written by Sugarberry and Tabby
"This is so nice to be together again, Toby," said the rosy mauve mare, her pale plum hair carefully coifed and perfectly in place even with the hot, humid weather that had descended on Dream Valley. She cast a quick glance at the purple stallion at her side.
"It was quite a surprise to get your phone call," Toby replied. And it had been. This new mare in town, the daughter of a friend of his father and only acquainted with Toby back when the two of them were quite young and their families had vacationed at the same picturesque lake during the summer, had called unexpectedly after she had accepted a position at the bank as its investment representative. By the tone of the call, one would have thought that she and Toby had been close friends of some duration. She had come on strong and weaseled her way into Toby's life whether he liked it or not... and he did not.
Miranda took Toby's silence for acquiescence and slipped her hoof into his; the two of them had just finished a Sunday brunch at the Estate Manor and were now walking through the city park on their way home. Miranda had taken an apartment temporarily until she decided on what kind of house she wanted, and it was uncomfortably close to Toby's.
"I still remember that last summer at Lake Limestone; you kissed me for the very first time."
And the last, silently remembered Toby. Miranda had always been an overbearing, single-minded pony who put herself first in all circumstances. He had found her unsettling when they were young, and he found now that nothing had changed. But he said, "A lot has happened since those days, Miranda."
"I often wondered what became of you after our idyllic summers together. I was busy with school and getting settled in my career, of course."
"Uh-huh." Just because their fathers had been college buddies did not mean that the resultant offspring had to be companionable, too, Toby rationalized to himself.
"It is unbelievable that I would end up in the same city with you, isn't it? I was so surprised to hear from Daddy after I accepted the job at the bank that Dream Valley is where you had settled in practice."
"Unbelievable..." muttered Toby, his mind only half on what Miranda was saying; yet he sensed that she expected more input from him that she was getting. "This hot weather has been intense for over a week now; I hope it breaks soon," he commented in an effort to get the conversation on a generic topic rather than on their personal lives. The park was unnaturally quiet in the heat as even the foals avoided any physical exertion. Toby would be glad to get home to his air-conditioned haven and away from Miranda.
"It's not as bad as in New Pony," Miranda said. "Daddy says it's been in the nineties all week. The air-conditioning broke down at his office and the repair pony said it would be next week before he would have time to fix it; but you know Daddy! He told the repair pony in no uncertain terms..."
Toby's attention was no longer even politely on the mauve mare; it was focused ahead to the fountain that shot its delicate streams of water into the already moisture-laden air; a patch of green and blue littered the sidewalk that circled the fountain, and that patch of color was a pony. "Someone's in trouble!" Toby exclaimed, dropping Miranda's hoof and dashing to the scene.
Miranda followed, but at a slower pace. "Who is it?" she asked, peering down at the pony on the cement.
Finishing a quick examination of the languid body, Toby barked an order. "Give me your ribbon!"
"What?" asked Miranda, taking a step backward, touching the yellow bow in her mane. "Why, for Pete's sake?"
Standing up impatiently, Toby took the liberty of untying the bow himself. With a look of disgust, he turned from Miranda and dipped the ribbon into the water of the fountain. "Do you know how much that cost me?" Miranda gasped as Toby bathed the unconscious pony's face with the cooling substance. While tending to this most serious duty, he paused long enough to hand Miranda the cell phone he carried with him and instructed her to alert the hospital of the need for the paramedics. Miranda did as she was told, but the expression on her face was not that of a helpful assistant; she looked quite displeased with this interruption in her well-ordered Sunday plans.
"Tell them it appears to be a case of sunstroke and a bump on the head," Toby recited.
As Miranda relayed the information and the location, she watched Toby as he ministered to the young pony, and she gradually came to realize that he was a very efficient doctor. "She's just a filly," she observed, moving to the edge of the fountain and sitting down. She noticed that the pony was also terribly thin... too thin; and her hair was tangled and dirty like it had not been combed in days.
"A filly who has become dehydrated to the point that she is in serious trouble," Toby clarified. He continued to apply cool water to her dry but flushed skin. "The blood supply to the skin is decreased and perspiration is diminished, causing the body temperature to skyrocket." He stopped to inspect a bloody bump on her forehead. "She either fainted or fell from dizziness and hit her head against the fountain."
