Christmas in Dream Valley 2001
written by Tabby and Sugarberry

"Hello?" Elaine answered the phone one November evening as she was relaxing in her home.

"Umm... Elaine?" a timid voice came back.

"Yes, this is she. Who's calling, please?"

"Oh, umm, this is Thaddeus. From college. Remember me?"

"Oh! Thaddeus!" Elaine slowly began to recall the pony that went with this voice; he had been one of her classmates in vet school, and had made a reputation of being one of the shyest, klutziest-- but well-meaning-- students there. She wondered what he was calling her about; she hadn't heard from him since he graduated. "How pleasant to hear from you!"

"Uh, yeah. Thanks."

"So what are you up to nowadays?"

"Well, between jobs, actually. You see..."

"Yes?" Elaine prodded.

"Well I heard you and your brother were going out of town over the holidays and that you needed someone to run your clinic while you're gone and I'm free if you still need someone," Thaddeus replied in a rush.

"Oh! Well, that's really... but I'm not really sure..."

"You found someone else already?"

"No, no! Not really, I mean," Elaine said quickly. "It's just that we've been in touch with some of our friends and..."

"I understand," said Thaddeus feebly.

"I mean, not to say that you're not a friend!" Elaine corrected herself. "No, I didn't mean it that way. Actually if you'd be interested, it might still work out. The substitute we had lined up backed out just a little while ago, and it might be difficult to find someone else this late. If you're serious, I could talk to my brother..."

"Yes! Yes! That would be great!" Thaddeus replied energetically.

"Okay... well, thanks for calling. I'll try to get back to you tomorrow and let you know."

"Thanks, Elaine! I really appreciate it. Um, good night."

"Good night."

Elaine slowly set down the receiver and let out a sigh. It had been quite a surprise to hear from Thaddeus again, and she was happy to have gotten his call; but she wasn't sure of how capable he would be of handling the clinic all by himself. He had been very good at caring for animals, but did not do so well at talking to other ponies; plus his klutziness could create havoc. Elaine remember the time in the lab when... she shuddered to think of it. Still... Thaddeus had sounded so excited at the prospect, Elaine hated to let him down. Besides, maybe he had improved. He had to have improved. Well, I'll tell Thomas about him and see what he thinks, she finally decided.

* * *

Several weeks before Christmas, a strange and bizarre event occurred in Dream Valley. Tex vanished in the night with all his belongings without leaving any indication of why or where he had gone. Everyone was in the dark and no one knew what to think, least of all his current girlfriend, Locket.

The fate of Tex's Salsa Shop also had to be decided. Interestingly, Butch stepped forward with an offer to buy it, after which he renamed it Butch's Salsa Shop, becoming owner and submitting his resignation at the casino, effective January 1. Local gossip abounded about Butch's old rivalry with Tex and many wondered if the dark blue stallion of the Dark Forest had anything to do with the cowboy's disappearance, but Butch knew as much (or as little) as any of them.

* * *

"Where did these numbers come from?" asked Wigwam, scratching his head.

Butch looked across the desk. "Those numbers? Umm, let me think..."

Wigwam threw his pen down on the desk and pushed his chair back. "Why doesn't this stuff balance out the way it should?" He stomped across the room to the water cooler.

"Am I interrupting anything?" a familiar voice asked from the doorway.

Both stallions swirled around to verify what their ears indicated. "Well, ain't you a sight for sore eyes!" Butch declared, getting up from his chair and offering it to the red mare.

"Welcome back," Wigwam grinned. "Tawny said you would be showing up one of these days."

"Well, here I am; I've come to make good on your offer that I could have my old job back whenever I wanted it." She sat down in the chair Butch held.

Wigwam cleared his throat. "Well, about that..."

"You've changed your mind?"

Garnet half rose out of the chair; but Butch put forth a restraining hoof, and she sat down again. "Sort of," he said with a wink.

"So what gives?" Garnet asked, looking from one to the other of the stallions and noting that both of them looked rather cocky at the moment.

Wigwam sat himself behind the desk, and Butch moved to the side. "You left here as office manager, I believe."

"You had promoted me shortly before I left."

"Would you be willing to take a different title?"

"At this point, I'd wash dishes."

Butch looked at Wigwam. "Maybe we should reconsider..."

Pondering that for a moment, Wigwam shook his head. "It's too late for that now." He fixed his gaze on Garnet. "Would you come back as general manager of the entire casino?"

Garnet looked aghast. "That's Butch's job!"

"Not once the first of the new year rolls around."

"But... why...?"

"I had a chance to fulfill a lifelong dream... I bought out the salsa shop."

She looked at him suspiciously. "You never mentioned this dream before."

Wigwam laughed. "Trust me. The dream is more to fulfill a vendetta against Tex than it is to sell salsa."

"I'll be my own boss and won't have to put up with this tyrant anymore," Butch corrected.

"This is serious?" Garnet was having a hard time grasping the situation.

"Very serious. Here's the contract to prove it." Wigwam dropped an official looking legal document on the desk in front of the red mare. "I don't expect you to make a decision on the spur of the moment; just give it some thought and ask any questions that you can think of."

"I can't think," the dazed mare said.

Butch helped her out. "Ask him how much the job pays."

"A lot better than your old one," noted Wigwam with a grin. "I want to make sure you stay around longer than the last time."

"But this means you won't need me until the first."

Wigwam pushed the papers that he and Butch had been struggling with across the desk. "You can have your old job back until then."

"Things have been a mess since you left," confided Butch. "We're really glad to see you back, Garnet."

"Thanks, guys," Garnet said, her eyes growing misty. "You don't know how happy I am to be here myself." She stood up and began gathering the papers together. "I better get to work on these right away."

* * *

Chocolate Chip walked across the campus of Pony Pride University in search of her brother; she had received a call from Wigwam inviting her to lunch at the casino, the reason being that Garnet had returned. The chocolate brown pony smiled to herself; she was very happy to know that Garnet had straightened out her life and would once again be involved in the daily happenings in Dream Valley. Chocolate Chip had been lonely with both Garnet and Fern gone from her life.

Students were beginning to filter out of the building where Wishbone was in class by the time Chocolate Chip arrived, and she waited impatiently for the rose red stallion to come through the door. When he did, he was in the company of Petal.

"Hi, sis. What's up?" asked Wishbone. "Aren't you supposed to be in class?"

"Hi, Petal." Chocolate Chip acknowledged the filly before responding to Wishbone. "My geology class was canceled for today, remember?"

"Lucky you," Petal grinned. "I've got to get to my next class pronto." With that, the pink filly was gone.

Chocolate Chip looked after her. "Have you resigned yourself to losing Petal to another stallion?" she teased as the two set off together.

"We're still great friends; that's enough for me right now."

"No one you've got your eye on... someone special?"

"Nope. I'm keeping my nose to the grindstone until I graduate."

"My, my. That's a long time yet."

"Think how good my grade point average will be."

Chocolate Chip cast a sidelong glance at the stallion. "Garnet's back."

Wishbone stopped in his tracks. "What did you say?"

"You heard me, little brother. Garnet's back in town. She's at the casino, and Wigwam called to have me come over for lunch with them. I thought maybe you'd like to join us."

The stallion stood with a look of surprise on his face. "You're serious?"

"Would I lead you on over something like this? Of course, I'm serious. Garnet came in this morning, and Wigwam and Butch put her to work right away. Like I said, I thought you would be interested in knowing; but if you don't want lunch with Garnet, just say so." She set off without her brother.

Wishbone hesitated only a second. "Wait up, sis. I'm coming! I'm coming!"

* * *

Lunch was a bright spot in the day for all concerned; conversation had been upbeat with no mention of past secrets; only the optimistic plans for the future were dwelt upon. Garnet's first necessity was a new apartment; fortunately, Wigwam's advance notice through the police chief of her arrival had allowed him time to scout out a vacant apartment that only needed her approval to verify its lease. Fern's current life in Bushley and Toby's unending work at the hospital had been discussed in detail; Garnet could not hear enough about the goings on in Dream Valley.

When the meal was finished, Wigwam invited Chocolate Chip to view a new gaming table that had been delivered, leaving Wishbone and Garnet to themselves. The two sat sizing up one another before Garnet asked, "How's Petal?"

"She's great; she's fine."

"Good. I'm glad to hear that."

"She dumped me for another stallion."

"You're kidding!"

"Nope. It was someone she knew as a foal; they met accidentally; and it was love at, well, second sight."

"I'm sorry."

"Don't be; I met someone else, too."

Garnet could not help but show a look of disappointment, but she recovered quickly. "I see. And how is that going?"

"Well, I haven't actually asked her out yet. Maybe you could help me."

"Me? How?"

"If a guy asked you out for the first time, what would you want to do-- dinner, a movie, a sports event... what?"


"Where? Casual like the Café Carousel or formal like the Estate Manor."

Whoever this mare was, Garnet was going to make sure the evening cost Wishbone plenty. "Definitely the Estate Manor."

"Would a gift be appropriate... flowers, candy..."


"What kind?"

Becoming exasperated, Garnet replied with a hint of irritation in her voice. "Red roses, if you're serious."

"What night?"

Shaking her head, Garnet answered, "I think you'd better ask her that one, Wishbone." She pushed back her chair to leave.

"I just did," Wishbone said. He grinned at the bewildered look on her face. "I'm asking you to dinner, Garnet. Please say yes."

* * *

A courtly setting, excellent service, and delectable food at the Estate Manor provided the perfect accompaniment for Wishbone and Garnet's first date; but all of it was lost on the two ponies as they talked of their hopes and dreams, stumbles and falls, accomplishments and successes. By the time they left the dining establishment, they knew pretty much everything about one another– but not quite all.

Walking down the lane towards her new abode, Garnet felt the need to clear one more fact from her past with Wishbone. "I told you I have a sister and two brothers, but I didn't tell you that the brother closest to my age makes his way by dishonest means like my mom and dad taught us." She cast a guarded look at her companion.

"Sable, you mean."

Garnet stopped and turned to face Wishbone. "How do you know my brother's name?"

"We've met," Wishbone dryly admitted.

"How could you have ever been near my brother?"

"Do you keep in contact with him?

"No; even Mom and Dad are difficult to catch, so to speak."

"Sable was here, at Pony Pride, last fall."

With a questioning look in her eyes, Garnet hesitantly asked, "For what purpose?"

Wishbone took Garnet's hoof in his, and they proceeded on their way before he answered. He explained how a teacher from Vulcanopolis had utilized Sable in engineering a cheating scam that had encompassed Wishbone himself before he was extricated from the mess. "Your brother skipped town before the authorities moved in on the ringleaders, however, and he hasn't been back since."

"That's how Wigwam knew about Sable! I often wondered, but thought he had done a background check on me."

"Yeah. He was helping Chief Tawny get evidence against the cheating ring."

"You know I'm Sable's sister, and you're still willing to be friends?"

"Yes; why do you ask?"

"Why would you trust me?"

Wishbone laughed. "Sable I would never trust again; you're not like him, even if you are siblings."

"You can be so sure?"

"You came back, didn't you? I prayed that you would."

They had reached her apartment when Wishbone turned to Garnet. "Welcome home, Garnet."

"If this is what a homecoming is like, I'll have to leave more often."

"Don't even think it, girl... not now, not ever."

* * *

Poor Tabby was beside herself when Faline came down with the flu on Friday; this was the first time her daughter had been sick. And, to make matters worse, Faline had gotten a very bad case of the illness. Both her parents worked tirelessly to alleviate her sufferings, but by Sunday morning her condition had only grew steadily worse. By this point Thomas declared that a hospital stay was probably in order; at this Tabby became quite hysterical with anxiety. A hospital stay certainly meant something serious was wrong.

Dr. Toby, after an examination of the baby, tried to assure her that Faline was simply dehydrated, and she would be fine if she was kept under the hospital's care until she was over it. Tabby was not easy to convince that everything would be okay, and it took quite some time for Thomas to calm her down.

On Monday, Tabby was once again with Faline at the hospital, hovering near her anxiously as Dr. Toby checked her again. "So how much longer will she have to stay here?" she asked anxiously. "She's going to be okay, isn't she?" (She had already asked this same question several million times already over the past few days and always received a positive answer, but it seemed needful to ask it over and over again.)

"Her fever still has to break before she'll start improving, but I'm sure by the end of the week..." At this, Toby abruptly stopped talking, and after a moment collapsed onto the floor.

Tabby, who was distraught already as it was, naturally began to panic at the doctor's fall. "Toby's dead! Toby's dead!!" she began to shriek hysterically without thinking.

Her outburst did, quite naturally, cause quite a stir; but shortly Dr. Aurora assured everyone that Toby was very much alive. However, he had come down with a bad case of the flu and would be down for the count.

Tabby managed to settle down again after that incident-- well, as much as she could considering she still had to worry about her poor, sick Faline-- and waited rather impatiently for the substitute doctor to come to finish Faline's examination.

"Hi, Mrs. Fairfax," greeted the young doctor that entered the room. "Sorry about the wait." Tabby nodded numbly. His name was Dr. Neil, a recent graduate from New Pony and transplant to Dream Valley, and this was Tabby's first exposure to him.

"She's going to be okay, isn't she?" the unicorn repeated.

"Yeah, yeah, fine," he waved it off; and, after his brief diagnosis of the baby pony, turned to the nurse with his instructions. "Just stick three IVS in her; she'll be fine."

"Three IVS?" Tabby's eyes widened. "Are you sure that's wise?"

"Don't worry about a thing, Mrs. Fairfax," Dr. Neil brushed it off, already heading out of the room. "I know what I'm doing; she'll be out of here in no time."

Somehow those words didn't ease Tabby's mind at all, and, as stressed out as she already was, she promptly burst into a fresh flood of tears. Three IVS couldn't be good! What was going to happen to poor Faline? Tabby ran to the bank of phones to put a rather frenzied call through to the vet clinic.

* * *

Some days later, with hurrying hoofsteps, Fern headed for the hospital after seeing her great-aunt comfortably settled in the apartment that had sat unused for the last month and a half. She had not received a letter from Toby since her announcement to him of bringing Maisie home to Dream Valley.

"Home!" Fern said aloud. Her excited thoughts flip-flopped. "Toby must have been too busy to write, but he certainly won't mind that I've solved Aunt Maisie's loneliness by inviting her to live here with me. Of course, maybe he resents that I made the decision without asking his advice, in which case he might be angry with me. But, no, if he didn't like the idea, he surely would have written to say so before we physically packed up everything to come here. He must have been too busy at the hospital with all the sick ponies. He will be so happy to see me, just as I am to think of seeing him."

She broke into a smile, imagining his face light-up when she came through the door. She could picture it now-- she would walk into the main hallway just as he was coming out of a patient's room, and their eyes would meet; and the look of surprise would be replaced with a pleased smile as he would say, "Fern, how I've missed you!" And he would take her into his forelegs and...

"Excuse me!" Fern came suddenly to the present as she plowed into a stallion coming through the entrance door. The gruff stallion frowned at her and went his way. "His wife is probably sick," Fern rationalized and went into the hospital.

