Raptor Attack
written by Sugarberry

"Chick-a-dee-dee-dee," the lively little bird called to Sugarberry as she filled the first bird feeder with shiny black sunflower seeds, cracked corn, and millet.

"Good morning to you, too," smiled Sugarberry as she stopped and admired the diminutive feathered friend who tottered on a bleak and frozen sunflower head near the feeder. Stray seeds often germinated in the summer, and grew in random disorder around the feeders; Sugarberry allowed them to grow, and the round heads of the sunflowers made a natural dispenser for the ripened seeds.

The bird so interested in Sugarberry's every move was a black-capped chickadee. Its chubby body and black and white pattern stood out against the snowy background of winter. It cocked its bright black eye toward the twice-as-fancy earth pony, and called again, "Chick-a-dee!"

Giggling, Sugarberry moved on to the next feeder. "You're a hungry one, aren't you?" she conversed with the bird who had hopped to the feeder to pick out the best item on the tray. Having decided on a sunflower seed, he flew with it to a nearby apple tree and vigorously picked through to the nourishing heart. The seed coat dropped to the ground amidst the litter of hundreds more.

"Winter starts looking dingy at this time of year," Sugarberry informed the chickadee who responded with a "dee-dee" as he retrieved another bit of breakfast from the plentiful pile of seeds. "The snow is old and dirty and mixed with layers of melted ice and last year's leaves."

Following a well-worn path to the last feeder which was a replica of a wooden gazebo from Sugarberry's friends at Birdsong, Sugarberry spotted something fluttering across the icy ground and stopped to investigate. It was a charcoal gray feather, and as she stopped to pick it up, another and another flitted by. Looking in the direction from which the feathers were blowing, Sugarberry gasped. Off the path she saw a number of the dark feathers scattered across a patch of red snow... blood-stained snow!

"No! Not one of my little birds!" she cried out in horror as she dropped to her knees to examine the tell-tale evidence of a crime having been committed. She looked closely at the feathers, and sadly identified them as those of a junco-- the snowbird. Tears dropped from her eyes as she looked about for the perpetrator of such violence, but nothing was in sight other than the chickadee and several twittering goldfinches who had alighted on the thistle feeder. She looked for tracks, but the snow was packed and hard, and no prints remained.

Wiping the tears from her cheeks, Sugarberry finished her bird chores and returned to the house. At the door, she looked back and had to smile at the influx of visitors already busily breakfasting. Raucous bluejays, stunning cardinals, cocky woodpeckers, and shy mourning doves congregated on or under the feeder stations, making a never-ending kaleidoscope of color. After scanning the periphery of her backyard, Sugarberry entered her house to get ready for her work as receptionist at the vet clinic.

Keeping a sharp eye on the activity in the backyard in case the hunter returned, Sugarberry fixed herself a bowl of cereal and a glass of orange juice, and ate standing at the window. She was so absorbed in her mission that she didn't hear her boarder, Chocolate Chip, enter the room until the brown pony asked by her side, "What's so fascinating?"

"Oh!" Sugarberry jumped, spilling milk and Cheerios down her hooves and forelegs.

"I'm sorry, Sugarberry!" Chocolate Chip wailed as she grabbed a dishtowel and began sopping up the mess. "I didn't mean to scare you!"

Fluff, hearing the commotion, presented himself to lap up the milk off the floor while leaving behind all the Cheerios.

As Sugarberry washed up, she explained to Chocolate Chip about the demise of one of her gentle birds by an unknown assailant.

Chocolate Chip conveyed the correct amount of sympathy; then she scurried off to an early calculus class at Pony Pride. "Any message for Vanguard?" she queried as she was going out the door. Vanguard was her instructor for the math class, and also Sugarberry's stallion friend.

"Ask him to call me when he's free," Sugarberry responded.

"Sure thing!" Chocolate Chip disappeared on her way.

Nearly tripping over the rotund body of her orange and white long hair cat, Sugarberry crossed the kitchen for one last check of the backyard and found all to be at peace. Then she, too, hurried off to get to work on time.

* * *

It was mid-morning when Vanguard's call came in. "Chocolate Chip said you wanted to talk to me."

"Hi, Vanguard. I'm glad you called."

"Is something the matter?" the stallion asked anxiously.

"Well, sort of. Something ate one of the birds in my backyard early this morning."

"I'm sorry to hear that." Vanguard was an avid bird watcher, too, and understood how Sugarberry must feel. "Do you have any idea what did it?"

"I haven't seen any animals around, and there is no fresh snow to see tracks in," Sugarberry admitted.

"That might change by tomorrow," Vanguard informed her. "The weather pony is calling for a real blizzard to move through late tonight."

"Just as long as it starts after I get home!" Sugarberry shuddered as she thought about the problems that a large amount of snow and wind would bring with it.

"I can see your eyes filled with worry already!" teased Vanguard. "Think of how pretty all that fresh, white snow will make everything look."

"Yes, you're right, of course, but..."

"Tell you what. I've got some errands to run downtown this afternoon. I'll stop at the clinic at closing time and walk you home. We can check out the predator situation in your backyard."

"Oh, would you? I'd feel better if I knew what did it."

"Okay then. I'll see you later."

Sugarberry set the receiver down just as Thomas finished up with Seabreeze and her painted turtle.

"He will start eating again when he smells spring in the air," Thomas was assuring Seabreeze.

