My Little Pony Monthly Issue 43 (October 1, 2000)


My Little Pony Monthly
Established June 1997
This Newsletter is Safe for All Ages

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Issue 43
October 2000
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Index of this issue–



1. Contest Corner

2. The End of the Continuation of the Beginning (by Barnacle)

3. Ponies at Camp Chapter Two (by Cinnamon Sugar)

4. Kyrene Undercover (by Tabby)

5. Clever Clover vs. the Flatlands Chapter 5 Part 2 (by Clever Clover)

6. The Adventures of Baby North Star and Baby Brother Bright Bouquet Chapter 4 (by Baby Steamer)

7. A Broken Match (by Sugarberry)

8. The Dance! (by Masquerade)

9. Change of Heart (by Sugarberry)

10. Baby Ribbon's Good Day (by Steamer)

11. Ginseng and Sassafras Tea Chapters 13-14 (by Sugarberry)

12. Early Pony Special

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Contest Corner


The winner of last month’s contest (which was a scavanger hunt) was [email protected]! She will be receiving an autographed copy of Chris Platt’s book entitled The Forbidden Stallion.

This month’s prize is another autographed Chris Platt book, and the last of her books we will be giving away-- Derby Day, from the Thoroughbred Ashleigh series.. A summary is as follows:



“Ashleigh Griffen’s favorite colt, Aladdin’s Treasure, is set to run in the most exciting horse race of the year-- the Kentucky Derby. Within days of the race, Aladdin is badly spooked and throws his rider. From then on, the colt is not himself. The jockey claims Aladdin is ruined, and insists that he be scratched from the Derby and retired. But Ashleigh refuses to believe that Aladdin must give up what he loves-- racing. How will she convince the colt’s owners that Aladdin must run in the Derby-- and that he’ll win?”



To win a copy of this exciting book, all you need to do is locate the hidden horseshoe-like symbol lurking somewhere in this issue. If you manage to locate it, please e-mail me at [email protected], telling me the exact location of where you found it. Correct answers will be entered in a drawing to determine who will get the grand prize. Entries must be received by October 15. Good luck!



If you would be interested in purchasing other books written by Chris Platt, try doing a search for her on www.bn.com or www.amazon.com

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The End of the Continuation of the Beginning
by Barnacle ([email protected])


“Weird,” Kracken said as he gazed through the gap between the cliff face of the mountain top and the mysterious floating structure before them.

“Creepy,” Davey agreed. Both of the two Bushwoolies were lying on their stomachs and cautiously peering over the edge as well.

Standing at the farthest eastern point of the Dakytins kingdom, the strange group of adventurers found themselves at the very top of a vertical cliff that dropped thousands of feet down to a valley floor somewhere unseen below. More disconcerting than this, however, was the giant mass of rock which floated before them. It looked as if the top of a craggy mountain had been cut cleanly off with a knife and turned on its top so that the flat side could be neatly landscaped with lush gardens and thick hedges. But to make it even more exotic, the whole thing just floated there in midair, not moving so much as a hair’s width despite the high winds that blasted up the mountain’s side. This was the SKY BRIDGE!

“I’ll say one thing for you Dakytins,” Kracken said. “You sure know how to make a stair case.”

“While zis is true, you are mistaken when you apply zat sentiment to the sky bridge,” Pierre replied. “Ze Dakytins did not build it.”

“ARR,” Barnacle said, “so where did it come from, then?”

“No one knows; it ‘as always been ‘ere for as long as we ‘ave.”

Malteeze stepped forward with his massive frame at this point and said, “Are we sure we want to trust our faith– nay, our very lives– on this?”

“How dangerous can it be?” Kracken asked and lightly stepped across the one foot gap before anyone could stop him. The sky bridge did not move in the slightest. It was as if the huge chunk of floating rock was somehow fastened tightly to the ground even though that was plainly not the case.

“Most unusual,” Protius commented. “I wonder how it manages to stay aloft.”

“Magic?” Kracken suggested.

“Per’apse giant engines?” Pierre said.

“I hear no machines,” Malteeze stated bluntly.

“The wind!” Jones exclaimed suddenly.

“Yeah, yeah!” Davey agreed. “Like, really big sails, mon.”

“Nor do I see any sails,” Malteeze snarled, beginning to lose what little patience he had.

“ARR, quiet! All o’ ya!” Barnacle said. “It don’t really matter how this thing be keepin’ itself aloft. It’s our only way down outta these mountains, so we be have’n no choice but to give it a go.”

“Besides,” Kracken added, “if the sky bridge has been here for so long, why would it pick right now to stop working?”

“ARR, I think you be forgetting the parts of our little adventure that brought us up to this point,” Barnacle replied.

“Oh, come on. I think our share of bad luck must have run out by this point,” Kracken laughed. “Nothing but smooth sailing from here on in!”

“I sincerely hope you are correct,” Protius said.

Groaning, Malteeze muttered, “Why couldn’t they have just built a staircase?”

Very shortly, everyone was across the small yet imposing gap. Protius probably could have made it without any trouble even considering his age, but Malteeze lifted him over just to be on the safe side. The shaman did not complain in the least; any mishaps would have proved fatal. Naturally everyone feared that Davey and Jones would have problems with the task at hand, but amazingly they safely made it onto the sky bridge without assistance. Apparently they weren’t quite so clumsy when their lives were at risk.

“So who tends the garden?” Kracken asked.

Arrayed before them was a wide stretch of lush green grass that eventually gave way to tall, neatly trimmed hedges. All about the area were numerous trees, shrubs, and flower gardens all arranged with the utmost care and all perfectly maintained.

“Zis is yet another mystery of ze sky bridge,” Pierre said. “No one has ever been seen tending ze gardens.”

“You would lead us to believe that these plants grew this way of their own accord?” Malteeze questioned.

“I would lead you to believe nozing,” the Dakytin replied as he admired the scenery.

“Maybe somebody lives here and takes care of everything,” Kracken said.

“Yeah! Yeah!” Davey agreed with zeal and ran about on the trimmed grass. “Little wood fairies!”

“Fairies?” Jones stopped dead in his tracks for he had been picking some of the beautiful flowers. “Do you think they’ll get mad if I take these, huh?”

“ARR,” Barnacle exclaimed, “there be no such things as fairies!”

“Oh, good!” Jones said and happily returned to his flowers.

“Ah, Captain Barnacle, always the voice of reason,” Protius said with a bit of sarcasm.

“ARR, that’s right,” Barnacle quickly agreed. “Now I think we best be on our way and quit sight seein’.”

“Actually, I meant that we really should not be to hasty to rule out any possibility in this strange and wondrous place,” Protius clarified to the pirate. “However, you do have a point. We should get moving. No one has any idea how long this sky bridge is and it would be most advisable to put it behind us as soon as possible.”

Kracken stepped up to the giant parrot. “Really?” he said. “I’d have thought a place like this would be really neat in your estimation.”

“So would I,” Protius concurred. “But something about this place unnerves me.”

“I know what you mean, master,” Malteeze added. “It’s as if...” he trailed off as he took in their surroundings. “There is something here but I cannot quite place it...”

Setting out with a purposeful step across the grassy space, Barnacle headed for the hedges at the far end. “ARR, enough talk; it be time for action.”

Everyone fell in behind the pirate captain and made their way to where he now stood beside the hedge row. The thick growing plants grew in a huge semicircular arch which stretched from one side of the sky bridge to the other. At first glance it seemed to present an impassible barrier; but as the group got nearer, they realized that a heavy bronze door was hung on two stone pillars right in the middle of the living wall.

“ARR, I’m guessin’ that be our way outta here,” Barnacle said as they examined it.

Reaching out and getting a firm grip on the handle, Kracken braced himself and prepared to pull the door open. “Here goes,” he said, and then gave a mighty pull.

“Careful,” Pierre warned.

To everyone’s surprise, the door popped open right away– in fact, it swung open so easily, Kracken lost his balance and fell on his back. “Hmm, that was easier than it looked,” he commented as Pierre helped him up.

“ARR, somebody hasta be keepin’ this stuff up,” Barnacle said. “Otherwise that thing woulda been rusted closed and it woulda taken all of us to pry it open.”

“Curious,” Malteeze said and then peered past the great door. On the other side lay a long passage made up of more hedge. It went for a way and then split to the right and left at perfect right angles. “A hedge maze?” the feline said.

“Apparently...” Protius said.

“So much for your ‘smooth sailing’,” Pierre said good-naturedly and slapped Kracken on the back.

“Yeah, I just had to be wrong, didn’t I,” Kracken replied, somewhat disappointed.

So, with nowhere else to go, the mismatched group set off into the hedge maze. As the last member set foot across the entrance, the metal door swung quickly closed of its own accord. Even with everyone present pushing against it, the door would not budge. They were now thoroughly trapped inside the strange place. There would be no turning back.

“This is just wonderful,” Kracken muttered in disgust. “Our day just keeps getting better and better.”

“Don’t lose hope yet,” Protius said positively. “Just as every maze has an entrance, so too it must have an exit.”

“Yeah,” Kracken agreed. “But we have to find it before we can use it.”

“ARR, then maybe we should get started,” Barnacle said.

And so, they did just that. At first it was easy; there was only the one way to go, but that changed fast enough when they came to the “T” junction ahead of them. Protius, Malteeze, Kracken, and Davey all thought they should go right while Barnacle, Pierre, and Jones considered left to be the best bet. After a good deal of arguing, it was finally decided that they would take the right hand passage for now but that they would then take the first left after that.

Barnacle and Protius both thought this was a fairly decent plan because it would keep them moving in the direction they wanted to go. However, Kracken pointed out that the exit might not be on the opposite side as the entrance. Everyone grumbled slightly at this comment but Barnacle once again set them straight.

Since they had absolutely no idea which direction was going to bring them to the exit in the end anyway, they might as well continue in a single direction instead of simply wandering about aimlessly. They continued in this fashion for some time, always taking a left after a right and a right after a left so as to keep going in a more or less straight line. With all the different paths at right angles to one another, it helped with this tactic; but it wasn’t long before they came to a dead end and had to backtrack to the last intersection.

The day was already getting on and it seemed to the group as if they had made little progress at all. Every junction in the maze was beginning to look like every other junction and the band was beginning to get quite weary with their journey. But then, all of a sudden, something completely different came into view and instantly everyone’s spirits picked up.

Set into the end of what would have otherwise been just another dead end was a bronze door that looked very similar to the entrance gate. Everyone stood for a moment and stared, not entirely sure what to make of it.

Finally Barnacle spoke up and the very sound of his voice startled most of those present. “ARR, Kracken, since it was yee who opened the last one, maybe yee’d like to give this one a shot as well,” the pirate captain suggested.

“Oh well,” Kracken replied with a shrug and grasped the pull ring. “I just hope this is the exit.”

With that he pulled at the door and it swung open as easily as the last one. On the other side was a wide open space of neatly trimmed grass and flowers. A small pavilion made of trimmed hedges could be seen not too far away from the door where they stood.

“Yeah, yeah!” Davey cried and rolled through the open door. “We be free, mon!”

“Yeah, free!” Jones added and followed his brother.

The rest of the group followed them but with a bit more caution. After all they had seen in their adventures so far, they were expecting the worse. The worse, however, never came.

Perchance only the second worse...

“ARR, this be great,” Barnacle said as he looked around the place they now stood. “We’re not free o’ this maze yet. Look, the hedge goes all around this clearin’.”

“Yes, my captain,” Pierre said. “But look, zere is another door an ze far side.”

“ARR, check it out,” Barnacle instructed. “But something tells me it won’t be that easy.”

The tall lizard man hurried off with inhuman grace to investigate the door. Meanwhile, Protius and Malteeze had made their way to the pavilion that stood in the exact center of the clearing.

“Hmmm...” Protius said as he examined something before him intently.

“What is it?” Barnacle asked as he walked up behind the parrot.

“What?– oh, have a look at this,” Protius said and gestured to a stone tablet set on a marble stand.

Barnacle gazed at the writing on the slab for a moment but could make nothing of it. Reading the tablet aloud he said, “ ‘SHONIX... what comes next?’ ARR, what does that be meanin’?”

“Shonix?” Kracken said. “Wasn’t he a king or something?”

“Not to my knowledge,” Protius replied as he rubbed his beak in thought.

“Nor mine,” Malteeze concurred.

Just then Pierre rejoined the others at the pavilion and reported his findings on the second door. “It is as you feared, Captain,” Pierre said. “Ze door does not move; however, zere is a small key hole.”

“Locked, then?” Kracken said more than asked. “Maybe we can pick it.”

“ARR, it be worth a try, but–“

Before Barnacle could finish, though, Protius suddenly cried out, “Z!”

“Z?” Kracken asked.

“Yes!” Protius replied. “Z. That’s what comes next!”

“Huh?”

“Yes...” Malteeze said. “I see now.”

Barnacle stepped forward and examined the tablet again. “ARR, what do you mean?” he asked.

Protius pointed at the word SHONIX and traced each letter with the tip of his feather as he spelled it out, “S, H, O, N, I, X. It’s not a word; it’s just letters– all the letters that appear the same when you turn them upside down as they do when you read them right side up. What would come next would be the next and last letter which is like these others... Z.” As he said this last part he traced the letter “Z” into the tablet after the others and to his surprise found that the stone was soft in this area. As he pulled his wing away, the letter he had just placed on the tablet stayed there. “Very strange,” he said.

“Look!” Davey and Jones both cried out at once and pointed at the base of the pedestal that the tablet was sitting on. Slowly, a hidden compartment slid open and inside was a small gold key.

“Quick,” Barnacle cried. “Grab it!”

In their excitement, both of the Bushwoolies dove for the object but instead only succeeded in running into each other. Fortunately, Protius reached out and snatched up the key a split second before the compartment snapped shut.

“Whoa, that was close,” Kracken said.

“Aye! Look at zat!” Pierre said in alarm. “Ze tablet is returning to normal!” And as everyone looked, the slab of rock was indeed repairing itself where Protius had etched the letter “Z” into its surface.

“Very strange indeed...” Protius muttered.

“ARR, let’s not be wastin’ any more time,” Barnacle said. “For all we know this whole place will disappear just like that letter did! See if the key’ll work in that door.”

“Yes... of corse,” Protius agreed whole-heartedly.

“I sure hope this one is the way out!” Kracken said enthusiastically.

“Zere is only one way to find out!” Pierre exclaimed. “Come, let us see if this does not open the door!”

“Yes, yes,” Protius said as he scuttled across the field. Everyone else fell in right behind him; and when the shaman reached the door, they all fanned out into a semicircle so that they could all see what was happening. Holding the key in the air so that its polished surface caught the light, Protius took a deep breath and muttered some long forgotten verse as if it would somehow effect what was on the other side of the door. All the others held their collective breaths as they watched intently. Except for the leaves stirred by the gentle breezes blowing across the hedge maze, the silence was absolute. No one, however, even noticed since they were so focused on the event unfolding in front of them.

Finally, Protius reached out with the key and just as he placed it at the keyhole, Kracken suddenly blurted out, “Did you hear that?”

Every one of the group jumped slightly at the sound of his voice, for they had been so focused on the drama before them that they had failed to notice the silence of the hedge maze.

But now it was quickly broken.

“ARR!” Barnacle cried. “Hear what!?”

“Voices,” Kracken replied. “I thought I heard voices for a second there...”

Davey and Jones grabbed hold of each other in fear and one of them muttered, “The fairies be comin’ ta git us, mon.”

“Yeah,” the other agreed shakily.

“ARR,” Barnacle snapped. “There be no such things as fairies!”

“But didn’t anyone hear it?” Kracken asked, hoping that someone would back him up on his claim.

“I ‘eard nozing, my friend,” Pierre said. “But zat does not mean zat you did not.”

Malteeze frowned as he looked down at the first mate and shook his head.

“Well, I suppose it doesn’t matter one way or the other,” Kracken said. “If there are other people in this maze, they’re not here now, so we can’t do anything about it anyway.”

“ARR, that be exactly right,” Barnacle said. “The only thing we have to worry about right now is us... so, Protius, if you would?”

Protius nodded and pushed the key into the slot. It slid in smoothly and then stopped. “Well, I suppose here goes nothing,” the parrot added as he turned the key. With a heavy thud from inside the massive gate, the door slowly swung open to reveal what awaited them on the other side...

“More maze!” Kracken said in disgust.

Everyone present groaned at this, for that was exactly what was on the other side of the door– another hedge hallway that branched off in various directions.

“ARR, what are yee all waitin’ for?” Barnacle said as he boldly stepped into the maze once more. “Now that we be this much closer to the exit doesn’t mean it’s time to give up! Come on now, move it!”

“Aye-aye, sir,” Kracken said, less than enthused, and followed his captain.

One by one the rest followed suit, until Malteze was the last to past the threshold. And as he did, the door slammed shut, just like the last one had. And just like the last one, it was sealed so tightly that it would not open again from their current side.

“Ah, trapped again,” Pierre said flatly.

“Trapped,” Protius agreed. “But only for the moment. We’ll find the exit eventually.”

“ARR,” Barnacle concurred.

And so they set out into the hedge maze once more. Just like before, they used the same tactics for navigating and hoped that it was taking them in a more or less straight line through the labyrinth. This time, however, spirits were not quite as high as they had been starting off. As the sun sank closer and closer to the tops of the living walls, so too did the collective mood of the group sink.

It didn’t help matters that Kracken continued going on about having heard voices. The thought of being carried away by fairies was really beginning to frighten the Bushwoolies, and they grew more worried with each step they took. Malteeze, on the other hand, was simply getting irritated with Kracken’s prattle and an argument was about to break out over it when Barnacle suddenly snapped at both of them to be quiet.

“He started it,” Kracken quickly replied, pointing to the large cat man.

“I would think that a pirate of your ilk would at least try to rise above such childish quips,” Malteeze said in return. “And besides, you started it.”

“Did not!” Kracken retorted.

“Did too,” Malteeze said flatly.

This exchange probably would have continued if Barnacle hadn’t cried out, “ARR, shut up, both of you! I thought I heard something myself there a moment ago.”

“Told you so,” Kracken said as he lightly jabbed Malteeze in the ribs. Malteeze jabbed him back, and the force of the impact sent Kracken sprawling.

Protius let out a deep sigh and stepped between the two before the confrontation escalated into anything worse. “Now, Malteeze, you should know by now that violence is never the answer to such trivial things like this,” the parrot was saying to his pupil.

Meanwhile, Barnacle continued to listen intently to their surroundings as he slowly made his way to the end of the passageway they were currently in. Pierre trotted up behind the pirate captain and whispered, “Captain Barnacle, did you really ‘ear somezing back zere?”

“ARR,” Barnacle replied as he scanned the bushes around them. “I can’t be sure, but I coulda sworn I heard voices from the other side a one of these hedges...”

However, as he rounded the corner of the passageway, something coming from the other direction collided with him. Barnacle was knocked off his hooves and Pierre instantly drew his swords. Malteeze, Kracken, and the others quickly forgot their differences when they heard the tell-tale sound of cold steel being unsheathed and ran to the end of the aisle to see what the commotion was about.

When they arrived a split second later, what they saw was quite strange. Pierre was standing at the intersection of the two passages with both of his rapiers in hand and ready to strike. Barnacle was on the ground rubbing his head while some newcomer was also laid out on the grass facing the pirate and also rubbing his head.

“Ow,” the grey stallion who had run head-first into Barnacle groaned and then looked around. This stranger only needed one quick look before he put up his hooves in defense and began apologizing. “Whoa, whoa, whoa,” he said. “No need for swords, man. I thought I heard someone and was coming to check it out. I didn’t mean no harm.” Pierre backed off somewhat at this but did not put the weapons away.

“Who are you?” Kracken asked.

“And what are you doing here?” Protius added.

“You not a fairy, are ya, mon?” Davey said shakily.

“ARR, I just wanna know why ya hadda run inta me like that,” Barnacle groaned as he got to his hooves.

“Look, man, I said it was an accident,” the gray pony replied. “I’m sorry.”

“Wait a second...” Barnacle said. Now that he finally got a good look at the stranger, something about him looked familiar. “Do I be knowin’ ya?”

The gray pony flipped his dingy green mane and took a look at the pirate. “I don’t know, but I think I know you. Aren’t you Barnacle, the pirate from Calimidad Island?”

“ARR, I am,” Barnacle replied. “And you be that Cliff Diver person, right?”

“Yep, you got it, man,” Cliff said and then jumped to his hooves as well.

“ARR, so now that we got that out a the way, maybe we can get down to practical matters,” Barnacle said. “Like what you’re doin’ here?”

“Hey, man, I wanna ask you the same thing,” Cliff said good-naturedly. “You see, me and my crew, the Xtreme Ponies, were coming up into the mountains here to do a little snow-boarding; but we found this weird elevator thing and ended up stuck in this crazy maze. That was about four weeks ago and we’ve been stuck here ever since. How about you?”

“ARR, that be a long story,” Barnacle said. “But the short version go somethin’ like this: me and me own crew were out having a little treasure hunt when we got stuck in these mountains. After a few scuffles we found out that this blasted place was the only way home.”

“We’ve only been in here since this morning but we were already starting to run out of patience,” Kracken said. “I can’t imagine how you could put up with this place for four whole weeks.”

“Well, you know,” Cliff shrugged, “this kind of thing is what we Xtreme ponies live for. At first it was kinda fun, answering riddles and finding our way through a maze.”

“You mean there are more of these riddles?” Protius asked.

“Oh yeah,” Cliff said. “Lots more; we were doing pretty good until this last one got us stumped. We’ve been trying to figure it out for days.”

“ARR, what about the way out?” Barnacle asked. “Do yee know how we can get out a here?”

“Well...” Cliff said. “We’re not totally sure but we figure we must be getting pretty close.”

“Perchance we could help,” Protius suggested. “Maybe a fresh perspective would reveal something that was overlooked before.”

At this, Cliff’s expression brightened considerably. “Hey, man, we want to get out of here too! Any help you could give us would be great!”

“ARR, then lead the way!”

