Change of Heart
written by Sugarberry

Sugarberry was home alone when the knock came at the front door causing Fluff to scurry out of the room and Raptor to jump to the top of the sofa to get a good view of forthcoming events without being too obvious. The mare had been deep in concentration on a twist of events in her current story, and she softly groaned as the abrupt sound at the door caused her to lose all the elusive threads that she had been trying to latch on to.

Saving the information on her computer screen, Sugarberry stood up just as a second knock sounded. As she crossed the room muttering “I’m coming! I’m coming!” her mind kept busy with the intrigue and mystery of her manuscript so she should have been prepared for the unexpected; but when she opened the door and saw who was standing there, she was totally flustered to see a dark green stallion before her. “Giorgio!” she exclaimed in surprise.

“I hope I’m not imposing on you, Sugarberry, but I need to talk with you about some problems Wishbone is having,” imparted the unanticipated visitor. “May I come in?”

A bit of the old apprehension of this pony from Vulcanopolis swept over Sugarberry, and for an instant she entertained the thought of closing the door in his face to avoid any confrontation with him; then remembering his more amicable bearing on the evening of the apple festival-- not to mention her concern over Wishbone-- she responded, “Come in,” opening the door wider to allow him to enter her home.

A smile softened Giorgio’s strict features as if he could read the struggle playing out within Sugarberry as he came into the front room. But she was in control now, and indicated to him to be seated; Sugarberry herself sat in her wooden rocking chair, finding its familiarity comforting. She didn’t notice, however, that Raptor had dropped from his upright inquisitive posture to a more menacing attack form, his tail twitching.

“I understand that Wishbone lives under your care?” Giorgio opened the conversation without any preliminary small talk.

“Yes, he does,” Sugarberry confirmed.

“That’s why I’ve taken it upon myself to speak with you concerning the difficulty he’s having in his math class; he is not learning the material as easily as I’d hoped.”

“I’m aware that he’s been struggling with the assignments,” affirmed Sugarberry. “His sister says that math was never his strong subject.”

“That was not obvious when I recommended him for the higher level class. His former grades and the results of the summer test-out implied that he was ready to be challenged,” Giorgio tersely defended his decision.

“Wishbone needs to move more slowly through some of the concepts; bumping him up has broken the chain of learning for him,” suggested Sugarberry rationally.

Giorgio appeared slightly put-off by the mare’s argument, but smiled gratuitously. “You have had teaching experience?” he queried.

“No, I haven’t, but...”

Giorgio cut her off. “Well, then, let’s leave it to the experts; I personally have been in the field long enough to know when a student is not working up to his potential.”

“But he does study hard! I know that for a fact! And his sister is very patient explaining things to him,” argued Sugarberry, but feeling very intimidated by an educator of Giorgio’s stature.

“Irregardlessly, that does not fit the facts I see on his assignments. His work is far below what I expect from my students.”

Sugarberry continued to defend Wishbone. “He’s passed the tests, hasn’t he? He can’t be doing that badly.”

“Granted, he has passed the earliest tests, but just barely. He’s not showing me a good grasp of the course work. But my reason for talking to you goes deeper than Wishbone’s ability to learn the material.”

“Such as?” Sugarberry prompted as Giorgio grew silent. Before answering, he stood up and began pacing the room. Raptor’s head movement followed him, and his tail kept up a steady beat. Sugarberry began to get a nervous feeling as she realized that what Giorgio was going to say was not going to be something she wanted to hear.

Coming to a halt before Sugarberry, Giorgio-- to his credit-- tried to soften the blow. “It is a noble thing for you to take such an interest in Wishbone and his problems, Sugarberry.” But seeing the concern and torment in her eyes as she contemplated the worst, he hurriedly went on to disclose his suspicion. “I’m afraid that Wishbone has been cheating on the last two tests taken.”

Sugarberry leaped to her hooves, defiance showing on her face. “That’s not true!”

“I wish it wasn’t, but the facts tell me a different story. He’s gone from very inferior work and mediocre grades to straight A, knowledgeable work on the tests. He has definitely employed some manner of deceit to improve this drastically.”

“What if all that he’s been learning has finally started to make sense to him? It all came together, and now he can handle it.”

“I gave him the benefit of the doubt, Sugarberry; I didn’t indiscriminately accuse him tonight on a hunch.”

“What do you mean?”

Giorgio began his pacing again as if it pained him to have to enlighten Sugarberry to any further information that would bring her sorrow. “I gave several surprise quizzes covering some of the same problems as were on the test. Wishbone failed miserably.”

Sugarberry didn’t know what to say. She wished for Wishbone to get home at this moment so he could defend himself... so that he could tell Giorgio that he would never stoop so low as to cheat on a test, or on anything else, for that matter. But she stood alone.

“I’m sorry if I’ve upset you,” Giorgio said as she remained silent. “But I thought it would be better if you knew what troubles the young stallion has gotten himself into.”

“I’ll have to discuss this with Wishbone. I’m sure he will have an explanation that will set everything right,” she reasoned.

“I hope that your faith in him is justified,” Giorgio concurred. “I will withhold any action from the department until you’ve had a chance to talk with him.”

“I’d appreciate that.”

In the silence that followed, Giorgio seemed hesitant to end his visit. Catching sight of Raptor on the sofa, he professed, “Oh! You have a cat.” He reached out a hoof to pat the black tiger-striped feline only to be met with a warning growl that changed the stallion’s plans. “He doesn’t like strangers, I gather,” he said with a grin at Sugarberry.

“Raptor does have a rather discriminating taste,” fibbed Sugarberry. She had never seen Raptor dislike anyone, unless it was his former owner, Gauntlet.

Looking around the room as if searching for some further excuse to delay his departure, Giorgio’s gaze fell on a framed portrait of Sugarberry and her family that had been taken at Tabby’s wedding. Crossing the room to where it sat on the credenza, he reached out and picked up the picture. “Your family, I presume,” he asked with sparkling eyes.

“Y... yes,” Sugarberry stuttered. “It is.” She wondered if he was comparing it to the one that had been found by Vanguard in Giorgio’s town house back in Vulcanopolis. Or had Giorgio even seen the older picture? It was possible that the book had belonged to his father, and the picture had been forgotten long ago. But something kept her from mentioning the coincidence; that earlier photo had too many negative vibes connected to it.

“You and your sisters are Twice-As-Fancy, but your mother isn’t, I see.”

“No, she isn’t,” Sugarberry weakly echoed, some alarm triggering her to be aware of this clement side of Giorgio.

“And this is...?” Giorgio pointed to Strawberry Baskets.

“That is my father,” Sugarberry disclosed.

“Your father...” Giorgio repeated, his voice trailing off as if trying to see something from the past. “Have your parents ever visited Vulcanopolis?”

“Oh, no,” Sugarberry shook her head. “Dad hates traveling any great distance.”

“And your mother never ventured that far on her own?”

“Mom would never travel without Dad,” responded Sugarberry, feeling more and more uncomfortable with all the personal questions. But Giorgio seemed to find some release in this discussion of family to invoke him to become more open with his own background.

“My father would have been delighted to have three such daughters,” he stated pensively.

“My dad was delighted.”

Giorgio looked at Sugarberry searchingly. “Did you get along well with your father?”

“We were very close... all of us. He and Mom both cherished family above anything else... and still do.” Sugarberry’s statement seemed to subdue the stallion in some way, sparking her curiosity about him. She had never really considered him as a pony, only as a hindrance to her and Vanguard. “How about you and your dad? I hear that you two look alike.”

If his mood had turned a little melancholy, Giorgio threw it off as he heard Sugarberry’s question. Grinning, he retorted, “So I’m worth discussing, at least.” He seemed to enjoy the soft blush that brightened Sugarberry’s cheeks, but he gave her an answer to her question. “We may have looked alike, but that’s where it ended. We had nothing in common while I was growing up. Dad was always too busy...” Here he stopped, as if he felt he had said too much. And Sugarberry respected his reticence. After a pause, Giorgio renewed his interrogation. “This is a rather recent photo, isn’t it?”

Sugarberry hesitated, but saw no harm in answering the question. “It was taken in August, at Tabby’s wedding.”

“Yes. I heard about that wedding... the vet and the Pokemon nurse, wasn’t it?”

“Tabby and Thomas...”

“The photographer did an excellent job.” Giorgio seemed more intent on the photo than on the festivities surrounding it. “Was it taken by someone here in Dream Valley?”

“No, actually. Merry Moment’s studio is in Friendship Gardens.”

“Friendship Gardens. I see.” Giorgio set the picture back on the credenza. Seeming to realize that his questions may have gotten too far off the purpose of his original intention, he came back to Wishbone. “I’ll be in touch concerning your discussion with our wayward student.”

“I may not see him tonight,” Sugarberry replied, perceiving just how late it was getting, and wondering where her boarders were.

“I’ll give you time,” Giorgio smiled compassionately. “But I’m afraid I already know what you will find out.”

Sugarberry’s attention had moved from the family portrait to the companion one that stood on the far end of the sideboard... the one of her and Vanguard. Giorgio followed her gaze, and chuckled. “Admit it, Sugarberry. You are thinking that if Vanguard was here, this unfortunate affair would not have occurred.”

Sugarberry smiled, but made no response. She couldn’t tell this outsider how much she missed Vanguard, how she yearned for him to be back home, and what confidence she had that he could right any wrong.

Still hesitant, Giorgio moved to the door with Sugarberry following behind him. He reached for the doorknob, but then suddenly turned towards the mare, putting them face to face. Impulsively taking her hoof, Giorgio said what was on his mind. “Sugarberry, would you attend opening night of Romeo and Juliet with me tomorrow night?” His eyes met hers.

Sugarberry stuttered in confusion. “R... Romeo and Juliet?” This was the last thing she expected. It was true that her feelings for Giorgio weren’t as harsh as they had once been, but she had no desire to cultivate those feelings. Yes, she had shown an interest in him with her question earlier, but that certainly didn’t open any doors for a romantic involvement. “No,” she finally stammered, attempting to disengage her hoof from his grasp. But the stallion wasn’t going to be put off that easily.

His eyebrows lifted as if he read her thoughts, and he laughed. “My dear Sugarberry, far be it from me to infringe on Vanguard’s territory. I’m only asking for the pleasure of your company for an evening. Surely a visitor to your lovely city deserves even that.” Feeling completely embarrassed now, Sugarberry was at a loss for what to respond. As if the scenario secretly amused him, Giorgio continued to entice her. “It would give us an opportunity to discuss further the situation with Wishbone...”

Her resolve beginning to waiver, Sugarberry quickly weighed her options. As the gang never attended these sorts of functions, it was probable that no one that she was close to would even have to know that she had attended the play with Giorgio. And deep from within her, a twinge of jealousy began to work on her. During Clare’s business-related visit to Dream Valley earlier in the month, she had revealed the evening out with Vanguard at Guido and Tiffany’s engagement ball; she had described the surroundings and the dance in such detail that Sugarberry had felt very much like a second-rate fill-in. Clare had been vivid in expressing her pleasure at having Vanguard’s strong shoulder to lean on, and how she could depend on him for comfort. She had even gone so far as to refer to him as her knight! Sugarberry had tried to suppress her feelings, but now-- in the matter of a few seconds-- she decided on a new course.

“You’re right, of course,” she smiled at Giorgio. “It would be a chance to address the problem without the possibility of Wishbone’s interference.”

Having held her hoof all this time, Giorgio now made use of it by brushing it with a kiss. “You have given me something to look forward to,” he declared gallantly as their eyes met; Sugarberry’s glance faltered as an apprehensive shiver went down her spine, and she immediately regretted her decision to accompany this stallion on Friday evening. But as he had tarried before, Giorgio was now in a hurry to be gone, and he bid an immediate goodnight.

As the door clicked shut, Sugarberry vaguely heard a thump behind her as Raptor jumped off the couch and padded across the floor; the young cat stood up against the door, a growl rising from his throat. Sugarberry scooped him up to reassure him, but found herself doubting her own confidence that everything would be alright. She began pacing the floor, questioning her motives and actions.

Why had she accepted Giorgio’s invitation? It wasn’t that many weeks ago that she couldn’t be in the same room with him without suffering emotional trauma. So why did she now feel that he was no more of a threat to her than any other pony in Dream Valley? She couldn’t explain her shift; she couldn’t see the logic of it.