"Thank you for your help," Seabreeze smiled happily. "I was getting awfully worried abut Teatime," she said as she patted the top of the cardboard box she carried.

When Seabreeze had left the clinic, Sugarberry followed Thomas to his office. "Umm... Thomas?"

"What is it, Sugarberry?" Thomas sensed Sugarberry's reticence which, he knew, meant that she was asking something for herself.

"Could I borrow your live-trap over the weekend?" she asked hesitantly. Thomas kept a trap for emergency situations when as animal needed confinement due to a risk to its own life or to someone else.

"I don't see why not," Thomas said after a brief deliberation. "We seldom have a use for it. Do you mind my asking what you need it for?"

Sugarberry unfolded her woes concerning the safety of the birds frequenting her feeding site, and Thomas agreed that a live-trap might solve her problem.

"If you've got a wild animal around your house, it would be a good idea to relocate it to a more isolated area," he reassured her. "Will you need any help getting the trap home?"

"Oh, no. Vanguard is coming to pick me up," she blushed as she hurried back to her desk to answer the ringing telephone.

* * *

"It worked out well for you to stop at the clinic," Sugarberry cast a thankful glance at Vanguard as the two ponies headed to Sugarberry's house. Vanguard was carrying the metal cage with the trap door that allowed for safe trapping of an animal. "Weak little me would have had a hard time carrying that clunky thing."

"No problem," the stallion grinned. "But I'm disappointed that it's not snowing yet. I was hoping to get snowbound at your place."

Sugarberry ignored his remark, but scanned the sky closely. The sunny morning that had started their day had turned into a cloudy afternoon, and now the clouds seemed to be closing in and growing heavier and darker. It was easy to believe that a fair amount of snow was headed their way.

Sugarberry led the way to her back yard when they arrived at her house, and she unlocked her back door to retrieve a fresh supply of birdseed while Vanguard prepared the trap with a handful of cat food that Thomas had assured them would attract most carnivorous animals.

"Where do you think it should go?" she pondered as she walked toward the feeders. "The bird this morning was under the gaz..."

Sugarberry's voice broke-off suddenly as she caught sight of another bloodied patch under a sunflower. "No!" she cried as she bent down and recognized the diminutive black and white feathers of the chickadee who conversed with her every morning and every evening. Her teary eyes looked to Vanguard with anguish. "He was like a pet to me." She allowed Vanguard to pull her into his forelegs, and she laid her head on his shoulder and let the tears fall. "I wasn't here to protect him," she sobbed.

Holding her closely, Vanguard ran his hoof across her mane while his eyes searched the nearby trees and bushes in the hope that another chickadee would appear, but only several energetic chirping sparrows were brave enough to come close.

When Sugarberry's tears subsided, she pulled away from Vanguard and brushed her cheeks dry. "Sorry about that," she smiled bravely. "I feel better now. I just wish I could have somehow saved its life."

"We'll do our best to catch the culprit that got him, anyway," Vanguard said as he placed the trap in a likely spot.

"You're sure the animal won't get hurt?"

"The trap won't hurt it at all-- other than its pride." Then he warned, "Don't come near the cage by yourself once it's trapped; the animal may be angry and vicious." Vanguard surveyed the ground once more, and noticing a trampled but narrow path through the snow, moved the trap closer to its course.

"What's that thing?" Chocolate Chip asked as she returned home.

"Hey, what's going on?" called Tabby as she cut across the space from her back door.

"Uh-oh. It's time to fix supper!" Sugarberry realized.

While Vanguard explained the problem and the plan of capture to the two ponies, Sugarberry went inside to begin supper preparations. Soon the others came in, and Chocolate Chip mashed the potatoes while Tabby set the table and Vanguard cut a loaf of bread fresh out of the breadmaker.

"I've gained five pounds since Chocolate Chip bought me that thing with the timer on it," Sugarberry admitted. "Fresh bread is too good!"

"I'll agree with that!" said Vanguard as he snitched a slice to nibble on while the rest of the food was cooking.

When the foursome sat down to eat, the conversation flew fast.

"Seabreeze must like eighties toys, too, Tabby. She calls her pet turtle Teatime."

"Could you explain more about the Lagrange multiplier method, Vanguard?"

"The Pokèmon Center was busy all day. Mr. Mime says its because there's a storm coming and the animals are restless. At least I think that's what he was getting across."

"The food is terrific, as usual."

After dessert had been finished-- a thawed chocolate cake from the freezer-- Sugarberry washed the dishes while Tabby dried; Vanguard and Chocolate Chip sat at the kitchen table discussing differential equations in depth until finally Chocolate Chip squealed, "I see it now! It all makes perfect sense," and she scurried upstairs to finish her homework.

"Look!" Tabby called as she passed the window. In the glow of the porch light, tiny snowflakes were just beginning to dance. "The snowstorm is starting! It'll be a delightful night to do something of no importance at home," planned Tabby as she headed out the door. "Tah-tah!"

"I'll check the trap before I leave, " Vanguard offered.

"Yes, let's go look," agreed Sugarberry.

But the two found the trap still empty. Saying goodnight under the porch light, Vanguard gave Sugarberry a kiss on the cheek before starting off through the quickly multiplying snowflakes.

Sugarberry went inside and put on a CD of classical violin music and curled up on the sofa with the latest Cat Who mystery that Chocolate Chip had brought home from Bushwoolie Bargain Books where she worked every afternoon. Soon caught up in the flow of the story, she was half done with the book when Chocolate Chip came downstairs to raid the refrigerator.

