Chapter 21: Return to New Pony

Tabby peered around the corner cautiously and made her way to Strawberry’s desk–there would be safety in numbers, she determined, on this most unusual of days. “Is she here?” she asked her friend in hushed tones.

For the first time, Thomas wouldn’t be here–he had flown out to New Pony on business for a couple days. Rather than close the clinic, he had called in some kind of favor with one of the bigger operations in Baytown, and they had sent one of their vets to cover for him. Tabby, however, felt indignant that he had left her and Strawberry in the hooves of an interloper, all for the sake of unspecified business.

“Dr. Appleshine? Yes, she just stepped into the office to take a call,” Strawberry said, unperturbed.

Thomas’ office, Tabby fumed. This Dr. Appleshine certainly was making herself at home.

Just then, a melon red unicorn mare with green hair strode in. “Hello, and you must be Tabby,” she said briskly, extending a hoof. “I’m Dr. Appleshine. I guess we’ll be working together.”

“Hi,” said Tabby shortly. The two unicorns regarded each other warily as they shook hooves.

“The schedule says you’re supposed to start at eight,” Dr. Appleshine said with a critical look.

“Oh, the schedule… well, it’s understood that it’s more like 8:15, 8:30,” Tabby explained glibly.

“Hmm, I see,” said Dr. Appleshine in a flat manner. It was difficult to read her emotions. “Well, it’s only two days, and I’m not going to exert the energy to get to know your idiosyncrasies. Just try to keep up, okay?” She gestured for Tabby to follow her.

“Try to keep up–!” Tabby echoed, trailing after.

“Let’s get the basics down,” Dr. Appleshine said brusquely, leaning against a counter and crossing her forelegs. “I know you’re not accustomed to working with a magic practitioner, but I certainly plan to use magic if they sign the consent form. And what can you do?”

“Well, I can do reconstruction work pretty well,” Tabby admitted, “but Thomas doesn’t let me.”

“Pretty well, huh? I’ll be the judge of that,” said Dr. Appleshine.

“You mean–you’d let me use magic? I’m not licensed,” Tabby pointed out.

“I’m running the show now,” said Dr. Appleshine. “I’ll let you assist on the spay we have coming up; and if I like what I see, then you may be allowed to continue with magic during our time together.”

“This isn’t some kind of trap, is it?” Tabby asked, narrowing her eyes.

Dr. Appleshine snorted. “If you think I’m hoping to report you for unauthorized magic use, well, I don’t have any patience with those sanctions,” she said. “We’re unicorns; we heal; it’s what we do.”

Tabby was itching to use her powers, and the allure of that thrill overcame any suspicions. “I think you’ll find I’m competent enough.”

“We’ll see. Don’t get cocky,” Dr. Appleshine warned.

* * *

As he made his way out of the airport in New Pony, Thomas’ heart lightened when he saw there was a text from Tabby. It was just a simple update on one of the overnight patients, but it served to open the door of communication. How is it going with Dr. A? he texted in reply.

A new text came in–not from Tabby, but Cheryl, who he still chatted with upon occasion. She had been enthusiastic about his visit, and suggested meeting for coffee once his flight came in. Thomas had an hour or so before his meeting with Guava, Dr. Wexford’s attorney, so he took Cheryl up on the offer.

“I’m glad you’re involved in Steuben’s case. You’ll be able to set them straight,” Cheryl said with great confidence.

“It’s just a deposition, and I’m not sure I know anything that would help or hinder either side,” Thomas admitted.

“You might be surprised at how you can help. This lawsuit is a farce, anyway,” Cheryl said, eyes flashing. “Pearl Dust is nothing but a twit.”

“Do you know her?” Thomas asked curiously.

“We worked together briefly,” Cheryl said. “A lot of empty space in her head, if you ask me.” She sipped her drink.

“Why would she fabricate something like this?” Thomas asked cautiously.

“Some ponies just want to cause trouble,” Cheryl said, shrugging. “She always needed to be the center of attention.”

“But there are other plaintiffs… they can’t all be there just to make a scene. If there’s something we don’t know…” Thomas trailed off thoughtfully.

“You’re not saying you believe any of these outlandish harassment claims, do you?” Cheryl looked at him sharply.

