“Well, here we are in Misty Hollow,” Elaine, a sprightly white unicorn with curling blue hair, announced unnecessarily to her traveling companion. The bus they had arrived on drove off into the distance, kicking up a dusty haze in its wake. It was one of the few motorized conveyances seen in this part of the country.
“Wasn’t Thomas supposed to meet us here?” Dulcia, a rosy pink mare with spring green hair, asked with a frown.
“Yes, he was, but–hang on.” Elaine was checking her phone. “He says something came up,” she relayed, “but it’s only a few blocks if we want to try to get there on our own.”
“Ugh,” said Dulcia, eyeing the uneven cobblestone path with distaste. “Well, it doesn’t look like there’s much potential for getting lost.” This was the business section of town, but lacked the apartment buildings and skyscrapers they were accustomed to. A relative few ponies moved at a sedate pace, far different from the hustle and bustle of New Pony.
“Let’s go,” said Elaine enthusiastically, tugging Dulcia along.
“Are you really going to move here next year?” Dulcia asked as they walked.
“Yes, of course!” Elaine said with alacrity.
“But surely Thomas isn’t planning on staying here?” Dulcia pondered. “I mean, it’s not like he’ll spend the rest of his career here.”
“I don’t know; he’s got a three year contract with this foundation that’s sponsoring him,” Elaine explained, “with the opportunity to renew. It will be up to him.”
“I hate to sound like Wexford, but…” Dulcia winced. “What was he thinking? It must be so dull!”
“I think he wanted to go somewhere he would really make a difference,” Elaine said defensively. “The next nearest clinic is fifteen miles away. Wouldn’t it be nice to be needed like that?”
“Well, you’re certainly Miss Positivity,” Dulcia grumbled. “But I’m not convinced it’s right for him. Why didn’t one of their own set-up shop?”
Elaine shrugged. “I guess they were too busy going to the big cities.”
“Like, this is Main Street?” Dulcia gestured at the businesses they passed. “Look at these places! The Perm Shoppe–the height of style, I’m sure. A bowling alley–the hub of society, no doubt. Secondhoof Treasures–if you want old germy things. Salsa Shop–” She paused. “I might check that out,” she admitted. “And the Splendidly Sweet Sundae Spot–because drowning your boredom in ice cream is probably all you can bear to do.”
“It’s smaller than we’re used to, but every bit as much home to these ponies as New Pony is to us,” Elaine said prosaically.
“I guess,” Dulcia grumbled.
* * *
Tabby deposited a freshly-washed kitten with Strawberry, who happily took over drying and cuddling. She was turning to go back to the treatment room when the door chime rang, and two mares entered. Tabby recognized one as Thomas’ sister, whose visit had been the talk of the clinic in the days leading up to this.
“Tabby?” Elaine asked, her gaze lighting on the pink unicorn. “And you must be Strawberry,” she said, turning to the receptionist. “Thomas has told me so much about you. I feel like I know you already!” She walked around the desk and gave each a quick hug. “And this is my friend, Dulcia,” she continued, gesturing at the other mare.
“A pleasure,” Dulcia murmured, polite but detached.
“Thomas was sure you would fall prey to hoofpads or miss a connection or starve to death,” Tabby observed. “He hasn’t shut up about it for the past week.”
Elaine giggled. “He worries too much. Anyway–” She looked around. “Where is he?”
“He’s just finished in surgery,” Tabby explained. “We had a rescued mama cat and kittens brought over from the shelter–the mom was in the worst shape, but we’re tending to the kittens now.”
“Well, lead the way; we’ll help,” Elaine said resolutely. Dulcia stepped in sync behind.
“There are some eye infections; it’s not pretty,” Tabby warned, glancing at Dulcia. For the uninitiated, it would be a disturbing sight.
“I’m a vet tech,” Dulcia said stiffly. “This is what I do.”
“Fine then,” Tabby snapped. How was she supposed to know this newcomer’s resume? There was no need to get uppity.
The mares entered the treatment area just as Thomas was stepping out of the door to surgery. “Elaine, you made it!” he exclaimed, sounding genuinely surprised.
“Well, of course I did,” Elaine said, giving him a warm hug. “What did you think would happen?”
“It was a tight connection at Bluewood, and there are untold scalliwags waiting to prey on unattended mares,” Thomas lectured.
“I took self-defense lessons, remember?” Elaine said breezily. “And anyway, I wasn’t alone.”
“Who–” Then Thomas saw the pink mare behind Elaine and drew up short. “Dulcia?” he asked incredulously.
