Chapter 30: Settling In

Had last night really happened? Tabby considered this on her way to the clinic the following day. Had she imagined it, and filled in meanings that weren’t there? It all felt surreal somehow. Trepidatious but excited, she opened the clinic door, and there was Thomas. Shyly, her gaze swept down.

“I missed you,” he said, closing the distance between them.

“It’s only been seven hours,” she pointed out. It had been well after midnight that he had left, after kissing and talking and more kissing… sighing blissfully, she sank into his embrace. This was nice.

A door swung open somewhere in the building, but neither paid it any heed, being entirely wrapped up in each other.

“Thomas, I’m going to need your signature on–oh!” Strawberry entered the room, and stopped short when she realized what she had walked in on. “I’m sorry–I’ll just–” Thoroughly flustered, she darted through the doorway whence she had come.

“Oh, dear,” Tabby said in dismay, drawing back. “She’ll be scandalized! She thinks I’m still engaged to Toby.”

“I’m sure you’ll work it out,” Thomas said, in no hurry to let her go.

“I need to talk to her,” Tabby said, leaving him with a parting kiss before dashing off.

* * *

“So… some things happened last night,” Tabby admitted, perching on the edge of Strawberry’s desk and twirling a pen in her hoof.

Strawberry stopped typing and faced her friend with an inquiring glance.

“I broke up with Toby,” Tabby blurted out.

“I see,” said Strawberry, with an involuntary glance at the bouquet of roses that was still on the counter from yesterday. “And Thomas was involved in this decision?” Her tone was not judgmental, just curious.

“Uh… yeah. Yeah,” said Tabby vaguely.

Strawberry cocked her head. “Are you happy?” she asked gently.

“I… I think I am,” Tabby said, sounding surprised to her own ears.

Strawberry looked pensive, then nodded her head. “Then I’m happy for you,” she said, smiling.

“And maybe…” Tabby looked askance at the rose bouquet. “…you could do something with the flowers?”

“I’ll take care of them,” Strawberry agreed.

* * *

Later, Thomas approached Strawberry’s desk, and she looked at him pensively. Thomas knew that he was being judged in a new light.

“Treat her well,” Strawberry said at length.

“I will,” Thomas said, and he meant it.

Strawberry nodded her approval.

* * *

Overall, spirits at the clinic were light that morning, but by afternoon there seemed to be a cloud over Tabby. “What’s bothering you?” Thomas finally asked, taking her aside.

“I was just thinking–what Toby threatened–” Tabby said haltingly. “I can’t shake the feeling that I’ll lose everything!”

Frowning thoughtfully, Thomas sat next to her and took her hoof in his. “It’s been, what, eight, nine years?” he said. “I don’t think they would come after us now.”

“How do you know?” Tabby demanded.

“I mean, there must be a statute of limitations…” Thomas trailed off, having no real facts, but wishing he could erase her fear. “Let’s not worry,” he said encouragingly. “It’s unlikely anything would come of it, even if Toby did go to the authorities. And even if it comes to that, well, we’ll deal with it.”

“I have only myself to blame,” she said morosely.

“You will have me, no matter what,” he said quietly.

* * *

After that momentous day, life was sweeter, richer, fuller. Day-to-day operations hadn’t changed, not really; but with feelings acknowledged, there was an added depth of experience. The two unicorns were completely absorbed in each other, falling deeper and deeper in love with each passing day.

Tabby and Thomas easily fell into a comfortable routine for those times that work didn’t tie them together, and they were no longer obligated to go their separate ways. Sometimes they went out for supper; sometimes they were guests at Strawberry’s table; sometimes they stayed in and had each other over to their respective lodgings for meals–with mixed results, generally failing when Tabby was depended on for anything with food preparation.

And then, after work and the evening meal, there was always something to do–whether a long walk, or a movie, or the SSSS, or whatever seasonal activities were offered, or some combination thereof, eventually ending in a prolonged farewell.

They talked about everything, their preferences and family and experiences and dreams and every little insignificant detail that was nonetheless fascinating and absolutely required knowledge when pertaining to one’s beloved. It was exciting, heady stuff. 

This was life, Tabby realized. This is what she’d been searching for all along, but hadn’t known what she was looking for.

The days flew by, and before anyone knew it, Christmas was right around the corner; and everyone in Misty Hollow was gearing up for the animal shelter benefit ball at the civic center, considered by residents to be the premiere social event of the season.

* * *

“I haven’t told Elaine about us yet,” Thomas confessed after going over his sister’s holiday travel plans with Tabby. Elaine had wrangled some days off after all, and would be spending time in town.

