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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16. Lakeside Party

Moving to Respite had changed a lot of what Sure Stroke claimed to “know” with absolute certainty, but there was one thing she was willing to place her bits on if she had the chance:

Esalen was well and truly doomed.

She’d known it for some time now. From the moment Vector confirmed that the changelings in Respite—Caretakers, as he called them—could taste her emotions, she knew it was only a matter of when rather than if.

And with Tailwind and Fleetwing standing before her, waiting for her parents to come to the door so they could lead them to the lakeside, Sure Stroke couldn’t help but smile knowingly.

Why hide her smile? It wasn’t like she could hide the taste of her own feelings.

Her smile stretched into a full-blown grin as Fleetwing did just that. The changeling mare blinked twice, then stuck her tongue out, waggled it, and pulled it back into her mouth, her face a mask of confusion. “You know, don’t you?” she asked.

Sure Stroke nodded, giggling into her hoof.

Fleetwing and Tailwind shared a look, then sighed in unison. “Esalen,” they said together.

“Warm is gonna lose it,” Tail said, laughing as he shook his head. He gave a little shrug. “Well, at least we’ll get a show to kick off the party, eh?”

“True.” Fleetwind shot Sure Stroke a little smirk. “You don’t plan on even trying to fake it, huh?”

“Would it even work?” Sure Stroke asked. “You tasted it straight off the bat!”

“Fair point. Well, then, at least play up this part of the act.” Reaching into her light armor, Fleetwing pulled out three blindfolds. “We’re supposed to convince you guys to wear these. If you could, it’d make the whole ‘she knew the whole time’ bit funnier, if only because Warm’ll flip even more.”

Sure Stroke thought for a moment. One one hoof, it’d certainly be entertaining to watch him chase Esalen around. On the other, helping them wind Warm up more might put her at risk of him wanting to play tricks, just as Aspire had.

The mere thought of her wayward friend made Sure Stroke’s smile falter.

He’s going to tell me what’s bothering him today, or so help me Celestia …

 

She flicked her tail, forcing her lips to curve into a bright, cheery grin as she said, “I’d be happy to! It’ll be fun getting one over on a changeling for once!”

“Haha! That’a girl!” Tailwind said, waggling his ears. He cast a wink at her. “Don’t worry, we won’t tell him that you’re in on our little joke. And he’ll be too busy chasing Essy to taste you or me for any trickery. We’ll have a bit of fun before we get into the swing of things.”

Fleetwing chuckled. “Seems so.” Fixing him with a half-lidded stare, she smirked and turned to nose against his cheek. She brought a hoof up to his chest and traced a small circle around his breastplate. “I don’t suppose you’d mind giving me a little snack to enjoy while we watch our show, would you?”

His face flushed red. Tailwind’s ears stood straight up, his feathers fluffed as he looked from Fleetwing to Sure Stroke. “Fleet, c’mon! You could just ask!”

“I could, but that wouldn’t be as fun.” She grinned, licking her fangs. “Well, let me give you a sweeter offer.”

Sure Stroke took a none too subtle step back as she watched Fleetwing lean up to whisper something in Tailwind’s ear.

Slowly, his eyes widened. He rustled his wings as a goofy smile crossed his muzzle. “I-I think that’d be a fair trade, sure.”

“I thought so.” Fleetwing kissed his nose. “You’ve always loved caramel-dipped apple slices. Especially—”

Quick as a flash, Tailwind covered her mouth with a hoof, pasting a wide grin on his muzzle as he looked just past Sure Stroke. “Drizzly! Skydancer! Perfect timing!” He slipped away from Fleetwing so he could step back and allow them passage outside.

“Good afternoon, Tailwind. And … Fleetwing, wasn’t it?” Skydancer asked, tilting her head to the side.

Fleetwing nodded. “Yes, ma’am. Nice to see you again as well. Got everything settled in from the move?”

“After about a month and a half of unpacking, organizing, and trying to meet everyone we could in the village, yes. I’ll tell you what, the first thing I want to do after this village party is take a day and get out and fly as much as I can!” Skydancer stretched her wings, giving them a little fluff.

“Well, you might get the chance at the party, if you join in the cloud relay. But first—” she held the blindfolds aloft “—is to put these on.”

Sure Stroke shared a sly wink wth Tailwind and turned around so he could help her put it on. Her vision faded to darkness as he slipped it over her head and adjusted it over her eyes.

“Sure Stroke?” Skydancer’s voice made her flick an ear. She caught the telltale mix of confusion and suspicion, like Skydancer knew her daughter was up to something.

Naturally, Sure Stroke turned toward the sound of her mother’s voice and gave her most innocent grin. “Yes, mom?”

She couldn’t help but giggle when she heard Skydancer snort. “Don’t you ‘yes, mom’ me! What do you know?”

Tailwind cut in. “It’s just a little something to make things more interesting, Skydancer. No pranks, I promise.”

For a moment, there was silence, then Sure Stroke heard her mother grumble, “Fine. But if someone kicks a thunderhead behind me, I’m getting you first, Tailwind.”

The Respite-born pegasus laughed. “I’m sure you would. Now, if you wouldn’t mind putting your blindfolds on, we should really get a move on or we’ll miss the start of the party.”

“Still don’t see why we have to wear them,” Drizzly muttered.

“Because we’re leading you there and it’s fun,” Fleetwing chirped. The telltale hum of magic tickled Sure Stroke’s ears. “Here, I’ll put them on for you both. We’ll guide you to the lake so you don’t trip over anything.”

It was a bit strange to hear her parents grumbling about wanting to know what they were in for like a pair of foals as Fleetwing blindfolded them, but oddly satisfying.

All those years of surprise birthday parties or little games where she had to find her really big Hearth’s Warming present in a patch of clouds were finally coming back to bite her parents right in the rump.

That the “biting” happened to involve a rather large population of the village having fangs just made it all the more entertaining.

Unless there was actual biting involved. That wouldn’t be fun at all. Come to think of it, now would be a rather perfect time for one of them, namely Fleetwing, to just bend down and take a big chomp at her …

A smooth, chitinous snout nuzzled into her mane. She felt Fleetwing’s long, sharp fangs, and the warm breath running through her mane. The nightmare flashed before her eyes—with Fleetwing’s grinning face looming over her in place of Aspire and Esalen’s.

“Relax,” the mare cooed. “Esalen blabbed, didn’t she?”

