written by Sugarberry

Splotch waited in a comfortable chair outside her sister's office in Golden City. As one of Queen Majesty's royal lawyers, Lattice's working quarters were decorated in understated elegance. Sofas and chairs in a rich royal blue were cushy, inviting comfort; and dark, polished wooden tables held gold-toned reading lamps, glossy magazines, and low-profile bouquets of red tea-roses.

The walls were wainscoted in the same deep walnut wood below and painted a pure white above. The paintings on the wall were of striking close-up views of flowers: one, a ruby-red peony; another, a dark blue iris; the third, a golden daffodil. The ambiance of the room was soothing, yet commanding.

Afraid of falling asleep after her and Anchor's trek to the capital city of Ponyland, Splotch stood up and moved to the picture window that overlooked an open area that would soon be swathed in green grass, budding trees, and perky flowers. Even now, the bare patches devoid of their snow cover were promising a beautiful new beginning as spring approached, and Splotch had noticed the brave little snowdrops already blooming along the edges of the dormant flower beds.

Further on, beyond the muted confines of the park, stood the outlying buildings of the royal government center; and beyond them were outlined the private office buildings and businesses of the thriving city. The afternoon sun was sinking behind the tallest of the towers, attesting to the lateness of the day.

Splotch smiled warmly, her thoughts reverting to the day three years previously when she had met Icon in this city. He had jostled her while admiring the sights, sending her parcels flying. Ruing this misfortune, yet dazzled by the magenta beauty before him, Icon had been lost when he looked into her emerald green eyes. Little did he know that he would be facing her from the opposite side of a courtroom the following day as he and his associates battled to defend their fledgling company from being devoured by the mighty Macrohard conglomerate.

It had taken Splotch several months to realize that she had been smitten just as surely as Icon had been. Leaving her impressive job with Macrohard behind, she had accepted an offer to be Anchor's legal assistant in Icon's hometown of Woodlawn. However, Icon could only remember her now as one of Macrohard's evil minions. Had she made the wrong decision in coming to Woodlawn?

Fortunately for both her and Icon, Cupid's arrow had struck deeply enough that true love could not be confounded; the battles they fought could not destroy the initial oneness they had experienced. Realizing that truth, they were able to set out on the path that led to their marriage and now the anticipated birth of a foal in three more months.

Splotch was still happily reminiscing when Lattice's office door opened, and Lattice emerged with Queen Majesty herself at her side. Seeing Splotch, their conversation ended abruptly; and Lattice skimmed across the room to embrace her little sister.

"You arrived safely, I see. I was worried the trip would be too much for you." Lattice looked her sister over closely after releasing her. "Are you feeling okay?"

"Of course I am. Why wouldn't I be? Pregnancy's not some sinister disease, after all." Splotch grinned at her sister. "But thanks for your concern."

"Congratulations, Splotch. Lattice has told me your good news," Queen Majesty smiled cordially.

"Thank you, my Queen." Splotch hastened to offer her reverence. "I am honored to see you."

"You're in town for the legal conference, I understand."

"Yes. Anchor and I are both here."

Queen Majesty's eyes searched the room. "But Anchor is not with you now?"

"No. He ran into a college friend, and the two of them went off to share old times." Splotch turned her attention to Lattice. "He won't be joining us for dinner. He asked me to extend his apologies to you."

With all her willpower, Lattice had to restrain herself from asking Splotch if this friend of Anchor's was male or female; but she held the question in check. "We'll have a perfectly wonderful time, just the two of us." She gave Splotch's hoof a quick squeeze, then turned to Queen Majesty. "I'll have the paperwork drawn up for you by noon tomorrow."

"Thank you, Lattice. I know I can count on you. And Splotch, I hope you have a lovely stay in Golden City." With a smile, the queen left the two sisters.

"Sounds like you have your work cut out for you," Splotch noted.

"I keep busy," Lattice admitted. "Give me a minute to straighten out my desk, then we'll go to my place so you can rest a bit. I've made reservations at Blackmoore's."

"Oh! Anchor will be so disappointed!"

"Maybe he and his... friend... will be there as well."

"Oh, I think not." Splotch rolled her eyes. "Derrick mentioned some place called Scruffie's Pub."

Inordinately pleased that Anchor's friend was not a mare, Lattice busied herself collecting the papers that lay upon her desk. Splotch walked to the window to watch the lights of the city come on as dusk settled over the buildings and inhabitants. She jabbered on about her past visits and which buildings she was familiar with, giving Lattice time to mull over her private thoughts.

When she first heard that Anchor would not be joining them for dinner, she had found herself torn between feelings of relief and of disappointment. After her last encounter with the stallion, she had convinced herself that she never wanted to see him again. Yet, learning that he and Splotch were making the trip to Golden City for the legal conference being held this week, she had found herself looking forward to just one more opportunity to be with him... just to prove that she could handle her feelings, of course. She did not like the idea of leaving him with the impression that she was not in complete control of her life.

She shivered inside whenever she thought of that moment in the snow when Anchor had held her in his forelegs and lowered his head toward her lips... for a kiss, she had thought. But he had recoiled from her when she had closed her eyes in anticipation of that kiss. Sure, his sister had walked into the scene at that point, but both Anchor and herself were old enough not to be embarrassed over a simple kiss; but Anchor had responded as if something terrible had almost transpired, so much so that he had abandoned her to the others in their group, avoiding her as if her pliant submission to the expected kiss had not been welcome.

