written by Sugarberry

"What are you thinking about, Auntie?" a perky young mare addressed the room's only other occupant as she closed the book she had been reading and set it on the nearest table.

"Wh... what was that, Leandra?" the older mare asked, turning from the window as if coming from a long way off.

"You've been distracted for days now. Is something wrong?" Leandra wondered if Imogene had heard some disturbing news from her son who was currently living in Dream Valley.

"What could be wrong?" the mare asked bitterly. "Both my son and my husband have abandoned me."

"Adriano did not abandon you, Auntie. He's the one who saw to it that I came to stay here, remember?"

The mare relented a bit, allowing a slight smile to break through her doldrums. "Yes, and we have learned to tolerate one another reasonably well."

"Yes, we have," Leandra agreed, remembering well the crotchety pony who had tried to intimidate and enslave her. Leandra, however, had not succumbed to the mare's ploys to pass herself off as a helpless invalid, forcing her to abandon her die-away airs and begin to live again. She was concerned now, though, because her aunt seemed to be regressing to her former state of constant melancholy. "You must be looking forward to Adriano's return to Vulcanopolis after his year's absence."

"It will be good to see the boy again."

"And his fiancee."

"He never looked at a mare before, you know."

"You never gave him the chance," laughed Leandra.

Imogene assumed a rueful expression. "I was horrible, wasn't I? I was so afraid of losing him like I lost Fidelio." She turned to the window again.

"You didn't lose Uncle Fidelio, Auntie. He's away on a scientific expedition."

"He should have been home two weeks ago." She waved a well-worn letter through the air. "He wrote that he'd arrive in Vulcanopolis by mid-April at the latest."

"Antarctica is a long way away; travel plans may have been changed."

"Or he could have decided he didn't want to come back," Imogene sighed.

Saddened to see her aunt in such a depressed mood, Leandra went to her side and gave her a loving hug. "This is his home, Auntie. Where else would he go?"

Anywhere but here, Imogene thought, but she kept that sentiment to herself. Leandra would never give up trying to lighten her mood otherwise.

* * *

"I don't think I'll go to the fashion show after all," Imogene admitted to her friend, Agatha, when that mare came for an afternoon visit.

The blue unicorn looked at the mare sharply. "Why ever not, Imogene? It will be the talk of the town!"

"I haven't been feeling so well..."

"Imogene! You're not going to start that constant complaining again, are you? I thought Leandra had purged you of that annoying habit." Seeing Imogene's expression grow even more morose, Agatha backtracked. "You are looking a little peaked, however. Maybe you should see your doctor."

"Agatha, the truth is... I don't think Fidelio is ever coming home."

The blue unicorn stared at her friend. "What are you talking about? You haven't had news of an accident, have you?"

"As far as I know, my husband is in excellent health. It's just that... well, in his last letter he told me to expect him by mid-April. And here it is, a week into May, and where is he? I haven't heard a word from him telling me why he's delayed."

"He did have a long distance to travel, Imogene, and probably not under the best circumstances."

"What if he decided to stay in Antarctica with the polar bears?"

Chuckling, Agatha informed her friend, "There aren't any polar bears in Antarctica, dear. The most he'd find are seals and penguins. And I don't think even Fidelio would be so enamored of ice and bitter cold as to relegate his existence to the south pole."

"What has he to come home for but a bitter, complaining wife?"

"Now, Imogene, don't be so hard on yourself." Agatha had to think a minute to find a diplomatic way to continue. "Fidelio understood your need to have a doting husband constantly at hoof, and he did his best to accommodate your expectations. But he needed some time of his own as well."

"Nicely phrased, Agatha," Imogene commented dryly. "What you're really saying is that I became a hypochondriac in an effort to keep my husband by my side."

Agatha shrugged. "Be that as it may, Leandra has uncovered the confident, poised mare that you once were."

"But what if it's too late? Adriano left and found himself a mare to love. Oh, Agatha, what if Fidelio...?

"Don't worry yourself needlessly, Imogene. After all, we both married adventurers, for better or for worse."

