Christmas in Dream Valley 2002
written by Sugarberry, Tabby, and Clever Clover

Tabby stared, enraptured, through the glass of the aquarium. After Furbys and Shelbys, crayfish were her latest obsession and she doted endlessly on her new pet, Riv. Ah-Loh the Furby sat on the counter next to her head, peering at the crustacean as well. “Woah, no fun,” he said. Once, Ah-Loh had decided to take a swim in the aquarium; and Riv had pinched him with one of his big, intimidating claws. Ah-Loh was careful to stay out of the aquarium after that incident.

“I need more crayfish,” Tabby said wistfully. “You’d like some friends, wouldn’t you, Rivvy?” Riv stood up against the side of the aquarium and wielded his claw menacingly.

“Aw, I love you, too,” Tabby cooed.

“Where the grub? Gimme grub!” a Shelby shouted angrily, alighting on the counter in a way only a Shelby could. Then all the other Furbys and Shelbys in the room decided they were hungry, too, and Tabby had to appease them all.

Before exiting the room, she turned and surveyed it proudly. This room was set aside as a sanctuary for all wild and abandoned Furbys and Shelbys to come to. Tabby loved them all and refused to admit that a pony could have too many. The aquarium set up in the center of the room was a sign of more pets to come. Blowing a kiss to all its inhabitants, Tabby exited the room.

* * *

Tamara tugged the brush angrily through her mane. She thought she could get away from that mare during her and Philippe’s Christmas holiday, but there Philippe was again in the next room talking on the phone with her. Just how much input did his new publicity agent need from him, anyway?

She and her husband Philippe, the famous rock star, had already spent the preceding week with Tamara’s parents and sisters in Garrison. They had just arrived in Dream Valley the previous night to spend the rest of the holiday season there among a smaller group of family and friends. Tamara had only moved into this city four years ago, but it still seemed like home to her even though Philippe’s glamorous lifestyle kept them in the bigger cities most of the time. Tamara had had to put her dream of running a cattery specializing in the finest quality of show cats on hold after her marriage to this celebrity, but she hadn’t minded that. Until now.

It was a few months ago that Philippe’s recording company had given him a new publicity agent. This agent was a young, trendy, hip, and very attractive mare by the name of Fiala. So far Tamara hadn’t had any problems brushing shoulders with all the glamorous ponies her husband hung out with, but Fiala was a different story. Though she had tried to look at this from an objective point of view, Tamara simply could not rectify the excessive amounts of time Philippe was spending with Fiala- supposedly discussing business matters- but Tamara couldn’t believe that any longer.

Finally Tamara heard Philippe say his goodbyes on the phone. Taking a final swipe with her hairbrush, she set it on the counter and trotted into the living room. “What was that about?” she tried to ask as casually as she could as Philippe put his cell phone away.

Philippe smiled as she entered. “Oh, Fiala just wanted to-“

”Fiala! Of course it was Fiala!” Tamara snapped. “Who else would require that much of your time?”

A pained look crossed Philippe’s face. He sensed his wife’s impending wrath. “Tamara, I thought you understood... it’s just business matters,” he pleaded. “I’m not doing anything behind your back.”

“Oh? And just how do I know that?” Tamara retaliated. “Did you have to take her out to intimate dinners... several times over? Without me? Plus the countless hours she needs to spend talking to you on the simplest question- just what do you do with the rest of that time? And what about that impromptu visit to New Pony for a photo shoot that I didn’t hear about until I listened to the messages on my machine, and the autograph party at Hayton that just slipped your mind...”

“I know you’re not happy with the arrangement, but she’s truly only helping to boost my career. Tamara...” Philippe looked at her tenderly. “You know you’re the only mare in my life.” He reached out towards her, but Tamara pushed away.

“Don’t!” she hissed. “I know it’s your career, but this is the outside of enough and I’m getting sick of your single-mindedness on your accursed career! I’ve heard all your excuses already... you promised that you’d be completely uninterrupted during the holiday. But now it’s back to Fiala! How can you stand there and tell me anymore that nothing’s changed between us?! I-“ Here Tamara choked up and she turned away. She had to go out, get away from him for awhile before her temper made her say something she’d really regret. “I’m going out for awhile. I don’t know when I’ll be back. Goodbye, Philippe!”

* * *

“Tamara? Is that you?” Elaine peered carefully at the pink unicorn who came into her path at the busy mall just two days before Christmas.

“Oh... Elaine!” Tamara looked up and recognized her cousin’s sister-in-law. “What a pleasant surprise!”

“It’s good to see you again,” Elaine said warmly. “Is Philippe around here, too?”

“Uh... no,” Tamara stammered. “I came out alone... Christmas shopping, you know,” she fibbed.

Elaine nodded understandably. “I’m still searching for some presents, too. Hey... if you’re not too busy, how about sitting down in that café over there and chatting for awhile?”

Tamara smiled, thinking about how much Elaine had changed since last year. Now a self-assured, confident businessmare stood in place of the shy, timid pony of years past. “I’d like that,” she agreed. “You need to catch me up on all the latest gossip!” And get my mind off Philippe, she added mentally.

Sipping their drinks, the two mares chatted amicably for some time. They discovered that they shared a lot of common ground, both being involved in animal-related businesses. There were plenty of ideas and plans to offer on Elaine’s vet clinic in Friendship Gardens and Tamara’s experience in the breeding and showing of felines.

“When do you think you’ll be able to start up your cattery again?” Elaine was curious to know.

“Oh...” Tamara stared into the depths of her cup. “It’s really hard to say; I put my plans on an indefinite hold after meeting Philippe, and I don’t see any signs of life quieting down any what with his concerts and interviews and recordings and all.” She let an involuntary sigh escape.

Elaine patted her hoof sympathetically. “I’m sure you’ll be able to find the time eventually. What does Philippe think? Surely he wouldn’t object if you wanted to spend some time at your own business.”

“No... he’s way too caught up in his future concert dates and all that,” Tamara said forlornly. “I’m surprised he even took this much of a vacation. And... I couldn’t leave him to his own devices for any amount of time.” Tamara shuddered at the thought of not being with him and giving Fiala free reign over his time.

“Tamara, is something wrong?” Elaine asked in concern.

Tamara, looking into those gentle and compassionate green eyes, found herself pouring out the whole story of her woes to Elaine- how much Fiala’s interference was worrying her, how Philippe seemed to be completely devoted to his work and not to her, and how frustrated with herself she was for not being able to talk rationally about any of this to her husband. “When we first met he was afraid that no one really cared about him, just his music,” Tamara finished. “And that’s what attracted him to me so much, because I hadn’t known anything about his celebrity status and still fell in love with him. But now- now it’s all about his career, like that’s all that matters!”

Though it didn’t erase the initial problem, Tamara felt much better after having confided in a fellow mare. Elaine was a sympathetic listener even if she didn’t offer a miraculous and easy way out of Tamara’s coil. “Oh, Tamara, I know he loves you very much, even if you can’t see it right now. It is Christmas, after all, and I’m sure you two will be able to sort things out between you.” Trying to lift her mood, Elaine added, “Now, why don’t you come with me to Tabby’s for lunch? You haven’t seen her yet, have you? I know she’s looking forward to your visit.”

Tamara smiled weakly and wiped her eyes. “Yes, I’d like that very much.”

* * *

After his latest argument with Tamara, Philippe had gone out himself to get his mind off his problems. Currently he was at the Satin Slipper Sweet Shoppe drowning his sorrows with yet another ice cream sundae. With a cloak and sunglasses on, he was able to escape the notice of his fans. Scoops wondered about the mysterious stranger in the back corner of her shop; he was beginning to appear rather sinister to her. She hoped it was just her imagination.

But in any case, Philippe was only a depressed celebrity and not the romantic criminal Scoops was imagining. How had things gone so wrong with Tamara? His wife had anticipated and embraced enthusiastically the life he led, until several months ago when tension had started building between them. It was apparent that Tamara was jealous of Fiala, but how could Philippe convince her that it wasn’t what she was imagining? He still loved Tamara more than anything in the world, and Fiala was nothing more than another agent. He had tried asking Fiala to lay off some, but if that didn’t work, what else was he supposed to do?

But then... maybe he was too centered on his career if he was thinking like that. Tamara willingly went along wherever Philippe’s career took them, but he had never considered what her hidden feelings were. Did she want to do something with her own life? But all he had been concentrating on lately was boosting his own career. He really hadn’t had much time for Tamara herself of late, all for the sake of his “career,” but was that more important than Tamara?

No, he realized, it wasn’t. He hadn’t been taking into account the new responsibilities he had with a wife to think of. No wonder Tamara was getting fed-up with him. He’d been going about this all wrong; it wasn’t just Fiala that was irritating Tamara, but Fiala had helped to speed their marriage to this inevitable point. He had been only worrying about his own dreams, not Tamara’s. He was holding her back from doing what she wanted. It was time to make it up to her. He was going to make this Christmas the best one she had ever had!

Philippe exited the shop in a hurry, leaving Scoops to further speculate about what he was doing- had he found out that the police were on to him? Shrugging, she got back to work.

* * *

Later that afternoon, Tabby and Agatha had gotten together to do some last minute present-wrapping... and gossip, of course.

“Tamara came over for lunch earlier,” Tabby said by way of introducing the topic. “Have you seen her yet?”

“No, but how are she and Philippe doing?” her mother queried. “I haven’t heard much from them lately.”

“Well, from what Tammy let fall it sounds like she’s having troubles with Philippe,” Tabby said emphatically.

“Really?” Agatha’s attention was caught. “What kind of troubles?”

“She mentioned some mare by the name of Fiala several times; I think she’s some sort of new agent or something for Philippe that he’s been spending a lot of time with.”

“Indeed!” Agatha said curiously. “Did Philippe say anything?”

“He wasn’t with her,” Tabby shrugged. “That was another tip-off. They’ve always been together the other times they’ve been in town. I tried to tell her she shouldn’t have married a famous celebrity- it’s only asking for trouble!”

* * *

Philippe had spent the rest of the day scouring the city for the perfect gift he could give Tamara to show her what she meant to him. Sure, he already had something for her, but his earlier realization made him want something more meaningful to give than just another jewel or bauble. Unfortunately, he wasn’t inspired by anything he saw; but there was still one more day until Christmas!

