Hometown Ambrosia
written by Sugarberry

"By that time, Sugarberry was so embarrassed she slipped out the back door and left Tabby holding the broken doll," the stallion grinned.

Three ponies walked across the messy terrain of March on a journey. One, a mare, was white with an all over pattern of strawberries and bright red hair. The other two were stallions: a country blue with sea green hair and a beige with brown hair. The air was cool and damp with a threat of rain, but the trio was having such a good time that the weather was of no importance.

"We had been arguing over which My Little People doll should marry Kevin; we only succeeded in pulling his arm off," Sugarberry giggled, reminiscing over an earlier time when the beige stallion had dated her older sister, Raspberry, and had spent interesting interludes observing the playtime of Sugarberry and her best friend, Tabby.

Now, years later and after following divergent paths due to a conflict of personalities that had obviously mellowed over the years, Driftwood was engaged to Raspberry. Sugarberry herself was engaged to the other stallion in the traveling group, Vanguard. The goal of the three was the town of Berryville where Raspberry lived along with her folks; a third sister, Gooseberry, also lived nearby with her husband, Grapevine, and their three children.

It was spring break at Pony Pride University in Dream Valley, and Sugarberry and Vanguard were taking some time to visit both Berryville and Woodlawn, Vanguard's hometown. Driftwood was stopping in Berryville to spend the weekend in the company of Raspberry and her parents.

"Look, Vanguard, up ahead! See the apple trees? That's the beginning of Dad's orchards," Sugarberry informed her fiancé.

"So we're almost there," Vanguard responded while staring off at the regular rows of neatly trimmed trees still in their winter sleep. "That's a lot of trees!" This was his first visit to Sugarberry's parents' home.

"I hope your mom has one of her special desserts waiting, Sugarberry. I'm hungry!" Driftwood admitted.

"You're the one who turned down breakfast," Sugarberry reminded him.

"Hey! I haven't seen Raspberry for two weeks!" he countered. "I was anxious to get on the road."

"Someone's coming to meet us," observed Vanguard as a purple stallion and two bouncy foals appeared on the path ahead.

"Grapevine! Huckleberry! Wineberry!" Sugarberry waved and called to the ponies and one-- the colt-- took off towards them at a run.

"Hi, Aunt Sugarberry," he greeted the mare. "Hi, Uncle Vanguard. Hi, Uncle Driftwood."

Vanguard smiled at the colt. "Hi, there, Huckleberry. You've grown since I saw you at Christmas!" He set a hoof on the youngster's head. "You'll be as big as your dad in no time."

Huckleberry looked at the stallion admiringly. "I eat everything Mom puts on my plate, even the brussels sprouts!" He wrinkled his nose in distaste.

"She certainly lets you have Grandma's special chocolate cake, doesn't she?" Driftwood teased. "It's not vegetables all the time, I hope."

Grinning, Huckleberry answered, "Grandma says I'm her taste-tester, so I always get an extra big piece."

By this time Grapevine and his daughter had caught up to the hyper colt. "You made good time," Grapevine stated after salutations were made. "We thought we'd get to the crossroads before we'd meet you."

"I had to keep them walking fast so Driftwood wouldn't have time to reveal every fact out of my early years," laughed Sugarberry, hugging her brother-in-law. Wineberry, showing her shyness, hung back partially hidden behind her father. The oldest of the three foals, she was also the quietest.

"Where's Wineberry?" Driftwood asked, innocently looking in every direction except where the young filly reclusively stood. "Didn't she want to come greet us? I'm very disappointed." The dainty foal giggled and buried her face in her father's mane as it hung along his side. "I heard that!" Driftwood intoned seriously and stooped to face the foal. "There you are!"

Wineberry giggled again in response and darted to Sugarberry's side to seek shelter from someone she knew better than these two stallions who were relative newcomers to her family circle. The group, now doubled in size, began its trek back toward the outskirts of Berryville, passing dormant orchards, spiky berry patches, and rich plowed ground waiting for the spring planting of vegetables.

When the house came into sight-- a large white edifice with an addition on the side which served as the bakery where Strawberry Shortcake, Raspberry, and Gooseberry made their excellent jams, jellies, pies, cookies, cakes, and assorted pastries to sell from their home business-- both Huckleberry and Wineberry took off at a fast trot to inform the rest of the family that the expected company had arrived. Hugs and kisses all around brought the family together joyously. Strawberry Shortcake looked over her three daughters and their choice of mates with motherly pride. "It's so good to have you all home. Come right in for coffee and my latest concoction-- ambrosia tarts," she instructed everyone, but with a special look at Driftwood.

"Oranges and coconut," Driftwood got dreamy-eyed. "One of my favorites."

"Whatever is in front of you at the table is your favorite," teased Grapevine.

Sugarberry had ended up with Baby Gooseberry in her forelegs, and the littlest foal was busily twining locks of her aunt's hair as if fascinated by the bright color. "What a cutie!" Vanguard said to the little foal who suddenly extended her tiny forelegs to him, deserting Sugarberry for the blue stallion.

"That one is going to be a hoof-full when she's older," Gooseberry rolled her eyes. "She has a preference for the stallions already." As if to prove her mother correct, Baby Gooseberry moved on to Driftwood's forelegs before finally making her tottering way off to catch the cat that watched curiously from the edge of the boisterous crowd.

* * *

Supper being finished to everyone's satisfaction, the family made themselves comfortable for an evening of games with the foals and visiting between themselves. The rain which had started after their arrival beat a staccato rhythm on the windows, making the indoor gathering more enjoyable in its warmth and shelter although Strawberry Baskets had taken the three stallions out that afternoon to give Vanguard a full tour of the acres of fruit trees and bushes just waiting for the first warmer days to send forth their green radiance. They had come back soggy and cold, but enlightened as to Strawberry Baskets' hopes for the coming growing season. Vanguard was impressed with the size of the operation and the amount of labor needed to keep everything running smoothly not only in the fruit orchards but also in Grapevine's extensive vineyards which bordered the fruit farm.

Pictures of the three daughters as foals hung from the living room wall, which piqued interest in any other photographic record of Sugarberry, Raspberry, and Gooseberry as youngsters. Strawberry Shortcake was quick to produce the photo albums which held such mementos; and the joking, laughter, and blushing faces that followed accounted for the success of the venture as far as Vanguard, Driftwood, and Grapevine were concerned.

"Sugarberry," said Driftwood, a black and white photo in hoof, "you look like you were headed for the death squad in this one." An artless young Sugarberry stood sad and dejected with a lunch box dangling at her side.

"Definitely very close to tears," Vanguard said after scrutinizing the picture; he had become somewhat of an expert on what signaled the beginning of tears from his sentimental mare.

"It was the first day of school," sighed Sugarberry, taking the picture from him. "I was devastated at the thought of leaving Mom for an entire day."

"Wineberry looked the same way her first day of school," admitted Grapevine as he tousled the little filly's mane.

"And Gooseberry was the exact opposite," remembered Strawberry Baskets. "She couldn't wait to start school."

"And Raspberry thought she was smart enough already and didn't need to bother," added Strawberry Shortcake.

"Grandpa," Huckleberry tugged at Strawberry Baskets. "When are we going to share our surprise?"

"Surprise?" asked Raspberry, looking puzzled.

"Yes," concurred Wineberry. "We have a surprise. Don't we, Grandpa?"

Grandpa gave her a conspiratorial wink and drew Huckleberry and Wineberry close. "You see if you can get everyone to sit down and get comfortable; then we'll spring our surprise."

Curious glances were passed from pony to pony and met with answering shrugs. Obviously, Strawberry Baskets, Huckleberry, and Wineberry had managed to pull off some secret project without anyone else finding out about it; unless Strawberry Shortcake, with her serene smile, was at least aware of the effort.

As they arranged themselves cozily around Strawberry Baskets, whose chair seemed to dominate the room as if he were the king of this humble castle, Huckleberry led Sugarberry, who had been warming a bottle for Baby Gooseberry, across the room. "Here," he said, "you have to sit by Uncle Vanguard."

"He's not our uncle yet," Wineberry informed her brother.

Huckleberry looked wide-eyed at the stallion. "You're not?"

Vanguard smiled. "Not officially, but I like the title." He hoisted the colt to a position between him and Sugarberry.

"You could call him uncle-elect," advised Driftwood, "just in case." He winked at Sugarberry.

Wineberry was digesting this conversation on proper labels. Finally, she crossed the area to Driftwood. "Can I call you Uncle Driftwood?"

"Sure can, little lady," he responded, drawing her to a spot between himself and Raspberry.

Baby Gooseberry settled in with her mom and dad, and all eyes focused on Strawberry Baskets. He looked over the assembled group in silent assent, pleased to see the expanding circle of love that brought further happiness to each of them. Then, in response to the expectant faces, he cleared his throat and explained what was happening.

"Wineberry, Huckleberry, and Baby Gooseberry have been the instigators of a new style of bedtime stories that put their mom and dad at the center of the action. Wineberry suggested that with all of us being together this weekend that we should do a story that includes everyone. So for the last several weeks we've been putting together an epic fairytale involving the three lovely daughters of a hardworking shepherd and his beautiful wife." He smiled at Strawberry Shortcake who reigned from the chair next to him.

"Shepherd?" asked Driftwood. "What happened to pomologist?"

"Some facts were changed to accommodate the flow of the story into a more traditional format. Some," he reiterated, "but not all."

"I think I'm scared," whispered Sugarberry to Vanguard with a giggle.

"Your dad wouldn't be cruel," he whispered back; but with a sudden loss of optimism, he added, "Would he?"

Strawberry Baskets only smiled enigmatically and began his story.

"A shepherd and his wife had a flock of many sheep that required constant attention, but the wool from their coats provided the couple with a comfortable living. Over the years, their family had grown to include three very attractive daughters who, from the time they were small, had been taught to care for the sheep and did their part to insure the health and safety of the entire flock.

"At one time the shepherd had hoped for sons to aid him in his work, but his daughters were so hardworking and dependable that he no longer regretted their being girls. In fact, he could not bear to think of them leaving him for they did a good deal of the work on the farm. The shepherd did all he could to keep eligible suitors away from his daughters, but even the best plans often deteriorate.

"The oldest daughter, Gooseberry, was out one day with her flock when she inadvertently fell asleep in the warm sunshine while sitting against a large rock at the edge of the meadow. The weather was mild and the bees droned and the birds sang, so Gooseberry slept soundly for quite some time.

"When the filly woke, she stretched and looked around her for the white, woolly animals that should have been peacefully grazing on the lush grass; but, instead, she saw only the wide expanse of greenery stretching before her with nary a single lamb left to show a sign of the flock.

"Jumping to her hooves, Gooseberry began a frantic search for the missing sheep. She knew her dad would never forgive her if she went home without her charges, and she worried as she traipsed across the landscape going farther and farther from home until she passed over her father's boundaries and crossed onto the neighboring property.