She thought back to the apple festival; whatever had precipitated a change had occurred that mild autumn day. Had she seen Giorgio in a new light because of his charitable actions for the earnings of jangles at the dunk tank? Or had it happened later, when they were alone for those few minutes at the Estate Manor? He had seemed companionable that evening, almost as if he was reaching out to be friends, almost as if he was a little lonely so far from home.

That thought triggered more than Sugarberry wanted to contemplate. Vanguard, too, was more than a little lonely so far from home, and he had Clare to... Sugarberry shook her head. I will not let my jealousy turn me into some sort of suspicious shrew, she chided herself. “Oh, why did I tell him I’d go to the performance with him?” she groaned out loud in agony of spirit.

At that moment, Chocolate Chip slipped through the opening door. “You’re still up?” the filly asked of Sugarberry.

“Obviously, I am.” The mare tried to sound unconcerned.

Looking right and left, Chocolate Chip seemed confused. “I though I heard you talking to someone as I came in.” She looked at Sugarberry sharply.

“Just practicing a line for my story,” rationalized Sugarberry as she tried to make it the truth. “And you’re all alone.”

“Wigwam had to get over to the casino.”

“And Wishbone?” Sugarberry ventured.

“Hmm. He was at the Satin Slipper Sweet Shoppe with Sable earlier, but they disappeared at some point. I don’t know where he went.”

“He’s not home yet,” frowned Sugarberry.

“Well, don’t stay up worrying about him,” Chocolate Chip hugged her surrogate mother. “He will be okay.”

“I know,” Sugarberry responded. “But you better not study too late. I’ll have to talk to Wigwam about your hours.”

Chocolate Chip grinned. “We studied at the library before we went for ice cream, so I’m going straight to bed. See you tomorrow!” She went off up the stairs.

Sugarberry waited until her eyes began drooping shut; then she got ready for bed. Hearing the sound of the opening door, she quickly and quietly returned downstairs; but Wishbone had already disappeared to his basement room, so she went back upstairs and fretfully fell asleep.

* * *

Chocolate Chip was up and out of the house early, but Wishbone had not shown up for breakfast when it was time for Sugarberry to leave for work. She left a message on the clinic phone telling Elaine and Thomas that she had some business to take care of, but she would get there as soon as possible.

Sitting at the kitchen table with a cup of coffee, Sugarberry waited patiently-- although the thoughts in her mind were disjointed and fretful-- until Wishbone made his entrance from his basement domain. Surprise showed on his face when he saw Sugarberry still in the house.

“What, a vacation day, Sugarberry?” he quipped as he dropped some bread in the toaster and poured a glass of milk before sitting down across from the mare.

“I need to discuss something with you, Wishbone,” Sugarberry began.

“Uh-oh. What did I do?”

“How are you doing with your math class by now?” she asked.

“Much better,” Wishbone grinned. “All of Chocky’s tutoring has paid off.” He jumped up when the toaster signaled and buttered the browned bread before Sugarberry continued.

“Giorgio paid me a visit last evening.”

Wishbone took that news with a surprised-- or frightened-- glance at Sugarberry, but he recovered quickly. “I didn’t know you were that close to him, Sugarberry.” He continued to wolf down his toast and gulp his milk.

“Wishbone, he accused you of cheating on your last two tests.”

“What?” Wishbone looked totally aghast at such a thought. “You’ve got to be joking!”

“Giorgio seemed to be quite sure of his facts, Wishbone. I told him I didn’t believe it, but I need to hear it from you.”

“Sugarberry, trust your judgement! Do you think I’d stoop so low?”

“He said your work on the tests didn’t match your work on the quizzes.”

“Anyone will tell you that Giorgio’s quizzes are monsters. Even Prime usually messes up on the pop quizzes in the class he’s taking. That’s no big deal.” Throwing a granola bar into his backpack, he reassured Sugarberry. “Don’t worry about this. I’ve got everything under control.” And he dashed out the door.

Sighing heavily, Sugarberry thought back over the conversation she had just had. What had she actually learned? Wishbone had not admitted to-- or denied-- cheating in Giorgio’s class. She muttered to herself, “I don’t know anymore than I did last night. He never gave me a direct answer. Now what am I supposed to do?”

Looking at the clock, she realized that at this point in time all she knew for sure was that she was due at the vet clinic. Dumping her coffee down the drain, she, too, dashed on her way.

* * *

Later in the morning at the clinic, Sugarberry had gotten caught up on her duties and was sharing some small talk with Elaine as they waited for the next client. “...and by the time Agatha and Hubert arrived, the kitchen was filled with smoke.”

“Poor Tabby.” Sugarberry was truly empathetic. “She tried so hard to impress her folks with a home cooked meal and ended up burning it instead. I wish it had a happier ending.”

Elaine giggled. “It worked out fine; Hubert and Agatha treated us to supper at Pizza Hut, and Tabby was able to get her fill of lettuce-less salad.”

“So you are doing most of the cooking at the mansion?”

“Yes. I’m not that great, but I can remember to keep an eye on the progress of what I’m preparing. I believe Tabby was checking an auction on eBay.” Elaine winked at Sugarberry and went on with the charts she was updating.

Sugarberry attempted to do something constructive, but could only concentrate on Wishbone’s reticence concerning her questions and her date with Giorgio. A shiver went through her just as the telephone rang.

The voice on the other end of the line was that of Giorgio; Sugarberry immediately felt so guilty that she cast a glance at Elaine expecting to find her shaking her head in disapproval. But the vet was engrossed in her own work, and paid no attention to Sugarberry’s trials.

“Good morning, Sugarberry.” Giorgio’s voice was pleasant. “I just wanted to verify our date tonight... I suspect that you might be having second thoughts, but I want you to know how much I’m looking forward to our evening together... please don’t let me down.”

Rather than reassuring Sugarberry as to the propriety of what she was doing, Giorgio’s words only heightened her discomfort. But even if it was humiliating to her on a personal basis, she knew it would be a relief for her to talk to him about Wishbone; she needed someone’s advice on how to proceed with the problem, yet didn’t feel she had the right to reveal the young stallion’s possible indiscretions to anyone else. With a forced cheerfulness, she affirmed their plans. “There are some things we need to discuss.”

“Such as Wishbone?” he clarified.

“Yes,” was all she could respond with Elaine so close by.

“Tonight then, at seven-thirty,” the stallion verified. “I’ll see you later, Sugarberry.”

Setting the receiver down, Sugarberry stared off into space; Elaine looked her way and was instantly alerted to a problem weighing down the mare. “Is something wrong, Sugarberry?”

Coming back to reality, Sugarberry smiled in what she hoped would appear to be a nonchalant manner. “Nothing much,” she replied. “One has to expect some friction occasionally with two college students in the house.”

Their conversation was thankfully cut off as Princess Dawn entered with her feline for its routine exam and shots. Due to necessity, Sugarberry set her personal problems aside.

* * *

The end of the work day found Sugarberry more than slightly nervous as the time of her meeting with Giorgio grew nearer. She and Chocolate Chip shared a quiet supper; Sugarberry suspected that Wishbone was conveniently avoiding her. When the dishes were done, she called Tabby to invite her, Thomas, and Elaine for supper the following evening; the short call did have a revitalizing effect on her mood as a chat with Tabby usually did.

Wigwam arrived to take Chocolate Chip bowling, but-- to Sugarberry’s dismay-- they decided to watch some television first; Sugarberry settled down at the computer in an effort to look busy, but found herself watching the time as seven o’clock came and the two were still in the house. She didn’t want them to know of her outing tonight, and began to have alarming visions of Giorgio arriving while Wigwam and Chocolate Chip were still there.

But by seven-fifteen, the two were ready to set out; Wigwam extended an offer for Sugarberry to join them, but she politely refused. “There are lots of ideas bombarding me,” she explained, gesturing to the computer screen where her manuscript was taking form.

Seeming satisfied with that answer, Wigwam and Chocolate Chip departed, sending Sugarberry into a frenzy of activity to get her mane and tail combed and a new bow fastened into place; she was grateful that she had showered as soon as she had gotten home from work. She was perusing the results of her efforts in the mirror when Giorgio’s knock came at the door.

“You look lovely, as usual,” the stallion complimented her immediately upon the door being opened.

“Thank you,” Sugarberry murmured, feeling very self-conscious as his eyes swept over her. “Shall we get underway?” Calculating that the sooner the evening got underway the sooner it would end motivated her sense of urgency.

Giorgio, discerning her discomfort, appeared mildly entertained; but he refrained from saying anything to further add to her uneasiness. Rather, he brought up the topic that was foremost on Sugarberry’s mind-- “How did your discussion with Wishbone go?”

“Not so well,” Sugarberry admitted. “He evaded my questions, and made me feel guilty for doubting him.”

“I see,” considered Giorgio. A period of silence elapsed before he shared his deliberations with Sugarberry. “I did some thinking about this problem since last night; and to give your trust in the stallion a fair chance, I’ve decided to give him one more chance.”

“You’d do that for him?”

“No, but I’d do that for you, Sugarberry.”

“I appreciate it.”

“I want you to understand up front, however, that I will build a surefire trap into the next test that will unequivocally tell me what I need to know.”

“I... I understand.” Sugarberry only wished she felt more positive concerning Wishbone’s integrity

“Now, let’s put that behind us,” Giorgio suggested, “and make the most of this time we have together.”

As they walked side-by-side to The Tableau for the play they were to view, their conversation centered on general topics that put Sugarberry at ease. Giorgio admitted a complete ignorance of bird species as Sugarberry enlightened him to the finer points of bird watching; he acknowledged having noticed a bird or two using the feeder outside the apartment, but he had never known-- or cared-- what kind they were. He smilingly promised Sugarberry that he would be more alert in the future. He was very interested in the story of the bird feeder itself, and how it had been a gift from the ponies at a place called Birdsong where Sugarberry and Vanguard had first met, and how Vanguard based his decision on accepting the position at Pony Pride because of Sugarberry.

When they arrived at the stylish brick edifice that housed The Tableau, it dawned on Sugarberry that Giorgio had gleaned a great deal of information about her, whereas she knew nothing more about him. She vowed to herself to correct that before the evening was over.

The play was entertaining and well-performed, and prompted tears from Sugarberry even though she had actually concentrated more on who was in attendance in the audience than on the characters on the stage; she needed to reassure herself that no one was present who could use her being with Giorgio to torment her endlessly-- her worst fear was to see Quarterback. But to the best of her ability in scanning the crowd, she was safe in that regard.

As they worked their way to an exit after the show, Sugarberry had one terrifying moment as she caught a glimpse of a blue stallion working his way in their direction, but it turned out to be another teacher from the university that Giorgio only shared a business-like salutation with. The strawberry-patterned mare breathed a sigh of relief when she and Giorgio were finally well away from the throng of attendees.

Giorgio looked at her quizzically and stopped under a street lamp. “You seem relieved to have that over with,” he grinned.

“I was feeling claustrophobia back there with all those ponies,” admitted Sugarberry. “I’ve never been comfortable in a crowd.”

“Then my plans for the rest of our evening out should work out perfectly,” the stallion stated smugly.

“R... rest of our evening?” stammered the mare who had assumed they were on their way home.

With that amused look that Sugarberry was beginning to find beguiling, Giorgio responded lightly. “The Cafe Carousel is seldom busy at this time; I find it a relaxing atmosphere to wind down at the end of the day. You will certainly not deny me your company over a light supper, will you?”

Finding no reasonable excuse to politely end the evening, Sugarberry acquiesced; the two continued to the Cafe Carousel where they were greeted rather coolly by Hydrangea who worked with Flower Bouquet in running the establishment, although Hydrangea was usually responsible for the office work rather that the floor work. After showing them to a table, Hydrangea went off to get water and menus, but Sugarberry excused herself to freshen up. When she was washing her hooves, Hydrangea appeared through the powder room door.

“What’s the deal with Driftwood and your sister?” the blue mare fumed.

Drying her hooves carefully, Sugarberry pondered what to reply, but Hydrangea continued.

“He and I were becoming the best of friends when-- suddenly and without warning-- he is committed to a mare in some dinky little town!”

“I’m sorry, Hydrangea, but Driftwood and Raspberry were friends way back in high school; they’re just getting re-acquainted after some years apart. So it actually isn’t sudden at all.” Sugarberry attempted to leave, but the stalwart mare blocked her path.

