Thomas, Dulcia, and Elaine entered Beauregard’s establishment the following evening. The salsa shop, rather than the latin dance club Dulcia had envisioned, played up a rustic cowboy theme that served as a background for eating salsa and chips. The interior was bare wood timbers with rough hewn wood furnishings. Displays of hay bales and seasonal foliage accents were prominent, and assorted cowboy hats were hung on the walls for decoration. A pool table was in one corner, with a piano up against the opposite wall, and a stage strung with chili pepper-shaped lights. Performing at that moment was a mare, playing guitar and singing off-key.
“How charming!” said Elaine, impressed.
“It’s okay,” said Dulcia noncommittally.
The New Pony natives had spent a busy day at local attractions, and Dulcia had kept careful track of all the ponies they had come in contact with, eager to judge Thomas on his behavior. But she found, ultimately, that she had been off-base. He was polite, certainly; but he wasn’t flirting, not from his side. Most of the mares were not so guiltless, though–the docent at the museum, the clerk at the boutique, the waitress at the diner where they ate lunch, the owner of the antique mall, and the cashier at the miniature golf course.
“I’m going to check with Tabby on when she’ll be here,” Elaine determined, pulling out her phone.
Elaine loved everyone, so it was no surprise that she had taken to the assistant of dubious qualifications, Dulcia thought with a little annoyance. To herself, Dulcia noted that she was too close in temperament to get along with the Misty Hollow mare, though she would never confess to having anything in common with her.
* * *
After an uneventful day at home, Tabby received summons from Elaine to meet them at the salsa shop. Toby was occupied with an emergency at the hospital, and Tabby had halfway hoped the mare would have forgotten the invite; but since she had nothing against Thomas’ sister–in fact, Elaine seemed reasonable enough–perhaps it would be okay to hang out. Even if she was not sure what to expect from Dulcia.
Tabby arrived at the salsa shop unaccompanied and went over to Thomas, who she spotted at the counter. Beauregard was helping some guests a few seats down. Elaine and Dulcia were at the pool table.
“Hey,” she said, sliding onto the stool next to him.
“Hey,” he responded in kind, turning to face her. Then, lifting an eyebrow, he asked, “Toby couldn’t make it?”
“Something came up at the hospital,” Tabby said vaguely. “How’s your day been?”
“Not bad,” Thomas said. “We did some shopping, and Elaine decided on going to the miniature golf course. They seemed to enjoy it.”
“The miniature golf course? No one goes there,” said Tabby incredulously.
Any further conversation was cut off, as the proprietor approached the pair. “Howdy!” Beauregard greeted. “Got your zither right here, Doc,” he continued, reaching under the counter and pulling out the instrument. “Piece of cake to fix, just like I told you,” he said, grinning. “What do you think?”
“It looks good,” Thomas admitted. “How much do I owe you?”
“Well, a song, of course!” Beauregard exclaimed.
“I’d rather pay money,” Thomas said. “My mom taught me the basics, but it’s been many years since I’ve touched one.”
“Aw, come on, no need to be shy,” Beauregard encouraged. “And Tabby can lend her lovely voice!”
“Do you even know me?” Tabby demanded indignantly. She might enjoy singing to herself, but was under no misapprehension that she possessed any skill.
“Maybe it’s your sister I’m thinking of,” Beauregard acknowledged, squinting off into the distance. “You’re twins, though, so I reckon you have it in you.”
“Wait… you and your sister are twins?” Thomas asked in surprise. “Identical?”
“Yes,” said Tabby with a shrug. It was something the outside world found novel, but was not something she had ever had use for.
Beauregard continued unabated. “Well, seeings as you’re here and your instrument’s here, I reckon there’s no excuse not to play,” he said cheerfully.
“There’s only one song I might be able to attempt,” Thomas protested, “and it’s some obscure song my mom knew. There’s no way I could play from memory.”
“Well, what was it called?” Beauregard inquired.
“It’s Atlantean… Soilano Farhol, I believe.”
Beauregard nodded knowingly. “Let me just take a look…” He ducked down behind the counter again, and this time came back up with a stack of dog-eared song books. He selected one called Lost Atlantean Folk Songs and checked the index. “Ah-hah. Here you go.” He proudly produced the page that contained the song, and slid it across the counter to Thomas.
“Oh,” Thomas said, looking rather alarmed. He idly strummed– or plucked?–the strings; Tabby didn’t know the first thing about musical instruments. As the melody formed, it took Tabby away to another time and place, when she was smaller and things were simpler and her father hadn’t gone away… Her mind wandered, who knew for how long, until she realized Thomas was staring at her. “You know it?” he asked disbelievingly.
To her great embarrassment, Tabby realized she had actually started singing aloud. “Not… not exactly,” she stammered. “I just remember my dad singing it a time or two. That’s all.”
“I’ve heard worse,” Beauregard said with a shrug. “It’s settled, then. The slot after this act is open.” And he moved off to talk to another customer.
The two unicorns stared at each other, Tabby feeling absolutely horrified, but Thomas looking amused, perhaps seeing some humor in it all.
“Well, it looks like there’s no way out,” he calmly remarked.
