The Village Called Respite

There is a hidden village deep within the untamed forest surrounding Neighagara Falls. Should one ever journey to this village, those who live there will welcome them for a simple price: love.
When the village accepts a new family from Cloudsdale, a not-quite-altruistic pair of changeling siblings offer a young filly friendship and a chance to find her place in the strange village she hopes to call home.


14. A Changeling Dwelling

Punctuality was, in Aspire’s expert opinion, a wonderful thing.

Punctuality meant that everyone was on time, everything was prepared and ready to go, and there weren’t any hiccups that could’ve easily been prevented if the first two conditions were met. Of course, there were exceptions to the rule. Food didn’t necessarily have to be on the table at seven ‘o clock on the dot, but it should at least be nearing the “ready to eat” stage. Or, at very least, it should be started well in advance if it took a while to cook.

It meant that annoyingly catty sisters should have done their mane up and braided it properly long before—say, when she woke up that morning, for instance—since the entire idea of inviting their friend to dinner was her idea in the first place. It meant that fathers who claimed to know the importance of giving a warm welcome and being on time to events should’ve been ready to greet their guests, not lounging on the back porch, looking out into the forest with Mister Haberdasher, and smoking a cigar as he discussed some of the drills he had to run through during his obligatory Village Reserve Guard training.

One might also argue that it meant the loving mother who had agreed to cook for everyone—because she was a wonderful, gracious host, even when it wasn’t expected—didn’t decide that right before Sure Stroke and her family came over was the optimal time to have a session with Miss Bright Sky to discuss how sad she was when her parents got uppity that she chose a job in Manehattan over one in Cloudsdale because she met Mister Haberdasher.

“I know it seems silly,” Miss Bright Sky said, her voice cracking as she wiped a hoof across her face to chase away the tears gathering in her eyes. “But I never thought mom would get so mad! And say those things about … oh, Celestia!” She buried her face in her hooves, her shoulders shook as she sobbed.

Aspire winced. Okay, so maybe Miss Bright Sky needed to have a session this badly. He watched as Faith held her close, rubbing small circles in her back.

“I’m sorry.” Miss Bright Sky’s wings unfurled to wrap around her barrel. “You must think I’m silly acting like this.”

Faith shook her head. “Not at all, honey,” she crooned. “It’s perfectly natural to get upset at something like this. You can let it all out with me.”

“I just—I’ve never seen her look so disappointed in me! Not even when I came home drunk after a party!”

“I understand, Bright Sky. Oh, believe me, I understand.” Faith drew back a little and cupped Miss Bright Sky’s chin, tilting it up so she could look her patient in the eye. With a sad smile, she brushed her hooves away and helped wipe away the tears. “Having your parents’ approval can cause a lot of stress on ponies.”

A pang shot through Aspire’s chest. Okay, so maybe Miss Bright Sky needed to have this session really badly. It would’ve been a bit more convenient if it happened earlier, but …

A single flick of his tongue and the foul taste of rotting fruit told him all he needed to know. He’s keep his mouth shut and let his mother help her patient.

Of course, that didn’t change the fact that there were three others in the house who desperately deserved some nagging.

Aspire slunk down the hall, setting his jaw as he approached Esalen’s room. He poked his head around the door and, sure enough, found her braiding her mane. Blinking, he thought back a moment. No, she was almost done last time he checked. She wasn’t braiding it.

Esalen was rebraiding it.

He drew in a sharp breath through his nose. Oh, just crack my carapace. “You’ve braided your mane how many times now?” he asked, not bothering to keep the irritation out of his tone. “Four?”

Esalen flicked an ear, but didn’t turn to acknowledge him as she continued weaving her magic, slowly twisting her mane. “Just because some of us like to keep their mane nice and short so they can just roll out of bed, take a shower, and shake it a few times so it looks like they’ve been letting birds take roost doesn’t mean the rest of us don’t like to add their own style to theirs!” she shot back, then added, “And for your information, this is only the second time. I wasn’t paying attention, so the first one was lopsided and made me look stupid.”

Wrinkling his snout, Aspire thought of how Esalen might look with a lopsided or loose braid.

Slowly, a smirk made its way across his muzzle. “Y’know—”

She turned and fixed him with a glare, her eyes glowed green. “I swear, if a pun comes out of your mouth right now, I’m going to cover your face in slime and watch you writhe about on the floor until you pass out!”

