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.
http://www.fimfiction.net/story/291019/the-village-called-respite

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30. A Letter from Home

Esalen stood shoulder to shoulder with Toola Roola, both giggling at the way Sure Stroke surveyed the crowd around the village center with slack jawed awe. She ran her tongue over her lips purely for the fun of it, the popping taste of surprise and shock tickling her taste buds.

“You and Aspire never said this was such a big thing,” Sure Stroke muttered out of the side of her mouth.

Mail day was an event in Respite. Everyone with friends and family across Equestria, changeling and pony alike, showed up to wait impatiently for Hawkeye and Merryweather to deliver their sack full of letters, packages, and newspapers.

“It must have slipped our minds,” Esalen said with such syrupy sweet, feigned innocence that even their parents fell into sniggers or chitters over.

To her left, Aspire gave a matching smile. “I was too busy trying to sneak a peek at that drawing you did for me. And now that I have it, I’m quite sure I was justified in trying.”

Their father’s familiar chuckle tickled her ears. “Now, nymphs,” he began with amusement tinging his voice, “don’t you think you should give Sure Stroke a little break on her first mail day?”

Esalen pursed her lips, slowly turning to share a look with Aspire. They nodded in unison, then faced him and chimed together, “Never!”

Snorting, Drizzly Days shook his head and whipped his seemingly perpetually matted mane back and forth. “Saw that one coming like a storm front a mile off,” he muttered. With a crooked smile, he tussled his daughters mane before turning his attention to Skydancer. “You think Anvil Crawler and Spring Virga would’ve written back in time for this round?”

“Hopefully so,” Skydancer replied. There was a note of apprehension buried somewhere beneath her usual chipper tone. Esalen scrunched up her snout at the taste that came with it. Bleh! Family related nerves! As if on cue, the mare gave her wings a nervous rustle, then said, “You don’t think Anvil will be upset it took us so long to write them, do you?”

Esalen turned away from their conversation in favor of standing close by her friend while Aspire began quietly explaining how most of the villagers had someone they kept in touch with on the outside—whether through family, friendship, or however long they’d stayed while being helped through problems, like Prancy and Hab, or treated for ailments.

And Sure Stroke stood there with eyes wide and ears perked up, the model student for his little lecture. The pair looked as though they were in their own little world, their own studious paradise.

By love, those two are so drunk on each other that I’d end up with a stomach ache if I tried sipping right now. She shook her head, then reared up on her hind hooves to see if she could spot Hawkeye or Merryweather coming down the path.

Sure enough, a bubbly little mare trotted alongside a larger stallion, her sunny yellow feathers fluffing and her short powder blue mane bouncing with each step. She wore a bright smile on her face as she chattered away, oblivious to the bemused look spread across her companion’s dark purple muzzle. Though Esalen couldn’t see his eyes, she had a feeling he was fixing the smaller mare with a raised brow, hidden beneath a paler purple mane while he carried the large mailbag on his back.

The others were quick to notice, too. A buzz went through the crowd, and a few of the villagers began to bounce on their hooves, eager to see if any of their friends had written.

Hawkeye came within earshot at last. He stopped and tossed his mane so he could regard the villagers for a few seconds. Then, he snorted and stage whispered, “Merry, it’s almost like they expect me to bring something for them every time we come back with this thing.”

Excited buzzing turned to outright laughter when the tiny mare huffed and tried to push him forward, only succeeding in digging a small divot in the path. Hawkeye simply laughed and resumed his natural form in a flash of green fire. His shaggy, powder-purple mane remained while his coat reverted back to smooth, polished carapace. His eyes, on the other hoof, were a darker shade—the same as his preferred disguise’s coat.

He trotted to stand before the crowd and was met by his loving wife, Lacewing, a changeling mare with a gray-blue mane. With a bright smile that showed his fangs and pointed teeth, he kissed her deeply before bidding Merryweather to go find Whimsy Mimsy. Then he dropped the bag so he and Lacewing could root through the mail and call out each household who received mail this time around.