"It's that late already?" Sugarberry yawned as she looked at the clock. She followed Chocolate Chip into the kitchen to fix two cups of decaf coffee while Chocolate Chip loaded a plate with chocolate chip cookies from the cookie jar, and set it on the table.

"What's up with Fluff?" Chocolate Chip wondered. "He's been staring out the window like we aren't here." She went to pet the furry monster, but Fluff didn't acknowledge the attention except to swivel his ears in her direction for a second.

"He must like watching the snow fall," Sugarberry surmised, seeing that she'd left the back porch light on. The snow was coming down fast and steady and the entire backyard was covered in at least five inches of snow. "If this keeps us, we'll be buried in snow by morning!"

"At least the wind isn't blowing it in drifts," commented Chocolate Chip as she gazed out the window.

Flicking the light switch off, Sugarberry coaxed Fluff off the windowsill to eat a few cookie crumbs while she and Chocolate Chip discussed the happenings of Dream Valley.

"Baby Springtime and Baby Melonball are growing like weeds," Sugarberry remarked. "They'll be full-fledged royalty before their parents are ready for it, I'm afraid."

Chocolate Chip saw it differently. "Those two are a handful! Springtime and Melonball will be more than ready to turn them over to the princesses when the twins turn eighteen!"

Wanting to disagree, yet sensitive to the feelings of the chocolate brown filly whom she had come to love as a daughter, Sugarberry changed the topic, for Chocolate Chip had been cruelly evicted by her parents at age eighteen which is why she had ended up-- alone and homeless-- in Dream Valley.

"Sugarberry?" Chocolate Chip seemed to sense what thoughts were running through Sugarberry's mind during this gap in their conversation. "What would you think of my visiting my parents over semester break in a couple weeks?"

Setting her coffee cup on the table, Sugarberry smiled. "I think that's a very good idea."

"It's not really my idea... Wishbone called the other day and suggested it." Wishbone was Chocolate Chip's brother.

"You haven't been home in over a year; you'll find lots of changes, and maybe resolve some of your doubts."

"Wishbone thinks Mom and Dad will accept me now, but I'm not so sure. They've never even written or called."

Sugarberry patted her hoof comfortingly. "What have you got to lose?" She added softly, "And imagine what you might gain!"

Chocolate Chip sighed deeply. "I guess it's gotta happen sooner or later." She smiled, but her eyes were uncertain.

The two ponies sat quietly for some time, each playing out in their own minds a different scenario of Chocolate Chip's joyful reunion with her family (Sugarberry's version), or a heartbreaking rejection (Chocolate Chip's rendition).

Standing up and packing her empty mug to the sink, Sugarberry noticed that Fluff was again perched on the windowsill, his nose pressed against the glass pane as if waiting for something.

"Has he ever been this interested in the weather before?" Chocolate Chip asked.

Sugarberry frowned. "No. He usually sleeps even more through snowfalls."

Laughing, Chocolate Chip teased, "He sleeps all the time as it is. How can he sleep more?" She patted him on the head. Again, his only response was to turn his ears to the sound of her voice for a brief second, then put full concentration on the black void beyond the window.

"Let's put the light back on," Sugarberry suggested. "Maybe we can spot the something that is so fascinating."

The snow had built up even higher; and now the wind was picking up, packing ridges like white sand dunes across the backyard and whipping some spots clear of snow.

"Look!" Chocolate Chip called. "The trap must be buried under that drift!" All that remained in sight was one metal corner sticking through the myriad collection of flakes.

"I wonder..." Sugarberry grew thoughtful. "Could Fluff know that an animal has gotten caught in that thing?"

Chocolate Chip's eyes grew round and worried. "Oh, that might be it! We can't leave whatever it is out there in this storm!" Her eyes pleaded with Sugarberry.

"But what if it's some mean, vicious thing?" Sugarberry shuddered. "It did eat two of my birds, you know." But she was already unlocking the door. "Grab the broom," she ordered Chocolate Chip as she herself fished a flashlight from the utility closet. With bristly weapon and light in hooves, the two ventured out into the blustery night.

The snowflakes blew against their bodies like ice shards, and with heads bent, they cautiously approached the trap. Already, the contraption had completely disappeared, the snow was falling so fast.

"Clear the snow away!" Sugarberry yelled over the howling wind to her accomplice. Chocolate Chip set to work with the broom, brushing the drift away. When the top and one side was exposed, Sugarberry flashed the light beam at the interior of the cage to see what monster they had ensnared.

Two frightened eyes reflected the light from the flashlight, and those two eyes were those of...

"It's a kitten!" Chocolate Chip squealed.

"What's the poor little thing doing out in this weather?" asked Sugarberry.

Hoisting the trap cage between them, the ponies maneuvered themselves and their load back through the snow to the house where they fought the wind for the door, and finally succeeded in escaping the tempest outside for the warmth and quiet inside. Chocolate Chip figured out how to release the hatch on the trap while Sugarberry got a warm towel to wrap the kitten in.

The black tiger shorthair was pressed into a corner of the cage, fearfully watching these creatures who could be friend or foe. But when Sugarberry reached into the trap toward the kitten, it sensed goodness, and allowed himself to be picked up and wrapped in the comfort of the towel.

