Old Friends, New Friends
written by Sugarberry

As June is the traditional month for weddings, Icon and Splotch set their wedding date for this month. Tribute and Chiffon were planning a June wedding as well- and as Chiffon and Icon are first cousins- both couples decided to avoid duplicating the hustle and bustle of two marriages in the same month in the same town by combining the weddings into a double ceremony.

Pulling back from a warm kiss, Icon's eyes twinkled. "There. Feel better?"

Pushing the stallion away, Splotch frowned. "Not a bit. A kiss doesn't solve any of my problems." She slumped into a chair. "Floret says her source for magnolias dried up, so I have to come up with a substitute locally. Beyond that, I can't remember where I stashed the attendants' gifts, which means I'll have to replace them; but the jeweler only has one necklace of the same design in stock. Worse yet, the DJ's equipment was stolen after some wild graduation party, so he has to back out. And Lattice might not be able to arrive until Saturday morning because of pressing business for Queen Majesty. What's the use of making plans?" This last was said on a rising wail as the mare jumped up and began a frantic pacing.

Doing his best to appease his bride-to-be, Icon suggested practical solutions. "Every garden in Woodlawn has flowers blooming; use some of them in place of the magnolias. I'll help you look for the lost gifts; they've got to be in your apartment somewhere. Charter stood in as DJ for Sugarbery and Vanguard's wedding; I'm sure he wouldn't mind helping us out now. And Lattice is sharp enough to know what to do even if she misses the practice. So stop your worrying and enjoy the prospect of our wedding. I'm certainly looking forward to it." The stallion stopped the mare's nervous motion by claiming her foreleg and turning her to face him. "I love you, Splotch."

"Oh, Icon, I love you, too," Splotch sighed, dropping her head to Icon's shoulder. "I'll be glad when the wedding is over and we can settle down to a routine again."

With a chuckle, Icon expressed his doubts. "You, my dear, will never be satisfied to plod along in a rut."

"Right now, a house of our own to come home to every night sounds perfect."

"Speaking of which, I have some good news. H.C.I. has the chance to gain a very lucrative client whose account would go a long way in making a down-payment on that house of our dreams." H.C.I. was the software company that Icon and his two cronies from college days, Hodgepodge and Cachet, owned and operated.

This piece of good news brought Splotch's head up. "What company is it?"

"Med-Spex. They're big and need to constantly update, so we'd have a good, strong account."

"Med-Spex," Splotch repeated. "They're located in Vulcanopolis, aren't they?" The mare herself had lived in Vulcanopolis for several years while working in the legal department of Macrohard.

"And that leads to the best part. As we'll be honeymooning in Vulcanopolis, we'll be able to hold the initial contact right on their own turf, at no extra cost to H.C.I."

Splotch stiffened. "You're going to work on our honeymoon?"

"I've scheduled a dinner meeting to start things off. Como, our contact, sounds like a very personable pony, and his wife, Prudenza, will be charming as well, I'm sure. You'll enjoy meeting them."

"You're going to spend our entire honeymoon on business matters?"

"Not all of it, I assure you," Icon grinned. "If Como likes what he hears, I'll have to spend a day or two at Med-Spex getting a feel for their needs; that's all."

"That's all?" Splotch said, her voice rather strident. "I might as well stay home."

"A honeymoon by oneself would be entirely unacceptable," Icon teased, brushing her cheek with a kiss. "I promise to set-aside quality time for the two of us."

Splotch was not so easily mollified. "We've both been so busy that we've hardly seen one another for weeks," she grated. "I've been looking forward to our time in Vulcanopolis as a chance to be together without all the responsibilities of our jobs interfering with our personal plans. And now you've turned it into a business trip?"

"We'll have a pleasant evening out with a couple I'm sure you'll like once you've met them," Icon soothed. "As the dinner discussion will include you and Prudenza, it should be perfectly enjoyable."

"But it won't stop there, will it? Once you talk with this Como, your mind will be entirely focused on Med-Spex's needs."

"This is for a couple hours only, Splotch. It's not like I'll be doing any actual programming, only discussing the possibilities."

"I know you better than you know yourself, Icon. Your work is your life. And I accept that... I admire you for all you've done here." She waved her hoof around, indicating the business that he and his two friends had built with their expertise and hard work. "But for these coming days, I wanted to put all our daily cares behind us- and all this wedding hassle- and just enjoy some peace and quiet. When we're back home, we'll both be busier than ever."

"That's just it; we will be busy because we'll have to get together enough jangles to finance that house we both want so badly. And Med-Spex has branches all over Ponyland- we stand to gain a very good customer. That translates into a more secure future for us."

"You don't understand!" Splotch raised her voice. "I'm so tired of all this wedding preparation that I want nothing to interfere with us!"

"It's not like I'm taking my computer along," Icon defended, trying to retain his sense of humor over the situation.

"You may not have a computer with you, but once you find out what the project involves, you won't be able to let it go. You'll start jotting down notes and thinking of nothing else."

"I promise I'll devote all my attention to you," Icon reiterated, running his hoof along the contours of the mare's face, "even while I'm listening politely to Como."

Wriggling out of his embrace, Splotch walked toward the doorway. Once there, she turned back, a glower on her face. "If you intend to put your work ahead of me, then I'm not sure I want to marry you, Icon."


The mare, however, had already stalked off. Icon moved to follow her; but Fidget, the H.C.I. secretary, appeared in the doorway. "Trainer's here for his appointment."

Aggravated, Icon ran a hoof through his mane and sighed. With one last look down the hallway in the direction that Splotch had gone, he said, "Send him in." He would catch Splotch later, take her out to supper, and sooth her jangled sensibilities.

* * *

"Quittin' time, ol' buddy," Hodgepodge bellowed, coming into Icon's office with Cachet at his heels. "Party-time beckons."

"I'm just finishing..." Icon began, but his friend came around his desk and swivelled the chair away from the computer monitor.

"You'll never be finished," Hodgepodge retorted, knowing Icon nearly as well as Splotch.

"He's right," Cachet agreed. "Your vacation starts as of now, and you're to put all thoughts of H.C.I. behind you."

"I've been going over some preliminary data on Med-Spex so that I can put a good spin on our initial meeting," Icon argued.

"One dinner meeting does not a contract make," Cachet informed the stallion. "You have a bride to please."

Shutting down the computer, Hodgepodge gave Icon a push. "On your way, man. We've got a surprise for you."

Hodgepodge and Cachet formed a body guard of sorts and guided Icon to the door. As Cachet shut off the lights, Icon reached across his desk to retrieve the folder on Med-Spex, but Hodgepodge caught him.

"No, no. All work and no play makes Icon a very dull boy. We can't have that now, can we?"

Hodgepodge and Cachet chortled while Icon looked back wistfully at his desk, but there was no choice but to go with his friends.

* * *

"Stallions!" Splotch spat, pacing now in her own apartment. She had worked tirelessly along with Chiffon to get this double-wedding organized to perfection in every detail, and now things were falling apart. The mare was too distraught to realize that a good night's sleep would go a long way to calm her always volatile temper; instead, she added fuel to the already smouldering fire by reliving every complication that had hounded the wedding plans from the beginning. One wedding at a time would have been difficult enough; but by combining her and Icon's special day with Chiffon and Tribute's, the pressure had been intensified.

Chiffon and Icon, as cousins, had it easy; their guest lists were nearly identical, what with all their shared relations. She and Tribute were the two bringing in most of the out-of-town guests and the complications that involved. Not to mention that Icon and Chiffon had lived in Woodlawn all their lives and were familiar with everyone and every place for miles around, while Tribute and Splotch, as relative newcomers, had to rely on other ponies' advice and direction to orchestrate this ballooning festivity.

Looking at the list of things-to-do clutched in her hoof- things that would have been done if entanglements had not arisen- Splotch's temper intensified. The least Icon could have done is shown some concern by coming over this evening to help make alternate arrangements. But, no, he had left all the last-minute headaches to her. Throwing the list on the desk, Splotch made up her mind to take Icon's way out and ignore the situation.