"To her relief she could finally see the truant sheep up ahead on the slopes of a hill, and she smiled at the welcome sight. Her smile was short-lived, however, when she realized that the neat orderly rows of vines that grew on the hill were grapevines, and that her flock of unsatiable animals were enjoying the change of menu.

"Gooseberry remained undaunted by the task at hoof and scurried to reclaim her charges, but soon realized that it was impossible to round-up the obstinate animals that had no intention of leaving their greener pastures. When the futility of her position finally sank in, she threw herself to the ground and let the tears flow.

"It was such that the stallion found her. He gazed down at the forlorn filly, then up at the myriad fleecy creatures happily nibbling his grapevines and surmised the reason for the filly's distress.

"'May I be of help to you?' the stallion asked softly, adverse to frightening the already distraught pony before him.

"Gooseberry lifted her tear-stained face to the unexpected voice and stared in wide-eyed wonder at the pony who stood like a vision on the path. Her lips parted, and she found herself unable to form the words she needed to say. 'It would appear that your flock has transgressed on my vineyards,' the stallion finally broke the stillness.

"Realizing that her silence was unbecoming to the situation, Gooseberry finally managed to stammer a reply. 'Yes, m'lord. The sheep escaped my care... as I slept.' She lowered her eyes to cover her embarrassment at admitting her fault.

"The stallion took a step closer, admiring the beauty of the shepherdess. He reached to take a leaf from her mane, and the filly looked up at him with her deep golden eyes. Their gaze locked for a moment before the stallion made a grand gesture in the direction of her sheep. 'My name is Grapevine and I am the owner of this vineyard. I will call my workers to help you get your flock headed homeward.' Coming back to the matter at hoof as if jolted from a dream, the filly apologized for causing him this trouble and thanked him for the offer of his help.

"'You know my name; what is yours?' Grapevine asked.

"'I am known as Gooseberry.' So saying, she set off to do her share of rounding up the sheep and getting them headed in a familiar direction.

"When the last of the strays had been accounted for and the now weary flock looked forward to their familiar range in anticipation of a cooling drink from the meadow brook, Gooseberry turned for one final look at the vineyard, hoping to see again the purple stallion.

"She was not disappointed. He stood on a high promontory of the hill outlined against the blue sky, his green tail blowing with the summer breeze. Her breath caught for a moment before she turned homeward, and set off with her flock. And she knew he watched her leave.

"Gooseberry admitted the day's misadventure to her father but assured him that no harm had come of it. She explained that the owner of the vineyard was not angry and had even helped to remove the sheep from his property. Her mother wondered at the brightness of her daughter's eyes and the spring in her step but wisely refrained from probing the cause. And the shepherd was only grateful that the neighbor was such an understanding stallion.

"They were all surprised, therefore, when on the following morning before Gooseberry had gone off with her flock for the day, hoofsteps were heard coming down the path that led to their meager cottage. The shepherd looked out the window as the stranger came into sight, accompanied by two personal servants.

"The shepherd wondered who this pony could be and peered out the window; his wife and daughters came to stand beside him. The shepherd's wife, quickly taking measure of the stallion's bearing, stature, and authoritative stance, admitted that she had never seen him before. But an uncontrolled gasp came from Gooseberry. 'It's him!" she whispered, explaining that this was the owner of the vineyard and that his name was Grapevine.

"Her father instantly assumed that the appearance of the master of the vineyard did not bode well, that the stallion was angered at the misuse of his lands. He directed his wife and daughters to stay inside while he hurried out, closing the door swiftly behind him. Approaching the stranger, he made a quick obeisance in lieu of the stallion's higher rank. 'How may I be of service?' the shepherd asked, withholding any admission of guilt for his flock's trespassing until pressed to do so.

"Grapevine calmly looked over the premises, noting the small house, the lush meadows behind, and most acutely the slight movement from behind the window glass where the fillies and mare waited and watched. He smiled charmingly at the shepherd and explained that he had encountered a young shepherdess yesterday in one of his vineyards and was wondering...

"'An unfortunate business,' the shepherd interrupted, feeling that the stallion would not easily be deterred any further. 'My daughter was at fault; she shirked her responsibility.'

"'Your daughter... may I speak with her?' the stallion asked.

"Suddenly the shepherd realized that he had misjudged the intentions of this Grapevine; he had not come for justice, but as a suitor for the filly who had so recently caught his fancy. The shepherd was quick to cut off that avenue; he did not want his life complicated with unwanted attention to any of his three daughters, so he purposely misunderstood Grapevine's request and assured him that any damages sustained at his vineyard from the sheep would be made right by the shepherd himself.

"Watching the shepherd closely as he spoke, the stallion could read the hesitation in his manner where his daughter was concerned. However, he was not to give up so easily. 'Is your daughter home?' he queried. 'A white filly with brilliant yellow eyes and a pattern of gooseberries along her sides?'

"The shepherd thought a moment before answering and decided to tell an untruth in this precarious situation. He told Grapevine that the daughter in question was even at this moment preparing to take the flock out for its daily foraging and that he could not in good conscience allow her to avoid her duty to the sheep. He ended by saying, 'Whatever you have to say to her, you can say to me as easily.'

"Arching an eyebrow, Grapevine considered his options. It would not be difficult to come upon the shepherdess once she was out with her sheep; he could arrange to cross her path at any time that suited him. Yet here was the filly's father, close at hoof and crucially involved in the question he hoped to ask of the filly. The stallion made up his mind. 'I have come here today to ask for Gooseberry's hoof in matrimony.'

"Gaping in surprise, the shepherd stuttered an unintelligible response; he stood aghast at the idea spoken so freely.

"The stallion admitted the sudden and unexpected nature of his request but went on to explain that he had fallen in love with Gooseberry the previous day on his first sight of her distraught over her wandering flock, and he assured the shepherd that he was sincere in his intentions.

"Lowered lids all but hid the shepherd's eyes as he answered shrewdly that his daughter was a very valuable asset to his shepherding business. 'I refuse your request,' he ended abruptly.

"Undaunted, the stallion was ready with his response and admitted that he had many workers on his estate and freely offered any one of them to serve the shepherd in place of Gooseberry, all the while smiling as if he was handing over a grand gift.

"Considering this new proposal, the shepherd hesitated. When he spoke, it was to accept the offer made by Grapevine but with one condition... that within three days the stallion would have to complete a quest determined by the shepherd. If the quest proved successful, Grapevine would be given what he desired; if not, Gooseberry would stay at home with her family and her flock.

"Grapevine seemed invigorated by the challenge. 'What is the quest you have in mind?' he asked eagerly.

"The shepherd told the stallion he must bring him a sheep with the colors of the rainbow in its woolly fleece. And not only that, but one that would breed true to its color. Only then could he marry Gooseberry.

"Frowning slightly, Grapevine accepted the quest; he informed the shepherd that indeed, in three days, he would be back with a sheep the colors of the rainbow. Then he turned quickly, followed by his servants, and left down the path he had come.

"Going only until he was out of sight of the shepherd's homestead, Grapevine released his servants to precede him home. Once on his own, Grapevine wended his way back toward the meadowland where he knew Gooseberry would be tending her flock. Before long, he caught sight of the filly, intent on her duties yet with a dreamy look on her face that quickened Grapevine's heart.

"When Gooseberry became aware of his approach, she came toward him and was the first to speak. 'M'lord, I well imagine that my father wants me to apologize to you for yesterday's mishap, but I can't... not truthfully anyway. For if the sheep hadn't wandered, I would never have met you.'

"She said this so simply and so honestly that Grapevine was temporarily stunned. It took him several long moments to fully soak up the purport of her words, but when he did, he responded, 'I've thought of nothing but you since I first met you.'

"'Nor I but of you.'

"Approaching somewhat closer to Gooseberry, he explained, 'I have asked for your father's permission to marry you.'

"The filly's eyes sparkled with happiness, but she knew of her father's wish to keep his daughters tied to the flocks, so she only shook her head. 'He will never allow it.'

"Grapevine disagreed, explaining how her father had given him a quest to fulfil in three days time in exchange for Gooseberry as his bride, if she so desired. And the quest, he assured her, was actually quite simple. 'So in three day's time, will you come with me to my manor to become my wife?'

"Smiling a sweet and radiant smile, Gooseberry promised that she would be waiting for him, and Grapevine set off on his important mission with high hopes.

"It was nearing the end of the third day, and the shepherd was becoming increasingly more gleeful as the allotted time wound down. Gooseberry had returned with the flock and dusk was threatening when hoofsteps were finally heard approaching the cottage.

"The shepherd went to the door, ordering his wife and daughters to remain inside while he went out to meet the bothersome stallion. Gooseberry, however, slipped out behind him and the others soon followed.

"After one glance at the filly he loved, Grapevine centered his attention on the shepherd and respectfully informed him that he had indeed accomplished his quest in the time allowed. The shepherd scoffed at the stallion, telling him he had come empty-hooved and therefore had no rights to the daughter.

"'Oh, but I do,' Grapevine smiled complacently. He nodded his head to someone hidden in the shadows of an overhanging willow, and a colt came forward leading a pair of sheep: an ewe and a ram. He brought the animals to his master and surrendered possession to him.

"Grapevine led the two sheep directly to the shepherd. 'Here you see the fulfillment of my quest.' And he flourished a hoof in the direction of the two black sheep.

"The shepherd stared in astonishment, then laughed boisterously. 'Are you blind?' he asked when he could again speak. 'I asked for a specimen with a fleece containing the colors of the rainbow and you have brought me these... these harbingers of darkness?' And he laughed some more.

"But the stallion stood his ground while allowing the shepherd to enjoy his moment of merriment. It was only when the shepherd's shoulders had stopped shaking from the humor of the situation that Grapevine presented his observation. 'The fleece of the black sheep has absorbed all the colors of the rainbow. And this pair will breed true.'

"The shepherd's mouth dropped open and he stared in disbelief; when he could speak, he accused Grapevine of deceit; but his wife, who had remained silent up until this moment, stepped forward. 'The stallion is right. Black is all the colors combined.' She looked at her husband. 'Your deal was a binding one, on your honor. The stallion asked for our daughter in marriage; if she agrees, we cannot stand in their way.'

"Smiling gratefully at Gooseberry's mother, Grapevine next turned his full attention on the filly who had won his heart. 'Gooseberry, you and your family will come with me tonight to the manor; rooms have been prepared for you all, and preparations have been made for our wedding on the morrow, if you are still willing.'

"Gooseberry was definitely willing, so the plans that Grapevine had set in motion with his delivery of the black sheep progressed in smooth order; and on the following morning under a clear blue sky with the songbirds celebrating the occasion, he and Gooseberry were wed."

At this point, Wineberry jumped up and retrieved a red rose from a side table and took it solemnly to her father. "You give this to Mama," she whispered. Grapevine willingly did, accompanying it with a kiss. And Strawberry Baskets continued the tale.