“Are they serious?” she queried, her eyes dark and angry.

Taking a deep breath, Sugarberry responded, “Yes, Hydrangea, I think they are.”

“What’s she like?” Hydrangea snapped.

“My sister is a hard-working, compassionate mare who helps at Dad’s orchard and at Mom’s bakery.”

“Is she pretty?”

Sugarberry was getting annoyed with the interrogation, and answered somewhat peevishly. “Driftwood certainly thinks so!”

Turning in a huff, Hydrangea preceded Sugarberry from the room; and Sugarberry realized it was with alleviation that she returned to Giorgio’s company. He stood at her approach, and holding her chair, expressed his concern.

“That mare seemed intent on exchanging words with you, Sugarberry. I couldn’t very well come to your rescue under the circumstances; I hope she hasn’t upset you.”

Sugarberry smiled. “It was a bit disconcerting, but nothing to worry about. She is upset because she has been rejected-- in her opinion-- by Driftwood for my sister, Raspberry.” Before she realized it, Sugarberry had shared another chapter or two of her life with the dark green stallion who at one time would have been able to evoke only the barest dialogue from her.

Their food having been delivered by a less than courteous Hydrangea, Sugarberry and Giorgio began their repast in silent companionship while Sugarberry considered how best to wheedle information from Giorgio without sounding prying. But he saved her the trouble by providing an opening himself.

“This place reminds me of my favorite haven back in Vulcanopolis,” he shared. “That’s why I like to come here.”

“A haven?” Sugarberry wondered at his choice of words while filing the fact that he, too, was homesick for familiar surroundings just as Vanguard was.

“A place to be alone without being alone,” he offered. “My foalhood was lonely with Dad being gone most of the time and Mom being unwell. I became used to solitude at an early age.”

“Yet you strike me as someone who is very at ease with ponies under any circumstances,” Sugarberry reflected. “You couldn’t have developed into such an outgoing stallion by shutting yourself from life.”

“School fulfilled that function. I hated it, but I was... a quick learner. I realized early on that the faster I absorbed the material, the sooner I could be done with it.”

“And you chose teaching as your career?”

“I didn’t know what I wanted to do with my life, so I let Dad push me into his career field. It was an easy way to avoid any confrontation with him-- I was still underage when I graduated from Leonardo.”

Raising her eyebrows, Sugarberry registered respect. “Everyone says you’re a genius, so I guess it’s true.” Giorgio laughed, and Sugarberry realized that it pleased her to see Giorgio respond spontaneously as if he were more at ease with her just as she was more at ease with him.

“I was branded with that label on my first day of school, and my dad never let me forget it. He wanted me to succeed in ways he never could have. So I, of course, dragged my hooves at every opportunity.”

“So you didn’t get along even when your dad was around?”

It was several moments before Giorgio answered, as if he was unsure of too much being said. Finally, he replied. “I resented his absences so much that you would think I’d value the contact we did make? No, Sugarberry. It only deepened my resentment, brooding over all the thinks he’d missed... that I had missed.”

He again fell silent, and Sugarberry respected his reflection. How different our foalhood’s were, she thought to herself. One of us was enveloped with love, the other by indifference. Eventually, she rekindled the conversation. “How did your dad move from teaching to politics?”

“He had always been interested in public office; even as a teacher, he spent all his spare time on political issues. That’s why mom and I saw so little of him. After he became chancellor, which put him in the limelight, it wasn’t that big of jump to the political arena. Dad was well-liked; he had a certain charisma about him that evoked ponies’ trust. I always hated that about him.”

He looked at Sugarberry as if expecting a reprimand, but she said nothing except, “Go on.”

“There’s not much else to tell... Dad became a success and I’ve been holding my own. I wouldn’t want him to think that his long-distance influence over me paid off in the end, although I’ve gone on to earn my master’s and doctorate degree as well.” He grinned at Sugarberry rather like a rebel school-boy

“Your father is popular with his constituents, so he must have shown more empathy with them than he ever did with you...”

“Or my mother,” Giorgio finished for her. “Sometimes I wondered if he even loved her.”

“Don’t say that!” Sugarberry fretted.

“You are right. I shouldn’t have said that. She worships him, even though she is unable to stand by his side.”

“Her health is still compromised?”

“She’s an invalid, Sugarberry, confined to a wheelchair since I was four years old. And her pride prevents her from making her situation public. It is her choice. Dad would have her more involved-- I give him credit for that-- but she would rather stay in the background. I think she is so used to it by now that she doesn’t even resent it.”

“You don’t hold the prejudice against your mother that you feel for your father, do you?” Sugarberry probed.

“You think poorly of me; I am not heartless, Sugarberry!” he repeated the words he had stated the day of the apple festival as if saying them enough would make them true.

“I would hope not,” Sugarberry replied with a smile, then added, “Your mother deserves to have a son she can be proud of.”

Sugarberry’s words seemed to hit a sore spot in the stallion. He turned his face away from her, and appeared deeply affected by something that her statement had brought to mind. But as quickly as his agitation had overcome him, it also left him.

“Dad’s up for re-election this fall,” Giorgio asserted with only a slight waver in his voice; his eyes avoided meeting Sugarberry’s as if afraid she would read something there that he didn’t want her to be aware of. “That’s why I chose this time to be away from Vulcanopolis; I can’t be held accountable for what I might say or do when I’m there in the thick of it.”

“And that’s why Vanguard isn’t here with me now,” she couldn’t stop herself from saying, suddenly feeling a wave of loneliness wash over her.

Giorgio leaned forward, and surveyed her intently. “For that, my dear Sugarberry, I’m very sorry,” he stated sincerely.

Hydrangea appeared to ask if they wanted dessert, and Giorgio deferred the decision to Sugarberry; she admitted to a craving for something sugary which seemed to please Giorgio. They both settled on apple pie with ice cream; and when the thick wedges were delivered, they both groaned at the size of the servings.

“I’m up to it if your are,” Giorgio teased Sugarberry, taking his first taste.

Throwing caution to the wind, she followed suit, giggling as she revealed the experience she, Driftwood, and Elaine had with too much of a good thing at the apple festival. Giorgio laughed with her as she described their anguish after the fun.

“I’ll never learn,” lamented Sugarberry as she leaned back in her chair after polishing off every last crumb.

“But it was delicious,” he smiled at Hydrangea as she cleared the dirty plates. “And we’d like a fresh pot of coffee, please... decaf.” Grinning, he admitted to Sugarberry, “I don’t want this evening to end.”

Rolling her eyes, Sugarberry informed him, “If we don’t leave soon, Hydrangea will kick us out.”

“Hydrangea is a pretty name, right up there with Sugarberry,” Giorgio mused playfully. “I suppose she can be more pleasant than I’ve seen from her this evening?”

Sugarberry giggled, but remained close-lipped until Hydrangea had set the coffee carafe on the table with a thump and moved off across the room. “She’s a sensible, well-educated pony who usually is very charming and good-humored. She’s just feeling slighted now.” She was pleased to see Giorgio’s interest in the other mare.

“So you were telling me earlier of your recent visit to your parents. Were you originally from... Berryton... is it?” Giorgio directed the talk back Sugarberry’s way.

“Berryville. But, no, Dream Valley has always been my home. Mom and Dad moved there when a chance came for them to buy the orchard and berry acreage; I was eighteen at the time.”

“So your parents have always been interested in pomology?”

This led to a discussion of family matters that seemed to highly interest Giorgio, who was an avid listener. It was late, and Hydrangea was impatient by the time the two ponies exited the cafe and turned toward Sugarberry’s house. They talked of the sights, sounds, smells, and feel of the long-lasting autumn. The nighttime air was cold and vibrant. Before she knew it, Sugarberry was on her front porch saying goodnight to Giorgio under the glow of the porch light.

“I hope you enjoyed the evening as much as I did,” Giorgio murmured, taking her hoof for a kiss, but lingering over it.

“It was very enjoyable; I’m glad to know you better,” Sugarberry admitted, not adding that hearing more of his life story had assuaged the fear she used to feel.

“I’m glad,” the stallion replied, and for one brief moment, Sugarberry thought he was going to draw her to him for a more ardent kiss, but due to a tensing on her part or a flicker of anxiety in her eyes, Giorgio released her hoof-- not willing to jeopardize their newfound friendship-- and said goodnight.

Sugarberry immediately went into the house in anticipation of retiring to her bedroom to ponder over the events of the evening. Instead, she met friction.

“Where were you?” Chocolate Chip came from the kitchen followed by Wigwam and Wishbone. “We were worried about you!”

Sugarberry didn’t know whether to laugh or cry; the fact that someone was worrying about her for a change seemed incongruous and humorous; but the realization that an honest answer would raise a barrage of questions and incredulous looks frightened her. She tried to keep to the middle road. “I was out walking.”

“Alone? After dark?” Chocolate Chip was aghast. “You’re afraid of the dark, for Pete’s sake!”

As distressing as Chocolate Chip’s concern was, Sugarberry was more put off by the look of bewilderment that she saw on Wigwam’s face and disbelief on Wishbone’s. Why don’t I just admit where I was... and with whom... she wondered to herself. False pride, came the answer from deep in her conscious. But still she stuck to her defense. “I needed to clear my thoughts and get out of the house for awhile. I assumed I’d be back before you got home, but time slipped away. I’m sorry if I worried you.”

Chocolate Chip was not to be mollified. “It was bad enough when you disappeared the day after the apple festival; at least you left us a note. But tonight you were gone without a clue!”

Wigwam laid a hoof on Chocolate Chip’s shoulder. “Chocolate Chip, Sugarberry explained where she was; give it a rest, okay?” His eyes never left Sugarberry’s face while he spoke, and she shriveled up a little inside to think of betraying his trust.

Fortunately, his words reached Chocolate Chip and she looked rather shamefully at Sugarberry. “I’m sorry, Sug. I guess I overreacted. Forgive me?” She came to the mare and hugged her.

“It’s nice to know you care that much,” she smiled, caressing the filly’s mane. Looking beyond Chocolate Chip to the two stallions, Sugarberry smiled. “I hope I didn’t ruin your evening.”

“It was rather fascinating,” admitted Wishbone, “being on the other side for a change.”

Sugarberry thought back to their conversation-- was that only this morning?-- and wondered if she had been unfair to him. Wigwam only shook his head as if still trying to figure out what happened.

Sugarberry accompanied the three back to the kitchen where Chocolate Chip pulled her into a chair next to her own and poured her a cup of coffee from the pot on the table. The thought of more coffee nauseated the mare after the filling meal and uncountable cups with Giorgio, but she accepted it with a smile and listened to the banter of the ponies until she could safely excuse herself, dump the brew, and escape to her bedroom.

Finally alone and unwatched-- except for Raptor and Fluff who were preening for the night-- she was able to look back over her evening with Giorgio from the moment he had picked her up until he had left her on the porch. She had survived. She could put behind her the premonitions that had haunted her since her first meeting with Giorgio; all of the portents of danger had disappeared. She had been exposed to the real Giorgio, not the one from her childhood trauma in connection with the picture of Giorgio’s father. She found him to be a kind, sensitive stallion who felt alone in a world in which he moved freely, yet uneasily tied to frustrations connected to his father’s misguided sense of priorities from his foalhood.

Sugarberry could no longer even resent him for taking Vanguard away; she knew now that this separation would only serve to strengthen their love. Clare was not a threat, nor was Giorgio. Any future meeetings with Giorgio would have no need of secrecy. And in a relatively short amount of time, Vanguard would be home. She fell asleep with that comforting thought on her mind.

* * *

The phone was ringing at the late hour that Wigwam arrived home; he caught it before it stopped. It was Tawny.

“Wigwam, I was at the opening of Romeo and Juliet tonight over at The Tableau. Could you fill me in on what’s going on here?”

“It’s a romance, Tawny. Didn’t you study Shakespeare in school?”

“Can it, Wigwam. What I’m asking is why was Sugarberry there with Giorgio like they’re the best of buddies now?”

Wigwam for once was speechless. “Sug... was there... with Giorgio? Are you sure?” But he knew Tawny was right; that was what Sugarberry was trying so hard to hide.

“She’s the only Twice As Fancy I know of with strawberries, and if I can’t recognize Giorgio by now, I should have my badge revoked. What is this going to do to our investigation having her in the way? Not to mention what Vanguard is going to say. This is a development I never planned on.”

