Tabby approached Thomas’ office, debating with herself whether to invite him to an outside-of-work event. The neighborly courtesies were more Sugarberry’s area, and she knew her friend had already extended some invitations to their boss, but Thomas had not taken her up on any offers to dinner parties and the like. Why did Tabby think he would answer any differently to her? Why was she opening herself up for disappointment?
The office door opened, and the stallion under consideration stepped into the hall. Tabby suddenly lost all her resolve, and whipped out her phone, focusing on it instead of her boss.
“Hey,” she said, looking up only briefly from her phone when their paths crossed. “The kennel’s been cleaned and I’m heading out now.” She went back to swiping on the phone screen.
“Great, thanks,” Thomas said with a smile. “Plans for tonight?”
Oh, that smile never failed to disarm her. “Um, well, actually, we…” Tabby fumbled along. “Sugarberry and some friends… are going to the SSSS tonight. For ice cream. You should stop by,” she said in a rush.
Thomas looked surprised, and Tabby felt a sense of terror that she had over-stepped professional boundaries. “You don’t really want your boss crashing the party,” he hedged.
“Well, don’t think the populace will accept you if you don’t make an appearance at the premiere social spot,” Tabby admonished sharply, bringing things back to the realm of business. Though it seemed that the populace had already embraced him, if the number of mares casting lures in his direction was any indication.
“Well, I suppose you know best,” Thomas conceded. “What time?”
Oh, goodness, was he actually considering it? Tabby felt a little light-headed with nervous anticipation as they hashed out the details, and then she high-tailed it out of there. She had been clear that it was a casual gathering of friends, right? It was a normal thing to do, wasn’t it? She hadn’t come across as a filly with a schoolgirl crush, had she? Because that was absolutely not the case.
Well, maybe it was, a little. But it would be too embarrassing to have him find out. Thomas liked mares with a little more professional éclat, ones like Dusty Rose the paralegal, or that Becca with the Chamber of Commerce, or Moonglow at the real estate office next door. Tabby might amuse him a little, but he would hardly consider her girlfriend material. Not when there were more socially eloquent mares readily at hoof, anxious to fall into that spot in his life. Not that he seemed in any hurry to voice a preference for one over the other.
“I’m going to regret this,” Tabby remarked to Othello on the walk home. The hodag cast her a sympathetic look. “It will probably just be really awkward. What am I trying to accomplish?”
Tabby’s phone buzzed, and she pulled it back out of her purse to review the new message. She frowned. Toby was planning on coming to tonight’s gathering? She hadn’t anticipated that. Toby’s demanding schedule as a junior staff member at the hospital didn’t often offer the luxury of time for socializing.
So make that two stallions she hadn’t sorted out her feelings for… what could go wrong? She sighed heavily.
At the SSSS
Thomas approached the oddly-curved building that housed the local ice cream parlor. Its full name was the whimsical and somewhat absurd Satin Slipper Sweet Shoppe, but locals referred to it fondly as “the SSSS”.
This is what Thomas had pledged to avoid, wasn’t it? Fraternizing outside of work?
But Tabby had been so endearingly anxious when she had issued the invitation. She had been clear that it was a friends’ event, but Thomas was very curious as to her actual motivations. Was she angling for something more?
Maybe that was only flattering himself, though. Thomas was still looking at life through Wexford’s lens. Not every mare wanted to be with him, he chided himself. Though it did seem that the mares in this town were unusually pushy and managing. Thomas thought about all the mares that had befriended him and the boundaries he had to enforce. That wasn’t all in his imagination.
Thomas entered the brightly-lit establishment and took in his surroundings. The walls were decorated with photographs of area landmarks and local sports teams. It was full of activity– ponies and Bushwoolies coming and going; chattering; laughing; and, in general, it seemed that everyone was having a good time. It was a place to see and be seen.
Thomas ordered a turtle sundae and made his way over to a table in the middle of the room where he had spotted the object of his musings.
Sugarberry, at the opposite end from Tabby, saw him first. “Thomas! Hi!” she exclaimed, waving him over. “Glad you could make it! Let me introduce you to everybody!” She rattled off a list of introductions to their motley group, ranging from ponies to Bushwoolies and one adolescent dragon. Thomas nodded and smiled politely, but all he could really focus on was the pink unicorn at the other end of the table.
Tabby was deep in discussion with the dragon, but–Thomas noted with indignation–there was a stallion on her other side, hovering about possessively. Come to think of it, he looked familiar–but it couldn’t be…
“And with Tabby,” Sugarberry was finishing off (Thomas frowned at the use of the preposition), “is–”
“Toby?” Thomas asked disbelievingly, meeting the other stallion’s piercing gaze.
“Thomas?” the purple stallion said incredulously. “You’re Tabby’s boss?”
“Yes…” Thomas said cautiously, walking to that end of the table. “What are you doing here?”
