Crossing the Rubicon
written by Sugarberry

The orange stallion had second thoughts about visiting Native Dreams on this, the grand opening day for the shop that was now affiliated with his casino by proximity and financial support, when he stood in the doorway and realized just how much interest had been generated in the store through the vigorous advertising campaign he had sponsored. With barely room to walk, the stallion found it difficult to even move deeper into the shop, the displays a virtual cornucopia of items crafted by Native Ponies.

Before Wigwam could quietly turn around and slip away to await a more propitious time to extend his personal congratulations to the shop’s proprietor, Dreamcatcher, and her sister and manager, Bittersweet, the latter mare caught sight of him and squealed over the chatter of the customers, “Wigwam! Welcome to Native Dreams!”

With all heads in the shop swiveling to observe him, Wigwam would have gratefully dropped through the floor in that instant; but, in deference to Bittersweet, he smiled warmly and waited while the mocha unicorn made her way to him. Dodging the last several customers that stood between the two of them, Bittersweet finally found herself in front of the stallion; and, with a broad grin, she hugged him exuberantly.

“Wigwam, how can we ever thank you enough?”

“Keep up your rent payments on time,” drawled Wigwam.

Bittersweet ignored the comment. “You’ve made our dream a reality; and the flowers you sent are gorgeous,” she beamed.

“May I add my thanks to those of my sister?” queried Dreamcatcher, who had also taken advantage of Wigwam’s arrival to convey her appreciation to the stallion who had supported her desire to expand her business from a mall kiosk to a full-blown store, even though it had been Bittersweet’s constant harping that had swung the stallion over to the idea.

Looking to the pale orange unicorn, Wigwam smiled. He and Dreamcatcher had not always been on the best of terms, but any differences had been put behind them in this effort to orchestrate a congenial business environment for the diffusion of all things Native Pony. Wigwam was pleased that their animosity had been overcome.

“Dreamcatcher, I wish you great success... and not only because of the investment I’ve put into this place. Native Ponies couldn’t have better representatives than you and Bittersweet to put their skills and achievements before the rest of Ponyland.”

“Thank you, Wigwam; we’ll do out best to live up to those noble expectations,” Dreamcatcher smiled, “... which means that at least one of us better meet our customers’ demands.” She sent a speaking glance at her sister before turning to help Princess Dawn with a purchase.

“Are you looking for anything special?” Bittersweet asked of Wigwam, incorporating her most efficient manner to make it appear that her time was being well spent on business affairs.

“Nice try, Bittersweet, but I think I’ll wait and do my shopping when the circus-like atmosphere has died down a bit.” The stallion tweaked her ear. “Go help a serious customer.”

* * *

It was evening before Sugarberry arrived at Native Dreams to check out the new store. To allow Dreamcatcher to put all her energy into the grand opening, Sugarberry had taken the seventeen-month old Tamarack under her care for the day and was only now returning him to his parents’ custody. Accompanying her and Tamarack were Vanguard and Banderol, of course; but they had stopped at Tabby’s mansion to include her and Thomas and Faline as well, making the outing a good opportunity for Sugarberry and Tabby to get caught up on local gossip and family happenings. The mares were busily doing just that as Faline and Tamarack pranced from them to the stallions behind, Vanguard carrying the already dozing Banderol.

“I hear you gained a new employee from your trip to New Pony,” Vanguard said, glancing at Thomas.

“Don’t ask me how that happened,” grinned Thomas, “but Tabby took a liking to Marina, and Marina was in need of a new direction in her career. Before I knew what was happening, she was hired on at the clinic.”

“Tabby told Sugarberry that she thoroughly enjoyed meeting some of the ponies who helped you out in your own career.”

“Steuben and Spindrift were a big help to me when I was in vet school; we’d been out of touch for years, but it didn’t take long to get back on congenial terms. I’m sure you must have had some close associations when you were in school as well.”

“Some were not worth continuing,” stated Vanguard, “although it was Decagon, my math teacher, whose influence propelled me into my teaching experience in Vulcanopolis.”

As the group was nearing Native Dreams, the conversation shifted to general impressions of the exterior of the store which was now brightly lighted to greet any ponies who had not yet experienced the Native Pony artistry now available at this exclusive establishment. The design of the building mimicked the construction of the casino itself, having the stylized shape of a tipi; large torch-like luminaries directed visitors to the front entrance which was still admitting curious ponies.

Once inside Native Dreams, Tamarack propelled himself straight for his mother, hugging her right foreleg as if he had been out of her company for ages. Dreamcatcher, helping one of the late customers, gave her son a quick hug and kiss before sending him to join his father who was hanging out near the refreshment table that had tempted many a pony in the course of the day. After commenting appropriately on the apparent success of the grand opening, Vanguard, Banderol, and Thomas joined Fetish and Tamarack, leaving Sugarberry, Tabby, and Faline to peruse the wide variety of items on display and share highlights of the day with the nearly exhausted- but proud- entrepreneurs.

Tabby and Sugarberry were once again joined by their spouses when they had made their selections, becoming the last customers of the day as closing time had already passed and Dreamcatcher was now rounding up the final sales. Bittersweet continued to chatter constantly about the highlights of this important opening.

“... and you could have knocked me over with a feather when Queen Serena herself came through the doorway; she seemed very impressed by everything we had to offer and made a substantial purchase. Everyone who was here at the time was quick to follow her lead. And the stallion who has been hired as director of the new art center came in and simply praised the paintings by Rozene; he had us set back this one...” She reached behind the counter to reveal a vibrant landscape. “...that he’ll pick up Wednesday. He’ll be in his apartment by then.”

“Who is this guy?” asked Tabby. She had, after all, promised Marina there would be plenty of eligible stallions in Dream Valley. She might as well start finding them so Marina would have a good selection- and also so she would stop enthusing over Thomas quite so much!

