My Little Pony Monthly Issue 58 (January 1, 2002)

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Issue 58
January 2002

Behind the Cupboard
by Clever Clover (

The darkness of the passageway weighed heavily on Enchantment and Belle Star. It seemed almost as if it had a physical form that blocked even the magical light of Enchantment's luminous sphere. The passage itself was constructed of rounded fieldstone, not the fine cut blocks of the rest of the castle. The stones were cold and damp, as was the air.

"This tunnel seems to lead into the heart of the mountain, unless I've lost all sense of direction. And the construction is different from the castle. I wonder if it was built before or after? What do you think, Belle Star?"

"How would you build a secret passage behind the kitchen cupboard before you built the kitchen?"

Enchantment giggled. "The passage may not have always been secret. If it existed before the castle, the kitchen cupboard was just built over the opening. But why make it a secret? It looks like it would make a fine wine cellar."

"Oh, maybe there's something scary down there. Like a pony-eating monster."

"If it was something like that they would have blocked up the opening. The fact that there is a door suggests that there is something back here that someone would want access to."

"Like buried treasure?"

"I suppose that's possible, but if it's something that valuable there will probably be traps."

"T... traps. Uh, maybe we should go back."

"Aw, come on. We've come this far, we might as well see it through to the end. Besides, after the door closed behind us, I couldn't find any way to open it. We'll have to find another way out."

"You mean we could be trapped in here forever!"

"Don't worry. If it comes to that I'll just contact the Magus through magic and he can open the cupboard from the outside. Now, let's keep moving. I think I can see something up ahead."

The ponies soon found that the passage opened into a vast chamber. The darkness was less oppressive here. The illumination from Enchantment's spell reflected off the shimmering surface of hundreds of stalactites and stalagmites of a vast natural cavern.

Belle Star's eyes went wide with wonder. "It's so beautiful! Do you think this could be what they were hiding?"

"I don't think so. There are caves like this all over the isle, though this one is quite a sight. Look, there is a walkway cut into the wall. Maybe the passage continues on the other side. Watch your step, we don't want to be falling onto those stalagmites."


The walkway was polished smooth as if by many generations of hooves passing over it. The stone was thankfully dry, for the most part. As the pair of ponies neared the exit passage and were a third of the way around the cavern from the entrance, Belle Star slipped on a wet patch and, trying to regain her balance, grabbed Enchantment from behind. The two of them plummeted toward the cavern floor deep below.

"AAHHHHHHHHHHHHHH!" Belle Star screamed in terror as they fell, not noticing their gradual deceleration and unexpectedly soft landing.

"You can stop screaming now. We're safe."

"Huh? Oh, how did that happen?"

"I was able to slow our fall with a levitation spell. Unfortunately it's not powerful enough to levitate us out of here."

"Not even one of us?"

"No, it can only levitate a pony or object up to three feet off the ground. We'll have to find an exit from down here."

As they made their way through the forest of stalagmites, guided by Enchantment's sphere of light which had followed them down from the ledge, Belle Star shuddered and huddled close to Enchantment. "I think I heard something; we're not alone down here!"

"Be quiet. I'll try a spell to see if anyone else is around. Mana of all creation, open my eyes, show me what lurks in shadow guise." A soft blue light appeared in the distance, and silhouetted against the illumination, three dark forms. "Guardian spirits!"


"Sort of like a magical booby-trap. Spirits that are bound to a place and will not let anyone pass unless they speak the proper password."

"And you do know what the password is, right?"

"It's different for every spirit; the wizard who casts the spell usually chooses a word that only he knows. But right now they are only following us. As long as we don't get too close to whatever they are guarding, they should leave us alone."

"So how do we know where not to go?"

"We don't. All we can do is proceed slowly and keep an eye on the spirits. If they start to act aggressively, we turn around."

"Okay, but why isn't there one over there?"

Enchantment looked in the direction that Belle Star was pointing and to her puzzlement there was no silhouetted spirit. "Ah, that's a good question. Let's see what's there. But be very careful."

The duo advanced slowly toward the gap in the spirit ring. The spirits moved with them, growing neither nearer or farther. Before long the cavern wall became visible before them; it was irregular and jagged.

"Oh! They're going to smash us against the rocks!"

"Calm down. I don't think they are going to hurt us. These aren't guardian spirits, they're spirit guides! They weren't trying to keep us away from anything, they were showing us the way to get out of here!"

"Way out? Where?"

"Look at the rock formations. They're like a ladder! Oh, thank you, kind spirits!"

Belle Star bowed deeply toward the spirits. "Oh yes. Thank you very much, honorable spirits."

Suddenly the chamber was filled with a soft, almost melodious, humming. The two ponies climbed carefully back to the walkway from which they had fallen and ended up right at the opening they had hoped would lead them out of this mysterious place. They proceeded into another passage identical to the first and followed it without mishap until the walls gave way to cold night air. The passage opened into a deep crevice on the mountainside and only a narrow bridge spanned the gap.

"Watch your step carefully, Belle; I don't think my levitate spell could save us here."

"Right. I'll be extra careful."

Much to Enchantment's relief, they made the crossing safely. The passage continued but sloped upward and curved around and back and forth.

Belle Star stumbled. "Oh, my tummy is grumbly. Is it breakfast time?"

"I think so. Too bad we didn't bring any of that pudding with us."

"Uh-huh. How much longer do you think it will be before we get out of here?"

"Uh, I don't know. When we get out, we get out."

"Can we rest for a while?"

"I guess so. For a while, anyway."

As the two ponies rested, they heard a mumbling voice coming from above. Soon they saw a light.

"What is it, Enchantment? Not more spirits, I hope!"

"Shhhh! We don't want whoever it is to hear us." Enchantment extinguished the light sphere, and the two ponies held their breaths and waited. Before long the light and the mumbling disappeared. After several moments Enchantment let out her breath. "Come on. Let's see where it went. And you can start breathing again."

Belle Star, who was turning blue, gasped for breath. "Oh, thank you."

When they reached the point in the passage where the light had disappeared, they found two doors, one on either side. A light shone through the crack below one door. Enchantment carefully placed her ear against the door and listened. She gasped in surprise. "Magus!"

Bells Star panicked. "Oh, be quiet or he will hear you!"

"That's okay! It's my teacher, the Magus."

The door swung open and Enchantment fell into the room. A short white pony with pink hair stood over her. "Oh, Enchantment, it's you. Who's your friend?"

Belle Star bowed. "I am Belle Star, Mr. Magus."

"It's nice to meet you, but what are you two doing here? I could have sworn I locked the door."

"Oh, well you see, we were looking for something to eat for a midnight snack and, well, this cupboard moved and there was a tunnel behind it..."

"The cupboard? How'd you open that? The sequence is so complex it took me a week to figure it out."

"Oh, I just opened doors until I accidentally pulled on a candle holder and it opened."

"Uh-huh. Interesting. So you made it past the cavern without incident?"

Enchantment shook her head. "Not exactly. We had a little run in with the spirit guides."

"Ah, them. Curious chaps. I haven't quite got them figured out. Well, at least you made it through alright. You did make it through alright, right? I mean there were only the two of you, right?"

"Oh, yes, Mr. Magus."

"Good. Well, since you're here, I might as well show you around."

As the Magus led Enchantment and Belle Star through the maze of chambers and passageways, he explained the history of the place. "These caverns and passages are rich with natural energy and were a sacred place for the ancient inhabitants of the Isle. When the castle was built, the court wizard had secret entrances constructed to give him access to the tunnels and their energy. Eventually the secret was forgotten; but while I was Jack-O-Lantern's apprentice, I rediscovered the secret passages and have been studying them ever since."

The tour ended as they passed through a sliding door into a room that was familiar to young Enchantment as the Magus' laboratory. Enchantment tried to notice how the Magus opened and closed the secret panel but could not see that he did anything.

Belle Star bowed to the Magus. "Thank you so much for showing us around, Mr. Magus."

"Oh, it was nothing; just let me know next time you're coming, and don't enter uninvited."

"Yes, we are very sorry for intruding."

"Well, there are many preparations to be made for the royal wedding and the day is wearing on. We should be on our way. Come on, Belle Star, I'll show you back to your room. Good day, Magus."

"Good day, ladies."

As the two ponies trotted off down the hall, Belle Star's stomach growled. "Oh, could we stop by the kitchen first and get some breakfast?"


New Year's Eve
by Tabby (

On the Saturday afternoon before New Year's, most of the females of the family ended up congregating together to gossip at the Fairfax residence, while the guys took Thomas off to the bowling alley. Helga served her guests her scrumptious coconut kiss cookies, which caused a great deal of compliments around the table.

"Ooh! You haven't made these for ages, Grandmother!" Sapphire squealed, diving in.

"Helga, these are delicious," Laraine commented between bites. "Why haven't you made them sooner?"

"I must have the recipe," begged Flora.

"Maybe it's a secret," Helga said mischievously.

"Hmm," Tabby said cautiously, eyeing hers skeptically. It obviously contained coconut, which she didn't like, but she managed to scarf it down anyway as to not appear ungracious.

"I'll trade you the recipe for my special fluffy mustard sauce," bargained Delia.

Devonne winked at Helga. "Sorry, girls, but my mother would never give that information out."

"I have a brilliant idea!" Cecilia burst out. "We all must have a secret recipe of some sort. We could all trade them today with each other. Wouldn't it be an ideal way to break down the barriers caused by the old feud?"

"Oh, that would be fun!" Elaine exclaimed brightly.

Some of the mares were reluctant to give out such classified information, but they hardly wanted to appear stingy in front of the special guest. Slowly, everyone agreed that it was an interesting idea to bring their families closer together, after they had all promised that the information discussed would still be kept a secret to all beyond the table. With their pact agreed upon, the girls set to work writing out their special recipes on a stack of blank recipe cards Helga supplied.

Tabby glanced over at Elaine, who was busily scribbling away, and then down at her own blank card. What was she supposed to do? She never cooked! Idly, she jotted down under ingredients, One can cherry pie filling. After pondering this for a moment, she continued with Open can; dish servings into individual bowls; eat with spoon. That was as secret as any of Tabby's recipes came. Actually, that was Tabby's only recipe.

After all the ponies were finished, the recipe cards were divided into piles and then handed out to each of the mares there. Eagerly, they delved into their newfound treasure chests, anxious to find the key to some of the marvelous dishes they had sampled over the years in the kitchens of relatives.

Priscilla began laughing softly as she read Tabby's secret recipe. "Oh, Tabby, don't think you can get out of this so easily," she challenged.

"Is there something wrong with it?" Tabby asked innocently.

Some of the others began to turn to Tabby's recipe in order to see what was wrong with it, and soon there were many amused faces around the table. "Surely your family must have something more interesting than a can of cherry pie filling," Rosetta prodded.