The current act was a clump of Fuzziwugs on rollerskates, banging on tin cans and shouting. They could probably do at least that well… maybe.
“No good will come of this,” Tabby said, feeling a rising sense of dread… but with a twinge of excitement at being so publicly paired with him.
* * *
“Hey, Elaine,” Dulcia said, nodding toward the stage. “Something’s happening.”
“Oooh!” Elaine squealed, waving at her brother. “He’s going to play. Come on, let’s go watch.”
So saying, they abandoned their game and went to claim a table near the stage.
“Tabby’s in on it, too,” Elaine chattered.
“Why am I not surprised,” Dulcia said, rolling her eyes. Her thoughts wandered as the melancholy tune filled the air… and the somewhat jarring vocal accompaniment. Occasionally Tabby hit on an appropriate-sounding note, but that seemed to happen by accident.
The number of times that mare’s name came up today in conversation, Dulcia thought churlishly. Tabby thinks or Tabby says or Once Tabby and I… It was clear Thomas was entranced by her. So why hadn’t he staked his claim? The physician was no serious consideration, not compared to Thomas, Dulcia thought with a healthy dose of hero worship.
She’d always dreamed about being on Thomas’ mind like that, but knew she had never succeeded, not even when they had been going out–if you could even call their workplace flirtation ‘going out’.
The final notes of the song drifted by on Dulcia’s bittersweet recollections, and there was a smattering of polite applause that followed as the performers made their way to the table.
“I’m going to die,” Tabby announced, collapsing on an empty chair at the mares’ table.
“You guys were great!” Elaine trilled. “Mom would be so proud!”
“I couldn’t have done it without Tabby’s moral support,” Thomas admitted.
“Did you get singing lessons from a banshee?” Dulcia couldn’t help but ask.
“Look, it wasn’t my idea,” Tabby said, scowling as Beauregard dropped off bowls of chips and salsa.
“Awesome job, you two!” he enthused. “Take these, on the house.”
“Do you ever have actual talent on the stage?” Thomas asked.
“Sometimes,” Beauregard said cheerfully.
* * *
There was some chatter about the day’s activities, and then Tabby saw a familiar mare approaching. “Tabby! Wow! What a performance!” It was Foxglove, who had donned a cowboy hat for this appearance.
“Oh. Hi,” said Tabby flatly, not really feeling the energy for this interaction at this time.
“I played last week on my lute,” Foxglove continued, ignoring the others at the table. “It’s such a rush performing for an audience.”
“Umm… yeah,” agreed Tabby.
“Hey, want to join me for a game of pool?” Foxglove asked. “And you can tell me what you thought of part three of my story!”
Tabby felt a mixture of fear and annoyance, and had not yet finished part one of the My Little People fanfic, but schooled her countenance into a smile. “Sure,” she said, pushing back her chair and excusing herself.
“You really like playing second fiddle to him?” Foxglove asked, nodding her head in Thomas’ direction while chalking up the tip of her pool stick. “I always figured you’d have your own practice one day.”
“Management isn’t really my style,” Tabby said.
“But you don’t even get to use magic,” Foxglove pointed out. “Unless he’s relaxed that rule.”
“It’s not for the rest of my life,” Tabby said, frowning, but then she wondered. At the beginning, she had had in the back of her mind that she’d go back to Tiny when he was satisfied with her progress, but… how did that plan fit in with her current trajectory? Would she stay with Thomas? Would he even stay in Misty Hollow?
“Are you going out?” Foxglove asked casually, taking the first shot. She continued without waiting for an answer: “I mean, he is your boss, and that makes it a little awkward. What happens when you break up? You’re going to be the one who has to go. So you have a month, a year, who knows?” She said this matter-of-factly with a cheerful grin, perfectly executing a trick shot and sinking two balls.
“Aren’t you supposed to be calling out the shot or something?” Tabby asked, choosing to ignore the overload of off-base remarks.
“Nah, that’s not in salsa shop rules,” Foxglove said, gesturing to a plaque on the wall. “It’s a fact of life, you know.” At first, Tabby thought she was still referring to the game rules, but realized she had picked up the previous conversation thread. “I wouldn’t do it; but if that’s what you want, go for it–more power to you.”
“I hadn’t really thought that far ahead,” Tabby mumbled, deciding it would draw less attention to just go along with Foxglove’s tangent. On her next shot, she watched the cue ball hit the bumper without touching any other balls.
“Trudy said the only reason he hired you was that he had a crush on you,” Foxglove continued after a precious reprieve of silence, “and that you don’t have any real qualifications to speak of.”
“I don’t even know Trudy,” Tabby protested. “Why is she talking about me?”
“It’s probably not true. That’s just what she’s been saying to everybody,” Foxglove chattered. “She’s just sore over not getting the job herself.” She sank her last ball. “Some ponies just have to complain. You know how it is.”
“Right,” said Tabby.
“G.G.!” said Foxglove, putting her pool stick back in the rack on the wall.
“What?” Tabby asked, confused.
“Good game,” Foxglove clarified. “Well, I’ll just let you get back to your date now.”
