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.


35. Coneigh Island

It was only a distortion, a trick caused by the mirror bulging in the right spot to make her reflection change. Still, no matter how hard her rational side tried to deconstruct what her eyes told her, Sure Stroke couldn’t help but snigger at the much fatter filly giggling back at her.

She knew for fact she had a little bit of a pudge in her belly she could afford to work off, but she would dare say that fat-Sure Stroke, as she dubbed the filly, would find herself unable to fly with such tiny wings!

Toola Roola wasn’t so restrained in her mirth. She rolled about on the floor, pointing and laughing at Sure Stroke’s distorted reflection. “You—haha!—maybe you oughta back off snacking on—heehee!—Sweet Treat’s sweets, Doodle!” she cried. “You’ll be bigger than Euphoria if you—pfft!—keep this up!”

Sure Stroke gave a big, fake huff, then turned to the mirrors again. A smile tugged at her lips as she looked at the one before Toola. “Well,” she began, pointing at the mirror and fighting the laughter that threatened to break out, “I think you might want to start putting on a little weight, Twiggy Roola!”

Her friend’s laughter tapered off. Toola looked up, confusion flashing across her face, and found herself faced to face with an almost impossibly skinny doppelgänger. It took all of three seconds before the giggly filly fell over again and her bell-like laughter filled the House of Mirrors. She kicked her hooves about in the air, her laughter jumping an octave higher when her skinny self did the same with its twig-thin legs.

Chuckling, Sure Stroke shook her head and turned to make a comment to Aspire, but stopped short when she found herself nose to nose with another reflection. She let out a squeak and took a couple steps back, her heart skipped a beat.

Then she remembered where she was. “Right,” Sure Stroke muttered to herself as she glanced about at the mirrors surrounding her. “Mirrors all around, reflections everywhere you turn. Bet all the, ah, cheeky friends we’ve got back in the village love places like this.”

“Bingo!” her reflection answered with a grin and a flutter of her wings.

Sure Stroke cried out and leapt backwards, her wings flared wide, ready to take flight. “What in the—”

A pair of hooves caught her before she could topple over. “Whoa! Watch it there, me!” her own voice said from right behind her, tinged with laughter. “You’re gonna send us both into a mirror wall!”

She shrieked and leapt out of her double’s—triple’s?—grasp, and spun around to face her grinning counterpart. “What—how—but—mirrors—you can’t be real!”

“Weird, ain’t it?” Her ears twitched. It was her voice again. She glanced at the one who’d caught her, then over her shoulder at the first one. Then, a gentle hoof patted her shoulder. Sure Stroke turned slowly, her ears pinned back when she found herself looking at a third copy.

The new Sure Stroke beamed, then raised her free hoof and pressed it against the real one’s nose. “Boop-a-Doodle!” she said in Aspire’s voice.

It clicked. Sure Stroke fixed him with a flat look and punched his shoulder. “You three suck,” she said.

The trio of copycats laughed, the sound of their pony laughs from her mouth made her pin her ears again as they changed back to their disguises in quick bursts of green fire.

Esalen, the one who caught her, waggled her ears. “Got ya good, eh, Doodle?”

“You’re all jerks.”

A toothy grin spread across her face. Sure Stroke caught a glimpse of pink as she poked out her tongue. “That’s a yes, then.”

Darn emotion tasting! She folded her wings against her side and set her jaw. Her gaze flitted left to the hall they’d come from to get to this little side path. Then she turned back to the grinning, disguised nymphs just in time to catch them all exchanging hoof bumps. Even Toola raised a shaking hoof to offer her support!

“You’re lucky nopony saw that,” Sure Stroke hissed sternly. “What if you were seen?”

Nimble waved her off. “Relax. Aspire was watching the hall before he snuck up on you. We’ve done this hide and shift quick prank a thousand times over.”