The water eventually had its effect, and the filly slowly moved her head from side to side "Open your eyes, girl," Toby said, renewing his application of water. The eyelids fought to rise; and when they did, Toby was staring into the bluest eyes he had ever seen. "That's the spirit," he smiled. For a moment he was frozen in his stance as he gazed down upon her and only moved because the paramedics arrived.
It was not long before they were preparing to transport the filly to the hospital, and it was then that Miranda pressed herself back into the scene. "Well, Toby, it looks like we can get back to enjoying our time together." There was strong emphasis on "our".
"That's not possible," Toby frowned. "I've got to take care of my patient." He watched the paramedics closely to make sure they handled their responsibilities carefully, one hoof placed protectively on the filly's shoulder.
"You're not on duty-- let someone else see to her."
Toby faced Miranda. "It is my duty to follow this through." The paramedics raised the litter and set off; with one final dismissive glance at Miranda, Toby followed.
* * *
After getting the filly settled at the hospital, Toby retired to his office and sat at his desk to think, pondering why this young mare had such an effect on him. For some reason, he found himself strongly attracted to her-- Fern, she had told him her name was. Fern... Toby closed his eyes and envisioned what she would look like once she had recovered from the distress of the sunstroke; he recalled the intense blue of her eyes, the soft blue hair, the green body.
Fern... She had shared that much with him, but other questions were ignored. He had learned nothing about her except her name. "Where is she from and how did she end up here in the condition she's in?" Toby muttered to himself.
Unexpectedly, the office door opened and Snuzzle appeared with some paperwork in her hoof. "Dr. Toby! Why are you sitting in here on a Sunday afternoon? I thought you went home!" She approached the desk and set the papers down.
Toby stretched. "My luncheon with Miranda didn't go over very well; I'm hiding," he grinned.
"You should be safe here," Snuzzle agreed; she had met Miranda several times and had not formed a favorable impression of her.
Becoming serious, Toby asked, "What do you think of our new patient, Snuzzle? Any conjecture on what brought her to the shape she's in?"
"Running away from something, maybe," Snuzzle suggested. "She hasn't said a thing-- just shakes her head and closes her eyes when she's asked anything."
"I'm curious to know her background; let me know what you find out when she feels safe enough to open up."
"Do you really think that will happen?"
Toby chuckled. "With you, Snuzzle, anyone would confide their deepest, darkest secrets eventually." He lifted a file from those on his desk. "I may as well get some work done while I'm here."
Snuzzle knew a dismissal when she heard one, and she left Toby to his solitude.
* * *
It was evening before Toby ventured forth from his office, and he went directly to Fern's room. He knocked softly before entering and found Nurse Nightingale with the patient. "How's she doing?"
Nightingale, handing him the chart she had just updated, smiled. "She's steadily improving. We won't have her company too long."
Toby perused the chart and handed it back to Nightingale. "It looks good." His gaze finally centered on Fern herself, and he found her watching him with wide, almost frightened, eyes. "Feeling better?" he asked as he went to her bedside and touched her forehead. He was relieved to find that her temperature felt normal.
"I have no jangles," she said, barely above a whisper
"Has that been bothering you? Well, rest your mind. We won't throw you out, will we, Nurse Nightingale?"
"Never had to resort to that yet," smiled Nightingale. "The hospital will accommodate anyone who needs help, Fern, so don't worry."
Checking her pulse, Toby was reluctant to release his hold on her-- her foreleg felt so small and helpless in his hoof-- but Nightingale was waiting for him to finish, so he gently set her foreleg on the covers. "I'll see you on rounds tomorrow," he said to Fern. "Get a good night's sleep, doctor's orders."
He turned to leave, and was at the door when he heard Fern's fragile voice. "Dr. Toby..." He looked back, and Fern blushed self-consciously. "Thank you for what you've done."
Toby smiled, elated to have elicited that much from her. "That's what we're here for, Fern." He smiled. "Good night."
* * *
Toby had been right; Fern had soon divulged her background to Snuzzle: that her full name was Fern Feather; how she had been cared for by her grandmother in a large, distinguished house in the country on ten acres of land since she was only a foal; how they had lived a quiet, sheltered life alone in the house; how Fern had attended school in nearby Bushley; how her life had centered around her grandmother and the house; how her quiet shyness did not help in making friends. "But I was happy and content," she confessed.
The story continued. Shortly after Fern graduated from high school, her grandmother had passed on, and Fern was faced with uncertainty. Her grandmother had always assured her that she would inherit the house and land, but now there was no copy of the will to be found. Fern's grandmother had distrusted lawyers along with most modern progress, but Fern was sure that she had legally provided for her-- if only the papers could be located.
