Tilly and Bess
written by Sugarberry

"What do you think Mom and Dad are up too?" queried Garnet of her husband, Wishbone, as the two walked from their Neighberry home to the restaurant that they now managed for Wishbone's parents. The Mom and Dad Garnet referred to however, were not Drifter and Twilight Jewel, but her own parents, Blackcap and Sassy, who were currently visiting the small town, staying with Wishbone's grandparents on their family farm. Whenever Blackcap and Sassy left their permanent home in New Pony, Garnet had learned, their was usually trouble ahoof.

"Maybe they just wanted to make sure they didn't miss our foal's birth," Wishbone suggested.

"That's a month away yet. And besides, my parents have never been big on nurturing family ties. There's something going on; I can tell by the shifty look in Dad's eyes."

Wishbone laughed. "There's always a shifty look in Blackcap's eyes."

"I suppose that's true," Garnet admitted on a sigh. "But even Mom seems edgy about something. And when I asked her how long she and Dad would be visiting, she changed the subject. They are definitely hiding something from us."

"Well, stop worrying your pretty head about it," ordered Wishbone, giving her a quick kiss. "Whatever mystery Blackcap and Sassy are holding back will most likely be revealed over dinner tonight, what with Gram and Gramps joining us. They've been thick as thieves this visit."

"That's what bothers me most."

* * *

The Right Place had been opened by Drifter and Twilight Jewel some four years earlier, and the restaurant had soon become a favorite haunt of the local populace as well as a sought-out stop for travelers. The quick and efficient service for daytime lunches became more formal and intimate when darkness fell and the lighting lent a softer, more mellow atmosphere to the stylishly decorated dining room.

Having her sights set on a more distinctive eatery, Twilight Jewel had convinced her husband to turn the operation of The Right Place over to their only son, Wishbone, when he had graduated from Pony Pride; and with a foal on the way, Wishbone and Garnet had been only too happy to step into a stable and lucrative position. With Twilight Jewel and Drifter now fine-tuning their latest venture, Wildwood, a premier restaurant in Hayton, Wishbone and Garnet were responsible for all decisions at The Right Place.

Not only had Wishbone accrued the management of the restaurant in Neighberry, but his parents had also included their home in the bargain. That part of the deal also included Wishbone's younger sister, Lollipop, who still lived at home while attending vocational school in culinary arts. She was a tremendous help to her brother and Garnet, having been involved with The Right Place since its inception and still carrying her share of responsibility for its smooth operation.

Lollipop, a young pink mare with soft blue curls, had been called "Little Miss Prissy" by her brother while she was growing up. Her mother had doted on this youngest member of the family and had always insisted on proper behavior and perfect coiffing to ensure that Lollipop's natural beauty was shown to its fullest extent. This attention to her looks could have thwarted Lollipop's personality, but she had grown up to be a lively and likeable mare who attracted friends like bees to honey.

This fact was obvious as the perky mare bounced between the kitchen and the dining area, helping with any problems that arose and pitching in when things got hectic. Wherever she went, she exchanged conversation with guests who seemed to crave her attention as much as they looked forward to a tasty meal. More than one young stallion found an excuse to speak with her concerning a perceived fault with the food or over the absence of some condiment or for advice on what to order, and none of them were disappointed in the cheerful and personal attention she gave them.

Even as Wishbone and Garnet came into the diner, Lollipop was helping one bashful male clean up the soda he had clumsily spilled while under her spell. She noted the entrance of her brother and sister-in-law with a wave of her hoof and a roll of her eyes. It was not the first time Crackerjack's nerves, when around Lollipop, had caused such a mess.

Leaving Wishbone to visit with several of his lifelong friends who were lunching at The Right Place, Garnet made her way to the office and stifled the feeling of unease that her parents' visit to Neighberry had prompted by burying herself in the business accounts.

* * *

"They're late, Wishbone," Garnet hissed. "They said they'd be here by seven-thirty. Where are they?"

"Gram probably couldn't decide which scarf to wear," Wishbone teased. "They'll be here, you'll see."

The door opened to admit one customer just then, and Garnet smiled her welcome. "Xavier! You made good time."

"Hi, Garnet... Wishbone," the goldenrod yellow stallion responded. "I ducked out of work early." He glanced around the busy room. "Lollipop's here, isn't she?"

"She's in the kitchen overseeing a special meal for some of our family. Mom and Dad are running late, and Lollipop's afraid the chowder will curdle."

"Sassy and Blackcap are in town?" queried Xavier. "I haven't seen them in awhile."

"Well, since you're here, too, you can eat with us," Wishbone offered. "Gram and Gramps will join us as well."

"I wouldn't want to intrude."

"Nonsense," Garnet grinned. "You're as good as family, being such a close friend of both Chocolate Chip and Lollipop." Xavier had become very well acquainted with Chocolate Chip- Wishbone and Lollipop's eldest sibling- in New Pony and had fallen for Lollipop the first time he met her.

"I talked with Chocolate Chip over the phone Wednesday; I hear you're not the only one expecting, Garnet."

"Isn't it exciting? She and Wigwam couldn't be happier."