Finishing one more circuit around the room, Splotch stopped, a martyr-complex enveloping her. She had been working long hours at her job as legal assistant for Anchor, the local attorney, just as Icon had been hard-pressed to tie up loose ends at H.C.I. to accommodate his time off. However, the majority of the wedding planning had fallen on her and Chiffon's shoulders.

Splotch kicked at a pillow on the floor which she had earlier thrown in frustration. Chiffon had the patience of a saint and had faced each crisis in planning with a placid demeanor, while each emergency had thrown Splotch into a panic. These last weeks had taken their toll on the mare's equilibrium; she was exhausted and in a foul mood. The time was ripe for a bad decision.

* * *

Icon's intentions had been good. He had truly planned to smooth things over with Splotch before nightfall, but his friends' plans had intervened... big-time. Unbeknownst to him, Hodgepodge and Cachet, along with the other members of the wedding party and a number of other local stallions, had rented the Dare Ya! Sports Arena for their exclusive enjoyment to celebrate Icon's and Tribute's second last night of bachelorhood. The stallions had played long and hard and had ate and drank until all hours of the morning. Icon was in no shape to mend fences with Splotch. As it was, he barely had the stamina to make his way home.

* * *

Icon awoke the next morning with a headache and some other aches and pains accrued from the evening of shooting hoops, throwing darts, and other sports activities. Under his breath, he had a few choice words for the alarm clock that he had habitually primed when he crawled into bed. As he sat up, cringing from the pain that the motion incurred, he groaned.

His body spoke loudly of the intensity in which he and his friends had pitted themselves against one another in an effort to come out on top of all their sports battles. (His stomach itself had a thing or two to say concerning the gluttonous manner in which the stallions had devoured a spread of decadent eats throughout the evening.)

It took a concentrated effort to convince his rebelling appendages to get him to the shower where he stood under the stream of warm water, allowing it to loosen the knots that burned like fire. It was some time before he was sufficiently revived to face his darling Splotch.

* * *

The doorbell had not summoned Splotch, and Icon found that knocking did nothing but aggravate his still-lingering headache. If he had any one of last night's revelers here, he would... Well, it would not be pretty.

Where was Splotch? Icon tried to think, which was amazingly difficult. What had been Splotch's plans for this last day before the wedding? The rehearsal and the dinner tonight was obvious, but what was Icon supposed to accomplish before then? Try as he might, he could not recollect any specific plans that Splotch had made.

Pounding on the door even harder on the chance that Splotch had been commandeered by a group of her friends and had been laid as low as he was and was still trying to shake off the effects of a wild evening, Icon found himself growing perturbed. Where was his bride? She was the one that had wanted time together, wasn't she?

Just then, Thatcher, the apartment manager, passed by. "Won't do you no good," he drawled. "Splotch is out."

"Out where?"

"Her words were, 'Anywhere but here.'"

Icon's heart began thudding heavily. Cutting through his fuzzy mind was her statement of yesterday, that she was not sure she wanted to marry him. Had she decided against their marriage?

"Thatcher, this is important. Did you get the impression she was just going to some friend's house to chat or was she leaving town?" Had she left to avoid him and the wedding? Icon had to know.

Shrugging, Thatcher rubbed a forehoof across his chin. "Can't rightly say. Oh, but she did have a backpack with her."

"What time was this?"

"Couldn't've been more than five."

"Five A.M.?"

"Yeah. Nightlight accidentally flushed a diaper and needed help pronto. That's why I was out so early."

"I've got to get into her apartment," Icon stated. Maybe he could figure out what Splotch's plans were if he could determine what she had taken with her.

"What've you got to do with Nightlight?" Thatcher growled.

"Not Nightlight's apartment... Splotch's!"

"I can't..."

"You know you can," Icon said in a voice that brooked no argument. "This is an emergency. Something serious happened to send her scuttling away the day before our wedding."

"Well, I suppose since the two of you are gettin' hitched..." Thatcher continued mumbling as he searched out the correct key and inserted it into the lock. Opening the door, he stood back to let Icon enter first, but he followed.

Icon flashed the apartment manager a dismissing look. "I'll take care of it from here."

"I've gotta look after Splotch's stuff." The stallion crossed his forelegs over his chest.

Not intimidated, Icon came close to confront Thatcher, a forbidding look on his face. "Thatcher, I trounced you back in our school days, and I can do it again." Icon's muscles screamed out, warning him not to tempt fate; but, fortunately for Icon, Thatcher backed down.

"I'll be waitin' outside," he growled as he retreated.

Going first to Splotch's desk, Icon looked for a note; but there was none- only a blank note pad mixed in with a clutter of lists of things that needed to get done. Icon picked one up; most of the items had been crossed off, but several had been highlighted, and Icon realized they were the very problems that Splotch had discussed with him yesterday. The notes and phone numbers that littered the edges of the list spoke volumes concerning the effort Splotch had been making to get all the loose ends tied up. He cringed when he remembered how lightly he had dismissed those problems even though Splotch had been so adamant that they were major obstacles to their wedding's perfection.

Icon next went to the bedroom door, hoping to determine what items Splotch had taken with her; but he soon came to realize that the mare's room held too many trappings for him to account for what might be missing. His eye was caught, however, by a crumpled pile of white silk, frothy lace, and pristine netting on the floor next to the wall.

He went to it slowly, picking it up gingerly. Splotch's wedding attire had been kept a secret from him, but he realized that this could only be a bride's finery. He could well imagine Splotch throwing the items in frustrated anger across the room; it was a trademark of sorts for the opinionated mare to spend her anger in a throwing bout.

Straightening the veil and the ribbons and laying them gently across the bed, Icon moved on. He glanced into the kitchen and found the counters clean and the sink devoid of dirty dishes; Splotch had certainly tidied the place before she left. Nervous energy affected her that way.

About to give up his search for clues as to the mare's whereabouts, Icon's glance fell to the small kitchen table butted-up against the far wall. As Splotch usually ate on the run, she seldom put the table to its intended use. Its main function in her life was to hold a vase of flowers. In this case, the vase was empty, but that was not what caught Icon's attention.

It was the piece of paper and the gold and diamond ring that waited there... Splotch's engagement ring.

Slowly, his blood running cold, Icon crossed the room and picked up the ring- the ring that symbolized the love between him and Splotch. Without Splotch, it was meaningless. He stared at the sparkling diamond, wondering how it could continue to radiate such color and light without Splotch to give it her infused vitality. After several long moments, he forced himself to look at the hoof-written note.

Icon: If you've found this, it means you noticed I was gone. That in itself surprises me. I can't go through with the wedding. I'm going to take my vacation, starting now, by myself. Tell Chiffon and Tribute I'm sorry to miss their wedding. Splotch

Icon crumpled the note in exasperation. He and Splotch were promised to wed on the morrow, and he had every intention to keep his end of that bargain. But how, if he could not find his bride?

Surely, Icon reasoned, Splotch must have confided in someone before she took off to heaven only knew where. Chiffon seemed a likely choice, but yet Splotch must know that his cousin would alert Icon of such a move against him. Who else? Of course! Vivi, the head of the local theater group! She and Splotch had become good friends from the first day of Splotch's appearance in Woodlawn. Vivi would be the obvious confidant.

Icon walked to the telephone on the desk and had picked up the receiver when another idea struck him. Hitting the re-dial button on the telephone, he listened to three long rings before a voice answered. "Serenity Acres... Frolic speaking."

Serenity Acres. Icon had often heard of the respite hostelry about an hour from Woodlawn, but he had never visited the place himself. The lodge was supposedly a peaceful getaway that centered on nature and allowed for no modern intrusions for its guests, the principle being that time away from the responsibilities and diversions of daily life, wrapped up in the healing touch of Mother Nature herself, would heal shattered nerves... just the place for Splotch under the circumstances.