Time had passed while Fern lived on in a sort of limbo at the house until one day an uncle by marriage had appeared at her door with a lawyer; this uncle had not been approved of by Fern's grandmother; she had gone so far as to break all contact with her sister over this stallion who was unacceptable in Granny's eyes. The stallion, Troubadour, had not learned of his sister-in-law's death until quite recently; and he had come forth with Granny's will which she had given her sister for safe-keeping.
Fern had questioned his validity, knowing how her grandmother had refused all correspondence and civility from both her sister and her husband, but the lawyer showed her the will and Granny's signature-- that even Fern could not deny.
The terms of the will had set Fern's world upside-down; all Granny's possessions including the house and grounds were to go to her sister, Maisie; Fern was not even mentioned. Troubadour had quickly evicted Fern from the house; and with only her personal belongings on her back, she had left the security and protection of her grandmother's house.
The next year had been a nightmare of simply getting along as she worked her way from place to place, never quite capable of making a success of the meager jobs she held. She had trusted no one and had shut herself off from any attempts of friendliness that an occasional pony had offered her; she was alone in the world, alone and unprepared.
That was what had preceded her collapse at the fountain in Dream Valley.
* * *
"Snuzzle, could I speak with you?"
"You're the boss, Dr. Toby."
Toby held his office door and waved Snuzzle to a chair. When they were both comfortably seated, Toby began. "Miss Feather is well enough to be released from the hospital, but I'm concerned about her welfare when she leaves here."
"That's an honest concern; the poor thing doesn't have much going for her just now."
Toby leaned back in his chair and tapped his hooves together. "I'm anxious for that reason; I think we should help her find an apartment so she has some place to go."
Snuzzle looked at Toby curiously. "She may have her own plans, Toby."
Toby waved a hoof in the air. "That may be, but she will at least need temporary lodging until I'm sure that she is fully recovered." He pinned Snuzzle with a telling glance.
"My spare room is empty," sighed Snuzzle in mock annoyance; then she grinned. "It would actually be to my advantage to have a helping hoof around the house what with all the planning for the ball. You haven't forgotten our fundraiser, have you, Dr. Toby?"
It was Toby's turn to sigh in irritation. "How can I forget when that's all I hear about; you'd think Dream Valley never had a charity ball before."
"It's the hats," Snuzzle smugly replied. "All the mares are delighted with the stipulated dress code-- everyone, mares and stallions, must come attired in a hat or headpiece of some sort..."
"...worthy of a formal ball." Snuzzle shook her head. "You stallions."
"But I've never been comfortable in a hat, Snuzzle."
"It's only for one evening and it's to raise money for the new maternity wing. Just be sure to get to the mall before all the choice hats are taken." She winked wickedly.
Toby changed the subject as he knew he could not win this argument. "Will you discuss your invitation to Fern to stay with you for a couple of weeks?"
"I can do that right now."
"When would it be convenient for you to have her move in?"
"Tonight... Tomorrow... when do you want to sign the release papers?"
"Aim for tomorrow; one more night under Nightingale's care won't hurt her."
"And if she declines to stay with me? What then?"
Toby rubbed his chin thoughtfully. "Then I'll have to think of something else."
On her way to Fern Feather's room, Snuzzle smiled. "Dr. Toby has it bad over this one." Then, her smile turned downwards. "I only hope things work out better than they did with the others!" She grimaced at the thought of Tiffany, sighed over Elaine, and shuddered over Miranda. "Fern Feather, I hope you're seeing the same thing in Toby that he sees in you," she whispered as she knocked on Fern's door and prepared to make her best pitch ever.
* * *
Snuzzle found a bonus in having Fern as a houseguest. Not only did the filly handle phone calls for her, but Snuzzle also found that Toby, who ordinarily kept a hooves-off approach to her volunteer duties, now became a willing participant if she only said the magic words, "We'll meet at my house." Last minute complications concerning the charity ball could be handled quite painlessly when discussed over coffee and cookies-- and in the company of Fern Feather.
If Toby had eyes for no one but Fern while he was discussing musicians, seating, flowers, and other such details, Snuzzle was the only one who noticed. Other committee members commented on how nice it was that Toby was throwing himself into the preparations; they did not realize that Fern was the draw.