Naturally, he pulled out Queen Euphoria’s first. Hawkeye didn’t even have to call out for her to approach, flanked by Breezy and Morning Dew, and hold out a hoof. He bowed his head in kind as he hoofed it over, earning a smile and a kiss to his forehead in reply before she turned and led her husband and lover off to find the rest of their little pile.

“How does he get them all in bundles like that,” Sure Stroke whispered, “if no one in the post offices comes to deliver to the village? It’s not like we put our address on them.”

Aspire raised a hoof. “You met the train station manager when you got off, right? The older one who pointed you all down the path?” At Sure Stroke’s nod, he grinned. “Main Line’s family have been friends of our village for a couple generations. The way he tells it, his great-great-grandmother got a bad case of cutie pox that messed up her immune system and led to her getting the flu, and there wasn’t enough time to go to Manehattan or Canterlot. Her family knew about a village in the area, so they brought her here and Queen Farfalla and her husband, Bozzolo, treated her.”

“They’ve been helping us out ever since,” Faith added, sparing the group a small smile. “And a good thing, too. They’ve helped keep a look out for ponies in search of our village, along with those who need help but don’t know where to turn.”

“Faith and Warm Welcome!” Hawkeye called above the din. He held twine-bound letter and newspaper in hoof, waving it above his head. “Looks like a letter from Haberdasher!”

Barely a second later, Lacewing chimed in, “And I’ve got a few for Drizzly Days, Skydancer, and Sure Stroke!”

The crowd parted to allow the two families passage. Esalen trotted alongside her brother and Sure Stroke, leaving Toola to stand with Nimble and their parents while they waited to see if they’d be called.

As they approached, Hawkeye and Lacewing greeted both families with smiles. “Hello, again,” Hawkeye said with a hint of exhaustion and scratchy throat evident in his voice. He nodded to Drizzly, Skydancer, and Sure Stroke in turn. “Sorry I haven’t been around to catch up since meeting in Cloudsdale, but Merry and I have been out looking for a couple things the Queen asked us to take care of.”

“Nothing too urgent, I hope,” Drizzly replied, furrowing his brows. “You sound like you’re getting sick, Mister Hawkeye.”

“Just Hawkeye,” came the practiced reply. “And I’ll be alright, Drizzly. We were out in the Vanhoover area, so I may have just caught a cold.” He paused to smile at Sure Stroke, licking his lips. His eyes brightened. “And if it isn’t little Sure Stroke. You don’t taste nearly as anxious as the last time we met.”

Sure Stroke ducked her head to hide the pink tinge in her cheeks. Her eyes flitted to Aspire and Esalen, then Faith and Warm Welcome. “I’ve had help,” she said quietly. “I’m sorry about how nervous I was.”

He waved her off. “Don’t be. I had to run out of one family’s house before the father got his axe two weeks ago. Took Merry hours to calm him down enough before I could come inside again.”

Lacewing nudged his shoulder. “Honey,” she hissed, her smile took on an edge, “don’t you think we can wait a little to talk about those visits so the village doesn’t have to wait on their mail?”

His smile faltered as a wave of laughter and chittering giggles swept through the crowd. Hawkeye’s chitinous cheeks colored as he passed the mail over to a grinning Warm Welcome and muttered, “There ya go, Warm. Faith. Have a nice day.”

“Thanks, Hawk,” Warm replied just as Drizzly accepted his letter and newspaper from Lacewing. Nodding to both of them, he said, “Have a good morning, you two. Drizzly? Sky? Feel like joining us for breakfast?”

The pair hesitated for a moment. A hint of apprehension flitted across Drizzly’s face. “Er, what did you have in mind?” he asked.

Warm gave his brightest smile. “I was hoping for a trade,” he said with a flash of hunger showing in his eyes.

