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Anchor and Sails
written by Sugarberry


Hurrying to open the front door, Sugarberry frowned when she saw the orange stallion standing outside. From her expression, Wigwam made a correct assumption.

“She’s not here yet?”

“Wishbone and Garnet left an hour ago to meet the plane, but they aren’t back yet.” Sugarberry held the door, gesturing Wigwam to come in.

“I suppose with Blackcap and Sassy being on the same flight, they’re all having a grand reunion at the terminal.” Wigwam grimaced, taking one last look down the street in the direction that the wedding guests would be coming.

This August weekend would see the marriage of Wishbone and Garnet, and ponies were converging on Dream Valley to participate in the celebration. Of utmost interest to Wigwam was the arrival of Chocolate Chip from New Pony, although he had reined in his desire to meet her at the airport, keeping himself true to Tabby’s advice to let the mare have some room to find out what she really wanted out of life.

This wait was especially painful as Chocolate Chip had notified Sugarberry that she was bringing a friend with her, and Wigwam dreaded to find that Chocolate Chip had already found a stallion that met her requirements better than he did.

“Have your parents arrived yet?”

“Yes. They’re upstairs with Banderol. They’ll be down soon. Vanguard’s folks won’t arrive until tomorrow.”

“And the rest of your family?” Wigwam queried, wondering at the stillness of the house if Sugarberry’s nieces and nephews were in the proximity.

“The foals were excited to see their motel rooms; everyone will congregate here later. And Vanguard went to the grocery store for some last minute supplies.” She looked at Wigwam in concern, noting his nervous prowling about the room. Having become reconciled to Chocolate Chip’s abandonment, the stallion had appeared to be getting on with his own life as of late; she was surprised to see this sudden return of uneasiness.

Sensing the mare’s steady gaze fixed on him, Wigwam shared his thoughts. “If she waltzes in with some swank executive on her foreleg, I swear I’ll...” The stallion stopped his flow of words abruptly, realizing that his emotions were getting the best of him; he ran his hoof through his mane. “I’m sorry. I won’t cause any trouble.”

Setting a hoof gently on his foreleg, Sugarberry smiled reassuringly. “I trust you to be on your best behavior; but, we both have to face the fact that Chocolate Chip might have outgrown us all.”

The two ponies stared at one another, both remembering the past when the young, chocolate brown mare had been satisfied and comfortable in the confines of Dream Valley. Her dreams, however, had called her to New Pony, forcing her to leave behind her sheltered existence for one with more demands and more potential. Wigwam had lost the girl he wanted to marry, and Sugarberry had lost the filly who had spent four years as her lodger and friend.

“Chocolate Chip’s on her way,” Vanguard said, coming in from the kitchen. “I spotted her and Wishbone just coming around the corner as I was making for the back door.”

“Well, here goes,” said Wigwam squeezing Sugarberry’s hoof in his. He took a deep breath as if to steel himself for a reunion that might not be pleasant.

Vanguard opened the door to the sound of voices and laughter turning in at the gate, and Sugarberry rushed out to greet the New Pony arrivals. There was no sign of Blackcap and Sassy, however, and even the bride-to-be was missing from the group. Only Wishbone, Chocolate Chip, and her companion came up the porch steps, luggage in hoof.

“Chocolate Chip! How nice to have you home!” Sugarberry greeted the mare with a warm hug before holding her at foreleg’s length to assess her carefully. “You look as if New Pony agrees with you.”

“It does, but it’s great to see you and Vanguard again.” She drew both ponies to her and kissed their cheeks. “Are you sure you can put up with me for a few days?”

“Your presence will help ease Sugarberry’s loss of Wishbone after tomorrow,” Vanguard grinned. “She’s having a hard time seeing her second fledgling leave the nest.”

Wishbone had bypassed the trio and taken the luggage on into the house while the other New Ponian stood back, allowing the friends to renew their acquaintance; but Chocolate Chip, remembering her duties, reached out to draw the pony into the circle.

“Sugarberry, Vanguard, I’d like you to meet a dear friend. Xavier was from a small town, too,” she explained as she presented the goldenrod yellow stallion, “before he moved to New Pony; he and I have lots in common, and he’s been a big help in showing me the ins and outs of the city.”

When all the proper greetings and the information that Garnet had accompanied her parents directly to their motel room- she wanted to have a personal talk with them, especially with Blackcap, about what she expected from them... and, more importantly, what she would not condone from them- had been exchanged, Sugarberry urged Chocolate Chip into the house while signaling Vanguard with her eyes to keep Xavier busy outside. Knowing his wife’s penchant to see Chocolate Chip and Wigwam married and sharing in that endeavor, Vanguard drew Xavier back down the walk to assist in setting the sprinkler in operation in the garden.

Upon entering the house, Chocolate Chip cast a sentimental look around the living room, the feeling of coming home again enveloping her with a cornucopia of warm and fuzzy memories. Wishbone had gone directly upstairs with her suitcases and Sugarberry soon followed with some remark about fetching Banderol, so Chocolate Chip found only one other pony in the room.

“Wigwam!”

The smile she flashed seemed genuine, and the stallion relaxed a bit, stepping forward to take her hoof in his.

“It’s nice to see you again, Chocolate Chip. It seems forever since Sugarberry, Van, and I stopped in New Pony.”

It took an iron will not to draw the mare into his forelegs and give her a proper welcome, but Tabby’s lecture on giving the mare room to grow had been taken seriously; Wigwam did not want to risk alienating Chocolate Chip any further, so he restrained his natural impulse to hug her and smiled into her eyes instead.

“This will be a lovely weekend, standing up for the bride and groom,” Wigwam stated, trying to keep his envy for the happy couple out of his voice as he led Chocolate Chip to the sofa and sat beside her, keeping her hoof in his possession... as if to release it would cause the mare to disappear.

“My little brother has chosen well; I’m very happy for him and Garnet.”

“And are you happy with your work in New Pony?”

“It’s everything I hoped it would be; I’m kept busy doing interesting and challenging projects for the company. Fabia says if I continue to put forth my current caliber of work, I can expect a promotion later in the year.”

“I would depend on nothing but the best from you,” Wigwam said softly, causing a blush to darken Chocolate Chip’s cheeks.

“How are things going with the casino?” the mare asked, hoping to keep the conversation on an impersonal level.

“As smoothly as can be expected, but we’ll miss Garnet while she’s on her wedding trip. And Native Dreams is nearing completion- although Bittersweet would not concur with that fact; she’s convinced that the workponies will never be finished on schedule.”

An unexpected wave of jealousy washed over Chocolate Chip. “You and Bittersweet...” she began to say, but was interrupted by the entrance of Vanguard and Xavier from the back of the house.

“We’ve got the garden taken care of,” Vanguard noted, casting a glance from Wigwam to Chocolate Chip to ascertain how their initial reunion had gone. Discerning that there was neither animosity nor amorousness in the air, he, too, took the middle road. “Sugarberry’s very pleased that the gladiolas have timed their blooming to coincide with the wedding.”

Flowers were the last thing on Wigwam’s mind, however. He studied the yellow stallion with cold unfriendliness which caused Xavier to look to Chocolate Chip for direction. The mare, shrugging off her none-too-complimentary thoughts of Bittersweet, noted with perverse pleasure Wigwam’s disapproval of Xavier and assumed a most blissful smile as she led Xavier to Wigwam, introducing him as her closest friend and confidant in New Pony and enjoying the angry glint that flashed from Wigwam’s eyes.

