For Your Consideration...
"This was a good idea... to get away from that crowd," Guido said to Tiffany as he helped her get seated. The two ponies had left Tabby and Thomas' wedding reception to find a quiet place to talk. The Café Carousel was nearly deserted, providing the perfect setting for a cozy tete-a-tete. Flower Bouquet had directed them to an out-of-the way table where their privacy was assured, and had scampered off to fetch each of them a cup of espresso.
Tiffany, still wearing her floral crown, responded with a smile. "Yes. The riffraff that Tabby invited to her wedding was appalling." Mental images of Davey and Jones and the Xtreme Ponies-- not to mention Malteeze and the rest of Barnacle's crew-- caused a frown to temporarily darken her face, but it was replaced with her most dazzling smile when Guido grinned at her.
"Not your idea of the ideal ceremony?" he asked, his mane still slightly damp from his unorthodox encounter with the punch bowl.
"Actually, the ceremony itself was nice; but the quality of the guests was rather demeaning. I think Tabby should have been more careful with her invitations."
"I was surprised, too, that Agatha went along with her daughter's plans," Guido agreed.
Tiffany sighed like one persecuted. "Agatha has become way too lenient since her husband has returned home."
"As I hadn't met Hubert until today, I was unaware of that development in the Fershund character," Guido reflected. "I'm surprised that a pony of her breeding would have become entangled with such an... eccentric stallion."
"Yes. How Agatha puts up with either of them is beyond me!" Tiffany complained. Then, smiling sweetly, she asked, "How was your flight to Dream Valley?"
"Excellent, of course. I have my own private jet, you know."
Tiffany raised her eyebrows, greatly impressed. "You do? How convenient! And you travel all over the world?"
"I keep a close eye on my investments, and am constantly searching for new ventures that will increase my financial coffers," Guido responded smugly. "Macrohard is still expanding its horizons."
"Macrohard..." Tiffany wrinkled her brow in thought. "I've heard that name before."
"You may have heard it on the news," Guido sighed. "First there was that problem in court with the internet software, and now this whole monopoly business."
"That's it!" Tiffany exclaimed. "So you really are wealthy!"
"Quite wealthy," Guido acknowledged. "And I intend to stay that way."
"Your life must be very exciting!" Tiffany drank in the richness of her companion.
"And I would think that the life of a princess would have its advantages, too," Guido smiled.
"Well, some, I guess," the princess admitted. "But with so many of us princesses available, it seems as if we are not truly appreciated. And many of the citizens take us for granted, as if we are nothing but commoners."
"I can't truly believe that, Tiffany," replied Guido. "You radiate royalty."
"I do?" coyly asked the princess as her eyelashes instinctively fluttered furiously.
Guido leaned forward, and covered Tiffany's hoof with his own. "You are the most charming pony I've ever had the pleasure of meeting."
A rosy glow lit up the white cheeks of the princess. "Enough about me, Guido. Please tell me more about yourself."
"You've heard about my jet and my business, but I also own a large villa on the edge of Vulcanopolis; some say that it is rather extravagant, but I find it a fitting place to relax at the end of a long day of business."
"I'm sure you do," Tiffany agreed. "Describe the house for me!" she urged.
Guido was more than pleased to comply. "It's a rambling country home surrounded by floral gardens that are beautiful to behold. The dining room is huge, and the walls are decorated with colorful frescoes of life in early Vulcanopolis-- very impressive if I do say so myself."
"It sounds delightful!"
"The living room has a tile floor done in a mosaic pattern of shades of blue and green, and there is a sunken fountain in the center of the room surrounded by potted plants. And then there is the private ballroom."
Tiffany nearly swooned. "Oh, Guido, it's magnificent!"
"I'd like to show it to you personally someday, Tiffany."
The princess, however, changed the subject. "Tabitha and Thomas will have a mansion, but it is nothing compared to your home, I'm sure."
"I hear that Agatha and her husband gave the family dwelling to the new bride and groom as a wedding gift," Guido prompted.
"Yes, that's true. Tabitha and Thomas would never have been able to afford such a place on their own." She took a sip of her coffee, then cast an inquisitive glance at Guido. "This friend of yours-- Clare-- she and you are very close?"
"We grew up next door to each other and went to school together. After college, I helped her get her fashion house up and running. So, yes, I guess you could say we are close."
"Oh," Tiffany responded with a bit less spirit in her voice, and with a great deal more frigidity to it. But Guido seemed not to notice.
"I was able to get my computer company started while I was still in school, and it took off so well that I was already quite established by the time I graduated. The business has mushroomed since its founding, which has put me in a rather sweet financial position." He paused as he noticed that Tiffany seemed to have lost interest in his life history.
