A Fair Exchange
written by Sugarberry

"Sugarberry, this is Vanguard. I need to talk to you."

"Have you heard about Tabby and Thomas?" Sugarberry countered into the phone receiver.

"What about Tabby and Thomas?" queried Vanguard after a pause.

"They're engaged!" a triumphant Sugarberry squealed.

A longer pause ensued before Vanguard spoke. "Hey! That's great!"

"Everyone's meeting at the Satin Slipper Sweet Shoppe after work to celebrate. Can you make it?"

"Sure. I'll be there."

"Great! See you later!" Sugarberry put the receiver back on its cradle and beamed at Thomas, her boss at The Vet Clinic. "I am so happy for the two of you!"

She hadn't seen Tabby yet, but all of Dream Valley was buzzing with the news that Tabby was wearing a diamond engagement ring from Thomas; Tiffany had brought the news early in the day, alerted by her gossip network, and Thomas had proudly verified the rumor.

It was a boisterous crowd that congregated at Scoop's establishment when the workday ended. Tabby accepted her celebrity status with grace and charm, radiantly showing off her diamond with Thomas by her side.

"Never thought I'd see the day when you'd be wearing a sparkly ring like that," teased Quarterback.

"Yeah, yeah, sparkly!" agreed Friendly.

Tabby even accepted congratulations from Mimic and Tex with a smile on her face.

"Don't know how you did it, Thomas, but keep up the good work," winked Tex. "And Tabby, can you honestly forgive me now for the worm incident?"

With a quick glance at Thomas, Tabby responded, "Where's a disco ball when you need one?"

Sugarberry had commandeered Vanguard as soon as he arrived from his work at the university, and led him to admire the precious jewel on Tabby's foreleg. Vanguard hugged Tabby and shook Thomas' hoof. "I wish you two a life of happiness together!" He then retired to the fringe of the crowd, feeling a little out of place in all the celebration.

The worried expression that often crossed Vanguard's face bypassed Sugarberry as she mingled with the crowd and shared giddy secrets with the other mares and fillies. She was still very upbeat when Vanguard and Chocolate Chip reminded her it was getting late.

The three of them left the shop with Vanguard accompanying the girls home. The stars twinkling overhead only accentuated the merry mood that Sugarberry and Chocolate Chip carried with them. Among their comments on Tabby and Thomas and rings and weddings, Vanguard remained silent. He wanted a moment alone with Sugarberry, so he bided his time; but it was not meant to be.

As soon as the girls hit the porch, Chocolate Chip proposed a brilliant idea-- "Let's start planning a bridal shower!"

"Ooh! Yes! Won't this be fun?" Sugarberry readily agreed.

Vanguard saw his chance slip away, so he bravely smiled and said, "You two have fun, but I'm going home. This sounds like a girl thing."

Chocolate Chip laughingly opened the door while Sugarberry hugged her favorite stallion and brushed his cheek with a kiss. "Goodnight, Vanguard."

"Goodnight, Sugarberry. See you tomorrow after the Writers' Block meeting?"

"Same time, same place," she grinned as the door closed behind her.

* * *

When Sugarberry entered the Satin Slipper Sweet Shoppe the next evening, she slumped into the seat next to Vanguard with a sigh.

"What's up?" he asked, alert to her every mood swing.

"Why can't I learn to just say no?" she groaned. "Wigwam asked me to proofread his native pony tales just when I was getting into my next book."

Patting her hoof, Vanguard attempted to ease her consternation. "You're just tired. You'll be all charged up about it by morning."

Sugarberry smiled gratefully at him. "I suppose you're right."

The opening door of the shop admitted Tabby and Thomas, who came directly to their friends' corner. "Have you ordered yet?" Tabby asked. "Obviously not," she answered he own question as her eyes swept across the empty table.

"Mind if we join you?" Thomas followed.

If a look of annoyance crept across Vanguard's countenance, no one noticed. The four ponies approached the counter, and were soon comfortably ensconced with their favorite ice cream desserts.

Except for the occasional flash of brilliance from Tabby's ring, things had quickly returned to normal; and the conversation revolved around Pokèmon, animals, writing, and college happenings with only brief references to future plans. When the food had been consumed, the two stallions set forth with their mares to see them safely home.

