Christmas in Dream Valley 2003
written by Sugarberry

A note from Tabby- You will observe that I made no contribution to this year’s Christmas story. So sad! At least, I’m sad. The rest of you probably aren’t. After all, you just have a thirty page story to read instead of forty!! But I was trying to get my part done, really I was. But I blame it on the late Thanksgiving. It lulled me into a false sense of security that I still had plenty of time after the holiday before December arrived. I was quite unpleasantly surprised to find that it was in fact only three days. All three of which I had to work long hours. Goodbye, Christmas story! Well, in any case, Sugarberry didn’t let you down; and I can revamp mine just as easily into a New Year’s story for next month.

“This is super!” exclaimed Cockleburr. “I love having snow for Christmas!” The colt and several of his friends were skimming over the ice at the skating rink, a flooded and iced-over plot in the neighborhood to give the ponies a safe place to enjoy the blast of cold winter weather that had held Dream Valley in its grip for the weeks leading up to the holiday.

“Yeah,” agreed Baby Leaper as he sped past Cockleburr. “Catch me if you can!”

This dare was accepted with alacrity by Cockleburr, and the two colts raced merrily across the ice, headed directly for Baby Noddins, Baby Falling Leaves, and Baby Leafy at the far end of the rink. The three fillies were intent on learning a synchronized dance pattern on skates and were completely oblivious of the colts until the two speeding bodies rushed by them with such force that the three girls were knocked into a tangled heap of manes, tails, and legs.

“Oops!” Leaper grinned as he and Cockleburr swooped back to rescue the threesome. “I thought you saw us comin’.”

“Likely story,” grumbled Noddins, who happened to end up on the bottom of the stack. “Falling Leaves, get your mane out of my mouth!”

“I would if Leafy would get off me so that I could move my head!”

“I’m trying. I’m trying,” groaned Leafy, struggling to disengage her limbs from the melee. She smiled gratefully at Cockleburr as he offered her a hoof and pulled her upright. Falling Leaves was then able to extricate herself while Noddins remained prostrate on the cold ice.

“I feel like a ton of bricks fell on me,” she complained.

“We’re not that heavy!” countered Falling Leaves. “Here, give me your hoof.” With Falling Leaves pulling and Leaper pushing, they soon had the filly on her hooves as well.

“Brrr!” Noddins shivered. “The ice made me cold.” She glared at Leaper. “And it’s all your fault!”

“Hey! Cockleburr was chasin’ me!”

“The snow is gettin’ thicker,” noted Cockleburr, an expert at avoiding arguments because of his experience with five younger siblings. “Maybe we should all head home.”

“Mom said she’d make hot chocolate for us,” Falling Leaves announced. “Everybody’s invited.”

“Let’s hurry,” muttered Noddins, “before I turn into an ice cube.”

“That I’d like to see,” Leaper smirked.

The group was out of their skates and on the way to Falling Leaves’ house when Leafy groaned.

“What is it?” asked Cockleburr in some concern. “You didn’t hurt yourself when you guys fell down, did you?”

“No. I wish that was all it is. I just remembered that I left Star locked in my bedroom because Mom didn’t want him pestering her when she was wrapping presents. He always wants to get in the boxes or play in the paper,” Leafy went on to explain, “and makes an awful nuisance of himself. He’ll need to use the litter box by now, so I can’t come to your house, Falling Leaves.”

Seeing the disappointment on his friend’s face, Cockleburr spoke up. “I’ll walk you home, Leafy.” Turning to Falling Leaves, he added, “Thanks for askin’ us over, but my mom could probably use some help with all the kids at home with still so much to get done before Christmas.”

Once Cockleburr and Leafy had turned down their street amidst a medley of holiday greetings, Noddins, Falling Leaves, and Leaper continued on to Falling Leaves’ house, only to meet up with a couple more neighborhood friends, Teddy and Parquet. Those two quickly accepted Falling Leaves invitation to come to her house for hot chocolate; they were nearing the back door when Falling Leaves began to giggle.

“What’s that your holding, Teddy? Your teddy bear?” All the foals stopped to stare.

Teddy rolled his eyes. Would his friends never let him live down that episode? “No. It’s not my teddy bear. It’s not even a bear. It’s a...” He held up the floppy fabric animal and studied it. “... a cat, I think.”

“So you’ve graduated to a kitty-cat?” Leaper taunted, ducking as Teddy took a swing at him.

“I found it. Parquet was there... he’ll tell you.”

“Yeah,” his friend backed him up. “It was just lying in the path covered in snow. Teddy stumbled over it and picked it up when he realized what it was.”

“Some little kid probably dropped it,” Teddy said, frowning. “He might be missing it, too.” Teddy knew how sad it could be to lose a favorite stuffed animal.

“It’s a Puffalump,” Falling Leaves noted. “My baby sister has one, only hers is a dog.”

“Um, guys,” Noddins winced, “my ankle is really starting to hurt where Falling Leaves landed on it. I think I should go straight home after all.”

“Do you need some help?” Parquet asked.

Noddins shivered. “I think I might need someone to lean on,” she admitted. “It’s started to hurt something fierce while we’ve been standing here talking.”

“My house is closest to yours, so I’ll go with you,” volunteered Teddy. He moved to offer his support to the lavender unicorn filly as the snowflakes continued to fall around them. “Merry Christmas!” he called back to the dwindling group of revelers.

“Merry Christmas!” the three chorused in return.

* * *

“The snow is coming down heavier,” observed Sugarberry as she and Vanguard and Banderol neared Woodlawn. “It will be heavenly to get out of the weather.”

“I’m just glad that there are enough ponies traveling today to keep the path readily visible,” replied Vanguard, squinting through the snowflakes to make sure they were headed in the right direction. “Everything looks rather mystical.”

“It’s beautiful,” agreed Sugarberry. “But I’d enjoy it more if we were closer to your parents’ house than we are.”

“It’s not that much farther,” Vanguard assured his wife. “Why don’t I take Banderol again? He must be getting heavy for you.”

“The wetter he gets from the snow, the heavier he seems,” grimaced Sugarberry. She kissed the little foal on the top of his head before handing him over to his father.

Banderol had been little trouble on the trip from Dream Valley to Woodlawn as he had been mesmerized by the snowflakes that had begun gently falling when the family had been only a couple miles out of town; as the morning had progressed, however, the pace of the snowflakes had increased until now they seemed to blanket the countryside under a downy blanket of white. As Vanguard had noted, the path would have been obliterated if not for the number of ponies hurrying to reach their holiday destinations before travel became impossible.

Yawning widely, Banderol nestled his head into his father’s mane, one little foreleg clutched around the stallion’s neck, the other absently tugging at his own ear. Just when Vanguard had thought the little tyke had gone to sleep, Banderol reared back his head and began crying.

“Sweetheart, what’s the matter?” crooned Sugarberry, stopping to massage the foal’s back.

“Key-Key,” the foal, a miniature of his father except for one lock of his mother’s red hair, cried.

“Oh, you want your kitty; Mommy’ll get him for you.” The mare looked up into Vanguard’s eyes hopefully. “Do you remember whose backpack Kitty-Kitty is in?”

“I put the Puffalump in yours as it is almost weightless,” Vanguard grinned.

Slipping her satchel off her shoulders, Sugarberry unfastened the latch and looked inside. “I suppose you stuck in way at the bottom,” she accused, seeing no sign of the purple and white cat.

“No; as a matter of fact, it was the last thing to go in. It should be right on top.”

Digging once more through the items in the backpack, Sugarberry came up empty-hoofed. “Maybe it fell out when you opened it,” suggested Vanguard, searching the powdery ground around his hooves with Sugarberry soon joining him in that activity.

“Key-Key,” Banderol wailed as he watched his parents’ fruitless efforts.

“It couldn’t have buried itself in the snow,” rationalized Vanguard. “It’s too light to even sink in this soft stuff.” He kicked at the mounding snow around them.

“But what else could have happened to it?” worried Sugarberry, casting an anxious eye once more over the immediate area.

Vanguard thought back over the hectic packing they had accomplished earlier in the day. “I put the Puffalump in the backpack while you said goodbye to Fluff and Raptor. Then I answered the phone- a wrong number- and by then you were ready to go... after you latched your backpack.”

“So it has to be in here,” Sugarberry said, rummaging again through her satchel. “Are you sure it’s not in yours?”

“At this point, I’m not sure of anything,” sighed Vanguard as Banderol’s tears grew heavier. He shrugged off his own packback, and Sugarberry gave it a thorough check before admitting defeat.

“Kitty-Kitty’s not here.”

Hearing those fateful words, Banderol struggled to get out of his dad’s forelegs, his crying stopping only when Vanguard set him down on the snowy path. Banderol, without a look at either of his parents, took off down the path leading back to Dream Valley.

“Banderol!” Sugarberry called as she rushed to stymie the foal’s progress. “We can’t go back home to find Kitty-Kitty; we’re almost at Grandma and Grandpa’s.”

The foal gave a credible impression of shrugging his shoulders. “Key-Key.” The look of determination in his eyes was rather convincing as well. He took several more steps on his journey before his father blocked his progress.

“Banderol, just what do you know about Kitty’s absence that you’re not telling us?”

“Key-Key... aw gone,” the forlorn little pony said.

“Kitty-Kitty was supposed to ride in the backpack,” Vanguard said, getting down to the foal’s level. “Why isn’t he there now?”

“Fawl,” the foal said, looking to the powdery ground.

“Sweetie,” Sugarberry groaned, “you didn’t take him out of the backpack, did you?”

The foal shook his head stubbornly in the affirmative. “Key-Key.” He made a hugging motion with his forelegs.

“And where is he now?” Vanguard gently asked.

“Aw gone!” the little colt admitted, his face puckering up as a new batch of tears let loose.

Picking him up and snuggling him close, Vanguard patted Banderol’s back in a useless effort to appease the child and looked at Sugarberry helplessly. “He must have taken the Puffalump out of the backpack when I went to answer the phone. He walked beside us the first mile, so he had to have dropped it way back there.” He waved his hoof in the direction of Dream Valley, sending the snowflakes spiraling in little dance patterns through the air.

“Oh, Bandy,” Sugarberry commiserated. “Kitty-Kitty will be waiting for you when we go home again.” She looked beseechingly at her husband to verify that hope.

“We’ll find him, Banderol. But you’ll have to wait until after we’ve visited your grandparent’s. You can do that, can’t you? Then when we find Kitty-Kitty again, you and he can share all your stories about what happened while you were apart.”

Sniffing back his tears, Banderol heroically nodded his head and once again settled his head on his dad’s shoulder.

* * *

Teddy sat at the kitchen table at Noddins’ house with Noddins, her injured hoof resting on a pillowed chair, and Noddins’ two siblings: her older brother, Harely, and little sister, Bunny. All were having cookies and hot chocolate as Frostflake busied herself readying the house for Christmas Eve company. As the blue mare bustled out of the room, Harely leaned across the table toward Teddy and smirked.

“I never believed those stories about your teddy bear, but it appears they’re true.”

Suddenly conscious that he was still holding onto the squishy, huggable cat, Teddy reddened. “This isn’t mine; I found it over toward Fifth Avenue just lying on the street. Some little foal must have lost it.”

