Have you heard from him in the last couple of days?"

"Nothing since yesterday morning; he said he was all packed even though his flight wouldn't be leaving for another two days."

"So he wasn't too unhappy to be leaving Vulcanopolis?" teased Whirlpool as he received his hug.

"Apparently not," Sugarberry grinned.

As the parents sat warming up after the chill walk and sampling a variety of cookies, Sugarberry bustled about the kitchen keeping coffee mugs full and sharing happenings about life in Dream Valley and learning about events that had occurred in both Berryville and Woodlawn.

"Where are those two sassy cats of yours?" Strawberry Baskets asked.

"Hiding," Sugarberry surmised. "Too many visitors all at once." She went on to tell about Raptor's unwelcome thievery of any food that he could find unguarded.

"Can't blame him a bit," Whirlpool sided with the cat. "These cookies are the best I've every eaten... besides yours, dear," he ended with a wink at his wife.

"What recipe did you use for these?" asked Strawberry Shortcake, holding up a chocolate cluster bursting with tasty-looking morsels.

While the conversation drifted to favorite foods, Sugarberry silently called everyone's attention to a silent feline sitting upright and cautious just inside the kitchen door; his half-closed eyes masked the intensity of his observation. No one said a word to the large kitten, but ignored him as if they had not noticed his arrival.

As the ponies made plans for the afternoon housecleaning of Vanguard's apartment-- with the mares doing the cleaning and the stallions doing the shopping-- the black tiger-striped cat noiselessly crossed the tiled floor and positioned himself at the base of the counter directly under a container of extra cookies. Once more he assumed the nonchalant pose of a completely disinterested party; feeling satisfied that the five equines at the table were oblivious of his intent, Raptor leapt in one fluid motion to the counter top; and before anyone could respond, he had appropriated a tasty confection and dropped back to the floor with it.

Now that the dirty work was done, Fluff meandered into the room and joined his errant buddy. But Raptor was enjoying his snack too much to share, and Fluff received only a battered nose for his effort.

Sugarberry, having proved to her guests that Raptor was a tricky feline, stepped in to confiscate the stolen food and reprimand the guilty kitten. Once admonished, the cat weighed his alternatives, and decided that Strawberry Baskets was his best bet. Showing no remorse, Raptor walked across the room with his tail held high and brushed against the stallion's legs. Strawberry Baskets, always a soft touch, lifted the growing kitten into his lap where Raptor made himself comfortable; and, after a few licks of his fur, fell asleep.

"You know that you two are welcome to stay here," Sugarberry urged of Whirlpool and Floral Breeze. "With Chocolate Chip and Wishbone gone, I've got plenty of room."

"We appreciate your offer, but we'll be fine at the motel," Floral Breeze responded. "You and your folks need some time to yourselves, too."

Sugarberry pressed, "But you're being here wouldn't be a problem."

"Our reservations are already made," Whirlpool decided the matter. "We'll be fine over at the Corral. You've done enough for us already."

As they set off to get checked in and settled, Sugarberry followed them to the door and made one more bid at hospitality. "You can come back here for lunch before we go over to the apartment."

Laughing, Whirlpool accepted. "If you are determined to put yourself out for us, then we will be here for lunch."

"It won't be any trouble; it's just a casserole that I can stick in the oven..." Her crestfallen look said more than her words.

Floral Breeze squeezed her hoof. "We'd be delighted to come back for lunch, Sugarberry. We won't be gone too long at all."

"We'll see you later then."

Closing the door, Sugarberry went to the kitchen and proceeded to assemble the ingredients for her noon meal; by the time her parents had unpacked their belongings in the guest room, she had the pan in the oven and was free to visit.

"Mom, do you think Vanguard's folks like me?"

"Why do you ask such a thing? Of course they like you!"

"Then why don't they want to stay here?"

Strawberry Baskets was the one to answer. "Because they want you to be able to enjoy the holidays without playing hostess every minute of the day."

"You mean I'm too overbearing?"

Her dad grinned. "I don't think anyone could accuse you of that, Sugarberry. But you have a big day ahead of you with Vanguard coming back; I think his folks just want to give the two of you some space. It will be bad enough having one set of parents looking over your shoulder all day long."

"Tomorrow... he will be here tomorrow," Sugarberry murmured. She sat down suddenly as if she had just in that moment realized the import of that fact. "It feels like a dream with time nearly stopped," she confessed.

"One more day," her mom patted her shoulder. "Then your world will be back in order. But in the meantime, we've got some things to take care of."

"Such as?"

"Such as cleaning an apartment and doing the grocery shopping for our part in the Christmas banquet being held at Tabby and Thomas'," smiled Strawberry Shortcake. "That is the plan, isn't it?"

"Yes! And you should hear all the plans Tabby has for decorating the mansion for Christmas. It will be too grand for words!"

"She and Thomas are still getting along then?" Strawberry Baskets asked to vex his daughter. "She's learned to cook?"

Sugarberry chided him. "Cooking isn't the only thing that's important in life, Dad. Tabby and Thomas are doing just fine."

Talk turned to Driftwood and Raspberry, and Gooseberry and her family; and before they knew it, Floral Breeze and Whirlpool were back and the timer on the stove announced that lunch was ready.

When the meal was finished, the mothers took care of the dishes while Strawberry Baskets and Whirlpool went into the living room to check the Christmas lights in preparation for decorating the tree. While that was going on, Sugarberry realized something she had forgotten to take care of. "I wanted some evergreen branches for the display on the coffee table," she informed the others. "I'm going to run out back and cut some now."

"Why don't you let me do that?" Strawberry Baskets offered, but Sugarberry turned him down.

"I know just what branches I want out of the tree by the garden. I searched them out way last fall already," she explained. "The tree will never miss them." She grabbed the kitchen shears, and went to the back door.

Whirlpool, from his position near the front window, whistled softly. "Well, well. Look who's coming up the path!" But Sugarberry was out of hearing, and the closing of the back door was echoed in the rapping on the front.

It was Strawberry Baskets who opened the door to the county blue stallion with sea green hair, and if a flicker of disappointment crossed the new arrival's face, it was quickly replaced by a smile as greetings were extended to him by the stallions; the commotion brought Strawberry Shortcake and Floral Breeze from the kitchen, and Vanguard was swamped in hugs and kisses from the two mares.

A flurry of questions and explanations ensued, and some minutes had passed before Vanguard was able to ask what was foremost on his mind. "Where's Sugarberry?"

"She just went out back to get some evergreen branches," Floral Breeze enlightened him. "She should..."

At that moment, Sugarberry came back into the house through the kitchen and into the living room carrying the pine boughs. The parents moved aside to allow a straight shot at Vanguard so as she came through the doorway, her first sight was that of the stallion who had become the center of her existence. Her eyes grew big, a smile lighted her face, and the evergreen dropped to the floor with a swish that sounded loud in the silence of the room.