“Yeah, follow me!” Cliff cried before turning and hurrying off in the direction he had come from. All the others from Barnacle’s group needed no persuasion to follow, and everyone took off after Cliff.

“You seem to know your way around pretty well,” Kracken commented to the pony when he saw how surely Cliff maneuvered through the winding passages.

“When you’re stuck in the same place for three days with not much to do, you tend to get to know your surroundings,” Cliff replied. “Like, for example: here we are.”

And sure enough, ahead of them in the side of the passage, a heavy brass door was hanging open thanks to a well-placed snowboard wedged into the hinges.

“Gee,” Kracken said, pointing at the board. “I wish we would have thought of that.”

“But we don’t be havin any surfboards, mon,” Davey said.

“Yeah, yeah,” his brother agreed.

Kracken chuckled and replied, “No, I just meant jamming the door open... with anything we have.”

“What good would it have done?” Malteeze asked. “We would have been able to back-track through the passages we had already come, but it would not have gotten us any closer to the exit any sooner.”

“Always mister positive, aren’t you?” Kracken replied.

“I merely see situations for what they are,” the cat man said.

Fortunately, before the two got into another argument, Cliff unintentionally intervened and diffused some of the tension. “It may look like a good idea,” Cliff was saying, “but we actually lost all of our boards doing this. I don’t know how they do it, but these doors are stronger than they look.”

But by this point all of Barnacle’s group were now in another clearing. Five ponies of various colors were lounging around; but upon seeing these new comers, they all jumped to their hooves and ran over to meet them.

“Dude!” one of them, a green and blue colored stallion, exclaimed as he jumped around excitedly. “I mean, dude!”

“Calm down there, buddy,” Kracken said. The way this one was hopping around in circles about them made him fear there might be something wrong with the young pony.

“Don’t mind him,” Cliff said to Kracken. “That’s just the way Jet is; he can’t help it.”

“Dude!” Jet agreed.

The other Xtreme ponies, however, seemed to be taking the situation more calmly but were still quite excited by the new faces. One of them, a dark purple mare, stepped up beside Cliff and with a slight accent said hospitably, “What strange zings you find, Cliff.” And then to the wanderers she added, “I would welcome you all to this place but I’m not sure exactly were this place is.”

“Oh, zat is quite alright, madame,” Pierre replied. “We have very little idea of were we are, as well.”

“So who are they?” one of the other Xtreme Ponies asked rather bluntly. He was an ice blue color with white tail and mane that were both shaved back quite severely. This gave him a bit of a rough appearance which he seemed to be living up to so far.

“ARR!” Barnacle exclaimed and stepped forward. “I am Captain Barnacle, pirate of Calimidad Island. This be my crew: Kracken, me first mate.”

With a smile, Kracken gave a little wave and said, “Hi.”

“Davey and Jones,” Barnacle continued with the introductions.

The Bushwoolies smiled broadly and gave the Xtreme Ponies a peace-sign.

“And next, Pierre, the newest addition to the crew...”

“It is a pleasure to meet you,” Pierre said with a sweeping bow.

“And these are Protius and his pupil, Malteeze,” Barnacle explained of the shaman and the feline. “They are just travlin’ with us for a while till we get outta this place.”

“Hello,” Protius said. Malteeze just nodded slightly.

“Pirates?” the bright orange Xtreme Pony said distantly. “That’s cool.” With her purple hair tied tightly into some kind of dreadlocks, this one looked like the strangest of the lot.

“Cool,” Cliff said. “And now for my side of the introductions.” Motioning to the purple mare standing next to him he said, “This is Luge; I guess you could call her our second in command.”

“Bonjour,” Luge said with a slight bow of her head.

“This here is Mogul,” Cliff continued as he patted the ice blue pony on the back.

“Yo,” he replied simply.

“These two are Bungee and Jet,” Cliff said as pointed to the orange one first and then the green one.

Bungee waved and Jet stood, pawing at the ground as he said, “Dude! Nice ta meet ya all!”

“And last, but not least, we have Blade,” Cliff said and motioned to the dusty rose colored mare standing in the back.

She gave a meek “Hi,” and a slight wave.

“ARR, very good, very good,” Barnacle nodded as he scanned Cliff’s group. Now that all the introductions were over, the Xtreme Ponies descended on Barnacle’s crew asking all kinds of questions of them. Most of them wanted to know how they ended up in the sky bridge; but just about any topic one could imagine came up as both groups of adventurers got to know one another.

Finally, after a good deal of chatting, the talking was beginning to quiet down; and Barnacle took the opportunity to ask about the puzzle that stumped the Xtreme Ponies. At this, everyone from both groups stopped talking so that they could hear Cliff recount all the details.

He explained how this clearing was much like the other one that Barnacle’s group had been trapped in– a wide open grassy space with scattered flowers and shrubs. However, in the center of this one, instead of a pavilion, there stood a beautiful water fountain decorated with elaborate stone carvings.

Other than that, the only other things is the clearing that they could find was a small hole in the ground and a odd, dried-out gourd. Cliff went on to explain that there was a small ball at the bottom of the hole which they figured was the key to this riddle. The hole, though, was too narrow and far too deep for anyone to reach it; and thus they had remained trapped.

Immediately, everyone wanted to see this hole, so the Xtreme Ponies led them to it. Just as Cliff described, there was small hole in the yard. At first glance, it looked like a gopher had dug it; but a quick inspection revealed that it went several feet into the ground and then stopped. At the very bottom was a small wooden ball.

“Kracken,” Protius said, “you have long arms; perhaps you can get hold of it.”

“That hole is awfully deep,” Mogul warned.

“Well, it’s worth a try, anyway,” Kracken said as he got down on his stomach and reached down into the hole. After a moment he extracted his arm and sat up. “Mogul’s right,” he said. “There’s no way I could get it. Plus, there’s a bend in the side, so I can’t even get my arm in all the way.”

“ARR, this don’t be lookin’ good,” Barnacle said as he rubbed his chin.

“What of the gourd you mentioned?” Malteeze inquired.

“Well, it’s like one of those long skinny ones,” Cliff explained. “And one side was cut off. Hey, Bungee, where did we put that thing.”

“Um... last time I saw it, it was over there, I think,” Bungee replied and pointed towards the makeshift camp the ponies had been forced to erect.

“I’ll get it,” Blade said and trotted over to retrieve the item.

As she was taking care of that, Protius stood and stared into the hole, thinking about how to solve this riddle. Seeing the intense look on the parrot’s face, Kracken tried to lighten his mood a bit and joked, “Protius, you’re this group’s brains. Don’t tell me you don’t have it figured out yet.”

“I wish I did,” the shaman replied, “but for some reason, the solution escapes me.”

“Don’t worry; if anyone can figure it out, I’m sure you will,” Kracken said.

Suddenly, Blade came running from the camp looking quite worried. Going straight to Cliff, she said, “It’s not there. I looked through all our stuff, but it’s gone.”

“Oh great,” Mogul muttered.

“Dude,” Jet said.

“ARR, it’s gotta be around here somewhere,” Barnacle said. “Let’s see if we can’t be findin’ it.”

“Hey. Wait a second...” Kracken said. “Where are Davey and Jones?”

With that, everyone began to look around; and they found that the two Bushwoolies, whom everyone had just assumed were there with them, were gone. Before anyone started to panic, though, Luge quickly put all their fears to rest. “I believe your friends are playing in the fountain,” the purple mare said calmly.

“ARR, with those two you can never be too careful,” Barnacle said.

All eyes turned and indeed the two rambunctious sailors appeared to be playing in the fountain, or at very least trying to. Since the rim of the fountain was well over both their heads, one of them (perhaps Davey?) was standing next to the stone basin, boosting his brother up. Once Jones was safely on top of the fountain’s basin, he leaned down and helped Davey up as well. It was about then that Pierre noticed something odd.

“Eh? But look, what is zat zey are holding?” Pierre suddenly exclaimed and pointed at Davey and Jones.

“Hey, that’s the gourd!” Cliff cried.

“ARR, quick, before they break it, git it away from them!” Barnacle said. Almost instantly, everyone rushed across the clearing towards the two Bushwoolies. Up until that moment, Davey and Jones had been unaware that they were being watched. Now, with the sound of eleven sets of feet and hooves pounding towards them, they quickly realized they were the focus of some interest.

“Drop that gourd, you little thieves!” Mogul cried as he ran towards them.

Davey and Jones both screamed in terror and scurried to escape. The stone they were standing on, however, was slippery from the bubbling water in the fountain; and as they tried to run, their feet slid out from under them and into the cool water they fell with a splash!

“ARR, Bushwoolies...”

Everyone from both groups gathered around the fountain and stared, dumbstruck at the thrashing Bushwoolies for a moment.

“Hey, mon, what ya be doin!?” Davey cried as he stood up in the water which luckily was quite shallow.

“Yeah, mon!” sputtered Jones.

“You creeps stole this!” Mogul said angrily as he snatched the gourd out of the water.

“We was only tryin’ ta git a drink, mon,” Jones said in their defense.

“That’s part of this riddle, guys,” Kracken said as he helped Davey out of the fountain.

Luge lifted out his brother saying, “It’s not for drinking with.”

Both of the Bushwoolies looked confused by this and one of them replied, “Sure it’s for drinking!”

“Ain’t ya never seen a drinkin’ gourd before!?” the other added.

“Drinking gourd?” Bungee asked.

“Yeah, I get it,” Kracken exclaimed and took the object from Mogul. “See?” Taking the gourd by its skinny end, Kracken dipped the fat end into the water. With one side cut off, it made for a handy drinking cup.

“Yeah, yeah, mon!” Jones said happily.

“We be usin’ them all the time back home,” Davey said.

Kracken suddenly stopped dead in his tracks and stared off into space. “Wait a second,” he muttered. “If this is supposed to hold water...”

“Hey!” Cliff cried. “That could be it!”

“ARR, what could be it?” Barnacle demanded; but by the time the words had left his mouth, he was already starting to see what they meant. And in a few short moments everyone else was fairly certain as well.

“If that ball is made of wood like it looks like...” Kracken exclaimed as he started to run back to the hole. In his hand he carefully carried the gourd, filled to the brim with water.

“Then it should float!” Cliff cried.

“It was so simple, it was staring us in the face the whole time,” Luge commented.

Shaking his head in confusion, Protius said, “Why didn’t I see that sooner?”

“Fret not, master,” Malteeze said. “With any luck we will soon be out of this place and we will no longer have to worry ourselves with these foolish riddles.”

“But only if this works, dude!” Jet exclaimed as he bounded past, a broad smile stretched across his face.

“A most odd individual,” Protius said.

“Indeed,” Malteeze agreed.

Meanwhile, the others surrounded the hole again as Kracken poured the water into it. They all held their breath as they waited to see what would happen.

Suddenly Kracken stood up and exclaimed, “Yes! It is floating!”

“But we’ll need more water,” Pierre said.

“Let me get one,” someone said and the gourd was handed off. Soon everyone who wanted to take part had transported at least one cup full of water to the hole and ball was now floating well within reach.

“Would someone care to do the honors?” Kracken asked.

Mogul stepped forward and said, “Yeah, I’ll do it.” Reaching down into the hole, he picked up the wooden ball in his hoof and held it out for everyone to see. “There it is, people.”

“Sure took us long enough,” Bungee said.

“Well, you have it now,” Malteeze said. “Does it appear to open in any way?”

“Hold on...” Mogul said as he examined it. “Yeah, there’s a seam here; maybe it just twists apart...?” As he was saying this, he applied some pressure to the ball; and sure enough, it twisted apart into two halves with no effort at all. Inside the hollow ball was a small brass key that fell to the ground.

Cliff snatched it up and held it in the air. “Victory!” he said.

“And freedom, I hope, as well,” Protius added.

“ARR, what’re ya waitin’ for?” Barnacle asked. “Let’s see if the thing does the trick.”

Tossing the key to Luge, Cliff said, “Here, why don’t you give it a shot?”

“With pleasure,” Luge replied and trotted over to the door that was still closed. Inserting the key into the lock, she turned it and with a hollow clunk from inside the heavy brass door, it swung open right away. Everyone ran over to the opening to get a glimpse of what lie on the other side. They all stood in silence for several long minutes before anyone said or did anything else.

Finally, Barnacle broke the silence with, “ARR, I sure be hopin’ that that’s the way outta here.”

“Well,” Cliff said, not taking his eyes away from the sight, “it sure looks like the way we used to get here.”

On the other side of the opening, there stood another wide expanse of trimmed grass and flowers; but this one was not bordered on all sides by hedges. On the far side away from the large group there was nothing but a sheer drop off. The sky was tinted with vibrant shades of red as the sun set in the west and the misty outlines of mountains loomed not far away at all. The only object which seemed not to belong in this scene was a wooden booth of some kind sitting right on the edge of the sky bridge.

“Is that the elevator you mentioned?” Kracken asked.

“Sure looks like it,” Blade whispered.

“Dude! Let’s go find out!” Jet cried and bolted through the door.

“Yeah, yeah!” Jones and Davey yelled as they followed the Xtreme Pony out of the maze.

But Cliff stopped them dead in their tracks. “Hold it! No one gets on that thing until all of us are ready to go. I don’t want to risk someone being left behind up here.”

“ARR, good call,” Barnacle agreed.

“Dude,” Jet said dejectedly, “I wasn’t gonna get in or anything; I just wanted to have a look.”

“ARR,” Barnacle said, “I’m sure you were, but who knows what those Bushwoolies woulda done.”

“Ah, mon!” Davey cried. “We not be leavin’ without ya!”

“Yeah, mon, don’t ya be trustin’ us?” Jones asked.

“ARR, not after what happened to the Lucas,” Barnacle replied. The Bushwoolies just lowered their heads at that.

Cliff went on to say, “Jet, check it out, but don’t go inside. And keep an eye on those two guys.”

“Dude!” Jet said as a way of agreement and then dashed off.

“And I think I shall help in that endeavor, too,” Protius said as he stepped forward.

“ARR, good,” Barnacle nodded.

With all of that taken care of, Cliff turned to the rest of his Xtreme Ponies and said, “Okay, gang, let’s get our gear together and get out of here!”

They all put up a little cheer before hurrying off to gather their belongings. But now Barnacle addressed his crew as well saying, “ARR, why don’t we give ‘em a hand, crew. It’s the least we kin do.”

“Aye-aye, sir,” Kracken said with a salute and then turned with Pierre to lend a hand. Because the Xtreme Ponies had been trapped in the maze for so long, their supplies were beginning to run low. Fortunately, that just meant that now there was much less to pack and, in no time at all, everything was ready to go.

“Hey, man, thanks for the help,” Cliff said to Barnacle as he shouldered his pack.

“ARR, like I said, it’s the least we kin do,” Barnacle replied. “If it weren’t for you findin’ us, we coulda been lost here just as long as you were.”

“Yeah, but if it weren’t for the help on the riddle, we might not have ever gotten out,” Cliff replied.

“ARR, then I guess we should just be callin’ it even, huh?” said Barnacle.

“Sounds fair to me!” Cliff said. “But could I ask you something? What’s the Lucas?”

“ARR...” Barnacle replied.

Not long afterwards, everyone was gathered at the booth. Both sides did several head counts to make sure all were present before every last one of the them scrambled into the strange wooden structure. It was quite large and all thirteen of them fit inside comfortably; but there was some concern as to whether or not the thing had a weight limit. But before they could even think to address this concern, the door closed and they could feel the booth start a slow decent downward.

With no windows or opening of any kind in the structure, this at first made some worried; but as the minutes ticked by the apprehension seemed to fade. In fact, they were all beginning to grow quite happy with the prospect of finally being free, and this more than cancelled out any bad feelings they were having.

At long last the booth’s motion began to slow and then it stopped altogether. Several antagonizing moments dragged on before the door fell open and revealed solid ground before them. This sight sent all of the occupants scrambling for the door and in a split second, the booth was empty once more.

“Yeehaw! We made it!” Mogul cried.

“Yes, indeed,” Protius replied. “I never thought I would be so happy to set foot on solid ground again.”

“You and me both!” Kracken agreed.

Ever sensible, Barnacle looked around at their surroundings. “ARR, this looks to be like the Dark Forest.”

“Yep,” Cliff replied. “I think this is the same place where we got on that elevator the first time. And that should mean that Dream Valley is just a little way that direction.” He pointed into the thick woods down a long overgrown path.

“We’ll be home in no time,” Luge said. “But it’s a shame we missed out on our ski trip.”

“Yeah, we missed the best part of the season,” Bungee added.

“And, dude, don’t forget we smashed all our snowboards propping open the doors!” said Jet.

“At least we made it out,” Blade said.

“I’ve got half a mind ta go back up there and burn the whole place down,” Mogul said as he raised his gaze skyward. In the quickly disappearing daylight, the Sky Bridge floating high overhead could not be seen at all.

“In this case, I think it would be best to just leave the entire affair alone and simply be grateful you made it out at all,” Malteeze replied to the brash young pony.

“I cannot ‘elp but zink zat when I wish to return ‘ome, I may be forced to travel back through zat place again,” Pierre commented.

“I just wanna go to my home now, mon,” Davey said.

“Yeah, mon, yeah,” Jones agreed.

“ARR, well then, let’s be getting’ to it!”

“One thing before we go, though,” Cliff said. Picking up a large stone, he walked up to the elevator and tossed it inside yelling, “Go on; get out of here!”

As if it had somehow heard Cliff’s order, the door of the wooden box slowly closed and then the strange booth silently floated up into the air and out of sight. A collective sigh of relief went out as it disappeared into the sky.

“Now no one else can get stuck up there like we did,” Cliff said.

“ARR, good call,” Barnacle said. “But if it’s bein’ all the same ta you, I still think it might be best if we put some more distance between it and us before we be beddin’ down for the night.”

“Yeah, I agree,” Cliff said. “We should still have a little daylight left.”

“Well, then, let’s get a move on!” Kracken exclaimed.

And with that, thirteen tired travelers set out into the Dark Forest on the final leg of their journey home.

After about an hour or so a traveling through the forest, everyone decided that it was time to stop for the night. A good site was located, a small fire was lit, and after a meager meal of trail rations, they all settled into sleep. Most of the Xtreme Ponies dozed off right away; but Kracken and some of the others continued chatting quietly amongst themselves for a little while longer.

“So what are you and Malteeze going to do once we get back to civilization?” Kracken asked as he leaned his back against a large rock and stirred the fire with a stick.

“I’ve been giving that a great deal of thought,” Protius replied. “Before I was made a captive of Rosweld, I had been on a journey to seek higher levels of enlightenment. You saw how well that turned out. Now that I have a pupil to teach, I think I may continue with my journey, but this time I must choose varied destinations that will help Malteeze learn true wisdom.”

“Sounds like a good plan; Malteeze could use a lot of that,” Kracken said jokingly. He was about to go on but a low growl from behind him cut him off cold.

“ARR, so where do yee be plannin’ on headin next then?” Barnacle asked.

“I was thinking we might head out to the island confederations,” Protius replied. “Perhaps Calimidad Island.”

“Dude! Calimidad Island has some of the best waves in all the islands!” Jet exclaimed. “We gotta go there someday!”

“Keep it down,” Blade chided groggily.

“Sorry.”

“Calimidad Island? ARR, that’s were I live,” said Barnacle to the shaman.

“Yes, I know. I was going to ask if you might consider letting us accompany you there,” Protius said.

Before Barnacle could respond, Kracken jumped in for him, “Hey, that would be great! We’d love to have the company.”

The pirate captain sneered at his first mate for going around his authority, but said nonetheless, “ARR, it would be a pity ta break up such a successful group. ARR, you’re welcome ta come along fer as far as yee want.”

“Both me and Malteeze are greatly indebted to you, Captain Barnacle,” the shaman said with a slight bow of the head.

“ARR, think nothin’ of it,” replied Barnacle. “Your quick thinkin’ has helped us outta more than one scrape in the past; and Malteeze is always good in a fight.”

Malteeze growled irritatedly at that and finally decided to speak up, “Might I remind you that I’m trying to put my war-like past behind me?”

“Malteeze, while your intentions are noble, you must remember that true wisdom can only be attained if it is tempered with opposition and common sense. Your first goal must be to learn when which of the two must be used.”

“Yes, master,” Malteeze replied and slunk down to meditate on this.

“I love it when he says deep stuff like that,” Kracken said to Barnacle.

“ARR,” Barnacle replied. “I know what yee mean. They’re practically part of our crew already. It just wouldn’t feel right without ‘em around.”

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Ponies at Camp
Chapter Two: But This Is Boring...
by Cinnamon Sugar ([email protected])


Outback yawned. It was five o’clock in the morning, and nobody but him had even showed the slightest signs of stirring. The dapple grey earth pony slowly opened his drowsy eyes and looked around through blurred vision. Brown. Brown and black, and lighter brown, and white, and– lilac–

He remembered suddenly where he was. Out in the middle of nowhere. Out in the middle of nowhere with a crazy unicorn, crazy mom, and sane sister. Out in the middle of nowhere with a box of bugs and stinky food...

Outback punched himself to wake up fully and slowly sat up in his bunk. The mattress was pretty poor compared to the floor. And the blanket was cotton. Perfecty-a-bob.

He rubbed his eyes. He had received a pretty bad night from his bunk, which constantly teemed with beetles and raccoons. He wished as hard as he could that he had kindly refused the offer to sleep in the bunk and chosen the clay floor as a bed. Well, he could have the floor next time, if Mom didn’t push him into it.

The colt turned around and dangled his legs over the edge of his bunk. Below him, his sister was snoozing on her own bunk. It was a four-bunk cabin, but Outback wished there was no cabin and no tent and no stupid park, anyway.

His heart nearly stopped as Windy sat upright in her bunk and yelled “GO PETES!!!” at the top of her lungs before collapsing back in her bed with a light thud. Outback’s hoof automatically went to his chest. He waited... and waited... and waited... for a few minutes, but Windy didn’t wake up. He breathed a long sigh of relief and hopped out of the bunk.