Of that, Sure Stroke had little doubt. She glanced at the filly still rolling about on the floor and rolled her eyes. Toola was probably their most frequent target—closely followed by Vector, if she had to hazard a guess—so this was a nice little “watch someone else squirm” moment for her. The quick little poke to her side that sent her into peals of laughter was well justified, in Sure Stroke’s unbiased opinion.

When she turned back to the others and found their grins still intact, and growing more amused with each passing second, she huffed. “Alright, fine! You got me. Cheeky villagers one, Sure Stroke zero. Happy now?”

“Only one?” they asked in their creepy, perfect unison.

“Oh, shut up,” she said with a roll of her eyes and another punch to Aspire’s shoulder. “Let’s get out of here before you three give me a heart attack, or give somepony else reason to ask questions.”

Though their grins remained, they didn’t argue. The group of five made their way out of the House of Mirrors and wandered around some of the game stands and rides. Aspire was particularly helpful pointing out and explaining the prize system of a ring toss game with a table green, yellow, and red necked of bottles arranged in a bulls-eye circle, surrounded on all sides by plain black necked bottles.

“If you can get a ring to land around the green bottle, you win one of the big stuffed animals up there,” he said, pointing to a cluster of rather oversized stuffed bears, cats, and rabbits hanging up on the top row. “If you get one of the yellow bottles, you get a medium sized one. Red gets you a small one. Black gets you nothing, though.”

Esalen raised a hoof and added, “You kind of have to count on the ring bouncing though.” She pointed at the rings the attendant had set out. “See how small they are?”

Sure Stroke wrinkled her snout. The rings weren’t small, they were tiny. Barely enough to fit around the bottleneck, she would wager.

The attendant smiled. He must have been listening in. “Your friends are right. It’s not as easy as you’d think,” he added, nodding in agreement with the twins. “I’ve had rings take six or seven bounces when I play during my down time. Had one bounce all the way off my stand once!”

All the way off? Sure Stroke couldn’t help but let out a low whistle as she eyed the bottles and rings. “That’s quite the bounce.”

“Sounds like we’ve finally found something bouncier than you, giggle box!” Nimble quipped before prodding and poking Toola’s ticklish sides, eliciting the usual fit of laughter and pleas for mercy. Fortunately for Toola, Nimble let up, either due to a sliver of compassion or simply that she didn’t feel like tormenting her adopted sister outside the village. Then she eyed the prizes and sniffed, wrinkling her snout. “I don’t really think much of those, though.”

Sure Stroke pulled a wry face. “Really?” Her eyes flitted up at a big, smiling fake stuffed tabby cat with a pink bow tied on its left ear. “The cat looks kind of cute.”

The disguised nymph shrugged. “If you say so. I’d prefer a real one, myself. Their fur is softer and a lot more snuggly.” The corner of her mouth twitched, mischief shone in her eyes as she added, “Then again, I have a snuggly, gigglebox of a sister, so I don’t really need a stuffed cat.”

Toola raised an eyebrow and fixed her with a bemused look. “I’m not sure if that was supposed to be a compliment, or if I just got downgraded from sister to doll.”

“I’m going to go with yes to both.”

With a playful scoff, Sure Stroke hip bumped Nimble and sent her stumbling a step. Then she turned to the attendant and asked, “How much to play?”

“Two bits for five rings,” he replied. “One toss for each ring, no magic allowed. Or, y’know, any wing flapping to make an updraft.” His smile faltered. “Had a couple pegasi try that one once. Didn’t work out like they hoped, and then I spent the next fifteen minutes trying to gather up all my rings.”

Sure Stroke pulled two bits out of the little bit pouch her parents had given her and placed them on his stand.

The attendant accepted them with a smile as he levitated them into a jar with a little flick of his magic. Then he slid a pile of five rings over so they were within reach, and stepped to the side to give her a clear path to throw. “Go right ahead, young filly. Fire away.”

Nodding her thanks, Sure Stroke picked up the first ring and gave it a casual fling toward the center of the table, hoping to get a quick win right from the get-go.