"You're home!"

"Hi, Sugarberry."

The two ponies met, and melted into an embrace that carried with it the love of two souls whose separation had only strengthened their feelings for one another. As they stood wrapped in the happiness of their reunion, a lone tear slid from Sugarberry's closed eyes as her head nestled against Vanguard's shoulder. "You're home," she whispered once more.

The four spectators brushed tears from their own cheeks as they moved toward the door. "We'll get out of your way for awhile," Strawberry Shortcake said. "You two need some time alone."

But Vanguard stopped them. "I want you to stay; what I have to say to Sugarberry concerns all of you in a way." His glance that had stopped them moved back to Sugarberry's wondering eyes as if transfixed. "I'm finished with my commitment to Leonardo University, and now I'm free to enter a new commitment-- one that's much more important." He took Sugarberry's hooves in his own. "Sugarberry, when I first saw you at Birdsong, I knew that I loved you, and I was overjoyed to find that you cared about me, too. Coming to Dream Valley was the beginning of a wonderful time in my life-- until this Vulcanopolis affair interfered. If it hadn't, I'd have said these things last spring."

"Keep talking," Sugarberry grinned. "I like the sound of it."

Vanguard picked up a box from the credenza. "I took to window-shopping at jewelry stores to keep myself sane," he explained. "And one day I found what I was looking for." He took the lid off the box, and met Sugarberry's eyes. "Now for the important part." He stopped, momentarily drowning in the radiant expression that mirrored his own. "Will you marry me, Sugarberry?"

He saw the answer in her eyes before she voiced it. "Yes, Vanguard. I'll most definitely marry you!" She threw her forelegs around his neck in a joyous hug.

"Wait!" Vanguard teased. "You haven't seen the ring yet." From the box, he withdrew a delicate, glittering diamond shaped like a strawberry blossom with a cascade of sparkling leaves falling away from it on the golden band.

Sugarberry caught her breath. "It's beautiful!" She watched as he slipped it on her left foreleg.

Then, as the two stood face-to-face, Vanguard said to her, "I love you, Sugarberry."

"I love you, too," Sugarberry replied in all sincerity.

* * *

"Ah, that first Christmas that Agatha and I spent in the mansion! Tabby wasn't born yet then, of course. We had the biggest tree we could find. I went out into the Dark Forest with my dad and Agatha's. It was a grand experience." Hubert paused to look at his companion. "I used the mystic blade of Ashkinobishtar to chop that one down, but we won't be using that today."

"What became of it?" Thomas ventured.

"While rescuing the elf princess of Melshar, it was dropped into the eternal lava rifts on the lost continent of Lemprozatland," Hubert said solemnly.

"I suppose we'll have to settle for an axe from Fleet Farm then, right?"

Hubert nodded. "Unless we could recover the mystic blade, that's the next best thing. Come on, let's go!"

* * *

Quarterback also had business to attend to at Fleet Farm that day, and Tex had tagged along with him to possibly help with Quarterback's current project. The two stood before the display of power tools, gazing in awe.

"Woah, look at that portable oscillating spindle sander," Tex breathed. "What a beauty!"

"That's nothing," Quarterback scoffed, pointing to something else on the rack. "That's what we need! A heavy-duty electronic VS plunge router kit."

"Hey, buddies!" Tex called, catching sight of two familiar figures. "You gotta see some of the awesome stuff over here!"

Hubert shook his head. "Don't have time, Tex. We're here to find a replacement for the mystic blade of Ashkinobishtar."

"Huh?" Tex echoed.

"An axe, you see," Thomas clarified.

Quarterback looked at Thomas carefully. "Are things going alright with you and Tabby?"

"No, no! I mean... it's to cut down a tree."

"Ah." Quarterback nodded wisely. "Good idea. Want some help picking out that axe?"

Hubert had already headed off to that section of the store, and the other three stallions followed him. It wasn't long, though, until Tex and Quarterback had found something else to catch their eye.

"This would work," Quarterback said, inspecting a display model of a 3.7 cubic inch vertical cylinder engine chainsaw with an extra-long twenty-two inch bar.

"We're going to do this the old-fashioned way today," Hubert advised, looking contemplatively at the rack of axes. "This one will do the purpose well." He wielded a double-bladed version.

"No, you want this one!" Tex argued, selecting a different one. "Wigwam has one just like this that I've used, and it's the best."

Quarterback was still partial to his 3.7 cylinder engine. "This would get the job done the quickest."

"What do you think, Thomas?" Tex directed at the fourth member of their group.

Thomas was not as impressed by their surroundings as the others were, and had not been particularly paying attention to what they had been saying. "Oh, whatever," he said distantly, hoping to get out of the store quickly.

After a bit of arguing, Hubert finally had his way and purchased the axe to be used that day. Quarterback and Tex offered to come along to help, as well as find some more recruits for their venture. While they were off hunting up more tree-cutters, Hubert and Thomas were left without much to do, until Clever Clover walked by and noticed them.

"Hi-ho!" he called. "Cool axe," he added, indicating Hubert's package. "What're you doing with it?"

"We're going to cut down a Christmas tree," Hubert said soberly.

"Cool!" Clever Clover looked impressed. "Mind if I come along?"

"Umm... sure?" Thomas glanced over at Hubert to see his reaction.

"Certainly, Clever Clover," Hubert invited. "We'll need many hooves to get this tree home."

"It's going to be a big one, huh?" Clever Clover readily started chatting with them, and it wasn't much longer before Tex and Quarterback reappeared with Wigwam and Barnacle in tow.

"ARR, mateys!" Barnacle greeted them. "I hear we be a-cuttin' a tree today."

"Do you have any idea where you're going to find this special tree?" Wigwam queried.

"No, but I'm sure we'll know it when we see it," Hubert said without concern. "Now, come on, guys!"

The parade headed on through town, and as fate would have it, they ran into Spike and several of the Bushwoolies who of course decided to join them as well. But, they didn't want anyone to be left out.

The ever-increasing group of stallions, like some giant amoeba, came across Toby next. "Hey, doc! Want to come help us cut down a Christmas tree?" invited Quarterback.

Toby looked doubtfully at the crew. "Well, I was planning on stopping by the mansion to see if I could help Elaine and the girls."

"What a sissy," Tex scoffed. "What would you rather do-- spend the day inside with a bunch of mares doing cooking and decorating and stuff, or out in the Dark Forest with the guys?"

Toby gave it a split second's thought and resumed his progress toward the mansion. Clever Clover came up to Tex and patted him on the back. "Hey, good point, buddy."

