New Beginnings
written by Sugarberry

The lone mare walked into the terminal and looked around her as if lost; the luggage she carried was heavy, so she set it on the hard cement at her hooves and continued to peruse the ponies that passed her by. Just like my sister to be late, she griped angrily to herself. It had been a long flight from Dream Valley, and she was anxious to get to her parent's house and collapse into the caring hooves of her mother.

"Sis! Over here!" a penetrating voice called. Hydrangea grinned through her tiredness and exasperation to finally hear Primula's call. She looked in the direction of the sound and saw the pale pink mare-- with her springtime green mane and tail flowing around her as she ran down the nearest ramp-- approaching with their younger brother.

The two sisters fell into an exuberant hug as Solidago awaited his turn, and soon all three siblings were entwined in a joyful reunion. "It's been ages since you've been home!" Primula squealed. "It's so good to see you!"

"Yah," agreed Solidago. "The house has been too quiet since Prim got married."

"And just how is Carlo?" Hydrangea asked of her sister. "You haven't been nagging him too much, have you?"

"Can a wife nag too much?" Primula laughed. "He's doing just fine, but someone had to stay at the pizzeria while I came to pick you up."

"I hope I'm not being too much of a nuisance for you," Hydrangea frowned. "I could have gotten myself home alone."

Solidago picked up her luggage. "It's not a problem, Hydie. Prim never works that hard even when she's at the restaurant; Carlo won't even notice she is gone."

"That's a lie and you know it," Primula chastised her brother. "If that were the case, we wouldn't have needed to hire Hydrangea away from her little café in Dream Valley. Did Flower Bouquet take it well when you told her of your plans to return to Vulcanopolis?"

"She knew that I wasn't as fulfilled there as I thought I would be," Hydrangea admitted, "and wanted 'only what would make me smile again'."

"So you were glad to come back?" Solidago asked.

"Yes. Very glad." Hydrangea breathed deeply of the air. "It smells like home," she grinned. "Just as I remember it." The three ponies walked side-by-side down the path towards their parents' house. When they got within sight of the stucco building, Hydrangea picked up the pace.

"Slow down," complained Solidago. "These suitcases are getting heavy."

"Don't listen to him," countered Primula. "You run on ahead to greet Mom and Dad. They've been waiting for you."

Hydrangea took her sister at her word and nearly ran the final distance; the front door opened as she approached the house, and there stood her parents. "Mom! Dad! I'm home!" she called, falling into their open embrace.

"Hydrangea, we are so happy to have you come home again," her mother cried. "We've missed you so!"

"How was your trip, dear?" her father asked.

"Long, but I'm home now," Hydrangea beamed, all her tiredness fading with the joy of homecoming. By this time, Primula and Solidago had caught up to their sister.

"Need any help in the kitchen, Mom?" Primula asked, sniffing the tempting aromas coming from that room.

"Yes," Stella affirmed. "I'm baking lasagna, but we must prepare the side dishes yet." She patted Hydrangea's cheek. "Your favorite meal, daughter."

The entire family moved on to the kitchen and while dishes were prepared, Hydrangea shared her stories from Dream Valley and heard the local news of Vulcanopolis. "Carlo and I use all of Mom's great recipes at the pizzeria; that's why business is booming. No one cooks better than Mom," Primula grinned.

"And now Hydie will be a part of that," Solidago mused.

"When do you want me to start?" questioned Hydrangea.

"Carlo and I both agreed that you should have a few days to readjust to Vulcanopolis and have a chance to get together with your old friends. We won't expect you to come in until Monday morning."

"Are you sure?" Hydrangea couldn't believe her good fortune, knowing how busy things had been for her sister.

"Don't give her a chance to change her mind," teased Solidago."

By the time the meal was on the table and she had eaten her fill, Hydrangea realized how tired she was from the trip. Stella noticed her drooping spirits and led her away with a final command for the others to clean up the kitchen.

Solidago grimaced. "It's just like the old days. Hydie could always finagle her way out of doing the dishes."

Primula and Bertramino laughed. "From what I remember, you were the one who came up with the good excuses," his father stated.

"Yes, but maybe she's forgotten," the young stallion grinned.

"Your room has undergone some changes," Stella said, opening the door as on an album of memories. "I hope you like it."

Although the furniture was the same, the bed covers, curtains, and carpet were now in new patterns; Hydrangea entered and was enchanted. "It's beautiful, Mom. And I promise not to stay underhoof too long; I'll start looking for a place of my own tomorrow."

"You'll do no such thing," Stella clucked. "You are welcome to stay here. What do your dad and I need with all these empty rooms?"

Hydrangea hugged her mother. "You may change your mind once you have to put up with me for awhile."

"You will be busy at the pizzeria. We hardly ever see Carlo anymore, or Primula either. They have had their hooves full since Amico left."

"Maybe I should start to work tomorrow then," worried Hydrangea.

"You will do no such thing," Stella reprimanded. She looked her daughter over once more. "It's so good to have you back," she smiled.

"I know what you're thinking, Mom. When I left, I said I would never come back to Vulcanopolis except for visits. But I found that life in Dream Valley wasn't that much different than life back here, and I missed my family and my friends."

"Well, it is good to find such things out for yourself; now you can plan your life accordingly. That is a valuable lesson. But for now, I think you'd better get some sleep; you look like you could fall asleep on your hooves."

Once alone in her room, Hydrangea emptied her luggage and arranged her things neatly in dresser and closet. She slipped down the hall to the bathroom before crawling gratefully under the covers and found that her eyes would not close. Too many thoughts and expectations were rustling about in her mind to allow her to drift off peacefully.

Had she made the right decision to come back to Vulcanopolis? She had found her life in Dream Valley somehow unsatisfying. But what if the same thing happened here? Maybe she would grow tired of working at the pizzeria just as she had grown weary of the café.

No, I won't let that happen! Hydrangea sat up in bed and beat the pillow with her hooves. I will be successful with this new job! She rested her head in her hooves, and faced the fact that was haunting her. She had been happy during the summer when she had been dating Driftwood, and looking back she knew that she had tied her expectations to the stallion. She had learned her lesson and wouldn't allow that to happen again. She would make it on her own merits. Only briefly did she think about befriending Giorgio; it had ended suddenly and seemed only like an illusion.

Curling up again in the snugness of the blankets, Hydrangea concentrated on the days ahead in this new year. She was back on familiar ground now, with ponies she knew and loved. She had made the right decision; she was sure of it. With visions of a rosy future, the mare was finally able to fall asleep.

* * *

The days of her time off were speeding by, but Hydrangea was enjoying every minute getting reacquainted with friends she had not seen since she had left Vulcanopolis. Her very closest confidant throughout her school days had been Elena, and soon the two mares were as close as ever.

"You must come with me to a party that Clare is giving after work on Friday; it will give you a chance to meet some very nice ponies."

"Are you sure it would be okay?" Hydrangea asked, looking forward to a chance to make some new acquaintances.

"Sure. Clare is always telling us to feel free to bring a friend and as Cisani and I both work there, we could invite two guests. Is there someone you'd like to include?"

"Not really," admitted Hydrangea. "It seems like all the stallions we went to school with are either engaged or married."

Elena laughed. "I'm sure there are a few left; the party will give you a chance to see who is available."

"Well, it does sound like fun. Sure, I'll come; maybe I'll run into someone by Friday."

Hydrangea had no idea how true her words were. It was the next day after a flurry of shopping that Hydrangea remembered to run into the market to pick up some things for her mother. Dashing around the corner of one of the displays, she collided with a dark green stallion who lifted a hoof to steady her.

"Hydrangea?" the stallion asked.

It was only after hearing his voice that Hydrangea realized who this was. "Giorgio!"

"Fancy running into you here," the stallion grinned. "What brings you to Vulcanopolis?"

"I accepted a job here," she smiled in return. "Sorry about clobbering you that way."

"I don't see a problem with a run-in with a pretty mare. How were things in Dream Valley when you left?"

"Same as ever. And what have you been up to since you came back?"

"Paying off some old debts." The stallion smiled in a depreciatory manner.

"I heard that you had some problems." It suddenly occurred to Hydrangea that Giorgio might be in need of a friend. "I've been invited to a party tomorrow evening. How would you like to come with me?"

"That sounds like fun, Hydrangea, but I have other plans. Thanks for thinking of me."

"Sure." She smiled to cover up her disappointment. "Maybe some other time."

"It was nice chatting with you. So long!"

Hydrangea watched as Giorgio left the shop; he had been polite, but she sensed that he had not been as happy to see her as she was to see him.

* * *

Friday night found Hydrangea in the company of Elena and Cisani, who worked as a designer for Clare's Creations where Elena was an accountant. "Clare likes to keep us happy with a get-together every so often," Elena explained. "She feels it is good for our morale."

"Other than you two, will there be anyone else there that I know?" Hydrangea questioned.

"Nello was in school with us," Cisani offered. "And you might remember Angela; she was a few years ahead of us."

"Angela," Hydrangea mused. "Wasn't she the pretty rose-colored filly?"

Cisani laughed. "Was, and still is. She's also Clare's right-hoof helper."

"Angela's brother, Pacificus, also works there. He's in management."

They had arrived at the restaurant where the gathering was to occur, and Cisani led the two mares into the already active setting where they were met by a chorus of greetings. Nello, who-- Hydrangea noted-- hadn't changed a bit since she had last seen him, came immediately to her side. "I heard that you had come back. I'm glad of that." The vanilla-colored stallion led her to the buffet table and got her a glass of soda. "Where are you working now?"