The ring hit one of the green bottles, them bounced almost merrily along the yellows and reds as though skipping through a field before it decided to land around one of the black ones.

Aspire sniggered. “Not as easy as it looks, is it?”

“Oh, shut up!” she shot back, her cheeks coloring as her friends gave knowing grins and waggled their ears. “It was just a fluke!” Turning away to avoid further teasing, and, more importantly, the oncoming assault of Aspire’s smugness, Sure Stroke snatched another ring off the counter. This time, she took careful aim at one of the yellow bottles and tossed the ring. It hit the bottle and bounced, as she planned, but then caught an edge off the next one and skipped away from the green bottles and landed in the field of black bottles on the opposite side of the table. “Come on!”

“Right idea,” Esalen said. “Just an unlucky bounce on that one.”

Unlucky bounces quickly became a theme. Sure Stroke’s next two throws didn’t fare any better—her third was a complete dud, while the fourth clinked and skipped its way through the maze of bottles before coming to a rest on the one just outside the edge of the red ring.

She only had one ring left.

Toola groaned and let her ears droop. “You’ve got rotten luck today, Doodle.”

Sure Stroke simply grunted as she eyed her remaining ring with a hint of irritation. Her gaze then flitted up to the tabby cat smiling down at her almost seemed like it was taunting her, along with its lesser brethren on the lower shelves. They almost looked like a certain smug changeling standing just a couple steps to her right.

There was no real pattern to how the rings before bounced, nothing she could really do to figure out a way to tilt the scales in her favor. She took a deep breath, clutched her wings tight against her sides, and then tossed her final ring.

It hit the rim of one of the black necked bottles—Sure Stroke’s coat stood on end as her friends sucked in a breath—and then skipped forward into the bullseye! It zigzagged its way through the reds before going on a diagonal jaunt through the field of yellow toward the green necked bottles at the center. She felt Aspire grab her shoulder, and saw his eyes wide with excitement out of the corner of her own.

Her heart leapt into her throat, she watched the ring fall as though it were in slow motion. It hit the rim of the last yellow necked bottle, flipped in mid air, and flopped onto the bottle next to it—a bottle with a yellow neck.

“Oh, come on!” Aspire planted his forehooves onto the counter and glared at the offending ring. “That was going right for the center!”

The attendant gave a sheepish grin and shrugged. “Sorry, little guy, but sometimes they don’t quite bounce right. Your friend still wins a prize from the medium size selection, though.” He smiled at Sure Stroke and waved a hoof at the stuffed animals. “Go ahead and pick one!”

With a disappointed sigh, Sure Stroke cast one final forlorn look at the big tabby on the top shelf. Its smile was practically mocking her failure. She looked at the row below and let her gaze wander. There were matching cats, a few puppies, and even a rather nice bird with feathers all the colors of liquid rainbow.

Well, something is better than nothing. She sighed and smiled despite herself, and pointed at one of the stuffed animals. She’d never seen one like that before, anyway. “I’ll take that one.”



“You were all excited about that cat,” Esalen said, wrinkling her snout as she eyed the multicolored bird toy seated upon her friend’s back, “but you went with a bird that looks like it got dunked in liquid rainbow on its way south?”

Pure joy radiated off the happy pegasus and danced upon her tongue like cotton candy. Sure Stroke fluttered her wings and spared a quick glance over her shoulder at the little stuffed bird she’d chosen. “I think it’s supposed to be a parakeet,” she replied. “And they’re actually from the south—the pegasi don’t guide them there before winter hits.”

Of course. Esalen glanced at Toola and Nimble, and rolled her eyes, drawing grins from both. Who wouldn’t know about non-native birds? “Right. But that doesn’t answer my question.”

Sure Stroke’s cheeks flushed red. On her right side, Aspire gave her a little nudge. Just enough to make her stumble a step without dropping her prize. “She has a point, Doodle. You were all about that cat when Nim said it was too fluffy or whatever. Why the change of heart?”