"Yeah," Tex grinned, proud of himself, until he realized Clever Clover was following Toby, along with half the other guys in the group. "Let me rephrase that!" he called, realizing his mistake. "If any of you don't help get this tree, you will bear the wrath of Tabby for the next millennium."

They had to stop and consider that; it was the tree for Tabby's mansion, after all. She was expecting it, and if she didn't get it, it was doubtful that she would let them off easily. Grudgingly, they all gathered around Tex again. The food and the mares would have to wait. And, if they worked on the tree, they would have an even bigger reception back at the house. They would be welcomed as heroes.

In the thick of the Dark Forest, more speculation began. What was the perfect tree? Clever Clover spotted one he stubbornly insisted was the best around, but Barnacle and Spike argued that it was much too tall for the mansion. "ARR! Would be makin' a super ship's mast," Barnacle said wistfully. Wigwam thought he had found the one, but it was declared to be too skinny and missing too many branches. Others were put up for consideration, but Hubert had the final say. "We're going to take that one," he said briskly, pointing towards a fully-branched specimen towering over its neighbors.

There was some general groaning throughout the group from the members that were dissatisfied, but they soon found more to gripe about. "You're holding the axe wrong," Quarterback called as Hubert started chopping. "Hold it like this." He demonstrated by positioning his hooves in the air.

"Yeah, yeah, like this," Friendly agreed.

"No way, that's not right at all," Spike shook his head. "You're supposed to do it like this..."

"Not right, yeah, yeah," Friendly nodded. (He agreed with everyone.)

This discussion raged on, until it was suddenly halted when the sound of laughter could be heard in the bushes. "Who's there?" Hubert cried out.

A dark blue stallion emerged-- it was Butch! "Hey, I couldn't help but overhear your conversation," he chuckled. "But I'm sorry to say that you're all wrong. Here, let me demonstrate. Can I have the axe?" Securing it a little unwillingly from Hubert, the mysterious stallion of the Dark Forest tried his aim.

Butch's method was soon met with ridicule, though, and shortly he was in the same predicament as Hubert had been. Finally, he threw the axe aside. "Fine. I'd like to see any of you do better." There were many willing volunteers.

While they continued to argue, Toby was leaning back against a nearby tree; he didn't really have anything to do. He would be having a lot more fun back at the mansion... with Elaine...

Caught up in a daydream, Toby was quite alarmed to see something brown coiled around his shoulder out of the corner of his eye. "It's a snake!" he shouted out as an automatic reflex.

There was a momentary lull in the talking as everyone turned to look at Toby. Tex, who was standing nearby, started laughing. "It's a grapevine, Toby."

"Oh..." Toby said sheepishly, inspecting it more thoroughly. "I guess it is."

The guffawing died off after awhile, and Hubert resumed use of the axe. Everyone quieted down a bit and let him work, congregating on the sidelines to chatter amongst themselves.

"Hey, Thomas! What're you doing up there?" Clever Clover craned his head upward to see the unicorn perched in the high branches of a nearby tree.

"Oh... just checking the view," Thomas said distantly. Actually, he had winked up there for safety reasons. Quite frankly, it had seemed hazardous to be near a group of stallions fighting over the use of a large sharp axe. This venture was definitely not what he had expected at all.

"Good idea," Toby said to himself, wishing that he was a unicorn.

"Well, why don't you come down?" Wigwam invited.

Thomas saw that Hubert was in command now, and decided that it was probably less dangerous than before. No sooner had his hooves touched the ground than Hubert called out a warning that the tree was starting to fall.

Everyone stood back at a safe distance and watched in awe as the giant creaked and groaned from its foundation and, seemingly in slow motion, began to fall. It picked up speed as it went, taking out smaller trees with it; and crashed onto the ground with one final roar.

The branches were still waving wildly as the stallions swarmed over it. This was the first time some of them had chopped a tree, but it was an exciting experience for all involved. Chattering filled the air as they discussed how easily it had gone down and how happy the mares would be to see it.

Clever Clover walked along one side of the fallen tree, frowning. He thought he had heard something as it had fallen, like the squeaking of an animal. He wondered if something could have been living in it. He could faintly hear other sounds once in awhile, and he was trying to pinpoint their location.

"Here we go," he grinned to himself, spotting a hole in the side. There was definitely a frenzy of sorts going on inside. He imagined a family of squirrels or some such rodents living in that hole, and no doubt they would be in a state of hysteria as their home had toppled. He kneeled down to get a better look into the tree hole. And what he saw was incredibly frightening indeed.

He let out a small yell as he leaped backwards and toppled to the ground. Thomas and Spike, who were nearby, came to see what had happened.

"That tree is infested with something," the stallion said, still in a state of shock as he pointed towards the hole in the tree.

The two others peered into it. "A family of wild Furbys?" Thomas said curiously. "How interesting."

"Hey, cool!" Spike exclaimed. "I didn't know they lived out here. There's a lot of 'em in there."

"I know," Clever Clover said shakily. "It's like a nightmare." He dashed off quickly to get away from the fuzzy chattering creatures.
They had indeed upset a nest of wild Furbys. Thomas and Spike worked on safely pulling them out of their old home and calming them, and this soon attracted the attention of everyone else in their group. After everyone had been evacuated, a count of the Furbish brood totaled seven: a mother and her six children.

"Baby up! Baby down."

"Yeah! Up again!"

"Momma! Me scared!"

"Maybe... monster! No-no-no."

"You rock! Rock again!"

"Aww... me hung-ree."

The Furby Babies chattered excitedly while their mother laughed shrilly. "Whahoo! Me happy, wah!"

It wasn't long before another Furbish body came whizzing through the forest. This one was gray and yellow, and apparently the mate to this Furby mother. "Big worry," he said, landing on the forest floor next to her.

"Party! Whoopie!" she alleviated his concerns.

"Let's boogie!" he agreed. The two began to dance, while their children bounced around happily.

"What should we do with them?" Spike asked after a spell of watching their antics.

"Leave 'em here," Clever Clover voiced his thoughts.

Most of the other guys just shrugged their shoulders, not being experienced with Furbys, let alone wild ones found nesting in Christmas trees.

"What do you say we take them home with us?" Hubert addressed Thomas.

"Sure," Thomas agreed readily. "Tabby would like a family of Furbys better than anything for Christmas."

And so, it was decided that the Furbys would be coming along with them and the tree. The family seemed happy with the idea as well, and flew among the group as the stallions tied ropes to the tree to aid in tugging it home. And, in a short while, the whole big assembly was on their way to the mansion with tree and Furbys in tow.

* * *

"But Mom, I already bought stuff to decorate with!"

"Tabitha, what you bought is all pink and purple."

"I know. That's why I got it."

"Pink and purple simply aren't the colors of Christmas! Green and red are. That's why we're going to use these things of mine."