“Glad to meet you,” Xavier said, shaking Wigwam’s stiff hoof. He could not help but note the animosity emanating from the stallion, and he cast a questioning glance once more at Chocolate Chip, only to be further discomposed by meeting with an adoring gaze from her.

Where did that come from? Xavier wondered, knowing full well that Chocolate Chip had no romantic notions where he was concerned. He did not have time to solve the puzzle, however, as Sugarberry- with Banderol and Wishbone- led two new ponies into the room; and as Xavier met and conversed with Strawberry Baskets and Strawberry Shortcake and furthered his acquaintance with Chocolate Chip’s friends, he kept an eye on both the flirtatious mare and the brooding Wigwam, puzzling over the nearly visible current of emotion that connected the two throughout the battle of wills that seemed to be taking place.

It was only when Strawberry Baskets asked Wigwam a question concerning the Native Pony culture being studied at the dig site outside Dream Valley that Xavier made the connection. He remembered clearly the night he had commented on the number of Native Pony CD’s that Chocolate Chip had in her music collection and the mare’s response... a delicate blush and an averted face as if she had a secret to hide. It also explained her negative response to his attempted kiss. Chocolate Chip harbored some deep feelings for Wigwam that she was determined to hide; and Wigwam, with less success, was doing the same.

Very interesting, Xavier thought to himself as he accepted the refreshments that Sugarberry had prepared for her guests. The independent mare left behind a besotted stallion, did she? And now she’s going to use me as a buffer of sorts to... What? Hold Wigwam at bay? Or goad him into action?

Xavier grinned. He would have to do some sleuthing to discover the true nature of the relationship between Chocolate Chip and Wigwam. In the meantime, he lost himself to the good food before him and the companionship of the ponies around him; he soon forgot the pensive stallion who kept to the fringe of the gathering.

* * *
The wedding rehearsal at the church that evening allowed both Chocolate Chip and Wigwam to set their jealousies to the side and fully enjoy the reason for their being together again... the marriage of Garnet and Wishbone.

Xavier had firmly rejected the offer to accompany Chocolate Chip to the rehearsal, unwilling to put himself forward in what was meant for those most intimately involved in the wedding. Wishbone had set him up with Caravel and Petal to show him the nightlife of Dream Valley- a visit to the Satin Slipper Sweet Shoppe. As Bittersweet was not directly involved in the wedding, she, too, was absent. With neither pony to remind Chocolate Chip and Wigwam of the splitting path of their lives, the chocolate brown mare and the orange stallion were lulled into a reminiscent compatibility, aided by their pairing as one of the attending couples, for they could not dampen Wishbone and Garnet’s wedding plans by their own personal wishes and regrets.

For Wigwam, the evening spent in company with Chocolate Chip was both a pleasure and a pain. Their standing together was the most natural thing in the world, and he reveled in the honor of providing her escort and openly being matched with her. He could, without guilt, linger at her side and whisper amusing comments in her ear, laugh with her over shared instances of humor, relish the feel of her next to him as they walked up the aisle.

That is where the pain took over.

This should be their grand march. It should be the two of them coming together to exchange vows of love and unity. He wanted to sweep Chocolate Chip off her hooves and command Fr. Isaac to pronounce them stallion and wife- right now!- and make it possible for him to ferret her away to shower upon her all the love that he held for her.

But he could not. He had to be satisfied with playing the part of a mere friend. That was the hardest part of all.

* * *
It had been difficult for Wishbone to get a moment alone with his forthcoming bride, what with all their friends and relatives converging on them in the course of the evening’s busy schedule; but finally the last ponies had finally cleared out of her apartment- Blackcap had appeared to be ready to spend the entire night prosing on about his fatherly devotion to a daughter who had been urged to assert her independence at a very early age, and it was only through Sassy’s persistent persuasion that the stallion had eventually taken his leave- and Wishbone was able to garner Garnet’s entire attention for himself.

“Any second thoughts about our wedding day?” he queried as they stood on the porch, catching a cooling breeze that softened the heat of the day.

“Well...” Garnet drug out the word as if it had two syllables, and Wishbone’s heart plummeted to his hooves until he saw the sparkle in the mare’s eyes. “I’m still leery about having my dad in attendance; anything could happen.”

Chuckling, Wishbone concurred. “He was already haranguing Wigwam to open up the gaming tables during the reception. I’m afraid he’ll find that the dining and dancing are a bit too tame for his blood.”

“I wouldn’t be too surprised to find that he’s hired a polka band to encroach upon our plans.”

“And would you be able to join in?”

“Of course. I learned from observation. And when I was very young, Sable and I...” Her voice trailed off, remembering a long ago time when she and her several-year-older sibling were on good terms with one another.

“I’m sorry we couldn’t locate an address for Sable,” soothed Wishbone. “I would have forgiven him anything if his being here would have made you happier.”

“When I last saw him, he assumed I was using your friendship to pilfer something from you that I wanted. I wonder what he’d think if he knew that the two of us were to be married.”

“Something tells me he wouldn’t be pleased,” grinned Wishbone. He had once considered Sable a friend, but had learned the hard way that the dark grey stallion with cobalt blue hair would sell his own soul for a profit. For Garnet’s sake, however, Wishbone would have willingly set aside the past.

“You’re right- Sable wouldn’t look too kindly on our union.” Garnet sighed. “It’s probably for the best that we have to get along without him.”

Reaching out to bring her gaze to meet his, Wishbone murmured, “Life without you is what I find unthinkable.” He held her violet eyes with his aquamarine ones.

“And where would I be if I hadn’t found you? Still drifting about as my parents taught me? You’re my anchor, Wishbone.”

“If that’s so, then you are my sails.”

They shared a gentle kiss filled with the promise of a lifetime to prove their love.

* * *
Tugging at the tie around his neck, Wishbone rapped at the door to Sugarberry and Vanguard’s private rooms before setting off for the church. Hearing Vanguard’s, “Come”, Wishbone entered the sitting room to find the stallion reading to Banderol from a brightly-colored storybook.

“Wigwam says it’s time for me to get to church, but I wanted to talk with you and Sugarberry before I leave,” the young stallion said, looking a little nervous.

Banderol waggled his forelegs, begging to be picked up by the housemate who had been a big brother to him since his birth and was rewarded by being swung up into the rose-red stallion’s forelegs just as Sugarberry came into the room, spraying on some cologne as she finished her primping for the wedding.

“Wishbone! You look utterly dashing!” the mare grinned, circling the groom like a shark intent on its victim. “You’re going to break a bevy of beauties’ hearts today.”

“Not if Banderol gets his hooves on that bowtie,” countered Vanguard, reaching out to forestall the foal’s intent to pull on the unusual adornment around Wishbone’s neck. “Come to Daddy before you undo Wishbone’s preparations and make him late for his own wedding.”

“And I can’t allow that, Bandy,” Wishbone grinned, tousling the foal’s mane as the little one nestled into his father’s grasp once again. “The one beauty that has claimed my heart can’t be kept waiting,” he winked at Sugarberry.

“You do make a handsome bridegroom, however,” persisted Sugarberry, brushing back a tear. “And, oh, how this brings back the memories of our wedding day!” She cast a look of adoration on her husband.