"With Gooseberry now the mistress of Grapevine's manor, the care of the flocks was disseminated between the remaining sisters. The shepherd had refused Grapevine's offer of a helper from his manor as he reckoned that having a stranger on the premises was only asking for trouble where his other two daughters were concerned. Day after day they would go off into the meadow with their sheep and faithfully watch over them.

"The shepherd had resigned himself to the loss of one daughter, but doubled his resolve to prevent Raspberry or Sugarberry from meeting any of the available stallions in the vicinity. Their lives passed smoothly and uneventfully for some time until one spring day Raspberry came upon a strange sight in one of the far-removed pastures where she had led the flock.

"From a distance she had seen the activity of someone near the edge of a spattering of woodland, but it was only as she drew nearer that she could ascertain what was actually happening. As the lambs and sheep spread out around her, Raspberry stood entranced by the beige stallion who was leaping and cavorting across the tender grass as he juggled three brightly colored balls, all the while accompanying his juggling with intricate moves and dance-like steps.

"The stallion was so absorbed in his work that he was unaware of his audience until, dropping one of the balls, he heard a suppressed giggle; and looking up, he found himself in the company of a very attractive pony. Her white body covered with the pattern of raspberries and crowned with a beautiful face surrounded by dark blue hair arrested his attention as the other spheres crashed to the ground unobserved.

"'Good morning, fair maiden,' the stallion bowed and pushed back his brown mane.

"Raspberry giggled. 'Good morning to you. What are you doing in my father's meadow playing with these toys?' She picked up one of the abandoned balls and tossed it to him.

"Grabbing the globe from the air, the stallion replied. 'I am practicing my act for the king tonight; I am a jester in the royal court.' He looked rather proud of himself, but Raspberry was not impressed. She had always been expected to keep busy with chores, cooking, and household duties when not with the flocks, and she saw no sense in the frivolous actions of the jester.

"'So you are a clown?' she asked, her eyes twinkling.

"The stallion appeared hurt at the rebuff. 'I am Driftwood, the king's most favored court fool; it is my job to entertain the king so that the problems of his kingdom do not weight him down.'

"This announcement did nothing to diminish Raspberry's amusement at the stallion's choice of careers. She teased him mercilessly about his label of 'court fool' and caused him to again defend himself by informing her that a jester's job was not only to make the king laugh but also to act as his advisor in weighty matters as well. 'The jester must also be clever,' finished Driftwood.

"Raspberry smilingly informed him that if he was so very clever he would make quick work of getting off her father's property before the shepherd himself came to take care of it for him. The jester backed up, but kept his eyes on the filly; and she turned with a toss of her curly mane and led the sheep to another meadow further down the path. He watched her until she disappeared from his sight and sighed a long and lonely sigh before he finally turned and slipped away through the copse of trees that bordered the meadow.

"As the comfortable days of spring moved toward the warmer, more humid days of summer, the shepherd's household had fallen into a regular pattern with the sheep always the center of the plans and activities that absorbed the hours. The shepherd's wife occasionally wondered why her middle daughter seemed to be lost in some bittersweet daydream; but as Raspberry never broached the subject with her, her mother let the matter slide. However, other events were moving forward that would precipitate an answer sooner than anyone expected.

"It was an ordinary day by all indications as Raspberry set out with her flock as the early morning dew glistened on the grass. She had reached one of the outlying meadows and the sheep had spread out in contented munching. Making herself comfortable on a conveniently located granite ledge that allowed her a sweeping view of the area, Raspberry let her thoughts roam freely. It was as if in answer to her dreamlike musings that she became aware of a beige body moving slowly along the edge of her father's meadowland. She looked more closely and could make out the brown mane and tail; a smile played across her face and she rose to cross the pasture to a point of interception in the stallion's progress.

"The stallion was intent on something in the grass by the time the filly reached him, her curious charges following along with her. She watched quizzically for a time, then asked, 'Have you lost some of those shiny toys that you love to juggle?'

"Caught completely unaware, the stallion jumped and dropped the objects that he had just so carefully retrieved from the grassy ground. Seeing who it was who had come upon him so stealthily, Driftwood broke into a huge grin. 'Raspberry!' he said, then stopped as if there were no other words that could convey how he felt at that moment. They looked at one another until the silence became overbearing; Raspberry broke her eyes away to survey the items that Driftwood had allowed to fall from his hooves and was surprised to see that they were not his jester's tools but fresh mushrooms that grew in various spots about the surrounding area.

"'Mushrooms are rather fragile for juggling, I would think,' she observed with a sparkle in her voice. Driftwood looked down at the ground, and agreed that, indeed, they would not hold up long. He moved closer to her as if he wanted to say something but did not know where to begin. Raspberry watched him closely and wondered at the quickened beating of her heart as he finally stated, 'I need to talk with you.'

"Raspberry considered his request and found it agreeable, but she suggested that first they should round up the mushrooms that lay in disarray; after putting the fungi in the backpack he carried, the two ponies crossed the meadow back to the ledge of stone that offered a comfortable rendezvous point. After the two were seated, Driftwood explained what was on his mind.

"Slowly the story unfolded. It was a strange coincidence that after his original meeting with Raspberry and her subsequent dismissal of him due to his unconventional vocation that the king had become upset with his cook and criticized the moody mare once too often; she had thrown down her white hat and apron in a huff and had left the castle once and for all. The king, who was a connoisseur of good food, was left with no one to prepare the fancy dishes that he craved; when the king had confided his dilemma to Driftwood, his trusted jester, the stallion had the perfect answer. 'I can fix you a superb supper, your majesty,' the stallion offered.

"The king was doubtful that his court fool could also cook; but because the king was becoming uncomfortably hungry, he allowed Driftwood to prepare a meal to test his culinary skills. It was with amazement that the king tasted the food placed before him for he found it to be better than any he had ever savored. So impressed was the king that he offered Driftwood the job of royal cook on the spot, and Driftwood had accepted, although-- he admitted rather sorrowfully-- the king did call upon him occasionally to perform for him when he was unduly depressed over court politics.

"Raspberry looked at the stallion intently as she listened to his tale and found herself feeling admiration for the court jester who had turned into the royal cook. Whether she was impressed because he had taken on a more respectable job or because she was remembering the loneliness that had settled over her life since her first encounter with him was not clear even in her own mind, but she found herself smiling at the stallion as he finished speaking. 'I'm sure you are an excellent cook,' she stated.

"'I came looking for mushrooms for a special meal I'm preparing for the king tonight,' the stallion suddenly remembered. 'I must hurry back to the castle if I am to have it ready in time.' He hurriedly got to his hooves, but hesitated to start on his way. He looked at Raspberry as if to read her soul, and finding what he had hoped to on the pages he accessed, he bid her farewell. Raspberry watched him depart; the filly felt as if a part of herself was torn away with him. When he had passed from her sight, she turned back to her flock.

"Several days having elapsed, Raspberry had tried to put the stallion out of her thoughts but had failed miserably. It was a pleasant surprise, therefore, to hear his voice when she returned with the sheep at the end of the day; he was not talking to her, however, but to her father.

"Driftwood was explaining to the shepherd as they talked together under the willow tree that he had met Raspberry in the course of his livelihood in the king's service and that he would like to ask for her as his wife. Raspberry walked to stand by Driftwood's side in silent agreement, but the shepherd was in no humor to put up with this second infringement upon his investments. He growled at the stallion to be on his way, but Driftwood stood his ground and pointed out to the shepherd that Raspberry herself should have some say in the matter.

"Grumbling under his breath, the shepherd finally spat out his conditions. He asked that the stallion complete a quest within forty-eight hours-- cutting the time allotment to give himself the edge-- or Driftwood would forfeit any claim on the maiden. Driftwood was up for the challenge and listened intently for his summons. The shepherd intoned the instructions with a furtive hope that anyone who had served as the royal jester would do poorly on a mind-involving search. 'I want you to bring me a rogue of the kingdom who lives on corruption and death in his dank, secret lair.'

"Raspberry and Driftwood shared a quick glance over the perplexing problem. Would the former court fool be able to discover and track down this mysterious entity in time? If not, he would at least give it his best shot. He turned to Raspberry with a sly smile and promised her that he would return, then set out to ponder the best way to complete his hunt.

"The two days that marked the time before the stallion must return to the shepherd's homestead were coming to a close. Raspberry had spent the hours in patient labor, but with always a look forward to the approach of her champion. The hours were dwindling before the patter of hooves sounded on the lane to the cottage. She threw open the door as her father slowly stood up to face his adversary.

"Driftwood entered the house with a jaunty step. He winked at Raspberry, but concentrated his attention on the somber figure of her father. 'I have brought not only your rogue, sir, but all of his kind I could find.' he stated. The shepherd was not happy to hear that and cautioned the stallion that until he saw this crass assortment, he could not be sure of the completion of the quest. Driftwood immediately brought forth a woven reed basket covered over with a crisp, white linen napkin. Pulling off the veil, he revealed the fulfillment of his pursuit.

"'I have found your rogue from the kingdom of the fungi living on the decay of the moist and sheltered forest floor. I present to you... mushrooms.'

"'How could you find those? It is too late in the season.' The shepherd held up one of the sandy-colored, roughly dimpled morels in disbelief. Driftwood explained that to find the best food for the king's table, he had become adept at locating the most elusive and ideal silvan glens where the morels would grow. He offered the basket of choice edibles to the shepherd's wife who accepted them with pleasure; her kind smile assured Driftwood of her full support.

"Grieving that he had lost a second daughter, the shepherd found no joy in the sudden outburst of gaiety in the household as Driftwood invited them all to the castle to be in attendance at the wedding of himself and Raspberry the following morning. But what could the shepherd do? The wheels had been set in motion and the next day saw the marriage of Driftwood and Raspberry at the king's castle."

On cue, Huckleberry wriggled his way off the sofa to fetch another red rose which he promptly delivered to Driftwood. "This is for Aunt Raspberry," he coached. Knowing when to leave the jester behind, Driftwood presented the rose-- and a kiss-- in a courtly manner. Smiling in approval, Strawberry Baskets continued with his story.

"Meanwhile, unbeknownst to any of the other members of her family, Sugarberry had for the last several months been encountering still another unaccountable visitor to the serene meadows of the shepherd. It had all started one mundane afternoon when the filly, as was so often the case, was sitting in the company of the sheep contemplating stories that she would someday write, a far away expression on her face. A flash of blue caught her eye, and she squinted across the sunlit pasture to better determine what had interrupted her train of thought.

"Lo and behold! It was another stallion, a stranger to these parts, and he appeared to be concentrating on a parchment as he sat with his back against a gnarled old maple tree near the river. Her curiosity getting the best of her, Sugarberry, after verifying that the sheep were satisfied in their scouring of the meadow for the choicest grasses, began to amble in his direction. When she came close to his position, she stopped to study him; he was of her favorite shade of blue with hair the color of a green sea. The stallion, so absorbed in the parchment in his hooves, had not yet seen the white and strawberry-patterned mare with the red hair and was duly surprised when her shadow fell across his page.

