Chapter 5: Considerations

Thomas dutifully delivered Tabby, subdued in her misery, to her front door and bid her goodnight; then he walked thoughtfully away from the house with the overgrown flower beds dominated by strange teacup towers. 

The open house seemed to have been a success… all except for the imminent threat of breaking scandal. He winced at the memory of the reporter’s probing questions. It seemed that Thomas was not yet free from his mentor’s influence. If the story of Dr. Wexford’s indiscretions was published, it could be disastrous to Thomas’ fledgling business. How would the ponies of this town react, learning of his close connection to such an individual? 

Would it have been better to have never fallen into Dr. Steuben Wexford’s orbit? In the beginning, it had seemed like a stroke of luck to be selected as a student intern at Dr. Wexford’s clinic, a highly-coveted placement. Dr. Wexford, the recipient of numerous awards, was a star in the field of veterinary medicine. Get on his good side, and one’s success was practically guaranteed.

Though a strict taskmaster, Dr. Wexford was easily approached by anyone, easy to get along with, and reputedly able to charm any mare. There were snide remarks floating about that Dr. Wexford hired based on physical attractiveness and not actual job qualifications, but Thomas did not countenance gossip. Since he didn’t observe any overtly inappropriate behavior, he naively went about his business, and didn’t worry about the time Wexford spent behind closed doors with his female employees for unspecified reasons. Had Thomas been turning a blind eye or giving the benefit of the doubt, and where was that line even drawn?

Dr. Wexford had a wife, but Spindrift was seldom seen–she was of a delicate constitution and generally indisposed, according to her husband. Their children–twins, a boy and a girl–had by now grown and left the nest. By all accounts, Wexford had held high hopes that his son would follow in his hoofsteps, but Equinox had been a complete washout in higher education and was doing something in nature photography. Wexford didn’t acknowledge that as a profession, and had all but written him off. Equinox’s twin, Solstice, had started out in veterinary medicine; but had switched to being a medical doctor and now worked abroad for an equinitarian aid service. Regardless of his daughter’s success, Wexford still seemed to regret the lack of a male successor. Perhaps sensing that she would always come up short was the reason Solstice had removed herself, both in area of study and physical distance, Thomas mused..

There were those who intimated that Wexford had turned his fatherly concern to Thomas with the intention of making him a worthy heir to his empire. Some may have even observed that Wexford was taking advantage of an innocent nature. In retrospect, there had been red flags that Thomas could have heeded. “Don’t take all your lessons from Wexford,” colleagues had repeatedly admonished him. Thomas chalked it up to jealousy of Wexford’s success.

But with his parents gone, Thomas had used Wexford as a sounding board for personal matters as well as professional, and the senior doctor was always at the ready with worldly advice. Wexford had no objections to workplace flirtations, and in fact encouraged the behavior. The result was that Thomas himself began to gain the reputation of playing fast and loose with the mares at Wexford’s clinic, especially after earning his doctorate and beginning his residency there. This behavior was not intrinsic to Thomas’ nature, but it had crept into his life along with Wexford. Thomas had always taken learning to heart, and if his mentor told him to act a certain way, then he would apply himself until the lesson became second nature.

It wasn’t that bad, Thomas had told himself. Flirting, a stolen kiss here and there, an attractive partner to appear in public with. Did he even have the intention of finding a soulmate, or did he just appreciate having an entourage to use and discard as it suited him? There was never time to develop any meaningful relationships, having been just ephemeral flirtations. Was this lifestyle all a recipe for disaster?

Finally, Thomas’ behavior had caught up to him.

SIX MONTHS AGO

Flossie, one of the receptionists at Dr. Wexford’s clinic, was at her desk, hoof paused over the phone, a distressed look on her face. Her discomfiture was so apparent that Thomas, passing through, stopped and asked what was wrong. 

“That event planner Gwen keeps calling for Dr. Wexford–he refuses to talk to her, and she won’t give up!” Flossie’s pitch steadily increased as she explained her dilemma.

Thomas sighed. Everyone seemed to be wrapped up in plans centered around next week’s reception at the university in honor of Dr. Wexford, who was receiving the prestigious Bannister Award of Excellence in Veterinary Medicine. Though there was an event staff to handle all the reception plans, Dr. Wexford still wanted a hoof in every last detail to make sure his preferences were catered to, which led to friction between the event staff and Wexford’s office.

“I’ll talk to her,” Thomas offered. He had worked with Gwen frequently through the years on conference-related matters, as her office frequently contracted for university events. 

“Would you? That would be wonderful,” Flossie gushed. “She’s on line five.” She promptly turned her attention to something else on her desk.