Sure Stroke gave a stiff nod. The points of those fangs made her flinch, she bit back a curse. “A few times, yes.”

“Then you know that we’re going to celebrate your move here. There’s no need to taste afraid, little filly.” Pausing a beat, she drew back. “How about I carry you? It’ll be easier than guiding you along with my hoof on your back.”

Biting her lip, Sure Stroke took a moment to think. She flicked her tail.

Her nightmare could go get bucked in the face. Aspire had been nice (if a bit fidgety), Esalen had been patient, and their parents were just the same.

Each and every one of the changelings and ponies she’d met in her short time in Respite had been very accommodating and kind to her—well, save for Prim ’n Proper being a bit short with her.

Sure Stroke nodded. “If you think it’d make things easier, sure.”

Again, she felt Fleetwing nuzzle into her mane. “Atta girl!” The familiar hum of magic filled her ears again.

The ground beneath her seemed to vanish. Sure Stroke found herself in an unfamiliar place—she had no control over herself as she floated through the air. Her first instinct was to fight. She unfurled her wings and gave several quick flaps to steady herself.

“Relax,” Fleetwing repeated. “I’ve got you.” True to her word, she set Sure Stroke on her back, safe and sound.

Sure Stroke blinked as she felt herself placed on a rather curvy part of Fleetwing’s back. It was smooth, but different. It almost seemed like there was another, less firm layer she’d been set on. Tilting her head, she pushed her blind up just enough to see where she was. Curiously, she was set right on an aquamarine colored oval.

She placed a hoof on it and gave a little poke, drawing a gasp from Fleetwing.

“That would be my wing casing,” Fleetwing said.

“Sorry!”

“It’s fine. They’re meant to protect my wings, but …” Her ears drooped a little as she pawed at the ground. “It tickles a little.” She coughed into her hoof, then turned to call Tailwind. “Ready?”

Sure Stroke had to giggle at the way he casually smiled as he draped his wings over her parents’ shoulders and led them to Fleetwing’s side. “Looks like it! Let’s head out!”

“Good.” Fleetwing glanced over her shoulder and smirked at Sure Stroke. “Blindfold down now. The show will start soon enough.”

Grinning broadly, Sure Stroke obeyed and settled in on her back.

 

 

Maybe it was the excitement and anticipation.

Or maybe it was the fact that everything had been organized specifically to welcome them to the village.

But if Sure Stroke didn’t know better through experience how quiet and sneaky changelings could be when they wanted she would’ve had to wonder just how their race could possibly even lay claim to being stealthy.

Every little chittering laugh, the hushed whispers of nymphs, not to mention the more familiar pony chuckling or the giggles of her classmates.

She could even hear Vector’s voice somewhere in the mix. A bit too low for her to make out, but it sounded suspiciously like he was saying something about jumpscaring her so she fell in the water.

More chittering laughter tickled her ears, mixing in with some of Toola Roola’s bubbly giggles and a rather indignant huff from somepony else.

“We’re almost there, guys!” Sure Stroke flicked an ear at the sound of Tailwind’s voice. “Just a few more steps and … stop right here!”

Sure Stroke slipped forward a little as Fleetwing came to a halt, falling flat against the changeling mare’s back.

Behind her, she heard Tailwind snort. “Nearly lose your passenger there, Fleety?”

“Almost doesn’t count!” she sang back. “Now that we’re here, you three can take off your blindfolds on three! Ready?”

Drizzly grumbled something under his breath that earned him a laugh from Tailwind and a whispered scolding from Skydancer. “It seems like it,” he said. Then he called out to Sure Stroke, What about you, honey?”

Sure Stroke didn’t even bother trying to keep her act. Even if Warm didn’t know by now, any changeling who’d tasted her had probably figured it out. “Ready!” she chirped, fluffing her wings.

She heard Fleetwing bite back a snigger before saying, “Alrighty then! One … two … three! Blindfolds off!”

That was all Sure Stroke needed. Quick as a cat, she ripped hers off. She blinked a few times as her eyes adjusted to the sunlight, a grin spread across her muzzle when she found all the villagers beaming back at her, all standing beneath a large white banner with rather well-drawn caricatures of herself and her family and bearing the tagline:

“Welcome to Respite, Drizzly Days, Skydancer, and Sure Stroke!”

In one voice, every villager, from the smallest nymphs and foals to Queen Euphoria, who wore gold circlets in her mane today, yelled out, “Surprise!”

“What in the name of—what?” Sure Stroke turned to find Skydancer gaping for a moment, a giggle bubbled forth as she watched her mother’s cheeks turn a fiery red, her eyes went wide. “You didn’t have … but … what?”

Almost on cue, Warm Welcome stepped forward, his eyes shone with mirth. “You’ll have to forgive us for the delay,” he said, rubbing the back of his head sheepishly. “We weren’t entirely sure you were all settled and ready, what with Drizzly trying to organize with the weather team, you still getting situated at home, and Sure Stroke meeting all the nymphs and foals in school …” he trailed off, his tongue darted out to taste their emotions.

Showtime.

At first, Warm Welcome seemed quite satisfied with himself as he looked toward her parents, but then he stiffened. He turned slowly to stare at her, tilting his head to the side.

His tongue flicked out again.

Sure Stroke simply smiled and waved. “Hi, Mister Welcome!”

“Hello, Sure Stroke,” he replied almost automatically. Blinking, he flicked his tongue out at her a third time, this time running it along his lips. “You do not taste surprised. You taste smug. And knowing.” He furrowed his brows. “Why do you taste smug and knowing?”

Her smile grew into a full grin. Sure Stroke hopped down from Fleetwing’s back. She met Warm Welcome’s gaze, batting her eyes at him. She struggled to hold down her laughter as several of the villagers started sniggering.

Somewhere to her right, she heard Vector laugh and say, “Here we go!”

Warm Welcome sucked in a sharp breath through his nose. “How did you find out?” he asked, his bottom lip stuck out in a surprisingly good attempt at a pout.

Glancing just to his left, Sure Stroke managed to catch sight of Esalen doing her best to hide behind her mother’s leg. Their eyes met for an instant.

Esalen sat back on her haunches and brought her forehooves together, giving a wide-eyed, pleasing stare, complete with a pout that rivaled her father’s as she sent one, final desperate plea to Sure Stroke. She mouthed one word, “Mercy!”

