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.


19. Queen Euphoria

“I can’t believe you three played a trick on Queen Euphoria without me!”

Sure Stroke tried not to roll her eyes. It had been three days since she’d let Cool Breeze, Esalen, and Toola talk her into playing that silly trick on Queen Euphoria. Three days of all the foals and nymphs in class giving the three of them not-so-subtle hoof bumps in class and commending her “bravery” for playing one of her first tricks on the literal big mare in the village. She even saw a ghost of a smile flit across Prim ’n Proper’s stuffy little face before the filly turned away and stuck her snout right back in the air.

Her friends, on the other hoof, were a different story. Each of them bemoaned that they hadn’t been there to take part in the trick and see Sure Stroke join in on a Respite pastime.

But none pouted quite like Aspire.

Three days later, he was still whining and draping himself all over the trio of fillies, laying his chin on their heads while he complained.

Sure Stroke was just about ready to see if she could buy off Queen Euphoria in exchange for changing his carapace’s color. If he flopped on her just one more time, there would be pain.

He chose that exact moment to pull her into a one-legged hug, grinning at the look she shot him. Aspire flicked out his tongue, his smile grew wider.

The smug little punk knew she was about ready to wring his neck, and he had the gall to be happy about it.

“So!” Aspire began. “Doodle, I’ve got an idea I know you’ll just love!”

There was that blasted nickname again. Sure Stroke felt her cheeks burn, she pinned back her ears at the sound of Esalen and Toola snickering at her expense. “If you’re about to come up with a prank idea, forget it,” she said, jabbing a hoof at the pair. “I’m in enough trouble because of them!”

Esalen gave a fake gasp and brought a hoof to her chest. “Trouble? Me? Never!” She threw the hoof over her forehead. “I would never convince one of my best friends to help Toola and I pull a trick, knowing full well that we’d get in trouble with Queen Euphoria herself! Why, the very idea!”

“So you did it on purpose,” Sure Stroke deadpanned.

“Oh, of course!” Esalen’s eyes danced with mirth. “You wanted to learn more about us, and Breezy gave us a chance to show off how we play around in Respite. And don’t you try and pretend you didn’t have fun!” She sidled up to Sure Stroke and stuck out her tongue, waggling it just inches from her cheek. “I tasted it!”


Sure Stroke huffed. She continued on ahead, ignoring her friends as they rubbed shoulders with her and nosed against her cheek. Or, at least, she tried. Her lips betrayed her, tugging into a smile.

“I see you smiling!” Toola sang. She pranced around Sure Stroke until they were face to face, then trotted backward. “You had fun and you can’t fight it!”

“Shut up! I’m being mad at all of you!” Sure Stroke sucked in her traitorous lips. If she couldn’t fight the smile, she would hide it.

Toola simply leaned forward to nuzzle her nose. “I don’t need to be a Caretaker to know you’re faking!”

“Just admit it,” Aspire teased. He released his embrace, instead favoring to press his cheek against hers. “You know you wanna. And you know we know that you know.”

She ducked her head and let out a snort of laughter. Dang it. “You guys are terrible.”

Again, Esalen nosed against her cheek. “Yes we are. And you love it.”

Sure Stroke sighed and nodded. “Yeah, I guess I kinda do.”

“Kinda?” Toola parroted teasingly as she stepped back into place on Esalen’s left.

Flicking her tail, Sure Stroke tried to glare, but the stubborn smile gracing her muzzle made it rather difficult to maintain. “Okay, I like it and you all make this place an adventure,” she said, her voice tinged with barely suppressed laughter. “No need to rub it in!”

The group broke down into a fit of giggles as they walked. Sure Stroke felt light, like she could just float away like a lazy little cloud in spite of the looming punishment with Queen Euphoria.

Esalen and Toola were probably right anyway. The Queen herself had even mentioned that she was getting off light since it was only her first time pulling a trick.