Gently massaging the kitten's wet and shivering body, Sugarberry soon had him dry and snug, and the kitten thought he had found heaven on earth. He lay wrapped up like a baby with only his face showing, his eyes half open, a ragged purr vibrating his body, and just an occasional tremor to remind him of the cold ordeal he had just been through.

"I wonder if he's hungry," Chocolate Chip worried. "What should we feed him?"

"Here. You hold him while I open a can of Fluff's food."

The kitten ate several bites of food, but seemed more interested in sleep, so Sugarberry took him to the rocking chair while Chocolate Chip cleaned up the kitchen.

"The snow is still piling up, Sugarberry. We'll have lots of shoveling to do tomorrow!" the filly reported when she had finished her chores. "Too bad it will be Saturday-- otherwise classes might have been canceled." Her eyes sparkled like those of a foal anticipating an unexpected day of vacation.

"I suppose Current, Chip, and Prime will see their way clear to show up at your front door in time for their usual free breakfast," Sugarberry teased. The three stallions, all classmates of Chocolate Chip at Pony Pride University, had been making a habit of escaping dorm life on Saturday morning by hanging out in Sugarberry's kitchen where they practiced their culinary skills in the company of Chocolate Chip. "We can put them to work shoveling us out."

"Prime's supposed to whip up the perfect omelet tomorrow," giggled Chocolate Chip. "And Current is going to make blueberry muffins."

"Let's hope they know what they're doing!"

When Chocolate Chip had retired to her room for the night, Sugarberry continued to rock the cozily sleeping kitten softly purring in her forelegs. She smiled when at one point he half-opened his tired eyes, and stretched a front leg out of his wrappings and touched his paw delicately to Sugarberry's cheek, then fell back asleep.

Seeing the clock pointing out midnight, Sugarberry roused the kitten long enough to show him where Fluff's litter box was-- and he knowingly made use of it-- before packing him off to her bedroom where she tucked him into a soft blanket at the foot of her bed.

Sugarberry had snuggled herself under the covers and was just dropping off to the steady whine of the wind outside her window when a light weight crossed over her body and a furry object crawled under the covers and circled itself into a ball under her chin. Half-consciously, Sugarberry smiled and wrapped the kitten in her forelegs, pulling him tight against her body, and the kitten serenaded her with his gentle purr as they both fell fast asleep.

Opening her eyes the next morning, Sugarberry found herself peering into the yellow eyes of the tiger-striped kitten as he sat on her pillow watching her.

"Well, good morning, little fellow!" She reached out to pet the little guy, and his purring erupted into the quiet surroundings.

Sugarberry sat up-- knocking Fluff off the foot of the bed in so doing-- and stretched. "So you two have met," she petted both of the felines. "Fluff, this little orphan will be our guest for a few days until we find his home. I expect you to be a gracious host."

The newcomer took the opportunity to pounce on Fluff's tail, which sent the orange and white supercat rushing from the room and stampeding down the stairs.

"He'll get used to you," Sugarberry comforted the surprised kitten.

Walking across to a bedroom window, Sugarberry was enthralled by the pristine wonder of the aftermath of the storm. Snow was piled in deep drifts, changing the character of the landscape in beautiful ways. And the sunshine that followed the darkness of the night opened up a treasure chest of jeweled brilliance across the land that would put to shame any of Sparkler's diamond jewelry.

"Sugarberry! Isn't it fabulous?" Chocolate Chip flitted into the room, eyes aglow. "It's all so magical!"

The two ponies stood enjoying the uninterrupted expanse of winter majesty until movement caught their attention.

"They're coming!" laughed Chocolate Chip as a slow-moving line of three colorful stallions came into view. Each one had a snow shovel, and where the path was impassable, they cleared their way through. Their enthusiasm was contagious.

"I've got to wash up," Chocolate Chip called as she headed for the bathroom.

Sugarberry made her bed and straightened up her room until the facilities were free. The kitten accompanied her throughout her morning routine. By the time she entered the kitchen, Chip, Prime, and Current were just coming in the back door in a flurry of snow which they shook off their bodies.

Chocolate Chip got towels for each of them to dry off and Sugarberry offered to serve them breakfast this morning since they had been working so hard with their snow shovels. Chocolate Chip made hot chocolate for them to sip as they sat around the table, warming up.

"Hey, you've got a new cat!" exclaimed Chip as the black tiger sauntered across the kitchen as if he was already a permanent fixture.

"Bet Fluff doesn't appreciate that!" commiserated Prime as Fluff slunk into the kitchen, keeping a safe distance between himself and the tail-jumper.

Chocalate Chip explained the problem Sugarberry had with something eating her birds, and their capture of the kitten.

"How old do you think he is?" asked Current as the kitten brushed against his legs, begging for attention. Fluff glowered from the sidelines.

"I'd guess six to seven months," stated Sugarberry from her post at the stove where she was scrambling some eggs. The smell of muffins in the oven was tantalizing everyone's tastebuds. "Tabby will have a better idea."

As if on cue, a rap came at the door, followed by the entrance of Tabby. "It really snowed last night, didn't it?" she stated the obvious.

"Hi, Tabby," Sugarberry greeted her friend. "How'd you fight your way through those drifts?"

"It's rather mysterious, actually," Tabby explained, "but the wind cleared a path from my back door to yours."

"Fortunately for you, or you'd have had to make your own breakfast," teased Chocolate Chip.