"Is anyone there?"

Belatedly, Icon found his voice. "Yeah. Yes. I'm calling about my... friend. She left early this morning, and she was upset. I'd just like to verify that she arrived safely."

"Could be. What's your... friend's... name?"

"Splotch... a magenta mare..."

The voice on the other end of the line chuckled. "She's here, sure enough. Checked in first thing this morning, ready to drop. If anyone needs a stay at Serenity Acres, it's Splotch. But don't worry yourself none; she'll be right as rain in a few days."

In a few days? They didn't have a few days! "I'd feel better if I saw her for myself."

Hesitating only a moment, Frolic assented. "She's staying in cabin three on the north side of the lake; just follow the path."

"Thank you," breathed Icon. "Thank you very much."

* * *

The magenta mare in question was at that moment walking along the edge of the private lake that centered Serenity Acres, lost in an avalanche of searing thoughts. Running away had solved none of her problems, she admitted to herself; indeed, it had only compounded them. Friends and family would be converging on Woodlawn for the next twenty-four hours in anticipation of the double wedding that had been the talk of the town for months. Icon and Chiffon knew everyone and were related to half the ponies of Woodlawn, and the out-of-town guests had responded with pleasure to the allure of a grand marriage ceremony in a rustic setting.

Well, at least Tribute's family wouldn't be wasting a trip, Splotch mollified her drooping spirits. She kicked at a pile of last year's leaves and frightened a small, short-tailed rodent from its home.

Home! She had wanted to run home and throw herself into her mother's forelegs and cry her heart out, but her parents would already be on their way to Woodlawn. Splotch had lost track of the time. Maybe they were already there.

Finding a grassy spot under a towering linden tree, Splotch sat down on a rise that afforded her a view of the lake, the soft breeze ruffling the surface only slightly, yet causing the sun to sparkle off it like a diamond.

A diamond! Her right forehoof dropped to her left foreleg where the diamond engagement ring should be wrapping her in its promise. Pipe dreams, all of it! Its promise had turned into a nightmare; she had been run off her hooves for months now getting ready for a fairytale wedding... and to what end? To find out that all her efforts were wasted on a stallion who saw nothing beyond his blasted work. She had been a fool to place her trust in Icon.

Icon! Oh, God, why did she have to love him so much? Why couldn't she have gone on despising him as she had when they first met on opposite sides of Macrohard's legal case against H.C.I.? She had not been adverse to destroying his company then; but in the aftermath of losing the case, she had realized that Icon had somehow entrapped her. Unbelievably, she had followed him to Woodlawn; and after a discordant beginning, they had acknowledged their love for one another. Splotch smiled. Despite her temper and overbearing manner, Icon had seen through to her heart like no one else had ever done. With a sigh, she dropped her head to rest on her forelegs.

Oh, Icon, I'll always love you!

* * *

Making record time, Icon arrive at Serenity Acres with a stitch in his side and muscles more abused than they had been after last night's sports bout. At this rate, even if he got his bride back, he would be fortunate to be able to walk down the aisle. As he stopped out front of the main lodge building to catch his breath, leaning on a split-rail fence that bordered a corner patch of flowers, a trim, middle-aged pony came from the cabin as if she had been watching for him.

"I assume you're the young stallion I talked with this morning," she smiled.

"Icon." Icon tried to smile in return, but it came through as a grimace instead. "And you must be Frolic." He glanced around him, noting that there were several paths that disappeared into the heavily wooded area. "Um... Could you steer me in the right direction?"

"Take the path bordered by the peonies until you reach the lake; once there, turn to your left. There are ten cabins, each with a number posted out front. Splotch is in number three."

"Thanks." This time, Icon's smile came through like a flash of sunlight.

As Frolic watched him hurry off, she sighed and whispered a prayer that the two ponies could sort out whatever differences had cast Splotch into such doldrums.

* * *

Finding Splotch's cabin empty, Icon raked his hoof through his mane as he pondered where to look. There had been a maze of side paths that meandered away from the lake, snaking more deeply into the woods. Splotch could be anywhere.

Icon closed his eyes and took a deep breath. The mare had preceded him here by only a couple of hours; and if she had been as exhausted as he by the fast-paced journey, she should have longed to curl up on the comfortable-looking couch to regain her energies.

No, not Splotch. This was a mare who could let no grass grow under her hooves. Splotch had the energy of three ponies, his mother always said. Checking his choices once more, Icon went with a hunch. Splotch would seek out new territory rather than retrace the path she had just traveled. Icon headed further north.

* * *

A glint of primrose-pink hair alerted Icon to Splotch's location; he spotted her colorful locks from the path and quickly made his way to her location under the linden tree. Splotch was fast asleep.

Whispering a prayer of thanksgiving at having found the runaway, Icon breathed deeply. The mare, obviously exhausted, was completely oblivious to his arrival and slept on. Anxious to talk with her but not wanting to disturb her needed rest, Icon sat down and took stock of his surroundings.

The linden tree lorded it over a pleasant, grassy knoll that dropped down to the lake's edge. Growing on the bank was a tangle of wild flowers, some of which Icon could recognize: tall red-orange lilies with upturned petals that rivaled the sunrise; yellow-petaled coneflowers; spotted jewelweed with its fragile, orchid-like flowers; and, further out in the water itself, stood the soaring blades of the cattails edged by fragrant white water lilies. Icon made a mental note to inform Sugarberry and Vanguard about this place; they would love the natural beauty as well as the solitude.

A sudden splash of water drew Icon's gaze further out over the water where concentric circles marked the spot where a sizeable fish had taken a late breakfast. A green-headed mallard came in on a rush of wings to settle on the lake's surface; and Icon grinned as the mate, followed by a string of ducklings, came out of hiding from amongst the reeds. Overhead, one white, fluffy cloud floated across a morning-glory-blue sky. Icon sighed, letting the peacefulness and beauty heal his aching muscles and tense nerves.

An answering sigh from Splotch drew Icon's attention back to the mare. Still asleep, Splotch nestled more comfortably into the soft grass, a small smile hinting at a pleasant dream, her left foreleg draping gently over Icon's. He took advantage of the opportunity to slip the engagement ring back in its rightful place and drank in the loveliness of the mare who wore it.

Splotch was beautiful, as pleasing to his eye as that first encounter with her by the fountain in Golden City. Those emerald green eyes and the sprinkling of freckles across her nose had captured his heart in an instant, although it had taken Splotch longer to acknowledge the spark between them. Never would Icon willingly relinquish the future the two of them had planned.

The droning of a bee seemed to be coming from another world as Icon relived every skirmish and every reconciliation between the two of them; and with a tender light in his eyes, he leaned over to sprinkle butterfly kisses over her cheek, his black mane caressing her pink one. Icon was pleasantly surprised when the mare responded, her foreleg drawing him closer and her lips seeking his. It was a kiss to heal all wounds... until Splotch regained full consciousness and realized what was happening. The kiss ended as quickly as it had begun.

Scuttling away from the stallion, Splotch's emerald eyes registered confusion. "What are you doing here?"

Respecting the distance she had put between them, Icon shrugged. "Did you really think I wouldn't miss you, Splotch?"

Honesty made her stutter. "Yes... no... I don't know! Oh, Icon! I'm so confused!" She covered her face with her hooves and dropped her head dejectedly.

Icon gave the mare some time to regain her composure before he softly asked, "Does this mean that you question our love?"

Startled by this direct question, Splotch lifted her head. "What I question is whether or not we have the same definition of love."

The threatening glance that Splotch sent Icon would have caused a lesser stallion to tremble, but Icon chuckled. "We could debate that until doomsday and still not come to a reasonable conclusion. I know, however, that I love you; and I'm fairly certain you love me. What I'm not sure of is what each of us expects from this marriage. Maybe that's what we should be talking about."