“Precious, precious memories,” Vanguard agreed.

“If I’m going to make my own memories,” Wishbone interrupted, “I’d better get done what I came here to do.” He handed both ponies a white box in which they found a boutonniere and a corsage. “This is but a small thank you for putting up with me for the last three years. I wanted to give them to you now so that I could tell you how much your counsel and care have meant to me... and to Garnet, too. You accepted both of us without questioning, even when we gave you reason to become thoroughly disgusted with us. And that’s just the tip of the iceberg,” Wishbone grinned. “What would I have done without all the cookies and milk for late-night snacks and the encouragement to keep my grades up?” Hugging first Sugarberry, then Vanguard, Wishbone continued. “You were Mom and Dad for me when I needed a steadying hoof, and I’ll always remember you in that respect.”

“The cookies and advice will always be here, Wishbone,” sniffed Sugarberry. “Just because you won’t be living under our roof doesn’t mean you won’t be part of our family.”

“She’s right, you know,” Vanguard agreed. “Don’t be a stranger.”

“And you two will be welcome to visit Garnet and me as well; we can begin to repay your hospitality.” Wishbone rolled his eyes as Wigwam’s voice bellowed up the stairs: “I’m not going to be the one to tell Garnet you backed out at the last minute, buddy!”

“I’d better leave. See you at the church!”

* * *
The wedding party was vibrant in color alone, but the happiness that this union generated outshone even the outward appearance. Chosen to stand up with the bride and groom were six ponies who had strong ties to their past and proud hopes for their future: Lollipop, Wishbone’s younger sister, the pastel pink and blue beauty crowned for the occasion with a wreath of pink and white roses, was paired with the denim blue Hawkley, Garnet’s friend and coworker at the casino; Rainbow Star and Pepper, whose homestead who had provided the backdrop for some of Garnet and Wishbone’s most dramatic life-happenings; and Chocolate Chip who had become a stalwart friend of Garnet when that mare had been new to Dream Valley, along with Wigwam, who had trusted the unknown stranger even when realizing her duplicity and discovering her unorthodox past.

No one in the church that day could doubt the love that Garnet and Wishbone had for one another as they stood before the congregation and pledged their troth. The red mare, adorned with white ribbons and roses braided in her scarlet tresses, and the rose-red stallion with golden mane whose bow-tie was only slightly askance, looked upon one another with undeniable devotion. Both voices were strong as they repeated their vows and exchanged their rings, and the grin that Wishbone bestowed on his bride when Fr. Isaac exhorted them to share a kiss was priceless.

* * *
This had to be the highlight of the day for Wigwam. Chocolate Chip was in his forelegs for the dance that was taking place at the casino after the dinner. It had been exacting at the wedding to hear the words binding Garnet and Wishbone for life while he and Chocolate Chip had stood as silent witnesses. He had come close to interrupting the vows to ask Chocolate Chip if she would reconsider his proposal on the spot; but he had taken one look at her and seen the starry-eyed euphoria she was experiencing as she watched her brother and best friend commit to one another and realized the insanity of interrupting a perfectly-executed ceremony with an emotional outburst that might get him nothing but another refusal.

Now, though, for the length of the song, he at least had Chocolate Chip to himself. Xavier had been pawned off on Patience, and Wigwam hoped that the Pony Pride filly would keep the New Pony stallion occupied for the course of the day, at least. There were a thousand and one things that Wigwam wished to talk with Chocolate Chip about, but as he gazed at her face so close to his in the dance, he could think of not one of those things. It was enough to have her in his forelegs, although her attention was directed at the newly married couple also on the dance floor. He watched as a frown creased her face; and in a moment, her gaze shifted to him.

“They’ll be happy together, won’t they?” she queried.

“They’ve been through some tough spots, so they know the road ahead won’t always be easy. Yeah, they’ll do fine.”

A relieved smile smoothed away the worried look. “He’s my little brother; I can’t fathom the notion that he’s old enough to know his own mind.”

“He’s sure of Garnet’s love; that’s all that matters.”

He had not meant it so, but his statement sounded judgmental to Chocolate Chip’s ears; and she was grateful that the music came to an end at that point. With a stiff smile, she thanked Wigwam for the dance, then turned to make her way back to Xavier. Wigwam could do nothing but let her go.

Appearing from out of nowhere, Bittersweet claimed Wigwam’s hoof. “What do you think of Garnet’s brother? He’s quite intimidating, if you ask me... so dark and... composed.”

“Garnet’s brother... here?” Wigwam’s immediate thought was that Sable had somehow learned of the wedding and had shown up even though Garnet had been unable to learn his current address. Sable was cheeky enough to attend, invited or not. Tawny would have a few questions for him, at any rate, concerning his sudden departure from Dream Valley when the cheating scam at Pony Pride had been uncovered. “Where is he?”

Bittersweet nodded in the direction of a dark purple stallion- so dark that he appeared almost black- with a dark red mane that could only be described as the color of dried blood. Sable was dark, but his mane was of an intense blue color. It was then that Wigwam realized he was seeing the oldest of Garnet’s siblings, Onyx.

“So that’s the chef from Hayton,” Wigwam murmured.

“Yes. Isn’t he... commanding?”

Hearing something like awe in Bittersweet’s tone, Wigwam looked at her questioningly. “Teepee’s out of town for all of three days, and you’ve moved on to greener pastures?” he chided.

“Good grief! Of course not! I’m just saying that this Onyx is quite... impressive. He gives me the suspicion that he expects me to bow to him... or something. He makes me feel uncomfortable.”

“I hear he has quite a reputation as one of the finest chefs in Ponyland. I suppose he takes it to heart.”

“Can you imagine him with a knife in his hoof?” shuddered Bittersweet.

The stallion under surveillance was indeed splendid, as he stood above every other pony in the room at the time. His size, coupled with his forbidding coloration, was enough to petrify a faint heart; but it was the set of his face that caused a pony to look twice and wonder just what was going on in the stallion’s mind- and nine out of ten ponies would determine that it was nothing good. The demeanor of the stallion was stately; his bearing, regal, his mien... well... impressive, as Bittersweet had noted. His eyes surveyed the room with open contempt.

“Was he accompanied by anyone?” asked Wigwam, wondering at the Amazon who would complement this stallion.

“No; he came alone.”

“Small wonder.”

As another dance was just starting up, Wigwam felt obliged to partner Bittersweet; his mouth set in a straight line when he saw that Chocolate Chip was standing up with Xavier. No one noticed that for a brief moment, Wigwam looked as menacing as Onyx.

* * *
Xavier had met Chocolate Chip and Wishbone’s baby sister, Lollipop, in the receiving line at church; but it had not seemed the proper time or place to let the filly know just how struck he was by her. Now, sharing a dance with Chocolate Chip, he noticed that Lollipop was dancing with her brother; and he used that as an opening for a fishing expedition.

“You’re sister’s very pretty,” he began, then regretted the remark when Chocolate Chip settled a cool gaze on him.

“Compared to me, you mean?” she witheringly asked.

“I didn’t mean it that way, and you know it,” Xavier defended himself. “I just meant that she’s as attractive as her sister.”

“Sure, you did.” Looking to where Wishbone and Lollipop were twirling, Chocolate Chip giggled. “Wishbone only has eyes for Garnet; he just stepped on Lollipop’s hoof because he’s staring at his bride dancing with Pepper.”