The first pony Fern recognized was Snuzzle. "Where's Toby?" she asked, peering past the mare in the hopes of catching sight of him.

"He finally decided to let you know what's happening, did he?"

"What do you mean?"

Snuzzle saw the blank look on Fern's face and realized that she did not know the current situation; she set a sturdying hoof on the young mare's foreleg before replying. "Fern, dear, Toby has been very sick."

Fern visibly shrank. "Sick? What's wrong?"

"The flu he didn't want you to catch-- he was so busy running himself ragged taking care of sick ponies that he finally caught it himself; and, because he was so run-down, he got it worse than anyone else."

"Where is he?"

"Come. I'll take you..."

"Where is he!"

"In room 101..."

Fern was off at a run; she was familiar enough with the hospital to find her own way to the room. She stopped just short of the door and took a deep breath before pushing it open. She quietly entered the room, her eyes fixed on the wan face and closed eyes of the purple stallion. "Toby," she whispered as she came to him. There was no response. "Toby?" she asked in a louder voice. An eyelid fluttered, but beyond that there was no response.

"Oh, Toby," Fern sobbed, picking up a limp hoof and pressing it to her lips. "What has happened while I've been away?" She had never seen Toby when he was not helping someone, always strong and virile. She could not bear to see him so helpless.

Snuzzle slipped into the room and came to stand by Fern. Fern looked at her with tear-stained eyes. "How long has he been this way?"

"He collapsed several days ago..."


"He wouldn't stop to sleep or eat... he drove himself incessantly. When the flu finally caught up with him, there was nothing left for him to fight it with."

Fern's eyes grew frightened. "He's going to be okay, isn't he?"

"Oh, yes. He's out of any real danger. He passed the peak yesterday; he's just so worn out that it will take some time to get his energy back."

"He's sleeping so deeply."

"It's the best thing for him." She patted Fern's shoulder.

The door to the room opened once again as Nurse Nightingale came in. "Fern! It's good to see you back; you'll be the best medicine for Toby that he could have!" She came to the bedside and looked down at the sleeping stallion. "I've got some things to take care of here, Fern; if you and Snuzzle would wait in the hall, I'll have him awake for you by the time I'm through."

Fern unwillingly released her hold on Toby's hoof and followed Snuzzle out of the room. "Why didn't someone let me know?" Fern asked.

"Toby didn't want you to worry, Fern; and he didn't want you rushing back to Dream Valley and exposing yourself to the same illness." Her words failed to comfort Fern, so Snuzzle added, "You know how macho these stallions can be; he probably didn't want you to see him down and out."

"Aunt Maisie and I had the flu already anyway," Fern said solemnly. "We could have come back. Neither of us had it very badly."

"Consider yourself fortunate; it has been zapping ponies really hard here."

"I wish I had known. Nothing would have kept me away."

Nurse Nightingale finished her duties, and Fern was allowed back in the room. "I told him he had a visitor waiting, but I didn't tell him who." She smiled at Fern.

Snuzzle asked before leaving the mare, "Is there anything I can get for you, Fern?"

"No... no, wait, Snuzzle. My Aunt Maisie... I left her at my apartment thinking I wouldn't be too long in getting back to her; could you call her for me and explain where I am?"

"Sure thing. Now you go on in and bring a smile to Toby's face; I don't think I've seen one on him since he came back from Bushley alone."

The stallion's eyes were closed again when Fern entered the room; she stepped to his side and gently touched his hoof. "Toby, it's me."

Toby's eyes opened and a smile crossed his face, but it disappeared as his tortured thoughts returned. "What... are you... doing here?" he whispered weakly.

"Where else would I be?" Fern replied, brushing his yellow mane back from his forehead. "Why didn't you have Snuzzle write to me?"

"You were... busy."

"Not too busy to come to you, Toby. But I'm here now, and you have to get better fast. Christmas is almost here."

Toby looked at her strangely. "What about your... friends... in Bushley"

"What about them?" Fern replied hesitantly; she sensed something amiss, but she blamed it on the illness. "Aunt Maisie and I didn't want to miss Christmas in Dream Valley."

"Everyone's sick." Toby closed his eyes and turned his head away from Fern. "You shouldn't have come."

"How can you say that, Toby?" Fern was heart-broken. "Why shouldn't I be here with you..." Sudden realization hit her, the one thing she had not previously considered in her ponderings of why Toby had not replied to her last letter. "Unless you don't love me anymore." She took a step backwards as if she had been slapped.

"What about Raven?"

Fern was thoroughly confused. "What about Raven?" she echoed.

"Your letters... the two of you were spending a lot of time together; if he's any stallion at all, he couldn't help but... have feelings for you."

Fern stood with her mouth open. "What are you talking about?" she gasped.

Toby finally turned to face her again. "Your late night meetings and his constant dependence on your help."

"Our meetings were for the charity dance and of course he needed my experience; they all did. That doesn't mean there was anything else going on!"

"Does Raven know that?"

The words hung on the air, and Fern was at a loss to understand why Toby was pushing for what... an admission? She went from confusion to anger. "You think I rented the house to him to keep some sort of hold on him?"

Now it was Toby's turn to look confused. "You rented the house?"

Fern could not believe her ears. "Didn't you read my letter?"

"The only letters I got were full of how much fun you were having with your friends-- specifically Raven-- and how busy they-- he-- kept you."

"Then... then you never got the letter about.... the plans I'd made because I missed you so much that I couldn't be anyplace but here with you?"

For the first time in weeks, Toby's eyes held something like hope. "Tell me your plans."

"I realized that Aunt Maisie would never be confident enough to stay in that big house by herself, and Raven and Flower Drift wanted a bigger house what with the foal on the way..."

"Raven is married?" Toby found the energy to push himself up into a sitting position.

"Of course he is. Certainly I wrote that in an earlier letter. He and Flower Drift have a little girl and are expecting another foal in the early spring; they were delighted to have the chance to live in Granny's house."

"You never mentioned that detail," Toby said, dropping back down on the bed and draping a foreleg over his face. "I've been a fool," he said when he could finally look Fern in the eye.

"Oh, Toby, how could you think that I would ever love anyone but you?"

"I thought that I'd lost you."

"Toby, I've loved you with every beat of my heart since you left me in Bushley. You couldn't lose me if you tried!"

Toby lifted a hoof and gently caressed her face. "Not even now when you've seen me at my worst?"

"Now more than ever," she blissfully assured him.

* * *

It was later that day when Dr. Aurora came in to see her patient. Toby was alone as Fern had stepped out with Snuzzle to grab a bite to eat.

"Well, Toby, you're looking much better this evening. My medication finally kicked in..." She raised a brow. "Or did someone sneak something else to you?"

At that moment, Fern returned to the room. Dr. Aurora looked up in pleasant surprise. "Hi, Fern; so you're back. I should have known." The doctor jotted a few notes on the chart. "You're wasting needed space, Toby. I want you out of here and back in your office by tomorrow morning." So saying, she winked at Fern and left the room.

* * *

"Ah, it's good to be back in Dream Valley!" Tamara said joyously, stepping off the plane. "Doesn't it feel just like Christmas? I just wish Tiffany was throwing her big Christmas Eve bash here instead of in Vulcanopolis this year." She twirled around lightheartedly on the airport pavement.

" 'ey, Tamara, don't worry about that!" admonished her husband, Phillipe, disembarking after her. "From what you've told me your aunt and uncle's new place is at least as big as the Royal Paradise."

"Tiffany had a lot of glamorous friends, but I guess Aunt Agatha knows some interesting ponies, too," considered Tamara, coming to a standstill.

"What's that, you don't meet enough glamorous ponies on my job?" quizzed Phillipe.

Tamara laughed. "Oh, you're right, of course. Being married to a rock star does have its advantages." She gave him a quick kiss. "Besides, all the family will be here, and that's really the best part of the holidays anyway!"

* * *

Sugarberry's house had emptied out that Saturday morning before Christmas; Wigwam had come to pick up Chocolate Chip for his first journey to her parent's home in Neighberry; they, along with Wishbone, were next going to stop to add Garnet to their cavalcade. When Vanguard and Sugarberry finally closed the door and set out for Woodlawn, the two cats, Fluff and Raptor, were sitting morosely in the front window, already unspeakable lonely.

That piteous sight stayed with Sugarberry for the duration of the trip. "I hope Dreamcatcher remembers the cats," Sugarberry worried as she and her husband neared Woodlawn.

"She'll remember," Vanguard assured her. "No one is more dependable than Dreamcatcher."

"I shouldn't have looked back; seeing those sad eyes staring out the window broke my heart."

"They were impatiently waiting for us to get out of sight so they could do all those things we reprimand them for."

Sugarberry smiled. "I suppose you're right. Climbing the Christmas tree is probably number one on Raptor's list."

"Fluff will spend most of his time sleeping on the couch."

"You've adjusted to living with housecats very well for someone who never had that privilege before."

"Living with you makes it all worthwhile."

"Tomorrow will be our six-month anniversary; half a year we've been married already. It doesn't seem possible."

"It's just the beginning, my love."

The two ponies had entered Woodlawn and were cutting through the park when Vanguard noted with some surprise two other ponies standing on the arched bridge that marked the center of the sprawling, tree-covered acreage. "Look who is up ahead," he warned his wife.

Sugarberry took her gaze off the natural setting and focused on the ponies. "Why, it's Mooncurl and Nello!" she gasped. "I would have thought Mooncurl would prefer spending the holidays in Vulcanopolis; I would have preferred it if she had, anyway." Sugarberry grimaced and steeled herself for the inevitable meeting, knowing that Mooncurl, the white model, had once had designs on Vanguard's affection.

Mooncurl and Nello were leaning against the bridge railing watching the flow of icy water below and did not see the approach of Vanguard and Sugarberry. "Looking for the troll that lives under the bridge?" Vanguard asked.

Both ponies turned around at the sound of a voice they recognized. "Vanguard! Sugarberry!" they said in unison, and Mooncurl stepped forward to embrace the country blue stallion. "Oh, I was hoping we would get to see you while we were here!"

"We just got into town to spend a couple days with my folks; I would assume the same is true of your being here."

"Half and half," Nello replied as Mooncurl kept her hold on Vanguard. "Clare wants us to check out some possible sites for photo shoots while we are here."

"Get a blanket of snow on this bridge, and you would have the perfect spot," Sugarberry observed as she kept a close eye on Mooncurl.

"Do you think the weather will cooperate?" laughed Nello, the photographer for Clare's Creations in Vulcanopolis, looking upward at the blue sky.

"I'd love a white Christmas!" cooed Mooncurl, releasing Vanguard's hoof and clapping her own together like a foal; she tossed her blue curls, sending a current loaded with the fragrance of Ambrosia in Sugarberry's direction. "It makes everything so pure and white and... Christmasy."

"Is this your first visit to Woodlawn?" asked Sugarberry of Nello.

"Yes, it is..."

Mooncurl interrupted. "This town is even smaller than last time I was here," she complained.

"But it's a wonderful town," Nello remarked. "The ponies are friendly and the houses are picturesque; it's the ideal spot to spend the holidays."

"No one remembers me," pouted the model.

"I'm sure that's not true," pointed out Vanguard.

"We saw your picture in All the Rage just last week," volunteered Sugarberry; Chocolate Chip had pointed it out when they had been shopping at Bushwoolie Bargain Books.

"You did?" The mare's gaze settled on Vanguard.

"Everyone was talking about it," Vanguard admitted, although the actual circumstance was that Chocolate Chip liked to torment Sugarberry about the attractive model, knowing of the past history of Mooncurl's obsession with Vanguard when she had moved to Woodlawn in her senior year; Vanguard had not reciprocated that interest.

Sugarberry brought the conversation back to the reason for their visit to Woodlawn. "Your parents will be expecting us, Vanguard." She looked longingly at the haven which was visible from their vantage point, a grey Victorian house with a square turret.

"Maybe we could get together later," Nello suggested, noting that Mooncurl had become melancholy again.

Vanguard looked at Sugarberry, who knew when she was defeated. "We're going to be at the ice cream parlor this evening; we could meet there."

"That would be great!" Mooncurl came to life once more. "They changed the name of it, you know." Sugarberry looked surprised; it was only last spring that they had given it the name of ice cream shop in her book, a cozy place called Hood's Place; had they abandoned that name already? But Mooncurl went on. "They call it Hood's Place; where they got that, I don't know."

"I think I do," Nello winked at Sugarberry.

"What did I miss?" asked Mooncurl.

"We'll see you later," Vanguard said, taking leave while he could. He took Sugarberry's hoof in his, and the two made their getaway.

* * *

Whirlpool and Floral Breeze extended a warm welcome to Sugarberry and Vanguard, and they were soon situated around the kitchen table with hot coffee and homemade cookies to refresh the travelers. "You made good time," observed Vanguard's father.

"Our entire house emptied out early," Sugarberry noted. "Chocolate Chip and Wishbone are spending the holidays in Neighberry."

"It's great weather to travel," Floral Breeze said as she began preparations for lunch. "It's supposed to cloud up later, though, and possibly snow."

"Mooncurl will be happy," Sugarberry patted her husband's hoof with a grin and continued when she saw Floral Breeze and Whirlpool's questioning glance. "We ran into the model on our way here; she and a friend of hers from Vulcanopolis are in town for Christmas."

"We're to meet them at Hood's Place tonight," Vanguard added.

The back door opened, and Icon appeared to greet his brother and sister-in-law. "Hi, guys. Merry Christmas!" He grabbed a cup of coffee and sat at the table with them. "What's the news from Dream Valley?"

"Well, the good thing with everyone having the flu so early in the season, it's pretty much spent by now," Sugarberry stated. "How did you fare here in Woodlawn?"

The conversation covered all the day-to-day topics before Icon revealed a source of trouble for him. "My company is being sued by Macrohard."

"Guido's conglomerate is suing a little software company like yours?" Vanguard asked in disbelief.

"With a vengeance," Whirlpool stated with a frown.

"For what reason?" queried Sugarberry.

"To show that they control the computer world," suggested Icon glumly, but he brightened quickly. "We need your lawyer from Silent Are the Bells."

"You've read my book?"

"The book cover, at least."

* * *

"We're still planning on going to Hood's Place tonight, aren't we?" Icon said as he prepared to leave.

"Yes, that's the plan."

"No surprises this time?" Sugarberry queried, remembering her first visit when the shop was inhabited by the imaginary characters of her book.

"Nothing spectacular," Icon grinned. "I did sort of let it slip that you would be here, and some of the members of the acting club wondered if you'd be willing to sign copies of your latest book."

"And what did you tell them?"

"That my sister-in-law is the sweetest mare around, and she would be happy to sign their copies."

"After that, how could I refuse?"

"See you tonight then." The stallion opened the door and was on his way out when Sugarberry had a sudden thought.

"Icon, wait; Mooncurl is in town, too, and she and her photographer from Vulcanopolis are going to meet us at Hood's Place. I wonder... could you round up some copies of All the Rage so she could autograph some of her photos? She certainly has a following here in Woodlawn."

Icon laughed. "You want Mooncurl to feel welcome, too? I'll see what I can do. Later, guys."

