Chapter 1: Fern

Poor Dr. Collins, Fern thought as she stamped some paperwork from his office. The handsome young doctor was often on her mind. He had been her knight in shining armor when she had arrived in town some two years ago; and though he might not have a particular regard for Fern more than any of his other patients, he had taken root in her mind as the ideal stallion.

Down on her luck, turned out from the house she had been raised in without a coin to spare, Fern had found herself in Misty Hollow, friendless and without resources. On a hot day, dizzy from lack of food and sleep, Fern had stumbled near a fountain in the park and lost consciousness after sustaining a bump to the head. It had been just happenstance that Dr. Collins was out for a walk and came across the mare, taking charge of the situation and seeing to her recovery at the hospital.

While Fern had been recuperating in a hospital bed and worrying about how she would pay the inevitable bills, one of her nurses had taken her situation to heart, and arranged an interview with the administration office; and subsequently Fern started working in the hospital that she had first come to as a patient.

Fern’s admiration of Dr. Collins was mostly from afar. They did acknowledge each other when they passed in the hall, but Fern hadn’t the courage to take it beyond that.

The secretaries and nurses did gossip occasionally, and it had not taken Fern long to learn that Dr. Collins had already found the love of his life… that was no longer the case, however, as the mare had recently broken things off with him. Hence the sigh from Fern, who was worrying about the doctor’s mental state in this most trying of times. She had seen Dr. Collins’ downcast look when they chanced to meet.

Opinions on the doomed relationship around the office varied. Some said Dr. Collins had put too much confidence in a lukewarm relationship; that Tabby was far too eccentric; that he was better off without her. A minority predicted that the flighty mare would come running back.

Fern had early on made the determination that doctors always married other doctors, or at least social equals. This Tabby was unconventional, but she was an heiress of some sort, according to talk. Dr. Collins wouldn’t look seriously at a nobody like her, Fern Feather. And heaven help her, but that realization did nothing to take him off Fern’s mind.

It was quiet in the administrative office, with only the clacking of keyboard keys to be heard. Then purposeful hoofsteps sounded, coming in Fern’s direction. Pansy, the department head, addressed the mare at the work station adjoining Fern’s: “Amy, could you run this to Dr. Collins.” Her voice brooked no arguing.

“Um, sure…” said Fern’s frazzled co-worker.

Pansy nodded sternly and strode off. Once she was a reasonable distance away, Fern leaned toward Amy. “I can take it; I’m going that direction,” she offered.

“Would you?” Amy cast her a grateful look. “I really have to finish these reports by quitting time.”

“It’s no trouble,” Fern assured her, taking the papers. Then she walked the path down the hallway and around the corner to his office–a path she had memorized. She stopped a moment to appreciate the brass nameplate outside the office that read Dr. Tobias Collins. Just seeing his name caused Fern’s heart to skip a beat.

* * *

This afternoon, Toby found himself sequestered in his office, staring at a photo of her and torturing himself thinking of what might have been. Would this dull ache in his heart ever go away? It had been forty-two days since his heart had been broken–a depressing count that he couldn’t stop himself from keeping.

Toby had convinced himself, years ago, that one day he and Tabby would settle down, make a life together, raise a family… He had survived this long by telling himself that Thomas’ attention span would soon be at its limit; that Tabby’s infatuation with the veterinarian wouldn’t last; and that she would return, humbled and apologetic, when the relationship came to its inevitable conclusion.

But Misty Hollow wasn’t a large city (it did boast a university and hospital, but was still small by his metropolitan standards), and Toby saw them together around town; there were even rumors of a deeper commitment swirling; and as the weeks wore on, he realized with a sinking heart that they appeared to be genuinely happy. So Toby had to brace himself for the eventuality that he and Tabby would never be together, no matter how much hope he held out.

It turned out that, on the fateful night of the broken engagement, one of the nurses had been outside walking her dog in the neighborhood, and had overheard every bit of Toby’s dismissal by Tabby. From there, the news had easily spread through the hospital, and then to the town at large. Toby had had countless sympathetic glances cast his way from the staff; and he was seeing so many patients with inconsequential complaints that he swore they were just making excuses to see him to observe how he was bearing up. It was the curiosity of a close-knit community.

There was a knock at his door, and Toby reluctantly came out of his thoughts. “Come in,” he said, rather shortly.

* * *

“Dr. Collins,” Fern said shyly, entering the office. “Pansy sent this Very Important Form.”

“Oh, that’s fine,” Dr. Collins said in a preoccupied tone. “You can just leave it there in the basket.” He gestured, but did not look up.