"And I'm happy for all of you... and maybe a little jealous."

"Your day will come," Garnet said, winking at the stallion. "Oh, and here's Lollipop now."

Xavier turned to watch as the pink mare came toward them, and his face lit up at the sight of her. Wishbone and Garnet exchanged an understanding glance and quietly faded into the background.

"Lolly, you're prettier than ever," Xavier said, reaching out to touch a soft curl brushing her cheek.

"It must be my new eye shadow," she grinned. "I didn't expect you so soon."

"I couldn't wait to see you; there's something I'd like to..."

Their conversation was interrupted by the entrance of Sassy and Blackcap along with Camomile and Forester. Lollipop deserted Xavier to greet her grandparents and escort them to the table that awaited the family dinner. Garnet settled her own parents while Wishbone indicated a chair for Xavier next to Lollipop. That mare, however, was intent on supervising the help, leaving Garnet free to enjoy the company of her parents.

Sassy smiled at her daughter. "It looks like you and Wishbone are doing a bang-up job here; look at the crowd!"

"We can't take too much of the credit, Mom. Wishbone's folks and Lollipop did the hard work of getting it all started."

Blackcap grunted. "Don't sell yourself short, Garnet. We all know you could bilk a gull of his jangles faster than..." Suddenly aware of the censuring looks cast his way, Blackcap stopped short and cleared his throat. "What I mean to say is, anyone of your expertise would be a success at whatever you set your mind to." Feeling certain that he had averted any embarrassment of his daughter due to her background, Blackcap turned to Wishbone. "How much do you rake in here in any given day?"

"Dad, that's none of your business!" Garnet scolded. "If anyone should be answering personal questions here, it's you. You've been in the neighborhood for a week now and have hardly shown your face in town. Just what are you up to, anyway?"

"Tsk, tsk, Garnet, dear," Camomile gently scolded. "That's no way to talk to your father."

"My daughter's right, though, Cammie," Blackcap defended Garnet. "And it's why we're all here." The dark stallion leaned back in his chair, a huge grin on his face. "Your mother and I are settling down here, Garnet, my girl... outside of town."

This news was met with a dead silence. Garnet's mouth dropped open; Wishbone appeared stunned; Lollipop, who was hovering over a serving dish, froze while a dollop of spaghetti slithered to the floor; and Xavier looked disbelieving.

Forester broke through the tension created by the announcement. "Sassy and Blackcap have agreed to help on the farm while doing... what they do. It'll be just the thing for Camomile to have Sassy there to do the gardening and canning and other heavy work, and Blackcap will keep up the field work and the building repair."

"It's just what Forester and I have always dreamed of, someone to help out as we got older. With Drifter and Twilight Jewel gone and you kids busy with your own lives, we asked Blackcap and Sassy to consider this move; and I'm happy to say that they accepted willingly." Camomile smiled at Blackcap and patted Sassy's hoof.

Garnet found her voice. "Mom... Dad... is this on the up-and-up?"

"What do you think we are?" Blackcap huffed, then shook his hoof through the air in denial. "Forget I said that. What I mean is, we felt at home here when we spent those weeks on the farm after you kids got married. Your mother and I both missed the work and the company of Cammie and Forester when we got back to New Pony. We realized that, at this point in our lives, we like the country better than the city."

Lollipop grinned. "I, for one, think this is great! Sassy, you always know how to have fun; and, Blackcap, you'll keep things interesting."

"I've always heard it's difficult for two women to live in the same house," Wishbone noted.

"Ah, but we won't be living with Camomile and Forester," explained Sassy, "at least not for long. No one ever bought the old brick house down the road after Crescent and Tuffet moved to town."

"And did we get a deal!" crowed Blackcap, rubbing his front hooves together.

"Tuffet realized that the old house needed a lot of work and was more than glad to receive your dad's offer," explained Forester, seeing Garnet's look of dismay.

"Blackcap's always wanted to fix up an old place," offered Sassy.

"Yeah, I've been watching those shows on TV; it's a piece of cake," Blackcap beamed.

Wishbone shook his head while Xavier's lips twitched with laughter.

"Well, it sounds like you'll be too busy for the foreseeable future to get into any trouble," Garnet stated, looking more relaxed.

Blackcap reached across the table and chucked her chin. "You forget the scope of the internet, my girl."

Garnet groaned.
* * *

"Thanks for hangin' around to walk me home," Lollipop said, stifling a yawn. She had just handled a dispute between the head chef and one of his assistants, and now wanted nothing more than to escape her responsibilities and get a good night's sleep.

"It's the least I could do," stated Xavier. "You were a pro at getting those two hotheads to see reason."

"Chefs are often volatile."

"You could have let Wishbone handle it."

"He was anxious to get Garnet home; she was looking frazzled after her parents' announcement."

"It was a surprise; when I've seen Sassy and Blackcap in New Pony, they've seemed happy enough."

"From what I understand, they moved around a lot while their family was growing up. I imagine that the stability of Gram and Gramp's farmstead looks kind of appealing."