"Maybe, but that's the only thing I can fix."

"You mean..." Cecilia looked aghast at this bold pronouncement. "But of course you must cook certain things."

"No, nothing ever turns out," Tabby explained. "It's too much of a hassle; I don't bother with it."

"That is to say, you've even been married for more than a year and you don't cook?" Helga demanded in disbelief.

"Yes, but it's okay. Elaine takes care of all that just fine."

"Elaine, is this true?" Cecilia swung her gaze around to the white unicorn.

"Well, yes, I do," Elaine acknowledged. "But really it's no problem. I enjoy helping out."

"But didn't your mother teach you anything about the kitchen?" Helga continued in horror.

"Oh, she tried," Tabby said cheerfully. "But I never really picked up on it."

The problem Tabby had was not in understanding how to cook, but rather on how to keep concentrated on it. Usually she was so flighty and scatterbrained that she either forgot to put a certain ingredient in, or added something that shouldn't be included, or simply forgot she was baking anything and let it burn to a crisp or boil over.

"Well, this is obviously a problem we should rectify," Helga stated, rising to the challenge. "Tabby, why don't you let us help you?"

Tabby looked at her piteously. "Oh, no! Really, it doesn't work. Not for me. I truly wouldn't want to spend the rest of the vacation–"

"Just this afternoon," Cecilia put in coaxingly. "We'll help you make something for dessert tonight, how's that? Who knows, maybe it'll inspire you to do more in the kitchen."

"Hmm," Tabby pondered. "Well, okay. Just this once." Helga and Cecilia promptly whisked her off, determined now to make something of a cook out of this mare.

In the span of time that followed, Tabby proved herself to be a rather inefficient cook, and Helga and Cecilia were constantly reminding her of an ingredient to add or what a foreign term meant. Tabby found the whole ordeal to be rather boring and was glad when the two older mares excused her to go back to the others. The fruit tart did turn out in the end, but its success was probably due to Helga and Cecilia's interference.

Once again, Tabby's culinary abilities were deemed hopeless.

* * *
Spending one of his afternoons off at home, Alan found himself dragged into yet another lecture instigated by his mother. "Alan, I've been meaning to ask you, have you invited Lydia to the sledding party yet?" she cornered him.

"Actually, Mother, I don't think I'll be going with her," Alan said patiently. He had had this conversation with his parents already countless times in the past.

"Oh, Alan!" She pursed her lips in disappointment. "But why not?"

"Mom, we don't like each other! I wish you and Dad would understand that."

"I understand, but... her parents and your father and I have been counting all these years that you and Lydia–"

"I know you'd be happy if Lydia and I were married and lived happily ever after, but unfortunately neither of us would be happy with it," Alan broke in.

"I just wish..." the mare trailed off, caving in. "Well, do what you like, Alan. But... don't give up on Lydia yet, would you?"

"Yes, Mother."

* * *
"Ooh, Espeon," Tabby breathed, surveying her next opponent in her Pokemon battle against Mandy; Tabby had forgotten what sort of a relation the young filly was, but she was apparently a decent Pokemon trainer. "How cool is that!" The pink unicorn was quite fond of the Eevee evolutions. "Okay, so, Hitmonlee, do one of your kicks or whatever. It's a pity you're weak against psychic types, though," she mused aloud.

Tabby's suspicions turned out to be correct; Hitmonlee was soon knocked out by clever moves on Mandy's Espeon's part. Next Tabby called out her Vaporeon who, after a hard-fought battle, managed to come out the winner. The pair ran over to the defeated Espeon, though, and Tabby was able to admire up close the beautiful purple psychic Eevee evolution.

"How lovely!" she said in awe, helping the Pokemon back up on its feet where she eagerly accepted the praise bestowed upon her. "How did you acquire her, Mandy?"

"Well, I caught her as an Eevee, and we've done a lot of training since then," the pink filly said modestly. "I'm really proud of her."

Their conversation was cut short as an impatient green colt ran forward and begged Tabby for a battle. To have an adult Pokemon trainer in their midst was a new experience for the youngsters of this community, and all wanted to test their skills against her. Tabby prepared for a long day of battling ahead of her.

Meanwhile, out of range of the battlefield, the sledding party was in progress. Ponies of all ages gathered at the hill near the Monks' house to take advantage of the fine sledding conditions, and a warm fire and hot chocolate awaited them indoors when they tired of the recreation.

"Come on, Elaine, let's go down again!" Alan prodded, pulling her along behind him.

"Not again!" Elaine protested, reluctantly going along. "Once was enough!" The first fast-paced descent down the hill had already shaken her wits; she didn't want to undertake the trip again!

"Too late," Alan said good-naturedly, plunking her down into the seat of the toboggan and getting on behind her. "Here we go-o-o-o!" Elaine's shrieks filled the air all the way to the bottom of the hill.

Numbly, she tried to extricate herself from the snowdrift she had ended up in. "Am I still alive?" she wondered dazedly, wiping the snow off her face and trying to get her bearings. She became aware that another sled was careening downhill towards her general region, and shielded her face as it whipped past her, splashing snow up all around her, before it skidded out not much further along.

Elaine once again dug herself out, and found herself face-to-face with one of the passengers of the second sled. "Lydia!" she gasped without thinking.

"Oh, it's you, isn't it?" the other mare said snobbishly, also recognizing Elaine.

"Nice party, isn't it?" Elaine said weakly, remembering the resentment Lydia must still harbor for her from when Elaine had questioned the price of something Lydia sold in her parent's gift shop.

"I see you're getting on along quite splendidly with Alan," Lydia continued factitiously. "How sweet."

"Well, yes, we're friends..."

"Friends," Lydia said mockingly. "Isn't that nice. Hey, Alan," she shouted over her shoulder, "your girlfriend's over here."

Elaine, naturally, blushed an intense red at this insinuation; and Alan, who had been having difficulty locating his white-bodied partner among the white snowbanks, hurried over. His gaze darkened as he caught sight of Lydia as well. "Lydia, what are you doing here?"

"Merely chatting with your new friend," Lydia winked, taking the incentive to start back towards her group. "Bye-bye now. I must say you make a lovely couple." Laughing hysterically, she dashed off.

"Why, that little–" Alan was ready to go after her if Elaine didn't hold him back. "If she was hassling you, Elaine, I'll–"

"Oh, just forget about it, Alan," Elaine begged. "Words or violence don't do anything to stop someone like her. It's okay, really. Leave it alone."

Alan let go of his initial anger and turned to apologizing profusely to Elaine. "I'm so sorry I let that happen, Elaine; I should have been watching her more carefully. Usually she's happy to leave me alone, but I should have realized that you really rankled her nerves at the gift shop; it injured her pride and she hates that more than anything. It's still no excuse, though. Are you sure you're okay?"

"Oh, don't blame yourself; it wasn't your fault! Let's just forget the whole silly incident, okay?"

Nonetheless, Alan insisted on taking her back up to the house; and though she professed to be fine, Elaine was visibly shaken from her encounter with Lydia. Thomas picked up on this change in her as well upon admitting them inside and, still wary of this stallion his sister had taken a liking to, began drilling Alan for answers, while Tabby sat back with Faline sighing over what a lovely romance it was: a dashing young stallion, a spiteful enemy (not a rival, exactly), and a protective older brother. It was all too wonderful; Elaine didn't know how well she had it. Tabby did love a good romance.

* * *
The Monks and Fairfaxes were not going to end the year without an exceptional celebration and had done no less than reserve the grand ballroom at the premier hotel for a fabulous New Year's Ball.

The occasion was a little saddening to Elaine, though; for as well as marking the end of the year, it also meant the end of her vacation... and the end of her time with Alan. However, even with this in mind, she was determined to enjoy herself– plus, she was relieved to hear that Lydia was attending a different celebration that evening, so she wouldn't have to worry running into her again.

Elaine's cousin Lucerna had offered to help style her hair, and Elaine looked quite glamorous in the end result. Her mass of bright blue mane was tied up on her head in a high ponytail (Author's note: No pun was intended....) tied with a bright pink ribbon. Her tail was also adorned with ribbons of the same color; and in light of the occasion, Helga had loaned her some heirloom jewelry pieces to wear that night. The blue jeweled necklace and bracelet were quite flattering to the finished look.

Arriving at the ballroom with her hosts, Elaine was quite breathlessly in awe of the fabulously decorated room. Beautiful lights and banners were hung everywhere; it was like a fairyland. She was only jolted back into reality when Tabby, arrayed in diamond earrings and necklace, came rushing over and grabbed her by the hoof. "We were just wondering where you were, and Alan's here too and was asking for you. Come on, come on!"

"Elaine! I didn't know it was possible for you to look any more beautiful!" Alan exclaimed upon seeing her. "I must say you look stunning tonight." He bowed before her and kissed her hoof. "May I have this dance?"

Elaine blushed and murmured her thanks and consent and was whisked out onto the dance floor. What exactly the two said to each other during that time no one could say for sure, but it was evident that Elaine was possessed with a certain glow about her that had never been seen before.

Tabby watched them, one part of her jubilating over this blossoming romance, the other part slightly disappointed, knowing that Elaine would never be quite the same again. Part of Elaine's heart obviously belonged to Alan now, and there would always be a void in her whenever she was with anyone else. Elaine's shyness had always caused her closest friends to act as her protectors against the outside world, and Tabby had to admit that she had come to rely on Elaine's doting dependance on her. But now... she could see that Elaine was beginning to emerge from her shell a whole new pony.

"They look happy together, don't they?" Thomas mused quietly, laying a hoof on Tabby's shoulder. "I know I teased her a lot in the past, but I guess I wasn't really prepared for the time when she did find the right stallion."

"I'm afraid we've lost her for good," Tabby lamented melodramatically.

"Not really," Thomas contradicted. "She'll still be her sweet, gentle self, but maybe a little bit more independent."

"Do you... do you think she'll leave Dream Valley, because of Alan?" Tabby gasped as the possibility first occurred to her.

"I really can't say what they'll do, but this trip has been good for her," Thomas continued. "I've really kept her too sheltered... it's about time she started to form her own life and make her own friends."

"But what do you think of Alan's character?" Tabby prodded anxiously. "Is he... good, do you think?"

"You really are concerned, aren't you? I thought you were thoroughly enjoying their relationship." He looked at her in amusement. "Don't worry about it, Tabby. From all the reports I've heard, there's nothing against his integrity. He'll be good for Elaine, whatever they decide to do."

"I just hate to have things change!" Tabby said in despair, clinging to him tightly. "I didn't think about the consequences until now. I wish we had just stayed in Dream Valley; then we wouldn't have to worry about any of this!"