Thomas went down the hall and into his office, setting the phone on speaker mode so that he had two hooves to flip through the pile of mail on his desk as he answered the call. A supply catalog and internet services were the offerings today. Plus another ad from some foundation that was always hounding him about career opportunities…

“Dr. Fairfax, hi,” Gwen said after he answered, irritation evident in her voice. “I was trying to reach Dr. Wexford.” 

“He’s not available,” Thomas said patiently. “Can I help?”

“If he won’t talk to me… fine.” Gwen sighed deeply. “I was just informed by the caterer that Dr. Wexford attempted to change the dessert order for the reception. He cannot do that! For Preuben chocolate cake, of all things!” she spat with distaste.

“Um… okay,” Thomas said. That didn’t sound terribly critical, hardly something to warrant such drama. “Whatever you think is best. I’m sure it’s fine.”

“It will be the lemon crème cake!” Gwen huffed. “If you could let Dr. Wexford know that he is NOT authorized to change any of our orders, I would appreciate it.”

“Of course. I understand,” Thomas said, wondering why this was even a topic that Wexford was involved in.

“Thanks, Dr. Fairfax. I wish everyone was as reasonable as you!” said Gwen before ending the call.

Hanging up, Thomas realized there was someone else in the room who had slipped in over the course of the conversation. It was his little sister, Elaine, a graduate student in the veterinary medicine program.

“Oh, so I understand that you’re entrusted with the real life-and-death situations these days,” the white unicorn with blue hair said archly, having obviously overheard the discussion.

“Something like that,” Thomas said, embarrassed at being caught discussing such frivolous details. “It’s just this crazy reception; Wexford is micro-managing every detail… but what are you doing here?” He had an uneasy feeling that he had been ignoring her–not intentionally, but there were always other things needing his attention…

“Well, you haven’t been answering any of my messages,” Elaine said pointedly, “so I was just kind of wondering if you were still alive.”

“Oh… I’m sorry,” Thomas said vaguely, absentmindedly running a hoof through his mane. “I meant to reply, but…” He sighed. “Once this event is over, I’ll pay more attention. I promise.” 

“Sounds like you need a vacation,” Elaine observed.

“Maybe next year, but for now… this summer is the conference in ______ and after that it will be the PAVD Annual Meeting, and Steuben says…”

“No, you wouldn’t want to miss out on any of his reflected glory,” Elaine scoffed. “You know he only goes to those things to be seen at the exclusive dinner meetings he gets invited to.”

“It’s not like that,” Thomas defended his mentor. “It’s necessary for… building a network of connections… and… you know,” he finished lamely.

Elaine dismissed that with a roll of her eyes. “You know, I never would have thought you’d turn out like this.”

Thomas frowned. “What do you mean?”

“Look at yourself!  You’re an errand pony for that sleaze, Wexford,” Elaine said, rather harshly. “I used to want to do everything you did, but that doesn’t hold the same appeal as it used to.”

“I don’t know what you have against him,” Thomas said in exasperation. For some reason, she always believed the worst of Dr. Wexford.

“You know he’s always hitting on mares,” Elaine declared, “and we can only guess what he gets up to in private.”

“Elaine!” Thomas was shocked that his sister could make such inferences. “He knows how to make conversation; that’s no crime,” he defended his boss. “As for the rest, that is unfounded speculation.”

“Someday you’ll wake up and see…” Elaine trailed off, a little wistfully.

“You’re still coming to the reception, right?” Thomas said, hoping to change the flow of conversation–though every topic in mind still seemed to lead back to Wexford. Elaine had been invited by virtue of being junior board representative for the award’s sponsor, the Ponyland Veterinary Association.

“I might. I doubt you’ll notice one way or the other,” Elaine said, looking at him through narrowed eyes. “Anyway, I need to go and see Dulcia. Speaking of which… you’d better not be working your wiles on her.” She gave her brother a piercing look. “She’s my friend, and I wouldn’t want to deal with the inevitable fallout.”

Dulcia had been underhoof in Thomas’ life since she and Elaine had met and become fast friends in fifth grade, and she had been chasing Thomas for nearly as long. Thomas had always dismissed her as being a bratty foal–until last month, when she had started working at the clinic as a technician, and he realized she had grown into a rather lovely young mare… who was determined to make up for lost time, it seemed, by throwing herself at him every opportunity she had. Thomas knew it wouldn’t be anything long-term; but for now, she was an amusing diversion. That’s how Wexford had taught him to think, and Thomas had always been a bright pupil.

“We work well together,” was all Thomas would admit to his sister at the moment.

“Hmm,” Elaine said, looking skeptical. “Well, I’ll see you around, I guess.” She turned on her heel and left.