"It'll be a change for them. Which reminds me, I haven't had a chance to tell you my news. Guess who's the new marketing manager at my company?"

Picking up on the pride in his voice, Lollipop squealed. "You, Xavier? You got the promotion?"

"It's official as of Monday morning."

Lollipop threw her forelegs around the stallion's neck. "I'm so proud of you, Xavier!" She gave him a resounding kiss. "You'll do a great job."

Xavier took advantage of the opportunity in which he found himself. "It's an important position and the pay raise is substantial. It's got me thinking, Lolly. I'd be able to swing a home for the two of us..."

"Whoa, Xavier." Lollipop drew back. "What are you talking about?"

"I'm talking about the two of us getting married, Lollipop."

"You can't be serious!"

"I wouldn't be talking about it if I wasn't serious. You will marry me, won't you?"

"Not any time in the near future! I've got my own plans for the time being. And I'm having too much fun." She tweaked his ear. "You're older than I am, remember? I've got to catch up."

"But I love you, Lollipop. I thought you loved me, too."

"I do, Xavier. But I'm not ready to settle down. I've got school to finish..."

"You've got one more year of culinary arts, right? We could plan a wedding for next June."

"I'm beginning to think I should take some management courses, as well. Garnet and Wishbone are already thinking about expanding the scope of The Right Place. We'd like to add a banquet hall and give some diversity to the menus and..."

"I thought you were anxious to get out of Neighberry and come to New Pony."

"I was... once. But with so much changing here now, I'd rather stay and be in on the fun. Just think what it will be like to have Sassy and Blackcap around on a constant basis. There'll be no end to the excitement!"

"I got the impression that Garnet's folks want to settle down to some serious work."

"But you know Blackcap. He'll find some way to stir things up."

"If it's excitement you want, New Pony has plenty of that. You could still go to school there and have your choice of which restaurant you work at."

"But don't you see? None of them would be The Right Place? And all my friends are here. Our group at the vocational school is really close, and we spend a lot of time together even outside of classes."

"Is that what this is all about... that you're interested in someone else?"

"I'm interested in everyone I meet. And there are any number of ponies I like very well, a number of them stallions, if that's what you're asking."

His mouth set in a grim line, Xavier remained silent as they walked on. Could he have been so wrong of the feelings that he had thought he and Lollipop shared? When they were approaching the house, he tried one more time to explain his position. "Lollipop, I..."

"You're asking things of me that I'm not yet ready to give," Lollipop brushed him off. "I'm not ready to settle down." She slipped ahead of him through the front door, then turned briefly. "The guest room is ready for you. I'm too tired to talk any more tonight." She left Xavier to himself.

The stallion watched the young mare go up the stairs, then made his way to the small but comfortable guest room. For a long time he stood staring out the window, looking for his future in the murky shadows that crept slowly across the lawn, driven by the rising moon. He had come to Neighberry with the expectation that Lollipop would be jubilant about his promotion for the same reason that he was... that now they would be able to financially start a home of their own and become a real family like Chocolate Chip and Wigwam and Garnet and Wishbone.

He had miscalculated, however. Lollipop did not love him in the same way that he loved her. She was not ready for a lifetime commitment. What choice did that leave him? He could wait until she was ready to embrace marriage, or he could shake the dust of Neighberry off his hooves and move on. Surely, in a city the size of New Pony, there must be someone who was right for him.

By the time sleep claimed his unhappy thoughts, Xavier had made up his mind.

* * *

Groggily, Garnet made it down the stairs and to the back of the house, working out her aches and pains as she went. With the foal's due date closing in, she was having a difficult time finding a comfortable position in which to sleep and often got up early even after a late night at the restaurant. She was surprised to find Xavier in the kitchen ahead of her.

"'Morning. You and Lollipop must have big plans for the day."

"I do, anyway. I didn't get a chance to tell you last night that I'm headed for Happy Hollow for the rest of the weekend."

"You're leaving so soon?" Garnet looked bewildered.

"I haven't been home for ages, and Mom has been threatening to invade my place at New Pony if I don't visit soon."

"Parents can be trying," Garnet agreed. "When I was growing up, Blackcap and Sassy couldn't get rid of me fast enough; now it's like they're trying to make up for lost time." She looked more closely at Xavier and frowned. "Was your bed lumpy? You look like you didn't sleep a wink."

"Thanks," Xavier grinned, but without any true feeling. "I've been promoted at work and it brings a lot of new responsibilities with it; I've been anxious about meeting my boss's expectations." Xavier brought the coffee pot to the table and poured a cup for Garnet and one for himself.

"You'll do just fine. Chocolate Chip has always had the greatest confidence in you; and from what I've seen, I'd have to agree."

"This conversation sounds deep for this early in the morning," Wishbone yawned as he came into the room. "Why's everyone up already?"

"Xavier is going to visit his family and wants to get an early start."

"Too bad. I though we'd have a chance to throw the football around a bit." Wishbone accepted a cup of steaming coffee and sat down at the table. "Where's Lollipop?"

"She was bushed by the time we left the restaurant," Xavier explained. "I think we should let her sleep."