Looking back, Lattice had known that the stallion had not even planned on kissing her at all, but only to whisper a warning in her ear. Never had she been so embarrassed as in this misreading of his intentions... so embarrassed in fact that when he had approached her the next day with a bouquet of flowers, she had literally tossed them away... tossed them away with her private dream that she and Anchor could build a life together, a life that would eventually expand to include little ones, just as her sister Splotch had done in marrying Icon. That life was obviously not meant for her. She had her career here in Golden City. This was where she belonged.

* * *

"Sure, I'm happy with my life," Anchor assured Derrick. "Woodlawn's a great little town and the business is good. What's not to be happy with?"

Derrick leaned back in his chair, his bright green color a striking contrast to Anchor's fawn shading. "I always pictured you as a family stallion; I thought you'd have settled down with a comfortable mare and have a couple of well-behaved foals by now."

Anchor avoided a direct response, turning the conversation back on Derrick. "What about you? Have you found that perfect mare you were always searching for?"

Derrick grinned. "Several times over. But, fortunately, I've always discovered that my ideal was slightly flawed before it was too late." His attention was drawn to some new arrivals at the pub. "Well, well... look who's here." The stallion's grin widened. "If it isn't Miss Perfect herself. Wonder who that is with her?"

Turning to see the ponies under surveillance, Anchor had to chuckle. Niki had been the class snob back in law school, always assuming that no one else could attain her high standards. She and Derrick has clashed many times over mute points from which neither would budge, just on the principle of the thing.

Derrick had gone too far, however, when he had uncovered the fact that Niki's legal name was Pernickety. The stallion had nearly laughed himself into a coma. Worse yet, he had spread the word around campus, undermining Niki's noble status. The mare had never forgiven him.

That fact seemed to have escaped Derrick's memory. He got up from his chair, his eyes never leaving Niki's form. "Excuse me, Anchor. I have to see if my antagonizing skills have improved... or grown rusty."

Anchor watched as Derrick approached the mare and was not surprised to see Niki assume a deprecating frown when she recognized the stallion. Whatever Derrick said to her did nothing to dispel the disapproval that was so obvious in her expression and in her stance. Derrick ignored the stallion with Niki and continued to plague her with what Anchor was sure were cutting remarks. Leave it to Derrick to ask for trouble.

Losing interest in his friend's ill-fated adventure, Anchor's thoughts turned inward. He had been skeptical about coming to Golden City since he had last seen Lattice in Woodlawn several months ago, even trying to convince Splotch that they did not have to attend the conference, that it might be better for her and her foal if she avoided the long journey. He was uncertain on how to approach Lattice after her cool reception of him on his home turf. That was why he had so quickly acquiesced to Derrick's invitation for a night on the town; it spared him having to sit through a dinner with a mare who would rather never see him again anyway.

What had happened back in Woodlawn? The stallion was still confused about that. Lattice had blown warm and cold just like the roller coaster winter weather. And when she had thawed to the point where she had seemed reachable, he had blown it. He, a small-town nobody, had almost kissed Queen Majesty's right-hoof advisor. If his sister had not stopped him, he would have gone through with it, Lattice was so close, so soft, so irresistible...

Anchor shook his head, trying to dispel the memory- yet hanging on to it for all his worth. The memory always had the same ending, however. Lattice had closed her eyes and turned away from him and nearly ran to join the others. And even his apology, accompanied by a bouquet of snowdrops, had been spurned. Snowdrops, his mother had always told him, signified renewal, and that was all he hoped for... that she would accept his friendship if nothing else, a friendship which had seemed to blossom as they frolicked in the snow that day just as the flowers themselves bloomed even in the midst of the last snow-banks of winter. She had thrown them... and his hope... out like a piece of garbage.

That was the hardest thing of all. It had been the talk of the small town after Lattice had left. The maid cleaning her hotel room had found the bouquet of flowers dumped in the waste can, the tissue still in tact. He had not included a card with the flowers, thank goodness, so no one in Woodlawn knew who had given the royal lawyer the snowdrops, except possibly the florist who had kept that information to himself. It had been the premier subject of the gossips for several days before something new had caught their attention. But the damage had been done as they had laughed over the country bumpkin who had tried to impress someone of Lattice's caliber.

Knowing that Lattice had rejected his offering of flowers was like the slamming of the door in his face. No wonder he was nervous about seeing her again.

Lattice... She had always had his professional respect; but when he had worked with her to protect Icon's business interests, he had found that she was not only intelligent but thoughtful as well. Better yet, he had found her to be a great conversationalist when the two of them had been paired as attendants for Icon and Splotch's wedding; they had discussed a variety of topics throughout that day and Anchor had found that they shared the same opinion on many things and those they did not agree on they argued peaceably. No wonder he had hoped for something better that day in the snow.

Anchor snorted, chiding himself on being melancholy when everyone else around him was having a good time. He noted that Derrick and Niki had not yet come to blows, so he went to join them. At least their sparring would take his mind off his own problems.