Hold me down and help Nimble find all my tickle spots, will you? She returned Esalen’s silent plea with a smirk. Well then, there is no mercy.

Sure Stroke simply looked back to Warm Welcome, waggled her ears, then made it a point to look straight back at Esalen again.

A look of betrayal crossed the nymph’s face, only to melt away to horror as her father turned toward her. Esalen forced a laugh and began edging away from her mother, the crowd around her gave her a wide birth, all grinning and catcalling.

Warm Welcome crouched low and pawed at the group. “Esalen!” he hissed, his eyes flashed green.

Her ears pinned back against her scalp. Esalen took a big step back, giving a rather forced smile. “N-Now, daddy, it was just an accident! I-It was that day at lunch, and Aspire and I were—”

Green fire washed over his fangs, lengthening and sharpening them to a fine point. Sure Stroke couldn’t help but bring a hoof up to her neck as if to hide it from Warm Welcome’s view.

“Five seconds,” he said.

Esalen started, her ears stood straight up. With a frightened chitter, she turned tail and bolted, fleeing as though Cerberus himself were hot on her tail. Or, more aptly, an angry, hissing changeling father.

A chorus of laughter swept through the villagers. There was a glint of gold as bits between hooves of chitin and pony coat. There were even a few ponies shrugging and sidling over to their changeling friends, who all perked up and licked their lips eagerly.

Just like when Toola offered Aspire some love …

Had the ponies of Respite bet their love in exchange for bits or trinkets?

A shadow fell upon her. Sure Stroke shook herself from her thoughts and looked up to find herself standing before Queen Euphoria for the second time since her visit.

Upon closer inspection, Sure Stroke noticed that the circlets in the Queen’s mane were fashioned in a way that looked like tiny hearts forming a chain that wreathed around the long strands of her mane.

Not quite a crown, but certainly regal. Like a Lady from the old pegasus tales.

Giving a startled squeak, she bowed low like she would for Princess Celestia herself. “H-Hello, Your Highness!” she greeted.

Queen Euphoria smiled. “Good afternoon, Sure Stroke. Please, rise.” She gestured with her hoof. “Let’s not stand on ceremony here—this is a day to celebrate, not one where you’re on trial for playing such a delicious little joke on dear Esalen.”

Sure Stroke stood up straight and rustled her wings. “You could tell?”

Chuckling, Queen Euphoria poked her long, slender tongue poked out from behind black chitinous lips and waggled it teasingly at her. “My sense of taste for emotions is a bit more pronounced than that of my subjects,” Queen Euphoria replied. “And I know the taste of smugness mixed with a healthy dose of mischief quite well. I might even say you tasted like one of my kin in mid trick.”

Her feathers fluffed. “I’ve been told by a reliable source that changelings love to play tricks.”

“That we do, my dear. It would seem that you, like so many other ponies who have come to our village, have already become a bit more like us.” The Queen’s smile widened, she cast a wink at Sure Stroke. “In any case, I am happy to welcome you to Respite in a more traditional manner.”

Queen Euphoria looked toward Drizzly and Skydancer, offering them her hoof. “Come. We’ve got plenty of food for everyone, and I’d like to hear how you’ve found the village in these first couple months. I have noticed a sense of organization to my weather team schedule, Drizzly. Your hoofwork, I assume?”

Coughing, Drizzly stood up straight. “Y-Yes, Your Highness, I—”

“Call me Euphoria, please,” she cut him off. “Or Phory, if you like. I may be the Queen of this hive, but I would prefer to keep that aside when making friends.”

“Er … that might be a bit different for us, but if you insist.”

“I do!” Before Drizzly could give a reply, Euphoria caught his shoulder and pulled him to her side, wrapping him in a one-hoofed hug. With a happy chitter, she looked to Skydancer. “Care to join us? I’d hoped to discuss a bit about your preferences as far as flight instruction and rehabilitation.”

Skydancer blinked. “My preferences with respects to what part?”

“Which you prefer taking part in most, dear,” Euphoria replied with a chuckle. “Breezy and I have wanted to start organizing with you for quite some time, but with your move in, we wanted to make sure you got acclimated. Same with the—ahem—delay on this party.” She grinned. “You didn’t hear it from me, but Warm was most put out when I told him to wait.”

“Was he? Why’s that?”

“Warm likes parties.” She turned and called, “Breezy! Stop fooling around with Ready and get over here before I decide to wrap you up and carry you all day!”

Through the crowd, Sure Stroke saw Cool Breeze rear up to fix Euphoria with a cheeky grin. “You making threats or promises, Phory?” he called back. Then he turned, fluffing his feathers and slowly unfurling his wings in a way that made every pegasus present blush. “Maybe I’ll stay right here and see!”

Rolling her eyes, Euphoria guided the family through the crowd. “I swear, he lives to test my patience,” she grumbled despite the smile gracing her lips.

“Is he always like that?” Skydancer asked.

Queen Euphoria made to respond, but a rustle of feathers through the air and a thud as Cool Breeze landed between Drizzly and Skydancer cut her off.

“You bet I am!” he said with a laugh and a merry swish of his tail. “Have been since I first kissed her in the middle of Queen Chaete’s court—right in front of her, no less!”

“Really?” Sure Stroke asked. “How’d she take that?”

Cool Breeze’s grin practically split his face. “It was one of the few times I’d ever heard her laugh while she had her crown on. She even teased Phory afterward!”

“Yes.” Euphoria snorted, but smiled all the same. “She did. And I went chasing after you for embarrassing me in front of several visitors seeking treatment for something or other. I can’t quite recall, I was too busy thinking of how I’d punish him.”

Giggling, Sure Stroke prodded further. “How did you end up doing that?”

“As I recall,” Cool Breeze began, bringing a hoof to his mouth in a mock show of thinking, “I ended up pinned down on a cloud, and—”

“Utter another syllable and you’re getting stuck to the wall for a week!” Euphoria cut him off in a rush.

His jaw shut with a click, but his smirk remained. “That’s fine. I’ll just save it for Sharers’ Day. Like always.”

“Or you could not do that.”

“Or I could.” He waggled his ears. “You’re cute when you’re flustered.”

Euphoria stopped walking. She fixed him with a narrow-eyed stare and bared her fangs at him. “You’re going to pay for that later, beloved!”