“Hey, don’t pin this all on me! You’re the one getting all wound tight over this!”

Before he could even think to bring out the others he’d whipped up, Esalen hissed. “Why you little …”

“Oh, fine.” Aspire shut his mouth with an audible click, but his smirk remained nonetheless. “You know she’s supposed to be here soon,” he said.

With a groan of dismay, Esalen returned to her braiding. Her reflection in the mirror betrayed her worry. “I know! Ugh! Why did my mane pick today to be uncooperative?”

“Murphy’s law, I suppose.” He shrugged and turned to walk down the hall. Though not before grinning broadly and turning over his shoulders, taking her bedroom door in his magic so he could quickly shut it. “Oh, Essy?”


“I just wanna say … your really shouldn’t get your mane in a bunch, it’s really the highlight of our day!”

Esalen slammed her hooves down on her vanity cabinet. “That’s it!” She leapt up, baring her fangs at him before she lunged forward with her hooves outstretched, ready to wring his neck.

Aspire was ready, though. With a flick of his magic, he slammed the door in her face, then flew down the hall. If his family was going to dawdle, then he’d at least have some fun with it.

He heard the door burst open, the buzzing of Esalen’s wings joined his own as she raced after him, hissing and cursing.

Just before the end of the hallway, he let himself drop to the floor, skidding to a halt just before they spilled out into the living room. Aspire turned and held a hoof to his mouth, beaming as he whispered “Mom’s in session with Bright Sky!”

Esalen hovered in front of him, her face contorted in a mask of righteous indignation. She glanced from him to the living room, chewing on her lip as she weighed her options. With a growl, she slowly landed and fixed him with a glare. “You’re dead when she finishes!” she hissed, her eyes flashed green again.

Hearing Faith’s voice, Aspire waggled his ears and motioned her to listen.

“… We can talk a little more if you like, dear. I’m all ears,” she said.

“No,” Miss Bright Sky replied, pausing to sniff. “I know you’ve all got dinner plans with the new neighbors—”

“Which you’re a part of,” Faith reminded her.

Miss Bright Sky ducked her head. “Yes. But I’d hate to be a burden.”

Aspire and Esalen cringed, pinning their ears back in unison.

That was the wrong thing to say. In fact, on the list of the most wrong things to say in front of their mother, it was at the top.

Faith sucked in a deep breath through her nose. Without looking, Aspire could already guess that she’d pulled away to fix Miss Bright Sky with a stern glare, as though the mare were one of her own nymphs.

“I may not be your mother, Bright Sky, but while you’re in my house, and having these sessions with me, you will not use that word to describe yourself again. Is that clear?”

“Y-Yes, ma’am,” Miss Bright Sky squeaked.

“Good girl.” Aspire flicked his tongue and tasted a mix of curdled milk—sheepishness—and light, fluffy sweet cake—relief. He flicked his ear as his mother continued, “As for this session, if you’d like to stop now, we can. That’s entirely up to you, though.”

There was a brief silence before she replied, “I think it might be for the best. You still have to cook and I can’t imagine you want to wait that long to start…”

Faith chuckled. “I can start whenever we’re done, but if you’re sure, we can stop here.” She sighed, the couch squeaked as she moved.

Aspire turned to peek around the banister to see what they were up to. He heard soft hoofsteps behind him, then felt Esalen’s shoulder brush against his as she joined him.

She nudged him and whispered, “Do you think she’s gonna let mom—”

He covered her mouth with a hoof, fixing her with a glare as he mouth, “Shut up and watch.”

Turning back, he watched as Miss Bright Sky shifted in her seat and glanced down at her hooves. “Um … Hab mentioned that he had to pay for his sessions …”

Faith shook her head. “Oh, honey, I know you’re uncomfortable around us, you don’t have to do that. Bits are just as good in Respite.”

“But you’ve housed us too, and Warm wouldn’t let us pay him.”

“My husband would rather tie a rock to his legs and jump in the lake. Believe me, you’re not the first he’s refused to accept money from. You can ask Abacus if you want.” She thought a moment, then added, “He teaches Aspire and Esalen’s age group. Really sweet stallion.”

Miss Bright Sky’s ears drooped, she hung her head. “But I should.” Slowly, she raised her head. “And I want to at least try it and see what it’s like.”

Esalen gasped. She gripped Aspire’s shoulder and leaned in to whisper, “She’s actually gonna do it!”