Wigwam was slow in recovering. “I don’t know what to think. I’m as blown away by this as you are.”

“You’ll have to learn what’s going on, but be discreet about it. I can’t very well go asking her about her relationship with the stallion we’ve been monitoring all these months-- it would ruin everything, and we’ve come too far for that.”

“I’ll do what I can, Tawny. I’m sure there’s a logical explanation; we were so cocky about our having all the evidence we need on this end that we must have let our guard down. We both know what to do about that.”

“Stay on it, Wigwam. Let me know as soon as you hear anything. I only wish Matteo was finished up over there in Vulcanopolis; then we could close this case. But he maintains that he needs more time to get further information that’s connected to Giorgio, and until then, our hooves are tied.”

“I’ll give it some thought, Tawny. Stay in touch.”

“Same for you, Wigwam. Goodnight.”

* * *

Sleeping better than she had in weeks, Sugarberry woke up feeling refreshed. It had gotten colder during the night and a coating of sparkling white frost glimmered in the early morning sunlight, she observed from her bedroom window.

It was Saturday morning which meant that Chocolate Chip would have some of her college friends over to prepare breakfast. It would be a leisurely morning for Sugarberry, except for the grocery shopping for tonight’s supper with Tabby.

Entering the kitchen, she found it full-- besides Chocolate Chip and her brother, Wishbone, there were Prime, Chip, Snowdrift, and Frilly Flower. Prime was at the stove with Chocolate Chip doing most of the work while the others were haphazardly preparing the table. “G’morning, Sugarberry.” their voices echoed upon her entrance.

Chip held a chair for her and Wishbone poured her coffee; they spoiled her on Saturday mornings and she loved it. By the light of morning, the coffee was a hot, welcome drink; she sat back and doted over the hustle and bustle of the kitchen and the constant chattering of voices.

Less exotic than some Saturday menus, today’s fare was scrambled eggs with cheese and sunflower hearts, apple muffins, milk, and orange juice. When the meal was over came the best part of the enterprise-- in Sugarberry’s estimation, anyway-- the fillies and young stallions washed the dishes and cleaned-up the kitchen. It was a win-win situation on her part, although Wigwam maintained that it was also the reason he never joined in the Saturday ritual... that and the fact that he had confided to Sugarberry-- he wanted Chocolate Chip to keep her options open with her own age group.

Retiring to her computer as the students worked, Sugarberry immersed herself in writing until a knock sounded at the door; Chocolate Chip scurried out from the kitchen to answer it, and came to Sugarberry a few moments later with a silly grin on her face and a flower box in her hooves. “For you, Sug.”

“For me?” Sugarberry was wide-eyed in surprise, and took the box hesitantly. It wasn’t Vanguard’s style to send flowers unless there was an occasion to celebrate. Who would be sending me these? she wondered to herself and saw the same question reflected off Chocolate Chip.

“Hurry and open them!” Chocolate Chip squealed, as Snowdrift and the others gravitated into the room to see what the fuss was about. “Who are they from?”

“And it better by Vanguard,” Prime stated with a cocky grin.

“Not necessarily,” Wishbone commented. “Sugarberry has other stallion friends.” Sugarberry looked at him quickly; was her subterfuge last evening all for nothing? But she saw that he was only teasing. But it did cause her to grow very nervous about opening the flowers in front of this sharp-eyed group, for what if they were from Giorgio? It seemed the only possibility.

“Open them, Sugarberry,” Snowdrift pleaded. “I love flowers, especially ones from the Cloaked Flower Deliverers.” She cast a meaningful glance in Wishbone’s direction.

Untying the ribbon with trembling hooves, Sugarberry saw with relief that the card had slipped to the side of the box so that no one but herself would have to see it. She picked it up and opened it cautiously, saw a single “G” scribed on it, and slipped it back into its envelope.

“What did it say?” queried Chocolate Chip. “Who are they from? What’s the occasion?”

“Does love need a reason?” she sidestepped the question as she withdrew a bouquet of light tangerine-yellow roses with wisps of baby’s breath and Queen Anne’s lace from the box.

“Oh! Roses!” enlightened Frilly Flower for the stallions. “Yellow ones signify friendship.”

“Why didn’t he send red roses for true love?” worried Chocolate Chip. “I’d have thought Vanguard would be more romantic than that.” She eyed the enclosure card suspiciously.

But the guys were tired of girl stuff and Prime suggested getting to the mall as Chip needed some electronic supplies for a project he was working on. Soon the house was quiet, and Sugarberry was able to once more take the card from its envelope to see the “G” written by a strong, masculine hoof; then she shred it thoroughly before disposing of it.

The flowers were more precious anyway, and they could not reveal their sender. Sugarberry drank in their beauty and welcomed their meaning of friendship before making a trip to the grocery store for necessary supplies for the invited company.

Returning home an hour later, Sugarberry was dismayed to find that Raptor and Fluff had made short work of the exquisite blooms. The two rambunctious creatures had pulled every yellow rose from the vase and had dragged them down to the floor where they had proceeded to shred the radiant petals to disgusting pulp. Fluff had discreetly left the room when he saw Sugarberry enter, but Raptor sat calmly over the last rose, his paw resting on it with a “Take it if you dare” look in his eyes.

“Raptor!” Sugarberry used her most intimidating voice on the animal. “Get away from that flower!” Raptor looked at her with his all-knowing gaze, then lowered his head and picked up the blossom in his mouth. As he started off with his treasure, Sugarberry grabbed him and pried the rose from his possession. “Bad cat!” she scolded as she sent him on his way.

Returning the single rose back to the vase, Sugarberry carried the dwindled bouquet up to her bedroom, finding a home for it on her nightstand. Closing the door, she discovered Raptor sitting at the top of the stairs watching her movements as if he disapproved. But Sugarberry didn’t have time to pacify the critter; she returned downstairs and cleaned up the ruined flowers.

“Well,” she sighed, “at least I won’t have to explain where they came from to Tabby tonight.” She suspected that Tabby would have seen through her distortion of the truth anyway. With that in mind, she made a point of making up with Raptor as he followed her to the kitchen. He had forgotten about the flowers now; he sensed that Sugarberry was going to start supper, and that meant real food; for a hungry cat, that was all that mattered.

* * *

“Great meal, Sugarberry,” Thomas complimented the cook after a hearty feast. “Driftwood wouldn’t stand a chance if you were to open a restaurant.”

“But don’t!” added Elaine. “We need you at the clinic.”

Wigwam, who was there at Chocolate Chip’s invitation, concurred. “Excellent food and a superb receptionist.”

Tabby, however, only asked, “What’s for dessert?”

“Your favorite, Tabby-- lot’s of cherries!” said Sugarberry as she and Chocolate Chip cleared the table. “I slaved over it all afternoon!”

While serving up the tempting concoction, Sugarberry looked worriedly at the unused place setting at the table. “Where did Wishbone get off to that he’d miss supper?” she wondered out loud.

“He did leave the mall with Sable,” Chocolate Chip remembered. “Even Snowdrift is getting fed up with that stallion and his elusive errands.”

“Maybe he has found a new filly and doesn’t know how to break the news to Snowdrift,” suggested Wigwam.

“Not that it would matter much anyway,” observed Chocolate Chip. “Snowdrift seems to be spending a lot of time with Chip these days.”

“Let’s clean up the kitchen quick,” suggested Tabby. “I’ve gotten some new eighties videos that you’ll all enjoy. And I just happen to have them with me tonight.”

“Oh! Goodie!” Sugarberry expressed her delight. “Are these the Jem ones?”

“Yep!” beamed Tabby. “Thomas hasn’t even seen them yet.”

“So is that how you two spend your evenings together?” asked Wigwam wickedly.

“If that’s all we did, we’d have the tapes looked at by now, wouldn’t we?” Thomas shot back.

Elaine giggled. “Weren’t we going to wash the dishes?” She stood up and everyone else joined in taking care of the mess. In short order the dishes were washed and put away and everyone was herded into the living room in front of the television set whether they wanted to or not-- as in Wigwam’s case-- and found seats while Tabby inserted the tape into the VCR.

“Oh, yes! The Stingers!” she sighed blissfully as she took her place at Thomas’ side. The conversation was sparse, but the laughter was frequent. Even Wigwam was drawn into the music and madness of Jem and the Holograms and the handsome and conceited Riot.

When the last show had been seen and the last credit had rolled by, Tabby allowed the ponies to disperse; it was a unanimous decision that the Satin Slipper Sweet Shoppe would be the ideal place to continue this party, and all went off in high spirits to their favorite haunt.

Once seated at the ice cream parlor, Sugarberry found herself next to Wigwam. “You seem in high spirits tonight,” he commented. “Good word from Vanguard, I presume?”

Sugarberry grinned. “Seventy-one days until he’s back, Wigwam! What seemed like an eternity last spring now has an end in sight. I can look forward to his return.”

“I envy his homecoming,” Wigwam drolly remarked. “And how about Giorgio? Are you just as pleased to know that his days in Dream Valley are numbered, too?” He watched her closely.

“The anticipation of the return of Vanguard has removed my concerns in that department as well,” Sugarberry enlightened. “I no longer see Giorgio as the enemy; and as his leaving brings Vanguard back, I think I can now look on him as a friend.”

“Well. Speak of the devil,” Wigwam muttered.

Following his gaze to the door, Sugarberry saw Giorgio entering the shop in the company of Hydrangea. In her present good humor, she was heartened to see that the two had made a connection. Good for both of them, she thought as Giorgio caught sight of her; as their eyes met, he winked; and she returned the motion.

Turning back to her conversation with Wigwam, she saw again that look of bewilderment she had seen last night; he was utterly baffled by what had just transpired. But an explanation was not forthcoming, as Tabby had other plans for the crew. “Who’s your favorite character from Jem?” she asked of Sugarberry.

“No contest. It’s Riot!” she responded.

“Oh, yeah!” squealed Tabby. “Isn’t he so cute!”

“What about you, Chocolate Chip. Who’s your favorite?” prompted Sugarberry.

“Hmm... Aja,” she decided. “She’s so pretty.”

“These are cartoon characters, girls,” Thomas advised. “They are only figments of someone’s imagination, so they can be as beautiful-- or repulsive-- as their originators want them to be.”

“Maybe that’s the fascination,” countered Elaine. “They can be perfect, unlike real life.”

“Wigwam, ‘fess up. You must have developed a liking for one of the girls,” Thomas goaded.

“If the truth be told,” Wigwam grinned, “I think Rio’s got the right idea-- stake your claim on two pretty girls, and punch out anyone who comes near.” He draped his forelegs around the two mares on either side of him and leaned back with a smug expression on his face.

“What’s this about punching someone?” asked Quarterback as he and Merry Moments joined the circle of friends. “Sounds like my kind of party!” Receiving a disapproving glance from Merry Moments, he added, “Just kidding!”

“We were discussing Jem and the Holograms,” enlightened Tabby brightly. “Who’s your favorite Hologram, Quarterback?”

“Huh?” he responded, clueless.

This led to one of Tabby’s educational lectures on a toy line of the eighties. “And you can see the dolls at The Toy Museum,” she winked at its conclusion.

“Which reminds me, Tabby. When would be a good time to get some shots of your and Spike’s collection?” asked Merry Moments. “I’d have time this coming week.”

“Great! Wednesday would be best for Spike, I’m sure, but I’ll have him call you,” the unicorn replied.

“By the way, Tabby,” Quarterback began, “you wouldn’t happen to know who’d want to get free copies of your wedding pictures, do you?” There was a glint of mischief in his eyes, and a reproachful note in his voice.

“And what’s that supposed to mean?” snapped Tabby.

Quarterback let Merry Moments explain. “My shop was entered last night and it appears that whoever was there was interested in your wedding photos.”

“What happened?” questioned Thomas, putting a protective hoof over Tabby’s.

“Well, you know that your pictures are stored on disk and filed away. Someone accessed the disk and printed a picture.”

“How do you know that?” asked Elaine.

“I probably wouldn’t have noticed, but it just so happened that after quitting time, I realized we needed more photo paper, so I got a new package out of the storeroom. But the phone rang, so I took care of the call and never got back to the paper.”

“And...” Thomas was impatient for solid facts.

“When I came in this morning, the first thing I noticed was that the package had been opened, and some sheets were in the printer.”