Tabby leaned on the counter next to Sugarberry, watching Chocolate Chip and her friends as they talked and laughed. "I don't know why you put up with those free-loaders," she hissed at Sugarberry.

Sugarberry rolled her eyes. "Who gets more free meals at my table other than you, Tabby?" she smiled at the pink unicorn. "Chocolate Chip enjoys their company just like I enjoy yours."

"Say! What's this?" asked Tabby as the kitten came to bat at some melted snow around Tabby's hooves.

"You are a vet, and don't know what a kitten is?" hooted Prime and his buddies.

Tabby's look of disdain quieted the stallions, or at least reduced them to discreet snickers. She reached down and scooped up the kitten, who nestled in her forelegs and purred in a mild roar. "He's a silver mackerel tabby cat," she informed Sugarberry.

"And he likes you, Tabby!" Sugarberry cooed.

"Don't tell me this is the evil monster that you set the trap for," Tabby queried as she caught sight of the live-trap next to the kitchen door.

"Well, he was living off my birds; but I guess he was lost and alone, and had no choice," Sugarberry calculated as she served up the eggs and muffins. Chocolate Chip poured glasses of orange juice for every pony.

"Whatcha going to do with him?" asked Current as he buttered a hot muffin.

"I was thinking that I'd place an ad in the paper to see if anyone's missing him," Sugarberry said thoughtfully. "Someone might be heartbroken not knowing what's become of him."

"And what if no one claims him?" asked Tabby. "What then?"

Sugarberry looked down at the kitten sitting at her hooves, watching her expectantly. She smiled at the critter and patted his head. "I'll have to see what happens," she side-stepped the problem.

The ringing of the phone sent Chocolate Chip scurrying to answer it. "Hello?... Sorry, you're too late. Breakfast has already been served," giggled Chocolate Chip. To Sugarberry she called, "It's for you... Vanguard."

"Ask him to cut our homework assignments," grinned Prime as Sugarberry went to the phone.

"Morning!... Yes, it was a kitten... he's the sweetest little thing... sure, come on over!"

When finished, Sugarberry found the stallions clearing the table and running dish water while Tabby and Chocolate Chip sat back giving them instructions, so she used the time to clean the litter box and replenish the food dish. Fluff purred his thanks as he rubbed against her legs, but fled when the kitten edged up to the dish ahead of him.

By this time, the stallions were ready to begin washing and drying the dishes. Sugarberry gave them the option of shoveling out her front walkway, and they all three chose the outdoor work. Chocolate Chip joined them while Sugarberry and Tabby tackled the dishes.

The kitten had eaten his fill, and was now sitting in the middle of the kitchen cleaning his fur which gave Fluff the opportunity to visit the food bowl.

"You should keep him," Tabby stated suddenly.

"The kitten?"

"Yes, the kitten," Tabby continued. "He'd be good company for Fluff when you are away."

"Fluff seems to be annoyed with him."

"He'd get over that."

"Maybe, but I can't decide until I know if someone's going to claim him or not."

* * *

The ad had appeared in the Wednesday edition of the Ponyland Gazette, and Sugarberry waited anxiously for a phone call. She had put both the clinic's number and her home phone number in the ad so as not to miss anyone's inquiries. She was torn in two directions-- hoping the owner would call and be reunited with the lost kitten, and hoping no one would call so that she could keep the kitten.

In the evening while she keyed on her computer, Raptor-- for that is what she had named him on a temporary basis-- would curl up on her lap and sleep. At night, he slept snuggled up next to her on the pillow; and every morning she woke up to his licking her cheek a few seconds before her alarm clock went off.

Even Fluff had mellowed out so that the two would curl up in a comfortable hodgepodge on the living room sofa while Sugarberry was away. Raptor made himself at home, and he appeared to be quite content with his new circumstances.

It was Friday afternoon when the call came that Sugarberry had been dreading, and her heart dropped when the caller identified the kitten as his own.

"I didn't call sooner as I was out of town," the pony explained. "He'd gotten out of the house before I left, and I didn't have time to look for him."

"It was bad weather for a kitten to be abandoned," Sugarberry responded in a cool voice.

"Hey! I had no choice. Now, where do you live, and when can I pick him up?"

After giving the pony her address, and arranging to meet at six o'clock, Sugarberry hung up the phone and sat, dazed, at her desk where Thomas found her between appointments. One look at her face, and he knew what the problem was.

"Someone called about Raptor?"


"Who does he belong to?" Thomas went to the coffeemaker, and poured Sugarberry a cup.

"Some stallion from across town. Gauntlet, I think he said his name was," Sugarberry's monotone voice answered.

"Here, drink this," Thomas said as he set the coffee in front of Sugarberry. "Doctor's orders."

Sugarberry absentmindedly took a sip. "I knew this day would come, but yet I prayed that somehow I could keep the little guy." She looked at Thomas with watery eyes.

Handing her a kleenex, Thomas made a suggestion. "Would it be easier if Tabby and I were with you when Gauntlet arrives to pick-up Raptor?"

Wiping her nose, Sugarberry nodded her head. "Would you? I think I'm going to need someone's shoulder to cry on, and Vanguard has a departmental meeting tonight."

It was with heavy hearts that Tabby, Thomas, and Sugarberry waited for six o'clock to roll around; they sat in Sugarberry's living room with Raptor curled up on Sugarberry's lap and Fluff at her hooves.

