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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21. An Offer He Had to Refuse

Sure Stroke hit the dirt path leading up to Sweet Treat’s shop in a run, her saddlebags thumping rhythmically against her sides. She sprinted for the door, muttering curses under her breath about the three colts waiting inside.

“I swear, if I got all my things and Vector ate everything, I’m going to smack the lot of them!”

Just before she reached the door, it swung open to reveal Peppermint and a colt of mint green coat and white mane with green tips, with a pair of spearmints for a cutie mark.

She let out a yelp and dug her hooves into the dirt, flapping her wings so she came skidding to a halt, her nose a hair’s breadth from the other colt’s skin.

Peppermint sniggered. “Well, well! Looks like you’ve got a bit of filly magnetism to you, Spearmint!”

“Yeah, right,” Spearmint rolled his eyes, giving his twin a playful shove. He turned his gaze upon Sure Stroke. “You okay?”

Sure Stroke bobbed her head. “Yeah, sorry about nearly running into you!” She blinked, a blush colored her cheeks. “Oh! Um, I don’t think we’ve met! I’m—”

He laughed and waved a hoof. “Sure Stroke, the new weather team manager’s filly. You came in with the troublesome twins and their friends the other day.” His green eyes danced with mirth. “I’m Spearmint, Pepper’s better looking twin.”

“Oi!” Peppermint stomped a hoof, fixing him with a glare. “You are not!”

“Am so!”

“Are not!”

“We could always ask Nimble!” Spearmint replied with a decidedly smug grin. “I’m sure she’d be happy to give an unbiased opinion.”

Sure Stroke watched Peppermint suck in his lips and quickly look away. “Th-That’s not playing fair and you know it! I could just as easily ask Shady Glen!”

“Please do!” Spearmint’s grin widened. “I could use an excuse to kiss him right on the nose!”

As the twins bickered, Sure Stroke edged around them so she could slip through the door, struggling to hold back a bout of laughter that threatened to bubble forth.

Her efforts failed when she heard hooves thundering against the ground and Peppermint shouting, “No! Spear, get back here! Spear, don’t you dare!” before the door slammed shut.

“I swear, those two!” Sweet Treat huffed from behind her counter, with a chorus of snickering villagers accompanying her ire. Heaving a sigh, she shook her head, then fixed a salespony’s smile upon her muzzle. “Good morning, Sure Stroke. Nice to see you again. Looking for your friends?” She waved a hoof toward a small four-seat table along the back wall.

Sure Stroke perked her ears up, grinning at the sight of Aspire, Vector, and Zephyr chatting and lounging at their table. The nymphs chittering laughter tickled her ears as Vector said something, then made a strange wobbling gesture with his hooves.

A fun story, no doubt.

Upon closer inspection, Sure Stroke noticed that four plates and sets of utensils had been set out on the table, four wooden cups, with a larger plate bearing a stack of pancakes and a pair of wooden pitchers in the middle.

Curious, she muttered her thanks to Sweet Treat and walked over to the colts’ table.

“… So, once my dad stops laughing, he says—” Vector pulled a mock stern expression “—well, Raindance, if you’d pay attention where you were flying, maybe you wouldn’t end up flying straight into Whimsy Mimsy and Dust Devil’s cloud while they’re having lunch.” He paused to fight down a bout of sniggers, then continued, his voice cracked with mirth, “And she says ‘well, they didn’t have to dump the rest of the pie on my head!’”

Aspire and Zephyr held their stomachs, chittering like mad and shaking their heads.

Vector raised his hoof as if to continue, but stopped, his eyes flitted toward Sure Stroke. “Oh, hey! Look who finally showed up!”

Their laughter died off. Aspire and Zephyr turned, beaming at her. “Hey, Doodle!” they greeted in unison.

She sighed. “I’m going to start smacking you every time someone says that name, Aspire.” Fixing him with a sidelong stare, Sure Stroke scowled when he stuck his serpentine tongue out and crossed his eyes. “Twice. I’m smacking you twice every time someone says it.”

“Aw, is that so?” Aspire grinned, leering out of the corner of his eye at the stack of pancakes. “Well, I don’t feel as bad, then! We were just about to divvy up your share of the goods.”

Sure Stroke’s feathers bristled. She pinned her ears back and fixed him with a stern glare. “You’d better not,” she warned, bringing her right forehoof up and shaking it at him, “or you’ll get another round of pegasus therapy!”

Aspire flinched and brought a hoof to his cheek, rubbing the same spot she’d slugged him at the party. “That’s not nice,” he said with a frown. “I even got Maple to make pancakes for you.”

He had?

Well, that was rather nice of him. Or, at least, it would have been if not for one small detail.

“Which you were about to give away,” Sure Stroke retorted as she hopped into the seat next to him. She flexed her wings in silent challenge, casting a quick wink to Vector when he noticed. “Doesn’t seem like you’re being nice either.”