"There are some donuts in the box on top of the refrigerator," Garnet indicated before the stallion had a chance to sit down. "And get the milk, too, beings you're up."

"Glad to be of help," Xavier said, doing Garnet's bidding. "I appreciate the fact that you guys have been letting me sleep here when I'm in town. As a matter of fact..." Xavier went to his backpack by the back door and pulled out a package. "This is in thanks for your hospitality."

"Oh, Xavier, you're too sweet! You had that beautiful fruit basket delivered as a housewarming gift when we moved here." Garnet tore the pastel green paper off the box. "Wishbone, look! These are so elegant!" She pulled out a finely-designed leaded crystal salt and pepper shaker set. "Thank you!"

"No trouble. Just make sure you use them."

"Are you saying we need to spice up our lives?" queried Wishbone.

Xavier laughed. "Sassy and Blackcap will take care of that."

* * *

By the time Lollipop lagged downstairs, she found her brother and sister-in-law about to leave the house. She brushed her hair back sleepily and looked confused. "Xavier isn't up yet?" She yawned. She missed the startled look that Garnet and Wishbone shared.

"Xavier left already," Wishbone informed his sister.

"Left?" Lollipop asked, her gaze finally sharpening. "Where'd he go?"

"To his folks in Happy Hollow."

"You mean, he's gone?"

"That's what I said, isn't it?"

"You didn't know of his plans?" Garnet interjected cautiously.

Lollipop was silent for several moments. "He must be angry with me."

"For a good reason?" Wishbone probed.

Lollipop waved her hoof through the air in dismissal. "He had the ridiculous notion that I was ready to marry him."

"He proposed?" Garnet gasped.

"He talked of marriage and family." Lollipop looked at Wishbone and Garnet accusingly. "All this talk about babies and stuff must have got him thinking."

"What did you tell him?"

"That I have no intention of settling down until I've had some fun."

"Oh, great," Wishbone grimaced. "Chocolate Chip and Wigwam all over again."

"No," Lollipop assured him. "I explained that he has to wait a few years. He's had a chance to live... I haven't."

"And he accepted that?"

"Sure. What else could he do?"

"Strangle your pretty little throat," Wishbone muttered while Garnet pointed out the obvious.

"He loves you."

"And I love him... I think. But there's so much to do yet. I'm not going to get tied down to one stallion and a parcel of brats yet." She grinned at Garnet. "No offense." She headed for the kitchen and a late breakfast. "I'm meeting Dazzler for some shopping; and without Xavier hanging around, we'll probably meet-up with some of the guys from school." She waved her hoof flippantly. "So, you see, it's better that Xavier left."

Wishbone and Garnet stared at her retreating figure, then turned to one another. "Poor Xavier," they said in perfect unison.

* * *

The first pony Xavier saw when he arrived in happy Hollow was an old schoolmate, and she was like an answer to a prayer for the beleaguered stallion.

"Xavier!" the mare called. "What a pleasant surprise! No one mentioned you'd be coming for a visit."

"Hi, Mona. This is sort of a last minute thing."

"Well, you know you're always welcome. Your folks will be delighted." Her sparkling glance verified her own approval, so at odds to Lollipop's cold dismissal. Xavier knew he had made the right decision in coming here.

"Maybe you and I could have supper at the diner later."

A dimpled grin lit Mona's common face. "I'd like that."

"Eight o'clock?"

"I'll be waiting."

* * *

"I'd forgotten how good the brats were here," Xavier mumbled through a mouthful of bratwurst, bun, and kraut.

"Remember how you and the guys used to pig-out just to see who could eat the most?" Mona giggled.

"How could I forget? We made ourselves sick more than once."

"Which reminds me... Jeremy moved to Riverbend. He's opening a print shop."

"The last I heard he was working with his dad at the mill."

"I guess they had a big argument and Jeremy walked out... for good. Jeremy's mom cried for days."

"I'm sorry to hear that."

"I'm surprised that your mom let you out of her sight tonight. She's been complaining that you never come home anymore."

"She's throwing together a big luncheon for tomorrow, getting all the relatives together. She was so busy making phone calls that she didn't even notice that I left."

"I doubt that. She talks about you all the time; she's very proud of you." Mona took a sip of her soda before continuing. "Yolanda tells me there's a mare who's caught your eye."

"My sister is a gossip, and you know it," Xavier hedged.

"She also says you're a regular visitor to Neighberry."

Swirling the straw through the ice chips in his soda, Xavier gave his response a moment's thought. His disappointment was still too new; he did not want to discuss Lollipop with Mona. With his eyes still on his soda, he began talking.

"I became acquainted with Chocolate Chip while she worked in New Pony. She had an apartment near mine, and our walk to work coincided, so we became friends. Through her, I got to know her family. I was in Dream Valley for her brother's wedding and again when Chocolate Chip married Wigwam. Both couples are expecting now," Xavier added with a glance at Mona.

"I'm following, but where does Neighberry come into this?"

"That's where Chocolate Chip's home was. Her brother, Wishbone, and his wife, Garnet, moved back there last spring to take over the family business which also involved a sister, Lollipop. Through this all, I also met Garnet's parents who are now moving to Neighberry from New Pony. I had dinner with the bunch of them last night."