"As of Monday, I'll be involved with the pizzeria that my sister and her husband run... are you familiar with Pizzeria Sicily?"

"Sure! I've been there several times since they opened. The food there is great."

Elena came to direct Hydrangea to a group of ponies gathered around watching the band set up. "Hydrangea, I'd like you to meet Rita and Jacopa; they both work in manufacturing."

The mares were engaged in a lively conversation when the trilling laughter of someone coming into the room sounded; all heads turned to watch the arrival of Clare. Hydrangea observed the self-confident mare as she swept into the room; she had seen her briefly when she was in Dream Valley, but had never met her personally, and Clare had not yet made a name for herself when Hydrangea was still an inhabitant of Vulcanopolis. "She's really pretty," Hydrangea whispered to Elena. It was then that her gaze fell on the escort that followed Clare into the room-- Giorgio. So that's what he's busy with, she thought to herself.

"Are you okay?" Cisani asked, coming up to Hydrangea. "You look upset."

"N... no... not upset. I just saw someone I had met in Dream Valley."

Cisani followed her gaze. "Oh, you must mean Giorgio. I suppose you know about the trouble he was in."

"It obviously didn't hold him down for long."

Chuckling, Cisani confided, "Clare took him under her wing after his brush with the law. He's doing okay."

Making her circuit of the room, Clare was soon approaching Elena and her friends. Elena, pulling Hydrangea behind her, went to Clare to introduce the two mares. "Clare, this is a friend of mine who has just moved back from Dream Valley. Hydrangea is going to be managing her sister's pizza house."

"Hydrangea... it's nice to meet you," Clare purred. " I hope you're enjoying the party."

Giorgio soon followed. "Hydrangea! So we meet still again!"

If Clare heard his remark or not, Hydrangea could not be sure for the lavender designer had moved on to a new group of ponies. Hydrangea smiled stiffly at Giorgio. "I had no idea that you and Clare..." She stopped suddenly when she realized how trite that sounded and found herself blushing. Giorgio only seemed to be amused at her discomfort.

"That Clare and I what?" he asked with a roguish grin.

Hydrangea was saved by the appearance of Nello. "Excuse me, Giorgio, but I have someone who wants to meet Hydie."

"Hydie?" Giorgio repeated the nickname with raised brows. "You never shared that piece of information about yourself, Hydrangea." Again he set her ill at ease.

Nello watched the exchange, then drew Hydrangea away from the stallion. "You obviously knew Giorgio before tonight."

"I met him when he was in Dream Valley. I can't see now why I was interested in him."

"That's probably a good thing. After losing Guido, I don't think Clare would take any competition too lightly. Anyway, there are a couple of ponies here who remember you from some debate club you used to be in."

After a pleasant chat with the two friends from days gone by, Hydrangea crossed paths with Elena and Cisani; the group decided to load up with some food and watch the dancing that was beginning. Nello rejoined them.

"May I have the first dance?" he queried of Hydrangea as she gazed wistfully at the couples on the dance floor.

"My pleasure," she smiled at the stallion. She found that he had become a very good dancer; and it was with regret that the music came to an end, and Nello returned her to Elena and Cisani. She later had a dance with Cisani, and several other of the stallions that worked for Clare's Creations. But all too soon she found herself alone and deserted in a quiet corner.

Glancing around to find where Elena had gone, Hydrangea instead saw Clare and Giorgio across the room, talking together. Whatever Giorgio said caused Clare to look up and focus on Hydrangea after which the two began walking in her direction. Hydrangea turned to discreetly melt away into the crowd, but literally crashed into a stallion who was standing nearby.

"Oh! I'm sorry!" Hydrangea apologized. "This is getting to be a bad habit with me." She smiled guiltily at the grey unicorn.

Pacificus returned a gentle smile. "I doubt that you have any bad habits." He looked at her in such a way as to make her feel embarrassingly self-conscious. He seemed to notice her consternation, and introduced himself. "I'm Pacificus; I saw you talking to my sister earlier."

"You're Angela's brother!" Hydrangea heard herself say, and wished she could just disappear for saying such an obvious thing.

But Pacificus responded politely. "Yes. And you are Hydrangea, newly returned to Vulcanopolis from Dream Valley."

"Yes, Elena asked me to come; she and I were always best friends when we were growing up."

"Elena is a very valuable asset to Clare's Creations. Are you interested in joining our family of employees?"

"No," Hydrangea hastily admitted while wondering if this was the only reason that the stallion was bothering to talk with her. Elena had said he was in management; was equine resources considered management? "What position do you hold with the company?" she asked.

But Pacificus seemed not to hear; his attention was focused on something... or someone... behind her. And whoever it is, Hydrangea pondered, he is enamored with her. Forgetting her original intention of avoiding Clare and Giorgio, Hydrangea looked behind her to see who had affected Pacificus in this manner and found the aforementioned couple bearing down on them.

Clare smiled graciously at Hydrangea, but directed her remarks to Pacificus. "You know how I dislike discussing business after hours, but I received a call from one of our suppliers." She drew him away with her in intense conversation, leaving Hydrangea with Giorgio. She looked around hoping that Nello was in the vicinity to rescue her, but she found that she was on her own.

When her attention came back to Giorgio, she was exasperated to see again the amused look on his face. "May I get you something from the refreshment table... Hydie?" he asked. "Or would you like to dance?"

Hydrangea found his attitude infuriating; she had liked him better as a rather enigmatic loner who frequented the Café Carousel than as this convivial playboy. "You've changed," was all she said.

"You sound as if you disapprove."

Clare interrupted them; Pacificus was no longer with her. "The two of you seem to have found something intriguing to discuss."

"Hydrangea has expressed disappointment in me since our days in Dream Valley," Giorgio grinned. Hydrangea glowered at him.

"My only comment was that he has changed," Hydrangea defended herself. "I found him much more compassionate when he and I were seeing each other," she added spitefully with a drilling glance at Giorgio.

The stallion only laughed, his eyes revealing that he enjoyed the exchange. "There are many who would say that I have changed for the better."

"I haven't seen it," Hydrangea retorted. Clare, to her credit, stood back and let the two of them settle the issue, although her attention was riveted on the altercation.

"But you will, now that we are on common ground again. You must have dinner with Clare and I some evening soon."

"I'll be busy with my career."

Clare finally found an opening. "Elena told us that you will be working at the Pizzeria Sicily; it has a wonderful reputation for the finest pizza in Vulcanopolis."

"It's my mother's recipe," Hydrangea admitted with pride.

"Then Clare and I must make a point of dining there soon," Giorgio stated, and Hydrangea allowed her anger to mellow just a bit.

The start of a new dance tune caught Clare's attention, and she excused herself and Giorgio from Hydrangea's company. "This is my favorite song; come, Giorgio."

Giorgio winked at Hydrangea before accompanying Clare to the dance floor. "Till we meet again, Hydie."

Now Nello showed up. "Let's dance."

"Where were you when I needed you?"


"Never mind. Just dance."

* * *

The weeks had settled into a routine for Hydrangea, and she grew content with her life; she no longer harbored doubts as to her decision to return to Vulcanopolis. Her work at the pizzeria filled her days, and when she wasn't at Pizzeria Sicily, she was in the company of family or friends. Nello and Dante, another stallion she had known from school, were frequent companions to the dances and social functions around the city. Rita from Clare's Creations and Dommina whom she met through a church organization had joined her circle of friends along with Elena.

Finishing up her responsibilities for the day at the pizzeria, Hydrangea was on her way out after bidding her sister goodnight when a gray stallion came from the dining area to intercept her. "Hydrangea," he smiled. "I just wanted to tell you how much my friends and I enjoyed our meal this evening."

"Hi, Pacificus. But your compliment should go to my sister, Primula. She takes care of the food; I take care of the books." She gestured to the mare busy in the kitchen. "I'll make sure to relay the message."

"Thanks. You look like you've adjusted to your homecoming well enough."

Hydrangea smiled. "Yes. I'm very happy to be home again."

"I'm glad to hear that." The stallion hesitated before continuing. "Hydrangea, there's to be a special performance of the Actor's Guild on Friday evening; I was wondering if you would like to accompany me to it."

"Oh, Pacificus, I'm sorry; but I already have plans to attend with someone else. But it was thoughtful of you to ask."

Looking somewhat downcast, Pacificus said, "That's okay. Maybe some other time. Goodnight, Hydrangea."

Hydrangea was almost out the door when Primula passed by with an order of pizza. "Who was that stallion?" she whispered. "He looked as if you had broken his heart."

"No chance, sis; he was just being considerate."

"I don't know, Hydie..."

"Forget it, Prim. I'm going home; I've got to be in early tomorrow to do the ordering." She smiled at her sister and left the pizzeria-- and any thought of Pacificus-- behind.

* * *

Coming home one evening after work, Hydrangea found Solidago ready to leave the house for a date. "Who is it tonight?" she queried.

"Toni," he replied. "We're going to the dance at the hall. Want to come along?"

Hydrangea ignored the invitation. "Toni? My, my, two dates in a row with the same filly; this must be serious!"

Solidago grinned. "Her older brother has a really cool computer game; he lets me play it when I bring Toni home."


"Oh, by the way, Mom and Dad have gone out for the evening. If you don't come with me, you'll spend the evening alone. Or is Nello coming over?"

"I haven't heard from Nello in over a week. What I want to do is look at those old school pictures Mom saved down through the years to see how many ponies I can identify. Any idea where the box is that she kept them in?"

"Get a life, Hydie!"

"I have one, thank you."

