The Great Apple Festival
written by Sugarberry

"Yeah! Yeah! Parade!" Friendly verified as Elaine, Thomas, and Sugarberry listened to the Bushwoolie's tirade. The autumn weather had obviously gotten to the Bushwoolies' spirit of celebration, and they were planning a grand parade for Dream Valley involving all the businesses and organizations of the city. Friendly was delivering the news to the vet clinic.

"You mean with floats and bands and things?" Sugarberry questioned hesitantly, remembering with some misgivings the clinic's experience with the ice sculpture contest.

"Yeah! Yeah! Lots of floats and music and fun!" The blue Bushwoolie nearly danced with excitement.

"Is there a theme to this parade?" questioned Thomas.

"Theme? Yeah!... What's that?" queried Friendly in turn.

Elaine giggled. "It's like a unifying idea that will guide everyone's plans," she explained.

Looking slightly confused for a moment, Friendly finally broke out in a grin. "Apples! Apples! We have an apple festival, yeah, yeah!"

"Well, that sounds safe enough," Sugarberry offered. "Apple-related food and games and floats... we can handle that."

Thomas looked to Elaine for her input. "Sure! It sounds like fun!"

"Count us in then, Friendly," the white unicorn stallion informed the Bushwoolie. Then, realizing a shortage of information, he asked, "When is this apple festival going to take place, anyway?"

Friendly scratched his head. "September... Saturday... thirty," he relayed.

"September thirtieth is on a Saturday," Sugarberry supplied, checking her desk calendar.

"Okay, is there anything else we need to know?" asked Thomas of Friendly.

A light bulb seemed to form over Friendly's head. "Poster! Yeah! Yeah!" He reached into the backpack he carried and pulled out a brightly-colored poster, hand decorated by the Bushwoolies, and handed it to Sugarberry.

"This certainly clarifies things," she frowned, scanning the eclectic jumble of numbers and letters that cluttered the placard. "Maybe you should have this professionally printed," she suggested.

"We can help you organize it," Elaine offered.

"Yes, Friendly," Sugarberry agreed. "Would you like us to go with you to the printing office? Maybe Woosie will donate some of her expertise on this project."

Checking the time, Thomas approved the idea. "Why don't you two take care of that now? It's close enough to quitting time that I should be able to handle things. I'll even close up for you, Sugarberry."

The two mares took off with Friendly to Woosie's shop down the street and after some confusing discussion, they had all their questions answered sufficiently that Woosie was prepared to design the poster. She promised that they would be ready by the weekend.

"So, what's next?" Sugarberry asked of Elaine and Friendly as they exited the print shop.

"Satin Slipper Sweet Shoppe!" declared Friendly. The mares laughed.

"I like the way that Bushwoolie thinks," Elaine said as they took off for the ice cream parlor. Arriving there, they found that Tabby and Thomas had reached the shop ahead of them; they swooped down on the table where the newlyweds sat.

"Hi, Tabby," Sugarberry greeted her friend. "What's for supper?" She winked at Thomas.

Scowling at the strawberry-patterned earth pony, Tabby shrugged. "A strawberry sundae, I guess." She took a bite of the dessert before her.

"We could have pizza delivered to my house, and we could discuss our plans for the apple festival float," Sugarberry suggested.

"What apple festival?" Tabby asked.

"You haven't told her about it yet?" queried Sugarberry of Thomas.

"There might be more important things I would want to discuss with my wife," Thomas responded. Then to Tabby, he explained, "The Bushwoolies are sponsoring a day of celebration centering around the apple."

"Fun, yeah, food."

"And we get to make floats for the parade," Elaine added.

"Won't this be fun?" squealed Sugarberry. "It will be the biggest thing to hit Dream Valley since your wedding," she directed to the couple across the table.

The two unicorns exchanged a tender smile, and Tabby leaned her head against Thomas' shoulder. "The wedding was fun, wasn't it?"

"It was great!" Elaine grinned. "Who would have such an exciting wedding but you two?"

"And Merry Moments did a wonderful job photographing the entire day, didn't she?" Sugarberry commented. "You have beautiful memories, I'm sure."

"That cake was scrumptious." Tabby thought back to the heavily-frosted piece of art which had tasted divine.

"And the bride was beautiful," Thomas added.

Elaine rolled her eyes. "Oh, aren't you the sweetie," she teased.

"Speaking of which," Thomas replied, "Toby just came in."

Groaning, Elaine tried to make herself invisible, but the purple stallion caught sight of her immediately and came to join the group.

"Hi, everyone," he said, but his eyes rested on Elaine. "What's up?" He pulled up a chair from a neighboring table.

So the Bushwoolie event was revealed once more, and Toby thought it sounded like a good idea. "We should have enough interest in it at the hospital that we can come up with a float, too."

"That would be great!" Sugarberry agreed, but then frowned. "But sick apples wouldn't look too appealing."

"A-peel-ing apples, Sugarberry?" tittered Tabby. Everyone laughed.

"So, what does everyone think about coming over to my place for supper and Apple Festival planning?" asked Sugarberry.

"I'm in," Elaine said, preferring company to being alone with Toby.

"Food, yeah," said Friendly.

"Tabby, what do you think?" Thomas looked to his wife for her input.

"Sure," she decided. "It'll be like old times-- supper at Sugarberry's."

Sugarberry looked at Toby. "Well, Toby. How about you?"

"I'd love to," he grinned, draping his foreleg across the back of Elaine's chair. Elaine responded by standing up. "I'll call for the pizzas right now, and they they'll be delivered faster," she said, heading off for the telephone in the corner.

"Reminds me a little of Tabby when you first came to town," Sugarberry observed to Toby, watching Elaine cross the room. "Skittish."

"What do you mean by that?" snapped Tabby, her eyes flashing.

Toby chuckled. "I liked your spirit when I first met you, Tabby; I didn't know that Thomas had his sights set on you. A lot has happened since then, hasn't it?" He fell silent, thinking back to the friendship that had developed between him and Tiffany, and its eventual demise.

Elaine returned to the table with the news that the pizza was taken care of, so the crew moved out of the shop and on to Sugarberry's house. There they found Wigwam, Chocolate Chip and her brother, Wishbone, who was now attending Pony Pride University and living at Sugarberry's, too.

A casual remark from Chocolate Chip over the summer about how nice it would be to have her brother nearby had gotten Sugarberry thinking about the possibility of him staying in one of the finished rooms in the basement that she used for storage. That plan had been readily embraced by Chocolate Chip, and with a little help from Wigwam and Butch, they have cleaned and painted and prepared the room. Chocolate Chip added some decorative touches, and the room became a cozy bedroom and study for Wishbone who was happy to get a place away from campus. So Wishbone, when not at classes, playing sports, working in the stockroom at Pony-Mart, or on a date with Snowdrift, was a new face in Sugarberry's household.

Chocolate Chip was just removing a cherry dessert from the oven when the rest of the ponies walked in. "Oh!" exclaimed Tabby happily. "It's one of those disgustingly sweet cake-and-cherry things, isn't it? I love those!"

"I must have known you were coming," laughed Chocolate Chip.

As the plates and sodas were set out on the counter, the news of the apple festival was shared with the new additions to the party; and everyone began offering ideas for the floats.

"Wigwam," suggested Wishbone, "all you have to do is set up a slot machine that rings up three apples to spill the prize."

"Cool!" squealed Chocolate Chip. "And when the three apples come up, the 'prize' will be candy tossed to the foals watching the parade!'

"It just might work," agreed Wigwam.

"And I still think the hospital should have sick apples that somehow plump up and get all healthy again," stated Sugarberry.

"That would work for the vet clinic, too, you know," Toby responded.

"No," Elaine contradicted. "Our float needs animals on it."

"You're all missing the obvious choice for the hospital," Thomas interjected. "I'd go with 'an apple a day keeps the doctor away'."

"This is supposed to drum up business," complained Toby with a grin, "not drive it away."

"I wonder if there are any apple Pokèmon," mused Tabby.

A knock on the door alerted the ponies to the arrival of the pizzas, and parade talk was abandoned momentarily as they all loaded their plates with the aromatic food. Fluff and Raptor waited patiently for some kind soul to share a ration of food with them.

"What float are the Bushwoolies going to make?" Elaine asked of Friendly.

After finishing a bite of pizza, Friendly replied, "Secret, yeah, yeah."

"No fair," complained Tabby. "You've got to tell us, Friendly."

But the blue furry creature just continued devouring his food.

"Will Pony Pride be allowed to enter a float?" questioned Chocolate Chip.

"Yeah. Sure. Good," Friendly mumbled with a mouthful of pizza.

"Oh, yeah, this will be fun," Wishbone's eyes lit up with an idea. "We'll have to get Prime and Chip involved as soon as possible."

"What's your big plan?" queried Wigwam. But Wishbone followed suit from the Bushwoolie, and refused to give any details.

Talk moved on to starting point of the parade on the big day and the course it would follow through town. The Bushwoolies had already planned on carnival rides and food booths to be set up at the park, and once the posters were available on Saturday, the preparations would swing into full gear. By the time the meeting dispersed, the ponies were as excited as the Bushwoolie over the upcoming apple festival.

* * *

There was a run on crepe paper, glue, poster board, and duct tape in the days following the release of the Bushwoolie's posters announcing the Great Apple Festival. Most of the organizations in Dream Valley thought it was an excellent idea to build community spirit and generate new business in the area. Spirits were high as ponies worked on their floats, and a great number of secret projects were guarded zealously.