She shrugged. “I don’t know. I sort of miss seeing birds fly by, and I never got to see a parakeet before. Besides—” she turned to nose against her stuffed prize’s beak “—I like the colors.”

Ah, the colors. Well, that made perfect sense. Esalen thought back to the first day they had lunch with their pegasus friend. One of the first things she talked about was how she loved the color of their eyes and mane, and talked about what she’d paint with those specific hues.

If I recall, Aspire’s eyes were the as deep blue as a clear summer sky, or like deep ocean water. Esalen eyed Sure Stroke for a couple seconds, then glanced at her brother as he began chattering to her about a book on parakeets he stumbled upon in one of Manehattan’s libraries on a previous trip. Her thoughts turned to some of those observations from recent days.

Aspire and Sure Stroke had grown close, incredibly so. If that line about his eyes had come just a few weeks later, she might consider locking them both in a room until they admitted they were head over tail lovedrunk for one another. Or started kissing, one of the two.

Or, equally likely, that Aspire would snark so much that Sure Stroke got flustered enough and became little more than a blushing, squirming mess, or decided to start beating him over the head with her wings.

Still, there were several little hints. The pair were almost attached at the hip, sharing their own little jokes and such. It had been their own little meeting, off to the side and away from everyone in the village, that spawned her “hated” nickname.

Esalen was many things. Stupid wasn’t one of them. She could taste Sure Stroke’s irritation each time the word “Doodle” was uttered in her presence, but with it came something else: joy, amusement, even the sweet, fluffy, delectable taste of budding affection teasing her tongue. Sure Stroke could protest and squirm all she wanted. However, she couldn’t hide what she felt from a Caretaker.

But most damning of all was that little charming session at breakfast, when Aspire worked his wiles and made Sure Stroke freely speak the truth. Even before, actually.

“They’re pretty. They’re a beautiful shade of blue, like the sky on a clear day, or when I’m looking down at a lake from above while I fly over with mom and dad.”

“They’re so beautiful. Even more than before! I could just … I could just get lost in them forever and be happy. You have such pretty eyes, and a handsome smile. And such lovely, white fangs …”

They were positively lovedrunk, even if they didn’t want to admit it. No matter how they tried to dance around the question, neither could hide their feelings from her.

Esalen was quite thoroughly fed up with waiting. She was a nymph of action. It was her plan, after all, that brought Sure Stroke into their little circle of friends and took away the foul taste of fear that hung about her like a thunderhead over a spring party. It would be another of her designs that made the pair act on their feelings.

Her eyes flitted to the right. A slow smile spread across her face. And, lo, opportunity presents itself to those who seek it, she thought, quoting her favorite Cold Queen line. Be it your choice whether or not you take it, foolish mortal.

Much like the young Canterlot mage, Donnchad MacCulkin, Esalen wasn’t one to pass up a chance when the Cold Queen herself pointed it out—even if it was just her imagination. She had to be subtle, though, or Aspire would surely taste her mischief. And Sure Stroke might notice, if she glanced over. The pegasus had caught onto their tells quite nicely, which only made the game more fun.

Esalen glanced at Nimble and Toola and raised her brows. They met her gaze, each arching a brow in kind as they kept up appearances and chattered about nothing in particular. Her partners in crime throughout the village were well-versed in subtlety. Those who lived long enough in Respite barely needed to talk when it came to planning out simple pranks. Or, on a far more noble note, how to set up one’s friend and brother on an impromptu date.

She gave a barely perceptible jerk of her head toward Aspire and Sure Stroke, then nodded toward her chosen ambush spot just up ahead. The pair followed her gaze, and, slowly, vulpine grins spread across their muzzles, their eyes danced with mirth. Nimble nodded once.

They were a go.

Toola fixed her usual bright smile back upon her muzzle, then bounded forward and pointed at their destination. “Look! Let’s head over there!”

Aspire’s ears twitched. He looked ahead and cocked his head to the side. “The Tunnel of Love?” he asked slowly. His tongue darted out between his lips, eager to taste some love even after eating pizza. Rather than accept, he fixed Toola with a confused look. “Why in Love’s name would you want to go there?”