"Mom!" Tabby wailed. "I want to decorate in pink and purple. Oh, please, won't you let me?"

Agatha sighed. "Oh, I suppose we could use some of each."

"Some of each? But they'd clash! Imagine pink and purple with red and green!"

"Exactly, so we'll leave out the pink and purple."

"No, the red and green!"

So, while those two were fighting it out over the colors of garlands to use, the rest of the mares who were gathered at the mansion that day to help with decorating dug into the boxes themselves and began their task. Agatha and Tabby didn't notice, and eventually joined in with the rest, so things continued on peacefully for awhile.

"Oh, it's going to be simply lovely all done up here," Elaine sighed blissfully. "And imagine what it will be like with a Christmas tree!"

"It's going to be great," Tamara agreed, untangling a sparkly silver garland. "And I once thought the tree in my house was going to be big!"

"I wish you could all see Guido's villa back in Italy," Tiffany recalled, relaxing back on the couch. "It makes this mansion of yours look like a tiny apartment, Tabitha."

"It's not like you're marrying him for any more than the house, anyway," Tabby shot back.

"You simply don't understand, Tabitha. He's rich! Anyway, he's told me all about how he's decorated in past years. There are garlands and swags and candles and wreaths everywhere, and of course a huge tree in the ballroom. And on Christmas Eve he has a lovely party for all his intimate acquaintances..." Tiffany sighed happily, imagining the time when she would first get to play hostess at that function.

Sapphire was there as well, affixing some lovely green and golden swags of garlands over some of the doorways. "I hear you'll be getting married in June, Tiffany?"

"June of 2001," Tiffany corrected. "There's a great many things to plan in that time, though. All the other princesses are going to be my bridesmaids, of course, and Guido will come up with some very handsome stallions– oh, girls, did I tell you what I found out about Guido?"

"What do you mean?" Tamara's ears perked up.

"He actually is a prince!" Tiffany beamed proudly.

"How did that happen?" Tabby asked skeptically.

"He's always really been a prince, you see," Tiffany bragged. "In Italy, the stallions of the richest and most influential families are all called princes. So my Guido is actually Prince Guido. Isn't that fabulous?"

"Wow," Tamara said in awe.

"So I would like all of you to refer to him as 'Prince Guido' now."

Tabby rolled her eyes. "You are such a snob, Tiffany."

Elaine looked up towards the entrance to the kitchen and noticed the smoke billowing out. "Oh dear, it looks like they're having problems in there." Whereas the younger mares were on decorating duty, the various mothers and grandmothers and aunts were doing baking in the kitchen of all sorts of delicacies for the upcoming holiday.

"It's probably Mom's special Almond Apricot Logs," Tamara sighed. "She always has problems with that."

"Sophia, don't eat that!" Tabby protested as the graceful Siamese began chewing on the end of a sparkly garland.

The main room was glittering now with decorations of all kinds. Both Agatha's and Tabby's decorations had been used, but the results so far were quite pleasing to the eye and didn't clash at all. But, there was still more to do, like stringing garlands along the humongous stairways.

Their busy chatter continued while they attended to this task. "Say, Dawn, how are things going with you and Perry?" Tamara questioned.

"Oh, very well," Princess Dawn said, starry-eyed. "He's taking me to a lovely Christmas party that his family is hosting over in Friendship Gardens on Christmas Eve."

"That's going to be a big affair," Silver Swirl, another princess who was with the group, nodded. "The other princesses have been talking about nothing else."

"And Tabby's party here is going to be another big event," Tamara added, giggling. "With the guests she's invited, it's probably going to be as bad as her wedding reception."

"What do you mean, 'as bad as'?" Tabby bristled.

"Why, what happened?" Sapphire inquired.

"Well, let's see," Tamara started. "All the Furbys were constantly making a racket, which was only made worse when Barnacle started clapping his hooves to make them dance. The Xtreme Ponies started up a wild swing dance, and one of the Bushwoolies ended up getting thrown into the cake, which made Tabby start wailing–"

"I didn't wail," Tabby said indignantly.

"–plus, Tiffany's Guido got his head dunked in the punch bowl in the ensuing chaos," Tamara went on. "And of course we can't forget–"

She was cut off by a scream as Sapphire, who was at the top of the stairway stringing a garland through the balcony, got too close to the edge and slipped off, falling rapidly to the ground below. Everyone stared in shock and no one was able to do anything; but luckily for Sapphire, she thought quickly and winked to safely just seconds before she would have hit the floor.

Everyone was a bit shaken after that incident– including Sophia and Melinda, who had hung around while the mares decorated and naturally made nuisances of themselves– so they decided that it was a good time to take a break; they swarmed into the kitchen to beg for refreshments. Agatha got out the cookie jar and a pitcher of milk.

"It's just like the days when Tabby was still in school," she beamed. "Having the mansion full of ponies again is the best thing that ever could have happened. This past year has been incredible, what with Hubert finding his way home again and Tabby getting married." She looked as if she would break down in tears of happiness.

Lynette came to her sister and put a convivial hoof on her shoulder. "We all have a lot to be thankful for, Agatha. This will be a wonderful Christmas celebration."

"Do we have any soda?" Tabby asked, searching through the refrigerator which was foreign territory to her. "You know that I can't stand milk, Mom."

Agatha grinned. "See? Some things never change. When Tabby and Sugarberry would be hanging out here together, Sugarberry would always be satisfied with a glass of milk, but not Tabby. Given the choice, she'd take water every time."

"Except when we had Oreos," Tabby clarified.

"Where is Sugarberry anyway?" queried Silver Swirl.

"Her folks and Vanguard's folks were coming into town today," Elaine enlightened the princess. "I think they were planning on getting Vanguard's apartment ready for his return."

"When is he supposed to get back anyway?"

"Tomorrow," Tabby answered authoritatively. "Unless he's run off with that Clare over in Italy– oh, Melinda! Can you get her down off the counter, Mom?" Sophia's sister was eager to get some treats for herself.

"Vanguard wouldn't do that, not like some ponies I know," Dawn stated with a glance at Tiffany.

"What, get up on the counter and steal food?" Tabby inquired. "You're right. I don't think he would, either."

"No, I mean running off with Clare."

"You got that right," Tiffany responded, missing the point. "Nothing I did got him and Clare interested..." She stopped when she realized what she was admitting.

"I wonder if he will propose to her when he gets back. It would be a nice Christmas gift," Tamara pondered.

"What I'd like to know is why he went off and left her in the first place," Tabby griped.

"Yes, it was rather sudden," admitted Agatha. "It was a shock even to Sugarberry."

"The least he could have done is proposed before he left," offered Lynette. "That way she would have known where she stood with him."

"Well," said Elaine with a smile, "I'm sure the two of them will make the right decisions when the time comes."