“He had his own art gallery in Golden City, but he was looking for a change and liked what he saw of Dream Valley. His name’s Rubicon, and he’s quite handsome.” Bittersweet winked at Tabby and Sugarberry. “He has the most ravishing blue-green eyes and he’s very attentive.”

“And has Teepee met this paragon?” asked an amused Sugarberry.

“Actually, no,” said Bittersweet with a grin. “But he has nothing to fear; Rubicon is too smooth, if you know what I mean.”

Amidst the comments that followed Bittersweet’s assessment of the new stallion in town, no one heard Vanguard’s softly-stated but indignant utterance. “Too smooth by half.”

* * *

Having parted with Tabby, Thomas, and Faline on the walk to their respective homes, Sugarberry noted her husband’s singular silence with misgivings. What had happened at Native Dreams to throw him into this pensive mood that seemed to shut her out? Her conversation once they were alone had either been ignored or met with unintelligible grunts. Of course, maybe he was quiet for Banderol’s sake, the little colt having had a hard day trying to keep up with the older and exuberant Tamarack. Sugarberry touched the stallion’s foreleg gently, an anxious look on her face. “Is something bothering you?”

Jolted from his reverie by the troubled tone in his wife’s voice, Vanguard turned his full attention to her and observed in some dismay that she was truly concerned about him. He flashed her a reassuring smile before launching into his explanation for his doldrums.

“It was the mention of this Rubicon; it set me to thinking about a past incident I had with a stallion by that name.”

“I’ve never known a Rubicon,” Sugarberry admitted. “Where did you meet yours?”

“We roomed together in college- Rubicon, Discus, and I. Rubicon and I became very good friends.”

“Could your Rubicon and the art director be one and the same?”

“He’s not my Rubicon, Sugarberry,” sharply retorted Vanguard. Immediately regretting the biteof his response, he apologized. “I’m sorry. I have no reason to be short with you; it’s Rubicon who has me irked.”

“So you do think the art director is the same stallion you knew in college?”

“He was a business major with an art minor, and I heard more than a few fillies comment on his eyes and his manner. And as you pointed out, there aren’t that many stallions with the name Rubicon.”

“If he was a friend, why are you... annoyed with him?”

“Well,” Vanguard sighed and shifted the sleeping Banderol to a more comfortable position, “Rubicon was always short of funds, so I often loaned him jangles to see him through. By the time graduation rolled around, he’d borrowed a substantial amount, plus I had made good on his last portion of the rent payment. Rubicon said he’d have the money on graduation day as his favorite aunt had promised him a monetary gift.”

“But he didn’t pay you back?”

“No, he didn’t.”

“Maybe there were extenuating circumstances.”

“All I know is that Mom and Dad came for the graduation ceremony and had taken me out for lunch. Discus had opted not to go through the formal ceremony, so he had already left town several days earlier; Rubicon had told me that morning that he’d settle his account later as we were both going to be at the apartment yet that night, checking-out the following morning.

“My parents and I ran into Decagon, the head of the Mathematics Department, at the restaurant; and he and his family got along well with Mom and Dad, so we were all invited to Decagon and Paisley Pinafore’s house for a post-graduation get-together. It was evening when I got back to the apartment and discovered that Rubicon had packed-up his belongings and left. As he and I had shared over two years of college life, I was disappointed that he left without so much as a goodbye. Needless to say, I never saw my jangles again, either.”

“Did you ever try to get in touch with him?”

“He had always said that the jangles from his aunt would finance a tour of art museums; a call to his parents confirmed that he had done just that, but they were unsure as to his exact itinerary. I went directly into my masters work, writing off my loss to stupidity and experience.”

“This Rubicon must have been a decent sort of fellow to have earned your friendship.”

“At least we were both serious in our studies, unlike Discus who only put in his time. But Rubicon was a very gregarious sort of guy who was always the center of attention- the fillies flocked to him- so he had to be brought back to earth from time-to-time. Then he was capable of deep thinking. He used to say that I kept him tethered to reality so that he didn’t completely lose track of his reason for being in college.”

“I’ll bet you missed his company.”

“I was busy enough; but, yeah, life was a lot quieter.”

Both ponies fell into silence as they thought over events of the past that now returned to affect the present. Sugarberry was the first to speak.

“You’re bound to meet Rubicon here in Dream Valley at some point, and there’s no benefit in harboring old grudges. And besides,” she grinned, her voice teasing, “you needn’t loan him any more jangles.”

“That’s a given,” Vanguard grinned in return.

* * *

Looking forward to his luncheon date with Sugarberry, Vanguard found himself at the food court at the mall earlier than expected. Ordering himself a cup of coffee, he claimed a table with a good view of the mall corridors and settled in to wait for his wife.

His mind busily assessing the problems of one of his students who was having a difficult time adjusting to college life at Pony Pride, Vanguard was taken completely by surprise when a male voice interrupted those thoughts.

“Van! Who’d have thought I’d run into you here?”

Vanguard looked up to see a lime green stallion smiling broadly at him. “Rubicon. I’d heard you’d taken the position at the new art center.” He leaned back in his chair, determined not to show any emotion- good or bad- toward the stallion.

Rubicon seemed not to notice the rather cool reception. He drew up a chair across from Vanguard and sat down. “Yes. I was hoping to come into town without my reputation preceding me, however.” He leaned forward confidingly. “Promise me that you won’t reveal my darkest secrets.” He grinned. “Life has been good since college... two years in New Pony taught me more than twenty years studying out of books could have. Opened up my own gallery in Golden City, then sold out to my trusted assistant so I could get back to the heartland of Ponyland. And here I am in Dream Valley. What’s your story?”