Once back home, Philippe was relieved to find that Tamara had gotten back but had retired to bed early. Well, at least there was something he could do. Pulling out his cell phone, he put in a call to Fiala and told her in no uncertain terms that he didn’t require all the publicity she was giving him and to lay off a bit. Fiala was remarkably agreeable after hearing his authoritative tone. This only made Philippe feel more guilty; if it was that easy to get rid of her, he obviously hadn’t been trying very hard before.

In any case, what else could he do for Tamara for Christmas- and beyond?

* * *

“This will be such fun!” Chiffon said, hugging Sugarberry. “Thanks for inviting me to spend Christmas with you!”

“The invitation was entirely selfish on our parts,” countered Sugarberry. “We see so little of you.”

“You always were my favorite cousin,” added Vanguard, getting in his own hug.

“We did have fun growing up, didn’t we?” grinned Chiffon. “But let’s not start reminiscing now; I want to see that foal of yours.”

“Come on upstairs; he should be waking from his nap.”

Vanguard, Sugarberry, and Chiffon had no sooner gone upstairs when the back door opened to admit Wishbone and Caravel who immediately disappeared into Wishbone’s basement apartment. The rose-red stallion withdrew a parcel from his backpack and stared at it in suppressed awe before finally looking at Caravel. “Well, this is it; do you think she’ll like it?” So saying, he opened the box to expose a glittering diamond ring.

Shrugging his shoulders, Caravel grinned. “You’re asking me what Garnet will think?”

“She seemed to like this one more than any of the others we looked at, but she wanted me to make the final decision; I think she thought this one cost too much.”

“Could you cover it?”

“Barely; no one else is getting much for Christmas, however.”

“They’ll understand; everyone seemed to approve of your engagement.”

“What are you getting Petal?”

Not an engagement ring!” Caravel was quick to assure his friend.

“And why not? The two of you...”

“We’re content to remain friends until we’re both closer to finishing college.”

“Once Garnet and I are married next summer, I’ll have only one more year to go. I envy my sister; she graduates in May.”

“Petal was wondering if you guys would all have a double wedding or something.”

Wishbone chuckled. “I wouldn’t be surprised to see Chocolate Chip wearing a diamond before Christmas is over; Wigwam’s kept his peace only because my sister was mulish in that she wouldn’t marry before she had her degree.”

Caravel looked at the clock. “Oh, gosh! I said I’d meet Petal at two o’clock to start our trek to Woodlawn.”

“Well, you’re late.”

* * *

Tamara woke up the morning of Christmas Eve feeling ill and queasy again. She had avoided mentioning it to anyone, but maybe it was time to see a doctor and make sure it wasn’t worse than a mild flu or something of that nature.

Then she remembered the party she was hosting for her family that evening and the supplies she still needed to buy. Groaning at why she hadn’t thought to do that yesterday, Tamara jumped out of bed and made herself ready for a quick- as quick as it could be on Christmas Eve, anyway- shopping trip.

Then it occurred to Tamara to think where Philippe was. Had he even come home last night? Horrors, she hoped she hadn’t scared him off that thoroughly! But reassured to find him still asleep on the living room couch, she hurried on her way.

Luckily there wasn’t a whole lot she had to buy for the party, but there were many other ponies out doing the same last-minute shopping as herself and so it took awhile for Tamara to get out of the stores. She had forgotten her resolve to see a doctor; but as she noticed the hospital looming ahead, she decided on a whim to go in and, if nothing else, schedule an appointment.

* * *

As it was, Tamara had been lucky. Dr. Toby had been on duty with a cancelled appointment, and he agreed to examine Tamara. His findings had come as a shock to her; surely it was exciting, but she was apprehensive to tell Philippe when they were so at outs with each other. How could she tell him she’d be giving birth to their first child in eight months?

Shivering at the cold wind that blew, Tamara pulled her scarf tighter around her and headed towards Tabby’s mansion. She needed someone to talk to. Her cousin would only have useless suggestions, Tamara was sure, but it might cheer her up at least.

* * *

“So you’re mad at Philippe because you’re jealous of Fiala and the attention Philippe pays to his career and not you,” Tabby summed up her cousin’s tirade. “Plus you’re pregnant and are wondering how to tell him when you’re quarreling with each other.”

Tamara nodded.

“Well, tell him and get it over with,” Tabby said cheerfully. “Maybe it would make him start thinking about you again, hmm?”

“You make it sound so easy,” Tamara sighed. “But- I guess you’re right. I’ll just have to- ”

But right then they were interrupted by a squealing little pink unicorn. “Auntie Twamawa!” Faline exclaimed gleefully, bounding over to her aunt.

“Hello, sweetheart,” Tamara said, pulling the baby pony onto her lap. “Are you looking forward to Christmas?”

“Ywes!” Faline replied in the affirmative. “My Wittew Pweople.”

“Oh, is Santa going to bring you lots this year?”

Faline stared up at her aunt disdainfully. “Swilly, no Swanta. Mommy!” She thrust a hoof confidently towards Tabby.

Tabby beamed proudly and laughed at Tamara’s expression. “There is no Santa Claus, y’know, Tamara. She’s learning quite well, don’t you think?”

“You are incorrigible,” Tamara groaned. “You won’t even let her hold on to one childish fantasy?”

Tabby looked indignant. “Why, I think it’s terrible to mislead any pony like that! I shudder to think of the propaganda you’ll be feeding your kid.”

Tamara couldn’t help but burst into laughter. She had been right that a visit to Tabby’s would cheer her up. Only Tabby would equate tales of Santa Claus with propaganda!

* * *

“Whisk has gone all out in decorating this place,” Wigwam noted as he guided Chocolate Chip to their table at the Estate Manor. Green garlands swathed in blue lights cascaded along the dark wooden panels and beams, giving the establishment a warm, harmonious atmosphere. In the corner, a natural tree decorated with a mixture of blue and white lights and a myriad of blue blown glass ornaments in a variety of shapes plus white ribbons and bows caught the eye and held it. Christmas melodies provided a peaceful backdrop.

“It’s beautiful,” agreed Chocolate Chip, slipping into the chair that Wigwam held for her, “and relaxing.”

“You’ve been keeping awfully busy with your classwork; the semester break will give you a chance to catch your breath.”

“I want to do some research for my honors thesis,” Chocolate Chip admitted, taking a sip of freshly poured water. “That and my work at the book store will take up most of my time.”

“I hope you allow some time for leisure; Wishbone and Garnet are getting up a skating party sponsored by the casino; and at the rate their plans are snowballing- no pun intended- I foresee that you will be commandeered into helping.”

“It sounds like fun.”

Their orders having been placed, Wigwam settled back in his chair; but his right hoof remained in action, nervously fidgeting with the utensils and his napkin. When his eyes lifted to meet the mare’s, he said, “Graduation will be here before you know it.”

Chocolate Chip grinned. “Can you believe it? Come May, I’ll be able to really start living.”

“So what is it you’ve been doing these past years?”

“It’s been great fun, but I’m anxious to make a life for myself.”

Wigwam leaned forward and took Chocolate Chip’s hoof in his. “I was hoping you’d want to make a life with me.”

“You’ll always be a part of my life, Wigwam,” Chocolate Chip responded. “You’ve been the best friend a mare could ask for.”

“Friend?” Wigwam queried, his left eyebrow lifting. He would have said more, but Caper, their waiter, appeared with their salads. It was only after he had gone on his way that Wigwam, ignoring the food before him, took up the conversation again.

“You’ve always said that you didn’t want to make any commitment as to your personal life until you had your degree in hoof, but I’d like you to be wearing this ring...” he brought forth a simple gold band with a fiery diamond winking from it, “... to signify your consent to be my wife.”

“Oh, Wigwam, it’s beautiful!” Chocolate Chip reached out to touch it, then quickly drew her hooves back and hid them beneath the table. “But I can’t accept it. Not now with my last semester at Pony Pride looming over me and all the running for interviewing that I’ll be doing and all the decisions that will have to be made.” Her eyes pleaded with his across the table for understanding.

“What about the actuary position with Glenvale Insurance? It’s right here in Dream Valley.”

“I’ll be the first to admit that it seems perfect, but it’s too easy... too convenient. I want to see more of Ponyland than just Neighberry and Dream Valley; I want to find out what it’s like to get out in the world and make my own contribution in my own way.”

“And what’s wrong with Dream Valley? I thought you were happy here; you have friends and you’re constantly busy.”

“I am happy here, and I couldn’t ask for better friends.” She patted Wigwam’s hoof. “You have been everything wonderful... and maybe that’s part of my reason to move on. I’ve been looked after and pampered by you and Sugarberry and Vanguard and Wishbone and everybody; I need to find out what value I have on my own. I need to see what life is like away from the confines of all that is familiar.” She felt Wigwam tense and pull away from her momentarily, but he recovered and cupped her hoof in his.

“I have loved you since I met you, Chocolate Chip. You were the answer to my dream quest all those years ago. You are the only one who can make my life complete.”

“I love you, too; you know I do. But I’m not ready to settle down yet. I want to put my education to use...”

“You can do that here in Dream Valley being married to me.”

“If I said yes now, I’d never know what I might have accomplished on my own. I want to experience a city like New Pony or Hayton where a pony has to make it on his or her own merits rather than slipping into niches simply because it’s the easiest thing to do. You do understand, don’t you?”

“My independent one...” Wigwam sighed. “Of course, I understand.” He was silent as if studying a new plan, and Chocolate Chip waited quietly. “Once you know where your job will take you, I’ll leave the casino in Garnet’s capable hooves and find employment wherever you go. There’ll be no reason for us not to be married as soon as possible after graduation.”

“That wouldn’t solve anything!” Chocolate Chip responded. “Then I’d be your wife first and my job would be relegated to second place and I’d be making my decisions for us rather than for me.”

Wigwam sat back in his chair and rubbed his hoof across his chin; he was at a complete loss for words.

Chocolate Chip was immediately stricken. “That sounded so selfish, didn’t it? But I look at my mother and remember how cold she was to me when I was growing up and then see how happy she is now with her restaurant; she’s a whole different pony now because she’s doing what she wants to do. And maybe she’d have been able to love me if she’d have had a chance to be someone more important than a stay-at-home mom.”

“You’ll be a wonderful mother.”

“You can’t know that, and neither can I! What if I couldn’t feel a mother’s love? I will not put any foal through the unhappiness I went through, Wigwam. I need to discover what I might be missing before I make a decision to tie myself to the responsibilities of marriage. It wouldn’t be fair to you or to me or to any foal we might have.”