Noticing his puzzled look, Tiffany continued to interrogate him on the one fact that now bothered her. "So you and Clare are more than just business partners?"
Guido reflected for a moment before answering. "Clare and I are great friends, actually. I've always confided in her, and she in me."
"I see." Tiffany's manner visibly cooled.
Sensing a loss of companionship from the dazzling white pegasus across from him, Guido sat in a quandary for several seconds before he realized what he had said to alienate her. Brightening, he said, "Clare's kind of like a sister... someone to watch out for and to keep out of trouble. We've never been more than just... friends."
Those words came to Tiffany's troubled mind like salve to a blistering hoof. "Really?" she asked in a honey-coated purr.
The two had been concentrating on each other so much that they had not noticed the entrance of another couple from the day's wedding. Princess Dawn and Perry Winkle had entered the café and were being seated by Flower Bouquet at a table across the room. Dawn, however, caught sight of Guido and Tiffany in their secluded corner, and came directly to them with Perry following close behind.
"So this is where you ran off to!" Dawn chided Tiffany. "Poor Toby has been looking everywhere for you!"
"T... Toby?" stuttered the princess. "Whatever for?"
"Because he and you were supposed to be sharing a dance."
"Well, I... that is, Guido and I... we needed to talk."
"So what about Toby?" questioned Dawn.
Tiffany was getting exasperated. "So what about Toby? Toby can do as he pleases, just as I can. And right now I am here with Guido."
Princess Dawn looked bewildered. "You are just going to let Toby worry about you for nothing?" She cast a withering glance at Guido for good measure.
"It might be just what he needs," Tiffany affirmed with a wave of her hoof, which sent Dawn and Perry back to their own table.
"She can be so cruel!" Dawn hissed to Perry. Flower Bouquet was just coming to take their order when Dawn grabbed Perry's foreleg and whispered, "Let's go find Toby!" And with a look of astonishment, Flower Bouquet watched her two most recent customers dash out of the building.
"And Toby... he is a very close friend?" Guido asked in imitation of Tiffany's earlier query.
Tiffany smiled. "He has been a friend of sorts, but nothing special... just a friend." She stopped short of her constant refrain concerning the absence of a diamond ring on her foreleg.
Guido sat in silent contemplation for a time; and then, as if making up his mind on something, spoke. "Tiffany, when I came here today, I thought that my destiny was drawing me to Dream Valley because of Tabby; but now, I think that destiny had an entirely different path for me... although it centers here."
Smiling dreamily, Tiffany agreed. "I think I know exactly what you mean."
"Could you suggest a hotel where I might stay? I think that I'd like to spend a few days in your lovely city."
"That would be Regal Ridges," Tiffany stated. "It's four blocks east of here."
"Great!" Guido was in good humor. "And may I take this opportunity to invite you to have dinner with me tomorrow evening at the most glamorous spot in town?"
"I'd be delighted!" Tiffany cooed.
"And now I should be walking you back to your abode," Guido offered, rising to assist the princess out of her chair. They had just reached the door when it opened, revealing a purple stallion with yellow hair.
"Toby!" Tiffany stated in surprise, a soft pink blush spreading across her cheeks. "What are you doing here?"
Toby looked from Tiffany to Guido, and back to Tiffany. "I was worried about you, Tiffany. I just wanted to make sure you were okay."
Guido put a foreleg protectively across Tiffany's. "She's fine. I'll see to that."
But somewhere within the depths of Tiffany's heart, a tiny bit of guilt began eating away at her. She smiled at Guido. "I really do owe Toby some of my time tonight, Guido. You won't forget about our plans for tomorrow evening, will you?" The fluttering of her eyelashes punctuated the question.
Guido reluctantly relinquished his possession of the princess over to Toby while keeping his gaze on Tiffany. "I'll call you tomorrow with the details," he promised.
"Goodnight, Guido," murmured Tiffany, and she shifted her attention to the rather dejected-looking stallion in the doorway. "Toby, you may walk me home now."
Toby shot a quick glance at Guido, but neither stallion said a word. Toby guided the princess from the Café Carousel leaving Guido standing alone; the two ponies walked in silence in the direction of the Royal Paradise.
After some time, Toby made an attempt to break through the cloak of isolation that Tiffany seemed to have engulfed herself in. "You were very lovely as a bridesmaid, Tiffany."
Tiffany briefly reached up and touched the floral headpiece as if reminding herself that she had actually been in the wedding party that day. She smiled sweetly, but not at Toby.
Toby tried again. "You seemed rather distant today, Tiffany."