Rubicon’s rambling dissertation took the edge off Vanguard’s smouldering indignation over seeing his old friend again, and he was able to smile, albeit stiffly. “I’m teaching at Pony Pride.”

“Ahh. So that explains your presence here. Small world. I know I said in my farewell note that I’d keep in touch, but New Pony just had too many... diversions.” He grinned. “We have a lot of catching up to do.”

Puzzled by this reference to farewell correspondence, Vanguard asked, “What note?”

“The one with the pile of jangles I left for you,” Rubicon replied. “Looking back, I wonder how I could have spent so many jangles on a mare that I’ve never once seen since graduation day.” He chuckled. “It seemed worth it at the time. Do you know where Goldstar ended up?”

Ignoring that last question, Van stated flatly, “There was no note and no jangles.”

“Yeah. Sure. That many jangles would have been impossible to miss.”

“There were no jangles.”

“Sure there were... in an envelope on your backpack. I knew you wouldn’t leave without that thing. The note and the jangles, plus interest, nearly eclipsed your threadbare tote.” He looked smug. “I’m sure you were surprised to find that I really did keep track of every transaction made between us.”

If you left the jangles for me, I never found them.”

“You couldn’t have missed them, Van.” Rubicon reiterated, leaning forward over the table, Vanguard’s words finally beginning to take on some meaning. “I left full payment for my loans.”

“Why didn’t you give it to me directly?”

“Because I didn’t have it to give until my aunt gave me her gift; you weren’t anywhere to be found by then, so I left it with your things.”

“You weren’t supposed to leave until the next day, like me.”

“That was the plan, but my dad had to hurry home because of some business crises, so I packed up quick so my family could help get my stuff moved out. Dad was impatient to get on the road; I couldn’t wait around for you any longer.”

“Did you lock up when you left?”

“Yes; it was the last thing I did before giving Ralph my key.”

“It was late when I left Mom and Dad at the motel; when I got to the apartment, there was nothing of yours to be seen... no note... no jangles.”

“So what happened to them?”

“I always assumed... that you hadn’t seen fit to pay me back.”

Rubicon straightened and pushed back his chair, his honor slighted. “You thought I’d reneged on my debt to you?”

“What else was I to think? From my point of view, it looked like you’d cleared out in a hurry; at the time it made sense that you left early for the express purpose of avoiding payment.”

“I thought we were better friends than that.” Rubicon’s gaze held Vanguard’s, but Vanguard did not flinch.

“I thought the same thing.”

The two stallions stared at one another, both assessing the facts, before Rubicon finally said, “Okay. So what happened to the blunt?”

Van shrugged, still slightly suspicious. “Maybe Ralph came snooping around.”

“Ralph?” Rubicon snorted. “All he wanted was to get back to his bed; he’d been partying all night. He was barely cognizant enough to accept my key.”

“No one else would have had access; Discus was already gone.”

Rubicon started. “He was in Binksville that day.”

“He couldn’t have been; he’d left several days before us.”

Rubicon shot Van a withering glare. “The road leads both ways, Van. I saw him that afternoon... not to talk with, but he was going into that old restaurant on Main when my folks and I finally hit the road. He was with that local filly from the bowling alley that he hung out with.”

“Okay, so he was in town; but he wouldn’t have had a key anymore.”

“If he woke Ralph up to get in, Ralph would have given him the key just to be rid of him.”

“And if Discus did get in and saw the envelope...”

“We both knew Discus well enough; he wouldn’t have been adverse to helping himself to it, knowing that his presence in the room would go unnoted; I wouldn’t be surprised to find that Ralph was the first to receive some of my... um, your... jangles.”

“Discus couldn’t get away from Binksville fast enough; that’s why he didn’t stay for graduation. Why’d he come back? He couldn’t know the jangles would just be lying there.”

“That should be obvious enough, Van. He probably found he missed Trudy more than he thought he would. I can well imagine that he was just looking for a place to sleep-off his own wild night of partying and stumbled over a pile of jangles instead. I never had anything against Discus; but yet, he was less intimidated by rules than either you or I were.”

Both stallions fell into silence, thinking over the conversation they had just shared, before. Vanguard voiced his impressions. “It’s not so much the jangles; it’s more frustrating to know that someone we considered a friend would do such a thing,”

“I saw him in New Pony once or twice after I settled there,” Rubicon stated. “Come to think of it, the first time was shortly after I arrived; Discus came across me at the art gallery where I was working and bragged about a rare find he’d just made. I’ll bet I know now how he paid for it.”

The stallion’s angry eyes softened as he looked over Van’s shoulder and whistled. “Wow! Dream Valley has more than its fair share of beauties. There’s a mare I’d like to meet!”

Van turned, following his gaze, and grinned. “I just might be able to arrange that.” He stood up as Sugarberry came across the center court, her face slightly flushed from hurrying, making her more lovely than ever.

Rubicon watched enviously as the mare came straight to Van and softly kissed his cheek. “I’m sorry I’m late, but my meeting with Macarius took longer than I expected.”

“No problem. I met an old school buddy, and we’ve had a lot to talk over.” Sugarberry finally noticed the unfamiliar stallion now standing at the far side of the table and smiled warmly when she realized who he must be. Vanguard verified her impression. “Sugarberry, this is Rubicon, formerly of Binksville, New Pony, and Golden City, now director of the art center. Rubicon, this is my wife, Sugarberry.”

Rubicon’s eyes had been fastened on the mare, but at the word wife he flashed a glance at Vanguard in outright envy. Quickly recovering his manners, Rubicon returned his attention to Sugarberry. “We’d been so busy discussing... things... that I hadn’t learned yet that Van had married. I find that he has very good taste.”