“If I remember correctly, you mentioned once that Lollipop is out of high school.” Xavier brought the conversation back to the topic he was interested in.

“Yup. Just graduated this spring. She’s going on to vocational school next month; she plans on helping Mom and Dad at their restaurant in Neighberry.” Chocolate Chip looked with assessing eyes at her sister, so pretty with her blue curls framing her pink face. Even though their mother had often held Lollipop’s looks up to Chocolate Chip as the perfection that she had wished for her firstborn- Twilight Jewel had never accepted the fact that she had given birth to a chocolate brown mare and had treated the foal as an oddity- Chocolate Chip harbored no resentment against the pastel sibling who bubbled over with personality and charm.

“She seems to make friends easily,” Xavier prodded.

“She never lacks for company,” Chocolate Chip responded, suddenly tiring of the theme of her sister. “Did you enjoy your visit to the Satin Slipper Sweet Shoppe last night?”

“It was a lot of fun.” The statement was made with a lack on enthusiasm, as Xavier now wished he had accepted Chocolate Chip’s invitation to go to the rehearsal as he would have met Lollipop sooner and might even now be partnering the filly in the dance.

Eying the stallion inquisitively, Chocolate Chip arched a brow. “You don’t seem very taken with our local center of social activity. What gives?”

Forcing himself to show some interest in something other than Lollipop, Xavier appeased Chocolate Chip with an elaborate description of every pony he met and every bite of food he had eaten the evening before, adding several humorous details that had the mare laughing. It was on that note that the dance ended.

“I suppose you’d like a dance with your brother now,” hedged Xavier, already taking her foreleg and drawing her in Wishbone’s direction where the groom and his sister were still conversing after the music had ceased.

“I think Garnet...” Chocolate Chip tried to say that the bride deserved another dance with her new husband, but Xavier would not be deterred. He led her to Wishbone, then turned his attention to Lollipop who was herself eying the stallion with a great deal of interest.

Grinning at Wishbone, Chocolate Chip rolled her eyes. “Lollipop has made another conquest,” she said, nodding toward Xavier who was blithely leading Lollipop in the direction of the refreshment table.

“And that doesn’t bother you?”

“Why should it?” Chocolate Chip shrugged.

“Well, you did bring him here from New Pony as if he was somehow special to you.”

“He accompanied me so I wouldn’t have to make the trip alone.”

“Does that mean Wigwam still has a chance?” Wishbone teased.

“Don’t start!” Chocolate Chip warned, just as Garnet joined them. Pepper and Rainbow Star accompanied her.

“What’s Wishbone tormenting you about now?” queried the bride.

Wishbone took it upon himself to answer. “I’m so happy to have had my dream come true in marrying you that I’d like to see that same happiness for my sister here.” He put a foreleg around Garnet and grinned at Chocolate Chip. “However, knowing that you resent any interference in your life, I won’t press the point.” He swung Garnet into the next dance, leaving his sister behind.

* * *
“Buck, Columbine, you two have never met Toby and Fern,” realized Sugarberry, quickly taking care of that oversight, then deftly removing herself and the stallions away to allow the two expectant mares a chance to talk freely.

“Birdsong must be a lovely place,” sighed Fern. “Perhaps Toby and I can visit there someday.”

“Lilac received a cancellation for next week that she’d be happy to fill,” Columbine hinted, but seeing the melancholy look that crossed Fern’s face, she quickly added, “...although I can well imagine the difficulty for a doctor to get away on such short notice.”

“Even if he could get off, I wouldn’t feel up to the trip right now,” Fern admitted. Her gaze ran over Columbine’s swelling form. “How did you manage?”

“Buck and I traveled in easy stages, sort of a belated anniversary trip. Lilac and Trendy insisted that we forget about our duties at the bread-and-breakfast and enjoy ourselves. It didn’t take too much prodding,” the pale yellow mare grinned. “Our new home is filled with the smell of freshly applied paint, and that’s one thing that makes my stomach turn.”

“I was fine the first couple of months; but since then, I’ve been feeling miserable. It’s worst in the morning, but I don’t have much energy anytime,” acknowledged Fern.

“Just remember- your foal is growing bigger and stronger every day.” Columbine patted her mid-section to prove her point.

“Your foal is due so soon, and you look wonderful.” The mare could not keep a bit of envy from creeping into her voice.

“My mom always says I’m as strong as a horse,” grinned Columbine. “Buck claims that I’m stubborn as a mule.”

Fern could not help but smile at the vivacious mare.

A short distance away, Sugarberry quizzed Buck on the happenings at Birdsong; the country bed-and-breakfast was where she and Vanguard had met, so it and its occupants held a special place in her heart.

“Columbine and I’ll be moving into our new home when we get back; hopefully, the baby’ll allow us time to get settled before making his appearance.”

His?” queried Sugarberry. “Do you know that for a fact?”

“Both Columbine and I prefer to wait and see; but having grown up with only brothers, it seems the most likely outcome.” The stallion grinned. “Look at you and Van as proof.”

Toby chuckled. “What do you say, Van? What are the mathematical odds?”

“Don’t get him started, please!” cautioned Sugarberry before her husband could respond.

“All I can state for sure is that it will be one or the other,” Vanguard prevaricated. “Unless, of course, it’s one of each.”

“Or more,” added Toby.

“What are your brothers up to these days?” Sugarberry asked of Buck.

“Tramples is finished with the two-year agricultural program from the vo-tech and has his eye on the land that lies between Birdsong and Hollyhock’s parents’ acreage; in the meantime, he’s been helping Hollyhock’s father... as well as lending a hoof with Birdsong.”

“Is there a wedding in the near future for Tramples and Hollyhock?” wondered the romantically-inclined Sugarberry.

“They aren’t going to take the plunge until they know for sure if Tramples’ offer on the land is accepted.”

“And what of Licorice?”

“As you probably know, he’d decided to attend Binksville University; but since he learned that Pony Pride was instituting a new Computer Science degree, he’s been waffling... and time’s getting short.”

“Binksville is definitely closer to home,” mused Sugarberry.

“Spoken like a true mother,” grinned Buck. “Mom’s doing her best to convince him to keep with his original decision.”

“Pony Pride would be very happy to have him,” Vanguard noted. “I know he’s sharp on all accounts.”

“Am I to assume that Licorice is the baby brother of the family?” Toby asked.

“You’ve got that right,” verified Buck. “And that tells you he’s spoiled rotten. Mom can’t bear the thought of him leaving home.”

“Eighteen is so young,” contemplated Sugarberry, thinking ahead to Banderol’s setting off on his own. That concept caused her to frown.

“Eighteen-year-olds can conquer the world,” laughed Toby, seeing Sugarberry’s glumness. “Weren’t you about that old when you opted to stay in Dream Valley while the rest of your family moved on to Berryville?”

“It wasn’t an easy time,” confessed Sugarberry, “especially after Tabby left for college abroad.”

“Yes, but look at how wonderful you turned out because of the life experience you had,” affirmed her husband. “I wouldn’t change a thing.”

“Well, Van, it sounds like you should be the one to sell Mom on the idea that Licorice would be better off in Dream Valley than in Binksville. Licorice would appreciate your efforts,” Buck drawled just as Garnet and Wishbone came to join the group.