A flash of hunger shared by Faith and Esalen herself. She ran her forked tongue over her lips to taste. Drizzly and Skydancer held hint of apprehension, but mixed with a sort of trust shared by friends and the love of husband and wife.

Sure Stroke, on the other hoof, taste curious. And, slowly, almost like an aftertaste making its way to the forefront, comprehension. She smiled and glanced at her parents, then at Esalen’s family—though her gaze did linger a bit longer on Aspire.

Following her gaze, Esalen caught Aspire’s eye and raised a single brow in silent questioning.

He bit his lip, his deep blue eyes flitted between the two fillies. His tongue darted out to taste just as hers had, then he blinked a few times. He’d caught it.

Aspire relaxed and nodded. Then he gave a crooked smile as he made an offer, “A nibble for half a meal?”

 

 

Sure Stroke had been less than enthusiastic about Aspire’s offer. Not that she was reneging on prior offers to allow him or Esalen to feed, but on the “unfairness” of it. All the way through town, up the dirt path to their home, and even into Faith’s immaculate kitchen, the little filly made her case that a nibble—which Esalen explained was as much a snack as a couple cookies—wasn’t equivalent to half of a meal.

Only when Faith interjected with a stern look did she stop long enough to listen. “You’re about to feed two changelings for the first time,” Faith had said slowly. “The first time is always the most draining, no matter how much you offer. Add in that you’re going to feed both of my nymphs, and I suspect you’ll be singing a different tune by the end.”

Aspire and Esalen were still chittering and teasing her for the way she scrunched up her snout. That the pair sat on either side of her to make sure she couldn’t slip away only made things worse.

She looked around, her eyes flitting from Drizzly and Warm reading their letters aloud for their wives, to the mares standing and bickering by the stove. A smile tugged at her lips as she heard her mother trying to argue that it wasn’t fair for Faith to cook for all of them, only for the changeling to simply turn and remind her she only had to cook for five since they agreed to feed.

Of course, that did nothing to stop Skydancer from puffing up her cheeks and hovering nearby in case she could offer any help.

And she says I get my stubbornness from Dad, Sure Stroke shook her head, then glanced down at the envelope resting before her on the table. Her cousin’s neat, pointed script stared back at her.

 

Cousin Sure Stroke

 

Respite

Sunrise Province

Equestria

Train and Post Station 713, Box 20

 

A hoof nudged her shoulder. Sure Stroke glanced out of the corner of her eye to see Aspire’s grinning face. “Go on,” he said eagerly, “read it. I wanna see if his reaction is as funny as you said!”

“Or if it’s as adorable as when we call her Doodle?” Esalen chipped in with her coy smile.

“Literally impossible, Essy. Nothing compares to Doodle’s faces.”

Sure Stroke sucked in a breath and fixed each with a narrow-eyed glare. It only lasted a second or two before she smiled again. “You’ll see,” she said. “Just get ready to listen to my goofball of a cousin’s eccentricities.”

“Eccentricities?” Warm Welcome repeated from his place at the head of the table. He set his own letter down and picked up his coffee, then leaned back in his pod seat with a little rubber like squeak. “This ought to be entertaining, then.”

At his side, Drizzly snorted. “You’ve no idea.” He turned and nodded to Sure Stroke. “Go ahead, sweetheart.”

Sure Stroke beamed and quickly tore open the envelop. She snatched the letter from within, then settled back to read aloud.

 

Cousin Sure Stroke,

 

        Please stop using my full name! When you do that, the mailpony reads the entire name on the envelope before giving it to me and it's embarrassing!

        In any case, I suppose I can forgive the long wait, even though I've been waiting for word ever since you left! What if you had found something cool? I'd only just now be hearing about it! I'm very envious that you're getting to explore new lands. Is the weather interesting there? Here it's been awfully boring. Hardly any thunder at all. In fact, I'd say things since you left have been just that: boring. Mom and Dad are off doing the lecturing, and I'm stuck here. Sure that might seem fun at first, but... Did you know they don't let anyone without a permit engage in unassisted cyclogenesis? Even if you are the top of your class!