"I know what you're going through; it is hard to give her up. But this had to come eventually, and she'll be better for it in the end. You'll come to be happy for her, too."

"I'm tired of being philosophical," Tabby sniffled. "I don't want to think about it anymore."

Thomas kissed her reassuringly. "Well then, how about a dance? That is what we're here for, after all."

Getting into the party, Tabby was able to shake off her concern and enjoy herself, while the clock sped rapidly towards the new year. It was around this time that Alan pulled Elaine away from the crowd and requested a private meeting with her.

"Well, I..." Elaine glanced around her, and saw her brother and sister-in-law in the sidelines, chatting with a group of ponies; she could make out Tabby laughing her high-pitched laugh over something. She hated to disappear without a word to anyone. "Maybe..."

"Don't worry; it won't take long," Alan assured her, leading her off to a secluded corner, and proceeded to spend several moments in silence, pondering how to phrase what he was going to say.

"And what do you want to discuss?" Elaine prodded, staring into his eyes.

Alan began by awkwardly stating the obvious. "Well, you'll be leaving tomorrow morning to go back to Dream Valley."

"Yes, and I am going to miss it here," Elaine sighed wistfully. "Especially..." She glanced up at him, but couldn't continue.

"Anyway, after you leave, we won't be able to see each other again for quite some time... and, well, I'm really going to miss you. I really do care for you, Elaine."

"And me for you," Elaine assured him, resting her head on his shoulder.

"I hate to have you go so soon when we were just getting close. And I was thinking..."

"Yes?" Elaine's heart suddenly began pounding with alarm; he wasn't about to go and suggest something crazy, was he?

"The new publishing house that will be opening in Dream Valley later next year-- or this year, what time is it?-- well, there's a chance that I might be transferred there when it's open."

Elaine gasped with delight; what a lovely solution that would be if he came to live in Dream Valley. "That would be perfect!" she exclaimed excitedly. "I'd love that! Do you really think it'll happen?"

"The talk of the new branch has just started, so I don't know too much; but, yes, I think it's a good possibility."

"And I'll put in a good word for you, too," Elaine promised.

"I think your guardians are looking for you," Alan said as he looked up, and nudged her to go forward. "You'd better go to them."

"Ah, Elaine, there you are!" Helga greeted her. "The party's beginning to die down, and I figured we should think about heading home, especially since you have to get up and leave so early in the morning."

"Umm, well..." Elaine glanced at Alan before formulating her reply.

"They're right, of course; you will have an early start," Alan agreed. "Besides, it's already been a splendid night spent with you."

Elaine smiled at him and turned to her grandparents. "It has been a long night, and it is probably time to head back. Just let me say goodbye to everyone in case I don't see them before tomorrow, okay?"

They had nothing against this, and let her go to say her farewells to everyone with Alan tagging along behind her. Satisfied that she had fulfilled her obligation, Elaine at last turned her attentions fully to Alan. "I saved the best for last," she said regretfully. "Goodbye, Alan. You'll keep in touch, won't you? And please promise me you'll get that transfer to Dream Valley!"

"Anything for you," Alan said cheerfully, but with an underlying current of sadness as he held her close. "If all goes as planned, we'll be together this time next year... if you'll promise to wait for me, Elaine?"

"I will," she said, eyes shining.

That was a promise sealed with a kiss.


Looking Back
by Sugarberry (

The celebration of the new year had come and gone, but Sugarberry was not ready to end the holiday season yet. By spending the Christmas holidays away from Dream Valley, she had missed seeing her best friends through the time of year that Sugarberry loved best. That is why this cold Sunday in January she was hostess to a houseful of local friends.

Chocolate Chip was there, of course, as was Garnet who had become a regular visitor since she and Wishbone became good friends. That led to Fern, for those three young mares had resumed their close relationship since their lives had settled down in Dream Valley. Dreamcatcher was there as well as two other of the mall's entrepreneurs-- Lemon Treats and Sparkler. The shy and quiet Elaine had been included, and no gathering at Sugarberry's would have been complete without Tabby and Faline. It was a Sunday brunch-- everyone had brought an appropriate dish-- and the kitchen and dining room were spilling over with good food and happy chatter.

"Sugarberry asked Aunt Maisie to join us, but Aunt Maisie thought I'd have more fun if I wasn't fussing over her all the time," Fern was telling Dreamcatcher.

"I can't believe you made this grand dessert all by yourself! Helga and Cecilia must have worked wonders with you," Sugarberry was telling Tabby while Faline sat on the floor playing with Fluff. Living up to her name, the little pink unicorn adored all felines and set out to make friends with every one she met.

"We had a lovely time in Forest Brook," Elaine smiled at Sparkler.

"Raptor!" Chocolate Chip's voice rang out as the black tiger-striped cat began stalking the buffet. Subsequently, he was ignominiously relegated to the basement which was enough to set Fluff's nerves on edge also as he, too, ran off. The loss of her two feline companions brought tears to Faline's eyes.

"Come, sweetie," Sugarberry said as she scooped up the foal. "We're going to get started on all this food now." Ringing a dinner bell that sat on the counter, Sugarberry soon had everyone's attention. "The buffet is now open!" She grinned. "The bell was Wigwam's Christmas gift to me."

"He gave her that just to make sure that he was never late for dinner," Garnet smirked.

"Where's that husband of yours?" Lemon Treats asked of Sugarberry, getting into line first. "Hiding in the basement with the cat?"

"He and Wigwam and Fetish went out to Butch's place." She winked at Sparkler. "Butch had some carpentry work he needed help with."

Tabby grimaced. "Does Butch still have that killer duck?" She picked through a salad, trying to find a tomato.

"Of, yes, Quackers is still going strong," Sparkler grinned. "He's such an angel, Tabby. How come you let him get to you so?"

"He was the one that was always trying to bite me!" Tabby shot back. "That duck is evil; just wait and you'll find out-- when it's too late."

"What's with the killer duck?" asked Fern curiously.

"Quackers had a vendetta against Tabby when Slugger first got him as a pet; she found the duck on her front porch trying to knock her door down with his beak."

"Ducks can do that?" Fern queried.

"They can, and they do," Tabby verified.

"Butch is putting a lot of time and effort into remodeling that cabin of his, Sparkler. Any reason why?" Lemon Treats asked with a grin as she loaded her plate with a variety of foodstuffs.

Sparkler's blue cheeks flushed pink. "He hasn't broached the subject with me," she admitted.

"Maybe he's waiting for you to give him a good deal on a diamond ring," Lemon Treats suggested.

"Speaking of which," Chocolate Chip said, "have you all seen Fern's acquisition?"

"I've seen it," Sparkler chimed, "but Toby wasn't dispensing any details about the proposal when he picked up the ring; care to share that with us, Fern?"

Fern's blue eyes sparkled nearly as much as her diamond. "Toby took me out to dinner at the classiest restaurant in New Pony the day after Christmas..."

"Not on Christmas Eve?"

"No; his whole family was at the house Christmas Eve and Christmas Day; he gave me a lovely necklace and earring set for Christmas, so I never expected that he had plans to propose."

"Not even an inkling?"

"I never thought about it, really; I was just happy to be with him after my stay in Bushley. His parents made both Aunt Maisie and me feel really welcome."

"But what about the proposal?" Sugarberry wanted to know.

"Well, after we had finished dinner, we ordered a simple sherbet for dessert. When the waiter brought it, he also set a jeweler's box on the table next to Toby. I imagine my eyes got as round as saucers as I looked from the box to Toby; he was smiling and he held the box in his hoof while he... well, he said some things; and then he asked me if I would marry him... and I said yes!"

"That's a real surprise," noted Garnet.

"When will the wedding be?" asked Dreamcatcher.

"June first."

"That's the week before Tiffany's; poetic justice, I'd say," Lemon Treats giggled.

"Remember when we all thought that Tiffany and Toby would get married, once Toby got brave enough to buy a ring?" Tabby chattered.

"Which he could never seem to get around to doing," Sparkler smirked. "Lucky for him and you, Fern. I would have hated to see Toby under Tiffany's control."

"Miranda was bad enough," Fern admitted.

"Tiffany would have been worse."

"I'm not so sure," stated Fern. "Did you hear what came of her and Roland's trip to New Pony over Christmas?"

"No. What?" asked Lemon Treats.

"They had a wonderful Christmas with her folks as far as that goes; but on the trip back to Dream Valley, Miranda informed Roland that her father didn't think he was good enough for her; he advised her to discontinue seeing him, so Miranda told Roland that their friendship was over."

Sugarberry was stunned. "I didn't know that; we haven't seen Roland since before Christmas; but with it being between semesters now, I though he would be busy with his own affairs."

"It isn't the first time a stallion got dumped, Sugarberry."

"Maybe not, but I did have a hoof in setting the two of them up. I feel terrible about this."

"After Miranda has time to think about it, maybe she'll realize that Roland is more important to her than her father's opinion."

"That probably won't happen," said Fern. "Toby says that Miranda's father would use her love of finance to bend her to his wishes; she stands to inherit a large fortune some day."

"She couldn't have loved him if she's willing to hurt him like that; he's better off without her," Elaine observed.

"How's the new apartment working out?" Sparkler asked of Fern.

"It's great; Aunt Maisie and I aren't bumping into each other every step we take now."

"I hear your Aunt Maisie is helping Snuzzle with activities for the patients at the hospital."

"And she loves it! She thinks Snuzzle is the greatest pony on earth."

"Which may be true," noted Elaine.

By this time, everyone was seated at the table with overflowing plates; Faline was ensconced in a high chair next to her mother. "Interesting piece of furniture," commented Lemon Treats with an eyebrow raised in Sugarberry's direction upon seeing the foal's special seat. "Poeticus and I haven't even made that purchase yet."

"Faline's got to have someplace to sit while she eats," rationalized Sugarberry, watching the foal chase Cheerios around the tray. "And besides, we'll need one here sooner or later... I hope."

Sparkler looked at the two mares who were already carrying foals. "Who's due first?"

"April for me," said Lemon Treats.

"May," contributed Dreamcatcher.

"It's a good thing the hospital is updating the maternity ward," observed Sparkler.

"Both of my sisters are expecting," added Sugarberry, "and we got word from Vulcanopolis that Hydrangea and Pacificus should have their first by late September."

"There will be lots to look forward to this year."

"Is anyone else getting married?"

"I heard that Perry proposed to Dawn over the holidays," Elaine offered, "but I don't know if they set a date yet."

"Come on, Elaine, why don't you tell them all about your time in Forest Brook?" Tabby said mischievously.

"It was wonderful, of course, meeting all my relatives for the first time..."

"Not that, Elaine. What about Alan?"