* * *

"This place is awesome!" enthused Splotch as she and Lattice were seated in the posh restaurant. "I knew they had redecorated, but I never expected this grandeur."

Lattice's eyes twinkled over her sister's enjoyment of the eatery. The main dining room was outfitted with royalty in mind and the place glittered with gold and sparkled with crystal.

"Oh, Anchor will be so jealous when he finds out what he missed!"

"I've noticed that us mares are more impressed by the luxury of the place than the stallions," Lattice informed her sister. "Of course, when I see the bill, I can understand why they drag their hooves."

Splotch looked stricken. "If it's that expensive, maybe we should...."

Raising her hoof for silence, Lattice chided her little sister. "You're my guest at my express invitation. And, what? You think I can't afford this on the salary Queen Majesty pays me? You've been in the boondocks too long."

"Golden City's a beautiful place to visit, but I'd tire of it quickly. Give me the woods and vales and down-home ponies of Woodlawn any day."

"That's not what you used to yearn for."

"I'm not proud of my attempt to reach the pinnacle; I'm only glad Icon came along when he did and stopped me from getting where I though I wanted to be. I love what I'm doing in Woodlawn, and I love my husband, and I love my baby." Splotch moved her hoof to pat the location of her unborn foal. "Someday Lattice, I hope you can have what I have now."

Oh, if Splotch only knew how much I want that, too! Lattice cried out to herself. That last visit to Woodlawn had been made to determine if Anchor could be prompted to see her as a life-mate, but that hope had been dashed when he had been dismayed by her behavior rather than enthralled. Well, that experiment was over. She had found out that her true love was her career here in Golden City. This was where she belonged, not in Splotch's squeaky-clean rural domain.

The waiter had come to take the mares' order, leaving an assortment of hors d'oeuvres along with some sparkling spring water. Splotch's eyes studied the appetizers appreciatively before deciding on an artistically arranged creation that pleased her eye and, after the first taste, her palate as well.

"Try one, Lattice. They're delicious!"

"You think everything tastes good, Splotch." Lattice smiled benevolently, like a mother witnessing her hungry child's healthy appetite. She took a sip of water, wondering how pregnancy could have turned her sister into such a glutton.

"Well, you'll never know what you're missing if you don't try at least one."

"I'll be fine with what I ordered off the menu. Most days, my last meal is a salad." There was no need to mention that her appetite had been off for months now. Lattice did not want to invite comment.

But Splotch was one step ahead of her. "You do look thinner than the last time I saw you." Splotch grinned. "'Fess up... you've been practicing your sledding maneuvers, haven't you?"

"And when would I find the time for such sport here?"

"You don't work all the time, do you?"

"Enough that it seems like all the time... not that I'm complaining. I love my work for Queen Majesty. It's more rewarding than anything else I could hope to do." Unless it was sitting in front of the fireplace talking to a loving husband and watching an adorable foal sleeping in one's forelegs.

"Icon and I took some of the neighboring foals off to the hill last weekend, but we all stayed on the gentle slope. As for Anchor, I don't think he's been sledding since the day he spilled you off the sled."

"Are you sure you should be doing these things, Splotch... sledding and traveling all over and leaving your husband at home?" No way did Lattice want the conversation to turn to Anchor.

"Tribute says the sledding has to end; but, hey, it's almost spring anyway. And he says my traveling's not a problem, not yet anyway. I wouldn't have come if he had said otherwise. And Icon knew I wanted to come for this conference because it won't be so easy to get away once the foal is born. He's an understanding guy."

"And is Tribute the best doctor for you? A small town clinic can't compare to the quality facility we have here, and our physicians are the best."

"Dr. Tribute practiced in New Pony and Grayton and he's from a family of doctors. He's great! Everyone likes him."

"And what if he's not available when the foal comes?"

"Dr. Blake is fully prepared to step in if need be." Splotch reached across the table to touch her sister's hoof. "Relax, Lattice. I feel great and the foal is growing right on schedule. Everything's going to be fine."

"Even if you continue to eat like this? I don't want to sound like Mom, but you're going to spoil your appetite if you devour too many of those hors d'oeuvres."

"Speaking of Mom, this pate on the rice crackers tastes just like what she used to make. Here, try some." Splotch held one out to Lattice, but Lattice waved it away.

"I've already told you I don't want any. I don't have your appetite." Lattice laughed, watching Splotch gobble it down. "Are you sure you're not eating for triplets?"

"No. Both Blake and Tribute are positive it's only one."

"Boy or girl?"

"We never asked. Icon and I agree we'd rather wait and see for ourselves."

The arrival of their food ended the maternity talk. Splotch swatted at the waiter's hoof when he reached for the unfinished appetizers to remove them from the table, informing him that she might want them later. "The portions here are small," she noted, looking at the tastefully designed dishes that emphasized quality rather than quantity.

The two mares turned to a discussion of their legal cases of late, and the state of Ponyland's economy, and Queen Majesty's latest proposal to boost employment prospects in Grayton where a major factory was closing its doors.

It was like old times only better, because they could express their differences without ending up in a verbal battle like the days when they were younger and Splotch was determined to better Lattice at something. Both of the mares enjoyed their dinner together as a chance to renew their bond as sisters.

* * *

"Oh, Lattice, I'm going straight to bed," Splotch said upon arriving at Lattice's luxury apartment.