“Should I be offended?” Tabby asked in an unconcerned manner.

“No!” Thomas said hastily. “It’s just, I thought in pony would be more meaningful. She still thinks that I’m… I’m…”

“A philanderer? Libertine? Rakehell?” Tabby helpfully filled in.

Thomas winced. “Um, something like that.”

“Well, will she be more convinced that way?”

“I’m not sure,” Thomas admitted.

“So she won’t approve?” Tabby prodded.

Thomas looked pensive, then shook his head. “Don’t worry. It will be fine,” he said with a smile.

* * *

“Tabby!” Elaine exclaimed, entering the clinic late one afternoon. “How are you?”

“Oh, hi, Elaine,” Tabby said, less effusive but still pleased to see the younger mare. There didn’t seem to be any hangers-on this time, so that was a relief.

“It’s so good to see you!” Elaine enthused, hugging her.

“How was your trip?” Tabby asked, because she thought that was the proper thing to say.

“Great, great, no problems,” Elaine said.

“How about that… weather.” Tabby was at about the end of ideas for small talk, and she had not looked outside recently to know what current conditions were.

“Yes, it’s great!” Elaine said, beaming. “A perfect shower of snowflakes! Do you need help with anything here?” She looked at Tabby expectantly.

“Nah, it’s been quiet today,” Tabby said. “Just waiting around for closing time. Strawberry left already.”

Thomas entered the room, and Elaine was similarly enthusiastic to greet him. “I’ve been studying restaurant reviews, and I’m starving,” she chattered. “There’s this Nature Vibes place that’s supposed to have a good eggplant lasagna. Have you been there? Otherwise Cafe Carousel sounds nice. Or the SSSS is fine.”

“Whatever you want,” Thomas said indulgently.

“Tabby, can you join us?” Elaine asked, turning back to the pink unicorn. “How about Toby?”

“Uhhh… we broke up, actually,” Tabby admitted, casting a look at Thomas.

“Oh, I’m sorry,” Elaine said, appropriately sympathetic. “I didn’t know. Thomas doesn’t tell me anything.” She looked at her brother judgmentally.

“It’s fine,” Tabby said quickly. “Umm, actually…”

“Tabby and I are going out now,” Thomas spoke-up.

“Oh,” Elaine said, and there was a poignant pause. “Well–” She brightened, but it seemed artificial, somehow. ”–then I guess we’re all here, aren’t we?”

* * *

Over dinner, it was determined that there was no need for Elaine to get a room at the hotel when she could just as well stay in Tabby’s spare room (which may have had more dolls than space, but Elaine was delighted with the invitation). After dinner, Thomas went to collect Elaine’s luggage which had been left at the clinic, and the two mares went on ahead to Tabby’s home.

“Tabby, this is really nice of you,” said Elaine cheerily as they mounted the steps to Tabby’s house.

“It’s no problem,” said Tabby, a bit cautiously, as she sensed a follow-up statement coming.

Elaine reached out for Tabby’s foreleg. “I don’t want you to pin all your hopes on this relationship,” she blurted out, looking at her earnestly.

“You think he’s not serious,” said Tabby flatly, unlocking the door.

“I think,” Elaine continued, “that he doesn’t know his own mind. I’m worried that he hasn’t considered the depth of this commitment, and I don’t want you to end up hurt.”

Tabby was silent. She had guessed Elaine’s thoughts, but hearing them voiced aloud caused doubt to crystalize.

“You didn’t know him before, when everyone was treated as a commodity!” Elaine continued with a beseeching look.

“There’s no room in your consideration for him having changed?” Tabby asked quietly.

Elaine sighed. “I’m sorry. I don’t mean to hurt your feelings. All I’m saying is, give it more time to be sure.”

“Of course,” Tabby said with a brittle smile. She didn’t exactly begrudge the younger mare her view; she was sure Elaine had good reason to think so. But it did make her anxious to talk to her sweetheart about it.

But once Thomas arrived, Elaine, hyped up with exuberance, still had countless questions about life here, and stories about school; so she kept the visit going until quite late. But, eventually, it must have occurred to her that she was a third wheel.

“Well,” Elaine said with an exaggerated yawn, “I’ll just, um, be going to my room. I’ll see you in the morning.” And she took her leave.

“She’s not pleased,” Tabby said, shaking her head once Elaine’s door had closed.

“Why?” Thomas asked, surprised. “You’re getting along great.”

“I mean, she’s not pleased with us,” Tabby said pointedly.

“Oh, that,” said Thomas, as if it were only a minor consideration. “Well, just give her time to get used to the idea.”