“At this point, I don’t believe or disbelieve anything,” Thomas insisted. “That’s what the trial is meant to sort out.”

Cheryl looked at him through narrowed eyes, but said nothing more.

“You have to admit,” Thomas continued, “he’s, he’s…”

“He’s charming, makes delightful conservation, not to mention being an excellent teacher,” Cheryl said, tossing her mane. “But he would never be inappropriate.”

Thomas stiffened. Was this true, or was Cheryl a little too effusive in her praise? Was she covering up something? He didn’t know what to think. “The truth will come out,” he said noncommittally, and the conversation moved on to more innocuous matters. Time swiftly passed. 

“You’re free for dinner, aren’t you?” Cheryl asked as Thomas was taking his leave. “Where do you want to eat?” 

Thomas hesitated. Just what did Cheryl expect of him? Considering the last time they had been in each other’s company, she had tried to kiss him, he was concerned that she intended to continue in that vein. She was charming, witty, intelligent, everything he had ever dreamed of in a partner. But somehow, the prospect of courting Cheryl held no appeal.

Dimly, Thomas returned to what she was saying.

“There’s a new place on Stafford that’s supposed to be good,” she chattered. “Mezco-Fluro fusion cuisine.”

“I should wait and see how this meeting goes,” Thomas interjected before plans got out of hoof.

“But let me just check with Sunbolt. He knows all the best places,” Cheryl said, ignoring him and getting out her phone.

“Sunbolt?” Thomas asked, the name not registering.

“Sunbolt. You know, my boyfriend!” Cheryl elaborated, typing quickly.

“Oh,” said Thomas, taken aback. He didn’t think she had mentioned that detail in their chats. While not feeling let-down, he was a trifle embarrassed at believing she was pining for him. It was another example of his inflated ego nurtured by Wexford, he supposed.

“Rishkakh’s it is,” Cheryl declared a moment later. “8:00 works for Sunbolt. I’ll make the reservation. Is there anyone you’d like to invite?”

“No… no. That’s fine,” Thomas assured her. A friendly dinner seemed safe enough.

“Didn’t I tell you about Sunbolt?” Cheryl asked as they crossed the street together. “He’s an engineer at Pierce Aeronautics, very clever; you’ll like him. We met–well, I shouldn’t talk about that, actually.”

Remembering her mention of working with the military on her research, Thomas idly wondered if that was Sunbolt’s connection to her. “I’ll see you later,” Thomas said with a wave as they parted ways.

* * *

“Not bad… not bad,” Dr. Appleshine said approvingly, looking at the finished result of Tabby’s latest surgery, a rather complex bonesetting.

Tabby looked smug, with an “I told you so” look.

“A shame you’re not allowed to exercise your skill on a regular basis,” Dr. Appleshine said, pursing her lips. “I’m surprised you took this job.”

“I don’t have the right license for anything else.” Tabby shrugged. “I was lucky to get this.”

“I suppose this is where I should lecture you on going back to school, but I’d be hard-pressed to recommend the education track to anyone,” Dr. Appleshine admitted.

“Really?” Tabby looked at her curiously.

“Look at me,” said Dr. Appleshine dismissively, “I’m not young by any standards; but with luck, my student loans will be paid off in five more years, and then I can start saving to maybe start my own practice.”

“Yeah, that doesn’t sound great,” Tabby agreed. “Why did you go down that path?”

“I was young and naive.” Dr. Appleshine shrugged, and didn’t go into details. “But, if you worked under a magic practitioner, you would be authorized to do certain techniques under their tutelage. That would be a heck of a lot better than nothing at all.”

“I just don’t think anyone would want me,” Tabby said.

“Hmm,” said Dr. Appleshine enigmatically. “What do you do for lunch around here?” she changed the subject.

“There’s the sandwich shop on the corner.”

“I suppose I can check it out. You wanna come?”

“Um, sure. I guess,” Tabby said, surprised at the friendly gesture. Maybe she had actually not made an enemy this time.

* * *

After a wearying day of endless questionioning on what he remembered from his time at Dr. Wexford’s clinic, Thomas was glad to finally be let go. On his way out of the building that held Guava’s office, Thomas ran into a pastel blue and purple mare he recognized. “Spindrift!” he exclaimed.