"The stallion looked up to see what had darkened his object of study, and he beheld the loveliest face he had ever seen. He quickly scrambled to his hooves and wished the filly a good day. 'It is a good day,' Sugarberry informed him. 'The sun is shining, the birds are singing, and my father's sheep are content.' She smiled out across the grassland where the animals ate and played.

"Looking at the filly appreciatively, the stallion asked if he might be told her name, and Sugarberry promptly replied, asking in turn for his. 'Vanguard,' replied the stallion as he retrieved the parchment that he had forsaken.

"'Are you a writer?' quizzed Sugarberry, her eyes lighting up enthusiastically; but Vanguard admitted that he was not. Rather, he was a mathematician who taught willing scholars their numbers. Not being knowledgeable about mathematics, Sugarberry was impressed and asked if he would show her the work he had been doing. She sat in rapt silence as the stallion revealed to her the mysteries of numerical calculations; and before either of them knew it, the sun was sinking below the horizon; it was time for the shepherdess to return home with her sheep. 'Will I see you again?' she sweetly asked of Vanguard before she left with her flock. He promised that he would come again another day when he had time to spare.

"It became a routine for the two ponies to spend part of each rainless day sitting together under the same old maple as Vanguard went through his complicated problems, and Sugarberry watched in awe; and whether they knew it or not, they had fallen in love through the simple pleasure of their shared companionship in the lap of Mother Nature's benevolent care and under the watchful eyes of the various feathered friends who serenaded them from the waving branches of the green-crested trees.

"As the days rolled on into weeks and the weeks into months, Sugarberry began to wonder why her precious stallion had made no mention of a serious commitment for the two of them. She dreamed of Gooseberry's happiness with her loving husband and, more recently, of Raspberry's love for her dashing stallion. Now Sugarberry only waited for the same satisfying ending to her own story for she found that she could not know true happiness without Vanguard.

"Whiling away the lonesome hours one rainy day without her scholar, Sugarberry had taken shelter in the mouth of a cave that yawned forth from a rocky hillside; a clatter of hooves announced that some other pony was caught in the rain as well, and she was soon joined by a bright orange stallion with white hair who cantered into the shelter with a heavy sigh. He had been searching for ancient pictures drawn on rocks and cave walls by ponies long ago, he told the mare, and had been heading for this outcropping when the rain had begun. Sugarberry joined in inspecting the cave and, by the time they were through, the sun had come out from behind the grey clouds that were whisking themselves eastward.

"The stallion thanked the mare for her help and bid farewell; it was only after he left that Sugarberry became aware of Vanguard's approach from the opposite direction. 'Who was that stallion?' he asked, casting a suspicious glance at the orange body disappearing across the meadow.

"Sugarberry explained the pursuit of the stallion and smiled tenderly at Vanguard. 'I didn't think you would be out in this wet weather,' she confided to him as he led her to their favorite place to sit and deliberate over their numerical problems. But not a tender word was spoken between them.

"Several days later, Sugarberry was waiting for Vanguard under the maple tree when she eagerly turned to the hoofsteps coming toward her only to find another stranger on her father's land. This time the stallion was a dark green variety with dark blue hair. Coming up to Sugarberry, he took her hoof in his and kissed it. 'What a pleasure to meet such a lovely maiden in this fair place,' he commented. The two entered upon a spirited conversation and were so engrossed in their parley that they did not hear the approach of the second stallion.

"'Excuse me,' stated Vanguard rather gruffly.

"Sugarberry turned to him with round eyes and a blush on her cheeks. 'Vanguard! We didn't hear you coming!'

"Vanguard glowered at the dark green stallion who bid farewell to Sugarberry and proceeded on his journey. Vanguard, deciding on the spot that it was time for action on his part, turned to the filly and asked her to marry him. Her answer was an emphatic yes, so they both rounded up the flock to head the sheep home and confer with the shepherd concerning their present desire.

"The shepherd was not in a happy frame of mind; he took his time determining what question he could give to this latest and last interloper of his daughters' affections. His furrowed brow showed the extent to which he was contemplating his predicament, but he eventually came to a satisfactory conclusion. Facing Vanguard with a scowl, the shepherd laid down his ultimatum. 'Within twenty-four hours'--he was getting desperate by this point-- 'bring to me that which is not born but lives, soars to the sky yet is earthbound, and wraps itself in scarlet robes, and you can have my daughter in marriage.'

"Sugarberry looked worried, but Vanguard met the challenge with a smile. He gave Sugarberry an encouraging nod, and left the shepherd's homestead with a light tread. Now it was only a matter on time for the shepherd to learn whether or not he would lose his last shepherdess.

"On the following day, with the twenty-fourth hour approaching, Vanguard was back. Coming to the door of the shepherd's cottage, he smiled upon Sugarberry in full confidence over the success of his venture before bestowing his compensation upon the shepherd. Asking the shepherd to step outside with him, Vanguard retrieved a birdcage from a branch of the willow and brought it before Sugarberry's father, and the shepherd's face fell. Vanguard had correctly ascertained the quest he had been given: a bird, or more exactly, a cardinal. He explained that it had not been born but hatched, flies high in the sky but must depend on the solid earth to eat and nest, and wears a covering of brilliant red feathers. He presented the caged beauty to Sugarberry; under the approving direction of the shepherd's wife, the shepherdess released the bird to his freedom.

"The shepherd had lost all hope of retaining the help he needed for his farm and frowned deeply. However, the exuberance of his daughter and of his wife soon drew him into the gaiety of the occasion; and on the following day they, with family and friends, gathered in the chapel in the woods to unite Vanguard and Sugarberry in the wedded state surrounded also by their feathered friends, the cardinals."

Strawberry Shortcake got up from her chair and elicited the aid of Baby Gooseberry to convey the last red rose which the foal dutifully delivered to Vanguard, and Sugarberry received her rose and kiss from her beloved sage. Strawberry Baskets returned to the story to give it a satisfying ending.

"The three sons-in-law of the shepherd, perceiving the inconvenience their happiness had cost him, presented him with three recently unemployed young stallions who were pleased to find such outdoorsy work as shepherding. As for Gooseberry, Raspberry, and Sugarberry, they lived happily ever after... and if they didn't, their mates would have the shepherd to answer to."

"Wow! I'm impressed, Dad," Gooseberry spoke up as the story came to an end. "That's the longest I've ever heard you talk in one sitting."

"And it's the most you're ever going to hear me talk," Strawberry Baskets grinned. "That was a major project for me; good thing I had input from Wineberry and Huckleberry."

Driftwood snickered. "I'd say your fatherly pride had a lot to do with the story line. Your three little shepherdesses come off looking a lot better than several of us stallions did." He shot a jealous look at Grapevine. "You must have pulled off quite a coup to maintain your good name in tact."

Grapevine shrugged. "When you've got it, you've got it," he taunted with a grin.

"What do you think, Van? Did we get fair treatment?" Driftwood continued.

"Nothing we didn't deserve," the stallion admitted. "But it had a happy ending; that's all that matters." He hugged Sugarberry over the top of Huckleberry who was musing over something from his spot between them.

"Uncle Vanguard?" he queried after making a face over the embrace. "Why didn't you ask Aunt Sugarberry to marry you sooner?"

Vanguard had answered that question too often in the past, but he allowed it to stand one more time. Some soul-searching revealed a new answer; he regarded Sugarberry with an intent look. "Maybe I was afraid that she'd say no."

"She wouldn't have done that 'cause she loves you," the colt stated simply.

"Then I guess I should have consulted with you in the first place," Vanguard replied readily.

The evening came to an end when the three foals could no longer hold their eyes open; Grapevine and Gooseberry rounded up their little brood and headed for their own home which sat not too far away. Driftwood, who had an open invitation to inhabit the guest bedroom, showed Vanguard to the room they would be sharing for the night. Sugarberry and Raspberry retired to Raspberry's bedroom, but the talk of wedding plans for both of them kept them awake until the early morning hours. It was of this that Driftwood complained when morning came.

"Those two giggled half the night away," he complained to Strawberry Shortcake. "It was like trying to sleep next to a chicken coop."

"We were discussing wedding plans," Raspberry informed him with a gentle rap, "and some other things." She winked at her sister across the table. Sugarberry giggled but refrained from commenting.

"So what gives?" Driftwood's curiosity got the best of him.

"Let's just say that Mom doesn't have a monopoly on all the good pictures from years past," Raspberry needled him.

Driftwood searched his memory. "Are these pictures I should know about?"

"Does junior prom ring any bells?" asked Sugarberry.

"Your sister and I made a stunning couple," Driftwood responded.

"You were so young," Sugarberry retorted. "You looked like a colt playing pretend... talk about cocky!"

"We were all a lot younger back then," Strawberry Shortcake reminded them.

"I wonder if my mom will take a bribe not to get the old albums out," pondered Vanguard, foreseeing trouble on his personal horizon.

"You're too late," Sugarberry grinned. "She's already promised me a showing."

* * *

Vanguard and Sugarberry left Berryville after church and a late lunch with the family and set their path for Woodlawn. Having never been to Woodlawn, Sugarberry was excited for two reasons: first, of course, to see Vanguard's home and family, and secondly, to see the town which she had inadvertently used as the name of one of her fictitious places in her novelette, Ginseng and Sassafras Tea, before she had even known her finance. Vanguard enjoyed teasing her about the choice of his home town for the city where her character, Hood, had settled which prompted him asking as they walked along, "Tell me again why you named the town in your book Woodlawn."

Sugarberry shot him a glum look. "You're not going to let me forget that, are you?"

"No," Vanguard answered. "But you had better be prepared with a good answer when we get there; someone might ask."

"And you think I'm going to admit that I didn't know there was a town called Woodlawn in Ponyland?"

"Hmm... if you want to sell any more books in the town, I suppose you'd better not."

"But I can't lie."

"So enhance the truth."

Sugarberry frowned. "I thought I'd just made up a peaceful name for Hood's town. I wanted it to sound pastoral."

"Well," considered Vanguard, "there is a lot of agricultural land around Woodlawn, so that will work; just leave out the part about making it up."

"Are you sure?"

"Sure, I'm sure. If you want a second opinion, you could talk to Icon about it; but he'd blab it all over town anyway."

"That's a comfort."

"So what would be worse... that someone would ask why you chose Woodlawn, or that you met no one who had read your book?"

"Definitely the latter."

They walked on in silence for awhile before Sugarberry asked Vanguard about a telephone call he had received from Clare the previous week. "Did Clare mention how she and Giorgio are doing? I know I still can't believe the news about Hydrangea."

"They are all just fine by the sounds of it." They both grew quiet thinking about their friends in Vulcanopolis. Giorgio, coming to Dream Valley to replace Vanguard at Pony Pride for a semester last spring, had worn down Sugarberry's resolve to detest him, and they had become friends, although Giorgio had almost shattered that friendship in the end; yet it had survived. Vanguard's acquaintance with Clare while in Vulcanopolis had provided him with an interesting array of personal problems while he was far away from Sugarberry. Now the four of them were paired as it was meant to be from the beginning.