Sure Stroke could only watch in muted fascination as Cool Breeze’s eyes drooped until they were half closed, his smirk seemed to take on a different edge. He moved toward Euphoria with a little sway in his hips until his snout touched hers, then he ducked under her neck, trailing his entire body along from shoulder to tail.

“All part of the plan, my love,” he said in a rather husky tone, flicking the end of his tail across her snout.

As she watched Euphoria’s eyes go wide and her long, slender tongue run over her lips, Sure Stroke could only gape in awe at the stallion who dared tease a changeling so—judging by the bemused murmur in a few ponies in the crowd, she wasn’t alone.

Drizzly gave an awkward cough. “Er, yes. Well, that all aside, thanks again. We really do appreciate all this.” His eyes flitted about to the crowd, he ducked his head. “Er, this is a really nice gesture and I—” he paused at the sound of Skydancer clearing her throat. “We, rather, really appreciate it. Thank you, everyone.”

Almost as if his words broke a spell, the villagers cheered and rushed to greet them.

Sure Stroke found herself surrounded by changelings and ponies of all ages, each eager to introduce themselves and ask how she liked the village, school, and if she’d had the chance to try Sweet Treat’s shop yet.

Or, in the case of her friends, the questions were more focused on what food she just had to try or the games they wanted to play with her.

“You’ve gotta join the cloud relay with me and Zephyr!” Vector said, throwing out his chest. “With the three of us on one team, we’ll breeze through the competition with barely an effort!”

At his side, Zephyr nodded and gave a smirk. “No muss, no fuss, no problem!” In a flash of green fire, a pegasus colt with navy coat stood before her, his mane and tail still the same windswept silver as in his natural form. “Top prize is one of Sweet Treat’s death by chocolate cakes,” he added.

Sure Stroke pricked her ears up. The race wasn’t exactly a selling point, but another one of Sweet Treat’s cakes?

She might just have to join in on that. In the spirit of healthy competition, of course.

And perhaps a bit of not so healthy competition.

Before she could reply, Nimble walked right up to Vector and poked his ribs, drawing a squeal of laughter as he leapt into the air.

“Nim!” he cried indignantly, dashing behind Zephyr and doing his best to cover his sides with his wings. “What was that for?”

“Just a reminder not to get too cocky, Zippy-colt,” she teased. “And I’m part of the cloud relays, so don’t go thinking you’ll win this easy, you three!”

Vector made to reply, but stopped short as he noticed Zephyr none-too-subtly drawing his hoof across his neck in a clear “cut it out” motion.

With a grumble, he flicked his tail, then turned to smile at Sure Stroke. “So, yeah, want in?”

Sure Stroke shrugged, trying her best not to appear too eager. “If there’s cake again, I don’t see why not.” Out of the corner of her eye, she caught Nimble flicking out her tongue. She frowned. “That’s so cheating.”

“You’re just mad I know how excited you are now!” Nimble quipped, then blew a raspberry at her.

Furrowing her brows, Sure Stroke went crosseyed as she glared at the long tongue waggling at her, then huffed. “Do all of you just like doing that, or is there something with showing off how long your tongues are?”

Toola Roola brought a hoof to her mouth to stifle a bout of giggles. “You should see your face!” she cried, succumbing to her mirth. “Oh, you’ll never last if you can’t take a bit of that!”

“My questions stands.”

Nimble waggled her ears. “Bit of column A, bit of column B. If bookbug was around, he’d probably spout off something about it being part of how changelings love teasing and getting ponies to jump or whatever.”

At the mention of Aspire’s name, Sure Stroke set her jaw. “Speaking of whom,” she began, forcing a sickly sweet smile. “I don’t suppose you’ve seen Aspire around today?”

Her friends flinched. Each of them looked away, cringing as they tried to find something else to look at.

Sure Stroke drew in a sharp breath. “Where is he?”

They flinched again at the tone in her voice. Vector’s ears laid flat against his head, he muttered something under his breath as he rubbed a hoof against his shin.

Gotcha. Sure Stroke stepped forward until she was almost muzzle-to-muzzle with him, and let her smile fall. “Where is he, Vector?”

Vector met her gaze. “Aspire’s been acting kinda weird today,” he said. “We mentioned playing guess the pony with you, and he got all fidgety and stuff.”

“Maybe he’s worried about our shapeshifting courses three weeks from now.” Nimble shrugged. “The whole ‘see if you can convince ponies you know that you’re someone else’ assignment is our final before winter hits, so he’s probably fretting on how he can make himself look perfect or something.”

Toola Roola shook her head, frowning at them both. “I saw him walking around a bit ago! There’s no way he’d miss this, especially not with a chance to play with Sure Stroke!” She paused, then added, “Or laugh at Essy, really.”

Wrinkling her snout, Sure Stroke searched the crowd for any sign of his deep blue mane. She stopped after a moment, cursing under her breath.

If a changeling really didn’t want to be seen, they’d just change form. For all she knew, Aspire could be standing right next to her and she wouldn’t even know it.

Unbidden, the memory of how he’d snuck up on her during their game leapt to the forefront of her mind.

She stomped a hoof into the dirt. Moving forward was her best option, and if Aspire wanted to be silly and hide from her at the party, then she’d just have to enjoy herself with the rest of her friends.

And if he happened to be watching, then he could see her having a good time and come over on his own, so she could give him the walloping he so rightly deserved.

Sure Stroke took a deep breath, slowly forcing herself to smile at the group before her. Then, she turned to her parents, Cool Breeze, and Euphoria.

She had to stifle a laugh at the pained smile on her father’s face as he found himself shaking hooves with several ponies and changelings in rapid succession while Euphoria stayed close by, giving a coy smile as she prodded him on how to implement some of Cloudsdale’s emergency weather strategy in the village.

Drizzly always got so nervous when big crowds started prodding him for his expertise on the subject. And by the looks of some of the changelings, they found it a bit entertaining to see how much they could get him to do that silly wobbly smile while they flicked out their tongues.

I wonder how bashfulness tastes.

With a shrug, she left her father to his fate, instead approaching her mother and Cool Breeze. “Mom?” she called, drawing their attention. “Is it okay if I go play with my friends?”

Skydancer blinked. “I don’t see why not, but …” she trailed off, glancing over at Euphoria and Drizzly Days, then toward Cool Breeze. “You didn’t have anything planned for all three of us, right?”