For her part, Fern had never been happier. She was under doctor's orders not to exert herself, but there were numerous duties she could attend to for the ball without harm, and she threw herself into it wholeheartedly; and although she was never outspoken, the ideas that she did put forth were always thoughtfully presented and showed great insight.
Toby became more enamored of Fern with each passing day; in every word she spoke, every move she made, every smile she gave him, he saw the mare of his dreams. He hoped that those blue eyes that often rested on him from across the table were finding him pleasing, too.
* * *
Toby's heart sank when he rounded the corner into Lemon Treats' Boutique; he had chosen a quiet mid-week morning to face the painful chore of picking out a hat for the charity ball thinking that no one else would be shopping at that time, but there before him at the mirror were Tabby, Sugarberry, and Chocolate Chip. For a fleeting moment, he considered ducking back out; but Lemon Treats caught sight of him. "Toby! I thought you'd never show up!"
"Hi, Lemon Treats. Snuzzle laid down an ultimatum; either I get my hat or she will"-- here he looked cautiously to the right and left before continuing -- "line me up with Miranda for the ball."
Lemon Treats giggled, and the three mares who were also hat shopping surrounded Toby. "Who are you taking to the ball?" asked Sugarberry.
"I haven't asked anyone," Toby answered truthfully.
"But you have to have a date!" exclaimed Chocolate Chip.
Toby raised an eyebrow. "I have to?"
"That'll be the day," interjected Tabby.
"Well, you should," Chocolate Chip backed off.
Toby grinned. "I'm still trying to decide; Dream Valley has way too many beautiful mares; speaking of which, I suppose the four of you are spoken for?"
"For a lifetime," smiled Lemon Treats.
"What kind of hat are you going to get, Toby?" queried Sugarberry who was sporting a black chapeau with a gold chain trim.
"We'll help you decide," offered Chocolate Chip. She was trying on a frilly straw hat with flowers.
"Just wear that odd little cap you put on when operating," advised Tabby, adjusting the purple picture hat she had on.
"This is going to be more difficult than I thought," said Toby as he saw the variety of stallion's hats available.
"Not at all difficult, Toby," assured Lemon Treats. "Clare shipped over a special hat just for you." She pulled a box out from behind the counter and removed the lid, withdrawing a stylish top hat in a distinctive pattern. "Isn't it elegant?" She handed it to Toby who accepted it gingerly as if it might bite him.
"A top hat," he repeated, staring at it as if he did not know what to do with it. Chocolate Chip came to his rescue.
"Come over here, Toby, and try it on!" She pulled him across to the triple mirror and, taking the hat from his hoof, she placed it on his head. Standing back, she looked at him critically. "What do you think, girls?"
"Dapper !" Sugarberry exclaimed.
"Smart and very refined," agreed Lemon Treats.
"It's perfect," declared Chocolate Chip.
"Weird," Tabby said, staring blankly.
"And here's a matching tie," LemonTreats informed the stallion. "You'll be the talk of the town."
"And that's supposed to be a good thing?" asked Toby, frowning at the tie.
"Just be glad you had it so easy," scoffed Tabby as she traded in the hat for a tiara. "What do you think of this?"
"I like it!" Chocolate Chip said as she, too, tried on another style.
Sugarberry eyed a fancy, if not gaudy, Victorian-styled hat. "Could I try that one on, Lemon Treats? It's so pretty, but it looks so fragile."
"Try it on, Sug," urged Tabby. "It's like your writing, all flowery and frilly."
Sugarberry lifted the pink and grey hat from its perch and set it on her head. Looking in the mirror, she envisioned another era and wished she could have been part of it. At the same time, Lemon Treats put the tie around Toby's neck, and the stallion caught Sugarberry's eye in the mirror. "May I have this dance, Sugarberry?" he asked.
For a moment they were swept back in time to a gentler society of garden parties and afternoon teas. The music playing softly in the background supplied the needed ambiance. After several times around the shop, Toby bowed to Sugarberry who smiled demurely.
"I'd get that hat if I were you," Toby grinned. "Vanguard will love it."
By this time, Tabby was trying a jaunty black hat with a red feather while Chocolate Chip put on a pillbox with a veil. Both ponies surveyed themselves in the mirror. "I wish Thomas was here," sighed Tabby. "I don't know which one to get."
"That's because they all look wonderful on you, Tabby," said Chocolate Chip. "I don't see why you don't wear a hat more often."