Zephyr snorted. “C’mon,” he drawled, a lazy smile playing upon his lips. “Bookbug doesn’t have a mean piece of chitin on his carapace, he’d start fretting terribly if we even started talking about leaving you with nothing.”

“Hey! I do not fret!”

“You do. Quite a bit. It’s kinda funny, really.”

Aspire’s cheeks puffed up, he looked at Sure Stroke for support, fixing her with his deep blue eyes. His bottom lip poked out, he even put a bit of a quiver into it.

Sure Stroke had to avert her eyes and bite her lip lest she let out anything resembling a coo. “I don’t know,” she said with feigned uncertainty. “You do seem awful shifty every now and then.”

Her ear twitched as she heard him flicking out his tongue. She could almost feel his wide-eyed stare fade into a flat glare.

“Har har,” he grumbled, bumping his shoulder against hers. “Just get out your books and grab some pancakes. They’re Maple’s speciality.”

With a cheeky smile rivaling one of his own, Sure Stroke rubbed her shoulder against his, then dug into her bag for her most hated rival of all:

Algebra homework.

Her smile faltered a touch as she looked over the set of twelve problems, the jumble of letters and numbers she’d copied from Abacus’ blackboard seemed to stare mockingly back at her.

Sure Stroke glared. The sooner she finished with them, the better.

As she set her notebook and pencil on the table, she noticed the colts beginning to stack pancakes on their plates. Zephyr licked his lips and lathered his own with syrup before passing the pitcher over to Vector.

Tentatively, Sure Stroke reached across the table to grab a couple pancakes off the top. She set them on her plate, awaiting her turn for the syrup.

By chance, she noticed Aspire’s plate lacking in number of pancakes. Sure Stroke did a double take. While Vector and Zephyr happily stacked theirs high with more pancakes than she cared to count, he Aspire had only taken two.

Sure Stroke furrowed her brows. “Not hungry?” she asked, tilting her head.

Aspire stopped and turned to face her. He blinked twice, his lips parted as if to give voice to his confusion.

Then he followed her gaze to his plate. His eyes lit up.

“Oh! No, not that hungry.” He shook his head, then gestured to Vector and Zephyr. “We’ve got a little deal worked for me tutoring them every week. Zippy lets me nibble on his love one week, Zeph buys pancakes. Next week, they’ll switch.”

Switch?

Sure Stroke looked between Aspire and Zephyr. “Since when can changelings feed off each other?”

The pair scoffed. “Since when couldn’t we?” Zephyr retorted. “Just ‘cause we feed on ponies’ love doesn’t mean we can’t feed on changeling love. It’s just easier to get it from ponies.”

“Well, not easier,” Aspire corrected. “But we’d eventually starve, like, half the changeling population. So, usually, changelings feed each other by giving a little.”

“How does that work?” Sure Stroke wrinkled her snout. “You just breathe out and love goes into the other’s mouth?”

Aspire’s ears perked up. “Actually, that’s the closest way I could explain it. How’d you know?” He flicked his tongue, his brows knitted together. “You taste knowing. Who fed in front of you?”

Vector rapped a hoof on the table. “Wait, Doodle watched someone feed?” He waggled his ears. “How’d that go?”

Ducking her head, Sure Stroke fidgeted. “I asked Queen Euphoria about it, so she had me watch her and Caress feed on Cool Breeze.”

“Ah, Breezy again, huh?” Comprehension flashed in Aspire’s eyes, his lips tugged into a small smile. “Same with Hab.” He shrugged. “Anyway, yeah, Zippy let me have a nibble. Normally, I wouldn’t eat right after—well—eating, but Maple’s pancakes are way too sweet to pass up.” Arching a brow, he grabbed the last pancake off the middle plate and stacked it atop hers. “That said, you get this last one. Eat up and get ready to join us in the joys of algebra.”

A shiver ran down Sure Stroke’s spine. “You don’t have to make it sound so ominous.”

Grinning, he picked up his cup and brought nearer to his snout so he could take a long sniff. “Ah, the one drink I love more than tea—coffee.” He glanced at Sure Stroke and waggled his ears. “And yes, yes I do.”

Then he took a long, deep pull of his coffee, his dark chuckling echoed within his mug.

Sure Stroke let out a whine as she accepted the pitcher of syrup. This was shaping up to be a long morning.

Still, there were a couple upsides.

She had friends.

And pancakes.

Two good things had to outweigh one bad, right? Of course.

Still, something nagged at the back of her mind. Esalen and Toola mentioned that Aspire would be happy to help, since he wanted to be a teacher of some sort. All she had to do was offer him something in return.

It just so happened that one of those things was permission to feed on her love.

Sure Stroke hid a nervous frown behind a fork full of pancake. There were plenty of other things to offer, as long as he found it acceptable, just like Toola said. Aspire was fair about it. She’d even heard him opt out of feeding on Toola because he was only helping with a few problems.

She forced herself to put it to the back of her mind in favor of looking over her math homework. There would be plenty of time to think of what to offer him later.

For now, she had other matters to attend to.