Sugarberry, Elaine, and Thomas spent any free time working on their entry for the parade. Due to a lack of creativity, they had gotten a late start on their float and had to play catch-up. "And I thought this was going to be fun," complained Sugarberry as they spent another late night constructing paper-mache animals.

"Toby says that the hospital's entry is finished already," Elaine supplied with a sigh.

"Well, if it's any consolation, Tabby's Pokèmon float is coming along as slowly as ours,"

Thomas offered. "I wish she was still a vet here; then we'd be spending this time together instead of apart." He looked wistfully in the direction of the Pokèmon Center.

Sugarberry seized the opportunity to suggest calling it quits for the night. "Let's go over to see how she's doing!"

"Yes," agreed Elaine with a yawn. "I need a rest."

Thomas didn't argue, and soon the three of them were on their way. They had just rounded the corner when they saw Tabby coming toward them. Thomas greeted her with a hug. "Ready for a strawberry sundae?" he queried.

"You have to ask?" she responded with a grin. "I'm famished!"

Entering the shop, they found it crowded with ponies and Bushwoolies all discussing the coming apple festival. Toby was sitting with Snuzzle, but he quickly came to Elaine and guided her back to an empty seat at their table. Elaine threw a helpless look at her friends, but she received only an array of heartless grins in return.

Most of the other tables were filled; only Driftwood was sitting alone as if waiting for someone. He waved a hoof in their direction. "Come sit over here if you'd like," he offered. Tabby, Sugarberry, and Thomas accepted the offer, and were soon comfortably seated with their ice cream treats before them.

"You were working late on the apple festival projects, I presume?" he asked, glancing at each of the ponies in turn.

"What else?" replied Sugarberry. "I had no idea it would involve this much effort."

"Things are going better with my float," Tabby confided, "now that Chansey and Mr. Mime have taken over most of the work."

"No fair!" accused Sugarberry. "At the rate Mr. Mime works, they'll have it finished in no time!"

"I've told you any number of times that you should catch a Pokèmon, Sug," Tabby responded.

"Maybe you could lend us a few of yours, Tabby," Thomas suggested.

Just then, Hydrangea joined them, sitting next to Driftwood who acknowledged her arrival with a happy smile. "I was getting worried about you," he said.

"Flower Bouquet and I were just finishing up the float," the charming blue mare reported.

"Finishing?" groaned Sugarberry. "And I suppose it's perfect."

"Well, we are rather proud of it," Hydrangea admitted. "The Café Carousel has high standards, you know; Flower Bouquet would have it no other way."

"My standards are dropping by the minute," admitted Sugarberry as she rubbed her tired hooves. Catching sight of Wigwam and Chocolate Chip, she pushed her chair back. "I'm going to call it a night, you guys."

"Us too," Thomas agreed, helping Tabby to her feet. As an afterthought, he added, "I wonder if Elaine will mind if we leave her in Toby's care?" He looked undecided.

"She's fine," Tabby commented, drawing her husband to the door. "She's old enough to find her own way home."

"You're cruel, Tabby," Sugarberry reprimanded her as Chocolate Chip came up.

"Am not," Tabby shot back as she and Thomas disappeared out the door.

"What's up?" Chocolate Chip asked.

"Nothing," Sugarberry smiled as she noticed that Elaine did seem to be enjoying herself. "May I walk home with you and Wigwam?"

"Ah, the company of two beautiful mares!" Wigwam beamed as he approached. "What more could a stallion ask for?"

But the ratio was brought back in line as Wishbone ran up to his sister once they were out on the path toward Sugarberry's house. "Hey, Sis, can you work with me on some of these math problems tonight?" He held up the textbook for her to see.

Chocolate Chip sighed, but agreed to help her brother. "What kind of problems are they?"

So as those two discussed math, Wigwam and Sugarberry dropped back to talk about other subjects.

"What have you heard from Vanguard?" Wigwam asked.

Now it was Sugarberry's time to sigh. "Same old."

"Lighten up. He'll be home before you know it."

"The mind can grasp that, but not the heart," Sugarberry responded. "I'm glad for this apple festival of the Bushwoolies to keep me occupied."

"What about your writing? Aren't you working on a new book?"

"Sporadically," Sugarberry confessed. "I thought it would be a good time to get a lot done while Vanguard was out of town, but moping isn't conducive to story ideas."

"So, stop moping," suggested Wigwam.

"Bottle a cure, and you'll make millions," she retorted.

Once home, Chocolate Chip and Wigwam sat at the kitchen table tutoring Wishbone while Sugarberry straightened up the house. She ended up staring out the living room window at the shadowy darkness, dreaming of the country blue stallion that had captured her heart.

"A jangle for your thoughts," softly voiced Wigwam as he came into the room.

Sugarberry turned, stating, "They're worth a lot more than that." She smiled at the stallion, then turned serious. "What do you think of Giorgio now that you've had a chance to see him around campus?"

"Well, I don't have him for my calculus class, but I hear he's good. Chocolate Chip thinks he's a genius."

"So he's a good teacher, but what kind of pony is he?"

Wigwam evaded the question. "The students seem to think he's a neat guy."

Chocolate Chip and Wishbone dragged through the doorway. "I'm beat," Chocolate Chip said. "I can't face another mathematical problem tonight."

"And what about you, Wishbone? Are you ready for the test tomorrow?" Sugarberry asked sympathetically.

Wishbone grimaced. "If I can retain everything that Chocky explained tonight, I'll do okay. But something tells me it's hopeless."

Sugarberry felt so sorry for him that she gave him a gentle hug. "Just get a good night's sleep, and it will all make sense in the morning." She silently hoped she was right.

"Thanks, Mom." Wishbone's playful character surfaced for a moment. "I appreciate your confidence in me." With a wave of his hoof to all present, he wished them goodnight and went of to his room. Wigwam, too, soon departed homeward.

When alone with Sugarberry, Chocolate Chip expressed her concern over her brother's tribulation. "I wish Giorgio would never have okayed Wishbone for the higher level math course," she ranted. "His grades have always been good, but he has to work hard to stay on top of any new concepts."

"But surely Giorgio wouldn't have approved it if Wishbone's test scores didn't indicate sufficient understanding."

"I'd like to see those test scores," Chocolate Chip fretted. "He basically allowed my brother to skip a semester, and that's why he's so lost now."

"But why would Giorgio permit it unless he thought Wishbone could handle it?" Sugarberry argued.

"Vanguard never would have approved it if he were in charge!" Chocolate Chip countered.

"Maybe because Vanguard would have had your wise counsel to steer him in the right direction," Sugarberry smiled, hoping to dispel the worry that furrowed Chocolate Chip's brow.

"Well, maybe that would have helped." Chocolate Chip softened a bit. "But I still think that Wishbone should drop the course, and he won't even consider it." After a pause, she added, "I think he's trying to keep up to me, but he won't admit that he can't do it in math."

"Let's see how the test goes tomorrow," Sugarberry advised. "Maybe Wishbone will surprise you; and if not, then maybe he'll be more open to dropping it."

Giving Sugarberry a quick hug, Chocolate Chip smiled. "Thanks for seeing it rationally. Maybe now I can get some sleep. G'night, Sugarberry."

Left alone, Sugarberry herself got ready for bed. Before crawling under the covers which were already occupied by Fluff and Raptor, she stood in the dark room and shivered. The mention of Giorgio in tonight's conversation with Chocolate Chip had renewed that feeling of dread which surrounded Sugarberry whenever she was faced with this unwelcome stallion. What if Chocolate Chip is right, and Giorgio isn't doing a good job at Pony Pride? she wondered to herself. What kind of a mess will Vanguard find when he gets back?

Climbing into bed, she inadvertently caused both Fluff and Raptor to fall unceremoniously to the floor. Coaxing them back over their wounded pride, she was finally able to fall asleep to the gentle rhythm of their soothing purrs. Once the mare was asleep, Raptor sat up suddenly as if he had to take over Sugarberry's worry for her where she had left off, his ears and eyes alert, while Fluff only stretched out to claim more of the available space. Many minutes passed before the feline once more deemed the nighttime safe, and curling himself into a tight ball, fell into a motionless sleep.

* * *

Several days later, Chocolate Chip, coming home in the early evening and letting herself in the front door, heard the sound of laughter and voices in the kitchen. Wondering who would be in such good humor, she stepped into the doorway of the kitchen to find Sugarberry and Driftwood surrounded by dirty pots and pans and bowls, and an aromatic smell coming from the oven. "What's going on here?" she asked in surprise.

The two bakers looked in her direction, and grinned. "Just what we need... a guinea pig!" quipped Driftwood, sending Sugarberry into another spontaneous giggle.

"Driftwood is trying out some new apple-based recipes to introduce at the Estate Manor for the apple festival; and if they turn out, they'll be included in his book, too," Sugarberry explained.

Chocolate Chip crossed the room, and looked closely at the two ponies; both had flour splotches not only on their aprons but also on their faces and in their manes. "It looks like you had a flour fight," she commented, rubbing the worst of it off Sugarberry's nose. Exchanging a telling glance with Driftwood, Sugarberry giggled yet again. "I guess that means yes," Chocolate Chip surmised.

The buzzer on the stove rang, and Driftwood hurried to remove the latest culinary masterpiece from the oven, placing in on the counter next to several other contestants. "Now, Chocolate Chip, we have here an assortment of pastries that have never before been enjoyed by any pony," Driftwood announced. "Your mission, if you choose to accept it, is to impartially partake of a small piece of each and then share with us your opinions, whether good or bad." He proceeded to cut a portion of the first item and put in on a plate, repeating with each of the other desserts. Sugarberry handed her a fork.