"Who wants to dig through old memories of how dorky we all looked when we were still colts and fillies?"

"You're still a colt as far as I'm concerned, baby brother."

"Well, if you are determined to punish yourself, I stuck the box upstairs in the storeroom."

"Still the same floral-patterned box?"

"Yep. But I did tape it up and put warning labels on it."

"What? Mom showed off your pictures once too often?"

"Exactly." Solidago grinned. "'Oh, what a cut little foal! Weren't you precious?'" he mimicked.

"Well, you were. What happened?"

"See? You mares are all alike. I'm out of here!" He batted her playfully on the shoulder. "See ya!"

Having the house to herself was a little disconcerting; Hydrangea had gotten used to constant activity around her, and found the quiet overwhelming especially when she opened the seldom-used storage room. It was like stepping through a time portal to an earlier period of her life as her mother neatly saved every scrap of her children's' school days and assorted hobbies.

Hydrangea peered into several boxes of mementos before buckling down to find the box of pictures which Solidago had stashed away. She finally found the remembered rose-patterned box stuck in a back corner. She drew it out and was surprised to see the neatly lettered "Private. Do not open" label on the top; she had expected a sloppy "Keep your hooves off!". She giggled; Solidago was serious about his intention to keep these pictures private.

Slitting the tape that held the lid tight, Hydrangea lifted the top off and exposed the papers inside. "These aren't the pictures," she realized, reaching a hoof into the box out of curiosity. She withdrew an official-looking envelope: The Last Will and Testament of Stella and Bertramino Calandra.

She dropped it back into the box ready to leave this avenue unexplored, when she noticed a second document tied with a pink ribbon. The stark, black letters read simply, "Adoption Papers".

"Mom or Dad never told us one of them was adopted," she mused. She picked up the paper, her curiosity getting the better of her common sense. The ribbon dropped off as she lifted the papers, and the document opened up. As if by fate, her eyes rested on the date-- it was the year of her birth.

Mesmerized by the implication, Hydrangea read the legal wording. It was involved and difficult, but the meaning was clear. Stella and Bertramino had adopted a female foal, the papers being signed only weeks after the date of Hydrangea's birth. She stared at the signatures, absorbing the information.

She found that she had no feeling, no emotion, no surprise. It was as if she was experiencing this scenario from a distance, from someone else's view. Somehow, it didn't involve her; she was immune.

How long she stared at this startling information, Hydrangea had no idea. But she eventually realized the need to move, to react. She refolded the paper, slipped the ribbon over it, replaced it in the box, and closed the lid. She put the box back in the corner and tried to put her newfound knowledge away as easily. She walked to the door, and now saw the box that she had come for behind the door; she picked it up and carried it to the living room.

Dropping onto the sofa, she curled up, resting her head against the back, the box of pictures sitting unopened beside her. "Memories..." she mumbled. "I went searching for memories, not a revelation." Her only wish was that she had gone to the dance with Solidago.

* * *

Darkness had settled down over the house when Stella and Bertramino returned home, so it was a surprise to Bertramino when he flipped on the lights to see Hydrangea on the couch. "Honey, are you okay?" he asked in concern, going to her side.

Hydrangea managed to smile, but did not respond. Bertramino put a hoof on her forehead. "Are you ill?"

Stella, putting her hat and purse away in the closet heard the concern in Bertramino's voice; her motherly ears always open to potential problems, she hurried to the couch. "What is it, Hydrangea? Something is wrong!"

Feeling guilty for having accessed private information, Hydrangea searched for a way to reveal to her parents what was troubling her. She finally realized that the best way was to come right out with it. "I was looking for the old school pictures, and I found a box that I recognized; but it wasn't what I was searching for after all. It had your legal papers in it." She stopped and looked from Bertramino to Stella. "I found out that I am adopted."

Stella looked to Bertramino for guidance, then sat down next to her daughter and took her daughter's hoof in her own. Her father sat on the arm of the couch on the other side of her. "And how do you feel about it?" Stella asked, her voice trembling.

"Right now I only feel numb," Hydrangea admitted. "I've been sitting here thinking back over the remembrances of the years trying to pinpoint any occurrence that might have been an indication to me that I was adopted, but there is nothing that you two ever did that set me apart from Primula and Solidago. You always loved us equally."

"Always," Bertramino stated softly. "You were our daughter from the moment we first saw you, so tiny and helpless and vulnerable."

"I'd like to hear that story," Hydrangea said in a hushed voice.

It was Stella who began the retelling of the events that brought the newborn blue pegasus to their care. "Your father and I had not had any foals born to us, so we had applied for adoption. But before a foal became available, Primula was born and we had no need for the agency's services. Then one day when Primula was about a year old, we received a call from the agency saying that they had a special needs foal that required immediate placement, and they had thought of us when their files could not locate a family who could take her in."

"Your mother called me at work and said we had to meet with the counselor at the adoption agency in one hour; I dropped what I was doing, and we rushed over to meet the little beauty who stole our hearts immediately," Bertramino took over. "Because you were born prematurely, you needed extra-special care; and we knew that we couldn't let you down. We received custody of you immediately, and brought you into our home as if you had been born to us. Primula wasn't old enough to question the appearance of a baby sister out of the blue, and in our minds and hearts you were our daughter, so we never told her otherwise."

"So my birth parents... did you meet them?"

"No. We were only told that there were circumstances that made it necessary for them to give up their daughter. The agency had the necessary papers signed by the mother giving up her rights to you, but we were never given any identifying information about the identity of either your mother or your father."

"So you have no idea who they were?"

"None whatsoever," Stella confirmed. "There was never a moment when we didn't consider ourselves your parents. We have thanked them every day in our hearts; wherever they are, I like to think that they know you were well taken care of."

"It's a bit unsettling," Hydrangea murmured, "knowing that out there somewhere are two ponies who gave me life, and I don't even know who they are."

* * *

Coming to terms with her new-found information, Hydrangea often pondered over the limited facts she had; but she didn't allow it to interfere with her life or her work. Primula and Solidago had been told the truth about their sister, and had accepted it as an irrelevant factor that didn't change anything. As a family, they decided not to reveal the news to any one else at the present time, allowing Hydrangea to adjust to the disclosure. But for Hydrangea, the unanswered questions often haunted her.

It was during this time of adjustment that she received a telephone call from Pacificus. After the usual small talk, he came to the point of his call. "Hydrangea, I was wondering if you would have dinner with me Friday evening."

"Friday evening?" Hydrangea stalled for time as she tried to think of a legitimate excuse not to accept the invitation. But it dawned on her that maybe it would be beneficial for her to talk with someone who, not knowing her present dilemma, could take her mind off her troubles for awhile. "That would be great," she responded.

She smiled as Pacificus set the time; he sounded as if he had not expected her to accept his invitation, and his voice stuttered as he bid her goodbye.

By Friday evening, she was having doubts as to the wisdom of dining with a stallion who had not made much of an impression with her, but her mother mildly scolded her for even thinking of treating him shoddily. So it was with a happy countenance that Hydrangea met her date at the door and accompanied him to De Vico's for a very fine meal.

She was pleasantly surprised to find that the two of them had many interests in common; and as the evening progressed, Hydrangea found herself wondering why she had ever considered this particular stallion dull. She was genuinely disappointed when the repast was over, and there was no longer any way to delay their departure.

It was only on their way out of the dining room that Hydrangea caught sight of Clare and Giorgio seated at a table directly on their route. She stiffened as she saw Giorgio's glance fall on them, and prepared herself for more of his remarks; she was not disappointed.

He got to his hooves as they approached, and met her with a fond hug. "Hydie! It's so good to see you again." Then with a brief look in Pacificus' direction and a even briefer greeting, his attention once more centered on Hydrangea. "You look lovely, as always."

"And you and Clare seem to be having a lovely evening as well," she retorted as Pacificus and Clare shared some small talk before Pacificus guided her away from the twosome and out the door.

Pacificus seemed somewhat uncommunicative for several minutes before breaking the silence. "I feel the need to admit to you, Hydrangea, that I had a schoolboy crush on Clare since we were in design school together; for her part, she barely knew I existed." He smiled ruefully at the thought before going on to tell her of his attempt to copy Clare's work to earn enough jangles to pay off a medical debt incurred by his mother through a serious illness, and Clare's surprising hiring of him even after uncovering his plan. "That only strengthened my feelings for her," he admitted. "I had hoped that she would return my interest... but she did not."

"And Giorgio came along to win her affection," Hydrangea finished for him. They walked in silence for a time before Hydrangea confessed her former attachment to Giorgio. "I dated him for a short time before he left Dream Valley; I suppose he needed someone completely unconnected to his dealings to talk to occasionally." She found herself feeling guilty for doing the same thing.

"So maybe we can put those two behind us now," Pacificus suggested as they reached the house.

Hydrangea smiled. "Very easily, I would think."

* * *

"Mom, Dad, I've decided I'd like to find out more about my birth parents; I've made an appointment to talk with Petula at the adoption agency this afternoon." Hydrangea searched the faces of her parents to determine their thoughts. For her part, the weeks of wondering needed answers.

"You are ready to face whatever you can find out?" Stella asked.

"I think so," Hydrangea responded. "But I want you to understand that this in no way affects the love I have for the two of you."

Bertramino came to her side and rested his hoof on her shoulder. "Nor does it affect the love we have for you, Hydrangea." He leaned and kissed her gently on the forehead.

When the scheduled time came, Hydrangea approached the building that housed the adoption agency with hesitant steps. Was she really ready to uncover the truth about her past? This action was frightening but necessary; she knew she would never be fully at peace until she had at least made an effort to trace her roots.