“Is there any chance you could show me that whole distributing thing again before we start?” Sure Stroke asked. “The one where I have to move numbers around in the parentheses?”

Aspire tilted his head. After a few seconds’ thought, his eyes lit up. “Oh, the distributive property?” He smiled. “That’s easy enough. Here.”

He took up his own pencil. Quick as a flash, he scrawled out a problem with one variable and several numbers. “Okay, so, the whole thing here is that when there’s a variable in the parentheses, it means you can’t go through the regular order of operations since you can’t add seven to five-x. But there’s this negative sign out here, so you can flip the signs around …”

 

 

A small frown played upon Aspire’s as he looked over Sure Stroke’s work. He held his mug in one hoof, swirling the remaining coffee around while he tried to find where she’d gone wrong.

Oh. The negative sign again. She’d forgotten to change it over, which messed up the addition.

Aspire glanced at her out of the corner of his eye. Flicking his tongue wasn’t necessary, her hope of having finally bested Abacus’ homework was written plain across her muzzle. Her eyes shone with it, even.

But still.

The temptation was there.

Just a taste couldn’t hurt, he thought as he brought his mug to his lips and took a sip. Then, he ran his tongue slowly along his upper lip as if to savor his coffee.

Instead, Aspire focused on tasting Sure Stroke. His eyes nearly fluttered shut. She was a cocktail of happiness, comfort, and a lovely touch of hope. Like the rich cream blended into his coffee.

It was practically a crime to let her down and poison the well.

But, as a tutor, it was his duty.

He held back a sigh. Little details. If she’d just watch out for those little details. “Nope,” he said sliding her paper back to her, tapping a hoof against the spot in question. “Look here. You’re multiplying two negatives together, so the product becomes a positive.”

Sure Stroke’s ears splayed back. She groaned and let her head fall to the table with a soft thump. “Algebra is the worst!” she whined.

Aspire rolled his eyes. “Oh, come on!” He prodded her side with a hoof, searching for the tickle spot beneath her wings. “It’s not that bad!”

She lifted her head just enough to glare at him. “The absolute worst.”

Clicking his tongue, he managed to slip his hoof between her elbow and side, and found the spot. Sure Stroke let out a squeak, she sat up ramrod straight and clamped her wings down.

“Aspire!”

“That’s my name!” He replied with a merry waggling of his ears, chittering laughter tinged his voice. “C’mon, it’s not that bad. You’ve just gotta pay attention to what you’re doing. Look!” Aspire tapped his hoof against the first problem. “Right here, you just went through the order of operations wrong—you do the stuff inside the parentheses first if there’s no variable, remember?”

Her shoulders slumped. That defeated look, with her ears splayed and a dismayed frown upon her lips, made him flick his tail.

Aspire nudged her pencil toward her hoof again. “Just try it, Doodle! You’ve got …” he trailed off as he glanced over her paper. “Five to fix, then you’re done!” Thinking a moment, he flicked his tongue. The mugginess of uncertainty mixed with frustration’s bite.

She needed help.

“How about we go through a couple together?” he offered. “I’ll walk you through them.”

Her ears perked up, the fluffy, sweet taste of hope tickled his tongue again. Sure Stroke sat up and gave a small smile. “Thanks.”

“Anytime.” Aspire nodded  toward her problem set. “So, let’s take a look at the first one: two minus one time three, all in parentheses, times x equals five.”

Across the table, Vector rustled his wings. “That stupid rule always trips me up,” he grumbled.

“Only ‘cause you wanna breeze through it as fast as you can so we can go outside,” Zephyr teased, leaning back in his seat. “I’m done whenever you’re finished with Doodle, bookbug.”

Aspire rolled his eyes and jabbed a hoof toward Zephyr. “What he said. And quiet down, you two.” Turning back to Sure Stroke, he found her looking over the problem with a frown. He leaned in close. “So, where do you think you need to start?”

Sure Stroke wrinkled her snout. “I’m pretty sure I have to do the stuff inside the parentheses since there’s no letter—”

“Variable.”

“It’s a letter, shut up. And there isn’t one in there, so I have to work it out.”

“That’s right.” Good. She was starting to get it. Now, for the part that tripped her up the first time around. “So where do you start?”

She stayed quiet for a moment. “Last time, I subtracted first and got it wrong. So …” Sure Stroke glanced at him out of the corner of her eye. “There’s nothing else I can do but multiply first, right?”

Aspire raised an eyebrow and gave a playful smirk. “Are you asking me, or telling me?”

“Asking, smart aleck,” she shot back, bumping her shoulder against his. “So I know I’m doing it right.”

“Just teasing. Sheesh!” He held up his hooves in surrender.

“Well? Am I?”

“Yeah,” he replied, dropping his little game. “You’re on the right track. So, multiply it out, what do you get?”

Sure Stroke furrowed her brows in concentration, scrunching up her snout almost cutely as she worked it out. “Two minus three,” she said after a couple seconds. “Which gets me negative one left in the parentheses.”