Wigwam picked up the ring and watched the diamond sparkle. “You won’t marry me now but you might at some time in the future... is that right?”

“I don’t expect you to wait for me until I resolve my uncertainties; I want both of us to go on with our lives in the best way we can.”

“I’ve waited this long, Chocolate Chip; I can wait a little longer. Just promise me that if at any time you decide that you’re ready and willing to marry me, you’ll not hesitate to let me know; I’ll keep the ring near at hoof... it’s yours once you say the word.”

“By the same token, you have to promise me that if you meet someone else in the meantime, that you’ll feel free to set a new path for yourself.”

“There can never be anyone else... my dream quest ended with you, remember.”

“Just keep an open mind about this, please!” Chocolate Chip pressed.

Wigwam did not want to end it here, but he realized he had no choice. “Okay. Friends?”

“Friends!” Chocolate Chip smiled.

* * *

Arriving at Elaine’s house to escort her to Tamara’s Christmas Eve party, Alan stalled their departure for a moment.

“I know we’ve been talking about it for awhile, but it’s about time to make it official, don’t you think, Elaine?” Alan presented her with a velvet-colored jewel case and Elaine flipped it open with trembling hooves.

“Oh, Alan, it’s beautiful!” Elaine squealed. “Why, it’s the one I pointed out because I liked it so well! You remembered!”

“So now, Elaine, the question,” Alan said, melodramatically dropping down on one knee before her. “Will you marry me?”

“Oh, silly, of course I will!” She flew into his forelegs and it was some minutes before they actually left for the party.

* * *

The Christmas Eve party at Tamara’s was a relatively quiet affair with just Hubert, Agatha, Thomas, Tabby, Faline, Alan, Elaine, and the host and hostess present. Alan and Elaine were quite wrapped up in each other; but after everyone had offered their congratulations, there was still one pony unhappy with the situation. Tabby sat sulking and glowering in her chair with forelegs crossed over her chest.

“Why, Tabitha, whatever is the matter!” Agatha exclaimed, noticing her daughter’s dark look directed at the newly betrothed couple.

Him,” Tabby said defiantly. She had a curious knack of alternating between moods of acceptance and dislike for Alan. Since she had first met Elaine, Tabby had grown to be highly protective of her sister-in-law and wasn’t completely satisfied with this new arrangement. “He’s changed Elaine so much, don’t you see? She’s not at all who she was a year ago.”

“Maybe this is who she’s supposed to be, and the previous Elaine wasn’t what had been intended at all,” Hubert suggested, jumping into the conversation.

“Ooh... that’s deep,” Tabby considered. “Oh, I know it’s unreasonable and selfish of me, but I cannot completely reconcile him for taking the old Elaine from us.”

Agatha patted her hoof. “It’ll just take time to get used to, dear. I know you do truly wish them well even if you don’t show it.”

Tabby scowled. “But everything was just fine before he came along! Elaine isn’t Elaine anymore! It’s all his fault she ran off to Friendship Gardens to open her own clinic. Oh, why did he ever have to take an interest in her!”

After ranting and getting it out of her system, Tabby felt much better. Sighing, she finally concurred. “Oh, I guess this is only fair. We were sheltering her a lot, you know. She never really had the chance to try out her wings, did she? Now she’s finally found her own niche in life out of the shadow of her family. Yes,” Tabby said firmly, “it’s for the best.” Standing up purposefully, she walked to the other side of the room to ingratiate herself into their good graces.

* * *

“Are you sure that Banderol is warm enough?” worried Chiffon as she, Sugarberry, and Vanguard walked to view the living nativity scene outside of church. The air was made colder by a forceful wind.

Vanguard chuckled. “Sugarberry’s got him wrapped in enough blankets to keep him toasty through a blizzard.” But he carefully checked the bundle in his forelegs just to make sure. “He’s warm and sound asleep.”

“The quilt he’s wrapped in was a gift from Garnet’s aunts,” Sugarberry informed Chiffon. “It’s perfect for this blustery weather.”

“They did a beautiful job; I was admiring the stitches earlier.”

“I’m getting a vague recollection that you tried your hoof at quilting one time, Chiffon,” Vanguard teased.

“Don’t mention it! I think Mom still has that horrid project stashed away somewhere, harboring the hope that someday I’ll become domestic enough to finish it.”

“What were you making?” queried an interested Sugarberry.

“It was a home economics enterprise... a table runner; simple enough, but my stitches weren’t neat enough, so the pieces never matched up right. It was a very frustrating experience.”

Vanguard laughed. “She tried to get her neighbor’s dog to pack it off so she’d have a reason for not finishing it, but the dog wouldn’t go near it. Icon even tried to tie it around the dog’s neck for a scarf, but he wouldn’t stand still.”

“Good ol’ Barky,” Chiffon smiled in remembrance. “That was one of the few times he let me down.”

“We were told that Icon is spending the holiday with Splotch’s family,” prompted Sugarberry, curious to know how her brother-in-law’s life was proceeding now that the mare he had taken a fancy to was living in Woodlawn.

“Have you met Splotch?” Chiffon asked.

“Yes, when we were in Woodlawn for the autumn festival.”

“Oh, yes; I was out of town then. Well, she’s settling into local life quite readily; she has such a vivacious personality that she seems to know everyone already, almost as if she’s lived there all her life. Floral Breeze is finding out what its like to have a daughter.” Chiffon realized that her statement could be construed to mean that something was lacking in Floral Breeze’s son’s wives so hurried to add, “Not that you and Morning Dew aren’t exceptional daughters-in-law, Sugarberry; but Splotch is in and out of the house as much as Icon, and she’s so unreserved and enthusiastic...” Catching an amused glance shared between Sugarberry and Vanguard, Chiffon stopped. “You understand what I’m saying, don’t you?”

“That Morning Dew and I are too timid and spiritless?” giggled Sugarberry.

“You know I didn’t mean it that way; it’s just that Splotch is such a go-getter that she always seems to be the center of attention, yet she draws everyone else into the thick of things, too.”

“My self-esteem is suffering here,” teased Sugarberry.

“I still love you,” Vanguard assured his wife.

“You two are purposely misunderstanding me!” Chiffon remonstrated.

“We found Splotch to be a delightful pony, Chiffon, and agree with your assessment of her character whole-heartedly,” Sugarberry finally relented.

“And we highly approve of her for Icon if the two of them decide to make a life together,” added Vanguard.

“He was always so sure that he’d never find a mare he’d want to share his life with,” Chiffon mused. “Then he met Splotch, and it was like love at first sight for him.”

“Who can figure?” Vanguard grinned at Sugarberry. What would Chiffon say if she knew that Sugarberry had been bemoaning just the other day the fact that Chiffon seemed to have no special interest in any particular stallion?

The ponies were nearing the church by now and met up with Poeticus and Lemon Treats with their daughter, Limelight; so they continued together to the site of the manger scene that a number of younger ponies portrayed for the benefit of all. Garnet and Wishbone joined the onlookers, and their smiling faces conveyed more than the joy of the season. Sugarberry soon found out why as Garnet proudly displayed the engagement ring on her foreleg; congratulations were happily forthcoming.

It was somewhat later before Wigwam and Chocolate Chip slipped into the circle of friends, and one look at Wigwam’s face told Sugarberry all she needed to know. She had expected better news from that quarter, and she had to squelch an overriding desire to take Chocolate Chip aside and try to talk some sense into her. As it was, both ponies seemed to avoid her, neither of them wanting to face her motherly solicitude just yet. Sugarberry shrugged. They were both old enough to live with their own mistakes.

Turning her attention to center stage where the angels and the shepherds were congregating to pay homage to the newborn king, Sugarberry’s spirits soared. The birth of the baby at Bethlehem had brought joy to the world two thousand years ago and still did so today. She looked at her husband who brushed her cheek with a light kiss. “Merry Christmas, my love,” he said.

Her eyes shining, she returned his endearment, then settled a hoof over Banderol where he snuggled safe and secure in his father’s clasp, their own newborn baby, a precious gift of God’s love that vivified the Christmas miracle in a very personal way. This was truly Christmas present.

* * *

The Christmas lights of Royal Paradise were still twinkling through the snow that had begun to fall, but the windows were dark from within, signaling the fact that the inhabitants had retired for the remainder of this holy night. Only at the back of the royal dwelling did activity still shine forth as the Bushwoolies cleaned up after the Christmas Eve festivities.

In the main room, however, near the Christmas tree, sat one of the royal princesses, her white body showing up as a ghostly presence as she sat, unmoving, staring at the white lights glittering from the evergreen branches in an otherwise unlit room. The evening had been a bustle of celebration and friendship, but Tiffany had needed some time to herself, returning to the scene of the earlier merriment when everyone else had snuggled into their warm beds to seek a few hours of sleep before the eclipse of the blessed Christmas day.

The green tree with white ornaments and lights and the added color of glittering blue garlands disappeared to the princess’s unseeing eyes, and instead she visualized the grand pine that had graced Guido’s villa the previous Christmas in Vulcanopolis; the towering tree had been decorated entirely in gold, radiating a richness and a majesty that had delighted the princess. She had reigned supreme over the festivities that she and Guido’s mother had organized, Guido simply providing the largess needed to entertain on such a lavish scale; he had beamed at her loveliness and at her ability to converse genteelly with all of his guests. They had been surrounded by music, too, the best musicians having been hired to provide a backdrop of classical melodies for the gathering. Food had been available in abundance with servants constantly refilling the trays and plates and glasses of the guests.

But, best of all- Tiffany smiled to herself as she remembered how special she had felt that year before- had been the knowledge that she- Princess Tiffany of Dream Valley- had snared one of Ponyland’s most eligible bachelors, the rich and famous Guido Casale, who would soon be her husband. That dream had shattered with an awful abruptness half a year later. Tiffany shook her head as she remembered their argument and the ensuing termination of their betrothal; at the time, Tiffany believed it had been the right thing to do; but now, with the loneliness of this Christmas night settling over her like an inescapable web, she was not so sure.

Had her and Guido’s relationship been guided only by wealth, wondered Tiffany now as she tried to bring her eyes back to the reality of the tree before her. She closed her eyes tightly to prevent a tear from escaping as she remembered some of the good times they had shared; she had tried so hard to bury these glimpses, but Guido’s presence in Dream Valley a month ago had released a torrent of memories that ate away at her belief that she could be happy without Guido. She was rather afraid that she had loved him more than she had thought possible... had really loved the stallion, not just the money and power he represented.