        Oh! That reminds me, Mom recently was included in a team to look into mesocyclone evolution and how it's related to tornadogenesis in the untamed areas of Equestria—like the Badlands or the plains near Everfree Forest! I've not been able to sneak the rough drafts yet, but she's told me about how sometimes the downdraft of the storm would come out hot! HOT! And then they wondered just how or why it would come down hot when it should be coming down cold, but then it hit them! The stratosphere! Some storms' circulations are pushing outside the troposphere, past the tropopause, and into the stratosphere! It's so wild!

        I got off track. Glad you're not all by your lonesome. I always worried about you being alone all the time. I was also worried about your mane. It's relatively dry up in Cloudsdale, even when everything’s foggy (or I guess it would just be 'cloudy' since there's no ground involved?), so I wasn't sure how things might be where it's more humid. Related, they made a more precise hygrometer only last week! It's seriously amazing how quickly and accurately it measures!

        I got off track again. Anyway, it sounds like things are good. Say hi to Auntie and Uncle for me. (Or have them read this: "Hi!"). Oh, and if you want a good screaming cloud, definitely go for cumulus humulus this time of year.

        -Alto

 

        

There was silence for a moment. Then a thud as Drizzly banged his head on the table. “Unassisted cyclogenesis,” he growled into the wood. “I’m going to knock my brother over his head, then I’m going to have a talk with Altocumulus.”

“I must be missing something,” Warm said, blinking as he looked between Drizzly, then Skydancer, then finally Sure Stroke, and back again. “What is that?”

“Strengthening a cyclone in the atmosphere,” Drizzly replied without lifting his head. “Making it more powerful where it begins. In short, it’s not a good idea for untrained pegasi to try it. Ever. That’s exactly why we have the certifications.”

“So it’s dangerous, then.”

“Extremely.”

Warm nodded in understanding. “I see.” He turned slowly to fix Aspire and Esalen with a stern look. “Sort of like a certain pair of nymphs sneaking off in their pony disguises to hang out near the Tunnel of Love at Coneigh Island when they were barely seven, eh?”

The pair gave the biggest, brightest grins Sure Stroke had ever seen. Their pointed teeth and long fangs even gleamed—literally, gleamed!—as they tried to make themselves look as sweet and innocent as possible. How a pair of changeling nymphs who openly said causing mischief and playing tricks thought they could feign innocence in front of their own father was well and truly beyond her.

But they tried. They failed miserably—evident as the family of four broke into chittering laughter at the memory—but they at least tried to play it up like the foals back home.

Yet another reminder of how similar they were, even though they were still so strange.

Aspire caught Sure Stroke’s questioning look and fought down his mirth long enough to say, “We were really hungry, and mom and dad were taking forever chatting with a couple ponies, so we just snuck off to the perfect little buffet for hungry changelings.”

“Yes,” Faith purred as she trotted over with a large platter of cinnamon rolls and a stack of plates balanced on her back. A rather put out Skydancer trailed in her wake. “Fortunately, Warm and I caught up to them before any of the guards could hear them talking about how ‘sweet and filling’ the couples’ love was each time they got a sip.”

Sure Stroke bit her tongue to hold back a laugh and forced herself not to turn her gaze upon either of the twins. Instead, she fixed her attention on the cinnamon rolls Faith placed in the center of the table. Or, rather, eight stone-sized pastries slathered in thick, creamy icing. They looked like the ones some of the fancy bakeries back home sold—big and heavy enough that they looked like they could knock a pony out cold, with enough icing that she could almost feel the sugar rush coming on.

Fitting. After all, changelings loved their treats to be extra sweet. Just like the love they fed upon.

She licked her lips. A bit of extra sweetness every once in a while was fine. She’d just have to eat light for the rest of the day.

Once Faith distributed plates and offered each of them two of the cinnamon rolls, she passed Aspire and Esalen one each. Then she guided Skydancer over to sit near Warm Welcome and Drizzly Days.