The first thing he did was poke his nose into his tote bag. He had brought along some Oatie O’s (“in five fantastic flavors”), and they were still there, safely packed in his bag– thank goodness. He carefully took the box out and set it on the ground. ...Now for the thermos of milk and the bowls.

The thermos was in the puny ice box. Outback set it down beside the box of cereal and went to find a bowl, which was in his mom’s suitcase. He then proceeded to pour a little bit of milk in his bowl and to open the cereal. He was in the process of finishing his breakfast when Baby Cinnamon Sugar woke up.

“Huh?” she asked drowsily.

“Good morning, Sis,” said Outback. Crrrunch.

“I smell something,” said Baby Cinnamon Sugar.

“That’s me,” Outback confessed, and then hissed sharply to his sister, “Hurry up or the adults will find and confiscate.”

“Sure,” said his sister. After fully waking herself up, Baby Cinnamon Sugar slipped out of her bunk and, with her brother’s instructions, got herself a bowl of cereal.

“Mom’s case, second compartment.”

“FOOSH!”

“Not the hair spray, you dope!”

“Whoops.”

Baby Cinnamon Sugar took one of the plastic bowls out of her mom’s bag and set it down beside her bunk. “Please pass the box,” she said.

“Sure,” said Outback. He spit out one of the Oatie-O’s he had just taken into his mouth. “Yeech! Grape. Anyway...” He pushed the box over to Baby Cinnamon Sugar.

“Thanks,” she said, pouring some into her bowl.

After breakfast (and after putting their things away), the two exited the cabin and headed towards the lake. Grey clouds blocked out the sun, and the waves of the lake were dark and angry. The dock was wet– it must have rained during the night.

“Hold. I’m going to get my sweater,” said Outback, running back inside.

Baby Cinnamon Sugar was thankful that they had chosen a cabin– not that she liked it, but she would have been dead by two that morning if she was in a tent. She knew because she knew.

Her brother came back out pulling on a navy sweater the same color as his hair. He rejoined his impatient sister and handed her a burgundy coat. “There,” he said.

“Thanks.” Baby Cinnamon Sugar slipped the coat on and buttoned it up. There was a short silence as they walked over the pine needles towards the lake.

“What’ll we do to kill an hour?” Baby Cinnamon Sugar asked presently.

“Fish,” Outback replied. “At least I am. I don’t know about you.”

“Too bad I forgot to bring books with me,” said the white filly.

“I’ve been thinking that, too; but I have my Game Boy and my cartridges to keep me from boredom.”

“Oh, yeah, I forgot about those.”

Outback walked in his jaunty gait over to the dock. Baby Cinnamon Sugar selected a granite boulder near the beach to sit and think. The surface of the rock was wet, so Baby Cinnamon Sugar used her tail as a seat. She thought of her sister at home, Baby April, a young pony at preschool. How she wished she was there right then. Even a little girl eight years younger then her would be better than a boy.

But even better would be her cousin, Isabella. She was pretty smart and had been out camping before. That was, of course, in a different campground, before Isabella and her parents had moved to Dream Valley. Isabella would probably like Baby Cinnamon Sugar’s company, too; being an only child she was often very lonely.

Sugar Dancer, Baby Cinnamon Sugar’s other sister, was at college; but she was no fun, anyway. She always prissed about with her powdered nose in fashion magazines and gaping at the model ponies’ pretty dresses. Baby Cinnamon Sugar sighed, placed her head in her hoofs, and gazed out at the water.

Outback thrust his hoof into the bait bucket. The lid was lying on the ground beside it. He grabbed a slimy worm and drew it up out of the pail. Next step... he cringed. Attach the gooey thing to the rod. That done, out went the line to catch some fish.

The rod suddenly bent and the line straightened as something bit the hook. Outback pulled with all his strength and, after a bit of struggling, there was a small fish lying flopping on the dock. Striped bass, he thought. He carefully filled the fish bucket with water with his free hoof and unhooked the fish into it. Good. That’s one... now for number two!

Baby Cinnamon Sugar looked back at the cabin. There was nothing to indicate the adults were awake. Good, she thought. What’s that? She squinted as she caught sight of something. A round blue ball was lying on the beach, half-buried in the sand and being wetted with the waves. Baby Cinnamon Sugar slipped off her perch to investigate.

She carefully picked it up in case it was alive; it wasn’t. It was like a blue ostrich egg, although it felt a lot more fragile. She glanced over at Outback. He was either fighting with a trout, fighting with a tarpon, or fighting with a muskellunge. She returned her attention to the object in her hooves. It felt kind of warm. What in the world was it?

She got back up on the rock and put the egg down beside her. It was probably a dud anyway, but Outback would like to see it. He always liked to see uninteresting things like railways and cars and electrical sockets and drills and gasoline pumps.

Outback cheered under his breath as up came a thrashing two-foot-long muskellunge, fighting furiously at the end of his rod. So that bait does pay off, he thought, drawing the big fish onto the dock with a lot of effort. It was a fine specimen, with gleaming scales and clear eyes. Or at least he thought so; one glance over his shoulder at his sister told him that she wasn’t one bit impressed.

“What’s that you’ve got there?” he asked, noticing the round egg in his sister’s hand.

“That’s what I was going to ask you,” Baby Cinnamon Sugar responded. She walked over to her brother on the slippery dock. In the sky, the grey clouds were gathering. A wind had picked up from nowhere. Baby Cinnamon Sugar could smell the lake scent very well. “What is it?” she asked her brother, who had cast out the line again.

“I don’t know,” Outback shrugged. “Ask Mom.”

“As if she knows,” Baby Cinnamon Sugar snorted. “She’d say the obvious– ‘It’s an egg’. That’s not what I want to hear...”

“If it’s an egg, it’s a really weird one,” said Outback. “Most Pokemon eggs have markings on them, like triangles, or squares, or squiggly lines, and have two colors... never a solid.”

“I wouldn’t be so sure about that.” Baby Cinnamon Sugar looked down at the oval object in her hoof. It was a solid color, like Outback had said.

“And it’s definitely not a bird egg,” said Outback.

“Duh,” said Baby Cinnamon Sugar. She jumped back, startled. A tiny crack appeared in the surface of the egg. “Outback?”

“Yeah?”

“It’s hatching.”

“COOL!” Outback pulled his line out of the water and walked over to his sister. Baby Cinnamon Sugar had set the egg down on the ground. The crack grew longer and longer, until it stopped to widen out. There was a tapping noise. The egg shattered.

Baby Cinnamon Sugar stepped backwards, and fell straight into Outback. She grumbled and stood up. Outback moved out from behind his sister and knelt down beside the–

“Griffin?” Baby Cinnamon Sugar asked.

“Yep,” said Outback.

The small sky-blue creature made a small screeching sound in its throat and stood up on its wobbly legs. It looked like... well, like a griffin, because that was what it was. Its head, shoulders, and chest were like an eagle’s, with large round eyes and two small triangular ears. Its front legs were basically a lion’s, with feathers lining it all the way down to the heel. Its back part was a lion’s as well, and there were two small (stubby) wings on its shoulders. It chirped.

“UM,” Outback said. He didn’t really know what he was supposed to say.

“Ooof?” Baby Cinnamon Sugar asked, as if reading his thoughts. The baby griffin had tried to fly and had barreled right into the young unicorn’s legs.

* * *
“I don’t know...” Windy said uncertainly. “Griffins can grow to be very large. I don’t think we should keep it.”

“But Spray is cute!” Baby Cinnamon Sugar returned.

“Hm. We’ll see what your mom says,” said Windy. “But first things first. Let’s have breakfast.”

“No thanks,” said Baby Cinnamon Sugar and Outback in unison.

Windy had woken up a few minutes after the two foals– well, Baby Cinnamon Sugar was twelve and Outback was thirteen– had entered the cabin with the griffin which had been nicknamed ‘Spray’ for lack of a better name. Spray had decided that she (Windy considered herself a griffin expert and had told Outback that it was a girl) was Baby Cinnamon Sugar’s griffin, and no matter how much the young unicorn tried to get rid of her, Spray stayed put.

“No thanks?” Windy asked, not believing them. “Don’t fib.”

“We’re not,” said Baby Cinnamon Sugar.

“Cccccrawk,” said Spray.

“Oh well...” Windy sighed, then turned to Outback. “Do you like fishing?”

Outback’s cheeks turned a little red as he remembered what he’d said at home before they had come to the campground. “Yes,” he said.

Windy beamed. “Very good. I told you you’d like it.” The purple unicorn launched into a tale of how her dad taught her to fish.



Author’s Note: That’s chapter two! Hope ya like it. If you have any comments, questions, ideas, etc., please e-mail [email protected] Thank you.

Naturally, I have some Invento Ponies, too.

* * *
More in Cinnamon Sugar’s family:



Name: Sugar Sweet

Breed: Earth Pony

Color: White

Mane/Tail: Purple

Symbol: Sugar cube with red sweet

Eye Color: Pink

Age: 49

Hometown: Litaville

Currently Lives In: New Pony

Married: Yes. Husband, Lemonade

Siblings: Sugar Dancer, Cinnamon Sugar, Maple Frost

Children: Isabella

Parents: Cherry and Maple

Other: Sugar Sweet is a quiet and caring pony, not quick to make friends but dear if she does. She enjoys knitting and cooking.



Name: Lemonade

Breed: Earth Pony Big Brother

Color: Yellow

Mane/Tail: Forest green

Symbol: Glass of lemonade and a lemon

Eye Color: Pink

Age: 50

Hometown: Rogerston

Currently Lives in: New Pony

Married: Yes. Wife, Sugar Sweet

Siblings: None

Children: Isabella

Parents: Trex and Twirly

Other: Lemonade is Sugar Sweet’s husband and Isabella’s dad. He’s a welder and good at photographing things.



Name: Isabella

Breed: Earth Pony

Color: Pale pastel yellow

Mane/Tail: Pastel green

Symbol: Mauve and green flowers

Eye Color: Blue

Age: 12

Hometown: New Pony

Currently Lives in: New Pony

Married: No.

Siblings: None.

Children: None.

Parents: Lemonade and Sugar Sweet

Other: Isabella is Lemonade and Sugar Sweet’s only child, and cousin to a lot of foals (well, I couldn’t list them all, could I?).



Name: Trex

Breed: Pegasus Big Brother

Color: Purple

Mane/Tail: Aqua with silver streak

Symbol: Hiking boots

Eye Color: Pink

Age: 72

Hometown: Rogerston

Currently Lives in: Rogerston

Married: Yes. Wife, Twirly

Siblings: Lunar (deceased)

Children: Lemonade

Parents: Unknown

Other: Trex is Lemonade’s father and Isabella’s grandpa. He was a writer but is now retired. His wife, Twirly, is deceased.



Name: Maple Frost

Breed: Pegasus Big Brother

Color: White

Mane/Tail: Pale brown with white streak

Symbol: Maple leaf

Eye Color: Blue

Age: 31

Hometown: Litaville

Currently Lives in: Dream Valley

Married: Yes. Wife, Silversteps

Siblings: Cinnamon Sugar, Sugar Dancer, Sugar Sweet

Children: Frost

Parents: Cherry and Maple

Other: Maple Frost is Cinnamon Sugar’s little brother. He works at a pet store in Dream Valley.



Name: Silversteps

Breed: Earth Pony

Color: White

Mane/Tail: White

Symbol: None

Eye Color: Green

Age: 30

Hometown: Rogerston

Currently Lives in: Dream Valley

Married: Yes. Husband, Maple Frost

Siblings: None

Children: Frost

Parents: Mindscape and Disco

Other: Silversteps is a very quiet pony. She runs a babysitting service.



Name: Frost

Breed: Earth Pony Big Brother

Color: White

Mane/Tail: Pale brown

Symbol: Three maple leaves

Eye Color: Brown

Age: 4

Hometown: Dream Valley

Currently Lives in: Dream Valley

Married: No.

Siblings: None

Children: None

Parents: Maple Frost and Silversteps

Other: Frost is a very curious, energetic baby pony. His best friend is Baby April.



Name: Cherry

Breed: Pegasus

Color: Red

Mane/Tail: Pink

Symbol: Bunch of cherries

Eye Color: Pink

Age: 80

Hometown: Rogerston

Currently Lives in: New Pony

Married: Yes. Husband, Maple

Siblings: Andante (deceased)

Children: Cinnamon Sugar, Sugar Dancer, Sugar Sweet, Maple Frost

Parents: Unknown

Other: Cherry is the grandma of Baby Cinnamon Sugar, Outback, Isabella, Maple Frost, and Baby April. She is Maple’s wife.



Name: Maple

Breed: Twinkle-Eyed Earth Pony Big Brother

Color: White

Mane/Tail: Brown, white, rusty, and pale brown

Symbol: Maple tree

Eye Color: Brown

Age: 83 Hometown: Litaville

Currently Lives in: New Pony

Married: Yes. Wife, Cherry

Siblings: Birch and Cedar

Children: Cinnamon Sugar, Sugar Dancer, Sugar Sweet, Maple Frost

Parents: Unknown

Other: Maple is Cherry’s husband. He worked as a builder before retiring.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Kyrene Undercover
by Tabby ([email protected])


The door of the filing cabinet rolled slowly forward, and a slight ruffling of papers could be detected. If anyone had been there in the darkened back room of the police station in the dead of night, they would have certainly detected a supernatural aura to this, seeing as there was no one in the room to have opened the drawer.

At least, that is what it looked like. But not everyone knew about the clever young reporter and her unicorn magic. Turning invisible was an invaluable asset to Kyrene Cicero, to whom snooping was a way of life. It was no surprise that she had chosen the newspaper field for her profession when she was so ably-equipped for the job.

On this evening, Kyrene was not looking for anything in particular– she only wanted to uncover a hidden story from the police station that would make a very juicy article for her newspaper. She was positive there had to be something very interesting and secret in the files, and she had but to find it.

“Cheating ring,” she murmured to herself, extracting one of the folders with her invisible hoof. “What’s this about? There hasn’t been anything published about a cheating ring...”

A smile slowly spread across her face– not that anyone could see it– as she read further. Laughing softly under her breath, she agilely slipped back out into the hallway where she knew there was a copy machine. What if someone heard her? There was certainly nothing they could see.

Her work being accomplished, Kyrene discreetly put the folder back into place and carefully held her copies. Giggling ever-so-softly, she had soon made her exit back onto the city streets. The police would never know she had been there. And even after the story had been published, how could they ever trace it back to her?

Her trilling laughter came back as she stopped in a lonely park, and threw off her mask of invisibleness. The deep purple-blue mane flowed gracefully down her back, complementing her light aqua body perfectly.

Kyrene perused the papers once more, the moonlight illuminating her path. Her face glowed with excitement. “There’s no way Deadline will deny me this one,” she whispered to the night.

* * *
It was early the next morning when Kyrene approached the office of her editor Derrick Darius– well, that was his real name, but everyone at the newspaper just called him Deadline. Kyrene had never grown tired of surprising people with her power; her horn glowed for a moment, and then she simply disappeared from sight.

She prepared to open the door, but paused momentarily when she heard voices coming from within. Oh well, that didn’t matter to Kyrene. She turned the knob slowly and entered, and stood quietly on one side of the room. She noted smugly that she hadn’t in the least been detected by the others in the room.

Kyrene was getting impatient by the time the office finally emptied. She could hardly wait a moment longer to reveal the riveting story she had uncovered the previous night– but, finally, she had her chance.

Just as she was going to turn off her power and make a dramatic appearance, Deadline’s voice nearly startled her out of her wits. “And now, was there something you wanted to say, Kyrene?”

This caught Kyrene off-guard, and she abruptly turned off her power anyway due to the surprise. “I... you... how...” she stuttered.

“You’re the only one I know who can open doors without being seen, Kyrene,” Deadline said calmly. “You have something to show me?”

“Um... yes,” Kyrene said rather meekly, mentally kicking herself for having started off the meeting such as she had. Nevertheless, she set her precious papers down in front of Deadline and tried to regain her composure quickly. “I thought you might be interested in reading a little about this cheating ring I found out about last night.” She had run over that opening line a million times in her head, and hoped that it had sounded cool and collected.

“Oh? A cheating ring, you say?” Deadline was curious now, and began skimming the papers. Kyrene stood back and held her breath, anxious over what he would say.

“Very interesting,” Deadline murmured. “The exchange teacher from Italy is actually the head of this ring, after starting up similar operations across the country... and there’s an intricate plan going on right now to catch him?”

“Uh-huh,” Kyrene breathed and nodded her head quickly. “Do you think it would make a good story?” That was the big question; she was really holding her breath now.

“That depends on one thing.” Deadline looked her in the eye. “Where did you find this information, Kyrene?”

“The police station,” Kyrene swallowed.

“And they gave it to you?”

“N...not exactly.”

“You snuck in, didn’t you?” Deadline didn’t look at all phased by this realization. “And made copies of some of their files. Isn’t that right?”

“Well,” Kyrene sighed. “I guess you could say that.”

Deadline was silent for a spell before he spoke again. “Kyrene, Kyrene. You are irrepressible, aren’t you?”

“You don’t like it, then?” Kyrene stated more than asked. “I should have known you’d just rebuke me.”

“Your cunning nature is an asset to our publication, Kyrene, but you do realize that what you did was basically theft?”

“Mm... yeah.”

“I’m not going to say anything to anyone this time, but try to think things through more in the future. You’re liable to get yourself into more trouble than you’re prepared for.”

Kyrene’s face dropped noticeably. “Yeah...” She turned slowly for the door.

“Wait, Kyrene!” Deadline’s voice stopped her. “I didn’t say I was done yet.”

“Oh? You’re not?” She swung her head back towards him.

“We’ll leave off on any articles concerning this until the police come out into public with it.” Deadline gestured to the papers. “But in the meantime, how would you like to do some undercover work on it?”

“Under... cover?” Kyrene’s face lit up instantly and her eyes sparkled. “Really? You mean it?”

“Make up an alias for yourself, and get to know some of those involved.” Deadline handed the sheaf of papers back to her. “I believe there are a number of names mentioned in here. Find things out about them, personal details we can publish when the time comes. It will give the story a better, fuller perspective.”

“I’d love that!” Stars danced in Kyrene’s eyes. “Oh! It’ll be so much fun!”

“You’re up to it, then?” Deadline would have been vastly surprised if she hadn’t been.

“Oh, I know just who I’ll be,” Kyrene said, slipping off into fantasy-land. “It’s going to be so perfect. I’ll be Chickpea, a flirty southern belle. They’ll never suspect a thing... oh, wow...”

“Just be careful, alright, Kyrene?” Deadline said, fully aware of his young reporter’s tenancies. “Don’t do anything rash.

Kyrene smiled broadly and giggled. “But mah dear Deadline!” she said, slipping into an easy southern drawl. “Have yah ever known me to do anythin’ rash? Chickpea here knows what she’s doin’!”

“Perfect, Kyrene,” Deadline said, a smile spreading slowly across his own face. “Keep it up, and you’ll have a killer of an article to submit.”

“And kind sir, how soon can ah start?” Kyrene looked at him anxiously.

“Since you’re not going to accomplish anything else with this new assignment on your mind, why not right now?”

Kyrene squealed. “Oh, Deadline! I’m so happy!! You don’t know how eternally grateful I am!! Oh thank you-thank you-thank you! There’s so much to be done!!! Where do they all live, and where do they hang out, and where do they work, and how I can reach them– oh wow!!! Too cool!!!” And before Deadline had recovered from the high-pitched shriek, she had pranced off down the hallway to prepare a plan of attack.

* * *
Kyrene wasted no time in her research. A particular Sable that was mentioned in the police report as one of the main answer key sellers sounded like someone she would definitely want to get in touch with; and after making some inquiries, she was able to find out his favorite hang-out, the Crossroad Diner. Nothing could keep Kyrene from her prey, and swiftly she had applied for a job at the restaurant and had weaseled her way into being accepted for the position.

While waiting for her first day of employment, she worked on plans to meet the other key characters involved. Giorgio was high on the list as well; it would be an easy enough affair to get ahold of him. She would only have to pose as a potential student applying for the second semester. Chickpea hadn’t faired well in math during highschool, Kyrene decided. She would want to consult with Giorgio on what math class would be best for one in her standing.

And then there was this Wigwam, who was secretly a private investigator working for Chief Tawny to gather information about Giorgio as well as to keep a protective eye on a mare named Sugarberry while all this was going on! Kyrene wondered about the mare briefly mentioned in the report; who was she, and why had she needed to be watched over by Wigwam because of the cheating ring? That was something the reporter would have to find out.

Wigwam was co-owner of the casino in town as well, Kyrene knew. She could go over there one evening, sit down with a soda, wait for the stallion to pass by, and conveniently topple her chair over and fall to the ground. Wigwam would of course come to her rescue; and Chickpea would surely take the opportunity to sit down for a chat with him while she recovered from her “accident”. It would be the perfect time to dig up some juicy details about his life.

Going back to Sugarberry, Kyrene did some checking, and found that the mare was employed as a receptionist at the vet clinic. The Russian hamster Kyrene kept as a pet would come in handy here; she had but to run into the clinic one day wailing about how her beloved pet was at death’s door. And she would somehow find a way to get some chatting done with Sugarberry while she was there.

Kyrene yawned and looked up at the clock on her wall. It was getting late; the rest of her investigation would wait until tomorrow. Her job started the next day in the afternoon; she would catch up on all her work at the newspaper office and then prepare for that. It was a good plan; Sable, Kyrene decided, would not be able to keep anything from the inquisitive Chickpea.

* * *
Kyrene adjusted the hat she wore as part of her new uniform and smiled to herself in the mirror. “Chickpea is ready for action,” she said under her breath.

The Crossroad Diner wasn’t a very ritzy place, but it did offer its customers sit-down meals served by attractive waitresses. Kyrene was glad of this; it would make it a lot easier to get some words in with Sable if she was actually able to stop by his table.

She kept her eyes glued to the door, waiting for the moment when a dark, young stallion would enter. She ignored all the instructions the cook was giving her, but it didn’t matter if she got fired the first day; if Chickpea worked as well as Kyrene thought she would, she wouldn’t need to use the restaurant anymore.