"I thought you'd at least come over last night to discuss the problems I told you about. But you obviously weren't concerned enough to care; so I stopped caring, too."

Icon picked a blade of coarse grass and began shredding it. "I'd intended to stop by; but something else came up, and by then I was in no condition to think straight."

"You should have been there for me."

"I did show up on your doorstep bright and early this morning... and found you gone."

"I was so upset about the DJ cancelling at the last minute, and I didn't know what to do, and you weren't there to talk to, and even if you had been, you would've been thinking about business..."

"About that, Cachet and Hodgepodge are with you. They don't expect me to make contact with Como while we're in Vulcanopolis. And I had a chance to talk with Charter last evening; he's perfectly willing to take over the music for the reception."

"He's already one of the wedding party; I didn't want him to feel obligated to go the extra mile."

"He told me he'd be honored."

Splotch sighed. "It's all a mute point now; I gave back the engagement ring."

"Did you?" Icon laughed. "Look at your foreleg."

The mare did, and a bemused look registered on her face. "I left it on the kitchen table with the note."

"And now it's back where it belongs. Splotch, you will marry me, won't you?" Icon reached across the space between them and offered her a late-blooming violet he had found in the grass.

"I want to, Icon, but I'm not sure I can handle marriage. I'll be jealous of your commitment to your company, and I'll be short-tempered because of the demands of my job. You'd be better off without me."

"Let me be the judge of that. I want you for my wife."

"Even when I get in a tizzy and walk out on you?"

"As long as you always come back."

The mare grimaced. "How many ponies know I left town?"

"Thatcher, obviously."

"He won't blab... will he?"

"There's no reason for him to. I explained that you were taking care of a last-minute emergency; and to settle any of his doubts, I committed him with the errand of delivering all your song requests to Charter." He looked rather sheepish. "I noticed all the information was just lying on your desk; I hope you don't mind that I made free use of it."

"How could I mind? It's our wedding, isn't it?"

In the course of the two ponies' conversation, they had slowly but surely decreased the distance between them- not only emotionally but physically- so that now Splotch could settle her head comfortably on Icon's shoulder, which she did with a heartfelt sigh. The safety and security that washed over her reminded her of her foalhood when she had often fallen asleep on her father's shoulder...

"Mom and Dad!" Splotch cried out, jumping to her hooves. "They're going to arrive and find me missing!"

Icon got to his hooves as well. "It's covered. You've nothing to worry about."

"What do you mean?"

"I called my mom before I came after you."

"So Floral Breeze knows I ran out on you?" Splotch wailed.

"No. I told her that you and I needed some time alone before all our guests descended on Woodlawn, and that we were going for a long, long walk and wouldn't be returning until we felt we could calmly face all the hubbub. She and Dad will see to your folks when they arrive."

Splotch looked relieved for a moment, then her eyes widened. "We've got to get back! There's still a million things that need to be done. I still don't have a bouquet..." She took off down the path in a big hurry.

"Mom and Aunt Velvet have enough flowers blooming in their gardens to furnish twenty brides with bouquets..." Icon said, following.

"And the gifts for my bridesmaids? What am I going to do?"

"When you get back to your apartment, close your eyes and pretend you've just gotten home with the necklaces in your hoof. Decide where you'd put them for safekeeping and check that spot. You'll probably find them there."

"My veil!" she lamented, thinking of the gossamer creation lying crumpled on her bedroom floor.

"It's laid out on your bed with barely a wrinkle, along with all the ribbons and bows."

"What if Droplet's sniffles have gotten worse? She's been so counting on being one of the flower girls! And the rings! What if..."

Icon made sure that Splotch had no chance to say anything further for a long minute; and Frolic, watching the couple from the lodge porch, chuckled happily. Serenity Acres had come through again.

* * *

The wedding was perfect, almost... mused Splotch as her mind wandered while listening to several of Icon's aunts discussing relatives at such a fast and furious pace that she could no longer keep track of who did what. The dance was in full swing, and Splotch was taking a break while Icon fetched her a glass of punch. A crooked smile lit her face as she recalled little Droplet dropping her basket of flower petals, tripping Patina, Tribute's niece, and, in turn, knocking Catnap, Arabella's youngest foal, to the white runner that graced the main aisle of the church. The subsequent compassion and laughter that swept through the assembled ponies set everyone at ease, and the rest of the ceremony had gone on without incident.

The mare's attention was automatically drawn to Icon as he crossed the room with her drink; the stallion was making slow progress as he met up with various of his young cousins or members of the theater group who wanted to share banter with him. As Splotch watched, Icon looked in her direction, caught her eye, and winked, causing a warm glow to suffuse the mare. This stallion was her husband now.

"... don't you think, Splotch?"

Hearing her name, Splotch was startled out of her reverie, a blush darkening her magenta coloring as she turned her attention back to the mares, causing them to exchange knowing glances.

"We were just saying that it's time for you and Icon to have another dance," Aunt Iris smiled. "You want to make the most of this special day."

As Icon arrived at just that moment, Splotch was soon swept away.

* * *

Off on the side, Whirlpool and Floral Breeze were busy attending to their grandfoals, leaving Stillwater and Morning Dew, Vanguard and Sugarberry, time to enjoy the festivities. Droplet and Banderol were contentedly eating nuts and mints while seven-month old Cascade entertained himself by teething on his grandmother's hair ribbon. Cascade was getting lonesome for his mother, however, and beginning to fuss, so Whirlpool took the little tyke off to find Morning Dew. Splotch's mother, Merriment, took the opportunity to have a cozy chat with Floral Breeze.

"Splotch and Icon make a lovely couple," Merriment observed as she sat down.

"Yes, they do," agreed Floral Breeze. The young couple was just now circling on the dance floor near them, Splotch laughing over something Icon had just whispered in her ear. "We couldn't be happier having Splotch as part of our family; I began to think of her as my own daughter long ago."

"You're fortunate to have your children settle in their home town," Merriment sighed.

"All but Vanguard," Floral Breeze noted. "And he and Sugarberry will soon be farther away than Dream Valley."

"Splotch mentioned the coming year's sojourn in Vulcanopolis. Banderol will grow a lot during that time. Why, it seems only yesterday that Splotch and Lattice were young fillies just testing their abilities, now look at them... all grown up... and Splotch married." Merriment shook her head. "I must admit, Floral Breeze, that my daughter has surprised me by showing such sensibility in these last hectic weeks. I know she can fly off the handle when she feels overwhelmed, and I half expected to receive a phone call from her telling me she'd backed out of the wedding at the last minute."

Floral Breeze smiled, having read more into Icon's explanation for his and Splotch's absence on Friday than her son realized; but she would not betray them by relating the incident. "I won't deny that Splotch can be explosive; but once she's had her say, she is usually quite rational. She and Icon seem to understand each other well enough."

"Yes. I must admit that I'm very grateful that she found someone as kind and thoughtful as Icon. As a parent, one worries, you know." The mare assumed a frown as she caught sight of her firstborn, Lattice. "It will be a happy day for me when that one settles down with the right stallion."

"From what I understand, Lattice is doing very well for herself as one of Queen Majesty's royal lawyers."

"Professionally, she is a great success." Merriment allowed her pride to show. "However, she's not getting any younger, and I'd like to see her settled with a family of her own."

"Oh, I wouldn't worry about Lattice. She seems thoroughly content with her life as it is."

"No doubt, you're right, Floral Breeze."

* * *

The dark pink mare under discussion was currently involved in a polite discussion with Anchor, the Woodlawn lawyer with whom she had co-defended H.C.I. when Macrohard had attempted to undermine H.C.I.'s mushrooming success. That court scene in Golden City had pitted Lattice and Anchor against Macrohard's legal expert, Justin, and Justin's assistant, Splotch. This had been the first time the two sisters had been on opposite sides of the same case, and Splotch had harbored a secret desire to see her successful sibling meet defeat. But it was not to happen; and neither Justin nor Splotch had taken their loss well.