"Did I?" she responded. "I hadn't noticed... the wedding and all..." Her voice faded away.
The waiting lights of Royal Paradise illuminated the couple before Toby spoke again. "You're attracted to that Guido, aren't you?"
Tiffany glanced sharply at Toby, and attempted to contradict him, but fell silent. Toby waited patiently until she found the right words. "I find him to be a fascinating stallion, yes." She found the courage to look into Toby's eyes. "I think I would like to get to know him better. He's rich, Toby! He's got his own plane and a magnificent villa and he heads a very successful company! Just think of the things that I could do... the princess that I could be!"
That revelation should have hurt, but Toby was surprised to find that it didn't; it simply made him feel empty inside. He stared into Tiffany's eyes, remembering the good times and the bad, and reached up to touch her mane as if for the last time. "You are free to do what your heart tells you, you know."
"And you wouldn't mind too much, Toby?" she asked, visible relief flooding her face.
"No, Tiffany. I only want you to be happy." He leaned toward her, and gently kissed her cheek. Then with a last pensive look at the pegasus before him, he whispered a final goodnight.
Tiffany watched him turn to go and for a brief moment felt a twinge of regret, but instantly visualized the bright yellow Italian stallion waiting to show her the best things in life, the things she had always craved after as her princessly due. As she considered the possibilities that a friendship with Guido might entail, she gave one last thought to Toby.
"Toby?" she called.
The melancholy demeanor of the purple stallion lifted for a moment as he swung his gaze back to Tiffany... but only for a very brief moment. "Yes, Tiffany?"
The sparkly-haired princess had the last word. "Goodbye!" she called cheerfully, waving a hoof as she opened the front door and disappeared inside.
* * *
The town house in Vulcanopolis that Saturday stood empty with Vanguard in Dream Valley for the wedding-- empty and silent. Yet in the third story guest room there was movement as the bookcase that stood against the shared wall with Ivetta and Gile's home slowly began to swing away from its position. A giggle was heard as Ivetta, and then Marissa-- a younger pale blue mare with yellow mane and tail-- appeared through the opening concealed by the shelving.
"You're positive he's gone?" Marissa whispered.
Ivetta answered in a normal voice. "Yes, I'm sure of it. He's away in Dream Valley." But after a moment, she said, "Just to be on the safe side, let's go through the entire place."
The young mares cautiously descended the two flights of stairs to reach the ground floor, and checked all the rooms for any sign of Vanguard's presence; once they had been through the entire structure, they both relaxed.
"What is it you're supposed to snoop out for Giorgio this time?" Marissa queried while leafing through a magazine on the kitchen table; finding it too technical for her tastes, she threw it aside.
"A book," Ivetta frowned. "A book of love poems."
Looking around the room, Marissa advised, "Then shouldn't we maybe, like, find a bookshelf or something?"
Ivetta rolled her eyes. "I know there are some books in the living room on the second floor, and then there is the big bookshelf that hides our entrance. I don't think Vanguard has anything but textbooks in the den."
The two went back up the first flight of stairs. "I just love these curving stairways," Marissa sighed. "I wish I had a place like this."
"Well, don't plan on it if you stay mixed-up with Giorgio," counseled Ivetta.
"What's that supposed to mean?" Marissa edgily replied. "You're on his payroll, and you're doing okay."
"And what happens if we get caught?" Ivetta asked passionately. "I don't like any of this."
"Then why are you involved?"
Ivetta threw herself down on the black leather sofa. "Because I made some really dumb decisions in my life."
"Such as?" Marissa seated herself, sinking into the couch's softness.
"Such as buying test answers to Giorgio's class while I was in my first year of college," Ivetta confided. "Even though I aced math, I flunked out in most of the other subjects."
"Really?" Marissa was surprised. "I thought you were smart."
"I am smart," Ivetta defended herself. "I said I made some dumb decisions."
"Well, that still doesn't explain to me how you got involved in Giorgio's side business from this end."
Ivetta sighed. "It's rather ironic. After I flunked out, I met Giles; and my life seemed to be going great. We got married, and moved into the town house next door."
"So far, so good."
"The stallion that lived here when we first arrived was from Ponyland; his name was Decagon, and he was very friendly and helpful. But as it turned out, he was just temporary; when that school year ended, he moved back to his home; and Giorgio came back to the town house."
"Did he remember you as one of his students?"
"Remember me?" Ivetta spat bitterly. "Down to the last detail! He came out one evening while I was watering flowers, and casually mentioned that he knew about my cheating during his class that year."
"What did you say?"
"I told him it hadn't done me any good anyway, and he told me that maybe not back then, but it could prove beneficial for me now. He went on to outline some work I could do for him."