A sudden ruckus at the back door announced that the stallions were back with the sought after Christmas tree. It was Thomas who first entered. "Well, we got the tree," he grinned. "And no one got mutilated or anything."

"What do you mean by that?" worried Agatha.

"You've never been out in the woods with a mob of guys bent on locating the perfect tree with one big axe between them, I presume," winked Thomas.

Hubert was the next stallion to make his presence known. "Agatha, dear, we're going to have to bring this beast in through the front door. Would you send Tabby and Tamara around front to get things ready?"

"Does this involve work?" asked Tabby of her dad.

"You might want to move everything out of our way," Hubert advised, turning to go back outside.

"And he means everything," Thomas reiterated, following him.

The mares glanced nervously at one another. "Something tells me we're going to regret this," Agatha frowned.

"Me scared," Tabby cowered.

"What could go wrong?" breezed Sapphire. "Let's get the front entrance cleared! Bringing in the tree is my favorite part of decorating."

As the mares scurried to clear a path, the stallions and helpers brought the tree around to the front and began edging it through the doorway. Along with it came a wash of cold air and an uncountable number of dropping needles and the distinctive smell of pine sap, not to mention a Bushwoolie or two riding in the branches and the hovering of what seemed to be brightly colored flying creatures.

The tree snaked through the door, and still kept coming. "This thing is huge!" remarked Dawn.

"It'll never fit," predicted Lynette.

"But isn't it beautiful?" purred Agatha.

By the time the top of the tree had made its way into the mansion, the stallions themselves began to have doubts as to whether or not the tree would actually fit into the main hall of the edifice. "I told you we should have measured it," Clever Clover grumbled.

"I eyed it perfectly!" Tex vouched. "It just looks bigger on its side like this."

"Let's get it upright, then," Hubert ordered. "The stand is all ready for it."

"Umm... I think we're going to need the ropes again," Quarterback determined. "Spike, run outside and get them, will you?"

"Why do I always have to run for supplies?" muttered Spike. It had been a long day.

"Hey, there's no way we'll be able to lift this thing up by ourselves," Quarterback observed. "What we need is an A-frame."

"The ancient ponies of this land never needed the use of an A-frame to lift their Christmas trees," Clever Clover disagreed.

"Now you know as well as anyone else that there's no proof to support the fact that they did not use A-frames to raise their Christmas trees," Butch argued.

"Yes, but the archeological evidence suggests that they would not have cut down more trees just to construct the A-frame in order to raise a single tree," Clever Clover said in exasperation.

"But you're failing to take into account that the Christmas tree was such an important cultural icon for them that they wouldn't have cared about felling a few more trees in order to properly raise it," Butch pointed out.

Hubert had the next word. "Wood decays over time and no proof is left. All either of you are doing is guessing."

"ARR, I be thinkin' the real fact of the matter is that we don't be havin' enough room in this room to set up an A-frame," Barnacle said.

Everyone paused to think about that, and realized that Barnacle had a point. They agreed that they would have to raise the tree by themselves.

All but one was satisfied. "These ponies just don't understand! An A-frame would fit right over there in the entry way, no problem! Ancient paintings in the caves west of here show that they obviously used A-frames in situations like this. If they'd take just a moment to look at the facts, they'd see what everyone else in the world sees! It's never gonna work. They're never gonna get it up without the A-frame. It's just not gonna work," Butch muttered over in the corner.

When everything was in order to lift the spectacular tree, the stallions grabbed onto the ropes and tugged at the tree to bring it upright. Their combined brute strength was capable of the task at hoof, but they soon found that the tree was indeed too tall. The top lay against the ceiling like a bowed head.

"You eyed it perfectly all right, Tex," tormented Wigwam. "This tree is big enough to go in the cathedral in New Pony."

"Now, now. Trees always look bigger once they are inside the house," soothed Agatha. "All it needs is a little trim."

"You're going to use the axe in here?" brooded Toby, backing slowly toward the doorway.

"No problem at all," verified Hubert as they lowered the tree once more to the floor. "Who has the axe?"

The glance of expectation was passed from stallion to stallion, Bushwoolie to Bushwoolie to dragon, but no one had any recollection of what had become of the axe. "The last I saw of it, it was stuck in the tree stump," offered Thomas bleakly.

"Yeah, yeah," agreed Friendly. Everyone moaned.

"No problem," Hubert remained optimistic. "It'll be easier to run over to the store and pick up another one. The rest of you, have a snack while I'm gone." With that, he disappeared out the door.

"You fellows make yourselves to home while we round up some food for you," instructed Agatha, taking command of the situation. "Tabby, run out to the kitchen and get some of that soda you found. Tamara, there are a couple cheese and sausage platters in the refrigerator. Sapphire, open the boxes of crackers and throw them into a bowl."

Soon, the tree-cutting crew was contentedly munching on snacks and sharing the experience of the afternoon with the mares. Hubert made quick time of his errand and was back in good time. He had the foresight to buy a large tarp to catch the wood chips that were released as Barnacle had the honor of shortening the tree trunk to size.

"ARR," he stated upon completing the job. "Me be thinking that should do it."

Once more the stallions pulled on the ropes to raise the tree (while Sophia and Melinda of course made things difficult as they had to sniff out and explore every aspect of this new object), and this time the height was perfect. "Just enough room for the star on top," observed Silver Swirl.

"Or a Furby!" Tabby giggled with delight as she acquainted herself with the latest additions to the household, the Furbish family. "Oh, they're wonderful. I love them all. Now, can you tell me what your names are?"

"ARR, I be dubbin' thee Gangrene," Barnacle declared as the gray and yellow father stepped forward.

"Barnacle!" Tabby said reproachfully. "Behave yourself."

The Furby didn't seem to mind his new nickname, however. "Me Koh-Koh," he said.

The pastel aqua and yellow mother wore a frilly spring bonnet, and introduced herself next. "Me Ah-May."

"Me Boo," the prim and proper white female baby enlightened.

"Me Doo-Moh." This one was a boy, with an interesting magenta and blue coloring.

"Me U-Tye." U-Tye was a lovely teal and dark purple.

"Me Nah-Bah," stated the pretty lavender and white baby.

"Me Nee-Tye," said the orange and green Furby.

"Me Who-Bye." This last one was blue and peach, with wondrous bright green eyes.

"Oh, yes! They're delightful!" Tabby patted them all on the head, and soon everyone was gathered around before the Christmas tree playing with Furbys. There was a festive spirit in the air, and the group continued to hang-out at the mansion for the remainder of the day and some of the night. The Furbys declared it to be a big party, and indeed it was.

To add to the fun, Equinox and Solstice (friends of Thomas') arrived in Dream Valley that same afternoon, as they had been invited to come and visit for the holidays; and the twins had a lot to discuss with Hubert and Barnacle as well as everyone else. It had been a fulfilling day, and everyone involved felt contented as they retired that evening. Tomorrow would be Christmas Eve, and there were still a great deal of things to do!

