“Oh, Toby, dear,” said Ribbons n’ Lace, Toby’s mother, embracing him in the doorway of the palatial New Pony home of the Collinses. “It’s so good to see you again. And Tabby, of course,” she added as an afterthought, with a brief hug. “How was your flight?” The pink and blue mare looked expectantly at her son, taking him by the foreleg and leading him into the house.
“Everything went well,” Toby said in an upbeat manner, looking back to make sure Tabby was still there. She smiled back wanly and followed.
It had been three or four years, Tabby calculated (she had never been good at keeping track of years), since she had last been here as Toby’s guest. Given her abrupt breaking-off of the relationship shortly after that last visit, Tabby wasn’t sure what kind of reception to expect. All she knew for sure was that she would be happier if this was just another ordinary day at the clinic with Thomas.
“Wonderful,” gushed Ribbons n’ Lace, not seeming to notice Tabby very much at all, which was fine with her. “Come along to the dining room. We held lunch for you, and I had Frances make your favorite chocolate cake for dessert.”
“Tendril and Dad are both here?” Toby inquired.
“Yes,” Ribbons n’ Lace confirmed. “Tribute’s flight won’t get in until late. It’s so lovely that we’ll have the whole family here for the holiday.”
“If Tribute doesn’t find an excuse to cry off,” Toby said cynically.
* * *
Later in the afternoon, with Toby and his father discussing interesting medical cases and Tendril going out with friends, Tabby and Ribbons n’ Lace found themselves facing each other across a coffee table. Toby’s mother regarded Tabby speculatively. “You’re in a proper medical position now, Toby tells me,” she remarked, relaxing back into her chair. “That’s lovely. With Thomas Fairfax, is that right?”
“Yes,” stated Tabby, miffed at the implication that her work with Tiny had not been actual medical care.
“He and Toby were friends for a spell in school, but I’m afraid they had some sort of falling out,” Ribbons n’ Lace explained, sipping her tea. “I wish he would put it behind him. I worry that he’s too wrapped up in his work to nurture friendships–except you, of course, my dear–but that’s how they always are.” She looked affectionately across the room at her husband. “They won’t pay attention to anything that isn’t on a medical chart.”
“Mm-hmm,” agreed Tabby, drumming her hoof on the arm of the chair.
“It’s so necessary, I find,” Toby’s mom continued, “to have ponies with whom one can unwind. Why, if I didn’t have my weekly mare’s tea, I don’t know where I’d be.”
“In Misty Hollow, we go out for ice cream,” Tabby said insightfully.
“Of course, dear, whatever works for you.” Ribbons n’ Lace patted her hoof. “Just be sure to always have a pleasant home for him to come home to… when that time comes, of course; that’s what I’ve always strived for with Andrew.” She nodded her head authoritatively. “They’re putting themselves out there every day helping others; I think it’s only right that we take care of them in their time off.”
Tabby squirmed a little in her seat, uncomfortable with the assumptions Toby’s mother was making. She was comfortable enough with him, but wasn’t sure she dared commit to more. “I’m not really the domestic type,” she observed.
“But I trust you to look out for my boy,” said Ribbons n’ Lace, regarding her sternly. “He’s a very sensitive soul, you know, and he has been able to talk about little other than you these past months. If something were to happen–” She gave Tabby a significant look. “Well, but we won’t talk about that, will we?” Her lips curled up in a grim smile.
“I don’t think your mom likes me,” Tabby told Toby afterwards when they were alone.
“Nonsense,” the doctor said with great unconcern.
* * *
Thanksgiving dinner was held with the immediate Collins family, consisting of Andrew, Ribbons n’ Lace, Tribute, Toby, and Tendril. Tabby was the only outsider, and was annoyed that her name matched the alliterative naming convention of the siblings. There was a sumptuous spread, and drinks were plentiful.
Afterwards, when everyone was milling about the living room, Tribute cornered his brother in a corner of the room. “Well, we’re back to playing this game with Ms. Fershund, are we?” he asked conversationally. “Are you sure that’s wise, after what happened last time?”
“We were young and inexperienced back then,” Toby said defensively.
Tribute lifted an eyebrow. “And still are, from my perspective,” he stated sardonically.
“You might not understand,” Toby said, frowning, “but we love each other.”
“I don’t doubt that you’re smitten,” said Tribute with a wry smile, “but, frankly, I don’t think Ms. Fershund would nurse a broken heart over you.”
“You don’t know her like I do,” Toby snapped.
Tribute shrugged. “She’s a bit cool, if you ask me.”
“It takes her time to open up to a pony,” Toby insisted, “but she is warm and funny and–”
Tribute held up a hoof to forestall his brother continuing. “Spare me the litany of her virtues; I’m sure she is divine perfection,” he said. “Marry her if you must, but one thing that’s for sure is that you have to get out of that godforsaken place you’ve buried yourself in.”
“I’m not opposed to doing either of those things,” Toby said stiffly, “but they will be done on my terms, not because you’re dictating it.”
“Relax, little brother. They’re merely suggestions,” Tribute said with a bemused air. “Do what you want. I’m just offering my opinions.” He wandered off.