Mona wrinkled her brow in thought. "Let's see- Chocolate Chip is married, as is Garnet. That leaves Lollipop, the one you avoided telling me much about. I've never known you to be shy about your conquests, Xavier."

Xavier forced a smile. "Not a conquest, Mona, not by a long shot." He considered his next words carefully. "What do you think of marriage, Mona?"

"Is that were you're headed with this Lollipop?"

"I, at least, had given it some thought."

"What? She turned you down?"

"Very vocally."

"Xavier, I'm sorry." Mona reached out to take his hoof. "Anything I can do to help?"

"Marry me, Mona," he quipped.

The mare rolled her eyes. "We've been friends since kindergarten, but I'm not going to turn into a New Pony socialite for you or anybody. It's never going to happen."

"Who are you waiting for?"

Mona's expression grew thoughtful. "Some stranger who'll come to town and sweep me off my hooves. He'd buy up one of the valley farms and we'd live happily ever after. Crazy, huh?"

"He's one lucky stallion, whomever he turns out to be."

"Too bad he's only a figment of my imagination," grinned the mare.

* * *

By the time Monday night rolled around, Lollipop was feeling nervous as she waited for Xavier's call. It never had failed that, after a weekend visit to Neighberry, he would call to tell her how much he missed her; and she would share with him whatever incidents had occurred locally since he left. It had become a welcome ritual that Lollipop looked forward to. She knew now, however, that something was forever changed in their relationship.

Xavier had asked her to be his wife. She had never expected such a proposal at this stage of the game. She had always been her parents' little sweetheart, and she was aware that she had been spoiled. Having Xavier pay her court had been accepted as her due; she had never given any thought as to how the stallion might see her open attraction to him or her obvious enjoyment of his company. When, Lollipop wondered, did this all become so serious that Xavier was now thinking of love and marriage?

Of course, they had declared their love openly enough; but the saying it was the easy part. The responsibility that went with it was more difficult, and Lollipop was mature enough to admit that she was not ready to commit her life to one stallion for the rest of her life.

Lollipop paced around the deserted kitchen. Why, oh why, did Xavier have to complicate things by proposing to her? Life had been good the way it had been going, with his monthly visits to Neighberry and a frequent exchange of e-mail messages. She could use him as a sounding board for her ideas, and he could complain about the sniping that went on at his workplace.

That brought Lollipop to a halt. Xavier had gotten a promotion. She was not surprised that his company had awarded his abilities; he was intelligent and conscientious and committed. The down side was that he would be busier than ever and responsible for more decision-making which meant that he would have less time for her.

Maybe that's why the phone had not rung yet. Maybe he was still at work. Maybe she should call him just to be sure. Maybe...

No, Lollipop upbraided herself. They owed nothing to one another. And he had left without so much as saying goodbye. Maybe he had no intention of ever talking with her again. Maybe he was too selfish to see her need to remain free for a few more years. If that were the case, good riddance to Xavier. She had plenty of friends locally. Hadn't Angus asked her to attend the play the theater department was putting on? And didn't Sourdough want her to go to his grandparent's anniversary party with him? Why was she standing by the telephone anyway?

Lollipop flicked her tail and walked off to prepare a menu for tomorrow's class.

* * *

It had been a depressing week for Xavier, what with Lollipop's words coming back constantly to haunt him. He would never forget her startled look when he talked of marriage or her words, "You can't be serious!" as if she had never even considered that possibility. How could two ponies have been on such different paths without knowing it?

And then there was Mona. Xavier had never seriously considered her anything other than a great pal, but she could have humored him a bit when he teased her with his "Marry me" comment. It would have done his self-esteem a world of good if she had played along and expressed even a tiny desire for him.

He was thankful for the demands of his new position which had kept him totally occupied through the work-week; but now, on Friday night, he was at a loss of what to do to keep himself from moping around his apartment. He had even considered calling Lollipop, but remembering her quick tongue, Xavier decided against it. It struck him then that Sassy had asked him to look in on an elderly mare that Sassy had introduced to him and Chocolate Chip. Tonight would be a good time to take care of that.

The part of town where Tilly lived was not the best of neighborhoods, and Xavier kept a brisk pace until he reached her apartment on East Graham street. He knocked three times before the doorknob began to turn and the door opened to reveal Tilly leaning heavily against an overstuffed chair nearby.

"Hi, Tilly. How are things going with you?"

"I thought I'd find Griswold behind that there door," she admitted, looking a little shaken.

"Tilly, don't tell me you couldn't make the rent again," Xavier said, closing the door and helping the mare to the couch. He noted that her limp seemed to be worsening and she appeared to have lost some weight.

Tilly sat heavily and did not look directly at Xavier as she answered. "I haven't been able to get to the bank."

"So write a check."

"Griswold says he don't trust my checks."

Xavier raised an eyebrow. "And why is that, Tilly?"

Tilly huffed and sent an embarrassed glance his way. "The last one bounced."