* * *

By mid-afternoon, Morning Dew came around with Droplet so the little foal could see her aunt and uncle from Dream Valley. The pearly pink youngster was a hoof full, especially with the tempting addition of the decorated Christmas tree dominating the living room. Droplet made a beeline for it and had a fragile ornament in her hoof before anyone could stop her.

"Droplet!" her mother warned. "Give the pretty ornament to Mommy."

The foal, of course, had no intention of giving up her shiny bauble. With a giggle, she evaded her mother and tottered across the room.

"Hi, sweetheart," Vanguard said to Droplet as he knelt at her level. "What do you have there?"

Droplet lifted the dangling red and white spiraled glass piece up for her uncle to see. "Pre-tee."

"It is very pretty." Vanguard reached out, and took it from her little hoof. "Let's put it back on the tree where Grandma had it," he suggested, lifting the petite filly into his forelegs. The foal readily attached the ornament back on the tree and was satisfied to view the rest of the decorations from the perspective of her uncle's clasp.

"Well done," chuckled Whirlpool as he made himself comfortable on the sofa.

"You'll be a big help when you and Sugarberry have foals of your own," grinned Morning Dew.

"Not necessarily," Vanguard admitted. "Faline cries every time I look at her."

"That's not true," admonished Sugarberry. "She cries because you always take Fluff away from her."

"And that's because Agatha doesn't want her eating all that cat fur."

"Kitty?" asked Droplet, looking around the room in expectation. "Me want kitty." She struggled to get down, and Vanguard released his hold on her.

"There's no kitty here," he tried to explain as the foal tugged at his hoof, expecting him to show her the kitty. "The kitty is at our house far away." He looked to Sugarberry for help.

"Both of our kitties were very sad that they couldn't come with us, Droplet; they had to stay home."

"Kitty all gone?" the foal asked sadly.

"All gone," Sugarberry echoed.

"Come with Grandma, Droplet," Floral Breeze intervened. "We've got some Santa Pony figures that need to be hunted up yet."

When the foal was out of the room, Morning Dew breathed a sigh of relief. "Thanks for not saying that maybe Santa Pony would bring a cute little kitten for Christmas; our neighbors keep trying to pawn off their 'kitty' which is actually a fat, ancient cat; that's why Droplet gets all excited when she hears anyone mention anything to do with felines."

"She'll convince you of getting one someday," grinned Sugarberry.

"Only after she's old enough to clean a litter box by herself," countered Morning Dew.

Floral Breeze and Droplet returned with a box of plastic Santa Ponies that ranged in size and degree of ornamentation, and Droplet got busy setting them up wherever she thought they looked best. One of the Santa's ended up on the sofa next to Grandpa; and when Droplet was pleased that all the Santa's were strategically placed, she climbed up to join them.

"San-ta." The toddler waved the jolly white Santa in front of Grandpa. This particular Santa was dressed in the traditional red suit trimmed in white fur while others were in more sedately colored if not more richly ornamented attire. Droplet climbed onto Whirlpool's lap and made herself comfortable, hugging the Santa to her. "Kiss-mas, Ga-pa?"

"Christmas will be here soon enough, honey." He kissed the top of her head. "Santa will bring you something special; you've been a good little girl."

"Me good." She slid off Grandpa's lap and down off the couch and returned to the Christmas tree. With an uncertain glance at Vanguard, she took another ornament off the tree and carried it to him. "Pre-tee."

* * *

"Lee-Koo," Faline gurgled. It was the Saturday before Christmas, and Faline was quite over her flu and back to normal. Leaving the vet clinic in Thaddeus' care over the holidays, Elaine, Thomas, Tabby, and Faline were off to spend Christmas with Thomas and Elaine's family in the town of Forest Brook.

"Oh, he's napping in the baggage compartment right now," Tabby explained to Faline. "You can talk to him when we get there."

Faline, in turn, looked downcast. "Goo, goo, gah," she said urgently.

"What? You're bored? I know; so am I. How much longer is it until we get there?" she asked of Thomas once again.

"Ten minutes less than the last time you asked," he sighed. "A quarter of an hour."

"Oh..." Tabby considered this. "So that would be... fifteen minutes?"

"Yes, Tabby. That's what a quarter of an hour is."

"So why call it a quarter of an hour if you can just as easily say fifteen minutes? It doesn't make any sense."

"But Tabby, it's simple math," Elaine interjected. "A quarter is just like one-fourth, and sixty divided by four is–"

"Fifteen, which leads back to my original point," Tabby insisted. "It would be much more effective to call it as it is, fifteen."

This discussion between the three of them easily lasted for the remaining quarter of an hour-- or fifteen minutes-- of their journey. "We're stopping!" Elaine squealed, turning to look out the window. "Is this it? Are we really here?"

"Forest Brook Station," Thomas read from a sign posted outside. "This is it."

The passengers began to gather up their baggage and were shortly allowed to exit the train car. There the foursome was met by an excited pair.

"Thomas! Elaine! Tabby! And little Faline!" Cecilia Monk bubbled over excitedly, embracing each of them in turn. "Welcome, welcome! It's so good to have all of you here!"

"And you arrived in time for lunch, too!" Helga Fairfax broke in. "The whole family's waiting at the Monk residence. Oh, this is so wonderful!"

"The whole family?" Thomas queried skeptically. "As in–?"

"Oh, both, of course!" Cecilia clarified. "It's been so much fun since the truce was called. Everyone's getting along splendidly. Well, for the most part, anyway. But, what am I thinking? We must be heading back. Do you need help with your luggage? Come on, let's hurry!"

* * *

Upon arrival at the house, the travelers were greeted with exuberance by both sides of the family and were made to endure a great deal of hugging and kissing from the menagerie of aunts, uncles, and cousins.

Tabby, who was not fond of such shows of emotion, found that she could at least show off Faline. The baby pony, however, was not content to be shown off until she had made sure her faithful companions were still intact. Tabby set Faline down and rustled through the bag. Lee-Koo the Furby was brought out and was found to have been unaffected by the trip. Mecha the Shelby, however, was not in a good mood when Tabby lifted him out.

"Walk the plank, you swabby," the big-mouthed clam snapped.

"Oh, poor Mecha! He got flipped over during the trip," Tabby said in dismay. Faline quickly grabbed him, though, and set to work on calming his temper.

"What a sweetheart!" squealed Aunt Delia, seeing her chance and swooping down to pick up the baby pony. Faline appraised her with solemn eyes. "Come, now, don't be afraid of your Aunt Delia," she coaxed.

"Great-Aunt, actually, Mother," a nearby teenage filly corrected.

"What? Oh, no, but that makes me sound so old, Lucerna. Aunt Delia is just fine, isn't it?" the unicorn cooed to the baby.

Faline finally deemed this stranger to be acceptable after noticing the sparkly earrings that dangled from her ears. She had inherited a love of sparkly things from her mother, and was now content to sit and stare at the attractive orbs. Of course, by now a whole group of female relatives had crowded around and Faline was passed from mare to mare. The little unicorn quickly caught on and thoroughly enjoyed her time in the spotlight; Tabby, however, remained stranded on the floor with only Lee-Koo and Mecha.

Elaine, meanwhile, had insisted on helping her grandmothers on the final chores in the kitchen before lunch was served. Thomas had been commandeered over to the opposite side of the room and, in the ensuing chatter, felt some of his apprehension melt away. The only thing he suffered was one too many hits on the back by well-meaning uncles; but he still couldn't help but wonder if this was all just a facade they had put on for this visit, and that they would be back to feuding as soon as they left.

Shortly thereafter, a shouting match broke out in the back of the house. The words were flung so quickly and violently that not much could be made out. A young stallion suddenly stomped through the main hallway and went out, slamming the door behind him, leaving a blue unicorn inspecting carefully one of her hooves. Realizing that nearly all the eyes in the house were on her, she finally looked up at them. "Oh, well, sorry about that," she said brightly. "I didn't mean to... disrupt anything."

Tabby recognized the unicorn as Sapphire, one of Thomas' cousins whom she had met last Christmas. The stallion that had just left must have been Macarius, whom Sapphire had had a long standing personal feud with that had nothing to do with the family's... it was personal.

Apparently everyone else in the house knew this as well and let the skirmish out of their minds immediately. One of the younger mares, only a teenager, stepped forward when she noticed Tabby's alarmed expression. "Oh, don't worry about them," she said cheerfully. "They're always going at it like this. Macarius will be back once he's cooled off. By the way, I'm Lucerna. His sister."

"Oh! Well, I'm Tabby. A cousin of sorts I guess. Nice to meet you."

It was then that Helga finally declared that lunch was ready, and everyone started migrating towards the dining room. The filly winked at Tabby as she slipped off, and Tabby hoped to have the chance to speak with her again. But right then what she really wanted was to re-find Faline, or Thomas, or Elaine.

Anyway, families were sorted out again after everyone was properly seated around the spacious table. Tabby was amazed that these were all aunts and uncles and cousins and grandparents; her family was small in comparison. She only had to worry about four cousins, two aunts, and two uncles.

The subject discussed over the meal eventually turned to the topic dominating the lives of both families, that of book publishing. It was this factor that had begun their feud generations ago as the two rival book companies fought against each other; now that there was a truce between them, the heads of the families were considering trying something new and radically different.

The casual chatter going on around the table was interrupted by Reginald Fairfaxes' call for silence. Clearing his throat, he began. "Seeing as our families are gathered here in such completeness today, I thought it would be wise to announce formally our future plans for both of our publishing houses." Any ponies that were still whispering amongst themselves suddenly stopped at hearing Reginald's commanding voice.

At the opposite end of the table, Cecil Monk stood up, envious of Reginald's start of the subject. Anxious to get some words in himself, he quickly continued. "Recent demographics have shown that there is an amazingly high rate of new writing talent being developed in the eastern half of the country; and being so far away from the region, we are missing out on a great deal of business for our companies."

"For generations we have strove to be the best in the field of publishing," Reginald continued, "and feel that our reach should stretch even further so that we can remain the best. Therefore, we have been making plans that would establish a new publishing house in the center of this rich literary territory, Dream Valley, as a joint venture between our two families."

Most of the ponies there already knew of plans, but it was still exciting to hear the formal announcement. And of course it was a great shock to the travelers from Dream Valley, who were completely in the dark about the scheme. Elaine let out an audible gasp and fell back into her chair blushing over her outward show of emotion.

Just then Macarius strode back into the room, still holding his head up with dignity as he took his seat. "I hope I haven't interrupted anything," he said stiffly.

"We were just beginning to discuss the possibility of starting a new publishing house," Reginald said sternly, not pleased with the interruption.

Macarius visibly brightened at this. "Of course, the publishing house. Splendid idea, I think. It's about time the Monk business expanded."

"It's a joint venture, remember?" his sister, Lucerna, reprimanded him.

"Oh, yes, of course. That's what I meant, obviously."

"But it's a definite thing then? You're really going to start a new branch in Dream Valley?" Elaine put forth timidly.

"I never joke about business matters, young lady," Reginald said pointedly.

"Oh," said Elaine meekly. "Well, it sounds very nice."

"When would this new firm be opened?" Thomas queried next. Maybe they really were ending the feud...

"By next year at this time, I should think," Cecil put in. "We've already taken care of the preliminary paperwork; the process should go along very quickly now."

"A year, indeed," Reginald scoffed. "I give it eight months."

"Wow! It'll be great!" Tabby added in excitement. "Then maybe my friend Sugarberry can start writing for you instead; I bet she'd like that, having a local publisher..."

"Sugarberry?" Macarius asked skeptically. "You know Sugarberry, the mystery writer?"

"Oh, sure. She's my best friend since kindergarten."

"Imagine!" Sapphire squealed. "Imagine if we could have the esteemed Sugarberry as one of our authors! I tried to convince her to switch over to us when I was visiting last Christmas, but she wasn't sure she wanted to then."

"Oh, she'll switch," Tabby assured them. "Trust me. Last Christmas she was just too caught up in Vanguard to worry about publishing firms."

The thought of signing on Sugarberry brightened the mood of the whole family, and their conversation moved onto other happenings in all their lives, past and present. The luncheon broke up with a heated debate over which side of the family Thomas and Elaine took after.

"He's definitely a Fairfax; don't his colors remind you of Reginald's? And he has Dietrich's cat symbol!"

"That cat looks nothing like your son's symbol. Besides, the shape of the horn is all wrong for a Fairfax. He takes after the Monks."

"And take Elaine into consideration. Her jewel symbol takes after Cecilia's ring, don't you agree?"

"But there's jewel blood in the Fairfaxes, too. Look at Sapphire and her sisters."

In the end, they came to no firm conclusion and went off to mingle with another group. Now that lunch was over, many of the ponies had gotten up from their seats and were engaged in casual conversation among small groups, though the main focus still lay on the visitors from Dream Valley.

"I still wonder if they've really put the past behind them, or if they're just acting the part for our sake," Thomas confided to Tabby during a lull in activity.

"Oh, you're so suspicious! Lighten up," she said cheerfully.

"Don't bother thinking about the old feud," Lucerna interjected, overhearing the conversation. "It was really just losing effect, even back in my mother's generation. We were all pretty bored with it anyway. It was actually pretty fun for us when the elders declared it was safe to associate with the other family."

"They must hold a lot of power in the family yet," Thomas remarked.

"Oh, yes, they do. But you know what's interesting? My grandmother Cecilia and Helga used to be best friends before they married into the opposing families. I think they were really happy about it, too."

Shortly after this, Tabby found herself flagged down by a group of the younger ponies after they had found out that she was a Pokemon nurse. She had quite an adoring audience as she told them all about what she did; Pokemon were still a new thing in this part of the country, and the fresh trainers were eager to listen to a more seasoned authority like Tabby. She found herself swamped with battle challenges and said laughingly, "I'm a nurse, not a gym leader!" But she did agree that she would have time to battle them all another day before she left.

The youngsters were then gathered up by their elders and went outside to play in the snow, leaving the adults more time to themselves. They moved into the parlor for further discussion over cups of coffee.

Tabby personally saw no purpose in coffee and refused her cup; she also found the business matters that were currently being discussed to be tiresome as well. Idly she glanced down at the end table situated next to her and began to skim a manuscript that lay there.

"What a horrible story," she said in disgust after a few moments, thrusting the papers away from her.

A few ponies, knowing whose writing it was, began tittering. "Why, what's it about?" Elaine asked innocently.

"No, it's not the plot. It's all the grammatical errors. Sentence fragments, misuse of commas, incorrect capitalization, no paragraphs–! It hurts just to read it!"

"That's Macarius' latest, isn't it?" Storen, Macarius' father, asked. "I always was disappointed that he didn't have a firmer grasp on grammar."

"I still have impeccable business sense," Macarius retorted.

"Maybe you'd like to be a proofreader at our new branch, Tabby?" Cecil smiled, noticing her continued consternation over the badly edited work.

Tabby laughed it off. "Oh, no, I'm sure I'm not good enough for that."

The conversation moved on to more personal matters. " Kiana is gearing up for her wedding this summer," Aunt Flora was relating about her daughter. "She's around your same age, I think, Elaine."