"I hate hats," growled Tabby.
Toby looked at her admiringly. "Tabby, I'm impressed."
Tabby rolled her eyes and abandoned the hats. "Faline has been fussy the last few days; do you think I should bring her in for a check-up?"
"Is she running a temperature?"
"Not that I'm aware of."
"She could be teething early," suggested Toby. "Keep an eye on her temperature and watch for any eruptions on her gums. If she gets really cranky, bring her in."
"Who is watching your little angel this morning?" asked Lemon Treats of Tabby.
"Her grandma and grandpa. Mom will show her all the latest fashions and Dad will train her in map reading. I figure she'll be the best-dressed explorer Ponyland has ever seen by the time she's three."
Toby laughed. "Does this mean she won't grow up to be a veterinarian like her mom and dad?"
"Maybe that too," grinned Tabby.
While Lemon Treats rang up Toby's purchase, Sugarberry told him about the previous evening. "I took Fern along to the writers' meeting last night; she shared a poem that was very touching. She seems to have a natural talent."
Chocolate Chip, who had befriended Fern as soon as she had learned of her experience on the road alone, agreed. "She has a way with words; she's showed me some of the things she's written, and they're really poignant."
"I'm glad to hear that," Toby said, finishing his business. "You'll have to encourage her to do something with that talent; maybe she could sign up for classes at Pony Pride."
"Don't worry; I've been harping on her," said the chocolate-colored pony. "And Vanguard got on her case the other evening, too."
Toby was elated; with everyone leading her to the same goal, she would surely be happy to settle down in Dream Valley just as he hoped she would. "It sounds like she has found some good friends," he said, picking up his package. With a smile, he added, "See you at the ball, girls."
* * *
Tabby, Chocolate Chip, and Sugarberry had been unsuccessful in deciding on which of the headpieces would work best for them, so they had commandeered their partners for a second trip to Lemon Treats' boutique; Baby Faline had been left in the loving care of Elaine for the evening and the three couples had free reign over their shopping expedition.
"This ball is going to be such fun!" commented Sugarberry for the zillionth time as they walked to the mall.
"It'll probably be boring," countered Tabby with a frown.
"You're going to enjoy it as much as I will," Sugarberry disagreed.
"I'm looking forward to it," Thomas said. "Tabby and I haven't been dancing in ages."
"The last time we danced," recollected Wigwam with a smile at Chocolate Chip, "was at Sugarberry and Van's wedding."
"We kind of missed that one," Thomas grinned.
Vanguard had been silent until now. "You girls are going to make us stallions try hats on, too, aren't you?"
"Why not?" chirped Tabby. "Everyone has to wear a hat, according to Snuzzle."
"I never liked wearing a hat, even as a foal," admitted Vanguard.
Sugarberry grabbed her husband's hoof. "You'll look so handsome in a hat..."
The others giggled and guffawed. "That means she doesn't think you're handsome without a hat, Van," Wigwam chuckled.
Sugarberry shot Wigwam a threatening glance. "You know that's not what I meant at all. Toby was in this morning while we were at the shop and he looked ever so dashing in the top hat Lemon Treats had for him."
"And he danced with Sugarberry," Tabby admitted offhoof.
"He danced with you?" Vanguard asked, one eyebrow raised. "At the shop?"
"Yes, he did. It was the spell of the hats. He had on his elegant top hat, and I was trying on a lovely Victorian one, and the time was right to dance." Sugarberry was assured in her answer but a blush crossed her cheeks. Thomas came to her rescue.
"I wonder who Toby is seeing these days; I had hoped that he and Elaine would hit it off, but Elaine wasn't comfortable around him."
"Toby has that effect on mares," Tabby explained. "Personally, I can't blame Elaine."
"He said he hadn't decided on a date yet," Chocolate Chip recalled.
Reaching the boutique, the party went on in, and Lemon Treats abandoned her current customer to welcome them. "So you're back and with new recruits!" she grinned. "Thomas, Vanguard, Wigwam, enjoy your shopping experience!" She winked as she returned to Dancing Butterflies who had made up her mind on her purchase.
"Be afraid," intoned Thomas.
"Be very afraid," seconded Wigwam.
"You guys are going to be impossible, aren't you?" questioned Chocolate Chip.
"You try on a hat," scowled Wigwam. "That's what we're here for."
"Maybe I should go home and see if Faline is okay," commented Thomas, turning toward the door.