Wigwam was very interested. “How do you know they copied Tabby’s pictures?”

“One picture,” corrected Merry Moments. “I checked the recycle bin on the computer. Whoever used it hadn’t deleted his or her trail. And the print was made about eleven o’clock last night.”

“What picture did they get?” Chocolate Chip asked the question on everyone’s mind.

Merry Moments glanced at Sugarberry. “It was a family shot of Sugarberry’s family at the reception.”

No one said anything, but all eyes focused on Sugarberry. She was flabbergasted. “W... why?” she stammered. “Who would want that?” She looked at Quarterback accusingly.

“Don’t look at me!” the stallion lifted up his front hooves.

“Did you notify the authorities?” Wigwam asked, his easy demeanor suddenly businesslike.

“Well... no. I didn’t,” Merry Moments admitted. “I had intended to, but things got hectic, and by the end of the day, it didn’t seem as important anymore.”

“I think you should take care of that as soon as possible,” advised Wigwam. “No damage was done to your equipment, but this is still breaking and entering, not to mention theft.”

“Yes, you’re right, of course,” Merry Moments concurred. She stood up promptly. “I’ll take care of that right away.”

“Give me a minute,” Quarterback stated, heading for the restroom.

Sugarberry got up, too, and pulled Merry Moments aside. “Are you sure it was my family’s photo? It makes me feel... creepy... somehow.”

“I’m sorry, Sugarberry, but it was of you and your sisters and parents. I’ve never had anything like this happen before, so I’m at a loss to explain it.”

Looking up at the approach of another pony, Sugarberry found herself facing Giorgio and the remembrance of their evening was still a source of pleasant emotions which tended to buffer her confusion over this new development. She smiled warmly in spite of her current qualms and welcomed his attention as he took her hoof. “Good evening, Sugarberry.”

Remembering the bouquet she had received, she responded, “The flowers were a lovely thought. Thank you.”

“They arrived safely then?” he queried, captivating her with that special look.

“Yes, they did,” Sugarberry confirmed. There was no need to mention that their safety after arrival had been endangered by the two ruling inhabitants of her house.

Seeming to notice Merry Moments for the first time, Giorgio looked in her direction.

“Oh, excuse me,” Sugarberry realized that these two had never before met. “Merry Moments, this is Giorgio, the Vulcanopolis exchange teacher at Pony Pride; Giorgio, this is Friendship Garden’s premier photographer, Merry Moments.”

As Giorgio took the aqua blue mare’s hoof, Sugarberry continued. “Giorgio was admiring the quality of some of your... work...” Something had clicked in Sugarberry’s mind in that instant and she felt her skin crawl, yet she dismissed the implication simply because she didn’t want to consider the fact that somehow Giorgio was behind this incident. She saw the mental image of him holding the framed photo in her home: Was it taken by someone in Dream Valley? he had asked. No, actually. Merry Moment’s studio is in Friendship Gardens, had been her response. She blocked the recollection simply because she did not want it to have any bearing on the present case.

From a distance, Wigwam watched the interaction of Sugarberry and Giorgio, unmindful of the chatter of the other ponies at the table. What had happened to change Sugarberry’s feelings toward Giorgio, to cause her to appear delighted to see him, to have her converse familiarly with him? This was the same mare who used to shudder at the mention of his name and imagine the worst in connection to anything involving him.

“You’re deep in thought.” Elaine had moved around the table into Sugarberry’s vacated seat. Quarterback had joined the tete-a-tete between Sugarberry, Giorgio, and Merry Moments, and Wigwam was intent on watching the socialization, noting that Sugarberry had aligned herself with Giorgio as if they somehow belonged together.

“What do you think of Giorgio?” he asked Elaine abruptly.

“Giorgio?” she pondered for a second. “He’s alright; I’ve only talked with him once.”

“And when was that?” Wigwam hoped he didn’t sound too forward.

But Elaine was willing to talk. “Sugarberry introduced us at the apple festival, after Giorgio’s stint in the dunk tank. He was polite and proper; other than that, I didn’t really have time to form an opinion.”

“I thought Sugarberry despised him for taking Vanguard away, but she looks rather chummy with him now.”

“‘Time heals all wounds’,” Elaine quoted, noting with amusement Wigwam’s reaction to Sugarberry’s being with another stallion and assuming it was personal.

“Yeah. And ‘out of sight, out of mind’ could figure in this, too,” he muttered under his breath, feeling that he had somehow let Vanguard down in allowing this friendship to take off without even being aware of its happening.

Once Giorgio had returned to his abandoned partner, and Merry Moments and Quarterback had left the establishment, Sugarberry returned to the table and took over Elaine’s chair and was surprised to find Wigwam glowering at her through hooded eyes.

“Having second thoughts on the projected success of the publication of your book?” Sugarberry teased, glad to introduce a different topic to everyone’s minds.

“No,” he retorted. “I was just recalling some work I forgot to finish earlier, so if you and Chocolate Chip have no objections, I’ll see you both home now.”

The party broke up and Wigwam accompanied the mares home; the trio was exceptionally quiet with Wigwam anxious to make contact with Tawny over this latest news, Sugarberry reluctantly going over recent happenings, and Chocolate Chip only dimly aware of an inexplicable friction between them.

* * *

“I don’t know when it happened, but she certainly has had a change of heart where that stallion is concerned,” Wigwam confided to Tawny later that night as the two met to discuss the break-in at Merry Moments studio. “She lit up when she saw him like she used to do when... when she saw Vanguard.”

“Well, I’m sorry to say, we can’t worry about that now. Matteo seems to think that this latest development concerning the picture of Sugarberry’s family is the break he’s been waiting for. We can’t interfere now, Wigwam, or we’ll jeopardize the entire operation.”

“So I’m supposed to sit back and watch the jerk break Sugarberry’s heart?”

“Don’t think of it in those terms. You’ve got a job to do.”

“At what cost, Tawny? I’m already watching Wishbone compromise his future which is intricately connected to mine in that Chocolate Chip may never forgive me when she finds out what’s happening; now I’m supposed to lose Sugarberry, too?” He jumped up from his chair, and stomped to the window where he stared out onto a black emptiness that mirrored his soul.

Tawny leaned back in his chair and considered the problems they were both involved with in this investigation that had taken Vanguard to Vulcanopolis and brought Giorgio to Dream Valley. Going into it, he had foreseen a simple case of gathering evidence to prove that Giorgio was indeed a corrupt teacher; it now had turned into something much more serious and on the Vulcanopolis side had even become violent in the instance of Prisca. Matteo himself had been shocked at that development, but had held Tawny to his oath to follow through to the end without revealing any unnecessary details to anyone. But the point has been reached, Tawny rationalized, where common sense has to dictate over procedure.

“Sit down,” he commanded Wigwam. “There are a few things you need to know about this case that Matteo has sworn me to secrecy on. But the stakes are getting too high.”

“What is it?” Wigwam demanded, his eyes angry.

“You know that Matteo has had to work around two separate problems in Vulcanopolis-- the cheating scam and one other breach. It seems that Sugarberry had ended up in the middle of the problem by something that happened before she was even born.”

“Vanguard told me about a picture that he found in Giorgio’s apartment; does it have to do with that?”

“Yes.” Tawny stopped to gather his thoughts.

But Wigwam couldn’t wait. He rose to his hooves, and stood threateningly before Tawny’s desk. “Tell me!” he thundered.

Tawny leaned to him across his desk. “Matteo suspects that Giorgio’s father, who is running for reelection this fall, is being set up for some type of bad press immediately before the election...”

“What’s that got to do with anything?” Wigwam asked irritably.

“It appears that someone suspects that the picture of Giorgio, Sr. with Strawberry Shortcake and her girls represents a moment of impropriety on Giorgio, Sr’s part.”

“That’s crazy!” Wigwam retorted. “Sugarberry’s family had been living in Dream Valley until seven years ago. It’s not the kind of thing you could hide in this setting.”

“I never said it was true; I just said that someone out there thinks its true, or at least feasible.”

Sitting down once more, Wigwam gave this new twist some thought. “Okay. Then what we are dealing with is someone who wanted to get his hooves on the original photo of Strawberry Shortcake with Giorgio, Sr. and because Vanguard destroyed it, he or she hasn’t been successful even after searching Vanguard’s apartment and Prisca’s house.”

“Or with someone who had his hooves on the photo, and lost it.”

Wigwam looked at Tawny in disbelief. “Giorgio? But why would he be involved in such an undertaking?”

“From what I’ve been told, Giorgio and his father never did get along. Matteo believes that there was enough animosity between them that Giorgio would do anything to destroy him, if the price was right.”

“He’s selling out his own father?”

“So it appears. Matteo figures that once Giorgio realized that the original picture was gone for good, he looked for a new source of blackmail.”

“And he swiped a copy of the wedding picture from Merry Moment’s?”


“But what does a family portrait prove, Tawny? Giorgio, Sr. isn’t connected to it in any way.”

“I gather that Giorgio is so sure of his father’s guilt that he’s willing to take the chance that just seeing the photograph will cause him to back down and drop-out of the election.”

Both stallions sat contemplating the workings of a pony who would stoop so low. Eventually, Wigwam began thinking out loud. “If Giorgio was behind the break-in at the studio, he couldn’t have done it himself. The time recorded on the computer coincides with the time of the play Giorgio and Sugarberry-- and you-- attended.”

“And we can pretty well determine who he had do the dirty work,” Tawny growled. “That Sable is as lowdown as they come.”

“Giorgio’s using Sugarberry for his alibi; I could...” Wigwam was on his hooves again, pacing the floor. “When is this election anyway?”

“The fourth Thursday in November.”

“That’s our Thanksgiving Day. What do we do until then?”

“Matteo wants us to hang tight. They’re ready to make their move once Giorgio, Sr. is approached with the blackmail. Until then, we have to sit on the evidence we have against Giorgio.”

“And let Wishbone dig himself into an even deeper hole...” here Wigwam slammed a hoof down on the desk, “and let Sugarberry have her heart broken by that scoundrel.”

“You know all the facts now, Wigwam. It’s up to you to make sure that Sugarberry isn’t hurt. And as for Wishbone, I suspect that his involvement will be looked upon in a softer light due to extenuating circumstances.”


“Going into this, I never suspected the degree of deceit that Giorgio would use to snare victims into his cheating scam. He purposely misused his position at Pony Pride to have select students-- Wishbone being one of them-- put into classes they couldn’t handle so that they would be open to falling into his trap.” Getting up from his desk, Tawny came around and walked to the door. “We’re not going to solve any more of this mess tonight, Wigwam. Get home and get some sleep.”

Wigwam walked toward the door, but stopped short as a thought struck him. “If Giorgio has the picture he so desperately wanted, he should leave Sugarberry alone now, right?”

“That would stand to reason,” Tawny agreed.

“Maybe I can get some sleep then,” Wigwam stated, allowing a glimmer of hope to pierce the darkness.

* * *

In the middle of the following week taking care of the assorted odd jobs that needed attention at the end of the work day, Sugarberry was busy in the back room of the vet clinic, alone, as Thomas and Elaine had rushed off at closing for other commitments. She was finishing up with the trash removal when she heard the signal of someone entering the office.

Hurrying out to the waiting room, she found that the after-hour client was Giorgio. “Hi!” she grinned. “Don’t tell me you’ve gotten yourself a cat!”

Giorgio seemed excited about something. “I was just over at the park and there is a flock of birds there-- geese, the other watchers told me-- and I thought you should see them!” Sugarberry was reminded of an enthusiastic young foal as Giorgio stood before her, his eyes dancing as he delivered the news.

“Do they have black necks with a white cheek?” she asked as she shut down the computer.

“Yes. And there are hundreds-- thousands-- of them everywhere.”

Catching his enthusiasm, Sugarberry made a mental check of her calendar for the evening and realized that no one was expected to be home for supper, so she was free to do something unplanned.

“Can you come?” Giorgio asked eagerly.

“No reason not to,” Sugarberry confirmed. “They’re the Canada geese, you know. They’re migrating to their winter home.”

“They do this every year?”

“Yes,” affirmed Sugarberry as she locked the clinic door. “They follow the same routes that were used by their ancestors .”

“How fascinating.”