She flashed him a warm smile, the kind that made every nymph in sight perk their ears and flick their tongues to taste the cookie dough flavor of her affection and flutterpony-like innocence. Then she altered course and started walking toward the Tunnel of Love.

Perhaps unconsciously, the lovebirds in denial followed.Excellent

Toola ratcheted up the cuteness factor by about ten as she fell into step on Aspire’s right. She rubbed shoulders with him and said, “I just thought it might be nice to check it out. It’s supposed to be pretty, isn’t it?”

“Well, yeah. In the sense that it’s, like, Sharers’ Day and that other love holiday—”

“Hearts and Hooves Day?” Sure Stroke supplied.

“Yes, that. It’s like those two holidays merged together and out came the most over-the-top, lovey-dovey display too sweet even for one of us to enjoy.” He paused a moment, then added, “Though the air around it is so saturated with love, affection, and, uh, sometimes lust that it’s basically a buffet. Still. You wanna go there?”

Toola bobbed her head, her aquamarine and pink tinged mane caught the light and seemed to glow. It was stunning, like when Vigil decided to show off her charm to dazzle Sweet Treat on Sharers’ Day before peppering her with kisses and whispering sweet nothings. Beautiful, even. “Yup!” she replied in her bubbly tone.

Esalen blinked a few times, then took a breath to calm her racing heart. Since when did Toola go from cute, adorable little gigglebox to stunning and beautiful? Food for later thought, perhaps. Like when the light wasn’t tracing over her friend’s body in a way that showed off her sleek, curvy gymnast form. That sounded just lovely.

Out of the corner of her eye, she caught Nimble licking her lips, her eyes focused on Esalen. Her vulpine grin widened.

Did she just—am I—no. Aspire and Doodle. Esalen sidled up to Sure Stroke and gave her a little hip bump. “What do you think, Doodle?” she asked. “Wanna hop in a boat and take a little ride through the Tunnel of Love?”

Sure Stroke pulled a face. She glanced from the ride to Esalen, and rustled her wings nervously. “I don’t know …”

Time to play the guilt card. Pouting, Esalen ducked her head. “You mean you don’t wanna ride with all your friends?”

On cue, Nimble was at her side, mirroring her pout. “We love you, Doodle.”

Sure Stroke bit her lip. Again, she glanced between the ride and her friends. They were just a few steps away from the line, and there was only one couple ahead of them. Then she betrayed herself. She looked right at Aspire and let her gaze linger.

Bingo. Game to Essy.

The couple stepped into a small wooden boat just as Sure Stroke turned back to them. She nodded once. “Okay.”

Esalen fought to keep a wicked grin off her muzzle, instead favoring a sweet smile as she leaned in to rub cheeks with her friend. “Thanks, Doodle,” she said. With her plan well in motion, she turned to the attendant, a young stallion barely out of his teens, and beamed. “How much to ride?”

The attendant nodded to a sign hanging by his stand. “Two bits per pony,” he said. “Next boat’ll be coming up in a few seconds.” Even as he spoke, Esalen could see the bow of the next boat poking around the bend. It floated toward them almost lazily, the pair of mares it carried barely even noticed that their ride was coming to an end, too lost in their embrace and the chance to get in some quality necking.

It was all she could do not to take a nice, big sip. But Esalen kept focused. She had a plan, and she would see it through.

“And how many to a boat?” she asked, feigning innocence as best she could while she tracked the boat.

“Two to a boat,” he recited in practiced reply, turning to help the couple off the boat as it came to a stop. He smiled and nodded to the mares, who thanked him and trotted away, still rubbing cheeks and leaning against one another. Then he turned back to Esalen. “We’ve had a few multi-partner groups come in and had to divide them up because of our safety guidelines, but that’s the way it works.”

Too easy. Esalen clapped a hoof on Sure Stroke’s shoulder. “Well, here’s one passenger!” she said.