* * *

On the other side of town, the remainder of that same day was a flurry of mundane activity; but every moment was precious for Sugarberry and Vanguard, together once again. Where one was, the other was sure to be; and if errands parted them, their focus of attention was constantly on the return of the other. When the apartment had been cleaned and restocked, the ponies returned to Sugarberry's house to trim the tree. And as much joy as she always found in that activity, it was doubly precious now with Vanguard the undisputed focus of her life.

It was Strawberry Shortcake who reminded them of Driftwood's offer of a night out at the Estate Manor and that is where the two departed for later that evening. The door had not even closed fully when Strawberry Baskets and Whirlpool, lurking at either side of the now decorated tree in front of the window, began chuckling.

"What's going on with you two?" queried Strawberry Shortcake, approaching her husband.

"You're both acting suspiciously furtive," added Floral Breeze as she went to stand by Whirlpool.

"We've bet on how long it will take before those two share a proper kiss," Strawberry Baskets enlightened.

"A proper kiss?" pondered Strawberry Shortcake.

"Those two haven't had a minute alone since Vanguard got back," explained Whirlpool, "and we've both got our own idea on how soon after they've left the house that they will remedy that oversight."

"I say it happens at the top of the steps as soon as the door closes."

"And I say it doesn't occur until they reach the gate."

"And just what is a 'proper kiss'?" queried Strawberry Shortcake.

"Yes, I'd like to know that, too," followed Floral Breeze.

Both mares were drawn close and given an example of "a proper kiss" by their mates. Meanwhile, on the midpoint of the sidewalk-- halfway between home and all that was familiar and the gate and all that was unknown-- Vanguard drew Sugarberry close and enveloped her in "a proper kiss" of his own. Neither set of parents, encompassed in their own love, saw that both stallions lost the bet.

Later, upon arriving at the Estate Manor, Driftwood welcomed them wholeheartedly with sincere congratulations on their engagement. "Now you two, this is an extraordinary occasion so I've prepared a special menu just for the two of you."

"You do this for all newly engaged couples?" Vanguard queried.

"No. Only the ones who hold an exclusive spot in my heart," he said, winking at Sugarberry.

"I sense a story here," Vanguard smiled at his mare.

"We attended vocational school at the same time, and our paths crossed occasionally," Sugarberry admitted. "As Raspberry's former suitor, he was a ready confidant for me."

Driftwood was all smiles as he returned to the table and started the couple on their adventure of superbly prepared dishes chosen to delight the most discriminating connoisseur. He could have served them crackers and liver sausage, and they would have been just as content for the important thing was that they were in each other's company again.

It was only after the repast was finished, and Driftwood had brought the crowning touch of key lime pie and a carafe of coffee that Sugarberry and Vanguard had the privacy and solitude to talk undisturbed.

"Sugarberry..." Vanguard embarked, his hoof covering hers. Something in his voice worried the mare, but she felt the warmth of his hoof over hers and subdued any nagging apprehensions. He was here with her; that was all that mattered. She listened closely as he continued. "You never asked me about that debt to Decagon that pulled me into the Vulcanopolis venture."

"I don't need to know."

"When I was back last summer for Tabby and Thomas' wedding, your mother advised that we never keep secrets from each other. She of course was thinking of the picture of her and Giorgio, Sr. What she didn't know is that my own secret was what kept Decagon's hold on me; and once Tawny was in on it, I couldn't tell you even though I wanted to."

"But you're free to tell me now?"

"With the closing of the books on the cheating scam, yes, I can tell you." So he confided how, as a senior at Binks University with exams to take, he had gotten caught up in a bit too much celebrating before the finals, and his studying had fallen behind. A fellow student had approached him with the offer of the answers to the problems on the math finals-- for a fee. Vanguard had first scoffed at the idea; but later that day, he had come down with a killer flu. The student had approached him again, and with a weakened resistance, Vanguard had paid to get the solutions.

Decagon had seen through the deception; as fate would have it, he had changed a portion of one of the problems just before the test was duplicated. As Vanguard was not feeling as sharp as usual, his answer followed the outline of the original problem.

The professor had believed in Vanguard, however, and allowed him to retake a new exam, which he aced. But it was because of this experience that Decagon had recruited his assistance in closing down Giorgio's scheme; he counted on Vanguard's cooperation, and Vanguard was unable to let him down.

"I would never have gone away if I hadn't felt I owed Decagon something in return for giving me a second chance. It was the hardest thing I've ever had to do, Sugarberry, leaving you."

Sugarberry sat silently, absorbing the details that Vanguard had presented to her, before she said anything. "I had most of that figured out, you know," she finally stated, a smile playing across her lips.

"You knew?"

"Well, I surmised as much once the case was closed and Wigwam told me that you were aware of Giorgio's duplicity right from the start. I figured your willingness to leave so suddenly must have hinged on a similar experience that you had."

"So you don't think less of me for it?"

"If that's your deepest, darkest secret, I think I can overlook it," she grinned.

"Well, there is one more thing you should know."

"Which is...?"

"Knowing how your dad feels abut Giorgio, Sr. I didn't want to mention anything in front of him; but it's because of Vulcanopolis' city administrator that I got home a day early."

"Because of Giorgio, Sr.?" Sugarberry's voice registered surprise.

"Yes. When he found out that I hadn't been able to arrange an earlier flight, he used his clout to get me a seat." Vanguard went on to describe the visit in detail.

"So Giorgio will be with his family for Christmas?" Sugarberry exclaimed. "That's great news!"

"Clare will be pleased, too. She is bound and determined to claim his full attention."

"A replacement for Guido?" Sugarberry questioned.

Vanguard grinned. "Not that Pacificus wouldn't have been glad to step into that position; he idolized her, but she couldn't see him as more than a business associate. I'm afraid Giorgio won't stand a chance against her wiles."

"Maybe that's what Giorgio needs-- someone to put him in the center of her life. I hope the two of them find happiness together... like we have." She looked at her companion almost shyly. "This is all for real, isn't it? I'm so happy... it's all to good to be true. It almost frightens me." She put a hoof on the engagement ring to verify its existence.

"It's real, Sugarberry. You and I are going to be married and share a lifetime together and all the day-to-day things that entails. Maybe what we need to do to make it seem more real is to set a date. In what month shall we marry?"

Sugarberry sat contemplating the possibilities, her eyes sparkling like the diamond on her foreleg. "How about the traditional month of June?"

"That's half a year away!"

"In which time we can see each other every day and make plans for our future unlike the previous seven months. The time will go fast enough." It suddenly struck the mare that there would be a myriad amount of things to discuss and organize in that length of time. "It really might not be enough time at all," she fretted.