Petula, a take-charge personality, greeted Hydrangea with a welcome smile. "Please sit down," she offered, indicating a comfortable chair. Petula positioned herself behind the desk, resting her forelegs on the arms of her chair. "What can I do to help you?"

"I've recently discovered that I was adopted," Hydrangea began. "These are the papers my adoptive parents signed." She handed the official papers across the desk to Petula. "I was hoping that you could tell me something about the two ponies who were my birth parents."

Petula opened the parchment, taking her time to fully read the information presented.

"You obtained this from your parents?" she asked when she finally looked up from her perusal of the document.


"And they know of your desire to locate your birth parents?"

"Yes, they do. And they approve."

"Be that as it may, the fact remains that our adoption files are closed, Hydrangea. That means that the confidential information that we have cannot, without a very good reason, be revealed to anyone."

"I understand that, but couldn't you at least give me some sort of background information that would help me to picture what they were like or why they gave me up? It is not important to know their names, but I would like to know the circumstances of their lives."

"I'm sorry, Hydrangea, but our rules are in place to provide privacy and confidentiality to both the birth parents and the adoptive parents. If we made exceptions in every case, we wouldn't be upholding our responsibility."

"So you can't even tell me if they were rich or poor, or if they lived in the city or the country, happily married or not?"

"No, Hydrangea. Again, I'm very sorry, but that's the way it is."

* * *

"So how did your date with Pacificus go last night?" Primula questioned nosily of her sister as they worked over some of the pizzeria invoices in the office of Pizzeria Sicily.

"The symphony was great!" Hydrangea responded.

"That's not what I asked."

Hydrangea grinned. "Well, if you must know, both of us enjoyed ourselves very much. After the performance, we ate at Coppoli's, that new restaurant along the river."


"We both had fish."

"Hydrangea, you're impossible!" Primula exploded.

Carlo, who happened to walk in at that moment, raised his eyebrows questioningly. "What's going on in here? Is our manager attempting to thwart the owner's whims?" He winked at Hydrangea.

"She refuses to discuss her date with Pacificus," Primula pouted.

Carlo laughed. "I'm with Hydrangea on this one, Prim. And if that's all you have to do with your time, you can come and help me set up the tables for lunch." He gently directed his wife toward the door.

But Primula wasn't to be stopped so easily. "Did he kiss you?" she threw back at Hydrangea, clutching the door frame with her hoof as Carlo tried futilely to move her along.

"It's none of your business; but no, he didn't."

* * *

Once more Hydrangea walked up the steps to the adoption agency. She had called Petula again, and this time the mare had seemed more cooperative. Hydrangea hoped that she would come away from this encounter with some solid information.

Petula greeted her with a bright smile. Once they were seated, she leaned back and surveyed Hydrangea before speaking. "Stella and Bertramino came to see me, and they asked me to reconsider my decision that I gave you when we first talked."

"Mom and Dad came here to see you?"

"Your adoptive parents are wonderful ponies, Hydrangea. They were rather persuasive in their arguments on your behalf."

"So... you can tell me something about my birth parents?"

"I opened your file, yes. It was a very brief affidavit verifying all the necessary legal information; however, the sheet containing the names of your birth parents was missing."

"Missing? You mean a part of my file is gone?"

"Gone, or never entered in the first place. This happened many years ago, before I came to work for the agency. For whatever reason, your birth parents are not named on the document."

"So there is nothing you can tell me?"

Petula smiled. "Now you are jumping to a conclusion. I don't have the names, but I do have a few facts about their life. If I remember correctly, you had stated previously that you would be satisfied to know only a few circumstances about them, something to give you some idea of what their life must have been like."

"Yes. Anything will be better than not knowing a single thing."

"Okay, Hydrangea. Here goes! It appears that your birth parents did not have the finances to raise a foal, especially one who needed special medical care because of your premature delivery."

"They were that poor?"

"It also appears that your mother was physically unable to care for a foal on her own; that would have necessitated further expense."

"Poor and ill, too?" Hydrangea felt like a parrot mimicking Petula's words, but found her emotions running too high to think clearly.

"And on top of it all, your father was away at the time you were born; I would imagine your mother was faced with these weighty decisions without any support close at hoof."

"Poor, ill, and alone?" Hydrangea was totally at a loss for words. She had prepared herself for the worst, but finding now that her mother had been in such dire straits proved no comfort to her unanswered questions. Now she would have the constant worry as to what had become of the mare and stallion who had no choice but to give up their daughter because life had not been kind to them.

"Hydrangea, are you going to be okay?" Petula asked, coming around the desk to sit next to the dazed pegasus. "Would you like me to call someone who could walk you home?"

"No... no, I'll be okay. Could I just sit here for a few minutes until I can put this into perspective?"

"Sure," Petula patted Hydrangea's hoof. "Take all the time you need."

As Petula returned to her desk to file the papers in their proper place, Hydrangea thought of one more question. "Would you know, was my mother a pegasus like me?"

"It was never mentioned one way or another."

"I wonder what she looked like," Hydrangea mused, trying to picture the mare that had given birth to her. "I wonder what my father felt when he came home without having seen his daughter."

"I wish I could answer all your questions, Hydrangea. But the truth is that at this point in time, no one knows. The window was shut on those facts by whoever decided to leave the birth parents completely out of the picture. It may have been their request to preserve anonymity. You have to respect that."

Hydrangea stared bleakly out the window. "You are right, of course. I got what I came for." She stood up and bid goodbye to Petula. "Thanks for helping me."

"Now, Hydrangea, it is time to help yourself. Let go of the past and hang on to the family that has nurtured you since your birth."

"I can't promise on the first part, but you can be sure that my family will never have a doubt as to my love for them." She smiled, and went forth to live up to her responsibilities.

* * *

"Things are beginning to look serious between you and Pacificus, Hydie," Solidago teased as the two siblings helped clean up the kitchen after supper. "That stallion has all the markings of a love-sick puppy dog."

"Solidago!" his mother rebuffed him with a stern look.

But Hydrangea only laughed. "It's no worse than you and Toni; and at least I have the satisfaction of knowing Pacificus really likes me and not some stupid computer game!"

"Love is blind," Solidago countered.

"And so it should be," Stella interjected, "or there would be no chance for the continuation of the pony race."

"Yes, but Hydie has only eyes for Pacificus anymore. Nello keeps asking about her, and I have to keep telling him that she spends every spare moment with his boss. Boring!"

"Sometimes your attitude reminds me of Giorgio," Hydrangea asserted. "Whenever I meet him, he ends up tormenting me somehow... just like you, baby brother."

"Well, Hydie, think about it. Can you be sure he isn't your brother?"

Hydrangea gasped, and Stella put her hoof down hard. "That's enough, young man!"

"But it's true. Just think of the ponies Hydie could be related to!"

"You," Stella intoned, "are to leave this room and talk to your father about the proper respect that a younger brother should show to his older sister. Do you understand?"

Solidago knew well enough by his mothers flashing eyes that he had to cool it, so he humbly left the kitchen.

Stella's voice softened immediately. "Don't let him get to you, Hydrangea. He can be too cocky for his own good sometimes."

"But he is right, Mother." But the ringing of the telephone interrupted their conversation. Stella answered it, and handed the receiver to Hydrangea.

"It's Pacificus," she whispered, and left the room to give Hydrangea some privacy.

"Pacificus! Did you get held up at work?" The two of them were scheduled to see a movie later.

"If only," he replied somberly. "Mom's in the hospital. I'd like to visit her there, which would mean that I'd have to cancel our plans."

"I hope it's nothing serious."

"She had a check-up today and the doctor wanted to do further tests; she had serious problems some time ago, and he wants to verify certain indications."

"Could I meet you at the hospital? I'd like to see your mother, too." Hydrangea had been introduced to Pacificus' parents on one occasion when Angela had invited her to a get-together held at their home.

"You would do that?" Pacificus asked, a hopeful note sounding in his worried voice.

"You know I would. What time do you plan on getting there?"

"I'm going to grab a sandwich, and head straight over."

"Okay. I'll meet you there."

Pacificus was in the lobby when Hydrangea arrived, and the two went to Dulcia's room together. Angela and her father, Lorenzo, were already there; Dulcia herself seemed to be in good spirits, taking her hospitalization better than the family did.

Pacificus went to her bedside to greet her with a bouquet of flowers while Hydrangea hung back to speak with Angela. "What does the doctor suspect is causing her problems?"

Angela was serious, and wrinkles of worry lined her face. "It goes back to surgery she had a year ago; the doctor sees signs of a recurrence."

"But he's not sure?"

"No, not entirely. That's why he has ordered the tests."

Dulcia by this time had called Hydrangea to her side. "It's so nice of you, dear, to visit me here in this dreary place."

Hydrangea stooped to kiss her cheek. "Your family is so worried, and you radiate sunshine. What's your secret?"

Dulcia waved her hoof. "What will be, will be. We've been through worse than this." She reached for Lorenzo's hoof as he came around the bed. "I tell them not to worry, but do they ever listen to me?" She shook her head and smiled. "But I do get beautiful flowers…" a look of pain crossed her face for a moment, "…for my troubles."

The mare rested for a moment, but soon was questioning everyone about his or her day. When the time came to leave her for the night, Hydrangea said her goodbye first and left the room to give the family some time alone.