The look of regard in Rubicon’s eyes caused Sugarberry to blush and caused Vanguard to hasten to assist his wife into a chair which he had quite adeptly moved closer to his own as if sending a blatant signal to Rubicon that at this table there was one couple and one individual, the single being Rubicon.

Sugarberry cupped her hoof over Vanguard’s but directed her question at Rubicon. “Are you finding your move to Dream Valley to be an enjoyable one?”

“More so every minute,” he drawled, raking a glance over Sugarberry that reddened her cheeks even more deeply and prompted Vanguard to glower.

Vanguard suddenly wanted to get his wife as far away from Rubicon as he could. “This had been an enlightening visit, Rubicon; but if I want to be back on campus for my next class, Sugarberry and I will have to eat our lunch now. As director of the art center, you must have pressing business to tend to as well.”

“We have art all around us, Van,” Rubicon stated, his eyes only momentarily flicking away from Sugarberry’s face to send a squelching glance Van’s way. “It’s my duty to study it as I find it.”

Fortunately, the spirited Bittersweet came into the food court at that moment; and spying Van and Sugarberry and Rubicon, she directed her steps in their direction. “Hi, Van, Sugarberry. I see you’ve met the art director.” Uninvited, she sat in the chair between Vanguard and Rubicon. “How’s business?” she queried of the stallion.

“We’ve still got a few bugs to work out,” Rubicon admitted, “but nothing major. The grand opening for the art center will run quite smoothly, I’m sure.”

Having been thwarted in his attempt to get rid of Rubicon, Vanguard was at least relieved to have Bittersweet garnering the stallion’s attention. “Sugarberry and I are going to get something to eat. How about you two?” His glance encompassed Rubicon and Bittersweet as if they were a pair, leaving Rubicon with no choice but to offer his escort to the unicorn, which Bittersweet willingly accepted. She had wanted a closer acquaintance with this stallion to influence his leanings toward Native Pony art... all for the sake of Native Dreams, of course.

Vanguard was pleased, too, that the rest of the time spent in Rubicon’s company was mollified by Bittersweet’s compelling presence. He was severely disappointed, therefore, when Sugarberry, upon saying her goodbyes to Rubicon as lunch ended, extended him an invitation to dine with them on Thursday night.

“Bittersweet, you and Teepee are welcome, too; and I’ll invite Dreamcatcher and Fetish; maybe I can get Wigwam to join us as well.”

Rubicon grinned. “It’s a date, Sugarberry. Thank you.” The look he sent Vanguard was one of pure victory.

Vanguard nearly groaned. He had forgotten just how cavalier Rubicon could be.

* * *

“Tamarack and Banderol have trapped Fluff in a cave,” grinned Dreamcatcher, coming into the kitchen to help Sugarberry with dinner preparations now that the two foals were happily settled. “It’s a good thing that cat has such low energy levels; he doesn’t even mind being stuffed in a box.”

This reference to her cat’s ample size and low activity level caused Sugarberry to roll her eyes. “That cat! He doesn’t even go up the stairs anymore. But I’ll bet you that Raptor is even now sitting at the top of the stairs watching the foals through the balustrade.”

“Yes; there was no capturing that one,” Dreamcatcher verified; then, surveying the foodstuffs in progress, asked, “What can I do to help?”

The two mares were interrupted at that moment by a young stallion rushing into the room from the direction of the basement. “Oh, hi,” he grinned, seeing Dreamcatcher. “Sug, mind if I grab a couple of cookies? I’ve got some research to do at the library.”

“That’s your supper?” queried Sugarberry in a disapproving voice as Licorice raided the cookie jar.

“Don’t worry; I’ll grab some milk at the cafeteria. Oh, and you can read this letter from Mom; she’s enclosed some pictures of Vi.” The ebony stallion was out the door before Sugarberry could say another word.

“How are things going with your new boarder?” inquired an amused Dreamcatcher.

“He’s certainly no trouble,” admitted Sugarberry. “He has his own computer in his basement room, so he’s seldom underhoof. In fact, I wish he’d spend more time with us.”

“Has he made his own friends?”

“Actually, he’s become quite close to Snapper, Turtledove’s son. They both vanish downstairs to play those computer games.” Sugarberry finished unmolding the jello salad and picked up the envelope that Licorice had dropped on the table.

“Oh, look!” she cooed. “Isn’t little Victorian Violet adorable?” She shared a photo of a tiny purple filly with curly dark green hair framing her face.

“So this is Buck and Columbine’s foal. She is a cutie.”

“And look, here she is with her parents and grandparents. What a charming family! Lilac and Trendy look awfully pleased to have a little filly in their midst after raising three colts.” Buck, Licorice’s brother, and all the Birdsong family held a special place in Sugarberry’s heart for it was at their hilltop bed-and-breakfast that she and Vanguard had met.

The buzzer going off on the stove brought the mare back to the moment. “I’ll get the biscuits, you can carry the salad into the dining room.” As the mares bustled to attend their duties, Wigwam walked in on them.

“Tamarack wanted to start a fire so that he could smoke Fluff out of his cave,” he grinned. “Bandy seconded the idea.”

“You didn’t plant the idea to begin with, did you?” asked Sugarberry, slanting a suspicious gaze at the stallion.

Wigwam raised a hoof in denial. “It was all Tam’s idea... to start with.”

Sugarberry and Dreamcatcher exchanged an exasperated look. “So what did you suggest to the foals?” asked Dreamcatcher.

“That water might prove just as effective.”

“You didn’t!” exclaimed both mares at once.

Wigwam shrugged. “The foals thought it was a good idea.” He tried to hide a smile. “You should have seen Fluff run.” He then took the basket of bread from Sugarberry and the salad from Dreamcatcher and headed for the dining room.

“Wait ‘til he has foals of his own,” griped Sugarberry under her breath as a dripping long-hair slunk into the kitchen looking for a place to hide.