“Yes, it worked out at the last minute for her to join me,” Elaine said, scrutinizing Thomas’ expression carefully. “It’s not a problem, is it?” she added softly.
“Of course not,” Thomas said hastily. “How are you, Dulcia?”
“Fine, thank you,” Dulcia said with a cool smile, inclining her head slightly.
Tabby frowned, catching an undercurrent of tension between these two. They weren’t exactly happy to see each other. Just what history was there between them? Was Dulcia a former paramour? Well, it wasn’t her place to speculate. It was their business. But Tabby felt a pang, almost wishing it was her business.
“Well, once we have these kittens settled, we can go out to dinner,” Thomas said, rubbing the back of his neck nervously.
“We’ll both help,” Elaine said, picking up a gold kitten near at hoof. “What’s the situation?”
“They’ve been bathed, but these two have infected eyes that need to be cleaned,” Tabby spoke up, taking another kitten from the basket.
“Poor baby,” cooed Elaine, holding him close to her face.
Dulcia hovered about Tabby. “You need to soften it with water first,” she stated as Tabby started picking at scabbed-over pus over the kitten’s eyes.
Tabby gave her a long, hard look. “I know what I’m doing,” she said at length.
“Well, you’re going to tear the skin,” Dulcia argued.
“Only if I rip it off like a madpony!” Tabby said in exasperation.
“Hmph,” said Dulcia. “I’m just trying to help.”
“Well, why don’t you finish, since you clearly know what you’re doing,” Tabby sniffed, thrusting the kitten into Dulcia’s hooves. Dulcia deftly caught the kitten in her right hoof, while the left hoof appeared unresponsive. Tabby absently wondered about the circumstances.
* * *
Elaine looked back and forth between the two mares with some concern. Both Dulcia and Tabby were forthright and opinionated, and it seemed they were starting off on the wrong hoof. “Well, where are we going to eat?” she chirped, hoping to diffuse some of the negativity.
“I was thinking the Estate Manor,” Thomas said, closing a cabinet. “It’s a local favorite.”
“I’m sure it will be lovely,” Elaine said cheerfully.
“You can go if you want,” Tabby said to Thomas. “I’ll take care of closing up.”
“Oh, Tabby, you’re coming with us, aren’t you?” Elaine quickly interjected. Maybe they just needed some more time to get to know each other.
Tabby looked startled. “What?” she asked.
“Sure! Didn’t Thomas invite you?” Elaine asked, darting a look at her brother.
“I’m sure it’s a family event,” Tabby demurred.
“You’ve put her on the spot, Elaine,” Dulcia pointed out. “She clearly doesn’t want to go.”
“Nonsense, we’ll be working together,” Elaine said staunchly. “I want to get to know her.”
“You’re welcome to join us, Tabby,” Thomas offered.
“Oh, I don’t think–” Tabby shook her head.
“You must!” Elaine entreated. “Bring a date; I don’t care.”
The corners of Tabby’s mouth turned up in a cynical little smile. “Very well,” she said after a pause. “Let me check with Toby.”
“Great!” said Elaine, sure that Tabby’s reserve would melt away after a convivial evening with new friends.
In short order, the kittens were reunited with their mother and tucked into the kennel where they would be spending the night. Strawberry was also invited to join the dinner party, but was successful in turning down the request, on the grounds of having to speak at a writers’ meeting at the library.
As the group was on its way out of the clinic, a different pink mare, this one with burgundy hair, hailed them on the sidewalk. “Thomas! I’m glad I caught you,” she said, smiling charmingly at Thomas and largely ignoring the mares. “I wanted to give you this information on that seminar I was telling you about, Business Litigation and Next Generation Data Breaches.”
“Oh. That sounds… great,” said Thomas, taking the leaflet.
“Reservations have closed, but I can still get you a seat,” the mare chattered. “Just let me know by the twelfth. I was thinking lunch on Tuesday next week, because of a deposition I have on Wednesday. Can you do that?”
Despite her brother’s continued insistence that he was no longer playing the field, it certainly appeared that this mare felt some proprietary hold over him, Elaine noted. Dulcia elbowed Elaine sharply in the side and mouthed, “I told you so.”
“That should be fine,” Thomas said weakly, apparently flustered at having an audience. “By the way, this is my sister Elaine, and her friend Dulcia,” he changed the subject. “They’re visiting for the weekend. Girls, this is Dusty Rose.”
“Well, have a good time in our fair city,” Dusty Rose said after exchanging pleasantries, though she looked a little perturbed. “See you Tuesday, Thomas.” And she flounced off.
Elaine looked sidelong at Dulcia and shrugged.