Harely made a grab for the cat and swung it high above Teddy’s head. “I think this is your sleepy-by friend,” the colt chortled.

“It’s not mine!” Teddy reiterated. “But somebody might not sleep tonight without it.”

“Yeah, baby! You!”

Teddy made a desperate reach for the floppy cat, but Harely’s longer forelegs kept him at bay until Frostflake returned to get the broom. “Harely!” she scolded. “Give Teddy his little kitty back.”

“Yes, Mother,” Harely grinned. “Here, Teddy. You and little kitty sleep well tonight... or does kitty stay awake to protect you from all the monsters under your bed?”

“Harely!” Frostflake warned. “You can make yourself useful by sweeping the snow off the front porch and sidewalk.” She handed him the broom. Harely obeyed, but sent Teddy one more sneering glance before he disappeared from the kitchen.

“Let me see the kitty,” said Noddins, stifling a yawn. The warm kitchen, hot chocolate, and the medicine her mother had given her were having a sleepy effect after her vigorous exercise at the skating rink. She accepted the toy from Teddy with a tired smile. “Aww. It’s awfully cute.” She cuddled the kitten as if it were the real thing. “And soft, too.”

“If it is someone’s favorite stuffed animal, there’s going to be a foal crying himself to sleep tonight.” Looking up, Teddy caught a teasing smile forming on Noddins’ face so he added quickly, “I’d guess.”

“Of course, Teddy,” Noddins agreed, then studied the cat some more. “Hey, look, there’s a tiny gold chain around its neck with a...” The filly stopped and looked more closely. “... with a guardian angel charm on it. That’s cool.” She put her head back against the chair and snuggled the floppy cat to her. “I feel so tired.”

“Noddins, you’d better go lie down awhile or you won’t be able to play with your cousins tonight. I’ll help you in a minute. Teddy, it was nice of you to assist Noddins home; I really appreciate that. You and your family have a happy Christmas, now.”

“Yes, ma’am,” Teddy mumbled, getting to his hooves and moving toward the door. He took one last look at Noddins who was hugging the cat to her like a long-lost friend and sighed. He would have to leave the cat with Noddins if it brought her some comfort from the pain she was suffering.

But who, he wondered, was needing comfort over losing the cat?

* * *

“Oh! It feels so good to be in a warm house again!” Sugarberry said sincerely as she dried her snow-dampened mane with a fluffy towel; she, Vanguard, and Banderol were now safely encamped at Vanguard’s parents’ home in Woodlawn. Nearby, Floral Breeze had her little grandson enveloped in a white towel to dry him off as well, while Vanguard and Whirlpool visited near the fireplace.

“Snow always makes Christmas extra special, but twelve inches of the stuff is going too far,” remarked Floral Breeze.

“For information’s sake, the weather pony has changed the forecast to accommodate as much as fifteen inches,” Whirlpool reported.

“I’m glad we left home when we did, or we would have had a difficult time getting here,” Sugarberry said, draping the damp towel over a chair and shaking out her locks. “It was slow going as it was.” She smiled at Banderol who was sitting on Grandma’s lap swathed in the downy towel with only his face showing and hoped the foal would be content without his prized Puffalump companion. So far he had been too caught up in his grandparent’s attention to give any thought to Kitty-Kitty.

A knocking followed by the abrupt opening of the front door could be heard in the entry hall, then a booming voice calling out, “Merry Christmas!” A blast of wet, cold air snaked into the parlor, preceding the arrival of Stillwater, Morning Dew, and their two foals: the bouncy three-year-old, Droplet; and the newborn, Cascade. A flurry of greetings were exchanged from all sides.

Meeting her pearly pink sister-in-law, Sugarberry soon had claimed little Cascade to ooh and ah over the precious family addition, while Droplet scampered to her grandmother’s side to reacquaint herself with Banderol; the little colt was overwhelmed for a moment, leaning back into the safety of Floral Breeze’s protection; but he soon became absorbed in his cousin’s chatter. Once Droplet had introduced the colt to the toy box, the two youngsters settled down together companionably.

“Cascade’s seven weeks old today,” beamed Morning Dew as she and Sugarberry gazed down at the sleeping infant.

“He’s beautiful,” Sugarberry acclaimed. “And so tiny! Has Banderol really grown that much in one year?” She looked across the room where Droplet was organizing a tea party... with Banderol undoing all her efforts as quickly as he could, causing the petite filly to stand over him with her hooves planted against her sides and giving him a no-nonsense lecture on proper play etiquette. The mare laughed. “That reminds me of raking leaves this fall- Licorice was helping, but he ended up playing in the leaves with Banderol and undoing all our work.”

“In another year, Cascade will prove to be a ready accomplice for Banderol. Together, they’ll refute Droplet’s domineering tendencies,” Stillwater grinned, flinching slightly as his daughter wrestled a miniature tea cup out of Banderol’s hoof.

Whirlpool went to give the little colt some support, introducing him to several plastic wildlife figures; and those two were soon comfortably setting up a forest scene- with Droplet abandoning her tea party to help.

“Are those the same animals that we played with as foals?” Vanguard asked of his mother.

“Yes; I saved them all these years. I introduce a few of them at a time to Droplet so she remains interested.” Floral Breeze smiled. “They’re all in good shape, except for one wolf that Icon was especially devoted to; he teethed on it.”

“Speaking of little brother, did he and Splotch get started on their journey in time to beat the storm?” Stillwater asked.

“I can only hope,” Floral Breeze sighed. “It’s a long trip to Happy Hollow; heaven only knows what they’ll get into before they get there.”

“I don’t envy anyone traveling,” Stillwater admitted. “We even thought that you, Sugarberry, wouldn’t have braved the weather this year. As a matter of fact, Morning Dew and I brought everything with us we’d need to spend the night... if that works out for you.” He looked at his mother questioningly.

“Oh, what fun!” Floral Breeze nearly bounced. “It’ll be just like old times. It makes me wish that Icon and his bride-to-be would have chosen to spend Christmas here this year, too. We’d have the whole family together.”

“I was afraid we wouldn’t have been able to get out of the house by morning,” Morning Dew said. “And Droplet was bound and determined to spend as much time with Banderol as possible.”

“I wonder if we’ll even be able to make it to church tonight,” Whirlpool mused, leaving the foals to peak out the window at a blustery landscape. A strong gust of wind blasted the snowflakes against the glass, temporarily blocking all sight. “The storm is getting worse.”

In that moment, the sound of the back door being slammed open by the wind caused everyone to jump; Banderol abandoned Droplet to rush to his father’s side, his eyes wide as saucers. “Santa?” he queried is a quiet voice as Vanguard swept him into his forelegs. But the whoosh of air that rushed through the house from the direction of the kitchen carried with it the sound of squabbling voices, neither of which could have been the kindly Saint Nick.

Floral Breeze looked heavenward. “Oh, dear. It sounds like Splotch and Icon didn’t make it to Happy Hollow after all.” She headed toward the kitchen with everyone else following closely behind.

“If you hadn’t insisted that we stop to visit your friend, we wouldn’t have missed our flight!” Icon growled, facing his fiancee with apparent indignation.

“How was I supposed to know that the snow would slow us down so much?” retaliated the magenta mare, her emerald green eyes sparking in return.

“Children, children,” Whirlpool chastened. “It’s obvious that your plans have gone astray, but this is not the time or the place to assign blame.”

“I’d think you’d both be grateful to be out of that awful weather,” Floral Breeze added, moving to fetch more towels for this newest batch of snow-laden travelers.

“I’m sorry we burst in on you this way,” Splotch contritely responded, yet the look she flashed at Icon was barely civil. “We walked all the way to Coville and missed the plane by fifteen minutes. And by the time the next flight east was supposed to depart, the flight was cancelled. And rather than seeking out a hotel where we could take shelter, Icon insisted that we come back to Woodlawn because he couldn’t think of spending Christmas Eve without his family.” Her eyes narrowed.

Icon accepted a towel from his mother with a brief smile, but immediately turned to face Splotch. “You were so determined to spend hours visiting with a former boyfriend...”

“He was my math tutor,” Splotch hissed.

“Excuse me,” Icon rasped. “You were so determined to spend hours...”

“Half an hour!”

Icon ignored this interruption. “... visiting with a stallion who obviously meant a lot to you...”

“He helped me get a passing grade in algebra... that’s all.”

“That’s all? He couldn’t keep his hooves off of you.”

“We shared a hug! Is there anything wrong with that? We hadn’t seen each other for years!”

“And he held your hoof the entire time we were there,” Icon fumed.

“You are impossible!” Splotch threw the wet towel in Icon’s face, then turned to the door. “I’m going to my apartment; Christmas Eve alone is certainly an improvement over spending it with you!” She opened the inside door and the storm door snapped outward, sending a flurry of snowflakes and bitter cold into the room that literally stopped Splotch in her tracks, giving Icon time to reach around her to pull the door shut once more.

“You, little spitfire, are staying right here.” Then, as if the cold blast of air had cooled his temper, he went on in a calmer voice. “Things didn’t work out the way we planned, but maybe we should just make the best of it instead of trying to get the last word in.” He brushed the latest shower of snowflakes off her mane and grinned. “It is Christmas, after all... peace and good will and all that.”

For several moments, peace hung in the balance as Splotch considered this conciliatory offer; then the dangerous gleam in her eyes changed to a mellow glow. “Oh, Icon, I’m sorry I’ve been in such a beastly mood; but I had so counted on spending Christmas with my family.”

“We’ll get to Happy Hollow as soon as the weather straightens out,” Icon promised. The mare gave him a big hug, and the stallion winked at his own family over her shoulder. “Maybe we should pretend we just arrived and wish everyone a Merry Christmas.”

Suddenly very aware of their audience, Splotch pulled back from Icon, her cheeks darkening in a blush. “Merry Christmas, everyone. And I didn’t mean to imply that I’m not happy to be sharing the holiday with you; you’re all my family, too.” Her penitent expression was so sincere that her apology met with nothing but warm words of welcome.

* * *

After getting over his initial shyness of Splotch and Icon, Banderol found the young couple to be highly entertaining as they sat on the floor telling stories, singing carols, and partaking of Grandma’s cut-out sugar cookies and mugs of hot chocolate. The wind still howled outside the windows and the snow continued to fall as an early darkness closed in on the shortening day.

With the approach of evening, Banderol’s eyes began to droop; and he crawled onto Splotch’s lap while she and Icon led the rest of the ponies in a lively bout of caroling. By the time the singing ended, the little colt was sound asleep, his tiny hoof wrapped around a lock of Splotch’s primrose pink hair.

“Banderol was so caught up in the activities around him that he forgot about Kitty-Kitty,” Sugarberry commented to her husband. At the questioning look from the others, she went on to explain. “Banderol rescued his favorite stuffed animal from the backpack before we even left the house, and neither of us noticed. He dropped Kitty-Kitty somewhere along the way and was quite put-out when he realized his friend was gone.”

“Buried in the snow somewhere, I’d imagine,” Stillwater mused.

“Yes. And as he walked only for a short way after we left home, that somewhere is back in Dream Valley,” Vanguard added.