* * *
Thomas was in attendance at Strawberry’s Thanksgiving party. It was a bustling open house, with much merry-making; but Thomas was momentarily alone, standing behind the Christmas tree and staring reflectively out the picture window in Strawberry’s living room. A social event without Tabby didn’t seem like anything worthwhile. He kept catching himself scanning the room, hoping to meet her glance, but that was futile.
Tabby had been distant ever since the day with the water panther, appearing more pensive, with less chatter over breaks–or avoiding him altogether, Thomas realized with a pang. He felt certain now that she considered him to have overstepped, that he had misinterpreted the depth of their friendship, and that the personal revelation from his life was awkward and unwelcome. Thomas’ heart sank, realizing his feelings were not reciprocated.
“Something’s on your mind,” Grant noted, coming to stand by Thomas. The ram and his wife were there as well, the couple having become acquainted with the hostess from bringing little Lorna to the clinic for check-ups. “Am I correct in thinking it has to do with the absence of a certain pink unicorn?”
Thomas thought about denying it, but was tired of making excuses. “She’s spending the holiday with her someone special,” he said simply.
“Are you sure of that?” Grant asked with a disbelieving look. “The way you two worked together, I’d be surprised if she could find someone else half as well-suited.”
“They’ve known each other a long time,” Thomas observed.
“What does that matter?” Grant scoffed. “Well, you need to tell her how you feel. There will be no closure, one way or the other, unless you do. You’re a smart lad; you don’t need me telling you this.”
“But if it doesn’t go well and we lose the friendship we have–then I’d rather have kept my peace,” Thomas argued.
“Would you really, though? Seems to me these feelings aren’t going away. Things change whether we want them to or not–are you an active participant or an observer in the orchestrations of fate?” the ram said philosophically.
“I hadn’t thought of it like that,” Thomas admitted.
“Don’t pay any heed to me, though,” Grant cautioned. “Sheila says the eggnog goes straight to my head, and I start spouting nonsense.” With a wink, he went to join his wife, who was helping Strawberry decorate the Christmas tree.
Would Tabby run off and marry Toby one day? Could Thomas live with himself if he remained silent? Maybe Grant was right. Maybe he should make a stand. Or maybe it was just the eggnog talking.
* * *
“We’ll go to Mirabella’s next–you’ll love it–I get all my ribbons there,” said Tendril, flushed with excitement. It was the following day, the biggest shopping day of the year, and Toby’s sister had invited Tabby on a shopping expedition. Tabby was not opposed to shopping, but the boutiques they visited weren’t her type of shop, not with all that frippery and nonsense.
Tendril had her mother’s gift of conversation, for which Tabby was grateful, because it saved her having to say anything. The crowds made her uneasy, and she was mostly focused on not bumping into other ponies.
“Last summer, I went on a service trip to Bobango. Did I tell you about that?” Tendril chattered, swiping through photos on her phone as they walked down the crowded street. “Here’s a picture of me giving a bottle of water to a foal–isn’t he adorable?” She beamed, shoving the screen in Tabby’s face.
“Aren’t there more cost effective ways of delivering water than shipping in tourists?” Tabby wondered aloud.
There was a temporary pause; Tendril decided to continue without answering directly. “And here’s our group with the hut we built to house the medical clinic,” she stated proudly, showing another photo. There was a decided tilt to the structure, Tabby noted.
“Ah… very nice,” Tabby settled on saying. “I’m sure that’s holding up well.”
“Anyway, that’s what I’ve been up to,” Tendril said cheerily, finally tucking her phone away in her purse. “It’s been, what, three, four, years since we’ve seen each other?” she asked, turning her attention to Tabby’s life. “Toby was devastated when you broke up with him. Just devastated,” she prattled on. “I’d never seen him so down on himself. I think it’s great that you’re back together. I can see the change in him–you’re good for him.” She gave Tabby an encouraging smile.
Tabby hesitantly smiled back.
* * *
“Well, when are you going to let your mother and me visit you out there?” Andrew asked conversationally when Toby sought him out in his study.
“Maybe this spring,” Toby said noncommittally.
“Where do you see yourself going next?” Andrew prodded, settling back into his wingback chair and preparing for a long chat. “You know that I’m happy to put in a word for you at King or Thistle Ridge.”
“Tribute already got to me,” said Toby with a wry smile, sitting opposite his father. “You don’t need to repeat the speech. But for now, I’m happy where I am.”
“Where you are, or who you’re with?” Andrew asked, getting to the crux of the matter.
Toby’s smile grew. “Dad, I’m going to ask her to marry me,” he said simply.
“I thought you might have something of the sort on your mind.” Andrew raised his brow. “I hope she is of the same inclination.”
“She is,” Toby said confidently, but added, “She will be.”
“The Fershunds are a fine old family, completely unobjectionable,” Andrew noted.
Toby looked at him curiously. “You always told us that wealth and power don’t matter, that we’re all the same on the inside,” he pointed out.