* * *
Tabby idly sipped her ice water, listening to but not participating in the excited chatter around her. She probably should have stayed out of this, she mused, despite Elaine’s protestations. Her presence was surely an imposition on this reunion. Despite some initial awkwardness, these three had an easy camaraderie formed from years of association. They talked about common acquaintances, places they’d been, and adventures they’d shared. And Toby was on his way. Was she crazy for inviting him? Probably. Thomas certainly wouldn’t thank her.
“My, there certainly is a lot of meat on the menu,” Dulcia said disapprovingly when they settled down to study the restaurant’s offerings. “The savages!”
Tabby narrowed her eyes. “I’m sorry that our customs offend you,” she said stiffly.
“What, you’re not saying that you actually eat meat?” Dulcia looked aghast. “Given your line of work, I’d think you would be more considerate.”
“It’s okay, Dulcia. It’s the culture here,” Thomas interjected warningly.
“Meat was introduced into the cuisine by the human servants of the Atlantean empire,” Tabby noted authoritatively.
“That doesn’t make it right.” Dulcia frowned.
“I’m just saying, there are a lot of cultures you must hold in disgust if that is your criteria for civilized society,” Tabby observed.
Toby arrived then, probably diverting the conversation from a worse confrontation, and Elaine started in recognition. “Toby? Toby Collins?” she asked incredulously. “It’s you! Oh, you probably don’t remember me,” she hurried to add. “We just met a hoofful of times when you were hanging out with Thomas. I thought you were quite dashing!” She bubbled over with youthful enthusiasm.
“Of course I remember you, Elaine. How are you?” Toby asked politely.
“I take the veterinary assessment in April; I can’t wait!” Elaine chattered. “Let me introduce my friend, Dulcia. She’s a vet tech.”
“Nice to meet you,” Toby said.
“Where are you working now, Dulcia?” Thomas asked.
“I have a job at Rolling Hills Clinic,” Dulcia said. “That’s on the west side.”
“Oh… that’s Sugarplum’s clinic, isn’t it?” Thomas asked.
“You’re thinking of Pleasant Hills,” Dulcia corrected. “No, Rolling Hills is real bottom of the barrel, but it’s about the best I can get with my mobility issues.” She gestured at her left hoof, and Tabby realized that she hadn’t imagined the disability. “I can still do the work of three techs, but who cares about that?”
“I’m sorry to hear that,” Thomas said, looking distinctly uncomfortable.
“Surely there are protections in place for you,” Toby protested.
“Law and practice are different things.” Dulcia shrugged. “Tabby,” she said, turning to the unicorn with a sly smile, “tell us more about your background. I hear you interned for a Bigfoot, but where did you go to school?”
Tabby took a sip of water while she thought about how to answer. “My work with Tiny was my school,” she said after a poignant pause.
A smirk spread across Dulcia’s face. “Don’t you have proper schools here?” she asked, incredulous. “Let me guess, magic spells?”
“Magic injections, mostly,” Tabby said, unflinchingly meeting Dulcia’s eyes.
“So that’s what you do all day,” Dulcia said with a toss of her mane. As if magic were so disreputable!
“The clinic isn’t licensed for magic, of course,” Thomas hurried to add, “but Tabby’s experience has left nothing to be desired.”
“Hmm, I bet,” said Dulcia, eyeing Tabby speculatively. Tabby frowned back. “So, Thomas, I’m trying to understand your reasoning,” the pink mare said, turning to Thomas. “You’re saying you hired someone with only magic experience, to work at a clinic with zero magic?”
“I have a wide breadth of experience,” Tabby snapped. “Tiny uses plenty of methods.”
“If she’s good enough for Thomas, she’s good enough for me,” Elaine said.
“But for how long,” Dulcia mumbled almost imperceptibly, but Tabby was near enough at hoof to catch it. What was this mare’s problem with her?
* * *
Sometime into the meal, a yellow mare with green hair passed by the table and paused. “Hi, Dr. Fairfax!” she exclaimed, a friendly smile on her face. “It’s so nice to run into you.”
Dulcia raised a brow. What a surprise, another fan to ogle Dr. Fairfax.
“Hi, Becca,” Thomas said pleasantly, and made introductions. “Becca is with the Chamber of Commerce here in Misty Hollow and has been very helpful,” he added for the benefit of the visitors.
“I bet she has. It’s so nice to meet all of your new friends,” Dulcia said demurely, even while smirking and nudging Elaine in the side. By all appearances, Thomas was still up to the same old games.
“Dr. Fairfax is a treasure!” Becca enthused, not picking up on any subtext. “We’re lucky to have him.”