Hopefully, color changing wouldn’t be involved …

Out of the corner of her eye, she noticed a flash of black carapace and amber mane dart through the front door of Sweet Treat’s shop. A chubby nymph leaned against the wall and painted for breath, clutching a plate stained with a golden brown syrup. He stole a quick glance toward the door, then gave a happy chitter and lapped at the syrup.

To her right, Aspire sniggered. “How many pancakes, Maple?” he called out.

Maple started, his eyes flitted to Aspire. He ducked his head and pinned his ears, grinning sheepishly. “All of them,” he replied in an almost apologetic manner.

He froze, his ears perked up. Maple yelped and took wing, buzzing off around the side of Sweet Treat’s shop just as the front door opened with a loud bang.

A full grown changeling mare stood, her yellow-brown mane frazzled and her face a mask of indignation as she looked left and right. She sniffed at the air, then hissed. “Maple!” she shouted as she stomped after him. “If you stole the last of my pancakes, so help me, I will beat your behind until your carapace cracks!”

When the mare rounded the corner, the trio around Sure Stroke burst into laughter. Esalen and Toola shook their heads, chiming “That’s so Maple!” in unison.

Sure Stroke made to speak, but stopped short when Aspire leaned up against her, nearly sending her sideways as he put his full weight against her shoulder. She fixed him with a wry look.. “So … does Maple like pancakes a lot or something?”

Aspire cracked open an eye, his smirk returned. “There’re only three things Maple loves more than pancakes,” he replied. “His family, especially his Aunt Vigil—” he gave a lazy wave of his hoof in the in the direction of the angry mare “—maple syrup and love.”

Humming to herself, Sure Stroke gave a little flick of her tail. So her friends liked sweets, Queen Euphoria jealously guarded her candy stash, and Maple liked maple syrup. I wonder why that could be.

Something to think on later, no doubt. Sure Stroke shrugged Aspire off of her and clipped his chin with a wing before resuming her trot toward the Queen’s cottage.

She and her friends exchanged polite nods and greetings with the other villagers, although seeing a pair of adult changelings fix Aspire with matching smirks and flashing eyes gave her pause.

A look to her right yielded a rather odd sight: Aspire’s smirk had faltered, his eyes went wide, and his chitinous face, normally black as coal, turned a rather chalky gray.

Sure Stroke raised a brow. “Something wrong?”

“Huh?” Aspire whipped his head around so fast his mane went frizzy. His tongue darted out from between his lips, he pasted a fake smile on his muzzle. “Nope! Nothing! Everything’s fine!”

Her brow arched higher. “You’re being awful shifty.”

“Changelings are naturally shifty!” he replied, glancing away from her. “Besides, everything is good here! Nothing but sweet love and nice, warm cocoon slime!”

Blanching, Sure Stroke thought to step away, but managed to fight down the urge. She gave a shudder and flick of her tail. A quick check to her left yielded Esalen and Toola chatting away about trades, the later not the slightest bit disgusted at the notion.

It was still so strange to hear him say it and see other ponies not even bat an eye.

Sure Stroke glanced down at her legs, the memory of how the warm, sticky slime clung to her legs, how she had to scrub hard to get it off, came back to her.

“I’ll take your word for it,” she said after some thought. “I’d prefer a nice, fluffy cloud though.”

“It’s more comfortable than you think,” Esalen chipped in, breaking from her conversation with Toola. “Didn’t you like Aspire’s bed?”

Sure Stroke gave her wings a little rustle as they strode toward the cottage at the center of the village. She could see a pair of changeling guards up ahead, Fleetwing and Tailwind were nowhere to be seen.

The bed itself had been just as alien as the nymph who slept in it. And just like him, after a bit of time getting settled and testing it out, Sure Stroke found she could tolerate it to a point.

She snuck a look to Aspire, her eyes lingered on the fangs poking from behind his lips. Before, she was afraid of him. No matter how he smiled and tried to offer his hoof, her gaze would always find those fangs, the natural fear of a predator sinking its teeth into her would rear its ugly head and make her retreat.

But now, it was just part of the strange colt she’d befriended.

