Chapter 26: Bonding

“Tamara, must you make out with your boyfriend in my living room!” Tabby’s voice reverberated shrilly through the house. She stood in the doorway, glowering at the couple on the couch.

“Howdy, Tabby,” said Beauregard with a nonchalant grin, scrambling to his hooves. “I’ll, uh, just be going… I’ll give you a call later,” he said, with a final kiss to Tamara.

“Okay, sweetie,” Tamara purred as he went on his way. She turned to Tabby, unperturbed, as she tucked some loose strands of hair behind her ears. “Well, Athena’s holding a dinner party, so we couldn’t go there,” she said by way of explanation.

“Athena’s house is big enough,” Tabby huffed, flopping down in a chair.

Tamara shrugged, unconcerned. “Next time, I’ll leave a ribbon on the door.”

“It’s my house!” Tabby wailed. “You can’t keep me out of my own house!”

“It’s not like you’re ever using it for cuddling with your own sweetheart,” Tamara said flippantly. “Oh, that’s right, because you avoid him as much as possible because you’re holding a torch for your boss.”

“That’s not… entirely… true,” Tabby said sulkily.

“I’m just saying, you should do something about it,” Tamara said in a lecturing manner.

“There’s nothing to do,” Tabby snapped.

“Think about it. You, Thomas, this couch!”

Tamara!” Tabby shouted, mortified… and a little intrigued. “Why don’t you just hurry up and get your own place?”

“I’m not settling for anything less than my dream house,” Tamara said, picking up a magazine from the end table.

“Why don’t you live at the estate while you’re waiting?” Tabby asked.

“It’s so outmoded,” Tamara complained, flipping through pages. “Mom hasn’t really maintained it.”

“She wanted one of us to step up and take over,” Tabby pointed out.

“So, why don’t you?” Tamara asked. “There are dolls in every nook and cranny here. You could spread out.”

“It’s cozy here,” Tabby protested.

“And you can mooch for food off of Strawberry, I suppose,” Tamara scoffed. “You certainly haven’t improved in the kitchen.”

“As if you’re any better,” Tabby shot back.

* * *

“This is nice,” Toby said, leaning back on the couch and putting his foreleg around Tabby. “It’s been too long.”

Tabby smiled weakly. “Yeah.” She sat gingerly, wondering how Tamara was so at ease in situations like this.

Toby looked at her contemplatively, and Tabby felt nervous. “Since you came back from the conference,” he spoke at length, “you’ve seemed… different.”

“Me? No, why would I be different?” Tabby said, her voice annoyingly high-pitched to her own ears, likely from a guilty conscience. She had not mentioned a word of Guido’s obsession with her.

“You’ve been quieter,” Toby said, shaking his head. “I don’t know what you’re thinking.”

“It’s nothing,” Tabby insisted. “It’s just been a lot, with Tamara moving here…”

“You know you can tell me anything that’s bothering you,” Toby said earnestly, taking her hoof.

“No, there’s nothing, really!” Tabby squeaked.

“Okay, then.” Toby smiled, but Tabby knew he didn’t buy it. Still, he was willing to drop the topic…

“There is one thing,” Tabby blurted out, unable to hold it in any longer. “At the conference…”

Toby’s smile turned down. “Did Thomas bother you? I was afraid he might forget himself.”

“Thomas? No, no, of course not!” Tabby was taken aback. “There was a–guy–” (no need to add that he was a billionaire CEO) “who was very particular in his attention to me. I spent time with him.”

“I see,” Toby said, his emotions unreadable.

“Nothing happened,” she forged ahead, “but I feel that I’ve done something wrong.”

“I trust you,” Toby said softly.

Tabby managed a small, clenched smile. Surely that was all she needed to say, wasn’t it?

“You’re a beautiful, charming mare,” Toby continued. “Of course there will be attention on you.”

No, he didn’t get it, not really. “We had dinner. At his home. Alone,” Tabby said emphatically.

Toby drew back a little. “You were attracted to him,” he said coolly.

“Not… not really. I was dazzled a little, maybe,” Tabby admitted.

“But you came back to me,” Toby said, brightening.

“Yeah…” Honestly, wouldn’t anything dampen his opinion of her?

Toby pulled her closer. “Tabby, I…”

“What?” Tabby asked, feeling rising dread at what was ahead.

“I want to take you to visit my family for Thanksgiving.”

“Oh. Yeah. That sounds… fun,” Tabby said, feeling relieved that it was a rather mundane request and not something more momentous. “I’ll have to see what I can work out with Thomas, though.”

“When was the last time you had time off?” Toby asked, frowning. “He owes you a vacation.”

“Well, I’ll let you know.”

“Good,” he said, kissing her.

He drew back, and ordinarily that would be the end of it. There were certain boundaries that had been maintained–Tamara’s boundaries looked a bit different, though, Tabby mused. Maybe, if Tabby could just figure out kissing, she could be happy with what she had.

So she kissed him with a forced level of intensity she was unused to.

“Tabby,” he murmured, stroking her mane.

She smiled nervously. He had liked it. That was a start.

“Should we start the movie now?” Tabby asked with artificial brightness.

* * *

“…it’ll give you a chance to do menial tasks below your pay grade. It’ll be fun!” Tabby finished pitching her idea to Thomas and waited, expectantly, for his response.