"Alan???" a chorus of voices asked.

"He's... someone I met in Forest Brook," Elaine explained, blushing furiously.

"A friend?" asked Sugarberry. "What's he like?"

"He works for the Fairfax publishing company," Tabby broke in. "He and Elaine really hit it off. And so handsome, isn't he, Elaine?"

"Tabby!" Elaine protested.

"Oh, come on, admit it. You were smitten with him!"

"When will you see him again, Elaine?" queried Fern, knowing the pain of separation.

"Well, he told me before I left that it was possible that he would be getting transferred to the Dream Valley publishing house opening at the end of this year."

"What???" the mares chorused again.

"A publishing house in Dream Valley?" asked Sugarberry. "You never mentioned that, Tabby."

"I didn't have time!" said Tabby in exasperation. "Anyway, the Monks and Fairfaxes are combining their forces to start a new branch here in Dream Valley. Cool, huh?"

"And this Alan will be a part of that?" Chocolate Chip asked of Elaine.

"It's not official, but he thinks there's a good chance that he'll come here."

"Oh, I can't wait to meet him!" trilled Sparkler. "He must be very special if he has impressed you, Elaine."

"All it takes is the right one," pointed out Lemon Treats, winking at Elaine.

"I guess," weakly smiled Elaine.

"Plus, I told them that the highly-esteemed Sugarberry was a friend of mine," Tabby continued, "and they seemed very interested. They're going to try to convince you to change from your current publisher."

"To have a local publisher would be great, but West Winds has been good to me."

"But the Fairfaxes' and Monks' are willing to pay you more!"

"I'd have to see that in writing."

"Macarius will be in touch; he can be quite charming."

"Macarius... wasn't he the pony in charge of Driftwood's book signing at the mall?"

"Yes; he is Thomas' cousin on his mother's side... or something like that."

"Poeticus has written enough poems to fill several books!" exclaimed an excited Lemon Treats. "Maybe he will have a chance to get them published!"

"The writers' group has been discussing an anthology; this news will get everyone fired up."

"Where are the Monks and Fairfaxes going to build this new complex?"

The exchange of information filled up the rest of the luncheon, and the mares moved to the comfort of the living room and turret area before being served dessert and coffee or hot chocolate.

When everyone was comfortably settled once more, Dreamcatcher asked about the fire in Berryville; Sugarberry looked to Chocolate Chip for support as she still could not talk about the incident without getting emotional. Chocolate Chip had heard the story enough that she knew all the details as if she had been there.

"... so Vanguard pulled Driftwood away from the wall, but they still got caught by it as it fell; Driftwood was hurt the worst, but Vanguard got his share of injuries, too."

"How awful!" Fern quavered.

"How is Driftwood doing by now?" asked Sparkler.

"Raspberry relates that the doctors say he is healing just fine, but Driftwood wants the cast off so he can get back to a normal life again. Once the insurance claim is settled, he wants to get started on another restaurant," relayed Sugarberry.

"What started the fire in the first place?"

"It went so fast, the fire-ponies figure that there had to be some kind of explosion, probably from a gas leak."

"That's frightening."

"Yes, but it could have been worse."

"So what was anyone else's Christmas like?"

Chocolate Chip exchanged a glance with Garnet and giggled. "My mom was elated to have Wigwam come to Neighberry; she approves of him. And she was so impressed with Garnet that she made my sister move to the little room under the eaves so that Garnet and I could take over her big room. Lollipop wasn't too happy about that at first, but she got over it."

Garnet continued. "We walked out to Chocolate Chip's grandparents' farm on Christmas Eve; the snow was falling and the sheep were bleating when we got there-- her grandfather was doing the chores-- and it was all so magical," she grinned.

"That was always my favorite place when I was growing up," admitted Chocolate Chip. "Of course, Grandpa never expected my to do any of the heavy work, like mucking out the sheep pen."

"I helped with the goats when I was staying with some friends of mine," Garnet replied. "I kind of like working with the animals that way."

Tabby rolled her eyes. "That's what you're doing at the casino all the time anyway, isn't it?"

"She's got a point there," Fern giggled.

"What's it like, taking over Butch's old job?" Sugarberry wondered.

"Kind of scary sometimes; it's a huge responsibility."

"Wigwam says you are doing a fantastic job!" encouraged Chocolate Chip.

"Tell everyone how Wigwam reacted to Juggler."

Chocolate Chip giggled. "While in Neighberry, we all went to a movie; we had gotten there early, so everyone was just randomly sitting around talking. Wigwam had gone back out to the lobby to buy some popcorn..."

Garnet took over. "... and while he was gone, a friend of Chocolate Chip's came in and took advantage of finding her all alone. He started talking to her; and before you knew it, he was sitting next to her. Juggler didn't see Wigwam come back in with his popcorn, so this stallion kept talking while Wigwam stood over him with this glower on his face, looking as menacing as any villain I've ever seen." She giggled at the remembrance, and Chocolate Chip resumed the story.

"I think Juggler must have felt Wigwam's gaze drilling through him, because all of a sudden he looked up and saw Wigwam standing there with this menacing stare; he was on his hooves so fast that he accidentally bumped the box of popcorn, sending all those buttery clouds all over the place."

"Buttery snow," choked Garnet. "Wigwam didn't even bat an eye. He handed the empty box to Juggler and said, ‘Replace this,' and sat down in the seat that Juggler had so recently left, taking Chocolate Chip's hoof in his in case Juggler still had any doubts."

"What did Juggler do?"

"He bought another box of popcorn for Wigwam and then retreated to the last row of seats."

"I don't know this Juggler, but I feel sorry for him," admitted Sugarberry.

"I was able to introduce him and Wigwam after the movie, by which time Wigwam was being civil again."

Baby Faline was playing with Fluff and the recently released Raptor on the floor when Sugarberry remembered something else that would interest the little foal. She left the room for a minute and returned carrying a dome-shaped something in her hoof; she held it up for all to see.

"When Barnacle was in town for Christmas, he left this with Hubert and Agatha to give to me when I got back from Berryville to replace the wedding gift that ended up going to Faline. Meet Kenya."

"Sug, you finally have your own Shelby!" Tabby was very pleased. She took the clam-like creature from her friend, waking him in the process. "Why didn't he bring me some, though? He said he had more than he could handle in his ship; I told him I'd be glad to take the overflow. What is he doing with those things then?"

"I've fallen and I can't get up," the Shelby stated without concern.

"So far we still only have Mecha in the line of the Shelbys," Tabby complained. "I hope they can find their way to the mansion, without any water in the immediate area."

"Is it true you have a Furby room in your mansion?" Sparkler asked curiously.

"Oh, yes. Abandoned Furbys or Furbys in the wild come from all around, and I give all of them a home. There are still plenty showing up every day. Just think of the fun they'd have with a whole parcel of Shelbys!"

"Knock, knock," Kenya interrupted.

"Who's there?" queried a laughing Chocolate Chip.


"Anita who?"

"Anita burp," Kenya said, and proceeded to belch loudly.

The mares, having had their fun with the Shelby, placed the clam on the floor near Faline and her two kitties. The foal reached for Kenya and pushed him towards her feline companions and proceeded to play contentedly with all three of them. She cooed in delight at the clam's chatter while the mare's returned to their own themes.

"One day when I came here to feed the cats while everyone was off celebrating the holidays with their families," Dreamcatcher began, "I couldn't find Raptor anywhere. Fluff helped me search the house-- I even had to open doors that were always closed because we were having no luck finding him anywhere-- and I was getting really worried. I figured that he must be hiding from me, so I stood in the middle of the living room to wait quietly for him to show himself."

"And did he?"

"After a length of time, I got the feeling that I was being watched, but there was no one in the room except me and Fluff. I scanned the room once more, and I found myself staring straight at the cat-- he had climbed up into the Christmas tree, up to one of the higher branches, and was resting on the branch with only his face showing; he blended in like he was just another ornament. When our eyes met and he realized he was found, he backed out of sight and came down out of the tree to sit down and smile at me with this smug expression on his face."

"That cat is incorrigible," Sugarberry sighed. "As soon as any of us turn our backs, he is in some sort of trouble, yet the next minute he will curl up in someone's lap as if he were a little angel.

"Our cat, Mimi, likes to sit under the tree, not in it," Lemon Treats noted.

"Sophia and Melinda," said Tabby, referring to her husband's two Siamese, "have taken to running up and down the grand staircase. They sound like a herd of elephants the way they go pounding around. It can be really freaky."

"We have the funniest little cat over at the animal shelter," Elaine giggled. "He's adorable, but a kleptomaniac! He steals anything he can get his paws on-- food, oven mitts, jewelry, whatever-- and always tries to hide it under a table in the back."

"How is the shelter in Friendship Gardens doing?" Fern asked.

"There are so many abandoned pets to take care of, and Secret Tale has so little help!" Elaine said, her eyes flashing at the thought of all the mistreated and abandoned animals. "I volunteer as much as I can; I hate to see the shelter and the animals suffering just due to lack of helpers."

"I wish Blue Belle was interested in animals instead of Pokemon," Tabby sighed. "She is such a bother at the Pokemon Center!"

"Oh, Tabby, you shouldn't say that about her," Sugarberry reprimanded. "She's not bothering you; she's helping you."

"What she's aiming for is to take over my position as head nurse eventually," Tabby seethed. "I'm sure she has a bunch of underhanded tricks in store to use against me--"

Sugarberry decided to divert the topic. "The other evening I thought I saw a light in your house, Tabby... I mean, in your empty house next door."

"Oh! Maybe someone is interested in buying it!"

"But when the relators show it, they have all the lights on; this was just one little light..."

"Well, maybe you just caught the end of it."

"...and it was in the middle of the night; I don't think most relators work that late. It seemed creepy somehow."

Garnet spoke up. "An empty house like that would make a good place for some pony to hide out..." She stopped and looked sheepish. "Not that I would know, of course."

"Have you all heard about the new perfume that Clare's Creations is putting on the market?" Lemon Treats could not resist the opportunity to advertise. "Clare's promised that I'll have it in time for Valentine's Day. So, everyone, let your stallions know that you would like to have a bottle of it; it would make a great Valentine's gift!"

"Sparkler, you haven't said anything for awhile," Tabby remarked.

"As if I had a chance!"

The afternoon was wearing on when the front door bell rang, and Chocolate Chip jumped up to answer the summons. Upon opening the door, she grinned broadly. On the front porch stood Poeticus, Thomas, Toby, Vanguard, Wishbone, Fetish, Butch, and Wigwam, each with a boxed pizza or soda. She looked back at Sugarberry. "Are you ready for this?"

"Ready or not, we're here," Wigwam said as he led the crew into the house.