“That’s true,” Andrew said cautiously, steepling his hooves, “but I think it’s only fair to acknowledge that there are certain difficulties with crossing social levels that needn’t come into play here.”
“What if Tabby wasn’t from a notable family?” Toby asked, frowning.
“But she is, so it hardly matters,” Andrew sidestepped the question.
“Would you dissuade me?” Toby gave his father a piercing look.
“No, not dissuade, only…” Andrew trailed off. “…make you aware of realities,” he settled on.
“I see,” said Toby, feeling that perhaps he did not know his father so well after all.
“Anyway,” Andrew said, clearing his throat, “if that’s what you want, then I wish you well. You don’t need my blessing.”
“Thanks, Dad,” said Toby a little stiffly before ducking out of the study.
* * *
On Saturday, Toby and Tabby’s last day in New Pony, Toby announced that he had procured a reservation for just the two of them at a very swank establishment that was held in high regard among the upper crust of the city.
Studying the menu, Tabby noted that every dish had at least one element that she disliked, at entree prices with which she could practically buy ice cream for the entire gang back home at the SSSS, and finally had to choose the least offensive.
Something about Toby seemed off, Tabby noted as her date’s hooves shook handling the menu; usually level-headed, he was anxious and high-strung.
After the main course, dessert was brought to the table on a tray–two plates with a tiny square of chocolate on each, and a jewelry box conspicuously placed between them. While Tabby was still processing that information, Toby left his seat and bent down on one knee facing her.
But Tabby was more aware of the murmurs in the dining room, as word seemed to spread about the unfolding scene. She suddenly felt very stifled, and wished she were anywhere but here. She could feel all eyes on her and mustered an artificial smile at Toby, who was staring at her with hope-filled eyes as he asked the question.
In the aftermath, Tabby couldn’t even recall what she had responded, so self-conscious had she been; but it must have been what he wanted to hear, because the next thing she knew, he was putting the ring on her foreleg and kissing her tenderly as applause rang throughout the restaurant.
It was entirely too much attention, Tabby thought helplessly, and couldn’t wait until she was well and truly alone, which was a luxury she didn’t think she had ever fully appreciated before.
Champagne was brought out to accompany dessert, and then blessedly the couple could leave, though even the way out through the maze of tables was wrought with congratulations delivered by other restaurant patrons.
The cool air stinging Tabby’s cheeks was a relief as they sank into the anonymity of the street hoof traffic. Toby hadn’t stopped beaming since the acceptance, and he held her close at his side. Tabby had a dull sensation that this was not quite the happy event her fiance thought–fiance! The word startled her. She needed peace and quiet to process this.
“I thought maybe a summer or fall wedding,” Toby was prattling on, having been holding a million thoughts back, it seemed, that now all came pouring out. “Do you want it in Misty Hollow or New Pony? I know Misty Hollow is your home, but Mother would love the chance to plan this. I think she has always had her heart set on a cathedral wedding,” he rambled, and the constant stream of conversation was irritating her.
“We don’t need to work out all the details tonight,” Tabby said with a nervous laugh.
“No… no, we don’t,” Toby said quietly, patting her hoof and settling into silence for the rest of the walk.
There was an impromptu party with more champagne when they returned to the Collinses’ home and shared the news with the family.
“We’re so pleased to have you in the family, my dear,” Ribbons n’ Lace said magnanimously.
“I can’t wait to be a bridesmaid!” Tendril enthused, embracing her prospective sister-in-law.
Light-hearted banter continued, until Tabby stood up. “I think I’m going to bed,” she said abruptly, and left the room, Toby following.
“Are you okay?” he asked anxiously, catching at her foreleg.
“Yeah, yeah… I’m sorry, this is all just kind of a lot happening all of a sudden,” Tabby said wearily. “I’m a bit tired, I guess.”
“It’s all right, dearest,” Toby assured her. “We have the rest of our lives together.” He beamed. “Who would have thought, that day I found you with those potions in the lab, that we would end up here?”
“Who, indeed,” Tabby echoed faintly. Those dratted potions–that had been her misstep, and the reason that she couldn’t now consider making a play for Thomas’ affections.
“Is anything else the matter?” Toby asked, looking at her with concern.
“No, nothing,” Tabby said, mustering a smile. Work with what you have–an adoring fiance. Why can’t you be satisfied? she berated herself as they arrived at the door of her chamber. Toby surprised her by stepping into the room after her.
“We’re an engaged couple,” he said, seeing her startled look. “We’re allowed some freedom.”
“That doesn’t mean…” Tabby trailed off, feeling truly alarmed at what he expected.
“No, of course not,” Toby hastily explained. “But I can give you a proper goodnight kiss.” …which he proceeded to do, leaving Tabby with a myriad of misgivings.
* * *
Some time later, Toby stepped out into the hall, just as Tribute happened to be passing through. Toby met his speculative look with a determined tilt of his chin.
“Patience, little brother,” admonished Tribute with a smirk. “You’ll be hen-pecked soon enough.” Chuckling, he ambled on his way.
But Toby was too blissful to allow his sibling’s jibes to bother him. With a light heart, he went on to his own chamber.