"So that's when he got you hooked into his scam."
"I said no, that I wouldn't help him," Ivetta justified herself. "But he threatened to tell Giles about my dishonesty, and you know how my husband feels about cheating, Marissa."
"You realize that what you are doing now is basically the same as cheating, don't you?" Marissa asked.
"Now I do, but at the time I was too upset to think straight. He said all I had to do was to keep track of all the 'purchases' made by the students; he even bought a computer for me to use."
"How did you explain that to Giles?"
"I told him that Mom had gotten it for me to keep household accounts on. And that's basically all I had to do the first year, keep Giorgio's accounts. But when he went on another of those exchange things, he showed me the secret door between the two houses, and told me he expected me to keep track of the new teacher who would be moving in-- like where he kept the test sheets and things like that. Before I knew it, I was stealing test keys and duplicating for the runners that Giorgio had on campus."
"Like me," Marissa grinned.
Ivetta stood up, and ran a hoof over the books on the end table next to the couch. "These are all too big; Giorgio said that it's a slim book with a bright red cover." She led the way back to the third floor. The two interlopers first went into the den to have a look around.
"Hey! Is Vanguard married?" Marissa asked as she caught sight of the framed picture on the desk.
"No, she's just his friend," replied Ivetta. "Giorgio was interested to find that out."
"Why would he care about something like that?"
"He collects information about ponies."
Marissa swung her head in Ivetta's direction. "Information? What do you mean by that?"
"He finds things out about... them," Ivetta answered, then seemed to regret her words. She immediately changed the subject. "Vanguard always keeps his briefcase locked. That's something else I've got to do-- find the key and get a duplicate made."
The desk was locked, too, so the mares checked out all the other likely places, but to no avail. They then retraced their steps through the entire house, but came up empty-hooved. "Giorgio isn't going to be too pleased about this," Ivetta grumbled. "But there's nothing more we can do about the key. Let's try to find that book again."
She and Marissa returned to the spare bedroom through which they had originally entered the town house, and began a perusal of the bookshelf. "Do you remember the title?" Marissa asked.
But just then, Ivetta pulled a red-covered volume from the shelf. "This must be it," she exclaimed "Poems of Life and Love. It meets the description." She began thumbing through the thin book; then, when no picture became visible, she held the book by the spine and turned it upside-down. Still no picture. Shaking the book irritably, she screamed, "Where is that stupid picture?"
Marissa grabbed the book from her accomplice, and searched through it thoroughly. "It's not here, Ivetta."
"Shhh... did you hear that?" Both mares stood in complete silence. Somewhere in the depths of the building, a door closed. "Giles must have gotten home early!" Ivetta whispered in a panicked voice. "Quick! We've got to get out of here!"
Swiftly stashing the book on the shelf, Marissa then helped ease the bookshelf away from the wall, and they disappeared into the chasm that was revealed. As the case settled once more into position with an audible click, a lone book dropped to the floor.
* * *
The morning after the wedding, Vanguard approached the back door of Sugarberry's house and knocked. He had slipped from the motel early, leaving a message for his parents that he would breakfast with Sugarberry rather than join the morning gathering that Agatha was hosting for all the out-of-towners. Clare, too, would be attending Agatha's function, so Vanguard chose this time to sneak away for some private time.
It was Strawberry Shortcake who opened the door. "Good morning, Vanguard. Come on in," she invited. "Sugarberry is sleeping-in this morning, but you're welcome to a cup of coffee while I stir up some muffins." She bustled to the counter and poured coffee for Vanguard, and set the steaming mug before him at the table. "You're up bright and early," she commented as she went back to her baking.
"Didn't want to waste any time while I'm back in Dream Valley," the county blue stallion grinned.
"Strawberry Baskets was up early, too. He likes to walk through town every time we come back to see all the improvements and changes that have occurred."
"You've been in Berryville for how long now?" Vanguard queried.
"It will be coming up on seven years. Sugarberry had just graduated from high school. And you know, it all seems like just yesterday," Strawberry Shortcake mused. "But on the other hoof, I guess a lot has happened since then. Look at Tabby... all grown up and married now. She and Thomas sure looked happy yesterday, didn't they?"
"Yes, they did," said Vanguard.
"Well, they'll have a good life ahead of them," she predicted as she put the muffins in the oven, and got herself some coffee. She sat across from Vanguard at the table while Raptor, the black-tiger kitten, sat on a chair and watched them with half-closed eyes. "And how about you? How long can you stay here in Dream Valley?"
"Just until tomorrow, I'm afraid. Clare and I are scheduled to fly out after lunch... unless she can persuade Guido to fly us out on his own jet."