Vanguard finally asked a question that he thought he had put out of his mind, but now it seemed the time to ask it. "Sugarberry, could you have fallen for Giorgio?"

A quick glance by Sugarberry verified that the question was a serious one, so she put some thought into it; the amount of time it took her to form an answer made Vanguard sorry that he had asked. When her response came, however, it was reassuring. "If I hadn't already fallen in love with you, I suppose it's possible; but I was in love with you, so there wasn't a chance of it happening. And I'm still in love with you," she added with a smile.

"I'm counting on that for a lifetime."

"You've got it."

Later, his face clouding, Vanguard brought up another fact that he thought Sugarberry should be aware of. "Chocolate Chip may have another crisis to face."

"What do you mean?"

"Prime had been investigating the possibility of transferring to New Pony for his senior year; he's caught wind of some special program, and he's gifted enough to be accepted into it. I wouldn't be surprised to see him leave Dream Valley when the semester is over."

"That's when you left last year," Sugarberry reminded him, feeling the loneliness of last spring's separation all over again. "I wouldn't want to see Chocolate Chip go through that, yet I honestly don't think she's as close to Prime as she lets on. From Wigwam's point of view, it might be the best thing that could happen."

"That's true enough."

The comparative warmth of early spring made for a pleasant journey; the sun was sinking low in the west when the couple finally arrived at Woodlawn. "So how does it look, Sugarberry? Does it meet your expectations for Hood's town?"

"Yes, it does," the mare determined. "It's not too big and looks quite calm and peaceful. I think Hood would be happy here." They walked along the streets through a residential section, and Vanguard pointed out places of interest such as the houses where relatives and friends lived until they came to a neighborhood park that would be lovely when the trees unfurled their leaves and the grass and flowers carpeted it with their color.

"Mom and Dad's house is just beyond this park. We'll cut through it here." He grabbed her hoof and led her down the curving path that meandered across the still barren ground, eventually reaching a picturesque bridge over a bubbling stream edged in ice. The stone structure was arched over the water making a gentle crossing. The two ponies stopped when they reached the center of the bridge.

"If you look across there between the two big pines, you'll see where we're headed." He pointed in the direction of a grand old-style house painted a light grey with white trim. The detail that attracted Sugarberry's attention was the square turret that towered over one corner of the house. She had a lifelong dream of living in a home with a turret some day and was attracted to any home that sported one.

"It's wonderful!" she breathed. "And you were born and raised there?"

"Yup. It's the only house Mom and Dad ever owned."

"This bridge is great, too. If I had known about this, I would have written about it; Hood would have brought his nieces and nephews here to play."

"Stillwater, Icon, and I did plenty of playing here ourselves. We floated our boats in the water and flew kites from the bridge; it was always our favorite hangout. And Vulcanopolis had a bridge similar to this; it made a handy place to stop and daydream about you," he said as he turned to face her.

"No daydreaming necessary now," she said, moving toward him to receive his kiss.

But a voice called out, "Sugarberry! Vanguard!" and they swung around to find Icon running down the path toward them. "Welcome to Woodlawn, Sugarberry," he said as he clattered onto the bridge. "Mom told me you'd be arriving about this time, and I was on my way over to greet you." Icon had his own apartment several blocks away from his parents home.

"It's good to see you, little brother," Vanguard smiled. "I was just showing Sugarberry the house from here."

"Sure you were," the observant Icon grinned. "Remember the time you fell off the bridge into the water and Mom thought you were going to drown?"

"Like it happened yesterday," admitted Vanguard.

"You fell off the bridge?" Sugarberry exclaimed. "How did that happen?"

"Quite easily, actually. We were playing follow the leader up over the rails, and I lost my balance."

"Or Harper pushed you," suggested Icon. "He was always the bully in our bunch," he explained to Sugarberry as they began walking homeward to yet another reunion, this time with Vanguard's parents, Whirlpool and Floral Breeze. Icon stayed for supper, and Stillwater-- along with his wife, Morning Dew, and their foal, Droplet-- came in the evening; the three brothers and Whirlpool got caught up in a game of pool in the basement recreation room, leaving the mares free to discuss matters between themselves. Needless to say, the photos were dug out; and Sugarberry, on seeing one of the infant Vanguard, fell in love all over again.

As the evening ended, Floral Breeze gave Sugarberry a tour of the house ending with the spare bedroom that would be her space for the few days that she and Vanguard would be visiting Woodlawn. Sugarberry reveled in the old-time feel of the furnishings, bedding, and accessories that reminded her of Birdsong and her first acquaintance with Vanguard and fell asleep content in her plans for the future.

The following day dawned overcast and threatening, and a light snow began to fall by mid-morning. The promise of spring was put off for another delay of winter's relentless tactics; but within the house, it was warm and snug and secure. Neighbors stopped in to say hello to Vanguard and meet his fiancee, and Floral Breeze and Sugarberry found time to organize a wedding invitation list for Vanguard's side of the family. Vanguard had claimed the evening with Sugarberry to visit the local ice cream shop to fill in for their missed excursions to Dream Valley's Satin Slipper Sweet Shoppe during this week away from home. "Don't expect too much from a place called The Ice Cream Shop, though," Vanguard had teased.

They were in the process of cleaning up the kitchen after the evening meal when the phone rang, and Icon requested Vanguard's help in solving a computer problem he was having. Vanguard took off to aid his brother while Floral Breeze and Sugarberry finished the dishes; that task completed, they joined Whirlpool in the living room to await the return of Vanguard. It was another call from Icon that they received, however, with the news that he and Vanguard had to run over to the store to get some parts; Vanguard would meet Sugarberry at the ice cream shop at eight o'clock.

"How do I get there?" queried Sugarberry when it was time to set out. She peered unhappily at the falling darkness.

"You can't miss it," Whirlpool stated the obvious fallacy of all directions. "Just go through the park and follow Center Street until it intersects with Main. The ice cream shop is only two doors to the right."

"Okay," Sugarberry said hesitantly. "I'll see you later then." She set off through the deepening darkness; the snow had ended and the new layer of frosty flakes glittered like diamonds on the ground. She crossed to the park and walked nervously through the winding trail that was edged with any number of trees and bushes that seemed to taunt the mare's fear of the dark even though there were a fair number of lights posted throughout the length of the path. She sighed in relief when she reached Center Street and was positively proud of herself when she came to Main. Turning to the right, however, she stopped in her tracks and caught her breath.

* * *

Vanguard and Icon had made what was supposed to be a quick trip to pick up a fan to mount inside the computer case to cool the components, but things did not work out to their advantage. The clerk at the supply store was new and not entirely familiar with all the products available, so he had to search for an annoyingly long time before locating the exact item that Icon was in need of. Vanguard kept watching the clock, not wanting to be late for his date with Sugarberry.

Finally finding Icon's fan, the salespony was ringing it up when two stallions came into the shop and began looking over the computer supplies available. Vanguard and Icon, their purpose accomplished with just enough time to get to the ice cream parlor, headed for the door; but they were not meant to leave.

One of the stallions, a deep golden yellow in color, nudged his friend, a burgundy unicorn, and the two of them called out, "Van! What are you doing back in town?"

"Charger? Bonanza?" Vanguard quizzed. "Hey, I didn't think you two would have stayed around here all these years for all the stories you used to tell about moving on once you graduated."

Charger chuckled. "I guess you could say we found out Woodlawn's not so bad after all."

The stallions entered into an extended conversation of old times and old places, but Vanguard was getting nervous as eight o'clock was almost upon them. Charger and Bonanza, however, had stories to tell and could not be stopped.

It was Icon who came up with a solution. "I'll run over and meet Sugarberry for you, Van. You finish up with these two." Without waiting for a reply, Icon took off out the door while Vanguard was left with no recourse but to listen to his buddies' endless tales.

* * *

A block further down Main Street, Sugarberry, following Whirlpool's instructions, stared at the establishment that was two doors to the right; it was an ice cream shop, but it wasn't The Ice Cream Shop that Vanguard had forewarned her of; the sign over the door read Hood's Place. "Hood's Place," murmured Sugarberry as she stood uncertainly. "I made this place up for my book; it doesn't really exist, yet here it is. Why didn't Vanguard tell me about this? Unless," she looked around furtively, "I'm only dreaming."

Glancing down the street, Sugarberry saw what made her even more certain that she had entered some sort of alternate reality; there was a pony coming toward her whom she recognized not from a former acquaintance but from her imagination, for it was the striking image of William, the grandfatherly stallion who frequented Hood's Place in her book; when he reached the door of the ice cream shop, he opened it; and in a gentlemanly fashion, he wished her a good evening and waited for Sugarberry to precede him into the establishment.

Stepping into the well-lit, up-beat atmosphere of the shop, Sugarberry had to sidestep two youngsters rushing across the tiled floor; she knew them, too: Laser and Lacewing, Hood's nephew and niece. Lacewing almost collided with the strawberry-patterned mare and giggled an "Excuse me!" before chasing off after her brother. Sugarberry looked around at the occupied tables expecting to find the parents of those two, and she was not disappointed. At a table in front of the window sat an electric blue stallion and a lemon-yellow mare, just as the foals parents were supposed to look, and in the mare's forelegs was a very young pink foal.

Sugarberry had no time to grasp the meaning of this strange occurrence as a turquoise stallion with an amethyst mane and a coffee cup symbol approached her with a welcoming smile. "Hood!" she exclaimed as the stallion led her to a vacant table.

"What may I get for you?" he asked.

"C... coffee... decaf..." Sugarberry stuttered as she sat in the proffered chair, her eyes deep wide circular pools with the mystery of all that was happening around her.

As Hood went off to get her coffee, Sugarberry had time to peruse the room more carefully and almost gasped as she saw the other stallion behind the counter; it was Bilberry with his forest green body and purple mane and the purple butterfly on his rump. She stared with open mouth at the young stallion preparing ice cream treats for his customers; he seemed to notice her intent scrutiny and flashed her a wink.

Sugarberry observed that William was sitting at the counter just like she had always had him do in her story; and as she watched, two fillies came into the shop in animated conversation and sat down at the counter next to William, one on either side. The one with a daisy on her side must be Shasta, and her friend was undoubtedly Angel. Sugarberry was amazed, but she was beginning to enjoy the tangible invasion of ponies who until now were merely characters of her imagination. How they had become genuine remained a mystery, but she was not going to let that interfere with the enjoyment of living her fantasy as it played out before her.

She noted with amusement the entrance of a white unicorn with lime green hair, surely Marquee; he was accompanied by a flamboyant red mare with variegated flame-colored mane and tail. Sugarberry wondered in amusement if Hood had won back Dreamy, and Marquee had settled on the lovely receptionist from The Ponderings. She had never been clear in her own mind how Hood's relationship with Dreamy would progress.

Watching the arrival of Buttercup, Homestead, and their foal, Sweety, Sugarberry was surprised to feel a hoof on her shoulder; she looked to finally see a face from reality. "Vanguard! Where have you been?" she whispered softly as if any loud sound would negate the scene around her.