Curious, Sure Stroke glanced at Aspire and Esalen’s portions. “Are you sure that’s going to be enough if you’re just nibbling?” she asked.

Aspire bobbed his head. “Well, for these? More a bite than a nibble,” he admitted. He scooted over in his pod so he could come closer and turned to face her. “But Essy and I will be careful about how much we take. Besides, you’ve seen Breezy and Zippy after being fed on, and Bright Sky, too.” Smiling, he tapped her plate twice. “You’re gonna need those for your strength, and maybe a bit of mine. Probably gonna have want to nap afterward as well.”

She bit her lip. Sure Stroke glanced over at the adults, who were all scooting a little closer. She watched closely as Faith and Warm Welcome asked her parents to relax, and just think of someone they loved each other, their friends, her, even them if they felt friendly enough.

“Any sort of love or attachment will work,” Faith said to Skydancer as she rested her hooves on the mare’s sunny yellow shoulders. “Ready?”

Skydancer sucked in her lips and closed her eyes, nodding. “Ready.”

“Good. Now I’m going to drink, so it’s going to be like breathing. Deep breath in—” she waited for Skydancer to do so, while Warm and Drizzly went through the same across from them“—and exhale for me.”

Both Drizzly and Skydancer did so. The changelings drew in deep breaths, their eyes wide and alight with hunger as they began to coax an ethereal green glow forth from her parents mouths and drank it greedily.

As Skydancer let out a tiny whimpering moan, Sure Stroke started. Her wings tensed up as she watched her mother slowly relax in Faith’s embrace.

She felt a smooth, chitinous nose brush against her right cheek. “Ready?” Esalen asked.

Somewhere in the back of her mind, a little voice told her to call it off. The natural, trained fear of these tricksters who so delighted in feeding on ponies’ love and affection screamed out, begging her to think this through.

Esalen blinked, the forked tips of her tongue poked out between her lips. “Still nervous?”

“You don’t have to let us feed if you don’t want,” Aspire added quietly. “I’ll—we’ll understand if you’re afraid.”

Sure Stroke whirled around to face him so quickly her neck muscles strained and fixed him with a frosty glare. A hint of satisfaction shot through her as he flinched. “I’m nervous, not afraid,” she retorted. “I’m not the terrified little filly you both met at the gate!” She drew in a deep breath, then let it out slowly. “It’s just … different. Like everything else here.”

For a moment, neither spoke. There was silence save for the sound of Faith and Warm Welcome feeding and her parents’ shuddering breaths. Then, it stopped. Her ears twitched as she heard both changelings whisper their thanks and check on how their donors felt, before prodding them to eat.

Memories of Caress, Queen Euphoria, and Aspire himself flashed before her eyes. Each fed and made sure the ponies who gave them love were comfortable afterward.

The changelings from all the scary stories never did that. Sure Stroke closed her eyes and took a deep breath. She nodded once. “I’m ready,” she whispered, “eat up.”

Sure Stroke heard both let out happy purrs from the back of their throats, then lick their lips with a little slurping sound. Smooth, chitinous hooves wrapped around her shoulders. She felt Esalen lay her head upon her shoulder, while Aspire laid his chin atop her head.

“Just relax,” Aspire whispered.

“And think of something you love,” Esalen added.

Slowly, Sure Stroke let her thoughts wander. What did she love? There were her parents, of course, and her cousin, Altocumulus. But what about all her other friends in Cloudsdale? Or those she made in Respite?

Why not all of it? After all, she was an artist—her mind was as much a canvas as any. She conjured up a familiar scene in her old neighborhood in Thunderbolt Heights. The low rumble of distant thunder sounded in her ears, Sure Stroke saw her parents standing and chatting away with Queen Euphoria, Breezy, Faith, and Warm Welcome. Esalen sat a few feet to her left while Nimble Hooves and Toola Roola went through their dance routine, taking the time to narrate some of the steps to an older colt.