Aspire nodded. “Exactly. So, negative one times x gets you what?”

“Negative x.” Her eyes lit up in comprehension. “But I can’t leave x as a negative, so I have to move it over by dividing by the negative one I just had.”

“There ya go!” He beamed. “You divide both sides by the unseen negative one to get x all by itself, then the five on the other side becomes a negative five. So the answer is?”

Sure Stroke beamed as she scribbled down the results. “X is negative five!”

Aspire reclined and brought his coffee cup to his lips. “Exactly! See? Once you know the steps and take the time to do them right—” he broke off to fix Vector with a glare “—it’s easy as making Toola laugh.”

He grinned as his friends stopped their work long enough to share a bout of snickering at the absent gymnast’s expense. Score one for him.

“Hey, hey!” Nimble’s voice made his ears twitch. Aspire turned to find the dancing filly standing beside their table with a smile on her muzzle and her hoof resting on a chair at the next table. “Room for one more, or do I need to find my own table.”

“Nah, just put it there!” Vector said while he and Zephyr began shuffling their papers to the side so she could join at the end of the table. “You got Maple’s pancakes? Or did you go for Sweet Treat’s crepes?”

Nimble gave a chittering giggle. “I had to go for crepes. Maple was enjoying a little snack off of Rocky and Ready for their stack, so he couldn’t give me the eyes this time. Plus, I haven’t had hers in a while.”

Rolling his eyes, Aspire stuck out his tongue. “Heresy. Pancakes are infinitely superior, even if they’re not Grandma Cloudfluff’s.”

“Oh, hush up and go back to getting cozy with Doodle,” Nimble teased.

Aspire and Sure Stroke all but leapt apart, he felt his cheeks burning, the air around him tasted heavily of his friends’ mirth and mischief, mixed together with thick embarrassment from the filly to his right.

“I’m not getting cozy!” he cried, clapping his hooves over his mouth just as he said it. Shoot! Walked right into it!

It was just what she wanted.

All the excuse Vector and Zephyr needed to break into peals of laughter while Nimble simply fixed him with a hooded stare, slowly running her tongue along her lips. “Mhmmmm,” she purred, her wings gave a happy buzz.

“He’s just tutoring me!” Sure Stroke chipped in, tapping a hoof against her paper for emphasis. “See? Math?”

Nimble’s eyes lit up. “Oh, is that what we’re calling it?”

Aspire groaned and covered his face with his hooves. “Would you just stop?”

“Why ever would I do that, bookbug?” She waggled her ears. “You two are fun, and she tastes so delicious when she’s flustered!”

He couldn’t argue that one. Just as she said it, he poked his tongue out enough to taste Sure Stroke again. So sweet, yet fluffy. Like that time Haberdasher took them to Coneigh Island and bought cotton candy.

And he had to admit, as he stole a peek at the rosy hue tinging her cheeks, she did look rather cute.

Aspire banished those thoughts. He needed to get control of his tutoring session back. And given his opponent was everyone’s favorite little dancer, he knew exactly how. Slowly dragging his hooves down his muzzle to glare at Nimble. “You know,” he began, “for a nymph who gets so agitated when we tease her about the massive crush she has on a certain baker, you’re awful mouthy today.”

The smile ran away from her face. Nimble reared back as if struck, much to Vector and Zephyr’s delight, then looked away. “I-I don’t know what you’re talking about!” she said, her chitinous cheeks flushed deep black.

Riiiiiight!” Vector prodded her side, a wicked grin crossing his muzzle. “Y’know, we could go pop into the kitchen right now and ask if he thinks your carapace looks nice and polished today …”

Don’t. You. Dare!” Her eyes flashed green. “I will put so much slime in your feathers it’ll take you years to fly again!”

With his work done, Aspire chuckled and turned to Sure Stroke. She looked as though she had something to say, a smirk was on her lips and her ears perked up.

But she closed her mouth. Shaking her head, she faced him with a smile. “So,” she began, “math?”

Curious, he took a fake sip of coffee, just enough to wet his lips and give him an excuse to taste her again.

She tasted knowing again, but with a hint of mischief.

Did she know something? Or did she just have a good quip she was holding back?

A small part of him wanted to prod her to say it, but there was that more rational side that reminded him of his want to keep her comfortable.

And, well, she did still need math help.

Aspire smiled and nodded. “Yeah, math.” He sniggered as Zephyr happily joined in needling Nimble. “We’ll leave the hatchlings to their games. So, on this next one, this is where you keep mixing up the sign rules for multiplications …”

 

 

At some point, Aspire had lost track of how much time they’d spent in Sweet Treat’s shop. Long enough for Esalen and Toola to wander in, dragging their hooves, with their ears splayed flat against their heads as they sidled up to the table and simply laid down and groaned into the wood—without even so much as a single giggle or a move to get breakfast, no less!

And even longer still.

Usually, his sessions with Vector and Zephyr only went an hour or two. Vector’s love was the main course for breakfast and the pancake a nice little side, but he could already feel the want for food again.