Toola grabbed Aspire. “And here’s the other!”

Aspire and Sure Stroke balked. “Wait, what?” they yelped in unison as Nimble snatched the stuffed animal off the latter’s back, then joined in giving them both a firm shove onto the boat. The pair toppled head over tail and fell right into the tiny wooden boat in a tangle of limbs, each flailing to free themselves.

It was far too late for that, though. Esalen passed four bits to the attendant, who chuckled and gave the boat a push to send it on its way. Her grin widened as Aspire and Sure Stroke finally managed to disentangle enough to sit up and shoot her matching looks of betrayal. She waved, calling, “Have a good trip!” as the boat rounded the bend and entered the Tunnel of Love. The lovebirds were on their way.

Flawless execution.



Sure Stroke sat on one side of the tiny wooden boat, completely still save for her trembling hoof. A thousand curses and vows for revenge against her friends flitted through her mind. How dare they? Who were they to just shove Aspire and her into a boat without so much as a ‘by your leave?’

She glanced at the disguised nymph and found him pointedly avoiding her gaze. He, too, had opted to scoot himself to the other side of their tiny craft out of respect. Instead, he did a rather impressive job feigning interest in the sugar pink heart-shaped lights lining the walls and casting a pink tinged light throughout the tunnel, occasionally stopping to flick his tongue to taste for lingering love or hum in false admiration of an image of pegasi with heart-tipped arrows notched and ready to fly.

Every so often, his eyes would flit to meet her gaze. They would stare in silence for a few seconds, he would open his mouth as though to speak, but then close it and shake his head, a heavy blush tinging his cheeks as he turned to look at the walls again.

Her own cheeks burned. I ought to give those three a good smack with my wings for this!

Heavy silence hung over them like a rogue thunderhead waiting to erupt in a frenzy of lightning and crashing thunder. But, while the steady rumble back in Thunderbolt Heights gave her a sense of comfort, like a warm blanket, this storm loomed despite all effort to tame or steer it away.

Sure Stroke licked her lips. One of them had to talk, or this would be their most awkward moment since Aspire spat slime all over her legs in Neighagara Forest. But how to break the silence?

A tickling at the end of her nose made her wrinkle her snout. Sure Stroke sneezed and let out a squeak, her wings flared out wide and her primaries ran up Aspire’s side.

Yelping in surprise, he nearly toppled right out of the boat. His eyes went wide, he turned his gaze upon her and fixed her with a half-grin. “What in the name of Love was that?” he teased breathily. “Do all Cloudsdale pegasi snap their wings out when they sneeze, or is that a special Doodle property I need to document for further study?”

Her jaw dropped. She fixed him with a withering glare, rustling and fluffing her feathers. “You did not just go there.”

“What if I did?” he asked, his grin nearly split his face. His bright orange eyes danced with glee as he raised a hoof and slowly reached forward to press it against her nose. “What are you gonna do about it, Doodle?”

Smug, insolent little … Gritting her teeth, Sure Stroke growled in warning. Aspire’s grin widened, and her heart skipped a beat. Why, oh why, did he have to look so handsome when he was being like that?

Still, the little punk had well and truly earned a good swat. Whether or not he was handsome was irrelevant. If he wanted to keep up his little game of enforcing changeling culture’s practices on payback and making deals, then he’d just plucked his own wings by antagonizing her.

Then again, he’d be expecting that. He didn’t even hide how he licked his lips, or how his posture shifted so he faced her, no doubt ready to block her attempts and pull her in for teasing. She’d have to be creative.

She’d have to think like a Respite filly.

He wants something nice, huh? Her tail twitched, she only just managed to keep it from swishing. What a lovely blank box for me to fill in.

Fixing a coy smile upon her muzzle, Sure Stroke folded her wings against her sides. He was asking for it, and she’d been looking for a way to wipe that stupid smile right off his face—well, his real face, but this counted too. Her right hoof trembled as she licked her lips. I wonder if they feel soft … Only one way to find out.