As they neared the park, Sugarberry commented, “They’re awfully noisy.” The geese could be heard long before they could be seen. But as the geese came into sight, the spectacle was grand. “Just look at them, Giorgio! Aren’t they wonderful?”

The two ponies stood in awe of the expanse of feathered bodies; their tall necks held high, the birds made an impressive spectacle. Some were searching for food, others were preening their feathers, and small groups seemed to be gathered in serious conversation; the more boisterous of the group were honking their lonely calls while playfully sparring with friendly opponents.

Sugarberry and Giorgio stood on the edge of a crowd of ponies and an occasional Bushwoolie which had gathered to enjoy the visit of the wild flocks of Canada geese. Seeing Chief Tawny patrolling the perimeters of the flock caused Giorgio to observe, “He’s not going to arrest the geese for loitering, is he?”

Sugarberry giggled. “No. Actually, he’s probably more on the lookout for anything or anyone that might disturb the geese.”

“Like that foal over there?” asked Giorgio, pointing to a young lavender filly who was trying to pet one of the birds which stood eye to eye with her. It was Baby Noddins. The bird, a plucky gander, soon became annoyed with the attention, and delivered a pinch with his bill on the little pony’s rump. Getting the message, Baby Noddins discontinued her close encounter with the creature.

Walking around the edge of the park where the geese were congregated, Sugarberry mentioned reason for Tawny to be there. “The city also has to see to the cleanup work once the geese have moved on,” shared the mare as she lifted a hoof to reveal a dark oily smear on the bottom. “They leave a lot behind.”

Giorgio checked his own hooves and grimaced. “I see what you mean.”

Watching a pair of geese that stood apart from the main body of birds caused Sugarberry to grow thoughtful. “Canada geese mate for life, you know. I heard a story once about a pair that were badly wounded by a hunter; the gander was unable to move, but his mate pulled herself over to him and comforted him as best she could until he died. Then she laid her neck around his body until she, too, died.” She sniffled as she watched the gander and goose that stood nobly before them.

“That was a touching story,” Giorgio reflected as they moved on.

They came to a swing set standing unused; the geese had thinned out in this part of the park and those still there seemed unconcerned at the approach of the ponies. Sugarberry sat on the swing as Giorgio leaned against one of the support poles, and the two talked.

“You’ll see the turkeys flock in at Thanksgiving,” Sugarberry commented.

“Turkeys migrate, too?” asked Giorgio.

“Well, not normally. But a couple of years ago, Friendly befriended one who had wandered in looking for an asylum from the menace of Thanksgiving; the turkey liked what he saw, and before we knew it, Dream Valley was packed with turkeys until it was safe for them to go home again. And they’ve been coming back every year since.”

“I can appreciate their predicament,” Giorgio responded. When Sugarberry looked at him quizzically, he explained. “You’ll remember that I’m here to escape my father’s campaign, and only after that is over will I feel comfortable in returning home.”

“Do you keep in touch with your father through this at all?” Sugarberry couldn’t imagine being without her dad’s support and advice.

Giorgio appeared not to have heard the question; Sugarberry said no more, but lost herself in the mesmerizing motion of the swing as she swayed gently back and forth. She was startled, therefore, when he did respond. “No. We haven’t talked since I came over here. But I do hear what’s going on from... my mother.”

“Does your father have a good chance at winning reelection?”

“The press seems to think so.”

“And you?”

Giorgio looked at Sugarberry and grinned. “He’s a much better politician than he is a dad, if that’s what you’re asking. Sure, I see no reason why he shouldn’t be voted back into office.”

The sun had gone down, dropping the gauzy curtain of dusk. A shiver went through Sugarberry as the sun’s heat dissipated quickly with the onset of darkness.

“You’re getting cold,” Giorgio noticed.

“Time to go home,” Sugarberry smiled.

“I have a better idea; let’s go somewhere to eat.”

“Oh! I could really go for something from KFC right now,” Sugarberry admitted.

Chuckling, Giorgio asked, “Wouldn’t that be rather offensive to the visitors to your city?” He gestured to the geese now nestling in for the night.

“You’re right. That wouldn’t be very good manners, would it?”

“On the other hoof, they need never know,” countered Giorgio as he saw this unplanned rendezvous with Sugarberry slipping away. “Come on! My treat.”

She paused only a second before agreeing, and they walked companionably to the restaurant. Stepping inside and first washing their hooves, Sugarberry and Giorgio had soon placed their order, gotten their sodas, and received their menu items. “Where do you want to sit?” queried Giorgio, scanning the choice of tables.

Sugarberry looked across the sparsely occupied room and grinned. Nodding her head to a corner table occupied by a pair of familiar ponies, she suggested, “Let’s go sit with Tabby and Thomas.” She led the stallion to the small square table. “Mind if we join you?”

The two unicorns looked up in synchronized motion to see Sugarberry and her comrade

standing there, and both extended a friendly welcome. Sugarberry sat next to Tabby across from Thomas with Giorgio to her left side. Tabby kept an eye warily on Giorgio as introductions were made; once that propriety was out of the way, she said to Sugarberry with her eyes still on the stallion, “And how’s Vanguard, hmmm?”

“He’s fine, from what I hear. And in another sixty-eight days, he will be back in Dream Valley where he belongs.”

“Who can forget?” Thomas teased. “Every calendar at the clinic has the countdown cluttering it up.”

The conversation was lively as the ponies enjoyed their supper, and the topic eventually moved to Tabby and Spike’s Toy Museum. “What was your favorite toy when you were a foal?” Sugarberry asked of Giorgio.

The stallion shrugged his shoulders. “Mother preferred getting me those building sets... Lego, was it? She liked the idea of having me sit quietly in one place for long periods of time.”

“Bo-ring!” Tabby commented disdainfully.

Giorgio obviously felt the necessity to defend himself. “Well, I also had some Playmobile sets; my favorite was the castle.”

“And you sold them all at a garage sale, didn’t you?” Tabby said menacingly.

“Hmm. Now that you mention it... no, I think that my mother had them packed away in the attic.”

Nothing could have won Tabby’s friendship more quickly than those words. “Would you like to donate them to the museum?” she asked quickly.

Thomas laughed. “Now you’ve opened a can of worms, Giorgio. She won’t quit bugging you until you hand them over.”

“I’ll have to see what I can find when I go back to Vulcanopolis,” Giorgio offered. “After all of these years, they might not be in the best of shape.”

The talk of toys had reminded Sugarberry of a poster that Tabby had recently acquired. “Tabby, did you ever get that great poster of Rio encased for hanging?”

“It’s already up,” Tabby answered. “Spike took care of that for me right away.”

“Oh! I’ve got to go see it soon!” Sugarberry squealed. “He is just so-o-o-o cute!”

“Yeah, he’s a doll!” responded Tabby as she and Sugarberry swooned into each others forelegs.

Giorgio, with eyebrows raised, asked of Thomas, “Do they get this way often?”

“More often than not,” Thomas replied with a wink.

When the time came to leave the restaurant, Thomas informed Giorgio that since he and Tabby were going over to Tabby’s parents’ house which was next door to Sugarberry’s that they would be glad to get the strawberry mare home safely for him. The disappointment showed in Giorgio’s eyes, but he took it gallantly and allowed the evening to end outside of KFC rather than on Sugarberry’s front porch. But before departing, Giorgio elicited a promise from Sugarberry that she would include him in her next visit to the Toy Museum to see Rio, and they parted in cheerful spirits.

When enough distance had passed to be able to talk discreetly, Tabby pounced on Sugarberry. “I told you that you would fall madly in love with Giorgio while Vanguard was away!”

“You’re wrong you know, because I haven’t fallen in love with anyone except Vanguard.”

Tabby’s only comment in return was, “Yeah. Sure.”

But it was Thomas’ words that struck Sugarberry’s heart like a dagger. “You can vouch for your heart, Sugarberry, but what about Giorgio’s?”

* * *

Friday... the day of Wishbone’s important math test. Sugarberry prayed that whatever Giorgio’s scheme was that Wishbone would prove to him once and for all that he was not dishonest. She had dropped several gentle reminders to the young stallion over the course of the past week to study hard, and he had always assured her that he was on top of it. Now, the morning of the big day, she had hoped that she could wish him well, but he didn’t appear before she left for work so she had to be content to leave him a quick note telling him to do his best.

When supper time came around, Sugarberry had still not seen Wishbone; Chocolate Chip had caught a glimpse of him on campus but had not had an opportunity to talk with him either. “I wonder how he did, Chocolate Chip? I feel responsible for him, you know.” Understanding that Wishbone’s fate could be decided by his improper performance under Giorgio’s scrutiny gave the mare cause for concern.

She wished that she could talk to the filly about what Giorgio had told her-- that he suspected Wishbone of cheating. But she didn’t want to unduly burden Chocolate Chip on the hope that Giorgio was wrong about his suspicions.

“Don’t worry, Sugarberry. Wishbone keeps telling me that he’s going to ace the course from here on in.”

“And you think he can do it?”

“He’s my brother; he’s not stupid! Now, stop fretting. Wishbone’s coming over any time now.”

“Doesn’t that stallion ever work?” observed Sugarberry as the knock sounded at the kitchen entrance.

“Ask him yourself,” winked Chocolate Chip, admitting Wigwam.

But Sugarberry’s question for him was the recurring one of late-- “Have you seen Wishbone?”

“No. I looked for him on campus, but he’s nowhere to be found. He was taking a math test today, wasn’t he?”

“Yes; that’s why I’m worried.”

“You don’t need a reason to worry, Sugarberry,” admonished Chocolate Chip. “You just do it automatically.”

“Tell me about it,” the mare grimaced. “Life is a succession of worries.”

“If you let it be,” Wigwam corrected. “That’s why we need to get your mind off your troubles. It’s Friday night, and the Satin Slipper Sweet Shoppe is just begging us to visit.”

“You two, maybe. I think I’ll wait right here until Wishbone comes in.”

The light of suspicion that entered Wigwam’s eyes at Sugarberry’s refusal did not go unnoticed. Sugarberry realized that it had been exactly one week tonight that her surreptitious encounter with Giorgio had occurred. And even though Wigwam wasn’t aware of the truth of that evening or of the park visit on Wednesday-- or so she thought-- she knew perfectly well that he had doubts about her story.

“We could all stay home and play a game of Scrabble or something,” Chocolate Chip suggested not too convincingly.

“Now that’s a great idea!” Wigwam jumped on the idea to keep Sugarberry in his sights and therefore under his protection.

“Well, I’ll go get the game,” a daunted Chocolate Chip mumbled.

“You’ll do no such thing!” laughed Sugarberry. “I don’t need to have you two sitting here holding my hoof all evening. And I promise that I won’t venture outside in the dark all alone.”

Wishbone raised an eyebrow as he contemplated the “all alone” part of the statement. Was she trying to get rid of them? “What’s wrong with a little game of Scrabble?” he countered.

“It’s dull and boring, that’s what!” challenged Chocolate Chip. “I’ve been reading, calculating, pondering, and writing all week. I want to have some fun!”

“If the truth be told,” Sugarberry attempted a mediation, “I would like some time alone to write a letter to a certain someone across the ocean who really, really means a lot to me and will probably suspect something is up over here if he doesn’t receive that expected letter in an acceptable time frame which could force him to turn to the ever-present--and, I might add, beautiful-- Clare which would really give me something to worry about...”

“See, Wigwam? It’s for Sugarberry’s good that we do this. Now, come on!” Chocolate Chip dragged the unwilling stallion toward the door as he looked doubtfully back at the mare who only grinned and waved her hoof at the two of them.

True to her word, Sugarberry gathered her stationery and curled up on the sofa to compose a heartfelt letter to the country blue stallion with sea green hair who still was number one with her. She began her note with a tally of the countdown in progress and moved on to news of interest including a brief reference to the fact that she could now see Giorgio without presaging dour events. She did not go so far, however, as to mention the fact that she had actually had-- what might appear to some-- a date with him the night of the Romeo and Juliet play. Nor did she think it necessary to allude to their bird-watching expedition to the park. And as to Thomas’ remark the other night, Sugarberry had dismissed that idea quickly. Just because Giorgio was having a good time in her presence didn’t mean anything. He enjoyed Tabby’s prattling about eighties toys just as much as any other part of the evening, she assured herself. He’s grateful to have found friends in Dream Valley to make his stay here more pleasant.