Tabby looked back and forth curiously between the two, whereas the rest of the table fell back into the comfortable hum of conversation.
“I live here,” Toby said, quickly reclaiming his equanimity and inching closer to Tabby. “I’m in Family Medicine at the hospital.”
“Oh. I see,” said Thomas unenthusiastically, taking an open seat across from the couple. Clearly, his earlier speculations about her motivations were off-base. Well, that was fine, he told himself. She was entitled to her life. No need to feel like there was a knife twisting in his heart.
But just why did the stallion in her life have to be Toby?
“How do you know each other?” Tabby was asking as Thomas came out of his thoughts. Her brow was creased in consternation.
“We had some college classes together,” Toby said briefly.
“Oh,” said Tabby. “Well, it’s a small world, and all that.”
An awkward silence fell over that end of the table.
“How do you like Dream Valley?” Toby asked with a politeness that Thomas suspected was faked.
“It’s very nice,” Thomas said guardedly.
“Indeed,” said Toby coolly.
“That semester we were all there, weren’t we? Spring 07?” Tabby prodded.
“Oh… yes, I guess so,” Thomas agreed.
“What are the odds,” said Toby.
“Oh… would you look at that, I’m all out of ice cream!” Tabby suddenly exclaimed, pushing back her chair. Perhaps she had sensed some of the tenseness in the air. She flitted away.
Toby waited until Tabby was out of earshot, then leaned toward Thomas and spoke quietly. “What are you really doing here?” he hissed. “You’re too attached to the spotlight to bury yourself in the boondocks.”
“Well, you’re here, aren’t you?” Thomas was goaded into saying, but immediately regretted his words.
“I was forced to forfeit the King residency, as you may recall,” Toby said pointedly. “The… incident that led to that narrowed my options considerably.”
“Right,” Thomas said, abashed. Toby had gone out on a limb for him back then, and paid dearly. But that was a time in his life he didn’t like to dwell on.
“Anyway, it’s in the past,” Toby brushed it away. He was silent for a moment, then added, “You had better not have any designs on her.” He looked pointedly in Tabby’s direction at the counter.
“Me! Tabby! Of course not!” Thomas said indignantly.
“The set you ran with…” Toby muttered, shaking his head. “I didn’t hear good things.”
“I’m not like that…” Thomas trailed off.
“Anymore?” Toby voiced the unspoken words.
The attitude didn’t bother Thomas so much–it was the fact that it was well-deserved that stung.
“Dr. Fairfax! I’m glad I ran into you! How are you?” A mare passing by the table claimed Thomas’ attention. It was Dusty Rose from the law firm, one of the mares keeping herself underhoof in his life. Thomas gritted his teeth, knowing that this wouldn’t reflect well on his character in Toby’s eyes.
“What is your schedule like this week?” Dusty Rose purred, brushing her hoof against his. “How about lunch on Wednesday?”
“Well, I never know what will come up,” Thomas gave his go-to ambivalent answer.
“Oh, no, of course not,” the mare gushed. “I understand.” Thomas naively thought for an instant that he was off the hook, but then she added: “We’ll just schedule it tentatively, all right? I’ll see you then!” And she was gone.
“Wexford’s magnetic personality seems to have rubbed off on you,” Toby observed as Tabby returned to the table.
“What did she want?” Tabby asked, nodding in Dusty Rose’s direction.
“We were making lunch plans,” Thomas said quickly. At least this way it wouldn’t look like he had had other expectations for the evening.
“I don’t trust her. She’s too chipper,” Tabby said, frowning as she dug her spoon into the sundae.
“You don’t trust anyone, so that doesn’t mean anything,” Thomas retorted. Tabby was the one that had invited him when she already had a date, he thought churlishly. That wasn’t fair to hold against her, as he hadn’t been asked in that capacity; but she had no reason to begrudge him a lunch date.
“Tabby,” Toby reclaimed her attention, “I thought we might cut out of here early and take a walk down by the river.”
Tabby darted a look at Thomas, so quick he thought he might have imagined it. But she turned back to Toby. “Okay,” she said at length, between bites of ice cream.
Tabby and Toby strolled down the promenade. Toby stole a sideways glance at her. She appeared to be deep in thought. Perhaps this evening had brought up memories of another time and place.
His suspicion was confirmed, when she suddenly spoke-up: “You won’t tell Thomas about my…” She hesitated. “…extracurricular activities, will you?”
“Your work with Dr. Gordon is your secret to do with as you wish,” Toby said quietly.
“I know you wouldn’t. I was just… remembering,” she said, staring off into space.
“Yeah. Me, too.”
“Hey… so you knew Thomas back then, right?” Tabby asked tentatively. “He wouldn’t have been involved in the trypto scheme, would he? He’s far too responsible and straight-laced,” she added, as if reassuring herself.