Maybe it was the constant distractions when Nimble wandered up, then Essy and Toola shortly after their punishment with Queen Euphoria ended. Or maybe it was just that the addition of Sure Stroke meant he had to go slower than normal.

Either way, he couldn’t help but give a little “huh” when their troupe stepped outside and the noontime sun beat down upon his carapace. He let his tongue loll out as he wiped a hoof across his brow. “Chitin, it’s hot today!” he said. “Couldn’t the weather team have found us some cloud cover?”

Sure Stroke shook her head. “Out here? We’re not gonna get anything except what rolls in unless they stockpile it.”

“We do,” Vector said. “To an extent. My sister would have some clouds tucked away for when we needed rain. And, well, for days we really didn’t and she just made a rain shower on a whim.” He paused a beat. “Speaking of, it’s not hot because there’s no clouds, it’s hot because of the humidity.”

“Fair enough. But yeah, for summer, though. Nothing unless she’s got a stockpile now, or a nearby town misplaces a few.”

Aspire frowned. “Dang it,” he grumbled.

“Kinda makes you wish we could get shipments from Cloudsdale, huh?” Zephyr fanned himself with a hoof.

His comment earned a playful shrug from Vector. “Your carapace getting soft, Zeph? Can’t handle a little heat and humidity?”

Zephyr bared his fangs at Vector, shifting his weight so his saddlebags slid right off him. “You wanna run that by me again, Zippy?” he hissed. “Or do you wanna avoid another roll?”

Vector grinned and dropped his bags, his wings flared out wide. “Oh, I think I want a piece, Zeph. You only got me last time because you got Nimble in on it!”

Aspire shook his head. He took a big step away from the pair, putting himself between the fillies and his fellow colts just as Zephyr turned to Nimble and said, “Nim, stay out of this one! This smart mouth needs a little reminder of what happens when—hey!

Vector lived up to his name. He moved in a blue gray blur, tackling Zephyr and pinning his shoulders, only to find himself rolled head over tail in a classic case of one’s momentum being used to reverse the pressure.

And away they go.

He sidled up to Esalen and Sure Stroke, just in time to catch the former ask, “So, what’ve you got planned for the rest of the day?”

“Not much,” Sure Stroke replied with a shrug. She chuckled as Vector managed to slide out from under Zephyr and loop his hooves around his chest. “I was probably just going to hang out with you guys. Or something.”

Nimble propped herself on Esalen’s back. “Wanna roll like the boys?” she offered, a mischievous grin playing on her muzzle as she nodded toward the pair. Just in time to see Vector finally manage to catch Zephyr in a joint lock and force his friend to submit, much to his chagrin. “I hear you got bookbug pinned, which is a feat even if it was just until he decided to sweep you.”

To her credit, Sure Stroke didn’t recoil or duck like she’d been so wont to do before. Instead, she fixed Nimble with a critical stare. “You just want to pin me so you can work on my tickle spots again, don’t you?”

Nimble’s grin only widened. “Guilty.”

“I thought so.” Sure Stroke gave a decidedly smug grin and moved a bit closer to Aspire. “I’ll pass.”

“Darn. Can’t blame a nymph for trying though, right?”

“Sure you can,” Aspire quipped. “Especially when she’s that transparent.”

“Watch it, you.” Nimble bared her fangs. “I know all your spots, and I know you can’t wrestle worth your eggshell when I’ve got you squirming.”

Aspire made to reply, but then he heard a soft giggle sound behind him. His ears twitched, he flicked out his tongue just in time to catch a familiar taste:

Gumdrops and ice cream. Toola’s mischief.

A hoof wrapped around his left shoulder and tugged him. Rolling his eyes, Aspire wrapped his right hoof around hers and pivoted, tugging her into him so her back pressed against his chest, his hind legs locked around her hips so she couldn’t squirm free. He snaked his left leg around her neck, then brought his right across to lock it in.

“Well, aren’t you a sneaky little thing?” he crooned into her ear.

Toola gave a strained laugh, then reached up to tug at his left leg.

Wrong move. Quick as a flash, Aspire caught her hoof and brought it down to his right leg, clamping it down hard. When she tried again, he simply repeated it with her left, leaving her stuck.

He licked his lips. Her mischief had given way to frustration and resignation. She knew he had her.

But he wasn’t one to just let it go.

Aspire nosed and kissed her cheek. “Everyone say ‘goodnight, Toola!’” he teased.

“Goodnight, Toola!” they chanted in unison.

With a dark chuckle, he pressed his cheek against hers and tightened his grip. He felt her struggle for breath for a second, then furiously tapped her hoof against his thigh.

He’d won.

Chittering happily, he slackened his hold and rolled her off his chest, but not without a friendly nuzzle before he said, “The winner and still champion!” He buzzed his wings. “Aspire of Respite!”

A chorus of cheers, buzzing wings, and stomping hooves greeted his boast. Toola hung her head and tried to feign a pout, but only held it a few seconds before she burst into laughter and gave him a hug.