"My spare room is all ready for you..."

Lattice broke off as Splotch took off at a run in the direction of the bathroom. "Splotch... I told you that you ate too much," Lattice called after her.

Going to her answering machine, Lattice found only an invitation to lunch on Friday and a message that the book she had ordered was now in at Early Editions. She entered a note in her electronic notebook, then looked up suddenly as she heard some retching coming from the bathroom.

"Splotch? Are you okay?" She hurried to help her sister in whatever way she could.

* * *

The party atmosphere at Scruffie's had escalated as the evening wore on, and Anchor was surprised at how much he was enjoying the evening. Derrick and Niki had progressed beyond tormenting one another to dancing together, and a female lawyer from Gurney had taken it upon herself to make sure that Anchor had a good time as well. The mare was not Anchor's type, but she certainly kept his mind occupied with her witty stories and her not-so-subtle advances.

Anchor was brought back to reality when a voice called out over the general din, "Is there an Anchor in the room?"

Anchor's head swivelled in the direction of the voice and saw a stallion standing on a chair holding the receiver of a telephone. Anchor waved his hoof in the air, realizing that he would never be able to be heard over the crowd; but Dancie put forth a piercing whistle that drew everyone's attention their way.

The stallion on the chair made the connection. "There's a phone call for you, Anchor." He dangled the receiver in the air until Anchor was able to wend his way across the room. Who would be calling him here? Anchor wondered as he pushed and shoved his was through the crowd. Who even knew where he was at this moment? Splotch! She had heard his and Derrick's conversation. His heart began thudding. Splotch would only call if there was some kind of emergency!

"Anchor here."

"This is Lattice. Garnet became violently ill and I've called the paramedics. If you're interested, meet us at Golden City General... the emergency room."

"What..." Anchor heard the click of the receiver and the dial tone. All he could do was hang up on his end, too.

Dancie was at his side. "Something's wrong."

Meeting her eyes with his worried ones, he found it hard to speak. "My... my assistant... she's being transported to the... hospital. I've got to get there."

"I'll go with you."

"No... no. Help me out by explaining the situation to Derrick so he knows where I disappeared to. I can find my own way to the hospital."

"Whatever you say," Dancie smiled reassuringly. "I hope everything goes okay."

Anchor was already halfway to the door.

* * *

What could have gone wrong? Splotch was in fine shape and good spirits during the entire trip. She had looked forward to this conference for months. Oh, God, what am I going to tell Icon?!

Despite the fact that anxiety had seemingly turned his legs to clay, Anchor made the best possible time getting to the hospital. The volunteer at the main desk had directed him to the emergency care center, and he prayed that he would arrive to find a laughing Splotch claiming that her sister had overreacted to a stomach ache.

What he found was a very worried Lattice pacing the waiting room.

"What happened? How is she?"

"She's very sick... in a lot of pain."

"Is it the baby?"

"She complained of cramping and nausea... I don't know! She's been throwing up something fierce. And I feel so helpless!"

The distress on the mare's face tore at Anchor's already aching heart. He reached out to touch her foreleg in a comforting gesture, but she turned away and paced across the room, then turned to face him again.

"This is all your and Icon's fault, you know," she said, her voice deceptively quiet while her eyes showed the depth of her anguish. He could see that she was fighting to retain control of her emotions.

"Splotch made her own decision to come..."

"You and Icon should never have allowed Splotch to travel at this stage of her pregnancy!" The voice was still low, but there was fire in every word.

"Blake and Tribute both said..."

"And what do they know? If they were any good at all, they'd still be in a preeminent hospital, not some out-of-the-way clinic at Woodlawn."

"Our physicians and our facility are of the finest caliber. Splotch is in good hooves."

"Then why is she in there," Lattice hissed, pointing down the hall where the doctors and nurses were working with her sister, "retching her insides out? If they're as good as you say, they'd have foreseen this happening!"

"They aren't gods, Lattice!"

"No, they aren't. They're both country nobodies who lord it over simple-minded ponies who can't think for themselves. And you... you... rustics...," she said the word with venom in her voice, "... have brainwashed Splotch into buying into your 'simple life' philosophy so she can't even see the danger to herself."

"Lattice, you're understandably upset..." Anchor moved closer, but Lattice brushed him away with an angry wave of her foreleg.

"You've got that right... and you haven't seen anything yet. I'll make sure you and Icon and Tribute and Blake pay for..."

A white-coated doctor came into the room, stilling Lattice's tirade.

"How is she?" Lattice asked, forgetting her anger for the moment.

"She's doing quite well, considering."

"What do you mean... considering?"

The doctor had the audacity to chuckle. "She's a plunky little thing, isn't she? I've seen grown stallions lie on the floor, wishing they were dead, going through what she's going through right now."

"St... Stallions?" stuttered Lattice. "Th... then it isn't the baby?"

"The baby? No, the baby is fine. Splotch was able to give us enough information... and from her symptoms... nausea, cramps, vomiting... and the lack of a fever... plus a simple test... we've determined that she's suffering from food poisoning of the staph variety."

"F... food poisoning? But won't that harm the foal?"