Arriving at Sugarberry's house first, Tabby and Thomas said their goodnights to Sugarberry and Vanguard. Vanguard escorted Sugarberry up the walk and into the house, gladly accepting her invitation to a cup of coffee. He followed her into the kitchen, and leaned against the counter as she prepared the hot brew. She had just set the mugs on the table, and Vanguard had taken a seat and reached for her hoof, when Chocolate Chip entered the room.

"Oh, Vanguard! I'm glad you're here. I've been studying for tomorrow's test, and I'm really not clear on that new concept you introduced last Friday. Can you help me?"

Keeping his eyes on Sugarberry's face for several seconds as if he couldn't bear to let their time together go, he finally broke away and smiled rather wearily at Chocolate Chip. "Sure. What don't you understand?"

While the two went over the math concept, Sugarberry fed and watered Raptor and Fluff, tidied the house, and refilled the coffee mugs. Her interest in math was limited as she seldom needed to use much more than adding and subtracting in her janglebook, and multiplying and dividing office supplies. She struggled to stay abreast of the conversation that Vanguard and Chocolate Chip were engaged in, but soon found her yawns overpowering her.

"You wouldn't mind if I went to bed now, would you?" she said sleepily, her eyes heavy.

"No problem. I'll lock up," Chocolate Chip stated. "Good night." She returned to her complicated figures.

"Come to supper tomorrow," Sugarberry invited Vanguard with yet another yawn.

"Sure. I'll see you then," Vanguard replied, with a wistful look as Sugarberry left the room. "Good night."

Sugarberry hurried home on Wednesday. Wigwam had called and they had arranged for him to deliver his manuscript to Sugarberry's house after work. As usual, because she wanted to leave on time, the last patient of the day had been difficult and she hadn't gotten away until half an hour past closing time.

When within sight of her house, Sugarberry spotted Wigwam coming from the opposite direction; they arrived at her walkway simultaneously.

"Hi, Wigwam," she greeted the orange stallion. "Got all your papers there?" She looked suspiciously at the large brown manila envelope under his foreleg. It appeared to be ready to burst at the seams, it was so stuffed with pages.

"Everything's here," grinned Wigwam. "I surely appreciate your helping me out, Sugarberry."

"No problem," she smiled graciously. "Come on in and show me what I've gotten myself into."

Once inside, Sugarberry led Wigwam to her computer desk, and she seated herself, waving a hoof in the direction of a second chair for him. Wigwam handed over his envelope, and sat down after pulling the chair next to Sugarberry.

Pulling the papers out of the package, Sugarberry's worst fears were realized. The manuscript was hoof-written, making it difficult to read as Wigwam's writing was anything but neat.

"You don't have a computer?" she asked, casting a withering glance in his direction.

"I'm all hooves when it comes to typing," he admitted.

"Aren't we all?" Sugarberry muttered under her breath. Steeling her nerves, she began to peruse the pages.

"What's this word?" she queried only two lines into the work. She pointed to the word, and Wigwam draped a foreleg over the back of her chair as he leaned closer to get a better look. Sugarberry was discomfited at the touch of his mane on her shoulder. It took him awhile to decipher it himself, and as he studied it, the front door opened as Chocolate Chip got home with Vanguard in tow.

In synch, she and Wigwam turned to face the new arrivals, and Sugarberry knew automatically that a self-conscious blush had spread over her face. "Hi," she said, avoiding Vanguard's eyes. "Chocolate Chip, you've met Wigwam, haven't you?"

Chocolate Chip nodded assent.

"I haven't had a chance to start supper," Sugarberry explained. "Chocolate Chip, why don't you call out for something. Wigwam, you can join us for supper, can't you?" she felt obliged to offer.

"Sure! Thanks, Sugarberry," he responded.

Disappearing into the kitchen, Chocolate Chip took care of her errand while Vanguard moved behind Sugarberry and looked over her shoulder, laying a hoof protectively on her chair. Wigwam grinned at the up-tight stallion and moved his chair discreetly away from Sugarberry.

"How are things going?" Vanguard asked.

"Wouldn't you know, I was late getting out of the vet clinic, so we just got started. I'm trying to get a feel for his penmanship style," Sugarberry dispensed an accusing glance in Wigwam's direction.