“I can’t even get you when I sneak up!” she said between giggles. “You’re scary good, Aspire!”

Esalen snorted. “He gets lots of practice when he annoys me with those terrible puns of his.”

It was too good to pass up. Aspire gave a wide grin. “I think you’re all just jealous that I’ve grappled wrestling into submission.”

“Oh, cirrus, no!” Vector whined.

“What? You mad I’ve got it all locked up?

Toola fell against Nimble’s side and clapped her hooves over her ears. “Stoooooooooooop! This is cruel and unusual punishment!” Her eyes went wide. “Wait, no! Now, I’m punning!”

Aspire’s grin only widened. It was like his birthday, Sharers’ Day, and a trip to Manehattan for a Hearts and Hooves Day snack all rolled into one. All he had to do was deliver the coup de grace. “And with that, my friends, we’ve reached the final bell!

For a few seconds, there was silence. Aspire didn’t even try to hide the smugness in his grin.

“Whose turn is it to smack him?” Zephyr grumbled.

“Dibs!” Toola bounced forward and cuffed him over the ears, glaring as she wrung out her hoof. “Pun-filled jerkface!”

Aspire cackled and rubbed his head. “Worth it!” He glanced at her out of the corner of his eye. “How’s the hoof?”

“Not bad. Your carapace is hard, bookbug. Is that why you can’t stop punning even though it’s the literal worst?”

“Yeah, yeah, whatever.” He nudged her with a hoof. “Aim for the snout next time, ya giggly thing.”

“You know,” Esalen began, interjecting before they could start again. “Speaking of ‘goodnight, Toola,’ I’ve got an idea. Why don’t we have a sleepover?”

Zephyr perked his ears up. “When were you thinking? Tonight?”

“Why not? It’s Saturday, we don’t have anything else to do, and we can all just relax a bit. Also …” She turned to Sure Stroke with a coy smile playing on her lips and waggled her ears. “I’ve been itching to get my hooves on your mane, Doodle.”

Sure Stroke started. “My mane?”

“Manestyling, of course! And you’re not getting out of it, missy!”

On cue, Nimble was at Sure Stroke’s side, with a hoof right at her ribs. “Surrender now, or surrender after tickles,” she cooed. “Please choose the latter. You’ve got the cutest laugh other than Toola’s.”

Predictably, Sure Stroke tried to edge away, only to find Esalen on her other side, effectively trapping her in place between the two nymphs.

Nowhere to run.

Only surrender or tickling awaited her.

“I think I’ll just take mane styling,” she said with a nervous smile.

Nimble heaved a mock sigh and lowered her hoof. “Fine! Ruin my fun! But one of these days, I’m going to tickle you silly, Doodle!”

“But not today,” Aspire chimed in, rising to the defense of his favorite target. “So, everyone ask their parents then meet up at our place?” Receiving nods from each pony and nymph, he beamed. “Sweet! Well, let’s all head home so we can get this show on the road!”

“Won’t your parents want more notice than this?” Sure Stroke asked.

Esalen scoffed. “Doodle, our parents have let ponies in the same night they wandered in off the forest path. A few foals and nymphs coming over in a few hours is a cinch.”

“It’s not a problem at all,” Aspire added. “Dad’s really cool about it, and mom just likes to know how much she needs to make for dinner. Believe me, us telling her at noon is more than enough time.”

 

 

After splitting up with their friends, Aspire and Esalen walked along the path that led to Sure Stroke’s house. They’d already passed by their own house, even stopping to wave to their father as he sat on the porch and rested on a cushion, and call out to ask for permission to have their friends over.

Of course, he said yes after poking his head inside, presumably to let their mother know. He gave a bright grin and an extra wave to Sure Stroke before going back to dozing.

“See?” Esalen said, giving Sure Stroke a little hip bump that sent her stumbling into Aspire.

Aspire bumped her in kind, sending her back toward his sister. “Told you dad would be fine with it!”

“Okay, I—oof!” Sure Stroke squeaked as Esalen sent her stumbling again. “I get the—stop that! Okay, I—enough!” Her wings flared out, cuffing both siblings over the back of their head.

Laughing, Esalen nosed against her cheek. “You’re way too fun to tease, Doodle!” Drawing away, she scrunched up her snout in thought. Her eyes lit up, she gave a merry chitter and buzzed her wings. “Ooh! I need to think of how we’re going to style your mane! You’d look adorable with a bun!”

Sure Stroke blinked. “I’ve never really tried a bun before. I mostly just wear it in a ponytail if I don’t let it down.”

“Well, we can try a few things! Oooh! I wish I’d thought of this earlier! I could’ve asked Queen Euphoria if we could borrow some of her circlets!” She stomped a hoof and glanced over her shoulder, then at Aspire. “Do you think she’d let us?”

He shrugged. “I don’t know. You could always ask next time.”

“Next time?”