"Fortunately for Splotch- although she probably wouldn't agree at this point that it's been a good thing- the vomiting came on quickly and she's been able to expel the contaminated food, probably the pate she was telling us about. My guess is that she'll never eat it again."

"You don't know Splotch," a relieved Anchor quipped.

"So Splotch and the baby are both going to be okay?"

"Yes, my dear, they will be."

"Can I go to her now?"

"She's not at her best right now; but, sure, go on in."

The doctor and Lattice left Anchor without a glance.

* * *

It was about an hour later when Lattice left Splotch to a much-needed sleep. She did not see... or ignored... Anchor still waiting in one of the beige chairs that matched his own coloring to a tee.

"I called Icon; he's on his way."

Lattice's head jerked in Anchor's direction. She obviously had been unaware of his presence, her expression shocked.

"You're still here." Was that an accusation or a pleasant surprise?

Anchor stood up. "Where else would I be?"

"Scruffie's, for one." She tried to meet his eyes but could not.

Anchor grimaced. "If one good thing came of Splotch's misery, it's that it got me out of that place in time."

Lattice tried to smile, but she could not manage that either. "Splotch is exhausted, but she's able to sleep now." Lattice looked exhausted, too.

"Would you like me to see you home?"

"No! No. I'm going to stay here, just in case. I don't want her to wake up alone."

"Call me if you need anything. Here, I'll write down my number." He grabbed a napkin from near the coffee pot, but Lattice stayed his hoof.

"No. I won't be needing anything. Good night."

Anchor could almost hear the snowdrops swishing into the waste can.

* * *

Gathering the notes he had taken into a neat pile, Anchor breathed a sigh of relief. It was always the same, these conferences. They promised to be enlightening, educational, and an entertaining diversion; but it all boiled down to long, mind-numbing sessions of the same old. He also knew that Splotch would want him to relay every detail of the day to her, not only of the conference material itself but also facts about the ponies who attended and interesting tidbits like who was with whom.

"Just like school all over again," Derrick said, slipping into the chair next to Anchor.

"Except we don't have to worry about a grade." Anchor raised a brow. "I saw you with Niki at lunch."

"She's changed..." Derrick said, then added, "...or I have."

"Probably a combination of the two."

"Anchor, be honest with me. Could Niki be my soul-mate?"

"Whoa! You don't really expect me to answer that, do you?"

"Yes, I do. I need some sensible advice."

Seeing that Derrick was serious, Anchor tried to answer without committing himself. "I wouldn't make any hasty decision here. The two of you have a history of persecuting each other; you need time to find out if that's all really behind you. It wouldn't bode well for your marriage if rivalry took over again."

"How much time would you suggest?"

"Derrick, I'm not a counselor." Derrick started to complain, so Anchor went on. "Okay, let's say a year. If the two of you can hold the peace that long, I'd have to admit that maybe you've both changed enough to make a relationship work."

"A year's a long time."

"You live on opposite sides of Ponyland and you both have demanding jobs. The time will go fast."

"I've been thinking of a job change; maybe I'll move east again."

"Why are you talking to me? It sounds like your mind's made up."

Derrick grinned. "I think maybe it is at that." He seemed to remember something. "How is your friend doing, the one who ended up in the emergency room?"

A voice behind them answered for Anchor. "She's doing great, resting at Lattice's place and complaining about the bland diet she's on." The two stallions turned to see a white stallion with black hair.

"That's wonderful news, Icon," Anchor said getting to his hooves. "You won't be able to keep her down by tomorrow."

"If she only had herself to think about, that would be a true statement; but she was so scared that something was happening with the foal that she will do anything the doctor orders to make sure he or she is safe and sound." Icon glanced at Derrick, and Anchor realized his omission.

"Icon, this is a friend of mine from law school. Derrick, Icon is one of my faithful clients back in Woodlawn."

The two stallions shook hooves and reverted to sports talk for a time before Derrick, seeing Niki across the room, went on his way. Before he left, however, he punched Anchor in the shoulder and winked. "If you need some advice, buddy, don't hesitate to look me up."

"What was that about?" queried Icon.

"He's considering a serious change in his life." No sense going there. "How is Lattice doing today? She was very stressed out last night."

"She's tired after staying up most of the night and then going to the office to get her work done for Majesty. She came up with an hour or two to spend with Splotch before going back for some meeting with the rest of the legal staff later, so Splotch sent me to find you. She wanted to make sure you'd come over this evening."

"I planned on doing that."

"She also wants me to make sure that you took notes of the conference; and if not, I'm to sit you down and have you record everything you remember."

Chuckling, Anchor picked up the sheets of paper on the table. "She may be your wife, but I know her pretty well." Pointing out one particularly interesting tidbit he had picked up from one of the other lawyers in attendance, Anchor watched appreciatively as Icon broke into a grin.

"She'll be in whoops over that!"

Anchor suddenly turned serious. "I don't remember ever being so scared as when I got the call from Lattice that Splotch was ill. She's like one of my own sisters to me."

"I know, Anchor. We were all scared. But everything turned out in the end. That's the important thing."

The two stallions were silent as Anchor finished gathering his materials; after snapping shut his attache case, he and Icon headed for the door. It took them some time to make their way through the straggling groups of ponies, many who knew Anchor. Eventually, however, they cleared the front doors of the conference hall, Icon turning right and Anchor left.