As she stood in the hall, she became aware of the patient in the next room staring at her through suffering eyes. The elderly stallion appeared to be watching her so closely that Hydrangea got the impression he wanted something of her, so she entered his room. "Is there something I can do for you?" she asked worriedly, as she sensed the torment he was going through.

But he weakly shook his head to the negative, his gaze never leaving her face. "Just... remembering."

"I'm waiting for a friend of mine. My name's Hydrangea." She wondered if he had confused her with someone else.

"I... am... Jarlath."

"It's nice to meet you, Jarlath. Do you mind if I visit awhile, or would you rather be alone?"


"You have some beautiful flowers on your bed stand; are they from someone special?"

Jarlath's eyes flicked momentarily to the colorful bouquet, but quickly returned to Hydrangea. "Don't... remember."

A book lay next to the flowers. Hydrangea picked it up and opened it to the bookmark. "Would you like for me to read to you?"

The stallion nodded in the affirmative, so Hydrangea began reading on the marked page. Jarlath closed his eyes, and Hydrangea wondered if he had fallen asleep; but when she stopped reading, he opened his eyes again as if to see where she had gone. She began again.

After some minutes a young mare came breezing into the room, her white cap signaling her status as nurse. "You have a visitor, Jarlath. How nice."

The stallion attempted a smile. "Yes... reading..."

"You've always treasured your books, haven't you?" the efficient care giver asked. "But right now we've got some things to take care of, don't we?"

Taking the cue, Hydrangea said to Jarlath, "I'll be going now; I hope you rest comfortably tonight."

The stallion's eyes seemed to bore into her so strongly that for a moment they cleared, and the pain seemed to disappear. "It was... good… of you… to visit," he whispered brokenly.

Hydrangea squeezed his hoof, and left him in the capable care of the nurse. She still had several minutes to wait before Pacificus and Angela joined her. "Dad's going to stay awhile longer," he explained, smiling freely for the first time tonight. "They kicked us out."

Together, the three ponies walked down the hallway, stopping at the chapel before leaving. When they were finished there, Hydrangea caught sight of the same nurse who had been in the elderly stallion's room. "Excuse me," Hydrangea intercepted her. "The pony-- Jarlath-- could you tell me something about him?"

"You don't know Dr. Jarlath Costa?" the nurse responded. "Why, he's delivered half the foals in Vulcanopolis, myself included!"

"We'd never met; I just thought he looked rather lonely as I passed by his room."

"Dr. Costa is suffering very badly, I'm sorry to say. He's been affiliated with this hospital for so long that everyone is concerned for him, but we are taking very good care of him. He has a great many friends. I only wish we could do more," she ended sadly. "It was great of you to speak with him; it gets his mind off of his pain."

"It was no problem," Hydrangea murmured, and the nurse continued on her way.

"Do did Dr. Costa deliver the two of you?" Hydrangea asked of her companions. She couldn't shake the piercing look the doctor had given her.

"No," Pacificus said. "Mom and Dad had to settle for our humble family practitioner. Dr. Costa is a specialist who caters to the affluent; we couldn't afford that quality of care."

Angela frowned at her brother. "Just because Dr. Trinci caters to us poor ponies, big brother, doesn't make him any less valuable. He has always given Mom excellent care."

The brother and sister began reminiscing about various exploits concerning doctor visits over the years, but Hydrangea had faded off onto a path of her own. Angela's statement had cut into her subconsciousness like a sword, merging with Solidago's teasing earlier. It was like a thunder clap that made her shiver, and her legs felt weak as if she might collapse. But she rallied herself and kept pace with the others.

However, in her mind, she faced the dread that engulfed her: What if Pacificus was her brother? He was from poor parents, and his mother obviously was not the healthiest of mares. Poor, ill… but surely not alone. Dulcia would have had Lorenzo at her side. Hydrangea clung to that thought… it was all she had.

* * *

Dulcia's tests provided reassuring news—only a minor development in connection with last spring's surgery was causing the pain she experienced, and it was easily corrected. She was soon home and her family could relax.

Hydrangea tried to put her disturbing thoughts behind her and succeeded when she was busy at the pizzeria or with her family; she was even able to subdue them when she was with Pacificus during their ever more frequent time together. It was only at night, when she was alone in her room, that she would again and again go over the possibilities involved.

Poor, ill, and alone… she tried to put herself into the mare's position who had given her birth. Dulcia had been poor all her life; even now, it appeared that Pacificus and Angela helped their parents out. She was also plagued with health problems that flared up intermittently; the two points together made a seemingly strong case. But, Hydrangea reassured herself, surely there would be any number of mares in Vulcanopolis who met the same criteria.

And just when she would convince herself that the odds of her having other brothers and sisters was probably small, and the odds of actually meeting one of them even smaller, she would again be hit by the truth that no matter how small, the possibility did exist. Why, she groaned inwardly, do I have to endure these doubts when I have met the stallion that lights up my life like no other has?

When she crawled out of bed one morning—she had the day off—she found her mother alone in the kitchen and confided her musings. "I thought you seemed pre-occupied lately," Stella admitted, "and I wondered if Solidago had opened up a Pandora's box for you."

"Don't blame Solidago; I'd have gotten to this point soon enough myself."

"Would it do any good to talk with Petula again?"

Hydrangea's face brightened a bit. "There is one thing I'd like to check. When Dulcia was in the hospital a couple of weeks back, there was another patient there, a Dr. Costa. I learned he delivered a lot of foals down through the years, and wondered if he might remember something. I almost felt like he knew me." She grew retrospective and her smile faded. "But Pacificus said he wouldn't take patients who were poor."

"It's worth a try, Hydrangea. And who knows, because of your condition, whoever delivered you may have conferred with him."

"Would you come with me, Mom, now?"

Stella looked at the baking ingredients on the counter, then back to her daughter. "Certainly. Let's go."

Arriving at the hospital, the two mares-- a blue pegasus and a pale green earth pony-- went straight to the room where Hydrangea had seen the doctor, but Hydrangea stopped short as she was about to enter the room. The bed was stripped and several ponies were busy about the room cleaning out the drawers and removing flower bouquets. "Where is Dr. Costa?" Hydrangea asked, her voice wavering as she foresaw the answer. Her mother steadied her with a hoof.

One of the workers, a petite lavender unicorn, looked up from her work. "Are you a member of the doctor's family?"

"No. But I had wanted to talk with him about... something."

The unicorn shook her head. "I'm sorry to inform you that Dr. Costa passed away this morning," she stated, a tear sliding down her cheek.

"No..." Hydrangea felt like crying herself, but her mother guided her out of the room.

"Let's go sit down awhile, honey," Stella said. They walked again the corridors that led them to the chapel. Sitting in the back, Hydrangea contemplated the possibilities that had been lost. But, she admitted to herself, the good doctor may not have been able to help me anyway. She looked to her mother who was lost in prayer, and Hydrangea followed suit.

When the two ponies left the hospital, they went by the adoption agency to check with Petula to see if there was any more she could do for them; but the counselor, although sympathetic to their predicament, could offer no helpful advice.

It was with low spirits that the two went home; Hydrangea helped her mother with the baking while they discussed any and every alternative they could come up with; but nothing seemed practical.

When Pacificus picked Hydrangea up later that day for another of Clare's office parties, he commented on her contemplative attitude; Hydrangea tried to look more cheerful and blamed her distraction on a problem at the pizzeria. By the time they reached the gathering place, her mood was much improved due to Pacificus' presence at her side; as always, her longing for things to work out as she wanted them to allowed her to bury the doubts in a back chamber of her mind for the present moment.

Enjoying the company of all these ponies, many of whom had now become her friends, also helped to drive away any misgivings that haunted her. Hydrangea was comfortable engaging in conversation with any of the workers from Clare's Creations, except the one pony who could still rattle her poise-- Giorgio. She had just finished a dance with Nello who had maneuvered her to the far side of the dance floor away from Pacificus-- "To give us a chance to talk," Nello had stated with a grin on his face-- when she was approached by the dark green stallion.

"Good evening, Hydie," he smiled; he had adopted the use of her nickname as a regular greeting, and it never ceased to irritate her-- only her family and closest friends used the diminutive of her name; she didn't appreciate Giorgio being in that group.

But to keep up the congenial atmosphere of Clare's gathering, she smiled amiably. "Good evening, Giorgio." She placed a hoof on one of Nello's to signal him that he was not to leave her alone with this particular stallion under any circumstances.

"Where's Pacificus?" Giorgio asked, his eyes twinkling as he scanned the room. "Don't tell me he let you out of his sight."

Hydrangea found herself wondering where he was, too, as she followed Giorgio's glance. "And where is your beautiful mare?" she asked absently while still trying to catch a glimpse of Pacificus.

"She deserted me a few minutes ago. Maybe she's off with Pacificus on some critical business dilemma. Nello, would you relinquish your hold on the lovely Hydrangea so that I can have this dance?"

Nello, who had taken Hydrangea's hoof in his at her prodding, cast a quick glance in her direction and then wimped out. "One dance, and that's it," he clarified to her. "I'll be waiting right here." He caught the icy stare that Hydrangea flashed him, but only shrugged his shoulders as if the friend of the owner of the business carried more weight with him than his personal friendship with Hydrangea.

It was a slow dance; and Giorgio held her close. Hydrangea let him guide her across the room, but she resented every step. And the worst part for her was knowing that he knew how she felt, and that he only found it amusing. She avoided all eye contact, trying to spare herself the teasing expression she would find there.

She nearly jumped when he said, "I don't bite, you know." She invariably looked up into his face, and saw the hint of laughter in his eyes.