Kyrene began to worry that Sable wouldn’t appear at the restaurant that day; but just as she was seating several ponies, she saw him and a companion appear at the door. Leaving her previous customers rather abruptly and promising to come back soon to fill their orders, she ran up to the dark stallion known as Sable and offered her service. “Are you two togethah?” she asked brightly in her southern drawl.

“Yeah,” Sable shrugged.

“Well, let’s just see if ah can find a nice little table for y’all!” Kyrene cheerfully intoned. “Want a window one?”

The beet red stallion glanced over at Sable, who just shrugged again. “Sure, whatever,” Sable’s companion told her after a pause.

“It’s my first day of work here so accept my deepest apologies if I do anything wrong,” Kyrene prattled. “It’s just so difficult at first, y’know? Oh, but if I can’t make it here, I just don’t know what ah’ll do! Here’s your table,” she finally ended for a short time.

“Thanks,” Wishbone acknowledged. “And what’s your name?”

“They all call me Chickpea,” Kyrene said with a trilling laugh. “And how about you handsome guys?”

“Wishbone,” the golden-maned one offered.

“Chickpea, huh?” Sable eyed her. “I’m Sable.”

“Well, Sable and Wishbone, I hope to serve you well today,” Kyrene said. “And now, what may I get you?”

After making their selections, Kyrene dashed off to prepare their plates. She noticed the annoyed glances of her previous customers, and giggled as they finally got up and left. No, she certainly wouldn’t last long here.

As she came back out of the kitchen, Kyrene noticed something passed between the two stallions. Wishbone handed what appeared to be some jangles over to Sable, and Sable in turn handed his buddy a few sheets of paper. Math answer keys? Kyrene wondered.

As she delivered their plates, she didn’t let on that she had seen anything of the sort, though. She basically invited herself to join them, perching herself on the edge of the table and chatting amiably.

“I’m so counting on this job to work out,” she chattered. “Otherwise I’m not gonna be able to pay for college tuition next semester. Ain’t it just dastardly? If I don’t get accepted into college I don’t know what I’m gonna do with my life. Y’know what I mean?”

“We both go to college,” Wishbone said. “Here, at Pony Pride.”

“Oh, how wonderful!” Kyrene exclaimed. “You both payin’ your own way like me?”

“Yeah,” Sable suddenly spoke-up. “But I’ve got a good source of income. And the hours are real good, too.”

Kyrene thought she detected a slight flash of fright on Wishbone’s face– did he know about his friend’s shady business, and was he afraid that he’d give himself away? She smiled secretly. If only they knew!

“So, have you been in town long, Chickpea?” Wishbone asked, possibly in a hurry to get off the topic at hand.

“Oh, a few months,” Kyrene sighed. “Sometimes I regret leavin’ my li’l ol’ town, but then I think of all the opportunities I’d be missin’ if I weren’t here.”

“Like meeting us?” Sable joked.

“Exactly what I meant,” Kyrene smiled flirtatiously and batted her eyelashes.

The dark gray stallion grinned at the congenial waitress. “I can tell you and I are gonna get along real fine, Chickpea.”

“Yah think so?” Kyrene smiled brightly. “Do you two like it here at Pony Pride?”

“Beats working at the restaurant back home,” Wishbone recalled. “I mean... uh... sorry, Chickpea,” he apologized, realizing what he had implied.

“Ah, that’s ah’ll right!” Kyrene giggled. “I know waitressin’ ain’t the pick o’ the crop, but yah gotta do what yah gotta do!”

“I plan on aiming high and being the one who gives the orders,” was all Sable said.

Kyrene looked impressed. “Ah like your ideals, Sable-honey! What field yah goin’ into?”

“Something with a mathematical base,” Sable said, winking at Wishbone.

“Oh, math!” Kyrene cried. “What a dreadful, dreadful time I had with that in high school. Ah don’t know how ah’m gonna fair in any college math course!”

“Don’t worry about a thing, Chickpea. I’ll make sure you get straight A’s,” offered Sable.

“Really?” Kyrene’s eyes lit-up. “You must be a genius!” Wishbone choked on the bite of food he was chewing.

“Yeah, well, I guess you could say that,” Sable admitted modestly.

“I think it’s just a grand stroke ah luck I ran into you guys today!” Kyrene went on energetically. “Ah can just tell mah life is gonna be a whole lot better from here on in!”

Wishbone rolled his eyes in response to the exuberance of the young southern mare, while Sable simply looked pleased with the attention. “So, Chickpea, you gonna be busy tomorrow evening?”

“Ah don’t believe ah have anything scheduled,” Chickpea responded animatedly. “Yah got somethin’ in mind?”

“I’m thinking the bowling alley... get to know each other better,” Sable invited. “How about it?”

“Ah would simply love it!” Chickpea declared. “What time would that be bin’ for?”

“Seven o’ clock be okay for you? Meet you there,” Sable suggested.

“It’s a date!” Chickpea grinned. “Ah won’t let yah down, Sable-honey! But now that ol’ cook is givin’ me some nasty glances back there, so I gotta be runnin’. I’ll see y’all later!” And flashing them a last dazzling smile, she was off.

* * *
Regrettably, Chickpea had to buckle-down and catch up on her work at the newspaper office the next day. She was eager to discover what other interesting tidbits Chickpea could unearth; but if she didn’t keep up-to-date on her regular reporting and typing, both she and Chickpea would be out of a job.

Her mind kept thinking ahead to her date with Sable that evening. What questions could Chickpea ask of him that might reveal more about his personal life? It had been incredibly easy to get on Sable’s good side; she wondered if it would be that easy with the others. Since Sable was cooperating so well, though, she would concentrate on him for a bit before moving on.

The work day inched along, but finally Kyrene was free, and she flew along home to her small apartment to prepare for her date. To make herself look more authentically Chickpea, she added some ribbons to her mane and a slight bit of make-up to her face.

She ran down to the bowling alley, and broke into a wide grin when she saw the dark stallion waiting for her. “Oh Sable-honey!” she cried. “Ah didn’t keep ya waitin’, did ah?”

“Nah,” Sable shrugged. “I wasn’t waiting long.”

“Ah must say ah always did enjoy bowlin’ back home,” Kyrene went on amiably as she entered the bowling alley hanging on Sable’s foreleg. “That’s what me and mah friends would do every Fraday night, y’see.”

“Yeah, it’s not too bad,” Sable agreed. “Are you good at it?”

Kyrene giggled. “Ah guess we’ll just have tah see how ah fair tonight, huh?”

“One time I did three strikes in a row,” Sable bragged. “I’m one of the best players here.”

“Ah don’t see how yah could be any less,” Kyrene smiled flirtatiously.

After they had actually started their game, “Chickpea” lived up to her nature and concentrated more on asking questions of her companion rather than trying to hit any of the pins. “Oh, just look at that dastardly ball,” she laughed as it rolled into the gutter the fifth time. “So, Sable, where were yah from before yah ended up here?”

“Bridgetown, if you’ve heard of that,” Sable replied, letting his ball go. “It’s way out past the Flatlands.”

“Oh!” Kyrene acknowledged. “I bet it was a lot like mah nice li’l town. Ah come from Magnolia, y’see. Ah’ll the rest o’ my family’s still there. Been there for generations. Say, you got any siblin’s?”

“Yeah, two,” Sable said, keeping his eye on the lane. “I’m the youngest. Onyx is thirty and Ebony’s twenty-five.”

“Ah got my li’l sister, Pincushion,” Kyrene sighed, “an’ my ol’ big brothuh, Corn Tassle. We had such grand times when we were young’uns!”

“I never did much with mine,” Sable acknowledged. “I always hung with my own friends.”

“What’d y’all do?”

“We started our own rock group once. That was really great,” his eyes sparkled at the recollection. “Yeah, everybody wanted to hear us.”

“A musician, too!” Kyrene exclaimed. “Sable-honey, how grand!”

“Really,” Sable agreed readily, enjoying the complements. “And then one time my buddies and I rode a raft down a canyon of white water.”

“Ooh! How daring!” Kyrene breathed.

Pleased with the response, Sable went on to relate all sorts of fantastic adventures he had taken part in to his date. Kyrene looked at him intently, constantly relating phrases such as “Oh, you’re sooo brave!”, “How exciting!”, and “Sable-honey, ah don’t know how yah did it!” Kyrene tried to tuck enough of the information as she could away in her mind for later reference, and meanwhile Sable was not unhappy with all the compliments.

After their game was over, Sable offered to take her over to the student center for a soda. Kyrene eagerly accepted, and kept up a steady stream of conversation along the way. “So what field did yah brothuh and sistuh get into? You takin’ after eithuh of ‘em?”

“They were both so smart and did so well in school that they could get any job they wanted,” Sable shrugged. “They were so successful that Mom and Dad expected the same out of me; but I couldn’t keep up to their standards.”

“Oh, mah poor Sable-honey,” Kyrene sympathized. “How cold n’ cruel of ‘em, to not see the genius in yah!”

“But I did get into college,” Sable went on quickly. “With the help of one of the instructors, I was able to succeed.”

“Was that here at Pony Pride?” Kyrene queried.

“No, it was at Binks. I was there a year before transferring here.”

“Have yah been doin’ as well here?”

Sable took a little while in formulating a reply, but luckily for him at that point Wishbone and Snowdrift met up with them. Their conversation went onto lighter matters as the foursome continued on to the student center together.

Though they weren’t vital to her undercover research, Kyrene was always eager to find out more information on ponies; and since she couldn’t get any more private conversation in with Sable at the moment, she chatted amiably with Wishbone and Snowdrift over some games of pool. She was intrigued to discover that Wishbone was boarding with a certain Sugarberry– was there any connection? It seemed ironic that a buddy of the main ring leader was boarding with a mare for which a private detective had been hired to keep an eye on. Kyrene would definitely have to find out more about this mare.

At one point, another student walked through the doors and went straight to Sable. Sable exchanged a few words with him, then turned to Chickpea and his other companions. “So, uh, guys, I’ve gotta run now. I need to talk to Lily here about something. And Chickpea, maybe we can get together again soon,” he directed at the aqua unicorn. And quickly dismissing himself, he left the building with the other student.

Chickpea associated a bit longer with Snowdrift and Wishbone, but finally announced her intentions of leaving them. “All the excitement has left along with Sable, y’know what I’m sayin’?” she sighed dramatically. “So I guess ah’ll catch y’all later. If yah see Sable again, will y’tell him for me ah’ll be lookin’ forward to seein’ him again? Knew I could count on yah guys! Buh-bye!”

* * *
Letting herself into her small apartment shortly thereafter, Kyrene collapsed onto the sofa. It was exhausting being a southern belle; she wondered if her ability to speak without an accent would fade away by the time she was finished with her task. Would she be stuck being Chickpea for the rest of her life? Some panic rose up in her mind, but she quickly pushed it away.

Chickpea had been very successful, however; Kyrene grinned to herself. Sable had succumbed to her charm, and now there was nothing holding her back from prying every little secret of his life out of him. She’d already gotten some interesting details; but she was sure there would be more.

Next on her list was the teacher, Giorgio; Kyrene had scheduled an appointment with him the next morning. After her date with Sable, she’d begin to worry about the others.

It was all going simply grand!

* * *
“Mr. Giorgio? Yah able to speak to mah now?” Kyrene said, slowly opening the office door and assuming her role of Chickpea once again.

“You’re Chickpea?” The dark green stallion glanced up from his desk. “Yes, I believe you wanted to discuss something about your math course in the upcoming semester. How can I help you?”

“Oh, yes! I was hopin’ yah could do somethin’ for me. Yah see, I’m simply dreadful in math. I didn’t take much in highschool, y’see. And ah’m from outta town, y’know.”

“Go on,” the teacher invited.

“And now that ah’m gettin’ into college here– in January, y’see– ah don’t know what ah oughtta do in math. Ah was hopin’ you could suggest a course that would best work for me.” Kyrene looked at him expectantly. “But y’know I did do very well in grammar and literature. What’d’ya think I oughtta head for?”

Giorgio nodded understandably. “At this point, I would suggest taking a math placement test,” he explained patiently. “With those results, I should be able to suggest an appropriate class for you to take.”

“A math placement test! What a clevuh li’l idea!” Kyrene squealed. “That sounds like just tha thing, Mr. Giorgio! Yah don’t know what ah help yah’ve been tah me!”

“You can apply to take the test at the administration building,” Giorgio smiled kindly.

“Ah’m gonna rush ovuh there right away!” Kyrene declared. “Oh Mr. Giorgio, ah’ve never encountered such help in mah life!”

Giorgio looked like he expected her to leave at that point, but he could not do away with Kyrene Cicero so quickly. “Yah been teachin’ here long?” she prodded.

“No; actually I’m here as a temporary exchange teacher,” Giorgio admitted.

“Oh, that sounds just plain excitin’!” Kyrene said excitedly. “An exchange teacher, just like an exchange student– how very clevuh! Where is it yah teach normally?”

“Vulcanopolis, in Italy,” Giorgio said, a slight bit exasperated, not having expected this interrogating attitude from the young mare.

“That’s Italy, is it? Ah’ve heard o’ that place! Is this you’re first time in Ponyland?”

“Actually, I did a similar exchange at a different university.”

“Oh, where’s that?”

“It was the Binks University,” Giorgio said shortly.

“And what’s the name o’ tha place you teach over yonder in Italy?”

“Leonardo University.”

“Oh, that sounds just so prestigious!” Kyrene squealed. “What an excitin’ time yah must have, Mr. Giorgio!”

Just then the door to the office opened, much to Giorgio’s relief. Kyrene was surprised to see that it was Sable, and Sable was surprised to see “Chickpea”. “Hey, Chickpea,” he said in a startled tone. “What’re you doing here?”

“Why, Sable-honey!” Kyrene exclaimed. “Ah told yah I was comin’ to school here next semestah. I was just comin’ to get some advice from Mr. Giorgio here.”

“And now, Chickpea, if you will excuse us,” Giorgio said, going to the door and indicating that his appointment with her was over.

“Why certainly, Mr. Giorgio,” Kyrene said brightly. “Thank yee kindly for yah time. And Sable, nice seein’ yah around again, too.”

“Hey, wait for me out there, okay?” Sable invited. “I’ll be out soon.”

“Anything yah wish, Sable-honey! Ah’ll just run down to the power room and be back soon,” Kyrene said cheerfully, stepping out the door and trotting down the hall. But she had no intention of finding the powder room. Once she had heard the door close, she turned on her magic power of invisibility, and walked quietly back up to the door and tried to catch strains of their conversation.

“...know that girl, Sable?” she caught Giorgio saying.

“Oh, yeah. Her name’s Chickpea. She’s pretty cool,” Sable offered.

“Nevertheless, be careful with her around. I didn’t trust her... she had too many questions.”

“Aw, she’s nobody to worry about,” Sable scoffed. “You’re too suspicious all the time. Anyway, if she does get into college here, I bet I can make some bucks off her, too.”

“And you’re too trusting of pretty girls that come along,” Giorgio said accusingly. “Don’t let anything slip, Sable.”

“She’s not gonna find out about anything, boss!”

“Good. But remember Sable, if you fail me now, I can always take evidence to the police about your activities in high school.”

Activities in high school? Kyrene hoped they would go on.

Sable scowled. “Not everyone is smart enough to hack into their school’s system and update their grades. You think I’m gonna do anything less for this cheating ring of yours?”

Kyrene smiled. She was getting some good facts just from this one conversation! So Sable had even engaged in shady activities back in high school, changing his grades on the system. However, sensing that their meeting was ending, she quietly slipped down the hallway and turned off her power. She rounded the corner just as Sable was exiting Giorgio’s office.

“Sable-honey! Is everything okay?” she cried, feigning concern at the sight of him.

“No, it’s nothing,” Sable brushed it off.

“Ah was afraid maybe Giorgio thought yah work was lackin’ or somethin’,” she prattled. “Everything’s okay for yah, ain’t it?”

“Yeah, it’s fine... actually he just wanted to give my last test back to me, and say what an excellent job I was doing in his class,” Sable explained.

“Oh, ah know you’re doin’ just splendidly,” Kyrene cooed. “Now, what was that yah wanted tah see me about?”

“I’m free again tonight... how about a movie?”

“Oh, ah’d love that!” Kyrene exclaimed, clapping her front hooves together. “Meet yah there again?”

“Sure. Eight o’ clock?”

“That’ll be just grand, Sable-honey! See yah then!” Trotting down the hall, Kyrene turned and blew him a kiss before disappearing around the corner.

And Sable watched her go. There was... something about her that he couldn’t quite put a hoof on. Was his teacher right? Was she with the police, having caught onto the cheating ring? But... no, it wasn’t possible. Not Chickpea. So what was it? He stared after her with a bemused expression on his face.



To be continued...

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Clever Clover vs. the Flatlands
Chapter 5: Part 2
The Three Challenges
by Clever Clover ([email protected])


Clever Clover continued onward until the path gave way to a cliff. It was as if the section of the path that Clever Clover was on had been thrust upward ten feet. The cliff, which was cracked and irregular, offered adequate footholds to allow a safe decent for the prince. The trail widened suddenly at the base of the cliff. A jagged crack marred the face of the mountain, and where the crack met the widened path it opened into a dark emptiness– the cave. And in the mouth of the cave stood an intimidating form.

The Green Knight stood motionless, its insect-like body covered in a green carapace. Its forearms, which it held crossed across its chest, were curved blades. On its back was a pair of wings. Clever Clover could barely make out a faint hissing sound, almost a sigh, as the creature breathed.

Clever Clover took stock of his surroundings. Steep cliffs and chasms surrounded the clearing before the cave. The only ways to go were back the way he had come or into the cave, and that meant getting past the Green Knight. “Hm. This is going to take some thought,” Clever Clover mumbled. “There’s no way I’m going to fight my way past this guy.” He stood with his back to the cliff he had just come down, and picked up a pebble and weighed it in his hoof.

The princely pony hurled the pebble with all his might at the Green Knight. The small stone struck right between the creature’s eyes. Clever Clover held his breath; at first the knight did not react in any way. Then it slowly opened one eye. It scanned for the source of the blow to its head. Suddenly the Green Knight spread its wings and launched toward Clever Clover, its blades held high. “Sssscyyyyyyy!” it cried.

The purple prince stood his ground until the last moment and sidestepped just as the knight brought its blades down right where Clever Clover had been just moments ago. “Therrrr!” the attacker cried in fright as it smashed headfirst into the rocks. The Green Knight landed on its feet and turned toward Clever Clover, tried to rase its blades, and finally collapsed.

“Well, that’s one down,” Clever Clover sighed. “Next is the Dragon. What fun.” The purple pony slowly and carefully inched into the mouth of the cave. He expected the air in the cave to be cold and damp– and it was, at first. Then a wave of warm dry air washed over him. The natural chill of the cave returned slowly only to be washed away by another wave of warmth. As Clever Clover proceeded, the waves of warm air became more intense, almost scorching. “If it gets much hotter, I won’t be able to go any further,” the pony complained.

The cave, which had been relatively narrow, widened suddenly into a vast cavern. In the center of the cavern, a dragon slept. It was a great orange beast with leathern wings and a flame on the tip of its tail. Fire shot from its nostrils as it breathed, causing the bursts of hot air. Across the chamber from where Clever Clover stood was a small opening, which the pony assumed led to the third challenge; but first he had to get past the dragon.

“I wonder how soundly that dragon is sleeping?” Clever Clover wondered. “It might be possible to sneak right past him.” The princely pony crept carefully along the wall of the cavern, trying not to make a sound. About halfway around the cavern, though, Clever Clover tripped on something that clattered across the cavern floor. The pony froze. He looked nervously at the sleeping dragon. The creature opened its eyes and glared at the pony. “Chaaa,” it huffed, and went back to sleep.

Clever Clover couldn’t believe what had just happened. “Some guardian,” the prince said. “But this makes things easier.” He strode confidently to what he hoped would be the end of his quest– the third challenge. The mystery.

The passage was very small; Clever Clover had to duck to keep from hitting his head on the ceiling. And it was dark. The only source of light was the flame on the dragon’s tail, and as it became more distant, the light faded. Clever Clover could barely see by the time he reached the end of the passage. The passage opened into another chamber, which was much more massive than the first. The pony couldn’t see the ceiling, walls, or even the floor. He stood on a small platform surrounded by blackness. There was a stone table before him and an open book upon the table. Clever Clover squinted as he tried to read the book in the dim light, but the marks on the pages were alien to him.

“This is some mystery. Maybe I’ll be able to translate it back at the castle; they might have some books on archaic languages.” He tried to lift the book but found it secured tightly to the table. “Now what? I don’t like the idea of sneaking past the dragon and knight again to learn this language and than sneak back in. There has to be a trick to it. Hmm. Foxglove said Bic ‘bound the curse to the land’, and the land is rock, the book is bound to the rock, so the book is the curse and I have to remove the book to remove the curse! So how do I remove the book?”

Clever Clover tugged at the book several times but it didn’t budge. He examined it closely and found, barely perceivable in the low light, a slender silken thread wrapped around the book and table. It was tied in a complex knot underneath the table. It was difficult work in the cramped space under the table and dim light, but Clever Clover persevered and struggled with the knot until it finally came undone. “Well, Bic, it looks like this round goes to me,” said the victorious prince as he closed the accursed book.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

The Adventures of Baby North Star and Baby Brother Bright Bouquet
Chapter 4: Our Adventures at Pony Palooza
by Baby Steamer ([email protected])


One day when Baby Brother Bright Bouquet was over seeing his friend Baby North Star, Steamer, her daddy, went over to the Bright Bouquets’ to speak to Mama and Daddy Bright Bouquet, to see if they would mind Steamer and North Star taking Baby Brother Bright Bouquet with them to a big meeting of ponies, known as the Pony Palooza.

Mama and Daddy Bright Bouquet thought Baby Brother Bright Bouquet would love to go to the Pony Palooza. Baby Sister Bright Bouquet was already going with the Sweet Celebrations down the road, so now Mama and Daddy Bright Bouquet would have a nice weekend to themselves. Steamer asked them to not tell Baby Brother just yet; he and North Star wanted to surprise the two of them. So Mama and Daddy Bright Bouquet promised to keep the secret.