"Clare's a lovely mare. She seems to think highly of this Guido."
"Yes, " Vanguard replied, "although Guido might not realize just how highly."
"Guido did seem a bit taken with Princess Tiffany yesterday," Strawberry Shortcake agreed. "What did Clare think of that?"
"She's used to his ways," Vanguard guardedly admitted.
"And things are going well with you in Vulcanopolis?"
"As well as can be expected," said Vanguard. "But I'll be glad to get back to Pony Pride for good in December." He took advantage of a pause in the conversation to reach a hoof into the backpack that he had set on the floor, removing a photograph. "I've been hoping that we'd get a chance to talk alone," he informed Strawberry Shortcake.
"I thought you had something on your mind that was bothering you," she acknowledged. "What is it?"
He leaned across the table, setting the picture upside-down on the table ahead of her. "I found this in a book at Giorgio's Italian home," he explained.
Strawberry Shortcake stared at the back of the picture; even without seeing the image captured by the camera, she knew what it was. She slowly reached out, and turned the photo over-- a photo of herself, her two eldest daughters, and Giorgio, Sr.
"And so it still comes back to haunt me?" she said in a soft voice. She looked up to face Vanguard's penetrating gaze. "They say it's a small world, and I guess this proves it."
"I don't know the history of that photograph, but I thought it was best if I brought it to you."
Returning her gaze to the photo, Strawberry Shortcake remained silent for a time. "I didn't expect to ever see this picture again; there were only two copies, and one has already been destroyed."
"I hope it hasn't upset you," stated Vanguard anxiously. "I could have left it where it was, or gotten rid of it myself."
"No, you have a right to know the story behind it." She placed the picture on the table between them. "This is Giorgio, the father of the teacher who has taken your place at Pony Pride. Sugarberry's father and I met him on an out-of-town excursion, and Giorgio and I had the opportunity to spend several pleasant afternoons together watching over Raspberry and Gooseberry while their father was learning more about fruit propagation." She stopped to relive some of the memories that were again flooding her mind.
"This was before Sugarberry was born?" Vanguard asked softly, considering the possibilities presented by the image before him.
"Two months before, to be exact," Strawberry Shortcake replied with a smile, reading the stallion's mind. "Giorgio and I spent our time sipping lemonade by the pool side while the girls played with the other foals staying at our hotel. It was all very innocent, but Strawberry Baskets frowned upon my befriending the dashing, dark green stallion anyway."
"I can well imagine," frowned Vanguard, remembering his mistrust of Wigwam.
Strawberry Shortcake caught the innuendo in his brief statement. "Don't worry about Sugarberry," she commiserated. "Her heart is solely yours."
The smile that lit Vanguard's face at hearing those words was stored away in Strawberry Shortcake's mental file of unforgettable treasures; Vanguard had won a spot in her heart simply by loving her daughter.
But for the present moment, she continued their previous conversation. "Sugarberry knows the story of myself and Giorgio, and she is free to discuss it with you if you want to know more about it, and there are some interesting details I've left out. But please don't mention it around Strawberry Baskets; after all these years, he is still a bit sensitive about it."
"Of course, I won't."
"And Vanguard, if I can offer you a bit of advice, don't ever allow secrets to get in the way of your life with Sugarberry."
"Did I hear my name mentioned?" asked Sugarberry as she entered the kitchen with Fluff trailing behind. " 'Morning, Mom." She slipped into the chair next to Vanguard, linking her foreleg with his. "I thought I heard your voice. It's so good to find you sitting in my kitchen again!"
"It feels like home," he smiled, and kissed her cheek.
The oven buzzer informed the trio that the muffins were done; before going to the oven, however, Strawberry Shortcake instructed Vanguard, "Show her the picture; then, please burn it."
A puzzled Sugarberry looked from one to the other, and Vanguard pointed out the photo still lying on the table. "Mom, I thought you had destroyed it years ago!" She picked it up to study it more closely. "Giorgio does look exactly like his father." She glanced at Vanguard. "And acts like him, too."
"Your mom has told me the story behind the picture. I found this copy accidentally in Giorgio's town house. It's amazing how our lives have been thrown together again now."
"Isn't it? To think that of all the teachers in Vulcanopolis, the one sent to Pony Pride would be this stallion's son. But even more astounding is that you would come across this picture while there."
Strawberry Shortcake set a baking pan on the table and a book of matches. "Right now?" Vanguard questioned.
"The sooner the better, in my estimation," responded Strawberry Shortcake.
So, lighting the match, Vanguard had soon disposed of all traces of the photo. Rinsing the ashes down the drain, Strawberry Shortcake breathed a sigh of relief. "I'm glad that's done with."