"I never expected it of you," she retorted, at the same time wondering just how long this dance was going to last.

"Why do you tend to shy away from me since you've returned to Vulcanopolis?"

"I learned a lot about you that I never had known... once you left Dream Valley without so much as a goodby. But let me guess, you called Sugarberry with the news; am I right?"

"If I hurt you, I'm sorry," he responded, but the merriment never left his eyes. "What can I do to make it up to you?"

"Just get on with your life with Clare, and spare me your misguided concern."

"Why, Hydie. That sounds so cruel coming from you. Can't we be friends?"

But the music providentially ended, and the dancing partners came to a standstill directly in front of Clare and Pacificus who had just returned from the terrace. Hydrangea looked to Pacificus with obvious relief. "Where have you been?" she asked, pulling him away from Clare and Giorgio.

"Several of Clare's distributors stopped by before leaving town; we had to give them a courteous farewell. Am I to assume your dance with Giorgio was not to your liking?"

"You know how he always succeeds in making me feel inept; he baits me on purpose." Pacificus tried to look sympathetic but did not quite succeed. "What? You think I'm imaging it?" She glowered at him in exasperation.

"Hydrangea, I know perfectly well that he enjoys upsetting you; but don't you think it would be wise to foil his strategy by refusing to fall into his trap?"

"If I could, don't you think I would?"

Pacificus grinned. "Come on; let's go by the refreshment table and find something to eat. You'll feel better then."

* * *

Following Clare's party, Hydrangea and Pacificus went with Elena and Cisani to the ice cream parlor before the two couples parted ways; Hydrangea was silent as she walked at Pacificus' side on the way to her parent's house.

"Don't let Giorgio bother you this way," Pacificus interrupted her thoughts.

"How did you know what I was thinking?"

"A lucky guess... I figured it could be two things: either Giorgio or I had upset you somehow."

"Never you, Pacificus," Hydrangea smiled at him.

"You know, I've been thinking-- because Giorgio was an only child, he grew up without the benefit of any siblings around the house; so maybe now that his life is more on track, he finds it necessary to do all that teasing that us big brothers are so good at."

Hydrangea looked at him sharply... us big brothers? "What made you say that?"

"Well, I've done my fair share of tormenting Angela."

Hydrangea breathed easier. "But you wouldn't be cruel about it."

"I don't know; I guess you'd have to ask Angela about that. I was pretty hard on her when she was a young filly just starting to date."

"I think you have grown out of it; maybe Giorgio will, too."

"You can always hope!"

"I picture you as a protective older brother to Angela; you seem like a stallion who would have been capable of supplying guidance to any number of brothers and sisters."

"Mom and Dad wanted a large family; but because of Mom's health, she wasn't able to carry any of the others to term."

"That's so sad!" Hydrangea sympathized.

"Yes. It is."

They walked again in silence until they reached the house where they came across Solidago just returning from his evening out. "Hi, you two. How about a late night snack?" He opened the door, inviting them in.

"I think we've eaten more than enough for one evening," Hydrangea stated; Pacificus agreed with her.

"Well, keep me company." Solidago headed for the kitchen. "I mixed up this great citrus punch this afternoon; try some." He poured cold glasses of the golden orange drink while the other two made themselves comfortable at the table.

"Quite tasty," Hydrangea complimented his efforts.

"Too much grapefruit," Pacificus made a face. "I hate grapefruit."

"Too bad; Hydie loves grapefruit," Solidago grinned. "You two aren't the perfect match I thought you were."

"Close enough to perfect for me," Pacificus retorted, taking Hydrangea's hoof in his. "And that reminds me, Hydrangea... expect a call from my mother concerning a family dinner she's planning for Sunday."

"Sounds like her hospital stay isn't slowing her down any."

"The problem has been to try to get her to take it easy," Pacificus confirmed. "And my problem is that I have to get up early to take care of some things at work, so I should be getting out of here."

After Pacificus was gone and Hydrangea and Solidago were rinsing the glasses before closing up the kitchen, Solidago couldn't resist a chance to badger his sister. "A family dinner, did he say? Does that mean he considers you a part of their family already, Hydie?" He whistled a few bars of "Here Comes the Bride."

Hydrangea smiled, but the nagging doubts were returning as the apprehensions of the nighttime hours enveloped her. What had Pacificus said? There were others not carried to term. Was one of those delivered prematurely, and given away in adoption? Was she a part of their family already?

* * *

Dinner was over, and the dishes were done. Hydrangea, Pacificus, Angela, Dulcia, and Lorenzo moved to the sitting room to enjoy some conversation... not that there hadn't been plenty of talk throughout the meal itself; the others had made Hydrangea feel welcome with their attentions to her, and an informal cordiality had permeated the evening.

Lorenzo had gotten comfortable in his favorite chair, and began telling tales of his growing up years; raised in poverty, he was proud that he had done better than his father, even though he had never become wealthy. "But Angela and Pacificus," he ended, "they are prepared to make their way in the world; Pacificus will do much better for the mare he marries than I was ever able to do for Dulcia." His eyes rested on Hydrangea, who blushed prettily and shyly glanced at Pacificus who took her hoof in his.

Later in the course of the chatting, Dream Valley became the topic; Lorenzo revealed that he had been in that city so far away at one point in his life. "That was a bad time," he reminisced. "The construction business was sluggish here in Vulcanopolis at the time; so for me as a builder, things were really slow."

"It was probably the worse time of our married life," admitted Dulcia, grimacing at the thought. "Lorenzo heard of work in Dream Valley, and he had to leave the foals and I here while he went off to take advantage of the opportunities there."

"Things in Dream Valley weren't in a slump like over here," Lorenzo picked up the story again. "The building I helped on was the public library they were just putting up; it was as modern and impressive as they came back in those days. Where is that picture, Dulcia... the one of me in front of the building?"

Angela jumped up and retrieved the snapshot from the end table. "Do you recognize the place, Hydrangea?" she asked as she showed the mare the picture.

Hydrangea studied the picture of a younger Lorenzo standing proudly before the nearly completed Dream Valley Public Library. "Other than the landscaping around it, it looks exactly like this yet today," she remarked. But inside her brain, the wheels were turning-- Lorenzo had been away from his wife, leaving her alone with two small foals. Alone... a wife who had, to the best knowledge of her children, miscarried several pregnancies. "How old were you at this time, Pacificus?"

"I just vaguely remember it," the stallion admitted. "When would this have been, Dad?"

Lorenzo thought back through the years. "I imagine it was back in the late seventies."

Dulcia remembered more clearly. "Angela was two at the time, and Pacificus would have been five. It was nineteen seventy-eight; a lot of things happened that year." She looked pensive... almost forlorn.

Hydrangea's blood ran cold. Nineteen seventy-eight... the very year she was born. For a moment, she thought she was going to faint. But the conversation continued on around her, and slowly her senses returned to normal. She was even able to add a few comments now and again and smile at the right times, but her heart was not in it. She wanted to be alone to think, and was glad when Pacificus noticed her restraint.

"You look tired, Hydrangea. Would you like me to walk you home now?"

"The evening was wonderful, and I thank you all for sharing it with me, but I am feeling a bit tired."

Lorenzo chuckled. "Dulcia's lasagna has that effect on some ponies."

* * *

The starry night provided a cosmic backdrop for the walk back to Hydrangea's. Pacificus, caught up in the reminiscing that had gone on throughout the evening, embellished some of the stories with facts that only he knew-- or admitted to. Adding the proper exclamations or giggles when needed, Hydrangea was absorbed in her own perspective of past events.

It was only after their arrival at the house that Hydrangea realized the need to address the situation immediately; she was hoping for a quick goodbye which would allow her the chance to escape into some private sorting out of her current knowledge. But Pacificus had other plans.

"Hydrangea..." He took her hoof and drew her close to him.

He's never kissed me before, why would he choose tonight to do so? Hydrangea agonized. And with all the determination she could muster, she pushed him away. "No, Pacificus."

The stallion looked as if he had been unjustly chastised. "I'm sorry. I thought..."

"I'm sorry, too; I should have spoken up sooner, but I didn't have the courage."

"What are you saying?"

Hydrangea saw his face grow pale as he anticipated the seriousness of her behavior and felt the coolness of her manner. "We need to back off from this relationship."

"What did I do to make you decide that?" His grip on her hoof tightened.

"It's just... things are moving too fast; I need space to think. I came back to Vulcanopolis to sort out my life, and I didn't mean to complicate it again so soon."

Her words shot through him as painfully as if they had been an arrow, and he dropped her hoof accordingly. "That's what you really want?"

"Yes." Her voice cracked, but she stifled her tears. "We can still be friends, Pacificus!" She tried to reach for his hoof, to feel his touch one more time, but he backed away from her. The pain in his eyes broke her heart.

And his heart was broken, too. "Good bye, Hydrangea."

* * *

Crawling out of bed after a long, sleepless night, Hydrangea looked at herself in the mirror and barely recognized the despondent, bleary-eyed mare that stared back at her. She pushed her mane off her forehead and absently ran a hoof through the snarls that had formed during the long hours of tossing and turning. "Can life change so dramatically in such a short time?" she mumbled softly to the unattractive image in the mirror.

She forced herself to go through the routine of a normal morning, and when she finally had combed out her mane and tail after her shower, she found that the mare in the mirror had improved somewhat, though still without the vibrancy that had marked her every movement since she had fallen hopelessly in love with Pacificus. And the dark circles under her eyes stayed as reminders of a night wasted and worn.

