For Better or For Worse
written by Sugarberry

"A pony could get used to this kind of life," confided Sugarberry as she nestled her head against Vanguard's shoulder.

"Very quickly," agreed Vanguard as he pulled her closer and kissed her forehead. The two were acclimating to their temporary home in Vulcanopolis. They had been met at the airport by one of Giorgio, Sr.'s, aides, Stefano, and taken through the predawn darkness to the country home that Giorgio, Sr., and Enrica had turned over to them for the duration of their honeymoon.

Expecting to be shown to a small, unobtrusive dwelling, Sugarberry and Vanguard were surprised to be met by a spreading stone house that appeared stupendous in Sugarberry's estimation. A gradually inclined and curved walkway led to the front door which was lighted in warm welcome. The black iron railing that edged the walk was adrift with glossy green foliage that scented the mild air.

The ponies had no sooner reached the door when it opened to reveal a stallion who was a stranger to Sugarberry, but one that Vanguard recognized with amazement. "Donato!" he exclaimed. "This is unexpected!"

"Welcome, Mr. Vanguard." The stallion turned his bright smile on Sugarberry. "And to you, too, Mrs. Vanguard." He extended a foreleg in a sweeping gesture of welcome and took the suitcases from Stefano who bid them good day.

They were no sooner inside the house when a pink mare with lavender mane swept into their midst. "Mr. Vanguard, it is so good to see you again!" Prisca cooed. "And what a pleasure to meet your wife." She smiled warmly at Sugarberry. "Whenever I dusted your picture on Mr. Vanguard's desk, I told myself he was a very lucky stallion to have found such a beautiful mare.

Sugarberry murmured a thank you and looked to Vanguard for enlightenment. "Sugarberry, this is Prisca, the housekeeper who kept my rooms spotless; and this is her husband, Donato." Continuing, Vanguard flushed with pride, "This is my wife, Sugarberry."

The ensuing conversation revealed that Donato and Prisca were now in the employ of Giorgio, Sr. to watch over and maintain the country house, "Although I still keep up Giorgio's town house as well," Prisca was quick to add.

While Donato took their luggage to the upstairs suite, Prisca bustled them into the kitchen where she had hot coffee and fresh coffeecake ready for them. "I know you must be tired, but eat something first; then you can sleep the day away... if you want."

* * *

When Vanguard and Sugarberry made their way downstairs later that day, they found that Prisca had been busy and once more seated them at the rustic breakfast table and presented them with a tasty assortment of foodstuffs that came in an overwhelming variety and quantity. When she was sure that they were properly provided for, she left them with a final suggestion. "When you are through, you can have your coffee on the veranda; the flowers are lovely; Donato treats them like jewels."

That is where Sugarberry and Vanguard now sat surrounded by terra cotta flower pots overflowing with splendid and fragrant blossoms in reds, yellows, and blues. Tiny blue butterflies flitted their way energetically from flower to flower; out of sight, a bird serenaded the couple from a bower of hanging vines on a corner trellis.

Prisca had just refilled their coffee cups before disappearing within the house, and Sugarberry shook her head in wonder. "She and Donato treat us like royalty, and I like it."

Vanguard grinned. "Don't get used to it, my love, unless you can convince Chocolate Chip and Wishbone to change their career plans."

"I'll give it my best shot," she smiled. "Will Clare and Hydrangea live like this once they are settled down?"

"Clare already has Alda to do her cooking and cleaning," Vanguard offered. "But something tells me Pacificus wouldn't easily agree to such a pampered life."

"Why not?" Having experienced a taste of it, Sugarberry could not believe a life of luxury would be abhorrent to anyone.

"He's used to working hard for what he gets."

"Oh, look!" Sugarberry sat upright. "Did you see that bird?" A flash of teal had swooped through the floral tapestry.

"It was a common bee eater," Vanguard informed her. "They eat what their name implies which makes them very unpopular with bee farmers." He stood and offered Sugarberry his hoof. "Let's take a walk and see what other forms of wildlife we can see around here." The two set off, hoof in hoof, to explore the grounds around the country house.

* * *

"Your goldfinches don't look like ours back in Ponyland," Sugarberry later told Prisca, "but they have a beautiful song none the less."

"It sounds like you enjoyed your ramble about the place," Prisca smiled as she served refreshments to the recently returned explorers.

"I found out that mice evoke the same feeling of creepiness here as back home," Sugarberry admitted with a grimace, remembering the fleet-footed rodent that had startled her by running over her leg as she and Vanguard had rested under a chestnut tree.

"What are your plans for tomorrow?" the housekeeper asked.

Sugarberry looked at Vanguard who admitted, "Without knowing that we'd be spending our honeymoon here in Vulcanopolis, we don't really have any set itinerary."

"You should take Sugarberry to see the ruins of Pompeii," Prisca suggested. "Tomorrow would be a good day as it won't be so crowded after the weekend."

"What do you think, Sugarberry? Shall we visit the past tomorrow?"

"I've always wanted to see Pompeii, but thought I'd never get the chance," admitted Sugarberry. "Let's plan on it."

Donato came into the room with a newspaper in his hoof. "The police have their hooves full by the sound of it," he said, setting the paper on the table. "One of their prisoners escaped yesterday."

"Who was it?" asked Vanguard, drawing the paper to him to peruse the article.

"They're not releasing the name," Donato shook his head. "Must be a relative of one of the officers," he chuckled.

* * *

The trip to Pompeii was every bit as exciting as Sugarberry had imagined it would be, plus the weather was perfect. After leaving the ruins with minds filled with ancient imagery, both ponies were called back to the present abruptly when a voice reached them. "Vanguard!"

Looking at Vanguard with a smirk, Sugarberry muttered, "I had hoped that she was off on assignment somewhere across the galaxy." But she put forth her most cheerful face as the exuberant model corralled them.

"Vanguard! I heard you were vacationing in Vulcanopolis! I'm so glad we ran into each other this way!" She engulfed him in a hug.

"Nice to see you, too, Mooncurl," Vanguard said as he distanced the white mare from himself. "Sugarberry and I are here for our honeymoon."

"Hi, Mooncurl," added Sugarberry, noticing that the model was no longer wearing her signature fragrance, Ambrosia.

Mooncurl acknowledged the greeting, but swiftly returned her attention to Vanguard. "Your timing is perfect! Our shoot is finished for the day, and we were just going to get a bite to eat." A nod of her head directed the attention of the newcomers to a table of ponies seated at an outdoor café.

Vanguard had met Angela on his previous visit to Vulcanopolis, and she quickly introduced him to the two stallions at the table, Nello and Gabriel. Vanguard, in turn, presented Sugarberry to the employees of Clare's Creations, and a jostling of tables and chairs soon enabled them all to share a common repast. Mooncurl, across the table from Vanguard, could not take her eyes off him while Sugarberry, at Vanguard's side, could not take her eyes off Mooncurl. She's gotten prettier, Sugarberry thought to herself as she watched the mare's expressive eyes flirt unashamedly with Vanguard.

Vanguard, however, engaged Angela in ready conversation about the daily happenings at Clare's Creations. They learned that Nello had spent the day photographing Mooncurl in a new line of fashions with the assistance of Angela and Gabriel.

Gabriel himself told his own story of how he had once been employed under Clare only to strike off on his own with the patronage of one of Vulcanopolis' wealthy matrons only to find himself floundering in his ill-conceived venture. Clare had taken him back as a designer, and Gabriel had found his creativity enhanced once he was settled in the fold. "It's where I belong," he admitted, with a smile at Angela which led Sugarberry to believe that the watermelon pink mare was more to the stallion than merely a business associate.

The gathering offered a pleasant exchange of conversation among the ponies, and Sugarberry found herself enjoying the companionship of these new friends. Even Mooncurl's blatant familiarity with Vanguard became bearable once Sugarberry learned to let her remarks fall on deaf ears.

"Pacificus and Clare will be back to work at the end of the week," Angela, who was Pacificus' sister, said. "I got a post card from my brother, and he has found your city to be completely charming."

"Living here under the blessings of Giorgio, Sr., and Enrica has impressed Vulcanopolis' finer points on me in short order," countered Sugarberry. "Life here seems like a fairytale."

"You are being pampered, obviously," Gabriel laughed. "Our days here can be just as strenuous and frustrating as anything Dream Valley can dish out."

"Hydrangea seems to have fulfilled her dreams readily enough once she was back here."