"Aren't you guys going to eat, too?" Chocolate Chip asked suspiciously, poking the fork through the crumbly topping and spicy filling as if expecting something disgusting to come popping out at her. Driftwood appeared a mite too cocky, and Sugarberry seemed a bit too giddy for Chocolate Chip's comfort.

"Actually, I've been snitching too much to want to try any right now," Sugarberry admitted. "Maybe later."

Driftwood pulled a chair out from the table, inviting Chocolate Chip to have a seat. "You must make yourself comfortable while you savor the subtle blends of fruit, pastry, and spices; let the flavors speak to your taste buds; listen to the distinctive essence of each individual ingredient, and make a wise choice as to your favorite combination of enhancements."

Slipping into the pro-offered chair, Chocolate Chip took a tentative nibble of the first dessert and found it very good. "Yummy," she affirmed.

"Yummy?" Driftwood queried. "Yummy isn't in my vocabulary. Can you be more specific?"

Chocolate Chip took another bite and chewed it thoughtfully. "It's quite good," she finally offered, "but nothing out of the ordinary-- it's too much like plain old apple pie."

In mock irritation, Driftwood countered. "You dare criticize my concoction?"

Getting on the defensive, Chocolate Chip retorted, "You said to..."

"He's just trying to aggravate you. Don't let him succeed," Sugarberry advised. "Try the next piece."

Chocolate Chip's reaction to the second entry was more thoughtful. "This is different," she stated, trying to identify the unique flavor. "It's an unusual blend of flavors, but very tasty." She took a second bite, and closed her eyes. "I can almost catch what it is, but... " She finally gave up. "Other than apples, what's in it?"

"Can't tell," Driftwood maintained. "It's a secret ingredient known only to me and to my assistant here." Sugarberry giggled and shrugged her shoulders.

Going through the remaining items, Chocolate Chip came back to the second sample she had tried. "This one was the best," she verified.

"Well, it was the most unusual," Sugarberry grinned at Driftwood.

"So tell me what was in it," Chocolate Chip requested.

"And have my invention copied and imitated in every eating establishment in Dream Valley by the day of the festival? I think not!" declared Driftwood.

"But I wouldn't tell anyone!" begged the chocolate brown pony. "Sugarberry, what was it?" She turned to the mare, who only shook her head.

"Sorry, Chocolate Chip, but Driftwood put me under oath to not reveal any of his confidences."

The back door opened now as Wishbone arrived home. "Smells good in here!" he exclaimed, coming into the kitchen with a rapt expression on his face.

Driftwood immediately commandeered the young stallion for another taste test. Sugarberry and Chocolate Chip started washing the towering stacks of dirty dishes while listening to the comments made by Wishbone as he tasted generous helpings of the entire array of products.

"The second one," was his final decision.

"Why?" Driftwood wasn't going to let him get by that easily.

"Why?" Wishbone echoed. "Because it tasted the best."

"Aren't you the one that hopes to join his family's restaurant business some day?" Driftwood interrogated with a serious expression on his face.

"Well, yes... "

"And yet you can't identify the particular essence that makes one food item stand out from another?"

"What can you expect... he'll eat anything!" Chocolate Chip quipped from the background.

Wishbone frowned at his sister, and to Driftwood stated, "It was unique, whatever it was."

Driftwood sighed and shook his head. "Amateurs, all of you!" He then grabbed a dish towel, and went to work helping the girls while Wishbone retired to his room to study.

"So are you going to go with the unanimous choice?" Sugarberry asked of the stallion.

He grinned. "I'll run it by a few more ponies before I make a final decision, but it looks like it will be the winner. Now I have to come up with a main course that features apples. A salad isn't that difficult, nor is a bread product, but I want an all-apple menu choice."

"The Bushwoolies might have some old family recipes," suggested Sugarberry.

"You know, you might be on to something there," Driftwood replied. "I'll have to go visit the Bushwoolie holes. Want to come along, Sugarberry?"

"I haven't been out that way in ages," the mare responded. "Sure, if nothing else is going on when you decide to go."

"How about tomorrow evening then?" asked Driftwood. "We can't put it off as the festival is almost here."

"It works for me," confirmed Sugarberry with a smile, grateful that the vet clinic float was nearly completed due to the artistic talents of several of the Xtreme Ponies who had volunteered to help.

It took what seemed like forever to get through the dirty dishes; and once the last pan had been put away, the leftover food was divided between the two cooks; and Driftwood left with his share neatly packaged. He had no sooner quitted the house when Chocolate Chip came down on Sugarberry.

"Since when are you and Driftwood so buddy-buddy?"

"He started coming to the writers' meeting during the summer," Sugarberry illuminated.

"And now he's part of the family?" Chocolate Chip interrogated.

"Well, I did know him years ago. He used to date Raspberry when she was in high school."

"He dated your sister?"

"Ye... es."

Chocolate Chip looked closely at Sugarberry. "There's more." The mare ignored the remark, but the filly was obstinate. "What happened? Did he drop her for you?"

"No, he did not. Raspberry dropped him, if anything. But later, he and I were both in vocational school at the same time. He was older, of course, but had just gotten interested in the restaurant business, so had gone back to school. I was in secretarial training myself."

"Keep going."

"Rather snoopy you are, Chocolate Chip!"

"I'm curious, that's all."

Sugarberry though for awhile before continuing. "We kind-of... sort-of... dated." She found it difficult to say the words.

"Kind-of, sort-of? That's real definitive."

"I always considered him Raspberry's friend," Sugarberry explained. "When he'd be at our house with Raspberry, he'd torment Tabby and me something fierce. He'd have me giggling all the time at his antics, but Tabby would get upset with him... the situations he'd have our My Little People dolls get into!"

"So he was a lot of fun."

"Yes. Always the jokester. I think that's why Raspberry gave up on him."

"But he was older when you got re-acquainted at school. What was he like by then?"

Sugarberry grinned. "Not much better. He was still hung-up on tormenting me mercilessly or making me laugh-- the characteristic big brother type. He had lots of other friends, so his attention was sporadic; but he was always amusing when he was around."

"What about the years between vocational school and now?"

"We went our separate ways, and were busy with our own lives. Our paths didn't cross much, even after he took over the Estate Manor. But his interest in publishing a cookbook brought him to a writers' meeting, and he asked my advice on a few things, so I'm helping him out. He wants to include humorous anecdotes about cooking in the book as well as recipes."

"Does Vanguard know about him?"

"Of course he does," immediately answered Sugarberry. "We all talked at the wedding reception."

"Uh-huh," nodded Chocolate Chip. "But does he know you dated the guy?"

"I told you I didn't really date Driftwood, and besides, what difference does it make? I'm sure Vanguard dated any number of fillies before I met him."

"That reminds me," Chocolate Chip reflected. "Who did Wigwam date when you were all in high school?"

"Not me, if that's what you're getting at."

"Then who?"

"I didn't keep tabs on him, but I think at one time he was hung up on Ribbon."

"What did he do after high school?"

"I don't really recall. He obviously went to school for a time, but I don't know where. He just seemed to disappear there for a few years."

"That's odd," speculated Chocolate Chip. Then, as if remembering something, she exclaimed, "Oh my gosh! I forgot I have to write an outline for an English paper!" And she scampered out of the room.

Left on her own, Sugarberry did some more straightening of the kitchen as she recollected her time attending Greener Pastures Technical School. She had stayed behind in Dream Valley when her parents had left for Berryville, and she had juggled a part-time job with classes. Driftwood's enthusiastic outlook on life had helped soften Sugarberry's serious attitude which had become even more pronounced with Tabby away at college in Italy.

Raptor came to the reminiscing pony and stood up against her foreleg, begging for a snack. Sugarberry responded by feeding both Raptor and Fluff, and then she spent some time brushing them both after which she devoted several hours to the computer and the story line that was beginning to fall into place before calling it a day.

* * *

The Great Apple Festival finally arrived, and the towns ponies were exhilarated. The weather cooperated by providing a clear, sunny day with summer-like temperatures and just a hint of a breeze. The town adopted a party atmosphere amidst the bustling activity of last minute details and changes. Main Street was decorated with the Ponyland flag flying from every available vantage point; and in the park stood the glittering carnival rides. Food booths were already busy preparing tempting treats featuring apples: apple donuts, apple fritters, apple pudding, apple cider... apple everything.

The parade was scheduled to begin at ten-thirty, but many had already been moved into position. Sugarberry and Elaine stole some moments to get a preliminary view of the competition. Some of the floats were simply done while others were extravagantly decorated; all of them were paying homage in one way or another to the apple. Tex's giant red pepper made entirely from brilliant red apples showed up like a guiding beacon; Lemon Treats Boutique was tastefully done with a display of apparel and accessories all with the apple theme and interlaced with delicate garlands of apple blossoms-- these due to the magical power of Flower Belle.

Driftwood's Estate Manor float had a lavish medieval banquet in progress-- complete with a paper-mache pig with a vibrant red apple in its mouth. A horde of college students including many of the Sweetheart Sisters and the Brilliant Brothers were dressed in appropriate costumes in vibrant colors; at the back of the float was attached a placard-- No pigs were injured in the construction of this float. Sugarberry giggled as she saw Driftwood's sense of humor at work. Wigwam's Casino was as Wishbone had originally suggested-- a giant slot machine with Tiny the Bigfoot at the handle. Even Spike was there with an entry for the eighties museum that he and Tabby shared.

