“This is going to be so much fun!” Elaine bubbled over with enthusiasm. “I’m so excited to be here! I can’t wait to start tomorrow!” She had just arrived in Misty Hollow earlier that evening, freshly independent of academia and ready to start life as a practicing veterinarian.
“You can take some time off to get settled, you know,” Thomas pointed out, putting his foreleg around Tabby’s shoulder and drawing her closer to him on the couch.
Elaine smiled to herself. Though the siblings had been glad to be reunited, Thomas was clearly getting impatient with his sister’s continued presence in Tabby’s living room as the night wore on. Aloud she said, “I’ve been in school how many years, and I’m not going to put off seeing patients as a board-certified vet any longer!”
“If you’re so eager to get started in the morning, maybe you should think about getting some sleep,” Thomas said with a pointed look at the clock.
“My, look at the time,” Elaine said innocently. “I’ll just, ah, be going to my room. Don’t stay up too late yourself,” she said with a smirk aimed at her brother.
“Get out of here,” he said good-naturedly.
Elaine grinned as she walked off. She would be underhoof, certainly–she wasn’t sure either Tabby or Thomas had fully considered the ramifications of another pony living under Tabby’s roof. Having a roommate did sacrifice a certain amount of freedom. Who knew, maybe it would become tedious and she would move into her own apartment. But for now, Elaine was just looking forward to starting this new chapter in life, and fully unconcerned about being in the way.
* * *
“Things are going to be different at the clinic now,” Thomas said when they were alone. This was a topic he had avoided broaching with her, uncertain of how she would take it and not entirely pleased with it himself, but it needed to be done. “With Elaine being licensed for magic, you’ll be able to assist her. I want you to be her primary assistant.”
“What?” Tabby was taken aback. “But we’re a team! Belen is going to be Elaine’s assistant.”
“From a business perspective, it doesn’t make sense to keep a perfectly competent magic user benched,” Thomas pointed out.
“Is that a sports analogy? Because those go right over my head,” Tabby protested.
“Right. Um. Well, I did promise Dr. Appleshine that I wouldn’t hold you back, and with this opportunity it would be negligent not to make some adjustments based on compatible skill sets.”
“You’re replacing me.”
“Well, technically, as my assistant, yes; but it’s not as dire as you’re making it out to be. We’re still going to be working together, it’s just the work teams will be split up a little differently than we’re used to. You know I can’t replace you in my life.”
“Hmph,” said Tabby.
* * *
Elaine’s enthusiasm carried over into the next day, as she and Tabby stepped out into the street to begin the commute to work.
“Look at the flowers in that garden! What are they, crocus? They’re lovely… ooh, that’s a nice tree. What a darling little river… what would you call that, a creek? A stream?” All the natural wonders were of note to the city-bred mare.
Tabby listened with a glimmer of amusement in her eyes. “Don’t you have any natural features in the city?” she asked.
“Not like this!” Elaine insisted. “Everything is so… so magical! Oh, look, a butterfly! I’m glad Thomas took this opportunity. I mean, besides the obvious of finding you, of course; he’s always wanted somewhere to truly belong, I think,” she prattled on. “Mom would talk about her life growing up, and it sounded so idyllic, everyone knowing each other… or at least, all the ponies allied with her father’s company.” Elaine lapsed into contemplative silence.
“Did Thomas talk to you about the new team structure?” Tabby changed the subject. “I guess I’m going to be your primary assistant.”
“You’re disappointed that you’re losing out on time with him, aren’t you?” Elaine giggled. “Don’t worry, it will give me a chance to fill you in on all the embarrassing moments of his life. Anyway, have you two been making any plans? Any big announcements coming up that I should know about? I’m joking…” Nonetheless Elaine kept a close eye on her companion’s face, which suddenly took on a very alarmed appearance. “Unless there is! Oh my gosh, you’ve talked about it, haven’t you? You’re getting married!”
“M-maybe…” Tabby stammered.
“I knew it!” Elaine exclaimed.
“It wasn’t so long ago you were counseling me to run the other direction.”
“Yes, well, I was misinformed at the time,” said Elaine with aplomb, “and I’m happy to accept that I was wrong.”
“But don’t say anything! It’s a secret!” Tabby said pleadingly. “It’s just… I need to mentally prepare myself.”
“You have my word,” Elaine promised, choosing not to go into the details of the bride-to-be’s decision at this time. There would be plenty of time. “Oh, we’re going to be sisters! Isn’t this exciting?!”
“Hi, Tabby. Hi, Elaine. What’s exciting?” asked a rather morose-looking Strawberry who came up from behind.
“Why, Strawberry, what’s wrong?” Elaine, always very in tune to the emotions of those around her, immediately turned a concerned eye on the mare.
Strawberry spoke through sniffles. “Oh, it’s nothing–it’s just–last night–Vanguard told me…” But here she broke into tears and was unable to continue. Elaine found a tissue in her satchel and handed it to her.
“He told you WHAT?” asked a thunderous-looking Tabby.
“That we won’t be married this summer–“
“That cad!” Tabby seethed, obviously overcome with strong emotion. “He promised me–and I believed him–I’m going to kill him!” and she teleported off in a fit of rage.