"Hey! I thought you were coming with me!" Icon called.

"I'm going back to my room for a while. I'll see you and Splotch in an hour or so."

"There's no need for you to do that. You have Splotch's notes. What else to you need?"

"I just thought..."

"It's a waste of effort; just come with me now," Icon ordered.

Anchor hesitated, then shrugged his shoulders and joined his friend for the walk to Lattice's apartment.

Icon gave Anchor a sideways glance. "Is there anything... wrong... between you and Lattice?"

"She wasn't very happy with any of us last night."

Icon chuckled. "Yeah. I guess she shared some of that with Splotch before the paramedics arrived." The stallion paused. "It's just that... well, I kinda thought there might have been something simmering between you two back in Woodlawn. Now, Lattice changes the subject every time she hears your name."

"Brutally honest, as always."

"I'm just trying to see my way through this. Lattice is my sister-in-law, and you're one of my best friends. I'd like to see you both happy."

"Me, too. But with mares, who can figure?"

* * *

Having watched Splotch fall asleep, Lattice now watched from her apartment window, waiting for the arrival of Icon and Anchor. If she timed it right, she would be in the down elevator while they were coming up. That way, Splotch would be alone for the barest minimum of time.

She could not face Anchor, that was for sure. She would have to apologize sometime, but not just yet. Her face burned every time her words to him last night came back to haunt her... her accusations that it was the Woodlawn ponies who were responsible for Splotch's condition and her hateful comments on how backward they were. And it had turned out that it was ostentatious Golden City food and arrogant Golden City chefs who had caused the problem. Her hooves flew to her cheeks to cool the heat that blazed there.

She saw the two stallions she had been watching for and raced from her apartment.

* * *

"This is our last evening in Golden City. The four of us have to spend it together to celebrate," Icon insisted, trailing Anchor as that stallion threw books, papers, slippers, and toilet articles into a suitcase.

"We've a long journey ahead of us, Icon. I'd rather celebrate back in Woodlawn."

"Hasn't Splotch suffered enough this trip? She expects you to be there."

Anchor's tender heart was wounded. "Is it really that important to her?" he asked, his hoof suspended over the travel bag.

"You know how long she looked forward to coming to Golden City; then she had to miss most of the fun. She wants to make up some ground tonight."

Anchor knew when he was defeated. "I won't let her down, then," he said, taking his toothbrush back out of the suitcase.

Icon ducked his head to hide his huge grin and moved for the door. "Great! Remember, we're to meet at the little café off the main plaza where the fountain is." Icon slipped out with one last detail. "It has a red and white striped canopy out front." He closed the door behind him.

"One down," he said.... and whistled a happy tune.

* * *

"Of course you're coming with us," Splotch informed her sister. "Even Queen Majesty said you should spend this last evening of my stay with your family."

"Why don't you and Icon and I just send out for something and spend the evening here, then?" Lattice hedged. "We're all the family that's here."

"What, and leave Anchor in that cold, lonely motel room? Have a heart, big sister!"

I do have a heart, and it's breaking. "I just don't feel like going out. That's why I think you and Icon should meet Anchor; I'd only be a wet blanket."

"What kind of message is that going to send? 'Oh, Lattice didn't have to work, Anchor, but she didn't want to spend the evening with those of us from hickdom.' What's Icon going to think if you shun his friend so blatantly? And I feel terrible, because Anchor has been very good to me." Splotch assumed the best pout she could portray.

Sighing, Lattice capitulated. "Okay. If it means so much to you and Icon, I'll accompany you." Splotch could not help but smile. "But don't expect me to enjoy myself," Lattice warned, shaking a hoof at her sister.

"You can have a horrid time, as long as you're with us," Splotch laughed, confident that her sister would come to look back on this evening for a lifetime... and not with dread but with the joy of a new beginning.

* * *

"This is where it all began," Splotch sighed. "I was walking home with some new art supplies when Icon, who was watching the fountain, bumped into me and sent my paints flying."

"I picked them up and gave them back to Splotch, and found that I was looking at the most beautiful mare in all Ponyland. Those emerald green eyes were what sent me over the edge, though," Icon continued the story of their first meeting.

"How sweet," smiled Lattice, trying her best to support the ambiance of the evening for Icon and Splotch's sake.

"I invited Icon to join me for a late supper," Splotch added. "We ate over there." She pointed across the plaza to a café sporting a vivid red and white striped canopy that set it apart from the other businesses along the square.

"And that's where we'll eat tonight," Icon said, kissing Splotch on the tip of her nose.

Lattice rolled her eyes. "Must you smooch at every opportunity?"

The two ponies looked at Lattice, then at each other, and simultaneously answered, "Yes!"

"They're actually on their best behavior here," Anchor said, strolling up to the group. "There's a quaint little bridge in the park back home, and they can't seem to cross it without stealing a kiss." He winked at Lattice and grinned.

Lattice hoped her blush did not show under the fountain's lights. How could he so blatantly refer to their time in the snow after the sledding disaster when she had mistaken his intent for a kiss? How could she have so misjudged his character as to think he was a gentle, sensitive pony?

"This night air is rather chill; I think we should get Splotch inside," she suggested.

"I get to eat some real food tonight," Splotch enthused. "I've had enough soft, boring stuff for a lifetime."