Lost to her thoughts, the princess literally jumped out of her chair when Friendly, the Bushwoolie, toddled into the room with some startling news. “Two ponies here, yeah, need shelter,” he informed the princess.

“The Royal Paradise is not a motel!” Princess Tiffany retorted.

Friendly paused and scratched his head over that statement. “Uh... already told them to come in. Sorry.”

Tiffany, finding her Bushwoolie to be insubordinate, stalked out to take care of these ruffians herself but stopped short to see a young mare and a stallion standing just inside the back door, the mare looking as if she was in great distress and the stallion wearing a worried look. The new fallen snow clinging to their manes had begun to drip on the floor.

Before Tiffany could form a curt dismissal, however, the stallion spoke his appeal. “Please, you’ve got to help us; my wife is near her delivery time and the motel we were just at doesn’t have any vacancies,” the stallion explained. “They thought we might find a room at the Painted Pony, but my wife can’t go any further; we saw your lights and hoped...”

“Room off kitchen, clean, warm,” Friendly volunteered. “Yup, yup.” He looked up at Tiffany to see what she thought.

“But...” Tiffany paused while considering the problem, “we don’t know anything about them!”

Friendly had already gotten tired of waiting for a response. “Come with me, yeah, yeah!” The wooly blue creature headed off, waving the young couple to follow him. The couple followed Friendly, the stallion supporting his wife.

Tiffany trailed behind. “Wait for me!” I will have to have a talk with that Bushwoolie later, she told herself sternly.

Friendly showed the ponies to one of the overnight rooms where the Bushwoolies slept when their duties kept them at Royal Paradise for an extended period. The room he opened was furnished with plain and simple decor, but it provided the necessities of the moment. The stallion helped his wife onto the bed where she collapsed in relief to be off her hooves. Tiffany looked on disapprovingly.

“I’m not sure...” she began, but stopped when the mare cried out. The stallion looked at the princess.

“I think it’s time,” he said.

“Time?” Tiffany questioned. “Time for what?”

“For the foal to come!” the stallion stated. “We’re going to need your help.”

“My help? But...”

“I believe I may be able to assist you,” Rosie, the intelligent Bushwoolie, said as she came into the room at Friendly’s request. “Please phone the hospital and inform them of the situation,” she directed Tiffany. “Tell them I believe it may be a breech birth, so they can prepare accordingly. In the meantime, I shall see what I can do myself.”

“Dr. Toby...” Tiffany whispered. “Of course; I’ll call Toby.” She gladly left the room to access the phone in the kitchen.

“Toby,” she shouted when she heard the doctor’s voice over the line. “There’s a mare here about to have a foal and we need your help!”

“Who is this?” Toby asked.

“It’s Tiffany, of course!”

There was a stunned silence as Toby tried to gather his thoughts. “Tiffany? Who at the Royal Paradise is having a foal?”

“I don’t know who she is. She’s obviously new to Dream Valley and didn’t know where to go for such an emergency. But her husband says that she’s having a baby!”

“Okay, Tiffany; I’ll be right there; do what you can to make her comfortable in the meantime.”

“But, Toby!” wailed the princess.

All Tiffany heard was the click of the receiver.

By the time Tiffany got back to the improvised delivery room, events had escalated. The young stallion, whom Rosie was referring to as Pampas, cast a quick glance at Tiffany. “You help Rosie; I’ll help Sunny.”

“I can’t,” trembled Tiffany.

“You can and you will!” Pampas contradicted her.

“The foal has been delivered successfully,” Rosie beamed before Tiffany had a chance to do anything. “I was prepared for exactly this situation in my medical studies.”

Tiffany gasped, her eyes moving to the struggling little body in Rosie’s hands. “Oh, my,” she breathed.

Friendly, coming into the room with a supply of towels, handed one to the princess. Chumster followed with a basin of warm water. “Dirty baby, clean, yeah,” he said.

Tiffany stood open-mouthed and found that she could not move.

A knocking at the back of the house sounded and Friendly left to answer the summons. When Toby came in the room, his mane sparkling with snowflakes, he was greeted with the sight of Rosie cradling the newborn in her arms; one quick glance assured him that the newborn was holding his own, so he went straight to the new mother to administer to her needs.

When Rosie had the foal presentable, she carried the little colt to his father and nestled it into his forelegs; the stallion stared in awe at the little creation that rested so naturally there; turning, he transferred his son to his wife.

“Merry Christmas, Sunny,” he said tenderly as he ran a hoof over his wife’s sweating brow.

“Merry Christmas, Pampas,” she smiled back, cradling the infant protectively against her.

Toby grinned at the princess who hovered at the edge of the room. “It looks like you and the Bushwoolies handled things well enough.”

“I think I’m going to be sick,” Tiffany moaned.

“No, you’re not. You have to help Rosie here.”

“Help Rosie...” the princess murmured as if in a trance. She, a princess, should not be involved with such goings on. Rosie could handle it by herself. She stood her ground.

When mother and foal had been ascertained healthy, Toby gestured to Tiffany to follow him from the room. In the tranquil confines of the kitchen, Toby faced the princess.

“Sunny will be fine, but she’s weak from the journey she and Pampas have been on; it will take some time before she can be moved.”

“You mean... they have to stay here at Royal Paradise? They certainly aren’t royalty.”

“It’s Christmas, Tiffany; where’s your spirit?” Toby snapped, then regretted his short temper. Running a hoof through his mane, he added, “I’m sure Queen Serena won’t have a problem with it. Where is she, by the way?”

“Sleeping,” Tiffany said. “I was the only one up when Friendly admitted our... visitors.”

“Well, I guess there’s no need to interrupt her now; it will be morning soon enough.”

Pampas came into the room carrying the foal. “Sunny fell asleep,” he said by way of explanation. “The Bushwoolies went to find something for the baby to sleep in.”

The colt, as exhausted as his mother, was asleep, too. Tiffany moved closer to him, transfixed now by his calm and peaceful countenance as he relaxed in sleep, smoothing the wrinkles that had accompanied his earlier wailing. “Why, he’s precious,” she murmured, stroking his silky hair.

“It’s a miracle, isn’t it?” Pampas shared her wonder.

“Are you hungry, Pampas?” Toby broke the amiable mood. “I doubt you had the opportunity to eat too well of late.”

Pampas looked up, disconcerted. “It’s been awhile. But I’ve made sure that Sunny has been eating at regular intervals,” he finished defensively.

“I’m sure of that,” Toby assured him. “The Bushwoolies might be able to find you something to snack on, however, if you’d like.”

Another Bushwoolie crew was already busy at the stove; and as Pampas, Tiffany, and Toby continued to admire the newborn, they prepared a warm and nourishing meal for the stallion. Tiffany accepted a mug of hot chocolate for herself, but Toby excused himself to return home.

“I’ll come by later,” he assured both the princess and the new father. “The best thing for Sunny right now is to sleep as long as she can.” He smiled as a troupe of Bushwoolies returned carrying the cat bed from Princess Tiffany’s room.

“Baby bed, yeah, yeah!” they chorused, haphazardly setting the temporary cradle on one end of the table. “Cat hair, soft,” he added, referring to the black hair from Theodora that littered the base of the basket.

Pampas moved to lay the foal in its first bed, but Princess Tiffany stopped him. “May I hold him?” she asked the father.

“Sure,” he said, his own eyes wandering to the tempting food the Bushwoolies were setting on the empty end of the table. He gave over custody to the princess willingly and went to satisfy his hunger.

“It would be nice if someone could keep at eye on Sunny and the foal,” Toby said quietly to the princess. “Pampas is exhausted and won’t be much help once he’s eaten.”

“I’ll... well, I could sit with them for awhile. The Bushwoolies will have to get home themselves.” She looked down on the sleeping foal still in her forelegs. “This little guy won’t be much trouble at all.”

“That’s very thoughtful of you, Tiffany,” Toby grinned at her with such obvious admiration that’s Tiffany’s white cheeks glowed pink. It seemed that all the memories of an earlier time when the two of them had been the talk of the town flashed between them in that moment. “Merry Christmas.” He brushed her cheek with a kiss.

“Merry Christmas, Toby.”

When Pampas had been fed and directed to his bed and all the Bushwoolies except Rosie had finally finished their chores, Tiffany still sat with the foal in her forelegs. The Bushwoolies had retrieved a rocking chair from somewhere, and Tiffany sat in the quiet kitchen, the lights turned low, and watched the sleeping babe as if she could not get her fill. Rosie had taken it upon herself to monitor the mother throughout the rest of the night and had offered to put the foal in his bed; but Tiffany had refused, saying that she would take care of the foal herself. Somehow, she felt protective of him.

As she watched the gentle rhythm of the colt’s breathing and smiled at the occasional tossing of a tiny hoof through the air, she thought back to Toby’s gentle words of favor to her. She had not been very noble when the young couple had appeared at her doorstep nor had she been brave throughout the delivery, but Toby had seemed to sense some goodness deep within her.

Guido had not.

Guido Casale had found her cold and uncharitable, in love more with his money and the position he held than with the pony himself. Strange, thought Tiffany as she took the tender little hoof of the foal into her own, that she had given up Toby for Guido, only to have Guido give her up... for what? The stallion certainly seemed satisfied to remain unattached to any mare; and surprisingly, had turned his interests to helping others. Tiffany found that change unsettling, especially when he had intimated that she was missing out on something by refusing to meet the demands of the living world around them.

Well, this little foal in her forelegs was a living creature, Tiffany mused; and the princess was discovering that she enjoyed meeting his needs. She felt a tender glow in the area of her heart as she smiled down into his tranquil face. Maybe, just maybe, she could understand what Guido had been hinting at after all. She visibly relaxed; this was her Christmas future.

* * *

Tamara was still anxious over telling Philippe her news. Somehow she just couldn’t force herself to bring it up and tried to avoid him as much as possible during Christmas Eve. All the guests of the previous night had noticed the strained atmosphere between their host and hostess.

But on Christmas morning, it was impossible to avoid her husband as he eagerly led her downstairs to see what he had gotten for her.

It was a stunning attache case with a logo brilliantly emblazoned in gold: Tamara’s Cattery. Tamara’s eyes started filling with tears at the thoughtfulness of the gift. In itself an attache case wasn’t so extraordinary, but what it indicated was. Philippe hadn’t forgotten her or her dreams! “Oh, Philippe, thank you... you’re so wonderful. I know I don’t really deserve anything like that after the way I’ve been acting, and... oh, Philippe, I’m so sorry!” Sniffling, she continued, “I’ve been so selfish... here I was thinking you didn’t care any more, but that’s not true at all and I wouldn’t believe you when you told me. Oh, can you ever forgive me?”