“Yes, we’ll pay him back in full measure,” agreed Dreamcatcher. The mares looked at one another and grinned.

* * *

“It’s very gratifying to meet a mare who is not only beautiful but can cook,” drawled Rubicon as he finished the last of his lemon meringue pie. “The entire meal was delicious, Sugarberry; and I thank you again for inviting me.”

Accepting the compliment gracefully, Sugarberry smiled at the stallion. “It was a pleasure, Rubicon. I’m happy you were free to spend the evening with us.” She extended her smile around the entire table.

“It was a veritable feast, Sugarberry,” agreed Wigwam, “and I, for one, volunteer to do the dishes. Teepee, how about lending me a hoof?”

“We never could do the dishes without getting into an argument,” observed Teepee, remembering how he and his sibling used to antagonize one another over the unwelcome chore. “But I’m willing to give it a try. It’s the least I can do, Sugarberry.”

“I hope you don’t change your mind when you see the stack of pots and pans in the kitchen,” teased Sugarberry. “But I insist that you let me clear the table; I need to know where the leftovers end up.”

* * *

Once Sugarberry had Wigwam and Teepee settled over the kitchen sink and she and Dreamcatcher had convinced Banderol and Tamarack to settle down to bed, she joined her other guests in the cozy turret section of the living room where they were convivially discussing life experiences. Sugarberry slipped onto the window seat next to her husband and listened in.

“I’ve never been to Golden City, Rubicon. Is it as beautiful as one hears it is?” queried Dreamcatcher.

“The city was planned to be beautiful,” said Rubicon, “and it succeeded beyond expectations. Every building is an architectural masterpiece, the layout is designed for convenience, and the landscaping is magnificent. It is truly a city worthy of Queen Majesty and her royal court.”

“I’m surprised you’d leave such a paradise,” noted Bittersweet. “It sounds like a perfect setting for your art gallery.”

“My gallery was quite prosperous,” admitted Rubicon. “But I wanted to get away from the fast-paced eastern shore and get back to my roots.”

“Where did you hail from?” Fetish asked.

“A small town off the northernmost spur of the Black Mountains called Cedarmont. It’s wonderfully scenic- caters to the tourist crowd- but I... well, you know what they say: You can’t go home again.” A bleak look came over his face for an instant, but was quickly masked. “When I came to interview with the art council, I found Dream Valley to be a very welcoming community... and it has a great deal of beauty to offer as well.” Rubicon’s gaze settled on Sugarberry for a moment but then continued on to encompass Bittersweet and Dreamcatcher, too.

Vanguard cleared his throat. “I hear that Gauntlet, one of the art teachers at Pony Pride, will have some of his work on display for the grand opening.”

“Ah, yes, Gauntlet. His abstract work is intense. There’ll be several art demonstrations going on throughout the afternoon as well: calligraphy, etching, mosaic, and landscape painting. And two art pieces are being raffled off.”

“It sounds like a lot of fun,” enthused Bittersweet. “Will there be face painting for the kids?”

Directing his gaze in Sugarberry’s direction, his focus directed to the strawberry that centered her face, he smiled. “I hadn’t thought of that, Bittersweet, but it sounds like an excellent idea... a little adornment to accent each colt or filly’s distinct comeliness. Don’t you agree, Van?” His smile widened into a crooked grin.

Vanguard looked at his wife, and although he was perturbed by Rubicon’s unabashed enjoyment of Sugarberry’s appearance- as if she was a painting on display- he could only concur that the little red strawberry did add to her appeal. He had kissed that spot often enough, hadn’t he? “How could I not agree?” he queried softly.

“What have we missed?” inquired Wigwam as he and Teepee came on the scene. Teepee immediately sat in the chair next to Bittersweet while Wigwam ensconced himself next to Sugarberry in the space still left.

“We were discussing the grand opening at the art center,” Sugarberry informed him, tearing her eyes away from Vanguard. “By the sounds of it, there will be quite an assortment of art to view and a number of activities to entertain. I hope you’re planning to attend.”

“I wouldn’t miss the big day,” Wigwam assured the listening ponies, then asked, “When is it again?”

“The Sunday after next from one ‘til five,” stated Rubicon. “I expect you all to be there. The kids will be entertained and there will be refreshments available, so there’s no excuse not to participate.”

“Free food is too good a deal to pass up,” decided Teepee. “The art, on the other hoof...” He allowed his voice to trail off.

“There will be something there to please every taste,” verified Rubicon, “For instance, from the local environs, we’ll have Princess Primrose’s watercolors, Walnut Sprigs’ charcoal drawings, and Sundance’s landscapes. Then there are natural wood carvings by Scuttle and Tarkington’s representational art. No one will go away dissatisfied.”

“What about a display from the Native Ponies?” asked Dreamcatcher, frowning at the art director.

“That was to be a surprise,” Fetish admonished his wife. “You’ll find out the day of the opening.”

“And just how would you know?” Dreamcatcher scowled.

“Hey! I have my sources!” defended Fetish.

To prevent Dreamcatcher from nagging her husband too much, Wigwam changed the subject. “Sugarberry, when’s your next book coming out?”

“I could ask you the same thing.”

“Ah! But I asked you first!”

“It’s on hold right now. Norman, my literary agent in Hayton, has always submitted my manuscripts to Waterbury Publishing; but Macarius here in town would like Fairfax Monk to handle them from now on. Norman and Macarius are doing some negotiating, but it looks like Norman might be moving to Dream Valley in the near future; Macarius offered him a job.”

“Another new stallion coming to town,” mused Bittersweet while casting a coy glance at Teepee.

“Minx!” Teepee snorted, sending her a smouldering glance in return.

“You’re an author, Sugarberry?” Rubicon asked, his attention locked on the mare.