There was so much going on and so much to see, but Elaine and Sugarberry had to return to the vet clinic where Thomas, Cliff, Jet, and Luge were preparing the float for moving. They had encountered some unforeseen problems with the cart base that carried the float, but these had finally been resolved; the float was now taken to its position between Driftwood's and Brightblade's.

"It looks great," Sugarberry commented. "Cliff... Luge... Jet... we are truly grateful for all the help you and the rest of the Xtreme Ponies gave us on this!" They all stood back to survey their work.

The float consisted of a large paper-mache apple tree, laden with green leaves and luscious fruit hanging from the branches. On the ground surrounding the tree rested hoof-sculpted representatives of the animal kingdom including a collie, a family of rabbits, and several small mice. And at first glance, that seemed to be all. But after closer scrutiny, one would notice a serious Siamese sitting alertly on one of the lower branches and a fat angora curled up asleep in a fork of the tree; other branches contained a playful Maine coon, and an elegant Bombay. The tree was literally crawling with lifelike cats, thanks to the expertise of the Xtreme Ponies.

"Yes," Elaine added. "We wouldn't have been able to do it without you!"

"Dude!" Cliff responded with the typical answer. Luge only smiled and Jet gave a thumbs-up signal.

The school bands were practicing in an open field behind the staging area, presenting a cacophony that grated the auditory sense. Foals dressed in apple costumes, obviously from the School of Dance, were accompanied by their parents to the point of assembly.

"Did you hear yet what entry the Bushwoolies came up with?" Thomas asked.

"No, not a word," admitted Sugarberry. "Which reminds me, I could certainly go for an apple-flavored woolie cake right now!"

"There's time before the parade starts," suggested Thomas. "Let's go find their stand and get one for each of us. Besides, I'd like to run by Tabby's float to see how it's holding up."

Going off again, the three ponies soon came across the Pokèmon Center's unique production: an apple blossom petal-formed figure of Chansey, the pink egg-shaped Pokèmon, with a brilliant rose-petal apple just peaking out of the pocket on her tummy. Flower Belle, with her magical power of conjuring up flowers, had been one of the most sought after ponies in Dream Valley during the course of the preceding weeks as every business and organization in the city had designed and crafted a float that not only conveyed its advertising but also applauded the beauty and versatility of apples.

The large, fragrant image of Chansey was zealously guarded by the Chanseys that worked with Tabby at the Pokèmon Center. Tabby herself was standing in relative awe of the impressive figure. "It's gorgeous!" Sugarberry complimented her friend. "I knew Mr. Mime would do a good job with it! And it's neat that you used rose petals to make the apple since apples are members of the rose family."

"They are?" said Tabby.

"It's all so delicate," Elaine observed. "And yet so real."

"I'm just glad that the wind isn't blowing too hard," stated Tabby. "But right now, I'm hungry!"

"Our sentiments exactly," laughed Thomas. "We're heading for the Bushwoolies' food booth for some woolie cakes."

Arriving at the site of the food alley, the ponies found the area busy serving all the mouth-watering apple edibles imaginable. "Which one is the Bushwoolies'?" asked Elaine, peering through the mass of creatures milling about the place.

"They were supposed to be next to Tex's apple salsa booth which is under the big elm tree," Sugarberry replied, leading the way. When they got to the wooden station set up for the Bushwoolies, however, they found the place vacant.

"Where is everybody?" queried Tabby. "I want my woolie cake!"

"There's not a Bushwoolie in sight," commented Elaine.

"Come to think of it," Thomas said, "I haven't seen a Bushwoolie all morning."

"That's odd," murmured Sugarberry. "They were more excited about this festival than anyone. You don't think something's happened to them, do you?" A worried expression appeared on Sugarberry's face as she imagined the worst.

"Maybe they didn't get their float finished on time," speculated Tabby, searching for a suitable substitute for a woolie cake.

"There's Princess Dawn and Perry; maybe they'll know something about them," suggested Elaine. The princess ponies were to act as judges for the entrants in the parade. But when asked, Princess Dawn was not able to shed much light on the situation, either. All she knew was that the Bushwoolies had delivered a list of the floats and the sequence in which they would appear to the Paradise Estate late the evening before, and all seemed to be in good order at that time.

"Maybe we should check the Bushwoolie holes," proposed Sugarberry. "If something is wrong, they might need help."

"Perry, why don't you and Thomas check them out?" Dawn took charge of the situation. "The rest of us will keep looking here in town, and meet you back at the staging ground."

Looking at his watch, Perry added, "The parade is scheduled to start in twenty minutes! We'd better move fast, Thomas!"

As the two stallions took off in the direction of the Bushwoolie holes, Sugarberry, Tabby, Elaine, and Princess Dawn split up to cover as much area as possible in their search for the missing Bushwoolies. Around every corner, Sugarberry expected to see one of the exuberant furballs, but none came in sight. Oh, to hear a "Yeah, yeah," she thought sadly.

Coming across Driftwood as she neared the parade line-up, she fell into step beside him. "Where could they be?" she worried.

"Some ponies think that they just worked so hard getting ready for the big day that they overslept!" offered Driftwood. "Can't you just see it now... all those bright furry bodies nestled together in a big heap, sleeping so soundly that they don't know it's time for the parade!"

The thought did make Sugarberry smile, and she admitted that it was a possible explanation; but at that moment, Thomas and Perry returned from the holes and reported that there was no sign of any of the Bushwoolies, big or small, inside of or outside of the burrowed homes.

By this time, even Chief Tawny was becoming concerned. "We'll have to organize a search party..." But his words were cut off as shouts of "Here they come!" and "There they are now!" echoed through the crowd.

Sure enough, if one listened closely, one could hear the excited and jubilant chatter of many, many Bushwoolies off in the distance. As they came closer, a path opened before them; the woolie creatures moved in a giant company of all ages and sizes, and each of them was holding... a frothy root beer float! The congregation of colored fur advanced to take their place at the head of the parade among cheers from those watching.

"Hey! And they are right on time!" Driftwood observed. "But I wonder how they worked their own self-declared apple theme into this 'float'?"

"Look!" exclaimed Sugarberry as the last of the Bushwoolies passed by, and the back sides of the last row were visible marching down the street. On each Bushwoolie was a sign: Apple Juice Floats, Yeah, Yeah!

The other floats fell into line behind the tumultuous cavalcade that led the parade. Tabby, Elaine, and Thomas joined up with Sugarberry and Driftwood as the kaleidoscopic creations moved one after the other in blithe procession. The floats maneuvered under the power of the Grundles who had kindly agreed for the duty, so those who had worked on building the odd variety of entries now had the pleasure of standing back to see their handiwork pass by.

The Corral, an upscale motel on the edge of town, was in line immediately following the Bushwoolies. The colossal apple that was the center of the float was obviously a worm lodging; in random fashion, the doors that were scattered over the surface of the apple would open, and a cutsie little worm with a big grin would stick his head out.

Tabby shuddered. "I hate worms!" And as Driftwood had never heard the story of Tex's ill-fated prank on Tabby back in fourth grade, he was enlightened as the marching band from Dream Valley High School pranced by.

"Ohh..." groaned Sugarberry. "Those big drums booming away always make me feel all queasy inside."

The next float was presented by Wigwam's Casino, and generated lots of excitement among the foals as Tiny the Bigfoot, amidst bright flashing lights, operated the slot machine, releasing a flood of candy for the fillies and colts to retrieve whenever three apples appeared. Thomas and Driftwood braved the onslaught of small ponies to recover enough candy for all in their group.

"Oh, look!" exclaimed Elaine as the street became filled with performing apples. This was the School of Dance flotilla, consisting of innumerable foals dressed in their perky apple costumes, dancing down the street. "Aren't they the cutest little things?"

"They certainly are!" agreed a voice behind the assembled ponies as Toby came to join them; he took his place beside Elaine. "And you're looking especially lovely today," he said to the mare as he offered her a polished scarlet apple.

Driftwood snickered. "Not a wise move, Doc, if the old adage is correct... an apple a day keeps the doctor away!" Elaine blushed, and Sugarberry giggled.

The hospital float just happened to be moving in front of them displaying baskets and baskets full of a variety of apples with the not so subtle reminder: eat at least two to four fruits each and every day! Toby shrugged. "It may not be innovative, but it gets the point across."

The Friendship Gardens band was next in line, trailed by Spike and Tabby's toy museum endeavor. Apple Dumpling, Strawberry Shortcake, Blueberry Muffin, Raspberry Tart, and Plum Pudding were serving a tea party to He-Man and Skeletor; the disparity between the gentle fruit-inspired dolls and the massive strength of the Masters of the Universe lent a surrealistic atmosphere. As Tabby put it, it "didn't make any sense, but it sure was outrageous."

This display was followed by Streaky's library-and-apple concept-- a worm leaving its home in the apple to become the proverbial bookworm. A number of foals sat around the automated sequence, reading apple-related titles. Then came Lemon Treats' float, Tex's pepper, and Driftwood's Estate Manor medieval splendor. The ladies and knights enjoying the banquet shared their repast with the watching crowds in the form of apple candy.

Catching one of the airborne delectables, Driftwood offered it to Sugarberry. "Will m'lady join me for dinner tonight?" he asked, bowing before her. Finding the pageantry irresistible, Sugarberry acquiesced.

Tabby, overhearing the invitation, couldn't withstand tormenting her friend. "Forgetting all about Vanguard, are we, hmm?" she whispered confidentially.