“Unless…” Tabby trailed off. “…she has a point I should heed.” She pinned him with a look.

“Tabby!” Thomas said, looking horrified. “No, put that out of your mind.” And Tabby allowed herself to be distracted as he set to work convincing her of the depth of his feelings.

* * *

The next evening, while Elaine was primping for the party, Tabby was similarly sequestered in her chamber, staring at her reflection in the vanity mirror and feeling very critical of herself. Was she pretty enough to hold the interest of one like Thomas who, by all accounts, had a long history of cavorting with mares of exquisite poise and beauty, with some of the more recent candidates going to be in attendance that night? Everyone was going to be there.

Tabby, unable to shake the insecurities, did something she never thought she would–she called her sister and asked for a makeover.

Tamara responded with alacrity, coming over immediately–where she was during the day, Tabby was never clear on–with her sizeable makeup kit, and got to work.

Many steps later–shimmering eyeshadow, bold eyeliner, volumizing mascara, groomed eyebrows–Tabby didn’t think she looked much like herself, but this is how the really popular mares looked, wasn’t it? Tamara assured her that Thomas would love it, then scampered off for her own preparations.

The doorbell rang, and Tabby collected herself, for that would be her escort. With a last unsure look at her elevated coiffure and dazzling earrings, she went to the door.

* * *

“Oh–Tamara?” Thomas asked, momentarily taken aback by the vision before him in the doorway.

“No–it’s me!” the mare said, looking annoyed.

“Oh,” Thomas said, realizing the voice was, indeed, Tabby’s. “You look… different.”

“You don’t like it!” Tabby said petulantly.

“No, you’re very beautiful,” Thomas hurried to assure her. “I just wasn’t expecting…”

“You think I’m not capable of getting dressed up properly for a party?” Tabby asked, still appearing cross.

“Well,” Thomas said carefully, “I was just thinking, I prefer your hair down; but,” he added, drawing her closer, “perhaps that can be seen to later.”

* * *

“Remember to keep an eye on Elaine,” Thomas said, scanning the room full of mingling ponies and fuzziwugs. “She’s very shy, and I don’t want her to get overwhelmed.” Elaine had been swept up in the activity as soon as they had walked through the door, and Tabby saw her across the room talking to a blue stallion.

“I think she’s doing just fine for herself,” Tabby observed. She wasn’t accustomed to actually looking out for a sibling, but Thomas seemed to have a deflated opinion of his sister’s capabilities.

“Who is that talking to her?” Thomas asked, frowning as he zeroed in on her position.

“I think his name’s Hawkley,” Tabby said nonchalantly. “Works at the casino.”

“What!” Thomas looked horrified. “I’m going over there.” He was about to march off, but Tabby grabbed his foreleg.

“And do what?” she challenged. “They look to be enjoying themselves. She can talk to ponies. It’s a party.”

“I don’t like the look of him,” Thomas muttered, shaking his head. “I’ll be watching.”

“Of course,” said Tabby soothingly. As off-base as his fears seemed to be, she found it somewhat endearing that he was so protective of his sister.

* * *

“Thomas!” Moonglow flagged him down when the party was in full swing. “And Tabby,” she acknowledged the other mare. “This is my friend, Lucian,” she introduced the golden stallion at her side, and hooves were shaken all around. Tabby found the niceties grating, but understood that she had to go along with it or reflect poorly on Thomas. There were all these unexpected ways of realizing she was starting to think of someone other than herself.

Lucian asked Tabby to dance, and she started, not having thought ahead to that contingency; despite that being the primary activity of the event, she had not imagined anyone but Thomas as a partner. Flustered, she looked to Thomas, who gave her an encouraging look.

“I can’t monopolize you all night,” he reasoned.

Tabby wouldn’t have minded if he had; but a new set was forming, Moonglow took Thomas by the hoof, and the event had been set in motion.

* * *

“She makes you happy,” Moonglow made the simple observation as they twirled around the dance floor.

“Yes,” Thomas said with a smile.

Moonglow looked on with a bemused glance.

* * *

Tabby watched Thomas and Moonglow from afar, wondering what they were discussing. Could she trust him, really trust him, that this wasn’t a game he was playing with her affections?

“So the the thing that most ponies don’t realize about fixed rate mortgages…” Lucian was droning on.

Tabby smiled, and he seemed content to continue talking, so she hoped that was a sufficient response.

Thomas came back to her side to collect her for the next dance, and she felt more at ease.

* * *

“Well, look who we have here, the veterinarian and his assistant, all starry-eyed and looking very chummy.” This was said by Dr. Appleshine, who met the couple as they came off the dance floor. “It would seem that my advice fell on deaf ears.” She gave them an arch look.