Justin had proceeded to make Splotch's position at Macrohard tenuous at best. The mare had jumped at the chance when Anchor, having noted her dynamic energy and wholehearted involvement in the case while in court, had offered her employment with his firm in Woodlawn where he was swamped with work. She never admitted even to herself that the situation's biggest draw was the opportunity to renew her acquaintance with Icon who, even though her enemy during the lawsuit, had left a lasting impression on her. Now, Anchor was again aligned with Lattice, not over a court case, but paired as two of the wedding attendants for Splotch and Icon.

"I admired your composure during the wedding," Anchor said. "You arrived with barely a second to spare before the processional, yet you took everything in stride as if you'd rehearsed every detail." Anchor was awed by Lattice. He, a simple small-town attorney, saw the royal lawyer as something of a goddess. That impression was strengthened by the fact that Lattice was lovely to behold.

"I certainly would have preferred to have attended last night's rehearsal," Lattice smiled, "but Queen Majesty was adamant that my presence was needed for her state dinner."

"I'm surprised that she would not have understood your desire to be with your sister."

"The dinner was in connection with Guido Casale's visit to the city, and our queen is still not one-hundred percent certain that the stallion has truly abandoned his old tricks. She wanted as many of her legal department around her as possible so that we could all be on the lookout for any underhooved intentions on the part of Macrohard's leader."

"And what did you perceive?"

"That Casale is too involved with his wife to attempt any take-overs at this time, and that Princess Tiffany would not want her own reputation undermined for the sake of business."

"The two are happy together, then?"

"They are very much in love, like my dear sister and her spouse." Lattice's blue eyes searched out the newlyweds and a wistful look settled over her countenance. "I think they are well-matched."

"Like fire and water?" Anchor teased, well aware of his assistant's fevered temper and Icon's ability to appease it.

"No..." Lattice grew thoughtful as she watched the couple skim by, "Icon knows better that to douse her spark of independence. They're more like..." she grinned, "salsa and tortilla chips; they accent one another, Splotch with her spiciness and Icon with his practicality."

Anchor laughed. "If Splotch is salsa, there's a touch of habanero there."

* * *

Across the dance floor, Tribute and Chiffon were holding court with friends and family who had converged on Woodlawn to share this much looked forward to- and sometimes despaired of- wedding. Some years older than Icon and Splotch, Tribute and Chiffon had thought themselves immune to Cupid's arrow, but had learned that some things can not be logically foreseen. Now, everyone who knew them rejoiced that the two had found that their lives shared would be much more fulfilling than to continue alone.

Being an only child, Chiffon had grown up under the protection of her cousins: Stillwater, Vanguard, and Icon. Their mothers were sisters and, living only a few blocks apart, the families had always been quite close in the events of their daily lives as well. Even with the comradeship of the three male cousins, Chiffon had developed an individualism and strength of mind that had allowed her perfect satisfaction with her duties teaching elementary foals the basics of their education.

Likewise, Tribute, the oldest of his siblings, Toby and Tendril, had known that his vocation of doctoring the sick and suffering was the fulfillment of his dreams, until Chiffon had crossed his path and he had realized that a sensible, intelligent mare could only add to the pleasures that life afforded him. It had taken some doing on the stallion's part, but Chiffon found herself unable to resist the promise of an enduring love with the noble stallion who even now was smiling at her, the depth of his dimples verifying the sincerity of his happiness.

"One more dance, my beautiful bride, before we part company from our well-wishers?" Tribute queried softly as the strains of a romantic song allowed a tender interlude.

A sparkling acceptance soon found the sweethearts in the dance.

* * *

"The brides and grooms will be leaving soon," noted Sugarberry as she watched the other dancers from the circle of her own husband's forelegs. "It has been a charming day."

"Amazing, isn't it, that my baby brother is married now? It wasn't that long ago that he scoffed at the idea of love."

"Icon grew up," grinned Sugarberry.

"How does that explain Chiffon, then? She's my age, and I certainly knew who I wanted when I was much younger."

"Not so very much younger," Sugarberry countered. "It's only our third anniversary we'll be celebrating in a few weeks."

"Celebrating in Vulcanopolis, no less." Vanguard pulled his wife closer. "And I'm looking forward to having you all to myself."

Her eyes sparkling no less radiantly than Chiffon's, Sugarberry nestled her head on Vanguard's shoulder.

* * *

The next day found the two newly married couples on their way to Vulcanopolis for their honeymoons, setting off from the closest airport located in Coville after sharing Sunday Mass and breakfast with their respective families. That left Sugarberry and Vanguard with the remainder of the morning to bid their adieux to the Woodlawn relatives and then move on to Berryville where the scenario would be repeated among Sugarberry's family where Raspberry and Driftwood's two-year-old twins would soon be joined by another sibling and Gooseberry and Grapevine's tribe was growing up with Wineberry now blossoming into a very charming filly and the youngest, Loganberry, just a month older than his twin cousins. Their sister, Gooseberry, topped him by two years. It was Huckleberry, however, next oldest after Wineberry, who took the idea of separation from his aunt and uncle closest to heart.

"Vulcanopolis is a long way away," he confided to his Uncle Vanguard in the course of his aunt and uncle's visit. "To fly there would be a real adventure. I've never flown before, not anywhere." The youngster's eyes held a yearning for excitement that was hard to ignore.

To everyone's surprise, it was Huckleberry's grandpa who answered the foal's yearnings. Tied to his orchards and the land, Strawberry Baskets was the last pony to anticipate a long trip, but the coming separation from his youngest daughter, Sugarberry, had fueled a similar quest for adventure as had been ignited in the colt. He leaned forward in his chair.

"Maybe, Huck, you and I and Grandma will make a trip to Vulcanopolis around Thanksgiving time." He looked at Sugarberry with a twinkle in his eyes. "That little foal you're carrying now should be born by then, shouldn't it?"

Delighted at the unexpected possibility of her parents' visit to Vulcanopolis, Sugarberry smiled widely. "Yes, Dad, and he or she'll be anxious to meet you." She hugged her father, feeling the sadness of parting melt away, the promise of a reunion in November caressing her soul.

* * *

"Tomorrow is the day, Tabby," Sugarberry sighed. "We'll be gone from Dream Valley for an entire year."

"Outrageous," murmured the pink unicorn, her attention currently fixed on the precious lavender foal in her forelegs. Baby Nymph was all of twelve days old now and was already a beauty. Her nearly three-year-old sister sat playing on the floor of the rose arbor with Banderol. "I think Nymph will be a rock star when she grows up, don't you?"

Sugarberry laughed. "I wouldn't want to hazard a guess." Suddenly sober again, she ruminated on the changes fast approaching. "I'm going to miss you and the girls something fearsome, Tabby."

"Thomas has promised that we'll visit sometime while you're over there; it'll be a blast seeing my old college again. And Tiffany'll treat us to her splendid hospitality. And Guido will make Thomas jealous of me. Hee, hee, hee. Lots of fun."

"And you will check on Raptor and Fluff occasionally, won't you? With Licorice gone back to Birdsong for the summer, the cats will feel utterly deserted once we're gone. Caprice has agreed to peak in on them, I know; but something tells me that every time she stops by, she'll feel obligated to run the vacuum cleaner which sends the two of them into hiding. They'll need to see a friend."

"I still don't know why you're not taking the cats with you, Sugarberry. They'd be happier with you."

"You've seen how they act when I bring them in to the vet clinic. I'm sure they'd react the same way."

"At least Fluff doesn't slobber anymore while he's being examined," grinned Tabby. The fat cat dreaded his office visits and hung onto the carrier as if he was equipped with grasping fingers rather than no claws at all.

"I just hope this Adriano has the patience to put up with the cats."

"Well, he either likes them or he doesn't. What did he say about having cats in the house?"

"He said he's never been exposed to cats, but he doesn't anticipate a problem. His neighbor has a dog that he seems rather fond of."