"But only after passing through the fire."

"So you're telling me there is no special enchantment here?" Sugarberry asked.

"Sorry, Sugarberry. You're only experiencing the sheltering hoof of Giorgio, Sr." Nello summarized.

"Or she's so deeply in love that she can't see the pitfalls life puts in our paths," stated Mooncurl. Everyone stared at the model who had come up with this insight, but Mooncurl shrugged it off. "If I had won Van, I'd be seeing things through rose-colored glasses, too."

* * *

"I saw a friend of yours today," the yellow-on-yellow mare commented to her companion as she unpacked the market items from her bag, setting them on the kitchen counter in random array. She had finished her day's work as a delivery pony and was preparing to fix a late dinner.

The stallion who shared the room with her stood gazing out the window as if contemplating the mystery of life and coming up empty-hoofed. He did not say a word in response to the mare's remark.

Melina prattled on. "She was with a bunch from Clare's Creations; I recognized their model."

That piece of information caught the stallion's ear; even if he had been out of circulation for the last seven months, he knew enough of the local news that he found this tidbit something that might be to his advantage-- he had heard that Giorgio was engaged to this Clare. He began to pay attention to Melina's gossip.

"Your friend was with a stallion who was at Leonardo when I took that class last summer," Melina continued.

"This supposed friend... what did she look like?" The stallion continued his vacant staring out the window, but his mind was tuned to Melina's answer.

"A white earth pony with red hair."

The stallion sighed contemptuously. "That brings to mind several possibilities," he snarled. "Can you be more exact?"

"Strawberries," Melina replied. "She was one of those Twice-As-Fancy ponies with strawberries."

The stallion lost all interest in the scene outside the window as his memory flew back to last fall's disaster. He whirled to face Melina. "I've never met such a mare," he retorted hotly.

Melina looked at him strangely. "You had a picture of her."

The stallion stared back at Melina. Of course he had a picture, but how had Melina come to see it? Only he and Giorgio and Renzo knew about the photo. The very thought of it renewed his hatred for Giorgio, the traitor who had ended his grab for power. His memory flew back to the election which had ended in his failed attempt to gain Vulcanopolis' highest office. "Where did you see this picture?"

"On your desk last fall," she replied, noting the anger flaring in Zaverio's eyes. "I had come by your office, but you were talking on the phone rather intensely so I didn't hang around." Why was he looking at her with such animosity?

"I remember no such a time," he stated in a cold, harsh voice.

"It's no wonder," Melina replied with a giggle, trying to lighten his mood. "You were chewing someone out for something and gesturing wildly as you paced the room. You probably weren't even aware of me." Just like always, her subconscious whispered to her in agonizing clarity.

Even now, Zaverio's attention dropped from the mare before him, and he once again turned his reverie inward. Could it be possible that this Sugarberry who had figured in Giorgio's blackmail of Giorgio, Sr., was now in Vulcanopolis? Zaverio stood blankly staring out the window as the series of events involving Giorgio flashed across his mind. He was aware that Giorgio's ultimate dismissal of their carefully constructed plan to end Giorgio, Sr.'s, term as administrator of the city hinged as much on his relationship with the strawberry-patterned mare in the picture as it did with Giorgio's concern for his father and mother.

The wheels turned as Zaverio's thoughts escalated. His escape from prison had occurred, unfortunately, while Giorgio was out of town, leaving him with no one to settle the score. The more days that passed in hiding, the more likely the police-- as inept as they were-- would discover him here at Melina's apartment.

The conniving mind of Zaverio jumped ahead. If Giorgio had any feelings at all for this Sugarberry, wouldn't he come running to her aid if something happened to her? Zaverio smiled callously as he contemplated one more meeting between him and his adversary; these months in jail had honed his enmity for Giorgio who had received only a slap on the hoof for his part in the blackmail while he, Zaverio, had been forced to rot in jail. His smouldering resentment ignited afresh. He could use the mare as a pawn to put Giorgio in his place... and to get the finances he needed to start a new life somewhere far from Vulcanopolis.

When Zaverio finally looked once more at Melina, his eyes had lost the angry look and had regained a sparkle of optimism that Melina had not seen even when Zaverio had escaped his detention. "This pony..." he asked, "would you be able to find her again?"

"It's a big city, Zaverio. I have no idea where she would be."

"Then make it your business to find out." His tone was once again frigid. "I want to know where she's staying and how long she's planning to be in our lovely metropolis."

Melina's eyes grew wide. "You want me to search for this one pony among so many?"

"That's exactly what I want." His gaze sent a shudder through the mare. "And be discreet about it. Do you understand?"

"Y... yes."

"It is important that I talk to her," Zaverio allowed some softness to creep into his voice. "You have to be my eyes and my hooves for me, Melina."

"I understand."

* * *

"Alben, you've got to help me," Melina pleaded with the yellow-haired stallion before her. "I have to locate a pony and I have no idea where to start looking."

"For what purpose?"

"My... boss... needs to talk with her," Melina stuttered, avoiding making eye-contact with her brother.

"Why is Lorin looking for a mare? He's a happily married stallion, isn't he?" Lorin was the owner of the delivery service where Melina worked part-time.

"She owes him money, I think. I'm just supposed to find where she lives but not say a word to her," Melina instructed.

"Well, I'm free, so I'll help you out. But if you ask me, it's a long shot that either one of us will spot her."

"Just look for a red-haired white earth pony covered in a strawberry pattern; you can't miss her."

"Okay, then... what are we waiting for?"

Melina hugged her brother. "Thanks, Alben. You're the greatest!"

* * *

Vanguard and Sugarberry spent the day roaming Vulcanopolis. They covered the campus of Leonardo University where Sugarberry met a number of the teachers whom Vanguard had worked with and-- more impressive than that-- students who Vanguard had taught who were delighted to meet their former professor once more. "When are you coming back to teach?" more than one of the students asked.

They walked down the narrow street that contained Giorgio's town house that had been Vanguard's home while he lived in Vulcanopolis. A familiar sight met Vanguard's eyes as they approached the house... Iveta was watering the plants, both hers and Giorgio's. "Don't forget the bougainvillea," Vanguard commented from behind the mare, causing her to nearly drop her watering can in surprise.

"Vanguard!" she squealed, taking one of his hooves in her wet one. "Who'd have thought I'd see you today!" She looked on him happily as he introduced Sugarberry. "So you waited for him," she said teasingly.

By this time, Giles had heard the banter going on outside his window and came to join his wife in welcoming the visitors. "Van! Congratulations! Giorgio told us that you were tying the knot. And this is Sugarberry. It is a pleasure to meet you."

Iveta and Giles invited Sugarberry and Vanguard in for a visit, and Iveta prepared a light lunch. "I'm getting better in the cooking department," she grinned at Vanguard. "Slowly, but Giles says he doesn't get indigestion nearly as often any more."

"Everything is very good," Sugarberry commented, taking another bite of the seasoned pasta.

"I wish I could take the credit, but Giles stopped by the deli to pick up our lunch; he's been coming home at noon every day since the baby is so close to being born."

"Any day now," Giles grinned, "and we'll have that foal in our forelegs."

The story of the birth of Tabby and Thomas' foal at the wedding was then told, and Iveta remarked, "We're invited to a wedding this weekend; maybe our foal is waiting for that, Giles."

When Giles left for the office, Vanguard walked with him allowing Sugarberry some time with Iveta in preparing a casserole for the couple's supper. "Just store it in the refrigerator until an hour ahead of your eating time; then put it in a 350-degree oven," Sugarberry instructed when it was completed.

"Could you send me other recipes that I could handle as easily as this one?" Iveta asked hopefully.

"If you promise to let us know when the foal comes," bargained Sugarberry. "Who knows, you may have it while we're still in Vulcanopolis."

Once Vanguard had returned, he and Sugarberry set off again to cover more of the city. On seeing a stationery shop along a crowded thoroughfare, Sugarberry remembered that they had not yet sent any communications home; they had promised Tabby a card, and their parents would expect some word from them.

"Huckleberry would like to get something from Vulcanopolis," Vanguard decided as they looked through the available post cards on the rack. "His stamp collection could use some international stamps."

"If Huckleberry gets one, then Wineberry and Baby Gooseberry will feel left out; we'll have to send them each one."

"Let's send one to Baby Droplet, too."

"We might as well send one to Chocolate Chip and Wishbone as well."