“Well,” Cool Breeze began, “we were hoping to introduce you all to the rest of our—” he aimed a cheeky grin toward Euphoria, who seemed to find something at her hooves oddly fascinating, her chitinous muzzle darkened in a deep blush “—little family.” Shrugging, he smiled and reached down to tussle Sure Stroke’s mane. “But you’ll meet them soon enough anyway. Go on and play! Hope to see you in the relay later!”

With a smile and wave toward her parents, Sure Stroke turned to walk back toward her friends, stopping short to avoid running into Prim ’n Proper.

“Oh!” she squeaked, clumsily sidestepping around Prim. “Sorry!”

Prim sniffed, looking her up and down as if judging her worth. “Well,” she said after a moment, “at least you’ve stopped being so rude to the changelings.” Turning up her nose, she trotted past Sure Stroke toward Euphoria. “Maybe next you’ll learn to watch where you’re going to you don’t run into someone.”

Sure Stroke drew in a deep breath through her nose, her wings unfurled as she glared at the filly’s back.

Call her nerves and aversion to some of the nymphs and adult changelings on her first few days rude. Fine. Maybe it was rude, especially since each and every one of them could taste exactly how she felt toward them.

Pardon the feathers off her wings if she couldn’t help but feel incredibly out of her depth. But she made amends, and then made friends.

A soft nudge on her shoulder made Sure Stroke turn. “What?” she snapped, drawing a flinch from Toola.

Toola Roola took a step back, pinning her ears against her head. “I was just going to say not to worry about Prim,” she muttered. “She gets stuffy and huffy about anything that isn’t perfectly in order.”

“I said I was sorry! And I didn’t do it on purpose!” Gritting her teeth, Sure Stroke turned to glare over her shoulder again, her eyes narrowed as she watched Prim smile and shake hooves with her parents. “Little suck up!”

“Hey!” Toola said. “Don’t you talk about her like that!”

Sure Stroke flicked an ear toward her, turning to retort, but stopped when she noticed Toola frowning.

“Prim might be snippy,” Toola scolded. “But she’s nice when you get to know her. She’s blunt and has no problem speaking her mind when she sees things she doesn’t like, but that doesn’t make her a bad filly!”

Letting her ears droop, Sure Stroke sighed. “Okay.” She gave a small smile. “I’ll let it go and just enjoy the party.”

Toola beamed back at her, like she’d flipped a switch. “Great! Do you want to eat first or would you rather play some games?”

“When’s the could relay?”

“It’s usually up last when we do parties. You’re gonna join Vector and Zephyr and try to win that cake, huh?” She gave a knowing smirk. “Already addicted?”

Sure Stroke stuck her tongue out, earning a fit of giggles. “It’s all your faults for getting me to try some!”

Plus, she thought, letting her eyes wander over the crowd. If I can get some of that cake, I can try to lure Aspire out with it.

She did her best to disguise her smile. “So, what all is there to eat around here?”

 

 

Apparently, asking what there was to eat at a Respite party was like some sort of magic phrase.

Almost the instant the words left her mouth, Sure Stroke found herself whisked away to one of several long wood tables by her gaggle of friends and told—yes, told—to sit and wait while they gathered all the things she had to try.

No, she did not get a say in what went on her plate. That much had been made quite clear when Nimble fixed her with a hooded stare and slowly raised a hoof in silent reminder of how dangerous her tickle attacks could be.

Sure Stroke decided then and there that her best bet would be to smile, nod, and sit her behind down while they carried over plates of food.

Yes. Plates.

Between the salads, the vegetable dishes, the sweet rolls, and Zephyr having somehow managed to swipe a family’s worth of sandwiches, Sure Stroke could only gawk and wonder if they were trying to see how much she could stuff herself with before she burst.

Or if they just thought it might be funny to watch her fly afterward. One of the two.

But then, upon closer inspection, she noticed a thin-sliced bit of something she wasn’t quite familiar with.

Wrinkling her snout, she leaned in to take a cautious sniff. Her ears stood up. “Is that fish?”

“Yup! It’s a fillet of grilled salmon!” Vector replied with a grin and a waggle of his ears. “I maaaaaaay or may not know the grill master well enough to arrange first dibs for us.”

“Really?” Sure Stroke broke her staring contest with the dish before her to fix him with a quizzical stare. “How’d you pull that off?”

He brought up a hoof to buff it against his chest, a boast no doubt on the tip of his tongue.

A quick jab of Nimble’s hoof right beneath his ribcage drew a startled squeak. “Oh, come off it!” she teased, then turned to Sure Stroke. “Zippy-colt’s dad likes to grill when he’s not on guard duty, so he’s the best at cooking stuff like this.”

“Don’t say that too close to my dad!” Zephyr sniggered. “He’s still sore that he lost their annual grill off again!”

Sure Stroke felt her smile strain as all shared a laugh. It was nice to be accepted, but being on the outside of all the in jokes was a bit …

Well, it wasn’t as fun as when she was in the know with all her friends back in Cloudsdale.

Give it time, she told herself, focusing more on the food in front of her. Everything looked delicious, but that salmon just seemed so—well—not in her taste. Sure, there were plenty of pegasi back home who ate fish with their griffon friends, but she’d always stayed away from trying it.

There was nothing wrong necessarily—some creatures ate meat to live, it was just a fact of life.

Sure Stroke simply didn’t.

Her gaze flitted up to her friends’ expectant smiles. They were all waiting to see her try Respite’s fare. Vector in particular looked rather interested in how she liked his father’s cooking.

Prim would scold me for being rude if I didn’t try it when offered again. The image of Esalen holding out a bit of her sandwich, offering her a taste, flashed through her mind, as did the offer to try it at this very party.

Almost on cue, someone slid into the seat beside her.

A rather burly earth pony by the name of Rock Solid laid his chin on the table, gasping for breath.

“Okay!” Esalen’s voice came through the colt’s mouth. “Managed to give dad the slip, really hoping he doesn’t notice or find the real Rocky trying to wrestle Ready for a little while! What’s up?”

The group sniggered at her, Toola even went as far as to coo and pat her head soothingly.

“You made it just in time to see Sure Stroke try my dad’s grilled salmon!” Vector replied. “By the way, do you have any idea what’s eating bookbug?”

Esalen snorted. “Not a clue. He’s been oddly shifty the past couple days.” She cracked open an eye, glancing to Sure Stroke, then added, “Sorry about that. I’ll look for him once I get my breath back and give him a good swat.”