"Poor, ill, alone." Those words had become a triad of discord in the depths of her mind; she wished she could wipe her memory clear of them. Two of the necessary details was one thing-- I could wish away the hoofwriting on the wall with only the two points verified-- but the third fact validated is too conclusive, she continued to torture herself as she went down to the kitchen.

Solidago was just on his way out, and had time for only a quick jab. "You look like you're just getting home, Hydie. Long night?"

Her mother was more perceptive. "Sit down, Hydrangea. You look as if something is bothering you."

Sitting at the kitchen table, Hydrangea poured out the story of the events of the previous evening ending with a pathetic cry, "I fell in love with him and now it looks like he's my..." She couldn't finish the sentence as fresh tears poured down her face.

"You can't be sure, Hydrangea," her mother rationalized, trying to ignite fresh hope in her disconsolate daughter.

Hydrangea shook her head. "There's no hope left."

* * *

Stella insisted that Hydrangea not go to work that day and after practically force-feeding her some hot oatmeal, she ordered the young lady off to bed to try to get the rest she had missed in the night. Hydrangea allowed her mother to fuss over her, and once the blinds were drawn and the room was quiet, the exhausted mare succumbed to the welcome unconsciousness of a deep sleep.

A knocking at the door downstairs awakened Hydrangea some hours later; she listened to her mother's hoofsteps as Stella went to answer it, and heard the distant sound of voices ending when the door once again closed. Looking at her bedside clock, Hydrangea found it to be mid-afternoon; slowly the reality of her situation again settled over her like a suffocating cloud, and she jumped out of bed as if she could physically shake it off.

After once more tidying her hair, she rejoined her mother who was sitting in the living room with a strange look on her face and a notecard in her hoof. "Bad news, Mother?" Hydrangea dropped to her side with all her current worry now funneling itself into this new crisis.

"No, dear, not bad news at all. I was just a little shocked." She handed the quality stationery to her daughter. "Read this."

Hydrangea looked at the hoof-written note done in a light, curly penmanship. After a quick reading of it, she looked at her mother. "You and Dad are invited do dine with the Guardini's? Since when have you been rubbing elbows with Vulcanopolis's city administrator?"

"I have never formally met Giorgio, Sr. or his wife, but your father did have a chance to talk with him once or twice at meetings they were both in attendance at."

"So why this invitation?"

"It just one of those things that politicians do; every month, he and Enrica invite some average-type citizens to their villa for a special dinner-- sort of like a town hall meeting, only more personal."

"And what do you do at these meetings?" Hydrangea found it a relief to have something to concentrate on for awhile other than her own problems.

"Well, we will eat of course, and share ideas, dreams, challenges, and difficulties concerning the government of Vulcanopolis; or so I've heard, anyway."

"I'm happy for you and Dad; it's about time someone in public office listened to two wise ponies such as yourselves."

"You're invited, too, Hydrangea."


"Look on the envelope... Mr. and Mrs. Bertramino Calandra and Hydrangea."

"That would be Giorgio's doing!" Hydrangea spat, dropping the envelope as if it burned her hoof.

"Now, dear, don't take this personally. The Guardini's have done this for years; I doubt that Giorgio, Sr. would go along with his son's personal whims... even if they are getting along better these days."

"You don't know him like I do!"

"You'll have to put your dislike of him behind you, Hydrangea. It is an honor to be invited to one of these doings, and it would be rude to turn down an invitation."

The stubborn set of Hydrangea's stance announced that she, for one, would not be intimidated by any of the Guardini's. But she did ask, "When is this grand occasion scheduled for? I didn't catch the date."

"That's the funny thing," a puzzled Stella replied. "It's tonight."

"Tonight already? That's not very courteous!"

"The courier who delivered the invitation apologized for the abruptness of it, but he said certain circumstances had come up that could not be avoided. He asked if I could give him a reply immediately."

"What did you say?"

"I told him that the three of us would accept the invitation with pleasure."

"You what? You spoke for me?"

"Hydrangea, this will be good for you considering what you are going through right now. And I highly doubt that the young Giorgio will even be there; he does not seem to share his father's love of politics."

"All his love is directed at Clare these days," Hydrangea muttered. Then, being hit by an absurd thought, she cringed. "Giorgio has already heard about my rejection of Pacificus, and is making a move just to annoy me! Pacificus probably confided to Clare who in turn told Giorgio."

Stella shook her head. "You have a lively imagination, young lady."

"You don't know him like I do!" she reiterated.

"I think you are reading too much into this; Giorgio, Sr. and Enrica picked our names as some of the ponies to be included in tonight's assemblage and, finding that you were living here, politely included you as well."

"Why not Solidago?"

"He's not old enough to vote yet."

"Oh." Hydrangea was quiet as she thought about it, then acquiesced. "Okay. I'll join you and Dad on your little trek this evening; but don't expect me to enjoy it."

"Your dad! I better call him at work and warn him about this!" She dashed off to use the phone, and Hydrangea went to her room to decide what bow to wear tonight.

* * *

"How many ponies come to these things?" Hydrangea queried as they approached the large villa where the Guardini's lived and noted the absence of any other ponies arriving at the same time. "We did get the hour right, didn't we?"

"We better have," grumbled Bertramino, uncomfortable in the black tie his wife had convinced him to wear. "I didn't get dressed up for nothing."

Hydrangea giggled. "You look so handsome, Dad!" she teased in a syrupy voice. "You should wear your tie more often."

Bertramino silenced her with a glance; he had been informed of her decision to break-off with Pacificus and knew the depression that it had flung her into; he was happy to see her in such good spirits now, but worried that she would soon crash back to the depths of despair. "I believe that your mother warned you to be on your best behavior, too."

Stella gave her daughter a quick hug as Bertramino rang the doorbell. "You will enjoy the evening, won't you?"

Hydrangea had no time to answer as the door swung open, and a neatly clad maid answered the door. "Please come in," she said in her pleasant voice. Once the guests were inside, she directed the three of them into a rather spacious parlor with grandiose furniture and a lighted fireplace against the far wall. In front of the fireplace was a turquoise pegasus sitting in a wheelchair; standing beside her was the dark green stallion who governed Vulcanopolis.

"Welcome to our home!" Giorgio, Sr. greeted them warmly, with hoofshakes all around. He held Hydrangea's hoof a moment longer than necessary, Hydrangea thought, and chalked some of Giorgio's behavior up to the example of his father. But she looked around the room in relief; there was no Giorgio in sight-- nor any other ponies, for that matter.

"And this is my wife, Enrica," Hydrangea heard Giorgio, Sr.'s voice and directed her attention to the attractive but infirm mare.

"It's very nice to meet you," Enrica said as Hydrangea offered her hoof. Enrica's eyes looked bright but watery, and Hydrangea wondered what exactly her medical problem was.

"It's nice to meet you, too, Mrs. Guardini." Stella had been very adamant that Hydrangea refer to the adults by their proper titles rather than on a first name basis unless they directed otherwise; she wanted her family to be met with approval. "You have a lovely home."

"Do you think so?" The mare brightened perceptively, and Hydrangea smiled at her; but the smile turned down as she heard a new voice in the hall.

"You have other things to take care of, Emma; I'm perfectly capable of finding my own way about the house." And through the doorway walked Giorgio. He took a quick look around the room as if assessing the situation; Hydrangea thought she saw a flicker of surprise on his face when his glance came to her, but she had no time to consider it. The stallion came directly to her, and taking her hoof in his, kissed it gallantly, murmuring, "It's lovely to see you here, Hydie," the amused twinkle highlighting his eyes. Hydrangea had no doubt now that this entire escapade was of his planning.

But Giorgio, Sr. called for everyone's attention. "Please have a seat, all of you." He waited until the gathered ponies had complied with his request; Giorgio directed Hydrangea to the chair next to his. She was only remotely aware that another stallion had come into the room until Giorgio, Sr. continued. "Very recently, a matter was called to my attention by my lawyer, Quentin Zalfani, who is here this evening at my request to share the same information with you that I and my wife learned for the first time just two days ago. The facts that you are about to hear affect each and every one of us gathered here tonight in a very personal way, and I ask your undivided attention."

Nice touch, pondered Hydrangea as Giorgio, Sr. stepped back to take a chair next to Enrica; put the future of Vulcanopolis directly in our hooves. But Hydrangea noticed that there were tears running down Enrica's cheeks and wondered if she needed some attention; she took a quick glance at Giorgio, and saw that he had noticed the tears, too. He made a move as if to go to his mother, but the lawyer's voice caused him to stay put.

"The papers I hold in my hoof are, as Giorgio Guardini has just said, extremely important to you all," the lawyer intoned.

Yeah, yeah, we've heard that before, Hydrangea griped to herself. Just get on with the political propaganda so that I can get as far away from this stallion as I can. She was in no mood for a shrewd yet boring speech.

"Recently, a noted physician from our community passed away; and, among his personal papers was found an envelope bearing my name and address. The packet was forthwith delivered into my possession; the contents of the papers contained within the envelope are what I am about to read to you at this time." He paused only briefly to look over his audience, receiving a slight nod from Giorgio, Sr.

The lawyer unfolded the papers in his hoof; Hydrangea, not knowing what to expect from this pageantry, stole a look at her parents and saw that they were as bewildered as herself. The physician referred to could be none other than Dr. Costa. It seemed to be a strange coincidence to come across this same pony yet again. But the time for wondering was over as the lawyer began to read:

"I, Jarlath Costa, have a confession to make... a confession that directly affects a number of ponies who currently reside in Vulcanopolis. Please bear with me as I explain this matter from the beginning.