Tabby caught hold of him. "As if! Besides, if you leave, I'll have to pay with my own money."
Sugarberry, remembering Vanguard's look of misgiving when he had heard of her impromptu dance with Toby, was not a happy mare; she wished that she had ignored Toby's invitation to dance, but it was too late now. Vanguard knew what she had done, and he was not pleased with her for it; she had seen it in his eyes. She stood uncomfortably in the center of the shop worrying, unaware that Vanguard had gone off to try on a hat or two by himself.
Lemon Treats, however, had seen the stallion and, feeling good about the way sales had been recently, she went to offer her assistance; when he turned to her at her approach, Lemon Treats' favorite dance tune sounded through the shop, and she was caught up in the dance. "Dance with me?" she asked of Vanguard, extending her hoof, and the stallion responded by putting a foreleg around her and whisking her across the floor.
Coming out of her musing, Sugarberry giggled to see that Vanguard, too, could get caught up in the spell of the moment. Vanguard led his dance partner near to Sugarberry and politely ended the interlude, bowing to Lemon Treats' curtsey with a smile which he next turned on Sugarberry. "This place does exert a spell, doesn't it?" he said, his eyes searching his wife's and finding there not only merriment but also understanding.
Sugarberry smiled sweetly. "I'm glad you perceived that."
Lemon Treats eyed them closely and caught a glimmer of what was going on between them, so she left them to themselves as she turned her attention to Wigwam. "No war bonnet for you?" she asked, dubiously eyeing the western hat he had donned. "Why don't you try something a tad more refined?" She choose a trilby from among those on the stands and offered it to him.
"No thanks," he responded after trying it on.
Chocolate Chip came to him with a light, filmy style on her head. "What do you think of this?"
"It's cute," he said, "but you can do better." Chocolate Chip scowled at him. "Hey!" he responded. "You brought me along for my opinion, didn't you?"
"Try this," suggested Lemon Treats, still working on the stallion. She had a black top hat in her hooves.
At the sight of the gentlemanly hat, Wigwam waved his hooves adamantly. "No way; no top hat for me."
Chocolate Chip, however, was enthralled with the idea. "Let's see how it would look, Wigwam," she pleaded. She took the hat from Lemon Treats and placed it on the stallion. "Oh! You look so aristocratic. Tabby! Sugarberry! What do you think? Is this the hat for Wigwam or not?"
The two mares came and gave the stallion a thorough once over before commenting. "That's definitely you, Wigwam," Sugarberry purred. "You've been hiding your refinement from us all these years. I love it!"
"I think it clashes," Tabby said critically.
"Tabby, it's black," Sugarberry rolled her eyes. "Black goes with anything."
Wigwam glowered. "You're going to regret this, all of you."
"Ah, but they're right, Wigwam," Vanguard backed up the mares. "The hat does look appropriate for you; you should start wearing it at the casino."
"Better you than me," kidded Thomas, adding, "If Chocolate Chip likes that one best, I think you'd better go with it."
"Thanks for nothing," Wigwam shot at Thomas, but he gave himself a discerning look in the mirror and slowly began to warm to the idea of being a dandy for the night of the ball. Finally, he said to Lemon Treats, "Okay, I'll take it." Chocolate Chip gave him a little hug and led him away to judge a style for her.
Tabby, in the meantime, had placed a black hat on Thomas' head and looked at him pensively. "That'll do," she stated with authority. Then, leading him to the mare's hats, she placed a turquoise picture hat coquettishly atop her head. "Tell me it's not right," she advised.
"I think it's cute," he grinned, "but I take it you don't like it; so show me an alternative." After watching a procession of head-coverings, Thomas admitted, "They all look good on you, Tabby; but for some reason they just don't seem right."
Lemon Treats intervened. "Tabby prefers the tiaras, don't you, Tabby?" It was not long after moving to those ornaments that both Tabby and Thomas had found what pleased them both-- a golden tiara with a warm, pink stone that glowed softly under the lights. "My queen of Atlantis," Thomas whispered to his wife as they both looked into the reflective glass.
"This one," Wigwam said to Chocolate Chip as he picked up a brocade pill box with a cascade of bejeweled veiling. He set it in place and arranged the veil over her face. "Maybe this will start you thinking of a wedding veil," he said tenderly. It was Chocolate Chip's turn to blush, and she turned to the mirror to hide it.
"Do you really like this one?" she asked shyly.
"Yes, I do," replied Wigwam.