Sugarberry didn't have time to respond as the vet clinic float was coming before them, and she wanted to feast her eyes on the exhibit she had helped to prepare. "Hey, you guys," Tabby commented, "it looks surprisingly well done!"

"Better than yours?" Thomas teased.

"I didn't say that, did I?" Tabby retorted.

Brightblade's, Scoop's, Tabby's, Oakley's, Sparkler's, and Flower Bouquet's floats passed by, intermingled with more bands and the Xtreme Ponies' roller blade antics. The ingenuity and resourcefulness of the ponies of Dream Valley was outstanding. Quarterback's engineering firm brought the apple into the twenty-first century with a 3-D computer image; Lullabye Nursery Day Care incorporated apple-shaped cradles that gently rocked the newborn babies into dreamland.

An entourage of silly clowns accompanied the day care float which set off Tabby's clown phobia; attempting to become invisible between Thomas and Elaine only accented her presence in the eyes of one miscreant buffoon who singled her out for his attention. Refusing to accept the bauble that magically appeared in his hoof, Tabby retreated even more deeply into the crowd; but the clown was not discouraged. With another flourish, he presented her with a shimmery scarf that materialized out of nowhere.

The applause of those in the vicinity showed appreciation for the harlequin's expertise, but Tabby was not impressed; she moved around Thomas so that he could provide protection for her, but the clown was not deterred. His pantomime motions parted the spectators so that he, too, could circumvent the white unicorn stallion. Ostentatiously, the simpleton now brandished a showy bouquet of flowers-- and not just any flowers, but a beautiful bouquet of the rare and exquisite light sensor flowers.

The flowers in themselves caught Tabby's attention, for they reminded her of her wedding day. She looked from them to the clown's face that smiled perpetually before her; due to the heavily painted face and the concealing costume, there was no way to identify who this pony could be... except for the eyes.

"Blue Belle, you... you... clown!" Tabby cried in outrage. "What do you mean by harassing me like this?!"

The demeanor of the clown deflated, even if the painted smile stayed intact. "I... I... wasn't harassing you, Tabby. I was trying to impress you."

"Impress me?" the disconcerted unicorn hissed. "Whatever gave you the idea that I would be impressed by persecution from a foolish clown?" Her front right hoof tapped testily on the ground.

"Well, you like Mr. Mime, don't you?" whimpered Blue Belle.

"Mr. Mime is NOT a clown!" Tabby clarified. "He's a... mime."

Sensing a confrontation not suitable to young viewers, Thomas discreetly directed Tabby and Blue Belle off to a secluded corner between buildings. Taking the bouquet of light sensor flowers from Blue Belle, he offered them to his wife. "You must admit that these bring back pleasant memories." He smiled at her in such a way that she had no choice but to abandon her anger and to accept the blossoms.

"They will always be my favorite," she smiled back at the stallion who had won her love. Then turning to Blue Belle, who stood dejectedly off to the side, she continued. "So, Blue Belle, spill it. What were you trying to accomplish back there?"

"Actually... what I was thinking... maybe I could..."

"Blue Belle?!"

"Tabby, please let me have more hours at the Pokèmon Center!"

Tabby and Thomas both stared at the clown-pony. "You want to work more?" questioned a bewildered Pokèmon nurse.

"Yes," explained Blue Belle. "You see, I really love the Pokèmon, and I'd like to be able to spend more time with them; and I could do that if you'd allot me a bigger share of responsibility at the center. I promise that I'd be really trustworthy and dependable..."

"I get the picture," Tabby interrupted. She exchanged a glance with Thomas. "I'll...I'll think about it."

"You will?" Blue Belle gushed. "Oh, thank you Tabby! Thank you!"

"And now, Blue Belle," Thomas casually mentioned, "you might want to catch up with your comrades." He gestured down the street where the Lullabye Nursery float was just disappearing from sight.

"Oh!" squealed Blue Belle, quickly starting off after the entourage. "And thanks again!" she shot back just as she was swallowed up in the crowd.

"Why didn't she just come out and ask me at the Pokèmon Center last week?" Tabby wondered out loud, burying her nose in the fragrant bouquet that she held.

"She was only trying to impress you," replied Thomas, taking advantage of the secluded surroundings to steal a kiss from Tabby before returning to their friends.

"Who won?" asked Driftwood of Tabby as she and Thomas rejoined the group while Elaine, Toby, and Sugarberry looked on. "The clown looked happy when she left."

"She wants to be scheduled for more hours at the Pokèmon Center," shrugged Tabby. Changing the subject, she asked, "What did we miss?"

"Pony-Mart, the movie theater, and the bagpipe unit," Elaine informed them.

"Oh. That explains the terrible noise, then," discerned Tabby innocently.

One of the last entries of the parade was by Pony Pride University. It boasted a dunk tank complete with Poeticus as the first victim. Wishbone, with the help of a bullhorn, was inviting one and all to come to the park after the parade and throughout the day to take their chance at soaking one of the university teachers for a small charitable fee by propelling an apple through the air to activate the lever which would in turn cause the dunking of the unlucky participant. The banner over the dunk tank waved gaily: An apple for the teacher! Other university students were working their way through the spectators selling tickets for the pleasure of getting back at any of the professors who had caused a student undue grief.

Sugarberry contemplated the joy of seeing Giorgio soaked and sputtering, but opted not to purchase a ticket knowing that she wouldn't be brave enough even if she had the chance. Driftwood caught her pensive look. "You look like a mare with a vendetta," he grinned. "I can see you wanting to get back at Papyrus while we were at Greener Pastures, but who at Pony Pride would you have a grudge against?" But as soon as he said the words, he realized where she was coming from. "Oh," he chuckled, guiding the mare out of the path of the ponies who were leaving the parade route now that the last participant had passed by; the majority of them were heading for the new center of activity at the park grounds.

Regrouping at the corner, the stallions and mares made their plans for the day. "I never did get my woolie cake," Tabby sighed. "And I forgot to eat breakfast."

"Breakfast is the most important meal of the day," reminded Toby.

"Then off to the food booths!" declared Driftwood. "But you'll not find anything better than the fare at the Estate Manor!" he added.

"Especially the apple dessert being served in honor of the apple festival," agreed Sugarberry knowingly.

"How about it, Elaine?" asked Toby. "Shall you and I dine out in luxury at the end of this day?"

Casting a questioning glance at her brother, Elaine hesitated in answering. However, Thomas proved to be no help at all. "Agatha and Hubert are treating Tabby and I to dinner there tonight. We'll see you later!" And he went off with Tabby to hunt up the Bushwoolies' food booth once more.

Elaine, looking quickly to the right and left expecting to see a fuming Tiffany materialize from nowhere, sighed. She wished that Tiffany hadn't come down so hard on her about Toby when Elaine had been new in town. She felt as if she would never shake off the feeling that she was being watched whenever Toby was around. Tiffany's persona was strong, even all the way from Italy. But braving a smile, she finally faced Toby and accepted his invitation. "I'd love to dine with you."

"Great!" he said, then frowned. "But right now I must get back to the hospital.." After verifying a time, Toby pranced away, leaving Elaine, Driftwood, and Sugarberry to decide their own fate.

"How about we abandon any dietary guidelines for the next hour, and see how many of the food stands we can visit?" queried Driftwood of the mares. "At the end of the hour, we will declare our own personal favorite of the day!"

Sugarberry giggled. "I'm hungry enough to go for it," she admitted. "How about you, Elaine?"

"Why not?" Elaine responded. "It is a festival day, after all!"

The trio made a superb effort to encompass the entire range of foodstuffs available that afternoon, but one by one they had to concede that it was impossible for one pony to safely enjoy the complete variety of savory items. They finally collapsed under a shade tree, feeling totally stuffed. "I don't think I'll be able to eat any supper tonight, Driftwood," Sugarberry groaned. "I'll have to renege, I'm afraid."

"Me, too," moaned Elaine, resting her head against the tree trunk.

"Hey, girls! We've got all afternoon to work off what we've eaten so far. You'll both be famished by this evening," argued Driftwood. "We could go over by the carnival rides and..."

"Carnival rides?" Elaine looked completely woozy. "I can't even think about them without feeling even worse."

Sugarberry glared at Driftwood. "Don't even mention those things, or I'm going to be sick!"

Driftwood only laughed. "I don't remember you being this squeamish about little ol' carnival rides, Sugarberry!"

"That's because you've never seen me on one, have you?" she countered.

"Hmm. Come to think of it, I guess I haven't. I remember taking Raspberry to a carnival at the county fair once, though. She seemed to think it was okay."

"Just because we're sisters doesn't mean we respond to things the same way."

Driftwood looked in Elaine's direction and saw that she had her eyes closed; moving closer to Sugarberry, he asked, "I tried to talk with Raspberry at the wedding last month, but she seemed rather cool, if you know what I mean. Any idea why?"

Sugarberry picked a twig up off the ground and began breaking it into little bits, stalling for time. Finally, she offered, "She never really talked about you after your breakup."

"That sounds like an evasion of the question."

"What can I say? She kept her feelings to herself."

Driftwood sighed. "You never had any theories of your own?"

"I might have heard her discussing you with Mom once."


Sugarberry hesitated, casting a quick glance at Driftwood before tossing the pieces of twig away. "She thought that you would never learn to be serious about anything."

Staring off into the distance, Driftwood looked serious enough to please even Raspberry. "She knows I've settled down enough to run a restaurant; doesn't that count for anything?"