By the time they were finished with their selections, they had a hefty stack of post cards; the remaining part of the afternoon was spent at the post office writing messages and addressing the colorful, glossy mementos.

With that taken care of, Vanguard took Sugarberry past Guido's splendid villa and then past Clare's house; as they strolled the peaceful lanes, Vanguard shared more details about his friendship with Clare than he had ever been willing to admit before. "You're saying she kissed you?" Sugarberry raised an eyebrow.

"Not a real kiss," Vanguard immediately clarified, realizing he had said too much.

"And just when is a kiss not a real kiss?" Sugarberry was not going to let him off the hook that easily.

"You know what I mean."

"Give me a for instance."

Vanguard gave her a sideways glance instead. "You are purposefully tormenting me."

"Let's look at the facts. If you kiss me, that's a real kiss. If you kiss Clare, it's not a real kiss?"

"The fact is, I never kissed Clare."

"That's right; it wasn't a real kiss."

Vanguard shook his head. "I'm beginning to understand how Bassanio felt when Portia laid into him after the court scene," he admitted with a wry grin.

"I'm sorry. It's just my jealousy again. I should be over that by now, huh?" She gave him a penitent look that only served to endear her to him.

"Come on. We're near the park where I used to drift when I was too homesick for you to do anything else."

They walked together along the carefully tended flowerbeds, past ornate fountains of dancing water, and through avenues of manicured privet hedges. At one point, the path met a brook and turned to parallel its course, taking them eventually to a cobbled street with a stone bridge arching gracefully over the stream.

"This is where I did my day-dreaming," Vanguard smiled, leaning on the stone railing. "How many times you stood here in spirit, you'll never know." The caress of her mane on his shoulder sent a shiver through his body.

"It's a lovely place," Sugarberry agreed, surveying the crystal water, the overhanging willow trees, and the ducks preening on the grassy bank. Her gaze came back to Vanguard and their eyes met.


"I love you, Vanguard."

"... I love you." He drew her to him and they exchanged a proper kiss before continuing on their way.

There was no reason for them to notice the yellow-haired stallion who remained under cover of the trees yet kept them in his vision. Their attention centered on one another; their life together was just beginning, and no cloud hung over their happiness. They were completely unaware of the danger that followed them.

* * *

"Melina!" I didn't expect to see you again tonight." Alben ushered her into his apartment. Saying nothing, Melina sat at the table.

"You always did have an uncanny knack for knowing when the pizza was ready," he smirked as he got a hot and hearty pizza out of the oven. Putting plates on the table, Alben continued to carry the conversation alone. "We know now where the strawberry pony is staying; I hope that will help Lorin get his jangles back."

"About that..." Melina finally spoke up, although hesitantly. "There are some things you need to know."

"Whoa, Melina. If Lorin thinks I'm going to go to this mare and ask for his money, he's wrong."

"The truth of the matter is, it isn't Lorin who is interested in the whereabouts of this mare; it's Zaverio." Her face blanched as she said the name.

"Zaverio?" Alben's face turned scarlet. "And what does that jerk have to do with any of this? He's behind bars where stallions of his kind belong!"

"He's not behind bars any longer," Melina whispered.

Alben stared at her as if he could not comprehend her words. "What did you say?"

Melina forced herself to speak. "Surely you've heard that someone escaped from the police."

"That skunk gave the cops the slip?" Alben nearly screamed the words.

"He came to me, Alben. I was the only one he could turn to."

Alben took a step toward his sister as if he fully intended to shake her but gained control of himself and simply glared at her. "You were well rid of him; don't you realize that you were better off without him?"

Tears slipped from Melina's tortured eyes. "I love him; you know that," she groaned.

"I thought you had seen the truth about him last fall."

"I thought I had, too; but when he showed up asking for my help, what could I do?"

"You could have called the police and ended it right there."

"You don't understand, Alben; you simply do not understand." The tears flowed more freely now.

Alben's sympathy finally went out to his sister, and he tried to comprehend her feelings. "What does Zaverio want with this mare?"

"He says that Giorgio will pay dearly to keep her safe," Melina sobbed. "He wants me to help him get her away until Giorgio hands over enough money to allow Zaverio to get away from here and start a new life."

"That's kidnaping, Melina. Don't you see that he's still playing his same old game? Only now he's getting you involved, too!"

"You don't understand!" wailed Melina once more. "Zaverio will take me with him; we'll start a new life together."

The anger returned to Alben's face. "And what kind of life would that be? He's a criminal."

"But Giorgio would be able to pull some strings to get Zaverio absolved of any wrong-doing; his dad would be only too glad to help to put this situation behind them."

"And what about Zaverio? Do you think he's changed? Look at the reality, girl! That guy doesn't know the first thing about honesty!"

"He says he loves me; he says that he will straighten his life out as long as I'm there with him."

"And you believe him?" Alben's tone of voice carried more incredulity than sincerity.

"Of course, I believe him!" Melina looked pleadingly at her brother. "Out of all the ponies in Vulcanopolis, he came to me. Doesn't that count for something?"

It only means that all his goons are incarcerated, too, Alben wanted to say; but he could not bring himself to cause more pain for his sister than she was obviously suffering under his condemnation of her actions. "What does Zaverio want you to do?" he asked her with as much compassion as he could muster.

Sniffling, Melina's face brightened. "All we have..."

"Hey! What's with this 'we' business?"

"You have to help me. Zaverio can't be seen out on the streets. The cops are looking for him everywhere."

"Which brings to mind, why haven't they been to your place yet?"

"They have," Melina admitted. "But Zaverio went through the trap door onto the roof while they were there."

"I can't believe this, Melina. Don't you see what you are getting yourself into?"

"It gets me a chance at a better life, Alben. Zaverio and I can begin a life together without any hold from the past."

Alben sighed. "So what's the plan?"

"Zaverio wants us to watch the country house where you saw this Sugarberry go and convince her to come with us when a chance provides itself; once we have her away from the stallion she's with, we're to take her to an old, abandoned shepherd's hut nearby and hold her until Giorgio responds with amnesty and money."

"That doesn't even sound simple, Melina. How are we supposed to pull it off?"

"Zaverio says Sugarberry is an author; all I have to do is go to her with a copy of one of her novels and ask for her autograph and entice her to go with me to meet another adoring fan... that's you, by the way. Once away from the house, we take her to the hut; Zaverio will take care of the rest."

"This is crazy, you know."

"It will work, Alben. Have some faith. It will work."

* * *

The new day dawned bright and beautiful; Sugarberry and Vanguard sat lazily over the breakfast Prisca had served them in the somnolent atmosphere of the garden. "Let's not do anything today but relax," suggested Sugarberry with a yawn. "I saw lots of good titles in the library."

"Sounds fine by me," agreed Vanguard. "But how about more coffee first?"

Sugarberry picked up the carafe and jiggled it. "All gone. I'll go get some more."

Vanguard stopped her. "I'll get it," he said. "You enjoy the flowers." He kissed her and set off toward the house.

Sugarberry smiled as she watched him follow the path across the garden and through the unlatched ornate wrought-iron gate to the veranda where he disappeared from her sight, then turned to the vibrant blooms that set the garden on fire with their color and intensity. The play of sunshine and shadow along with the buzzing of innumerable insects mesmerized the mare, causing her to jump when a voice broke into her solitude.

"Excuse me," the yellow stranger said, coming from the edge of the garden. "You're Sugarberry, aren't you?"

Sugarberry looked over the pretty mare before responding. "Yes. And who are you?"

"My name's Melina, and I'm a fan of yours. I've read all your books." She held up the latest novel in her hoof.

Smiling warmly, Sugarberry approached Melina. "My books are available in Vulcanopolis?"

"Why, of course. I hope you are working on a new title. I always look forward to a new release."

"As a matter of fact, my publisher expects my next manuscript to be done this fall," Sugarberry admitted. "Time is limited," she grinned, knowing full well that the wedding had seriously curtailed her writing.

"All I wanted was to get your autograph," Melina admitted. "I don't want to intrude."

Sugarberry accepted the book and pen that Melina held out to her and took care of the request. "I appreciate your interest in my work," she said, returning the autographed volume.

"My brother is working in the field just down the road," Melina gushed, stepping closer to Sugarberry. "He reads your books, too, but couldn't leave his job to see you. Could you come with me to meet him, too?"