“Good game,” Tabby echoed weakly, feeling somewhat dazed by the largely one-sided exchange.
* * *
Meanwhile, Dulcia had excused herself to go to the powder room, leaving the siblings on their own. “I like Tabby,” said Elaine, nodding in that mare’s direction. “She’s interesting.”
“She is,” Thomas agreed with a thoughtful smile.
Elaine eyed him pensively, sipping her soda. “Don’t ruin a good thing,” she warned, facing him.
“What?” Thomas asked, looking puzzled.
“You know what I mean!” Elaine gave him a pointed look. “Leave her be.”
“You don’t think I’ve changed either, do you?” Thomas said, looking affronted.
“From the outside, does it really look that different from before?” Elaine pointed out. “Is there any filly you’ve worked with that you haven’t been romantically linked to?” She lowered her voice. “All I’m asking is, leave Tabby alone. I like her, and I don’t want to lose her as collateral damage.”
“She’s quite happy with Toby,” Thomas observed.
“Oh, as if that was a consideration with Golden Glow!” Elaine shot back, referring to one of his more ill-advised conquests.
Thomas winced. “How do you know about Golden Glow?”
“There is a gossip network, you know. And you weren’t that discreet,” Elaine said accusingly.
“I’m not looking to slip back into my old habits,” Thomas said quietly. “I’m not going there.”
Elaine gave him a long, hard look. “I hope not,” she said sternly.
* * *
It was Thomas and Elaine’s turn at the pool table, leaving Tabby and Dulcia in an uneasy tete-a-tete. “You know,” Dulcia remarked conversationally, reaching for a chip, “I didn’t like you at first.”
“Oh, really, I never would have guessed,” said Tabby dryly.
“You have what I’ve always wanted… his attention,” Dulcia said, allowing a little wistfulness to show.
“I thought we went over this already,” Tabby said irritably, crossing her forelegs.
“I can see the way he looks at you,” Dulcia argued. “He couldn’t keep his eyes off the door waiting for you to appear tonight.”
“Hardly,” Tabby scoffed.
“We were going out last year, you know,” Dulcia said casually. “He dumped me for another girl.”
“I see,” said Tabby cautiously.
“I didn’t take it well, and did something pretty stupid.” Dulcia looked significantly at her left hoof. “And, well, here we are.”
“Well, if you’re warning me away, you needn’t bother. I see how things are,” Tabby said harshly. “You were right last night–I’m not his type.”
“I wonder if I did have the right of it,” Dulcia said pensively.
“Why did you come here?” Tabby asked bluntly.
“My therapist thought it would be a good idea, closure or some crap like that.” Dulcia shrugged. “She’s a moron, but it was enough to pitch the idea to Elaine.”
“Do you want to win him back?” asked Tabby.
Dulcia laughed woodenly. “No, that ship has sailed. I guess I was… curious.” She looked at Tabby assessingly. “And even after all this, I trust his judgment–so there must be something in you after all.”
“I don’t need your approbation,” Tabby said, rolling her eyes.
* * *
The salsa shop was quieting down for the night. Elaine had challenged Tabby to pool, and Dulcia had Thomas to herself. She responded to this situation by going up to the counter to order a salsa refill; by the time she returned to the table, she was ready to face him.
“I know you think it was a bad decision for me to come here,” she stated, setting down the bowl.
“I didn’t say that,” Thomas protested.
“You didn’t have to,” Dulcia said with a grin. “And you’d be right. The thing is, I… I was still angry at you, and wanted to see myself proven right, that you were rotten to the core.”
“And is that what you see?” Thomas asked quietly.
“No.” Dulcia shook her head. “Now I see… you have a place here. That’s something I’m still looking for.”
“You will find your own happiness yet,” Thomas said encouragingly.
“Perhaps,” Dulcia conceded. “And I’m sorry for putting you through what I did. It wasn’t my brightest moment.”
“And I’m sorry for not treating you with the respect you deserved,” Thomas said.
“And…” Dulcia hesitated. “Maybe we can still be friends?”
“Sure,” said Thomas with a smile.
* * *
They stood in front of the salsa shop under the glow of the bright red chili pepper lighting the night sky, saying their farewells, for Dulcia and Elaine would be heading out on the bus first thing the following morning.
“We had such a great time here in Misty Hollow!” Elaine said, hugging Tabby.
“Oh… well, I’m glad you liked it,” Tabby said, a bit uncomfortable at the attention.
“Take care of my brother,” Elaine said, pressing Tabby’s hoof. Then she turned to Thomas. “I probably won’t get away again until graduation. Don’t give my spot away to anyone else!” she admonished.
“I imagine we’ll find something for you to do,” Thomas said good-naturedly.
“If I said anything that disconcerted you… well, I probably meant it,” Dulcia admitted to Tabby, “but don’t base your life on what I say.”
“I wasn’t planning on it,” Tabby said, but without any real animosity, and Elaine was pleased to note that the two hadn’t come to actual blows.
“He likes her,” Dulcia noted softly to Elaine as they walked away, trailing behind Thomas.
“That’s what I’m afraid of,” Elaine sighed.