Pondering his statement for a minute, Sugarberry responded, "Well, you were with Hydrangea at the wedding."

Driftwood looked startled. "So I'm with you today. Does that mean anything?"

"I could take offense to that," she responded. "But, no, it doesn't mean anything. You know that, and I know that, but a third party might not know that." She looked over at Elaine who sat smirking by the tree.

"Don't mind me," she said self-consciously. "I'm not listening." So saying, she stood up and moved further along the path.
"So what should I do to catch Raspberry's attention again?" asked Driftwood.

But they were interrupted as Wigwam and Chocolate Chip, dragging Elaine with them, burst upon the scene. "Come on over to the dunk tank," panted Chocolate Chip. "Giorgio is going to take a turn, Sugarberry, and I thought you'd want to try your luck!"

"No, no!" Sugarberry contradicted. "I'd never be able to aim an apple to hit the lever even if I was brave enough to try."

"I'll do it for you then," volunteered Wigwam, with Chocolate Chip offering her deadly aim as well.

"What have you got to lose?" Driftwood chided the Twice-As-Fancy mare. He arose and pulled her to her hooves.

"How has the dunk tank been doing?" asked Elaine as they walked at a fast trot toward the Pony Pride exhibit.

"We're raising a ton of jangles for charity!" beamed Chocolate Chip. "Everybody wants a chance to dunk a teacher. I'm glad Wishbone thought of this idea."

Arriving at the crowded display, Elaine and Sugarberry opted to be observers only while the others paid for their chance. Giorgio, to his credit, was taking his time on the perch over the water in good humor. A banter of taunts between the prey and the predators was brisk. Wishbone, warming up at the line, finally let loose the apple, sending Giorgio plunging into the cold water below. "My grades can't get any worse than they are anyway," he joked.

A young deep gray stallion that Sugarberry had never met was next. His aim was good, but the force was not strong enough to activate a dunking. Chocolate Chip went next, and was successful. She came back to Sugarberry with a grin on her face. "That felt really good!"

"Good job, Chocky," Wishbone called as he came to her side, followed by the unknown student. "Sable wimped out, as you saw," he scoffed.

"Hey! You heard Giorgio threaten me with an extra-hard test. He's mean enough to do it, too," the pony named Sable replied. "I'm not going to risk a bad grade just for a little fun here today."

"The teachers can't let what happens here today affect their opinion of any of us," stated Chocolate Chip. "They're all aware that it benefits a good cause."

"Well, I'm not taking any chances," Sable grumbled. "My folks expect me to do well here; they didn't especially want me to transfer schools in the first place."

"Where did you transfer from?" queried Elaine. "I went to school in New Pony."

"Nowhere that big," shrugged Sable. "I was over at Binks University for a year."

"Binks?" Chocolate Chip looked at Sugarberry. "Isn't that where Vanguard graduated from?"

"Yes, it is," she replied. "Binks is a good university, too, Sable. Why did you want to come here?"

"Um... well... it has a reputation for having a good.. job placement rate," he stammered. Then quickly, he turned to Wishbone. "Come on, Wishbone. Let's run over and get something to eat while we can."

"Sure," Wishbone agreed, following behind his friend with a wave at the rest of the ponies.

Chocolate Chip watched the two of them cross the grassy park. "Those two are getting awfully thick," she complained. "I think Wishbone should be studying more instead of running around all the time."

"Spoken like a possessive big sister," teased Wigwam. "You surely don't expect him to be home hitting the books today, do you?" He was feeling cocky because the apple he threw had hit its mark successfully, while Driftwood's had failed.

And Driftwood's luck wasn't about to change. Ages came running up to him with the news that there were problems in the kitchen back at the Estate Manor, and his help was needed immediately. "Come to the manor at eight o'clock, Sugarberry," he directed. "I'll probably be stuck with kitchen duty the rest of the day, but I'll take off once your beauty graces my doorstep." He grinned roguishly, and Sugarberry rolled her eyes in return.

"So now what?" asked Elaine. "We've both been abandoned."

"Have you been on the carnival rides yet?" questioned Wigwam. But stony-eyed stares were the only answer he got from the two mares. "Um... is that yes or no?" he quipped.

"No, thank you," the two replied in unison.

"I think we'd enjoy something a little tamer, like a ring-toss game," Elaine suggested.

While they stood discussing their options, Giorgio's stint in the tank was completed; after drying off, he looked over the ponies clustered about the area, his eyes coming to rest on Sugarberry. She was engaged in conversation with Elaine, and didn't notice his approach until he stood in front of her. "Good day, Sugarberry," he smiled, taking her hoof in his for the kiss. Turning to Elaine, he murmured, "I don't believe I've had the pleasure to make your acquaintance."

Elaine blushed profusely, as Sugarberry made the introduction.

"A veterinarian; how wonderful," Giorgio observed, kissing her hoof as well. "It makes me wish I owned a cat or a dog."
The mares were saved by Wigwam. "Giorgio, you made an excellent target!" he kidded.

"Yes. You seemed to be on target," the teacher responded. "It would be interesting to see what would happen if our positions were reversed."

Poeticus and Gauntlet, who were standing nearby, overheard Giorgio's comment. "We were just discussing that very thing!" exclaimed Poeticus. "How about giving us teachers a chance at you students?" He issued the challenge to those near him.

"You're on!" laughed Wishbone, "if you double the fee."

"Let's make that triple," suggested Giorgio, getting out his jangles. "It is for charity, after all."

As Wishbone climbed into position over the tank of water, he called to Giorgio, "Give it your best shot!" Giorgio did, and proved to be a formidable opponent as the apple hit home, and Wishbone was doused.

"Definitely worth the cost," he smugly retorted, rubbing his front hooves together.

Poeticus took a turn next, cheered on by his wife, Lemon Treats. His first effort failed, but he quickly purchased a second chance, and Wishbone was once more immersed. Gauntlet's effort was unsuccessful, which gave Wishbone time to catch his breath.

Word had quickly spread that students were now the victims of the dunk tank, and a line of teachers swiftly formed to take advantage of the opportunity to plunge a student into the fluid depths of the tank; and if a particular pony who had been an especially trying student could be commandeered to be the target, the educators were willing to pay exorbitant rates just for the pleasure of payback time. Chocolate Chip beamed at the accumulation of jangles that was amassing for the cause, which far surpassed her wildest dreams. "The homeless won't be cold or hungry this winter!" she stated happily.

When Sugarberry and Elaine tired of the volley of apples and the splashing water, they moved on to visit other areas of interest. One particularly noisy display caught their attention; it was an apple pie eating contest. The contestants for this round were all baby ponies, including Baby Leaper, Baby Falling Leaves, Baby Tiddly-Winks, Baby Drummer, and Baby Nectar.

"Remember, no hooves allowed-- mouths only!" instructed Peppermint Crunch as a scrumptious pie was set before each of the babies. "Now, at the sound of the whistle, start eating!"

The whistle blew, and the eating began. Baby Snookums disqualified herself by using her hooves; Baby Heart Throb, when she realized she would get messy, backed off and left the stage. Baby Drummer soon admitted to a stomach ache, followed by Baby Tiddly-Winks.

Baby Falling Leaves, Baby Leaper, and Baby Nectar ate their way through the first pie, and were making good headway on the second when Baby Nectar suddenly clutched her tummy and staggered away. The last two participants eyed one another through their apple-smeared faces, neither of them willing to admit defeat. Their frenzied gulps, however, became hesitant nibbles until Peppermint Crunch stepped-in and called it a tie. Both baby ponies received a medal, and a plush apple pillow for nap time. Baby Falling Leaves and Baby Leaper accepted their prizes, looking a little green and not at all happy.

"Me feel sick, Mommy," Baby Falling Leaves admitted as she was guided away by Mommy and Daddy Falling Leaves.

"I bet I won't be begged to make an apple pie anytime in the near future," grinned Toad Lily as she and her colt passed by Sugarberry.

"Poor baby ponies!" sympathized Elaine.

"Next contest is for mares only." Peppermint Crunch called to the two. "Want to try your stamina?"

"No thanks," grimaced Sugarberry, remembering how she had felt earlier after feasting on rich, calorie-laden food. She followed Elaine who had left at the mere mention of their entering.

"Here's one we could handle, Elaine!" Sugarberry grinned. They had come across the apple peeling contest. Participants had just finished a competition on who could peel an apple the quickest-- Applejack walked away with the prize.

"The next round," Nightcap announced, "will be to see who can end up with the longest peeling."

Elaine looked uncertain, but was willing to try. "I guess we have a fair chance."

Quarterback saw the two mares waiting for the start of the contest-- they needed at least five competitors-- and filled one of the empty slots while Merry Moments stayed on the sidelines to photograph the event. "I'm winning this one, girls!" Quarterback goaded.

Sugarberry responded quickly. "If I remember correctly, you're the one who bakes fruit pies without peeling the fruit first."

"You're joking, of course," Elaine giggled.

"No, I'm not," Sugarberry declared.

"That was peach pie, and after you tasted it you said that no one could tell the difference," Quarterback defended himself.

"Okay, so it worked out for peach pie. But I bet you never peeled an apple in your life."

They were interrupted by the arrival of Wigwam, who found the apple peeling contest humorous. "So it takes a special talent to do this?" he queried. "What'll they think of next!"

Nightcap, upon hearing Wigwam's remark, offered him a peeler and an apple.

"Go for it!" Quarterback egged him on.