Agatha patted the mare's hoof comfortingly, but Imogene's concern ate at her conscience. What if Fidelio had grown tired of his wife's clinging, demanding ways and had decided he wanted no more of that cramped, tiresome lifestyle?

* * *

"Sugarberry, this is awesome!" trilled Lemon Treats as she and the strawberry-patterned mare entered the huge conference hall that was bustling with activity as ponies hurried to add the finishing touches to the setting for the fashion show scheduled for that evening. The Dream Valley boutique owner was in Vulcanopolis for the event.

The huge space had been transformed into an ocean paradise, with yards of blue silk draped effectively to mimic the undulating water with white netting forming whitecaps against a backdrop of a stylized ship from which the models would make their appearance. Off to the side, a lighthouse towered.

Tables filled most of the expanse of the room, for an accompanying dinner was to be served during the show. Clare, the brains and beauty behind Clare's Creations, hoped this would serve to draw the stallions to accompany their wives and sweeties. Interspersed among the table placement were innumerable potted palm trees, sand-filled barrels overflowing with seashells, and round aquariums sporting vividly-colored and unique specimens from the depths. The walls of the room were hidden behind a coarse webbing of fishnets decorated with more shells and sparkling glass globe buoys that sparkled under the lighting.

"Clare is forever imaginative," Sugarberry agreed.

"It's so realistic, I can hear the waves splashing!"

"That's the sound effects coming over the PA system," chuckled Nello from behind the two mares.

"Nello, how nice to see you again!" Lemon Treats turned and smiled.

"My pleasure, Lemon Treats. Is your husband with you this trip?" Nello scanned the area for a glimpse of the light blue stallion.

"Poeticus is at the hotel with the foals. We thought it best to have one of us there to indoctrinate the sitter on how to handle the twins."

"They must be, what, four or five months old by now," Nello calculated.

"Five months and two days," Lemon Treats beamed. "And Limelight was three on April sixteenth."

"Sunsprite will have her first birthday next month," Nello shared. "She's a hoof-full all by herself; I admire your ability to handle three foals."

"We're fortunate in that Romeo and Juliet have been very accommodating babies; they don't expect nearly as much attention as Limelight did... and still does. They both seem to have inherited their father's pensive disposition." Lemon Treats' smile widened. "And have you heard, Sugarberry? Macarius has decided to accept Poeticus' folio of verse for publication."

"That's wonderful!" Sugarberry enthused. "I was afraid Poeticus would never feel comfortable enough to share his lyrical phrases with the rest of Ponyland."

"Well, as to that," Lemon Treats looked down at the floor, "I submitted them without Poeticus' knowledge." She looked up and grimaced. "It was touch-and-go when he got a call from Sapphire asking him to come in to discuss a contract for material that he thought was safely tucked away in his desk, but Sapphire and Macarius' approval of his work went a long way to relieving his doubts as to his talent."

"If all his poetry is as deeply moving as the poems you've shared with me, they'll be a sure hit," assured Sugarberry.

"And what of your book? It will be a big part of the draw here tonight."

"Nello and I hope so," Sugarberry grinned. "Macarius has done his part to make it very visually appealing, using Nello's photos."

"Let's not forget Snapshot," Nello reminded Sugarberry.

"Ah, yes; but your work ended-up on the cover, now, didn't it?" Sugarberry teased.

Nello's unpretentiousness forced him to change the subject. "I have a few things to discuss with Mooncurl. If you two will excuse me..." The stallion left the scene.

"I had no idea Nello was so humble," commented Lemon Treats as she watched the stallion cross the room to where his wife was overseeing some of the models practicing their moves.

"He's been such a big help to me," divulged Sugarberry, "always ready to answer any questions I might have... and there have been plenty of them."

"You must be very excited about the release of your book."

"It's excitement all wrapped up in doubts, Lemon Treats. Even now, I'm thinking of better ways I could have composed things or of a phrase that would have added to an explanation." The mare shrugged. "It's too late now."

"From what you've told me, Macarius wouldn't have gone ahead with publication until he was completely satisfied with it. I don't think you have anything to worry about."