Vanguard shook his head. "It will be enough time. I delayed long enough in proposing to you; I'm not going to make the same mistake in marrying you!" The look he sent across the table melted her heart.

"You're right. Of course it will work. We'll have to talk to Fr. Isaac as soon as possible."

By the time the couple left the eating establishment, their plans were well set; and the trek to Sugarberry's house was spent in relative silence as they enjoyed the rudimentary pleasure of walking side by side and knowing that it was forever.

* * *

The day before Christmas was filled with last minute gift wrapping and the baking of scrumptious dishes for the feast at the mansion on Christmas day. In the evening, all the beings of Dream Valley congregated at the living nativity to greet the newborn king. Afterwards, a number of them gravitated to Tabby and Thomas' house to enjoy a last round of friendly conversation clustered about the pleasant fire in the fireplace before retiring on this most peaceful and blessed night.

Several inches of new snow greeted the early risers, and a clearing sky disclosed the sun which in turn revealed a pristine, jewel-studded landscape of Christmas perfection. After church, Sugarberry, Strawberry Shortcake, and Strawberry Baskets welcomed Vanguard and his folks to a buffet breakfast and, throughout the course of the morning, admitted further visitors.

The party from Berryville was the first to arrive; Driftwood had departed Dream Valley the day before to accompany Raspberry to the Christmas day festivities, and the couple showed up with the addition of an engagement ring on Raspberry's foreleg as she had accepted his Christmas Eve proposal. "Two daughters engaged in two days?!" Strawberry Baskets was subdued by the news, Strawberry Shortcake was overwhelmed, and Sugarberry was delighted.

Gooseberry and Grapevine, along with Wineberry, Huckleberry, and Baby Gooseberry were in fine spirits and overflowing with Christmas cheer as the foals anticipated a grand and wonderful day. They were also hungry after their journey and knew that where Grandma was, there too would be some tasty nourishment.

It was getting late in the morning by the time the ponies from Woodlawn graced the doorstep. As Sugarberry and her family had never met Vanguard's siblings, introductions were necessarily made. Icon, the youngest of the three brothers, was a white stallion with black hair and a disarming smile; he was employed as a computer programmer. Stillwater was the oldest of the three, a pale blue color with light green hair. His wife, vivacious as she was attractive, was a pearly pink with white hair of the same opaque quality; she held their tiny foal who succeeded in sleeping through the entire preamble. Even Vanguard had not met this newest addition to the family.

It was soon time to shepherd everyone over to Tabby and Thomas' mansion for the Christmas dinner which was to be the highlight of the day. All the ponies pitched in to transfer the pies, cookies, and salads that Sugarberry, Strawberry Shortcake, and Floral Breeze had manufactured the day before; and soon everyone was recongregated in Tabby's cheerful dominion.

The mansion was all a-sparkle with the lights of Christmas, and the huge tree dominated the festivities on all sides. Tabby and Thomas welcomed Sugarberry and her cohorts in the true spirit of the season and opened wide their doors to all their friends from near and far.

"Sugarberry! There's another baby pony," Tabby said, her eyes opening wide as Stillwater and Morning Dew were introduced.

"This is Droplet," Sugarberry responded, taking the foal from her mother and showing her off to Tabby. "Isn't she the cutest little thing?"

As Tabby looked at the diminutive pony, with its pearly pink body and pearly green hair, she smiled. "Oh, I get it! That is cute. Whirlpool, and then Stillwater, and down to Droplet. So clever! I love it. Hi, Droplet!"

Sugarberry wasn't sure Tabby was seeing the same things in Droplet that she was, but at least she wasn't shunning the baby. Shrugging, she handed Droplet back to her mother and joined the rest of her family in the Christmas festivities.

Next, Sugarberry had caught sight of a pair of ponies in a quiet corner, and she pulled Vanguard in their direction. "There's someone here you have to meet," she explained. The ponies in target were Wigwam and Dreamcatcher who appeared to be in animated conversation.

"Dreamcatcher, this is my fiancé, Vanguard." Sugarberry said the word in novel wonder. "Vanguard, this is the Native Pony who has graced our city."

"I've seen several pieces of your handiwork at Sugarberry's," Vanguard remarked, shaking the pro-offered hoof. "You're a talented artisan."

"Thanks. And I congratulate you two on your engagement. Now if you'll excuse me..." She shot a sideways glance at Wigwam and left to join Lemon Treats and Poeticus by the piano.

"The peace pipe must have opened doors," Sugarberry teased the orange stallion.

Wigwam grimaced. "No such luck. Agatha assumed that the two of us would have a lot in common and rather appropriated us into this uncomfortable encounter. Luckily, I remembered her interest in the Native Pony cave we came across last spring, so we were able to hold a respectable discussion." His line of vision dropped to the ring that Sugarberry wore proudly. "Nice ring," he commented. "The two of you appear to be handling your new status well." He drew Sugarberry in for a hug and whispered in her ear, "You're sure you made the right choice?"

Stepping back from the embrace, Sugarberry blushed but held his gaze. "Definitely sure," she stated.

The formal dining room had been converted into a medieval banquet hall, and the buffet of bountiful dishes was mingled with evergreen branches, holly berries, and glowing candles to highlight the holiday mood. If anyone in the vicinity of the mansion went hungry that day, it wasn't for lack of opportunity. The table was loaded with every delectable food item that could be desired or imaged. The only problem was in deciding what choices to make.

The room was abuzz with conversation as the diners took their seats. Everyone was there, and there was a lot to talk about. Furbys flew through the room as they pleased, excited by the festive spirit in the air and also by all the delicious aromas.

Toby, unfortunately, found that he might have more difficulties in winning Elaine's heart. Equinox had singled the mare out to share all his latest adventures with; and Toby, sitting right next to her, felt secluded from this talk of ancient cities and lost civilizations. Elaine did not exactly understand all of it, but she listened with an open ear and made comments when possible.

Sapphire, who had been noticing how this Doctor Toby followed her cousin Elaine around everywhere much like a puppy dog, saw what the stallion was going through and decided to have some fun with him. After explaining to Tamara, whom she was sitting next to, what she was going to do, she stood up from her seat, which was at the table behind Toby's, and strolled up to him.

"Hi, Toby," she said demurely. "I don't believe I've seen too much of you yet."

"Oh!" Toby appeared surprised to have her come up behind him. "Hello... Sapphire, is it?"

"Uh-huh," Sapphire nodded. "You were looking kind of lonely over here. My friend Tamara and I have a free seat by ours. Why not come over and... talk for awhile?"

"I don't know," Toby stalled. "I mean, I wouldn't want to intrude on your space."