"I got held up at the store," he replied, his eyes taking in all that was unfolding around him. He was quite familiar with Sugarberry's book and recognized enough of the individuals in the ice cream shop to know that something suspicious was going on.

"What's happening here?" Sugarberry whispered next, her eyes still fixed on the happenings around her as if she feared that at any moment they would all disappear.

"I'm not sure," replied Vanguard, "but I'll bet that Icon is at the bottom of it."

A perky waitress came to ask Vanguard for his order, and he smiled at the mauve filly with boysenberry-colored hair. "A cup of coffee would be fine... decaf. And..." he looked at Sugarberry, "two banana splits."

"Coming right up," the illusion of Patchwork Petal said with a grin. She returned to the counter and Bilberry set to work on the ice cream creations.

Sugarberry leaned close to Vanguard. "Isn't this amazing? Did you know about all this?"

"No. Trust me... I'm as overwhelmed as you are."

"It's all so utterly wonderful," she sighed, wishing that she could capture this haunting reality forever.

One of the stallions who had recently entered the shop went to the counter and requested service. Hood took one look at this latest arrival and nearly leaped over the counter. "Drumstick!" he roared. "What are you doing back in Woodlawn?"

"Even students get breaks from the humdrum schedule of classes," stated Hood's former employee. "Besides, I was getting homesick for one of your chocolate caramel sundaes."

"Well, find yourself a seat while I whip one up for you," Hood replied. "And you can wash dishes for me when you're through."

Drumstick declined the latter part of that offer, but did slip onto one of the vacant stools. "Hi, Patchwork Petal. You're as lovely as ever, if not more so," he smiled at the passing waitress whose only response was to roll her eyes coquettishly.

A draft of cold air swooshed into the shop as the door was opened again, and this time the pony entering was not one to ignore on any account for Dreamy, the reporter, would be intimidating in either the imagination or reality. The peach-colored mare breezed into Hood's Place with her orange curls dancing and swooped down on the table at which Sugarberry and Vanguard were sitting. She was followed by none other than Icon manning a camcorder.

"We're in downtown Woodlawn this evening to cover the grand re-opening of The Ice Cream Shop which has been renamed Hood's Place to go along with its physical make-over. Hood's Place, of course, refers to the popular ice cream parlor created by renowned author, Sugarberry, for her latest book, Ginseng and Sassafras Tea. Sugarberry is with us this evening to help us celebrate this stellar event. And we will be talking with her later, but right now we'd like to introduce you to the Woodlawn Theater Players who have become Woodlawn's fictitious inhabitants for this occasion."

The vivacious reporter proceeded to announce the actors' names and the characters they had played to allow them to receive their due praise. During the proceedings, regular townsponies were allowed to come into the shop to participate in the grand opening and to meet Sugarberry and the cast of Ginseng and Sassafras Tea; the place was becoming crowded. Saving the best for last, Dreamy ended with the character of Hood who in turn introduced Sugarberry to the waiting audience.

As Sugarberry stepped up, Dreamy asked her to say a few words which instantly caused a feeling of dread to encompass the red-haired mare. She had been enjoying the affair to the fullest and had not considered being called upon to make a personal showing. Those few who knew her well could see the fear seep across her features. "I write; I don't speak," she said and smiled nervously across the patrons of the shop.

Vanguard had melted away into the melee of ponies and she searched for him in the crowd while waiting for her thoughts to become coherent. When she finally looked upon his face and received the grin he had for her, she relaxed and composed herself to say what was in her heart for the ponies of Woodlawn who had put together this grand festivity. She scanned the mix of visages looking to her for some sort of address and began.

"To each and every one of the Woodlawn Theater Players, I extend a sincere thank you. You enlivened the characters of Ginseng and Sassafras Tea in a way that I could never have visualized on my own. You were all wonderful!" She indicated the cast of ponies with a hoof, and joined with the assembled guests to applaud once again the actors and their many talents. "I shouldn't be surprised to find the citizens of Woodlawn so special; the one native son whom I've met previously has proved that... my finance, Vanguard." The local townsponies responded with their approval. Then Sugarberry grew serious.

"Hood came to Woodlawn looking for a change from the cold, calculating city he had grown up in. I've found tonight that he made the right decision. You've shown by your community spirit and empathy that your town is the kind of place where Hood would find his dreams, and Bilberry and Shasta would find compassion and support. I thank you again for your gracious acceptance of both me and my book."

As she stepped back from the limelight, Sugarberry received applause for her own accomplishments and blushed accordingly. But there was no time for sentiment as various ponies came forward to talk to her personally or to have her sign a copy of her book. Icon had abdicated his job as photographer to one of his theatrical friends, and brought two stallions to meet Sugarberry. "These guys deserve a round of applause, too; they are two of Van's former classmates who kept him occupied at the computer store to prevent him from interfering with your arrival here by yourself. I wanted you to face the unknown without Van to lean on."

"You succeeded quite well, Icon," Sugarberry grimaced as she shook hooves with Charger and Bonanza. "I thought I was hallucinating there for awhile." She had lost sight of Vanguard again, and asked the stallions, "You haven't commandeered him once again, have you?"

"The last I saw of him, he was with Mom and Dad, but it appears he isn't with them anymore," Icon said as Floral Breeze and Whirlpool came up to hug Sugarberry and congratulate her on planting the seed for this endeavor, albeit unknowingly.

"And what part did you play in the secrecy of this day?" Sugarberry queried of Vanguard's parents.

"We're completely innocent," Whirlpool affirmed. "All we knew was that the grand opening of the ice cream shop wasn't to be mentioned to you at all costs; we didn't know why."

"No one outside us actors knew what the name would be until the sign went up this morning; from there we just had to hope that no one would mention it to Sugarberry," Icon admitted.

Responding to the worried glances Sugarberry was sending around the room, Floral Breeze reassured her. "Van went off with his cousin, Chiffon. I'm sure he'll be introducing the two of you soon."

The owner of Hood's Place, Jules, drew Sugarberry to the counter where she could sit down and sign books for her fans. Sugarberry also had a number of questions for him in regard to his decision to transform his former ice cream parlor into the new shop it had become. She learned that Icon and the other members of the theater group had adopted the ice cream shop as a gathering place after rehearsals, and when Jules began talking about remodeling it, the suggestion was put forth that he should also change the name. Discussion disclosed the fact that several visitors to Woodlawn had stopped at the shop and inquired about the location of Hood's Place, only to be told that it did not exist. And when Icon learned of Sugarberry and Vanguard's pending visit to Woodlawn which would coincide with the grand opening, he had suggested that the group do a scene from her book which in turn led to the scenario which had transpired this evening.

Sugarberry looked at her future brother-in-law with admiration and appreciation. "That was awfully sweet of you, Icon."

"Aww, shucks!" He playfully assumed a shy demeanor that was immediately shot down by a pale blue mare who had appeared at his side.

"Icon, you are unscrupulous; you know you only went through with this to give yourself a boost in the actor's club."

Turning her attention to the newcomer, Sugarberry realized that the mare was with Vanguard– or Vanguard was with her– so this must be the cousin who had grown up as an integral part of his family; she was also Vanguard's choice to fill out the wedding party.

"This has got to be Chiffon," Sugarberry stated, looking to Vanguard for verification. But the mare answered for herself.

"Yes, I am. I've been Vanguard's playmate and antagonist on many occasions." The two had been the same age, and as Chiffon was an only foal in her family, she had found siblings of a sort in the three cousins who lived close by.

"It's a pleasure to meet you after all the stories I've heard," Sugarberry offered.

"The stories you haven't heard are the ones you'd be most interested in," the mare countered.

Turning to Vanguard, Sugarberry feigned agitation. "You've hidden things from me?"

"Only that Chiffon can be insufferable at times," he blithely admitted.

"Like all mares?" queried Icon.

Chiffon responded woodenly, "Like all younger cousins who don't know when to remain silent."

* * *

"Chiffon's mother is Mom's sister," Vanguard explained the family tree for Sugarberry the next day after a busy morning and afternoon of social calls to aunts and uncles and cousins who still lived in Woodlawn. "Our other cousins come from Dad's side; Uncle Eddy has five children, Uncle Current has three, and Aunt Swirl has three. Of those, you met Gallop, Stormy, and Charter." He noticed with amusement the blank look on Sugarberry's face. "Any questions?"

"I'll remember Chiffon, at least," she replied weakly, evoking a chuckle out of Whirlpool who was reading the paper while Floral Breeze and Sugarberry were preparing supper even though Vanguard and Sugarberry would actually be dining out later.

"Remember that the guest list is set up in family units," Floral Breeze reminded her. "That way at least you can keep their names in order."

A rap at the back door followed by the entrance of Icon brought a chance to lay aside the intricacies of the family relationships cluttering up Sugarberry's mind. The young stallion was grinning broadly and held up a tape. "I've got a copy of last night's event at Hood's Place for you, Sugarberry."

"Thanks, Icon. I can't wait to show it to the ponies back home."

Icon peered over Floral Breeze's shoulder at the pans on the stove and helped himself to a taste of the simmering mixture. "Can I stay for supper, Mom?"

"Sure you can. Vanguard and Sugarberry are going out with Chiffon tonight."

"Then maybe I should wait and tag along with them."

"I don't think so. They have a lot to talk about between themselves."

But Vanguard interrupted. "It wouldn't hurt for Icon to join us; we'll be discussing the wedding; he should be up on some of this stuff himself."

Icon shuddered. "Wedding talk scares me; I think I'll pass."

"You aren't going to back out from being in the wedding party, are you?" queried Sugarberry.

"Not as long as all I have to do is walk up the aisle with your sister; but beyond that, I find weddings boring with all their silly traditions and all that formality."

"Your time will come," Whirlpool prophesied wisely.

"This is one stallion who isn't going to get trapped by that romantic notion of love," retorted Icon. "But that reminds me of something cool on the video. Come on into the living room and check this out."

Icon ran the tape ahead to the point where Dreamy asked Sugarberry to speak to the crowd. "See here?" Icon asked. "Sugarberry looks lost and bewildered when Dreamy asks her to say something. 'What do I say?' she's asking herself. Then-- right here-- she makes eye contact with Van, and everything is okay; she knows exactly what to say. Now is that true love, or what?"

"It's definitely true love," Vanguard verified, "and it works both ways. Mom and Dad can corroborate that."

"It's sappy," Icon declared, "but I have to believe you're right."

* * *

Later, Vanguard and Sugarberry met Chiffon at the classiest restaurant in Woodlawn to give Sugarberry and Chiffon a chance to get better acquainted with one another and to confirm wedding plans.

"Our best stallion and matron of honor are close friends of both of us-- Tabby and Thomas," Sugarberry explained.

"Aren't they the two that got married last summer?" Chiffon asked, remembering stories told by Floral Breeze about the somewhat offbeat ceremony.

"Yes. And the best news is that they are expecting a foal about a month after our wedding," Sugarberry smiled contentedly. She already considered herself an aunt to the little one.