Both cats perked up their ears and swiveled their heads to stare at the front door a half minute before a knock sounded. All three ponies stood up, and Sugarberry walked to the door packing Raptor.

Opening the door revealed a bright blue stallion with purple mane and tail. "I'm Gauntlet, and I'm here to pick up my cat." Dropping his gaze to the kitten in Sugarberry's forelegs, he reached out to take the feline. "There you are, you little villain! I'll keep my eyes on you after this!" Grasping the kitten roughly, he dropped him into a carrier at his side. "Sorry to have bothered you," Gauntlet said as he turned and walked away. A faint meow carried across the porch, and a furry paw reached pleadingly toward Sugarberry.

She stood speechless, her sorrow at losing Raptor overwhelmed by her anger at the stallion's brusqueness.

"Friendly sort, wasn't he?" Thomas asked in irony.

"I'd like to see Tarquin have at him for about ten minutes," admitted Tabby. Tarquin was her Pokèmon Meowth.

"He was a complete oaf!" sputtered Sugarberry as she finally found her voice. "Do you have any idea who he is?"

"Never saw him before." Both Tabby and Thomas were as much in the dark as Sugarberry, who was now pacing the floor in an impatient manner.

"He doesn't even like cats!" she fumed. "You could tell that the way he handled Raptor." She stopped in her tracks, and in horror, exclaimed, "He could be cruel to him!"

"Now, Sug," Tabby tried to sooth her friend, "just because he had no manners doesn't mean that he would harm the kitten."

Thomas agreed. "Not all pet owners are sentimental over their pets, but they still take good care of them."

Sugarberry stood in the center of the room in total dejection. "He didn't even give me a chance to say goodbye to Raptor," she moaned. And Fluff let out a wailing meow that let her know that he was commiserating in her sorrow.

"I tell you what we can do, Sugarberry," Thomas suddenly speculated. "I'll write a note to Gauntlet tomorrow to recomend that Raptor have a complete physical due to his experience in the elements; I'll even offer him a discount to make sure he doesn't have a reason to ignore it."

"But you just examined Raptor on Monday," Sugarberry reasoned.

"He doesn't have to know that, Sug," Tabby said flippantly.

"Well, I guess it's worth a try," the worried pony admitted, trying to look cheerful. "Thanks for caring, Thomas."

Tabby decided it was time to lighten the mood. "Let's head over to the Satin Slipper Sweet Shoppe and drown our sorrows in ice cream!"

"Good idea," agreed Thomas. "Come on, Sugarberry. It will help get your mind off Raptor."

Later at Scoop's shop, Tabby and Thomas got into a heated discussion with Clever Clover concerning Furbys while Sugarberry broke the news to Chocolate Chip that Raptor had been returned to his owner.

"Oh, Sugarberry, I'm sorry!" Chocolate Chip knew how attached Sugarberry had become to the kitten. "Was some little foal all excited to get him back?"

"Hardly," scowled Sugarberry as she related the meeting to Chocolate Chip. "Have you ever run into this Gauntlet character?"

Chocolate Chip thought hard. "You said he's blue with purple hair; that sound familiar, but I can't place him... maybe he shops at Bushwoolie Bargain Books."

"Are you two discussing a stallion?" interrupted Tiffany as she passed by. "Is he cute?"

When Vanguard came into the shop, he crossed the room to Sugarberry immediately. "Have you ordered yet?" he asked; then noticing the anguish in her eyes, he sat down quickly. "What's wrong?"

Chocolate Chip put her foreleg around Sugarberry and enlightened Vanguard-- she gave the condensed version. "Some senseless clod came to the house tonight and took Raptor!"

"Did this ‘senseless clod' respond to your ad?"

"Yes. He called this morning, and picked Raptor up at six," Sugarberry supplied. "And he had the personality of a boar."

"Who was this barbarian?" Vanguard asked in curiosity. Whoever he was, he obviously hadn't made a good impression on the girls.

"Some jerk named Gauntlet!" Sugarberry spat the name like it was poison.

"Gauntlet?" Vanguard sat forward in surprise. "I know him!"

Sugarberry grimaced. "How did you ever meet such a ... a... " She had, unfortunately, run out of derogatory names.

"He's the art teacher at Pony Pride."

Chocolate Chip exclaimed in recognition. "That's why he sounded familiar-- but the art pony's name is Letty."

"That's what he goes by at school," Vanguard informed them. "He's really an okay stallion once you get to know him. He's just returned from an art exhibit."

"The ponies that have him for art class say he's a lot of fun-- and he grades easy, too!" Chocolate Chip collaborated.

"That seems hard to believe." Sugarberry wasn't convinced.

* * *

It was Tuesday morning before a call came in to the clinic from Gauntlet acknowledging that the kitten could probably use a check-up, but he couldn't fit it into his schedule until late Friday. Sugarberry suppressed her disappointment in the delay, and scheduled the appointment for the end of the day.

When Friday finally arrived, Sugarberry could barely contain her excitement in seeing Raptor again, although she cautioned herself not to expect too much-- she'd only be able to snuggle the kitten for a brief time. Thomas promised to drag the examination out as long as possible, and surprised Sugarberry by informing Gauntlet to have a seat in the waiting area while he and Sugarberry conducted the exam. Taking the carrier from Gauntlet, Thomas winked at Sugarberry as they entered the examination room.

"I bought you some private time with the little fellow," he grinned.