“Elaine will be joining the practice next year,” Thomas pointed out.
“That’s great! You’ll love it here!” Becca said, beaming.
“Any suggestions for what we should see while we’re here?” Elaine asked, smiling at Becca’s enthusiasm.
“You should definitely stop by our statue of General Thistledown at Wood’s Edge Park, and the quilts displayed at Main Street businesses,” Becca advised. “The local history museum is a must-see. It’s open 8-10 on Saturday. Oh, and don’t forget Pony-mart if you need anything; they’re open 24/7.”
“We’ll keep that in mind,” Elaine said. “Thanks.”
Dulcia stifled a snort. As if she would ever allow herself to be seen shopping at Pony-mart!
* * *
“Well, who wants to go to the SSSS after this?” Tabby invited as the meal wound-down. Her love of ice cream overshadowed her fears of socializing.
“The what?” Dulcia asked, looking perplexed.
“The Splendidly Sweet Sundae Spot. The ice cream shop,” Tabby clarified.
“Oh, I couldn’t eat another bite,” Dulcia protested.
“A visit to Misty Hollow isn’t complete without going to the SSSS,” Thomas maintained, and so the group ended up at that hub of society, which was buzzing with activity this Friday evening. They met with Vanguard and Strawberry, and other assorted friends. Now that Tabby was on more familiar hoofing, she settled back to observe what played out.
Elaine was the life of the party, and everyone loved her, which was appropriate, Tabby mused. Her youthful vivacity drew ponies to her, and she had a kind word for everyone, listening attentively to their stories. Dulcia, while not rude, was much more reserved.
Beauregard stopped by the table. “Hey, Doc, got your zither all ready,” he commented, looking at Thomas.
“Oh, have you taken up playing, Thomas?” Elaine asked, grinning.
“It was a chance find at a flea market,” Thomas explained. “It just reminded me of Mom.”
“I was all hooves on hers,” Elaine recalled. “You always had a better grasp of it.”
“Stop by the salsa shop tomorrow and try it out; it’s open mic night,” Beauregard invited.
“Well, that sounds like fun,” Elaine said enthusiastically.
“Don’t count on me playing,” Thomas warned.
“You never forget how to do things. You’ll do fine,” Elaine respectfully disagreed.
Later on, the crowd thinned somewhat and attendees had formed smaller clusters. Clovis, Talon, and Couthy were discussing the relative merits of D20 versus 2D10 dice. Thomas and Toby were arguing over who would be better equipped for a zombie apocalypse. Strawberry was with her sweetheart, going over some plot points she was stuck on. Dulcia, Elaine, and Tabby had ended up together, much to Tabby’s discomfort, and were talking about boys.
“So, tell us about Thomas,” Dulcia said, looking at Tabby with a wicked grin.
“What do you mean?” Tabby asked warily. Maybe she was on the verge of having some questions answered… and she wasn’t necessarily sure she wanted answers.
“Oh, come on, we all know what he’s like, making up to the mares like some Don Juan,” Dulcia said, rolling her eyes.
Elaine looked uncomfortable. “Maybe we shouldn’t… “ she trailed off.
Tabby looked at Dulcia levely and ignored Elaine’s hesitation. “He’s quite in demand among the local populace, yes,” she said blandly.
“And you, you still hold his interest… for now. He will get tired of you,” Dulcia predicted. “Are you loyal to your beau, or have you given in to the charms of your boss?”
“Dulcia!” Elaine said chidingly.
Tabby exhaled slowly. “He doesn’t think of me like that. I’m just his assistant.”
“I know how he treats his assistants,” Dulcia scoffed, and Tabby stared down at her hooves. Dulcia scrutinized her expression. “He really hasn’t made any moves on you, has he?” she realized wonderingly. “Well, perhaps you’re not really his type.”
Tabby flushed red.
“Dulcia, that’s enough,” Elaine chastised her friend.
“You’re better off without him, anyway. Take my word for it,” Dulcia huffed.
“It’s clear that something happened between you,” Tabby said coolly. “But why are you taking out your frustration on me?”
“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” Dulcia said. “We’re just having a conversation.”
“Dulcia is a poor traveler,” Elaine interjected with a significant look. “She’ll be in a better frame of mind tomorrow.” Thomas and Toby had stood up, and it seemed like a good time for the evening to end. “Tabby, Toby, we’ll see you at the salsa shop tomorrow, right?” Elaine asked as they went their separate ways.
“Of course,” Toby quickly replied with a kind smile. Tabby felt that, as a proper girlfriend, she should be offended at the ready friendship he had struck up with the mare, but found that it didn’t bother her.