"Dogs aren't cats," Tabby warned.

Faline looked at her mother and giggled. "Of cowse not, Mwommy. Evwybody knows that!"

* * *

The mares and foals were shortly joined by their spouses and the newly arrived visitor from Vulcanopolis, Adriano, who had been met at the airport by Vanguard and taken to Pony Pride for an introduction to his fellow teachers, workplace, and responsibilities. They had met up with Thomas as he was on his way to meet Tabby and the girls for the farewell gathering.

With a tentative smile, Sugarberry met this stranger who would be living in her home, but she warmed to him as she realized that he was well-mannered and considerate of those around him. He had a kind word for Banderol and Faline and talked baby-talk with Nymph. He admired the manicured lawn and the riot of flowers and noted the bird feeders with approval. The worries that Sugarberry had been nurturing in regard to being an absent landlady slowly began ebbing away.

"You won't mind keeping the feeders full for our feathered friends, then?" she asked hopefully as the stallion admired a new feeding station that Vanguard had built earlier in the spring.

"No, no, no," Adriano chirped, causing Tabby to roll her eyes. "I'm an avid birder myself and look forward to adding to my life-list while I'm here. Now, take that little fellow over there; I've never seen the likes of him before, but I'd guess he's of the hummingbird family."

Any nagging doubts in Sugarberry's mind instantly disappeared as she introduced the stallion to the ruby-throated hummer and exchanged notes on their most fascinating sightings. Adriano was an avid pupil when she informed him of the varieties of birds he could be expected to see at the feeder and what changes would occur when winter once more descended with its cold, snowy days. While the avian-enthusiasts discussed all things feathered, Caprice and Dietrich crossed over from their back yard.

Finding Nymph asleep in her father's forelegs, Caprice smiled on this, her second grandfoal. Having been absent for the birth of Faline and missing the first two years of that foal's life- (Caprice and Dietrich would not have missed the birth of their grandchildren- or the marriages of their own children- on purpose. Being held captive on a tropical island by Yetis limited one's options, however.)- the proud grandmother was enthralled with the tiny infant that now graced the family. A soft spot in her heart for all little ponies, she was also going to miss Banderol when he left with his parents for Vulcanopolis.

"Caprice, Dietrich, I'd like you to meet Adriano, your neighbor for the coming year," Sugarberry said as she and Adriano put aside their bird talk and came forward.

Adriano shook the two ponies' forehooves with a hopeful smile. "Sugarberry has informed me that you will be on call to advise me when the need arises. I hope you won't find me a nuisance. This is my first visit to this part of Ponyland."

If the truth be told, this was Adriano's first visit anywhere. Having grown up under his mother's thumb... er... toe, Adriano had rarely been out of Vulcanopolis itself, except for brief excursions into the outlying districts in the pursuit of birds. As his mother was a fragile mare with a plethora of complaints, Adriano had grown up very attentive to her aches and pains and the attention that was required to alleviate at least some of her suffering.

Although this had made Adriano a saint among saints, it had also nullified much of his social life and had made him as dependent on his mother as she was on her only son, Adriano's father having reached the limits of his own compassion and having opted to join a scientific exploration team in Antarctica rather than being enslaved by his wife's constant complaints. Fidel had left and never looked back, leaving the pathological Imogene to their son's care.

It was a minor miracle that Imogene's niece had decided to attend classes at Leonardo University and had needed inexpensive housing for her sojourn. Imogene had taken one look at the saucy lass who had arrived on her doorstep the very day that Adriano was scheduled to leave town and had begged Adriano to abandon his teaching responsibilities in Dream Valley, reminding him that if anything happened to her in the interim, it would haunt his conscience for the remainder of his life.

Adriano had nearly capitulated to his mother's pleading; but somewhere within him, a spark of independence had been lit with the reality of his pending journey away from home, and Imogene's dire portends had only fanned that meager flame into a roaring blaze. And as he was his father's son as well as his mother's, he kissed Imogene farewell and marched forth to meet his destiny.

True, his conscience had bothered him from the moment he stepped on the plane until it made ground contact on the Dream Valley runway; but now, seeing the graceful house that would be his home and meeting the hospitable ponies that would be his friends, Adriano knew he had made the right decision. The exact opposite of Imogene, Caprice was like a balm to Adriano's tender sensibilities.

"Surely you couldn't be a nuisance," Caprice purred. "I've already promised Sugarberry that I'll help take care of her precious kitties, and I'll be happy to help you get settled and comfortable. And I expect you to join us for supper at least one day a week... I know how you single stallions tend to eat all the wrong things."

Feeling as if he had just stumbled into heaven, Adriano grinned. "I'm a fair hoof in the kitchen, but I look forward to your superior culinary skills." He bowed.

"Why, you dear boy," Caprice said, flattered. "I just know we're going to get along just fine."

* * *

Wigwam and Chocolate Chip joined the circle of friends that evening for a potluck supper around Sugarberry's kitchen table, a table that had been the center of many such gatherings over the years.

"I wish Wishbone and Garnet could have been here," Sugarberry sighed as she placed a basket of dinner rolls before her guests and took a seat. Her attention was captured by Banderol's pleading for food or she would have noticed Wigwam's blatant wink.

"They've been gone for all of two weeks now," Chocolate Chip said, holding back a gurgle of laughter. "They've really jumped into this restaurant management enterprise."

"Have they been gone that long?" Vanguard drawled, his eyes focused on the far side of the kitchen behind Sugarberry. "I swear I can still hear their voices echoing through these rooms."

"A ghostly presence, really," added Tabby. "Ooh... spooky..."

Sugarberry, intent on buttering a biscuit for her son, still did not recognize the levity that was going on around her until a hoof touched her left shoulder at the same time a golden mane fell over her right shoulder, and Wishbone planted a kiss on her cheek. Dropping the knife and the roll, Sugarberry squealed and turned to hug the young stallion who had shared her and Vanguard's home during his college years until his marriage. Her gaze fell on Garnet, and she reached out to include the mare in the embrace.

"You two have made me very happy," she blustered. "But can you afford to be away from your business?"

The young couple had, upon Wishbone's graduation in May, moved from Dream Valley to Neighberry to take over the management of Wishbone's parents' restaurant, The Right Place, while Drifter and Twilight Jewel had shifted their interest to a new gourmet venture near Hayton. Sugarberry would have been devastated at losing Wishbone's and Garnet's presence in Dream Valley if it had not occurred in conjunction with her and Vanguard's own departure from town.

"Lollipop is a first-rate fill-in," Wishbone said, Lollipop being his younger sister who was also involved in food service.

"Better than we are," disclosed Garnet, smiling at the unknown Adriano as he stood and offered her his chair. "She learned a lot working there over the years, and she's incorporating some of her new knowledge from the vocational school."

"I'm sure you're just being modest," Wigwam heralded. "You're still missed at the casino; the books will never be the same."

"I find that hard to believe," retorted Garnet. "Chocolate Chip is a whiz at numbers." She grinned at her sister-in-law, and the brown mare grinned back.

"Wigwam's not completely sure of my methods yet," she explained. "He says you were able to keep track of everything without the surfeit of records that I insist we keep."

As room was made at the table for the two extra guests, and introductions were once again made for Adriano, the conversation flew fast and furious as the latest information was shared and problems were discussed. The mood remained light and cheerful until after the ice cream and cookies had been polished off and the table cleared; the foals were allowed to fall asleep on the living room carpet after which the adults gravitated to the front porch to sit and reminisce, a congenial group of kindred spirits.

As the darkness deepened around them, those same spirits began to lag just a bit. It was Dietrich who voiced the words that no one wanted to hear.

"It's getting late, and our travelers have to be up early in the morning to catch their flight. I think we'd better take our leave, Caprice."

"Of course. What have I been thinking, to keep you from the tasks you still must attend to?" Caprice hugged Sugarberry to her. "I'll come by in the morning to give Fluff and Raptor the attention they'll need."