Altocumulus.

Altocumulus tilted his head, running a hoof through powder blue and white mane as he watched with rapt attention. No doubt he was thinking of all the different muscles at work, or the impressive dexterity in the fillies’ each and every action.

On her left sat Aspire. His playful grin spread across his face, he inclined his brows, then slowly raised a water balloon in hoof and nodded toward Altocumulus and Esalen.

A strange tingling tickled her chest, like a feather brushing over her torso. Sure Stroke let out a tiny gasp. She felt it spread, first to her head, then flood her entire being with a tingly, pins-and-needles sort of sensation. Sure Stroke’s muscles tensed, she bit her lip and tried to squirm to shake it off.

The hooves around her held fast. They didn’t tighten, but they didn’t let her move too far. “Relax,” Aspire whispered in her ear. “We’re taking small bites. Just take deep breaths, let them out slowly, and try to keep whatever picture you’ve got in your head.”

Despite her unease, Sure Stroke nodded. She breathed in deep through her nose until her chest filled, then let it out. Don’t fight it, she told herself. Treat it like a trip to the dentist. The strange, alien sensation made the hairs on the back of her neck stand on end, but Sure Stroke did her best to maintain the image in her head. The imaginary Aspire ignored her hushed, laughter filled warning and lobbed an overfilled water balloon at Esalen and Altocumulus …

“It’s delicious,” Esalen crooned, a note of rapture in her voice. She sighed and let out a low hum like she were savoring her favorite treat. “Your love is like cake batter and sweet cream, and almost as filling as Toola’s. Just a little more. Please.”

More?

Sure Stroke licked her lips and nodded, her neck muscles felt exhausted. It was like it took the strength and temerity of Commander Hurricane himself even to move. She could just lay her head down on the wood table and fall asleep, or maybe lounge in her pod seat and doze for a few hours.

“Couple more seconds,” Aspire said. He nosed into her mane, humming in content. His fangs tickled and scratched her scalp. “Better than cake batter,” he purred. “And much more filling. You’re delectable, Doodle.” Sure Stroke let out another gasp as she felt his forked tongue lap at her purple locks. She heard him swallow, then mutter, “Time to cut it, I think, Essy.”

Esalen’s forked tongue ran along her cheek, as affectionate as Queen Euphoria a couple weeks ago, but with a little something more. Gratitude. “Agreed. We’re done, Doodle.”

The tingling stopped. Sure Stroke slumped in their grasp, a tired whine escaped her lips. Soft, smooth lips pressed against her cheeks. Chitinous snouts nuzzled her as the twins whispered their thanks and compliments, like she’d cooked and served them a homemade meal.

In a way, perhaps she had. Sure Stroke mumbled sleepily. Regardless, that nap was sounding very enticing right now. Breakfast could wait until later, at least until after she took a little bit to rest her eyes.

Aspire snorted, his breath tickled her ear. “No sleeping!” he chided in a playful tone that was far too chipper and lively. He prodded her shoulder. “Doodles who just fed changeling nymphs have to eat so they can regain their strength!”

Whining, Sure Stroke tried to bat his hoof away, only for Esalen to giggle and join in poking her. “Tired,” she groaned.

“You need to eat first!” Esalen replied. “So no sleeping yet. Eat up, or we’ll feed you ourselves.”

“Just like a little foal,” Aspire added.

Jerks. With a sleepy grumble, Sure Stroke sat up and peered at her plate through bleary eyes, and lazily plucked a cinnamon roll from her plate. But they’re my jerks.

 

 

Once breakfast was eaten and everyone was full, Faith took charge. With a tone that brooked little room for argument, the matron of the changeling family decreed that their guests turned donors should rest, given their exhaustion. Both she and Warm led Skydancer and Drizzly out to the sitting room to lay on the couch.