Sugarberry sighed while the others in the room laughed. “You blew it, Rubicon,” Wigwam informed the stallion. “Sugarberry doesn’t look kindly on ponies that don’t read her books.”

“Then I beg your forgiveness, Sugarberry.”

“Don’t feel badly. A preponderance of ponies are nescient where my books are concerned,” Sugarberry assured Rubicon.

Wigwam chuckled. “Now you have her talking like an author. I told you, Van, you shouldn’t have bought her that new thesaurus.”

“You can check her books out at the library or the mall bookstore, as well as Wigwam’s- although you might want to wait for his latest that will be out in November,” Bittersweet directed toward Rubicon. “I’m reading Sugarberry’s Silent Are the Bells right now.”

“Which reminds me,” Sugarberry hastened to say, “Father Isaac is in need of donations to repair some damage to the bells at church. Until some extensive maintenance is done, those bells are going to remain silent.”

Sugarberry’s ploy successfully stifled any further conversation of her books as the ponies began to argue the relative merits of sounding bells by means of the traditional bell-rope as compared to the computerized systems so popular in current times.

* * *

A steady stream of visitors graced the new Dream Valley Art Center on the Sunday of its grand opening making it a festive occasion for all. As Sugarberry, Vanguard, and Banderol toured the exhibits and enjoyed the refreshments, they came across many ponies with whom to talk, some of whom they saw all too seldom. Agatha and Hubert, Toby and Fern, Maisie and Crescendo, Becca and Roland, Miranda and Jack (the stallion had made a special trip to Dream Valley to tour the art center), Sparkler and Talcum, Poeticus and Lemon Treats with little Limelight, Melonball and Springtime with the royal twins, Deadline and Kyrene, Firethorn and Bluebonnet and family, the Falling Leaves family complete with their youngest daughter, Princess Tiffany, and many more. Tabby, Thomas, and Faline came with the new vet in town, Marina. Wishbone and Garnet walked in at the same time as Philippe, Tamara, and Baby Hugh. It seemed that everyone in Dream Valley wanted a glimpse of the interior of the art center.

Not everyone was a familiar face, however. Some of the ponies were art dealers from out of town looking for the latest talent, some were veritable operatives sent by rival galleries to see what they could do better, some- it was whispered- were famous artists from New Pony and Hayton, and some were simply art lovers.

The galleries were difficult to walk through because of all the groups of chatting ponies, and Rubicon tapped his hoof more than once in vexation that ponies rather than the artwork were receiving most of the attention. Baby ponies with every imaginable design painted on them attested to the success of the face-painting; Rubicon cringed, however, whenever one of the little darlings rushed by him, scuffing the new flooring, spilling punch everywhere, and hampering the general flow of traffic. He consoled himself over the fact that the artwork in the raffle was generating some hefty funds to support the activities of the center.

Dreamcatcher was ecstatic to see that one prominent Native Pony had been featured in the exhibit. “Fetish, look at these paintings by Lodestone! No wonder you couldn’t talk him into placing any of his work in Native Dreams; this is an ideal exhibition for someone of his caliber.”

Fetish grinned. “Who do you think introduced Lodestone to Rubicon? I knew they would both benefit from this showing. And,” he grinned even wider, “Lodestone will be favoring your shop with his artwork in the future.”

“You arranged that?” Dreamcatcher looked at her husband in awe and pride. “I’m impressed.”

“I can see this piece on display at the casino,” Wigwam noted, referring to a haunting painting of a lone Native Pony at the base of a magnificent waterfall, his camp pitched in the shelter of a cluster of stately pines.

“Everything Lodestone does exemplifies the Native Pony culture in utmost accuracy. It’s like being swept back in time to experience a moment of our past,” Bittersweet stated.

Tabby was standing nearby. “Native Ponies, Native Ponies! They’re all I hear about anymore. You’d think they were entirely responsible for settling this part of Ponyland. Everybody’s overlooking the original Greek culture that flourished here. But noooo, it’s always more Native Pony stuff and nobody thinks about anything else!”

“Tabby, your mother is signaling for you,” fibbed Thomas, tugging his wife away from the Native Ponies before a ruckus could ensue.

“Sugarberry, do you have a moment?” Wigwam caught the mare as she passed by. “What have you heard from Chocolate Chip?” The stallion, so as not to put undue pressure on the young chocolate brown mare concerning his proposal of marriage that he had left open-ended so that she could change her mind if she experienced a change of heart, did not communicate directly with Chocolate Chip but got his information about her doings in New Pony through Sugarberry, Garnet, and Fern. As Chocolate Chip’s messages were becoming fewer and farther between as time went on, he was hard pressed to keep up-to-date on her activities.

“She called last night,” Sugarberry admitted, “but she really didn’t have any news. You know it’s always the same with her- work, work, and more work. She’s involved with a rather important account at the moment, and I could tell that her mind was more on those facts and figures than on our conversation.”

“She’s content, then.”

Sugarberry thought a moment before answering. She had noted a certain sadness in Chocolate Chip’s voice that spoke of loneliness and a longing for something that remained unfulfilled, but she did not want to raise Wigwam’s hopes unnecessarily for the mare had not spoken of Wigwam during the call. “Yes. She seems to have proven invaluable to her supervisor.”

“She’s invaluable to me, Sugarberry.”

“Don’t start, Wigwam,” Sugarberry cautioned the stallion, “or I’ll have Tabby give you another lecture.”

“Heaven forbid!” Wigwam feigned terror. “Having Tabby ring a peal over my head once was enough.” He grinned. “Thanks for reminding me to honor Chocolate Chip’s freedom.”

“Might I interrupt?” asked a blue stallion who had been standing patiently to the side waiting for a chance to talk with Sugarberry himself.