"This is a pleasant surprise," Sugarberry said rather warily as she received her husband's kiss as he came in after Wigwam.

"We couldn't let you girls have all the fun," Vanguard replied.

"Where do you want the food?" queried Butch.

"To the kitchen," replied Wishbone, leading the way.

"Hope we're not intruding," smiled Poeticus as he paraded past.

"This was all Wigwam's idea," Fetish revealed.

"Hope everyone's hungry," Toby commented.

"Too bad Alan's not here," Thomas winked at his sister. After hugging his wife, he asked, "Where's Faline?"

Tabby took him to the turret area where the petite pink foal was curled up on a pillow on the floor with the sleeping Shelby on one side of her and a dozing cat-- Fluff-- on the other. Thomas leaned to give his daughter a kiss, but jumped back. "That cat spat at me!" he complained to Tabby.

"He thinks he's Faline's guardian; she's the only one that gives him any attention."

"Well, tell him that I'm her father." Tabby obliged by diverting Fluff's attention while Thomas picked up the precious foal. Faline opened her eyes for a brief moment. "I missed you, sweetheart," Thomas softly said; the foal reached out to touch his face, then snuggled contentedly back to sleep.

The house had become livelier and louder with the arrival of the stallions; they had provided plenty of pizza and refreshments so that no one needed to go hungry. "This dinner bell really works," commented Butch after clanging it loudly enough to wake the dead.

"I hope you don't mind us crashing your party, Sugarberry," Wigwam grinned, dropping another piece of pizza on the mare's plate.

"No problem, as long as you've supplied the food."

Butch could not help but torment Tabby. "Quarterback's been saying that if anyone knows what happened to Tex, it's you, Tabby. He thinks you finally got back at him for that worm business back in sixth grade."

"I wasn't responsible, but I must congratulate whoever masterminded his disappearance!" Tabby squealed. "It's so cool, isn't it?"

"I miss Emilio," mourned Sugarberry. "That poor little tarantula was in the clinic more than any other pet in Dream Valley."

"He's the only tarantula I've ever seen who is accident prone," Thomas remarked.

"I hope Tex is taking good care of him... wherever he is."

"I hate to break up a great party," interjected Fern, "but I feel guilty about leaving Aunt Maisie by herself all day; Sugarberry, thanks for such a splendid time." She hugged the strawberry-patterned mare.

"Gee, Toby hardly got a chance to eat a slice of pizza; the freedom's gone already, ole' buddy," Wigwam quipped to the purple stallion.

"It's a fair trade-off," the stallion smiled, his eyes lighting on Fern with genuine love.

"Aww," the other girls crooned.

"Take this tray of goodies home to Maisie," Sugarberry bid the departing ponies. "And tell her that next time, she has to come visit, too."

* * *
Toby kept the pace slow as he and Fern crossed town to Fern's apartment even though the January evening was cold; he was finding that their time alone was scarce, and he valued every moment that he could have her to himself. But when her apartment building came into view, Fern began to hurry of her own accord.

"The lights from my apartment aren't on," she worried.

"Aunt Maisie probably fell asleep waiting for you," Toby assured Fern, but he felt uncomfortable because everyone who knew Maisie knew that she would never fall asleep other than at bedtime-- she could never stop worrying long enough to take a nap during the day.

Neither pony said a word as they hurried up the steps and down the hall to reach the door to Fern's rooms. Unlocking the door with a trembling hoof, Fern pushed it open and went straight to the lamp on a nearby table. The soft white light fanned across the room to the cozy rocker that was Maisie's favorite chair; and there sat Maisie, her eyes staring straight ahead as if watching some invisible show.

"Aunt Maisie!" Fern called, running to her side. "Are you okay?"

Only then did the elderly mare seem to comprehend that she was no longer alone. "Fern? Is that you?" She looked blankly at her great-niece. "Maud..."

"What about Granny?" asked Fern, frightened to see her great-aunt so passive. Maud was her late grandmother, Maisie's sister. Was Maisie confusing Fern for Maud?

Toby was checking Maisie's pulse rate and could find no obvious signs of a medical problem. "Maisie," he said gently, "Fern's here now. Did something happen while she was away?"

"Letters," Maisie said, and both Fern and Toby turned to the coffee table where sat a metal chest, its lid turned back with bundles of letters spilling out from the interior. Several other bundles had been untied and were piled in stacks on the table.

"These were all of Granny's correspondence; she saved every letter she ever got," Fern explained to Toby. "I brought them from Bushley hoping to get time to read them, but so far I've never gotten around to it." She picked up one of the envelopes and turned back to her aunt. "Were you reading letters all afternoon, Aunt Maisie?"

Maisie closed her eyes and leaned her head back against the cushioned rocker and sighed. When she opened her eyes again, she whispered, "I thought it would be okay."

"Of course it's okay! Did you think I would mind?"

Toby noticed one letter that had fallen to the carpeted floor and drifted under the edge of the chair. Absently he picked it up and shuffled the pages together neatly; it appeared to have been a fairly newsy letter by the number of sheets that had been filled with a neat, flowing penmanship. He looked for the corresponding envelope, and found it on the table. Picking it up, he heard a choked cry from Maisie.

The mare was staring at the papers in his hoof. "It was... addressed... to me," she managed to say.

Toby handed the yellowed envelope to Fern who looked bewilderingly at the address: Mrs. Maisie Trenton, 175 Seventh Street, Edgewood Junction, Ponyland. The return address in the corner was of Granny's home outside of Bushley. The letter had been written by Maud to her sister, Maisie, but obviously never sent.

"I thought... I should... read it, being addressed... to me and all." She looked at Fern as if she expected to be reprimanded.

"But you think now that you shouldn't have?" Fern prodded.

Maisie closed her eyes and shook her head. "No. I shouldn't have, Fern."

"If it was addressed to you, then Granny must have intended for you to see it."

It took Maisie a minute to collect herself; she took Fern's hoof in hers and asked, "Fern, dear, have you ever been so angry that you wrote someone a horrible letter that you couldn't bear to mail once your anger had melted away? And you had to destroy it so that no one would know your anger?"

"Only once," Fern admitted, thinking back to the day when she had been notified that she was to vacate the house that had been her home throughout her growing up years and had been promised to be hers when her grandmother no longer had need of it. That letter had been written in anger and tears to Maisie's husband, Troubadour, who had conjured up a will giving him the house; Fern had hated him at the time she wrote the letter; now that he was gone, she understood his motives to be his best effort to protect Maisie's welfare after his death. Fern was relieved that the letter had ended up torn to shreds and incinerated in the crackling flames of the fireplace.

"Maud didn't mail hers, but she didn't destroy it, either."

Fern's mind suddenly comprehended what had happened. Her grandmother, always intense in her feelings, had never kept it a secret that she carried no love for her sister or for the stallion Maisie had married. Although she had never said a word as to the provocation that had turned her away from the only sibling that she had, Maud had made it clear that there was no chance of a reconciliation between them. For that reason, Maisie and Troubadour had been strangers to Fern until last fall when circumstances had thrown her and her great-aunt together at Bushley. If Maud had put her loathing into words, Fern knew that it would be a scathing epistle.

"Granny may have been harsh, Aunt Maisie, but I'm sure..."

Maisie was shaking her head adamantly. Her gaze rested on the pages that Toby still held. "Fern, you must read the letter; secrets like this have no right to cause the tangles they do." Shaking off her doldrums and becoming authoritative, the mare lifted her hoof. "Toby, give Fern the letter and help me up; you and I will go to the kitchen and warm up some soup while Fern reads her grandmother's letter."

Toby obliged by putting the letter in Fern's hoof, accompanying it with a kiss on her cheek; he then offered his hoof to Maisie, and the two of them left the young mare alone with the words of her grandmother.

Fern slipped into the chair her great-aunt had just vacated; her eyes flew to the perfect script that had been Granny's pride. The date appeared in the upper right corner: it had been written many years ago. The salutation indicated no animosity, but it was with some trepidation that Fern began the letter.

Dear Maisie,

It has taken much soul-searching on my part to begin this letter to you, and I realize it is long overdue. You and your husband have been married well over ten years now; it has taken me that long to come to grips with the feelings that some days seem as if they would overwhelm me. The writing of this letter will prove to be therapeutic, I am sure.

My story begins in the town of Dream Valley where, you will likely remember, I attended Teacher's College as soon as I was out of high school. You were a freshman in high school at the time that I left our home town; I remember how you envied me! You sat in my room all the while I was packing my baggage, and you stood outside the house waving to Father and me for as long as you could see us on the road. You vowed that one day, you would follow me there.

I was determined to do well to make Mother and Father proud of me; I studied faithfully and worked diligently at the library whenever I wasn't in the classroom. The teachers were impressed with me which made me strive even harder to live up to their expectations. Very seldom did I join in the social activities with the other students; my time was spent improving my mind, not my social skills.

But there came the one night when the girls I boarded with would not take my normal no for an answer when they asked me to join them at a dance sponsored by the local businesses of the town. They said that just this once, they expected me to act like the rest of them and have some fun. I didn't want to; but I soon found out that they were not going to let me hit the books, so I finally caved in to their prodding. Looking back on that decision now makes my skin crawl.

The dance was everything they had promised it would be. The hall was decorated to the hilt with flowers and silken hangings; there were refreshments supplied by the wives of the businessmen; a band played all the hit tunes of the day; and what the other girls liked best, there were plenty of young stallions waiting to twirl them around the dance floor.

I sat in a quiet corner and watched my friends as they joined in the dance; the music was performed well, and I found it a pleasure to listen to the airy tunes. The other girls would join me when they were out of breath and needed a rest, and a number of their dance partners were hanging nearby. I laughed and talked with them, but kept my place on the sidelines whenever the music started.

I was sitting alone like that when I became conscious of one of the stallions who had not joined the others on the dance floor for this particular dance. He was watching me instead. I tried to ignore him, but I couldn't help but look his way again; he grinned at me, and came to where I was and asked if he could sit down. I told him they were not my chairs to control, hoping he would go away. But he smiled at me again, and I was swept away by that smile. We talked politely of the weather and my classes and his job and how pretty the hall looked; and I'm sure he was as well aware as I was that when the dance ended, none of my friends joined us. They did, however, stand near enough that their giggles and glances were obviously painful. But the stallion seemed not to notice; and when the music started again, he asked me to dance.

Is it possible to fall in love in the course of a dance? I think it is, because it happened to me that night. It was early in the spring, and I attest that by the time the dance was over, all the flowers were blooming; at least, I thought I could smell their fragrance in the air-- I was that happy. We danced every dance that was played for the rest of that night; and when the last note had died away, he walked my home through the moonlit night... and he kissed me before he said goodnight. I went to my room and spent the rest of the night reliving that kiss.