“Oh, Tamara, love,” he murmured, caressing her mane, “don’t think about it. I have been treating you shabbily. You’ve been putting up with my whims for long enough; from now on we can indulge in some of your own.”

“I can’t wait,” Tamara smiled through her tears, but then remembered the other thing lurking at the back of her mind. “But, Philippe, there is something I have to tell you...” Tamara hesitated only a moment before continuing. “You see, you’re going to be a father!”

As Tamara was engulfed in another warm embrace, she knew everything was going to be just perfect.

* * *

The arrival of the ponies from Berryville was a riotous occasion. Sugarberry’s parents, Strawberry Shortcake and Strawberry Baskets, headed the entourage, greeting their daughter and her husband with all their love and best wishes for a happy Christmas, showering a fair share of affection and gifts on Wishbone and Chocolate Chip, and scooping Banderol from his bassinet with all the propriety of proud grandparents. Their one visit shortly after his birth had already endeared the foal to them, but this Christmas reunion was as special as the season.

Gooseberry and Grapevine were surrounded by their offspring, with Wineberry holding close to her father until her shyness abated and Huckleberry talking a mile a minute about the sights they had seen on the journey to Dream Valley on this crisp holiday morning. Baby Gooseberry, swept up by Chocolate Chip to view the Christmas tree heavy with symbols of the season, was immediately entranced. The newest addition to that family, Loganberry, used to the activity of siblings, slept through it all while Raspberry and Driftwood’s baby twins, Custard and Cream, opened wide eyes to the sounds and sights moving in a kaleidoscope of images around them.

Having grown up as an only child, Chiffon looked on in wonder at the commotion and disorder that ruled the household until all the greetings had been given and received, and the ponies had settled down with steaming cups of hot chocolate and sugar cookies. Taking a mug of chocolate to Vanguard, she confided, “I always thought the holidays were wild when I was allowed to share them with you and your brothers; that was halcyon compared to this.”

Vanguard grinned. “This is nothing; wait until the afternoon rolls around.”

* * *

If he could have thought of a reasonable excuse, Wigwam would have taken his leave of the Christmas festivities at Sugarberry’s. When he had accepted her invitation to celebrate with her household, Wigwam had thought that he and Chocolate Chip would have been officially engaged; and he could think of no better surroundings than amidst all their friends.

Although nothing had changed on the outside, Chocolate Chip’s refusal to accept his proposal had sent Wigwam into the doldrums; and he was finding it increasingly difficult to keep a cheerful outlook, especially in the face of Wishbone and Garnet’s giddy happiness and the vivid reminder of their future that glittered on Garnet’s left foreleg.

At least, they had left the confines of the house for awhile. The youngsters had begun to feel penned-up and it had been decided that Garnet and Wishbone along with Chocolate Chip and Wigwam would accompany the foals to the park to enjoy the sledding hill. As the sun had peaked out from between the dark gray clouds for the moment, the excursion seemed like it would be an enjoyable one. Amidst the delighted chatter of the younger ponies, Wigwam was able to keep a low profile and turn his thoughts inward where he could mull over his private heartache, especially since Chocolate Chip seemed determined to keep an emotional distance from him.

The chocolate brown mare was at the present time swamped with Gooseberry’s three foals, her laughter coming to him in direct contrast to his own depression, which nettled the stallion even more. Was she so unmindful of the anguish her refusal had caused him?

Heedless of the activity around him, Wigwam allowed his thoughts to carry him back to the time of his dream quest when he had stood alone against the elements, leaving his emotions susceptible to images that would come to haunt him and to take up life within him. He had been left with two impressions: one, that his life would be in harmony with the patronage of the wolves; and secondly, that a brown mare would be his helpmate. His first dream was realized in the instant that he awoke and found the pup, Manitou, at his side; the second had come in the form of Chocolate Chip, or so he thought when he had first become acquainted with the filly who had settled into Sugarberry’s home.

And hadn’t she returned his affection? Surely, there had been some rough spots; but they had overcome all obstacles... only to reach this point. Just when he had thought that the joining of their lives into one was in sight, Chocolate Chip had said no to his proposal, leaving him to face an unidentified amount of time on his own with no clear indication of what was in store for him. The stallion had reason to be discomfited.

If Wigwam could have seen the inner turmoil of Chocolate Chip’s thoughts, he might have felt some relief from his worries. The mare, too, was undergoing a play of emotions that ran the gauntlet of a surety that she had made the right decision to regret that she had possibly pushed Wigwam away from her forever. To cover these waffling emotions, she assumed a cheerful disposition that belied her tumbling thoughts as she gave herself entirely to the present outing.

“The three of you can all share the sled,” Garnet said as they arrived at the crest of the hill at the center of the park, directing Huckleberry to sit farthest back with Wineberry ahead of him and Baby Gooseberry safely wrapped in her big sister’s forelegs. “That way you all get the first ride.”

With Wishbone providing the starting boost, the sled slowly began its descent of the hill; then, as it gained speed, the sled seemed to fly. The accompanying squeals of the foals rent the cold, crisp air until the sled bottomed out and came to a gradual stop. Baby Gooseberry clapped her hooves together, totally thrilled with the ride; Wineberry stood, brushing the snow off her body like the perfectionist she was, but her eyes twinkling merrily; and Huckleberry urging both his siblings to hurry so that they could repeat their run.

Garnet, catching sight of more ponies headed in their direction, turned everyone’s attention to the approaching group. Toby and Fern were coming with their house guests to enjoy some of the wintry weather. Toby’s mother, Ribbons n’ Lace, his sister and family, and visitors from Fern’s hometown of Bushley were included. Everyone but the foals having met previously at Fern and Toby’s wedding in June, there was a boisterous reunion that even brought a smile to Wigwam’s face, Ribbons n’ Lace being able to set anyone at ease with her cheerful involvement. Tendril and Copper’s two foals and the oldest of Raven and Flower Drift were soon sharing sleds with the Berryville foals.

“Where’s your newest addition?” queried Chocolate Chip of Flower Drift.

“Toby’s dad and brother and Fern’s Aunt Maisie graciously stayed with Candytuft,” Flower Drift said.

“Although I think Maisie is the only one who is actually going to be involved with any foal-sitting chores that come up,” grinned Raven.

Toby chuckled. “Yes, I highly doubt that Tribute would lift a hoof to help; and even though Dad is good with the foals, he prefers them when they’re a little older.”

Wishbone eyed the toboggan that Toby had in his possession, the foals already on their way down the hill on a smaller sled. “That thing could hold any number of us.”

“You’re worse than the kids,” teased Garnet.

“It’s never been ridden,” admitted Toby. “I bought it just for today.”

“Well, let’s load it up,” said Raven, taking the first spot.

Flower Drift laughingly joined her husband, and after very little coaxing, Wishbone climbed on the toboggan, pulling Garnet along with him. Garnet had barely gotten a hold on the safety line at the edge of the sled before Copper sent the board on its way. Ribbons n’ ace smiled as Flower Drift’s screams and Garnet’s laughter came back to the ponies on the hill. The toboggan hit a banked area at the base of the hill, dumping its passengers into the snow.

“Oww!” said Tendril. “That’s gotta hurt.”

“The snow’s soft enough,” said Toby, gathering up a hoof of it to throw at his sister.

Tendril ducked, allowing the snowball to hit her husband, Copper, instead.

“Now you’ve done it!” that stallion declared, reaching down to make his own ammunition.

By the time Raven, Wishbone, Garnet, and Flower Drift made it back to the top of the hill along with both sled-fulls of foals, there was a full-fledged battle going on in which they all readily joined. Soon every one of the ponies, except Ribbons n’ Lace and Wigwam- that stallion having taken the chivalrous route in guiding Toby’s mother to the perimeter of the battle scene- were covered in snow. Garnet came finally with one hidden snowball to blast Wigwam; and the stallion, with a whispered apology to Ribbons n’ Lace, left his post momentarily to shower the red mare with return fire.

Crying for peace terms, Garnet came to stand by Ribbons n’ Lace for protection; and noting that Chocolate Chip had been ganged up on by the foals who were in the process of burying the chocolate brown pony under a barrage of snowballs, she sent Wigwam to rescue that damsel in distress.

“I was tempted to get in the melee myself,” admitted Ribbons n’ Lace to the younger mare, but she held up her hoof as Garnet appeared ready to accommodate her. “Andrew would expect me to maintain a certain amount of decorum.”

“Toby doesn’t seem to have any inhibitions,” observed Garnet as Toby, who had just defended Fern from a volley of snowballs from Copper and Wishbone, turned traitor and splatted a huge bunch of snow over her back.

“Fern has been good for Toby,” Ribbons n’ Lace smiled. “I wish my oldest son, Tribute, would find someone that could reach his heart.” She shook her head. “I’ve promised not to be a meddling mother, but sometimes I forget.”

“You seem to be an excellent mother,” Garnet replied.

“Thank you, dear. And I realize that I’ve been remiss in offering you my congratulations on your engagement. I do wish you and Wishbone a world of happiness.”

“Thanks,” grinned Garnet. “We know it won’t always be easy, but we intend to do our best.”

Both mares ducked as a stray snowball whizzed past their heads.

“I was reminded of you the other day, Garnet; I was at the post office in one of those long lines and got into conversation with the mare behind me. She mentioned that she had a daughter named Garnet.”

“Oh... really...” Garnet said, feeling a shiver go through her that was not from the cold air.

“She went on to say that she hasn’t seen her daughter for years and was feeling rather depressed over that with Christmas so near. She admitted that she didn’t even know where her daughter lived anymore. Isn’t that sad?”

“V... very ... s... sad,” stuttered Garnet.

“You sound cold, dear,” worried Ribbons n’ Lace. “Maybe we should get you to some warm place.”

“N... no... I’m f... fine,” Garnet shook her head. This was so weird. There must be any number of Garnets in Ponyland; why did hearing this piece of information now set me to trembling? wondered the red mare as she visibly shivered. She could almost hear her mother’s voice hovering in the frosty air around her.

Ribbons n’ Lace, however, had motioned for Wishbone to join them, and she informed the stallion that Garnet had been out in the cold too long. By that time, the youngest foals were beginning to feel numb as well, so the sledding party rounded up for one last cruise down the hill, Toby’s group accompanying Garnet and the others back to Sugarberry’s house to exchange some Christmas cheer.