“Oh, Strawberry,” said Elaine consolingly, and trusting Tabby not to do anything too rash. “I know this is hard. But–“
“He’s been asked to do an exchange in Vulcanoplis,” the distraught mare was finally able to continue.
“Oh!” said Elaine, understanding. “So the wedding isn’t completely off; it’s postponed.”
“Right,” said Strawberry tearfully. “And that wouldn’t be so hard, if he was still here. But he’s going to be gone for six months!”
“You poor thing,” said Elaine, nonetheless sympathetic. “When does the exchange start?”
“He’s starting with the summer session–he leaves next Friday!”
“These months are going to go by so fast, though. I promise you,” said Elaine, remaining upbeat. “What if you visit him? Surely they have semester breaks over there. That would help break up the separation. I’ll make Thomas give you the time off, so don’t worry about that.”
“Oh, I don’t know if I could,” Strawberry fretted. “Oh, dear–Tabby went off to see him, didn’t she? I’m not sure she got the whole story.”
“I’m sure they’ll work it out,” said Elaine with great optimism.
* * *
“Give me one good reason not to smite you here and now!” Tabby shouted, barging into Vanguard’s office and planting her forehooves firmly on his desk, her horn crackling with pent-up energy.
Vanguard looked up at her with pained resignation. “I see where you’re coming from,” he said diplomatically, holding up his hooves in a placating manner. “I do. Believe me.”
“So?” Tabby demanded. “Why did you do it?”
Vanguard sighed, leaning back in his chair. “What did Strawberry tell you?”
“That you’re leaving, and the wedding is canceled!”
“Well, that is true, but it’s not what you think,” Vanguard said. “The wedding is off for this year. I’ve been called to do an exchange abroad.”
“So, tell them you can’t do it,” Tabby scoffed. But she did set her hooves back on the ground and took a more relaxed stance.
“This is… fulfilling a debt I owe,” Vanguard admitted ruefully. “Believe me, I’m not any happier about it than you or Strawberry. I wouldn’t even consider it, only…” He gazed contemplatively into the wall before focusing on Tabby again. “Haven’t you ever done anything really stupid, something that you came to regret?”
“Me? Never!” Tabby said quickly. “Well… okay, maybe.”
“I’m doing this as a favor for one of my old professors, who helped me out of a tight spot academically. I owe it to him. Putting off marrying Strawberry is the price I have to pay for my poor decisions of the past.”
“You’re making her suffer too, though. It’s not just about you,” Tabby pointed out.
“You’re right. But I am coming back, and we’ll get back on track. This is just a temporary setback.”
“I’m watching you,” Tabby said with a significant look.
* * *
Emotions seemed to be running high for everyone at the clinic that day, and Thomas hadn’t quite worked out what all the issues were and how they were connected. But Strawberry was close to tears, Elaine was wound-up, and Tabby was missing in action. Only Belen was keeping a level head.
“Tabby told me everything!” Elaine announced, striding into her brother’s office.
“About what?” Thomas asked.
“About the wedding, of course! Actually, she didn’t really tell me anything. I just guessed, and her facial expressions gave me the answers I needed,” said Elaine, smiling widely.
“In that case, I can ask, will you be my attendant?”
“Of course!” said Elaine, beaming. “Ooh, I can start planning the bachelor party!”
“What? No,” Thomas protested, “I just meant, stand up in church and sign the marriage certificate, that sort of thing.”
“Don’t worry about a thing! I got this!” and she went off in a rush. But not a second later and she poked her head around the doorframe. “And give Strawberry whatever vacation time she needs!”
Eventually, maybe someone would tell him what was going on.
Not long after, Tabby showed up, in something of a mood. She let herself into his office and paced wordlessly back and forth in front of his desk.
“You okay?” Thomas asked, not sure if she was still smarting from their conversation last night.
“Yeah, I just had to deal with Vanguard,” she said with a grim look.
Thomas frowned. “Is he okay?” Still, it directed her ire in a new direction, and for that he was grateful.
“We worked things out,” Tabby demurred. “We’ve come to an… understanding.”
Thomas made a mental note to check in with Van later and see what damage had been done. “Does this have to do with what Strawberry is upset about?”
“Yes. Haven’t you heard?” Tabby asked incredulously.
“Everyone is running around doing their own thing and being very vague with details,” said Thomas with just a bit of petulance.
“Oh. Yeah, well, he’s leaving. I mean, he’s coming back. It’s for an exchange or whatever academics do,” Tabby said disparagingly. “But he will be gone when they’re supposed to be getting married, so that’s not happening when it was supposed to be happening.”
“Ahh,” said Thomas, vaguely following her roundabout language.
“Anyway, we definitely can’t let anyone else know about the engagement now,” Tabby said, resuming her path of pacing, “because it would be like rubbing Strawberry’s face in it when she’s down, and I’m not going to do that.”
“No, I suppose not,” said Thomas contemplatively. “As long as Elaine doesn’t let anything slip.”
“She wouldn’t… would she?” Tabby looked at him inquisitively.
“Since she spilled the secret of my Ritz cracker apple pie, I wouldn’t put anything past her.” Thomas frowned.
“What?” Tabby’s forehead crinkled in confusion. “Oh, wait, never mind, you can’t tell me because we’re not working together–don’t worry, I’ll just get the story from Elaine.” She flounced off.