“Yes, she is,” he hissed out of the side of his mouth, his eyes still locked on the pair as his mother took a deep breath and nodded before rearing up to lay her hooves on Miss Bright Sky’s shoulders. “So shut up and watch, and don’t make her feel awkward about it!”

Ducking and letting her ears droop, Esalen mumbled the affirmative and watched in silence.

Faith nuzzled Miss Bright Sky’s nose, whispering a few words of comfort.

Craning his neck and perking up his ears, Aspire just managed to catch her saying, “I’ll only take a little since it’s your first time. This is going to leave you feeling a little tired, dear, and it might tickle. Kind of like when your leg falls asleep.”

Miss Bright Sky nodded. “O-Okay.”

“Still sure?”

Another nod.

“Okay then. Take a nice deep breath for me.” As Miss Bright Sky breathed in, Faith brought her lips close enough to almost touch hers. “Now just relax, exhale, and think of Hab. I’ll do the rest.”

Miss Bright Sky closed her eyes, a smile made its way across her muzzle. Then she exhaled slowly, just as Faith began to inhale.

Her eyes snapped open, then fluttered shut as the bright green glow of love began to pour from her mouth into Faith’s waiting jaws. Her knees shook, she held Faith’s shoulders tight as the changeling mare fed on the sweet nectar that was her love.

Aspire couldn’t help but run his tongue along his lips. He could taste her from here, even just seeing that smile that crossed her muzzle as she thought of Mister Haberdasher made her look so delectable. She was so full of love and affection for their friend that he had to remind himself of the basic tenants of the Caretakers:

Do not take what is not yours, or not offered to you. Give with kindness, ask politely, and you shall receive love in turn.

He closed his eyes and took a deep breath, focusing on something else—anything else. Like the fact that Sure Stroke was supposed to be coming over soon and things weren’t ready for her visit.

His eyes shot open. Aspire turned and grabbed Esalen by the shoulders, shaking her roughly as he began to babble, “Dear sweet chitin, no one in this house is even halfway ready for Sure Stroke’s family, and she’s supposed to be here any minute!” He stopped shaking her so he could lean in close, staring into her eyes. “Do you have any idea what this means?”

Esalen went cross-eyed and stumbled. “That you’re going to shake me until my brain leaks out of my ears?”

“No!” he snapped, stomping a hoof against the wood floor. “This is serious! We’ve spent all this time trying to make a good impression for changelings in Respite, we can’t just let her walk in and find things not ready! Especially with her parents coming too!”

“So we’ll all just sit and talk and stuff while mom makes dinner, like whenever we have our other friends over.” Snorting, Esalen brushed his hooves off her shoulders. “Seriously, Aspire. Relax. Not everything has to be in a perfectly neat setup a hundred percent of the time.”

Aspire recoiled, pressing his back against the wall. “You … you must be joking.”

“Not in the slightest. So what if we’re a little late?”

A noise somewhere between a whimper and a groan escaped his lips. “But then we’ll be bad hosts!”

Esalen brought a hoof to her forehead. “Aspire, I swear! Just freaking relax! She knows we’re friendly, she’s comfortable around us, and she’s finally stopped tasting like rotten catfish dipped in castor oil! We’re flying with a nice, rhythmic buzz—let it go on as is!”

His ears drooped. Aspire fixed her with his best wide-eyed stare.

She threw up her hooves. “Stop! Stop in the name of love! I’m not dealing with this right now!” Turning away, she flicked him across the snout with her tail. “Go pun at dad and Mister Haberdasher until they come inside if that’ll make you feel better!”

Aspire glared at her as she strode into the living room to greet their mother and Miss Bright Sky, and stuck his tongue out at her back. Then he turned and made his way through the kitchen to the door that led out to the back porch.

Not because she said so. No. Definitely not.

Because he definitely needed them to get moving.

Just as he lit his horn and wrapped his magic around the handle, the door pushed inward to reveal none other than Mister Haberdasher and his father.

“So, Stalwart runs the training program now, and from what I hear, he’s quite the hard—oh, hey, son!” Warm Welcome beamed at him and tussled his messy blue mane. His smile widened, his eyes flashed with a knowing gleam. “Came to bug us because we’re coming up on that time, eh?”

Aspire felt his cheeks burn. He looked down at his hooves and scuffed the floor. Really, his father had him pegged.

The way Mister Haberdasher sniggered didn’t help matters in that regard.