Sugarberry looked toward the house before answering in hopes that Vanguard would soon be back when Melina uttered a shrill shriek and began hopping wildly. "Bumblebees!" she screamed amidst her frenzied actions. "They're trying to sting me!"

Realizing that the young mare must have inadvertently stepped onto a bee's nest, Sugarberry found herself wishing that one of the bee eater birds would make a timely appearance. The bees seemed to be intent on the yellow mare who could find no escape but to turn and run in the direction in which she had come using the book to fend off the bees' attack to the best of her ability.

Vanguard returned to find his wife staring off in the direction from which occasional shrieks still emitted. "What is going on?" he asked.

"It was strange," Sugarberry revealed. "A mare came to get my autograph, but the bees attacked her and she ran away."

"Does she need any help?" Vanguard asked, straining to see what was going on in the distance.

"It looks like her brother is fending off the bees," Sugarberry stated. "Her family must live around here because she said her brother was working in the field; it looks like he has everything under control now." She turned to her husband. "Did you get the coffee?"

"That, and Prisca sent out some sugared fragole, too. I told her we'd eat a late lunch and that I was taking you to an upscale restaurant tonight."

"My kind of day," Sugarberry took his hoof in hers, and Melina became a forgotten memory.

* * *

Sugarberry and Vanguard had no sooner arrived at the restaurant, Coppoli's, when Sugarberry excused herself from Vanguard's company to comb through her wind-blown hair. It was only when she was heading back to the dining room that the yellow mare suddenly appeared before her once again.

"Melina! How are you doing after your hectic adventure this morning?"

"Only two stings, fortunately." She turned to reveal several red and swollen lumps on her shoulder. "That was really scary." She shuddered uncontrollably.

"I'm glad to see that you are all right."

"My brother was very disappointed that he didn't get a chance to meet you. He's waiting for me right outside the back door over there. Could you spare a minute to say hi to him?"

"My husband is waiting for me," Sugarberry confessed. "Maybe you could bring your brother to our table."

"Oh, please, Sugarberry. He's kind of shy and would feel like he was imposing on you. It will only take a second."

As if this isn't imposing on me, Sugarberry thought to herself but, giving in to the mare's pleading, she accompanied her out the back door of the establishment where a yellow-haired stallion waited rather impatiently. "Alben, this is Sugarberry," Melina was just saying when to Melina's dismay and Sugarberry's delight, who should be coming to eat but Pacificus and Hydrangea.

"I thought you would still be in Dream Valley." The mares exchanged hugs that disavowed the fact that they had just seen each other several days earlier.

"A change of plans got us home sooner than we expected," Hydrangea admitted.

"What are you doing here all by yourself?" queried Pacificus.

"Melina was intro..." Sugarberry began, but stopped when she realized that the mare and her brother were no longer in sight. "That's strange; she shouldn't have been frightened off by you two."

"The mare and stallion that were here? They headed off around the corner as soon as we arrived," Pacificus observed. "Am I to assume that you and Vanguard are dining here this evening?"

"Yes, we are. And we'd be delighted if you two could join us."

Vanguard was surprised to see in whose company Sugarberry returned. After the preliminary greetings were over, he admitted his concern at Sugarberry's prolonged absence. "I was contemplating my alternatives on how to check the mare's room; I had no way of knowing that you were in such good company."

"You'll never believe that I ran into the same mare who came to the garden this morning," Sugarberry enlightened him. "Then along came Hydrangea and Pacificus. I hope it was nothing serious that brought you home early," she stated, suddenly concerned that Enrica might not have stood the trip well.

"No. My father got a call that he was needed back in Vulcanopolis immediately, so we all decided to come back together."

"I'm sorry to hear that. Enrica was so interested in becoming familiar with all of Dream Valley's haunts."

Hydrangea giggled. "Wait until you hear what her plans included." She glanced at Pacificus who continued the story.

"Enrica and Wigwam hit it off so well, he catered to her every whim. He had even made arrangements to get Enrica to the Native Pony caves so she could see the excavation first-hoof, but it rained on the planned day and then Giorgio, Sr., got his phone call."

"Enrica was obviously instrumental in smoothing over the problem that Wigwam and Chocolate Chip were suffering through," said Sugarberry. "I can well imagine Wigwam's gratitude."

"He also arranged for Clever Clover to give Enrica a presentation on the dig site, complete with artifacts and pictures," added Hydrangea.

"What happened here in Vulcanopolis that Giorgio, Sr., was so urgently needed?" Vanguard wondered. Both Hydrangea and Pacificus shrugged their shoulders.

"Whatever it was," Hydrangea revealed, "both my brother and my father were as dismal as the storm clouds over Ponyland when we left Dream Valley."

* * *

"Well, this is an unexpected pleasure," Sugarberry purred when Prisca showed Giorgio and Giorgio, Sr., into the breakfast nook the following morning. "We've been enjoying your kind gift immensely. The smile she cast on Giorgio, Sr., faded when she realized that both stallions were in a very somber mood.

"Something's wrong," Vanguard stated, his gaze holding Giorgio's.

Prisca bustled through with two more mugs brimming with steaming coffee; no one said a word until Giorgio and his father were seated. Giorgio, Sr. was the first to break the silence. "There's been a development here in Vulcanopolis that the two of you should be made aware of."

Vanguard instinctively put his hoof over Sugarberry's. "What's happened?"

The two dark green stallions exchanged a glance before Giorgio answered. "Zaverio, the pony who hoped to get my father's position as administrator of Vulcanopolis, escaped from prison several days ago."

"There was an article in the paper," Vanguard recalled, "but no name was given."

"Chief Matteo thought that he would have Zaverio back where he belonged before too many hours had passed, but the force has come up empty. We returned as soon as we were made aware of this unfortunate occurrence only to find that Matteo is still no nearer to ferreting out the scoundrel."

Sugarberry, not fully realizing the scope of the situation, tried to be reassuring. "Surely your police will find him soon."

"They should have found him by now," growled Giorgio, Sr. "There was no reason for them to let him escape in the first place. But that doesn't change the fact that at this minute, Zaverio is somewhere out there; and you can be sure that he is plotting something to improve his present position."

Finding all three stallions looking at her, Sugarberry suddenly felt a churning in her stomach. "What are you getting at?" she managed to say.

"Sugarberry, this Zaverio is a schemer; his one goal in life was thwarted last fall when I revealed his intent to the police; he hasn't forgotten that, you can be sure," explained Giorgio.

"You're saying that he is out for revenge?" Vanguard asked gravely, tightening his hold on Sugarberry's hoof.

"We think it is highly possible," Giorgio, Sr., verified. "Anyone in our family-- or close to our family-- is at risk. Sugarberry fits that category, and Zaverio is aware of it."

"It seems likely that he will try to strike where we are most vulnerable. Mother, Clare, and Hydrangea would all be likely choices, but with you here right now, Sugarberry, he might try to get to me through you," Giorgio added.

"What is Matteo doing about all of this?" questioned Vanguard.

"He's assigned officers to keep an eye on all involved; there are several judiciously stationed outside right now."

"It would be best, however, if you stayed here rather than wandering about Vulcanopolis," warned Giorgio, Sr.

"At least I won't have to worry about running into Melina anymore," Sugarberry giggled nervously.

"Melina?" Giorgio questioned sharply.

"I have a fan here in Vulcanopolis," Sugarberry replied. "She wanted my auto..."

Giorgio waved his hoof to silence Sugarberry. "Describe her."

"All yellow-- yellow hair and a yellow body..."

"And a canary symbol," Giorgio finished.

"Yes. You know her then?"

"I met her once." Looking at his father, he expounded. "She was Zaverio's on-again, off-again girlfriend." Everyone was silent as the implications crystallized.

"Where did you meet this mare?" Giorgio, Sr., asked, his voice strained.

"She came into the garden yesterday morning and asked for my autograph; she had a copy of one of my books, so I was happy enough to sign it for her."

"And then what?"

"She wanted me to go with her to meet her brother who was nearby."

"You didn't, of course."

"No. She stepped on a bumble bees' nest, and the bees attacked her, so she left in a hurry."

"Thank the bees for that," Giorgio considered.

"There's more," interjected Vanguard with a frown.

"She was at the same restaurant that we were having dinner at last evening," Sugarberry explained. "She again wanted me to say hello to her brother, and she took me outside where he was waiting for her."