“Was this the Puffalump we gave him?” wondered Floral Breeze.

“Yes, it was. He’s loved it since he first set eyes on it.”

“I know it meant a lot to him,” smiled Floral Breeze. “I’m glad I stocked up on those toys when Ivan’s had their clearance sale of outdated merchandise. I’m giving one to Cascade this Christmas, but his is an elephant rather than a cat.” She looked toward the Christmas tree. “It’s wrapped and waiting.”

“If Banderol needs it for comfort tonight, I’m sure Cascade wouldn’t mind if he made use of it,” offered Morning Dew.

“Thanks,” breathed Sugarberry. “We might have to take you up on that to insure peace on earth this night.”

* * *

“Baby Noddins,” Frostflake reminded her daughter as Archer answered the doorbell, “remember that Baby Curlylocks is feeling down because her dad didn’t make it home for Christmas. Make a special effort to help her cope, would you, dear?” Frostflake had invited the neighboring family to join them for Christmas Eve festivities when she had learned that Canteen had been snowbound while away on a business trip, leaving his wife, Curly Locks, and the three offspring- Baby Curlylocks, Crinkle, and Catkin- alone on this special night.

“I’ll try, Mommy,” Noddins promised, taking a tentative step on her still tender hoof.

“Good girl,” Frostflake said, ruffling her daughter’s mane. “And try not to end up at the bottom of a pile of ponies,” she teased.

Baby Noddins was soon set upon by Crinkle, two years her senior, asking her for information concerning a new filly at school; so between him and the bevy of cousins romping through the house, it was some time before she could concentrate her attention on Baby Curlylocks. Noting that the young pegasus was rather downcast even amidst the party atmosphere prevailing, she invited her friend to escape to her bedroom for a quiet talk.

“Your dad can’t get home tonight, can he?” she asked as Curlylocks stood gazing out the window at the constant stream of snowflakes.

“No. He’s still in Hayton.”

“That’s not so awful far. Once the snow stops and the paths are cleared, he’ll be here in no time.”

“Yeah. But he’s not here for Christmas Eve; even if he can get home tomorrow, it will be late in the day, Mom said.”

Noddins thought about her own father downstairs, and she realized that he took his steady presence for granted. He was always there when she needed him. “I wish your dad was here, too, Curly; he’s probably missing you as much as your missing him.”

“I know,” Curlylocks sniffed as a tear escaped down her cheek.

“I don’t think he’d want you to cry.”

“He talked to each of us kids on the phone after he told Mom he couldn’t get home; he said I was to think of Baby Jesus in the stable, just like he’d be doing, and that would bring us all together.”

“I wonder if it was snowing the night Jesus was born,” wondered Noddins, going to stand next to her friend at the window. “If it was snowing like it is now, I suppose the stable looked pretty cozy to Mary and Joseph.”

“I wouldn’t want Daddy to be out in that cold snow,” admitted Curlylocks. “At least I know he’s safe and warm in his motel.”

“And when he gets home, he’ll want to hear everything you did.” She coughed, adjusting her voice to sound similar to a parental scold. “... and he won’t want to hear that you spent your time cryin’.”

Curlylocks turned and hugged Noddins. “I’ll try, Noddy. But sometimes it just seems so empty without him.”

Looking over Curlylocks’ shoulder, Noddins caught sight of the Puffalump that Teddy had given her lying on the edge of the bed where she had left him after her nap. “I know. You can have this cat that Teddy found and gave to me this afternoon when I hurt my hoof skating. It made me feel better; now it can do the same for you.” She grabbed the floppy animal off the bed and thrust it into Curlylocks’ hoof. “Whenever you start missing your dad, just hug Puffy!”

Looking at the perpetually happy face of the cat, Curlylocks grinned back and crushed the toy to her chest. “Thanks, Noddy.”

* * *

Quietly so as not to disturb her still sleeping husband, Sugarberry eased herself out of bed early Christmas morning and went to the window to check on the conditions outside. The wind had died down, but not before sculpting wave-like drifts of snow over the landscape that made effective barriers to pony traffic. At this hour, no one had yet ventured out to face the task of clearing the snow away, so the view from the window was of an unspoiled expanse of pure whiteness as far as the eye could see. Snowflakes were still falling; but without the wind to drive them, they floated and seemed to grant a peacefulness to the panorama that softened the cold, hard edges of the wind-sculpted drifts.

After soaking up the Christmas-card beauty of the view, Sugarberry turned her attention to the snug, makeshift bed where Banderol slept. Sleeping on his tummy, the profile of his face was a picture of perfect contentment. What happy dream is he entertaining? she wondered.

The foal had enjoyed Christmas Eve spent with his grandparents, aunt and aunt-to-be, uncles, and little cousins; but as bedtime approached, he had begun to feel the loss of his beloved Kitty-Kitty. He had crawled onto his mother’s lap and looked at her so woefully that Sugarberry had been hard pressed not to march straight back to Dream Valley regardless of the raging weather outside. She had settled for hugging her son and sending a beseeching glance at Vanguard to fish Cascade’s gift from under the tree so that Banderol might find comfort in the stand-in Puffalump.

Not to be pacified so easily, Banderol took one look at the blue elephant and buried his face in his mother’s mane, refusing even to acknowledge it. It was only after Banderol could no longer fight sleep that he accepted Cascade’s Puffalump into his forelegs, too tired to notice the deception, only recognizing the feel of the familiar smooth fabric that spoke to him of Kitty-Kitty. He slept with visions of sugar-plums dancing in his head and with one little hoof protectively on the Puffalump. Sugarberry gently brushed a hoof over the foal’s soft mane.

“Merry Christmas, sweetheart,” Vanguard whispered in the mare’s ear.

“Merry Christmas,” the mare smiled, turning to slip into her husband’s embrace. “How’d you sleep?”

“Very snugly. My old bed never felt so good as it does with you by my side.” He kissed the tip of her nose. “But how about you? Did I sleep through any of Banderol’s complaints?”

“He slept well, too. I heard him squirming a couple of times, but he only needed his blanket tucked in tighter; and he went right back to sleep.”

“And how goes the blizzard?” asked Vanguard, glancing toward the window.

“The wind is gone, but there’s plenty of snow out there.” They moved to take in the view, only to find that Whirlpool was now up and shoveling a path.

“Oops! I better get down there and help,” Vanguard noted.

“And I should report for kitchen duty,” acknowledged Sugarberry. “You shovelers are going to need a hearty breakfast.”

“And some warming up,” teased Vanguard, enveloping his wife in a bear hug.

* * *

Dream Valley was no less buried in snow than Woodlawn, and ponies across town scurried to clear paths through their neighborhoods and to the point of particular importance on this holy day- church. The weather may have stymied the Christmas Eve community celebration of Christ’s birth, but it would not succeed for a second day in curtailing that profound activity as ponies fought the drifts and the arctic temperatures to make their way to church to adore the newborn Priest, Prophet, and King.

* * *

Curly Locks and her family made it a point to view the delayed living nativity at the park which was held in the late afternoon of Christmas day due to the inhospitable weather on Christmas Eve. Baby Curlylocks’ thoughts were never far from her father, who, she hoped, would join them for at least the waning hours of this special day, although her brothers had made a point of buoying up her spirits throughout the day.

Sixteen-year-old Catkin and fourteen-year-old Crinkle, in the company of several other neighborhood colts and fillies, had enticed their sister to join them in constructing a snow village of forts, igloos, and castles in the backyard after a hearty Christmas dinner. Their efforts had created a magical winter setting that called forth many boisterous scenarios to be acted out by the young ponies, fully occupying several hours with strenuous exercise that kept worries at bay and resulted in cold, hungry participants who were nonetheless extremely pleased with their efforts.

By the time they had been warmed and refreshed themselves, it had been time to set off for the re-enactment of the first Christmas. Baby Curlylocks hung close to her mother with the Puffalump snuggled close to her side for reassurance and for a little added warmth; she also found that her muscles ached from the exertion of mining snow blocks and tunneling through the drifted snow. Only the sting of the cold air kept her from falling asleep on her hooves.

The representation of the Holy Family in the humble stable at Bethlehem served to reawaken Baby Curlylocks to the joy and peace of the day; as she stood, her eyes riveted to the actions of the characters in the living drama, she felt a soft touch on her shoulder and instinctively knew the cause.

“Daddy!” she cried, twirling around to gaze up at her male parent, her eyes a-twinkle. “You’re back!” The stallion was nearly bowled over as the filly jumped into his forelegs.

“Of course I am, princess,” he said as he regained his balance. “The snow may have slowed me down, but it couldn’t stop me completely.”

“I missed you so much!”

“As I did you,” Canteen said, kissing the top of his daughter’s head, then releasing her enough so that he could draw his wife into the hug. “I missed you all.”

Crinkle and Catkin left a group of their friends to welcome their father, and soon the family was on its way back home with Baby Curlylocks anxious to watch her father open his waiting gifts from under the tree. Her sore muscles forgotten, she bounced between her mother and her father with Puffy jouncing at her side.

“Wait ‘til you see the neat winter village we made in the backyard,” she enthused.

“It’s quite an impressive sight, Dad,” Catkin verified. “This snow is awesome.”

“The voice of youth,” he sighed with a wink at his wife. “I’d be more likely to label it as awful.”

They were nearly home when Curly Locks pointed out their neighbor, Gavel, shoveling his front walk. “Gavel’s still recuperating from that surgery he had,” she exclaimed. “I thought he was supposed to take it easy for awhile yet.”

“He looks like he should be in bed,” Canteen concurred, noting how the stallion had to stop and rest between every shovelful of the heavy, white stuff. He looked back to see Crinkle and Catkin lagging behind, deep in some discussion; when they noticed their father’s penetrating gaze, the two teenagers hurried to catch up.

“What’s up, Dad?” Catkin asked.

Canteen nodded in Gavel’s direction; the stallion had been greeted by Curly Locks and Baby Curlylocks and now stood leaning heavily against the shovel. “You two wouldn’t mind shoveling the walk for Gavel, would you?” he queried. “I can well imagine that Sadie got on her high horse and browbeat him into...” Canteen stopped and looked at his sons guiltily. “Forget I said that. Let’s just find out just how many other chores Gavel has on his agenda; if we all pitch in, we can get them out of the way in no time.”

“No problem,” Crinkle said, already on his way to relieve Gavel of his current chore. Canteen and Catkin followed and arrived in time to hear the stallion explain his dilemma.

“Sadie’s busy in the kitchen; Roy called, saying he’ll be here later and that he’s bringing some friend of his.” Seeing Canteen, Gavel grinned. “I thought you were stuck up in Hayton.”

“Only a temporary delay; but what about you? Aren’t you supposed to be convalescing?”

“Well, now, you know how Sadie is. Once she found out that Roy was bringing some stranger over to the house, she got all riled up and wanted things to look right... which meant she had to start cleaning and fixing food right and left. And then she started noticing how some things needed doin’ outside.” He waved a hoof in Crinkle’s direction as the colt divested the path of its white crystal layer. “‘Shovel the walk,’ she said... and fill the bird feeder, and haul in some wood for the fireplace. Excuse me, but I’ve really got to sit down.”