"Hey! I do my best writing with a pen in my hoof," Wigwam defended himself.

"Your composition is well done... once I can read it," she admitted. "Once I get used to these funny little circles that keep cropping up..."

Taking the page from her, Wigwam laughed. "Those aren't circles. Those are the dots for the "I's" and the periods.

"Oh, great!" Sugarberry groaned. "I'll have to keep that in mind."

By the time the pizza was delivered, Sugarberry felt comfortable in deciphering Wigwam's rough draft, and the four ponies pulled up to the table for a tasty supper of pizza, salad, and soda followed by ice cream. They laughed over the story that Wigwam was relating; he was an excellent story-teller.

By the time the kitchen was straightened up and Chocolate Chip had disappeared into her room to study, Vanguard could see by Sugarberry's nervous attitude that she wanted some peace and quiet to begin typing Wigwam's manuscript into the computer.

"We should clear out so you can get some work done," he said.

Sugarberry smiled appreciatively. "I would like to get started on the manuscript," she verified.

"Vanguard, I've got some questions about taking a few college courses this fall," Wigwam appeared ready to go. "Maybe you can help me out." He moved toward the door, forcing Vanguard to leave with him, missing yet another chance alone with Sugarberry.

"Thanks for the help, Sugarberry. I'll make it up to you!" Wigwam called as he left.

Vanguard grabbed a quick kiss before leaving her to her task. And for her part, Sugarberry settled down at the computer and got to work.

* * *

When Sugarberry got a call from Vanguard on Thursday, she turned down a date with him that evening so that she could make further headway on Wigwam's material. But she promised to be at the Satin Slipper Sweet Shoppe on Friday evening.

But on Friday morning, Vanguard called again. "I've got an emergency faculty meeting tonight at six-thirty; I'll meet you when it's over."

"No problem," Sugarberry assured him. She had no sooner hung up the phone when another call came through.

"Sugarberry, how are you doing with my manuscript?" Wigwam's voice came over the line.

"I hope you don't expect me to be done with it yet," Sugarberry snapped a little peevishly.

Wigwam laughed. "No, not at all. I was just curious about your deciphering of my papers. Do you have any questions?"

"There were a fair number of unclear words," she admitted, "but I'm getting better over time."

"I'm free tonight," Wigwam stated. "Could we meet somewhere to go over the problems?"

"Hmm," Sugarberry thought a second. "I'm going to meet Vanguard about seven-thirty at the Satin Slipper Sweet Shoppe. Maybe we could discuss them there about six-thirty."

"Better yet, I'll meet you at Tex's Salsa Shop at six o'clock, and I can repay you for supper the other night. Will that be okay?"

"Ye...yes. I suppose so, as long as we're done by seven-thirty."

"Great! See you then!"

* * *

It was only seven o'clock when Vanguard arrived at Scoop's place. The faculty members involved in the meeting at the university had arrived early-- anxious to get away from campus-- so the gathering had broken-up earlier than he had expected.

He looked over the ponies at the tables and the counter, but there was no sign of Sugarberry. He debated getting a cup of coffee and was just stepping to the counter when Merry Moments and Quarterback came into the shop.

Exchanging pleasantries as they waited for Scoops to finish with her present customer, Merry Moments questioned Vanguard about Sugarberry. "You two didn't have a fight, did you?"

Vanguard's face registered surprise. "Of course not."

"That's good," Merry Moments grinned. "When I saw her with Wigwam over at Tex's just now, I was kind of worried about you guys."

"Just remember," Quarterback ribbed him, "what goes ‘round, comes ‘round." And he laughed at Vanguard's discomfort.

"You had no hold over her," Vanguard defended himself. Laying his jangles on the counter, he told Scoops, "Coffee. Black."

Quarterback didn't stop. "And how about you? I haven't seen an engagement announcement in the paper yet." Still chuckling, Quarterback guided Merry Moments to the counter while Vanguard fled to a quiet table at the back of the room with his coffee.

The first thing Vanguard saw was a very happy Tabby and Thomas sitting alone, heads bent to each other in earnest conversation. The diamond on Tabby's foreleg caught the light as she gestured, and flashed a prism of color skyward. Vanguard stared down at his coffee, and felt like he was being drawn into its dark, black emptiness.