"When we talked to Hydrangea earlier, she mentioned that she had seen you. Was that before or after Melina was there?"

"Looking back with what I know now, it was Hydrangea and Pacificus' arrival that interrupted Melina's plan a second time; she and her brother, if that is what he is, took off as soon as Hydrangea and I started talking."

"Your guardian angel was working overtime yesterday, Sugarberry," Vanguard deliberated. "It seems that you were Zaverio's target."

"And it shows how imperative it is that you stay here where you will be safe," Giorgio imparted. He stood up from the table, his father following him. "We will update Matteo on this new development immediately." The two left, leaving Sugarberry and Vanguard in a daze.

"This can't be happening," lamented Sugarberry, allowing Vanguard to take her into his embrace. She laid her head on his shoulder. "I thought this mess was all resolved last year."

"Deceit sends out its malicious roots; there is no telling what the harvest will be."

"And those roots are wrapping Giorgio's family in their snare just when things were going so well for them."

Vanguard pulled back to look his wife in the face. "Don't misplace your sympathy, Sugarberry. It was Giorgio's enmity toward his father that got him into this predicament which now has put you in danger. He deserves to suffer; you don't."

Sugarberry saw the anguish that this ordeal was causing Vanguard, but she could not think harshly of Giorgio as he did; yet she also knew not to press the point. "I'll be safe with you here to protect me," she smiled. "Let's not brood over this unfortunate affair; it is our honeymoon after all."

"That it is." He returned her smile, but it hurt her to see the anxiety that filled his eyes.

* * *

"We searched her apartment first thing," Chief Matteo defended, but he was on his hooves and giving orders to his officers before Giorgio was through speaking.

"I'm coming with you," Giorgio informed him, following him out of the office. Matteo scowled, but he kept his thoughts to himself.

They found Melina alone in her apartment, and she was only too willing to have them search it; Matteo knew that her cooperation was a bad omen for their purpose in finding Zaverio on the premises. But the search was not futile; one of the officers discovered a tuft of black hair dangling from what proved to be a hidden hatch which led to the roof of the complex. Zaverio's hair was black.

"He was here, Melina," growled Giorgio. "Whatever possessed you to help him?" But Melina remained silent; only her eyes revealed her true feelings-- they sent flashing sparks of animosity toward Giorgio and Matteo, showing that she considered them the enemy.

"We'll need to talk with you down at the station," Matteo informed her.

For a moment, Melina's resolve weakened and a wave of uncertainty passed over her, but she recovered in an instant. "I want a lawyer."

"Zaverio is your lawyer, Melina," scoffed Giorgio. "He will not go out of his way to spare you any of the trouble you've gotten yourself into."

"Zaverio would not desert me," she lashed out, then quickly withdrew into a cocoon of indifference. He will come back for me, reflected Melina. Oh, Zaverio, please don't leave me now!

* * *

"Excuse me," Prisca interrupted the couple as they sat in matching overstuffed chairs before the unlit fireplace in the library, although more private pondering was going on than actual reading. "Enrica is on the phone for you." She nodded at Sugarberry.

"Thank you, Prisca." Sugarberry moved to the extension on the library table. "Hello, Enrica."

Vanguard watched Sugarberry's expressions as he listened to the one-sided conversation and gathered that no further developments had occurred since Giorgio had been with them this morning. The rest of the relay sounded like the planning of a social event, and Vanguard shook his head over the mercurial sentiments of mares.

Hanging up the receiver, Sugarberry filled him in on the details. "Enrica thinks we will be too bored penned up on our own." She smiled at him. "Anyway, she's decided to throw a dinner party here this evening; all her family will attend-- she said there is safety in numbers." Sugarberry came to where Vanguard was sitting, threw her forelegs around his neck, and kissed him.

He set down his book and pulled her down beside him. "You seem pleased with the arrangements."

"It will be fun, and it will get all our minds off this Zaverio." She grew thoughtful. "What does he look like? Do you know?

"I saw his picture in the paper; that's all. If memory serves me correctly, he is teal with black hair. He was a hot-shot lawyer who saw a chance to make it big. Why do you ask?"

She grinned. "If I'm supposed to avoid this stallion at all costs, I should know what to look for."

"I hope and pray that you never see him, my love."

* * *

The party atmosphere was contagious, and everyone was in good humor regardless of the circumstances. Enrica reigned supreme in her country house and Giorgio, Sr., bowed to her every wish before it could be voiced. Giorgio and Clare seemed to be closer than ever now that a new difficulty had reared its ugly head; Clare would be a stalwart defender of the stallion at all costs. Pacificus and Hydrangea, coming from a different background than the others, seemed untouched by the turmoil. Sugarberry was relaxed, and even Vanguard had set aside his concern. Everyone in his or her own way handled the situation to the best of his or her ability.

Prisca had gone all out with the meal even though she had worked on such short notice. Dinner was served in the formal dining room, and Donato had been lavish with the floral bouquets set about the room. The china was antique and the linen was spotless. The food was excellent and the praises of Prisca's ability in the kitchen were long sung. Afterwards, they lingered over caffe con latte and cioccolato torte.

"We should dance," Enrica decided as the summer evening progressed. To Sugarberry's amazement, the living room furniture had been moved back out of the way to accommodate just such an enterprise; Donato had been busy these past hours. Giorgio selected the music, and the dancing informally began with lengthy breaks for light conversation.

The sun was setting low in the sky when the gathering moved onto the veranda; the cooler air was refreshing; Prisca and Donato distributed trays of vin santo and biscotti. Stories were told and memories were revisited. At one point, Enrica presented Sugarberry with a book picturing the birds of the area. "I was told your original honeymoon destination was Birdsong, so I assumed you would enjoy studying our native species."

"This is great!" grinned Sugarberry. "Vanguard can identify some of the common ones, but we've seen several that are a mystery to us."

"My mother keeps a bird list of all the ones she's ever identified since she was just a filly; you and she will have to get together, Sugarberry," suggested Pacificus.

A waxing moon rose in the night sky casting a soft glow over the stone walls of the house and the delicate blooms of the flowers that put the artificial lights to shame. As the darkness deepened, the talk became less frequent as everyone became enchanted with the peacefulness of the hour.

It was after one such quiet spell that Giorgio, Sr., finally faced reality. "The evening is getting late, Enrica. We should be getting you home."

"This is your home," Sugarberry reminded them. "Maybe you should spend the night here to avoid the journey tonight."

"That's thoughtful of you, Sugarberry," smiled Enrica, "but I will enjoy the nighttime outing. They are far too few and fleeting."

"The evening was delightful, Enrica. Thank you for coming up with the idea for it." Sugarberry imparted a hug to both Enrica and Giorgio, Sr.

With a final thought for detail, Giorgio asked, "Mother, do you have everything with you? If so, we can leave through the back gate."

So it was that the family made their farewell from the veranda. Pacificus, the first in line, tinkered with the latch on the ornate, wrought-iron gate. "How do you open this thing?"

"There's a trick to it," Giorgio said, showing Pacificus the hidden lever that needed to be engaged in conjunction with the complicated procedure of a series of dissimilar bolts being drawn before the gate would open. As soon as the ponies were through the portal, they were joined by two officers who were to escort them back to Vulcanopolis. With a final wave, Vanguard and Sugarberry were left alone.

"Wasn't this a wonderful evening?" Sugarberry cheerily asked of Vanguard.

"It was very nice," he admitted, realizing that he had indeed shaken off some of the worry he had felt earlier in the day. "Maybe we should help Prisca and Donato pick up after our dinner party."

"What a wise idea!" Sugarberry grinned, leading her husband back through the arched doorway into the kitchen. "I'll help Prisca in here; you can help Donato with the heavy stuff." She kissed him on the cheek as they parted.

"There is no need for you to help," Prisca scolded. "Donato and I are perfectly capable of handling the clean-up ourselves."

"Of course, you are," Sugarberry agreed. "But we've been too sedentary while enjoying your hospitality; it's time to work off some calories." She pitched in to help with the work, chattering with Prisca over all the events of the impromptu social. It was only after a period of time that Sugarberry was struck by a thought. "I left Enrica's bird book on the veranda table, Prisca. I'll run and get it before something happens to it."

Dashing out the door, Sugarberry crossed the smooth worn cobblestones and found the book laying where she had left it. She had just reached to pick it up when the veranda and the entire house were plunged into darkness as the electric lights failed.