Yes, a colt. He was just a colt who happened to feed on love and shapeshift. Aspire laughed, got angry, got mopey, and even played jokes like the colts back in Cloudsdale.

He just had a bigger penchant for mischief, and an even bigger reaction when challenged.

Aspire himself was a challenge to understand. So, too, was Esalen. And all the other changelings in Respite. Even the ponies themselves were a challenge to understand; how could they become so accustomed to being food and friend that it be as natural as Princess Celestia raising the sun? Or flying from the Nimbus District to Stratos Street, or hurrying up Hurricane’s Way and passing by all the battlements and thunderhead beds on the way to flight school?

“It was different,” Sure Stroke admitted. “Strange, but oddly comfortable once you taught me how to sit on it.”

Esalen beamed. “I’m glad. Our beds might not be as soft as clouds or Cloudsdale mattresses, but the way they let you sink and just form around you is so comfortable!”

“It’s better with a bed wrap,” Toola added.

“A … bed wrap?” Sure Stroke blinked.

“Yeah! Nimble wraps me up all the time! It’s nice!”

Slowly, Sure Stroke turned to Aspire. He smiled and raised a hoof. “We wrap ourselves up in cocoons when we sleep,” he said as though teaching a class. “And if friends are staying over, we do the same for them.”

“Husbands and wives too,” Esalen said with a nod. “And family.”

“Yes, I was getting to that. Family and friends get wrapped up nice and snug, and held tight.” Aspire caught the look on her face and flicked out his tongue. His eyes went wide. “Not for feeding, I mean! Not unless it’s offered, of course, but the cocoon just a security thing!”

“Security?” Sure Stroke repeated as though trying to convince herself. “How?”

Before Aspire could answer, Duplicitous’ smooth litting tone reached her ears. “Because it means we consider them part of our hive. Everyone who lives in Respite, pony and changeling, is a Caretaker.”

Sure Stroke jumped and flared her wings. She looked up to find Duplicitous, garbed in the lightweight forest green armor of the village guard, smiling at her.

At his side, his partner nodded, a fleck of green mane stuck out from beneath his helmet. “Abby thought it was weird too,” he said in a more basal tone. “He kept squirming the first night we cocooned together, but he’s come ‘round.”

“Hey, Stalwart!” Toola greeted. “You drew guarding duty today?”

Stalwart smiled. “Good morning, Toola. And yes, I always guard the Queen’s cottage when her monthly patient visits.”

Sure Stroke’s ears perked up. A visitor? If Queen Euphoria had a visitor scheduled, maybe they could get out of whatever punishments she had in mind.

She considered the prospect while her friends exchanged pleasantries with the stallions, her lips tugged into a small smile. If she played her cards right, there was a chance she could take a page out of her nymph friends’ book and they could get their sentences lightened.

Duplicitous flicked out her tongue, then chuckled and shook his head. “Hmm, someone’s a little hopeful,” he said, his eyes met Sure Stroke’s. “And it seems she’s got a little plan in mind. A pretty tasty one, too.”

Oh, shoot. She flinched as the others turned to look at her, Stalwart regarded her with a raised brow and a bemused smile.

Sure Stroke ducked her head and pinned her ears back. “I was just thinking, if Queen Euphoria is busy, then maybe it would be best if we came back some other time,” she replied in her most saccharine tone.

Stalwart snorted. “Already taking to the ways of Respite’s nymphs, I see.” He grinned, his eyes took on a mischievous gleam. “Queen Euphoria made sure to set aside plenty of time for you three. So don’t you worry about her appointment—she’s got plenty of time for all of you.”

Her shoulders slumped. Sure Stroke hung her head in defeat as the pair stepped to the side and pushed open the door.

With a sweeping wave of his hoof, Duplicitous said, “Go on. She’s waiting for you.”



There was something different about being called into Queen Euphoria’s house for trouble after her first visit. The first time was quite jarring, the sight of a changeling queen sitting and necking with Cool Breeze nearly made Sure Stroke’s jaw drop, especially when she found herself hugged and nuzzled as if one of the Queen’s subjects.