"I was caring for a mare who was suffering through a debilitating disease; that mare, Enrica Guardini, is the wife of Giorgio Guardini, Sr. Enrica was to have a foal, but her health problem was robbing her and the foal of life itself. I was not sure she would survive the delivery of the foal; and as her condition deteriorated throughout the pregnancy, it became clear that she could not last long past the birth. I was frank with Giorgio, Sr. about his wife's condition, and he was devastated. The thought of losing his wife seemed unbearable to him; he begged me to do whatever I could to bring her through.

"Enrica was hospitalized by this time, and her husband spent what time he could with her; he knew she was slipping away from him, and he was infuriated that he could do nothing to help her. In his agony, he told me that it would be better for the foal if it were born dead as he would never be able to set eyes on it without feeling the grief of his wife's suffering.

"But Giorgio had his work to attend to and that work was important to him; he never lost sight of his goal. One day when he was at the university, the foal was born. It had come too soon-- it was small and sickly-- but alive and fighting all odds for survival. Enrica was in bad shape after the delivery, and it was a hard fight to keep her alive as well.

"Now I saw myself faced with a dilemma: a mare who I was sure would not survive much longer, and a foal who would be under the care of a father who had admitted to me that he already felt bitterness for it. Enrica had been too weak after the birth to see the foal; and as it needed immediate medical attention, no one questioned its removal from its mother's side. I rushed it to the foal's hospital intensive care unit, and entered false information as to who its parents were; I also stated that the mother was in poor health-- not expected to live-- and that the whereabouts of the father was unknown.

"In the meantime, I notified Giorgio, Sr. that his wife had given birth to a stillborn daughter..."

Hydrangea gasped; she looked to Giorgio to assess his feelings, but he was staring at his father as if trying to grasp what his intentions in putting this particular group of individuals through this private revelation could possibly be. A barely imperceptible shake of the father's head kept the younger stallion at bay.

The lawyer's voice droned on. "Giorgio, Sr.'s concern was entirely for Enrica, so questions that might have been asked were not broached. It was touch and go with Enrica for weeks after the birth; by the time she was stabilized and I knew she would make it, both she and her husband had put the tragedy behind them.

"For Enrica, whose condition had been so serious, I think she barely realized the import of what had happened; the memory of the birth was lost in the fight for her own life. Giorgio had his wife and young son; their life returned to normal with Enrica alive, but without the use of her back legs.

"As for the foal, I made arrangements through the adoption agency using the falsified records from the hospital as the basis for the information they received. I told them that the parents were very poor and that the mother had come alone and weakened for help in delivery; she had willingly signed the papers to release her daughter for adoption. The full responsibility for the deception was mine-- no one else was involved.

"Due to the special needs of the foal, the agency procured a home for her as quickly as possible with a couple whom they were sure would nurture the struggling newborn with all the love she needed. That couple was Stella and Bertramino Calandra, and the foal was a blue pegasus with a hydrangea symbol, born on May 25, l978."

Now it was Giorgio's turn to gasp; he turned to Hydrangea with none of the amusement playing on his face now-- this news was a bombshell for him. Hydrangea, at least, had already received half the story.

"My conscience had been clear these many years concerning the decision I made and the actions I took. Enrica's life had been fulfilled in her husband and her son. Giorgio, Sr. had shown by his actions that the foal he never saw would have been relegated to a status of indifference with him just as his son was.

"But in recent months, a number of things have come together to make me think twice of my interference in this affair. The first was the incident of Giorgio's son being apprehended by the law, which seems to have brought them closer together; I realize now that there was no predictable outcome to the feelings he might have had for his daughter.

"The second occurrence was a personal experience while I have been a patient in the hospital. As I lay, sick and in pain, I looked out my door recently and saw the very same foal that I had delivered and declared dead to her parents, now grown to be a beautiful and charming mare; and she showed compassion to me. It struck me as to the loss it was to her parents to never have known the wonderful creature they had engendered.

"The third factor that prompted this confession is the fact that I am dying-- the hospital that was once my battleground for the lives of others has now become my own. And although it would be possible to take my secret to the grave, I am faced with an eternity of pondering the rightfulness of my actions. To prepare myself for a death which is fast approaching, I am committing this disclosure to Quentin Zalfani who represents Giorgio and Enrica's legal affairs in the hopes that he will have the foresight to do what must be done to ensure that all parties in this tangled scenario are righted.

"And, lastly, I beg forgiveness from you all."

"Signed: Dr. Jarlath Costa."

* * *

The room was sheathed in silence; everyone was dazed to varying degrees. Enrica and Giorgio, Sr., having read the confession previously, had known all the facts coming in to this meeting. Hydrangea, Stella, and Bertramino knew the truth from their side. It was Giorgio who had received the biggest blow; he sat now trying to assimilate all the facts that had been so recently thrown at him.

Knowing that the first move was up to her, Hydrangea looked to Stella and Bertramino for reassurance-- and receiving it-- she stood and walked slowly but steadily to the mare who had given her birth. "Mother," was all she said as she dropped to her knees in front of Enrica who hesitantly reached out to touch her face.

"My... daughter," she whispered, experiencing the joy of claiming her child-- a child healthy, vibrant, and beautiful-- if not twenty-two years late. "Let me hug you."

Hydrangea slipped into the waiting embrace, and joined her newly-found mother in shedding tears of joy. Giorgio, Sr. looked on, not immune to the tears himself. And when the hug had lasted too long for his patience, he gently pried the two mares apart and held Hydrangea at foreleg's length to look at her as if for the first time. "If only..." he began, but the emotion spilled forth, and all he could do to show what he felt was to clasp Hydrangea to him and let the tears fall freely.

Stella and Bertramino, watching from the sidelines, experienced the happiness of their daughter while at the same time realizing that the love that had been theirs alone since they had taken that small, helpless foal into their home would now be shared with this new element in her life. "She has enough love for all of us," Bertramino said to his wife as much to counter his own misgivings as to strengthen her resolve. "She will not forget us."

Stella's eyes misted over, but she did not allow any more sadness to engulf her; she did what was second nature to her-- she looked for someone more in need of help than herself. She and Bertramino went to Giorgio, still sitting alone and seemingly forgotten.

"She is your sister," Stella said, laying a hoof on his shoulder. "You will have the years ahead of you to grow close as true brother and sister; but for now, go to her to show your acceptance of this situation."

Giorgio looked up into her face as if coming out of a dream. He smiled, and a trace of the old spirit showed in his eyes. "You're right, of course." He stood, and went to the three who were so caught-up in the freshness of their relationship that they had eyes for no other.

Standing askance from the group waiting for an opening, Giorgio was on the point of giving up when he caught a look from Bertramino that gave him the courage at last to put a hoof briefly on Hydrangea's, and ask, "Have you got a second for me?"

Hydrangea turned and found a rather subdued Giorgio at her side; she realized how much easier it was for her to accept Enrica and Giorgio, Sr. than it was for her to admit Giorgio into her familial circle. Her eyes must have shown her reserve, for Giorgio hesitated. Maybe, however, it was because they were under the watchful eyes of both sets of parents. But soon the well-known impertinent smile lit his face. "You never answered my question the other night, Hydie... Can't we be friends?"

For a second, some of the contention that had governed her attitude of late toward Giorgio overpowered her; she saw a hint of the antagonism he used against her, but realized that possibly she was misreading it. She had often seen the same look in Solidago's eyes when he was pestering her especially hard. Her heart melted, and the smile she sent his way was one of genuine sisterly affection. "I think maybe we could."

* * *

It was late before Bertramino, Stella, and Hydrangea returned to their home. Hydrangea had promised Enrica that she and Stella would visit her the next evening with all the photo albums of the past years so that Enrica could relive her daughter's life. "It's going to be a long session!" Stella had laughed.

With her parents sitting at the kitchen table with mugs of strong, hot coffee, Hydrangea paced the floor, running on adrenalin that would not quit. "This morning I thought my life was going nowhere," she reflected, "and tonight I have a whole new family."

Stella, glancing at the clock, informed her daughter, "'This morning' was actually yesterday morning by now, and 'tonight' is this morning."

Bertramino shook his head. "Stop thinking, Stella."

But Hydrangea came to a standstill. "It's that late? I wanted to talk to Pacificus about this as soon as possible!"

"About what?" asked a muddled Solidago, awakened by the activity.

Everyone ignored him for the moment. "You're not going to get any sleep tonight anyway, the way you're acting. You might as well call him and invite him over," Stella advised her daughter.

"But what if he's asleep?"

Bertramino rolled his eyes. "You think he will mind getting up at this hour, knowing what you have to tell him-- or at least what I think you plan on telling him?"

Hydrangea giggled. "I'll go call him right now." She left to use the living room phone while Stella and Bertramino sat Solidago down to break the news to him about Hydrangea's new family.

* * *

Misdialing the phone number twice before her shaking hooves could get it right, Hydrangea was relieved to finally hear Pacificus' groggy voice answer on the fifth ring. "Pacificus! It's Hydrangea! I need to talk with you. Could you come over?"

There was a pause. "Come over... now?" he asked somewhat disbelievingly.

Hydrangea had a sinking feeling that Pacificus might not be prepared to accept her back into his life. She began to babble. "I'm sorry... I realize it's awfully late... You were asleep... I shouldn't have bothered..."

"Hydrangea!!!" Pacificus interrupted emphatically, now fully awake and cognizant. "I can be there in fifteen minutes!" The receiver was hastily slammed down.

He was on the front porch and in Hydrangea's embrace in nine minutes flat.

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