Sugarberry was immediately reminded of just how hard it was for her to let Wishbone go after a mere three years in her care, and her sympathy for Lilac increased. As she watched and listened to the ponies around her, however, the seed of an idea was born; she could not wait to talk to Vanguard about it. A smile replaced the melancholic frown as the mare began planning for the arrival of a new boarder in her home.

* * *
Wigwam and Bittersweet stood with a group of ponies chatting when Wigwam noticed that Blackcap was skulking around the perimeter of the room as if trying to avoid someone or something. His curiosity piqued, the stallion excused himself from the present company and made his way toward the father of the bride.

Blackcap was having a battle with his conscience as an episode from his past returned to haunt him. The episode in question had occurred some years back and had been so insignificant in his mind that he had entirely forgotten about it... until he met his new son-in-law’s grandparents the evening before. Something about the two elderly ponies had seemed vaguely familiar, and he had found himself searching his memory to place where and when he might have come across them before. That recollection had avoided him until the middle of the wedding ceremony when a vivid picture had come back to him causing him to break out in a cold sweat.

It had been a rough time for him and Sassy; he remembered that clearly. He had been forced to leave his wife in Grayton, waitressing at some sleazy restaurant, while he had gone on the road to earn some quick jangles. Finances were tight, and he was having a rare spell of bad luck with his regular ploys at separating unsuspecting ponies from their hard-earned savings. He had been relegated to the unenviable circumstance of doing actual manual labor to build a base from which he could once again get a shot at something more substantial. In hindsight, Blackcap regretted his choice of operation.

It had been so simple, watering down the cans of red paint that the rural ponies loved to see on their farm buildings so that the paint would go farther; and applying the paint had been sort of a therapy for a stallion who was down on his luck- there was a certain amount of pride involved in turning a dreary gray barn into a vibrant red edifice again. In giving the buildings new life, Blackcap himself had been invigorated. It had been the springboard for a new wave of chicanery that had put him and Sassy on solid financial ground again.

But one of the sheds coated in the substandard paint had been the barn of Camomile and Forester, Wishbone’s grandparents. That was why Blackcap was nervous: What if they recognized him as the stallion who had misrepresented the quality of his services? What would they think of such a lowdown trick being played on them? And if Garnet found out he had rooked Wishbone’s grandparents, she would be displeased, to say the least. She had already read him the riot act about behaving himself at the wedding; he did not want to think about what she would have to say about his past adventures.

It had been a trying time trying to avoid any further face-to-face meetings with either Camomile or Forester during the course of the day’s activities, hanging on to the hope that those ponies would not remember the itinerant handypony who had stopped by their farm; yet it seemed that every time Blackcap looked in Forester’s direction, that pony was looking straight back at him as if he, too, was unsure of where or when they might have met.

To make matters worse, Garnet had seen fit to invite not one, but two cops to her wedding! Blackcap was stricken when he recognized Chief Tawny in the crowd, and he was sure that the rather somber stallion he had seen talking to his daughter like an old friend was the chief in Binksville; a scapegrace like himself could not be too careful when in the presence of law enforcement officials- some of these cops did not look kindly upon the tactics that inventive-minded ponies used to keep afloat. This explained why Blackcap was looking for a niche in which he could disappear for awhile.

Taking one last look around the room, Blackcap shuddered. His guilty conscience was probably reading more into the situation than was intended, but the sight of Forester, Tawny, and Bastian with their heads together as if they were comparing notes caused Blackcap’s nerves to rattle. And at the exact moment that he sighted them, the three stallions looked up in his direction, causing Blackcap to mutter under his breath, “There is such a thing as a statute of limitations, for Pete’s sake!” when a familiar voice drawled behind him.

“Your past catching up on you, Blackcap?”

Blackcap nearly jumped out of his skin.

“Wigwam! Don’t sneak up on a pony that way!” Taking a quick peak back at Forester, he was dismayed to see him determinedly coming nearer with Chief Tawny and Chief Bastian close behind. “Oh... ah... if you’ll excuse me, Wigwam, I’ve got to use the facilities.”

Wigwam grinned as Blackcap darted off, and the three stallions marched up.

“Tawny was just relating your recent adventure in Vulcanopolis, Wigwam,” Forester said. “That was a mighty fine thing you did, helping to rescue those two baby ponies.”

“I really didn’t do much other than to offer my support,” admitted Wigwam.

“Are you saying you weren’t on top of the action?” scoffed Tawny.

“Actually...”

Bastian interrupted. “From what we’ve heard, you were right in the thick of things.”

“I was, but it was Vanguard and Giorgio who...”

“Oh, don’t be so modest,” Tawny growled. “A trained professional couldn’t have let a couple of average Joes best him.”

“Okay. Have it your way.” Wigwam winked at Vanguard who was listening in on the conversation. “But Van here knows the truth.”

“So there you have it,” smirked Bastian. “He’s the one that told us that you were a veritable hero.”

Catching Wigwam’s grimace, Vanguard laughed. “I fully explained that Giorgio took out two of the rogues; and you, my friend, fortuitously forestalled the third.”

“I, however, did not have to contend with two disgustingly messy brats,” Wigwam retorted.

“True,” Vanguard grinned. “You missed the best part.”

* * *
Forester found Blackcap on the far side of the pond behind the casino, the stallion idly swishing a fallen twig through the water and watching the ripples cascade across the surface. They reminded him of how one small action could have repercussions that traveled through time to eventually return to their source... like pulling a fast one on a stranger who was now part of the family.

“This is a beautiful spot,” Forester softly said, enjoying the march of cattails near the shore and the floating lily pads decorating the surface of the water. A heron ignored their presence further down the shoreline and several ducks bobbed contentedly beyond the rushes.

As if he had expected this encounter, Blackcap tossed down the stick and turned to meet the older stallion eye-to-eye. “It’s a good place to reflect.”

“I imagine it is,” agreed Forester. He nodded toward the long-legged heron as it pulled a fish from the pond. “We have sandhill cranes where we live. Have you ever heard the noise one of them can make?”

“No.” Bemused, Blackcap wondered why the stallion did not immediately launch into a lecture on the dishonesty of having one’s barn painted with watered-down paint that simply washed away in the first good rain.

“Well, it’s a sound that can make goosebumps form on a pony, like hearing a dinosaur or something.”

“I never wondered what a dinosaur sounded like,” Blackcap reflected, looking out over the pond again.

“And I guess we’ll never know for sure,” chuckled Forester.

The two stood in companionable silence for some moments before Forester came to the point.

“Have you had any experience in painting barns, Blackcap?”

“I’ve painted a barn or two,” Blackcap replied, once more meeting Forester’s intense gaze head-on.

“I thought you might have. The reason I’m asking is that my barn needs a new coat of paint, and it dawned on me that you might be just the stallion who could take care of it.”

Unflinching, Blackcap pondered the statement before answering. “I just might be, at that,” he finally agreed.

“You’ll be paid, of course. I thought maybe you and your wife could come by the farm when you leave Dream Valley... maybe travel with Camomile and me.”

“I’ll take it up with Sassy, but I’m sure she’ll enjoy a few days on the farm,” Blackcap surmised.

“Great! Camomile will enjoy the company.”

The two stallions shook hooves on their agreement, both satisfied with the outcome.

* * *
“Garnet and Wishbone do make a handsome pair, don’t they?” sighed Sassy as she, Twilight Jewel, and several other mares watched the bridal couple mingling with their guests.