Retrieving the book and straightening up, Sugarberry muttered, "Great! I can't see a thing!" A slight chill of apprehension sent a shiver across her skin. She felt in front of her, trying to remember the placement of the planters and the chairs and took a cautious step only to ram her leg into the cold, unbending frame of a heavy iron chair. "Ouch!" she griped, touching the spot to see if it was bleeding.

In the next instant, Sugarberry's heart froze in terror. From behind her, someone had grabbed her and thrust a hoof roughly over her mouth, stifling her with a muffler before she could react. Filled with terror but unable to call for help or free herself from the grasp of her attacker, she felt herself being dragged toward the open gate. She could see little in the shadowy moonlight; where was Vanguard?

A sickening realization hit her-- Vanguard thought she was in the kitchen with Prisca; he would not even know she was missing until it was too late. Zaverio, for that was who she was sure this was, gave a backwards kick to the gate as they passed it, and she heard the click of the lock as it latched, cutting her off from the protection of her husband. The sound echoed in her head like an oppressive ultimatum of her fate.

* * *

The caravan heading to Vulcanopolis had just reached the top of a small hill when Hydrangea turned to look behind her, remembering the striking view of the country house from this promontory. But to her consternation, there was no sign of the lighted dwelling, only the dark emptiness of the phantom-like landscape.

"Where are we?" Hydrangea puzzled. "I thought we could see the house from here."

"You should be able to see the myriad of lights that my husband has installed to make sure that I can see at all hours," mused Enrica, causing everyone to turn and check out the nighttime view for themselves.

"Something's wrong!" Giorgio yelled. "The lights are never supposed to be off, not all at once." He took off at a gallop back the way they had just come.

Giorgio, Sr., immediately assessed the situation. "Pacificus, stay with the mares." To the officers, he said, "Vito, you stay, too; Franco, come with me." He gave Enrica a quick hug and was off after his son with Franco flying at his side. The others stood like statues as they waited helplessly on the sidelines.

"What is going on down there?" Pacificus asked, putting a foreleg around Hydrangea as if to shield her from any harm.

No one had an answer.

* * *

Vanguard and Donato had just bumped and banged their unseeing way into the kitchen with several chairs that had been borrowed from the breakfast nook. "Sugarberry?" asked Vanguard, knowing his bride's nervous fear of the dark.

"She went out to get the bird book," Prisca's voice came from the far side of the room.

"I'll get some flashlights," Donato said worriedly, feeling his way to the storage cupboard along one wall.

Anxious for Sugarberry, Vanguard had maneuvered his way to the doorway of the veranda and heard the metallic sound as the gate closed. "Sugarberry? Where are you?" he called, his heart beginning to thump in his chest. No answer came back to him, but he caught the sound of hooves hurrying down the garden path.

Knowing that Sugarberry would never willingly walk alone at night in the enveloping darkness, Vanguard's spirit sank even lower. The thought of his wife being at the mercy of the rogue, Zaverio, set Vanguard in quick motion; with a bellow and a lunge forward, he hurtled across the veranda to rescue Sugarberry; but his impetus was cut short as he came upon the gate.

Latched securely, it was difficult enough to maneuver the complicated and stubborn pieces in broad daylight; in his present state of distress, it was a tormenting puzzle. Every nerve was on fire to get on the trail of the renegade and Sugarberry, but he was stifled by the obstacle before him. Taking a deep breath, Vanguard was finally able to control his surging passion long enough to accomplish the involved process of releasing the latch. When it cleared, he was off in the direction of the retreating pair as fast as his legs could carry him.

His eyes having adjusted to the moonlight, Vanguard was just able to make out the ghostly white of Sugarberry's body in the distance as she was forced to accompany Zaverio across the countryside. As far as Vanguard could tell, Zaverio was following the preexisting path to whatever destination he had in mind. Realizing that he could not readily overtake them, Vanguard set his gait to keep Sugarberry in view; his heart faltered whenever the albino body disappeared behind the trees or over a rise in the terrain; but by keeping to a steady course, he managed to regain sight of her.

Occasionally, his eyes strained, he would imagine a lily-white apparition hovering ahead of him only to realize that he was staring at a shimmer of moonlight which was interfering with his vision; his heart would pound savagely until he was able to focus on the true target and get himself back on track.

The route was getting hillier and rougher. Vanguard lost sight of Sugarberry more often now as outcroppings of rock hid her from view at every turn. His eyes were playing tricks on him with specters of white blinking in and out of his vista.

An upward climb lost his sight of Sugarberry once more; with a sickening feeling of despair, he found no sign of her waiting for him when he crested the hill and the path once more made a downward pitch. He strained to catch some patch of alabaster to guide him, but only the charcoal shadows and the lighter grays met his gaze. "Where is she?" his agonized spirit cried out. There was no appeasing answer to salve his tortured soul.

Admitting defeat would have killed the stallion, but he knew that in the present circumstances, he would only be chasing the unknown if he continued to fumble in the dark; making his way to the bottom of the hill he found a sheltered spot where the rocky hillside spilled over into a natural wall to form a sheltered alcove where he could wait out the night.

Common sense told him that without something tangible to lead him, he would only wander aimlessly-- and worse yet-- he might obliterate a trail left by the fugitives that would be only too easy to read by daylight. He leaned against the rough stone and continued his uninterrupted prayer for his wife.

* * *

"I'll take off the muffle long enough for you to take a drink of water if you don't make a sound," Vanguard heard in his dream. He shuddered as he recognized the voice as Zaverio's.

"Why are you doing this?" The next voice was strained, but it was unmistakably Sugarberry's.

Vanguard was instantly awake; lifting his head from where it rested against the rough texture of the jutting portion of the hillside, he sat up, rubbing his sore back and marveling that he had actually been able to fall asleep and that the morning sun was just sending its rays onto the tops of the surrounding hills.

It was only a dream. The realization of her loss was too much for the stallion, and he leaned against the side of the hill once more in a spasm of grief.

"Revenge, Sugarberry, revenge," a cold, mocking voice was heard. "Giorgio will learn what it is like to be at someone else's mercy."

Vanguard, with his ear pressed against the stone, finally comprehended that he had not dreamed of Sugarberry's voice, but had heard it as it carried to him from inside the hill. "A cave," he murmured under his breath. "Zaverio must have holed up in a cave."

Slowly getting to his hooves, the stallion began feeling his way along the stone that had sheltered him; the sun's rays had not yet penetrated to the lower levels of the hill, so he moved cautiously so as not to kick a stone which would warn Zaverio that someone was near. As he inched forward, Vanguard became aware that the natural rock gave way to hoof-set stones; this was probably a shelter that neighboring shepherds used for protection in inclement weather, a simple haven abutting the hill.

He had just reached the point where the wall made a ninety-degree turn when he became aware of lone hoof-steps. Falling back and pressing himself into the protection of the wall, he waited until the sound had passed him by; every fiber of his being wanted him to rush into the cave to free Sugarberry, but he forced himself to wait several minutes to assure that Zaverio would not be close enough to hear him.

When the hillside was again quiet, Vanguard edged around the corner and found that a low doorway existed in this section of the structure. A weather-beaten wooden door was closed but only loosely; the crumbling wood no longer met the walls as tightly as it once had. A leather strap took the place of a door handle, and Vanguard pulled it outward. The door hinges squeaked, but the door opened widely. Vanguard stepped into the structure and was lost to the darkness once more.

"Sugarberry?" he said hesitantly, unable to imagine that she could exist in such a dirty, smelly hovel. It obviously had housed sheep as well as the shepherds, and the odor was appalling. He had no time to question, however, as a clank of metal in the back of the enclosure drew his attention.

Now he could make out the white image of the one he sought. "Sugarberry!" he cried as he rushed across the straw and filth that was the floor. "Oh, Sugarberry, are you all right?" He was troubled that she had made no sound; but as he reached her, he found that Zaverio had indeed bound her mouth shut once more; he quickly tore at the knots to release her voice to him.

"Vanguard! Oh, Vanguard!" The tears surged down her cheeks as the truth of his presence sunk into her frightened mind. "Thank God, you're here!"

To Vanguard's dismay, he found that not only had Zaverio prevented her from calling out, he had also fettered her forelegs to an iron ring imbedded in the rock face of the hill. Again he struggled with the knots in the leather bindings that ensnared her and finally succeeded in releasing their hold. Her forelegs now free but numb, Sugarberry remained on the floor of the cave, her tears abating but her strength severely compromised by spending the night in this dreary abode, shackled, and with the effects of the forced march painfully racking her muscles.