My grades suffered from then on, but I was happy. He worked for the phone company and as he was not a student, he did not have to worry about course work to tie him down. We were together for every dance that was held, for every movie shown in the theater, for every private party that any of the other students held. My schooling to become the best teacher I could be took second, even third, place to the hopes and dreams that I imagined to be the culmination of this romance.

Life was perfect... until that day in May when he came to pick me up for yet another dance; but he had some bad news. He had been released from the phone company, unexpectedly; his boss had simply told him there was no need to report for work the next day and had paid his wages and sent him on his way. He was despondent and so was I; we had been tentatively discussing our future together, and now he was out of work and could not afford any more planning for a life for the two of us.

But he told me he loved me and that the best thing for him to do was to find new employment as soon as possible so that our plans could continue to move forward. He had heard of a company hiring in Hayton and had decided to make his way there to take advantage of the opportunity. "Why do you have to leave Dream Valley?" I cried, but he pulled me close and explained that he could make three times the wages in Hayton that he was making here which meant we could be married three times faster. He dried my tears and promised me that he would keep in touch until the day when he could take me in his forelegs once again. He kissed me and left me standing alone; I watched him out of sight as he traveled the road to Hayton.

He called me a week later; he had gotten a job and it paid well, but the rents were higher in Hayton than he had expected; he was staying with a new friend in a dumpy little place until he got his first pay check which he could then put toward an apartment. He said he wanted to get a nice one because it wouldn't be long before he would have enough saved up that he could ask me to marry him and settle in Hayton. All he asked was if I had any extra money, would I be willing to send it to him so he could make a deposit on a nice place he had seen; he said that there weren't many available, and it was too good of an opportunity to pass up. What could I do? I was so much in love that I sent him all that I could, everything that I had been saving.

And then I waited. I was alone... so alone. I drowned myself in my studies as I had before I had met my prince. The teachers were pleased, but I could find no joy in my progress now; I continued to study, even taking advantage of their summer program and working at the local ice cream parlor to put away every jangle I could toward my wedding day.

Time dragged by, but I did not receive any further word from Hayton. Then one day when I was at work, I saw one of the stallions from the phone company who had attended the dances, too. I asked him if he had heard from Trouvere, and he looked at me funny like. "Why should I have?" he asked.

"I thought you were friends," I responded, and he laughed. "With a friend like him, I wouldn't need any enemies!" He went on to tell me that Trouvere had been fired for making off with the cash box in the office, and the bosses suspected him of lifting other articles over the course of his time with the phone company, too. They were glad to be rid of him.

I knew then that I'd never see him again. He had gotten what he wanted... my money. I had learned a hard lesson. I put the whole affair behind me and kept up my course work until I earned my teaching certificate and found a position in a school in Bushley.

It did not take me long to find that teaching was not my cup of tea. I had enjoyed learning, but I found no enjoyment in trying to drill knowledge into restless little foals who could not sit still long enough to write their own names. Fortunately, the bank in Bushley was looking for a secretary to the president, and I was hired after my contract with the school was completed.

Francis Feather was a smart stallion and he knew the banking business backwards and forewords; he expected the best from his employees and he appreciated the fact that I always handled my work efficiently and confidentially. He was older than me, of course, but we worked so closely that a deep respect and admiration grew up between us. I never expected it to amount to anything more than that, but Francis had other plans. He proposed marriage to me.

I felt none of the romantic love for Francis that I had for Trouvere, but I did have a devotion to him that seemed more stable and trustworthy than an affectionate sentimentality. We were married in a quiet ceremony at the church, and our life together moved smoothly on; we were ultimately blessed with the birth of our son. We treasured that child.

And you remember, Maisie, that you came to help me after Casey was born; and you shared our joy. You were a big help to me and you worked hard, but you enjoyed getting out in the evening. You never confided in me that you had found someone on your outings until one night you went to the Friday night dance in Bushley and brought a stallion back to the house with you; the stars were shining in your eyes when you came in upon Francis and I sitting in the parlor; you were pulling your beau behind you. You wanted Francis and I to meet him because you thought he was the special stallion you had been dreaming of, and you wanted our approval.

What you never knew, Maisie, was that your prince and my prince from my days in Dream Valley were one and the same stallion. Your Troubadour was my Trouvere. When his eyes met mine, I felt such a surge of emotion that I thought the whole world would hear my cry; but no one knew what I was going through, except possibly Troubadour. I could see that he expected me to launch an attack against him. But I said nothing, and he followed suite. I was not going to cheapen myself in Francis' eyes by making a scene over your infatuation with the scoundrel, because my former desire for this very stallion would be uncovered as well. So I smiled and nodded over your trite conversation while seething inside over the audacity of this stallion to sit in my house and romance my sister.

You were flying high that evening and it wasn't long before you and Troubadour left again to meet another couple at the ice cream shop; I let you go because I wanted some time to organize my emotions; I also wanted to talk with you in private; I couldn't take you to task in front of Francis without admitting more about myself than I wanted to. You and I would have plenty of time to set things straight the next day when we would be alone to discuss things without an audience.

But you didn't come down the next morning, and I found your bed had not been slept in. I was out of my mind with worry until a message was delivered at my door– a note that told me of your elopement with Troubadour. You told me none of the details; I'm sure Troubadour would not have wanted me to trace your whereabouts before he was sure of your complete and unfailing trust. There was nothing I could do to let you know that the stallion you had given your life to was unworthy of your affection.

I thought that you would soon come crawling back, abandoned by your husband. But the letters I began receiving when you were settled in your first home were filled with dotings about the wonderful life you were living; it appeared that for you, Troubadour was willing to fulfill his commitment to love and to cherish. I could not cope with that, so I wiped the two of you out of my life. Even at that, I expected you to someday find out the hard way what kind of stallion Troubadour really was.

But now the years have gone by; the occasional letter I do get from you is still filled with glowing reports of your life; I have never been able to bring myself to respond because I could not write with any honesty when I had condemned your marriage from the start.

So why this letter? You know that Francis is gone now, and Casey and I have gone on with our lives. I am determined to honor his memory by upholding the same kind of honest business dealings at the bank as he always did. You can be sure that Casey will grow up to be the kind and reliable kind of stallion that Francis was.

I know that you have attempted to see Casey at school, and I want to put a stop to that right now. I do not want my son to have any contact with you or Troubadour; and to insure that, I feel that you need to understand the reason for my disapproval of your husband.

You will probably see this as an insensitivity on my part to your feelings, but I have harbored the damaging information about your husband for too many years now as it is. The only way I can escape the torment of this knowledge is to share it with you. If that makes me the transgressor, so be it. I will have at least cleared my conscience.


Finishing with the letter, Fern could only stare at her grandmother's signature, her mind working to compile these new facts with all that she had grown up knowing about the mare who had raised her since Fern's parents-- Casey and Ella-- had died so unexpectedly. "Oh, Granny, Granny! I wish you would have confided in me!" She understood now why her grandmother had insisted on a very private life in her big house outside of Bushley, a place where Maud had found security and refuge from a world that she had once found hurtful. She also understood why the only relative left to Maud was denied access to this haven.

So engrossed in her musing that she was unaware of Toby's approach, Fern started when she felt the touch of his hoof on her shoulder. "You okay?" he asked softly, his eyes searching hers.

"Maisie is right; secrets are destructive."

"She told me briefly what the letter said; your grandmother must have thought it best to let it rest in the end."

"Just putting it on paper must have purged her of the secret somehow; she couldn't bring herself to upset Maisie, so she continued to carry it alone."

"I can understand now," said Maisie, joining them, "why Troubadour could never stand that picture of Maud on the wall after we had moved into her home; he took it down because he said it made him nervous to have her staring down at him all the time. I imagine it was eating at his conscience all along."

"He still loved you, Maisie. He never took advantage of you like he did Granny, and he did everything he could to make you happy."

"I sat there after reading the letter, remembering little things that verify the truth of Maud's words. Troubadour was always slightly apprehensive about the mail being delivered, always anticipating the arrival of the letters in the box and scanning them as if he was always expecting something. I imagine he would have intercepted a letter from Maud if one had ever arrived."

"What would you have done, Maisie, if you had received this letter when it was first written?" Toby probed gently.

"I would have been angry, very angry with both of them-- Troubadour for leading my sister on like he did and taking her money and Maud for not speaking out the moment she saw Troubadour that night at her house." She was silent for a minute before continuing. "Maud was right about that night; I was flying high, so happy to have found someone to share my life with, someone sturdy and able to take charge of things for me, but caring all the same-- at least he was kind and tender with me. But I remember now how he pushed for us to elope that night after we had visited Maud and Francis; looking back, I'm sure that he knew that Maud would never consent to my seeing him. It was his last chance with me."

"He must have loved you very much, Aunt Maisie," smiled Fern, patting her great-aunt's hoof.

"Yes, I don't doubt that. But I wish they had been honest with me; I would have forgiven them both; I would have welcomed Maud's presence in my life again."

"We can't change what happened, but we have each other, Aunt Maisie."

"For that I am very grateful," smiled Maisie, drawing Fern to her for an embrace. The elderly mare's gaze came to rest on Toby. "You will be honest with Fern always, won't you Toby?"

"She is my confidante; there will be no secrets between us." The stallions eyes met Fern's, and he smiled affectionately, his next words addressed directly to her. "The ring you're wearing attests to that."

Fern slipped into his embrace and rested her head on his shoulder while Maisie looked on with a soft smile lighting her face. "I, at least, have the privilige of seeing the fruit born of this labyrinth of concealment. The two of you are a new beginning for this family, my dears." She suddenly looked sad. "If only Maud could see you now, Fern."

Turning to the picture of her grandmother on the wall, Fern murmured serenely. "I'm sure she does, Aunt Maisie; I'm sure she does."


by Sugarberry (

Miranda finished with her last client of the day and had just escorted him to the bank lobby when she saw a stallion in one of the chairs in the waiting area who was looking at her closely. As their eyes met, the stallion smiled pleasantly, stood, and came forward to greet her.

"Miranda?" he asked.


"I'm Jack Ceridan," the stallion answered. "I met your father in New Pony last week; and when he learned that I was to be in Dream Valley, he suggested that I stop by to see you."

"I'd be very happy to help you with your financial planning," Miranda said, noting the teal stallion's symbol of gold coins and foreseeing an extensive portfolio in her hooves. "Please, come into my office," She began to lead the way, but Jack stopped her.

"My finances are all secure," he smiled. "I was hoping to take you to dinner this evening."

Looking disappointed, Miranda frowned. "There are some attractive investment opportunities available right now..."

"Forget about business. Please, come with me to dinner or your father will think I let him down."