The stallion was looking rather pale and his hooves trembled as he allowed Canteen to guide him to the front steps and assist him in sitting. “Just got to catch my breath,” Gavel said. “Haven’t quite got my energy back since the surgery.”

“You’re rushing your fences, Gavel. You should have called for someone to come over and take care of these things.”

Some color was beginning to return to the stallion’s cheeks as he admitted, “Sadie thought the exercise would be good for me.”

Canteen looked at his wife over the top of Gavel’s head and rolled his eyes. “Yeah, that sounds like Sadie, all right.” Turning his attention back to Gavel, he suggested that they go in the house to get warmed up while the boys took care of the work. Leaning on Canteen’s foreleg for support, Gavel made it inside with the mare and filly following behind. They had just gotten Gavel comfortably situated on the sofa when an energetic mare came into the room from the direction of the kitchen.

“I thought I heard voices,” she said, flashing a speculative glance at her visitors. “I suppose you’re making Christmas calls.” Her eyes swept across the carpeting. “Hope you all haven’t tracked in a lot of snow. I just finished straightening up.” She leaned over to pick up a scattering of melting snow. “Tsk, tsk. Isn’t that just the way it goes.” She fixed a hard stare on her husband. “Don’t tell me you haven’t finished the walk yet. Roy and his friend’ll be here any time now.” She looked out the window and saw Crinkle and Catkin busily taking care of the errands she had sent her husband out to do. “I suppose those two will be tracking through the living room next.”

“Merry Christmas to you too, Sadie,” Canteen drolly interjected. “The boys are taking care of the walk and the firewood; Gavel isn’t up to heavy work just yet.”

“And I’m supposed to do everything around here?” Sadie retorted. “As if it isn’t bad enough that this storm had to throw a wrench into our plans. Roy couldn’t make it yesterday, and now he calls and says someone will be coming with him because he hasn’t got anyplace else to go. There’s just no end to it, I say. Nothing merry about it at all.”

“Maybe I could help you...” Curly Locks began, but Sadie would have none of that.

“I don’t need any help, missy. In fact, I’ll be gettin’ back to my dinner preparations right now.” She sniffed and turned her back on the rest of the ponies, disappearing into her domain.

Curly Locks smiled at Gavel. “Maybe I could get you something warm to drink.”

“You’re brave enough to go into the lioness’ den?” he teased.

“For you, yes,” the mare replied and went to fulfill her errand.

Baby Curlylocks moved to sit next to Gavel, a look of confusion on her face.

“What is it, little sweetie?” the stallion asked, noticing her close regard.

“Why doesn’t Sadie ever smile?” she asked.

Gavel chuckled while Canteen shook his head in dismay over his daughter’s forward question. “Smiling doesn’t come easy for Sadie, does it?” He sat in thought for awhile as if he had never pondered this particular question before. “Sadie likes to keep busy, so I guess she doesn’t have time to smile,” he finally determined. “It’s not that she’s not happy, mind you. She is... she just doesn’t show it the same way as the rest of us do.”

“Are you happy?” Baby Curlylocks quizzed, obvious doubt in her voice. Canteen groaned and dropped his head onto his hooves, but Gavel’s eyes sparkled

“I fell in love with Sadie many, many years ago; I imagine we’ve both changed over the years since those days. But am I happy? Yes, I think I am. At least, I’m content.”

Baby Curlylocks didn’t seem to be convinced, but her mother arrived with a steaming mug of hot chocolate for Gavel and a sliced apple. “Just what the doctor ordered,” she smiled, setting the food on the coffee table ahead of him.

“None for yourself?” queried the stallion with a lifted brow.

“I risked life and limb for this much,” giggled Curly Locks. “And besides, you should rest after you finish this snack. I’ve made Sadie promise to let you get some sleep before Roy arrives.”

“Always an angel,” Gavel sighed, his eyes twinkling at the mare. “Thanks to all of you for helping me out.”

“Next time, call before you risk your health,” Canteen commanded.

“I would have this time, but I didn’t want to bother you today of all days.”

“You’d never be a bother, Gavel... especially today,” Curly Locks said, kissing the stallion on the cheek. “Now, eat; and then lie down and cover up with this throw. I don’t want to hear that you’re back in the hospital tomorrow.”

“Yes, m’dear.”

Canteen and Curly Locks were on their way out the door when Baby Curlylocks ran back to Gavel. “Here,” she said, shoving the Puffalump into his hooves. “Puffy will always have a smile for you.” She reached up to hug the stallion, then raced to catch up to her parents.

Gavel looked long at the floppy friend he had just inherited, then grinned and followed Curly Locks’ orders to eat and sleep. When Sadie checked on him later, she stared in amazement at the childish plush toy cradled in Gavel’s forelegs. She walked to the creche that rested on the mantel and picked up the swaddled babe, glanced from it to her sleeping husband... and smiled.

* * *

The house of Floral Breeze and Whirlpool in Woodlawn had been a busy terminal of comings and goings throughout Christmas Day as religious, then familial, celebrations took place. Banderol had abandoned the elephant Puffalump upon awakening, giving his mother a determined, “No Key-Key,” for his reason; but with so many relatives- and especially with Droplet- to entertain him, the toddler colt had no troubled times. Icon and Splotch had even taken the little ones outside to revel in the winter wonderland, bringing them back inside only when their own hooves were numb from the cold.

Floral Breeze and Sugarberry watched from the window as Icon aided Droplet and Splotch guided Banderol in a rather pathetic snowball fight which soon blossomed into a full scale artillery match as the two adult ponies abandoned the foals to concentrate their respective barrages at each other. It was at this point that two cousins, Biscuit and Petal- along with Petal’s good friend, Caravel- showed up and added some real fire-power to the battle. The foals soon became pawns in a hostage situation that thwarted the stallions’ efforts to decimate the mares’ position and ended the hostilities on a laughing note.

“Splotch seems to be enjoying her forced stay in Woodlawn,” Sugarberry noted as the mare gave as good as she got when a minor skirmish was renewed between her and Icon on the snowball battlefield.

“She’s quite adaptable once she lets go of her determination to have her own way,” Floral Breeze revealed. “Thankfully, she and Icon have succeeded in working through the rough spots.”

“That reminds me that Chocolate Chip’s friend in New Pony, Xavier, is from Splotch’s hometown; they went to school together.”

“You know what they say... it’s a small world. You’ll have to remember to ask Splotch about her recollection of Xavier.”

“I intend to; from what I could gather from Chocolate Chip, Xavier remembers a rather outspoken, independent filly... which seems to support the reality. It will be interesting to see if Splotch concurs with Chocolate Chip’s assessment of Xavier.”

“How is Chocolate Chip settling into her return to Dream Valley?”

“Very well,” Sugarberry grinned. “I’ve never seen her so happy... or so satisfied with her life. She has a lot of wedding plans to make, of course, on short notice; but she has everything under control.”

“She and Wigwam are getting married next month?”

“Yep. On January 31.”

“Let’s hope that the weather will be on better behavior for that occasion.”

Sugarberry laughed. “Wigwam is undaunted. He says that nothing will interfere with this wedding.”

“What’s this about a wedding?” a voice asked from behind the mares.

“Velvet!” Floral Breeze rushed forward to hug her sister, regardless of the fact that the two mares had stood outside the church talking earlier. “I didn’t hear the doorbell.”

“Stillwater saw us coming up the walk and admitted us in fine style.” Velvet turned her attention to Sugarberry. “It’s so good to see all of Floral Breeze’s family here for the holiday.”

“She has her hooves full with all of us on the premises,” Sugarberry smiled. “And I imagine your house is rather quiet with Chiffon gone to New Pony with Tribute.”

“It’s a good thing they left early to make a long stay of it,” Velvet shivered. “I hope the weather allows them a good trip home.”

“We were just discussing the weather’s influence on winter activities,” shared Sugarberry. “The wedding you overheard us mention is to be in January.”

“Oh.” Velvet looked relieved. “I was afraid something had come up to complicate the plans for that June extravaganza we’re planning, Floral Breeze.”

“As if we don’t have enough complications,” grinned Velvet’s sister.

Icon and Chiffon were marrying their respective sweethearts at a double ceremony at the start of summer; and although Velvet and Floral Breeze saw eye-to-eye on almost everything, the added influence of Splotch’s parents in Happy Hollow and Tribute’s parents in New Pony did indeed tend to entangle matters.

“From what I’ve been hearing, you could almost make this wedding day a triple ceremony,” Sugarberry teased as the three mares made themselves comfortable in the cozy sitting area.

Both Velvet and Floral Breeze looked skyward as if for divine help. “That possibility has been bandied about, but only to torment us,” Velvet admitted. “Fitting Icon and Chiffon’s cousin into the mix would entail an entire new planning strategy.”

“Fortunately for us, Silver Frost and Blake haven’t committed themselves yet. From all appearances, they’re still dating other ponies upon occasion,” revealed Floral Breeze.

“Although anyone can tell by seeing the two of them together that they think the world and all of one another,” Velvet added thoughtfully, then shook her head as if unable to figure out that puzzle. “Tribute was very pleased to have been with his brother and wife when their foal was born.”

“Well, he was with his brother, at any rate,” giggled Sugarberry. “Fern wasn’t quite so fortunate.”

The birth of Fern and Toby’s first foal on Thanksgiving Day was well into becoming a Dream Valley legend. All of Toby’s family had been invited to spend that holiday in Dream Valley due to the fact that, well, Fern was due. With all the family congregated under one roof, there were three doctors (Toby himself; his brother, Tribute; and their father, Andrew) ready and willing to attend to the mare when the foal decided to come. The situation was well covered, but fate intervened.

With Fern napping after the traditional Thanksgiving feast, Toby and Tribute had accompanied their brother-in-law, Copper, to the park with his two children, Patina and Quill, while Chiffon and Tendril made a visit to Sugarberry at her home. Andrew and Ribbons n’ Lace watched over the sleeping Fern, but when Fern’s Aunt Maisie called from the home of an ailing friend with the news that Crescendo was complaining of some chest pains, Andrew had immediately responded, leaving Fern in Ribbons n’ Lace’s sole care. The mare checked on Fern once more before settling down to finish knitting the booties on which she had been working, only to be brought to her hooves when an agonizing groan sounded from the bedroom, signaling an end to a quiet afternoon.

Ribbons n’ Lace rushed to Fern’s side, found the situation critical, placed a call to Sugarberry to send word to Toby at the park, then called Maisie to alert her to the complication, took one more look at Fern, and called Dr. Aurora who was, thankfully, accessible, and then buckled down to do what she could for her daughter-in-law. By the time Toby and Tribute arrived back on the scene, Dr. Aurora had already assisted Fern in delivering a healthy and entrancing little filly who won her father’s heart in an instant.

“Baby Frond is a little angel,” Sugarberry related. “She has her mother’s sweet disposition.”

“If I remember correctly, Toby missed Banderol’s birth, too,” Floral Breeze grinned.

“Yes, and Vanguard will never let him forget that; Dr. Neil is quite... unorthodox... shall we say.”