“It’s a Madame Soleil day, Essy. You know Queen Euphoria is gonna end up insisting she and her guards stay for lunch, and then she and Breezy will end up entertaining them for a couple more hours.”

Esalen’s ears drooped. “Chitin! I completely forgot!” She let out a long sigh, shaking her head. “Fine, next time. But I’m still thinking of mane styles!”

“Noted.” Chuckling, Aspire turned to Sure Stroke. “So, ready for your first Respite sleepover?”

Sure Stroke raised an eyebrow. “Are they all that different from normal sleepovers?”

He shrugged, a playful smile spread across his muzzle. “I’ve heard newcomers say so, mostly because of our little cocooning thing.”

She flinched. “Oh, right. I keep forgetting that.” Ducking her head, she looked down at the ground, a pensive frown crossed her muzzle.

His smile fell. Aspire flicked out her tongue, tasting a hint of doubt. He rubbed his shoulder against hers. “Hey,” he muttered, “we won’t wrap you up if you don’t want us to. I just meant it like the first time you’re joining us.”

“I’m just thinking about things,” she replied.

“What sort of things?

Sure Stroke stayed quiet, chewing on the inside of her cheek. Her gaze flitted toward Esalen.

“You said Vector and Zephyr traded off who let you feed on their love,” she began, “and Toola offered the same the first time you took me to Sweet Treat’s and helped us with homework.”

“Yeah, so? That’s just normal stuff …” Aspire trailed off, panic gripping his chest. “You’re okay with that, right? I can tone it down if—”

“No.” She shook her head. Her wings rustled, a sign of nerves. “I talked with Esalen and Toola about it, and they said the same. We were talking about me having trouble with math and I was wondering if I could … if you wouldn’t mind tutoring me?”

On her opposite side, Esalen perked up. “You want to trade with Aspire? So soon?” She gave her tail a swish. “This is a nice surprise! You were all fidgety about it the other day!”

Aspire furrowed his brows. If she was fidgety, as Esalen said, why was Sure Stroke asking now? “What’ve you got to offer in turn? Since we’re doing a trade, here.”

Sure Stroke thought a moment. Aspire could taste her uncertainty, as well as a faint hint of something else.

Curiosity.

“I could do something like Vector and Zephyr,” she said slowly, her eyes flitting to meet his gaze, then down at the ground. “If you’ll tutor me, you can feed on me a little.”

Out of the corner of his eyes, he saw Esalen beam and nod her head so fast her braid bobbed with her. This was exactly what they’d been waiting for—she was offering it herself!

But didn’t she taste the uncertainty in Sure Stroke? Or was she missing it, like he had in the forest? What was that curiosity for, anyway?

Aspire stick out his tongue as far as he could, flicking it like a snake testing the air. “You don’t taste like you’re sure about that,” he said. “But you also taste curious. What’re you curious about?”

She gave a weak smile. “When I talked with Queen Euphoria about feeding, she explained a bit about how it felt and what it could do, and I wanted to … maybe try it.”

Maybe?

That wasn’t certainty at all.

Flicking his tongue again, Aspire caught a hint of doubt. She wasn’t afraid, but beneath that curiosity was just a sliver of doubt.

The memory of her parents talking about that nightmare flashed through his mind. Aspire took a sharp breath through his nose. She was curious, but she still wasn’t sure she could trust him.

He knew his answer.

Esalen grinned and gave a happy chitter as she nuzzled against her cheek. “I’m glad you decided to take him up on it!” she said. “You’ll find it’s not bad at all! Toola thinks it feels ticklish, and Vector always says he feels like he’s laying on a cloud! It’s really—”

“No,” Aspire cut in.

They stopped walking, each gaped at him.

Esalen recovered first. “What? Aspire, this is a part of trading, a part of our village. You can’t just—” She glanced at Sure Stroke, frowned, then stomped a hoof and looked to Aspire again. “You can’t say no!”

“Sure I can. I’m tutoring her, so I get to set my price, and I don’t want love,” he lied. Aspire looked Sure Stroke over a moment, thinking as fast as he could. What did she have that interested him? Vector and Zephyr offered food, and so did Toola. But Sure Stroke was different.

She needed to see she wasn’t just food.

She was his friend.

What did he know about her? What could he place value on as a show to her?

It clicked.

“I want you to draw me a picture of Cloudsdale,” he said with a grin. “Colored, too. I’ve heard they have rainbow waterfalls there.”

Sure Stroke balked. “You … want a picture of Cloudsdale?”

“Yeah. Colored.”

“Okay.” She blinked. “Why?”

Aspire shrugged. “Because you’ve seen my home, but I haven’t seen yours. I’ve read about it, my grandma’s from there, but the only pony city I’ve visited is Manehattan. I want to see Cloudsdale because it’s part of my family I haven’t seen, and it’s where you grew up.” He paused in thought. “Unless you don’t want to. I mean, you can draw something else.”

“No, no! It’s fine! I just—I’m surprised you don’t want love.”