“Macarius, you wouldn’t be interrupting,” Sugarberry smiled. “Wigwam and I were going over old ground.”

“Well, I’m glad to be the bearer of some news, then.” He flicked Wigwam a dismissive look.

“If you two will excuse me...” Wigwam discreetly melted away.

“This concerns Norman?” Sugarberry asked.

“Yes, it does. Norman has agreed to join the ranks of Fairfax Monk Publishing, so your manuscript will be officially turned over to us in the very near future... if you are still agreeable to that course of action.”

“As long as Norman is satisfied, I will be, too.”

“Great! We want to have the book available in time for the holidays. Having two local authors putting out books from such diverse genres should corner the market for us.”

“Wigwam’s second volume of Native Pony tales is sure to be a hit.”

“With everyone but Tabby,” grinned Macarius.

* * *

Rubicon was in the foyer of the art center greeting more guests when he looked up into the face of a honey-colored stallion. “Discus!” he proclaimed.

“You seem surprised to see me,” the stallion replied. “You don’t think I’d miss your latest venture, did you?”

“Well, Discus, you must admit that we haven’t kept in touch much down through the years. What have you been doing with yourself?” Rubicon scanned the area, wondering where Vanguard was.

Discus followed Rubicon’s survey of the crowd. “I’m doing good... always on the lookout for the latest hot artist. And as you only handle the best, I knew I couldn’t go wrong to come here... even if it is off the beaten path. I was surprised to hear you’d left Golden City.”

“It was time for a change. But I’m glad you’re here,” he said, guiding his old roommate into the main gallery. “By the way,” Rubicon said, suddenly spying Vanguard talking with Poeticus and Lemon Treats and turning his steps to head in that direction, “you’ll never guess the pony I ran into the other day.”

“I’d imagine you’ve run into quite a few,” Discus quipped, dodging ponies in the crowded room. He did not see the country blue stallion to whom Rubicon was aiming.

“Vanguard,” Rubicon drawled, “look who the cat just drug in.” He winked at the country blue stallion and discreetly shook his head side-to-side, sending a subtle message on how to handle this unexpected reunion. At his side, Discus stiffened.

When Vanguard saw who was accompanying Rubicon, he nearly succumbed to an overriding desire to punch the honey-colored stallion in the jaw as payment for taking advantage of both him and Rubicon on that graduation day when the jangles had disappeared; but Rubicon’s subtle warning curbed his anger. He forced a smile.

“Good to see you again, Discus.” He extended his hoof for a more acceptable greeting.

“Hey, Vanguard! What’s shakin’?” The stallion visibly relaxed at having made it over what could have been a disconcerting hurdle. It was to his benefit if neither Rubicon or Vanguard were aware of his actions on that day back in Binksville.

“I’m happily settled in Dream Valley with my wife and son, and I teach at Pony Pride.”

“All neat and tidy, huh?” the stallion grinned. “You mathematicians are all alike- have to have everything solved in a concise and orderly fashion. That was never my style.”

“So what are you doing these days?”

“I’m having the time of my life, Van. Has Rubicon told you about eGallery?”

Rubicon looked confused. “eGallery? That’s one of those internet auction sites, isn’t it? What would you have to do with one of those?”

“You can’t mean that you don’t patronize the site!” Discus responded in obvious disappointment. “I could understand that Van wouldn’t stay current with one of the hottest venues in art sales in modern times; but you, old boy, should be better informed. eGallery is the premier online art auction site, and it was all my idea. It was the best scheme... ah, venture... I’ve ever come up with.”

“I’m sure there’s an interesting story behind this, Discus,” Rubicon said, “but one of my volunteers is beckoning for me.” He cast a speaking glance at Vanguard, then returned his gaze to Discus. “Maybe the three of us could get together for dinner some evening while you’re in Dream Valley.”

“I thought I’d hang around for a day or two,” Discus admitted. “How about tomorrow night?”

“That’s swell. I’ll leave you two to work out the details... gotta run.” The art director left to attend to his duties, and the other two stallions set the time and place for their dinner reunion.

“Will your wife be joining us?” queried Discus of Vanguard.

“No. She has an important meeting that I’m sure she wouldn’t want to miss,” Vanguard said. “But come with me now, and I’ll introduce you to her.” Finding Sugarberry in the company of Garnet and Tabby in front of a large, garish work by Gauntlet, Vanguard made the introductions.

“Dream Valley has some real advantages, I see,” drawled Discus, enjoying the vision of the three lovely redheads against a backdrop of black and white squares and circles. “Tabby, as you are a vet, maybe you could help me with a problem I’ve been having...”

“And maybe you can help me with a problem I’ve been having,” Tabby smiled sweetly, thinking of Marina. “But you go first...”

As the pink unicorn and the honey gold stallion walked off to discuss a feline behavioral problem, among other things, Sugarberry looked questioningly at Vanguard. “No hard feelings between the two of you?” she asked.

“Rubicon and I are dining with our erstwhile roommate tomorrow evening,” Vanguard disclosed. “I’ll be better able to answer your question then.”

* * *

“ when Trudy laid down her ultimatum that I had to decide between her and art, what could I do?” Discus grinned and raised his glass to Vanguard and Rubicon in a toast to his former girlfriend.

The three stallions were dining at the Estate Manor, sharing anecdotes from their lives since going their separate ways after college. Vanguard had taken the traditional path, dedicating his life to job and family while Rubicon had moved into the elite circle of fine art. Discus had embraced the electronic age, settling into the face-paced world of the internet with all the gusto his friends would have expected from such an impatient and enthusiastic character.

Rubicon nailed Discus with a sharp look. “None of us were swimming in jangles by the time we graduated. I imagine your decision to drop Trudy helped your lack of finances as well.”