As the group from the backyard now entered the house, Velvet could now determine that Dr. Neil’s delivery of Banderol over thirteen months ago had been a well-dealt event as that little foal bounced into the room and scampered to his mother, his cheeks red with the cold and his eyes dancing in sheer delight over his outing.

“You’re as cold as ice,” his mother remonstrated as she scooped the foal into her forelegs.

Icon trailed in, a towel in his hooves and a grin on his face. “Bandy has a mean throwing leg,” he said, draping the foal in the towel, then confiscating him from his mother to move closer to the fireplace’s heat and rubbing some warmth back into the colt’s extremities.

“From what I saw,” Sugarberry taunted, “you were the mean one, pelting Splotch the way you did.”

“She showed no mercy,” defended Icon, shaking more melting snow out of his mane, causing Banderol to giggle. “She and Petal were like Amazons.”

“I’ll verify that with the girls while I warm some cider,” Sugarberry winked as she left the room.

Velvet and Floral Breeze remained to watch Icon administer his care to Banderol. After thoroughly drying the colt, which amounted to more of a tickling bout, Icon stood Banderol in front of him and smoothed out his damp hair. Banderol, in turn, begged for his uncle to hold him, which Icon willingly did, setting himself in the rocking chair and drawing an afghan over the foal.

“Okay, Bandy, should Uncle Icon tell you a story?” the stallion asked. Getting no response, he looked down at the precious face pressed against him and found that the foal was already fast asleep. “Sleep tight, little fella,” he whispered, settling Banderol more comfortably in his forelegs.

“Let me take him up to his bed,” Floral Breeze offered, but Icon shook his head.

“I think I’d rather hold him awhile, Mom,” he softly replied. He grinned up at her. “But you could bring me some of that hot cider when Sug gets it ready.”

“Oh, my. We should be helping out in the kitchen, Velvet.” The two mares bustled away, leaving Icon to study the beauty of a sleeping child.

* * *

“Well, Roy, your friend looks as if he’d rather be anywhere else but here.” Gavel and his son were settled comfortably in the living room while Sadie continued to putter in the kitchen. Roy and Dangler had arrived just in time to sit down for the meal Sadie had prepared, barely missing the serious scold they would have received if Sadie had been forced to set back the supper hour.

Dangler, Roy’s closest friend as well as his partner in a home-remodeling business, had been a sorry companion on this trip owing to a disappointing answer to his proposal on Christmas Eve to a longtime sweetheart. The mare had blithely informed him that she had met someone else; and though she would always value his friendship, she could not look upon him as a marriage partner. Dangler had been devastated and was now sunk in a dark study.

“I think he’d be just as down no matter where he spent Christmas this year,” Roy admitted.

“It’s too bad I’ve been laid up; we could have planned for some livelier entertainment for the lad,” chuckled Gavel. He sat on the couch with the Puffalump Curlylocks had given him sitting by his side.

“Trust me. The only thing that will help Dangler now is to get back to work. He can take out some of his disappointment on a few nails.”

“Your business is doing okay?”

“We’ve been swamped all fall, what with ponies wanting to winterize their homes and make improvements before the holidays. Things’ll slack off now a bit, but we have one major renovation lined up that will keep us occupied.”

“I wish I was fit to work alongside of you,” sighed Gavel.

“Terry is the one you should be mentoring,” Roy said, referring to his older sister who had followed her father’s profession as a lawyer. As a teenager, the filly had never seen eye-to-eye with her mother and had long since escaped to New Pony to pursue her career out of the range of her mother’s sharp tongue.

“Your sister doesn’t need... or want... my help,” Gavel admitted. “She called, however, last evening, and wished us a Merry Christmas. She’s at some tropical resort for the holidays.”

“Figures,” snorted Roy. “Always too busy for family.”

“She’s doing just fine for herself,” Gavel defended his daughter. “It’s Dangler you should be thinkin’ about just now.”

Roy sighed. “I suppose you’re right. Would you and Mom mind if Dangler and I went over to see Tripper? He said he’d be home.”

“It’s okay with me, son. I’ll probably be asleep in a few minutes anyway,” he grinned.

* * *

It was late when Roy and Dangler got back; Sadie had gone to bed in a huff when she learned her son would rather spend his time with an old classmate rather than with his parents. Gavel had borne the brunt of her lecture on the thankless job it was to cook and clean and launder only to have your offspring eat and run like some thankless clod. When she had marched out of the room, Gavel had taken up the Bible to read the Christmas story- finding the Puffalump to be an absorbed listener- one more time before leaning his head back to watch the dying flames in the fireplace.

He was startled from his sleep as Roy and Dangler entered the house, even though the two had made every effort not to disturb anyone, hoping to avoid Sadie if at all possible. In that they were successful; but Dangler, remaining downstairs to pace off his still riotous feelings, inadvertently knocked over a magazine rack, waking Gavel who had fallen asleep on the sofa.

“I’m sorry,” Dangler whispered when he realized he was not alone in the room. He rubbed his sore leg and hoped that he would not become the target for more of Sadie’s barbs. It was with a huff of relief that he heard Gavel’s voice instead.

“There’s a lamp just to the left of you,” Gavel offered. “It’ll save you a few more bruises if you click it on.”

As light pooled in the room, Dangler apologized for disturbing him. “I thought the room was empty,” he ended.

“It seems I fell asleep,” Gavel yawned. “I suppose we should both be getting to bed... unless you’d like to talk.”

“What’s to say?” Dangler growled. “The mare I thought I’d spend the rest of my life with has written me off for some hot-shot she met on a business trip.”

“And you don’t want to hear anyone say that maybe it’s all for the best.”

“No, Gavel, I don’t.”

The older stallion sighed as he slowly got to his hooves, the motion causing the Puffalump to fall to the floor. With a sudden inspiration, Gavel reached down and picked up the limp body of the stuffed cat. “I’ll leave you with your thoughts, Dangler, but in the meantime I’ll put you in... Puffy, was it?... Puffy’s care; she’s a very good listener, even when you don’t talk out loud.” He offered the toy to the stallion.

His eyes wide with surprise, Dangler slowly reached out and accepted the pastel purple child’s toy, then bid his host goodnight. Once alone, Dangler stared at Puffy and Puffy stared right back.

* * *

The day after Christmas dawned with new snow falling, but with the advantage of slightly warmer temperatures. Dangler, who had slept little throughout the night, had arisen early while the world was still deep in shadow and had wandered aimlessly just to clear his head, eventually ending up at the park with its white-blanketed lawns and white-tipped evergreens ghostly visible in the still fragile light of day. And the stallion was not alone. Puffy accompanied him.

Finding that Gavel was right about the stuffed animal, Dangler had used Puffy as his sounding board before he had fallen into a fitful sleep. Finding Puffy tangled in his blankets when he made the bed- this act hopefully deflecting any of Sadie’s leftover ire- he had latched on to it absently and found that he still carried it when he was outside the house. Grateful for the filtered daylight, he had nonetheless tucked the Puffalump tightly against his chest on the outside chance he would encounter someone.

The quiet atmosphere of the park with the gently falling snow had a soothing effect on the heart of the distraught stallion. Finding a sheltered spot near a small pond, he made himself relatively comfortable on a cold, hard bench, and allowed his tangled nerves to slowly unwind. He set the Puffalump to face him.

“Well, Puffy, I survived another night, so maybe Trisha jilting me isn’t the end of the world after all.” A stronger breeze caused snowflakes to shower over the Puffalump, creating the effect that the animal had winked. Dangler laughed. “You’re very special, Puffy. I bet you could make a fortune if you went into counseling.” Did the cat smile? “Trisha hadn’t smiled at my jokes in a long time; I guess I should have seen the hoof-writing on the wall.” He picked up the toy, then hugged the Puffalump to him as he fought down another spasm of loneliness. “Well, okay, I’m not out of the woods yet, but I’ll make it.”

Sitting watching the flakes drift through the air, Dangler lost track of the time. The combination of falling snow accompanied by warmer temperatures and along with the fact that it was a vacation day, soon had the houses of Dream Valley spilling out the young inhabitants, anxious for a frolic. Hearing squealing voices from the direction of the sledding hill and at various points around him snapped Dangler from his reverie. Self consciously, he tucked Puffy under his foreleg and stood to make his way unobtrusively out of the park, only now noting that the day was much brighter even with the spitting cloud cover.

Sighing with relief that he had made it past the last rowdy group of colts and fillies playing fox and goose in the snow, Dangler increased his gait, anxious to get back to Gavel’s house before anyone spotted him packing a Puffalump like a toddler. His pace was arrested, however, when he heard what sounded like a muffled sob coming from the lowest branches of a blue spruce. His experience with Puffy having shattered some of his preconceptions of inanimate objects, he heard himself asking the tree, “Is something the matter?”

The sobbing stopped, but only because it turned into a wail. “Santa no brought sled for Christmas!” a wavering voice croaked.

Looking at the tree cautiously as he took a step backward- Ents were mythical, weren’t they?- Dangler found his voice to ask, “It would have to have been one mighty big sled, wouldn’t it?” His glance followed the towering giant’s span into the snowy heights.

There was what sounded like a hiccup, then, “Just a ‘ittle one would do.”

Shaking his head, Dangler leaned down to peer under the branches of the tree to find a huddled baby pony sitting on a blanket of pine needles, tears marring his face. “Um... are you the one without a sled?”

Shaking his head up and down, the little pony sniffed. “Me no sled,” he stated forlornly, his head now going side to side.

Feeling dizzy from following that motion from his tilted position with the snowflakes dancing around him, Dangler stood upright. “Could you come out here and talk?” he asked. His experience with children was almost nil, but he could not ignore the dispirited little tyke.

The lowest branches of the tree ahead of him quivered, then the baby pony appeared, his head down, his ears at half-mast. He brushed his hooves over his wet cheeks, then looked up to see with whom he spoke.

“You stwanger.”

It took a moment, but Dangler managed to decipher the baby-talk. “Stranger than what?” queried a puzzled Dangler. He had very little experience with baby ponies.

“Me can’t talk to stwangers,” the baby pony explained, then closed his mouth tightly.

“Oh. I see. But should you be out here all alone like this?”

“Me wun away.” As soon as the words were out, the baby pony realized he had once more talked to the stranger; and he clapped his hoof over his mouth.

Dangler stooped to the foal’s level. “Why did you run away?”

A big tear sliding down his cheek, the foal had to unclamp his hoof to brush it away. “Santa fo’got me.”

“You didn’t get any gifts for Christmas?”

The foals anguish was too much for him to contain any longer. “Momma and Daddy gave me...” he wailed again, “... ed-oo-ka-shall toys.”

“Edookashall toys?” Dangler scratched his head in consternation. Was he that old that he did not know what kids played with anymore?

“Ed-oo-ca-shall toys,” the foal nodded in the affirmative.

“I’m sorry. I never had any of those,” Dangler admitted.

The foal cast him a look that said, Lucky you. Then, “Momma says they make me smawt.”

Realization dawned on Dangler. “Oh! You’re talking about educational toys... something electronic, I suppose?”

“Yup, all talkie-talkie,” the foal complained. “Me wanna play outside!”