"It seems like there ought to be a wedding soon in your future, too, Elaine," Aunt Laraine added. "You're quite an attractive young mare; do you have someone special at home?"

"Oh, no, no one like that," Elaine said hurriedly. "I'm not really looking..."

"No one?" Flora said incredulously, cutting off Elaine's last statement. "That's preposterous. "Is Thatcher back in town yet, does anyone know? He's a nice young stallion; you'd like him," she confided to Elaine.

"What about Lawrence?" Laraine argued. "He's still looking for a new girlfriend since Brina broke up with him."

"But I'm really not looking to find a stallion," Elaine protested uncomfortably.

"You're sure?" Flora said skeptically. "Well, I'm sure you'll be meeting a lot of new ponies tomorrow yet. Maybe you'll change your mind."

"I guess," Elaine said feebly. Uncle Leander then veered off onto a new, unrelated topic just then, for which Elaine was grateful. For hours the talk went on; there was so much to find out about their family, and Thomas and Elaine were both gratified to finally have this opportunity with them. Daylight slowly dissipated, and still there was no lack of words to say. It was only very late that night that the various parties began to reluctantly depart, and finally Elaine was escorted back to the Fairfax residence, where she would be staying.

* * *

Being left along with her traveling companions for most of the day, Diane, Faline's new Meowth, sat down with Lee-Koo and Mecha to once again try and figure them out. So far she had been unsuccessful in interpreting their actions.

"Gimme Furby!" Mecha demanded. "Where's Furby?"

Diane frowned in concentration; Lee-Koo was situated directly across from the Shelby. Couldn't they see each other?

"Hmm... boring," Lee-Koo declared.

Maybe they're not friends at all, and that's why they won't talk to each other, Diane reasoned.

Just then, Mecha began chattering to his Furby companion. "Furby, you look good!"

"Yeah, hide!" Lee-Koo responded, and rocked forward, closing his eyes. Diane tried to figure out what these two subsequent phrases had to do with one another.

Shortly after this, the two became engaged in a burping contest. Diane tired of that particular show, and interrupted them. "Guys, guys! Don't you have any manners?"

Lee-Koo turned to look at her. "Who-doh, wah?" he questioned.

Diane picked up her Furbish language dictionary and realized that the Furby wanted an introduction. "Oh! I'm Diane."

"Me Lee-Koo," he said solemnly.

"Shelby comin' around the mountain," Mecha sang.

"Doot-doot-doo! Doot-doot-doo!" Lee-Koo joined in.

"I wanna be the very best, like no one ever was," Diane started out tentatively, thinking a song might gain her entrance into their inner circle.

Both the Shelby and Furby stared at her with wide eyes. Mecha let out a torrent of angry words ending in shutting his shell, and Lee-Koo cringed. "Ah! Loud sound!"

Diane pulled her head up, trying to maintain a dignified composure. "Well!"

Shortly thereafter, the two of them fell asleep; Diane was left knowing even less than when the conversation had begun.

* * *

This frosty evening in Woodlawn, Morning Dew and Droplet returned to the house along with Stillwater; Droplet stayed in the protective care of her grandparents while Sugarberry and Vanguard joined up with the foal's parents to spend some time at Hood's Place. The walk back through the park and on to Main Street at a slow and pleasant pace was a good time for the ponies to talk.

"Your design for our addition to the house has worked out perfectly for us," Sugarberry stated, referring to the turret and rooms that Stillwater had drawn up plans for to give the house more space. "The turret is the coziest part of the house."

"The offer still holds for a full-house design if the two of you decide you want a new home," the architect offered.

"Not in the foreseeable future," Vanguard admitted. "We are both satisfied with what we've got; and now that Sugarberry has her turret, I don't think she'll ever want to leave."

"We've been tossing around the idea of a new place outside of town," Morning Dew put forth. "The trouble is, we can't agree on several key points." She grimaced at her husband.

"I'm the realist; I maintain that we don't need a cathedral ceiling; we can put the space to better use."

"But the space would be so grand! Don't you agree, Sugarberry?"

"It would accommodate a huge Christmas tree."

"Speaking of which, you should see Agatha and Hubert's new home; it's gorgeous," Vanguard said.

"Who was their architect?" queried Stillwater.

"A friend of Agatha's from Vulcanopolis; his name is Luigi."

"I've heard of his work; he's a real artist."

"As if you aren't?" Sugarberry asked. "Vanguard's pointed out some of your designs here in town, and they are beautiful. And the addition on our home is perfectly incorporated so that no one who isn't familiar with it doesn't realize that the turret section is new. Your work is excellent and artistic."

"Thanks, Sugarberry. But this Luigi is a natural; his ideas are fresh and new, not just rehashed versions of something that's already been done."

"What about Cadence and Amelia's house?" Morning Dew protested. "They wanted something unique, and you delivered."

"Okay, okay. I'm just saying that someone like Luigi does the extraordinary on a day to day basis; he doesn't dabble in the ordinary, so I can assume that Agatha and Hubert's house is a work of art."

"If their new house is done, who's living next to you now?" Morning Dew wanted to know.

"No one has moved in yet."

Caravel and Petal were the first two ponies that the new arrivals saw when they entered Hood's Place, and Petal waved them to their table. "Hi, everybody." She eyed Vanguard. "My grades came, and I got a B in my math course!"

"I'm aware of that," Vanguard smiled. "She was in my class," he informed Morning Dew and Stillwater.

"That last test was horrible; I thought I would flunk for sure."

"You seemed to have the concepts down well enough; you just made some careless mistakes."

"I was anxious to get home for awhile," the filly admitted. "Caravel was able to come for a visit, but he has to be home by Christmas Eve. The frown that followed that statement was proof that she did not like the plan.

"You'll be attending Pony Pride next semester, I hear," Stillwater asked of the young stallion.

"Yes. I'll be commuting from Stableton and helping Dad with his construction business when I can."

The door to the shop opened and in came Mooncurl and Nello. The vivacious model joined the gathering, gravitating directly to Vanguard; introductions were made where needed whereafter Mooncurl dominated the conversation with senior year memories.

Sugarberry took the opportunity to move aside with Nello and ask him about mutual friends in Vulcanopolis. "Clare and Giorgio have taken well to married life," he informed her, "and Pacificus and Hydrangea, too. Enrica is a bundle of activity now that she's back on her hooves; there's no holding her down."

"It sounds like everything is moving along well then."

Nello frowned. "Could I talk with you about something personal, Sugarberry?"

"I have been told I'm a sympathetic listener."

The stallion guided her to a quiet table across the room. "What does Mooncurl expect from me?"

"I'm not the best one to answer that question, Nello."

"You know her as well as anyone; I can't get a fix on her feelings toward me. Does she like me at all or am I just the one who makes her look her best in the pictures I take?"

"She's unsure of herself yet at this point-- a small town mare who made it big. I think she's still trying to find her place."

"Some days I feel that she's as much in love with me as... as I am with her; but here in Woodlawn, she has drawn away from me. I don't know why."

"She's facing the reality of her fame; Woodlawn isn't the fashion capital that Vulcanopolis is."

"Do you think that could be it?"

"The operative word here is think; I have no way of knowing for sure."

"It's better than anything I've come up with," Nello said. "I'll give her all the time she needs to come to terms with herself; in the meantime, I do have the responsibility to work with her."

"Not a bad situation," smiled Sugarberry. "I hope things work out the way you want them to."

Breezing to the table, Mooncurl joined them. "Nello told me that this place was named after a similar shop in one of your books, Sugarberry. I must admit, I've never read any of them."

"You're not the only one," Sugarberry acknowledged.

"I've read them all, and I think you're a wonderful author," Nello smiled. "I wish I had a book for you to autograph."

As if on cue, Icon came into the ice cream parlor with a number of the actors from the acting club to which he belonged. He came straight to Sugarberry. "I hope you weren't disappointed that no one from your imagination was here tonight."

"I'll survive."

"Hi, Mooncurl," Icon said, then looked at Nello.

"This is the star photographer for Clare's Creations, Nello. He's here with Mooncurl searching out a worthy site in Ponyland for a photo shoot," Sugarberry made the introduction. "Nello, this is Vanguard's brother, Icon; he's an aspiring actor and an excellent computer programmer."

Several ponies came to the table with copies of Silent Are the Bells in their hooves. "Excuse us, Sugarberry, but we were wondering if you would sign our books?" Icon winked at her and left her to her duties; Mooncurl glowered at the author and disappeared from the table while Nello looked forlorn.

"She'll be fine," Sugarberry assured the stallion, knowing that Icon would have come through with her earlier suggestion.

Before Mooncurl could return to Vanguard's position, she was intercepted by a young filly who was holding a page from the fashion magazine sponsored by Clare's Creations and featuring Mooncurl outside the university buildings in Vulcanopolis. "Mooncurl, I'd like to get your autograph!"

The mare blossomed in an instant. "You want my autograph?" she smiled.

"Yes! I never knew that you lived in Woodlawn before you became famous! I think you are the prettiest model out there."

"Why, thank you..." she looked questioningly at the filly.

"My name is Streamer; I'm a junior in high school, but I want to do fashion design when I graduate."

Mooncurl had no sooner finished with the first admiring fan when another came to her with the same request. The mare was still happily signing autographs even after Sugarberry finished with hers.

Sugarberry looked at Nello, who was still sitting at her table watching the proceedings concerning Mooncurl with a passionate interest. The mare observed, "She thrives on attention; she'll have a happy holiday now."

"She's forgotten I'm here."

That reminded Sugarberry-- Where was Vanguard by now? She looked around the room to find him sitting with Chiffon and several other local ponies and suggested to Nello, "Let's get something to eat."

Picking up Vanguard and Chiffon on the way, the ponies headed for the counter; joining them were Petal and Caravel; when they found out that Nello was the fashion photographer, Caravel quipped, "You get paid to do that?" He looked across the room appreciatively at Mooncurl.

"Paid very well," Nello replied.

"Your shots are always so intense," Petal stated. "How do you do that?"

"It's easy when you have the perfect model," smiled Nello.

Chiffon winked at Sugarberry as she voiced her thoughts. "She's one of a kind, all right."

* * *

Floral Breeze had been right. Snow fell during the night, leaving Woodlawn snuggled under a covering of winter white for this Sunday before Christmas. After the household had been to church, Floral Breeze and Sugarberry began the final preparations for a lavish feast for the family. Stillwater, Morning Dew, and Dewdrop showed up to lend a helping hoof while Icon only made it in time to sit down to the meal.

The afternoon brought a bevy of Christmas visitors to share their greetings and gifts. Vanguard's Uncle Eddy and Aunt Iris came by with their youngest son, Biscuit, who was a senior at Binks University and home for the holidays, and their youngest daughter, Petal, who was still in the company of Caravel.

Chiffon and her parents, Velvet and Charger, also graced the doorstep; Velvet was Floral Breeze's sister; their brother, Tribute and his wife Lilac Dusk, were to stop by the house later in the day. For now, Sugarberry, Chiffon, and Morning Dew clustered in a corner of the kitchen to share the latest news. "Did Tabby ever find a gift for Thomas?" queried Chiffon of Sugarberry in the course of the conversation.

Vanguard, Icon, Biscuit, and Stillwater disappeared to the basement on the premise to shoot some pool but more to avoid the glances and giggles of the talkative mares while the older generation of ponies made themselves comfortable in the living room; Petal and Caravel sat on the floor to entertain Droplet with her new set of plastic dishes from Sugarberry and Vanguard.

After some time, Floral Breeze and Iris came to the kitchen to prepare some refreshments for the company; in the course of their chitchat, Sugarberry overheard Wishbone's name mentioned and turned her attention to what the two mares were discussing. "I'm glad that Caravel showed up when he did; I never was too pleased with Petal's interest in Wishbone," Iris had continued in her tirade.

"Wishbone had always appeared to be a respectable young stallion," Floral Breeze asserted.

"Maybe so, but he just wasn't the type for my Petal." As the youngest foal in the family, Petal had always received the utmost protection from both her parents and her siblings. "We've known Caravel's family for years and his folks are tried and true; when we met Wishbone's parents last summer, we found them to be rather artificial."

Sugarberry couldn't find fault with that, although she had come to respect Wishbone's father. His mother, however, put all her energy into promoting a rather vain stance toward the world.

Iris was not through yet. "And Caravel tells us that Wishbone was involved in some rather underhooved dealings at Pony Pride last year; I wouldn't want someone with his reputation getting too close to my daughter."

Sugarberry could no longer listen to this talk about Wishbone without speaking up. "Wishbone is a fine young stallion; any talk of his being anything less than that is unfounded."

"I'm sorry, Sugarberry; I know you harbor the boy, but that doesn't change the fact that he is beneath Petal's notice."

Opening her mouth to say more, Sugarberry became aware that Vanguard and Biscuit had returned to the room; her eyes beseeched her husband to answer his aunt in Wishbone's defense; but before he could say anything, Petal pressed her way between them. "Mother, please don't say anything against Wishbone; he was and still is my friend."

"You should avoid him as much as possible," her mother affirmed. "I'm sure Caravel will agree with me on that."

"But I will not!" Petal exclaimed, flashing a dangerous look at Caravel who hung in the background. "And Caravel has no reason to expect otherwise."

Iris ignored her daughter. "Caravel, what was it exactly that you heard about Wishbone?"

Caravel looked as if he wished he were anywhere but under Iris's scrutinizing gaze. "Well, not much really; some kids said he was... well... cheating on tests last year."

"See?" Iris triumphed. "He's trouble, that one is."

"Aunt Iris," Vanguard interrupted. "You don't know the full story; Wishbone may have resorted to cheating-- that's true-- but it was only after being led into it by an organized scheme of some very talented con artists; he abandoned them on his own and was able to maintain a very good grade with no dishonesty."

"What kind of ponies do you have there at Pony Pride anyway?" Iris sniffed. "It doesn't sound very scholarly."

"The cheating scam was uncovered and done away with," Vanguard verified. "Pony Pride retains an excellent reputation for its academic standards."

Iris frowned. "I think we should check into Binks University, Petal; your sister and all your brothers went there with no trouble."

Petal shot a glance at Caravel as if to say, "Now see what you've done?"

But this time it was Biscuit who refuted his mother. "Binks had the same problem some years back. Like Pony Pride, we came through without any permanent dishonor, but only because of Pony Pride's exposure of the cheating web in the first place."

Now it was Sugarberry and Vanguard's turn to exchange a glance. Not everyone present knew of Vanguard's circuitous involvement in the closure of the problem at Pony Pride which had taken him away from Dream Valley and the mare that he loved and which had ended a year ago with his return with a proposal for Sugarberry which she had readily accepted.

"Well, we'll see," Iris grudgingly replied. "At least Caravel will be able to keep an eye on Petal for us next semester."

The affair was swept behind them as Whirlpool came into the kitchen with an announcement for Vanguard and Sugarberry. "There's a stallion in the parlor that says he'd like to talk with you two."

With curiosity, the two ponies crossed to the front room and found Nello standing forlornly in front of the picture window. "Nello! How nice to see you!" Sugarberry greeted him, then looked about the room. "Where's Mooncurl?"