At that moment, the back door opened to reveal Strawberry Baskets arriving back from his walk. He carried a basket of grapes, fresh from the vine. "I smell freshly-baked muffins," he observed, sniffing the air. "Although they might be a tad over-baked," he added, catching the scent of burning.
"The muffins are perfect," his wife informed him, shoving a plate of the delicately browned blueberry delights under his nose. "You got back just in time."
"I stopped by Leafy's place, and he picked these grapes for us," he explained about the basket of fruit. He set them on the table, and pulled up a chair. As soon as he sat down, Raptor jumped onto his lap.
"They look scrumptious," exclaimed Sugarberry, helping herself to a bunch. "Yum. They taste best fresh off the vine."
"No kidding," mumbled Vanguard as she fed him some.
"Leafy was asking about the wedding, and wondered if Tabby had ever learned to cook," Strawberry Baskets stated. "I told him that if she and Thomas are setting-up a new home, she must have gained some culinary experience somewhere along the line."
Sugarberry giggled. "No such luck. The gang went together on her shower, and got her a beautiful and expensive set of pots and pans. Tabby wasn't impressed."
"She'll learn over time," determined Strawberry Shortcake. "If you will remember," she directed at her husband, "I wasn't of much use in the kitchen when we were first married either."
"Then there is hope for Tabby," declared Vanguard as he took a bite of muffin. "These are delicious!" Fluff sat patiently next to his chair, waiting for any crumbs that might drop.
"Can Thomas cook?" Strawberry Baskets asked. "I'm not half bad, if I have to get something ready." He winked at his wife. Then, seeing Chocolate Chip standing in the doorway, he called, "Well, sleepyhead, you finally decided to wake up! Come, join the party!" He moved a chair out for the brown filly.
"Did you leave anything for me to eat?" she grinned as she hugged the stallion before sitting down. "Good morning, everybody!" she greeted the rest of the ponies. "Nice to see you here, too, Vanguard."
"No place I'd rather be," he confessed.
"What's the plan for the rest of the day?" Strawberry Baskets asked. "I need to know when I can fit in a nap later on."
"And you call my sleepyhead!" tormented Chocolate Chip, much to Strawberry Shortcake's delight.
"You'll keep him in line," she patted the filly's hoof. "As for the schedule-- after church, we will get ready for lunch. Vanguard's folks will be here along with Clare and Wigwam, and our girls, of course." She looked at the assembled ponies for verification. As the heads all nodded in agreement, she continued. "We'll spend a quiet afternoon visiting, as Grapevine and family will be leaving for their home later on about the same time that Floral Breeze and Whirlpool say they want to get underway; is that correct, Vanguard?"
"Yup. They want to get on the road by four o'clock to get them back to Woodlawn by dark. And Sugarberry, Clare, and I are dining with Giorgio at the Estate Manor this evening."
Strawberry Baskets choked on his coffee as he heard that name mentioned. "'Scuse me," he apologized, looking at his wife. "I'll never get used to hearing that name again."
Chocolate Chip perked up. "Am I missing something?"
"Nothing, really," Strawberry Shortcake explained. "Sugarberry's dad and I met Giorgio's father years ago..."
"And his name was Giorgio, too," interjected Sugarberry.
"And Strawberry Baskets wasn't too impressed with the stallion," Strawberry Shortcake finished.
"He's smooth, Dad says," Chocolate Chip recalled. "And I'll have him for one of my classes when school starts." She looked to Vanguard with pleading eyes while clasping his hoof in hers. "Please say you're staying in Dream Valley for the first semester classes!"
"Yes, please do!" chimed in Sugarberry. She threw her forelegs around his neck for emphasis.
Vanguard looked totally distraught. "Stop, you two! You know that I have to leave for Vulcanopolis tomorrow!"
Feeling sorry for the stallion, Strawberry Shortcake intervened. "Girls, If you have so much energy, you can get started on the dishes. And Strawberry Baskets, didn't you want Vanguard's help with that broken hoe handle?"
The ponies dispersed, and the morning proceeded smoothly. It was later in the day that Sugarberry and Vanguard joined in pleasant conversation with their families and guests.
"That orange chocolate cheesecake was fabulous," Floral Breeze complimented Strawberry Shortcake. "I've got to have the recipe."