“Hmm... I imagine even Santa can’t go against your parents’ wishes.”

“You know Santa?”

“Well, sort of. And I might be able to talk him into bringing you a sled next year when you’re older.” The foal’s eyes lighted with anticipation, and Dangler realized he had just committed himself to something that he might not be able to deliver.

“You talk to Santa fow me?”

“I’ll do my best.” Then, remembering the Puffalump he still carried, Dangler offered it to the foal. “In the meantime, Santa thought this would do.” At the foal’s look of contempt, Dangler added, “You see, Puffy here will keep you company while you play your educational games. And she... um... he’s a real good listener. If you’re ever alone, he’ll be there for you.”

“A doll?” The little colt almost sneered and then looked wistfully across the park to the sledding hill from which excited chatter carried, muffled by the falling snow. “No sled.” Tears threatened again.

“Tommy? Tommy! Where are you?” an anxious voice filtered through the shifting curtain of white. The foal turned to the sound and visibly slumped.

“Auntie Adie,” the foal, obviously Tommy, groaned. He gravitated behind Dangler and peeked around him as the voice came nearer.

Appearing before him like a phantom materializing from the shadows, the mare reached Dangler. “Excuse me,” she panted, “but have you seen a little c... “ Her words cut off as she spied Tommy’s face peering at her from around the stallion; her tone changed from one of pleading to one of disapproval. “Tom-mee! Why did you disappear like that?!”

“Me wun away!” Tommy informed his aunt bravely, although he sidled closer to Dangler.

“How could you do such a thing?” the mare asked in dismay.

Feeling sorry for the foal, Dangler answered for him. “Tommy was disappointed that he didn’t get a sled this year, and thought he might find Santa and mention that oversight.”

The mare looked at the stallion as if seeing him for the first time. “And just who are you?”

“My name’s Dangler, Miss...?”

“Adalee. I’m Tommy’s aunt. His family has been frantically searching for him.”

“He’s perfectly fine,” Dangler informed the mare, “but he’s disappointed that he can’t ride down the sledding hill like the other kids.”

“That’s no excuse to run off.” She turned her attention to the foal. “Tommy, give me a moment to call your mom, then we’ll go home.” She accessed her cell phone and carried out her task, while Dangler exchanged a commiserating glance with the colt. He winked, hoping to buoy up the little fellow’s courage, then realized that Adalee had finished her call and was looking at him... or more specifically, at Puffy... doubtfully.

“I... I was... just in the park to hand out some Christmas cheer,” Dangler self-consciously stuttered, holding out the Puffalump. “Tommy doesn’t want a doll, but maybe you’d appreciate this cheerful little companion? It... it matches your eyes.” He almost shoved it into her hooves.

“Wh... why, thank you,” the mare now stuttered in return, staring at the purple cat, then lifting her violet eyes to gaze into Dangler’s hazel ones for a moment. “How sweet of you... and for befriending Tommy as well.” She looked away with an effort. “Come, Tommy. Let’s get you home and warmed up.”

Tommy looked up at Dangler with trust. “No fowget... sled next yeaw.”

“I won’t forget, Tommy.” Dangler looked sheepishly at the aunt. “I hope that won’t be a problem.”

“If it means that much to Tommy, I think it can be arranged.” She held out her hoof to the foal and with one last fleeting glance at Dangler wished the stallion a Merry Christmas.

“Merry Christmas,” Dangler returned, then watched them walk away. They were almost swallowed up in the snowy whiteness when he found himself running after them. “Tommy... Adalee... maybe this afternoon I could come over and take Tommy sledding...” Surely Roy would have an old sled hanging about somewhere.

Tommy clapped his hooves in joy. “Oh, please, Aunt Adie?”

“Well... your mother...” Adalee started to say, but was interrupted by Tommy.

“Momma won’t cawe... as long as she don’t haf to come.”

Adalee looked from Tommy’s pleading face to Dangler’ beseeching one and smiled. It was hard to determine who was more interested in the sledding expedition, the colt or the stallion. Suddenly, she realized that she might just enjoy such an outing herself. Clutching the Puffalump to her, she grinned. “It’s a date then... this afternoon, at... let’s say three o’clock?”

The answering grins from Tommy and Dangler were all the answer she needed.

* * *

The farewells to the Woodlawn ponies had been extended as long as possible, but Vanguard and Sugarberry and Banderol had to take their leave in good time to make their way to Berryville in time for the planned family gathering of Sugarberry’s side of the family. A gentle snow was falling, but a brightening of the sky promised a reprieve soon.

Toting his cousin’s Puffalump elephant, Banderol enjoyed walking through the whispy snow for a half hour or so but then begged for his father to carry him, which Vanguard willingly did. Banderol reached across to his mother, transferring the Puffalump to her care. “Key-Key all gone,” he sighed, the look of sadness in his eyes breaking Sugarberry’s heart.

When the family arrived at Strawberry Shortcake and Strawberry Basket’s house outside of Berryville, they found the rest of the relatives already gathered and waiting. Sugarberry’s parents had been joined by their other two daughters and their families: Gooseberry, Grapevine, Wineberry, Huckleberry, Baby Gooseberry, and Loganberry; and Raspberry, Driftwood, Custard, and Cream. Needless to say, there was a boisterous reunion.

“You’re house seems to be getting smaller,” Sugarberry teased her father as the ponies gathered in the living room to chat and exchange holiday experiences. The space was cramped- seven foals had a way of doing that.

“We’ll make do,” Strawberry Baskets grinned. “There’ll always be room for one more.”

“Thank goodness for that,” laughed Driftwood. “You’ll have one more to fit in come July.”

“Another foal?”,”How do you know it won’t be twins again?”,”You’ll have your hooves full!”, were only some of the comments that met that announcement.

“Tabby and Thomas are expecting in May,” Sugarberry shared once the excitement had settled down, “which is fortunate for Faline as her grandmothers seem to have a rivalry going on to garner as much of the little filly’s attention as they can. A second foal may help them to gain some perspective.”

“Or it will make them twice as demanding,” offered Grapevine as he rescued his youngest, Loganberry, who was being set-upon- literally- by Custard and Cream. Banderol, several months younger than these three, stood back as if assessing his chances to enter the tussle.

“‘Twice as demanding’ sums up what it’s like to have twins,” grimaced Raspberry. “This morning Custard spilled his glass of milk at the same time that Cream knocked the flower vase over.”

“Me only wanted to give Mommy a flower,” Cream defended from the sidelines.

“Yes, my love, and it was a very beautiful flower,” Raspberry responded tenderly. She then grinned at Sugarberry. “One of our waitresses at the restaurant gave birth on Christmas Eve; she had recurring dreams the last two weeks that when the foal was born, the doctor looked at the baby strangely, then lifted him for Neva to see: the foal always had a shiny red nose. Neva was gratified to find when the event actually occurred that her little one was perfectly normal.”

“A bright red nose would have made naming the baby a cinch,” noted Vanguard.

“True,” agreed Driftwood. “Rudolf, the Red-Nosed Roan.”

* * *

Adalee’s cheeks were as red as Tommy’s from the strenuous activity of sledding and marching back up the hill over and over... and over. The colt would have been at the sledding hill yet if she had not put her hoof down, knowing just how tired the little guy would be by the time he walked home again. Dangler had helped entice him away from the hill by promising to pull him home on the sled, which was a good enough enticement to lure Tommy away from the still crowded park.

“We had a wonderful afternoon, Dangler. Thanks for giving up your time to make a little boy very happy.” Adalee smiled at the stallion, resisting the urge to tuck an errant lock of his orange mane back into place.

Seeming to read her thoughts, Dangler brushed his hoof across his forehead to banish the stray lock. “I’d forgotten how much fun sledding could be,” admitted the stallion. He recalled Roy’s look of disbelief when he had heard of his friend’s plan to spend the day with a randomly met foal. Dangler had not corrected Roy’s impression of an elderly aunt worrying over the colt. “It was a welcome... escape.”

“Just what were you trying to escape?” giggled Adalee. “Annoying relatives or the leftover turkey?”

A brief look of irritation crossed the stallion’s face but was quickly shrugged off. “Let’s just say it was the daily grind.” A black cloud seemed to settle over him.

What did I say? worried the mare, suddenly feeling cold as the stallion seemed to pull away and set-up an invisible shield that foiled their camaraderie. She was about to ask Dangler to share whatever was bothering him when Tommy interrupted.

“I’m cowd, Auntie Adie. You make hot chocolate?” His squirming on the sled to look back at his aunt unseated him and he found himself sitting on the cold, hard ground.

“Of course we can have some hot chocolate,” Adalee assured the colt, rushing to help him to his hooves and keeping his cold hoof within hers to keep him by her side for the short distance they had yet to go. She grimaced at Dangler. “I think we’d better head for the back door; Tommy’s mother would be better off not seeing her little boy so cold and musted-up.” She uselessly tried to bring his hair back into some kind of order.

“He won’t get sick now, will he?” Dangler felt a twinge of conscience; he had been so content interacting with the colt and his aunt that he had not wanted the afternoon’s fun to end. But at what price to Tommy?

“Me won’t get sick,” Tommy piped up. “Me no like bein’ sick.”

“We’ll get you warmed up in a jiffy,” Adalee assured him, opening the back door to her sister’s house. She stepped back to allow Tommy and Dangler to precede her, and Tommy scurried on in; but Dangler hesitated.

“I should really be getting back to Roy’s...” he began, but stopped when he saw a look of disappointment cross Adalee’s face. He smoothly changed his direction. “... but I’m sure I have time for one mug of chocolate.”

“Great!” Adalee grinned; then realizing how elated she must have sounded, she continued to babble. “We owe you so much for befriending Tommy this morning when he was out all alone. Sis was beside herself with worry, and that made the rest of us nervous, too. You were very kind.”

“You... and Tommy... make it very easy to be kind,” admitted Dangler with a smile that melted Adalee’s heart.

* * *

Puffy spent the day quietly sitting on the sofa. Adalee had experienced such a satisfying afternoon that she had not given the Puffalump another thought since she had abandoned the cat upon returning with Tommy that morning. Now, however, with the day drawing to a close and with Dangler long since gone back to his friend’s house, the mare remembered the impromptu gift the stallion had bestowed upon her and went to rescue the poofy purple pet.

Dangler noticed my eyes, she recalled with a twinge of warmth, remembering Dangler’s comment about how they matched the Puffalump; clasping Puffy tightly to her, she bid her sister and brother-in-law a goodnight before making her way to her own home.

Once away from her sister’s perceptive glances, Adalee allowed herself to relax and yield to some pleasant daydreaming about the handsome stallion that had rescued Tommy from his venture into the park alone. Her lips curled into a smile as she recalled how right it had seemed to be with Dangler, laughing and talking like acquaintances of long standing.

There had been several times when Dangler had seen withdrawn, but those moments had soon passed; the stallion had seemed as hesitant to end the afternoon as she had been, sitting with her and Tommy at the kitchen table eating frosted sugar cookies heavy with sprinkles and drinking hot chocolate until her sister had come into the room to start supper which somehow broke the mood; and Dangler had been anxious then to get on his way.