Thomas sighed. In what felt like another life, he and his sister had been close. Had it really been that long ago? They had even weathered the high school years, when he had had to take on a parental role after the siblings had been orphaned. But now, with adult responsibilities, they hadn’t been able to maintain their camaraderie.

Thomas would make it up to her. But for now, he had to focus on this darn reception that was turning everything topsy-turvy. 

He had put the dessert conversation firmly out of mind.

Dulcia

The day of the reception finally arrived, and Thomas was considering his options. He usually didn’t plan too far in advance for a date to an event like this; the largely female staff of receptionists, secretaries, and technicians provided a ready pool of candidates. It was easiest to wait until the last minute and see who was available (and maybe it was vanity on his part, but it seemed the majority would make themselves available if given the opportunity to attend an event with the popular Dr. Fairfax). 

Maybe Flossie would like to attend, he considered. It would give her a chance to relax and enjoy the event after all the calls she had fielded. Actually– Thomas paused, frowning. Had he already talked to one of the girls about this the other day? He didn’t remember exactly who it had been, but he promptly dismissed the fear. Even if it had been discussed, he was certain that there were no concrete plans in place.

Thomas was about to leave his office when a pink mare with spring green hair slipped in, discreetly closing the door behind her. It shut with a poignant click.

“Here are the test results you asked for,” Dulcia said, her voice low and intimate. She did have some papers in hoof, but instead of delivering them, she wrapped her forelegs around his neck and drew him in for a kiss. The test results fluttered to the floor, forgotten.

Dulcia had a way with words like that.

The mare drew back. “Ready for the big night?” she asked, her eyes impossibly big and blue.

It must have been Dulcia he was thinking of. That made sense. “Yes,” Thomas said briskly, putting distance between them. This was pleasant, but he did have a schedule to keep. “Can you be ready to leave here at 6:30?” 

If the abrupt change to business had jarred her, Dulcia didn’t give any indication. “Of course,” she simpered. “I’m looking forward to it.”

“Good, good,” Thomas murmured absentmindedly, retrieving the test results and brushing past Dulcia into the hallway.

Larkspur

“You look lovely,” Thomas said, greeting Dulcia with a brief kiss when they met at the back door at the appointed time. “All set?”

“Yes, let’s go,” Dulcia said with a sultry look.

On their way out, they met Larkspur, another technician, who was entering the building. “Thomas! Dulcia!” the yellow mare exclaimed, taken aback.

“Larkspur? What are you doing here?” Dulcia asked, frowning.

“I’m here,” Larkspur said stiffly with a glance at Thomas, “because Dr. Fairfax invited me to the reception tonight.”

“You’re mistaken. He asked me,” Dulcia said, holding her date’s foreleg tightly.

Larkspur pinned Thomas with a stare. “What did you go and do that for?” she demanded. “You asked me yesterday.”

“Oh… did I?” Thomas asked uneasily. “I thought that was more of an… idea,” was the best explanation he could fabricate. “You know, if nothing else came up.”

“Nothing else, like Dulcia?” Larkspur snapped.

“He obviously doesn’t care to go with you, or he would have remembered,” Dulcia said snidely.

“What about you? You just attach yourself like a leech at the last minute,” spat Larkspur.

“As if he’d choose to go with a skank like you!” Dulcia scoffed.

“Look who’s talking, Miss ‘oh excuse me while I go put on another layer of mascara’!” Larkspur shot back.

“Ladies, please!” Thomas interjected.

“Stay out of this!” they responded in unison, glaring at each other.

“Well, I don’t care to go with you anyway, Dr. Fairfax,” Larkspur stated, turning to Thomas and ending the stalemate. “Playing the field is one thing, but you are on a whole different level. So you two have a good time, but watch out, Dulcia,” she warned, “he just might forget you and go off with another mare before the night is through.” Larkspur turned and stalked off into the street.

“What an unpleasant filly!” Dulcia sniffed. “I never did like her.” (From Thomas’ observations, the two mares were nearly inseparable whenever their shifts overlapped.)

“I’m sorry about that,” Thomas apologized, not sure what else to say. 

“I’m sure she misunderstood the whole thing,” Dulcia said, willing to overlook the incident. “Shall we go?”

“Of course,” said Thomas.

Reception

It was a balmy summer evening. Wexford’s clinic was not far from the campus, but the heavy hoof traffic on the streets leading to it took some time to navigate. The location of the reception was the Student Center on the grounds of New Pony University. The modern glass-walled building overlooked the campus pond, a native wetland habitat of extreme biodiversity that the school was inordinately proud of. Thomas and Dulcia entered the building and stopped at a check-in table inside the door.

“Ah, Dr. Fairfax.” It was Gwen, a peachy-orange mare with curling red hair. She handed him a lanyard with an attached name tag. “And… I’m sorry, your name is…?” She eyed Dulcia.