Meanwhile, Sure Stroke found herself being frog-marched down the hallway toward the twins’ rooms with a grinning, chittering nymph pressed against either side so she couldn’t try to wriggle free. She couldn’t even unfurl her wings to fly out of their grasp, for all the good it would do. Flying while exhausted was never a good idea.

“I’m not that tired!” she whined despite her aching muscles begging for rest.

Aspire scoffed. “Yeah, and I’m a sea pony. You’re about to fall asleep on your hooves, Doodle. So, come on back and lay down in a pod for a couple hours.”

Before she could argue further, Esalen nipped at her ear tip. “No debates,” the nymph scolded. “Or we’ll call mom and let her give you the same lecture every new pony who tries arguing gets.”

A shiver ran down Sure Stroke’s spine. She hadn’t really seen Faith get angry. If anything, she was kind and understanding, much like Queen Euphoria had been. But the little glimpses of sternness she’d seen at dinner with Bright Sky, and this very morning with her family, Sure Stroke had a feeling Faith was a changeling she didn’t want to cross.

She heaved a tired sigh as Aspire nudged his bedroom door open and beckoned her inside. She trotted over to his bed pod, her hooves dragged against the wood floor. With a grunt, Sure Stroke reared up to try to climb into the gelatinous pod, but her muscles just didn’t have the strength.

Aspire and Esalen gave their chittering laughs. “Hang on,” Aspire said. “We’ll give you a boost.”

They moved before she could think to protest. Sure Stroke let out a startled squeak as they ducked and pushed her rump up and over the edge of the pod, sending her tail over teakettle onto the slimy center. It formed right around her like a warm, gooey blanket, almost as though it were enticing her to just sit still and doze off.

Not an idea she was opposed to.

The slime pod shifted. Sure Stroke managed to lift her head just enough to see Esalen laying on her stomach beside her, close enough that their sides brushed together. With a toothy grin, she laid her head near Sure Stroke’s and nuzzled her mane. “Thank you for trusting us,” she whispered. “It was brave of you, even if you don’t think so.”

“Welcome,” Sure Stroke slurred. She made to lean over to reciprocate the gesture, but ended up just laying her head on Esalen’s hooves. Another chittering laugh tickled her ears, her cheeks colored as she felt her friend slip one hoof out from under her head and wrap her in a loose hug, then rest her chitinous chin on her shoulder.

A steady buzzing filled the air and made her ears twitch. The bed pod shifted again, Aspire landed on her opposite side. “Figured you wouldn’t be up for too much talking,” he began, “so I thought I’d grab a book and read for you until you drift off. Don’t worry, it’s not Legacy of Love, so you’re not gonna miss anything new there.”

Curious, she cracked open an eye to meet his gaze—as much as she could through Esalen’s sugar pink mane. “What is it?” she asked. Or, at least, she tried to ask. Instead, her tired muscles and numb tongue made it sound more like “whazza?”

He scooted over so she could see his grin, then flashed the title for her. The words The Cold Queen were written in elegant, silver lettering, with the image of a grizzled unicorn stallion with a mane as black as charcoal and coat gray as ash glaring off into the distance displayed on the cover.

“A detective series I’ve been reading,” Aspire replied. “Hab got me the first five books a while back. I’ve been wanting to go get the rest of the series, but we haven’t had time. Close your eyes and relax, Do—” He hesitated for a moment, his grin faded. Instead, a fond smile played upon his lips. His eyes seemed to shine with an odd light. “Just relax, Sure Stroke. See you when you wake up.”

Too tired to speak, Sure Stroke gave a single nod, then closed her eyes. She took a deep breath, a content smile spread across her muzzle as she tried to pay attention to his story. It was a tale about a snarky young stallion, fresh out of his school years, who had run afoul of his government because he didn’t use his power wisely, and kept getting involved in matters he shouldn’t. Like accepting a job offer to prove the innocence of a strange mare with entrancing eyes and velvet smooth coat, accused of a crime so terrible it could start a war …

Sure Stroke would never quite remember when she finally drifted off.

 

 

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