"Yes, Mom," Sugarberry agreed. "The white chocolate and the mandarin oranges were perfect together." She, Vanguard, and Raspberry were helping with the dishes while Chocolate Chip and Clare were out on the lawn playing a game of croquet with Gooseberry and Grapevine's foals. The sounds of their excited laughter carried through the open kitchen window. Little Baby Gooseberry, the newborn foal, had needed her mother's attention and was now being sung to sleep in the quiet living room. Strawberry Baskets, Whirlpool, Wigwam, and Grapevine were engaged in a game of poker, playing for sugar cubes.
"And it's easy to make," Strawberry Shortcake informed them. "Just remember to drain the oranges thoroughly."
"I remember when Vanguard was young and decided to fix himself a snack. He cooked up a box of pasta for macaroni and cheese, but didn't realize the need to drain the macaroni after they were cooked," Floral Breeze shared.
"Mom!" protested Vanguard.
Floral Breeze ignored her son. "But he added the cheese packet, butter, and milk, and ended up with cheese and pasta soup, which might have been good if it wasn't for the watery consistency."
"It was disgusting," Vanguard admitted.
Sugarberry giggled. "I'm glad Chocolate Chip isn't in the room to squeal on me," she said, remembering her pan of water-logged brownies."
Vanguard raised an eyebrow. "Is this something I should know about?"
"Let's just say that not all my attempts at baking turn out right," she confessed. Turning to Floral Breeze, she asked. "Are there any other cute little stories about Vanguard that I might be interested in?"
"Enough already," Vanguard put his hoof down. "I've been picked on adequately for one day!"
But Floral Breeze was happy to continue. "The worst he ever did was break an antique vase."
"That she found about, anyway..." Vanguard quipped as an aside.
"My oldest son, Stillwater, was watching the other two colts while their dad and I went to a business function. Stillwater wasn't too interested in taking an active role in his responsibilities, and ended up spending the entire time in his room listening to music and talking on the phone. In the meantime, Vanguard was practicing softball in the house, which was a definite no-no, and ended up hitting the vase with a wild ball. The vase broke into a number of pieces."
Interjecting a point of fact, Vanguard said, "Seven, to be exact. I remember because I thought it was strange at the time that the number of pieces matched my age."
"Well, not to be caught with an obvious misdemeanor, Vanguard decided to glue the thing back together, which he did."
"And it looked pretty good, too," the stallion recalled.
"He replaced in on the walnut table in the corner of the room where it had stood for many years, and thought he was free and clear. But Icon, who was just a toddler at the time, had seen his brother working on the vase and went over to check it out. He had the misfortune to trip over the carpeting, and succeeded in knocking the vase to the floor a second time."
"Oh, no," Sugarberry gasped.
"Whirlpool and I happened to arrive home just then, and found Icon in tears with the shattered vase laying at his hooves. 'Me knocked vase down,' he admitted, while Vanguard kept his mouth shut. After I had reprimanded Icon for playing too roughly in the house, I relegated him to his room and returned to pick up the pieces of the vase. That's when I found the broken edges all covered with glue, and knew that more had occurred than I was aware of."
"Oops!" Raspberry sympathized with a glance at Vanguard.
"Tsk, tsk, tsk. Naughty baby pony," Sugarberry frowned at her friend, shaking her head.
"Hey! What did I do? Icon told Mom that he'd knocked the vase off the table, and he had. No one asked me for any information, so I just kept quiet," Vanguard defended himself.
"To his credit, Vanguard came forward when he realized that the truth was going to come out and admitted what had actually happened," she ended her story on a positive note.
"Just imagine what I had to go through," said Raspberry. "I not only had to put up with Sugarberry; but as Tabby was with her half the time, I had both of them to contend with. I think they purposely targeted me as their victim."
"For example?" Vanguard inquired.
"They'd fill the entire house with those My Little People dolls. Agatha must have gotten every one of them for Tabby, and Sugarberry had a large enough bunch of them herself."
"There was nothing wrong with us playing with our dolls," Sugarberry reminded her sister.
"That's true. But you had dolls and doll playsets all over the place. A pony couldn't sit down or take a step for fear of squashing one of them."
"It really wasn't that bad," whispered Sugarberry to Vanguard.
"The embarrassing part was that whenever a colt came over to study with me, those two would hold a wedding ceremony in some conspicuous place where it was impossible to ignore them."
"Driftwood was one of those suitors," she mentioned conspiratorially to Vanguard. "And it was just coincidence that the guys chose to come over at the time the weddings were held."
Raspberry ignored the interruption. "Well, all I know for sure is that each of you had only one male doll. Let's see... Tabby's was Kevin, I believe, and Sugarberry... yours was...?"
"Grant," Sugarberry provided.
"Yes, Grant. Tabby would always insist that Kevin be the groom-- he must have married every doll in the house at one time or another-- and Grant always had to stand in as the priest."