Then later on that week, Baby North Star came in to find her mommy packing a suitcase. Baby North Star asked, “Mommy, are you going on a trip?”

“No sweetie, we all are,” said North Star.

“We are?” asked Baby North Star, depressed.

“Well, you don’t sound too happy about it,” said Steamer, walking into the room.

“Baby Brother Bright Bouquet and I were going to play together this weekend,” said Baby North Star.

North Star and Steamer both smiled. North Star exclaimed, “And that you shall do; he’s coming with us!”

“He is?” inquired Baby North Star, a little happier.

North Star nodded, smiling. “Your daddy talked to Mama and Daddy Bright Bouquet the other day while you two were playing over here,” she said.

“Oh, wow!” exclaimed Baby North Star, hugging her father. “Thank you, Daddy.”

“You’re welcome, sweetie,” said Steamer.

While they were at the Palooza, Baby North Star and Baby Brother Bright Bouquet had a great time. They loved meeting other ponies from all across the country. There were games, and food, too. They both came home with great big smiles on their faces.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

A Broken Match
by Sugarberry ([email protected])


“I’m so happy that you could meet me here,” Clare smiled warmly at the stallion across from her. The two were having lunch at Fucciono’s. “I’ve missed you.” Clare had spent three days in Dream Valley in conjunction with her fashions premiering at Lemon Treats’ Boutique and had been so busy since returning toVulcanopolis that she hadn’t until now made contact with Vanguard.

Disregarding the implication in that last remark, Vanguard simply grinned. “The only reason I agreed to come is to hear the latest news from Dream Valley; did you get a chance to talk with Sugarberry?”

“Lemon Treats kept me busy; she and her husband were very hospitable. But I did see Sugarberry when she came to the unveiling of my fashions, and the two of us were able to spend a few minutes together. She asked about you first thing, of course.”

“And what did you tell her?” Vanguard asked with some misgivings, knowing full well that Clare was apt to enlarge certain details to convey any impression that suit her purposes.

“Well, I told her that you were doing a super job at the university; and that you were proving to be very valuable to me through this distressing time with Guido... I referred to you as my knight in shining armor.”

“Clare, please tell me that you didn’t say that.”

“That, and more.”

Looking at the mare in perplexed wonder, Vanguard speculated concerning the casual spirit with which she viewed Vanguard’s relationship with Sugarberry. Clare knew his future plans better than anyone, yet she coyly attempted to undermine his feelings. It was a game she played that irritated him. “I wish you wouldn’t treat this so lightly, Clare. I don’t like to think that you’ve given Sugarberry any reason to doubt her place in my life.”

Grinning, Clare responded blithely. “A little worry about her handsome stallion will be good for your Sugarberry.”

“You are incorrigible!” Vanguard shook his head in consternation, but Clare’s melodic laughter and her twinkling eyes revealed that she enjoyed aggravating him.

Her next piece of information was more to his liking, however. “Sugarberry was there with Tabby and Chocolate Chip. They said they’d left Wigwam and Thomas at the book store; I saw them when they left, and there was no third stallion to take your place.”

“From what I hear, your predictions of trouble from Driftwood and Toby were way off base. I never figured Jet as serious competition. So unless Wigwam or Quarterback change their minds, it should be clear sailing from here on in.”

“Don’t get cocky just yet,” Clare advised.

“Don’t tell me you’ve honed in on some new source of trouble.”

“No, but there are still several months in which anything could happen.”

“Anything could happen,” Vanguard repeated reflectively

* * *
It was during the following week that Vanguard was working in his office at Leonardo University when he heard voices that sounded familiar coming down the hall, and as they drew closer he was sure of whom they were from. In a matter of seconds, Guido and Federigo appeared in the doorway. “We’re not interrupting anything important, are we?” Guido asked.

Vanguard threw down his pen and stood to greet the two stallions. “No, not at all. Come on in,” he invited, moving chairs to accommodate them. “You must be on campus for your mini-course in business practices,” Vanguard directed at Guido.

“Yes. The workshop runs for two weeks; it’s had a good turnout,” Guido verified.

“And it is proving to be very educational for those of us who have missed the boat financially,” grinned Federigo. “We’re learning some interesting methods to improve our tactics.”

After some time discussing Guido’s venture, Vanguard remembered to ask about Tiffany.

“She’s enjoying her time in Vulcanopolis to the extreme,” Guido responded. “Mom is delighted to have found the daughter she never had, and Tiffany is soaking up all the attention. But she is getting a little homesick for Dream Valley and her friends back home; we’re making plans to spend the holidays back there.”

“And Eugenia?” queried Vanguard of Federigo.

“Constantly busy,” complained Federigo. “Her new job with the newspaper has her working some really long hours.”

“That’s something that will only get worse with the election coming up, I suppose,” stated Vanguard.

“And how does a non-native view our candidates,” wondered Guido. “Who would you vote for if you could?”

“Giorgio seems to be a popular favorite,” Vanguard avoided a direct opinion.

“But Zaverio has a whole knew outlook that could bring in a revitalizing force to the government,” countered Guido.

“I question Giorgio’s son’s absence from the city during this time when he could be helping drum up votes for his father,” Federigo mused. “I always thought the younger stallion’s attraction was as strong, if not stronger, than his dad’s; or at least that’s what Eugenia and her friends maintain.”

That was not a piece of information that Vanguard especially wanted to know, but it did give him the chance to ask some questions about his exchange partner. “You said once that you were surprised that Giorgio didn’t follow his dad into politics; do you know why he doesn’t have aspirations in that direction?”

“He never put his intelligence to any use other than teaching; he seemed to have no further ambitions,” Guido revealed. “If I’d have had his brains, I’d have been a multi-millionaire by age twelve or sooner.”

“His father was a cold one when it came to Giorgio, though. My parents always said they felt sorry for the boy,” Federigo added. “I never understood that because from my point of view he had all the material comforts that I craved.”

Vanguard contemplated that information. “But didn’t Giorgio, Sr. help get his son’s college education expedited? He must have had some paternal concern for him.”

“Only when it came to bettering his position in life; when it involved the one-on-one relationship of a father and son, Giorgio, Sr. never made an attempt.” Federigo looked at the clock and prepared to leave. “I’ve got to run if I want a chance to see my wife today. I’ll look forward to tomorrow’s session, Guido; nice to see you again, Vanguard.”

When the two stallions were alone, Guido extended an invitation to Vanguard for him and Clare to join Tiffany and himself for dinner one night soon.

“I can’t speak for Clare,” Vanguard replied, “But I’m ready to accept.” It would please Sugarberry to get some firsthoof information concerning the princess to pass on to Tabby and the others, he figured.

“That’s good,” said Guido, standing and moving to the door. “I’ll be in touch with details soon.”

* * *
Tiffany took the news of Guido’s social planning with a frown on her face. She didn’t relish spending an entire evening being polite to Guido’s former companion, but she also didn’t want to seem cruel and uncaring, especially with Vincentia and Pietro sitting at the table with them as Guido broached the subject with her. It took some serious control on her part, but she put a smile on her face and acquiesced to Guido’s idea. “Were you planning the meal at the villa or at Agostino’s?” Agostino’s was the premier nightclub in Vulcanopolis with cuisine aimed at the most discerning palates.

“I’ll leave that to you, Tiffany. You have the flare for that sort of thing, so do what you think best.” He looked admiringly at the white pegasus, and she returned the gaze with fluttering lashes.

Softly clearing her throat, Vincentia brought up a topic close to her heart. “Have you two set a date for your wedding yet?” The two in question exchanged a quick glance, and Tiffany deferred the answer to Guido.

“Well, Mother, we’ve been discussing that subject at great length. We’d like the wedding to take place in June...”

“Why, that’s not much time!” Vincentia agitatedly responded.

“...of 2001,” Guido finished.

A look of relief crossed Vincentia’s face. “Oh my! That’s better. I could never make all the necessary arrangements on such short notice. My, my. So much to be done.”

Guido and Tiffany shared another glance, and Guido clasped one of Tiffany’s hooves in his before he spoke again. “And Mother, Ti... ah... we’d like the wedding to be held in Dream Valley.” He and Tiffany watched Vincentia’s face with their breath held, and even Pietro became aware of the implication of the statement and looked to his wife with a hint of a grin playing on his lips.

“In Dream Valley you say? Why, that place is practically uncivilized yet; Pietro, talk to these two!” She looked to her husband for support, but he only chuckled.

“Dream Valley is quite up to modern standards, my dear,” he responded to his distraught wife. “I’m sure these two could be properly united there as well as here.”

“But think about all our friends! They can’t just up and fly to Dream Valley; where would they stay? What would they eat?”

Tiffany finally joined the discussion. “We do have hotels and restaurants, Mother Casale. I’m sure the guests would be well cared for.”

“And don’t forget my private jet,” added Guido. “It has all the luxuries that our friends are accustomed to; and it will be an adventure! I”m sure they will all be enchanted.”

Vincentia was not convinced. “All these years, Guido, I’ve dreamed of the villa decorated with banks of white blossoms and flowing white silk and seeing your bride come down the main staircase...”

...like Clare, Tiffany silently finished the sentence, an icy haze filming her eyes.

It was, surprisingly, Pietro who provided a compromise. “Why not have two ceremonies-- the wedding itself in Dream Valley, and a later reception right here?”

“Why Pietro, what a fabulous idea!” Vincentia could not have been more satisfied. “That is splendid! Guido? Tiffany? Do you approve?”

As the pair had been dreading the reaction of Vincentia in connection to the location of their wedding, and as they were so much enamored of one another that the idea of two celebrations seemed only natural to encompass that love, that they were only too glad to agree. The rest of the evening was spent in a flurry of preliminary planning that eventually stunned Pietro by its extent and sobered Guido as he realized that Tiffany and his mom would probably spend the next year and a half talking of nothing else.

It was only after retiring to her rooms late that night that Tiffany remembered the dinner date with Clare and Vanguard. She had not yet shaken off a fear that Clare might still weasel her way back into Guido’s affections. She remembered Clare’s entrance at the engagement ball; Tiffany had not shown her alarm, but she had almost collapsed from the possibility that this mare might still be able to charm her fiancé.

“She is beautiful,” Tiffany spoke softly into the mirror, making a mental comparison of herself and the mare who had once held Guido’s affection. “And she was very close to Guido and his family long before I came on the scene.”

The princess had been exposed to countless tales while under the care of Guido’s parents and knew from all their stories that Guido and Clare had held a special relationship from the time they were foals living next door to one another. Countless retellings of Guido’s past adventures began with “the time Guido and Clare...” or “Guido accompanied Clare...” or “Clare was here with Guido.” Tiffany couldn’t help being concerned about the influence the mare must have exerted on Guido; was Clare so much a part of Guido’s life that-- even now-- she was a threat? Had she made such a mark in Guido’s life that her absence now couldn’t erase that bond?

“I’ll not stand for it!” Tiffany proclaimed vehemently. “She will not come between Guido and me!” Throwing herself onto the brocade-covered chaise longue in the sitting room of her suite, she began to consider her options. Any number of plans were mulled over and discarded before she hit on one that she concluded would work.

It’s so simple, I should have thought of it sooner; Clare already has a connection to Vanguard as was proven the night of my engagement ball, so the groundwork is already prepared. All I need to do is push a little here and suggest a little there, and the two of them will solve my problem for me. And to think that Guido has made the first step for me already!

Tiffany considered dining out or dining at the villa; as she played over in her mind the different scenarios that could be produced in either setting, she soon decided on a cozy at-home repast where she could have full control of the details that would be so important for success.

It was with a satisfied comportment that Tiffany prepared to retire for the night; the lines had been drawn and the battle plans made. Clare wouldn’t have a chance.

* * *
Evoking grandeur from every corner, the dining room at Guido’s villa was not only huge but also ornate. Statuary was placed in carved niches in the end walls while richly colored frescoes decorated the sides of the rectangular room. The size of the room was accented by the smallness of the dinner party assembled at a distressed antique table in one nook of the room to give a semblance of intimacy. The maid and butler stood in unobtrusive attendance, supplying every need either real or perceived.

“I’m so totally delighted that the two of you could join us this evening,” Tiffany cooed.

“The pleasure is ours, I’m sure,” Clare demurely replied for herself and Vanguard. Since their arrival at the villa, Tiffany had been showering them with her adulation of their visit as if she could think of nothing else to say. Clare had soon gotten the impression that Tiffany felt that if she said the words often enough, she might actually begin to believe them. This had made for rather stinted conversation, but the food had been excellent and the surroundings were like coming home for Clare who had been spending the lapses in talk reliving some of the finer dinners that she had attended here as Guido’s guest.

The meal having finally come to an end, the two couples moved to the living room that echoed the opulence of the dining area. Guido pointed out some artifacts from Herculaneum to Vanguard and gave him their historical background while Tiffany activated the computerized musical system and Clare stood reflectively by the sunken pool that dominated the room.

After Guido’s guided tour of the treasures from the past, Tiffany conducted everyone to a comfortable sitting area surrounded by potted flowers that cast their alluring fragrance over the ponies; she directed Clare and Vanguard to sit into a snug settee designed for two while she and Guido took separate wing chairs that were placed for informal conversation.

“Your new fall pieces are selling well, if Mom’s and Tiffany’s purchases are any indication,” Guido smiled at Clare.

“You know I’m purchasing holiday gifts for the princesses back in Dream Valley,” Tiffany defended her addiction to shopping.”

“Business has been booming,” Clare admitted, secretly depending on Guido’s innate sense of profit to bring some of his attention her way. “The addition of the stallions’ line and the opening of a market in Dream Valley has gone very favorably with earnings for my company.” She smiled sedately in Guido’s direction.

Tiffany sensed a barrier to her input as the talk turned to company matters, so as soon as etiquette allowed, she turned the banter to affairs of a more general nature. “Vanguard, what do you think of Vulcanopolis? Are you enjoying your time here?”

“It has proven to be a very fulfilling experience as far as my work at Leonardo University is concerned, but I will be very happy to return to Dream Valley when my exchange venture is completed,” he admitted.

“Oh, but there is so much more to see and do here! Surely one cannot begin to even compare the two places.” Tiffany did not want Vanguard to think of the mare who had the power to make his return to Dream Valley the goal of his present life. “Clare, you know full well that Vlucanopolis is much more exciting and stimulating than that dull, boring little town of Dream Valley. What does it have other than the Satin Slipper Sweet Shoppe? And the ponies that hang out there are as dull and boring as the town itself.”

Vanguard raised an eyebrow and was on the verge of defending the hometown camaraderie that enlivened the ice cream parlor making it the center of social life for him and his friends, but Clare beat him to it. “I found Dream Valley to be a pleasant and urbane place that has a lot to offer; and the Satin Slipper Sweet Shoppe is the heartbeat of the city.”

The discussion of the pros and cons of both cities continued until Rita, the head of the household staff, came with a note for Guido. Anticipating a response, she waited silently as he read the message it contained. With a bemused look, Guido contemplated the news, then waved Rita away. “I’m sorry, but it looks like I’ll have to leave; there is a serious problem at the corporate office that needs my immediate attention.” He looked at Tiffany, his eyes sparkling. “Walk me to the door, sweetheart?” As Guido and Tiffany left the room, the princess, in passing the light control, dimmed the lights; and Vanguard and Clare became aware of an imperceptible change in the mood of the music as well.

Vanguard, who had gotten up from the settee when the host and hostess had exited, now heard a giggle from Clare. “That was subtly handled,” she remarked.

‘What’s going on?” Vanguard asked defensively, not wanting to believe the signs.

Clare stood up to face him. “I believe that the princess is doing a little matchmaking.”

“For what reason?”

“To insure that Guido doesn’t have another chance with me.” Another giggle sounded from the lavender mare. “It tells me that she’s not so sure of her hold on Guido after all.”

“Don’t start thinking of winning him back, Clare. He’s as committed to Tiffany as any stallion I’ve ever seen.”
“Well, then,” Clare smiled bewitchingly, “let’s not waste the magic.” She led Vanguard to an area of the living room that was relatively open; and as the romantic music played, the two danced over the mosaic floor in perfect harmony. Clare nestled her head against Vanguard’s shoulder, and the scent of her perfume filled his nostrils. To dance with her in the crowded ballroom had been one thing; this was quite another.

It was with relief that Vanguard heard Rita’s voice in the doorway. “Excuse me, but the Princess Tiffany has asked me to convey a message.”

The dancers stopped, and Rita continued. “The princess was feeling unwell after hearing the news from Macrohard, so Master Guido has taken her to his parents’ home. He extends his hospitality to you, and wishes you to remain as long as you wish. Is there anything I can get you?”

“If Guido and Tiffany have left, I think we had better do likewise,” Vanguard advised Clare. “Come on.” He took her foreleg in his and headed for the door.

“But Mr. Vanguard,” said Rita with a stricken look on her face, “is there some reason that you will not remain awhile? The master will be upset if he thinks we have not served you properly.”

Clare took a step forward. “It’s okay, Rita. Our leaving has no bearing on you or any other of the help.” Then, with a sideways glance at Vanguard, she asked, “Would it be okay if I showed Vanguard the rest of the villa? He’s never seen the entire place.”

“I’m sure Master Guido would be pleased. And as you are familiar with the villa, I will leave you to your tour.” She bowed slightly as she turned and left the room.

“I don’t believe this,” Vanguard fumed.

“Aw... admit it, Vanguard. If we had met at another time, in another place, couldn’t we have fallen in love?” She moved away before he could answer, and turned up the lights. “Come on. I’ll show you all the other rooms and even some of the secret crannies of this place.”

As they walked from room to room, Vanguard was constantly impressed with the sumptuousness of the furnishings and the openness of the space. And feeling a bit put upon by the conniving of Guido and Tiffany, and the playful acceptance of the situation by Clare, Vanguard wasn’t afraid to ask Clare a question. “Do some of your regrets at losing Guido stem from the fact that you also lost the chance to be mistress of this estate?” He watched her closely, but saw no remorse over the physical building.

“Someday I will have my own villa, if that’s what I want.” She continued on down the hall. “Here! You’ll remember this.”

As Vanguard caught up to her, he saw that they had reached the grand ballroom; the decorations of that other night were gone, but the room was still impressive. Pushing a button on a wall panel, Clare connected to the recorded music. “One last dance, Vanguard?” she asked.

Holding her as on the night of the ball, Vanguard knew that her thoughts were far away from him, back to that night and her last attempt to break the spell that Tiffany had cast on Guido. Her head was bent so he could not see her face, but he could feel her tears. He gave her all the time she needed to come to grips with her emotions; he held her closely and guided her gently across the floor.

Only when her tears were spent and dry did Clare finally lift her head and smile at him. “The pain of losing him is not nearly as intense as it was that night,” she confided. “Time really does heal all wounds-- slowly, perhaps, but steadily.”

“You’ve come a long way,” Vanguard agreed. Then, as the song ended, he released her and asked, “Do we owe it to Rita to leave by the front door, or will the side door be acceptable?” He nodded to the ballroom door that led into the spent gardens at the side of the villa.

“That depends on whether you want to leave her with some well chosen thoughts,” Clare grinned.

“I think I’ll save those for Guido,” Vanguard acknowledged. “I’ll let him know in no uncertain terms that I don’t appreciate his and Tiffany’s meddling in our lives.”

“You find me that unappealing?” Clare brooded as they slipped out the door.

Vanguard stopped, and turned to face her. “You are beautiful, intelligent, enticing and all those things a mare should be, but you are not Sugarberry. Please accept that, and let’s just be friends.”

“I was afraid you’d say that!” she quipped, and kissed his cheek before they turned to walk the distance that separated her home from that of Guido.

After he had left Clare safely within, Vanguard set his steps for his own home across the city. He soon found himself reliving those days at Birdsong when he had first become acquainted with the Twice-As-Fancy pony from Dream Valley. He saw again the moment they were introduced, the rough day they had spent rescuing flood victims, the escapades with the five foals who had ended up as Sugarberry’s roommates, the discussions over coffee, and his decision to come to Pony Pride because the mare of his dreams drew him there.

And it had only gotten better once he was settled in Dream Valley. Vanguard sighed. He would give anything to be back there now, sitting with her in the porch swing or watching birds at the feeder or sharing ice cream at the Satin Slipper Sweet Shoppe. If only... but he shook his head. There were still nearly two months to live through before his dreams could become reality.

* * *
The town house had not been empty while Vanguard was away. Ivetta, receiving a visit from Marissa, had used the time well. The two ponies had let themselves into Vanguard’s section of the town house through the hidden entrance in search of the most recent test solution.

“I wouldn’t have had to bother you if Vanguard would have left his papers at the university,” grinned Marissa as she held up the duplicate keys for his university office and desk.

But Ivetta didn’t return the smile. “I’m getting sick of this sneaking around in here,” she confided. “I thought with Giorgio out of town, it would be easier somehow. But he’s just as intimidating on the phone or through e-mail as he is face to face. And I cringe every time I see Vanguard; he’s so nice, and I can’t stand the thought of him finding out that I’m betraying his trust... not to mention Giles’ trust.” She sat down in the desk chair while unlocking the briefcase.

“You’re not afraid of Giorgio, are you?” Marissa asked as she idly skimmed through the papers on Vanguard’s desk.

“A... afraid?”

“Yeah. Like, you don’t think that he would hurt you or anything, do you?”

“Well... no... I guess not.” Ivetta kept her mouth shut about the goons who had visited Prisca’s home in the dead of night. “But he gets so angry sometimes because he thinks I’m not smart enough to get things done right. He says things that make me feel so... moronic.”

“That’s because he’s super-smart himself. I suppose he looks down on all of us.”

“Here are the papers we’re after,” Ivetta finally found something to smile about. “Let’s get the copies made so we can be done with this for tonight.” Hurrying off from the second floor office to the third floor bedrooms and through the bookcase threshold, the young mares scanned copies of the calculations that would be eagerly sought by those students who were not willing to study up to their potential.