Opening the carrier, Sugarberry smiled happily. "Thanks, Thomas." Then, as Raptor came rushing out of the cage, she scooped him up in her forelegs, and the energetic kitten went wild with joy.

Setting the carrier on the floor, Thomas reached across the examining table to pet the kitten, and frowned. Sugarberry was so caught up in the reunion that she didn't notice Thomas' troubled expression.

"Let's check the kitten out now," Thomas suggested.

Sugarberry looked dumfounded. "You did examine him last week," she reminded him. "Does he really need it again?"

"Couldn't hurt," Thomas quipped as he gently removed Raptor from Sugarberry's forelegs and proceeded to flash a light in his eyes. He next prodded and felt along Raptor's body, then checked the kitten's temperature.

Helping to hold Raptor still, Sugarberry finally became aware that Thomas' attitude was too serious. Her stomach dropped. "Something's wrong, isn't it?"

Thomas hesitated in answering; but as he removed the thermometer, he admitted, "His temperature is quite elevated."

"What's the matter?" she whispered

Taking a deep breath, Thomas confessed, "It could be any number of things. We'll have to run some tests-- blood work and x-rays."

"You think it's serious?"

"Sugarberry, I won't know for certain until we get some solid test results." He patted her hoof reassuringly. "I'll go out and inform Gauntlet that Raptor will have to stay under our supervision for a day or two. Try not to worry," he smiled at his receptionist, but knew that she was already crying inside.

When Thomas re-entered the room after sending Gauntlet home, Raptor begged to get down. Sugarberry set him on the floor and he scampered to Thomas and wove himself around his hooves. The kitten was delighted to be with his old friends, but Sugarberry and Thomas looked on with anxious concern. For although Raptor was obviously energetic, both ponies noticed a peculiar gait in his walk. The kitten seemed to lose his footing every step or two as if his back legs were not responding properly.

Sugarberry lifted her gaze to meet Thomas' eyes. Thomas shook his head. "Let's get that blood test stat," was all he said.

Raptor behaved himself through the pricking and drawing of blood, but considered the x-rays to be an outright insult to his dignity. It was an exhausted kitten that Sugarberry finally installed in his hospital cage; he ignored the food and water, and collapsed on the soft pillow Sugarberry had lovingly provided. "Sleep well," she said softly as she left the fatigued kitten to his slumber.

She found Thomas in his office, his mood pensive. He tried to sound upbeat as he talked with Sugarberry, but she could read the worry in his eyes.

"The blood test results will take a while," he stated. "As for the x-rays..." Thomas got up and flicked on the blacklight to accent the pictures. Sugarberry peered at them, not sure what she was seeing.

Pointing to the x-ray, Thomas began explaining. "There's something in his stomach, something rather large."

Sugarberry could make out a mass of something. "What is it?" she asked.

"It appears to be some kind of mineral, and also an area of bone." He moved his hoof to follow the picture of the spine. "See how part of it mimics the composition of his backbone?"

"So you're saying he swallowed a mouse?"

"I wish it were that simple," Thomas sighed. "No, this is definitely not a mouse."

"A growth, then?"

"No. It's something he ingested in the last couple of days." Thomas studied the x-ray for several minutes and took a deep breath. "Whatever it is, the symptoms point to poisoning."

"What do you mean?" she quietly asked.

"If Raptor ate something poisonous to his system, it's sitting in his stomach and being spread through his body. His weakness in the back legs and the fever are just the beginnings of the problems he could develop."

"He could get worse?"

"I'm afraid so, if we don't get the poison out of him soon."

Sugarberry felt a wave of weakness wash over her body. She sat down on an office chair in despair. "What can we do?"

"Unfortunately, there are no antidotes for cat poisonings, even if we knew what he got into. Gauntlet's an artist, so it could have been any number of toxic substances."

Thomas paused for a minute as Sugarberry tried to come to terms with what she was hearing.

"I'm going to give him barium, which will coat the substance in his stomach," he continued.

"How will that help?"

"It will serve one of two purposes-- either diagnostic to help to determine what we're dealing with, or therapeutic to get the mass moving out of the stomach and out of Raptor's body."

Both ponies jumped as a brisk knock sounded on Thomas' office door, followed by the appearance of Tabby's inquisitive face. "It's after hours, you guys! Party, wah!" she said as she looked from one to the other, but seeing their worry, she queried, "What's up?"

Tears began to stream silently from Sugarberry's eyes as Thomas went into a technical explanation of Raptor's problem. The two unicorns stood before the x-rays and conferred over their shared expertise. It was only after they had discussed all aspects of the case that Tabby pulled up a chair next to Sugarberry, and attempted to console her friend.

"We're going to do everything we can, Sug! Raptor's a spunky little guy."

Too distraught to respond, Sugarberry simply nodded her head, her eyes red and her cheeks wet.

Thomas had left the room to begin treatment on Raptor. Tabby patted Sugarberry's foreleg. "You wait here; I'll go help Thomas."

Sugarberry quickly wiped away her tears. "Can I come, too?"

"Of course!" Tabby smiled, and the two ponies crossed the hall to the confinement area.

Thomas looked up from the kitten as the mares entered. "We're going to start an antibiotic right away, Sugarberry, and later we will do another x-ray to find out what the barium tells us."

Sugarberry choked back a sob as she caught sight of Raptor. It seemed as if his condition had deteriorated rapidly since he'd arrived at the clinic. He lay on the exam table with imploring eyes, but defeated body.