“Thomas! How are you?” asked Wexford’s wife, Spindrift, looking genuinely pleased. “We’ve missed having you to dinner.”

“I’m good… how are you?” Thomas asked, wondering how she felt about this spotlight being shone on her husband’s purported indiscretions.

“As the rough sea calms after a storm, so, too, will these troubles pass,” Spindrift said vaguelly, and changed the subject. “So, you’re in Misty Hollow? I’ve never been that far west, but I hear it’s beautiful.”

“Yes, wonderful landscapes,” Thomas agreed.

“Well, I have to get going,” Spindrift said, glancing at her watch, “but how long are you in town?”

“I fly back in the morning,” Thomas explained.

“Oh… perhaps next time, we can get together,” Spindrift suggested.

“Yeah. That would be nice,” Thomas agreed as she hurried off.

* * *

“Hey, babe,” Sunbolt, a yellow stallion with red hair, greeted Cheryl with a kiss after he strode into the restaurant half an hour after the appointed time.

“Hey, sweetie,” Cheryl said, seemingly unphased by his tardiness, and introduced Thomas.

“So, a general practicioner, huh?” Sunbolt leaned back in his chair and glanced over the menu. “Well, someone has to do the grunt work,” he said disparagingly.

“Oh, you!” Cheryl giggled. “Don’t take him too seriously,” she said to Thomas. “He means well.”

“All I’m saying is, researchers are doing the real work, that GPs then profit from,” Sunbolt insisted, tossing the menu on the table.

“We all have our part to play,” said Thomas guardedly, 

“Sure, sure,” Sunbolt said smoothly; then he raised his voice to demand, “Hey, can we get some service over here?” A server came running. “Yeah, we want an order of centerline rumble strips. Not too crispy. And bring a bottle of Dagnilo Cépage.” He proceeded to order entrees for both himself and Cheryl, and then looked expectantly at Thomas, who was ready with an answer, having had long enough time to study the menu while waiting for Sunbolt.

“How was work today, sweetie?” Cheryl asked in a simpering tone that Thomas wouldn’t have placed with her. “Did you get that thing with Todd dealt with?”

“Yeah, I told him to back off; he can whine to Woodwind about it if he wants, but whatever; Steve will have my back,” said Sunbolt with a self-satisfied smirk.

“Oh, Sunbolt!” Cheryl laughed as if this was exceedingly humorous.

“What does your work entail?” Thomas inquired politely.

“Oh, confidentiality agreements, I can’t talk about it,” said Sunbolt brusquely.

“Ah. I see,” said Thomas.

“Well, I can tell you about my new squid,” Cheryl broke-in.

“Not now, babe.” Sunbolt held a hoof out in front of him, forestalling further talk. “You know that talking about seafood before a meal makes me bilious.”

Thomas smiled wanly, not finding Sunbolt the charming companion that Cheryl apparently did.

* * *

The following day of working with Dr. Appleshine went smoothly for Tabby, though she was relieved that Thomas would be back that afternoon, and things would go back to normal.

After lunch, Dr. Appleshine took Tabby aside. “Let me be frank. You’re being wasted here,” she said. “Don’t worry about your training; I can get you in the door. Come work with me.”

Tabby was taken aback. “I don’t think…”

“Don’t let your emotions hold you back,” Dr. Appleshine said sternly. “As Dr. Fairfax’s assistant, you’ll never grow your magic skills, and that won’t benefit anyone.”

Before Thomas’ unexpected job offer, Tabby would have been laughed out of any vet clinic. But now–with the right kind of experience–doors were opening for her. She hadn’t thought ahead to that development.

“I live here,” she protested weakly.

“You can teleport.” Dr. Appleshine was unmoved.

“And zap my magic reserves!”

“Not enough to make a difference for an average day of work,” Dr. Appleshine argued. “What’s your salary?”

“Uh… well… twelve hundred a month,” Tabby reluctantly disclosed.

“I could get you fifteen, easy.”

“I’ll have to think about it.”

“That means you’ll conveniently forget,” Dr. Appleshine said, shaking her head. “Look, it’s clear that you’re attached to Dr. Fairfax and you’re making excuses. But you need to prioritize yourself. What do you want?”

“I do want to use magic,” Tabby admitted. “But, I’m learning things here. It’s not a waste.”