Warm patted Aspire’s head and stepped around him. “Don’t worry about it, son. I’m sure they won’t mind a little time just hanging out and talking.”

Aspire forced a smile and nodded stiffly before following his father through the kitchen, pressing himself against the wall as the mares plus Esalen walked in—the latter of whom decided to be cheeky and stuck her tongue out at him, full knowing that their father had shut down his tirade before it could start.

He considered retorting in kind, but a look at how Miss Bright Sky’s knees buckled, even with his mother supporting her, stopped him. The first time letting changeling feed was always the hardest, especially for outsiders who’d never allowed one to feed on them before.

Or those who hadn’t been fed on unwittingly by others. There were still the other three big hives, not to mention any small hives who lived in among the Equestrian populace.

Still, she was taking it rather well. She wasn’t cowering or trying to pull away from his mother at all. Rather, she seemed rather comfortable leaning against Faith for support until she was gently nudged into a seat at the table, where she was then joined by Mister Haberdasher.

Faith trotted over to the pantry and took out a jar of sweets, tilting it over until a few fell into her hoof. She held them out for Mister Haberdasher to take. “Make sure she eats those,” she said. “Bright Sky, I expect you to eat everything I put in front of you tonight. You’re going to need a lot since you’re not used to that.”

Miss Bright Sky nodded and gave a weak “Uh huh” as she took the sweets offered and began eating.

Smiling to himself, Aspire glanced over to watch as Faith and Esalen began getting things ready to make dinner. “So what’re we eating?” he asked.

“I thought we’d make a fish, rice, and steamed vegetables,” Faith replied, looking over her shoulder and giving a small smile of her own. “A bit more vegetables than usual in case our newest villagers and Miss Bright Sky don’t want to try salmon.”

“I’ve tried salmon,” Miss Bright Sky spoke softly. “Had a few griffon friends.”

“Then I’ll make you some as well. The protein will help. Aspire,” she said, glancing back at him. “Keep an ear out for the door, please.”

It took every fiber of his self-control for Aspire not to roll his eyes and fire off a “No, really? I thought I would dawdle today.”

Instead, he just smiled and nodded dutifully. Not my hill to die on. Just shut up and do what she says, so everything goes well tonight.

Aspire slipped out of the kitchen, ducking around the banister so he could let his smile drop and his ears droop. He sat back on his haunches and let out a frustrated growl, holding his hooves up as if to wring someone’s neck. At this point, he wasn’t sure which of his family it’d be, just that he was fixing to go nuts.

He took a few deep breaths and closed his eyes, searching for his happy place. A nice book, maybe working a few math problems with his friends at Sweet Treat’s place. That would be a rather good time. Especially if Esalen and Sure Stroke were there.

Wrinkling his snout, he cast a glance toward the kitchen. Esalen was being a pain, so maybe not her. Just Sure Stroke. He could help her with some math homework.

He pricked up his ears. Actually, that wasn’t a bad idea …

Three knocks against the door jarred him from his thoughts, a bright grin spread across his muzzle. He stood and hurried to greet their guests.




Sure Stroke tried to push her nerves aside, she tried so hard to convince herself that this was just going to be a nice dinner with her friends and their family—just like meeting new neighbors back in Cloudsdale.

It just so happened that these neighbors looked at ponies as both friend and food source.

The visage of Aspire’s predatory grin, the way he looked at her with eyes full of hunger, flashed through her mind. A cold shiver ran down her spine at the memory of how he and Esalen talked about how she tasted, and how easily it had been to trick her.

She shook her head. They’d been quite nice to her since she’d moved in, and were being rather patient with her all the way through. Surely she could extend them the same courtesy and accept their invitation. For all she knew, they were going to sit down and eat like any pony family.

Maybe she could even get a peek into how the changelings in Respite made their homes—that’d make for some interesting drawings when she had the time!

Still, the dream nagged at the back of her mind. Like all the fairytales of changelings tricking ponies and charming them, leading them into the depths of their hives to give them all their love and remain as little more than servants or captive lovers.

Almost as though she were reading some of the history of the Wars of the Three Tribes.

Sure Stroke took a deep breath. The tribes had changed since those days, though. Who was to say that changelings hadn’t changed since those stories were written?

Why shouldn’t she let Aspire and Esalen’s actions speak as she had before that dream?

She set her jaw. They’ve given me a chance, so I’ll give them the same.

Muffled hoofsteps thudded against the wood floor—a quick cadence, but rather light like a foal running.