"What? And beat out the mares?" Wigwam threw a sassy glance at Sugarberry and Elaine.

"No need for us to worry, right Elaine?" Sugarberry looked to her friend for backup.

"R... right," Elaine agreed hesitantly, glancing down at the peeler in her hoof somewhat uncertainly.

"So are you in or not?" Nightcap asked of the orange stallion.

"I'm going to win irregardless," commented Quarterback smugly.

"Come on, Wigwam," urged Sugarberry. "The sooner we get all the spots filled, the sooner we can declare a winner."

"Oh, all right," Wigwam finally gave in and accepted the necessary equipment from Nightcap. Taking a seat on the platform with the others, he scowled in Sugarberry's direction. But he soon fell into conversation with Quarterback. "Was that an Apple computer you used on your float?" he asked.

"Hardly," Quarterback replied. "I used a Macrohard. An Apple would never have been able to handle that kind of application."

Tabby and Thomas were the next to appear on the scene, and at Elaine's invitation to join the contest, Tabby vehemently declined. Thomas, however, was willing to give it a try, so Nightcap had her required minimum number of contestants. "You all have an apple and a peeler," she explained. "Now you have until the sound of the buzzer to carve off the longest peeling possible."

"It's timed?" groaned Sugarberry. "I thought we'd be allowed to work at our own speed!"

"Nope. The timer starts when I press this button. Any questions?"

Thoroughly enjoying Sugarberry's discomfort, Wigwam now threw himself into the task of winning the contest. "Nervous, Sugarberry?" he taunted. "Remember, speed is of the essence!" He grinned wickedly, knowing full well that once her work was being timed, Sugarberry became totally flustered and inept.

"Begin now!" commanded Nightcap as she set the timer in motion. All five ponies began peeling the fruit in their hooves, each deeply concentrating on the task. Nightcap called off the time in five-second increments, and when the end was reached, the combatants held up the results of their labors.

Officially measuring each ribbon of apple, Nightcap declared the winner-- Elaine by an inch over Quarterback's. The mare squealed with surprised delight and received her prize-- a wooden hoof-carved apple surrounded by like-formed apple blossoms.

"How appropriate," commented Thomas with a wink. "Not only will it remind you of the apple festival, but also of your blossoming romance with Dr. Toby."

"I came in second," declared Quarterback. "Do I get a prize?"

"All entrants get this special festival button," Nightcap offered. "Wear it proudly!"

Wigwam sought out Sugarberry. "Well, we both lost. How about a ride on the Ferris wheel to cheer you up?"

Thomas laughed. "And how about you, Tabby? Are you courageous enough this year to tackle the big wheel again?"

Staring across the grounds at the towering contraption that dominated the carnival, she thought a moment and with an endearing glance at Thomas stated, "Hmm... maybe."

Seeking enlightenment, Wigwam asked, "You mean to tell me Tabby is afraid of the Ferris wheel?" Elaine and Sugarberry slowly tried to melt into the crowd, but Wigwam caught sight of them. "Whoa, you two. I can understand that you might be afraid of the roller coaster, shrimpy as it is, or the rocket, but the Ferris wheel? You've got to be kidding!"

Sugarberry relived the panic she had felt when she and Vanguard had ridden the Ferris wheel shortly after Vanguard had arrived in Dream Valley; even with her noble stallion at her side, she had been dismayed at the apparent emptiness that had enveloped her as the wheel crested the peak of its orbit and began its downward swing. She and Tabby had both been extremely happy to have that ride end. "You know that I have a phobia of heights," she grumbled to Wigwam, whose eyes were dancing with mischief.

"You wheedled me into the apple peeling contest. Now I'm asking you to join me on the Ferris wheel," he stated. "Both of you." His glance took in Elaine as well.

"No," Sugarberry said emphatically. "No way." She backed away from Wigwam to accentuate her refusal, but bumped into Quarterback and Merry Moments who had followed along.

"Problem here?" Quarterback asked, sensing the mare's distress.

"Just trying to talk these two into a ride on the Ferris wheel," Wigwam explained.

Chocolate Chip came up to the group at that moment. "Oh! Can we go on the Ferris wheel, Wigwam?" she asked brightly.

"Saved by the belle!" Wigwam murmured, moving her gaze from Sugarberry and Elaine to the brown pony at his side. "Come on, Chocolate Chip! Let's go!"

Tabby and Thomas had already boarded, and Merry Moments and Quarterback were in the next compartment, followed now by Wigwam and Chocolate Chip. Elaine giggled as she and Sugarberry watched the couples. Tabby had snuggled close to Thomas, his foreleg protectively around her, while the others were more interested in getting the seats to swing or in calling to ponies in the crowd. "They are so right together, aren't they?" she mused as the ride began moving upward.

"Tabby and Thomas? Yes, they are," she agreed, her mind going back to a previous ride on the Ferris wheel with Tabby's screams and her own fears even with Vanguard's encompassing presence at her side. How she missed him as she remembered that first glorious day that he had been in Dream Valley! Her eyes got misty, and she whispered to Elaine, "I'm going to walk around a bit."

Elaine, looking to nod her assent, was surprised to see the forlorn expression that had engulfed the strawberry-covered mare. "What's wrong, Sugarberry?" she worried, following after her.

"Just missing Vanguard," she smiled sadly at Elaine. "I wish that he was here." They walked silently until they came upon a boisterous group of baby ponies at the ring toss booth. Baby Noddins was just beginning her turn at encircling a prize. The little filly pouted when her first ring missed, groaned when the second went way too far, and grew teary-eyed when the third-- and last-- ring also missed its mark. She stomped her little hoof in annoyance. "That was my last jangle!" she whimpered.

Feeling sorry for the foal, Sugarberry offered to buy her another chance. "Me only miss again," Baby Noddins complained, dragging her hoof in a woebegone manner through the trampled grass.

"Well, let's try at least," Sugarberry prompted the foal.

The little unicorn looked up at her hopefully. "Do you think I might finally get something?"

Sugarberry's heart sank as she realized she had built up Baby Noddins' hopes with no insurance of success. "We won't know until you try," philosophized Sugarberry with more confidence than she felt. Handing the lavender mare in charge of the booth the necessary jangle, she said, "Your three best rings for Baby Noddins, please."

"They don't come with a guarantee," Powder smiled as she handed Baby Noddins the wooden rings.

"Concentrate on the item you want," advised Elaine. "Keep your eye on it when you throw the hoop."

"What are you after?" questioned Sugarberry of Baby Noddins. The tosses the baby pony had made earlier were so erratic that she couldn't even guess at what Noddins was after.

Baby Noddins looked up at Sugarberry in disgust. "The Furby backpack, of course," she stated as if there was no other choice. "Tabby has one, you know."

"I see," said Sugarberry, glancing at Elaine who was suppressing a giggle.

The baby unicorn took Elaine's advice and directed her aim at the desired item. She released the hoop, and although it partially covered the backpack, it wasn't exact enough to count.

"The hoop has to lay perfectly flat around the prize," Powder explained.

Elaine moved to Noddins' side. "Okay. Try again, just like the last one." Sugarberry held her breath as the ring floated through the air and dropped agonizingly close to, but not over, the Furby accessory.

"It's awfully close," she pleaded with Powder.

"Close doesn't count, Sugarberry. It wouldn't be fair to all the others," Powder held firm.

"This is your last chance, Baby Noddins," Sugarberry knelt by her side. "Don't get nervous. Just follow Elaine's suggestions and stay loose."

Baby Noddins stared at the backpack for a long time before she geared up for her final toss. The ring sailed strong and sure and settled over the item, rocking back and forth several times to prolong the uncertainty, then dropping with a definite click into an unquestionable victory. Baby Noddins cheered and hugged Sugarberry around the neck, while Elaine waited to share a triumphant hug, too. A small crowd of spectators who had gotten drawn into the suspense, applauded the lavender unicorn, too, before moving on to other happenings.

"Great job, Baby Noddins!" Powder glowed as she gave the foal her prize.

"Tank you!" Noddins grinned. "Now me have to find Tabby and show her my backpack." She scampered away in a glorious mood.

"That was rather exciting," breathed Sugarberry, relieved to have witnessed a happy outcome. "I'm grateful for your sound advice, Elaine. She couldn't have done it without you!"

Lowering her head, Elaine answered meekly, "I'm glad it helped." After a moment, she continued, "I tried to win something at a game like this once. It was at a church picnic."

"And was your end result positive?" The two mares had begun to walk across the grounds together.

"Unfortunately, no. I was after a porcelain figurine of a cat. I wanted to get it so I could give it to Thomas on his birthday. But I couldn't get the ring to fall right." She smiled self-consciously. "I felt so badly that I went and sat under a tree and cried."

"Oh, I'm sorry," Sugarberry commiserated.

"Thomas found me there, tears streaming down my face. He asked me what was wrong, and I said 'nothing'. So he sat down beside me until I'd gotten control of my emotions again. Then he tried to get me to tell him my problem, but I wouldn't. I figured if I told him what I wanted, he'd win the prize for me. But then I wouldn't have been able to give it to him as a gift. So I shrugged it off, and he left with a bunch of his friends."

"You had a sensitive predicament there," Sugarberry perceived. "And you never had another opportunity to win the cat?"

"No more jangles," Elaine replied. "But, you know, it was really strange, because when my birthday came around, you know what Thomas gave me?"

"Not the porcelain cat?" Sugarberry wondered.

"Yes! It was the exact figure I'd tried to win for him. He admitted that he'd won it at the picnic when I questioned him about it."