“Andrew and the others were to meet us there anyway,” stated Ribbons n’ Lace as she accounted for all the foals. “Our timing should be just about right.”

* * *

Chiffon looked out the window of the home office that was the quietest room that she could find this festive day. She was enjoying her time in Dream Valley and had no real regrets in coming to spend the holiday with Vanguard and Sugarberry, but for a few moments now in the late afternoon she had to isolate herself from the flow of conversation that engulfed her. If she had to look upon one more tiny foal or hear one more fact about delivery, she was going to scream. To avoid that possibility, she had retired to this relative haven to gaze out at the peaceful snowfall.

“Am I to assume that you are as fed up with holiday cheer as I am?” asked a voice from across the room.

Not realizing she was being observed, Chiffon started. She turned to see who had interrupted her and saw that it was a stallion she had never met before; he must have arrived while she had been helping Gooseberry put Baby Loganberry to bed upstairs. The apple green pony appeared aloof and very bored, as if this situation was somehow below his worth. The stallion came to join her at the window, peering out at the landscape that was quickly slipping into a dusky haze. Chiffon shivered; she instinctively did not like- or trust- this pony.

“Not at all,” she smiled stiffly at the newcomer. “I was simply watching the snowflakes.”

“As if we need more snow,” growled the stallion, pulling the curtain across the window with an impatient hoof as if that would negate the white flakes.

“You can’t do a thing to stop it.”

Noting the taunting edge to the mare’s voice, Tribute looked at her more closely. She was pretty enough, her blue coat pleasing to the eye and her spring green mane attractively arranged, but she had the stamp of one of those domineering females who always had the right answer to everything. His raking eyes finally came back to meet hers. “You’re obviously not one of Sugarberry’s sisters,” he said, letting her know that he found her rather plain.

Chiffon bristled. “And I highly doubt that you’re related to either side of the family, both being... civilized.”

Where this conversation might had led was anyone’s guess as Vanguard and Driftwood entered the room at that point.

“So you two have met,” said Vanguard with a questioning look at his cousin; he and Chiffon had been close while growing up in Woodlawn, and he recognized her indignation when he saw it.

“No, actually; our being here together was quite unintentional.” Chiffon made a move as if to leave the stallions without the dubious pleasure on an introduction to this unsettling pony; but Driftwood, sensing the undercurrent of hostility, chuckled, causing her to check her stride.

Vanguard, setting a calming hoof on her foreleg, tried to ease the tension. “Chiffon, this is Tribute, Toby’s brother, a physician from Grayton; and Tribute, this is my cousin, Chiffon, the best third-grade teacher in all of... Woodlawn,” he finished with a wink at his cousin, but his attempt to lighten the moment was not acknowledged.

The two ponies nodded their heads, but no words were spoken between them, so Driftwood relayed the message that he and Vanguard had been sent with. “Sugarberry wondered if you’d like to help in the kitchen for a bit, Chiffon; they’re putting some punch together.”

“Certainly. That will be refreshing.” Whether she meant the punch or the company was uncertain. She cast one final fulminating glance at Tribute and left the room.

Being the recipient of the curious gaze that Vanguard and Driftwood turned on him, Tribute cleared his throat. “A indomitable mare you have for a cousin, Van.”

“Chiffon? Outspoken sometimes, but not ungovernable.”

“It’s rather disconcerting to think of malleable third-graders under her influence, or have I misjudged her from our brief encounter?”

“She’s a gem,” Vanguard replied, taking some offense at this injustice aimed against his cousin.

The stallion held Vanguard’s gaze, the hint of a smile dimpling his cheek. He was thwarted in his reply, however, as a noisy youthful male crowd swelled into the room, led by Friendly, the Bushwoolie, who was waving a recently opened package. It was easy to see that the activity was quickly going to center around a new computer game, so Tribute, Driftwood, and Vanguard made a tactical retreat.

* * *

Tabby and Barnacle were both around the entertainment system, Barnacle digging through old Christmas records with Tabby screaming something about Germans, when Sugarberry opened the door to admit more guests. “Clever Clover. Merry…” Before she could complete her greeting, Morning Glory appeared next to the prince.

“Merry Christmas, Sugarberry,” said the princess with a curtsey.

“Oh, and I see you’ve brought a guest. Come in.”

“Ah…” Clever Clover was about to speak when Minoko pushed her way between Clever Clover and Morning Glory.

“Let’s get this party started,” bellowed the pirate. Then, as if a floodgate had been opened, Minoko was followed by Belle Star, Enchantment, Foxglove, Lady Moonshine, Ryo ( the lop-eared kitty-bunny creature), and Pixie (the Vulpix), almost trampling Sugarberry.

“Well, the more the merrier,” smiled the strawberry-patterned mare.

Morning Glory grabbed Clever Clover’s foreleg and dragged him through the door. As they passed Sugarberry, Clever Clover managed to get in a quick “Merry Christmas.”

Sugarberry was about to close the door when she noticed another pony standing out in the snow. “Hello. Are you another one of Clever Clover’s friends?”

The dark blue pony bowed. “I’m Key. I’m an old friend of Belle Star’s.”

“Well, don’t just stand there. Come in.”

“I don’t know. I just stopped by to visit with Belle Star for a bit when she invited me to come along to your party. I don’t really know anyone else in there.”

“And you never will get to know anyone just standing there. By the way, I’m Sugarberry, your hostess.”

Key smiled. “It’s nice to meet you.”

* * *

Once inside, Foxglove intercepted Clever Clover and Morning Glory. “Excuse me, Princess; I’d like to talk to Prince Clever Clover.”

“What’s up, Foxglove?” Clever Clover asked.

“Morning Glory, why don’t you get something to drink?” suggested Foxglove.

“Okay. Would either of you like me to bring you anything?”

Foxglove shook her head.

“I’m fine,” replied Clever Clover. “Now what did you want to talk to me about?”

Foxglove waited until Morning Glory was out of earshot. “Oh, you looked a little uncomfortable with a princess hanging on your arm. And I’d like you to introduce me to our hosts.”

“Yeah, thanks. Now, where’s Sugarberry and Vanguard? Oh, there they are.”

Vanguard said, “Ah, Clever Clover. I don’t believe we’ve met your friend.”

“This is Foxglove, Steward of Malachite Castle. Foxglove, this is Vanguard, Sugarberry, and their baby.”

Sugarberry looked upset. “Clever Clover, don’t you know little Banderol’s name yet?”

The purple pony shrugged his shoulders. “I never have been very good with names. Give me a couple of more weeks and I’ll have it down.”

“Well, whatever his name is, it’s nice to meet all of you,” smiled Foxglove.

“Likewise. And I hope you enjoy our hospitality.”

“I’m sure we will; and to start, I think I’ll get something to drink.”

“Oh, come now, Clever Clover. You haven’t introduced me to the rest of your friends,” wheedled Foxglove. This is the first time I’ve come to visit you; and I want to find out as much about your life here as I can.”

* * *

Belle Star made her way directly to the buffet table and started sampling the numerous holiday treats assembled there. Before long, she was joined by Enchantment. “Boy, this is so much different than Christmas on the Isle. There everything is so formal and impersonal, at the castle at least. Here it’s cozy and familiar.”

Belle Star nodded. “And the food is good, too.”

“Yeah. As good as the castle chefs are, I still prefer home cooking.”

A third pony joined them, Bob the plumber. “Merry Christmas, ladies. If you’re interested in good cooking, might I suggest some fried calamari?” He offered them a serving tray piled with golden brown breaded rings. It looked as though no one yet had eaten anything off of the tray.

Belle Star took a hoof-full, tossed them into her mouth, and chewed them down. She giggled. “It’s like chewing on rubber-bands, but tastier.”

“They’re not bad,” commented Enchantment.

Bob bowed slightly. “Calamari is my speciality- well, that and plumbing.” His ears suddenly perked up. “Listen. Did you hear that?”

Belle Star, with her mouth full of calamari, cocked her head and listened. “I don’t hear anything.”

“Nor do I,” added Enchantment.

“Sounds like someone’s got air in their pipes. I’ll have to check this out.” With that, Bob handed the tray of calamari to Belle Star and disappeared. Enchantment was dumbfounded. Belle Star just kept eating calamari.

A pink pony with deep purple hair approached the girls. “I’m sorry about his behavior. He’s kind of obsessed with his work. By the way, I’m Plum, Bob’s date. I don’t think I’ve met either of you before.”

Enchantment bowed. “I am Enchantment, a friend of Clever Clover’s from out of town. And this is Belle Star.”

The blond pony swallowed a mouthful of calamari and bowed. “It’s a pleasure to meet you, Ms. Plum.”

Plum glanced around the room. “It’s been nice meeting both of you; but if you’ll excuse me, I have to find Bob before he starts ripping apart the plumbing.”

Belle Star was regarding the tray of calamari. “You know, I bet Key would love this. I wonder where she is?”

* * *

Minoko leaned against the table by the punch bowl surveying the crowd. “Boy, is this a dull party,” she mumbled as she filled a glass of punch. She emptied the glass in a single draw. “Hm, this punch is sure weak. If Clever Clover wasn’t here, I’d be elsewhere.”

“This punch is lacking something.” Lady Moonshine had somehow snuck up behind Minoko without her noticing. “Too bad I didn’t bring along any of my special ‘tea’.”

Minoko glared at Lady Moonshine a moment for sneaking up on her. “You do have a point. Some ‘tea’ would make this a real party.”

Morning Glory approached the punch bowl and ladled some punch into a glass while trying to ignore Minoko. The pirate pony dipped her glass right into the bowl. Morning Glory returned the ladle to the bowl. “Ruffian,” she mumbled. “I don’t see how a pirate like you could imagine you’d have any chance with Prince Clever Clover. I’d think you’d be much happier with a fellow pirate, like Barnacle.”

“Huf. Barny? He’s barely even a pirate while I am a princess among pirates.”

“A ‘princess among pirates’ eh? Well princess or not, you’re still a pirate; and Clever Clover deserves better.”

“Oh yeah? Well, what was it you did before you found out you were a princess? Just a year ago you weren’t so high and mighty.”

“Now, now, girls,” Lady Moonshine threw her forelegs around the arguing ponies’ shoulders. “We are guests of Sugarberry and Vanguard, so try to behave yourselves. There will be plenty of time for arguing tomorrow. Now, who’s up for some ‘tea’?” She produced two small bottles as if from out of nowhere.