Or in this case, she thought with a smile, watching as the latch clicked and the door pulled open to reveal Aspire’s eager grin. A nymph.

“Hey, Sure Stroke!” he greeted.

With a shy duck of her head, Sure Stroke gave a little wave. “Hi, Aspire.”

His grin broadened, he turned to offer her parents a little bow of his head.“Nice to see you both again, Mister Drizzly and Missus Skydancer.”

“You as well, Aspire,” Drizzly replied. “It’s been a few weeks, I think.”

Aspire bobbed his head. “About two weeks.” He blinked. “You look sleepy.”

Drizzly stayed quiet for a moment, regarding Aspire through half-lidded eyes.

Chewing on her lip, Sure Stroke looked from her father, to Aspire, then to her mother. Had her friend just poked the wrong button.

Then, almost mercifully, the corner of Drizzly’s mouth tugged into a small smirk. “I’ve been unpacking and working since we got here,” he said. “We only just finished.”

“That doesn’t sound fun,” Aspire muttered, wrinkling his snout.

Skydancer chose that moment to step in. “True,” she said with a wink. “But it makes it easier for me to cook when I don’t have to go digging through boxes to find pots and pans.”

Sure Stroke couldn’t help but giggle at the way Aspire balked. “That sounds even less fun,” he noted. Shaking his head, he pulled the door open wider and stepped to the side. “Come on in! Mom’s just getting started—” he broke off for a second, pulling a face like he was trying his best not to say something “—so I guess the plan is to hang out and talk.”

“Talking is good,” Drizzly said. Sure Stroke noticed him steal a glance at Skydancer as he led them inside.

Changeling dwellings were surprisingly not as different as she would’ve thought. There was still a decent coating of that weird, goop on the walls, collected in the corners so that it almost looked like webbing, and even formed into what looked like cushions and pod-seats in front of the fireplace. But there wasn’t anything too alien other than that.

Okay, so it was already pretty alien. But at least there weren’t any ponies wrapped in cocoons and stuck to the walls.

A quick glance to the ceiling confirmed that there were no ponies hanging their either.

Her eyes wandered toward the door off to the side, catching sight of a table leg that was, to her relief, made of wood rather than slime. The kitchen or the dining room, perhaps.

If there was ever a place you were going to keep ponies for food … wait, stop that!

Warm Welcome chose that moment to walk out from the kitchen with a bright smile on his face. “Glad you all could join us tonight!” He walked over and offered Drizzly Days a hoofshake. “I’ll have to apologize for us running a little late, but an old friend’s girlfriend needed a little help with something bothering her and my wife is always eager to help.”

“No trouble at all.” Drizzly tilted his head. “What sort of problem, if I might ask.”

Warm Welcome made to speak, but stopped short and glanced toward the kitchen. “I’m not sure I can give specifics, but let’s just call them emotional issues.”

“Oh!” Skydancer’s eyes lit up. “Your wife is a psychiatrist?”

“I … think that’s the official term.” He furrowed his brows. “It’s been a while since we’ve gone to the city, and the villagers here don’t really leave for care unless it’s a really intensive surgery or something. Most of the psychi—whatsit—”

“Psychiatric,” Sure Stroke corrected in almost perfect unison with her parents.

“That, yes. Faithy handles most of those issues. Queen Euphoria handles the more serious cases.” For some reason, the instant Warm Welcome finished speaking, Aspire had a coughing fit that sounded suspiciously like he was trying to smother laughter.

Sure Stroke blinked and nudged his shoulder, tilting her head as if to ask.

He smirked and shook his head. “Not right now. Ask again later.” Turning away, he called toward the kitchen, “Essy! Get your lopsidedly braided self out here and say hi!”

Hearing Warm Welcome sigh, Sure Stroke flicked an ear in time to catch him mutter, “You’re just asking for a fight today, aren’t you son?”

Naturally, Aspire turned and beamed at him, then fixed his gaze on the kitchen door. His eyes lit up. “Oh, there you are!”

Uh oh. Sure Stroke hid a smile as she followed his gaze and found Esalen glaring at Aspire through angry pink eyes.

Angry pink, with a rather notable green tinge to them. And was it just her, or did Esalen’s fangs seem a little bit longer?