Adalee frowned. He had left so quickly that she had not had a chance to ask his plans for the coming days. When would she see him again? Her heart lurched. What if she did not see him again, ever? That possibility was heart-rending; but, she realized with a sinking feeling, it was all too probable.

She sighed. At least she had Puffy. The doll would be a reminder of this wondrous day.

* * *

The first thing Adalee saw when she opened her eyes the following morning was Puffy sitting on her dresser; the mare smiled dreamily, remembering the time she had spent with Dangler. She stretched lazily, recalling the warmth of his smile, the color of his eyes- like blue velvet- and the sound of his voice. Her gleanings were interrupted by a knocking on the door.

“Who could that be so early on a Saturday?” she pondered as she slipped out of bed, making a quick stop by the mirror to run a hoof through her hair; she’d slept so soundly it was barely out of place. A frission of excitement ran through her as she anticipated finding Dangler on her doorstep. But she was to be disappointed. It was only Pampas, her neighbor, and his small son, Mesquite.

“Adie, sorry to bother you, but Sunny isn’t feeling well; and I’m going to take her in to see Dr. Toby. I was wondering...” He looked down at Mesquite, and Adalee finished for him.

“You want me to watch Mesquite. Of course I will.” She grinned at the little tyke as she tousled his hair, then swung him into her forelegs. “But just what’s the matter with your wife?” she asked of Pampas, returning a worried glance to the stallion.

“She’s been feeling under the weather since Christmas Day, but during the night she started complaining of stomach pains. I want to make sure everything’s okay.”

“Well, don’t worry about Mesquite; I’ll take good care of him.”

“Thanks, Adie.” The stallion gave his son a hug and a kiss, then hurried back toward his own place next door.

Adalee looked at the little foal who had just entwined his forelegs around her neck. He was not Dangler, but he would have to do. Keeping up with the little tyke would keep the memory of the stallion at bay.

* * *

“Sunny miscarried,” Pampas’ tired voice sounded over the phone.

“Pampas! I didn’t even know you two were expecting again! How is Sunny taking this?” A dull ache settled around Adalee’s heart in sympathy for the young mother.

“She’s very depressed; but Dr. Toby says that physically, she’s fine.” Pampas’ voice cracked. “We weren’t sure ourselves about the baby; it was so soon yet.”

“Oh, Pampas, I’m so sorry,” Adalee mourned. “What can I do to help?”

“How is Mesquite doing?”

“He’s sleeping right now. Do you want me to bring him to the hospital to see his mother? He would cheer her up.”

“She’s resting right now. Dr. Toby said that was the best thing for her. Oh, Adie, she looks so fragile!” Adalee winced at the pain in Pampas’ voice.

“She’ll be just fine,” Adalee assured the stallion. “Dr. Toby will see to that.”

“He can’t bring the baby back.” Pampas’ voice was bleak.

Adalee sighed. There was no pat answer for that. A unique and irreplaceable individual had been denied his mother’s gentle touch and his father’s loving care.

* * *

It was very late when Pampas arrived to retrieve his son and give a report to Adalee on his wife’s condition. “She couldn’t stop crying,” he said. “They gave her a sedative to help her sleep.” He walked over to the couch where Mesquite was slumbering. The colt was tucked in under a warm, patchwork quilt, one foreleg thrown back against the pillow, the other loosely holding a purple and white floppy cat. The stallion said no more as he gazed at the sleeping foal, and Adalee respected his silent musings until he cleared his throat and shook his head as if coming out of a daydream.

“Thanks for watching Mesquite. We’ll make it up to you once Sunny’s back home.”

“There’s nothing to make up,” Adalee assured the stallion. “Mesquite was no trouble; actually, we had a lot of fun together.” She leaned over the sleeping foal to wrap the blanket firmly around him, nestling the Puffalump safely next to his body before Pampas scooped blanket, baby, and all up into his forelegs.

As she held the door for Pampas, Adalee asked, “What time will you bring Mesquite tomorrow?”

“Oh, you needn’t worry. Sunny’s folks arrived this evening.” He nodded toward his home next door where the lights were already glowing. “They’ll take care of Mesquite until Sunny’s back on her hooves.”

“Well, if you need me for anything, just let me know.”

Left alone, Adalee bustled around her apartment, straightening things that Mesquite had disorganized and washing the dishes that had accumulated. Her thoughts were on Sunny and the grief she was feeling which kept her from contemplating the previous day’s sojourn with Dangler; but once the lights went out, she could no longer keep them away. For some reason, the stallion had affected her deeply, and she could not erase the memory of their time together.

She winced when she remembered how hard it had been for her to release the Puffalump to Mesquite; the little colt had seen the featherweight cat sitting on her dresser when she was busy making up the bed; and he was determined to play with it, not giving her a moment’s peace until she had gotten Puffy down for him. How could she deny him this one source of comfort when his mother was unavailable to him? And it had appeased the youngster, keeping his mind away from the fact that his parents had deserted him for the day. When Mesquite had fallen asleep with the animal, she did not have the heart to slip it away from him for fear he would miss it when he woke up.

It was not as if the child did not already have a roomful of stuffed animals of all shapes and sizes; Princess Tiffany, who had semi-adopted the little foal- who was born the previous Christmas at the Royal Paradise where Sunny and Pampas had been caught in a hopeless journey when Sunny’s time of delivery had arrived- could not resist showering the colt with every plush pet that caught her fancy. Adalee suspected that Puffy would lie forgotten tomorrow, but for tonight it seemed imperative to allow the unexpected gift to stay with the foal.

Adalee sighed as she plumped up her pillow. She had not heard from Dangler today like she had hoped she would; and she knew that he was heading home tomorrow. Her common sense told her that she had put more importance on their afternoon together than the stallion did- it was Tommy that Dangler was trying to appease, after all- and it was better that Puffy was not around to remind her of that interlude.

Her heart, however, could not be appeased.

* * *

Sunday dawned warmer than anyone could have expected after the frosty, snowy days just past. Pampas called Adalee to let her know that Sunny would be home that afternoon, so she went by Oakley’s Grocery after church to pick up a simple bouquet of flowers for the grieving mare. While there, she also picked up a few other items that were running low and was searching through the baking aisle for a bag of Macadamia nuts, knowing that Pampas had a penchant for her Macadamia and White Chocolate cookies, when two mares passed down the aisle behind her.

Adalee smiled at the two, but returned to her search. It was only when she heard one of them mention Roy that she became alert to their conversation, as Dangler had mentioned that he was staying with a friend named Roy at his parents’ home. The two stopped near Adalee to pick out some spices, and Adalee found herself avidly eavesdropping.

“Roy didn’t stay long; he never does. A pony brings ‘em into the world and what thanks do you get for it? And he doesn’t stop to think about the extra work it takes to get the house ready for his brief visits. Why, the baking I did! And never a thought for his mother. He brought along that friend of his, too,” Sadie droned.

“I haven’t seen Dangler lately,” Sadie’s companion remarked, choosing her favorite brand of oregano. “He and Roy were always close, weren’t they? ... almost like brothers.”

“That’s a fact,” Sadie snorted. “Where one was, the other was sure to be. You remember Trisha, the pretty little filly that always hung out with them?” The two mares were by now walking away from Adalee, and she turned to catch Sadie’s words more clearly. “It seems Dangler got caught up in the romance of Christmas Eve and asked the gal to marry him...”

The rest of the sentence drifted off as Sadie rounded the corner to the checkout, but Adalee had heard enough. She felt as if she had taken a hard punch and had trouble breathing. Her Dangler was already engaged when he had befriended Tommy and her; he was only being kind... and possibly escaping the complaining conversation of Sadie. She could not blame the stallion for that! He had not found her appealing and witty and... desirable. He had already claimed the mare he wanted to spend the rest of his life with.

Well, so be it. Adalee gritted her teeth. No stallion was worth the sort of limbo she had found herself in since meeting Dangler. From this moment on, she would never think of the stallion again. Grabbing the package of Macadamia nuts, Adalee trounced her way to the checkout. She would never look back. Not ever!

* * *

“Dear, why don’t you take Mesquite to the park? It’s not far from here and would be a pleasant outing for the little darling. He’s been such a good little boy, but it will still be an hour or so before Sunny is officially released,” Sunny’s mother suggested after eating a snack in the cafeteria with her husband and grandson.

Sunny’s father grimaced, but after considering the alternative of waiting around the sterile hospital, the great outdoors beckoned... even if it was in the company of an active little foal. He watched as his wife cleaned the colt’s messy hooves, then lifted Mesquite into his forelegs. “Come on, partner.” To his wife, he said, “See you in a bit,” and he turned to leave.

“Oh,” Sunny’s mother called after him. “You forgot the Puffalump.” She held out the purple and white cat to him.

“No grandson of mine needs a... a doll!” grumbled Grandpa, but the look in his wife’s eyes reduced his complaint to under-the-breath mumbling. Mesquite clutched the animal to him and waved a happy goodbye to Grandma, oblivious of Grandpa’s disapproval of the gossamer lump of stuffings in his hooves.

Grandfather and grandson had an enjoyable walk to the park with the sun warming the wintry air to a pleasant level; the enthusiastic sounds coming from the sledding hill turned Sunny’s father in the opposite direction. He found that the swing-sets were abandoned in the snow-covered landscape, so he set his direction toward them. Finding a pair of toddler swings, he slipped Mesquite in one, then stretched his forelegs. “For such a little fellow, you wear Grandpa out,” he said to the foal.

“Push,” Mesquite commanded, swinging one hoof through the air.

“Okay, okay,” Grandpa agreed. “But first, let’s put this little fluff-pot over in the other swing, shall we?” He pried the Puffalump out of Mesquite’s hooves and plopped it carelessly into the second toddler swing, then returned to his grandson to give him a swell push. Mesquite squealed in delight.

“Mowa, Gwampa, mowa!” he called.

So Grandpa spent the next fifteen minutes pushing the excited youngster in the swing until his hooves began to get chilled standing in the cold snow, and Mesquite’s nose started to run because of the cold air rushing by him.

“Well, ‘Squite, we’d better get moving or your mom will be home before we are. And you want to see your mother soon, don’t you?”

“Momma,” Mesquite responded, practically clambering overboard before his grandfather could grab him.

“Whoa, there!” bellowed Grandpa, catching up the foal. “Your mother won’t be too pleased if I drop you on your noggin.” He hitched the little colt high on his shoulder. “Now, let’s see how quickly we can get home.” Grandpa set off at a brisk trot with Mesquite hanging on to his mane and giggling in glee.

Back in the second swing sat Puffy, alone and deserted.

* * *

The afternoon was waning, a bank of threatening snow clouds building in the west. Without the warmth of the sun, the day had become chill and dreary; and the breeze was becoming an uncomfortable, blustery wind. At the park, the nearly weightless Puffalump, haphazardly placed, tipped further and further with each gust, until... finally... she dropped with a whispered whoosh to the frosty ground where she rested for a moment until another, stronger, zephyr whizzed by, sending her across the crusted snow, only to stop when she careened into a barren hedgerow where she stuck fast.