"Tilly, Tilly," said Xavier, shaking his head as he sat on the sofa next to her. "What did you get yourself into this time?" Tilly's mouth closed as if glued and a charged silence hung between the two ponies. "Tilly, you're going to have to tell me sooner or later if you want this straightened out."

A sigh preceded the explanation. "Fleeter stopped by, all excited about some new venture that his cousin had lined up for him. All he needed was some jangles to put toward the inventory. He said he'd pay me back by the first of the month, but I haven't seen him yet."

"And you won't see him again, until he needs another loan. Oh, Tilly, when are you ever going to learn? Sassy told you never to give that scoundrel any of your money."

"Well, and Sassy ain't here anymore either, is she?"

"She'll have to come back to move out of her place," Xavier noted. "And I can't believe she didn't make arrangements for someone to look in on you."

"Well, maybe she did. But a lot of good it did. The gal never showed."

"Who is she? Maybe I can talk to her."

"She's my niece, although I haven't seen her since she was a young filly. Sassy did some checkin' and found out that she was movin' here to New Pony and got in touch with her. Didn't hear a word from her myself."

"Surely you have her name and address."

Tilly waved her hoof in the direction of a cluttered table where piles of papers and stacks of dirty dishes shared space. "Sassy wrote it down. Doesn't help me none. No phone, you know. Can't walk far, either. Might as well..." Tilly's voice broke off, closer to tears than Xavier had ever seen her.

He awkwardly patted her hoof until she had control of her emotions again. During that time, Xavier thought back to his first introduction to Tilly. He and Chocolate Chip had showed up on her doorstep on an errand for Sassy, and Xavier had been put off by her dirty apartment and her decrepit figure. All he could think of was to get away from the clutter and stay away; but Chocolate Chip had responded to the mare like they had been friends for life; and in the weeks that followed, Xavier had often accompanied Chocolate Chip to visit Tilly and had even learned to enjoy those times. Now his heart went out to her in her aloneness.

"I'm sorry I haven't been coming over like Chocolate Chip and I used to do, Tilly. I got caught up in my own affairs." He smiled a crooked smile. "You're now looking at the new manager of marketing at Crestline."

Wiping away a teardrop, Tilly managed a smile in return. "So you got yourself promoted, did ya? I'd say it's about time."

"So now, knowing that my job is secure, I'll be able to spend more time with you, Tilly."

A bit of the old spirit came back into Tilly's eyes. "I'm guessin' you have better ways to spend your Friday nights than sittin' with an old mare." She was sharp enough to notice a shadow pass over the stallion's face, and she was instantly on the offensive. "What's up, sonny?"

With no intention of doing so, Xavier had soon divulged his bleak experience of the first proposal he had ever made. Tilly was a sympathetic listener, and his troubles soon eclipsed her own.

"Well, well, so the little tease didn't want ya," she muttered when he finally fell silent. "I thought she was flighty when I met her at Chocolate Chip's wedding there in Dream Valley."

"She's not a tease, Tilly. She's just young and enthusiastic."

A snort greeted that statement. "She's a piece of baggage that you're better off to leave behind. That flirty kind are nothing but trouble."

Xavier did not agree, but it helped sooth his ruffled esteem to have someone defend him. "She turned me down, so it's out of my hooves now," he shrugged.

"What you need is to get out more and meet more mares," Tilly advised. She looked at him slyly. "Or maybe one of those up-and-comers you work with."

"They either aren't looking or have already found their match."

The stallion had such a dismal look about him that Tilly turned a little flirty herself. She batted her flimsy eyelashes and smiled, revealing the gaps in her teeth, and purred, "Ya wouldn't be lookin' for an older woman, now, would ya?"

Her coyness caused Xavier to blush, and the two of them broke into a healing laughter that ended with both of them feeling more at peace with the world. Surprising the pair, Xavier leaned over and kissed Tilly on the cheek. "You're a blessing, Tilly," he said. "Thank you."

Tilly patted his cheek. "You, too, sweetie."

"Enough of that," Xavier grinned, getting to his hooves. "How many jangles do you need for this Griswold?"

Hearing her reply, Xavier looked around the ratty apartment. His first thought was that the monthly payments were way too high, but he realized that it was Tilly's sloppy housekeeping that gave the space its shabby appearance. Every newspaper, every shopping bag, every scarf and ribbon, every knick-knack, every cat hair- Xavier shuddered as the long-haired gray wrapped itself around his legs- that had ever entered the house was here, sitting in cluttered disarray. Dishes were seldom washed, the floor was rarely swept- Did Tilly even own a vacuum?- and the windows were... hazy.

"I'll take care of the payment this time, Tilly; but you've got to promise me not to let Fleeter bamboozle you out of any more of your jangles."

"The only way he'll ever set hoof into this room again is if he throws the jangles through the door first," Tilly unwillingly promised.

"Okay, the next thing we've got to do is locate this niece of yours." He walked to the table and rifled through the piles of mail, papers, and notes until he came to one that he recognized as Sassy's hoofwriting. "Bess?" he cocked his head at Tilly.

"Elly's daughter. Schoolteacher or somethin' like that. A gangly, freckle-faced filly, she was."