“Of course.” Fern set the paper in place and was arrested by the sight of him studying a photo of his lost love. It would take him time to recover, and her heart went out to him.

Noticing her continued presence, though, Dr. Collins lifted his head. “Is there anything else?” he asked with a barely concealed impatient sigh.

“N-No,” Fern stuttered, backing up to the door. “I’m sorry for bothering you.” Oh, if only she better understood the art of flirtation, and knew what to say in a situation like this that would make him look at her with a modicum of interest!

“I’ve had more sympathy than I can handle,” Dr. Collins mumbled, then shook his head as if clearing his mind. “I’m sorry, I shouldn’t have snapped at you,” he said, with the grace to look abashed.

“It’s fine,” Fern said quietly with a small smile. “I’m sure you have much more serious things on your mind.”

“It’s not an excuse, though,” Dr. Collins said, running a hoof distractedly through his mane, creating a delightfully disheveled look.

“Sometimes it helps to talk, though. No sympathy,” Fern clarified, “just an ear to listen.”

“No, it’s not worth your time,” the doctor said with a wry smile.

Fern’s hoof began to turn the doorknob, but then she had a thought. “It is time for a coffee break, though, isn’t it?” she asked, which was about the boldest thing she had ever said to a stallion.

Dr. Collins glanced at the clock. “Sure,” he agreed, to Fern’s great surprise.

They walked silently to the lounge, Fern simply soaking up the joy of being in his company. Dr. Collins collected a cup for each of them and they settled at a small table, enjoying a companionable silence.

“Fern, have you ever had someone,” the doctor spoke-up at length, “someone you had all your hopes and dreams wrapped up in, and suddenly found yourself bereft?”

“I suppose when my grandmother, who raised me, died,” Fern said automatically without thinking, her hoof going to the filigree heart necklace she always wore in remembrance. She immediately chastised herself–he didn’t care about her tragedies! Regardless of what he said, he needed sympathy. 

“I’m so sorry,” Dr. Collins said, looking taken aback. “I forgot. That was shortly before you came to Misty Hollow, wasn’t it?”

“Yes, and you found me at the fountain,” Fern said with a warm smile.

“I remember,” Dr. Collins said reflectively. “You were a scraggly waif. I’m sorry, I mean no disrespect, but you were… down on your luck,” he observed. “You’ve come a long way since then.”

“Indeed,” Fern said, with a spark of spirit warming her tone. “I had just left the house I was raised in, turned out by my uncle who had inherited my grandmother’s entire estate. I was on the streets.”

Dr. Collins set down his cup, looking stricken. “That’s terrible! Didn’t your grandmother make provisions for you?”

“I’m sure she said so–I would assume–but that’s not what the will said,” Fern said, shaking her head sadly. “I was sent on my way without a penny. I still don’t understand it myself.”

“Well, if you are trying to show me how serious my problems rank in the grand scheme of things–it’s working,” Dr. Collins said ruefully.

“Oh, no, I don’t mean to diminish your experience,” Fern said, blushing. She was making a mull of this. “I know you have a different kind of relationship on your mind–”

“Hello, Dr. Collins,” said a haughty voice, a striking white pegasus mare inserting herself into their tête-à-tête. Dr. Collins’ attention immediately turned to the newcomer, and Fern felt that she had been effectively eclipsed.

* * *

Athena was at the hospital regarding fundraising efforts for the new maternity ward. Passing by a lounge area, she spotted a familiar purple stallion with yellow mane and tail. It was Dr. Collins, who was a familiar face but who had always remained aloof from her. They lived across the street from each other in an upscale subdivision on the edge of town. Athena had cast countless lures in his direction over the years, but she had always been rebuffed, a slight that she thought about more than she cared to admit.

The doctor did cut a fine figure, and it would be a shame to leave him adrift to get caught up in who-knows-what refuse–like that little hussy shamelessly flirting with him over coffee. He needed to be protected from social climbers.

“Hello, Dr. Collins,” Athena said breezily, inserting herself into their midst.

“Oh. Ms. Ainsworth. Hello,” he said politely, turning in her direction.

“You’ve been making yourself scarce,” Athena said chidingly, blocking the mare’s view of the doctor. “You must stop hiding yourself away.”

“Many things at the hospital require my attention,” Dr. Collins confessed. “Er–may I introduce Fern, one of our most competent secretaries.” He gestured behind Athena.

“Office manager,” Fern corrected with a cool incline of her head, rather amusingly trying to emulate Athena’s haughty attitude, thought the white pegasus.