Returning to Vanguard’s rooms, they replaced the pages in the briefcase; Ivetta made sure to set the case exactly where she had found it while Marissa tapped her hoof nervously on the desk top. “What would you do if you ever got caught over here?” she asked.

Ivetta’s eyes grew round and dark. “Don’t even ask such a question! I’m tense enough as it is. Let’s get out of here.”

Marissa led the way back to the guest bedroom where the bookcase stood angled away from the wall, exposing the doorway back to Giles and Ivetta’s portion of the town house. She had just gotten to the opening when she turned to make a comment to Ivetta who was close behind her. To her horror, she saw Ivetta, pale and swaying, slump in slow-motion effect to the carpeted floor.

Maintaining her wits about her, Marissa dropped to her knees beside her friend; Ivetta’s eyes were closed and her skin felt cold and clammy. “She’s fainted!” Marissa whispered to herself. She patted Ivetta’s cheeks and lifted her head off the floor; in a matter of seconds, the mare’s eyes fluttered open and she feebly asked, “What happened?”

“You fainted, silly. How do you feel now?”

“Kind of weird, like I’m made out of rubber. Help me up.”

With Marissa’s kind support, Ivetta was able to regain her hooves and Marissa guided her into the guest bedroom on Ivetta’s side of the wall. Easing her slowly onto the bed and making sure that she was stable, Marissa then returned to Vanguard’s room to pull the bookcase back. She sighed with relief when the unit settled into place, concealing all traces of the portal.

Returning to Ivetta’s side, she patted her hoof and was relieved to see that she again had some color in her cheeks. “I’ll go get you some water to drink and a cold wash cloth to put on your forehead.” Ivetta opened her eyes long enough to nod her understanding, then let her lids close down once again.

The cold, wet cloth and a sip of ice water soon had Ivetta feeling back to normal, but Marissa insisted that she stay at rest for a little while longer. Finding some humor in the situation, Marissa giggled. “Imagine Vanguard’s surprise if he had come home and found you lying there with that wall hanging open.”

Appearing as if she might faint again at the thought of such an occurrence, Ivetta groaned.

“That was a close one. If you hadn’t been with me...” A shudder ran through her prone body.

“I guess when you say that this occupation of yours is getting to you, you really meant it,” Marissa stated. “Your nerves must be really shot for you to faint like that.”

Ivetta shook her head, and put a foreleg over her closed eyes. “That’s not why I fainted, Marissa.” She laid silently for a minute. “Giles and I are going to have a baby.”

“What?” Marissa squealed. “That’s great!”

“A smile lighted Ivetta’s face as she agreed. “Yeah. Can you imagine me a mother?”

“I think I can. Your foal will be spoiled to death, though; I’ll bet on that. What does Giles think?”

“He’s more excited than I am. He’s already making plans on how to turn this room into a nursery. But I...”

“But what? This room would be wonderful decorated in pastels.”

Tears suddenly clouded Ivetta’s eyes. “Don’t you see, Marissa? How can I be a good mother while I’m doing unlawful things like sneaking into someone else’s house and stealing his stuff? What kind of mother is that?”

Marissa sat down on the edge of the bed. “Hmm. I see your point. But why don’t you just tell Giorgio that you won’t work for him any more?”

“He’ll tell Giles what I’ve been doing.”

“Would that be so bad?”

“Marissa! Giles will hate me for it!”

Weighing her words carefully, Marissa responded gently. “Giles could never hate you, Ivetta. And don’t you think it would be a good thing to get the truth out, especially now?”

Pushing herself up to a sitting position, Ivetta began talking excitedly. “I’ve got a better plan. I figure that if I can convince Giles to move away from here, Giorgio will have no further use for me, and I’ll be free!”

“Will you, Ivetta?”

The burst of optimism was quickly squelched. Ivetta’s smile faded and she covered her face with her hooves. “No. I’ll never be free. Even if I get away from this town house, I’ll always expect to see Giorgio come unexpectedly into my life, threatening me. Oh, Marissa! What am I going to do?”

“Well, I guess my advice would be to hang on to things the way they are for now; with Giorgio out of town, they can’t get any worse. By the time he gets back, maybe you’ll be able to see things a whole lot clearer.”

“When he gets back,” Ivetta repeated anxiously. “That’s only two months away now. What can change by then?”

Marissa smiled reassuringly. “Any number of things could happen. Just concentrate on taking good care of yourself so the foal will stay healthy, too.” She helped Ivetta stand, making sure that she was steady on her hooves before allowing her to walk unaided. “I think you should have something to eat; that’s probably why you fainted in the first place.”

“Food hasn’t been that enticing lately,” Ivetta admitted.

“I’ve got just the thing. I used to fix it for my sister when she was expecting her first foal. Come on! We’ll have you feeling fine in no time.”

* * *
Wending his way up the flights of stairs later the same evening, Vanguard was surprised to find that he had left the light on in the den; he was usually more energy conscious than that. But the hour was getting late, and he didn’t give it much thought until later when he was lying in bed unable to get to sleep. “Tiffany’s brand of coffee obviously isn’t decaffeinated,” he grumbled as he turned on the bedside lamp and grabbed the novel he was currently reading.

But the story wasn’t that interesting and he soon let the pages close. His mind slipped to his reason for being in Vulcanopolis-- troubles long ago that had thrust him into this place at this time. He dwelt on his college days at Binks University and the problems that had siphoned him into a mess that had boomeranged on him and came back to plague him just when he thought he had his life on track.

Last spring, he thought that he would be married to Sugarberry by now; but one phone call had put all his plans on hold. Not only were they not married, they were not even engaged. As much as Vanguard wanted to claim her love absolutely, he had felt that he had no right to restrict her life while he was so far away. In his own heart, he counted it as self-inflicted punishment for his mistakes of the past. But he had begun to doubt the sensibility of his decision. What if some other stallion snatched her heart away from him before he was back in Dream Valley?

The idea was so revolting to Vanguard that he leaped out of bed and headed downstairs. “If I can’t sleep, I might as well drown my sorrows with more coffee,” he reasoned. Upon opening the bedroom door, however, he made another discovery. A sliver of light was breaking from under the closed door of the spare room, and although it was possible that he had accidentally left his den light on, it was very unlikely that he had left this light on as he only rarely went into that room.

Cautiously opening the door, he prepared himself for the worst; but the room was empty. He slowly circled the chamber remembering how the one red book had recurringly been found out of place and how the newspaper clippings in some of the volumes had disappeared. All seemed in order, and he was ready to flip the electrical switch off when a glint of reflected light caught his eye.

The gleam came from the edge of the bookcase; and as Vanguard walked toward it, his shadow cut off the light so the object-- if there really was something there-- seemed to disappear. He ran his hoof along the front of the shelving and felt the cold, hard touch of metal. But when he tried to pick up the object, it wouldn’t budge.

Dropping down to the floor, he found what the problem was. The item-- and it appeared to be the back half of a key-- was stuck under the bookcase, held by the weight of the books and shelving. It took some time, but by slowly wiggling the protruding end of the key, Vanguard was finally able to pull it free.

The key was small, like a briefcase key. Vanguard got up off the floor and continued to inspect the immediate area for any other signs of an intruder, but found nothing else out of the ordinary. But he sat in a chair in the room to do some thinking.

It was no bombshell that someone had been in his house that evening; he expected that from the course of events since his arrival in Vulcanopolis. He knew that certain students had made dramatic improvements on their test scores with the only explanation being that his tests were being accessed by Giorgio’s associates; the thought of it sickened him, but Matteo had warned him not to interfere in any way with what was happening.

Wigwam had told him that the same thing was transpiring at Pony Pride, but Tawny’s hooves were tied, too, as the Vulcanopolis officials had stressed that nothing was to be done concerning the cheating ring until another problem which hinged onto this one was solved. And that problem, Vanguard was sure, somehow involved the ransacking of Prisca’s home which led it right back to the picture of Strawberry Shortcake and Giorgio, Sr. From there, he was at a loss.

He looked down at the key in his hoof. At least this was something tangible. He sometimes felt that there was a nebulous spirit world invading his privacy, gliding, sliding, slipping, and creeping through his surroundings at will to snatch whatever caught their fancy. The cold metal in his hoof verified the reality of the situation.

But how had the key gotten in the position in which he had found it? If the pony who accessed the town house had dropped it, it should have been lying out in the open unencumbered by the bookcase. But the key had been trapped under the bookcase. Vanguard sat looking at the shelving unit totally mystified. The best he could ascertain was that someone either purposefully stuck the key under the case, or... or... someone had purposely moved the case.

Vanguard got up and moved across to the wooden bookcase, pushing against it to see how easily it would move. It was a tall structure, and he wasn’t able to get it to yield. “Weird,” he mumbled softly. “It should have at least shuddered a little.” He shoved harder, and still could not succeed in shifting the unit in the slightest.

Inspecting the back edges of the shelf, Vanguard discovered that the bookcase seemed to be attached directly to the wall. That’s unusual, he told himself. It certainly limits the way the furniture can be arranged. And if it is attached to the wall, how in the world did the key get underneath?

His curiosity sparked, the stallion began a systematic removal of all the books on the case until there was nothing left to obliterate whatever it was he hoped to find. Standing back away from the shelf, he pondered the situation. What’s here that I’m not seeing? What could be gained by having the bookcase permanently mounted?

As his thoughts continued to assess the situation, Vanguard abruptly had a flash of comprehension. If the bookcase can’t move, what if the wall can? He approached the unit with a new outlook, and gently pushed against the shelves. Nothing happened. He put more muscle into his next try, but still the bookcase remained obstinately in place.

He stood staring at the arrangement before him, wondering if he was crazy to be standing here in this room in the middle of the night attempting to move furniture that obviously had no inclination to be moved when his eye caught sight of a nearly undetectable button built into the bottom of the highest shelf; the craftsmanship of the builder had guaranteed that no one who wasn’t specifically looking for the oval button would see it. It appeared to simply be a natural pattern of the wood.

Now he was getting somewhere. Vanguard, however, was not in any hurry to activate the mechanism. He had not been on the third floor of Giles and Ivetta’s apartment, so he couldn’t be positive which room lay on the other side of the wall. If the case did indeed open up, he did not want to access the master bedroom at this time of night. Thinking of the times he had been a guest in their home, Vanguard reconstructed the position of their stairway in connection with the way his ran and decided that the two town houses were the mirror image of each other. Therefore, the room directly behind this wall should be the spare bedroom.

But the stallion began having misgivings about the entire venture. What if he pressed the button and whatever was set in motion involved a lot of noise? His confidential escapade would end rather inappropriately. Not only could it cause an embarrassing encounter, but it might also interfere with Matteo’s investigation.

I’ve got to look at this rationally, Vanguard theorized. If this is a doorway of some sort and it is being used for subterfuge, then Giorgio would certainly have installed an opener that was discreet. Finding this line of reasoning acceptable, Vanguard prepared himself to test his theory.

With his hoof just making contact with the button, Vanguard was caught totally off-guard to hear the telephone ring. He jumped, causing his head to receive a sharp bump from the side of the shelf. The phone rang again. Hurrying back to the bedside phone, he answered with a hint of anger in his voice. “Hello!”

“So you are awake!” It was Clare’s mellifluous voice. “I’ll never forgive Tiffany for serving us decaffeinated coffee tonight...” Here she shot a glance at the clock. “...or was that last night?” She giggled. “What are you doing to wear off its effects?”

“I had my hooves on a mystery,” Vanguard divulged, not entirely untruthfully.

“I tried reading a book, but I just couldn’t get into it,” Clare chattered. “So I started going over my calendar, and do you know what I realized?”

“No,” responded Vanguard, wishing the mare would just say what it was she had called to say.

“Well, when I was in Dream Valley, Lemon Treats was showing me the displays that she was planning to put up for Thanksgiving; and it just now hit me that you are going to miss that holiday as we don’t celebrate it here in Vulcanopolis-- at least not like you ponies over in Ponyland do.”

“It’s not the only thing I’m missing, Clare,” interjected Vanguard with an anxious look toward the bookcase.

“Are you referring to Sugarberry or sleep?” Clare unsuspectingly asked. Not waiting for an answer, she continued. “Anyway, I was thinking that some of us could get together for a Thanksgiving dinner!”

“Sounds nice, Clare. We’ll have to talk about that.”

“Here’s my idea. How about you hosting the affair? I would supply Alda to do all the cooking; we could include Angela and Pacificus and maybe Frederigo and Eugenia in the festivities, and we would have a chance to put Giorgio’s lush town house to the kind of entertaining it was meant to be used for. How about it?”

Vanguard’s mind was reeling by this point. “We can talk about it.”

“That’s great! I knew you’d like the idea. I’ll let you go now so I can write up some lists of things to do. This will be such fun!”

“Goodnight, Clare.”

“Goodnight, Van. Sleep well!”

Setting the phone down with a sigh, Vanguard returned to his interrupted venture. Placing his hoof once more over the button, he held his breath as he pressed it. For a second, he thought nothing was going to happen, but then an insignificant click was heard within the wall itself, and slowly but smoothly the section of wall containing the bookcase slid slightly askance. Vanguard gaped in wonder at the ease with which the maneuver had taken place.

The unit stood just far enough open to allow a pony to manually pull back the shelving to access what would then be an open door. Vanguard had no need to go any further; he had found out what he needed to know. He simply pushed the unit back into place and heard again the subtle click of closure.

Having satisfied himself on that point, he should have felt content; but as he loaded the books back onto the shelves, he couldn’t stop feeling the disappointment to find that two ponies he considered friends were involved with Giorgio and his conniving operation. To think that they had access to his home whenever they pleased caused renewed grief over this entire Vulcanopolis stay. If only the entire ordeal could be ended, and ended quickly.

The key that he had found earlier was still on the bed where he had tossed it. He picked it up and contemplated what to do with it. It would not do any good to take it to Chief Matteo as he would only look at it and listen to Vanguard’s story and then tell him not to worry about it. If he got rid of the key, then Ivetta and Giles would know that he knew, assuming they realized that they had dropped it in the town house. But if it was lost, they would surely come back looking for it. And if it wasn’t here, it might upset Matteo’s plans. In the end, Vanguard simply threw the key on the floor to appear as if it had accidentally been dropped and never discovered.

The room now restored to normal, Vanguard was able to return to his own bed. At the last moment before leaving the room, he withdrew the scarlet volume of Poems of Life and Love again from the shelf and took it with him. If nothing else, he figured, it would put him to sleep; and right now, that is all he wanted-- the escape that sleep would bring him from the reality of where his life now stood. And so it happened that he fell asleep with the love poems close to his heart.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

The Dance!
by Masquerade ([email protected])
Comments or criticism can be sent to [email protected]


Speedy and Masquerade were at the Sweets Shoppe one afternoon when in came Bouquet with a huge grin on her face. “What’s with you?” Speedy asked. Bouquet sat down at the table and let out a sigh. Then she sat quietly as she gazed dreamily ahead of her.

After a few minutes, Speedy couldn’t stand the suspense any longer. “Spill the beans!” she exclaimed.

“Oh, um,” stammered Bouquet as she came a bit back to reality. “Harley asked me to go with him to the ball!” she squealed with delight.

“That’s great!” said Speedy. The ball was the annual Ponyland Gala Ball that was held at the Flemmings Hotel ballroom. It was a very posh event with everyone dressed in their very best outfits.

“Who are you two going with?” asked Bouquet.

“Well, I think Barnum is going to ask me. Applejack overheard him saying that he’d like to take me,” Speedy said.

“Um, I’m not going with anyone,” Masquerade said.

“What? You can’t! I mean, you can, but you don’t want to be seen at the ball without an escort,” said Bouquet.

“Yeah, I’m sure there are lots of young stallions that would love to ask you to the ball,” Speedy added.

“I hardly think so; they’re probably all fighting over who gets to take the princesses,” Masquerade said as she looked at the clock. “Oh dear, I was supposed to be at work a half hour ago! I gotta run,” she said as she bolted for the door.

Masquerade had been a bit late for her work at the theater, but mainly she just wanted to avoid the subject of the ball. It was the same thing every year– she ended up not going or going alone. It was no wonder then that she wasn’t able to share in her friends’ glee at the thought of the dance.

* * *
Meanwhile, back at the Sweets Shoppe, a sandy-colored pony named Spencer sat by himself thinking about the conversation he’d just overheard. He fidgeted in his chair as he thought and knocked his empty sundae glass off the table. All heads turned to look at him as he turned beet red.

“Sorry.” he said with a sheepish grin and headed to the door. On the way out, he hooked a hoof on the doorframe and sort of walked into it. He was so embarrassed that he didn’t dare to look back to see if anyone had noticed.

* * *
Masquerade was an usher at the theater, a job which she normally loved. Tonight, though, she could have thought of about a hundred places where she would have rather been. All night long, as she escorted ponies to their seats, all she heard was chatter about the gala ball.

“I swear,” she muttered to herself, “if I hear another word about this ball, I’m going to--“

”Um, uh, Masquerade?” said a shaky voice alongside of her.

“Spencer! What do you want?” Masquerade snapped. “Oops, I mean– can I help you?”

“Um, Masquerade. I was, uh, wondering if I could ask you something.”

“You didn’t lose your ticket again, did you? That’s the fourth time this month!”

“No, no. I didn’t lose anything. Umm.” Spencer paused for a moment to collect his thoughts. “Masquerade?”

“Yes?” she answered.

“D-d-do you think it would be alright with you if I took you t-to the ball?” he stuttered.

Masquerade went quiet. She didn’t know how to answer. Spencer was a very sweet well-meaning pony, but hopelessly klutzy. He looked away from her and stared at the carpet while she thought.

After feeling so sorry for herself all day, she now couldn’t help but feel sorry for Spencer. “Spencer, I think that would be fine,” she said in a kind tone.

“Really?” he said as his head shot up.

“Sure, it will be fun,” she said.

“Great! I’d um, better get back to my seat before the second part of the play,” he said as he turned to leave.

“Spencer, wait!” Masquerade called out.

“Y-you didn’t change your mind, did you?” he asked.

“No, it’s just that you’re going the wrong way. That’s the exit,” she said.

“Right! I was, ah, just checking to make sure that the emergency doors worked,” he said.

Masquerade laughed and went back to attending to other theater-goers.

* * *
Later that week, Masquerade and her two best friends met at her house for dinner. “So, how’d your week go?” asked Speedy.

“Oh, just wonderful. I found the most beautiful dress at the mall! It’s navy blue satin with black velvet trim. It fits like it was made for me. With the ball coming up, there are tons of dresses where I got mine. You should look there,” fashion-conscious Bouquet said.

“Ooh, I already got one at New Vision,” Speedy answered. “Oops, sorry, Masquerade. I forgot that you didn’t want us to talk about the ball,” she apologized.

“That’s alright. I heard that someone finally asked her to the ball,” said Bouquet.

“She did? Wonderful! Who? Knight? 4-Speed? Tortie?” Speedy inquired. Masquerade shook her head.

“How about Tiger, Lightning, or Steamer? And if not, then who?” asked Bouquet.

Masquerade took a deep breath and cleared her throat. “Spencer,” she coughed. The look on Speedy’s face was total bewilderment and Bouquet nearly fell off her chair.

“Spencer?” Bouquet gasped.

“Well, he was so sweet the way he came up to me at the theater on Monday. If I’d said no he would have felt crushed. Anyway, I finally have someone to go to the ball with and will make the best off it.”

“Yes, Masquerade, but what are you going to do when he falls into the cake and knocks over the bandstand?” inquired Bouquet.

“C’mon. It won’t be that bad. With me being in a long ball gown, I think it’ll be more likely that I’m the one who’ll trip and knock something over,” Masquerade said.

“Well, he is cute. And like you said, Masquerade, you won’t be alone at the dance,” Speedy said.

“Well, yeah. That’s true, but why did it have to be Spencer?” Bouquet said.

Masquerade laughed. “Let’s forget about that for now, shall we? Let’s get on with supper.” Bouquet and Speedy agreed and they went to set the dinner table.

* * *
A few days later, Masquerade was at the mall trying on dresses. “Well, ma’am, I think that the pink one would look lovely on you,” said a salesclerk.

“Maybe, but I really don’t like pink,” said Masquerade.

“Well, I’ll let you look around, and if you see something you want to try on, just let me know.”

“Alright,” Masquerade said as she rummaged through the many racks. After way too long, she finally spotted a gown to her liking. It was a flowing dark purple satin gown with a rose pattern in the material. Once she got the clerk’s attention, she went into the dressing room to try it on.

This is one time that I hate being a pegasus. Whatever I try on, my wings make me look fat! she thought to herself.

“Is everything alright?” asked the clerk from outside. “There’s a wall of mirrors outside the change area if you want to see how it moves when you walk,” she noted.

Masquerade took her advice and left the change area to study the dress. She walked back and forth a few times in front of the mirrors when something caught her eye. It was Spencer; he was on the other side of the store checking out tuxedos.

She trotted up to him. “Hi, Spencer!” she said.

“Oohh! Masquerade, you startled me.”

“Sorry. Hey, what do you think of this dress?” she said, smiling. He studied her for a moment with a puzzled look on his face. I knew it; I do look like a hippo! she thought to herself. The smile slowly left her face. “Is something wrong, Spencer?”

“Well, it’s just that, um... isn’t it unlucky to see you in the dress before the ball?” he asked.

“No. I believe that only applies to weddings. Anyway, I’m not superstitious,” Masquerade said.

“Oh, alright. That’s good. I like that dress. You look very nice in it,” he said, blushing.

“So, have you found anything to wear yet?” asked Masquerade.

“No, not yet. Are you buying that dress?” Spencer asked.

“I think so. Why?”

“Well, then I’ll know what color of tie to wear so I can match it to your dress,” he answered.

This time it was Masquerade that blushed. “That’s really nice Spencer,” she said as she noticed the salesclerk impatiently waiting for her. “Oops, got to go.” She waved goodbye and then went back to the changing room.

“I’ll take this,” Masquerade said when she came back out again.