“Yes,” agreed Twilight Jewel, pleased with the union her son had made, although she still harbored some uncertainties about Garnet’s parents. Still, she would not see that much of Blackcap and Sassy after this day was over, fortunately. “And I do believe Lollipop and that young stallion from New Pony have danced the last three dances together. He seems like a personable enough fellow, courteous and pleasant to talk with.”

“I’m sure he is,” commented Fern, sitting out a dance. “Chocolate Chip would never introduce a scoundrel to her family and friends.” Too late realizing that Sassy’s husband was by nature a scoundrel, Fern regretted her choice of words; a deep blush suffused her green cheeks.

Sassy’s eyes twinkled. “A scoundrel can have merit,” she teased.

“That still remains to be seen,” uttered Burgundy Lace who hoarded a lifetime of disgust over her wayward brother.

An impending spat was avoided by the arrival of Toby with a glass of punch for his wife, accompanied by Vanguard and Sugarberry. Twilight Jewel took advantage of the opportunity to pull Burgundy Lace away from Sassy to introduce her to some friends from Neighberry. Burgundy Lace scowled at Sassy, but allowed Twilight Jewel to neatly defuse the situation.

“Are we interrupting?” queried Sugarberry as the two mares departed.

“Fortunately, yes,” giggled Sassy. “I’m afraid Lacey was just about to give me another lecture on past indiscretions.”

“Thanks to my ill-advised comment,” admitted Fern.

“You said nothing out of line,” comforted Sassy. “Burgundy Lace has been spoiling for a fight since Blackcap asked her for a dance.” Sassy winked. “She refused his offer, by the way.”

“Garnet was hoping her aunts would put aside their animosity for the day,” noted Sugarberry, “although Blue Pearl seems to be enjoying herself.”

“Doesn’t she, though?” smiled Fern. “She and Rambler seem to have hit it off very well.”

“He does have quite a way with the ladies,” agreed Toby. “He and every other employee from Pony-Mart seem to be here today; I wonder who’s running the store, or did they close down like the casino?”

“I hear they simply adjusted working schedules to accommodate Wishbone’s coworkers,” Vanguard supplied.

“Oh, look,” giggled Fern. “Aunt Maisie and Crescendo have taken to the dance floor!”

“Have you regained your breath so that we could have another go-round?” asked Toby of his wife as he extended his hoof to her.

“Assuredly,” Fern asserted, her blue eyes sparkling up at her handsome husband.

“Later,” Toby grinned at the others, guiding Fern onto the floor.

Noticing that Wigwam was tied up with Bittersweet- listening to the unicorn’s chatter while eying Chocolate Chip from across the room- Vanguard suggested to Sugarberry that it might be a good time for him to dance with Bittersweet to give Wigwam a chance to spend more time with Chocolate Chip. Sugarberry quickly agreed and settled down to get to know Garnet’s mother better.

“It’s been a joy to meet your other children, Sassy. Onyx, I hear, is the talk of Hayton’s gourmets.”

“And would you believe that, as a foal, he couldn’t seem to fix his own toast?” Sassy laughed. “Ebony was the one who could cook a good meal, but now she and her husband eat out most of the time. Jesse’s as rich as Croesus, you know.” She shook her head in wonder. “A pony just never knows what lies ahead.”

“That’s all for the best, I’m sure,” Sugarberry smiled, knowing that she would never find a moment’s peace if the tragedies and the disappointments of the future were known to her; she worried enough over present troubles as it was.

“Yes,” agreed Sassy. “Who wants to invite trouble?”
* * *
“I have a special delivery for this address,” said a uniformed pony, nodding to several delivery carts with the Ponyland Parcel Service logo on their sides which sat outside the casino entrance loaded down with boxes wrapped in white paper with glistening bows attached; another attendant waited beside the carts.

Sammy looked at the load and readily surmised their purpose. “Wedding gifts, I suppose.”

“What’s in ‘em I don’t know; I was just told to deliver them here,” the cinnamon-colored stallion said.

“Okay,” groaned Sammy. He did not mind working this wedding celebration, but now it looked like he would be spending the next ten minutes packing in boxes... and big ones, at that. Realizing that it would be heavy work, he directed the PPS ponies to take the carts around to the back of the building so that they could convey the packages more easily directly to the ballroom. Catching sight of Hawkley, he asked him to inform Garnet of the arrival of a wedding gift; then he hurried off to help unload the carts.

By the time Sammy and the two delivery ponies had carted in the full load of gifts, an impressive stack of boxes cluttered the casino. The cinnamon-colored stallion waited impatiently for a signature from the recipients while Hawkley directed Wishbone and Garnet to the largess that was now theirs. When the newlyweds finally broke through the crowd in front of him, the delivery pony gasped.

“You!” he said, the single word filled with a wealth of meaning.

“Rusty,” Garnet cooly replied. “Still making deliveries, I see.” She looked nonchalant, but her eyes widened as she took in the size of the pile of boxes the ponies had delivered.

“And you’re still practicing artifice of all kinds,” sputtered Rusty, who on two separate occasions had been taken in by Garnet’s misguiding portrayals.

Wishbone stepped forward. “I’ll not have you talk to my wife that way,” he cautioned. “If your work is finished here, I suggest you leave... now.”

Rusty scowled and dug in his hooves. “You might be interested to know...” he began, but was silenced when Bastian removed himself from the crowd of interested onlookers, along with Buck, Wigwam, Pepper, Blackcap, and Tawny- all of them more than ready to defend Garnet’s honor.

“Would you like me to sign that for you?” Bastian queried in a authoritative voice.

After one look at the stallion whom he recognized as the police chief from Binksville, Rusty backed down. “I... I need the signature of a...” he referred to his chart momentarily, “a pony named Wishbone.”

“That would be me,” Wishbone said, taking care of that chore as quickly as possible. “Now go,” he growled, thrusting the chart back at the delivery pony. His glowering expression sent Rusty out the door post haste after which the groom assumed a less menacing face before turning to Garnet. “Are you okay?”

“Why wouldn’t I be... with you here to protect me,” she smiled, giving him a light kiss on the cheek. “My stalwart husband,” she whispered in his ear.

“Who sent this... stuff?” Wigwam asked, directing everyone’s attention away from the mishap with Rusty. He lifted an eyebrow. “Do either of you have a rich uncle?”

“Mama has a brother, but his invitation came back, ‘Return to Sender’; besides which, I don’t think he’s this wealthy,” Garnet giggled, shrugging off the tension that had threatened her happiness such a short time ago; she had been honest with Wishbone about her past history and had no need to cower under the likes of Rusty, but still the experience had been discomposing. She was glad to put it behind her.

“Was there a card?” asked Wishbone, studying the boxes for a clue as to the sender. They seemed to be missing the normal labels one would expect on a PPS delivery.

“There was something on the side of one of the packages,” Sammy recalled. “Let me see... yeah, here it is, on the biggest one.” He tore it off and handed it to Wishbone. The printed label was generic in every aspect.

“Who cares who it’s from?” laughed Troy and Lariat, fellow students of Wishbone’s at Pony Pride. “Let’s see what’s inside!” They followed up their suggestion by beginning to peal the wrappings off the packages.