"Pouting in her room," Nello sighed, then raised his hoof as Sugarberry began to speak. "It's nothing between us; she had a spat with her parents and disappeared in a huff. Her folks weren't too concerned and called in some friends to watch a movie. I felt like a cast off shoe and decided to come here for some support." He suddenly looked stricken. "I didn't interrupt anything, did I?"

"You came at a most opportune time," Vanguard laughed. "Come on in and meet the family, at least the ones you didn't meet last night."

Nello was soon comfortably surrounded by welcoming ponies, and Floral Breeze insisted that he sit down and eat some of the variety of cookies and bars available. It was only after he had been satiated that he admitted to Sugarberry, "I had hoped to get some good shots of Mooncurl on the snowy bridge in the park as you had suggested; now that she's... under the weather... I'll miss a great opportunity."

Icon overheard the remark. "Mooncurl's not the only pretty face in Woodlawn; you've got plenty of beautiful models right here." His hoof pointed out the mares in the room, and Nello studied them attentively; then his face lit up.

"You're right, Icon!" He jumped to his hooves. "I'll be needing a fresh look for the campaign introducing Clare's new fragrance next month; the ponies of Woodlawn will be perfect!"

"A new fragrance?" questioned Sugarberry.

"Yes. After the fiasco with Gabriel and his allergies, Clare decided to get into the perfume business; she's had a fragrance concocted that is quite unique, delicate but yet quite passionate."

"I noticed last evening that Mooncurl is still wearing her Ambrosia," noted Chiffon with a smile.

"She still insists on wearing Ambrosia whenever she's away from Clare's Creations and Gabriel. She feels it is her lucky charm of sorts."

"What's the name of Clare's potion?"


"Do you have any samples to inspire the girls?" asked Icon.

Nello frowned. "Not on me." Then he grinned at the mares. "Just pretend you're in love; that's the feeling that Clare wants to convey."

"The only one who has to pretend is Chiffon," chortled Icon.

"Look who's talking," the mare returned.

It was decided that Chiffon, Morning Dew, Sugarberry, and Petal would accompany Nello to the park with anyone else who wanted to tag along; the party grew then to include Vanguard, Stillwater, Icon, Caravel, and Biscuit and added one more as they met a former schoolmate of Vanguard's, Bonanza, a burgundy unicorn, who was on his way to wish Vanguard and family a happy holiday. It was a light-hearted bunch that arrived at the snow-capped bridge in the middle of the afternoon.

Nello began directing ponies to portray the moods and settings that he wanted to capture, the only certainty being that whichever pony was in the limelight was sure to be heckled mercilessly by Icon and Biscuit. Sugarberry was reduced to uncontrolled giggles and had to abandon the idea of modeling; Chiffon was able to bear the brunt of the hassling, but conveyed too severe an expression in face of Icon's verbal ammunition; Morning Dew and Petal, however, took to the part as if born to it, even with a barrage of taunting remarks coming at them.

But Nello was not through. He stationed first Vanguard and Sugarberry, then Morning Dew and Stillwater, on the bridge and asked them to kiss. Both couples willingly complied, and the camera captured a series of "winsome" shots of both couples that the photographer was very pleased with.

Nello was absorbed in securing some candid shots of Petal and Caravel when Mooncurl appeared on the scene. Having found herself abandoned, she had gone straight to the one household that she knew Nello would be pulled toward. Floral Breeze had delivered the message that Sugarberry had instructed her to give, that the group would be found at the bridge.

Floral Breeze chuckled as she watched the model retrace her steps down the sidewalk, remembering what had prefaced Sugarberry's words originally-- "Mooncurl will probably show up once she realizes that Nello isn't waiting outside her door like some cowering puppy; she'll have to regain her hold on him. Tell her where she can find us."

"Nello," the model cooed, "whatever are you doing here with your camera equipment?"

"Hi, Mooncurl; how's everything between you and your parents?"

Anger flashed in her eyes, but she covered it with a pouty smile. "They went out." The two ponies who had given her life had very little interest in that life now that Mooncurl was on her own; this was what annoyed the mare.

Nello took sympathy on the model. "How about some shots of you on the bridge?" he asked.

"I... I'm not prepared," Mooncurl stuttered.

"You're always perfect for the camera," Nello smiled, kissing her cheek. "Let's show Woodlawn what a real model can do."

Nothing could have motivated the mare as much as that remark. She assumed her place on the bridge with confidence and poise and treated the watching ponies to a shoot as professional as if she had planned it herself.

When Nello was satisfied with the solo shots of Mooncurl, he grinned at a group of the stallions. "Some of you guys didn't appear in pictures yet; Biscuit, Bonanza, Icon... gather together around Mooncurl on the bridge."

Payback time was sweet. Sugarberry and Chiffon taunted the stallions mercilessly, so much so that Icon's white cheeks burned red by the time Nello released them. Sugarberry made sure to corner the stallion for one more jab. "Maybe it's time for a new career, Icon."

The stallion glowered at her. "No one hears it from me that you're the sweetest mare around ever again!" Then he grinned. "But I guess I deserved it; I lost you your chance to become a pin-up mare."

Sugarberry rolled her eyes. "Fat chance."

* * *

Monday morning found Vanguard and Sugarberry on their way to Berryville to join in another Christmas celebration with Sugarberry's family, their arrival was met with an invitation to lunch at Driftwood's restaurant, newly built during the past year on the edge of the town.

The couple found the eating place with no trouble, although this building of Driftwood's was nothing like his formal establishment in Dream Valley, the Estate Manor. This edifice was of a simpler design and breathed a down home atmosphere. The sign on the front of the building read The Berry Patch. The tinkling of a bell on the door announced the newcomers' arrival.

Sugarberry's sister, Raspberry, was working behind the busy counter, but she left her post to greet the two guests. "You made it! Welcome to The Berry Patch." Hugs were exchanged, and Raspberry guided the ponies to an empty table by the window. "I've been saving this one for you all day," she confided.

"This place is wonderful!" enthused Sugarberry. "And it looks like business is doing well." She glanced around at the tables accommodating hungry ponies like themselves.

"I assume that Driftwood is busy in the back," stated Vanguard as he helped Sugarberry with her chair.

Raspberry tossed her mane. "We've hired reliable help, yet he feels it is necessary to supervise their every move." She grinned. "And he has a special of the day with you in mind, Sugarberry, so don't disappoint him by ordering something else."

The stallion emerged through the swinging doors at that moment with a coffee pot in hoof. "Sugarberry! Vanguard! Glad you could make it!"

"We are, too," Sugarberry acknowledged. "Plus we're famished. What do you recommend?"

While he filled their coffee mugs, the owner and chef enumerated every menu item available, ending with, "But if I were you, I'd order the special."

"Which is...?" prompted Vanguard.

"Delicious," winked Driftwood as he turned and left. Raspberry had gone back to her duties as well, and Vanguard and Sugarberry were left to contemplate their surroundings alone.

"I love the decorating," Sugarberry said. "You can see Raspberry's influence everywhere." Red was the dominant color, and berries appeared everywhere.

"You fit right in," Vanguard observed with a grin.

"More like I fade away into the background," the strawberry patterned mare countered.

It was not long before Driftwood appeared with a tray of delectable food items. Sugarberry beamed. "You outdid yourself!"

"The Santa novelty is your sister's idea," he said, referring to a wooden pick topped with Santa Pony; he turned to his wife with a kiss before returning to the kitchen.

Raspberry was able to steal some minutes away from her customers to sit with Vanguard and Sugarberry as they ate. Snitching some of the food of Sugarberry's plate, she asked, "How were things in Woodlawn?" She commiserated with Sugarberry over Iris' condemnation of Wishbone and laughed about the photo shoot on the bridge.

"And how are you and Driftwood doing, apart from the restaurant?" Sugarberry asked her sister.

"We've been really busy, but we're doing great," she blushed and got up quickly to return to her work.

Sugarberry looked at her husband with a pensive expression. "She's keeping a secret."

* * *

The following day as well had been a whirlwind of activity as years of catching up were talked away. Finally, on Christmas Eve, Elaine had managed to go out on her own and was in town doing some last-minute holiday errands. On her way down a quiet street she passed a small gift shop, and something in the window caught her eye. Going back to inspect the item, she gasped as she beheld the most perfect gift that could have ever been possibly made for Faline!

It was a plush cat, but very unique from any Elaine had ever seen before– this one's fur was white with purple highlights, and on its head was perched a bejewelled gold crown. It also wore a matching necklace and bracelet, but perhaps most unique about it was the pair of jewel-studded wings on its back! Elaine knew her niece would love it.

Elaine hurried inside, anxious to find out more about the cat (most specifically, its cost). Upon reading the price sticker on its tag, she was disappointed to see that it was rather pricey and cost more than she currently had on her; but then her eyes darted down to a sign posted beneath it: the cat was on clearance for half off its original price!

She quickly grabbed it off the shelf and read the sign again, making sure that the sale was indeed for the cat. Seeing that it clearly applied to the item she held, she trotted over to the checkout lane, excited to have found such a wonderful item at such a great price!

The mare at the checkout took the plush cat Elaine set on the counter, glanced at the price posted on the tag, and punched its original full price into the cash register.

"Oh, but it's on clearance," Elaine spoke-up, seeing the mistake.

"Pardon?" The clerk looked at her scrutinizingly.

"The sign over there on the shelf," Elaine pointed, "says its half off."

The mare only glared at her as she stubbornly stated, "That's not the price on the tag."

"No, but that sign says–"

"If the price isn't on the tag, I can't give it to you for that," the mare said crisply. No one challenged her judgement and got away with it!
"Could you at least go look at the sign?" Elaine pleaded. "I'm positive I read it right..."

"I'm sorry, but its price is still the same. I can't ring it up for anything besides what's here on the tag."

"Couldn't you just change the price yourself, then?" Elaine begged. "If you'd just look at the sign–"

"Do you want the cat or not?" the clerk said impatiently, not paying attention to Elaine.

"It's a Christmas gift for my niece," Elaine said, thinking that might soften the mare's judgement.

The mare tapped her hoof on the counter. "Please make up your mind. You can pay this price, or leave it."

"But that's unreasonable!" Elaine cried out in frustration. "Can I speak to the manager?"

"I am the manager."

"Oh." Elaine groped for more words, but none came out. "Well, I guess I could come back later..." she mused aloud.

"We close in half an hour," the mare informed her.

Elaine couldn't believe her bad luck and the unreasonableness of this mare. She might be able to run home to get more money and back again in half an hour, but it would be cutting it close.

"MOMMY!" another voice cut through Elaine's thoughts. She looked up and notice a young filly and her mother and entered the shop. "I want that kitty! Get it! NOW!"

Elaine's heart sank even more as she realized the foal was pointing at the fairy kitty, Faline's kitty! "It shouldn't have been this difficult," she moaned aloud.

"I think that kitty has already been bought," the foal's mother informed her daughter. "Maybe they'll have another one." She took the filly's hoof and started pulling her down one of the aisles.

"NO!" the foal shouted, pulling free of her mother's hold and running up to the checkout. "You DUMMY! I want THAT kitty. GET IT FOR ME!"

Elaine was appalled at the foal's language towards her own mother and hated to think of dear Faline's present in the hooves of this monster! But surely, considering how she had treated Elaine, the manager would soon turn them out...

The manager, however, had other plans. After glancing at Elaine vindictively, she turned to the little filly and put on a bright smile. "Actually, I was just going to put this kitty back on the shelf. Would you like it?"

Elaine couldn't believe her ears. How could this mare actually be so kind to such an obnoxious baby pony and so rude to her? This couldn't be happening! What kind of a bizarre world had she entered by coming into the gift shop? She could only watch on in horror as the manager picked up the plush toy and began handing it down to the foal...

Just then the door opened to let in yet another pony. "Well, Lydia, it's a good thing I decided to stop in to see you," the pale seafoam blue stallion said cheerfully. "I got here just in time to save another customer from your tyrannical managing. What's the problem this time?"

The mare behind the counter turned to glance viciously at the stallion. "As if I need your help," she huffed. "I know what I'm doing, Alan."

"Then why are there so many unsatisfied and shocked customers around?" the newcomer rationalized. "Tell me the story."

Scowling, the mare now identified as Lydia slowly set the cat back on the counter and grudgingly began to explain matters to her acquaintance. "This mare," she stated, pointing at Elaine, who was standing back speechless and regretting ever going out that day, "was trying to convince me to cut her a deal on this cat. She wanted half-off; how ridiculous!"

Here Elaine managed to squeak out, "The sign on the shelf said it was half-off."

Ignoring her, Lydia continued. "Then this nice young foal here–" and she pointed down at the filly, still standing there with a disappointed look on her face while her harried mother had a hold on her shoulder and was also regretting ever going out that day– "expressed interest in it, and–"

"That's enough." Alan held up his hoof to silence her. "I think I see the problem. Lydia, I suggest ringing it up at the correct half price for this mare." He smiled at Elaine, but she was so embarrassed by this point that she could only manage a slight nod of her head in return.

Lydia muttered something under her breath, but sulkingly turned to the register and proceeded to punch in the right price. The young filly opened her mouth to protest, but her also very embarrassed mother quickly clapped a hoof over her mouth and picked her up, making hurried apologies before hurrying out the door with her struggling daughter.

Elaine hastily paid for her present and picked up the bag, anxious to run home and leave this whole incident behind her. She said some hasty but heartfelt thanks to the stallion and then headed for the door.

She hadn't walked far when she became aware that someone was coming after her. Turning around, she saw that it was the stallion from the gift shop– what had the mare called him, Alan?

"I just wanted to apologize for what happened back there," he said, catching up to her. "My– ah– friend... well, she has a very spiteful side to her."

"Oh, that's okay," Elaine smiled. "It all turned out okay in the end, and I'm sure I just caught her on a bad day."

"No, I'm afraid she's always like that," he said ruefully. "Her parents shouldn't allow her to work in their shop by herself. The customer is never right, in her way of looking at things."

"Surely she can't be that cruel to everyone!" Elaine protested without thinking. "Oh... I'm so sorry! I shouldn't have said that of her, especially when she's your friend."

"Don't worry; I don't like her attitude either. We can't stand each other. It's our parents that are trying to turn us into good friends. They kept trying to convince us to spend more time with each other, but I finally discovered that if I hung around I could at least save others from her tyranny." He turned to smile at her.

"That's very thoughtful of you," Elaine grinned back. "Why are your parents so anxious to get you two together? If you don't mind my asking," she added quickly.

"Oh, the same old story– our fathers are business partners and their children are of course expected to be soulmates. But, where are my manners? I ought to introduce myself. I'm Alan."

"I'm very pleased to make your acquaintance, Alan," Elaine said laughingly. "And I'm Elaine. And, oh! I turn left here," she exclaimed, not realizing how far they had already walked. "I'm sorry for taking up so much of your time, and on Christmas Eve! You'd better be getting back."

"Actually..." Alan seemed reluctant to part from her companionship so soon. "I'm not expected home for some time yet. May I walk with you?"

"If you'd like to," Elaine said shyly. "I'd actually be glad for the company."