“Dulcia,” the younger mare supplied.

“I’m afraid I didn’t know you would be here, Dulcia, or I would have had a badge prepared,” said Gwen with a sharp look at Thomas. “That information is supposed to be supplied on the returned RSVP form.”

“An oversight,” Thomas apologized.

“Indeed,” Gwen begrudgingly agreed, hastily scrawling Dulcia’s name on a blank tag.

Thomas and Dulcia were some of the first ponies there, punctuality being very important to Thomas. This was not a trait shared with Dr. Wexford, who had confided to Thomas earlier that he was planning on arriving fashionably late to his own award ceremony. 

Waiters were bustling about setting up drink and hors d’oeuvres around the periphery of the atrium, where pre-banquet socializing would occur. A vague memory surfaced in Thomas’ mind, something to do with the food at tonight’s event that he had been responsible for, but he ultimately disregarded it as being unimportant. So, with Dulcia draped on his side, he made small talk with the other guests who were trickling in for pre-event cocktails. 

“This is a bit dull, don’t you think?” Dulcia said as they walked away from a retired professor and his wife. “And we have time to kill.”

Thomas looked at her inquiringly. “What do you suggest?”

Laughing, she grabbed his hoof and pulled him down a side hallway. “There’s a hidden alcove down here. We can have some time alone.”

“Subtlety is not your strong suit,” Thomas said, amused. She was incorrigible.

Dulcia led him into a recess under the stairs and settled into his embrace. “The other girls warned me about you, you know, and what you’re like now.” She faced him and twirled a tendril of his mane.

“How so?” Thomas asked warily. There generally wasn’t much need for conversation in situations like this.

“That you’re charming but noncommittal,” Dulcia stated, “browsing the selection like a butterfly among the flowers.”

“That’s unnecessarily poetic,” he protested, laughing nervously.

“Back when we were kids, you hardly had time for fillies… for me, at least.” she pouted. “What do you think of me, really?”

“You’re very talented,” Thomas said. The conversation was getting far deeper than he was comfortable with. “Your technique of administering injections is unparalleled.”

“That’s not what I mean,” she said, caressing his face. “I know that, growing up, you only saw me as your kid sister’s playmate, but those days are behind us. What do you think of me, as a mare?”

“You’re lovely, you’re fun to be around, you… “ Thomas was grasping desperately at more virtues to placate her with.

“Do you care for me?” Dulcia asked point-blank.

“I mean… we’re friends, of course,” Thomas said stiffly, wanting to be anywhere but here.

“Do you prefer me to the other girls?” she demanded.

“Look, Dulcia, maybe this isn’t the best time to talk about this,” Thomas protested, extricating himself from her grasp.

“You don’t like to commit to one girl, I know.” Dulcia sighed, reaching out to recapture him but dropping her foreleg as if she had thought better of it. “But we get on well together, don’t we? What if–what if–”

“What?” Thomas asked, impatient to bring this to an end.

“I want to be your steady girlfriend!” Dulcia said in a rush.

Thomas shook his head. “I don’t think–”

“We could try it, for a month,” Dulcia spoke quickly over him. “If it’s not working, we’ll end things; I won’t make a fuss. But give me a chance! We could be happy together!”

“Listen, Dulcia…” Thomas searchd for the words. “You’re a wonderful mare, but…”

Getting her nerve back, she closed the distance between them, and kissed him. “Does that mean anything, anything at all?” she asked, drawing back.

“Yes, I like, uh, spending time with you, but…” Thomas couldn’t give her the answer she wanted. Wexford had told him to be on guard for this sort of theatrics–don’t let them get the upper hoof, he always said. Hold your ground. Keep your freedom. And Thomas really didn’t want to take the time to test an exclusive relationship. 

“But I’m no better or worse than the others, is that it?” Dulcia said bitterly, turning away. “You’ll kiss me, but I might just as well be Larkspur or Flossie or–or–” Her voice cracked and she couldn’t continue.

“Maybe we should get back,” Thomas said, awkwardly ending the exchange. “It’s almost time for the ceremony to start.” Dulcia was uncharacteristically silent, but walked with him back to the gathering without complaint.

Wexford was occupied with a crowd of well-wishers when he caught sight of Thomas. Disengaging from the group but keeping one mare close to his side, he ambled over to his employee.

“There you are, Thomas!” Wexford’s voice boomed out. “Quite the event, eh?” He lowered his voice. “I’d like you to meet one of my past advisees, Dr. Cheryl Vandercorn,” he introduced the unicorn mare, who was burgundy with plum hair. “Very clever, a researcher now at Easton-Scott.”

“Very kind of you to say, Steuben,” Cheryl said, smiling prettily. Wexford always seemed to be on first-name basis with the mares.