Lemon Treats agreed. "You look lovely, Chocolate Chip. Is that the one for you?"
"Yes, it is," Chocolate Chip replied, grateful to have the choice made. "I'll take it."
Sugarberry had fallen for a grey trilby for Vanguard. "The feather matches your mane perfectly," she grinned. "It was made for you!" Vanguard felt that he had weathered the shopping rather well, having been fearful that he would be the bearer of the top hat.
"I'm set; now let's see about you," Vanguard confirmed. "What about this one?" He had chosen a flamboyant hot pink hat with a bouquet of flowers adorning it.
"Well?" she asked, turning to him with the vibrant chapeau perched jauntily atop her head.
"It's pretty, but it's a little too wild for you, possibly."
After giving up the pink hat, Sugarberry picked a basic black cloche with gold trim. "I like this one," she admitted.
Vanguard, however, had caught sight of the hat of hats, in his estimation. "This one, Sugarberry; this one if for you." He lifted the heavily-decorated Victorian masterpiece off its stand and held it out to her. Hesitating, Sugarberry was torn between her own personal fondness for that particular hat and the fact that it was the one that had prompted Toby to dance with her. Her hesitation caused Vanguard to ask, "What, you don't like it?"
"It's the one I was wearing when Toby asked me to dance," she admitted.
"Well, it proves that Toby has good taste." Vanguard took it upon himself to place the splendorous headpiece on his wife's head. He stepped back to survey the results. "You are beautiful," he stated lovingly.
"Woah!" exclaimed Wigwam, coming to openly admire the mare and her finery. "That's gorgeous."
"You never said that about me!" teased Chocolate Chip as she joined the group.
"I knew you'd end up with that one," added Tabby, coming across the shop with Thomas.
"It suits you, Sugarberry," Thomas agreed.
"It's settled then," Vanguard decided, turning to Lemon Treats. "We'll take it."
"There's a matching purse and even a parasol," said the salespony, gathering those items in her hooves to entice a larger sale.
"Sold," said Vanguard.
Wigwam could not resist the opportunity. "For once, Sugarberry, you'll be coordinated!"
It was definitely time for the evening to end. As the stallions gallantly paid for the purchases, Chocolate Chip, Tabby, and Sugarberry waited at the entrance to the store. Sugarberry, looking down toward center court, caught her breath. "Who're they?" she choked.
Chocolate Chip and Tabby followed her gaze; Chocolate Chip gasped while Tabby just stared. They were soon approached by the cause of their bewilderment: Friendly, the Bushwoolie, and two new friends of his.
"Hi! Hi! Hi! Yeah!" the Bushwoolie greeted the mares.
"What's up, Friendly?" Tabby was the only one of the three to find her voice. "Hey, guys." She waved to the other two.
"Hats! Yeah! Yeah!" Friendly smiled. "Need hat for ball!"
"And these are...?" She raised her eyes to the two tall creatures with him.
"Yeah! They need hats, too." As if that had explained it all, Friendly accompanied his two pals into the shop.
Thomas, Vanguard, and Wigwam joined the mares, their purchases complete, finding them staring after Friendly and crew.
"It's not polite to stare," advised Vanguard, guiding Sugarberry away.
"But, but... who are they?" asked Chocolate Chip in awe.
"Friends of Friendly, obviously," determined Wigwam without another glance.
Of the mares, only Tabby was unscathed. "He probably picked them up in the Dark Forest. I wonder how many of the Bushwoolies will be at the ball?"
"Why don't we all go over to our house and see how Elaine and Faline are doing?" suggested Thomas.
Chocolate Chip and Sugarberry made one more cautious glance over their shoulders, then shrugged off their perplexity. "Sounds good," they chorused and set off unhindered in the company of their friends.
* * *
Snuzzle was at the dance hall, of that Toby was sure. Chocolate Chip had not mentioned any plans for her and Fern, so Toby was taking a chance at finding Fern at home alone. Running into the mares at the boutique that morning had given Toby an idea, and he was intent on seeing how it played out.
The ringing of the doorbell echoed through the house and the sound of hoofsteps grew nearer. When the door opened, it was Fern's face that Toby saw. "Hi," he said, suddenly speechless.
"Hi, Dr. Toby." Fern smiled and her blue eyes danced. "I'm sorry, but Snuzzle isn't home right now."
Toby found his tongue. "Actually, it was you I wanted to see. May I come in?"