* * *

Across town, Sugarberry, Vanguard, and Banderol, anxious to make it home before the snow started falling again, hurried toward Dream Valley while keeping an eye on the ground in the hopes of finding Kitty-Kitty, the Puffalump, waiting for Banderol’s return. The realization that the toy could be buried in any of the shoveled banks that lined all the paths caused Sugarberry’s hopes to plummet. By the time they turned onto Fifth Street, Vanguard was wearing a rather terse expression; and Banderol... well, Banderol had actually fallen asleep and could not have cared less in the current moment where Kitty-Kitty was.

That all changed, however, when they reached the dark and lonesome house. With Chocolate Chip off in Neighberry with Wigwam, Garnet, and Wishbone- and Licorice back home at Birdsong- the house was all but abandoned. By the time Vanguard had unlocked the door, Banderol had awaken; and, seeing where he was, immediately thought of his lost Kitty-Kitty. “Key-Key!” he demanded.

Sugarberry looked at Vanguard with wide, anxious eyes. They had both promised their son that his beloved Puffalump would be found once they got home, but they had failed in living up to that promise.

“Banderol,” Vanguard said, dropping down to the foal’s level. “Kitty-Kitty wasn’t waiting on the path like we hoped he’d be, so it will take us longer than we though to find him.”

The little colt’s face puckered up, but before he could make a sound, Fluff and Raptor came streaming down the stairs to extend a very effusive welcome to the ponies that fed, cared for, and loved them. Caprice and Dietrich had kindly volunteered to monitor the cats’ needs over the holiday. Having someone living in Tabby’s old house next door had its advantages, Sugarberry had discovered. Sugarberry had no doubts that the cats had been well cared for in her absence; she noticed that even the floor had been vacuumed, and she smiled- Caprice, without the convenience of electricity in her dirt-floored hut with the Yetis, now found vacuuming to be pure joy; but to see the felines now, rubbing against Banderol until they had him pushed, giggling, to the floor, pointed out that the cats had deeply missed their ponies.

“Vanguard,” Sugarberry said, “while Banderol’s attention is on the cats, I’m going to call Tabby and see if she has a spare Puffalump like Kitty-Kitty. You know how she buys up any she finds at the thrift stores and rummages.”

“Good luck,” Vanguard smiled before setting off to empty the backpacks.

The ringing of the telephone at the mansion, however, was heard only by the menagerie of pets that Tabby had accumulated to share her space. To leave a message was all Sugarberry could do.

* * *

“Tabby, do you think our parents are becoming too possessive of our little girl?” queried Thomas as he and Tabby made their way to Agatha and Hubert’s house where Faline had spent the day. It seemed to him that he had hardly had the chance to see the petite filly since his mom and dad had moved to Dream Valley after their rescue from the Yetis, and the two sets of grandparents began making demands on their granddaughter’s time.

“Oh...” said Tabby vaguely, turning her attention from the array of snowflakes to her husband. “What do you mean?”

“You can’t say that you haven’t noticed how my mom and your mom practically fight for Faline’s time and attention.”

“Who can blame them, Thomas? Faline is an incomparable.”

Thomas grinned. “With you as her mother, she’d have to be. What I mean is, doesn’t it seem like their affection for their granddaughter is turning into more of a contest to see who can win the greatest share of her attention?”

“Come to think of it, Faline and I have gotten quite behind cataloging the new My Little People together because she’s never around,” Tabby considered. “Maybe there is something- ooh!” Tabby tried to focus her thoughts seriously on the matter at hoof, really she did, but her attention was won by the glimpse of a bit of color at the base of the row of hedges that lined the parkway path. “What is that?!” The pink unicorn, her red mane whipping around her face in the wind, scrambled across the snow to fetch the mystery item. “Oh, Thomas, I think it’s a Puffalump!”

The mare held up the crumpled purple and white object to get a better view of it from the nearest light. Shaking it to remove the accumulated snow, she squealed. “It’s the lavender cat from the original 1986 series. I’ll take him home and wash him up and she should sell for a nice amount on eBay. There’s probably a little baby pony out there right now who just lost his and his parents will be frantic to get him a replacement. You know how Puffalumps always disappear- lost in the motel bedding, left behind on the train, dropped off the bridge into the river... why, some are even kidnapped by mean, cruel parents.”

“Um, Tabby, maybe someone locally is looking for this particular Puffalump right now,” Thomas rationalized.

“Then why is it still here?” Tabby stared at him blankly. “Really, Thomas. Don’t be silly. The cat was lying here in plain sight; if someone lost it, all they had to do was come and pick it up.”

Thomas sighed. Sometimes a pony just could not reason with Tabby.

* * *

Having put in a restless night- Banderol had missed Kitty-Kitty worse once he was in familiar surroundings than he had when he was off at his grandparents’ homes under constant entertainment- Sugarberry could barely wait for the time to pass until a reasonable hour had been reached in which to call Tabby once more. She was gratified to hear Tabby’s voice on the other end of the line.

“Tabby, what about the...,” Sugarberry began.

“You’re home already?” Tabby interrupted. “I thought you’d be snowed in for weeks.”

“The paths were passable, but my concern is that Banderol is missing his lost Puffalump. When I didn’t hear back from you, I assumed you didn’t have one on hoof; but do you have any idea of where I might find one... quickly?”

“What are you talking about, Sug?” yawned Tabby.

“My message... didn’t you get it?”

Looking down at the flashing red button on her telephone, Tabby’s eyes opened in realization. “Ooooooh. Sorry, no. Too tired when we got home from Mom’s last night.”

“Oh!” With renewed hope, Sugarberry explained her dilemma again. “Banderol’s Puffalump was lost when we went to Woodlawn...”

“Tsk, tsk, Sug. Puffalumps are elusive creatures, as my experience has proven. Why, I’ve had parents contact me...”

“Tabby! Do you have a purple and white Puffalump cat in your inventory right now?” wailed Sugarberry.

“Well,” hedged Tabby, thinking back to last night’s encounter and trying to remember the details. What kind of egg nog had Agatha served last evening that seemed to crowd out coherent memories of the recent past? And why had she drank any of it? She hated egg nog... But hadn’t she brought home a purple Puffalump? Where was it now? She vaguely remembered taking off a gold necklace...

“Tabby!” Sugarberry’s voice sounded edgy, but it did succeed in bringing Tabby’s musings into focus. She clearly recalled dropping the Puffalump into the laundry bin.

“I did happen to pick one of those up...” she was launching her story when Sugarberry squealed.

“You’re an angel! We’ll be right over.”

* * *

In record time, Sugarberry, Vanguard, and Banderol arrived at Tabby and Thomas’ mansion. They were no sooner inside greeting Thomas when Banderol struggled out of his dad’s forelegs. “Key-Key?” he asked, peering into the adjacent room.

Thomas raised a questioning eyebrow.

“The Puffalump,” Sugarberry explained, coherently, she felt.

“Last night’s Puffalump?” queried Thomas, recalling the one Tabby had rescued, leading his guests to where the tall Christmas tree graced the front room.

“Tabby said she didn’t get my message last night,” Sugarberry puzzled. “But I called this morning, and she said she had one.”

Thomas knew enough not to get involved. He took the logical route. “Tabby’s in the kitchen; let’s go talk to her.” So with Sugarberry, Vanguard, and Banderol trailing behind, he led them to that warm, cozy area of the home.

“Hey, Sug, Van... you’re just in time for breakfast. Bandy, Faline spent the night at Grandma Agatha’s house, so she’s not here,” Tabby greeted them. “She’s all gone!!”

“Key-Key?” Banderol asked of Tabby.

“What?” said Tabby. She was able to translate Faline’s speech into regular English, but no other baby ponies.

“Key-Key no here?” the colt managed before a tear slid down his cheek.

“Tabby, remember the purple and white Puffalump cat that Banderol always carries with him?” Sugarberry prodded her friend.

“Kitty-Kitty,” added Vanguard.

“Hey, is that what you were talking about on the phone? Yeah, I found one of those last night!” said Tabby. “Didn’t I say that?”

“You found a purple and white cat Puffalump here in Dream Valley?” excitedly asked Sugarberry.

“Yes. In the park.”

“Oh,” a now deflated Sugarberry said. “Kitty-Kitty was lost somewhere between our house and the western edge of town.”

“Maybe we should look at this Puffalump at least,” suggested Vanguard.

“That’s an excellent idea,” said Thomas, glancing at his wife. “What did you do with it, Tabby?”

“It’s in the laundry hamper,” Tabby confessed. “I threw it there last night.”

“I’ll get it,” offered Thomas, heading toward the laundry room while Tabby checked on her omelet. Sugarberry peered over her friend’s shoulder, unable to restrain her curiosity over the excellent fare Tabby was now able to prepare after having been unable to even boil water successfully for the first twenty-something years of her life.

Vanguard kept Banderol’s attention riveted to the entrance of Sophia and Melinda into the kitchen, both cats apparently ready for breakfast themselves.

“Well, here’s the Puffalump,” Thomas remarked, returning with the purple cat in his hooves.

“Key-Key!” laughed Banderol, rushing to Thomas to claim his stuffed pet. He buried his face in the soft body of the toy, then held it up for his parents to see. “Key-Key all back,” he stated proudly.

“Thank goodness!” exclaimed Sugarberry. “Tabby, it’s like a miracle that you found Banderol’s lost cat!” She accepted Kitty-Kitty from Banderol as the foal unselfishly offered to share his happiness. Taking a quick look under the folds of the animal’s neck, however, she frowned. Sending Banderol off to the breakfast nook where Sophia was now guarding the table, she turned to Tabby. “This isn’t Banderol’s actual Puffalump after all; his had an angel necklace around its neck.”

“Oh, that?” Tabby tossed her mane. “I took that off; it would have made a racket going through the washing machine, and besides, it wasn’t original.”

“I put that necklace on the Puffalump,” Sugarberry defended, “as a reminder to Banderol of his guardian angel.”

Shrugging her shoulders, Tabby grinned. “That sounds so typical of you, Sug.” She held up a muffin. “Let’s eat!”

* * *

“I wonder,” said Sugarberry as she and Tabby sat talking after breakfast, “just how Kitty-Kitty got across town on her own.”

“It was awfully windy,” Tabby noted.

“That’s true, but he doesn’t seem to be all the worse for wear. If he was blown about for five days, you’d think he’d show signs of it.”

“Snow’s clean and soft. Ah, for the life of a Puffalump! It must have been fun.”

“I suppose you’re right,” sighed Sugarberry, accepting the fact that she might never know just what had happened; then she brightened. “Hey, maybe I can write a children’s book about a lost stuffed animal on Christmas Eve!”

Tabby rolled her eyes. “It’ll be all sweet and innocent and impossible, I suppose.”

“Well, why not? Christmas is a time for wondrous things. Just look at the birth of the baby Jesus. Like the song says, What a strange way to save the world.”

Just then, Banderol and Faline came rushing into the room with Agatha, Hubert, Vanguard, and Thomas following at a slower pace. Banderol flung himself into his mother’s forelegs while Faline did the same with Tabby. The mares looked over the heads of their offspring to share a tender smile with their spouses.

The birth of the baby had indeed been a strange, yet glorious, way to save the world. And it all came down to one simple thing: Love one another as I have loved you.

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