"Great! So would I," he smiled, and eyed her various parcels. "I see you've been doing some late Christmas shopping?"

"Just a few little things, and the unexpected present for my niece– the cat, of course," Elaine explained. "I know she's going to love it. Thank you again for coming to my aid."

"No problem," Alan dismissed it. "By the way, where do you live? Have you been here long? I'm just surprised I've never seen you before; I know a lot of ponies in town through my job–"

"Actually I'm just visiting family for the holidays. I'm staying at Reginald and Helga Fairfaxes'; do you know them? I guess they're a pretty big name around here."

"That's an understatement! Along with the Monks, they're the biggest... say!" Alan suddenly started. "You're their granddaughter from Dream Valley, aren't you? Elaine Fairfax? I should have realized sooner!"

"You... you know me?" Elaine stuttered.

"I apologize; that wasn't very tactful," Alan rebuked himself. "The town was quite shocked when the Monks and Fairfaxes started making strides to patch up the old feud, and then when they invited their joint grandchildren– you and your brother, isn't it?– for the holidays, there was quite a lot of gossip about it."

"Nothing bad, I hope!" Elaine said in alarm.

"Oh, no, not at all! Just a lot of curiosity. I work in advertising at the Fairfaxes' company, so we were hearing a lot about it there. What is your impression of the town so far?"

"Oh, I'm enjoying it very much! Everyone is so nice, and I'm meeting all my relatives for the first time."

"Wait! This is your stop, right?" Alan said, halting.

"You're right; I would have walked right by," Elaine said, stopping outside the entry gate. "I guess I'll to say goodbye now, but I'm very glad to have met you."

"And likewise. I'll give Lydia that much," Alan winked. "I'd better let you go for now. See you later, Elaine," he waved as she trotted up to the house.

Elaine felt strangely (for her) happy over his parting remark.

* * *

If anyone noticed a different glowing radiance about Elaine that evening, they accredited it to the upcoming holiday; but Tabby began to suspect something when she caught her sister-in-law smile at a stallion who had sat near them at Midnight Mass– and she had even exchanged some words with him afterwards. Tabby found this all to be very strange indeed. Regardless of popular belief, she was actually quite enthralled with budding romances (as long as they didn't involve her). Needless to say, her curiosity was aroused.

* * *

That same evening, a number of new arrivals came to Dream Valley who had been invited to celebrate Christmas at Hubert and Agatha's new mansion. Agatha's sister Lynette and her husband and three daughters (Tamara's siblings) arrived first; her brother Dallas and his wife Bisque arrived only a short time later; and of course Tamara and Phillipe were in attendance as well. There was a joyous family reunion; most of the family were meeting Phillipe for the first time, after Tamara's abrupt elopement with him.

Tamara's fifteen-year-old sister, Jacqueline, was especially in awe of her new brother-in-law, whom she had never met before now. Phillipe and Tamara had come around to visit her parents after their elopement, but sadly Jacqui had been attending a stringed instrument convention then and they had left already by the time she returned home and knew anything about it. She had been quite a fan of Phillipe's music even before her sister had met him; and now to be able to talk to him in person and to refer to him as a family member was all so unbelievable. "Phillipe!" she squealed, running forward. "I can't believe it's really you!"

"Well, my my! I finally get to meet Tamara's little sister! Jacqueline, isn't it?" Phillipe greeted her.

"He knows my name!" Jacqueline breathed to herself. "Like... I'm your biggest fan! This is SO COOL! I don't even know what to say!"

"For not knowing what to say, you sure are talking enough," remarked Alvina. "Hi, Phillipe. It's really nice to see you again."

"You did a superb job on your latest single," commented Nadia. "It's wonderful to have such an artist in the family."

"I always like a warm welcome," Phillipe grinned. "But enough about me; what have you three been up to?"

"Before we start talking, let's get settled in the living room," Agatha said, herding her relations through a doorway. "There should be room for everyone; I'll be right back with refreshments."

As Agatha was returning with the tray, the doorbell rang again to announce the arrival of Dallas and Bisque, and the gathering was complete. The next few hours were spent comfortably discussing their lives: Nadia's college studies in medicine, Alvina's senior year in high school, Jacqui's violin, Lynette's beauty shop, Corydon's CEO headaches, Tamara's plans for her cattery, Dallas' recent explorations in space, Bisque's pottery designs, Hubert's current research on Tibetian pygmy gorillas, and of course Agatha and Hubert's brand-new mansion.

They completely lost track of time, and Phillipe almost didn't realize when the hour came to start thinking about the Christmas Eve charity concert he was throwing in Dream Valley. Everyone went along with him to the concert hall to anticipate an evening filled with holiday cheer, followed by Midnight Mass.

* * *

Fr. Isaac went to the front door of the rectory at the summons of the doorbell; he was expecting his sister and her family, so it was an awaited pleasure when the opening door revealed Elizabeth, Patter, David, Annie, and Joey.

"Come in! Come in!" he intoned, lifting the youngest member of the family high in the air. "Annie, you are as pretty as your mother. Lizzie, how good it is to see you! Patter, you're looking well. Joey, you've grown! And David," he grinned at the teenaged pony, "I'm looking forward to hearing your musical number tonight." Fr. Isaac looked over the young stallion's shoulder. "Did you leave your guitar on the porch? You'd better get it in-- it's cold out there." Without waiting for an answer, the black pony turned to his sister. "I hope I bought everything you need for dinner tomorrow." He paused, smiling at the ponies each in turn.

"If you followed my list, we'll do fine," Elizabeth laughed. "Merry Christmas, Isaac."

"A very blessed Christmas to have you all with me... the best present I could have."

"We couldn't very well have you traveling our way so soon after being hospitalized with the flu," Patter reminded him.

"That is an experience I do not want to repeat."

"Here's our gift for you." Annie stepped forward with a brightly wrapped box. "May I put it under the tree?"

"You certainly may." Fr. Isaac guided his niece to the tree in the corner of the room. "See the nativity set, Annie? The manger is empty, waiting for the Baby Jesus."

"Tonight is the happiest night of all," clapped Annie. "Come Joey, see the bed where the baby will sleep?" She proceeded to point out the other figures in the display. "This one is Mary-- she's Jesus' mother. And Joseph, your namesake; he took care of Mary and Jesus just like Daddy does us. And here's an angel and a ..."

Fr. Isaac smiled. "She is a joy to behold, Lizzie. You and Patter must be very proud of these three youngsters."

"Soon to be four, Isaac-- at least by spring."

"That's great news!" He hugged Elizabeth and shook Patter's hoof. "Come into the kitchen, and we'll make some hot chocolate to celebrate. David, do you still like to stir yours with a peppermint stick? Joey, Annie, come. Let's have something to eat."

* * *

"We'll just check on things one last time," Fr. Isaac said to David as the two went from the rectory to the church. "And you'll need to know where you sill be sitting for your piece, although the choir will be here early to run through the song with you." He stopped to turn on the lights. "Isn't it beautiful?" The pony gazed upon the lighted trees, the festive garlands, and the nativity scene which, like the smaller one back it in the house, was complete except for the baby.

"Come into the sacristy to see the Christ Child. All the figures are so life-like, but the Baby Jesus is exceptionally well done. One of our parishioners donated this new set to the church last year. Look, David, isn't He wonderful?" The priest held the carved wooden figure out to the young stallion who eyed it only briefly.

"Yeah. Real cool."

Fr. Isaac set the figure down carefully. "Toady, Leaper's little sister, will be carrying the baby in the procession tonight; that's quite an honor, you now. And while the procession is coming in, you'll be playing Silent Night on your guitar with the choir joining you in song. We'll have you stationed right over here..."


"You don't think that's a good spot? Well, it's not a crucial factor; where do you think you should be?"

"I'm not going to play tonight."

"You're not... what do you mean by that, David?" Fr. Isaac looked searchingly at his nephew's face.

"Just what I said-- I'm not playing my guitar here tonight."

The priest looked even more anxious now. "Why not? Is something wrong with your guitar? You can certainly use... "

"Nothing is wrong with my guitar. I didn't bring it with me. I'm not playing anything for this... this... show."

"David, when we talked several months ago, you were very excited about sharing in our Christmas celebration. What has happened to change your mind?"

"Maybe I stopped believing in all this fairytale stuff," the sullen pony replied, looking down at his hoof as if he found the appendage suddenly very fascinating.

Fr. Isaac eyed him sharply. "I see. You think that the coming of the Christ Child is merely a myth on our part?"

"Something like that." A glance at his uncle wavered and fell.

"A loss of faith, David, is a painful thing-- not unlike the flu." He smiled at his nephew, but received nothing in return. "Would you like to talk..."

"No lectures, please! I've heard enough of that from Mom and Dad!" He turned to leave, and Fr. Isaac did nothing to stop him.

* * *

Elizabeth found the priest still in the church, staring at the empty manger. "David's heart is nearly that barren," she said softly.

"What caused him to doubt, Lizzie?"

"He sees things that happen, Isaac... terrible things. And then he asks why."

"We all ask the question; but we find the answer in the cross as well as in the manger."

"David hasn't made the connection yet; and for little Annie, it is so simple."

"It is a gift, Lizzie, freely given and freely accepted by those who can see."

"And tonight is the night of gifts, Isaac. We receive the greatest gift of all." She looked at her brother and smiled. "God's gift."

* * *

The joy and the excitement and the solemnity of the Midnight Mass was contagious as ponies congregated within the church in anticipation of the wonderful event of Christmas as the twelve o'clock hour approached. Elizabeth, Patter, Annie, and Joey joined the residents of Dream Valley along with the other visitors to the city, one family with a common purpose. Only David hung to the outside.

Baby Toady waited patiently for the start of the procession along with Baby Timpani while the choir sang traditional hymns of the season to the accompaniment of the organ; ponies kept coming and soon there was standing room only.

While this was going on, David sat alone at the rectory, his mood in no way equal to the blinking lights on the Christmas tree. He sat in silence, staring at nothing in particular. Flitting through his mind were memories of past Christmas' when he had been as excited as Annie and Joey over the birthday of the Christ Child; now he could no longer enter into that joyous mood.

The strains of the organ music from within the church finally reached his consciousness and touched some chord of recollection that pulled on him so strongly that he realized that he could not ignore it; the young stallion pulled himself off the couch and followed the lure of the music.

Slipping into the holy place through the connecting door between the rectory and the church, David found that the main action of the moment centered around the head of the procession. In a matter of minutes, the organ would begin the familiar strains of Silent Night, the song he was supposed to have accompanied on his guitar.

As David stood in gloomy reflection, he realized that he was not alone. Turning his head slowly in the direction from which he sensed another presence, he was transfixed as he saw who stood watching him. It was a small human child with curly hair and ruddy cheeks dressed in a long white gown; he smiled at David as their eyes met.

"I'm dreaming," David murmured, running a hoof across his face; yet the child was real enough as he came toward the pony. Only then did David realize that the child was holding something in his hands. "That's... that's my... guitar."

The child lifted the instrument toward David. Not a word was spoken as David accepted it, but the child's face uplifted to his spoke volumes. "Thanks," David managed to say. He looked through the doorway and saw that everyone was waiting for the signal from Fr. Isaac to begin the procession. "I can still make it if I hurry." He turned back to the child, but David found that he was alone. "Where..." he muttered as he looked quickly around the room. But all that remained other than the guitar in his hooves was an inner feeling of peace and contentment that warmed his heart... warmed it, melted it, and reformed it, making it alive once more and filling it with an encompassing love.

Realizing that the organ music had ended, signaling the approach of the processional song; and that there was no time to spare, David rushed to the spot which Fr. Isaac had earlier shown him; the stool for him to sit on was gone now, but that did not matter. David looked down the aisle toward his uncle who was not yet aware of David's appearance near the altar.

Fr. Isaac was busy calming some last second jitters that had engulfed Toady; having reassured the foal sufficiently, he nodded to the organist to begin the strains of Silent Night. But it was David's music that met his ear.

Fr. Isaac turned his attention to the source of the sound; his look of astonishment changed to a warm smile. He whispered a prayer of thanksgiving. God's gift had arrived on time.

* * *

In Berryville, the family came together that evening to spend the hours approaching the birth of the Savior in the peace and harmony of companionship with those they loved. Strawberry Shortcake and Strawberry Baskets were delighted to have their three daughters together on this Christmas Eve; the three stallions who had joined the family circle were as dear to them as if they were their own.

Gooseberry and Grapevine's three youngsters, Huckleberry, Wineberry, and Baby Gooseberry, were resting in anticipation of a late night while the grown-ups sat around the kitchen table sharing up-to-date news with one another. Although there was no shortage of information being covered, the conversation fell into an unnatural silence at one point, causing Sugarberry to look curiously around the table and noticing both of her sisters looking at their respective mates with shining eyes. She flinched just a bit as she realized what was coming and drew Vanguard's hoof into her own.

Both Grapevine and Driftwood took advantage of the pause in chatter to make an announcement. Their delivery coincided perfectly. "We've got some good news," the two stallions said in unplanned synchronization. The two couples stared at one another before Raspberry blurted, "Driftwood and I are going to have a baby."

Gooseberry grinned. "Us, too."

"That's wonderful!" Strawberry Shortcake approved. "The family will be growing again."

All eyes invariably settled on Sugarberry and Vanguard. "No news here."

* * *

A waxing moon sat in the starry sky as the ponies trekked to Midnight Mass in Berryville. Huckleberry was prancing excitedly ahead of the pack while Wineberry stuck close to her mother; Baby Gooseberry was content to be carried across the snowy landscape. Grapevine's parents, Harper and Wisteria, also joined the caravan from their home down the road.

The church was packed; the choral music provided a sacred yet joyous atmosphere in which to welcome the Christ Child. The organist was just preparing to sound the notes for the recessional when a piercing, mechanical wail cut through the pious gathering.

A number of the ponies in the church immediately abandoned the serenity of the service in honor of the King of Peace in exchange for a battle against a raging foe, for the disturbing sound was the fire siren. Harper, Strawberry Baskets, Grapevine, and Driftwood were among the ponies that quickly exited the building in their capacity as volunteer members of the fire department. Grapevine, before leaving, relinquished the sleeping Baby Gooseberry to Vanguard, asking him to make sure that the foals and mares got home safely. Vanguard watched him go, yearning to help on the front lines, but yielding to Grapevine's request.

By the time Sugarberry and her family had made their way out of church, spectators ahead of them were already discussing the column of smoke and the visible orange flames that streaked up from the edge of town. "I'd say it's over at the bank," one pony exclaimed.

"Naw. The bank's east of there; it must be further out."

"Maybe it's the school!" several teenagers gleefully surmised.

"It's that new restaurant!" someone called, running toward the gathered ponies. "The whole thing is engulfed in flames!"

Raspberry gasped, "Our restaurant? Oh, no!" She began running in the direction of the smokey cloud before anyone could stop her.

Sugarberry took the still sleeping foal from Vanguard. "Go with her!" she pleaded, and the stallion took off on a run down the street with the majority of the crowd following at a slower pace.

Huckleberry made an attempt to race ahead, but his grandmother caught him before he had broken free. "Huckleberry, your mom needs you here."