Minoko scowled at her. “Hey, I thought you said you didn’t bring any.”

“I said I didn’t bring any of my special ‘tea’. This is just plain old ‘tea’.”

Minoko grabbed a bottle and took a swig. “Ah, that’s not bad ‘tea’. But you’re gonna have to share some of that special stuff of yours sometime.”

“Let’s see that,” said Morning Glory as she took the other bottle. She took a dainty sip and made a hideous face. “What! That’s not tea! It’s…it’s... it’s really not bad.” A warm feeling washed over the princess and her face turned red. She took another sip. “If this is just plain old ‘tea’, I can’t wait to taste your special mix.”

“Maybe I’ll bring some special ‘tea’ to the New Years Eve party. Now let’s just enjoy the company and some good ‘tea’.”

* * *

Key took a few minutes to get over her nervousness at being in a room full of strangers, but before long she was mingling and enjoying herself. The main reason she had not wanted to attend the party was that even though they were friends, Belle Star got on her nerves. She had planned to stop by, say hello, and head back to her ship at Port Scurvy. But now she was stuck at a party with Belle Star that could last who knows how long. At least there was a large crowd (no small thanks to Clever Clover) and Belle Star seemed content to hang out near the refreshment table. It didn’t seem like she would have much problem avoiding her clumsy friend for most of the evening.

Key had struck up a conversation with Tabby, but was rapidly coming to the conclusion that the pink unicorn was as bad as Belle Star. “As interesting as that may be, I’ve got to get something to eat.” The blue Sea Patrol pony made her excuse and slipped away into the crowd.

“Oh, all right. See you around,” Tabby said, not realizing what she had said that could have been considered ‘interesting’. “Hm, I wonder who that was?”

“Hey, Tabitha, Merry Christmas!”

“Hi, Cleve Clove. Merry Christmas to you, too.”

“I’d like you to meet Foxglove, Steward of Malachite Castle back on the Isle. Foxglove, this is Tabby, an old friend of mine.”

“Pleased to meet you,” said Foxglove with a bow.

“Yeah, likewise. So Cleve Clove, you’ve got yourself another girlfriend? When are you going to pick one and get married?”

Clever Clover sighed. “Foxglove is not my girlfriend! She is just a friend.”

“That’s what you say about all of them.”

“That’s because it’s true. I don’t have any girlfriend!”

“Yeah, whatever.”

Foxglove giggled. “You two sound almost like brother and sister.”

“Hey, that’s an insult. Like I could ever be his sister,” Tabby said indignantly.

Clever Clover shook his head. “Come on, Foxglove. I just spotted another ‘friend’ of mine.”

As Clever Clover led Foxglove through the crowd, Belle Star appeared with the tray of calamari. “Excuse me, Ms. Tabby, have you seen Key?”

“Huh? Key? I don’t think so.”

“Oh. Well, thanks anyway. Would you like to try some calamari?”

Tabby looked at the tray of strange golden brown rings. “What’s calamari?”

Belle Star thought for a moment and shrugged. “It’s chewy.”

“I guess it couldn’t hurt to try it.” Tabby tentatively took a small piece and put it in her mouth. Then something dawned on her just as she swallowed. “Hey... isn’t calamari... squid or something?” Promptly she began hacking and staggered off to the punch bowl to get something to wash down the terrifying specimen, where she was coerced into trying some of Lady Moonshine’s ‘tea’.

Ryo and Pixie went about unnoticed, playing hide and seek among the hooves of the ponies. But after a while the game got old and their stomachs got empty. They made their way through the veritable forest of pony legs toward the refreshment table. The twosome sat on the floor at the end of the table staring up at all the wonderful food painfully out of reach.

“Vuuuul vul vul pix vul?” Pixie turned to Ryo.

“Mew?” Ryo replied with a shrug. “Mrow?”

“Vul.” Pixie grabbed the end of the tablecloth in her mouth and gave it a gentle tug. Releasing the tablecloth, she turned to Ryo. “Vul-pix!”

The lop eared rabbit-creature nodded, and the two began to slowly pull the tablecloth toward them. Gradually, a tray of cookies began to slide off the edge of the table. Just when it seemed all their hard work was about to pay off, Elaine noticed the twosome but seemed oblivious to their mischief.

“Aw, what cute little animals!”

The two stopped their pulling and gazed up at Elaine with their biggest eyes, hoping to play on her sympathy to get some food. The pony picked up Ryo and held her up in her forehooves. “I don’t think I’ve ever seen such an adorable bunny rabbit.”

“Me-ow!” Ryo was so excited, she could almost taste all the wonderful food Elaine would soon be heaping upon her.

“Hm, that doesn’t sound good. Are you feeling alright, little fella?”

“Mrow?” Ryo was confused. There was nothing wrong with her, except for being a little hungry; and that would be easy enough to fix. She gazed longingly at the fabulous foodstuffs upon the table, but the pony didn’t seem interested in feeding her.

Elaine held the ravenous lop up to her face. “It sounds almost like you’re choking on something. Now open wide so I can see what’s wrong. I’ll need some better light to perform a proper examination.”

Panic began to set in as the pony carried Ryo farther and farther from the food. She struggled with all her might but to no avail. The trained vet knew how to restrain unwilling patients, and Ryo was no match for her strength. But Ryo had an ace up her sleeve; her friend and compatriot, Pixie, was still free and ready to fight for her friend.

“Vuuuul!” The fire-fox Pokemon spread her six tails in an semi-circle behind her as she prepared to launch a Fire Spin attack against the pony who had abducted Ryo just as their efforts had been about to pay off. Her eyes glowed with raging fire.

Fortunately for Elaine, Enchantment noticed the Vulpix’s impending attack in the nick of time and threw herself between Elaine and Pixie. “No Pixie! Stop!” she cried. Pixie was not able to entirely abort her attack. She threw her head back and belched out a column of fire that nearly scorched the ceiling.

The room fell silent and all eyes turned toward the six-tailed fox. Pixie hung her head. Elaine, realizing what had almost happened, stood frozen, clutching Ryo tightly. Tabby broke the silence. “You’re teaching your pets bad habits, Cleve Clove. You always did like destroying ceilings, but at least you used swords and not fire. Ooh!” Her eyes lit up as she glanced at the turned-on television set across the room. “Check it out, the Bigfoot Hunter! Cazador got his own show!” Her attention was soon gone from the Vulpix and her buddy.

Enchantment pried Ryo from Elaine’s grip and set her on the floor next to Pixie. “You’ve got to watch your temper, Pixie; but at least no one got hurt.” Enchantment noticed the tray of cookies teetering on the edge of the table. “You two must be hungry. I’ll get you something good to eat.” The young pony put two pieces of carrot cake on a plate and set it on the floor between the two pets. “Enjoy.”



* * *

As the day wore on, Clever Clover had finally finished introducing Foxglove to everyone he knew at the party. He hadn’t realized before how many ponies he knew. But now he was free to enjoy himself, and for now that meant sitting down to rest. He had thought about getting a glass of punch, but Minoko and Morning Glory were standing next to the punch bowl singing Christmas carols off key while Lady Moonshine goaded them on. Before long, Belle Star, who had lost all interest in calamari, wandered over and sat down next to the purple pony.

“Hello, Clever Clover. Isn’t this party wonderful?”

Clever Clover nodded. “Now that the introductions are out of the way. It’s a lot different from last year, though.”

“Uh-huh. That was so romantic. The royal wedding in the great big castle. But I think this year is even better. We have so many friends around, and it’s not so formal- and that Raven scared me.”

Clever Clover chuckled. “He has that affect on people. But he’s not that bad a guy when you get to know him. I kind of wish he could have been here. Is there anyone you would have liked to see this Christmas? I know you’ve been away from your family for over a year now.”

But the tan pony couldn’t reply. She had fallen asleep.

* * *

At the end of the day, as Clever Clover and company were preparing to leave, they gathered by the door. “Goodnight Sugarberry, Vanguard. Thanks for your hospitality.”

“Oh, it was nothing. We enjoy being with our friends on Christmas,” said Sugarberry with a giggle.

Belle Star was gazing at something hanging from the ceiling above Clever Clover’s head. “What’s that?”

Minoko and Morning Glory grinned as they gazed intently at Clever Clover.

“Ah, what’s up guys?” the purple prince asked nervously. Minoko pointed at the ceiling. Clever Clover looked up to see what had caught the other’s attention. “Mistletoe. Oh, boy.”

* * *

Chiffon, skirting the perimeter of the room, listened to the flow of conversation that came from a number of ponies that were clustered in comfortable groups about the room. For herself, she would be grateful to see the closing of this day, as special and important as it was. Her senses were swimming from the acquaintances she had made and the stories she had heard and the incessant warbling of foals’ voices rising above the general din. Her haven from earlier in the day was still under the control of the gamers; and, besides, it was pitch black out now, so she had no excuse to gaze out the window. If she could make it to the stairs, she could slip up to her guest room...

“Chiffon,” a male voice softly rumbled close to her ear.

Turning her head to the sound of the voice, Chiffon found herself face-to-face with Tribute. “Oh. It’s you,” she said laconically and made to move around him.

“I thought you might like to sit and talk; I’ve found two empty chairs tucked into the hallway here.” He gestured toward several folding chairs that had not yet been put to use.

“I have a headache,” Chiffon admitted.

“And I’m a doctor; maybe I can help you.”

The stallion smiled- a brief smile, no doubt- but it was long enough that the glimmer of a dimple creased his cheek momentarily. Chiffon was mesmerized. How she had always been fascinated by those indentations on a pony’s face! To see one here on such a top-lofty stallion as Tribute seemed to her a complete and total waste. She shook her head at the senselessness of it all; and Tribute, taking it as a refusal to share his company, raised an eyebrow.

“You’ll not find a better offer here tonight,” he said.

The dimple being gone from Tribute’s countenance, Chiffon found no reason to retain the stallion’s company. His one redeeming factor was too fleeting to take stock in. She peered over Tribute’s shoulder and spotted Wigwam, apparently as much at loose ends as she was. She saw her chance.

“Oh! There’s Wigwam. I really must speak with him.” Flashing her own smile at the green stallion, she quickly moved away and surprised Wigwam by taking his hoof as if they were the best of friends and moving with him to a spot near the Christmas tree where they could be private in the midst of the encircling activity.