"There's no address, but there is a telephone number. I'll try to get in touch with her tomorrow." Xavier tucked the note in his backpack. "Is there anything else I can do for you tonight, Tilly?"

Tilly's gaze flicked away from Xavier's. "Well, I suppose I could use some milk."

"You don't have any milk?" Xavier glanced at the refrigerator and wondered what he would find if he opened the door, but he was not brave enough to face the horrors that might lurk there.

"Fluffums had the last of it yesterday," she admitted.

Xavier glared at the cat, sending it scuttling under the sofa. "What else do you need?"

By the time Xavier had finished Tilly's list of grocery items, his face had assumed a menacing scowl. That Tilly was homebound with no one to look out for her irked him. When he made contact with this niece of hers, she was going to get an earful of choice comments.

* * *

When Xavier came back to Tilly's apartment, loaded down with grocery items, he heard raised voices before he even opened the door. Walking in, he found Tilly braced against the table, her chin stubbornly jutted out, facing down a middle-aged, no-nonsense sort of stallion. "Griswold, I assume," he drawled as he walked across the room to stand next to Tilly, adding the overflowing grocery bags to the mess already on the table.

"And who might you be?" growled Griswold, his eyes taking in the neat, young stallion with mistrust.

"I'm one of Tilly's friends," Xavier growled back. "And I'd hate to think that you've been harassing her."

"If you call collecting the rent harassment, then that's exactly what I'm doing," the stallion fumed. "She's behind... again! I warned her that she's expected to pay on time like all my other tenants."

"You could have saved yourself a trip; I was just at your place with the money, but you weren't home." Holding out the required jangles, Xavier continued, "I assume this clears Tilly's debt, and you can leave now."

Grabbing the jangles as if they might disappear, Griswold headed for the door with a warning. "No more delays in the future now, you hear?"

As the door slammed shut, Xavier turned to Tilly. "I'm sorry you had to put up with that oaf."

Tilly sighed. "It was my fault. I've gotta get my life cleaned up." She brushed at the dust on the thin strip of tabletop that was still visible.

"One thing is for sure- You've got to take better care of yourself." He began taking items out of the brown bags. "I got supper from the deli."

"That sure looks good," smiled Tilly, looking at the plastic containers of hot food eagerly. "I'm mighty hungry, and that's a fact." Her grin broadened. "The next time you fall in love, Xavier, you just bring the gal around to me. I'll set her straight on what a great catch you are."

Xavier rolled his eyes. "Right now, Tilly, you're all the woman I can handle."

* * *

The first thing on Xavier's mind the next morning was the phone call he was determined to make to Tilly's niece. Thinking about the inevitable confrontation, Xavier wondered what kind of mare this Bess was. Judging by Tilly's years, Bess must be of an age with his own mother, Xavier calculated... and a schoolteacher, Tilly had said.

While punching in the telephone number that Sassy had given for Bess, Xavier envisioned the pony with whom he would soon be talking. She would look like Tilly but would not have the caring disposition that was at the heart of Tilly's personality. He was therefore surprised to hear a soft, cultured voice sound on the other end of the line after the fifth ring which put him in mind of his favorite aunt back in Happy Hollow. Yet he knew his own aunt would never have ignored the needs of any of her relations, so he refused to allow the sound of the pleasant voice influence him in the least.

"You have an Aunt Tilly, I believe?" he queried without any preliminary introduction.

There was a pause as the mare considered this abrupt question. "With whom am I speaking?" she finally responded.

"This is a friend of your aunt's. I thought you should be aware of some problems Tilly has been having."

"And your name is...?" the voice cooled perceptibly.

"Xavier," the stallion snapped. "Who I am is irrelevant, however. Tilly is the one at stake here."

"Can I presume that you are acquainted with a mare named Sassy?" the mare drawled.

"So you have talked with Sassy?"

"No... not really. I did find a message on my machine."

"So you were informed of the problem and ignored it," Xavier stated fiercely.

There was a pregnant pause. "I was informed that Aunt Til would probably feel lonesome when this Sassy left town, and that she'd probably appreciate a visit from me when I got settled."

"And are you settled yet?" Xavier asked critically. "Enough food, a roof over your head..."

The mare had obviously reached her limit. "Whoever you are, sir, I have heard enough!" The slamming of the receiver was the next sound Xavier heard.

"Great!" Xavier moaned. "She isn't going to be any help at all!"

* * *

Walking across town, Xavier mumbled to himself. "A perfectly beautiful day, and what am I doing? I'm off to visit an aging and feisty mare who has a cat I abhor and a house crawling with dust bunnies." For a fleeting moment, he pictured instead the young and vivacious Lollipop; but he forced her memory aside. He had called Sassy last evening, knowing that she and Blackcap were currently at Forester and Camomile's place. He had wanted to touch base with her in regard to Tilly's situation. As fate would have it, Lollipop was visiting her grandpaents at just that time, and it was she who answered the phone.

Hearing her voice, Xavier had felt a great loss. But her dismissal of his suit had hurt him deeply, and he could not forget that. With a calmness that he was hard-pressed to maintain, he had responded to her hello.