“Dr. Fairfax here is a standout talent, much like yourself, my dear,” Wexford continued. “He’s my second-in-command at the clinic.”

“Ah-HEM!” said Dulcia, reminding them that she was there, too.

“Er, and this is, uh, Diane, one of my secretaries,” said Wexford, clearly disinterested.

“I’m Dulcia,” said the mare, a petulant look on her face. “I’m actually a veterinary technician.”

“How nice,” said Cheryl, but was clearly more interested in the stallion. “Dr. Fairfax, you have quite the elite position with Steuben.” 

“Yes, he’s been a great mentor,” Thomas said, but was far more interested in her story. “Easton-Scott, they’re doing some breakthrough work on bioengineered cephalopods,” he noted.

“Yes, that’s my project,” Cheryl said, smiling smugly. “We’re isolating some promising new biologically active substances with implications for both health and defense technology.”

“Really” Thomas was impressed. “Are you still focusing on RNA editing to create more diverse protein arrays?”

“Indeed!” Cheryl beamed. “I can’t share all the details, you understand. But the enzyme activity is exciting!”

Wexford chuckled.  “Now, if you’ll excuse me, I believe the event planner is looking for me,” he said, bowing out of the conversation. “I think you young ponies have this under control.”

“The ceremony is starting soon. We should really take our seats,” Dulcia hinted, tugging at Thomas’ foreleg.

“Of course, you’re right,” Cheryl said, something akin to a smirk on her face as she eyed Thomas’ date.

“Will you sit with us, Dr. Vandercorn?” Thomas quickly invited.

“Oh, call me Cheryl, please. And I’d love to,” she said with a warm smile.

Dulcia scowled.

They took their seats at the banquet table, Thomas between the two mares, and before long the conversation had to halt as everyone turned their attention to the stage at the head of the room. The ceremony that followed was exactly as dull as anticipated. The chancellor gave his introduction, complete with a projected slideshow that detailed Dr. Wexford’s contributions to the field. 

Wexford then strolled onto stage and accepted his plaque as a matter of course. “I’m very pleased to accept this,” he beamed. “It’s gratifying to have one’s accomplishments recognized.” He had some other words in that vein to share, there was a closing round of applause, and then everyone turned their attention to dinner.

Dinner

Thomas was caught up in conversation with Cheryl all through dinner. She was intelligent, witty, and beautiful to top it all off. She seemed very nearly perfect, and Thomas had very nearly forgotten that he had obligations to anyone else at the banquet.

“…but when we checked the security camera, it turned out our culprit was one of the octopi, leaving the aquarium, propelling himself down the hallway, and hurling rotten oysters at my desk!” Cheryl was explaining. “Isn’t that amusing?”

“Hilarious,” said Thomas. He might have described it as closer to alarming, but what did he know? Thomas noticed his sister across the table, looking back and forth between him and Dulcia and frowning. He quickly averted his gaze.

As dessert was brought out, there was an outburst at the head of the table.

“There must be some mistake,” Dr. Wexford said, frowning down at his plate. “This is supposed to be Preuben chocolate cake.” His voice was loud and carried through the room. “What is this lemon nonsense?”

Thomas cringed. The memory of Gwen’s call came flooding back into mind. That was what he had forgotten. In his defense, it hadn’t sounded that important. He should probably say something, but felt rooted in place. Cheryl looked at him questioningly, noting his discomfiture.

“Oh my gosh, why does he always have to be such a blowhard!” Dulcia said, mostly under her breath. She was clearly out-of-sorts with Wexford for introducing her incorrectly.

“I’m very sorry, but this is what was ordered by Westcliffe Events,” the waiter was heard to say.

“Yes, THOSE ponies,” Wexford said, pounding his hoof on the table. “I will be having words with them. Gwen!” He flagged down the offending pony, who was standing near the doorway, consulting with a blue unicorn. Thomas felt a pang of guilt for putting Gwen in this position; but to be honest, he was more concerned about the dressing-down he would receive when his part was revealed. Wexford lowered his voice for his conversation with Gwen, but it was clear from facial expressions and body language that neither of them was happy. At the end, Gwen stalked off.

That pony had the effrontery to blame you!” Steuben said, approaching Thomas afterwards. “You would never condone such a travesty.”

“No, of course not,” Thomas quickly agreed. What luck! He had gotten an easy way out. Wexford didn’t believe Gwen. Who was really hurt by allowing this version of the truth to persist? Gwen had already been talked to. Dr. Wexford had a short attention span and would soon forget about the dessert. There was really no sense in complicating this further by revealing Thomas’ involvement, which had been very little, really.

That’s what Thomas told himself, because it was easy, because it was the kind of little white lie that he had observed Dr. Wexford himself resort to countless times to save face.