"I will speak with my father. Good day!" Miranda turned to indicate that she would waste no more time on this stallion.

Jack watched her disappear into her office and chuckled. He had not been looking forward to this enforced acquaintance; but now that he had seen the mare, he found himself wanting to get to know her better. But there would be time for that. He was to be in town a few days, advising Queen Serena on some points of protocol Majesty wanted reviewed in light of the approaching marriage of Princess Tiffany to Guido Casale. Yes, there would be plenty of time to win this attractive mare's approval yet.

* * *
Miranda lost no time in calling her father, and she was not happy with the results. After his disapproval of Roland-- an insignificant business teacher at Pony Pride-- he had taken it upon himself to line up an appropriate prospect for his daughter; and Jack, someone he had long admired, appeared to him as a most suitable candidate for his only child.

"Jack has an important role in the government of Ponyland," Juniper told his daughter. "He could do wonders for your career."

"I'm doing just fine with my career as it is," Miranda snapped.

"Now, Miranda, I realize that you are happy with your job in Dream Valley, but we both now that you are capable of better things; Jack could open new doors of possibilities..."

"Father! I didn't like Jack! He presented himself as an overbearing, domineering, egotistical..." Miranda hesitated, realizing that she was describing her father as well as Jack. "...He wasn't even interested in my financial counseling!"

Juniper chuckled. "I'm sure Jack has no need of your services in that regard, Miranda. His wealth is quite well-managed as it is."

Miranda hesitated. "How wealthy is he, anyway?"

"Very wealthy, Miranda. His father was involved in Ponyland's government, and Jack followed in his hoofsteps. He has the ear of every important pony in Ponyland, the very social circle you should be cultivating."

"He didn't seem that impressive," Miranda muttered.

"You haven't done something to compromise your esteem in his eyes, I hope," Juniper replied sharply.

"We barely had the chance to make any serious inroads," Miranda said evasively.

"Well, I'm sure you will make the most of this opportunity, Miranda," Jupiter said before ending the conversation. "Give Jack my best regards."

Miranda stood in deep thought, pondering the words of her father. She needed to talk with someone, but she had not made many close friends since moving to Dream Valley; in fact, there was no one who fit that classification. She had dismissed Roland at her father's express wish. Toby had been a complete disappointment; and now that he was head-over-heals in love with Fern, he would care even less about Miranda's personal problems. And Miranda had spent her time making an impressive, though local, name for herself in the financial realm-- that was what her father had always wanted for her. Why, now, was he equating her success with who she hung out with?

Miranda moved nervously about the room, resenting her father's interference in her affairs. She was old enough to know what she wanted out of life; she was certainly capable of choosing her own friends.

Having come to that realization, the mare reached for the telephone and dialed a familiar number. She waited irritably as the ringing phone grated on her senses, and was just about to hang up when Roland's voice came on the line.


"Roland, it's Miranda. I know that I asked you to not call me anymore, but I desperately need someone to talk with; could we meet somewhere?"

"Tonight?" Roland asked stiffly.

"Yes, tonight," Miranda huffed. "I haven't eaten yet; maybe we could go to the Cafe Carousel like... like we used to do; I need your advice."

"I'm sorry, Miranda; but I have a previous engagement." Roland sounded as if he regretted his plans.

Miranda was hit by a pang of jealousy. "Who is she?"

"It's not a date; Vanguard and Sugarberry invited me over for supper; I was just ready to walk out the door."

"And who else has Sugarberry invited?" The mare could not help but remember that it was at Sugarberry's dinner party that she had met Roland.

"No one, other than Chocolate Chip and Wishbone."

"I see. Well, I won't delay you any longer. Good night."

"Miranda!" Roland could not let this unforeseen opportunity go unheeded. "I can beg off early and meet you in... an hour and a half at the Cafe Carousel. Okay?"

"I'll see you later."

* * *
Miranda had just finished her lonely meal at the quiet restaurant when Roland came in; the waitress brought the couple a fresh carafe of coffee, then left them to themselves.

"So what's bothering you, Miranda?"

Putting on a pouty face, Miranda dove right in. "It was one thing when my father told me who I could not see, but it's quite another when he tells me who I should see."

"Oh," said Roland, squelching any hopes for a reconciliation between them. "Who's the lucky stallion?" He took a swallow of coffee, burning his tongue yet welcoming the pain it afforded him, numbing his senses.

"Someone who is big in Ponyland's government... Jack Ceridan from New Pony."

"I've seen him," Roland managed to say; "He came to speak at the commencement when I was teaching at Limestone Ridges."

"What did you think of him?"

Roland mulled over the question, searching for an answer that was truthful without being too affirmative. "He seemed to know what he was talking about."

"I found him to be rather arrogant."

"I didn't get that impression at all; he is very intelligent and is quite a problem-solver; Queen Majesty considers him one of her top advisors."

"I wonder what he's doing in Dream Valley?"

"He's here, now?"

"Yes. He stopped at my office to invite me to dinner, at my father's suggestion."

Roland grinned. "Let me guess; you offered to take on his financial business instead."

"Well, it is my job," Miranda sniffed. "You didn't turn down my help."

"That was because I was infatuated with you." And still am, he could have added. But he restrained himself from contributing to Miranda's quandary.

"I'm sorry about what happened with us," Miranda smiled ruefully. "My father was not prepared to allow me a choice in the matter."

Reaching across the table to take her hoof, Roland asked, "Can you live with his choice?"

The mare pulled her hoof back. "I'll have to, won't I?"

* * *
Letting herself into her apartment, Miranda found a message on her machine. "Miranda, this is Princess Dawn; Queen Serena would like to speak with you tomorrow over a luncheon at the Royal Paradise. Please verify by calling as soon as possible."

"Now what?" muttered the mare. She handled some of the accounts of Dream Valley's royalty, but she had never before been summoned to the Royal Paradise; Queen Serena had always come to the office if she wanted to discuss financial matters. Miranda dutifully called, however, and acquiesced.

* * *
A slightly out-of-breath Miranda arrived at the Royal Paradise the next day; she had been forced to cut short her last appointment of the morning and to postpone several others. She ran a hoof through her mane as she waited for the doorbell's summons to admit her; it was Spike who let her in and preceded her down the hall to a rather large room of settees and comfortable chairs. Miranda searched the room for Queen Serena but found instead... Jack.

The stallion had obviously been awaiting her arrival, for he was already on the way to where she stood. He dropped a pretentious bow before her and took her hoof in his. "I'm delighted that you could join us."

Join us? How much power did this stallion have that he could presume to be in command here? Miranda smiled politely. "I did not think it wise to turn down a royal invitation."

"I convinced Queen Serena of the necessity of your input on some of the affairs directly involving Princess Tiffany's assets in connection with her home here at the Royal Paradise and how her impending marriage will affect them."

"You surely would know better than I," Miranda stated, feeling both honored and repulsed by the stallion's manipulation of her time for what she was sure were personal motives.

"Queen Serena will be the judge of that." Jack nodded toward the doorway. "And she is waiting for us in the dining room."

* * *
The luncheon had gone well; Queen Serena was an excellent hostess as well as a superb administrator-- the food had been wonderful and the business was easily discussed to everyone's satisfaction. It was only after Queen Serena had excused herself for further appointments that Miranda suddenly felt uncomfortable.

Looking at her watch, the mare moved toward the hallway. "I have an appointment with a client myself. I can see myself out."

Jack had other plans; he escorted her to the door himself, all the while relating his itinerary for the coming weeks, ending with, "So, as you can see, the only possible chance for you and I to have dinner together is this very evening."

The invitation took Miranda by surprise, and she turned to study this stallion's face; he was so infuriatingly imperious, almost arrogant. She was used to such airs from ponies like her father who had reason to be proud of their accomplishments, but Jack was too young to be so successful and all-assuming. Yet she realized that he would not back down until he got his dinner date with her, so she sighed rather tragically and replied, "What time?"

Jack raised an eyebrow over her defeated attitude. "I assure you, we will have a lovely evening. I'll pick you up at seven-thirty."

"Until then," Miranda nodded and left the royal dwelling.

* * *
It had been a late day at the office due to the scheduling changes precipitated by the luncheon meeting at the Royal Paradise, and Miranda found herself rushed to be ready on time for Jack's arrival. She had just dabbed on some perfume and run a comb through her hair when the doorbell of her apartment rang. She looked into the mirror one last time before heading for the door and admitting the stallion.

"Good evening, Miranda," Jack smiled, presenting her with a bouquet of flowers. "They reminded me of you."

Miranda had to smile because the posies were all shades of mauve and purple which did mirror her own colors. "That was very thoughtful of you," she found herself saying. "I'll put them in water right away."

While she took care of the flowers, Jack perused the living room to see what he could learn about this mare from her surroundings. He noted the CD's by the stereo, the books on the end table, the style of the furniture, and the pictures on the wall; from them he gleaned enough information to direct the course of the evening's conversation. Once Miranda returned with the bouquet in a lovely cut-glass vase that she placed on her desk "...where I will be enlightened by their beauty and fragrance", the couple left the apartment for the Estate Manor.

The evening was going well; they had discussed music, art, and literature and found that their tastes were similar even to their favorite current recording artist. Jack was pleased that Miranda seemed to be enjoying herself, and that he had been successful in turning her opinion of him around. He found this mare to be special somehow; he was accustomed to associating with all levels of royalty, but he had never been so taken by the charms of any of them as he was by Miranda.

For her part, Miranda was finding that what she had earlier taken for arrogance was a keen intelligence; she understood now why Majesty put so much trust in this pony's discernment. Their conversation over dinner had revealed that he was logical, yet perceptive, and Miranda had warmed to his company. She realized that she had been so busy with work since she had settled in Dream Valley that she had forgone the joy of an affable conversation with such a knowledgeable pony. She yearned for the evening to go on forever, but in no time the couple was outside Miranda's apartment door.

"I'll look forward to my next visit to Dream Valley," Jack smiled, "if you'll consent to another evening together."

"I can think of nothing I would like better."

"Good night, then, Miranda, until our paths cross again."

* * *
Roland sighed as his classroom visitor finished her presentation to his business students; the information she had imparted was good, but he had found himself on pins and needles since the mare had entered his domain ten minutes late of her appointed time.

Becca worked for the benefit of Dream Valley's business community, involved heavily with the Chamber of Commerce. She was knowledgeable about every facet of her job, yet Roland was regretting having invited her to share her insights with his class. It was bad enough that she had showed up late; Roland frowned upon anyone who did not respect a fixed time as it disrupted his well-planned schedule.

That, however, was only a minor inconvenience compared to the manner in which this trim and pretty mare handled a piece of chalk; she was an expert at releasing that screechy, scratchy sound that drove him crazy. His students, well aware of his phobia, enjoyed his apparent distress while Becca remained quite oblivious to it. This, along with her upbeat enthusiasm, endeared her to the students who barraged her with questions when she was finished with her talk.