As the number of completed pages built up at her side, the mare was oblivious to the passage of time or to the events around her or she would have seen Fluff slink out of the room with a wary backward glance at the front door. As it was, she was miles away when the sudden rap sounded.

Regretfully laying aside the pages, Sugarberry got off the couch, limping sightly as one leg was tingling from being sat upon too long, and opened the door fully expecting to see only Wigwam and Chocolate Chip back early on her account and was therefore once again surprised to see instead Giorgio on her front porch. If the letter she had been composing to Vanguard had put her in a serene frame of mind, it took only a fraction of a second for her to slip into her worrisome mode. “You have word about Wishbone?” she breathed expectantly.

“May I come in?” the stallion asked with a tired smile.

“Oh! Why, of course,” Sugarberry indicated with a wave of her hoof. “I’ve just been so anxious to hear from him, but he’s not home yet.”

Giorgio remained silent as he faced Sugarberry, and she knew from his composure that the news he carried was not going to be pleasant. But she would not give up hope even yet. “Wishbone cleared himself, didn’t he?” But her voice quavered as she said the words.

“My dear Sugarberry,” Giorgio’s voice was so soft that it barely carried to the waiting mare, “I’m so sorry, but my suspicions have been confirmed beyond a shadow of a doubt”

“No!” she uttered as she went to her rocker, and sat down heavily as if hearing this information was more than she could bear. “It’s my fault.”

“Don’t say that,” said Giorgio brusquely. “Wishbone made his own decision on how he’d handle his troubles; the blame lies solely with him.”

“And you are sure beyond a shadow of a doubt that he was cheating?” She looked at him with such pleading in her eyes to tell her that there still could be a chance to abdicate him that Giorgio felt true misery.

Moving a chair to a position facing her, Giorgio told the story of the test that had taken place early that afternoon. “As soon as Wishbone’s exam was submitted back to me, I looked at the one problem that could unequivocally accuse him, the one I had rigged against him. It was a simple enough change that would be caught by any student knowledgeable in the subject, but not to be noticed by someone working the problem from rote memory such as an answer sheet. He was unaware of some changed information, Sugarberry, and worked the problem as he expected it to be, not as it was.”

She met his eyes and saw the truth of his statement, yet her being rebelled against the fact that Wishbone had consciously let himself be duped into this easy way out of his responsibilities. “He must have been desperate,” she defended him weakly.

“I respect your confidence in the boy,” Giorgio spoke gently. “But the consequences have to be faced.”

But Sugarberry couldn’t face them. She lowered her head and covered her eyes with her hooves, thinking not only of her own sorrow but also that of Chocolate Chip and Drifter and Twilight Jewel.

“Don’t blame yourself, Sugarberry,” advised Giorgio compassionately. “Wishbone is old enough to take charge of his own destiny.”

“Maybe so, but I’m responsible for him,” she whispered. “I have failed him miserably.”

“I won’t let you do this to yourself,” Giorgio replied almost angrily. “There’s more you need to know.”

“More?” Sugarberry asked weakly, as if any more would be the end of her.

“I asked Wishbone to meet me at my office to go over his grades to see where he stood now; I actually, of course, wanted to approach him about the cheating.

“So what did he have to say in his defense?” she asked, trying to remain optimistic.

“I’m afraid I may not have handled it as well as I might have,” Giorgio admitted. “I came down rather hard on him concerning the consequences of his actions; I wanted to impress upon him the seriousness of them.”

“What else could you do?”

“Wishbone showed no regret for what he had done. When I told him that it would be necessary for me to take action against him, he became very... agitated.” Giorgio paused, and looked at a lose for what to say next.

“Just say what you have to say,” Sugarberry sighed, knowing now that she could expect no consolation.

“When confronted with the idea of disciplinary action, Wishbone...,” he could hardly say what had to be said, “...turned the tables on me and threatened me with his own idea of revenge.”

Sugarberry’s face paled. “No... that’s not Wishbone.”

“I wish that I didn’t have to reveal this side of his character to you, Sugarberry. But I would rather tell you myself than have you hear of it through other channels.”

“What did he say?”

“He has a little plan of simple blackmail,” the stallion smiled grimly. “He says he is prepared to bring me down with him; if I use my authority against him in this matter, he will tell the world that I, myself, am the instigator of the cheating.”

“I don’t understand... what could he hope to accomplish...”

“My words to him exactly. But he is an imaginative young stallion. He obviously had prepared himself for possible disclosure and built-up in his mind a complicated-- but, unfortunately, highly feasible-- scheme. He has fabricated an entire network of ponies who steal and sell exam solutions for profit, and he says that I am the mastermind.”

“What does he hope to gain by that?” Sugarberry couldn’t follow the reasoning involved. She was ready to wake up from the nightmare and find this all just a bad memory. But Giorgio was real, and he continued to illuminate her.

“Think about it, Sugarberry. He actually has thought this through quite well. If I follow proper proceedings because of the cheating that I have verified exists on his part, he will broadcast his make-believe story about my involvement. And there are ponies out there who will listen.”

At this point, Sugarberry wasn’t sure whose side to be on. She was torn between the two, sickened to think that Wishbone had let his family down yet not willing to see his college career end so abruptly. Part of her knew he would have to suffer the consequences, the other part wanted to hope that there was a way around this mess. “You have no choice but to do what your job demands,” she stated irresolutely.

“That was my first thought, of course,” Giorgio pushed his chair back and began stalking nervously about the room as he talked. “But the more I considered the implications of that action, the more I hesitated. Don’t you see, Sugarberry?” But then he stopped. “Of course not. You were not raised by a father like mine.”

“I don’t understand what you are getting at, Giorgio. What are you talking about?”

“You know that my father and I do not get along as well as... we should. But I still have his interests at heart.”

“I don’t see...”

“His election will take place soon. If the press in Vulcanopolis heard even a whisper of wrong-doing from his son, they would have a field day using it against him. The entire affair, no matter how untrue or unbelievable, would be front page news from now until the election. It could cost him his position, not to mention...”

“..your mother’s feelings,” Sugarberry finished the thought for him and it made her angry. “Would they really be so cruel?”

“Undoubtedly,” Giorgio replied simply.

“So what are you going to do?” asked Sugarberry.

“What choice do I have? I’m not going to do a thing. I’m afraid that I will have to leave the problems for Vanguard to clean up when he returns.”

“In sixty-six days.” Sugarberry managed a smile.

“I don’t suppose anyone is counting down the days until I’m back in Vulcanopolis,” Giorgio retorted, some of the tenseness of the evening slipping from him.

“I’m sure that your mother is,” Sugarberry reminded him.

“Granted,” responded Giorgio. “But no one like...” He let the sentence drop.

Sugarberry found the opening irresistible. “I wouldn’t be surprised to find that Hydrangea will be looking ahead with some regrets to your departure from Dream Valley.”

Giorgio grinned. “Perhaps,” he admitted. Then turning serious once more, he questioned her, “What are you going to say to Wishbone when you next see him?”

“I’m a wimp when it comes to confrontations, so I’ll probably follow your lead and let Vanguard decide what to do about it.”

He seemed relieved to hear her answer. “Well, Sugarberry, I must really be getting on my way. I see I interrupted your pastime.” He nodded to the pile of written pages on the sofa.

“But I’m glad you let me know what is happening. At least I have an idea what I’m up against. It’s easier to funnel my worries that way.” They walked together to the door where Sugarberry received the expected kiss on her hoof with a smile.

“Pleasant dreams, my dear Sugarberry,” Giorgio said as he released her hoof. As the door was opened, a gust of cold wind howled through the gap.

“A change of weather is coming,” Sugarberry commented.

“And wild weather at that,” concurred Giorgio as he bent down his head to meet the wind and went his way.

Closing the door, Sugarberry was enveloped by the solitude and found her thoughts centered on the quandary she was in with Wishbone. Should she call his parents and let them know what was transpiring and let them handle the situation? Or should she try to reason with him herself? Or should she just let it drop as Giorgio had suggested? Maybe things would straighten out by themselves; surely Wishbone wouldn’t continue cheating if he knew that Giorgio was on to him. If he could do well for the rest of the semester on his own, then maybe there wouldn’t even be a problem anymore. Sugarberry clung to that reasoning as she paced through the empty rooms, listening for any sounds that would herald the return of Wishbone or the others.

Checking out the kitchen window one more time to see if the stallion was coming into sight from the back entrance, Sugarberry was startled and a little alarmed to hear the front door burst open with the accompanying fury of irate hoofsteps. She hurried to the living room to see an extremely agitated Chocolate Chip followed by an obviously disturbed Wigwam. The intensity of the wind accompanied the riled ponies and filled the house with an unsettling atmosphere of discord. Sugarberry herself felt her body go numb as fear of what she would find out tied her stomach into knots.

“My brother is an irresponsible jerk!” the brown filly declared angrily as she passed Sugarberry and continued straight to the stairs. “I wish he’d never come to Pony Pride!” her voice continued as she disappeared noisily to her room, the slamming door punctuating her anger. Sugarberry looked to Wigwam for some assurance that everything would be okay, but before the stallion could say a word, another pounding of hoofsteps was heard coming across the porch, followed by the entrance of Wishbone whose countenance revealed that his emotions were equally agitated.

“Wishbone, please...” Sugarberry tried to reach out to the embittered youngster but was met with the full force of his hostility.

“Give me a break, Sugarberry! No motherly lectures, please!” And he brushed past her to escape to his room downstairs.

“What is going on?” Sugarberry looked pleadingly to Wigwam for an explanation, her heart pounding in her chest.

Wigwam shrugged his shoulders. “They got into it at the Satin Slipper Sweet Shoppe; Wishbone came in upset and looking for his sister. They went off to a table of their own and before long they were at each others throats.”

“That’s not like either of them,” Sugarberry contested.

“I was able to convince Chocolate Chip to leave the situation and come home, but she wouldn’t talk to me,” dismally related Wigwam, crossing the room to sit on the couch. He held his hooves to his head and closed his eyes for a long moment, and Sugarberry sat down in her chair only to jump up again as she heard Wishbone coming up the stairs; but she hadn’t gotten far before the violent opening and closing of the back door told them that Wishbone was gone for the night.

“Shouldn’t we try to bring him back?” Sugarberry asked Wigwam, knowing that it was an impossibility but wanting to try.

“He’s too angry,” Wigwam counseled. “They both are. Maybe when they’ve cooled down, we can get some answers.” He did not admit that he had heard enough of the siblings conversation earlier to have a fair idea as to what the problem was, and he was not about to add that to Sugarberry’s woes right now. The mare had the highest regard for the integrity of both of her house mates.

Wigwam knew about Wishbone’s cheating, and he suspected that things were getting too hot for the young stallion to handle alone. But asking for Chocolate Chip’s help was a bad move on Wishbone’s part; his sister would not condone or abet such proceedings, not even for the brother that she loved so dearly.

It was a shock for Wigwam, therefore, when Sugarberry whispered as if it was too terrible to say out loud, “It must have to do with Wishbone’s cheating on the math tests.”

The stallion sat up and stared at her in wonder. “You knew about that?”

“Yes,” she replied, then realized the implication of Wigwam’s question. “You knew about it, too?”

Quickly gathering his wits about him to prevent himself from saying anything that might compromise the situation that he and Tawny were involved with, Wigwam formulated an answer that would satisfy Sugarberry without revealing too much. “I suspected as much; his grades improved way too dramatically, even with Chocolate Chip’s tutoring; cheating seemed to be the only explanation.”

Both ponies turned their heads as Chocolate Chip came into the room. Her eyes were red from crying, and she looked miserable. “I heard what you said,” she stated softly, “and you’re right. Wishbone has been cheating in Giorgio’s math class.” Just saying the words caused a fresh crop of tears to appear, and Wigwam did what he could to comfort the distraught filly; when her tears were dried, she went to Sugarberry with a forlorn look on her face. “I’m sorry for acting the way I did when I came in; I... I was just so...” She vented more tears as Sugarberry hugged her close.

“Let the tears come,” advised Sugarberry, a fair share of them running down her cheeks as well. Wigwam looked on, feeling totally useless.

“I need some water,” Chocolate Chip eventually admitted. “I think I’m dehydrating.” She tried to sound in control and attempted a small but twisted smile.