* * *
The days passed by quickly and soon it was only a week until the gala event. Masquerade and her friends spent a lot of their time together trying out hairstyles on one another. Sometimes they turned out horribly and they’d break out in fits of laughter.

“Okay, so hairstyling is not one of my strong points,” said Masquerade as a curler went flying.

“No, but cooking certainly is,” Speedy said as she took a bite of one of the biscuits Masquerade had made.

“Speedy, if you keep eating them, you’re not going to fit into your dress anymore,” Bouquet teased.

“I only had three!” Speedy retorted.

Just then, there was a knock at the door. “I wonder who that is,” said Speedy. Masquerade got up and went downstairs to find out. She swung open the door to find Spencer standing there.

“Hi, I would have called but I didn’t know your number,” Spencer said.

“That’s okay. Did you want to come in?”

“Well, I’d better not. You’re not going to be happy with me. I’ve had a bit of a problem”

“What?” asked Masquerade.

“I can’t take you to the ball.” he said.

“What? I thought you said you had a bit of a problem.”

“I know. It’s just that I... w-well... I don’t know how to dance,” he said.

“You asked me to a dance and you don’t know how to dance?” she asked dryly. “Spencer, what am I going to do with you? Well, what if I taught you? Do you think you could learn well enough in a week?”

“I can try really hard!” Spencer said.

“Alright then. If you meet me at the theater tomorrow morning, I’ll teach you.”

“Really! You will? Okay, I’ll be there really early then.”

“Alright, Spencer. See you tomorrow,” Masquerade said.

“Definitely!” said a happy Spencer.

Masquerade closed the door and went back upstairs to her friends. “Who was that? It sounded like a guy,” said Speedy.

“It was Spencer.”

“What did he want? Are you still going to the ball with him?” Bouquet inquired.

“Boy, you two certainly are nosey all of a sudden.”

“Sorry,” Speedy apologized.

“Yes, I’m still going to the gala with him. Everything is fine,” Masquerade said. Then she tried to change the subject. She didn’t want to say anything about Spencer not knowing how to dance.

* * *
The next morning, Spencer was sitting on the steps to the theater when Masquerade arrived. “So, are you ready for your first dance lesson?”

“Yep!” Spencer said anxiously.

Masquerade unlocked the door and found a spare dressing room where they could practice. She put her portable tape player on a table and pressed play. “Okay, first I want you to listen to the music. This is a waltz and it has a one-two-three beat to it. Any waltz at the gala will be similar. Now, these are the basic steps to the waltz,” Masquerade said as she demonstrated a few times.

Spencer sat and carefully watched. “Looks simple enough,” he said when it was his turn. Masquerade got Spencer to join her in the middle of the room and they slowly started to dance together.

“Okay, Spencer, umm... let’s try it again. Now, this time, let’s go a bit faster,” Masquerade said after three tries.

“Faster? We have to go faster?”

“Well, we are supposed to keep time to the music. That song ended about a minute before we were done with our dance!” Masquerade said. She started the tape again and they began dancing faster. “Ouch!” she yelped.

“Oh, sorry. I didn’t mean to step on your hoof,” apologized Spencer.

“That’s alright; let’s try again.”

* * *
After another half hour of dancing, Masquerade went limping over to a chair. “So, how did I do?” Spencer asked.

“Well, it’s only your first lesson. I can’t really say,” Masquerade said.

“Shall I come back tomorrow, Masquerade?”

“Um, yeah. I guess so. Same time.”

“Thanks!” Spencer beamed as he went out the door.

Masquerade just sat and rubbed her throbbing hooves. “Oh well, I’ll be wearing a long gown. At least no one will notice my swollen hooves from Spencer stepping all over them,” she thought out loud.

* * *
After three more days of dance lessons, an exhausted Masquerade met her friends at the Sweets Shoppe. “You two ready for the ball?” she asked.

“Oh, yes!! I saw Harley’s tux and it’s got a black leather tie and he’s going to pick me up on his motorcycle,” said Bouquet.

“How romantic,” Masquerade said sarcastically.

“What about you, Masquerade?” her friends asked.

“Well, I’ve got a dress and Spencer has got a tux.”

“Yeah, I can imagine what it’ll look like– full of wrinkles with one leg longer than the other,” Bouquet said.

“Actually, it’s nice. He even went to the trouble of matching his tie to my dress,” Masquerade said in Spencer’s defense.

Just then, Scoops arrived at the table with their ice cream. “Here you go, girls. Enjoy!” she said with a smile.

Masquerade looked at the cold ice cream and then down at her burning hooves. “I wish I could stick my hooves in a bowl of mint chocolate chip right now.”

“What?” asked Speedy.

Masquerade thought for a minute. “Well, remember when Spencer came to my house a few nights back?”

“Yeah,” said Speedy.

“Well, he came to tell me he didn’t know how to dance. I’ve been giving him dance lessons all week to prepare him. Right now, it feels like my hooves are going to fall off,” Masquerade said.

Speedy and Bouquet just stared at Masquerade. “He asked you to the gala but he doesn’t know how to dance? That’s crazy,” said Speedy.

“No. That’s Spencer,” said Bouquet.

“He really is getting better. He only stepped on me three times today,” Masquerade said hopefully.

“Oh, Masquerade. Only you would be so patient,” said Speedy. Then the three ponies dug into their sundaes before they could melt.

* * *
Finally it was Saturday! Tonight all of Ponyland would be descending upon the Flemmings Hotel for the ball! Masquerade and her friends had met together earlier in the day but had parted quite early to finish getting ready.

Masquerade now sat alone in her bedroom doing her hair. “I hope I know what I’m getting myself into,” she said to herself. She worked furiously on her hair and then went to work on her make-up. Normally she didn’t bother with such things, but tonight it felt nice to get all fancied up.

By the time she was ready, she felt like she herself could have been one of the princesses. “Hmm. Not bad if I do say do myself,” she said as she examined herself in her mirror.

She went downstairs now and waited for Spencer to arrive. The ball started at seven and it was now six, so she figured she shouldn’t have much of a wait. When six thirty came around and still no Spencer, Masquerade became worried and called her date.

“Ooh, Masquerade. I’m so glad you called.”

“What now?” Masquerade asked.

“Well, I was in the bathroom getting ready. I was just putting on my tie and it slipped out of my grip and fell into the toilet. I hit the flusher by mistake and now it’s stuck.” There was a long silence on the phone... “Masquerade. Masquerade. Are you still there?”

“Yes,” she groaned. “Don’t go anywhere. I’m coming to your house to help you,” she said and hung up the phone. She rushed out the door. I’ll fly over and get the stupid tie out and we’ll be on our way to the ball in a few minutes, she thought to herself.

She leapt into the air and instead of soaring into the sky, she came crashing down. “Ack!! This stupid dress!!” she screeched. She looked around and made sure no one had heard her. She’d forgotten that the dress covered part of her wings, and she was stuck with walking to Spencer’s.

* * *
When she finally arrived at Spencer’s and rang the doorbell, she waited and waited and no one came. Finally she knocked really hard, and this time Spencer heard her. “Oh Masquerade. I didn’t hear you. The doorbell doesn’t work. I forgot to tell you.”

Masquerade groaned again and followed Spencer to the bathroom. She glanced into the toilet and saw only a small part of the purple tie. “Do you know how to get it out?” Spencer asked.

“Get me a coat hanger,” Masquerade said after thinking for a moment.

Spencer hurried to get one and when he returned, Masquerade fashioned a hook-type device out of it. Within minutes, she had retrieved the elusive tie and now held the soaking wet object in her hoof. “Ooh, now it’s all wet! I can’t wear it like that,” Spencer said.

“You’re right,” Masquerade said. She tried to think of what to do next. Spencer walked out of the bathroom for a minute and then called out to Masquerade.

“I’ve got it! Masquerade, come here,” he said. She walked over to his bedroom door and Spencer showed her their solution– a hair dryer. They laid the tie out on a towel and put on the dryer. In a few minutes, the tie was perfectly dry. Masquerade helped Spencer get it on properly and then they finally left for the ball.

* * *
On arrival, they were overwhelmed by all the decorations. At the bottom of the stairway to the ballroom was a huge banner which read “Welcome To The Annual Ponyland Gala!” in sparkling gold letters.

“This is beautiful!” Masquerade said as they reached the top of the stairs.

“Yes. It certainly is,” Spencer said. They stepped inside the ballroom and were suddenly enveloped by a sea of colors. There were about two hundred and fifty ponies at the gala and all were dressed in all sorts of outfits.

Speedy caught sight of Masquerade and rushed over to her. “You made it!” she said. “The gala started about a half hour ago and I was worried that you weren’t coming again.”

“No, we had a little mishap before coming here, but everything is fine now,” Masquerade said.

“Hi, Spencer. You look nice,” Speedy said.

“Thank you. So do you,” he said.

At that moment, Bouquet and Harley came over. Just as Bouquet had said, Harley had indeed come with his black leather tie and had brought Bouquet to the ball on his motorcycle. In fact, that’s all Bouquet kept gushing about until she noticed Spencer. “Um, are you two going to dance tonight?” she teased Masquerade.

“Of course we are. Right, Spencer?”

“Yes. Certainly,” Spencer answered. Then the two of them went to find a table for themselves.

After sitting for awhile, Masquerade and Spencer got up to join the line for dinner. “This should be a lovely buffet. There’s usually all sorts of neat things to pick from,” Masquerade said.

Tex was standing in front of Masquerade and they had a quick chat while waiting in line. The line progressed fairly quickly and soon Masquerade and Spencer were dishing out their plates. Everything was fine until suddenly Tex’s plate went flying across the floor like a frisbee. “Watch who you’re shoving!” he said angrily as he turned to face Spencer, who’d accidentally pushed Tex.

“I’m sorry. B-but it wasn’t my fault,” Spencer protested. “It was that Bushwoolie. S-she stuck me with her fork.” Tex next turned to the Bushwoolie.

“Yup, yup, stuck him with fork. Yup yup. Because clumsy pony backed into fork,” she said.

“Oh, never mind that, Tex. I don’t think anyone noticed too much. They’re all busy eating,” Masquerade said, trying to calm the situation down.

“Well, just be more careful,” Tex said in a somewhat less angry tone.

When Masquerade and Spencer got to their table, Spencer just sat looking at his plate. “What’s wrong, Spencer?”

“I’m embarrassed.”

“Oh, don’t be. It was Tex that dropped the plate. I don’t think anyone thought you had anything to do with it.”

“Yeah, I guess you’re right,” he said. His mood perked up a bit and he could then sit back and enjoy his meal with Masquerade.

During the meal, there were speeches made by some of the more prominent residents of Ponyland. There were a few foreign dignitaries from some neighboring areas and a few speakers from the Friendship Gardens.

After the meal and speeches were over came the part that all had been waiting for, the dance. Spencer sat eyeing the ponies as they waltzed their way around the room gracefully. “So, are we going to go up there, too?” Masquerade inquired.

“I guess so,” he answered. Nervously, he got up and led Masquerade to the dance floor.

“Ok, now remember; one, two, three, one, two, three,” Masquerade said as Spencer put a hoof around her waist.

“It’s a bit harder with all these other ponies around,” he said.

“Just go with the flow, Spencer.”

He looked at Princess Tiffany as she gracefully passed by with her dance partner, and then he took a deep breath and started to dance. Half-way through the song, Masquerade could hardly believe it; Spencer hadn’t stepped on her hooves yet! “Spencer, you’re doing great!”

A big smile spread over his face. “Really, Masquerade?”

“Yes,” she answered. He was so happy that he and Masquerade danced through the next two songs and he only stepped on her hooves twice.

During the last song, Masquerade saw Bouquet sitting alone at a table and went over to her after it was finished. “How come you’re not dancing?” she asked.

Bouquet stared at the floor for a moment and then looked up at her friend. “Would you believe that he doesn’t dance?”

“What?”

“He said it’s not his type of thing.”

“Oh, Bouquet. I’m sorry. I know how much you love to dance. Maybe Spencer could dance with you.” Bouquet looked over at Spencer for a second.

“No. I’d rather sit.”

“Okay then. Where is Harley, anyway?”

“He went to make sure that no one dented his motorcycle in the parking lot.”

“Do you want me to keep you company?”

“No, that’s okay, Masquerade. Princess Silver Swirl from the Friendship Gardens doesn’t have a date, so we’re going to hang around and chat. She’s gone to get us some fruit punch,” Bouquet said.

“Alright then. I guess I’d better get back to Spencer,” Masquerade said. “So, are you having a good time?” she asked of him.

“Definitely. Do you think you’d like to dance again?” he inquired.

“Sure,” Masquerade answered. Up the two of them went to the dance floor. Everything was going fine until Masquerade let out a little yelp. “Ouch!”

“Sorry, Masquerade. I didn’t mean to step on you.”

“That’s okay, Spencer. Just concentrate.”

He was alright for awhile but eventually stepped on Masquerade’s hoof again. They continued on for a bit but stopped once more when they collided with a dancing couple. Spencer again apologized and they danced on. Masquerade was getting a bit nervous. Spencer’s klutzy tendencies were coming back.

She suddenly envisioned Bouquets words, What are you going to do when he falls into the cake and knocks over the bandstand? Masquerade looked over to where the cake and orchestra were and decided to do whatever she could to keep him away from that area. When Spencer headed that way, she tried to lead him the other way.

“I thought the guys were supposed to lead,” he whispered.

“Um, yeah. It’s just that it’s too loud over there by the band,” she said. Spencer agreed and they danced over to the opposite side of the room.

When the next song came on, Masquerade’s face lit up in a smile. “Oh, this is my absolute favorite song!” she blurted out.

“Oh, well, we’ll have to dance to it then!” Spencer said. She did not want to as she was worried about Spencer’s increasing clumsiness, but he took the lead and began dancing so that she had no choice. She could tell that Spencer was concentrating extra hard and danced her around the floor quite gracefully. She began to enjoy herself and forgot about her worries.

At the end of the song, Masquerade was very impressed with Spencer. They hadn’t had any mishaps during the number at all! By now, though, her poor hooves were quite sore from all the other times Spencer had stepped on her. She was quite grateful when he suggested that they sit down for awhile.

When she got to the table, she slipped her shoes off so the air could get at her sore hooves. She let out a little groan at one point which Spencer noticed. “Are you alright?” he asked.

“I’m just a little tired. That’s all,” Masquerade said, smiling.

“Okay, then we’ll rest here awhile,” Spencer answered.

As she rested, she watched the others dancing around the ballroom. She especially liked watching Speedy and Barnum. They were very good dancers and with their colorful outfits they were fun to watch. Speedy, the coral pink unicorn, always liked to wear bright colors and was wearing a royal blue dress tonight. Barnum was a cream-colored pony with a maroon mane and tail and wore a bright glittering red tuxedo-style coat and white trousers. He was the ring master of the Ponyland Circus and was wearing his ring master’s costume. It was very bright, but somehow on him it looked good.

Then she looked over at her own date who was busy watching the other ponies too. The sandy-colored pony looked very handsome in his black tuxedo and deep purple tie. A lot of ponies made fun of him because of his klutziness and such, but he was really a very nice pony.

After resting a little while, Masquerade asked Spencer if he’d like to dance again. “Are you sure you aren’t too tired?” he kindly inquired.

“No, I’m fine now. Anyway, it’s getting late. There will probably only be a few more dances before they cut the cake,” Masquerade answered and the two joined up on the dance floor with all the other dancing couples. They began dancing and were going quite smoothly around the room, although Masquerade was sure to keep Spencer far from the big cake and bandstand.

Masquerade felt confidence in Spencer building up as they danced on. It seemed that he’d finally mastered the waltz. For the next two dances, he never once stepped on her hooves or dress!

Then came a new challenge. The band leader announced that for a change, the next few dances would be fox trots. Then there’d be one final dance for the night, a waltz. “I don’t know how to fox trot!” said Spencer.

“Well, we can sit and watch then,” Masquerade suggested and so they did. All the while, Spencer studied the dancers’ steps very carefully.

After watching through two whole songs, Spencer suddenly announced to Masquerade, “I can do what they’re doing! I’ve figured it out. Can we go and dance?”

Masquerade hesitated a bit but decided to go up with him anyway. They started to dance and Spencer’s first few steps all connected with poor Masquerade’s hooves. “I’m sorry, Masquerade. Let me try once more.”

Masquerade groaned but went along with Spencer’s wishes. They tried the fox trot again and this time she was careful to keep her hooves well away from Spencer’s; and this time things weren’t so bad. They managed to get through the song moderately well after a little while and they decided to stay on the dance floor for the next song which was the last fox trot of the night, and also the second last dance of the ball.

“This is really fun,” said Spencer at the beginning of the next song.

“Yes, it is,” Masquerade said. She smiled as she really was enjoying herself. She began to relax again as Spencer was no longer stomping on her hooves and was moving rather smoothly in fact. She began to concentrate on the sound of the orchestra, as they were playing another song that she loved. She was so into the music that she failed to notice that they were now dancing quite close to the bandstand.

Suddenly, the trombone player accidentally made a note that was especially loud and slightly out of tune just as Masquerade and Spencer danced past him. Masquerade jumped at the sound which also spooked Spencer. The poor pony tripped on Masquerade’s long gown and did a few funny steps backwards as he tried to keep his balance. He frantically put out a hoof and grabbed onto a banner that was around the bottom of the stage to try and catch his balance.

Poor Masquerade could now only watch in horror as the banner ripped from the nails holding it in place. Spencer was then sent whirling into the corner of the room with half the banner still in his hoof as he landed smack into Harley. Then, from the force of the collision, both Harley and Spencer toppled into the large chocolate cake that was to be cut in only a few minutes time.

The band stopped playing and all eyes were upon Spencer and Harley. Harley was furious as he got up from the mess of smooshed cake. He brushed some icing from his face and then turned to see Spencer, who was still lying in the mess of cake and cream cheese icing. “Look what you’ve done, you klutz!” Harley yelled as he looked at the mess his suit was. Masquerade rushed over to Spencer to help him before Harley got too upset.

“Klutz?” protested Spencer. “It w-was that trombone player. If he kn-knew how to play his instrument correctly, none of this would have happened!”

“Oh, Harley, it was an accident. Your suit can be cleaned. It’s mostly leather, anyway, so you can just wipe the cake off,” said Masquerade.

“I don’t care! He’s made a fool out of me in front of all these ponies!” exclaimed Harley.

Then, just when things didn’t look too good, Bouquet interrupted the confrontation. “Hey, Harley! Did I just see someone run into your motorcycle?” she said as she took a peek outside.

“My bike!” Harley cried as he ran out the door to check on it.

“Thanks, Bouquet!” Masquerade said to her friend.

“That’s alright. It serves him right for dumping me at the ball, anyway,” she said. Everyone watching had to laugh when Bouquet said that.

Then Masquerade turned to Spencer, “Well, perhaps we should be leaving now, but from a different door than Harley,” she said. Spencer was too embarrassed to say anything and just nodded as he followed Masquerade outside.

Masquerade led the way for awhile and Spencer was silent the whole time. Masquerade felt so sorry for Spencer, but didn’t know what to say to him. She kept walking and took them on a path that brought them through Rainbow Park.

When they got to the pretty marble fountain in the middle of the park, Spencer finally spoke. “Well, I guess I should leave you now. My street isn’t far from here.”

“Wait, let’s sit down at the fountain for a few minutes,” Masquerade suggested.

Spencer turned and looked at her like she was crazy. “Are you sure? I might trip and knock you into the fountain or something.”

“No, no. Let’s just sit quiet and talk,” Masquerade said. It was really nice outside and quite bright with the full moon overhead.

“Oh, Masquerade, I’m so sorry. This was supposed to be a fun night and I ruined it for you. I knew I shouldn’t have asked you to go with me to the ball,” he said with a huge sigh.

“That was just an accident, Spencer. You didn’t do it on purpose. Anyway, like you said, it was that trombone player who started it. And it was me that put you off balance when I jumped aside at the sound.”

“Yeah, but I’m always doing something clumsy. It’s a wonder I didn’t somehow knock the chandelier from the ceiling!” he said.

“Spencer, I know you’re embarrassed, but everyone makes mistakes sometimes.”

“Maybe, but I make them all the time,” Spencer said.

“Okay, so maybe you have a slight problem with your coordination. You know what, though?” Masquerade asked.

“What?” said Spencer.

“Despite everything that happened to us tonight, I’m still glad you asked me out. I honestly did have a good time dancing with you.”

“Really?” Spencer asked.

“Really,” said Masquerade with a warm smile.

“W-what about all the times I stepped on your hooves?” he asked.

“Well, you’re a beginner. You should have seen how bad I was when I learned to dance. I thought I’d never get the dance steps figured out.”

Finally a smile spread across Spencer’s face. “Masquerade, you’re the best!” he said.

“Well, I don’t know about that,” Masquerade said as she blushed.

“Sure you are!” he said and gave Masquerade a careful hug so he wouldn’t get icing on her.

“Ouch!” Masquerade said.

“What’s wrong?” Spencer asked.

“I felt something picky on your shoulder when you hugged me,” she said. They both looked and saw what the problem was. The cake at the ball had been decorated in beautiful fresh cut roses. After Spencer’s mishap with the cake, one of the roses had somehow got caught on the material of his outfit.

Spencer carefully plucked the flower from his coat and was amazed that it hadn’t been crushed when he’d fallen. He looked at it a moment and then handed the perfect red rose to Masquerade. “Here! A gift for you,” he said.

Masquerade smiled and took the flower from Spencer’s hoof, and then she got up from the fountain and stood facing him. “Well?” she asked.

“Well what?” Spencer said in a puzzled voice.

“Well, aren’t you going to walk me home? If you take a pony to the ball, it’s only proper that you walk her home,” she said with a laugh.

“Oh, um, of course. I never thought of that,” he said. With that, they both strolled through the rest of the park as they made their way towards Masquerade’s house.

When they arrived at the front of Masquerade’s home, she looked at the rose and smiled again. “You see, Spencer, you’re not clumsy all the time. You never once tripped, stuttered, or fell during our walk here.”