After the bell rang to signal the end of the class period, some of the students remained behind to further converse with Becca while she packed away her notes and paraphernalia; the mare, caught up with their perceptive comments, closed her briefcase. Picking it up, it became apparent that she had not properly latched it, and the entire contents of the case slid helter-scelter across the floor followed by energetic students endeavoring to chase papers and charts.

Roland helpfully repacked the disorganized items once more in the briefcase and closed it properly, handing it to Becca with a weary smile. "Thanks for your time, Becca; the class enjoyed your presentation and learned a great deal." He guided her toward the door, anxious to gain some semblance of order in his domain.

"It was my pleasure," the mare smiled at him, leaving with several of the students who were adverse to losing her sunny company.

Making a mental note to avoid asking Becca to return for any future appearances, Roland proceeded to erase the blackboard with a vengeance in an effort to wipe this disorganized episode from his memory. As he worked, he found himself reliving the memory of the annoying sounds Becca's board work had evoked; he gritted his teeth and shivered in spite of himself. It was at this moment that Petal, one of his students, came breathlessly into the room.

"Excuse me, but Becca fell."

"What? How?" Roland asked even while envisioning just such a happening.

"I think she tripped over the door sill."

Roland raised a questioning brow. "Is that possible?" But he was already on his way to lend what assistance he could with Petal following closely behind him. "Is she hurt?" was his next question.

"More than she's willing to let on," Petal admitted. "I saw tears in her eyes while she was trying to convince us she was okay."

By the time Roland reached the doorway where Becca had experienced her tumble, several of his students had already assisted the mare in moving to a bench in the hallway. Becca was rubbing her right thigh where a painful-looking lump had formed, although she was assuring her rescuers that she would be fine in a minute. Roland hoped she was right, but a closer look at the swelling belied that prospect.

Taking charge as he felt somehow responsible having been the one to invite Becca to speak to his class, Roland sent Petal ahead to notify the student nurse that a patient was on the way while he and a hefty stallion named Lariat guided Becca in the direction of the medical office on campus. Her step was slow and painful, but she bore it with resolve.

The pony on duty, Nurse Warble, took one look at the swollen area and set to work to relieve the discomfort the mare was experiencing. When her work was through, the nurse had Becca take a tentative step, and it was found that she could walk reasonably well, but would do best with some support.

Lariat had already disappeared and Petal, handing over Becca's briefcase, said she was sorry but she was due to start her shift at Pizza Hut. That left none but Roland to walk the mare home, as he became aware as both Becca and Warble's eyes came to rest on him.

Smiling gallantly on the outside while resenting ever having seen this particular pony, the stallion put himself at the disposal of the maiden in distress, after delaying Petal long enough to gain her help in relaying a message to Tripper, one of the other business teachers, to lock his abandoned classroom and put a note on his office door that he would be unavailable for his scheduled hours.

"We can get started now," he said to Becca, while mentally envisioning the empty classroom and course work he had left behind.

"That's really sweet of you," Becca managed a smile. "I'm afraid I won't be able to make very good time."

"I don't have any more classes for the day." Roland did not mention that he had hoped to find the time to call Miranda to see how she was doing.

As they made their sluggish way toward Becca's home, the mare attempted a cheery chatter that only tended to annoy Roland who was making the best of the situation by reliving his last conversation with Miranda, interjecting a nod of the head or a polite agreement when it seemed appropriate to Becca's never-ending words.

"I could really go for some ice cream when I get home," Becca suddenly said, and Roland realized by the way she was looking at him that a definite response was expected, but he kept quiet. Becca continued, "Would you mind if we stopped by the grocery store to buy some?"

"In this cold weather?" Roland shivered at the thought, kicking aside some of the snow that fell quite frequently.

"Ice cream sees me through all my mishaps."

"That would be a lot of ice cream," Roland muttered under his breath, holding the door to Oakley's Grocery and keeping a steadying hoof on the mare at the same time, wondering how she maintained such a sleek figure if ice cream was her comfort food.

They had no sooner gotten inside when he found out how much she did like ice cream, for Oakley, upon sight of her, waved and commented, "Two new flavors in the case today, Becca; be sure to let me know how you like them."

Becca grinned at Roland. "I must have had a premonition."

While the chartreuse mare was making her decision on which box of ice cream to purchase, Roland, who had just been thinking that he was glad no one he knew was shopping in the store at this time to see him in close company with a mare he was anxious to part from, heard someone call his name, and turning to look down the aisle, he spotted Sugarberry carrying several items in her hoof.

Quickly noting that Becca was still occupied with her decision on the perfect flavor, Roland tried to look as if he was not in her company as Sugarberry approached. "Hi, Roland," Sugarberry smiled. Roland was sure that he could already see a look of amusement in Sugarberry's eyes.

"Hi, Sugarberry." He said no more but turned his attention to the case next to the one Becca was leaning against, hoping that Sugarberry would not stop to talk. But that was not to be.

"I'm sorry you had to rush off the other evening when you came for supper; you will have..."

At that moment, Becca surfaced from her quandary over choices, turned to Roland, and asked, "Island Echoes or Chocolate Odyssey?" Then seeing who else was there, she greeted the strawberry-patterned mare. "Hi, Sugarberry."

"I haven't seen you, Becca, since you delivered the posters to the vet clinic concerning the job fair," Sugarberry responded.

Becca rolled her eyes. "And Elaine noticed that I hadn't changed the date from last year's poster."

"How did you hurt your leg?" Sugarberry asked, just then noticing the bandaged appendage.

"I did a presentation for one of the business classes today," the mare vaguely answered.

Sugarberry looked at Roland. "I didn't know business classes could be so... hazardous."

Becca only laughed. "You know me, Sugarberry. Now, what flavor ice cream sounds best?" And she urged Sugarberry's opinion of the two new flavors.

"No contest," Sugarberry said. "Chocolate is always number one." While Becca busied herself in retrieving a box of the delicacy, Sugarberry turned her attention back to Roland. "Maybe you and Becca could both come over some evening."

Roland shook his head. "It's thoughtful of you to ask, but..."-- He glanced at Becca to make sure she would not hear -- "I don't think that would be wise," he added quickly before the mare could say anything more. "Give my regards to Vanguard." Roland breathed a sigh of relief when Sugarberry took her leave without pressing the point.

When they were finally underway once more with Roland carrying the parcel from Oakley's Grocery and supporting Becca who found that the short stop at the store had caused her leg to stiffen and make her steps more painful, their speed was slowed down for the several blocks left to travel.

As they neared the address of Becca's apartment, Roland was surprised to find that she lived on a side street that dead-ended directly behind the apartment complex in which Miranda lived. It crossed his mind that it would not be too forward of him to stop to see if Miranda was home before he left the area; she had, after all, opened up their friendship by calling him the other night. This thought made him anxious to surrender his responsibility for Becca.

He was grateful when he and Becca finally reached the door. "Well, it seems that you've arrived all in one piece," he said lightly.

"Oh, but you're not going to abandon me now, are you?" The mare said, looking at him with wistful eyes. "I thought you'd stay to have some ice cream."

"There are some things I need to attend to," he remarked, opening the door for her. "And you need to rest."

Seeing that Roland would not bend to her wishes, Becca tossed her head and smiled at him. "Well, anyway, it was awfully nice of you to make sure I got home, Rudolf, and..."

"Roland," the stallion corrected. Becca looked confused, so Roland clarified the error. "My name is Roland, not Rudolf."

Looking at him closely, Becca asked, "Are you sure?" in such a way that Roland himself began to doubt his own designation. He felt a keen desire to get away from this mare before he, too, began to see life in her anomalous style.

"Good day, Becca." The stallion turned and left, pulling the door closed behind him. He breathed a sigh of relief as he walked away; a smile lighted his face as he anticipated an encounter with Miranda, which occurred much sooner that he anticipated.

"Well, Roland, fancy meeting you here," a pleasant voice sounded in his ears and he looked up to find his preference coming down the sidewalk.

"Miranda! This is a pleasant surprise!"

"You and Becca...?" She paused politely and glanced at the apartment he had just left and smiled with the same amused look that Roland had so recently seen on Sugarberry's face.

"I simply walked her home after she gave a presentation to one of my classes," Roland defended his position rather brusquely, then softened. "Now, if you would consent to let me walk you home, my day could end with some coherence."

"You may walk with me, of course. I've just been to the post office where I dropped a note to Jack in New Pony."

Roland fell into step with the mare, afraid to find out what the note signified, but not being able to live with not knowing. "Where do the two of you stand by now?" He glanced at his companion and, from the enamored look on her face, already knew what the answer would be.

"I think my father was right, Roland."

She did not have to say any more, and Roland was gentleman enough to let the issue drop. They walked in silence, however, as if a door had closed between them until Miranda, casting a mischievous glance in Roland's direction, said, "Becca would be good for you."

"In what way?"

Miranda laughed. "She would keep you from getting too immersed in your work, for one thing."

"Look who's talking."

Miranda ignored that remark. "When Becca's around, the unexpected is bound to happen; you need some of that spontaneity in your systematic life, Roland."

Coming to Miranda's door, Roland was painfully aware that a chapter of his life was closing; and for him, it was not a happy ending; yet he was not blind to the happiness that suffused Miranda's countenance so beautifully. "Anyone who can light your face the way that stallion has succeeded in doing must be right for you; I'm happy for you, Miranda."

"Thanks, Roland. And I wish you the best." She brushed his cheek with a kiss before disappearing into her apartment.

"The best," grumbled Roland as he set his steps for home, "has been taken."

His thoughts were dark and dreary as he went down the path, which explained why he did not observe the ridges of icy, hard snow pushed up into jagged mounds by the tread of many hooves before him on this course and was taken by such surprise when his hoof encountered it that he was sent sprawling in a very embarrassing manner upon the cold, rough surface of the wintry ground. He groaned as he rubbed his thigh where a rather angry looking welt was fast forming.

As he painfully got to his hooves and continued on his way, he was heard to mutter furiously, "That... that pony has jinxed me!" He regretted the day that he had taken it into his head to invite Becca to class and raked himself over the coals until he reached home and was able to sooth his aching body under a warm shower and his breaking heart with a good book.

One thing only he knew for sure: There was no one, especially Becca, who could replace Miranda in his life.


A note from Sugarberry: I was mortified to find that I had used the phrase "prospective mates" rather that what I had intended-- "respective mates" -- in the Christmas story in the December issue. What the exchange of words did to the meaning of the sentence was entirely disconcerting, and I apologize for any misunderstanding.


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