"Lollipop... I didn't expect to find you in the country."

"Nor did I expect to hear your voice," Lollipop admitted. She had given up on ever hearing from Xavier again, and found her heartbeat racing with pleasure. "How's it goin'?

"Fine," Xavier untruthfully replied. "Just fine. How are your classes for this semester?"

"We're arranging a formal dinner for the faculty- the pressure's on!" We've been having a blast, though, coming up with a splendid menu. And how about you , Xavier? Are you wowing them as manager?"

Xavier chuckled. "I'm holding my own. Lollipop, is Sassy around? I really need to speak with her."

Xavier did not begin to realize how his abrupt end to their conversation numbed the mare's heart. He learned from Sassy, however, that she had indeed left a concise message at Bess's number informing her of the necessity to keep a close eye on her aunt. Sassy was dismayed to hear that Tilly had run out of food and had been fleeced by Fleeter and hounded by Griswold. Her comments concerning Bess's lack of compassion for her aging aunt still burned Xavier's ears.

Before he knew it, Xavier was at Tilly's front door. His knock was answered almost immediately, which was a surprise in itself for Tilly could not move easily. He was more surprised when he saw the mare who opened the door, for it was not Tilly. Rather than a limping, gap-toothed crone, this was a radiant, sweet-faced angel.

"Is Tilly home?" he queried, finding that he did not really care if she was or not, as long as he could gaze upon this apparition for a few moments longer.

Before the mare could answer, Xavier heard Tilly cackle in the background. "It's you, young fella," she called. "Didn't expect to see you again so soon."

"Just checking up on you, Tilly." Xavier had to force his eyes away from the fetching pony who still held the door open, surveying him with beautiful, inquisitive lavender eyes. "You haven't let that cat eat all your food away from you already, I hope."

The feline in question was sleeping on the couch next to Tilly; his only response to Xavier was to open one eye and shortly close it in what appeared to be a wink; his bushy tail then curled up over his nose as if to blot out Xavier's interruption.

"Fluffums and I are doin' just great, Xavier, now that Bess's here," Tilly grinned, nodding at the mare that had admitted Xavier. Tilly's eyes twinkled as she watched the two ponies who were now staring at each other in open-mouthed disbelief. Tilly, having been treated to Bess's retelling of the irate phone call from an uncouth pony called Xavier, had kept quiet about the handsome young stallion and now waited in gleeful anticipation as to how the two would react to one another, seeing each other in the living flesh.

"You're Xavier?" gasped Bess, the angelic eyes that Xavier had noted now flashing fire. "And just what do you think you're doing here?"

"I was concerned about Tilly. I wasn't sure you'd bother to come around." Xavier subconsciously noted that anger turned the mare's lavender eyes a deep purple.

"Bother?!!" the mare seethed. "You've made a great deal of assumptions about me, sir. Number one, you seem to think I purposely ignored Aunt Til. What you didn't bother to ascertain was that I was unavoidably detained in arriving in New Pony and didn't get my forwarded messages until yesterday,. You also assumed I'd discuss my aunt with you, a perfect stranger, without a word of introduction. For all I knew, you were some kind of con artist."

Xavier and Tilly exchanged a quick glance. What would Bess say when she learned that Sassy was a con artist, or at least had been, along with Blackcap?

But Bess kept up her tirade. "And worst of all, you were abhorrently rude, taking it upon yourself to criticize a pony of whom you knew nothing, assuming I was some sort of uncaring worm, a description more aptly applied to yourself."

"I apologize," Xavier said, his humble words taking the wind from Bess's full-blown sails. Xavier turned to Tilly. "I expected someone... older," he said with a raised brow.

"Heh, heh," Tilly chortled. "She's actually my great-niece. And she's not gangly anymore, nor does she have such a crop of freckles as she used to." Tilly winked at Xavier. "Not bad, is she?"

A mortified Bess blushed a rosy red as Tilly and Xavier turned their complete attention to assessing Bess's charms. There was complete silence as Xavier studied the mare's soft yellow coloring, her sky blue hair, and her near absence of freckles. "Pretty enough," he finally stated, "but she's a bit of a scold." This designation nearly set Bess on another lecture of Xavier's faults, but Tilly's laughter silenced the mare, who scowled at her aunt.

"Not to worry, sonny," Tilly said to the stallion as if Bess was nonexistent. "I'll take care of things, just like I said I would. You'll soon forget that lass from Neighberry. Come, sit here beside me. Bess was just fixin' some tea and biscuits." Tilly ousted the sleeping cat at her side, and Xavier took the feline's place while Bess, after a moment's fuming, marched across the room to fix the tea tray.

Tilly leaned closer to Xavier and whispered loudly enough for Bess to hear. "She'll come around, you'll see." She chuckled deeply. "Maybe someday, you and me'll be related, Xavier."

Bess dropped the sugar bowl and Xavier was lost to a coughing spell. Tilly only beamed. She had thought her life would be uneventful with Sassy out of the neighborhood; but, obviously, she was wrong. Life was looking up once more.

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