“Save enough of him for me,” Sure Stroke said, her smile fading into a frown. “I want a word with him.”

It was rather strange seeing Rock Solid’s muzzle crease into Esalen’s wicked smirk, especially when his gray eyes flashed green. “You got it. Now—” she prodded the plate of fish toward Sure Stroke “—give it a try. If you don’t like it, we’ll blame Zippy.”

“You always try to pin it on me,” Vector shot back.

“No, most of the time I pin it on Aspire, but he’s not here, so you’re my fallback.” Esalen poked Sure Stroke. “You. Trying this.”

Sure Stroke gave a crooked smile, then looked down at the fish on her plate. She swallowed a lump in her throat, then took a fork—which one of them had managed to sneak in front of her while she wasn’t looking—in hoof.

She cut off a small piece and speared it with her fork, then slowly brought it up to her lips. She eyed it as if she expected it to come back to life and lunge at her face.

Screwing her eyes shut, she quickly took a bite of fish and braced for the horrid taste.

It never came. It was certainly foreign to her, but it wasn’t bad.

Just not something she knew.

Slowly, she opened her eyes and began chewing. “It tastes okay,” Sure Stroke said around her the fish. She wrinkled her snout. “I don’t now what it’s close to, but it’s not bad.” She swallowed, spearing another bite on her fork. “It actually tastes kinda …”

Her friends leaned in and pricked up their ears. “Yeeeeeeeees?”

Sure Stroke took another bite. “It’s different. I don’t know how to describe it, but it’s different in a good way.”

Vector threw a hoof around her shoulders before she could blink. “Knew it!” he crowed. “Score another one for Respite!”

Rolling her eyes, Sure Stroke ducked under his hoof and continued eating. A smile tugged at her lips as they all began to chatter and push the other plates closer, and stole a bit of each for themselves, as well.

Such was the way in Respite, it seemed.

 

 

Once they’d all eaten their fill—and after Esalen confirmed that her father wasn’t hunting the immediate area for her—Sure Stroke let her friends lead her away from the tables and into an area set aside for games and general play.

There were a few younger foals and nymphs cantering and giggling just out of Helping Hoof’s reach as he walked about with a blindfold on, calling out to them, “Hot or cold? Come on, now! You know you’re supposed to tell me!”

The little ones covered their mouths, their shoulders shook as they leaned against one another and delighted in the stallion’s folly.

Then, one of the fillies snorted and fell over, kicking her hooves in the air as she succumbed to her mirth.

It was all Helping Hoof needed to trot right over and tag her. Then he pulled his blindfold off and fixed the others with a playful smirk and mentioned the Queen punishing naughty nymphs and foals who cheated at games.

Their laughter turned to squeaks of fear as they all leapt to their hooves and ran over to plead that he not get them in trouble.

Sure Stroke stifled a giggle. “How much trouble could they really get in?” she hissed to Esalen out of the side of her mouth.

“Not really ‘trouble,’” Esalen replied. Her voice still seemed a bit strange coming out of Rocky’s mouth. “She’d probably come up with a little joke to play on them so they won’t do it again. Remember Aspire’s threat about her sweet stash?”

“Yeah. Why?”

Again, Esalen’s familiar smirk crept across Rocky’s muzzle. “Because she didn’t just dye his carapace—she enchanted it so he would be the most gaudy, painful to look at shade of magenta anyone had ever seen.”

Wrinkling her snout, Sure Stroke tried to picture Aspire’s natural form with magenta carapace and messy blue mane and tail.

She stuck out her tongue. “Ew!”

“Bingo. It was worse when he tried to shapeshift.”

“What could be worse?”

Esalen’s smirk grew into a full blown grin. “He stayed that color no matter how he tried to change his coat, and then he started glowing.”

Sure Stroke blanched at the idea. “Oh, that’s just terrible!”

“I know, right?” Esalen cackled. “Ah, that was so great! He’s never lost a game of hide and seek so bad!”

“Oy!” Nimble called, drawing their attention over toward where the rest had gathered in front of a few adults—two changelings and four ponies—sitting on stools or leaning against a drink table. She waved them over. “C’mon! This is a good one to start her off with!”

Tilting her head, Sure Stroke shrugged and trotted over. “What game is this?”

A changeling stallion with long sun kissed mane grinned. “It’s an old village favorite,” he said. “Helps keep us sharp in our imitations, and gets you working on finding the little differences between pony and changeling.” He nodded to her. “Name’s Duplicitous, this little termite—” he jerked his head toward a familiar changeling with short-trimmed silver mane beside him “—is my little brother, Façade.”

Façade snorted. “Har, har, Dupe. You’re such a comedian.” With a roll of his eyes, he met Sure Stroke’s gaze and smiled. “I think we might have bumped into each other a few times at school. Sure Stroke, isn’t it?”

Ducking her head, she gave a small smile. “Yes, sir.”

“We’re not in school, Sure Stroke, you can call me Façade. To answer your question, the game is called Find the Pony. One of the ponies here—in this case, Pear Tree—”

“That’s me!” Pear Tree waved a deep yellow hoof and beamed.

“—Sits with Dupe and I in front of you. We both shapeshift.” On cue, the changeling brothers were engulfed in green fire. When it subsided, perfect imitations of the young stallion sitting with them beamed back at her.

In perfect unison, all three Pear Trees threw their arms out wide and did jazz hooves. “And then you close your eyes for a count of ten, we move about a little bit, and you try to guess which of us is the real Pear Tree!” they chorused. “Ready to play?”

Sure Stroke looked from stallion to stallion, squinting to look for anything to help her. She knew Duplicitous and Façade were on either side of the real Pear Tree, just based on what she’d seen before.

But looking at them after changing? She couldn’t tell.

They were all the same pony, down to the way the real one smiled and hummed to himself while he waited.

Come to think of it, they were all humming in harmony.

Oh, Celestia, what even is this?

“O-Okay.” She swallowed a lump in her throat. How hard could it really be?

By the way all three Pear Trees grinned and sniggered in perfect stereo, Sure Stroke had the feeling she’d just been had.

“Alrighty, then!” the real Pear Tree said, waving a hoof at her. “Close your eyes and count to ten. The boys and I will move around a bit.”

Stealing a glance to her friends, Sure Stroke found herself met with four rather knowing smirks, and Toola Roola struggling to withhold her laughter.