Only after visiting Aspire and Esalen’s house did she realize just how different it was; Queen Euphoria’s home wasn’t furnished with pod seats or couches constructed of changeling slime. Or, at least, her sitting room wasn’t.

Perhaps because she wanted ponies to be as comfortable as possible when they came before her to be welcomed to Respite, rather than feel like they’d just walked into an entirely alien place.

But as Sure Stroke walked alongside her friends into Queen Euphoria’s sitting room, she felt an almost oppressive weight come down square upon her shoulders. Changelings, as she’d learned, did not take challenges lightly.

What, then, did that mean for how they dealt with troublemakers who dared go against their queen? Stealing from her sweets and pelting her with spitballs were entirely different things, especially with how many times she’d been hit in the face and rear.

When they reached the familiar sitting room, Sure Stroke saw Queen Euphoria and Cool Breeze resting on the same couch they’d sat on while greeting her on the first day. But they weren’t alone.

Several ponies were with them, along with one smaller changeling. A few mares and a stallion, all huddled around Cool Breeze, grinning and cooing while they nuzzled and nipped at his neck.

The flight instructor’s face burned a bright red. He squirmed and tried to get away, but Queen Euphoria had him held tight in her hooves, her chest pressed down on his back and kept him firmly in place.

“Now, now,” Queen Euphoria chided, smiling like a cat batting a mouse around with its paw. She leaned down to plant a kiss between his ears, then slowly licked his snowy white mane. “You’re not going anywhere, my dear husband.”

Cool Breeze let out a low whine. “Then—eep! Clanger!

A burly, bronze coated stallion with a deep brown mane hummed as he ran his tongue up Cool Breeze’s shoulder, then turned toward his wing, planting a kiss on the joint, right as a slender mare of peach coat nipped at his neck.

Queen Euphoria chuckled huskily. “You deserve this, Breezy. I warned you all your teasing us would come to hatch one day, and getting those fillies to shoot me with spitballs was the final straw.” Her smirk fell. “Spitballs! Really! The water balloons while I was busy were one thing, I could forgive that. It was funny even though they were cold!”

“It was funny after I dried off,” a dusty purple mare said as she trailed a feather along Cool Breeze’s side.

The changeling seated to Queen Euphoria’s left tossed her cream-colored mane and bared her fangs. “Funny, Dewy?” she hissed. She darted forward and caught Cool Breeze’s ear tip between her teeth, drawing a whimper from the back of his throat as she nibbled on it. “I think he needs another night’s worth of disciplining, Phory. One more night at our mercy. Husband’s right only entitle him to be first in line to your company, not exemption if we all decide to wind him up as he does us!”

“Hmm, we’ll see if he changes his tune later, Caress.” Queen Euphoria leaned over and pecked her fellow changeling’s lips. She flicked an ear toward the door. A smile spread across her muzzle as she turned to look directly at Sure Stroke. “For now, I’m afraid our games will have to come to a pause. I believe my guests have arrived. And promptly, just as I asked!”

Four heads turned, four sets of eyes fell upon the group.

Caress fixed them with a hooded stare and crossed one hoof over the other, leaning forward on the couch. “Well, well, the troublesome twins, Toola Roola, and our hive’s newest member,” she simpered, casting a sideways look at Cool Breeze, she nipped at his cheek. “To think she was so innocent and sweet when she showed up! And then you got ahold of her!”

Sure Stroke ducked her head, pinning her ears back as the pile of cuddling ponies laughed and teased both Cool Breeze and herself.

A familiar hoof wrapped around her shoulders and pulled her tight. Sure Stroke felt Aspire press his cheek against hers, his grin evident in the way his chitinous face creased, and grumbled under her breath.

“Oh, she’s already one of us, Miss Caress!” he crowed, a note of smug pride almost dripping from his tone. “Doodle here has already bowed up and put challenges on me a couple times!”