In the meantime, Wishbone offered the card to Garnet. “My side of the family would never come up with a gift like this, sweetheart. I’ll give you the honors.” His cocky grin helped to set Garnet at ease, and she opened the envelope with increasing curiosity. She found a scribbled note inside.



Garnet-

I heard of your wedding and wish you well. I’m aware of your efforts to locate my present whereabouts and realize that you couldn’t send me an invitation without that piece of information; but for the time being, I prefer to remain in seclusion. If you or any of the rest of the family cares, I’m doing well for myself; so there’s no need to worry.

If Wishbone ever gives you any trouble, I’ll know about it... and will be there for you. Inform him that big brother is watching.

Sable

P.S. The gift was legally purchased... have no qualms in that regard. As I said, I’m doing well.



Wishbone, reading over her shoulder, drew a deep breath. “Well, now you don’t have to worry about how he’ll feel when he learns we were married,” he quipped.

Garnet, busily rereading the message, finally lifted her eyes to the uncovered boxes and gasped. The contents were the units of a state-of-the-art entertainment system: wide-screen plasma TV, digital receiver, six-disc DVD changer with DVD recorder, one-hundred disc CD changer, satellite receiver, digital video recorder, Dolby speakers. She lifted her gaze to meet Wishbone’s. “This cost him a fortune.”

“He’s ‘doing well’,” Wishbone quoted.

“But what’s he doing that brings in that kind of money?” she questioned, her face serious.

“Hey. Your brother said it was legally purchased- even Sable wouldn’t load you down with stolen goods on your wedding day.”

“You can be so sure?”

“For some reason, yes; I can fully trust him... in this instance.”

Allowing his confidence to bolster her own, Garnet looked back at the expensive gift in all its component parts. “Where in the world are we going to put it in our little apartment?” she whispered.

* * *
“What would you think about taking a little side trip before going back to New Pony?” Blackcap asked Sassy as the two of them sat out a dance.

“I don’t think Burgundy Lace would appreciate a visit from us right now,” Sassy replied.

Blackcap shook his head. “Not to Bubbling Springs, but to Neighberry.”

“Twilight Jewel has been kind enough, but I don’t think she’d want us on her doorstep either,” Sassy admitted bluntly.

“We wouldn’t have to see Twilight Jewel,” said Blackcap. “The invitation came from Forester and Camomile.”

“Wishbone’s grandparents?”

“Yes. It seems Forester could use a little help on some projects around the farm; I thought I might be able to help him out.”

Sassy frowned. “That’s not like you, Blackcap. What gives?”

“Can’t a fellow help another pony out if he’s a mind to?” Blackcap barked.

“Not when the pony’s Blackcap Lamplight,” Sassy retorted. “What’s in it for you?”

“He offered to pay me to paint his barn,” admitted the stallion.

“And what do you know about painting barns?”

“I’ve had some experience.”

“When?”

“That doesn’t matter. What matters is that we have a chance to help out our daughter’s new set of grandparents, and I think we should do it.”

Looking her husband straight in the eye, Sassy’s heart fell when the stallion couldn’t hold her gaze. “You’re planning something.”

“Sassy! Listen to me! I’m going to help Forester get his farm buildings back in tip-top shape. You can’t fault me for that!”

“Then look me in the eye and tell me that you have no intention of ripping him off... now or ever!”

Blackcap’s gaze wavered. “Not now or in the future,” he pledged weakly.

Never having been accused of being slow, Sassy’s eyes widened. “You’ve already done something, haven’t you?”

“It was years ago, Sassy.”

The mare stared at her husband for a good thirty seconds before she found her voice to say, “You’d better start explaining, Blackcap.”

Blackcap did.

* * *
“You promised me another dance, but you seem to be occupied with every stallion but me,” Wigwam complained when he finally caught Chocolate Chip without a partner. “Dance with me... please?”

“As long as you don’t expect any conversation,” the mare sighed. “I’ve talked so much today that I’m losing my voice.”

“No talking necessary,” Wigwam assured her just as the strains of a slow song began. He grinned. “... as long as I can hold you in my forelegs. Come on.”

The music was soothing, and Chocolate Chip found it very comfortable to allow Wigwam to lead her around the dance floor. It felt right somehow, she acknowledged to herself, unlike any of the other dances she had accepted this day.

The highlights of this visit to Dream Valley, the moments she would most often look back on, were the moments when she and Wigwam were companionably together, whether sharing a witty observation or catching each other’s glance over a humorous anecdote or, as now, when the two of them were in silent harmony with the music. She did not resist when Wigwam pulled her closer.

“‘Love weaves ties that last forever and hold two lives, two hearts together,’” the stallion whispered in her ear.

He was going to get sentimental. Chocolate Chip knew that could be a dangerous path for a mare who was committed to an independent life in New Pony. She cocked her head and smiled sweetly. “How poetic. Maybe you should publish a book of verse.”

“It’s not original. I stole it from the card I gave the newlyweds,” Wigwam admitted with a grin.

“How is Book Two of your Native Pony Tales coming along?”

Wigwam chuckled. “Bittersweet’s involvement in my life has not been conducive to writing,” admitted the stallion. He felt a definite tensing of the mare in his forelegs and noticed that a shutter had seemed to close off the soft glow in her eyes. “What did I say?” he asked.

“Bittersweet.”

That one word seemed to sum up an encyclopedia of information by the sound of her voice and the accusation of her expression. Wigwam could not have been more pleased. Obviously, Chocolate Chip had made the exact- although incorrect- assumption that Teepee had made about the closeness between him and Bittersweet. And if that erroneous knowledge upset Chocolate Chip, that could only mean that she still tendered some feelings for him. He refused to release her as the music ended.

“Just where do things stand between you and Xavier?”

“We were discussing Bittersweet,” Chocolate Chip snapped.

Wigwam ignored her words. “I notice he seems to be spending a great amount of his time with Lollipop. Does that bother you?”

“I don’t see why it should; he and Lollipop have a lot in common, and I’m glad they’ve become friends.”

“Good. That gets him out of the way.”

With his grip still firmly on the mare, Wigwam led her through the doors and down the path to a quiet spot in the gazebo. Chocolate Chip glared at him, resenting his abduction of her off the dance floor; yet, at the same time, she was pleased that he had cared enough to commandeer her in this fashion. She had begun to think that he no longer found her the light of his life for he had seemed rather distant in his attention to her at times; and even though she was not ready to commit her life to him, she knew in her heart that she would always crave his affection.

Spotting Bittersweet scanning the patio for a sign of Wigwam, Chocolate Chip retorted, “Xavier may be explained away, but Bittersweet can’t seem to let you out of her sight.”

“I think Teepee’s behind that.”

“What does Teepee have to do with Bittersweet?”

“You’ve been away too long, my sweets. Teepee and Bittersweet are as good as engaged.”

“What?” Chocolate Chip was so surprised that she sat down abruptly on the bench that ringed the gazebo.

Taking the place next to her, Wigwam explained the details of the chain of events that had finally opened Teepee’s eyes to the truth about himself and Bittersweet.

“If that’s the case,” Chocolate Chip puzzled, “then why is Bittersweet shadowing you today?”

“Teepee had to be out of town for the weekend; and, as he had some concerns about how you might treat me while you were here, I think he set Bittersweet the task of watching over me.”

“They think that they need to protect you from me?” Chocolate Chip choked, her eyes narrowed in absolute disbelief.