Vanguard hugged her to him as his tears mingled with hers; to have her in his forelegs once more was the answer to his prayers, and he would have held her forever; but he wanted desperately to get her out of this wretched place, so he turned his efforts to massaging her forelegs to hasten the flow of blood through the numb extremities. When Sugarberry felt that she could stand, Vanguard helped her to her hooves and supported her through the first staggering steps. They were so intent on the simple process of walking that they failed to hear the telltale rolling of a stone or two down the hillside; they were completely unprepared when Zaverio rushed back into the cave.

Zaverio looked with surprise to see not a fettered mare but a free mare and a stallion standing before him. He blinked as his eyes calibrated to the dim interior and laughed ruefully as Vanguard put himself before Sugarberry.

"A noble gesture," he said, "but entirely unnecessary. Vulcanopolis' finest have followed your disorderly trail here; however, I find I have two hostages rather than one."

"If you need a hostage, I'll suffice; leave Sugarberry out of this," Vanguard stated determinedly. His words met with a bitter cry from the mare.

Smiling maliciously, Zaverio replied, "I think I'll play it safe and keep both of you near me; and the sooner we get on our way, the better."

"Sugarberry's in no condition to keep a steady pace," Vanguard reasoned. "You'll make better time without her."

Zaverio seemed to consider the suggestion, but they never learned his answer as Giorgio arrived on the scene. "Zaverio!" he called from outside the cave. "Come out here and face me."

Making a move to regain at least one hostage, Zaverio darted towards Sugarberry; but Vanguard, realizing his intent, neatly tripped him up before he could reach her. Giorgio rushed into the cave and stared at the accumulation of ponies. "Van, you found her! Sugarberry, are you okay?"

A nod of her head was all that Sugarberry could manage as she clung to Vanguard, hoping that this, then, would end the nightmare of events.

Zaverio had attempted to rise, but Giorgio swiftly turned his attention to the renegade. "Just stay put, Zaverio. There are more than enough officers right behind me to take care of you." The clatter of hoofsteps on the hard ground outside the cave verified this fact.

As the officers came in to take over Zaverio's securement, Vanguard led Sugarberry outside and found a spot where she could sit down with as little discomfort as possible. Seeing her in the now revealing light of morning, his remorse over the incident knew no bounds. Her nose was chafed and reddened from the coarse muzzle that Zaverio had used on her; she had a bloody gash on her shoulder-- from some protruding tree branch, he theorized-- and her legs and sides were a maze of scratches and scrapes. "Sugarberry, I'm so sorry that I wasn't there to protect you." He gently caressed her tear-stained face. "Can you ever forgive me for letting you down?"

The smile that lit her tormented face was answer enough, but she found the words to let him know that she did not blame him for what had happened. "You have never let me down; you rescued me, didn't you?" She kissed the hoof that lingered on her face. "You are my prince."

One of the officers, Vito, came to the couple. He lowered a first-aid kit to the ground. "It looks like you could use something on those abrasions." He set to work on the meanest looking slash first.

For the first time since the ordeal began, Sugarberry looked down at her wounded body. Not only did she see the injuries, she also saw how soiled the night in the manger had made her. She grimaced and closed her eyes. "I want a bath."

Vito chuckled and Vanguard smiled, too. "If you can be concerned about how you look, then I needn't worry about you too much."

"Oh, yes, you do," she replied. "Every muscle in my body hurts, so you are going to have to pamper me outrageously for the rest of our stay in Vulcanopolis."

"My pleasure," he pledged, kissing her under the watchful eye of Vito.

"Anything I can do here?" came Giorgio's voice as he approached them. He had a ready smile for Sugarberry, but Vanguard cut it short.

Standing to meet the stallion, Vanguard vented the worry and strain of the previous hours. "You have done quite enough already," he said, his voice heavy with disgust.

"I just want to make sure that Sugarberry is all right."

"Thanks to you, she is not all right," Vanguard lashed out. "All the hardships you caused us last year are nothing to what has happened here with this abduction. Your selfish intent has spilled over to cause this fiasco; you have no right now to try to play the nice guy." He turned his back on Giorgio, signaling that there was to be no more discussion.

Sugarberry, suddenly feeling the full impact of the situation, could not bring herself to contradict her husband; but she could not blame Giorgio as Vanguard did. She tried to catch Giorgio's eye before he turned to leave, but Vanguard's flaring anger had hit home; the stallion turned without a glance in her direction and followed the officers who were escorting Zaverio back to Vulcanopolis.

Vito still remained to help usher Sugarberry back home; she was in no shape to make a quick trip of it, but she bravely did her best to hold up with no complaints as Vanguard guided her every step. Little was said on the journey back as the ponies contemplated the events of the kidnaping from their own frame of reference. There would be plenty of time to fill in the missing spaces in the days ahead.

* * *

"Feeling any better?" Vanguard asked when Sugarberry had been treated to one of Prisca's soaking herb baths and the doctor had checked her over, medicating the worst abrasions and declaring her only in need of several days of rest.

"As long as I don't stop to think." Her voice cracked as she finished the sentence and tears welled-up in her eyes. "It was so utterly horrifying."

Vanguard hugged her to him. "I wish I could have spared you that."

"How did you find me?" Sugarberry asked as she brushed away her tears.

Vanguard explained the chain of events as they had occurred once the lights had gone out and she had been found missing. He himself had not known until returning to the house this morning that the two police officers on duty had been overcome by Zaverio and were in no condition to defend the pony they were set to guard. It was with wonder that he told how he had lost sight of her and had been forced to give up the search, only to awaken to the sound of her voice and find that they had been so close, but separated by the sturdy rock. "I prayed harder than I've ever prayed before," he admitted.

"I was so scared; I heard you call my name after Zaverio was forcing me away, but I couldn't respond. I didn't know you were following me. I knew how awful I felt, and knew you felt the same way. I prayed constantly." Tears again coursed down her face.

Both were silent for a moment before Sugarberry spoke again. "What will become of Zaverio?"

"For the time being, he is back where he belongs."

"That gives us no guarantee," Sugarberry mused sullenly.

Vanguard had no comforting response to ease her brooding thoughts.

* * *

Vanguard sat with Sugarberry until she fell asleep; and even then, he did not go far. He paced the room trying to think of a way to put an end to this worry that would now haunt them as long as Zaverio continued to harbor his strong dislike against Giorgio and all those who were close to him. He was getting nowhere when a soft rap sounded on the bedroom door.

"Miss Clare is waiting downstairs in the library; she would like to speak with you."

Vanguard glanced back at his sleeping wife. "I don't want to leave Sugarberry alone in case she wakes up frightened or confused."

"I'll sit with her," Prisca smiled. She took her place at the edge of the bed and looked down on the sleeping pony in a motherly manner. "The poor dear has suffered enough; she deserves to get a good rest," she whispered. "You run along now."

As Vanguard made his way downstairs to the library, he wondered what had brought Clare back to the country house so soon. She, along with Enrica, Hydrangea, Pacificus, and Giorgio, Sr., had spent a restless night at the house waiting for word while Giorgio and the officers were searching nearby homes and outbuildings for the missing mare. At the first glimmer of daylight, they had followed the trail that Zaverio and Sugarberry and then Vanguard had set out on, pursuing it to its end.

Clare, Hydrangea, Pacificus, and Enrica had returned to Vulcanopolis once they had seen with their own eyes that Sugarberry was going to be okay and allowing her some needed rest. Why, wondered Vanguard, had Clare returned? He found the mare pacing the library much as he had been pacing upstairs. "Hello, Clare."

She got straight to the point. "I saw Giorgio after he and his father had Zaverio back behind bars, and he was as depressed as I've ever seen him; I would have thought that he would be happy to have Sugarberry safe and sound, but he seems to have incurred a guilt complex toward the abduction that he didn't have before."

"Would you care to sit down, Clare?" Vanguard side-stepped her inference.

"I asked him when he would be coming to see Sugarberry, and he said that he didn't think he would be welcome after what had happened. Something tells me that idea did not come from Sugarberry."

"This latest scenario stemmed from his actions last fall, Clare. There's no denying that."