Well, she didn’t have to think herself paranoid—they all knew she was set up to fail in this game.

She shrugged and closed her eyes. If they wanted to have a little fun, she’d indulge them a little. Besides, it would be a nice way to practice telling them apart if they ever tried tricking her. Or, more aptly, when they tried tricking her.

On the other hoof, it also meant she would get more of a taste of what the village had to offer.

Her ears flicked at the sound of the trio moving around, along with the giggling and chuckling of those nearby. She resisted the urge to roll her eyes, instead counting backward from ten.

“Okay!” three Pear Trees said. “Open your eyes!”

Sure Stroke did so and, sure enough, was met with the trio of Pear Trees sitting in their stools, smiling and humming in harmony with one another.

“Um …” She brought a hoof to her chin. “Do I have to pick straight away, or do I have time?”

“You have three minutes!” came the chorused reply.

“You can ask us whatever you want!” the Pear Tree on the left said.

Middle Pear added, “And we’ll answer honestly!”

“Or not!” Right Pear said with a waggle of his ears. “Between you, me, and everyone around us, these two are terrible liars! I’m the real Pear Tree!”

“Nuh uh! I’m the real one!” Middle cried.

Left Pear rolled his eyes and heaved a long-suffering sigh. “You two can’t even imitate me right! I’d never act up like that!”

A small groan escaped her lips. Sure Stroke reached up to massage her temples. “I’m already regretting this,” she mumbled. Then she said, “Okay, I’ll start off with a question for the one on the right.”

Right Pear perked up. “Ask away!”

“What’s your job?”

“I’m one of the village farmers,” he replied without missing a beat.

Middle Pair raised an eyebrow and chuckled. “How would you even know that one?”

Sure Stroke’s cheeks burned. “I-I was just seeing if you hesitated!”

All three laughed. “Why would I need to think about what I do for work?” they chimed together.

This is just maddeningly complicated. The sound of Vector sniggering brought a frown to her muzzle. “You’re more than welcome to help!” she said, turning to fix him with a glare.

Vector simply grinned and shook his head. “Nope! This is all you!”

With a huff, Sure Stroke turned her attention back to the stallions, who were all chatting about crop rotation, and took a step closer. “Is it against the rules to look closer?”

Middle Pear beckoned her forward. “Go right ahead!”

She approached the trio of stallions and regarded them each closely, frowning as she circled them. Just as when Aspire had shapeshifted to imitate her face for her mother’s amusement, or Esalen hiding herself in Rocky’s form, they all had a pony’s coat. A break touch to each with her hoof confirmed that the brothers had flawlessly disguised themselves.

All the way down to Pear Tree’s colors and cutie mark, as well. Vibrant green mane, pale yellow coat, and even the way the pear tree borne on his flanks.

How in Equestria was she supposed to tell?

Wrinkling her snout, she unfurled a wing and trailed her feathers over Left Pear’s back, drawing a sharp breath and a laugh.

Got you. She grinned and repeated it with the other two, drawing the same reaction—much to her dismay.

“Time’s—eep!—up!” Right Pear said.

“No more looking!” Middle added. “Time to guess!”

Left waggled a hoof. “Guess wisely! Don’t let these pretenders fool you!”

“Oy!” Middle and Right cried.

Sure Stroke groaned. “Enough already!” she said, pointing at Left Pear. “You! I guess that you’re the real Pear Tree!”

Left Pear blinked. “Care to explain why?”

Why? Because she had no clue how she was supposed to tell. “Because you laughed first,” she replied. “The other two just copied you.”

He stared at her a moment, the corners of his mouth tugged into a broad, toothy grin.

In a flash of green fire, Duplicitous sat in his place. “I’m afraid not!” he said.

There was another flash to Sure Stroke’s right, revealing Façade sitting in the middle and the real Pear Tree on the far right.

“You lose!” they sang. “Try again!”

Her shoulders slumped. “Oh, come on!”

A hoof patted her on the shoulder. “Sorry, Sure Stroke!” Nimble said. “It takes a lot of practice to learn ways to tell them apart. You’ll learn.”

Sure Stroke huffed. “Then why’d you have me play it?”

“Because it’s a fun game and it makes us work to keep our act up if you know which questions to ask, and it makes you ask the right ones.” Thinking a moment, Nimble beckoned to Vector and Zephyr. “Hey, you two, come on up with me!” She turned to the stallions and asked, “Is it okay if she tries to pick between us to see if she can figure us out?”

Duplicitous nodded. “That’d actually be better, since it’ll teach her how to tell if a friend is being copied.” He, Façade and Pear hopped off their stools and stepped to the side, allowing the nymphs and Vector to take their places.

“Hey!” Toola called, pouting at them. “How come you picked Zippy instead of me?”

Zephyr sniggered. “Because you’d be absolutely horrible at this game! You’d start laughing before she even got to poking you!”

Toola made a face like she was sucking on a lemon, giving a little “harrumph!” as she sat back on her haunches and crossed her hooves. “Not that giggly!” she grumbled.

Patting the disgruntled filly on the head, Esalen cooed and nuzzled her cheek. “It’s okay, Toola! I like you just the way you are!” She poked Toola’s belly, grinning as she drew a fit of giggles from the moping filly. “Giggly, bouncy, and flippy as can be!”

Sure Stroke couldn’t help but smile and shake her head as she turned to face the others.

“Ready?” Zephyr asked.

She nodded once.

In twin flashes of green fire, two Vector doppelgängers stood in place of Nimble and Zephyr. Both buffed a hoof against their chest, just like he would, and smirked.

“Okay!” they said together. “We’re ready!”

The real Vector waggled his eyebrows, leaning up against Zephyr. “Close your eyes, and we’ll get set to play.”

Again, she closed her eyes, counting backwards from ten as she listened to her friends moving about. When she hit zero, Sure Stroke opened her eyes and found all three Vectors sitting on their stools, each wearing his cocky smirk.

“Time to play!” they chimed.

Sure Stroke took a deep breath, eying each of them in turn. She wrinkled her snout. Nimble and Zephyr had copied him well, as far as she could tell. Both of their disguises were perfect.

Maybe she could go with a different way. What was it Nimble said? Ask questions?

Fine, then.

“Vector?” she began.

“Yes?” all three replied.

“Where are your tickle spots?”

They rolled their eyes and recited together, “Under my wings, along my ribs, and right along my collar bone, too.” Then, they paused and added, “Oh, my belly and my sides, beneath my ribcage.”