Discus squirmed just a bit as he noted the intensity of that gaze and was not heartened to see that Vanguard, too, was watching him with heightened interest.

“I was lucky in stumbling onto that lost piece by Dauber. I told you about that, Rubicon, when I saw you in New Pony.”

“And how did you fund that purchase?” queried Rubicon.

Discus’ gaze faltered briefly. “The pony who had it didn’t realize what a treasure it was; I got it for a steal.” As soon as that word left his mouth, Discus realized his slip; but he could not call it back. He fiddled with his napkin instead.

“Interesting way of phrasing it,” drawled Vanguard. “Wouldn’t you say, Rubicon?”

“Quite interesting. It brings to mind the jangles I left behind at Binksville for you, Van. I believe you said you never found them,” Rubicon said conversationally.

“Exactly so,” returned Vanguard. “It was as though someone had found a... steal.”

Finding himself under such close scrutiny, Discus took a much needed drink before responding. “I’d left town, remember? The two of you are looking at me as if you blame me somehow.”

“But you were in Binksville that day, Discus. Trudy remembers, if you don’t.”

“Even if I was there, I wouldn’t have had a key to access the apartment...” Discus retorted. “If that’s where the jangles disappeared from,” he added quickly.

“Ralph was a good landlord in that he kept his nose to himself,” Rubicon mused. “It did make him rather lax in some areas, however.”

“Look, I’m sorry if you two misplaced some jangles; but it’s not my problem. Okay?”

“Ah, but if you are the one that took those misplaced jangles, Discus, it is very much your problem,” Rubicon dared to say.

“The three of us trusted one another,” Vanguard added. “It took only one to destroy that.” He shifted his gaze from Discus to Rubicon. “I owe you an apology for doubting that trust.”

“Accepted, Van. I’m sure I’d have come to the same conclusion as you did if the situation had been reversed.” Rubicon turned his attention back to Discus. “At least admit your mistake, Discus. Your expression gave you away when this topic first came up; Van and I could read you like a book, remember?”

“It wasn’t fair back then, and it isn’t fair now,” Discus growled. “But as you already hold me guilty, I guess there’s no real harm in admitting that, yes, I had decided to crash at the apartment and came across a goodly sum of jangles just sitting there, waiting for the taking. I helped myself to the jangles, destroyed the note, and left town very discreetly. No one was the wiser, I believed.”

“Didn’t you foresee that Van would hold me responsible?” Rubicon asked.

Discus shrugged. “Van was too honorable to come right out and ask you for the jangles, not after you’d promised that you’d have the money for him before the two of you left town.”

Rubicon grinned. “Is that true, Van? Could I have kept those jangles for myself?”

“As I didn’t know where you’d gone, I couldn’t have done much about it,” Vanguard admitted. “But I’m glad to know the true story now.”

“Don’t go and get all sentimental, guys,” scowled Discus. “I’ll make up the amount I took...”

“Plus interest,” stated Rubicon.

“Give me a break!” griped Discus.

“What do you say, Van?”

“A fair amount of interest wouldn’t be frowned upon.”

“Oh, all right. It’s not that I can’t afford it,” grumped the honeyed stallion. “I can transfer the funds online tonight.”

“That will work out well,” triumphed Vanguard. “As the jangles are going to go toward Princess Tiffany’s charitable work and as the princess is meeting with her advisors this very evening and as my wife is there right now, why don’t we head over to the Royal Paradise immediately and get this all squared away?”

“Excellent idea, Van!” agreed Rubicon. “What-da-ya-say, Discus?”

“I know when I’ve been defeated,” the stallion grimaced. “Lead the way.”

* * *

Princess Tiffany could not have been happier when she received a generous and unsolicited donation from a new acquaintance in support of her philanthropic endeavors. Discus blushed to receive her heartfelt thanks when he knew the disgraceful cause of this sizeable contribution. Rubicon enjoyed watching the once dishonest stallion retrieve his reputation, and Vanguard was pleased to have learned the truth and recovered his two friends.

He did think twice, however, when Sugarberry invited the stallions to join in the refreshments that Tiffany and her guests were currently enjoying, and Rubicon offered his foreleg to the mare before Vanguard could claim his wife’s company.

Flashing Vanguard an insolent grin, Rubicon said to Sugarberry, his eyes and voice soft and sultry, “I’ll be the envy of every stallion here to have the honor of the most beautiful mare present accompanying me.”

The stallion’s effusive praise was becoming tiresome to Sugarberry, especially knowing that he did it only to torment Vanguard. Sugarberry turned her head to catch Vanguard’s eye and winked. Then, she returned her attention to Rubicon and smiled warmly. “You’re referring to Falda, of course. I was just thinking myself that she is a cut above the rest of us.” Steering Rubicon in that mare’s direction, Sugarberry approached the pale blue pegasus with a flourish. “Falda, Rubicon was anxious to make your acquaintance; I’m sure that you’re aware that he’s the director of the art center. Rubicon, Falda was obliged to miss the grand opening as she was out of town for a cousin’s wedding, but she’s fascinated with the art world. I’m sure you’ll enjoy your refreshments together.”

Leaving the rainbow-maned mare with the sweet-tongued stallion, Sugarberry moved back to Vanguard’s side. “Falda can put up with his flattery for the rest of the evening; maybe the two of them will hit it off.”

“We can hope,” grinned Vanguard. “And as Discus has been spirited away by Princess Tiffany, that leaves only you and me.”

Sugarberry looked around at the fifteen to twenty ponies in the room and raised a brow. “Just you and me, my dear?” she queried.

“I was hoping, since you so effectively stifled Rubicon’s attention, that the two of us might slip out and enjoy a leisurely walk home in the moonlight.”

“I can’t think of anything I’d like better,” admitted the mare.

Her eyes sparkled as she allowed her husband to lead her out the door.

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