"S... sure," stuttered Fern, stepping aside to admit the stallion. "Is there something wrong?"
"No, there's nothing wrong, except that maybe you're developing Sugarberry's worry complex."
"I went to the writer's meeting with Sugarberry last night."
"So I heard. And you dazzled them with your poetic skills."
Fern brushed off the comment. "Everyone is talking about the ball," she related. "The mares are all excited about it; it sounds like it's going to be a lot of fun."
"I'm sure it will be," said Toby as he sat down in the chair that Fern offered him.
"Snuzzle says that I can serve punch; can you imagine all the splendor and pageantry that I'll see?" Her eyes sparkled at the thought of it.
But Toby frowned. Looking very serious, he said to her, "I'm your physician, Fern, and I can't allow you to over-exert yourself just yet; I'm afraid that you won't be able to serve punch at Snuzzle's gala."
Fern's happiness faded; in a downcast voice, she pleaded, "But Snuzzle says I can sit down whenever I get the chance."
"And how much of a chance is there going to be for that with all the ponies that will be there? No, you definitely can't serve punch at the ball."
"But Dr. Toby! I can manage; I feel so much better than I did the day you... found me."
Toby looked at her with a sober face as if reconsidering his decision. "I'll tell you what," he finally spoke. "If you want to go to the ball, come with me; that way, I can keep an eye on you."
Fern's eyes grew wide and her mouth dropped open. When she regained her composure, she said, "You shouldn't tease me that way."
"Who said I was teasing?" Toby stared across the space between them, and Fern's heart skipped a beat. Toby continued. "I'm asking you to accompany me to the benefit dance as my date."
Fern could not speak, so she simply returned his searching gaze. When the silence became too long, Toby asked again, "Will you allow me to escort you to the ball?"
"Surely you know other mares who would be more suited," she finally was able to say, but not very convincingly.
"I want to have the pleasure of your company."
Fern felt her cheeks burning. "All the ponies are going to be decked out in their finery; I don't have a thing."
"Neither did I," admitted Toby. "That's what stores are for."
"You have jangles," she smiled forlornly.
"And you don't. We can solve that quite easily. I have an account at Lemon Treats' Boutique at the mall; I'll tell her you have carte blanche over it."
"No. I can't accept your charity."
"Look at it this way-- you'll be helping Lemon Treats out by getting her another sale."
The thought of attending the ball was too enticing and Fern began to waver. A smile began to form once more. "Only if we call it a loan; someday, I'll pay you back."
"We'll call it a gift," Toby said with finality. "Now, just say yes to my invitation."
Her face alight with pleasure, Fern acquiesced. "Okay, Dr. Toby. I accept."
"Great!" Toby beamed. "And, please, just call me Toby."
"I'll try to remember... Toby."
"I'll give Lemon Treats a call when I get home, and you can go shopping whenever you want." He walked to the door to leave, and Fern followed.
"This is going to be such fun! Thanks, Dr. Toby!" She effusively gave him a brief hug before he was out the door, and the doctor walked on cloud nine all the way home.
* * *
Lemon Treats put in an emergency call to Clare's Creations in Vulcanopolis. "The hats are going like crazy; Toby even picked up his top hat today, and he and Sugarberry danced right here in the shop; this whole charity ball is becoming addictive."
"Where was Van while this was going on?" quizzed Clare.
"Sugarberry was with Tabby and Chocolate Chip at the time; the three of them succeeded in putting Toby on the spot concerning his hat purchase. The mares came back with their stallions tonight, and I ended up dancing with Vanguard!"
Clare giggled. "I'd have liked to see Sugarberry's face about that time."
"There were even some strangers in the shop tonight... and they bought hats, too. Which brings me to the point of my call; can you get an express shipment out to me?"
Clare considered the request thoughtfully. "On one condition, Lemon Treats. Can you get me two tickets for this charity ball?"
"No problem. I'll send them out tomorrow."
"I'll reimburse you, of course."
"Just send me a special hat," bargained Lemon Treats.
"It's a deal."
* * *
"Giorgio, we haven't been out of town for months; I'm bored with Vulcanopolis," Clare said. The two were having dinner at their favorite restaurant.
"You've been working too hard; let Pacificus run the company for a few days... but you know that I can't leave right now."
Clare's face showed her displeasure. "Not even for the weekend?"
"What do you have in mind?" He knew Clare well enough to realize that she had already made plans.