Chiffon noted the dreamy-eyed look and leveled a look of her own at Vanguard. "I foresee a whole house full of foals," she observed.

"And a big house, at that," Vanguard quipped.

Sugarberry disregarded the two. "Stillwater will be paired with my oldest sister, Gooseberry, and Icon with Raspberry. And the two siblings that stay with me while they are going to college, Chocolate Chip and Wishbone, will be another pair."

"So whom do I get to walk the aisle with?"


"And what is this Wigwam like?" asked Chiffon cautiously. An elementary school teacher, she had steered clear of marriage by choice; yet she had not ruled out the possibility.

Vanguard supplied the basic facts to answer her question. "He's a Native Pony who runs a casino in Dream Valley, writes books, and upon occasion works with the police force."

Chiffon cast a disdainful glance at Vanguard, then focused on Sugarberry. "What's he like?" she asked again.

"He's got a sense of humor but he's very dependable; and he's sensitive and protective... and he's cute, too!" Sugarberry's eyes twinkled.

"You've just described the perfect stallion. Why are you bothering with Vanguard?"

"Call me crazy, but there's something irresistible about your cousin," Sugarberry admitted with a wink; but then she added, "Besides, Wigwam's already found the filly he wants to marry."

"And who would that be?"

"Chocolate Chip."

Chiffon raised her eyebrows. "So why aren't the two of them matched up in the wedding party?"

"Because Chocolate Chip won't forgive Wigwam for..." Sugarberry looked to Vanguard for help.

"It's a long story, Chiffon."

"We've got nothing better to do while waiting for our orders." She settled back comfortably in her chair. By the time Vanguard and Sugarberry between them had explained the Vulcanopolis chapter of Vanguard's life and the corresponding story involving Dream Valley and its inhabitants, their dinners had been served.

As their chatter continued, Chiffon, who was facing the entrance, looked up and a ghastly look crossed her face. "We're in trouble, Vanguard," she warned discreetly.

The stallion took one look at Chiffon and followed her gaze after which he groaned and tried to melt into the background of the elaborately decorated eating place. "What's she doing here?" he hissed.

Sugarberry watched the two in a mix of wonder and misgiving. What could cause these two to react so strongly to whoever it was that had entered behind her? She was so intent studying their reactions that she didn't turn to see who it was. She was soon to find out, however.

With a swish of swirling air laden with a potent perfume which Sugarberry recognized as an expensive one she and Tabby had tried at Lemon Treat's Boutique recently, a white mare came to their table like a moth to a flame. With eyes only for the country blue stallion who had recovered his composure and risen at her approach, she met him with a very warm embrace. "Van! It's really you!" she said, her voice perfectly modulated, her face flawlessly sculpted, her pastel blue hair impeccably coifed. "This is certainly the work of fate!" She drew back to better look at him but kept her hold on him.

"It's been a long time," Vanguard said guardedly.

"I'll say," the mare cooed. "We were seniors in high school back then. Oh, the times we shared."

Vanguard looked to Chiffon for help, and the newly arrived mare, as if just noticing that there were other ponies present, glanced at the occupants of the table. "Hi, Chiffon. Nice to see you again." Her gaze rested on Sugarberry who suddenly felt very insignificant, if not a little mousy. Upon seeing her face, Sugarberry realized who this dazzling apparition was; she had seen her pictures on fashion posters at the mall-- the famous model, Mooncurl.

"Mooncurl, this is my fiancee, Sugarberry," Vanguard said by way of introduction.

"You're engaged, Van?" she frowned at him with a pouty face.

"Yes. Our wedding will be in June." He tried unsuccessfully to pull himself away from her grasp.

"You have an empty chair," Mooncurl observed. "Mind if I join you?" She signaled the waiter and sat down, sidling the chair ever so shrewdly in Vanguard's direction. "Bring me a salad so I can dine with my friends," she said regally. The waiter, obviously familiar with the identity of the flamboyant pony, bowed slightly and hurried off to fulfill her wish.

Sugarberry watched the show with a bemused look on her face, fully enjoying Vanguard's discomfort at this unexpected reunion. When she caught his eye, she succeeded in conveying unspoken impertinence which only further exasperated him.

As she waited for her salad, Mooncurl pulled Vanguard's hoof into hers. "Van, tell me what you've been up to."

"I'm teaching," Vanguard replied, "and looking forward to my wedding." The look he sent Sugarberry pleaded with her to somehow help him with this flirty pony; Sugarberry responded with a sassy smile that let him know he was on his own with this one. What could Sugarberry do to compete with a cosmopolitan celebrity like this? But Vanguard's piqued expression tore at her conscience just a little bit, and she did what she could.

"What do you do here in Woodlawn, Mooncurl?" she asked innocently.

Mooncurl's dazzling smile dissolved into a condescending look at the strawberry-beset mare who had somehow won Vanguard's affection. "I don't live here anymore; I work out of New Pony." She accepted the salad that the waiter delivered.

Chiffon joined in. "I heard that you had gotten a job in fast food; how's that going?"

Now it was Chiffon's turn to be scathed by Mooncurl's searing stare. "I haven't been in restaurant work for years, not since I got into modeling."

"So that's what you do," Vanguard offered.

"I assumed you knew that," Mooncurl said, eying them as if they were aliens from some far distant planet.

"Now that you mention it, I did hear something to that effect," Chiffon remarked. "Did you model for that spread in the agricultural magazine highlighting the county fair a couple of years ago?"

Mooncurl sniffed. "That was more than a couple of years ago, Chiffon. I was just getting started on my modeling career back then. I've been doing much more professional sets than that. As a matter of fact, in a couple of weeks I'm flying to Vulcanopolis to do an international shoot."

"Vulcanopolis?" Sugarberry asked. "Way over in Italy?"

"Yes," Mooncurl smiled. "It's for Clare's Creations, the premier fashion house over there."

Vanguard and Sugarberry stared at one another for a brief second, both somehow adverse to admitting to knowing Clare personally for fear Mooncurl would exploit that knowledge for her own benefit. Vanguard quickly changed the subject.

"What brings you back to Woodlawn?"

"I'm just home for a few days because of Mom's birthday tomorrow. She wasn't happy that I couldn't be home for Christmas, so she made me promise that I'd be with her and Dad for her birthday. Then I get home and find a note saying they had to attend some emergency business meeting so she'd see me later. What kind of homecoming is that?"

"They might have been delayed; but for all you know, they could be home by now," Vanguard reminded her in an effort to send her on her way.

"No. Mom and Dad live for that business of theirs; but, no matter, if they had been home, I wouldn't have run into you." She regained her effervescent disposition once again, abandoning her salad to concentrate on the stallion next to her, her expressive eyes that were sharply outlined with black mascara holding him in her spell. "You went on to college, I remember, and now you're a teacher-- here in Woodlawn?"

"No, not here in Woodlawn, but Chiffon teaches here," put forth the stallion to get the conversation off his life.

"Yes," said Chiffon, coming to his rescue, "I teach the third grade. It's wonderful guiding those little foals to knowledge. And Sugarberry is a receptionist at a vet clinic."

"Do you know just how many ailments a dog or a cat can be the victims of? Why we had a case last week..." Sugarberry began.

"I'm sure it is all very interesting," interrupted Mooncurl, "but I'd rather not discuss this subject at the table." She delivered another withering glance upon Sugarberry and then turned her attention back to Vanguard. "Do you remember the night we climbed the tower at the park to watch the stars rise?"

"That was a science field trip to observe a lunar eclipse," Vanguard reminded her.

"That I wouldn't remember," Mooncurl sighed. "But I do remember it was in the spring and the fragrance of the flowers was wafting through the air and the entire experience was so romantic."

"Harper pushed Bonanza off the second platform and the medics had to come to set his broken foreleg."

"Which gave us all the more time to sit by the lake and watch the reflection of the heavens on the rippling water."

"While Mr. Triton quizzed us on the constellations."

Mooncurl rolled her eyes. "You always did try to provoke me with your staid comments. I found that refreshing. It reminds me how much I've missed you." She looked at him wistfully.

Chiffon cleared her throat. "Excuse me, but Mom and Dad are expecting us for dessert at their house."

"Oh, you have to leave?" grouched Mooncurl. "There is so much left to talk about."

"We really do have to go," acceded Vanguard. "It was nice talking with you, Mooncurl." He motioned for the waiter and took care of the bill.

"We wish the best to you on your trip to Vulcanopolis," Chiffon stated as they prepared to separate.

"Thank you," Mooncurl acquiesced. "I'm sure it will be lovely."

"It was a pleasure meeting one of Vanguard's old classmates," Sugarberry offered as her parting comment. She found it rather gratifying to have some specter of the past to torment Vanguard over. She grinned at him teasingly, and he did not miss the implication.

But Mooncurl was not subdued. She hugged Vanguard once more before they parted. "We'll have to keep in touch," she murmured.

Vanguard disentangled himself from her embrace, and drew Sugarberry to his side like a shield. Luckily for him, however, another couple that Mooncurl was obviously friends of had just entered the restaurant; with one last glance at Vanguard, she turned and walked away, leaving her fragrance as a last haunting memory.

"One word out of you..." threatened Vanguard under his breath to the two mares, but both Sugarberry and Chiffon succumbed in a fit of the giggles as soon as they were out the door.

"You handled that well, Vanguard," Chiffon was finally able to say.

"So what was I supposed to do?"

"'Oh, the times we shared'," Sugarberry mocked, then giggled. "You should write a book."

"It's not funny, you know. She hounded me mercilessly when she moved here with her family just before our senior year; and I was never impressed with her sugary ways, then or now," the stallion clarified, casting a disapproving frown at his tormenters.

"You were her heart's desire from the first moment she laid eyes on you," informed Chiffon helpfully. As an aside to Sugarberry, she added, "She would always wait by the main doors after school to catch him, but Vanguard got wise to that soon enough and used me to run interference for him while he left by alternate routes. But on the afternoons that I had orchestra practice, he was on his own. I remember one time..."

"That's enough, Chiffon."

"Okay. I guess you're right. We've pestered you sufficiently for one night, although there will be other times."

"I'm just grateful that she wasn't college material, or she might have followed me to Binks." He grimaced ruefully. "And I'd heard that she had become a model, but I didn't know she had come so far."

"To think you never mentioned that you knew the famous Mooncurl," Sugarberry pondered out loud.

"I think you saw for yourself why I would not want to broadcast that fact."

Chiffon put in her two jangles worth. "She very seldom comes home. Can you believe she would pick this time to show up?"

"Like she said," Sugarberry grinned, "it must have been fate."

Vanguard looked sideways at her. "You took this incident quite well."

"Well, look at it from my position. You know everything about my past from Wigwam, Tabby, and Driftwood; it was refreshing to get a glimpse of your school days. But please tell me that you are not going to take her suggestion to 'keep in touch'."

Shaking his head to the negative, Vanguard responded emphatically, "Definitely not."