"Wait until Poeticus' volume of poetry hits the shelves; then tell me you didn't have to shore-up his confidence," grinned Sugarberry. "Oh, there's Macarius now. He'll want to discuss the book-signing."

"You go on," Lemon Treats said. "I'm going to do my best to get a sneak peak at tonight's fashions."

* * *

Lemon Treats got her wish and then some. She had ducked behind the ship prop only to run into Clare who had not even blinked to see a relative outsider in the private backroom where only Clare's elite employees were allowed.

"Lemon Treats, will you help Mooncurl with the twins?"

"The twins?" Lemon Treats had squeaked, wondering how Romeo and Juliet had turned up here. Then, looking toward Mooncurl, she saw the twins in question... Tina Marie and Tina Lucie, two wondrously endowed models, twin sisters, who were much too young to be this enchanting. Lemon Treats had seen them in pictures, of course, but the vivacity and confidence that radiated from the two of them in real life added even more appeal to their pretty faces... not to mention their sculpted forms.

"Oh, Lemon Treats, you're just the pony I need right now," Mooncurl admitted. "I have to get these shells worked into the girls braids, and it's taking longer than I'd planned." The white pony gestured to a daunting tray of ribbons and shells of beautiful hues.

"I... see," mumbled Lemon Treats, tentatively picking up a purple ribbon and a rosy heart cockle.

"The purple ones are slated for Tina Lucie's hair," stated Mooncurl, nodding toward the pink pony who stood admiring her nail polish. "You can see what I'm doing with Tina Marie's; just do the same."

Taking a deep breath, Lemon Treats set to work.

* * *

"Have you seen any sign of Snapshot?" Nello asked of Sugarberry.

"No, I haven't. And would it be unkind for me to hope that he is still amusing himself on the beaches of Babango?"

Macarius, hovering nearby, chuckled. "Snapshot's here; I last saw him talking with someone over near the doorway."

All three ponies looked in that direction to see Snapshot in deep conversation with a chestnut-colored stallion. Snapshot's exuberant gesturing was in stark contrast to the other stallion's somber stance.

As if feeling probing eyes upon him, Snapshot looked toward Nello, Sugarberry, and Macarius; the unknown stallion followed suit, his dark eyes deep and penetrating. The two ponies separated, however, with the stranger leaving the reception area and heading toward the fashion show still in progress while Snapshot made his way to the book-signing area.

Renowned for his photographic prowess, Snapshop had fallen short in his social skills where Sugarberry and Nello were concerned, ignoring their input and demeaning their skills while production of the book on Clare's Creations and the fashion industry had been in development. It was left to Macarius to sort out the best work of all three contributors to the book he had conceived and nurtured and now presented to public scrutiny; it was Snapshot who had come up on the short end. Would the stallion hold a grudge?

"Good evening, Sugarberry... Nello... Macarius," the aquamarine green stallion greeted. There was no smile on his face, but his demeanor was amicable.

Macarius spared Sugarberry the need to welcome Snapshot herself. "I'm glad you could make it, Snapshot. I wasn't sure if you'd received my messages." The two stallions shook hooves.

"I was away on a new project and only got word of the book's release when I got home yesterday; I immediately secured a flight for Vulcanopolis, and here I am."

Sugarberry struggled to put the past differences behind her to meet the stallion half way. "It won't be long before the fashion show is completed and Clare's guests will come milling into the reception hall; I'm glad you could share this event with us." She offered her hoof to Snapshot and he shook it briefly. Nello, too, welcomed the fellow photographer.

Satisfied that peace now reigned between the three ponies, Macarius flashed his winning smile. "I'll leave you to work out the details of the actual book-signing." He waved and was off.

"He wants to catch a closer look at the models," Sugarberry giggled.

"I wish I was behind the camera," admitted Nello. He had been ordered by Clare to allow his subordinates to take care of the photographing of the fashion show going on in the other half of the conference hall so that he would be ready to push the sale of the new book that stood ready for its introduction to the general public. He frowned at the stacks of shiny, crisp, oversized books that were waiting for, hopefully, the rush of ponies to buy them.