"Thanks, Caprice. You've been an angel."

"We'd better get our girls and head out, too," Thomas pronounced, drawing Tabby to her hooves. "We'll say our goodbyes now." Thomas and Vanguards's eyes were a misty version of the mares' damp eyes by the time the two couples separated.

"Well, Mom," Wishbone teased Sugarberry with the label he had used when under her roof, "Dream Valley won't seem the same without you; I'm kinda glad that I won't be here to see it." His voice broke on the last words, and he hugged Sugarberry to him and buried his face in her red mane.

"Now you know how I felt when you left," the mare stammered, her tears barely suppressed. "Garnet, take good care of yourself; I'm already looking forward to holding that baby of yours," she managed to say as she hugged the red mare.

When Chocolate Chip's turn came, that mare tried to remain upbeat. "It wasn't so long ago that I was bidding you farewell, on my way to New Pony. Now I'm the stick-in-the-mud."

"I'd rather be staying here," Sugarberry choked. "I'm going to miss you guys so much." She and the brown mare hung onto one another for mutual support.

"Hey," Wigwam asserted, his voice quavery. "It's not like you aren't coming home for Christmas; and we'll be with you over there in January." Wigwam and Chocolate Chip had already decided to spent their first wedding anniversary in Vulcanopolis.

"That's half a year away!"

"And it'll be gone before you now it."

After another round of hugs, Sugarberry and Vanguard found themselves alone on the front porch of their home, Adriano having made a discreet exit to allow the ponies some time to come to grips with their emotions. Vanguard guided Sugarberry to the porch swing and eased her down beside him. The mare snuggled against him, appreciating the solidness of his presence. Their love remain unchanged even amidst the turmoil of leaving.

"Are you okay?" Vanguard asked, tilting her head so that he could see her eyes. Tenderly, he brushed away the moisture that lingered there.

"I'm with you," the mare whispered, albeit shakily. "How could I not be okay?"

* * *

It was an unreasonable hour of the morning when Vanguard, Sugarberry, and Banderol reached the airport to catch their flight. They had turned down all offers from their friends to see them off, preferring to make their break unencumbered with further emotional upheaval, especially at an hour when most ponies were still in bed. Sunrise was just a hint in the eastern sky, and the air felt cool. Their baggage had been checked and they were waiting for loading when a clatter of hooves behind them announced a latecomer's arrival. But it was not another traveler they faced when they turned; it was Macarius.

"Sugarberry!" the usually dignified stallion panted, coming to a sudden stop before her and Vanguard. "I ran across some of my early notes on the fashion book." He held out to the mare a folder bursting at the seams. "Reading through them might give you some further insight on what I expect you to cover."

Sugarberry stifled a moan. Having been given the assignment of putting together a comprehensive yet readable tome on the fashion industry through the workings of Clare's Creations in Vulcanopolis, Sugarberry was beginning to feel overpowered by her well-meaning publisher.

Having conceived the idea for the book, Macarius was a trifle unwilling to pass the actual writing of the book on to another. However, the circumstance of Sugarberry's being in Vulcanopolis herself and Macarius' never-ending duties to Monk-Fairfax Publishing in Dream Valley had necessitated that he relegate the authorship to the mare. That did not, however, prevent him from dictating the exact parameters of the book's scope.

Unused to writing under such strict guidelines, Sugarberry was beginning to suffer from a case of inferiority, feeling that Macarius did not trust her to get the job done well. But, after all, Macarius was the boss. So it was that it was with only a slight tremble in her hoof that Sugarberry accepted the notes.

"I'm sure I'll find your work... helpful." Sugarberry managed a smile just as the loading of their flight was announced, so it was almost with a feeling of relief that she turned to Vanguard. "Well, it's time to go."

Shifting the sleeping Banderol's weight to his other shoulder, Vanguard concurred. "It is that." Turning his gaze to Macarius, he added. "I'm sure my wife will have an enticing manuscript for you when the deadline arrives." And with just a touch of cynicism, he added, "Thanks for coming to see us off."

Guiltily, Macarius spouted the necessary words. "We're all going to miss you, Sugarberry... Vanguard. Have a safe flight and a successful sojourn in Vulcanopolis." He shook both their hooves properly, then realized that he was indeed going to miss seeing Sugarberry's strawberry-adorned face around the halls of Monk-Fairfax. He drew Sugarberry into a bear hug. "I wish you all the best."

With a final sniff, Sugarberry turned to board the flight.

* * *

Adriano had slept like a log during his first night in the house that he would call home for the next twelve months. He had not even heard Sugarberry and Vanguard leave the house, he realized as he looked at the clock beside the bed. Only then did he remember that he was supposed to be at Pony Pride by eight o'clock, which meant he had only half an hour to shower, eat, and get to campus. He bounced out of bed, determined not to be late.

He made it to the mathematics suite on the second floor with a minute to spare. Mattie, the department secretary, met him with a smile and directed his gaze to the office door where his name was now prominently displayed.

"It was delivered just in time," she stated, moving her hoof along the lettered plate, then transferring her gaze to meet Adriano's in a flutter of lashes that caught the stallion off guard and caused him to blush.

Adriano was not used to such pointed attention; the mares in Vulcanopolis had never looked twice at him. When he gained the courage to look at Mattie again, he found that she was no longer focused on him, and he breathed a sigh of relief. He would not know how to handle a romantic entanglement if it came his way. Caring for his mother had left him little time for a life of his own.

Assuming a businesslike demeanor, Adriano progressed into his office and looked around him speculatively. Yesterday, with Vanguard in his company, the office had seemed foreign and uninviting; but today, his responsibilities now official, he felt comfortable in his surroundings. He strode to the window, welcoming the view of evergreens, maples, and elms bedecked in the vibrant greens of summer that graced the lawns between the campus buildings. Flowers such as petunias, lilies, and alyssum bordered the walkways that meandered across the clipped grass and students lent their own palette of colors. The sight met his approval, although the modern architecture of the buildings did not set as well as the aged stone structures that were the backbone of Leonardo University in Vulcanopolis.

"I hope I'm not intruding," a voice behind Adriano said.

Turning, Adriano recognized one of the faculty members he had met yesterday. "Of course not, Abacus. Come in." He gestured with his hoof for the maroon stallion to be seated.

Abacus slipped into the chair. "My wife asked that you join us for a meal this evening, if you don't have other plans. Minuet's anxious to meet you."

"You may tell your Minuet that I would be honored. Do you have further family?"

"Two foals; a sixteen-year old son, Skittle, and a thirteen-year-old daughter, Trinket. I'll warn you that Trinket is curious about Vulcanopolis, so be prepared for a bombardment of questions."

"So that explains the true reason for the invitation," Adriano grinned; then, wondering what had possessed him to say such a thing, he looked stricken. "I was only joking, of course."

Abacus, however, took no offense. He chuckled. "I wouldn't be surprised if Minuet and Trinket might have thought along those lines, although I was not consulted on the matter. If Trinket becomes annoying, I'll intervene."

"Oh, my, no," Adriano hastily exclaimed. "I shall enjoy enlightening your progeny of the delights our fair city has to offer. Our history, you know, is quite colorful."

"I look forward to hearing of it myself," said Abacus, getting to his hooves as Mattie came in the office with a note in her hoof. Crossing to the door, he added, "We'll touch base again later," and was gone.

Raising an eyebrow at Mattie, Adriano asked in a puzzled voice, "Touch base?"

"He just means that he'll talk to you again about something you've already discussed."

"Oh." He gave it a moment's thought. "Dinner."

"Dinner?" queried Mattie, another flurry of lashes tickling Adriano's senses. "If you need help choosing a restaurant, I'll be happy to assist you."

His face reddening, then bleaching to a ghastly white, Adriano shook his head emphatically. "No... no... not what I meant at all... having dinner with Abacus."