“For your sake, I hope you’re right, and not just consigning yourself to a life of mediocrity,” Dr. Appleshine said with a sigh.

* * *

After an unremarkable flight home, Thomas made his way back to the clinic. He entered the employee entrance and nearly walked into Tabby, who shrieked in surprise and nearly lost her balance. Thomas held his forelegs out to steady her.

“You’re back,” she stated the obvious.

“Yes,” he said, enjoying the feeling of closeness to her.

“Ah, Dr. Fairfax, so nice to meet you in pony,” said Dr. Appleshine, smoothly interjecting herself into the moment. Tabby leapt back. “Tabby, why don’t you check on Winnifred in the kennel, while I go over some things with Dr. Fairfax,” she instructed.

Tabby went about this business with considerably less talkback than when it came to his commands, Thomas mused.

“Perhaps we could step into the office,” Dr. Appleshine suggested.

“Oh. Certainly,” said Thomas, leading the way.

“Tabby is being wasted here,” Dr. Appleshine said, facing him. “Have you even seen what she can do?”

“I’m sure she’s very competent in wound repair, which has its place, but higher-caliber surgeries need advanced training. You know that,” Thomas argued.

“I don’t know how she got to this point,” Dr. Appleshine said, “but she’s good.”

“You let her do surgeries?” Thomas asked in surprise.

“Once I deemed she had sufficient skill, yes.” Dr. Appleshine looked at him determinedly as if daring him to take her to task.

“We haven’t really talked about magic much,” Thomas admitted. “I just assumed…”

“That she couldn’t do anything beyond the most basic?” Dr. Appleshine asked sharply.

“Well… I… be that as it may, she’s not licensed,” Thomas pointed out.

“Which is why she should be working under someone who is… unlike you,” Dr. Appleshine said pointedly. “What was it–personal choice, or tryptophan?” She sighed. “Well, whatever you did, you’re not the mentor for the likes of her.”

“I’m not holding her against her will,” Thomas said, frowning.

“Maybe not, but she’s attached to you,” Dr. Appleshine said.

“I doubt that,” Thomas said, a little regretfully.

“Don’t let thoughts of romance get tangled up in this,” Dr. Appleshine warned. Thomas stiffened. “There could be so much more for her than settling into a small town practice. You, whatever your reasons, have closed the door on that avenue. I don’t want to see the same happen to her.”

“What would you have me do?” Thomas said, a bit annoyed at the critique when it didn’t feel like he had done anything wrong.

“You need to convince her to fulfill her potential,” Dr. Appleshine insisted.

“I take it you’ve talked to her,” Thomas said.

“I did, and offered her a job,” Dr. Appleshine said bluntly. “But she’s loyal.”

“I’ll talk to her,” Thomas said at length. “But ultimately, it’s her decision.”

“Alright. But I’ll be checking in,” Dr. Appleshine warned. “I’m afraid neither of you knows what you’re doing.” 

* * *

Some time after Dr. Appleshine had departed, Thomas asked Tabby into his office. “Dr. Appleshine says you’re very good with magical surgeries,” he started.

“I thought we weren’t supposed to talk about that,” she said, looking amused. “I believe my employment was contingent on not discussing it.”

“If you have this talent, why didn’t you go to school, get certified?” Thomas asked. “You could do so much more good than what you’re doing.”

“And give up, what, ten years of my life to the establishment?” Tabby said with derision. “No, I think I’ll take my freedom over that.”

“Vet school isn’t… that bad,” Thomas said. (But it kind of was.)

Tabby was silent for a moment. “I have my life here, and I like it better than anything else I’ve tried,” she finally said. “Maybe it’s not the most prestigious, but it’s what I want.”

“If you ever change your mind, let me know.”

“Fine, but it’s not happening.

Thomas was unsure if that conversation had accomplished anything, but at least he had tried. Should he feel guilty for the relief he felt that she wouldn’t explore the path that led away from him? He knew, deep down, that Dr. Appleshine was right; but he also couldn’t envision life with anyone but Tabby at his side.

“I’m sorry that I’m not in a position to teach you,” he said softly as she opened the door.

Tabby looked distinctly uncomfortable. “It’s fine. Don’t worry about it,” she mumbled before making her exit.