"This is your night to enjoy the fruits of your labor," Sugarberry admonished, reverently touching one of the glossy book covers that bore the proof of Nello's photographic skill. The book was graced with a candid shot of Clare, looking thoughtfully at a length of fabric that was draped over one foreleg, her beauty and poise signifying the title of the book, Creating Fashion.

"And what of you, Sugarberry?" Nello asked, pointing directly to the author's name below the artwork.

"I'm thrilled and frightened all at the same time," Sugarberry admitted. She had worked hard to put her best effort into this, her first nonfiction book. "Clare gave me every benefit to get the information and the insight of what her fashion house accomplishes throughout every aspect from design sketches to manufacture."

"You doubt your own abilities, Sugarberry?" Snapshot practically sneered. "If you'll remember, I tried to warn you."

"I don't doubt the quality of my work, Snapshot," Sugarberry clarified sharply. "I only hope I've done Clare's Creations justice."

"The popularity of this book will be a flash in the pan," observed Snapshot, ignoring Nello's scowling continence. "If it wasn't for Clare's hype here tonight, it wouldn't even merit that much attention." Before either Nello or Sugarberry could respond, Snapshot went on. "Now, my next project will be history making; I'll show the two of you how to publish a best-seller."

"What have you gotten yourself involved with now?" asked Nello.

Snapshot laughed. "That's privileged information, I'm afraid. Suffice it to say, my book will put your..." He glanced at the nearest book. " ...effort... to shame." He turned tail and walked away.

Setting a steadying hoof on Sugarberry's foreleg, Nello issued a warning. "Don't respond to his barbs. We'll have a much more pleasant evening if he goes his own way and leaves us in peace."

"You're right, of course," agreed Sugarberry, swallowing the caustic words she wanted to send after Snapshot's retreating form.

"And smile, "said Nello with a bracing grin of his own. "It looks and sounds like the last fashion has been paraded. We'll soon be swamped with adoring fans."

* * *

If Snapshot had succeeded in upsetting Sugarberry, she was soon set at ease as the crowd from the fashion show spilled into the reception area to experience the delectable desserts and the sparkling array of beverages and aromatic coffees that now awaited them, for many in the group made a beeline for the book signing area where they could purchase a copy of Creating Fashion; talk with the author, publisher, and photographers; and get personalized signatures of any of those involved.

One of the first ponies to approach Sugarberry was Agatha, towing Hubert behind her. She was effusive in her compliments as she flipped through her purchased copy of the book and beamed as Sugarberry flourished an autograph. Hubert muttered something about "gewgaws and folderols", but he gave Sugarberry a comforting hug.

Imogene followed, having been convinced by Agatha that a pleasant night out in gala surroundings would help improve her disposition; and, as always, her friend had been right. Imogene had thoroughly enjoyed the impressive display of Clare's well-run pageant; her escort, Gino, paid close attention to her prattle and graciously met her every need.

With their newly purchased and signed books, Agatha and Imogene led the stallions to the sumptuous dessert table spread with such an array of tempting foodstuffs that many of the ponies in attendance simply stood and admired the charming display, unable to make up their minds as to which concoction was the most appealing. Hubert had no such qualms, choosing heavily on the side of chocolate: a torte here, a pudding there, and a cookie or two to round out the fare. Agatha frowned at her husband's hoof-full with some abhorrence, then threw caution to the wind and selected a nut basket tart and lemon meringue pie, for starters.

Gino, on the other hoof, was more circumspect, allowing Imogene to choose a daintily frosted piece of angel food before electing for himself a latticed piece of cherry pie before claiming for his group one of the bistro tables nearest to the book-signing activity and holding the chairs for both Imogene and Agatha before settling in next to Imogene.

Making the most of the evening's opportunity, Clare had her models doing double duty serving the beverages; each model had been allowed to don his or her favorite outfit for this part of the event, so everything from beachwear to evening wear was in view. Those being served could take a measured look at the cuts and colors and file away the information on their favorites for a later shopping expedition to the nearest distributer of Clare's Creations.