The three ponies went into the kitchen where Sugarberry made some coffee and set out a plate of cookies before joining the others at the table where Wigwam sat with a reassuring foreleg around Chocolate Chip. “Do you want to talk about your brother, or would you rather we avoided that topic for now?” Sugarberry asked with a gentle pat of the hoof.

“I need to talk about it,” Chocolate Chip realized. “I’m going crazy inside.”

“And I imagine Wishbone felt the same way, except he’d rather confide his woes to Sable about now,” Wigwam theorized.

Chocolate Chip grimaced. “He came to me expecting sympathy, and all I gave him was that atrocious and censuring anger.” She sighed in regret.

“You didn’t suspect that anything like this was going on?” Wigwam asked gently.

Chocolate Chip closed her eyes and took another deep breath before answering. “I guess I knew, but I wouldn’t let myself believe it. He is my brother; he’s supposed to be exemplary.”

“He always seemed to be so in control of his life that I didn’t worry about him as much as I should have,” philosophized Sugarberry. “Coming here to school was his first experience away from home, and it was too much for him to handle.”

“As if your worrying would have changed anything,” mocked Wigwam. “I don’t want to sound uncaring or anything, but he had a choice to make and he made the wrong one. No one pushed him into it.”

Chocolate Chip lifted her head from his shoulder, a hint of the anger coming back into her eyes. “It’s not all his fault, you know. He told me tonight that there are students on campus who are selling the solution keys to anyone who can come up with enough jangles to purchase them. I’m not defending what he did; but with all the pressures on him, maybe he saw it as his only hope.”

“What else did he tell you?” Wigwam queried.

Chocolate Chip lowered her eyes and fidgeted with a napkin, weighing her answer. “He said Giorgio was going to take action against him, but Wishbone bragged that he’d found a way to shut him up. That’s when I blew up at him. I didn’t like the way he was talking, as if what he had done was smart or something.”

Sugarberry rubbed her hoof across her forehead tiredly as a headache began to throb. “Did Wishbone go on to say what he meant by that?”

“If he did, I wasn’t listening anymore,” Chocolate Chip admitted. “I think by then I was kind of screaming at him.”

“I can verify that,” smiled Wigwam.

“What will happen with Wishbone’s predicament now?” asked Sugarberry.

“I suppose the dean will bring it before the disciplinary board if Giorgio presses the matter,” Wigwam speculated.

“So it’s really up to Giorgio?” Sugarberry asked with a hint of optimism in her voice.

Wigwam looked at her strangely. “I’m not a university official or anything, so I can’t say for sure what might happen.”

“If only Vanguard were here,” both Sugarberry and Chocolate Chip longingly said the words at the same time.

Wigwam rolled his eyes. “I’m sure that all our problems will dissipate the minute he steps off the plane in December.” The girls broke down in tension-relieving giggles.

“You’re just jealous,” Chocolate Chip chided him.

“And why shouldn’t I be? With him gone I’ve had the full attention of both of you; I’ll lose that in... how many days is it, Sugarberry?” he asked with a wink.

“Still sixty-six,” she replied promptly.

“Well, you’re losing me right now,” Chocolate Chip yawned. “It’s has helped to talk with you two, and I think I can get some sleep now. Good night, both of you.” She gave each of them a kiss on the cheek, and left the room.

“I’d better get out of here, too,” Wigwam announced, carrying a hoof full of coffee mugs to the sink. Sugarberry put away the uneaten cookies and walked him to the door.

Wigwam shot a glance at the stairway to make sure that Chocolate Chip was out of hearing before asking Sugarberry, “How did you know what Wishbone was up to?”

A hint of pink crept into Sugarberry’s cheeks and her eyes failed to meet Wigwam’s as she replied. “Giorgio told me.”

“So you’re on speaking terms with him now, are you?” he asked innocently.

“He came to the house one evening to discuss the problem with me.”

“And when was this?”

Sugarberry looked the stallion curiously. “Last week. Why do you ask?”

“Just nosy, I guess,” he grinned. “Was that the last time you saw him?” How much is she willing to divulge, Wigwam wondered. Will she admit to accompanying him to the play? But the stallion was sorely disappointed to learn of still another meeting between the two.

“He came over tonight to warn me that Wishbone was not in good humor concerning Giorgio’s approaching him with evidence of his cheating.”

Wigwam nearly choked. “He was here tonight after Chocolate Chip and I left?”


Studying her face, Wigwam fought for the right words to say. He couldn’t come right out and admit that Giorgio was trouble, but he had to protect her from becoming involved with him. “You really shouldn’t get too close to him, Sugarberry. Vanguard wouldn’t be happy to know that the two of you are seeing one another.”

Lifting an eyebrow, Sugarberry smiled enigmatically. “I appreciate your concern, Wigwam; I really do. But you don’t have to worry about anyone coming between Vanguard and me...” ...unless it’s Clare, she added cattily to herself.

“I’ll take your word for it,” he replied, powerless to say anything further that wouldn’t cause her to get suspicious of his motives. “I’ll be on my way then.”

“Good night, Wigwam.”

It wasn’t until much later that the still sleepless mare had a revelation: She hadn’t noticed Raptor around all evening; and the more she thought about it, she realized that she didn’t remember seeing him since she got home from work, either. “Where’d he get off to?” she asked of Fluff as the rotund orange longhair watched her with wide staring eyes. “Or has he just been sleeping on my bed all this time?” She headed up the stairs to check on the young cat, but found no black tiger-striped feline in her bedroom or any of the other unoccupied rooms upstairs. She didn’t want to wake Chocolate Chip, but didn’t see how he would have stayed in her room through all the noise that had occurred earlier anyway.

Going back to the main floor with Fluff at her heals, she checked every likely naptime spot she could think of. On entering the kitchen, she noticed his food dish still nearly full which meant that his ravenous appetite hadn’t been satisfied. “He should be meowing at the top of his lungs,” she confided to Fluff who had taken up a regal poise at the door to the basement rooms. “Is he downstairs?” she asked the cat as if expecting an answer.

Opening the door, Sugarberry started down the stairs only to be passed by the surprisingly agile body of her overweight companion. Fluff ran directly to the room inhabited by Wishbone; the door was open due to the abrupt departure several hours before. Sugarberry peaked her head into the room, checking obvious soft spots for her errant kitten; if he was in Wishbone’s room, he was well out of sight. She stepped into the room for a more thorough search.

Fluff, who seldom had been in the basement, was fascinated with the sights and smells of this new territory and took his time tracing down his lost pal; but finally, after sniffing every other available surface, he walked on his heavily padded feet to the closet door where he sat down and began cleaning his fur as if his mission was done. Sugarberry opened the closet and, finding it too dark to see, pulled on the cord which activated the light.

There, curled up on a pile of used notebooks, lay Raptor; he lifted his striped face to Sugarberry and seemed to ask, “Why did you wake me so soon?” But he unwrapped himself, yawned, and stretched; then coming out into the room, he suddenly came alive as he spotted Fluff and realized that he hadn’t had one chance all day to torment his big buddy; he pounced on the fluffy orange tail, flipping over on his back as he chewed on the mass of fine hair. Then both cats jumped to their paws and shot out of the room traveling fast and heavily up the stairs.

Chuckling, Sugarberry was on her way out of the bedroom when she noticed the pile of books that Wishbone had with him when he arrived home strewn across his bed and the accompanying papers lying in disarray on the floor; reaching down to organize the scattered sheets, she was dismayed to find that these were the very pages of test answers that had caused the frustration of the day. She was straightening up with the papers in her hoof when she realized she was not alone.

“Wishbone! You’re home!” The joy of that knowledge momentarily caused her to forget what she was holding.

“So your snooping paid off.” The stallion grabbed the papers from her and threw them back on the floor; then he sat on the edge of the bed and dropped his head onto his hooves as if he had lost the will to fight anymore.

“I’m glad you came back,” Sugarberry offered.

“You don’t really mean that,” Wishbone replied, still not lifting his head.

“You know I do. Why don’t you come up to the kitchen and I’ll fix you something to eat.”

“I’m not hungry.”

“Okay. Can we talk then?”

He finally looked at her. “Why were you in my room?” he asked accusingly, trying to make her feel guilty rather than himself.

“Raptor hadn’t been around all day, and Fluff led me down here to find him. The little rascal was locked in your closet.”

A look of understanding showed in Wishbone’s face and for an instant he lightened. “I forgot all about him! He followed me down after breakfast and got in the closet and wouldn’t come out; I didn’t have time to coax him, so I slammed the door to teach him a lesson.” He grinned momentarily then grew serious. After a pause, he continued. “Maybe I learned a lesson today, too.” He looked up at Sugarberry self-consciously, his gaze faltering as she smiled at him.

“Maybe we all did,” she allowed. “I’ll leave you to your sleep; we can talk tomorrow. I hear that Prime has found some new recipes to try out. Good night, Wishbone.”

“Good night, Sugarberry,” Wishbone replied. He sat on the bed and watched her leave the room, and the door closed; in the silence, the events of the day began playing out for him again. He remembered the shocked and disappointed look in Chocolate Chip’s eyes when he confessed his cheating to her; he remembered how Sable had laughed in his face when Wishbone had asked him to back-up his story of Giorgio’s involvement (“You didn’t really believe that story, did you?” Sable had snickered); he remembered the distraught look of Sugarberry when she had first witnessed his angry entrance into the house... and the look of relief and unconditional love to see him come home again.

Before the mare had reached the top of the stair steps, Wishbone rushed from the room and followed her. “When you mentioned food earlier, were you thinking of milk and cookies? I could go for something like that right now.”

Sugarberry giggled. “Did you have any supper at all tonight?”

“No; at least I don’t remember that I did.”

“Then let me warm up some of our leftovers-- you can have the milk and cookies for dessert.”

Wishbone replied with a grin, saying the one thing that could most conveniently sooth Sugarberry’s ruffled soul. “Okay, Mom!”

* * *

The savage wind and the dark night masked the activity in a secluded corner of Pony Pride University where two stallions met surreptitiously under the waving branches of the moaning pines. “You wanted to see me?” the younger of the two queried.

With a voice that mimicked the menacing wind, the dark green pony answered. “Wishbone revealed my entire operation to me this afternoon. Any idea on how he learned about it?”

A sudden intake of breath from the first pony was lost in the blast of the tempest. “It was just a lucky guess on his part!” Sable scoffed, but the tenseness of his manner did not escape the keen-eyed Giorgio.

“I brought you here from Binks because I thought I could trust you, Sable. I don’t like to be proven wrong.”

Laughing nervously, Sable attempted to extricate himself from the plight he had brought upon himself by divulging too much information to Wishbone. “I listened to his ranting today, and told him he was dreaming. He isn’t going to squeal on you without any proof to back him up.”

“You can be so sure?”

“Look. He’s just a punk from the country. He doesn’t know his way around like I do.”

“Let’s get one thing straight, Sable. I don’t take chances. I’ve got two months left here, and I don’t want a single component of my plan to go wrong. If you blabber any more details to anyone, I’ll see to it that you will suffer regret.”

“I... I... understand. There’ll be no trouble, I pr...”

“Make a point of it. And be on your way now.” Giorgio cut him off and sent him scurrying.

That one is an incompetent fool, Giorgio thought to himself, watching Sable vanish into the sinister darkness. But fortunately Sugarberry bought my story that Wishbone manufactured his facts against me. She’ll defend my integrity if it becomes necessary. That potential problem was diffused easily enough.

Beginning the walk back to his apartment, Giorgio continued his reflections on the events of the day. Sugarberry... I thought she’d be trouble for me at first, but she’s childishly trustful when it comes to a stallion with a sad story to tell. His mind was flooded with an image of the mare smiling at him as he kissed her hoof; she had capitulated to his charm as easily as Sable had submitted to his authority. At least my father’s example wasn’t completely wasted.

Thinking of his father caused him to look forward to a successful conclusion to his plans. The picture will be delivered when the time is right, and I’ll have my revenge on dear ol’ dad. If Sugarberry and a few other ponies get hurt along the way...

The stallion punched his hoof into an accessible tree trunk and endured the pain it kindled. He leaned his body against the rough bark and let the wind buffet him, his mane tangling about his face like the writhing snakes of Medusa. The howling chaos caught the sound of his voice as it rose in a crescendo of torment. “If it’s all working out, why does my soul suffer such agony?” None but the night creatures heard the misery and the torment of his cry.

Such is the anguish of solitude.

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