Sure Stroke blinked. It was like they’d rehearsed it or something. Either that, or it was a regular question when they played.

“Okay then.” She thought a moment. Only have three minutes. “Who’s your favorite pony or changeling to tease?”

“Aspire!” came the group reply, each grinned and sniggered. “Closely followed by you guys!”

She frowned. Somehow she just wasn’t asking the right questions. There had to be something she knew about Vector that they couldn’t fake. But what? They’d known him far longer than she had, and the only thing she’d been around him long enough for was cake at Sweet Treat’s and hide and seek.

It clicked.

Hide and seek. “Who came up with the idea to let the nymphs shapeshift but take away tasting emotions?” she asked.

Behind her, Toola Roola gasped, then burst out in laughter. The Vectors blinked, though the one on the far left gave the slightest hint of a smile.

There you are.

Right Vector answered first. “Me, obviously. I always make the strategies for hide and seek.”

“Yeah, that’s easy,” Middle added with a bit of a scoff in his tone.

The Vector on the left sniggered. “Wrong!” he said, pointing at Toola. “Toola came up with it because she figured we could win as a group if we didn’t let the nymphs sneak up on us and pretend to be part of our team, which would be easier than if they could taste test for us the entire time!”

Grinning, Sure Stroke pointed at him. “You’re the real Vector!”

“Bingo!” he replied, leaping off his stool to catch her with a noogie. “That is how you play the game!”

“You did what?!” Esalen, Nimble, and Zephyr balked, each dropping their disguises to gape at a now cackling Toola.

The trio of nymphs descended upon her, easily pinning Toola so they could exact their ticklish revenge.

“Eee! Nohohohohoho!” Toola wailed, squirming in their grasp as her body shook with mirth. “Mercyyyyy!”

“You cheeky little thing!” Nimble hissed, grinning even as she spoke. “I’m gonna tickle the fur offa you!”

“And here I was comforting you! I’ll fix you right up! Hold her hind legs, Zephyr!” Esalen said, beginning to direct traffic. Then, she sucked in a deep breath, puffing out her cheeks.

Zephyr stopped his tickle assault, a wicked gleam shone in his eyes as he realized her plan. “Got it, Essy!” He quickly pinned her legs. “Nim! Front legs!”

Nimble shifted to hold Toola’s shoulders down, effectively stretching her out. “Got her!”

“No!” Toola cried, her eyes went wide. Her struggles renewed in earnest as Esalen reared back like a snake readying to strike. “Essy, not that! Please! Vector! Sure Stroke! Save me!”

Sure Stroke stood stock still, fighting back her own amusement while Vector roared with laughter and egged the vengeful nymphs on—double payback, it seemed, for Toola encouraging them to tickle him. Not to mention her part in trying to help Nimble find Sure Stroke’s tickle spots.

She looked to Esalen, who turned to regard her with a raised eyebrow.

With a grin worthy of a mischievous nymph, Sure Stroke nodded. “Get her good.”

Esalen’s eyes flashed green. She lunged and pressed her lips against Toola’s belly, and blew hard.

The poor filly shrieked, convulsing as she succumbed to her mirth. Her voice was nothing but a high pitched, incomprehensible squeal as she begged her tormentors to release her.

Revenge was most certainly dish best served cold—or, in this case, by a trio of indignant nymphs tickling Toola ruthlessly.

A cadence of hooves thudding against the ground, like a pony stomping toward them, made her flick an ear. Sure Stroke turned, gasping as she caught sight of Warm Welcome stalking forward with glowing eyes and a scowl marring his muzzle.

“There you are!” he growled.

Esalen halted in her assault on Toola. “Uh oh!” She leapt off her captive and made to flee, but was quickly caught in the deep green glow of Warm’s magic. “Eek! Daddy wait!” Flailing her hooves, she tried to escape her father’s grip.

With a snort, Warm turned and walked away, carrying her behind him in his magic. “You’re not gong anywhere, little nymph! You and I are going to have a talk about the meaning of the phrase ‘surprise party!’”

Silence reigned over the group, even the adults managing the game stared while father and daughter bantered back and forth until they were out of earshot.

Slowly, they looked to one another … and promptly burst out laughing. Nimble and Zephyr released Toola, falling onto their backs and kicking their hind legs in the air as they succumbed to their mirth.

Sure Stroke could only lean back-to-back with Vector to hold herself up. Her shoulders shook, she wrapped her hooves around her stomach to hold her aching sides as tears of mirth rolled freely down her cheeks.

She’d probably pay for not doing more to help Esalen avoid capture or for not bothering to try hiding who told her, but that was future Sure Stroke’s problem.

Present Sure Stroke could not possibly care any less as she wiped a hoof across her face, struggling to get her laughter back under control.

Then a familiar voice brought her laughter to an abrupt halt.

“Um, Sure Stroke?” Aspire called, a bit of hesitation tinged her voice.

Sure Stroke glanced at her wayward friend out of the corner of her eye, the smile ran away from her face. She made to speak, a mildly snippy greeting fresh on the tip of her tongue.

Then she took note of the way his shoulders were slumped and ears drooped low, and it died in the back of her throat.

She blinked. “Yes?”

Aspire looked away from her and mumbled something under his breath, he began to rub his shin. “I was, um, wondering if I could borrow you for a moment. To talk. And stuff.”

Again Sure Stroke could only blink. Aspire was still looking away from her, like he expected that she was going to lose her temper with him.

Tilting her head, Sure Stroke stood slowly. “Can we just talk here?”

Aspire cringed, ducking low. “N-No,” he said, his voice cracking a touch. “I, um, need to talk to you about a couple things and … yeah. Just an Aspire to Sure Stroke talk.”

Movement to her left made Sure Stroke flick an ear. Out of the corner of her eye, she found Zephyr at her side.

Zephyr flicked his tongue and winced, gagging at the taste. “You okay, Aspire? You taste kinda … ugh! By love! You taste horrible!”

His words only served to make Aspire duck lower, as if trying to be smaller before them.

What is going on with him?

Sure Stroke trotted toward him, glancing at each of her friends in turn before looking to Aspire again.

He was definitely in trouble for how he’d acted and avoided her, but he looked so miserable.

Pathetic, even.

She sighed and waved a hoof. “Sure, let’s talk. Lead on.”

 

 

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