“Oh, Dr. Appleshine! Good to see you,” Thomas greeted the other veterinarian, while recalling their last conversation and feeling uneasy. “I didn’t know you were in town.”

“Yes, I was passing through, and it seemed like a good cause,” Dr. Appleshine acknowledged.

“Indeed,” agreed Thomas, drawing Tabby a little closer, as if daring Dr. Appleshine to take them to task.

“Well, I think you’re both fools, but I don’t suppose there’s anything I can say to change your minds,” Dr. Appleshine said prosaically. Aside to Tabby, she added, “Don’t let him hold you back.”

Tabby’s face flushed. “He doesn’t–that’s not–” she floundered.

“Whatever the future holds, there’s no reason we can’t be in it together,” Thomas maintained.

“For both your sakes, I hope you’re right,” Dr. Appleshine said with an assessing glance.

* * *

“I saw you talking Thomas down earlier,” Elaine said, approaching Tabby some time later while Thomas danced with Becca. “Thanks.”

“Oh, it’s…” Tabby looked down at her hooves, never comfortable with gratitude. “I didn’t do anything.”

“Hawkley’s a bit of a flirt, but I won’t lose my head over him,” Elaine said with a giggle. “I’ll always be a helpless little filly in Thomas’ eyes,” she continued without animosity. “I’ve given him enough reasons, I suppose. It didn’t help, becoming my guardian.”

“Your guardian?” Tabby gave her a questioning look.

“I’m five years younger than him, you know,” Elaine explained. “He was just eighteen when our parents disappeared, and he took custody of me. He didn’t have to, and I wouldn’t have faulted him if he hadn’t… but I’m glad he did.”

“I didn’t realize…” Tabby trailed off. He hadn’t mentioned that specific detail, and she felt deficient for not having put those pieces together. It was a stark realization that there was still so much she had to learn. She watched Thomas and Becca across the room, but found she was at peace, confident that he would return to her. 

“I’m sorry. I shouldn’t have said anything last night,” Elaine said softly, seeing the direction of Tabby’s gaze. “He dotes on you.”

“Not everyone thinks that’s a good thing,” Tabby said. It was Elaine’s turn to look questioning. “You haven’t met Dr. Appleshine,” Tabby explained. “She thinks the relationship is damaging to our self-development or something.”

“Well, that just means you can prove her wrong,” said Elaine matter-of-factly.

* * *

Thomas found Tabby on the veranda, leaning against a balcony railing in the cool night air. It might be the midst of winter, but the inside temperature was significant, and this was a welcome reprieve. He joined her in companionable silence.

Having her in his life–well, it felt like everything had been set right in the world, Thomas considered. He thought he finally understood that this is what his parents had shared. It was this kind of connection that had made them turn their backs on all that was familiar, leave their old lives behind forever, just for the privilege of being together. His and Tabby’s story didn’t have to be as dramatic, but they would have their own challenges. Thomas found himself looking forward even to the trials, so long as they were together.

“You never told me you took custody of Elaine,” Tabby finally said, turning to him.

“Well, it was the only thing to do,” Thomas said matter-of-factly.

“You could have dumped her in foster care,” Tabby pointed out.

“Absolutely not!” Thomas was indignant.

“I’m just saying, it was a good thing to do.” Tabby’s gaze swept down. “She’s lucky she has you.”

“You have me, too.” Thomas lifted her chin to look her in the eye. “Don’t forget it.”

She blushed.

Thomas drew her closer. “I’d do anything for you,” he insisted. “If you want to go to vet school–”

“Oh, don’t let Dr. Appleshine get you on this tangent again!” Tabby said, looking displeased. “We’ve talked about this, and I’m not interested!”

“But you could change your mind,” Thomas said, taking her hoof, “and I want you to be aware of your options. I have this three year contract in Misty Hollow; but after that, we could go anywhere.”

“You’d… go with me?” Tabby asked hesitantly.

“Yes–wherever you go, I want to be with you. I want to marry you!” Thomas hadn’t planned for that, and it wasn’t exactly how he had seen this conversation going, but he didn’t regret having spoken. He waited with baited breath for her response.

Tabby looked momentarily taken aback, but quickly recovered her equanimity. “The last time I agreed to that–and it wasn’t so long ago–it didn’t turn out well,” she observed.

“This is different, and you know it,” Thomas protested.

“I know that whatever happens, I want to be with you,” Tabby said softly. “Yes, I will marry you.”

And in the resulting kiss, her coiffure was well and truly dislodged.