"How dare you hold this against him when he has done everything in his power to set the record straight? He was nearly out of his mind waiting for the morning light that would allow him to track down Sugarberry; he agonized over her nearly as much as you." Her eyes shot fire in a manner that Vanguard had seen before when she was very angry, but he had never seen it directed at himself.

"Look, I was short with him after the infuriating experience of losing my wife to some maniac who treated her none too gently. I'm sorry if my words hurt him, but I still stand by them. What Zaverio and Giorgio set in motion back in November is still wreaking havoc on innocent ponies."

"Zaverio was at fault this time, Van. Giorgio could not have changed what happened. And I love him too much to let him carry the guilt for this." She turned to leave, but Vanguard stopped her.

"Clare, your friendship-- and Giorgio's-- mean a lot to both Sugarberry and me. Don't be angry with us-- with me." Clare only gave him a withering glance before heading for the door and closing it with a resounding bang.

I'm in trouble with Clare, and I have no idea what Sugarberry will say when she finds out, Vanguard worried as he returned to the bedroom where Prisca was still watching over Sugarberry.

"Is Miss Clare gone?" queried Prisca softly.

"Yes. She let herself out." Vanguard knew that Prisca would have heard the slamming door.

"She has a temper, that one," Prisca smiled. "She'll be fine once she's had a chance to cool down." She slipped out of the room, and Vanguard renewed his vigil at Sugarberry's side. He watched her sleeping face and once again reflected on how to prevent any further pain in the future.

* * *

When Sugarberry awoke some time later, she found her husband watching her, a worried expression on his face. "Why the frown?" she puzzled.

"I've been trying to come up with a foolproof way to protect you from all harm."

"Were you successful?"

"No," he sighed. "No matter where we would go or what we would do to put up a barrier of defense, there is no guarantee."

"Then we will just have to take what life dishes out to us, for better or for worse."

Vanguard was silent a moment and when he spoke, his voice was uncertain. "Clare was here to chastise me for putting the blame for what happened on Giorgio." He watch Sugarberry closely to see if she, too, would be disappointed in his actions.

"You were harsh with Giorgio this morning when he wasn't expecting it. Now that we've all had a chance to vent our feelings and can look back without so much emotional trauma, we can move on as before."

"Clare thinks that I've cut Giorgio off and, therefore, have spurned her friendship, too."

"She'll calm down."

"That's what Prisca said."

"So it must be true."

* * *

"Would you like dinner in your room tonight?" Prisca asked as she checked in on Sugarberry.

"Oh, no, Prisca. I'm anxious to get out of this room and walk around a bit. But could you serve us in the breakfast nook?" She did not say it out loud, but she found herself wanting to be in close quarters where she could feel secure.

"That will be fine," Prisca smiled.

"And I want to come down right now," Sugarberry added, sitting up and stretching her legs. Vanguard helped her up and she grimaced as her muscles rebelled at the motion.

"The doctor said you'd be stiff, but that will pass," advised Prisca as she hovered nearby in case she was needed to help. Sugarberry, however, once up and about, bid her to go on about her meal preparations and not to fret. Vanguard kept a steading hoof on her all the same.

Prisca had just reached the bottom step when the doorbell rang, and she opened the door to Giorgio. "How's..." he began to ask, but looked up to see Sugarberry herself coming down the stairs. "Sugarberry! You look... stiff and sore."

"Thanks for your honesty," smirked Sugarberry, allowing him to embrace her as she reached the main floor. "Give me a couple of days and I'll be as good as new."

"Can you forgive me for getting you into this mess?" Giorgio's glance encompassed Vanguard, but he looked to Sugarberry for the answer.

"Yes, I can; and I do. But it was a horrifying experience that I do not want repeated."

"Believe me, Sugarberry, if I could go back in time and change my actions, I would. What I did has caused nothing but trouble for everyone I love." He looked at Vanguard uncertainly. "I realize that what you said is true, Van. I was as much to blame as Zaverio, but I got off easy while he had to sit alone and forsaken. I'm going to do all I can to get him on the right track so that he can get back to his life; and, hopefully, he will avoid the same mistakes next time."

"Do you honestly think he will change?" asked Vanguard doubtfully.

"I did, didn't I? So why can't he? All it takes is the right friends to stand by you." He grinned at Sugarberry. "Right?"

Prisca appeared at that moment. "I've set a place for you at the table," she informed Giorgio, "and everything is ready."

"That sounds good, Prisca, but I haven't talked with Clare since before lunch; I'd better check in with her if I expect to stay in her good graces."

"Clare paid me a visit earlier," Vanguard admitted. "She was miffed, to say the least."

"This sounds interesting," Giorgio laughed. "Prisca! I've changed my mind; I'm having dinner with these two after all."

* * *

The remaining days of the honeymoon passed quietly and without incident. Enrica insisted on throwing a party for them at the villa in Vulcanopolis, and the evening was spent in the company of all the ponies that had been friends of Vanguard while he taught at Leonardo University and those connected to the engaged couples of Clare and Giorgio and Hydrangea and Pacificus. Iveta and Giles were there, and Iveta was brooding over the delayed arrival of their foal.

Clare had forgotten her outburst against Vanguard, and Vanguard asked her a trivial question that all the talk of weddings had brought to mind. "You showed me the wedding veil you had designed for an anticipated marriage between you and Guido; are you going to wear it this fall when you wed Giorgio?"

"The truth of the matter is," smiled Clare conspiratorially, "that Guido brought his Tiffany into my office one day and asked that I design a veil for his bride." She paused for a moment, recalling the emotions that had been evoked during that visit. "After they had left, I went to the storeroom and got out the box that contained the veil. It is still the most beautiful thing I've ever designed."

"It is a fabulous veil," agreed Vanguard, remembering the ethereal and exquisite creation of white.

"As I stared at it," Clare continued, "I realized that as I had designed that veil with marriage to Guido in mind, why shouldn't his bride be the one to wear it? So while I reassure Tiffany every time I see her that I am working very hard on her precious veil, the truth of the matter is that it is already finished and only waiting for the day of the wedding."

Vanguard knew how much that veil had symbolized for Clare and was grateful that her heart was now filled with love for Giorgio so that she could see her way clear to let go of the past, even down to this material reminder of her once consuming passion for her childhood sweetheart. "So what kind of veil are you going to design for yourself?"

"For Hydrangea, I will design an diaphanous piece of lace and pearls. For myself, however, I am simply going to wear flowers in my hair."

Remembering how stunning she had looked when he had picked her up for Guido and Tiffany's engagement party in what seemed now like another lifetime, Vanguard smiled. That night, her yellow hair had been a tapestry of braids and flowers and sparkling filaments of color that had rivaled the princess. "You will be enchanting."

Catching the look of approval in his eyes, Clare relapsed into her provoking style of days gone by. "Any regrets, Van?" she asked.

"None whatsoever, Clare, and you know it." His eyes sought out Sugarberry where she talked with Pacificus' mother, and he knew that he could never love anyone more than he loved this mare who was now his wife. As he watched her, she felt his gaze and turned her head to smile at him, a smile that warmed his heart and soul. "You'll like marriage," he said to Clare as Giorgio came to join them.

By the time Sugarberry and Vanguard made their way back to the country house that had become home to them, the hour was late; the time for their departure called for an early rising in the morning. They had no sooner closed their eyes, it seemed, when it was time to get up and pack for their return to Ponyland.

Prisca had prepared them a special breakfast, and Donato had picked a bouquet of Sugarberry's favorite flowers that decorated the table with its color and fragrance. Sugarberry asked that they both join them at the breakfast table for this final meal, and she and Vanguard presented them with a gift for their attentive care.

The suitcases had just been picked up by Stefan to deliver to the airport, and the two couples were saying their final farewell when the phone rang and Prisca gave the receiver to Vanguard.

"Van!" the voice on the other end greeted. "You'll have to come by the hospital on your way to the airport to see my brand new son!"

"Giles? The foal was born since the party ended?"

"We had no sooner gotten home when Iveta realized that the pains she had been feeling all evening were more than indigestion. Could you take a minute to stop at the hospital and admire little Jacopo?"

One glance at Sugarberry was all the answer needed. "We'll be there as soon as we can."

So their honeymoon ended on the note it had begun-- with a visit to see a newly born foal in the proud and happy embrace of its parents. "This should bode well for us," Vanguard commented to his wife as they left the hospital for the airport.

Sugarberry smiled back at him. "My thoughts exactly!"

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