Toby kept his silence, carefully considering what she needed to know and what should be kept in confidence. But she was on the way to figuring it out herself.
Tabby’s eyes widened, as she took his silence for confirmation. “Oh, no… no, no, no… I’ve got him all wrong!” she cried out. “I thought he was one of those unicorns, you know, ‘magic is too dangerous to use’. But me… I’m the one that took his magic with those stupid injections. He didn’t choose this.”
Toby squeezed her hoof, not knowing what to say.
“He would hate me if he found out,” she stated, more to herself than to Toby.
“There is a world of opportunities waiting for you. He won’t hear it from me, but even if he did… you can go anywhere, be anything,” Toby said, smiling. “You don’t depend on his approbation.”
“No, I suppose not.” Tabby sighed.
“Do you remember that friend I was protecting when I was caught with trypto myself?”
“Oh… oh! That was Thomas?” Enlightenment dawned on her face. “Oh, what was I thinking back then, being petty and spiteful, ruining lives… all to feed my superiority complex! I cost Thomas his magic, and you that residency you had your heart set on.”
“Dr. Gordon took advantage of your youth and inexperience to make you his instrument,” Toby argued. “You’re not a bad pony.”
“I told myself,” she continued, as if not hearing him, “only the stupid ones would fall for the scheme–’feel great, have more energy, it totally doesn’t siphon your magic out.’ That’s how I’ve lived with myself this far. But Thomas,” she said with deep regret, “he could be doing brilliant things.”
“I knew he was using. I tried to make him see reason, but not soon enough,” Toby said with regret.
“The damage had already been done,” Tabby murmured.
“You both made your decisions back then,” Toby said quietly. “It’s in the past. All we can do now is move forward.”
“And yet here we all are. How can we move on if the past keeps catching up?” Tabby’s pitch was rising. “I wonder… if Dr. Gordon could do anything…”
“Don’t even think about it,” Toby warned. “You’re done with him.”
“I know, it just seems… no, you’re right.” She closed her eyes and shook her head. “Sometimes it feels like I’m on borrowed time,” she confessed. “I haven’t had to answer for my crimes. And seeing the outcomes of my actions…”
“You’re not a criminal.” Toby stopped and turned to her, taking her hooves in his. “Dr. Gordon is the one at fault. I won’t let anything happen to you.”
“You can’t guarantee that,” she said softly. “Why couldn’t I have just settled down to university life, hit the books and put my nose to the grindstone, instead of looking for shortcuts by doing the dirty work for an evil warlock?”
“It is what brought us together, and for that I can’t be completely disappointed,” Toby said, looking deeply into her eyes.
Tabby looked askance. “I’m sure you would be quite content if we had never met and you had gone to the hospital of your choice.”
“Content, maybe. But not happy,” Toby argued. “At the time I was disappointed that King was no longer an option, but when I found out that Dream Valley was still interested, and it’s where you were from, it seemed like fate had orchestrated it all.”
“I think fate may have been having too much fun at our expense,” Tabby said, grimacing.
“But we’re together here, now. That’s what we can focus on,” Toby insisted.
“Hey,” she said, shuffling uncomfortably, “how’d you manage a night off, anyway? You didn’t say.”
“Well, Dr. Aurora started a week ahead of schedule, so she’s covering for me,” Toby said. “Now that she’s here, some of the pressure will be taken off me.”
“That’s good. They’ve been working you to the bone,” Tabby remarked, continuing to walk.
“It should put an end to all those double shifts.” Toby cast her a sidelong look. “I hope I’ll be able to see more of you.”
She smiled a little hesitantly, glancing shyly downwards.
Toby pressed on: “Can I take you to dinner on Saturday?”
Tabby bit her lip.
“Tabby…” Toby sighed. “I know you’re… cautious about taking our friendship further. But it’s dinner, not a commitment.”
“But it’s still what you want, isn’t it?” Tabby said. “A relationship? It’s what you’ll push for!”
“You know that I hold you in high regard. I always have,” Toby said quietly, reaching out to her.
“We’ve tried to be more than friends, and it never works!” she insisted.
“We just had too many things going on at once,” Toby said, looking at her earnestly. “But now, we’re more mature, our schedules have settled out, and we could make it work this time. I know it.”
“I’m not so sure,” she maintained.
Toby closed his eyes and sighed. “You’re not falling for your boss, are you?”
“What? No!” Tabby gasped.
“He would break your heart, you know.”
“Look, we’re friends, and that’s all,” Tabby said with an exasperated sigh. “I know he has no shortage of female companionship. I’d be a fool to expect anything else.”
Toby noted that she hadn’t denied being attracted to him… but he gave her a long, appraising look, and finally nodded. “Very well.”
“I can’t promise anything,” Tabby said in a rush, “but–I’m free for dinner on Saturday.”
“I’ll look forward to it.” he said with a smile.