The colt took one look at the worried face of his mother and retraced his steps to her side. "Daddy and Uncle Driftwood and my Grandpas are going to be okay, Mommy," he comforted her, well aware of the dangers of fire-fighting.

"Yes, they will be," the distressed mare said. "They have to be."

* * *

When Vanguard caught up to Raspberry, the mare was panting from the exertion of the run. "Raspberry, take it easy," he implored her. "This isn't good for you or the foal."

Raspberry turned a stricken face to him. "Driftwood will fight to save what he can; he won't think about the danger he's in!" A sob surfaced and broke free.

Vanguard eased her to a slower pace. "He's not alone; the others will watch out for him."

"He won't listen to reason, not when our restaurant is at stake; we worked too hard to lose all that." She hastened her steps once more.

The blaze became brighter and more consuming as they neared the site of the engulfed building. The neat and inviting restaurant that Sugarberry and Vanguard had visited on their arrival in Berryville was now an inferno; Raspberry could not believe her eyes as she looked at the work of the past year go up in flames. The jets of water appeared to have no effect; The Berry Patch was beyond saving.

"Driftwood... I've got to find him," the resolute mare groaned and appeared ready to rush into the line of firefighters.

Vanguard caught her foreleg. "There's a policepony over there; let's talk to him first." The country blue stallion kept a steady hoof on Raspberry as he made his way to the police officer guarding the perimeter. "Driftwood... the owner of this place... have you seen him? His wife is worried..."

"Yeah, I've seen him. He's right up front, fighting the flames like a maverick." When Vanguard looked where the firefighters were manning the hoses, he was able to make out Driftwood with Grapevine close behind him. "Wait here," he said to Raspberry as he moved in their direction; however, the officer clamped his shoulder with a strong hoof. "No one goes beyond this line," he said severely.

At that moment the roof of the burning building sighed a defeated breath and collapsed into the fiery pit of the restaurant sending a shower of flame and smoke into the air and around the firefighters. Vanguard was torn between staying with Raspberry to prevent her from bolting toward Driftwood or with dashing into the danger area himself to relieve Driftwood, allowing the devastated stallion to go to his wife himself. In that moment of indecision, the smoke cleared momentarily to reveal the firefighters moving back from the hopeless remains of the flaming building. There was no longer anything left worth saving; the loss would be complete. All they could do now was contain the flames.

There was one stallion, however, who would not admit defeat. Driftwood remained rooted to the ground, dangerously close to the crackling blaze that continued to consume his once proud ediface; it was as if by sheer willpower, he would thwart the destruction that ravaged his domain so brutally.

The arrival of Sugarberry and the rest of the family members allowed Vanguard to turn Raspberry's care over to her mother and sisters; they all watched with concern the actions of the ponies tending to the still hungry fire; Strawberry Baskets and Harper were helping with the hoses while Grapevine had moved to a crew around the corner.

Vanguard was watching the play of flames through the structure, blackened walls laced with the red and orange flames, when an eerie blast of wind came out of the night sky and shook the weakened structure like a final deathly shiver; three of the walls fell inward to join the pile of rubble, but the fourth stood forsaken and weak, tottering between joining the others in collective annihilation or in spreading its own path of terror. It went with the evil; as another blast of ghostly wind hit it, the remaining wall, with its putrid flame and blackened beams, leaned outward, and in slow motion began its descent to the ground.

In the instant that the fate of the wall became obvious, Vanguard rushed across the ensuing space to where Driftwood still stood entrenched within the ominous reach of the collapsing wall. Feeling the heat of the flames and hearing the crackling of the wood, he reached the stallion and pulled him back with a surge of power that propelled them both toward the line of safety.

They would have made it if not for the fire hose stretched across their path of escape which acted like a trip line and brought them both down, the wall cascading around them in a shimmer of red sparks and black ash.

For a while no one could move; the two stallions had disappeared. Sugarberry wanted to dart to her husband, but she found that she could not force her limbs to move. What would she find? She was in torment, while beside her, Raspberry whispered, "Driftwood"; her legs refusing to hold her, she slumped to the ground; that action brought Sugarberry to her senses, and she knelt to share her sister's grief. But she could not keep her eyes off the action playing out before her.

Making their way to the area where the stallions were last seen, the firefighters began pulling smouldering debris from the site; Sugarberry watched for any sign of Vanguard as the moments slipped by, feeling as if her heart could no longer beat, when finally a yell came out from among the rescue workers that they had found someone, and the ensuing shuffle of ponies and materials revealed her country blue stallion being supported by Strawberry Baskets.

She was at his side in a moment, as her father eased him to the ground and into the care of the paramedics on the scene. "Where's Driftwood?" Vanguard choked out, attempting to raise himself enough to see what was happening.

"Just take it easy," the paramedic said in a reassuring voice. "They'll get him out."

"He's under there yet?" Vanguard croaked, once more attempting to stand up.

Not so gently this time, the paramedic pressured him to the ground while Sugarberry tried to set his mind at ease. "Everyone is doing their best, Vanguard. Just take it easy; they'll..."

A new cry went up went up from the direction of the firefighters-- "We've found him." Vanguard heard the shout and was finally able to relax the tension he felt; he allowed the paramedics to examine his cuts, burns, and abrasions without a dispute and was even able to force a smile for Sugarberry; but he sensed that something was not right by the worried glances she kept taking over her shoulder.

"What is it? What's wrong?" he was able to ask.

"They've carried Driftwood out... but he's not... he's lying so still..." Her voice cracked and a tear rolled down her cheek.

* * *

The paramedics hovering over Driftwood's inert form worked feverishly to bring back some sign of life; Strawberry Baskets kept a firm hold on Raspberry as she wept and called her husband's name. He looked so battered, so lifeless, that she herself could barely breathe.

"Raspberry," her father tried to reassure her, "they know what they're doing; he'll come around." But Strawberry Baskets found the sound of his words hollow even to his own ears.

"One of the beams got him bad," Harper said in a strained voice. "He's going to have to fight hard..." His words drifted off as he realized the negative train of thought he was on.

Raspberry could stand it no longer; she pulled free of her father and dropped to the ground by the tortured body of Driftwood, covering his mane with her tears. "Driftwood... Driftwood... please by okay," she murmured over and over again, softly caressing his sooted face. "My God, please help him!"

Working steadily with the patient, the paramedic in charge was finally heard to exclaim, "He's coming around!" and Raspberry was treated to the faintest whisper of her name which affected her as if an enormous vise had been removed from her chest, and she could breathe once more. As the medical personnel continued to monitor Driftwood's vital signs, Raspberry was relieved to see that her husband's breathing was becoming stronger and more regular, too.

As the stallion was prepared to be moved to the hospital, his weary eyes rested on Raspberry and it seemed that now he was able to consciously focus on her in light of the unforeseen adversity of the early morning hours of Christmas Day. "Are you okay?" he managed to say.

"If you're okay, I'm okay," she smiled, feeling as if it was the first time in a lifetime.

* * *

"Are you sure you wouldn't rather spend the rest of the night at Raspberry and Driftwood's apartment?" queried Sugarberry of her husband as they prepared to leave the hospital. Vanguard's wounds had been properly attended to while Driftwood was under the strict supervision of Berryville's medical staff. "It's a long walk to Mom and Dad's."

"I wouldn't be able to sleep anyway; the walk will give me time to clear my head." Vanguard grimaced as he took his first step. "Just don't walk too fast."

Raspberry was with Driftwood, determined to stay close to her husband to reassure herself that he was truly going to be all right. The stallion himself was sleeping under the influence of the medication he had received; his wounds were bound, his burns were treated, his broken leg was in a cast, and his bruises were darkening by the minute; Raspberry watched his steady breathing as though no other sight would ever be able to commandeer her attention away.

Huckleberry, Wineberry, and Baby Gooseberry had long since been returned home by their father, Harper, and Wisteria; Gooseberry and Strawberry Baskets were to accompany Vanguard and Sugarberry; Strawberry Shortcake was going to stay nearby in case Raspberry would need her support.

As the ponies walked the distance to the orchard home of Strawberry Baskets and Strawberry Shortcake, they could see on the eastern horizon the first dim sign that the sun was indeed still holding its place in the firmament even though Raspberry and Driftwood's world had been cruelly shattered by the rampaging fire. No one spoke as each pony relived the events from the moment the fire siren had sounded until Driftwood had finally opened his eyes to life in the aftermath of the building's collapse.

Sugarberry and Vanguard lagged behind the rest as Vanguard favored his front right leg that had been twisted in his fall; the gash across his left shoulder was also causing him some discomfort and the burnt patches on his body were smarting with each step. Sugarberry kept an anxious eye on him but smiled when he turned her way. "You're a hero, you know," she softly said.

Vanguard hung his head. "If that were true, Driftwood wouldn't be back at the hospital, would he?"

"It is true; if you hadn't pulled him back, he'd have been in much worse shape."

"And if I hadn't tripped, we'd both have been out of danger?"

Squeezing his hoof, Sugarberry tried once more to avert his self incrimination. "If that wall had come down on Driftwood where he was standing, he would have taken a much heavier load and he would have been more difficult to find; Dad and Harper were discussing it; you probably saved him from more serious injuries-- or worse."

Vanguard remained silent, and Sugarberry did not infringe on his privacy; Gooseberry had been safely delivered to her home on the way; and in her front window, the Christmas tree had shone brightly. "It's Christmas morning," Sugarberry had murmured in wonder at the realization. It had not felt like any Christmas she had ever known.

* * *

Opening her eyes to the wintry sunlit day, Sugarberry sat up and rubbed her eyes before recalling the fiasco of the restaurant fire. She looked quickly across the bed, but found herself alone in the room. After a necessary stop down the hall, she started her search for her husband.

Finding the kitchen empty and cold without the presence of her mother, Sugarberry finally happened upon the stallion gazing out the living room window. He thoughts had taken him so far away that he did not hear her approach and jumped when she touched his shoulder. "Merry Christmas," she smiled.

"It's Christmas, but it's not very merry."

"You sound like someone who didn't sleep very well after a trying experience."

"I can't stop thinking of what it would be like to lose everything like that," the stallion admitted.

"When you ran toward the flames to get Driftwood out of danger, I thought I was losing everything."

Vanguard drew her to him and hugged her tightly. "There was a moment or two there when I wasn't so sure myself."

"Excuse me," Strawberry Baskets' voice rang out. "Should I come back later?"

"Dad! Merry Christmas!" She went to her father, dragging Vanguard with her.

"Merry Christmas, sweetie." Strawberry Baskets gave her a kiss, then looked at Vanguard. "How are you doing?"

"Better than Driftwood.."

Strawberry Baskets eyed him closely. "You do realize that you did a very brave thing last night, don't you? We all owe you a very big debt of gratitude; if something had happened to Driftwood...." He could not bear to think of the loss to his daughter and to the family as a whole. The telephone rang and he rushed to answer it. Sugarberry and Vanguard waited silently until he was finished.

"Driftwood is doing fine under the circumstances; he's resting comfortably and he was able to take some nourishment– that's your mother's number one criteria for good health," he winked at Sugarberry.

"How's Raspberry holding up?"

"She's sleeping in the lounge right now; she and her mother had a hospital breakfast while the Dr. Regis was examining the patient."

"Breakfast!" exclaimed Sugarberry. "What would you two like to eat this Christmas morning?" She was already on her way to the kitchen.

"Make it quick," Strawberry Baskets said. "I'm to walk into town and take over your mother's vigil; she's anxious to get home for awhile."

"We'll come too so we can keep Mom company."

"She's already called Penelope; she'll walk your mother home."

"Then I'll scramble some eggs and put some biscuits in the oven," planned Sugarberry. "It won't take long at all, and then you can be on your way."

* * *

Christmas day in Dream Valley was a festive occasion, as the ponies there were still unaware of the early morning's tragedy in Berryville. In addition to the relatives that had arrived the previous evening, many local ponies had been invited also to the Christmas celebration at Agatha and Hubert's mansion.

Spike the baby dragon was there, as well as a crowd of Bushwoolies who had followed him along. Quarterback and Merry Moments made an appearance, in addition to various friends of Agatha's. Hubert's guests, though, clashed quite a bit with Agatha's "fashionable" acquaintances. Tiny the Bigfoot arrived early, and Lacretius Holbrook after him. Hubert was also happy to welcome his old friend, Lord Butter Pecan Cobblestone, whom he had not seen for years. Even Barnacle showed up with one foreleg in a cast, a result from his boating accident that fall. Needless to say, the Christmas celebration in Dream Valley was a bit chaotic, but still very festive and enjoyable for everyone there.

* * *

In Forest Brook, the Christmas gathering was held at the Fairfaxes' residence. Everyone again was there, and they marveled at the beauty of the richly-ornamented tree set up in the middle of the spacious living room. And, of course, there were a great deal of presents to hand out.

Faline was paid special attention to, as this was her first Christmas. However, Tabby was enjoying seeing her daughter's presents as much as the little unicorn herself. "Oh, look, Faline! A My Little People doll! Who is it?? Grace! Isn't she pretty? No-no-no, the bubble has to be cut off. Here, let me help..."

Elaine giggled at her niece's rapturous expression whenever a new gift was opened. "Hi, Faline! Would you like to see what I got for you?"

Faline's excited gurgles indicated that yes, she did want to see. Drawing her onto her lap, Elaine helped the foal along as Faline clumsily tore the paper away from the box. Lifting the lid, Faline saw a wonderful sight, the purple fairy kitty that had caused so much trouble yesterday. She grabbed it out of the box quickly and marveled at its beautiful jewelry and wings, then hugged it close to her as she looked up at her aunt with a dazzling smile.

"Oh, how lovely!" Tabby squealed. "Wasn't that nice of Aunt Elaine, Faline?"

"Ga, ga," Faline assented.

"I think it's her favorite present yet," Thomas smiled. "Would you mind staying with her for awhile, Elaine? Helga and Reginald wanted to show us something upstairs."

Elaine was happy to comply to act as babysitter for awhile and walked around the room with the foal showing her various sights. Faline thoroughly enjoyed the tour, and all the while held on tightly to her new "pet". Her interest was particularly caught, however, by a fiberoptic wreath, its highlights constantly changing from one bright color to the next. It seemed like magic to Faline.

Elaine was kept standing in front of the wreath for quite some time, smiling at her niece's spell-bound amazement at the decoration. She was beginning to be entranced by it as well until a voice that spoke behind her pulled her back into reality. "Merry Christmas, Elaine!"

"Alan!" she gasped, whirling around. Unknown to her, this action also caused Faline to drop her kitty. "I never expected to see you here!"

"I can leave if you want me to," the stallion replied laughingly.

"Oh no, don't! I was just surprised. What brought you here?

"My mom just sent me by to deliver some Christmas cheer to the boss's family, and they invited me to stay awhile."

"That's right!" Elaine recalled. "You said you worked at the Fairfax company, right?"

"Yes, in advertising," Alan affirmed. "Say, this must be your niece!"

"Yes, this is little Faline," Elaine introduced her. "Isn't she darling? Oh no, but where did your kitty go?" she added, alerted to the loss by Faline's disappointed face.