Esalen closed her eyes and sucked her lips over her fangs. Then, when she opened them and smiled, everything was back to normal. Except for the rather dangerous gleam in her eyes as she walked over and wrapped Sure Stroke in a tight hug. “Thanks for coming!” she said, drawing back to stand on four hooves. Her eyes flitted toward Aspire. “Ignore the bird’s nest with a mouth over here. He’s looking for the eggs that were supposed to be resting in that bush he calls a mane.”

“Bush or nest, you can only pick one for the joke to work,” Aspire shot back. “You quip as bad as Toola holds back giggles—which is only slightly better than your excuses!”

Puffing up her cheeks, Esalen readied for another salvo, but Warm Welcome stepped between them.

“Now, now, let’s not spend the entire night sniping at each other, my troublesome little nymphs.” His dark blue eyes danced with mirth. “Otherwise, I’m sure your mother and I can pull out the hatchling pictures. There’s a lot of stories in that album …”

It was almost fascinating to watch the effect his words had on the nymphs: the mischievous gleam in their eyes vanished, both backpedaled away from him and stood close by her side as they gaped in utter horror at their father.

“You wouldn’t!” they spoke in unison.

For the first time since meeting him, Sure Stroke saw Warm Welcome give the same fanged grin all the changelings in Respite liked to show when they had mischief on their mind “Wouldn’t we?” he asked.

They hung their heads. It seemed that even changeling nymphs knew better than to accept their parents’ challenge once the photo albums came out.

Sure Stroke made note to make sure they never had the chance to cajole her parents into giving them a peek at hers. There wasn’t a doubt in her mind that there would be no end to their teasing if they ever got the chance to look at just one of those pictures.

“Why don’t you two show Sure Stroke around the house?” Warm asked, his wicked grin slipped away to his more typical smile. He waved them down the hallway on the other side of the living room. “It’ll be a little while before dinner’s ready, and I doubt you all want to hang around us old folk all night.”

“Old?” Skydancer repeated, raising a brow at him. “Speak for yourself!” Turning her attention to Sure Stroke, she leaned forward and nuzzled the top of her mane, then nudged her along. “Go spend time with your friends.” Dropping her voice to a whisper, she added, “If you feel uncomfortable, come straight back. If they try to chase or grab you, yell.”

They’d gone over that very thing before. Several times.

Sure Stroke nodded along with her, but held onto the hope that it wouldn’t come to that. With a bit of a forced smile, she nuzzled her mother’s cheek, then moved to follow Aspire and Esalen down the hall.

“Come on,” Esalen said as she led the way. “We’ll show you our rooms and hang out in one of them for a bit. Mine’s the first door on the left.” She stopped in mid step, her ears stood up. Turning slowly, she ducked her head between her shoulders. “You, um, might want a heads up, but my room is probably going to be a lot different than what you’re used to.”

“I just saw slime furniture,” Sure Stroke deadpanned. “And seats that looked like half a cocoon.”

Aspire laughed. “She’s got ya there, Essy!”

“Oh shut up! I was just trying to let her know so she didn’t freak out!” Her cheeks darkened a touch, she looked away and shuffled down the hall, pinning her ears back as Aspire sniggered. Glancing over her shoulder, she mumbled something under her breath, too low for Sure Stroke to hear more than “… wasn’t the one panicking … love drunk nymph …”

Sure Stroke tilted her head and stole a quick glance to Aspire, but he either didn’t hear or didn’t care. He just smiled and motioned her to follow along.

As they came to the first door on the left, Esalen pushed up on the latch and opened it, then waved her in. “Step right in, mind the slime, though. It tends to stick to just about anything.”

Halting in mid step, Sure Stroke looked down to find her hoof just a hairs width from another meeting with changeling cocoon slime.She looked ahead, noting that the slime seemed to gather mostly in the corners, just like the living room, save for a rather large cocoon looking object against the wall where a bed would normally be.

The slime creeping out onto the floor was easily avoided with a few quick hops, but she kept looking back toward the bed, then letting her eyes wander over the furniture.

In a rather perplexing show of familiarity and foreign nature, Esalen’s room was furnished with a regular wooden desk, a dresser, a closet, and even a vanity cabinet like a normal filly might have—though, hers was painted black and had sugar pink hearts that matched the color of her mane for handles.

The difference lay in the two seats in front of the desk and vanity cabinet—they weren’t actually seats, just cocoon slime cushions that were shaped like half of a cocoon, just like those in the living room. Only smaller.

Out of the corner of her eye, she noticed something else: a clock stuck to the wall with a thick wad of slime, hanging right above Esalen’s desk.