“Hello, dear,” Athena acknowledged the petite green mare with the barest hint of a smile. It was how she had been trained from birth to treat her social inferiors. “What are you doing tonight?” she asked, turning her attention back to the doctor.

“I–” Dr. Collins started to say, but Athena promptly cut him off.

“You’re joining me for dinner,” she stated, and held out a hoof to forestall an argument. “No, no, I won’t take no for an answer,” she insisted. “You are wallowing, and I’m here to save you from yourself.”

“That’s really not necessary,” Dr. Collins protested.

“It is,” Athena said firmly. “And what’s more, I’m on my way to a meeting with Sandy about the maternity ward fundraiser, and I need your input. I’m sure you would oblige me by coming along.”

“It was nice talking to you, Fern,” Dr. Collins said, apologetically, it seemed–as if he owed her anything! Athena saw the mare’s face fall. Well, she had to learn. The wisp of a creature was less of a mare and more of a filly.

“I’m afraid I won’t be very good company,” Dr. Collins said as they strolled away.

“Well, that’s my point; you need some pleasant conversation to get you out of this surly mood.” Athena cast him a coy glance. “And I’ve been told that I’m a very pleasant conversationalist.” She knew that Dr. Collins would do whatever she wanted; she was the mayor’s daughter, after all. Now that Tabby was out of the picture, there was nothing to thwart Athena.

* * *

Fern watched the pair disappear down the hall, feeling a tightness in her chest. He doesn’t need or want you, she berated herself, feeling foolish for thinking she was forming a rapport with the doctor.

It wasn’t a conscious sense of snobbery on Dr. Collins’ part, and Fern didn’t hold the slight against him; it was just part of his upbringing. That sort simply gravitated towards each other. It was easy, natural, the way it should be. Fern was accustomed to being treated as an insignificant nobody. That’s what she was, after all. She needed to remember that.

With a heartfelt sigh, she returned to her desk.

* * *

Athena was skilled at conversation that didn’t smack of sympathy–Toby gave her that much. She talked of local events and global happenings, revealing herself to be confident and well-informed. And it did succeed in distracting him from his depression for a longer period of time than he thought possible.

Athena was a neighbor and they met regularly on the street or in the halls of the hospital, but Toby realized he really didn’t know much about her or her family, other than that her mother was the mayor of the city.

“Your mother’s doing a good job on the, uh… park committee,” Toby said, somewhat lamely, during an opening in the conversation.

“Yes,” Athena said, smiling coolly. “No one can fault Mother’s efficiency.”

“Do you have any siblings?” Toby queried.

“I have an older brother, Adonis; he works as a model out of Cicean Hills and doesn’t have much time for us,” Athena said stiffly, and Toby suspected she was hiding hurt under a mask of coolness. “What about you?” she turned the subject. “Your family is in New Pony, correct?”

“My parents live in New Pony,” Toby agreed, “and my little sister lives with them while getting her master’s in sociology. My elder brother is a physician in Grayton.”

“Were you close?” Athena asked, toying with her fork.

Toby considered the question. “I suppose, as much as siblings are… we had our spats; but, yes, I suppose we were close.”

“You’re lucky,” Athena said with a little sigh.

Toby suddenly felt bad for treating her with indifference all these years; he had recognized her advances, and had not wanted to give her the wrong idea. But an image now started to emerge of Athena as a poor little rich filly in desperate need of a friend, without a warm family to act as a safety net.

“Let’s go to the SSSS,” he said at the conclusion of the meal.

Athena raised her brow. “Are you sure? I mean, if you were to run into a certain someone who frequents there…”

“What do I care about her,” Toby said with a brittle smile.

* * *

Fern had buried herself in work, and now was eating a late supper of an egg salad sandwich in the hospital cafeteria. She stared off into space as she chewed thoughtfully.

“Whoever he is,” a voice interrupted her thoughts, “he’s not worth putting yourself through this grief.”

“Oh!” Fern looked up in surprise at the red mare standing before her.

“I’m Garnet,” the mare said, seating herself across from Fern. “It looks like you need someone to talk to.”

“I’m fine, really,” Fern insisted. “But I’m Fern. It’s nice to meet you.”

“The lovelorn sighs, hopeless expression…” Garnet tore open a bag of candy and popped a chocolate into her mouth. “You’ve got it bad for someone.”

“I’m a little mopey,” Fern admitted. “But you must have your own things to worry about, worse than me.”

“I’m just visiting a friend with appendicitis. No big deal.” Garnet shrugged. “So, who’s the stallion?”