“I suppose I can make that work,” Thomas agreed, trying to mask his disappointment that she wouldn’t be at Strawberry’s party. “Going to see your mom?”

“No, just Toby’s family,” she sighed. “Honestly, if you wanted to deny the time off, I’d be cool with that, too.”

“Ahh,” Thomas said, thoughtfully shuffling some papers on his desk. Perhaps he shouldn’t have been so quick to agree. “Is this the first time meeting them, or…”

“Oh, I’ve done this before,” Tabby said. “I’ll survive. At least now he won’t press for Christmas privileges. I hope.” Her brow creased.

Perhaps the visit to Toby’s family was so distasteful, it would serve as a catalyst to sever the connection. It was a fanciful thought, Thomas admitted to himself.

“You have to promise to come back,” Thomas admonished, getting up and walking to the door.

“Believe me, I’ve already had quite enough of New Pony,” she said, trailing after.

“It’s not all bad,” Thomas said. “Say hi to Andrew and Ribbons n’ Lace for me.” He held the door for her.

“You’ve met?” Tabby asked, cocking her head.

“Yes, once, at a Christmas party.”

“They’re impossibly high in the instep, living in the lap of luxury, don’t you think?” Tabby said dismissively, walking down the hallway.

“Maybe a little,” Thomas admitted. “But they’re doing good things with the wealth at their disposal.”

“I guess,” Tabby grumbled, “but it doesn’t mean I want to spend a holiday with them.”

* * *

Tamara ran into Tabby’s living room, carrying her pink Fruitbook laptop aloft. 

“Tabitha, look!” she squealed. “My viewers are reacting to seeing you in my Eliza Berryton purse unboxing!”

“I thought you were cutting that footage,” Tabby said with a frown, looking up from the book she was reading. Some weeks before, she had unwittingly walked in on a recording session of some fashion nonsense.

“But twins are great for views!” Tamara said, setting the laptop on the coffee table and sitting next to her sister. “Buttercup faked her twin, and that scandal alone brought in millions of views!”

Tabby, baffled at how things worked in SnapTube land, leaned over to see the screen. “Look, this is my twin sister!” Tamara in the video squealed.

Tabby squinted. “ ‘Clearly green-screened,’ ” she read the top comment. “They don’t believe I exist?” she asked incredulously.

“Well, they don’t agree,” Tamara explained. “They’re fighting about it, and that’s great for my engagement rating!” She was clearly ecstatic. “Hey, I have some new merch proofs to check out–wanna see?” She pulled up a box from the floor.

“What is it?” Tabby asked cautiously. “You’re not filming, are you?”

“No, this is strictly under wraps until its roll-out in December,” Tamara said, lifting out a pink plush toy with enormous eyes. “It’s a plushie of myself as a cat!”

“Well, that’s something,” Tabby acknowledged,

“The eye color is off,” Tamara said with a critical look, “and the embroidery needs to be 3-ply, but it’s progress.”

Tabby held the toy in her hoofs; and a memory sprang unbidden to mind, of her and her sister, much smaller, styling a plush cat much like this. They had been in harmony, one of the rare times.

“I like that you bandaged her leg with a purple ribbon,” Baby Tamara had said approvingly. “Very chic.”

“Thank ‘oo,” replied Baby Tabby.

“It’s cute,” Tabby said thoughtfully, a warmth from the memory enveloping her.

“I can’t wait to show Beauregard,” Tamara chattered.

“Are you really serious about him?” Tabby ventured to ask.

“What can I say, I like a stallion with business acumen,” Tamara said. “For that matter, if Thomas was available…” She gave her sister a significant look. “Now, are you ready to tell me what’s really going on? You two are obviously a match.”

Tabby continued toying with the plushie. Was she really considering opening up to Tamara? The secret was eating away at her. Maybe, despite their differences, her twin was the best confidante for this sort of thing…

“I stole Thomas’ magic!” Tabby burst out.

“Well, why did you go and do that?” Tamara asked, looking perplexed.

“I stole a lot of ponies’ magic,” Tabby said with a shaky sigh. “I didn’t know them. It was the scheme of a warlock I fell in with in New Pony.”

“Of course you did,” Tamara said, rolling her eyes. “So you confined Thomas to a life without magic, costing countless hours in transportation, not to mention a lucrative career in magic healing…”

“Yes, yes, you don’t have to spell it out!” Tabby exclaimed. “So, now you see why it’s impossible between us!”

“Is there any way he could find out it was you?” Tamara asked, frowning reflectively.

“No–but that’s not the point. I’d know!” Tabby said, her pitch rising.

“Well, you seem to be getting by just fine on NOT telling him,” Tamara pointed out.

“Working together is one thing, but being in a relationship… no, I couldn’t hide it then.” Tabby shook her head emphatically.

“Well, if you’re going to have scruples, then the only thing is to tell him,” Tamara said matter-of-factly.

“Then he’d hate me!” Tabby wailed.

“Then you’ll never be more than friends!”

“Maybe that’s enough!”

“You don’t believe that,” Tamara said with a stern look.

“It will be enough. It has to be enough,” Tabby said softly, more to herself than to Tamara. Then she handed the toy back and hurried out of the room for solitude.