“Lemon cake, indeed!” Wexford scoffed, not giving up on this pet topic of his. “You know how I feel about lemon… and chocolate.”

“I thought the lemon was nice,” Dulcia said peevishly.

“Yes, well, your judgment is lacking,” Dr. Wexford said, matter-of-factly and without animosity. 

“Chocolate is a much more mature flavor,” Cheryl agreed with Wexford, casting a sidelong glance at Dulcia.

The younger mare rolled her eyes. “Excuse us a moment,” she snapped, pulling Thomas away behind a large potted plant.

“Dulcia!” Thomas protested, scandalized. “That was rude.”

“What are you doing? I’m your date! You’re playing me for a fool!” Dulcia seethed.

“We’re friends, Dulcia!” Thomas hissed. “I’m sorry I can’t offer you what you want, but that’s how it is.”

“You’ve been leading me on all this time!” she challenged.

“Leading you on! You’ve been chasing me!” he argued.

“Well, you certainly haven’t complained!” Dulcia huffed.

That was true. Thomas felt uncomfortable. “Listen, maybe I should just take you home–”

“Don’t bother–I’ll find my own way back.” With a final haughty look, Dulcia stalked off in high dudgeon.

Elaine had been heading in their direction when the tiff had occurred, and cast an exasperated look at her brother, changing course and going after her friend. Thomas was sure he was going to hear more about this later, but at the moment wasn’t concerned.

“Everything okay?” Cheryl asked when Thomas returned to her side.

“Oh–yeah, it’s fine. I’m sorry. She was just–well, she’s a little dramatic,” Thomas explained it away. “She’s fine.”

“I was going to ask if you wanted to go out for a drink,” Cheryl said coyly, “but maybe you have other things on your mind–”

“I’d love to,” he said with alacrity.

Missed Calls

“My paper on morphological predation adaptations of Cirroteuthis muelleri is being published next month in Journal of Animal Science, and I’m corresponding author on another about DNA polymerase action in relation to cytokines in Histioteuthis cerasina that’s just been accepted by Ponyland Scientific,” Cheryl rattled off.

Cheryl had introduced Thomas to her favorite pub, and they were having a great time. He gestured to the bartender for another round of drinks.

“That’s very impressive,” Thomas said, honestly awed by the caliber of her work. Those were the top journals that every scientist vied to be featured in. “You’re a credit to your institution.”

“Yes, well, I do what I can,” she said nonchalantly. “I’m sorry that I can’t tell you more about my current project. Confidentiality agreements and all that.”

Thomas’ phone had been ringing on and off over the past half hour, but he had been trying to ignore it. Finally the nagging feeling was too much, and he looked at the screen. There were three missed calls from Elaine, and he had a sense of deja vu, going back to the night he had found out about their parents. She was just going to rail against him. But–if something really were wrong–

“What is it?” he asked sharply upon answering.

“It’s Dulcia!” Elaine sounded hysterical. “She–she–” He heard her gulping down air, but she couldn’t continue.

“Calm down!” he hissed, shrugging helplessly at Cheryl. “What happened?”

“She’s in the hospital!” Elaine cried out. “Critical condition! She overdosed on zalvecine!”

“What?” Thomas asked, dumbstruck, having had no inkling that Dulcia had any connection to that illicit substance. “What… how?”

“We were watching a movie,” Elaine sobbed. “She got up at one point and was gone awhile–I found her passed out–and–and–”

“Okay, just–just stay calm,” Thomas said, distressed. “Where are you? I’ll meet you.” He hung up and shook his head. “I’m afraid I have to go,” he said, turning back to Cheryl. “My sister’s friend was in an… accident.” He neglected to mention that it was also his date from earlier that evening.

“Oh, no!” Cheryl was appropriately dismayed. “Do you want me to go with you?”

“No, that’s fine. I think it’s better if I go alone,” he said quietly.

“Of course, of course… listen, call me,” Cheryl said, hastily scrawling numbers on a napkin. “We can do dinner sometime” With an encouraging smile, she sent him on his way.

Waiting Room

“This is your fault!” Elaine nearly shouted as Thomas entered the hospital waiting room. “If you hadn’t been so self-absorbed–!” She faced him and choked-up. “You take what you want, and don’t care what you leave in your wake!” Her tone lowered when she realized the desk clerks were eyeing her cautiously.

Thomas was stupefied, having expected that she would be more caught up with fears for Dulcia than consumed with blaming him.

“She only did this because you ditched her at the party!” Elaine fumed, sitting down and crossing her forelegs.

“I–I didn’t know she would do this,” Thomas faltered. This had been Dulcia’s decision, not his. He didn’t bear responsibility. Right?