Alan stooped down to pick up the discarded toy from the floor and handed it back to Faline. "Here you go, sweetheart. I'm glad to see that your kitty has a good home now."

"Kitty," she gurgled her thanks.

Elaine and Alan soon fell into conversation, and any of the assembled family that noticed them saw that they were too deep in conversation to be interrupted. Elaine only looked up when she realized that Tabby and Thomas had returned to the scene.

"Oh! Hi!" she exclaimed, jumping up. "Alan, this is my brother Thomas and his wife Tabby, Faline's parents. Tabby and Thomas, this is Alan. I met him yesterday when I was buying Faline's present."

So this was the stallion responsible for the change in Elaine's behavior! Tabby realized. After the proper hellos were exchanged, the pink unicorn tried to get some more information on the matter at hand. "So, exactly how did you meet?"

"Oh, well," Elaine fumbled for the words, "when I was buying the cat for Faline at a gift shop in town, it rang up wrong, and the cashier wasn't willing to give it to me at the clearance price. Alan came in then, though, and convinced her to change it, and then he walked me home. Nothing extraordinary, really," she finished hurriedly, wondering if she should have put on the last part about walking her home.

"I see," Tabby said, smiling knowingly to herself. "Elaine must be very grateful you were there, eh?"

"I'm grateful just to have met her," Alan said cheerfully, at which a wave of pink began to cross Elaine's face.

They were interrupted, however, when Cecilia entered through the doorway and announced that the meal would be ready shortly, and that everyone could begin seating themselves. At this, Alan quickly jumped out his seat.

"It's that late already?" he said in alarm. "I hate to run off like this, but I didn't know it was this late. I have to get back home; Mom'll be wondering where I am. I'm glad to have met all you; I'll see if I can catch you again while you're still in town. Bye, Elaine."

Elaine waved and sighed a little wistfully as he hurried out the door.

* * *

By mid-afternoon, the sky had clouded over and more than one pony had made the prediction that Berryville was in for a snowstorm. Sugarberry and Vanguard had replaced Strawberry Baskets on hospital detail while he, Strawberry Shortcake, Gooseberry, and Grapevine tried to bring some normalcy back to the interrupted Christmas celebration for the sake of the foals. Their intentions were well-founded as the foals were finding the day to be very boring-- but at any given time, some of the adults could be found snoozing in their chairs or talking on the telephone or answering the ringing of the doorbell as yet another curious neighbor came to share their sympathy with the family over the loss of the restaurant and to hear all the details of the catastrophe.

Wineberry held out the best; she played hostess by serving punch and cookies to any guests who called, receiving compliments from everyone on how pretty she was in her Christmas ribbons and bows and how helpful she was becoming to her parents. Huckleberry, on the other hoof, was in the pits-- so much so that he found the company of Baby Gooseberry to be a supreme annoyance. "Dad, make her stay away from me," he complained after playing peek-a-boo for what seemed like half the day.

"Find some of her new toys to play with," Grapevine suggested, interrupting his conversation with the gathered grown-ups.

"She doesn't like any of her new toys."

"What about the dishes and stuff that Sugarberry gave her? She seemed to think they were okay."

Huckleberry sighed the biggest sigh he could muster. "Those are girls' toys, Dad!"

"Baby Gooseberry plays with your spaceships, so you can play with her dishes," Grapevine reasoned.

"When was she playin' with my spaceships?" the colt demanded to know.

"Huckleberry, take Baby Gooseberry into the kitchen with her dishes and let her set the table or something," Grapevine suggested. "Wineberry," he called to his daughter, "go into the kitchen and help Huck entertain your sister."

Wineberry promptly obeyed, but Huckleberry trailed behind until he caught a commanding look from his father which sent him scurrying to comply. Arriving in the kitchen, he sat in his dad's chair at the table and moped.

Taking things into stride, Baby Gooseberry pattered around the table setting out the colorful plastic dishes that Sugarberry had given her; Wineberry gave her helpful hints and offered her big sisterly advice on what to serve. Baby Gooseberry set her favorite piece, an aluminum roaster in foal-size, on the table; removing the lid revealed a well-browned turkey ready for carving. Next, she dug out the plastic foodstuffs that had come with her dishes and heaped the plates high with potatoes, vegetables, and biscuits.

"It looks good enough to eat," said Wineberry wistfully.

"I'll say," agreed Huckleberry. "Nobody wanted to fix our Christmas dinner because of all the commotion over the fire."

"Mommy said everybody was too worked-up to eat."

"Not me!" Huckleberry assured his sister. "I could eat an entire dinner all on my own."

"Grandma said we'll have the turkey on Sunday."

That piece of information brought a light to Huckleberry's eyes momentarily, but quickly disappeared. "Aunt Sugarberry and Uncle Vanguard will be gone home by then. Grandma wanted the whole family together for this Christmas." Both foals sat listlessly watching Baby Gooseberry emptying all the well-filled plates onto the floor followed by the dumping of the plastic turkey when Huckleberry was struck with a grand idea.

"We can fix the Christmas dinner!" he informed his sisters.

"Can not," Wineberry said and proceeded to shoot down his idea. "We've never cooked a turkey before."

"You watch Mommy and Grandma and Aunt Raspberry cooking all the time," Huckleberry scoffed. "Haven't you learned anything?"

Straightening herself, Wineberry gave it some thought. She had helped in the kitchen since she could toddle across the floor; her mother often told her that she was going to be an excellent cook someday. Why not start now? "We can do it," she asserted, going to the refrigerator and looking at the huge, naked beast that lay within. "Get the roaster."

Even Huckleberry knew where to find the proper pan, and he soon had it on the table awaiting the main course. The bird was heavy, but between the two of them, the foals managed to get it to the table and into the pan while Baby Gooseberry watched. It was then that Wineberry realized that she was lacking some important information. "I don't know how hot to set the oven," she confided to her brother.

"What do cookies bake at?" he asked.

The petite filly went to the stove and set the oven, then turned and stared at the turkey. "The turkey is a lot bigger than a cookie," she mused.

"Then set it hotter," Huckleberry suggested. "It'll get done faster that way, too."

Wineberry hesitated. There had been no end of discussion this day on what had caused the fire at The Berry Patch, and she in no way wanted to compromise the safety of Grandma's house. Her good sense paid off. "Let's look in the cookbook."

"It'll never get done," grumbled Huckleberry when he found that an intense heat was not the best route to take with a roast turkey.

It took some effort to arrange the oven racks so that the roaster full of fowl would fit, but they managed; it was a fulfilling moment when they finally closed the oven door. "How long?" asked Huckleberry.

"Three and a half hours, the book said."

Huckleberry's eyes grew round. "That long?"

"It's big," she stated. "And we still have lots of stuff to do."

"Like what?"

Wineberry frowned at her brother. "You don't want to eat just turkey, do you?"

"Oh. You mean like potatoes and corn and stuff?"

Shaking her head in the affirmative, Wineberry began exploring the bins in the kitchen. "You can peel the potatoes, and I'll peel some carrots."

Baby Gooseberry had gotten bored with her toys and came to Wineberry, tugging at her mane. "Are you hungry?" Wineberry asked, and got her sister a glass of milk and some cookies. The foal sat on the floor and proceeded to fill all the toy glasses with milk, breaking up the cookies to fit on the plates. Spot, the house cat, found this activity quite to his liking.

"We need some bread," Huckleberry noted after he had peeled more potatoes than he cared to think about.

Considering the options available to them, Wineberry came up with a workable plan. "Grandma always has some dinner rolls in the freezer; we can thaw them out."

That was easy enough for Huckleberry, so he agreed readily and found the desired foodstuffs and set them on the counter to thaw. "What's for dessert?"

"Aunt Raspberry was going to bring something," Wineberry remembered.

"Then you'll have to bake something."

"I can make a cake!" Wineberry brightened. She was familiar with her mother's recipes and soon found the chocolate cake that she wanted.

In the meantime, Baby Gooseberry and Spot had finished their snack with the foal eating the cookies and Spot drinking the milk, although the baby pony was able to rescue half a glass for herself before Spot had lapped it all up. While the cat cleaned his orange and white fur, Baby Gooseberry laid down on the floor and went to sleep.

* * *

It was incongruous to Sugarberry that Berryville could be so alive and so filled with laughter when her family was so down; the cloudy sky accentuated the myriad lights that were strung on seemingly every tree, porch, and pole in the city. Groups of ponies on their way to visit family and friends shared the greetings of the season with the couple from out of town as if they were all one big, happy family. "And I guess we are," she shared with her husband as she began to warm to the holiday.

The hospital grounds were no less cheerful that the rest of the town, and a life-size nativity scene dominated the entryway. One look at the Holy Child safely in the care of Mary and Joseph swept away any misgivings that Sugarberry might have been harboring over the misfortune suffered by Driftwood and Raspberry so that by the time she and Vanguard reached Driftwood's room, she was the Christmas spirit personified. After an affectionate hug for her sister and brother-in-law, she stood back as Vanguard and Driftwood faced each other for the first time since the fiasco of the fire.

"I'm glad one of us was thinking straight last night," Driftwood smiled. "Thanks, buddy."

"Be more careful in the future; next time I'm going to mind my own business."

"What are you complaining about? You're not the one stranded in this sterile hospital." He looked over the patches, bandages, and the cast that ornamented his body.

"We both will be eternally grateful to you, Vanguard," Raspberry said, then amended her statement. "All three of us."

Driftwood took his wife's hoof in his own and cleared his throat for a solemn announcement. "Raspberry and I have been talking; and if the foal is a boy, we're going to name him..." He stopped and grinned. "...well, we haven't actually decided what we're going to name him, but it isn't going to be Vanguard!"

* * *

"How much longer?" asked Huckleberry for the umpteenth time as he peered through the oven window at the bird. The kitchen was filled with aromas that tantalized his taste buds.

"Half an hour," replied Wineberry, setting the last of the silverware around the table. "Are you sure the potatoes are right?" he asked, lifting the lid off the bubbling pot on top of the stove, starchy suds dripping down the sides.

"I think so."

Some minutes later, Huckleberry was staring at the chocolate cake batter in the pan waiting to be baked. He looked at the clock and tried to pin down the elusive dilemma that had been haunting him. "How long does it take to bake a cake?" he asked, finding the point that bothered him.

"Thirty minutes," Wineberry said, then looked at her brother in consternation. "We can't put the cake in the oven until the turkey is out, so it won't be done in time for the meal!"

"Dah! Why didn't we think of that sooner?"

"Look in the freezer and see if there is anything else in there we could use."

Before too long, Huckleberry was back with a bag of cookies. "These look good." He eyed them hungrily.

"I've set plates for everybody; but Aunt Raspberry and Uncle Driftwood might not get home from the hospital."

It was a good point. Huckleberry realized something else-- Aunt Sugarberry and Uncle Vanguard were not home yet either. "I'm going to see what's goin' on," he advised his older sister, stepping over the still sleeping Baby Gooseberry on his way out.

There was a hush over the house, Huckleberry realized as he searched out his parents and grandparents; the day had become evening, and the view out the windows was obliterated by darkness. The colt found Grandpa asleep in his favorite chair, with his dad in the same state on the couch. Gooseberry was snoozing in the rocking chair, hugging a plush teddy bear in lieu of Baby Gooseberry. Grandma, Huckleberry decided, must have gone to bed.

The idea of the Christmas meal being ready to eat with no one around to eat it gnawed at the colt; he watched the sleeping ponies, and decided that his safest bet was to go wake Grandma. "Grandma?" he whispered outside her bedroom door.

The mare who had not missed fixing supper in a lifetime of emergency situations was at the door in a hurry. "It's dark outside! I must have fallen asleep! Why didn't someone wake me?"

"I just did, Grandma."

Strawberry Shortcake sniffed the air. "It smells like the turkey's in the oven. I didn't expect your mother to do all that by herself." The mare hurried through the house and stopped abruptly when she saw the adults sleeping. She turned a puzzled look on Huckleberry. "Who is watching the turkey?"

"Me and Wineberry," the colt replied, pushing open the kitchen door to reveal the preparations in progress. "But nobody's here to eat it."

Taking stock of the turkey in the oven, the potatoes and carrots on the stove, the table waiting for diners-- and ignoring the peelings in the sink, the array of dirty bowls and pans on the counter, and the sticky patch of flooring littered with plastic toy dishes-- Strawberry Shortcake smiled. "You foals did all of this?"

"We wanted something special for Christmas."

"Of course you did." Strawberry Shortcake understood. The three foals had looked forward to Christmas for months and then had to face the day alone. "I'll go wake up the others; it smells like that turkey will be ready to eat soon." She left the youngsters to complete for themselves the banquet that they had started.

The mare had just explained the situation to the others when the outside door opened. "It's snowing!" Sugarberry laughed as she entered the house with Raspberry and Vanguard close behind her. "Oh, my! It smells so good in here!"

"Driftwood must be feeling better if you left his side," Strawberry Baskets noted of Raspberry.

"He was getting sleepy from his medication and wanted me to have some of Christmas day away from the hospital; he kicked me out."

"You'll feel better for it tomorrow, dear." Her mother agreed with Driftwood's logic.

Wineberry came into the room to announce that Christmas dinner was served. "I thought we had decided to dispense with a big meal today," Sugarberry fussed.

Strawberry Shortcake shook her head. "The foals decided-- and, wisely, I might add-- that no one should let Christmas pass without a special celebration."

"Amen!" said Strawberry Baskets as he led the way to the table.

* * *

As the day of Christmas wore away into night, both Elaine and Tabby were found commiserating over how sad it was to see the holiday come to a close for another year. Many of the families had gone home by this late hour. The ones that remained were talking around the Christmas tree. Faline sat on the floor, surrounded by her presents.

"Girls, what are you moping for?" Helga reprimanded them. "The holidays aren't over yet; New Year's is coming up in just a week."

"That's true, I guess," Tabby sighed. "Still, I hate to see Christmas go."

"It's so magical!" Elaine agreed.

Over in the corner, Thomas was probing his grandfather Reginald over the integrity of a certain employee of his named Alan. He still felt the need to watch out for his sister and wanted to make sure there was not anything unseemly about this stallion she obviously had a blooming friendship with. Reginald, however, laughed off his concerns and assured him that all of Alan's traits were outstanding.

"So, Elaine," Tabby asked suddenly, when she was sure all the others weren't listening. "Is there anything... between you and Alan?"

"It's really too early to tell something like that," Elaine defended herself.

"But you're not openly rejecting him, like Toby?"

"Well... I guess I'm not," Elaine confessed. "There's something different about Alan. I... I really would like to get to know him better."

"How romantic," Tabby sighed.

"Oh, don't say anything like that, not yet! I don't even know what he thinks, and besides, his parents sort of already have a girl in mind for him."

"Really? Who?"

"Lydia, the clerk at the gift shop. Their fathers work together, you see, but Alan and Lydia don't care for each other."

"Well, then, there's no problem."

"Oh, Tabby, it's all so confusing!"

"Yeah, romance always is. But don't worry; I think he likes you. I bet you'll be hearing from him again soon."

Merry Christmas!

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