"Let's go then," Icon laughed, draping his foreleg over her shoulder and leading her away.

"She's resilient," Anchor said, offering his escort to Lattice. Lattice, however, held back.

"Anchor, while I have this opportunity, I'd like to... to apologize for my rude words to you at the hospital."

"You were very concerned about Splotch and the baby. It was only natural for you to react the way you did."

"It isn't natural to snipe at someone you... you... have respect for. I lashed out at you in unfounded anger. It wasn't very professional of me. I'm sorry."

"All right then, I accept your apology... on the condition that we never mention that misunderstanding again."

"You're too kind. I'd feel better if you chastised me for all those horrid things..."

Placing his hoof over Lattice's mouth, Anchor repeated, "Never mention it again." His brown eyes held her dove grey ones.

"Never again," she whispered, caught in his gaze.

"Maybe we should follow Icon and Splotch." The desire to kiss her was so strong, Anchor was amazed that Lattice could not see it.

Lattice had to fight hard to break away from the spell that had seemed to settle over her. She was finally able to tear her gaze away from him and look toward the restaurant. "They've already gone inside," she noted unnecessarily. "Yes, we must be going."

Was it her imagination, or was Anchor as unwilling to release the moment as she was?

* * *

Dinner went smoothly, with Icon and Splotch supplying most of the conversation. After a light dessert, however, Icon set down a new game plan.

"Splotch and I would like to have some time to ourselves in the royal city," he informed Lattice and Anchor. "If the two of you don't mind, we'll go our own way now." He stood up to help Splotch out of her chair, effectively avoiding any nay-saying.

"We'll see you back at your place later," Splotch informed her sister, "and, Anchor, we'll expect you to meet us tomorrow at seven to begin the trip back home." She smiled at both ponies, then slipped off with her husband.

"More coffee?" Anchor asked of Lattice in an effort to cover their companions' unexpected departure.

"Thank you, but no. I should be getting home now," briskly replied Lattice, not trusting her feelings to cooperate if she stayed in Anchor's company alone.

"I tell you what," improvised Anchor, unwilling to lose the rest of this evening with Lattice, "how about I order us each a cup of hot cocoa?"

Before Lattice could object, Anchor had motioned the waitress to their table and ordered the drinks. By the time he had paid out the necessary jangles to settle the bill, two steaming mugs of chocolate were delivered.

"I haven't had cocoa for years," Lattice admitted, stirring the rich liquid which, she noted, was the color of Anchor's eyes. She looked up to see those eyes watching her.

Anchor smiled. "As the oldest in my family, I often made it for my younger siblings. Cammie said my cocoa was the best thing about her stay in Woodlawn over the semester break."

"Has your sister made any decisions as to her career?"

"Her last brainstorm was to go into retail; she figures that anyone who likes to spend money as much as she does should know how to anticipate what the customer wants and expects." Anchor frowned. "I'd still prefer that she aim at a career connected to the legal profession. When I first hired Splotch, I thought she might want to continue her education and become a full-fledged lawyer. Now, however, motherhood seems to have more appeal to her than legal studies."

"She'll love that foal with everything she's got."

Was that wistfulness in Lattice's voice? Anchor could not be sure. "Did you mother Splotch when she was growing up?"

"What? That little brat?" Lattice grinned. "I was perfectly happy to ignore her most of the time. I think I was envious of her, having been the only child for five happy years." The mare took a sip of cocoa. "It was difficult to share my parents by then."

"And she became envious of you because you were the one who could do everything she wasn't old enough to do."

"She told you that?" Lattice asked in surprise.

"Not is so many words. I learned a lot from my siblings, remember. There was always rivalry between them, even though they loved one another dearly. We were a close family, and I've missed them since we grew up and went our separate ways. Maybe that's why I'm pushing for Cammie to become a lawyer, so I can connect with family again."

"Tell me about all of them."

Anchor lifted an eyebrow. "That could take awhile."

"I'll spring for a second mug of cocoa."

That simple comment brought a happy smile to Anchor's face. "Okay." He took a deep breath before beginning the litany of his four sisters and one brother. "Chitchat is next in line after me and, as her name implies, she loves to talk. Don't ask me how Mom and Dad knew she'd be that way when they named her. Maybe a foal lives up to his or her name."

"You surely proved to be an anchor for your sisters and brother," mused Lattice.

"Just as you were a support for Splotch, whether you knew it or not... a lattice she could cling to."

"Nice try, Anchor, but Splotch was never the clingy type. And we digress. What does Chitchat do for a living?"

Anchor chuckled. "She's a beautician. She has her own salon and pushes all natural products. She tries to bring out the 'inner glow' of her customers, so she says."

"If they keep coming back, she must be succeeding."

"She's doing very well for herself."

"Is she married?"

"To her job, yes. She's a bit of a matchmaker for all the single gals she knows, but she vows she'll never fall into that trap herself. And I think she's perfectly happy with her dog and cat for company." Anchor drained his mug, and Lattice motioned to the waitress for seconds. "After me and Chitchat comes Penny. She's a guidance counselor at our old high school, married, and has one foal. She was always serious and never much trouble... unless the others intruded on her space. Reading was her favorite pastime, and it was difficult to find a quiet place with all the activity a large family entails. She'd often escape to the attic, even though she was scared to death of the mice that claimed that room as their own."