“You ignored her the whole time and let her leave alone!” Elaine was livid. “Is it any wonder she felt so down about herself? What would Mom think if she were here!”

Thomas winced. That was hitting low. “I offered–”

“Well, you should have done a better job!” She glared at him.

“How is she?” he asked, taking a deep breath and setting aside pettiness.

“Still unconscious, but with the amount she took… they don’t know. They’ve administered activated charcoal to flush out the toxins. You’re such a jerk!” Elaine finished eloquently.

“Look, I’m here because of your call. Don’t bite my head off now,” Thomas maintained.

It was a long night waiting for news. Dulcia had family in the city, but they couldn’t be reached, so Elaine would not think of leaving. But once Dulcia’s condition had stabilized, Thomas convinced Elaine to go home and get some rest. There was nothing more they could do here. Elaine followed him, but said hardly a word on the walk to her apartment.

Could he be responsible for this after all, he asked himself. It was eye-opening, the realization that there could be dire consequences to his own actions.

Despite Thomas’ admonitions to his sister, he couldn’t sleep when he got home himself, with too many tangled thoughts running through his head. In the end, he caught barely enough troubled sleep to function in the morning. The garish light of day didn’t bring any peace; the news from Elaine on Dulcia’s condition was reassuring, but there were still many unknowns about the extent of the damage caused by the overdose. Thomas felt emotionally numb as he made his way to work.

At the clinic, Wexford gave Thomas a hearty greeting. “Well, did you and Cheryl have a pleasant evening?” he asked conversationally.

He must not have heard, Thomas realized. “Dulcia is in the hospital,” Thomas said, looking somber.

“Oh, Clarabelle said there had been an incident with one of the fillies. A shame, but these things do happen,” Wexford waved that concern away. “She’ll be fine. She’s young.”

“She nearly died!” Thomas insisted. “Because of me! I hurt her feelings and treated her poorly and–”

“Nonsense.” Wexford was unflappably calm. “I could see that she was stifling you. You did what you had to.”

“Do you even know what condition she’s in?” Thomas snapped. “Do you even care?” Without waiting for an answer, he stormed off, no longer feeling at ease with Wexford’s laissez faire philosophy.

There was no peace to be had at work. All the support staff kept darting Thomas censorious looks. They were loyal to their own, and closed rank against him. He felt like he was an object on display as they whispered amongst themselves, but what else did he deserve?

In the coming days, Dulcia’s condition improved, but it would be a long road to recovery. There was some lingering paralysis in her hooves that would require physical therapy, and even then…

Thomas thought Cheryl would be a welcome distraction, and they met for dinner the following week. But Thomas could barely focus on her stories about her research, and he wasn’t at peace until he had explained the identity of the injured friend and the extent of his involvement. Cheryl was a sympathetic listener and advised him not to blame himself. But that didn’t make him feel better.

As they stood outside her door at the end of the evening, she tried to kiss him, but he turned aside, suddenly hesitant. “I’m sorry,” he laughed nervously. The close connection to Dulcia’s accident had tainted Cheryl by association. “I’m just… not in a place to start something right now.”

Cheryl squeezed his hoof. “I understand,” she said. “Friends?”

“Yeah. Friends,” he agreed.

Back to Basics

In the days that followed, Thomas came to take a critical look at his life, and didn’t like what he saw. Wexford had influenced him far too much.

He thought back to what had drawn him to being a veterinarian in the first place–a desire to fix things, to save lives. That wasn’t his focus any more. It was public appearance, fame, gratification.

He needed to get back on track, and that necessitated a change.

A memory sprang unbidden to mind. There was a pretend play game he and his sister had often played called country vet. Neither of them had first-hoof experience with life in the country, but he and Elaine had spent countless hours roaming the family’s apartment and consulting with the stuffed animals and dolls that stood in for farmers, millers, milkmaids, and the like.

One evening, while he was mulling over the memories of simpler times, Thomas’ glance fell to some pieces of mail thoughtlessly tossed on the table, and the item on top caught his eye. It was a glossy postcard of a pastoral scene–farm buildings, green foliage, and rolling hills. Across the picture read bold text: “The Old Milk House Foundation for Economic Development is offering business grants to professionals like YOU! Be your own boss! You can’t afford NOT to take this opportunity! Call us today!”

It was probably a scam. He had been seeing similar mailings for months, and he had discarded the previous ones without a thought.

But now, Thomas couldn’t get it out of his mind.

The following week, he received a call from an unknown number. It was a female with an unfamiliar accent, who identified herself as Ms. Ravenwood with The Old Milk House Foundation.

“By now you’ll have received our mailings,” she said briskly. “I’d like to discuss the particulars of what a partnership with us could accomplish. For you, for society, for the world.”