Meanwhile, Sugarberry and Nello were kept busy talking with the ponies interested in their book. When the crowd thinned out somewhat, Vanguard and Mooncurl joined them, bringing Lemon Treats and Poeticus with them. Sugarberry teased Poeticus over his forthcoming publication and the pleasure he would have signing his books of poetry, but the modest stallion informed her that he would cross that bridge when... and if... he came to it.

* * *

Hubert had eaten well but had soon grown tired of the social conversation swirling around him and had clopped away to catch a breath of fresh air. Gino stayed with the ladies and volunteered his services to fetch them each a cappuccino while they chatted with several mares of their acquaintance. Their friends moving on to another table of guests, Agatha and Imogene were left alone.

"Gino is certainly attentive, Imogene," Agatha noted.

"He's been a great help since Adriano left." Imogene looked toward the stallion where he waited for their coffee. "I don't know what I'd have done without his support. It's not as if Fidelio was here to bolster me," complained the mare, a hint of her former whining tone creeping into her voice.

"Imogene, I know this is none of my business... but I've heard that Gino proposed to you at one time, when the two of you were very young. Do you have any regrets that you didn't accept his offer of marriage rather than Fidelio's?"

Smiling dreamily, like a school filly in her first crush, Imogene admitted, "Gino is everything that is good and kind, but I fell in love with Fidelio."

"That's a relief," sighed Agatha. "I was afraid..."

"...that Gino was getting starry eyed?" Imogene finished for her friend, then chuckled. "No. He's admitted to me that he enjoys his freedom to befriend whichever mare is most in need of companionship; he's a perfect galantuomo."

"And here he comes now," noted Agatha, watching the stallion cross to their table, balancing a tray with three cups of coffee.

* * *

Mingling discretely with the crowd milling about the room was a chestnut-colored stallion with a mulberry mane. He was the same pony with whom Snapshot had conversed earlier, his dark eyes hooded with... was it anger? Or was it malicious intent?

Accepting a cup of coffee and an overly rich dessert from Vanguard now that the assembly was thinning, Sugarberry took the opportunity to gaze out over the guests and relax a bit. "This has been a lovely evening," she said, smiling at her husband before continuing her perusal of the elite group of ponies in attendance.

"It met all your expectations?"

"Every one. And even Snapshot was unable to cast a pall over the occasion."

"Where is he? I've barely seen him."

"He's spent most of his time shadowing Macarius. He has some grand idea for a new book that he's trying to convince Macarius to back." Suddenly, Sugarberry frowned. "Vanguard, do you know that stallion standing under the palm tree directly ahead of us... the pony with the dark purple mane?"

"The one staring our way?"

"Yes; having seen him with Snapshot, I don't trust him."

"He does seem rather intent; maybe he's looking for someone."

"You don't think Snapshot planted him here to cause trouble, do you?"

Chuckling, Vanguard shook his head. "Just look at the book tables, my love. There are barely any left. It's a little late to think of throwing a wrench into the affair; you've already succeeded in surpassing Macarius' expectations for the unveiling." Vanguard grinned as a cornflower blue stallion passed in front of them. "Gino is true to form, playing the gallant for Imogene and Agatha again tonight. I wonder where Hubert snuck off to?"

"Vanguard," Sugarberry's tense voice whispered, "that stallion is heading this way!"

Lifting his gaze to see that the mulberry-maned chestnut was, indeed, coming swiftly in their direction, Vanguard drew-in a sharp breath. "It's not us he's after, Sugarberry; it's Gino."

The truth of that observation was born out as the stranger quickly closed the distance between himself and the unsuspecting Gino; and, with a series of agile moves, he sent the loaded tray of coffee to the floor with the blue stallion immediately following.

"Fidelio, how could you?" wailed a distraught Imogene, her eyes wide with surprise and disbelief.

The stallion said not a word, only glared at his wife for a brief moment before turning and making his exit through the crowd of bewildered onlookers.