Sure Stroke blinked. “Well,” she began, “I guess that takes away the hassle of dad having to use a stud finder, hammer, and nail.”

“Huh?” Both siblings tilted their head.

Rolling her eyes, she pointed at the clock. “That.”

They followed her hoof. “Oh!” Esalen said. “Um, yeah, I guess it does. I mean, we use it for a lot of things, y’know.”

Sure Stroke furrowed her brows. “So, you don’t use nails at all?”

“Of course we do! Just not for stuff like this.” With a wave of her hoof, she smiled. “It’s got a more changeling-y feel to it. Plus it makes it easier to put things away.” To demonstrate, she jabbed her hoof into the slime and pulled out a scrunchy. “See?”

“And it just feels nice to come home after school and flop down in a nice, warm, bedpod made of your own slime!” Aspire supplied helpfully.

A shudder ran down Sure Stroke’s spine, but she forced a smile. “Right. I see.” Give me a warm mattress and sheets any day. Looking back at the clock, she tilted her head, then glanced at the siblings again. “So, what do you do if the slime starts to … not stick?”

Slowly, they turned to one another, sharing a blank stare. Aspire shrugged, motioning toward the clock. “It’s your room.”

“Right.” Esalen gave the clock a once over and frowned. “It does look like it could use another coat about now, anyway.”

Sure Stroke watched in muted fascination as Esalen’s cheeks puffed out similar to how Aspire’s had back in the forest. Then, she reared back and spat. A wad of slime the size of a hoofball shot forth from her mouth and splattered against the wall, effectively gluing the clock in place.

Blinking, Sure Stroke could only stare. Oh. Duh. “Well … I feel silly.”

The pair grinned. “You’re not silly,” they said together.

“Well,” Aspire added after a second of though, “maybe a little silly. But you’re still new, so it’s fine.”

Sure Stroke rolled her eyes, but found herself unable to hide a smile. “How very magnanimous of you. I feel so very lucky to know you, Sir Aspire.” Bowing low, she spread her wings like the pegasus guards back home. “It’s truly an honor to be in your presence.”

In almost perfect unison, Aspire and Esalen stuck out their long, reptilian tongues and waggled them at her.

Her brows flatlined. “Really?”

“Really,” Esalen replied. Tossing her head toward the door, she nudged Aspire out. “C’mon, you can see the walking bird’s nest’s lair next. Be warned: you’re about to see more books than any sane pony or changeling should ever own.”

Aspire just shrugged and led them toward the door directly across from Esalen’s. He nudged it open, walking inside without waiting as she had. “It’s not gonna be much of a shock or anything,” he said, stepping around the slime that spilled onto the floor with practiced ease. “I mean, really, it’s just a few books.”

“Just a few books” turned out to be three entire bookcases stocked completely full. While Esalen had thing a typical filly might have in her room (plus a decent coating of slime for reasons), Aspire’s seemed almost plain by comparison. There were the bookshelves, a few posters of characters like Daring Do and changelings she didn’t recognize, and a desk that looked like a dust devil had sent everything flying, only for Aspire to hastily throw it back on randomly.

A book with a red cover and ribbon to mark his place, so thick that it was almost half the size of her head, caught her eye. Sure Stroke gaped. “Are you reading that or using it to hit other ponies?”

“Huh?” Aspire followed her eyes, then snorted when he saw what she was looking at. “Nah, it’s an unabridged copy. I like reading. A lot.” Thinking on it for a moment, he smirked and added, “Though, it does make for a nice projectile when Essy gets too catty.”

Esalen snorted. “Try it and see what happens to your collection. I dare you.”

Giving a lazy shrug, Aspire turned toward his bed-cocoon-thing and took a running leap, landing on his stomach with a sickening, squelching noise as the green slime let him sink into it. Then he bounced and flipped onto his back. He folded his hooves behind his head and swished his tail. “Take a seat,” he said, waving at the bed as Esalen hopped up to join him. “Plenty of room for us all to kick back and relax.”

Sure Stroke watched as Esalen seemed to sink down into the slime while she settled in. Tilting her head, she approached slowly. Reaching forward, she pressed a hoof into the slime, and promptly drew back with a squeak as it began to sink into the cocoon.

“Just hop right on,” Esalen said, patting a space beside her. “It’s easier than trying to climb in the first time.”