“What am I going to do?” she drawled, fluffing her wings. If changelings liked to trick and beguile ponies, she would have to take a page or two from their book—namely, how to draw in an unknowing victim to her little trick. “Well, I suppose I could just say that you making fun of me either gives me just cause to swat you again, or …”

Aspire’s grin faltered, he leaned in and narrowed his eyes at her. “Or what?”

That’s right. Come closer, just like a moth to a flame. Sure Stroke shrugged and tossed her mane, then made a show of looking away from him. The creak of wood as he tried to shift closer made her flick an ear, a grin threatened to split her face. Or is it fly to web for a changeling?

She felt his warm breath wash over her left shoulder. Out of the corner of her eye, his orange-coated muzzle peeked around as he tried to meet her gaze. Aspire prodded her rib cage, drawing a squirm and a squeal. “Or what, Doodle?” he repeated.

With a coy smile, Sure Stroke turned just enough to look him in the eye. “I could say you’ve broken the spirit of our deal by trying to antagonize me into breaking it myself.”

Aspire drew in a sharp breath, his nostrils flared. “I,” he began, a stern edge in his tone, “have done no such thing.”

“You just did, and I’m pretty sure I could make a good case for it. However,” she said, holding up a hoof, “I’m willing to make good on my part of the deal. On one condition.”

His eyes narrowed to slits. He ran his tongue along his lips, not even bothering with subtlety. “You taste mischievous,” he said. “And … wait, huh?” Blinking a few times, he drew back, confused. He stuck his tongue out as though her were about to blow a raspberry, then drew it back in. Aspire furrowed his eyebrows. “What are you up to?”

“You’ll see if you accept my condition.”

“And just what would that be?”

Sure Stroke turned and leaned in so they were nose to nose. “Close your eyes.”

“… Seriously?”

“Seriously. Close your eyes, and I’ll give you something nice.”

Aspire snorted. “Don’t know if you noticed, Doodle, but you aren’t exactly carrying anything to give me. Unless you’ve got something hidden under those wings, in which case, nice job sneaking it around without us noticing.” Again, his tongue darted out. He was confused, trying to figure out just what he was tasting and why.


“You’ll see when I give it to you,” she replied, neither confirming nor denying his suspicion. “Take it or leave it?”

“Didn’t we cover baiting a changeling in one of our lessons?” he asked, raising a brow. “Alright, fine. I’ll close my eyes.” Aspire did so and held out his hooves. “So, gimme, Doodle.”

He never saw how her lips curved into a wicked grin that would’ve made Queen Euphoria proud. Oh, I’ll give it to you, alright. Sure Stroke waved a hoof in front of his face to be sure his eyes were completely shut. He didn’t flinch, so she decided to go ahead with her plan. She took a deep breath, readying herself mentally, then laid her trembling hooves gently upon his shoulders.

Aspire’s brows furrowed. He frowned, but didn’t open his eyes. “If you try to throw me in the water,” he began, a hint of playful warning in his tone, “I swear on my eggshell that I’ll spit-slime your hooves to the ground and let everyone in the village line up to tickle you from dawn ‘till dusk the first day we’re back home.”

A giggle threatened to bubble forth. Not a bad threat, if that had been her design.

Instead, she just shook her head. “Nope, no throwing you in.” She slowly trailed her hooves up to wrap around his neck.

He wrinkled his snout. “Okay, I’ve got nothing. You’ve got nothing on you, you’re not trying to throw me in, what in the name of love are you—mff!!”

It was just perfect timing. The very instant his lips puckered around the word “you,” Sure Stroke gave him the “something nice” he’d demanded as payment for his silence. Though, really, shutting him up and wiping that smug little grin off his face was reward in and of itself, and she did get an answer as to how soft his lips were—just as soft as a real pony’s.

Kissing a handsome nymph was, in her unbiased opinion, beneficial for multiple reasons. Even if he wasn’t wearing his real face.



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