And so the negotiations began.

Making Peace

Elaine had remained chilly toward her brother after Dulcia’s hospitalization, but when he reached out some time later and invited her to lunch, she begrudgingly agreed. 

In their younger days, Elaine had maintained a collection of plush cats; and whenever a gift was needed, or an apology extended, it had been a tradition to offer her a new one. Thomas hadn’t given her a new cat in quite some time.

Elaine reluctantly took the orange tabby kitten that he offered, but he could tell she was pleased by the subdued sparkle in her eyes.

“How many dates did you stand up to make it here?” she asked bluntly.

Thomas ignored the dig, and instead launched into explaining the Foundation’s offer to move across the country to the opposite coast and open a clinic in the town of Dream Valley.

“A country vet, huh?” Elaine looked skeptical. “I thought you’d turned your back on that idea long ago. Can you walk away from all the fame and glory? Give up being Wexford’s pet?” 

“Is that really all I am?” Thomas had realized that himself, but it was still lowering to realize that it was so apparent to others.

“Gosh, yes,” Elaine said. “Everyone knows it. They would hate you if you weren’t so naive. Well, you used to be. But–you have the potential to be more. To be your own pony.” She looked him earnestly in the eye.

“What if he’s already influenced me too much?” Thomas wondered aloud. “What if I can’t go back?”

You have integrity,” Elaine said, “even if you’ve forgotten it.”

“Will you come and be my assistant in the country?” he asked cajolingly as they prepared to go their separate ways after the meal.

“Equal partners,” she countered. “Someone’s going to need to keep the saucy milkmaids in line. You never could see through their wiles.”

Giving Notice

Ms. Ravenwood was persuasive. The offer she laid out was almost too good to be true, and ultimately Thomas agreed and papers were signed (electronically, as they never met face-to-face). 

Thomas kept all these negotiations secret from Wexford, but eventually could not put it off any longer and had to let Wexford in on his plans.

“What are you talking about? Is this a joke?” Wexford demanded, standing up from behind his desk. “You’d be a fool to carry through on what you’re outlining. Why didn’t you tell me sooner? I could have set you straight.”

“I’ve re-evaluated some areas of my life, and I need a change,” Thomas said. “This contract is for three years, not the rest of my life.”

“This is a bad decision,” Wexford warned. “I can’t guarantee that your position will be waiting for you when you wake up and realize this is a mistake.”

“I can live with that,” Thomas said, closing the discussion.

The End

Thomas was even more sure of his decision when, not long after, an interview with a former intern was published, claiming that Wexford had made inappropriate advances. The media storm that followed did serve to divert Wexford’s attention from Thomas’ imminent departure; otherwise, he would have had a more concentrated attack to steer Thomas clear of this Dream Valley place. But the senior doctor had enough of his own troubles to focus on.

Is that the future that would have awaited him as Wexford’s protege, Thomas wondered as office gossip ran rampant regarding witnesses and lawsuits and settlements. It was just as well to be escaping that tempest.

Finally, it was Thomas’ last day of work.

Dr. Wexford stared at him from across his desk. “Well, this is it,” he said bluntly. “You haven’t changed your mind?” He didn’t wait for an answer, but continued, “I still think this is a terrible idea. I hope for your sake I’m wrong, but–”

“Are you really one to be counseling anyone on healthy life decisions?” Thomas pointed out. 

“It wasn’t so long ago, you know, that you were playing the field yourself, availing yourself of fillies’ charms,” Dr. Wexford said, drawing himself up and regarding Thomas coolly. “And yet you look down your nose at me now? The allegations are false, and it could just as easily be you in this situation.”

Thomas’ blood ran cold. Wexford’s words were all too true. He felt, perhaps irrationally, that distancing himself geographically from his mentor would save him.

“You, too, may find yourself without friends when times get tough,” Wexford said with a wooden laugh. “Goodbye, Dr. Fairfax.”

Then Thomas was free.

PRESENT DAY

This was all on Thomas’ mind that evening as he considered his developing feelings for Tabby–because, despite his protestations to the contrary, she was often on his mind. He was developing a deep appreciation for her quirks; even when they annoyed him, they were endearing. There was the way she turned everything into a conspiracy. Her laugh was a little grating, but had its charm. Then there was the way she tapped her hoof when she was angry, and the way she ate cherry pie filling straight out of the can. 

But this was madness. There were compelling practical reasons to keep her at a distance–the threat of scandal; keeping a clear head for a new situation in life; recovering from flirting with every mare he met; not wanting to cause the acute disappointment and pain that Dulcia had suffered.

It was the intelligent, rational decision to save romance for another time. But telling himself that didn’t settle the unfulfilled feelings in his heart.

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