“Well…” Fern hesitated.

“He’s a gorgeous doctor, isn’t he?” Garnet leaned over, eyes twinkling.

“Yes,” whispered Fern.

Garnet nodded. “And you’re beneath his notice as support staff.”

“Something like that,” Fern agreed, still reluctant to share details with this friendly stranger.

“Doctors aren’t all they’re cracked up to be,” Garnet said, waving her hoof dismissively. “Always on call, completely unreliable. You’re not missing much.”

“You sound like you’ve had experience.” Fern looked at her curiously.

“My sister dated one,” Garnet said.

“You’re probably right.” Fern sighed. “I just can’t get him off my mind, you know? Earlier we were having coffee–” Here, her reserve began to break down. “–and it felt like something clicked. Then–just my luck–the mayor’s daughter came along, and just like that, I was invisible!”

“Local dignitaries are the worst!” scoffed Garnet. “They think they’re all that, you know? But who really cares?”

“I know! She acted like she owned the place… and Dr. Collins!” Fern hadn’t intended to disclose something as specific as a name, but it tumbled out regardless.

“Hey, some friends and I are meeting at the bowling alley tonight. You should stop by,” Garnet urged. “Get your mind off gorgeous doctors.”

“Oh, um, well,” Fern said, flustered. She didn’t go out much, as that cost money and she wanted to save up to hire a lawyer to look into her grandmother’s will. But she was feeling down, and maybe some self-care was in order.

“It’ll be fun!” Garnet assured her. “Trust me!”

* * *

Of course, they–Tabby and Thomas–were there at the ice cream shop, too; and Toby was glad for Athena’s presence. She was a shield of sorts, showing that Toby wasn’t locked away pining for Tabby (which was closer to the truth, but not necessarily something he wanted to admit to). It was easier on his pride to show a brave face when confronted with their happiness.

“Am I supposed to eat this with my hooves?” Athena said disparagingly, regarding her lemon sorbet with no utensil.

“I’ll get you a spoon,” Toby said with alacrity, leaping to his hooves.

As Toby was walking back to the table from his errand, his gaze met Tabby’s across the room. He looked at her with what he hoped was cool indifference, and she quickly glanced away, whispering something to her sweetheart.

Toby knew he would always love her; no matter what happened down the line, she would always hold a piece of his heart. But he returned to Athena, and was able to maintain his good humor.

“My father expects me to be at his golf tournament this weekend,” Athena said coyly once they were settled. “I’m sure it will be tedious and dull, but… would you like to accompany me?

“I’d be delighted,” said Toby promptly.

Athena smiled. Toby was able to respond in kind, and mean it.

The thought of the other mare, who had artlessly shared her life story with him only a matter of hours ago, was forgotten.

* * *

“Tomorrow makes one year since you came traipsing into my office for an interview,” Thomas said, regarding his companion fondly on their walk from the ice cream shop. “Are you sure we can’t tell anyone about the engagement yet?”

“Straw’s so excited about Vanguard’s proposal,” Tabby protested. Indeed, Strawberry was full to bursting over the Christmas engagement, wearing her ring with great pride, and already planning for the June wedding. “I don’t want to steal her thunder.”

“But then you’ll never have the spotlight yourself,” Thomas pointed out.

“I don’t care about that sort of thing,” Tabby said. “I worked everything out with Tiny, and the date’s set. I just think that the less advance notice, the better. Ponies tend to lose their heads over wedding planning.”

“That doesn’t mean we couldn’t tell them we’re engaged,” Thomas said, a bit pleadingly, “and pick out the ring.”

Guiltily, Tabby realized that the formalities did matter to him. “Soon,” she said, drawing closer to him.

* * *

Fern hadn’t cultivated any friendships outside of the workplace, and she looked forward to this novel event. She hadn’t realized she had missed this sort of thing; though not in the popular crowd by any means through her formative years, she had been included in various get-togethers during her time in school.

At the bowling alley, she met Garnet’s friends–siblings Chocolate Chip and Wishbone. They were pleasant company, and set Fern at ease. Brother and sister both attended the local university–Wishbone being a freshman, and Chocolate Chip graduating the coming year. A good time was had by all, and new friendships formed.

It was only much later, when Fern was alone back at her apartment, that she realized with great dismay that her grandmother’s necklace had gone missing at some point.

* * *

“Troubadour?” Garnet said into her phone, toying with the fancy filigree heart pendant as she reclined on her couch.  “Yes, I have the necklace. When do you want to meet?”