"Oh, Raptor!" she wailed. "You've got to be okay!"

As Tabby and Thomas worked over Raptor, Sugarberry paced the floor until she caught the sound of the front door of the clinic opening. It was well past closing time, so she hurried out to see who was there, and why. It was with relief that she found Vanguard and Chocolate Chip.

"We were worried when you weren't at home or at the Satin Slipper Sweet Shop," they explained.

Staying as composed as possible, she explained the current crisis to her friends, and they all three went back to check on Raptor's condition.

Thomas had just returned the tired kitten to his cage where he lay with eyes half-closed. In response to Sugarberry's gentle talking, Raptor reached out a paw, but seemed to find the effort too great, and he withdrew it again with a feeble, almost silent, meow. Tabby dimmed the lights, and everyone followed Thomas to the main lobby.

"All we can do now is wait," he informed the ring of attentive listeners. "We've done every thing we can; and Raptor needs his rest."

"By the looks of it, so do the lot of you. Can I bring you all something to eat?" Vanguard offered, his eyes fixed on Sugarberry's troubled face.

"I think we could all go for some food," Thomas agreed. "And plenty of soda."

"I'll go with you, Vanguard," Chocolate Chip offered. "You want to come with us, Sugarberry?"

She hesitated, but Thomas spoke-up. "Go on, Sugarberry. Raptor is asleep, and Tabby and I will keep an eye on him. You'll be back before we can go any further."

* * *

It was the middle of the night before Thomas and Tabby took another x-ray of Raptor, and the two unicorns were smiling when they examined the results.

"The barium is causing the mass to move out of the stomach," Thomas observed.

"See, Sugarberry?" Tabby added. "It's moving through the intestines."

Sugarberry's expression was hopeful for the first time since this ordeal had begun, and she grabbed onto Vanguard's hoof. "He's going to be okay?"

Tabby and Thomas exchanged a quick glance, and Tabby modified their enthusiasm. "It's an encouraging sign; whatever is inside of him needs to be gotten out of there."

Thomas turned with advice for them all. "Raptor's sleeping again, so you might as well go home and get some sleep, too." Looking at the clock, he grinned. "It's almost morning."

"Sleep would be good," yawned Sugarberry, just now realizing how very tired she was. "Are you coming, Tabby?"

After checking on Raptor's comfort, Sugarberry woke Chocolate Chip who had fallen asleep in the waiting room, and soon all the ponies were on their way home.

* * *

Sugarberry had been so tired when she got home that she'd collapsed on the couch and fallen asleep instantly. She didn't awaken until she heard Chocolate Chip dome down the stairs and accidentally step on Fluff's tail which caused a terrible yowl to echo through the house.

Sitting up on the couch, she stretched and rubbed her forehead. "My eyes hurt and my head aches," she complained as Chocolate Chip attempted to pacify Fluff.

"Gee, and it's nearly nine o'clock," Chocolate Chip informed her. "Here come Prime, Chip, and Current up the walk."

"Oh, great," groaned Sugarberry as she dashed up the stairs to get washed up and comb her hair. By the time she got to the kitchen, breakfast was beginning to take shape. "Something smells good!"

"It's a breakfast pizza, Sugarberry," Chocolate Chip informed her. "The guys brought all the ingredients."

Current was adding toppings with a generous hoof. "You'll love this concoction, Sugarberry. My mom used to make it for me all the time!"

A knock at the front door produced Vanguard, and one at the back door presented Tabby and Thomas. Thomas was holding a cat carrier, and Raptor's eager face peered through the bars.

"Raptor!" Sugarberry squealed. She immediately released him from the cage, and hugged him tightly. Looking questioningly at Thomas, she asked, "Is he okay?"

"The poison cleared his system, although he may be weak for a couple days yet," Thomas smiled. "I figured he'd be happier with you than stuck at the clinic."

"But what about Gauntlet?"

Tabby took up the conversation. "Thomas called him this morning to report on Raptor's progress, and to caution him about leaving his art supplies lying around where the kitten could get into them; and he said he didn't want the pesky animal back anyway!"

"He told me to do whatever I wanted to with him," Thomas' eyes sparkled. "Got any ideas, Sugarberry?"

Burying her face in the kitten's fur, Sugarberry closed her eyes and sighed blissfully. "Did you hear that Raptor? You can stay here!"

Raptor turned to face Sugarberry and seemed to smile in affirmation. Then he lifted his paw, and gently touched it to Sugarberry's nose.

Everyone laughed, and Chip commented, "I think he approves!"

Sugarberry grew serious for a moment. "Raptor and I want to thank Thomas and Tabby for saving Raptor's life."

Applause for the two veterinarians filled the kitchen, and Thomas hugged Tabby to him. "We make a great team!" he whispered in her ear.

As the college crew continued with breakfast preparations, Vanguard led Sugarberry to the kitchen window. "Look," he pointed toward the gazebo feeder. "A new pair of chickadees moved into the neighborhood."

Sugarberry's eyes lighted up in delight. "How wonderful!" she breathed. "Raptor's safe now and the birds will be, too. Isn't life grand?"

"Not half bad," he agreed as he pulled her to him and kissed her lovingly. Neither of them were conscious of the snickers and winks passed between the three young stallions. For that moment in time, Sugarberry and Vanguard were lost in each other, and nothing else mattered. Isn't life grand indeed!

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