Eying the cocoon for a moment longer, Sure Stroke gave a shrug and opted to take her advice. With a little flap of her wings, she hopped over the edge and landed beside Esalen.

Then she promptly began to sink into the strange, gelatinous substance.

Alarm bells rang in her head. Yelping, she leapt and beat her wings as hard as she could, shooting straight up until her head hit the ceiling.

Sure Stroke clapped her hooves over her head. “Ow …”

The sound of chittering laughter made her ears twitch. She glared down at the nymphs, gritting her teeth as they rolled about in Aspire’s bed. “That’s not funny!”

“Yes it is!” Aspire said in between laughs. He rolled over onto his stomach and slapped a hoof against his bed, grinning up at her. “You’ve just gotta relax like you’re trying to float in water! The bedpod will do the rest!”

Sure Stroke let out a little whine, letting her ears droop. It felt so weird. How in Celestia’s name could they sleep in that sort of thing?

I’m supposed to be giving this whole thing a chance. So … I guess this is part of it. She gulped. Alright, buck it in the face. I’m just going to slowly land, and try to ignore what this stuff is. It’s a water bed right now. A green, gooey, slimy water bed. Unbidden, a shudder ran down her spine. Every fiber of her being told her to stay away from that goop, it just wasn’t right.

To her, at least. To them, and to others in Respite, this was all just the norm.

Swallowing again, she allowed herself to descend. She couldn’t, however, help but pull a face when she felt her hooves touch the slime. Her body shook as she stopped flapping and sat back on her haunches, a whimper escaped the back of her throat when she began to sink.

“Just relax,” Esalen reminded her. “Take a deep breath, sit back, and let your self float.” She laid back in the slime and spread her legs out wide to show. “It’ll form right to your body and support you.”

A tremble ran through her body. Sure Stroke gave a stiff nod, then sat back. The slime moulded around her, letting her rump sink while the bulk of its support went to her shoulders and neck.

Just like a water bed, but with the same sticky goop that had been all over her legs just a day before.

She blinked. “This … is odd. I feel like I’m falling, but I’m not, and I’m not sure if I like it.”

Aspire and Esalen smiled.

“That’s a normal reaction for visitors,” Aspire said, nodding knowingly. “You’ll get used to it after a while.”

“Yeah, once you get over the initial hangup.” Esalen turned and smiled at Aspire. “Hey, bird’s nest, feel like getting us some drinks? Be a nice host, since we’re in your room and all?”

His smile fell. “You did that on purpose. You waited right until I got myself all comfortable to ask.”

Sure Stroke had to hold back a bout of giggles as Esalen ducked her head and fluttered her eyelashes at him, “Would I really do such a thing?” the pink-haired nymph cooed.

Aspire fixed her with a deadpan stare. “Yes, and you just did.” With a sigh, he stood and walked forward—as if he wasn’t standing in the middle of some gelatinous cocoon thing—then hopped out. “Whatever. What do you want, Sure Stroke?”

Glancing from Esalen to Aspire, she ducked her head. “Um, you don’t have to—”

“It’s fine.” He waved her off. “We’ve got tea, juice, water, and milk.”

“Um. Tea is fine, if it wouldn’t be too much trouble.”

“It isn’t.” With a smile, he trotted to the door. “Play nice, you two! Essy, no enacting our fiendish plan to find all her tickle spots so we can tell Nimble ‘till I get back!”

Esalen huffed and crossed her hooves. “You suck. And I’ll have—”

“Whatever I bring you. She’s the guest, you’re not. So nyeh!” Sticking his tongue out once again, he slipped out of the room and trotted down the hall.

Rolling her eyes, Esalen scooted herself so she was facing Sure Stroke. “Well, now that he’s gone, we can do the gossiping thing.”

Sure Stroke felt her breath hitch. Uh oh. “Oh … yay?”

“Oh, come on! It’s not like I’m asking you to give me all your life secrets! Just fun stuff! Starting off, your cuts have healed up really nicely, I see. How’s your coat feel after its first meeting with changeling slime?”

“It felt like I let ice cream melt all over it at first.” She rubbed her shin. “I had to scrub hard. A lot.”

“I’ll bet. Our slime doesn’t like to let go that easy. I’m guessing you got it wet first, right? Warm water?” At Sure Stroke’s nod, she gave a pitying smile. “That’s the worst thing to do, really. Next time use vegetable oil or hoof polish remover first. It makes the slime run right off after a couple minutes, like water off a duck’s back.”



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