“Well, you’re a big-city girl now; you might’ve snubbed a country boy like me.” He brushed her cheek with a gentle kiss. “I’m glad you didn’t.”

“Oh, Wigwam, I have missed you!” Chocolate Chip admitted but put out her hoof to forestall a too exuberant response from the stallion. “But it’s also true that I’m enjoying my life in New Pony. I still think I made the right decision.”

“And I won’t interfere with that. But remember, Chocolate Chip, that my love for you hasn’t altered. The engagement ring I offered you is still in my possession. If at any time you change your mind, all you have to do is say the word; and it’s yours.”

“I can’t promise you anything.”

“I’m not asking you to.” He drew her to him, burying his face in her mane for a moment before he lifted his head to meet her eyes. “On the other hoof, maybe there is a promise I’d like you to make.”

“What’s that?”

“That you’ll always be my friend.”

“You’ve got it.”

* * *
“Well, Garnet, I must say I was pleasantly surprised by what I found here today,” the black mare with dark purple mane smiled. Ebony was Garnet’s sister, between Onyx and Sable in age, Garnet being the youngest of the family.

“Surprised?” queried Garnet, confused.

“I almost didn’t come.” At her sister’s crestfallen expression, she hastened to explain. “I’ve kept my distance from Mom and Dad for a long time, having gotten my own life straightened out after their earlier influence.” She glanced around the room. “You know what I mean.”

“I understand that well enough,” Garnet admitted. “I did the same myself. But surely you would want to share this day with the family?”

Looking somewhat guilty, Ebony spoke hesitantly. “I... I didn’t know... I wasn’t sure if you had followed in our parents’ hoofsteps or not. I hadn’t heard anything about you for a number of years.”

“So you assumed I had kept to a life of deceit and dishonor?” The knowledge that her sister had such a low opinion of her made her feel cold inside. It made no difference to Garnet that she had indeed lived that sort of life until only a couple of years ago; having put it behind here once and for all, she felt like those years had been lived by a totally separate person.

Seeing the affect of her admission, Ebony reached out to touch Garnet’s hoof. “You were the baby, Garnet; and you had Sable as well as our parents to guide you. I thought... well, I imagined that you would have no choice but to turn out as wily as them.”

“There was a time I idolized Sable,” admitted Garnet. “But he would only work alone, and that hurt me. But it was for the best, because it left me to make my own way... and I grew tired of all the scheming involved in outsmarting the next easy mark.” She paused, thoughtful. “You met Buck from Birdsong?” At her sister’s affirmative nod, Garnet continued. “It was some dealings with him that made me realize that I wanted more from life than what Mom and Dad had considered important. And when I came to Dream Valley, Chocolate Chip and Wigwam and Wishbone and so many other wonderful ponies here cemented that desire to change.” She sighed. “And here I am today, creditably employed and with a most loving husband.” Her eyes sought out that stallion where he was conversing with some of his friends, and she flashed him a special smile as their gazes caught.

“Well, imagine how I felt when Mom reached me to tell me of your wedding plans and informed me that the reception would be held at a casino! Putting that fact together with the knowledge that you were on good terms with Mom and Dad, I could only assume the worst. It was Jesse who prodded me into coming; he was anxious to meet my family, for good or for bad.”

“I hope you don’t regret that decision.”

“On the contrary! I’ve found out that you’ve succeeded in rising above Mom and Dad’s dubious upbringing and gathering a splendid bevy of friends who treasure your companionship. I’m very proud of you.” She hugged her sister. “Besides, I really needed to get away from my in-laws for a little while at least. Jesse’s mom has been... well, never mind about that.”

“You know, Mom and Dad seem to have mellowed down through the years. Maybe we can all be a family again.”

“Let’s take this one step at a time,” cautioned Ebony with a laugh. “I can see that you are well set and respectable, but Onyx is still rather intimidating; and it will take awhile for me to accept Blackcap and Sassy Lamplight as pillars of the community.”

Garnet rolled her eyes and giggled. “Heaven forbid that they ever change that drastically!” She suddenly sobered. “And what of Sable? I wish he could have been here, Ebony.”

“Don’t worry about Sable. Didn’t his note say he was doing well? Sable will always land on all four hooves; he always has.”

Wishbone came to claim his bride for a last romantic dance, and Garnet grinned at her sister as she accompanied her husband to center stage. Her family was almost complete and now had expanded to encompass her in-laws. She had much to be happy about.

* * *
“The newlyweds are not going to have any need for their new entertainment system tonight!” Wigwam barked at the motley crew that was preparing to cart the gift boxes over to Garnet’s- and now Wishbone’s- apartment to get the equipment operational. “If you’re so impatient to get the stuff set-up,” he said in a milder tone, “maybe they’ll give you access to their home while they’re on their honeymoon.” The young couple was leaving for a beach-side vacation on the morrow. “It wouldn’t be such a bad gift for you to give them to have it all hooked-up and ready to go when they return.” He narrowed his eyes. “But not tonight!”

“But this system is awesome!” argued Spike, the dragon, his grip on the satellite receiver remaining steady.

“Yeah! Yeah!” agreed Friendly, already half-way to the door with the DVD changer. Caravel set down the box he held, but looked regretful. Lariat and Sammy groaned as they deposited the wide-screen TV back on the floor.

“You’d never believe the reality of the sound from a system like this,” debated Lariat. “It’s got Dolby digital THX certified six-point surround sound speakers with subwoofers. It’ll sound like you’re right in the midst of the action!” His eyes went dreamy at the thought.

“Yeah, and this Sable-dude included some really awesome movies,” Troy exulted, rummaging through a package. “Terminator 2, Matrix, Saving Private Ryan...” The stallion disregarded Titanic and several other sentimental flicks. “And, look! A universal remote!”

“What?” gasped Wigwam. “Let me see that.” Then, remembering what he was about, he reiterated. “The gift stays here tonight!” Deliberately, he grabbed the box of DVDs from Troy’s hooves and set it safely behind him. “If Garnet and Wishbone agree, you can pick everything up tomorrow afternoon and haul them over to the apartment.” Garnet and Wishbone would be safely out of town by then.

“What’s up?” asked the bride and groom, coming to check on the altercation.

Sammy sidled up to Garnet. “Here’s the plan: Spike, Friendly, Caravel, Lariat, Troy, and I...” He pointed to each individual as he said their name. “...take this stuff over to your place now and get it running; we’ll have plenty of time to watch at least one of these cool movies tonight yet...”

“Whoa!” Wishbone intoned. “I don’t think...”

“I’ll supply the popcorn and sodas,” volunteered Spike, thinking with his stomach. “No problem,” he added, seeing the disbelieving looks on Garnet’s and Wishbone’s faces. “Happy to help.”

“We had other plans,” weakly offered Garnet.

“What could outshine watching Arnie on the big screen with surround-sound and all this other cool equipment?” asked Lariat. He took one questioning look at Garnet and Wishbone, and reality hit him. “Oh.”

Troy, too, belatedly saw the light. “I guess the two of you would want to get to bed early tonight,” he grinned, then added, “... because of the trip ahead of you tomorrow, of course.”

“Exactly,” agreed Wishbone, breathing a sigh of relief.

Friendly shrugged his shoulders. “Ponies!” he scoffed disgustedly to Spike.

Ah, yes! Ponies!


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