The passage of time had gotten away on Vanguard when a little face peered over the edge of his table.

"Hi, Mr. Vanguard." It was Baby Noddins.

"Hi, Baby Noddins."

"You're all alone, so I came to sit with you."

Baby Noddins seated herself in the chair across from Vanguard. "Whatcha doing?"

"Just thinking," he responded.

"What about?"

"Everything. And what are you doing here tonight?"

With a wave of her hoof, she explained. "Mommy and Daddy brought me and Baby Falling Leaves, but I'm mad at her."

"Again?" smiled Vanguard.

"She sat with Baby Racer," Baby Noddins scowled. "He's boring."

"Oh, I see," Vanguard sympathized. Then he asked, "Would you like a sundae?"

"Oh, yes, I would." Baby Noddins' eyes grew round. "A hot fudge sundae would be good."

"Coming right up," Vanguard announced as he got up and headed for the counter. Baby Noddins followed him.

"Can I have nuts on top?" she questioned.

"You sure can!" he verified, nodding his assent to Scoops.

When Vanguard and his little tag-along were seated once again, and Baby Noddins had eaten her way through half her sundae, she surprised her host with an abrupt query. "Are you gonna marry Sugarberry?"

Taken off guard, Vanguard stuttered. "I... why... do you think I should?"

"Yes!" declared Baby Noddins. "I like weddings!"

"Oh, I see. Have you been to many weddings yet?"

"Well... no," she frowned. But then her face brightened. "But Lemon Treats is going to invite me to her wedding, and Tabby is, too! I hope." She got a far-away look in her eyes, dreaming of white lace and flower bouquets.

Deciding to switch to a safer topic, Vanguard asked, "How are you doing in math?"

Baby Noddins came out of her reverie and wrinkled her nose. "I hate math!"


"Fractions are stupid!" she declared. "Especially when the denomi-whatevers don't match. Very frustrating," she added emphatically.

Vanguard was startled to feel a hoof settle gently on his shoulder, and a soft voice ask, "May I sit down, or would you two rather be alone?" Baby Noddins giggled.

He jumped up to pull a chair out for Sugarberry. "Hi!" He suddenly felt a tad less depressed. "I didn't see you come in."

"It looks like you were having an interesting conversation," commented Sugarberry as she sat down with her steaming cup of coffee and familiar manila envelope. "How are you tonight, Baby Noddins?" she asked of the lavender youngster.

"I'm not hungry anymore," she said, pushing the melting sundae to the center of the table and sliding off the chair. "Bye."

Sugarberry giggled. "I hope it wasn't something I said."

"She probably remembered that I don't have a last name," Vanguard rationalized.

"You must have finished your meeting early," Sugarberry stated.

"Yes. It went well."

"Good. Wigwam treated me to supper at the salsa shop so we could go over some unreadable words." She glanced uneasily at Vanguard, but he didn't seem upset by the news. She squeezed his hoof. "I've missed you," she added.

"On that note, may I walk you home?" Vanguard suggested. "It's a beautiful evening."

"Yes, it is," agreed Sugarberry. She picked up the envelope containing Wigwam's manuscript, and the couple left the crowded hangout.

"Did you see Tabby and Thomas?" Sugarberry asked as they walked down the lighted paths. "They seem to have grown so close since Thomas gave her that ring. It's as if they have their own secret world. And, you know, they both seem to have become wiser somehow as well. Except their attitude toward Furbys-- they treat them as equals." She mulled over this fact for a moment.

Vanguard remained silent on the subject, so Sugarberry continued her monologue.

"Wigwam's native tales book is going to be a big success," she predicted. "I'm grateful that he promised me an autographed copy."

"He owes you that much for all the work you're doing for him."

Sugarberry giggled. "He's going to pay me," she clarified. "He told me to keep track of my time."

Vanguard lapsed back into silence. "Oh. I almost forget," Sugarberry finally spoke-up. "I saw a Baltimore Oriole today. I put an orange out on the gazebo feeder, and an Oriole showed up the very first day!"

"That's neat."

"And the male goldfinches all have their bright yellow summer feathers back again." She continued to ramble on about any number of topics, but Vanguard remained withdrawn.