"We won't mind at all," Sapphire purred. "And I'd love to get to know you better, Toby." She glanced momentarily back at Tamara, who winked at her.

Toby was beginning to look frightened now. "Really, I'm okay. I'm with Elaine here."

"I don't think Elaine would notice," Sapphire said innocently. Indeed, Elaine hadn't even noticed that Sapphire was around. "Please, won't you come?"

"No, I don't think so," Toby said stubbornly.

"Hey, if he won't take you up on that offer, I will." Icon, Vanguard's younger brother, suddenly materialized by them, and Sapphire smiled at him.

"Would you, Icon?" she said sweetly, looping her foreleg through Icon's. "We'd dearly like to fill that empty seat of ours. Bye, Toby." She waved and blinked her long lashes slowly at him before disappearing with Icon.

Toby sighed and looked over at Elaine, then down at his plate. This holiday wasn't turning out exactly as he had planned.

* * *

For Hubert, this was a Christmas to remember for although his daughter was twenty-six years old, it was the first time that the two of them would spend the holiday together. And to be celebrating under the same roof that had housed him and Agatha before he had gone off on a trek that had eaten away all those years between made the stallion nostalgic. He realized almost painfully the irreplaceability of the myriad of events that had transpired in his daughter's life during his absence.

Desiring to make-up to some extent for all the missed experiences of Christmas' past, he had fixed his mind on one ritual that he had never been able to share with his daughter. He had not revealed his plan to anyone, not even Agatha. To all present at the mansion that day, the arrival of Santa Claus would be a complete and unexpected surprise. Little did Hubert know that his surprise would be the greatest of all, for there was a facet of Tabby's personality that he had never encountered.

The afternoon was progressing smoothly with all the guests well-fed and comfortably entertained when Hubert slipped secretively from the main rooms and retired to a seldom used storage room on the upper level to prepare for the arrival of the Old St. Nick pony. Dragging a suit of bright red wool from a bag hidden behind an ironing board, he donned the apparel of the gift-bearer, adding a heavy black belt around his mid-section. He gingerly applied stage adhesive to the fluffy white beard and mustache and carefully affixed them to his face. Finally, he placed the red hat with white trim on his head, and checked the results in an old cracked mirror leaning against the wall. He smiled in satisfaction; he made a fairly decent-looking Santa Claus. Next, he uncovered a large burlap bag bursting and overflowing with gaily wrapped presents and sacks of candy. He hefted the bag over his shoulder, grabbed a cluster of sleigh bells, took one last look in the mirror, and opened the door to proceed to the front of the house where he could experience first-hoof the expression on his daughter's face at the arrival of Santa.

Standing on the balcony at the head of the stairway, Hubert surveyed the room below him to locate Tabby who was at this time deep in conversation with Thomas and Sapphire. Zeroing in on her location, he set forth down the stairs with a jolly "HO HO HO" and a volley of jingle bells. All eyes whirled to the source of the familiar sounds, and everyone grinned at the approach of the merry elf. All but one.

Tabby promptly let out an ear-splitting screech at the sight and ended up jumping into Thomas' forelegs for safety. "Help! Who let that guy in here?" she shrieked.

Agatha, who recognized "Santa Claus" as Hubert instantly, went over to him and said quietly, "Wonderful idea, Hubert. The children will love it."

"Yes... but what about Tabby?" Hubert, puzzled, looked over at his daughter who apparently had been greatly frightened.

Agatha followed his gaze, and recollection hit her. "Oh dear. Tabitha. I never told you, did I? You see, she's had this dreadful fear of Santa Claus ever since she was a child. Scared stiff to go anywhere near him. Looks like she still hasn't gotten over it."

"She doesn't like Santa?" Hubert looked dumfounded. "Agatha, what have you done to raise this girl?"

Agatha shrugged helplessly. "I don't know how it happened. I certainly never taught her anything of the sort."

"Unbelievable," Hubert shook his head. "How could she have turned out like this?"

"Well, we'd better go and explain things to her," Agatha instructed, steering him in that direction.

Tabby had managed to gain control of herself, but was still in shock over this unexpected event. "Mom, what have you done?" she asked hoarsely as her mother and Santa Claus approached.

"Tabitha, it's only your father," Agatha said quickly, pushing Hubert forward.

"Hi," Hubert said weakly. "I didn't, uh, know about your phobia."

"Oh..." Tabby looked a little closer. "It is you. Uh... sorry, Dad," she said a little sheepishly. "But... you see... costumed things always freaked me out, y'know, and I never really liked Santa Claus..."

"ARR, I still be wantin' to take out that bear," Barnacle muttered, overhearing the exchange.

Hubert patted her on the shoulder. "We'll have to see about getting you over this fear of yours, Tabby."

"Really, that won't be necessary, Dad," Tabby protested. "I mean, um..."

Hubert's costume and gifts did not go to waste, however, as the various small cousins and nieces and nephews who were gathered there soon overtook their beloved Santa Claus. "Yay! It's Santa!" Wineberry said excitedly, clambering up into his lap first. And Hubert was kept busy for a long time listening to the young ones' wishes and handing out presents and treats.

With that over with, Tabby turned back to Thomas and Sapphire; and upon seeing them trying unsuccessfully to hold back their laughter at the whole scenario, she cast them a withering glance. "What is so funny about this?" she demanded.

"Oh, Tabby, don't be mad!" Sapphire gasped for breath, placing a hoof on the unicorn's shoulder. "But if only you could have seen yourself–! You screamed and then– oh, it was so comical!"

"As you would say, it was cute," Thomas grinned. "Very cute."

* * *

It was late in the day when everyone gathered around the Christmas tree for a sing-along guided by Poeticus' piano accompaniment. Sugarberry, snug in the encircling embrace of Vanguard, scanned the faces of the friends and relatives that had shared this momentous holiday. She wished for all of them the same happiness that she experienced, and she whispered a prayer in that regard.

What would the year ahead bring for all these ponies? For some, the way was clear; she and Vanguard definitely knew where they were headed. For others, the path seemed yet to hold some rough spots; she looked sympathetically at Toby who was caught once more between the mare that he loved and a rival stallion, and at Wigwam who stood alone in the pack; she knew only too well how he was feeling at this moment with Chocolate Chip far away, and not even having the comfort of knowing whether the brown filly spared him a thought or not.

As the strains of the beloved carol, Silent Night, began rising from the piano keys, Sugarberry's attention dropped to the nativity scene at the foot of the splendid tree. That's where it all began, in the humble stable of Bethlehem. Whatever happened in the upcoming twelve months before the next celebration of Christmas, the baby in the manger would still be there for them all. She looked up to see Tabby's smile upon her and smiled back. Yes, it would be a very good year in Ponyland.

Merry Christmas to all!!

Go Back to Library Index
Go Back to Tabby's Dream Valley