Mattie shrugged. "Well, maybe another time." She grinned at the stallion. "Oh, a phone call came for you. You're to return it at your convenience." She presented him with the note.

Looking at the information she had jotted down, Adriano gulped. Beneath the message, at the very bottom right-hand corner, was inscribed a little heart.

* * *

All-in-all, his first full day in Dream Valley had gone quite well, Adriano thought as he readied himself for bed. Dinner with Abacus' family had been entertaining, to say the least. Minuet had proved to be an excellent hostess and had made him feel welcome. True, Trinket had proved to be a nuisance by plying him with questions about Vulcanopolis, but Skittle had introduced him to an action-packed computer game at which Adriano was found to have a natural proficiency in playing.

Arriving back at his "home", he found a note from Caprice telling him that she had checked on the cats and fed them and had run the vacuum cleaner over the floors while she was there. She also extended an invitation to dinner the next evening with her and Dietrich. Under the note was a container of home-baked cookies. Adriano sighed with contentment as he munched on one of the delectable wafers, then frowned as he realized that his obligatory call to his mother had not yet taken place. Well, he had best get it over with.

As he listened to his mother's complaints and to her accusations that he had abandoned her to a heartless termagant in the form of his cousin, Leandra, the stallion could only thank his lucky stars that he had been given this opportunity, this reprieve, to experience life away from the oppression his mother kept him under. He only hoped that Leandra's spirit would not be crushed.

While suffering Imogene's scolds, Adriano had noticed the darker cat of Sugarberry's sitting in the doorway watching him; and when he had finally succeeded in ending the call, he stared back at the feline and found himself wondering what the cat was thinking. Unlike Marco's little dog who would have been bounding around Adriano's legs or pawing his way onto Adriano's lap and smothering him with wet kisses, the cat simply sat in a stately poise and watched Adriano like a hawk studying its prey. The steady gaze made him nervous, and he realized that there had been little opportunity for him to get acquainted with the resident felines before Sugarberry and Vanguard had left.

As a matter of fact, both Fluff and Raptor had been least-in-sight once Adriano had entered the house. Already conscious of some pending change to their orderly lives, the two cats had put the full blame of the disruption on this unfamiliar stallion who had come into their space; they were not about to welcome him. Even Sugarberry had been unable to coax them from their apprehensive stance at the top of the stairs where the dark cat, Raptor, had looked down upon him with disdain, and the orange-and-white Fluff had simply cowered further back in the shadows, his eyes glowing with disapproval. Now seeing Raptor from a closer perspective, Adriano had some doubts about sharing his living space with two recalcitrant housemates.

It had been a long day, however, and Adriano yawned widely before checking the doors and putting out the lights and making his way up the steps to the room that Sugarberry had allotted to him. It was newly redecorated, Sugarberry had informed him, because of the fact that it formerly had belonged to Chocolate Chip. The dainty floral patterns had been replaced with muted stripes of a coarse texture and the accessories had a decidedly masculine appeal. It was as comfortable as Adriano could have wished, and he smiled contentedly as he pulled the covers over himself to keep out the cool night air and switched off the bedside lamp. In no time at all, he was asleep.

* * *

How long Adriano had slept, he did not know. The only thing he was sure of was that he had heard a sound... the sound of his door slowly creeping open. Had he closed the door tightly or only partially, he wondered as his eyes stared into the darkness, waiting for the repetition of the sound. When nothing further came to his straining ears, the stallion shook off his nervous reaction and relaxed and settled more deeply into the covers and drifted once more into slumber.

Dreams of his mother and his home in Vulcanopolis fresh in his subconscious, Adriano was not surprised to hear the tinkle of metal that called him awake a short time later. Fuzzy as to his surroundings, he assumed the sound was that of the bell his mother kept at her bedside to summon him when she found herself in pain during the night and needed her son to fetch her a glass of water and her pills.

As the bell was not as insistent as normal, Adriano could not force himself to wake up fully and respond. He had nearly slipped off again when the noise repeated itself, bringing the stallion fully awake and sending a fission of fear trickling through him. It was definitely not his mother's summons, he realized as he remembered where he was, yet something had made a noise, of that he was sure. But what?

Straining his eyes in the direction from which the noise had come, Adriano could make out nothing on this starlit but moonless night except indistinct shapes that were as yet unfamiliar to him. But the metallic noise was unmistakable now that he was fully awake... his keys were being moved... or stolen. Someone was in the room with him, someone who obviously thought that his keys would give them access to something valuable. Adriano almost snickered out loud. He had nothing with him that was worth stealing.

But what if Sugarberry and Vanguard did? Maybe the intruder had been waiting for them to leave, in the hopes of gaining something worth his while. Maybe the thief was not even aware that Adriano was already established in the house. That thought gave the stallion a sense of security. All he had to do was stay quiet and no one would bother him. He hoped.

A shuffling of things on his dresser met his ear and the definite clink of jangles. Those he would not miss, for they were an insignificant sum. Adriano focused his attention on the spot where he had set his small store of money on the dresser and was now able to make out some deft movement there. Would the housebreaker be satisfied with such a small amount?

His attention riveted to the dresser, Adriano was unaware of the intruder crossing the room until a soft thump caused his mattress to dip. The trespasser had set a hoof on his bed! Stifling the groan that rose in his throat, Adriano stopped breathing. He had never pretended to be courageous, but now he found himself to be even more cowardly than he had previously realized. He was paralyzed with fear. Was someone leaning over him now, ready to do him in? Who would wish him such harm? What kind of ponies lived in Dream Valley?

As these questions flew randomly though Adriano's mind, he became acutely aware that whoever was tracking him was slowly moving closer. He could feel the mattress shift as if the interloper was feeling for something. Adriano's eyes were wide with intensity as he tried to see who his attacker was, then gasped as he saw satanic eyes staring back at him- round orange orbs that glowed with an ethereal light. The sight of them goaded Adriano into action and he lunged for the bedside lamp while rolling his body away from the specter. He gained his hooves as the light pierced the darkness... and saw nothing where the eyes had been.

Just vanishing through the doorway, however, was a fluffy orange tail, the hairs standing on end like bristles on a brush.

The cat... Fluff. Adriano sat down on the bed as his legs gave out from under him. All his fear had been caused by the nocturnal visit of one of the feline occupants of this house. The stallion's heart pounded in his chest even knowing what had disrupted his sleep. He was able to smile, however, sensing that the animal had been as frightened of his sudden movement as he had been of the cat's glowing eyes.

Suddenly aware that he was not entirely alone yet, Adriano shifted his gaze to the dresser. Sitting tall and with a lordly air, Raptor had held his ground throughout the commotion caused by Adriano's frenzied escape from the bed and Fluff's resultant flight. Unlike his feline friend, Raptor's eyes gazed at Adriano not in round wonder but with a squinty assessing look that spoke of silent laughter and ponderous assessment. Adriano felt the fool under that insinuating gaze.

"Out!" he commanded, pointing toward the door.

Rather than obeying, Raptor tucked his front legs under him and nestled down into a compact mound at the corner of the dresser, knocking the keys to the floor as he did so. His expression told Adriano that the cat had found the proceedings amusing, and the feline had no intent to let such an interesting subject go to waste. As if to verify that fact, Raptor yawned widely and snuggled in more comfortably; but the glint from his narrowed eye gave no doubt that he was keeping watch. He was not going to miss a thing.

Adriano gathered what courage he had and went to the dresser to evict the cat. Raptor, however, did not trust this stranger to touch him and lightly leaped off the piece of furniture and walked with decorum to the door, flicking his tail as he left. Adriano quickly crossed the room to close the door- tightly this time- and returned to bed. He fell asleep with the uncomfortable feeling that his life with two felines would be more demanding than he had expected it to be.

Outside his door, Raptor sat down and licked his fur, then stared unseeing with a smile on his face. Training this one would be fun.

Go Back to Library Index
Go Back to Tabby's Dream Valley