Arriving at the house, Sugarberry set the envelope inside and she and Vanguard sat on the porch swing in the mild evening air. Sugarberry hugged his nearest foreleg to her while leaning her head against his shoulder. She always felt safe when she was with him like this. The frogs could be heard calling from their homes on the riverbank, but otherwise the night was eerily quiet as clouds moved across the sky.

"Sugarberry, there's something I've been wanting to talk to you about for days now, but everything has been so hectic," Vanguard broke the silence.

Snuggling closer against his side, Sugarberry looked up into his face. She had noticed that he had been distant since Tabby and Thomas' engagement was announced, and wondered if Thomas' proposal might prompt Vanguard to speak to her in the same vein.

"And what would that be?" she asked softly.

Vanguard touched his free hoof to her cheek, and took a deep breath. He looked into her eyes with such tenderness that Sugarberry herself almost stopped breathing.

Turning in the swing to face her, Vanguard took both her hooves in his. "Sugarberry, I..."

"Yes?" she whispered.

"I've accepted an exchange position at Leonardo University in Italy for the fall semester." The words, when they came, came in a rush.

Sugarberry was stunned. Her eyes searched Vanguard's, hoping she could read his soul. But all she found was a rather sad image of herself, and she began trembling.

"You're... you're leaving?" she heard herself ask in a cracked voice.

Vanguard smiled weakly, and pulled her close to him. "Just temporarily. If all goes as planned, I'll be home for Christmas."

Sugarberry pulled back, unaware of the silent tears streaming down her face. "When are you going?" she choked out.

Smoothing the tears from her cheeks, Vanguard pleaded, "Please don't cry!"

Sugarberry's inner being wanted to scream, Don't cry? I have to cry! I cry over spilt milk. Why shouldn't I cry when my world ends? All she could do was bury her face in his shoulder, and let the tears fall.

"You're shivering," Vanguard said with concern. "We'd better get you inside." He opened the door, and guided her to the sofa. "Can I get you something?"

"When are you leaving?"

He pulled a side chair up to face her, and sat down. "As soon as the current semester is all wrapped up."

"That's the middle of May!" Her tear-stained eyes threatened to launch another waterfall. "Why are you going? You never said a word."

Her eyes locked his so tangibly that it hurt. Vanguard shook his head to break the hold. "It was quite unexpected, actually. Decagon, my former department head back at Binks University, was the one who had set up the exchange for himself. But family problems interfered, so he called in a debt I owed him."

"So just like that, you're going to drop your life here?"

"I have to, Sugarberry. Decagon helped me out of a tough spot once. I can't let him down now."

Raptor jumped up on the couch and crawled into Sugarberry's lap; she hugged him close, and found his purr reassuring. Fluff came to sit by her side, a wide-eyed look on his face.

"Is that what the emergency meeting was about?" she asked.

"Yes. We had to make some hasty decisions during the week, but everything looks like it's going to work out."

"Where will you live over there?" Sugarberry was beginning to calm down.

"It's an even trade-- Giorgio will stay at my apartment and assume my responsibilities at Pony Pride; I'll do the same over there."

The two sat in silence for awhile, thinking their own thoughts of this extended separation.

"I guess we won't be visiting your folks this summer," Sugarberry finally spoke, and was even able to add a small smile.

"There will be another time," Vanguard smiled back. "This exchange won't last forever; and in the meantime, you can work on your novel like never before."

"I suppose so."

"And, anyway, we have several weeks before I'm gone. We'll make the most of it." Vanguard stood up, and replaced the chair in its spot. "I'd better get home now, though. I've still got some tests to correct. You'll be okay?"

Nodding her head while hugging Raptor, Sugarberry walked Vanguard to the door. A light rain had started to fall.

"You'll get wet," Sugarberry worried as she peered out into the darkness.

"I won't melt," Vanguard grinned. "Goodnight, Sugarberry." He turned, and quickly started off.

Sugarberry just as quickly turned and closed the door. She leaned her head back against the frame and let the flow of tears engulf her. Raptor looked worried as the salty water poured over his fur. Sugarberry felt as if a piece of her heart had suddenly died.

And hurrying down the sidewalk, Vanguard's cheeks, too, were wet with more than the raindrops.

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