“Hey, yeah! You’re right, Masquerade,” he said happily when he realized that she was correct. Then they heard a sound inside Masquerade’s house which was her clock striking midnight.

“Well, Spencer, it’s late so I guess we should be saying goodnight.”

“Yes, I think we’re both tired after all that dancing at the ball!” he said.

“Well, goodnight then,” Masquerade said.

“Goodnight, Masquerade,” said Spencer as he turned to leave.

“Uh, Spencer, you forgot something,” Masquerade said.

“What?” he asked as he trotted back up to her.

“This,” she said and she gave him a little kiss on the cheek. “I really did have a good time at the ball.”

“I’m glad!” said a smiling Spencer and he finally went to leave.

Masquerade opened her door and went to step inside when she heard something at the end of her walkway. She turned and saw that Spencer had stumbled on a loose rock and fallen. He quickly picked himself up and noticed that Masquerade had seen his little mishap and shrugged. “Oops. Um... well... uh... goodnight Masquerade,” he said and then safely trotted off.

Masquerade went inside her home, shaking her head. She laughed to herself and said, “Poor Spencer.” Then she rushed upstairs to her bedroom so she could get ready for bed as she was truly tired.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

U
Change of Heart
by Sugarberry ([email protected])


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

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

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

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

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

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

“Yes, he does,” Sugarberry confirmed.

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

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

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

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

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

“No, I haven’t, but...”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“What do you mean?”

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

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

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

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

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

“I’d appreciate that.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“That is my father,” Sugarberry disclosed.

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

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

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

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

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

“My dad was delighted.”

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

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

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

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

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

“Tabby and Thomas...”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Wigwam had to get over to the casino.”

“And Wishbone?” Sugarberry ventured.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Uh-oh. What did I do?”

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

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

“Giorgio paid me a visit last evening.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Such as Wishbone?” he clarified.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“You’d do that for him?”

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

“I appreciate it.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“What’s she like?” Hydrangea snapped.

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

“Is she pretty?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“And you chose teaching as your career?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Don’t say that!” Sugarberry fretted.

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

“Her health is still compromised?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Same for you, Wigwam. Goodnight.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Huh?” he responded, clueless.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“How do you know that?” asked Elaine.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Yes.” Tawny stopped to gather his thoughts.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“He’s selling out his own father?”

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

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

“Apparently.”

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

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

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

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

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

“The fourth Thursday in November.”

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

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

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

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

“Meaning?”

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

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

“That would stand to reason,” Tawny agreed.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Can you come?” Giorgio asked eagerly.

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

“They do this every year?”

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

“How fascinating.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Turkeys migrate, too?” asked Giorgio.

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

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

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

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

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

“The press seems to think so.”

“And you?”

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

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

“You’re getting cold,” Giorgio noticed.

“Time to go home,” Sugarberry smiled.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Bo-ring!” Tabby commented disdainfully.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“And you think he can do it?”

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

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

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

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

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

“Yes; that’s why I’m worried.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“What else could you do?”

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

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

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

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

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

“What did he say?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I don’t see...”

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

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

“Undoubtedly,” Giorgio replied simply.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I can verify that,” smiled Wigwam.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Still sixty-six,” she replied promptly.

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

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

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

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

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

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

“And when was this?”

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

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

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

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

“Ah-huh.”

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

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

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

“Good night, Wigwam.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I’m not hungry.”

“Okay. Can we talk then?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“You can be so sure?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Such is the anguish of solitude.

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Baby Ribbon’s Good Day
by Steamer ([email protected])


One Monday morning Baby Ribbon woke up, and she thought sadly to herself, Oh no, today is the day we have the winking test; I’m not good at winking.

She went downstairs, and her mama could tell immediately that something was wrong. “What’s wrong, Baby Ribbon?” Ribbon asked.

Baby Ribbon told her mother her problem, finishing by saying, “I don’t want to go to school today, Mama.”

“You’ll still have to take the winking test when you go back,” her mother pointed out.

“Winking is soooo difficult though,” sighed Baby Ribbon.

“Not if you concentrate hard enough,” said Ribbon, and with that she demonstrated what she meant. “Now eat your breakfast and remember what I told you,” continued the blue unicorn, placing a plate of blueberry pancakes– Baby Ribbon’s favorite– down in front of her daughter.

Baby Ribbon ate her breakfast and then got her things ready for school, and then Ribbon walked her daughter there. At the schoolhouse, Ribbon kissed her and said, “Remember what I told you, little one; and I’ll see you this afternoon after school.”

“Okay, Mommy, I’ll try,” said Baby Ribbon and with that she went into the schoolhouse.

* * *
Later that day when Ribbon went to the schoolhouse to pick up her daughter, she found a smiling Baby Ribbon there to greet her. “I did it, Mommy!” exclaimed Baby Ribbon. She then showed her mother a piece of paper that she was carrying, which read “Baby Ribbon has improved tremendously on her winking skills”; and it had a red letter A on the top.

Ribbon gave her daughter a big hug. “Congratulations, honey,” she said. “I think this deserves an ice cream cone.”

“Yummy!” exclaimed Baby Ribbon, and so they both went to the Satin Slipper Sweet Shoppe and had their ice cream, and then went home.



The End
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Ginseng and Sassafras Tea
by Sugarberry ([email protected])


Chapter 13


The hot, humid weather kept ponies frequenting Hood’s Place all day. The early evening crowd was keeping the shop lively with spirited conversation. Many of the fillys and stallions were Drumstick’s age, and they were excited about their college and career plans as summer was winding down. Gathering at Hood’s Place, however, gave them a chance to escape the responsibilities of growing up for just a little bit longer.

Drumstick, done with his shift but still chumming with his friends, tormented Hood mercilessly over his lack of a suitable replacement once Drumstick was off to school. Hood, in turn, bantered over the drudgery of college studies. “It isn’t all parties and pretty faces!” he reminded them.

“Not from what I hear,” enlightened Drumstick. “Derby University is supposed to have the highest filly to stallion ratio of any institution of higher learning in Ponyland!”

“The school just advertises that to lure unsuspecting stallions like yourself to its campus,” theorized Hood. “Once there, you’re stuck.”

“Where did you go to college, Hood?” asked Brawny, one of Drumstick’s companions who was soon to be on his way to Grapeglow College.

“Grayton,” Hood responded proudly.

“That must have been back in the good old days,” snickered Drumstick.

“Graduated eight years ago, to be exact,” came a voice from behind Hood-- a pleasant, female voice that Hood recognized immediately.

Turning, Hood politely wished Dreamy a good evening, and he nodded to the attractive Flame who stood at her side. Returning his gaze to Dreamy’s green eyes, he chided, “Checking up on me, Free Lance?”

“I was curious to see what you’d done with your life after high school,” Dreamy admitted. To the watching ponies in Drumstick’s crowd, she disclosed, “It was none too exciting.” A ripple of laughter followed her remark.

“What? You didn’t uncover any deep, dark secrets about Hood?” wondered Brawny. “I’m disappointed!”

Dreamy looked at the young stallions with the dazzling smile she could resurrect at will. “Actually, his life before Woodlawn was downright boring.”

Feeling as if he had been the brunt of enough snide remarks for one evening, Hood put his hoof to Dreamy’s elbow and firmly guided her and Flame to an empty table far removed from Drumstick and gang.

Dreamy seated herself, but Flame smiled pleasantly at Hood as he held her chair for her. “Thank you, Hood.” She looked at him with her deep violet eyes, and Hood felt strangely bewitched. Shaking off the sensation as Dreamy’s voice cut through the spell, Hood faced his antagonist.

“I’m surprised, Hood, that you didn’t storm into my office after today’s edition hit the stands.”

Knowing she was referring to her latest blast of Checker and Woodlawn’s police department, Hood simply informed her, “Reading the paper is not a top priority with me.”

“Too many other irons in the fire?” Dreamy shot back, a subtle reference to what Dreamy imagined as Hood’s not too solid marital commitment.

Hood held her steady gaze without responding to her barb. He told the mares he would send a waitress to their table. Returning to the counter, he found Patchwork Petal busy, so he commandeered Rosy Bells for the job.

“Watch out for that orange-maned one,” Hood warned. “She puts on a good show, but she has a stinger that she’s not afraid to use.” Hood thought back to Buttercup’s comparison of Dreamy to a wasp. As his dad always told him, wasps are no problem... until they sit down.

Rosy Bells grinned at Hood and hurried off with a pitcher of water. Hood, for his part, escaped to his office.

When Rosy Bells arrived at the table, Flame was just confiding to Dreamy, “I could really fall for that stallion.”

“It’s best to stay away from that one,” answered Dreamy. “He’s already married and has a foal to support.”

Rosy Bells, unaware of the ongoing contention between Hood and Dreamy, laughed heartily. “You’ve got yourself a bad source for that information,” she revealed. “Hood’s as single as they come. Not that the mares in Woodlawn haven’t been trying...” she winked at Flame knowingly.

“But I saw him shopping with a mare and a foal,” argued Dreamy. “Very family-like.”

Giggling, Rosy Bells asked, “Was she a young yellow mare with purple mane?”

“Yes,” affirmed Dreamy. “And the foal was green.”

“That’s Hood’s neighbor,” Rosy Bells explained. “Hood helps her out when she needs it. But Buttercup is definitely Homestead’s spouse, not Hood’s.”

“Fair game, then,” reflected Flame with a renewed glimmer in her eyes.

Dreamy remained silent, digesting this information. Her first response, to be read on her face, was one of anger as she blamed Hood for not correcting her misconception. But she refrained from speaking until after she and Flame had placed their order, and Rosy Bells had gone away.

“That worm!” she hissed to no one in particular.

Flame looked at her curiously. “What’s going on between you two?” she asked. “Is there anything I should know before I make a move on him?”

Throwing back her silky orange curls, Dreamy rambled. “He should have corrected my error in assuming they were married. How dare he lead me on that way? Of course, maybe I never did give him a chance, yet...” and here her face flushed, “that hussy certainly went to great lengths to strengthen the deception when I was at their-- her-- house that night!”

Sitting across from her friend, Flame watched the play of emotions slide across Dreamy’s face as she went from anger to compassion and back to anger again. “What are you talking about?” she asked in wide-eyed wonder.

“If he thinks he can make a fool out of me...” Dreamy was cut short as Rosy Bells brought their orders to the table.

“Here you go, girls! Enjoy!”

“Thanks!” acknowledged Flame as the nut covered hot fudge sundae was set before her. As Rosy Bells moved on to the next table, Flame prodded, “Did he lie to you?”

“Yes, he did,” growled Dreamy, but she quickly modified her statement. “Not in so many words, but by his actions.”

Flame thought his over while tasting her sundae. “Oh! This is heavenly!” She closed her eyes to enjoy the taste sensation. Then, getting back to the conversation in progress, she asked of Dreamy, “Is it possible you just misread what you saw?”

“I’m a reporter, Flame. It’s my job to see things accurately!”

“So where’d you go wrong?” Flame softly questioned.

With a perturbed look, Dreamy sat in thought. “Maybe I did sort of get things messed up a bit,” she admitted. “But no one bothered to straighten me out!” Fire again flashed in her eyes.

“Listening isn’t one of your virtues... unless you’re fishing for a story,” Flame reminded her.

At that, Dreamy jabbed her spoon into the ice cream of her banana split and began eating. The two mares shared little conversation after that, and Flame, when finished, excused herself and left the shop.

Sulking over the current state of affairs, Dreamy ordered a cup of coffee; she sat idly stirring it after Rosy Bells served it. “Anything else I can do for you?” the perceptive waitress asked, but Dreamy waved her on.

One by one, the other customers left Hood’s Place; Patchwork Petal and Rosy Bells had the place ready for closing, but Dreamy still sat, peering into the depths of the coffee mug.

“You go on home,” Rosy Bells advised Patchwork Petal. “I’ll hang around for awhile.” When the filly had exited the shop, Rosy Bells went to Dreamy. “It’s closing time, miss.”

Dreamy looked up in surprise, just now noticing that the place was deserted. “Is Hood still here?” she breathed.

Rosy Bells hesitated before answering. Would the boss be angry with her for butting in? Yet both Hood and Dreamy seemed unhappy with the way things were going, so Rosy Bells answered in the affirmative. “Yes. He’s in his office. Shall I go get him?”

“Please,” Dreamy responded with a slight smile.

Rosy Bells trotted down the hall to Hood’s office and rapped gently on the closed door.

“Come in,” Hood called wearily. But he flashed her a affable glance when she peaked in. “Closing time, Rosy Bells!” He threw his pen on the desk and stood up.

“That it is, Hood, but there’s one patron who refuses to leave without talking to you.”

Hood’s eyebrows rose questioningly. “Someone refuses to leave?” He groaned. “Let me guess... orange curls and green eyes?”

Rosy Bells only grinned, and held the door as Hood passed through.

“You’re excused for the night, Rosy. I can handle it from here.”

“Goodnight, Hood,” Rosy Bells said as she slipped out the back door. “I’m sure you can handle it very well.



Chapter 14


Hood walked to the front of the shop and saw Dreamy sitting all alone in the otherwise empty room. He noted the coffee mug in front of her and grabbed the carafe and another mug from the counter as he passed. He mentally noted that Rosy Bells had foreseen just that action.

Coming up to Dreamy’s table, Hood simply said hi and refilled her mug. Then he seated himself across from her and filled his own cup, leaning back with a sigh as he finished. Neither of the ponies said a word until Dreamy spoke up. “I guess I jumped to an untrue conclusion about you and... that mare.”

“Uh-huh,” was all Hood allowed himself to say.

“You could have spoken up, Hood.”

“I tried, but you were too busy cutting me down to pay attention,” Hood reminded her. “You talk better than you listen, Dreamy.”

Dreamy quickly came back. “That doesn’t explain the lovey-dovey act when I came across you, her, and Chief Checker the other night.”

Smiling unconsciously at the recollection, Hood defended himself. “I had nothing to do with that; it was all Buttercup’s idea. She said you deserved it for making a hasty deduction that way.”

“I always thought she was a little too young for you, Hood.”

Hood ignored the remark, and surprising even himself, instead asked Dreamy if she had heard any news on the green stallion the police were searching for. He hadn’t heard a thing since this morning and his curiosity was getting the best of him.

“Checker has been very tight-lipped all day. That’s why I came here tonight, hoping he’d have come in to confide in his brother-in-law,” admitted Dreamy.

“Hmm,” frowned Hood. “That would indicate that they haven’t found him yet.”

“I’m not surprised,” Dreamy began, then seemed to think better of it. After a pause, she continued in a new vein. “Hood, let’s start over again-- put the past behind us.”

“Something tells me that won’t be easy.”

“Maybe not, but it will be more fun than antagonizing one another.”

Hood was silent as he recalled how much he had disliked her unwanted attention in high school, and how angry he had been with her as Free Lance.

Taking his silence for a refusal, Dreamy pushed her coffee mug away from her across the table, and stood up. “Well, I’ve kept you late enough. Goodnight, Hood.” She turned, and walked to the door.

“Dreamy! Wait!” Hood rose from his chair. With her hoof on the door, Dreamy turned to look back. “Give me a chance to clear this table and I’ll walk you home,” Hood offered.

“I don’t need...” Dreamy’s sharp voice trailed off as she realized it wasn’t the best way to patch up this friendship. “Thanks, Hood, I’d like that,” she finished amiably.

In a matter of minutes, Hood had the dishes rinsed and the shop ready for closing. Dreamy had leaned against the counter and quizzed him as he worked. “Do you enjoy being the owner of an ice cream parlor?... Why’d you move to Woodlawn when you had a successful coffee house in Grayton?... Do you really not read the newspaper?...”

Hood’s monosyllabic answers didn’t deter Dreamy, and the questions continued as the pair left the shop and walked the silent streets to Dreamy’s white house across town from Hood’s own home.

Standing in her open doorway under the porch light, Dreamy cocked her head, her orange curls framing her face, a smile lighting her face. “I’m glad we’re going to be friends, Hood. Woodlawn will seem a little more like home now.”

Time will tell, Hood thought to himself. But Dreamy had made an effort to straighten things out between them, and she did look very lovely when she wasn’t angry with him. “How about dinner at Cedar Woods tomorrow night?” Hood heard himself ask.

“I’d like that, Hood,” Dreamy responded.

“I’ll come by at seven then,” Hood smiled. “Goodnight, Dreamy.”

“‘Night, Hood.”

Walking home, Hood’s thoughts swirled through highs and lows as harbored resentments fought against anticipated harmony with Dreamy. Could such a stormy background produce a peaceful future? Hood had his doubts.

And then there was Flame. His thoughts became more confused as he remembered the look the slim red mare had flashed him. “I need to talk to Stardrift and Moonglow,” the perplexed stallion mumbled to himself.

That train of thoughts reminded him of problems closer to his heart. Moonglow simply had to have a safe delivery. Checker had to solve this puzzle involving the green stallion known only as Victor. Life had to return to normal.

Reaching his house, Hood went around to the back door and withdrew a key from under the welcome mat. His recent run-ins with Sparky caused him to look over his shoulder to make sure the new recruit wasn’t lurking in the bushes. It was then that something caught Hood’s eye.

He stared across the yard, and knew something was amiss; but what it was, he couldn’t quite place. He took a few tentative steps down the back walk, and stared at a dark patch in the grass. The street light sent only a weak glow to this corner of the lawn, and Hood approached cautiously.

It was only when he got to within a few feet of the area in question that he realized what was wrong. His prized blue spruce was gone; all that remained was a circle of black dirt where it had been planted. Hood stared in disbelief. Was this the work of Checker’s suspect? Was this Victor brazen enough to come into town even with his description now public knowledge? Hood stood in silent contemplation for several minutes before retracing his steps to the back door and unlocking it.

Turning on the light as he entered the house caused Hood to blink from the brightness, but he went straight to his telephone and dialed the police station’s number.

“Woodlawn Police,” the official-sounding voice said.

“Is Chief Checker still in?” Hood asked, although he hoped Checker had been able to spend this night at home.

“No, he isn’t,” the voice replied. “May I help you?”

Hood relayed the purpose of his call to the dispatcher, who told Hood to wait for the arrival of a deputy. It wasn’t long before Sparky was on the scene.

“So the perpetrator found you, Hood,” Sparky flouted. “Or is this just a play on your part to throw suspicion off yourself?” Grinning, he guided the beam from his flashlight over the scene searching for any clues. But nothing was out of place except for the missing tree. The lawn showed no prints, and the dirt was evenly raked smooth.

“He’s still quite efficient in his efforts,” muttered Hood.

“He’s a bold one, all right,” Sparky agreed. “You were away when this happened?” Sparky directed at Hood. “It’s kind of late for you, isn’t it?”

“Had a problem at the shop, so I didn’t get home until one o’clock,” Hood stretched the truth only a little.

“You didn’t see anyone?”

“Nope. The streets were deserted.”

“Anything else tampered with?”

“Not that I can see in the dark. But as this Victor only goes for produce and growing things, I think I’m safe. The tree is all I had.” He wondered what Lacewing and Laser would have to say about the disappearance of the tree they’d helped him to plant.

“I guess I’m finished here,” decided Sparky. “Let us know if you discover anything else.” He shut down the flashlight and plunged the two stallions into comparative darkness.

“Say, Sparky, what did Checker find out about this Sassafras and Meadow Minder?” Hood asked in a low voice.

He could feel more than see Sparky’s sharp look at him. “How much has the chief told you?”

“Just what he knew this morning.”

“Well, it’s not my place to gossip over police business,” Sparky replied disapprovingly. “All I’ll say is that our investigation is proceeding satisfactorily. Goodnight, Hood.”

“Yeah. Thanks,” Hood scowled.

He watched as Sparky left his yard, and then Hood returned to his house. It was two in the morning now, and he gratefully fell into bed. He craved sleep, simply to escape the unanswered questions that still swamped his mind. But he tossed and turned for hours before sleep overpowered him, and he fell into a deep but disturbed slumber.

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Early Pony Special


If you submit a chapter of your continuing storyline to me, Tabby, any time before the fifteenth of the month, you will be awarded one point. In future months, whenever you submit new chapters before the fifteenth of the month, you will be awarded one more point for each chapter. (In the case of submitting multiple chapters for one month, a point will be awarded for each chapter.) When you have built up six of these points, you are entitled to receive a free pony!

Once you have your six points, you may head over to my extensive My Little Pony sale list (http://TweegLvr.tripod.com/MLP.htm) and choose one pony (not going over a $5 value). E-mail me your selection, and if that pony hasn’t been sold or traded since the last time I updated, the pony is yours! Supply me with your address, and the pony will be shipped to you promptly. (Ponies cannot be reserved for this purpose beforehand.)

If there are any new writers out there interested in submitting to My Little Pony Monthly, please feel free to send your works to [email protected]! No matter how new you are to the newsletter, you can still take advantage of this policy. A free pony could be waiting in your future!

Any questions on this policy? Feel free to e-mail me at [email protected]

-- Tabby



Running Tally of Points Given Out So Far


Moonjumper ([email protected])-- 1

Yum Yum ([email protected])-- 1

Baby Steamer ([email protected])-- 3

Moonstar ([email protected])-- 1

Cinnamon Sugar ([email protected])-- 2

Berry Brite ([email protected])-- 1

Akkima ([email protected])-- 1

Sugarberry ([email protected])– 2

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**My Little Pony Monthly Policy Statement**


This e-mail newsletter is meant to be read by all ages, and I shall reject any submissions if they contain profanity of any sort. If you have a piece you think would add to the quality of My Little Pony Monthly, feel free to e-mail it to me at [email protected] And, remember, it doesn’t have to be a story to be accepted! My Little Pony-related games, contests (please be willing to notify me of the results so I can post them in the next issue), Invento Ponies, and everything else are great as well! However, submissions must be received at least three days prior to the first of the month to be ensured to be posted in that issue. Submissions are subject to being edited by our proofreaders.

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My Little Pony Monthly is a publication of Nematoid (Electronic) Publishing.
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To view our past issues online, simply go to:

http://www.crosswinds.net/~tabbymlp/Monthly.htm
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Our next regular issue will be sent November first.

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