* * *

After a pleasant evening spent in the company of Chiffon and her parents, Vanguard and Sugarberry returned to the grey house on Park Street. When Vanguard gave Sugarberry a goodnight hug outside her room, he heard her mutter, "Ambrosia."

"What?" he asked, pulling back from their embrace.

"Ambrosia," she responded with a smirk. "That's the name of Mooncurl's fragrance... perfume of the gods this time rather than Mom's dessert." She ran a length of the stallion's mane across her hoof. "The scent of it still lingers on you."

Vanguard laughed. "I'll shower; I promise."

"I'll never be able to smell that stuff again without seeing the beautiful Mooncurl." She shuddered perceptibly.

"It's not something I should get you for your birthday then, I suppose?"

"No." She shook her head adamantly.

Chuckling, Vanguard kissed her lightly on the cheek. "Get to sleep, my love; you'll forget about Mooncurl by morning."

* * *

The following morning, the last of their stay in Woodlawn, was spent in the company of Floral Breeze in companionable pursuits about the house. It was a relaxing time for Floral Breeze to spend reminiscing with her son and learning more about her soon to be daughter-in-law in the solitude of the family home. The three of them enjoyed these tranquil hours before the more tumultuous coming together of all the family for a final luncheon leading to Sugarberry and Vanguard's departure from the hometown camaraderie of the last few days.

Vanguard had gone on an errand to the grocery store for his mom while Sugarberry and Floral Breeze began the noon meal when the doorbell rang. "It must be Morning Dew and Droplet," Floral Breeze guessed. "She's the only one in the family who still comes to the front door when she visits. Would you let them in, Sugarberry?" the mare asked, her hooves mired in the chores of food preparation.

"Sure thing!" responded Sugarberry as she dried her own hooves on a towel and went quickly to meet the arrivals. Upon opening the door, however, she stopped short.

"Good morning, Sugarberry," Mooncurl's voice met her unexpectedly. "I need to speak with Van." She brushed past Sugarberry into the foyer. "Could you tell him I'm here?" She peered through the several doorways that led deeper within the house.

"I'm sorry, Mooncurl, but Vanguard is not home right now."

This information did not deter the model. "You won't mind if I wait, will you?" Mooncurl asked, moving toward the parlor. Sugarberry had no alternative but to follow in the current of quivering fragrance of Ambrosia.

Floral Breeze, having reached a point where she could leave her meal preparations and anxious to see her only grandfoal, came into the room fully expecting to see Droplet and Morning Dew and was indeed surprised to find a glamorous diva adorning her sitting room instead.

Remembering her manners after a questioning glance at Sugarberry who only responded with a light shrug of her shoulders, Floral Breeze issued a friendly greeting to Mooncurl and invited everyone to sit down.

"Mooncurl's waiting to see Vanguard," enlightened Sugarberry. And to Mooncurl, "This would be your mother's birthday. Is she enjoying the day?" The hint of sarcasm in Sugarberry's voice seemingly went unnoticed.

"She and Dad both had to go in to work, but I'm to meet them for lunch. Then it's off to New Pony for me!"

"You have a fascinating career, Mooncurl," politely commented Floral Breeze. "I've seen your pictures in several fashion magazines recently."

"Yes. Things are going well right now." The mare's eyes kept roving to the front door as if wishing for Vanguard's entrance to spare her from any more trite conversation.

"Did you do ads for that perfume you're wearing?" asked Sugarberry, beginning to feel light-headed from the intensity of the fragrance in the small room.

"Why, yes, I did. It was rather an exciting shoot for Ambrosia; it was my first photography session with Ignacio."

"Ignacio?" queried Floral Breeze.

Mooncurl looked down her nose in disdain. "He's the premier stallion model; everyone idolizes Ignacio."

Hearing the sound of the opening door, all three mares turned their heads to watch Vanguard's entrance... Mooncurl with expectation, Sugarberry with amusement, and Floral Breeze with curiosity. When he came in, he was not alone. Having met his sister-in-law and niece on the way home from his shopping expedition, he had swapped his bag of groceries for the precious Droplet who now rested comfortably in his forelegs.

Morning Dew was in the middle of explaining her husband's latest plans for Vanguard and Sugarberry's dream house when they walked through the door. Vanguard, seeing whom Floral Breeze and Sugarberry were entertaining, frowned slightly and transferred his load back to her mother, at the same time retrieving the groceries and setting them on the floor. Floral Breeze introduced Mooncurl to Morning Dew and Droplet, and the proper amenities were exchanged.

"This is unexpected, Mooncurl," Vanguard stated rather brusquely. "I assumed you would spend this day with your mother." He stayed standing as if to hurry her along.

But Mooncurl patted the couch at her side. "Come sit, Van," she coaxed, her blue eyes wide in her white face, her cheeks painted pink, and her lips a glossy red.

Vanguard could not readily refuse her offer without acting discourteously in the presence of the others, so he moved across the room to sit by her side, but not without targeting Sugarberry with an unspoken message that conveyed quite accurately that any ridicule on her part would not be welcome, either now or later.

Mooncurl scooped up Vanguard's hoof in hers. "I've come to ask a favor of you, Van." Her soft eyes looked at him with a flutter. Sugarberry, Floral Breeze, and Morning Dew watched in rapt attention, and even Droplet seemed mesmerized by the dazzling white mare in the company of her uncle.

Vanguard would just have readily gotten up and stalked out of the room, but he could not escape Mooncurl's captivating charm that easily. He was also painfully aware of the all-female audience looking on. He cleared his throat tentatively. "A favor?"

"Yes. I heard from some friends of mine last night that you were in Vulcanopolis for a time."

"I was for a few months," he admitted hesitantly, wondering why this mattered to her.

"And they were sure they had heard that you were friends with Clare of Clare's Creations."

"I was introduced to her through a mutual acquaintance," hedged Vanguard.

"You know that I am going over to Vulcanopolis in a couple of weeks and will be working closely with Clare; what can you tell me about her that will help me make a good impression with her?"

Vanguard looked to Sugarberry for help on the answer. "Sugarberry met Clare, too. She would be in a better position to tell you about her."

"You've met Clare?" Mooncurl asked of Sugarberry in disbelief. "I was under the impression that she was hard to reach."

"Clare is very personable. And she's intelligent and an excellent business pony. You'll find her great to work with," shared Sugarberry.

Mooncurl accepted that information with a toss of her head and looked to the stallion at her side. "But, Van, this is a very important stepping-stone in my career; I've got to have some idea on how to make the right impression with her."

"Just be yourself, Mooncurl. Clare is a good judge of character."

Whether he was being facetious or not, Mooncurl took him at his word. "You think she will like me, then?"

"Without a doubt."

Mooncurl looked comforted for a moment, but then a worried expression crossed her face. "Would you call Clare and put in a good word for me?" she nearly begged, succeeding in looking very vulnerable.

Another look was exchanged between Sugarberry and Vanguard before Vanguard acquiesced. "I guess I could do that."

"Oh, Van! Thank you!" She threw her forelegs around the stallion and gave him a benevolent hug that seemed to last way too long from Sugarberry's point of view.

The scene on the couch was interrupted as Icon made an appearance; he had come in the back door without being heard and walked into the room with his boisterous greeting. "One of the pots on the stove was just starting to boil over, Mom, so I moved it off the burner."

"Oh, no!" gasped Floral Breeze as she jumped up. "I forgot all about lunch! Excuse me, Mooncurl, but I must run."

Morning Dew followed suit, handing Droplet into Sugarberry's care. "I'll help in the kitchen; you watch the baby," she whispered. A wink let Sugarberry know that Morning Dew expected her to stay in the room to keep an eye on things.

Icon, as soon as he had made his entrance, noticed the mare just releasing Vanguard from her clasp, and the young stallion stood stupefied-- whether from the simple fact of seeing an unexpected visitor from the past or because of her shining beauty was difficult to determine. "Mooncurl?" he finally asked.

Liking nothing better than being the center of attention, Mooncurl enjoyed the intent scrutiny from the newcomer and took it well, returning it in kind. Suddenly a light of recognition lit her expressive eyes. "I know you... Icon, Van's little brother!"

"Not so little any more and through with college already," Vanguard informed her.

"I remember a time," said Mooncurl, searching her memory, "when I paid you five jangles to arrange to have Van at the dance hall on Valentine's Day, and he never showed. And I never saw you again, either."

Icon flushed slightly, but at least he found his voice. "I'll pay you back... with interest."

A trill of lilting laughter met his proposal. "Don't worry about it, Icon. Van is coming through for me now." She took his hoof once more and smiled at him adoringly. "I'm afraid I will have to say good-bye for now. Mom and Dad promised that they would not be late."

Vanguard walked her to the door with Icon following along while Sugarberry hung back with Droplet. Mooncurl shook Icon's hoof but gave Vanguard a kiss on the cheek before she finally left the premises. Icon let out his breath. "She's turned out to be one pretty mare!" He looked at his brother quizzically. "And just how are you 'coming through' for her

Vanguard had returned to Sugarberry and lifted the foal from her forelegs. "She just wants me to give a good reference to Clare in Vulcanopolis so her modeling career will continue to blossom."

"You have that much clout?" Icon asked, impressed.

"Come to think of it," Sugarberry finally spoke up, "Clare was captivated with your brother, and Mooncurl shares that obsession. Maybe his word with Clare will make or break Mooncurl's career."

* * *

Vanguard and Sugarberry were well on their way toward home with one more stop-off in Berryville on this return trip. Both ponies were content with the time away from Dream Valley, yet they both were looking forward to seeing their friends back home once again.

"I do hope Tabby's doing okay," Sugarberry worried.

"She's going to do just fine," Vanguard asserted. "Thomas will see to that."

"And Chocolate Chip... should you talk to her about Prime's plans if he hasn't mentioned them to her himself?"

"I've been meditating over that one, too. I'm not sure how to handle it."

They had reached a spot in the path where overhanging tree branches had preserved some of the winter's ice, and Vanguard helped Sugarberry cross the slippery mass with a stabilizing foreleg. In coming closer together, Sugarberry caught the unmistakable scent of Ambrosia once more. "You've picked up Mooncurl's essence again," she stated as one aggrieved, but the sparkle in her eyes set Vanguard's conscious at rest.

Flipping his mane in her direction to further aggravate the fragrance, Vanguard grinned. "You're stuck with it for the remainder of this trip."

"Maybe it will rain."

"There's not a cloud in the sky."

"And when you call Clare, what are you going to tell her about Mooncurl?"

"What do you think I should tell her?"

Sugarberry pondered a minute. "I think the main thing is to warn her to keep Giorgio away from Mooncurl at all costs," she said with a giggle.

"Even Pacificus could be at risk," added Vanguard lightheartedly.

Suddenly growing very serious, Sugarberry stopped in the path to face him, her eyes locking on his. "But never you, Vanguard."

"Never me, my love," he responded, pulling her close for a proper kiss; and even if the smell of Ambrosia hung ever so lightly on her stallion, Sugarberry did not complain.

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