* * *

"The only lights on are the ones I left," sniffed Imogene as she led Agatha and Hubert up the walkway to her home. Gino, the left side of his face swollen and bruised, had already been accompanied to his own apartment where he had assured Imogene that there were no hard feelings and that he only hoped that she and Fidelio could work things out.

"And you said Leandra is working a late shift at the pizza parlor tonight?" Agatha queried.

"I wish she was here," murmured Imogene as Hubert unlocked the door.

"Hubert and I will stay with you," assured Agatha as they entered the town house, "until we're sure you'll be okay." The blue unicorn scanned the room, half expecting a belligerent Fidelio to be hiding in the shadows.

"I'll have a look around," stated Hubert, going on a systematic search of the rooms. "Ah!" came his voice when he reached the kitchen. "There's a duffle bag by the back door which I assume doesn't belong to you, Imogene," he called.

"Then he's here," whispered Imogene, her pink face becoming paler.

"I'll check the upper rooms," Hubert informed the mares, flicking on the lights before setting off up the stairs. Agatha and Imogene waited in silence until Hubert came back down, shaking his head. "He's not up there, either. I imagine he dropped off his things before going to the fashion show to find you, Imogene, and now is prowling the streets, working off his anger."

"I'll make some coffee," suggested Agatha.

"No, Agatha, that won't be necessary," Imogene intervened. "I can take care of myself from here on in. After all, there's no guarantee he'll ever come back, is there?"

"I don't like leaving you like this," Agatha argued.

"I need some time to think... and to cry," sniffed Imogene. "Thank you, both of you, for seeing me home and worrying about me; but now I have to face the reality of my mistakes."

"The blame isn't entirely yours," counseled Agatha. "Mistakes were made on both sides."

"Thanks, Agatha," Imogene tried to smile as she hugged the unicorn. "I... I'll call you in the morning."

Sharing a worried glance, Agatha and Hubert realized they had been soundly dismissed and, with a final pat on the shoulder for the distressed mare, mutely let themselves out of the house.

* * *

Dropping into the nearest chair and covering her face with her hooves, allowing the tears to fall freely, Imogene did not hear the click of the back door nor did she see the chestnut stallion framed in the doorway watching her. She nearly jumped out of her skin when his voice vibrated through the room.

"There are a few things I'll be needing..."

"Fidelio!" The mare was on her hooves in a moment, her moist eyes wide, her wet cheeks shimmering. "Thank God, you came back!"

"Why? So you can denounce my treatment of your Gino?"

"Gino has been a good friend, and what you did is beyond reason; but that's over and done with. The important fact is that you're home... where you belong."

"Is it, Imogene?"

"This is your home; that hasn't changed."

"But, is this where I belong?" The words were spoken so softly, Imogene had to strain to catch them.

"You are my husband; I'm your wife."

"Does Gino know that?" His dark eyes flashed and he headed for the stairs. "I'll pick up a few of my things and get out of your way." He did not hear- or ignored- Imogene's strangled moan of despair.

* * *

When Fidelio came back down the stairs with an overnight bag clutched in his hoof, Imogene was waiting, her face dabbed dry and her stance determined. "Fidelio, we have to talk."

"It's a little late for that." He brushed past the mare, his path straight for the door.

"You've been gone for over a year. How dare you come back and make judgement on one evening!"

There was a vibrancy, a strength, in Imogene's voice that made Fidelio stop in his tracks, although he did not turn around to face his wife. "Which is worse, Imogene... to leave as I did eighteen months ago because I could no longer abide your constant need for my attention... or to return to find you have no need of me whatsoever?"

"I'm sorry for what I'd become, Fidelio. I knew when I married you that your work would take you away for long periods of time; but what I didn't know then was how your absence would hurt me. I'm not proud of the fact that I slowly developed a psychosis just so that you would be forced to limit your scientific expeditions; but it did keep you at my side... which is where I wanted.... no, needed... you."

"At what cost, Imogene? It was your neurosis that drove me away... and our son, in turn. Was it worth it?" The stallion moved toward the door once more.