“Thank you for saving me,” Chiffon breathed.

Looking amused, Wigwam asked, “And what did I save you from?”

“Not what. Whom.”

Wigwam took one look back over the route they had traversed and saw Tribute watching them with a hooded gaze. Wigwam pulled Chiffon more deeply behind the protective screen of the Christmas tree. “What’s up with you two?”

“Nothing’s up!” Chiffon spat. “I find him in insufferable bore, that’s all.”

Grinning wholeheartedly for the first time this day, Wigwam was thoroughly enjoying the mare’s discomfiture. “From what I understand, he’s made quite a name for himself.”

“And left any number of ponies ruined in his wake, I’ll bet,” Chiffon shot back. Feeling at a disadvantage, she retaliated, “I’d have thought that you and Chocolate Chip would have beat Wishbone and Garnet to the altar; what gives?”

The grin disappeared from Wigwam’s face, and Chiffon immediately regretted her words. “I’m sorry; that was very catty of me.”

“No. It’s an honest question.”

“Please forget I said anything.” She made as if to turn away, but Wigwam stopped her.

“Tribute is still watching us,” he informed the mare, effectively stopping her flight. “If you want my protection, you’ll have to continue this conversation.”

“Why do you want to?”

“Maybe I need someone neutral to talk to.”

Chiffon smiled. “If I can help, talk.”

Wigwam took a deep breath. “Am I so entirely unlovable?” He held her eyes and obviously expected an honest answer.

Having never faced such a divested question, Chiffon put some thought into her answer. “The question should be, Am I loveable. Then the answer is easy. Yes, you are.”

“Then why does Chocolate Chip find it so hard to accept me?”

“That’s not the problem. Chocolate Chip loves you; possibly the problem is with her believing in the commitment of love.”

“She doesn’t trust me.”

“Or she doesn’t trust herself.”

Wigwam was silent for a moment; then he asked, “Have you never found someone you could trust with your love?”

“Obviously not.”

Giving that some thought, Wigwam rephrased his question. “Has anyone ever wanted to trust you with their love?”

“Quite honestly, no.”

“Then you can’t help me.”

“Chocolate Chip’s the only one who can explain her feelings to you. Surely the two of you have talked about these things.”

“She thinks she wouldn’t be able to handle motherhood.”

“She must have her reasons.”

“She does, but I think she’s basing her decision too much on the past and not enough on the future.”

Chiffon looked thoughtful. “Maybe, Wigwam, she just doesn’t want to be married; so she has to search for reasons.”

“Is that why you’ve never found anyone to love?”

“I enjoy being single, being my own boss; I don’t have to answer to anyone but myself.”

“What about children?”

Shrugging, Chiffon smiled. “I have a classroom of children, and I am truly fond of each and every one of them; but I can send them home at the end of the day, Wigwam. That’s how I want it.”

“Parenting is a twenty-four hour a day job, isn’t it?” queried Wigwam with a grin as several of the babies could be heard wailing in the background.

“Exactly my point,” Chiffon returned.

Glancing across the room, Wigwam made an observation. “It appears Toby and family are preparing to leave. Do you want to say farewell to Tribute?”

The mare stared him in the eye. “No.”

“Okay, then.” After a moment’s hesitation, he continued. “You’re going to be staying with Van and Sugarberry for a few days; how about accompanying me to the casino one evening, my treat?”

“No expectations?”

“Not a one.”

“I accept your invitation.”

* * *

“Your talent’s being wasted in this town,” Tribute stated brusquely as he, Andrew, and Toby sat down in a quiet corner after they were back at Fern and Toby’s house. His gaze was centered on Toby.

“Don’t start, Tribute; not on Christmas,” Toby advised.

“What do you have to look forward to but delivering foals and mending broken bones? If you were in a larger hospital, you could specialize in a field that would be more demanding and more profitable,” the older brother advised.

“I’m happy here and quite content with my life as it is,” Toby said quietly, searching the room for Fern’s whereabouts. He located her holding Candytuft in her forelegs and smiled at the sight.

“That’s just it!” Tribute rejoined. “You’re too young to be this content; you’ll never amount to more than a family practitioner if you don’t set your goals higher.”

Andrew cleared his throat in warning. “Tribute, Toby specifically asked that you cease and desist. And if you want my opinion, it wouldn’t hurt for you to take some hints from Toby’s life and Tendril’s, too.”

Glaring at both his father and Toby, Tribute retaliated. “If you’re implying that its high time for me to settle down with some meddling mare as my wife, you’re far out of it. There’s no way I want to tangle up my affairs that way!” He quickly suppressed an image of a pale pink pegasus that flashed unbidden into his mind. “No mare is worth the trouble,” he added, more for his own benefit than for his listeners.

Fern picked this moment to interrupt the conversation, smiling at her husband as he slipped his hoof around hers before turning her attention to Andrew and Tribute. “Raven and Flower Drift will be setting out for Aunt Maisie’s apartment as soon as they get Allium and Candytuft bundled up. They’re spending the night there,” she informed Andrew and Tribute. “I thought you’d want to say goodnight to them.”

Andrew and Toby responded immediately, while Tribute stayed put and glowered at his sister-in-law. Fern looked questioningly at Toby, who merely grinned at her and whispered in her ear, “Let Scrooge be; I think he’s regretting some Christmas past.”

Fern turned a quick glance back to Tribute and wondered at the cause of the frown that rested on his face. The stallion stayed where he was, apart from the others, while he let a year-old memory wash over him.

“I’d like to take you home to meet my folks,” Tribute said, taking the pale pink pegasus’ hoof in his . “We could spend Christmas in New Pony, and I could show you all the sights.”

Prissy had wriggled her hoof from him and stood to cross the room, stopping before the window that looked out on the city street. “Not this year, Tribute.”

Maybe not ever, she added to herself. Tribute was becoming too enamored of her; she had suspected that he was becoming more serious over their relationship than she had intended; and now this announcement of going to his family home in New Pony to meet his parents proved her right. This would spoil everything; for although she enjoyed his company, she had no desire to tie herself to anyone. Not now, not when her career was taking off so well. A personal commitment was not part of her plan. She was so caught up in her private thoughts that she was unaware that Tribute had come to stand at her side. She jumped when he spoke.

“Why not, Prissy? We’ve known each other for two years now, worked together day in and day out, come to be great friends... haven’t we?” His hoof gently turned her face so that she was forced to look at him. The look in his eyes told her that she could hold off no longer.

“We’ve worked well together, Tribute. I’m sorry if you’ve read more into it than that.”

His hoof dropped away from her as if he had been stung. “... worked well together...” he repeated. “And that’s it?” he asked, his voice cold now and distant.

“I’ll always be grateful for how much you’ve taught me, how you’ve helped me reach my potential as a surgeon. I think I’m ready to cut loose now... to fly on my own, so to speak.” Her wings fluttered softly as she spoke.

“I’m not needed anymore... just like that.” He held her gaze for several more seconds, his blue eyes icy. “So long, then.” He turned and saw himself out of her apartment.

Tribute rubbed his hoof across his face in an effort to forget once and for all the deep hurt he had experienced that one time in his life when he had let a mare touch his heart, and it had ended in dejection. Never again, he had vowed after that painful episode. Never again would a mare have the power to hurt him that badly. Never again!

Stalking to the window, Tribute stared out at the black night highlighted with the Christmas lights decorating homes in the neighborhood. Relieved to have once more escaped the memory of the pink pegasus, he was dismayed to find that it had been replaced by that of a blue mare with a spring green mane.

Tribute almost smiled. How could anyone with such a cold, unbending character be named after something as soft and delicate as chiffon? Thank goodness he never had to see that mare again!

* * *

Tabby sat staring out the window pensively. The holiday season was always a time of reminiscing for her. She sighed, a bit wistfully, thinking of how much had changed in the past years. Oh, she and Sugarberry were still good friends; that would never change. But now they each had their own families to worry about and it wasn’t the same as in days-gone-by. The days when the Satin Slipper Sweet Shoppe was in its heyday. The days when Tiffany was just beginning to learn the ways of the peasant. The days when Tabby was teased endlessly for her scorn of romance. That had been the golden era. But it had evolved and changed into something new so gradually no one had really realized anything was different. Well, those times would always be treasured in her heart even if the present time had forgotten them.

Having lingered there at the window long enough, Tabby turned to take her leave of the hostess and was surprised to find Sugarberry standing at her side, a sleeping Banderol nestled in her forelegs.

“Another Christmas come and gone,” sighed Tabby, absently patting a very sleepy Faline on the head as the foal came in search of her mommy.

“I was just thinking of how much things have changed, Tabby. It wasn’t so long ago that the two of us would have laughed at anyone who thought we’d be staid ol’ married ladies with our hooves full of mundane chores and children,” mused Sugarberry.

“What?!” Tabby looked panicked. “We’re staid and old? Sugarberry, this is terrible! I hadn’t realized it was that bad!” Absentmindedly she picked up Faline who laid her head against her mother’s shoulder and was immediately asleep.

“No, no,” Sugarberry said quickly, “I was just teasing.”

But Tabby was not to be pacified. “You’re sure?” she said anxiously.

“Yes, I’m sure!! It’s just that we’ve been very fortunate in finding wonderful husbands and being blessed with beautiful foals.” She caressed Faline’s soft pink mane and gave Banderol’s peaceful face a gentle kiss.

“But are we really getting old, Sugarberry?”

“Look at you, Tabby! There’s nothing old about you! You could be Faline’s sister as easily as her mother. And just imagine the fun we’ll have watching these little ones get into mischief and having adventures just as we did. We’ll get to live another life through them.”

Tabby considered that a moment and visibly perked up. “Faline is always up to something or other; I guess life isn’t going to get too boring anytime soon.”

“What are you two discussing so seriously?” asked Thomas as he and Vanguard approached, both stallions relieving their spouses of the slumbering foals.

“We’ve been anticipating many more happy Christmas days with our loving families,” Sugarberry smiled.

Tabby looked horrified. “Don’t you dare attribute your sappy and sentimental lines to myself, Sugarberry!” But in any case, she winked at her husband. “Merry Christmas, Thomas.”

“Merry Christmas, Tabby,” Thomas smiled in return. “Merry Christmas to all,” he added, taking in Sugarberry, Vanguard, and Banderol in his gaze. “And to all, a good night,” he yawned as he realized just how late it was.

“A very good night,” breathed Sugarberry, her eyes sparkling.

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