"It obviously was good practice," Sugarberry retorted. "Tabby was absolutely beautiful as a bride, and she performed wonderfully. Wasn't her burst of eloquence at the wedding the best? If anyone had any doubts as to her sincerity, they were answered fully with that reply to Guido. And Thomas-- he looked like the happiest stallion on the face of the earth." She sighed. "It was so romantic!"
"It was very sentimental; I had tears running down my cheeks," Strawberry Shortcake admitted, hanging up the used dish towels.
The dishes being finished, the group went their separate ways to enjoy the afternoon. Strawberry Shortcake and Floral Breeze went into the living room to check on Gooseberry and the foal. Raspberry joined the poker game, and Wigwam opted to get outside "with the foals," he said-- but everyone knew that Chocolate Chip was the draw. He, Vanguard, and Sugarberry went out back to watch the croquet game in progress. Sugarberry was pleased to note that Vanguard and Wigwam had entered into a much more companionable friendship since Chocolate Chip had captured Wigwam's attention.
Gooseberry's eldest daughter, Wineberry, was attempting to drill the ball through the last two hoops with miserable results. Huckleberry, her younger brother, whooped with pleasure every time she missed.
"Here, let me show you how to do that," Wigwam said to the discouraged foal. He took the mallet from her hooves and demonstrated the proper form; then, guiding her as she made her shot, the ball went smoothly through the hoops, hitting the stick.
"No fair helping," chided Chocolate Chip as she saw the downcast face of Huckleberry. "To make this impartial, I'll have to help Huckleberry a bit." She guided his small hooves on the mallet, and between the two of them, made a decent play.
Laughing, Clare protested. "Who's playing this game anyway, the foals or the adults?"
"Me no play anymore," stated Huckleberry, throwing his mallet to the ground. "Hunt bugs, Winebee?" He tugged insistently at his sister.
"Let's go get a jar from Grandma first," Wineberry instructed.
As the foals ran off, Wigwam issued a challenge. "Anyone think they can beat me at a game of croquet?" He picked up a mallet, and took a few practice shots.
"I know I can," Chocolate Chip responded as she grabbed one as well.
"I'm in," said Vanguard.
"Me, too," chimed Clare.
Sugarberry reluctantly agreed, knowing she was doomed to failure.
So then began a competitive round of croquet with a fairly even beginning. But it was a no holds barred approach when it came to shooting the opponent's ball away. Sugarberry groaned as Wigwam sent hers to the far reaches of the lawn. "Thanks, buddy," she griped as she realized how far it had gone.
Soon Vanguard did the same to Clare, but Chocolate Chip showed her mettle by sending Vanguard's into the outer limits as well. On his next turn, however, he was able to get back into play.
"Lucky shot!" scoffed Wigwam.
Through some rather unfortunate swinging, Clare and Sugarberry got farther and farther behind. "I hate sports," Sugarberry fumed to Clare as she brushed her mane out of her face.
Clare only laughed. "Be glad it's not soccer."
Finally managing to hit a smooth shot, Clare distanced herself from Sugarberry who was left alone near the rock garden where Wineberry and Huckleberry were searching for insects. A sudden cry from Huckleberry pulled Sugarberry's attention from the game; she found her nephew lying next to one of the large, rough rocks in her garden setting, his knee scraped and bleeding.
"Me fall off rock," he sobbed while at the same time trying to appear brave.
"Oh, my! You poor little thing," Sugarberry commiserated. "Let's get you to the house and clean that up."
Signaling to the rest of the players to continue the game, Sugarberry and Wineberry helped Huckleberry into the house. Upon seeing his tears, Gooseberry immediately came to the rescue. "Here, Sugarberry. You hold the baby while I take care of Huck. Mom's warming a bottle in the kitchen."
Sugarberry accepted the small foal into her forelegs, and went to find the baby's bottle. "Is Baby Gooseberry still not able to fall asleep?" she asked her mother.
"No. She misses her home. Gooseberry thought a warm bottle might settle her down. Do you want to feed it to her?"
"Sure. I'll take her out to the porch swing. Maybe she'll like the out-of-doors." Settling into the swing with the foal, Sugarberry smiled down at the little pony that was a miniature of her mother. "You're a Twice-As-Fancy beauty, little one," she whispered softly. Baby Gooseberry accepted the bottle, and sucked contentedly; soon she was fast asleep. Sugarberry enjoyed the quiet time rocking the swing slowly back and forth.
Hearing a hoofstep, she looked up from the sleeping foal's face to see Vanguard coming up the stairs. "Your mom said I'd find you here." He sat on the swing next to Sugarberry.
"Who won the game?" she asked.