"I was trapped in a web of my own making," admitted Imogene quietly, forcing Fidelio to stop to catch her words. "I knew I wasn't being fair to either of us or to Adriano, but what could I do? If I dropped the melancholy attitude that had become such a part of me, you would have felt free to leave me in a trice; I only wanted to have you close to me, but I lost you anyway."

"But you found Gino... again." Fidelio faced her head on now, finally getting to the crux of the matter. "You could have married him all those years ago, but you said you didn't love him then... only me. Are you happy now, Imogene?"

"I've always loved you." Her words effected no change in the stallion's black eyes, so Imogene continued. "Leandra was responsible for making the first rent in my self-imposed webbing." A brief smile almost pulled up the corners of the mare's mouth. "She was not about to be bullied by a neurotic aunt, even when I was caught in the megrims. Gino stepped in to help me further shed the barrier I'd woven around myself by easing me back into the society I had shunned for too long."

Dark eyes held the soft blue eyes for several moments before Fidelio shook his head as if to bring himself back to the moment. In his mind, nothing had changed. "Goodbye, Imogene." He picked up the duffle bag that still waited by the door and his hoof reached for the doorknob and opened the door to make good his escape; but he was forestalled by a squeal of delight.

"Uncle! You're home!" Leandra wrapped her forelegs around her uncle's neck in ardent welcome. "It's about time, too. Auntie's moping about the house was beginning to wear on my nerves." The young mare drew back to look into her uncle's face and grinned. "She was terrified that your ship had gone down, and no one had bothered to notify her."

"She wasn't moping tonight."

Leandra rolled her eyes. "It took Agatha hours to convince her to attend the fashion show; otherwise, she'd have been sitting here watching out the window for you like she has been for ages."

Fidelio shot a puzzled look at his wife; then, with a bracing of his shoulders, he turned back to Leandra. "My, my. You've grown up since the last time I saw you." For the first time this trying night, Imogene say Fidelio smile; and it broke her heart that it was not directed at her. He set down the luggage he carried and opened the larger duffle bag. "Here, I got this for you." It was a carving of a female penguin with its youngster peeping out from beneath her protective warmth, and he lifted it to his niece.

"Thank you! I'll treasure it always." She kissed her uncle's cheek, then cast a curious look at Imogene standing forlornly across the room. "Oh! I imagine the two of you have a lot to... talk... about, so I'll take myself off to bed." She winked at Fidelio. "Aunt Imogene has been so excited over her plans to show you around Vulcanopolis to acquaint you with all the changes that have taken place since you left. I hope you're not too exhausted by your trip home, because you will be by the time she's through with you." Leandra nearly danced across the room to kiss her aunt; and then with a cocky smile at them both, she ran up the stairs.

The quiet that enveloped the room was intense as Imogene stared at her husband and Fidelio stared back.

* * *

"You were worried... about me?" Fidelio broke the silence.

"You should have been home weeks ago."

"There were storms and delays; I sent you a message, but you obviously didn't receive it."

"No... not a word since your letter back in March." Imogene's lashes fluttered down as she remembered the distress she had suffered.

"I... I'm sorry."

Raising her eyes to meet his again, Imogene thought she saw a softening of those dark orbs; and her heart lifted in hope. "I did miss you terribly, and I'm very happy to have you back with me. Please, give us another chance." She dared to take several steps toward the stallion.

"What I saw tonight... you and Gino... was nothing more than two old friends out on the town?"

Imogene moved closer, her eyes radiating her emotion so intensely that Fidelio could barely breath as he waited for her answer. Eighteen months now seemed like an eternity.

"Two very old friends," Imogene smiled, her hoof reaching out to her husband. "But right now I feel as young as that bride you carried over this very threshold." Her eyes slipped toward the door, but hurried back to rest on Fidelio's face. "And I love you more now, if that's possible, than I did then."

In a moment, Imogene was wrapped in her husband's forelegs. "It's too late tonight to apologize to Gino." Fidelio's lips twisted into a rakish grin. "But not too late... for us... I think." His utterances, punctuated by soft, silky kisses, were a healing balm to Imogene.

"Not too late..." were the last words she was allowed to vocalize.

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