"She was a brave filly," shuddered Lattice.

"Things weren't so bad for her until Randy came along. His idea of fun was to play practical jokes on anyone in sight, and his preferred target was Penny because her reaction was so... loud. He once caught a mouse and put it in her toy box. That scream was bloodcurdling... and I'd never known she could run so fast. She came straight to me and climbed my mane to get on my back. Needless to say, Randy paid for that one." Anchor grinned over the memory.

"So Randy's the fourth sibling?"

"Yes." Anchor paused as the waitress delivered two fresh mugs of cocoa. "He was the live-wire, the instigator, the rebel." Anchor shook his head. "The amazing thing is that as much trouble as he caused Mom and Dad, I think they loved him almost more than any of the rest of us."

"And where is he today?"

"He's a paramedic in New Pony. He gets all the adrenaline rushes that he seems to crave."

Lattice rubbed her forehead. "You'll never know how relieved I was to see the paramedics at my door when Splotch was suffering so. I couldn't do a thing; but they were so capable and took charge immediately. Oh, Anchor, if the foal had been jeopardized..."

"But he wasn't, so let it go." He reached across the table and lightly touched her hoof before continuing his family's saga. "Pearl Mist came along two years after Randy; and fortunately for all of us, she was born with an easygoing temperament. She was seldom any trouble and even Randy couldn't rankle her peace. Of course, that meant Penny got more than her fair share of his antics."

"Pearl Mist is a very pretty name."

"She's a very pretty pony. She married her high school sweetheart and she manages a flower shop which her in-laws own."

"Cammie is next... and the last," Lattice noted.

"That's why she's the brat... baby of the family and all. I'd like to see her go to law school." Anchor grimaced. "I know I'm beginning to sound like a broken record; but in a few years, I'm going to need an associate... and who better than family to step in? Woodlawn's growing; and with the new hospital complex finished, ponies are seeing our town as the medical hub of the area... and along with that comes new business and the need for more financial structure and legal counseling." Anchor stopped short. "Now I sound like a salespony."

Giggling, Lattice reassured him. "No, you sound like a successful attorney doing his best to secure a good future."

"Yeah... like I said.... a salespony."

* * *

The diner under the red and white awning would always hold a special place in her memory, Lattice was sure as she and Anchor finally finished dawdling over their cocoa and set out for her apartment. Maybe she and Anchor were not meant to be together, but at least they had regained the camaraderie they had previously shared. She had even convinced herself that she could live with that.

Coming up to the fountain that sent its sparkling spray upwards, Anchor and Lattice stopped as if neither were in a hurry to end this evening. The colored lights that highlighted the spray softened the dark, cool night. Lattice understood how Splotch and Icon had come to consider this place a favorite haunt.

"I'm so glad that Icon and Splotch literally ran into each other here," she mused out loud.

"Listen to them argue sometime and you won't be so sure," Anchor teased.

"Splotch has always been vocal in her opinions, and Icon knows when to give in. I think they have an ideal relationship."

"I have a friend who's been looking for the ideal mare for years now. I certainly wouldn't want him to meet you or he'd have you at the altar in no time flat." Lattice blushed at this oblique praise. "But from what I was hearing at the conference, he found his perfect mare the other night... at Scruffie's."

"And your point?" Lattice raised an inquiring brow.

"The mare was right under his nose all along, but he was using the wrong criteria of perfection. Neither one had realized until their time here in Golden City that the other was the exact complement he/she was looking for."

There was something in Anchor's eyes that couldn't be ignored, and Lattice felt her heart skip a beat.

"They were very lucky to discover that," she whispered, her eyes intent on Anchor's brown ones, trying to read what was in his heart.

"The lucky part is that they didn't mangle each other first," Anchor bantered, then regretted his remark as he watched the glow in Lattice's eyes fade and turn to despair. What did she expect from him?

He'd done it again! He'd led her to believe that there could be something between them, then turned it into a joke. Lattice felt the sting of hot tears and willed them not to fall.

"I think we should go..." she choked out, but was stopped when Anchor's hoof covered hers.

"I think we need to talk," he said softly, gently but surely guiding her to a vacant bench. After they were both seated, he cleared his throat, then hesitated. What do I have to lose? he chided himself. He cleared his throat again. "Lattice, I..." Anchor paused once more. How do I tell her that I think she's the answer to all my prayers? How do I admit that I worship the ground she walks on? How do I confess that I want her to become a permanent part of my life?

The stallion's silence piqued Lattice, who had been concentrating on the fountain's spray of water in an effort to get a grip on her emotions; she turned her head to ascertain what had stilled his words and caught her breath. He was looking at her with such... such...

"I love you, Lattice." There, he had said it. Simple words, they encompassed everything he felt, everything he hoped for. She could get up and walk away or she could, ideally, fall into his forelegs.

She did neither.

"What... what did you say?" she breathed, the fountain's lights revealing a ray of hope in her eyes.

That was all it took to give Anchor the assurance he needed. He lowered his head, at the same time gently pulling her closer, and kissed her.

They both had the answer they wanted.

And at their hooves, a patch of snowdrops nodded their approval.

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