“I do, just not this time.” Pasting a grin on his muzzle, he added, “I’m more curious how an actual drawing of yours looks, because all I’ve seen you do are doodles, Doodle.”

Her brows flatlined. “I really ought to smack you for that.”

“Probably.”

“You suck.”

His grin widened. “I’ve been told that more than you think.”

Sure Stroke snorted. “Somehow, I doubt that.” With a sigh, she turned toward the dirt path leading to her house. “You know, I’m probably going to finish your drawing before I’m good enough at algebra.”

“You don’t know that. I’m a good tutor.”

“What happens if I do?”

“Then we renegotiate our terms.” He inclined his brows. “Simple as that.”

To his surprise, she smiled. “Good. Then we both know what I’m going to offer next time.” Thinking on it, she turned her gaze to Esalen, then back to Aspire. “Or the next time you’re hungry, or help me with something, I’m offering. Because I do want to understand, and I want it to be someone I trust.”

Esalen grinned and waggled her ears. “I’d be happy to be the first to feed on you. We’ll work something out.”

Aspire simply shrugged. This was her one freebie, if she wanted it another time, fine. “Likewise. Just not this time.”

With a satisfied nod, she trotted up the dirt path, giving a wave of her wing as she climbed the steps to her front porch and headed inside.

It didn’t take a half second before Esalen’s smile fell. “Why in the name of the Sainted Ones’ glimmering coats did you say no? She was right there, offering you a meal on a platter!”

“Didn’t you taste her?” Aspire asked. “She’s not sure of it.”

“Not sure? Of course she’s not sure, you thick-chitined goof! It was going to be her first time feeding us!” Esalen let her shoulders slump. “She was right there, all eager, and willing, and cute, and looking so unrepentantly yummy, and what did you do?”

Aspire rolled his eyes. “I said no.”

“You said no!” She stomped her hoof, glaring at him through glowing green eyes. “Why?”

Slowly, Aspire raised a hoof. He was going to have to explain, or Esalen just wouldn’t understand. “She had a nightmare about us,” he said.

The glow left her eyes. Esalen’s glare faltered, she leaned away from him. “What?”

“That night she came over for dinner with her parents, I overheard them talking to mom and dad,” Aspire continued. “Right after I scared her in the forest, she took a nap and had a nightmare about us all having them for dinner, like a bunch of Locust.”

Esalen flinched. Horror shone in her eyes. She looked toward Sure Stroke’s house, biting her lip. “I had no idea—why didn’t she—” Her gaze fell upon him again. “Why didn’t you say something?”

Aspire looked down. “Because it was my mess, and I wanted to talk to her about it.” He sighed, letting his ears droop as he met her eyes again. “I haven’t done a good job making her feel like she’s my friend, Essy. You have.”

“Oh, come on, you know that’s not true!”

“Isn’t it? You’ve gossiped with her, you’ve played a prank on Queen Euphoria with her, and I’ve … tutored her and scared the feathers off of her. And learned she had a really mean punch.”

Esalen gave an amused snort. “You wanna fill me in on how that happened?”

“Apparently it’s called percussive therapy. She decided she wasn’t letting me mope about the dream at the party, so she punched me and made me promise to stop babying her.”

“Good filly.”

“Hey!”

“What? You were being mopey.” Frowning, Esalen added, “And you’re babying her now. She’s never going to learn if you don’t feed on her soon.”

Aspire gestured toward her. “Unless you do.”

“I just might, but don’t try to steer me off. She offered you a trade, by right the first meal should’ve been yours. Why did you ask for a picture instead?”

“Because I do want to know more about her.” He smiled and buzzed his wings. “And if I show her that, she’ll see that I see her as a friend, not just food. She might not like that I said no and made her wait to sate her curiosity now, but think of all those stories about us ponies tell.”

Esalen let her jaw drop. “You … ooooh, that’s clever!” Her ears perked up, she gave a big, fanged grin. “You smug little hatchling! You weren’t planning for one meal, you’re planning out a game to get a closer friend along with a lifetime of meals!”

“Now you’re getting it.” Shrugging, he added, “This time is just her freebie. It’s her first trade, so I figured it would be a good place to get her to show off her art skill for me. Plus, I did mean that bit about wanting to see Cloudsdale, and through her eyes, too.”

“I suppose that makes sense, and it works toward the end goal.” Esalen raised a hoof. “But if she offers us love for something else, or just for food …”

Aspire smiled. “Like I said, this was the one time I wanted to say no. After this one, if she offers and is sure about it, I’ll feed on her. Happily.” Closing his eyes, he licked his lips. “I can be patient for her sake, and I’ll make sure she’s fed and rested afterward.”

He felt a hoof lay upon his back. “Good,” Esalen said. “Now come on. I wanna get home so I can set stuff up for doing her mane. She is not getting off the hook on that matter!”

Chuckling, Aspire nodded and trotted along the path with her. His lips curved into a smile.

You’re not food today, Doodle, he thought. But you’ll always be my friend.

Hopefully, she got the message.

 

 

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