"I guess it's not so surprising when you consider the deep love of animals you both have," Sugarberry reflected.

The mares continued their trek around the various activities that filled the park, encountering friends to chat with and games to play. It was getting late when Elaine's nervous peeks at the time reminded Sugarberry that she, too, had a date that evening. So the two parted company, Elaine to return to the mansion that she shared with Tabby and Thomas, and Sugarberry to her home, to they could freshen-up before meeting their dinner partners.

Advantageously, Sugarberry was just leaving her house as Hubert and Agatha were passing by. Tabby's parents were still residing in Tabby's former home next door. What might have been a lonely walk in the deepening autumn dusk became a companionable enterprise.

"Any plans yet for a different house?" asked Sugarberry.

"No," disclosed Agatha. "We haven't found anything we like yet." She frowned in Hubert's direction.

The stallion only chuckled. "We can't agree on the amount of room we need, Sugarberry. What would you advise?"

Avoiding taking sides, Sugarberry offered, "I'm happy having you as my neighbors. So take your time making a decision."

The trio reached the Estate Manor ahead of Tabby and Thomas, so Agatha and Hubert invited Sugarberry to sit with them until Driftwood was free. When the newlyweds arrived, they were accompanied by Elaine and Toby; and at Agatha's insistence, the table was up-sized to accommodate all the ponies.

Driftwood, shaking off his personal concern for the affairs of the restaurant, jokingly remarked, "This is a great way for me to check-up on the service of this place." Leaning close to Sugarberry, he whispered, "We've nearly run out of apples; business has been great!"

"It would be horrible to run out of the main attraction."

"We did hijack some from the Bushwoolie storage tunnel, but Friendly made me vouch for replacement within three days. I'm not sure there will be any apples available in the vicinity to meet the deadline. Bushwoolies can't live without their apples."

Sugarberry contemplated Driftwood's problem as she listened to the chatter at the table; and when the solution came to her, she chided herself for being so dense. "Driftwood," she nudged him to get his attention. "I know how you can solve your apple problem and your Raspberry problem at the same time!"

"What are you talking about?" Driftwood looked at her suspiciously.

"Dad's a pomologist!" Sugarberry beamed.

"A what?" His look now told her that he considered her officially daft.

"A pomologist... you know, a fruit grower!" Sugarberry snapped at him impatiently. "You can go to Berryville to get the apples you need and rekindle your friendship with my sister at the same time!"

The light of understanding finally shone from Driftwood's eyes. "You know, that sounds like a perfect plan! I'll head over there tomorrow! Thanks, Sugarberry!" He leaned over and kissed her cheek.

"Tsk, tsk," Tabby's voice was heard. "Poor Vanguard, all the way over there in Italy." She shook her head compassionately.

Sugarberry felt her cheeks flush, but laughed off the remark. "Driftwood's just happy to find a new supplier for the apples he needs to pay off the Bushwoolies," she explained quickly.

"Uh-huh. Sure," Tabby replied with a wink.

"Your dad, I presume?" Hubert silenced his daughter's teasing remarks. "Strawberry Baskets always could get the fruit to grow bountifully."

The conversation turned to talk of the past and plans for the future, and the evening passed pleasantly until one by one, the couples departed to call to a close the Great Apple Festival. Sugarberry, waiting over a final cup of coffee for Driftwood to finish with some last minute instructions for his clean-up crew, was surprised to hear the approach of someone behind her; turning, she found herself face to face with Giorgio. She invariably gasped.

"My dear Sugarberry," he said, "I hope I didn't startle you. You looked so lonesome here by yourself that I was concerned for you." He took her hoof in his and held it gently.

"I thought the place was empty by now," Sugarberry wavered. "I'm just waiting for Driftwood to finish in the kitchen." She found it impossible to avoid his steady gaze and once more felt like a mouse waiting for the serpent to strike.

"And I am waiting for my friend to finish in the powder room," he smiled. "So we can keep each other company for a moment."

"For a moment," the mare repeated, praying silently for Driftwood to appear as Giorgio took the chair next to her.

"I couldn't help overhearing your conversation earlier about your father's fruit farm," he began.

"Eavesdropping doesn't become you," Sugarberry stated icily.

Giorgio laughed. "I was sitting at the next table, and honestly couldn't have avoided hearing what I did. Your group was rather... festive... shall we say."

Grimacing, Sugarberry realized he was right. The gathering of good friends had lent itself to a party atmosphere.

"I was fascinated to learn that with your success as an authoress, you came from such a disparaging background," the stallion continued, and he seemed to enjoy the chagrin that met his remark.

"Disparaging?" Sugarberry's eyes snapped vindictively. "I don't think my father ever considered supplying healthy food as a degrading occupation."

Giorgio chuckled. "You read too much into my choice of words. I merely meant to imply that your writing would indicate a more sophisticated background. I meant it as a compliment." He released her hoof, and patted it condescendingly. "My father is a politician-- or as he prefers to be called, a statesman-- back in Vulcanopolis. He has always talked of writing a book, but finds his time... limited."

"I'm sure," Sugarberry murmured, finding this comparison by Giorgio of their fathers to be perturbing. What point was he trying to make?

Leaning back in his chair, but keeping his eyes on hers, Giorgio disclosed his thoughts. "I thought you'd take your chance at me this afternoon when I was in the dunk tank." He grinned almost engagingly.

"I must admit that I did consider it," confessed Sugarberry, returning his smile.

"Well, I am most grateful to you for not adding to my misery." Responding to her questioning look, he went on. "You see, I abhor being in the water, especially in that sudden manner."

"Me too!" she found herself saying. "I simply cringe at the idea of going under."

"I am pleased to find we have something in common," he stated with an amicable note in his voice.

Ignoring his last remark, Sugarberry asked, "Why did you agree to participate if you feel the way you do about water?"

"It was for a worthy cause, my dear Sugarberry. Surely you don't think that poorly of me!"

As Giorgio then caught sight of his companion, Sugarberry was spared from answering. He stood and bade her farewell. "I look forward to seeing you again soon," he smiled.

"Goodnight," replied Sugarberry with less trepidation than normal. She watched the stallion cross the room, curious to see who his dinner date had been; but the mare waiting in the doorway was no one Sugarberry had ever seen before. Probably visiting from Italy, she fancied.

Coming through the kitchen doors, Driftwood finally materialized. "You took your own sweet time!" Sugarberry accused.

"I saw that you were being suitably entertained, so I kept myself scarce," he grinned.

"If I'd have been thinking straight, I'd have left with Agatha and Hubert!" she retorted.

"Oh, come now. Let's not get bitter. I'll see you safely home now; my crew is adequately prepared to close up."

As they walked across town, they could see the lights of the carnival and hear the voices of merrymakers who were still enjoying the apple festival hoopla. "The day went well, over all," analyzed Sugarberry. "The Bushwoolies should feel proud of their achievement."

"Everyone worked hard to pull it off," considered Driftwood. They walked in companionable silence for some time before he spoke again. "Tomorrow I'll visit Berryville and see what the fates have in store for me."

Sugarberry challenged him. "Fate isn't at work here, buddy. It's up to your own charismic charm to renew Raspberry's affection."

"I can't be what I'm not. She won't like me any better now than before," Driftwood sighed, suddenly allowing misgivings to weigh on his mind.

"Oh, stop your worrying!" advised the worry-expert. "You've certainly mellowed over the years, and Raspberry has had time to rethink her own criteria on what she wants out of life. You might find that this endeavor of yours will be simpler than you think."

"Honestly?" asked Driftwood with renewed enthusiasm. And Sugarberry again realized that she was building up hopes that she certainly couldn't confirm.

"I said 'might'." she clarified. But Driftwood was back to his usual good humor.

"Why don't you come with me tomorrow?" he suggested. "We could leave early, and get back late tomorrow night."

They had reached Sugarberry's house by this time, and Sugarberry gave Driftwood's idea some serious thought. Her talk over dinner about her dad and the conversation concerning her sister had made her slightly homesick for her family. And the encounter with Giorgio had thrown her off guard; she found that her usual feelings of anxiety when confronted with the Italian professor had not surfaced so strongly this evening.

"So you'll come?" Driftwood asked, watching her face as if reading her thought process.

"Hmm. It's tempting. We could leave right after church, and be there in time for lunch; I'll have to call Mom to make sure it will work for them." She had caught his anticipation of traveling to Berryville.

"Great! Make the call now so we can verify our plans!"

The call was placed, and Strawberry Shortcake was delighted to have unexpected visitors from Dream Valley. And yes, Raspberry would be home, too, and there were plenty of apples available. So goodnights were said and a meeting time arranged between Sugarberry and Driftwood; Sugarberry was left alone to think over the course of the day.

The house was eerily quiet with both Chocolate Chip and Wishbone still out on the town, and Raptor and Fluff had already made themselves comfortable on her bed. Sugarberry put out the lights and stood looking out the bedroom window at the bright glow from the direction of the park.

It had been a good day. Even with two confrontations with Giorgio, her peace had been maintained; she was amazed to find that she could now look back on those meetings with a benevolence that she would not have dreamed possible. And the months until Vanguard would be home were winding down; she could look forward with pleasure to resuming their friendship rather than mourning his loss.

Sugarberry carefully crawled into bed to disturb the sleeping cats as little as possible. All was right with the world, and she began visualizing her trip to her parents home in the morning. Rolling over, she inadvertently dumped the large orange longhair on the floor, but the mare was already sound asleep, and paid the feline's distress no mind.

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