Five sets of ears perked up. Queen Euphoria’s slitted eyes seemed to dance. “Oh, really, now?” she asked. “Well, then I guess that just make my decision all the more pertinent!” Pausing a moment to kiss the top of Cool Breeze’s head, she unwrapped her hooves and gave his flank a smack to get him moving. “You’re free until later, Breezy. Behave, or I might just take Caress’ advice under consideration.”

Cool Breeze fixed her with a half-hearted glare, then turned his attention to Caress herself. “Husband is supposed to have Phory’s ear,” he grumped.

Caress stood and sashayed right past him, running her tail beneath his chin. “Then husband should take care with how much he teases and tricks his wife and all the lovers they share.” She flicked her tail across his nose, her eyes flashed green. “Or he might just find that each of them would happily see him taken down a few pegs in the—”

“Maybe we should consider other ponies in the room before we go further, hmm?” the mare with the bandanna in her mane spoke over her, giving a meaningful glance to Sure Stroke.

To her credit, Caress had the decency to duck her head and give a quick apology, though she did give Cool Breeze another flick across the nose when she caught him smirking at her.

Queen Euphoria rolled her eyes and shook her head. “My husband and lovers,” she muttered just loud enough for Sure Stroke to hear. She turned to the others and made a little shooing motion with her hoof. “Sorry to cut our morning time short, but I do have some fillies to discipline.”

Clanger hopped off the bed, then turned to offer a hoof to Dewy and the mare with the bandanna. “No worries, Phory. I’ve got a few things to work on with the Wood brothers. They’ve been asking about some new cutting tools, so we’re gonna talk and get that sorted out.”

“Oh, can I come?” Dewy asked. “It’s been ages since I’ve talked to Birch and Pine!”

He smiled and nodded before walking toward Sure Stroke and her friends. “Sure. No touching their tools, though.” Pausing a moment, he patted Sure Stroke’s head.

Huffing, she flicked her tail and cantered after him. “I break one ax handle and no one will ever let me live it down!”

“Morning Dew, honey, you didn’t break one ax handle, you broke several, and their cart wheel.”

“It was an accident! I hit an updraft!”

Sure Stroke perked up her ears. This was the Morning Dew the sign mentioned? She wrinkled her snout. How exactly did one pony break so many things?

Clanger just chuckled. “And the sun was in your eyes, I’m sure. The story changes every season, Dewy.” Pausing a moment, he turned his attention to Sure Stroke. “Nice to finally get a chance to meet you, Sure Stroke. My daughter’s told us all about you, she was practically preening like her Aunt Dewy when she told us you’d finally warmed up to the village.”

She flicked an ear. “Your daughter? Is she in our class?”

“Oh, didn’t she tell you?” He glanced at the unicorn mare and smiled. “Well, Neat and I had a filly before we joined Phory’s little … er …” he rolled a hoof in a forward circle as he struggled to find the word.

Cool Breeze let out a bark of laughter. “Collection of former patients?” he offered, earning a squawk from the Queen.

“Breezy!” she cried, her face darkened with a blush.

“Well, they technically were before—mmph!

Caress covered his mouth with a hoof, a gleam shone in her eyes. “I’ll take it you’d like me to pull him outside for a bit, Phory?”

Queen Euphoria drew in a sharp breath, her nostrils flared. “Yes,” she hissed. “And I think we will have to go another night of disciplining him once I’ve taken care of things here.”

Three sets of ears perked up. Caress gave a big, toothy grin. “Excellent.” Quick as a cat, she caught Cool Breeze’s ear and dragged him out a side door. “Come along, you! Let’s see if you’re so quick to mouth off with me!”

While Cool Breeze struggled and tried to break free, Toola giggled and waved. “Bye, Breezy! Bye, Caress!”

Sure Stroke couldn’t help but glance between Aspire and Esalen, only to find herself met with matching grins and chittering laughter while they catcalled after Cool Breeze.

“Looks like it’s lesson number one thousand on teasing a changeling for you, Breezy!” Aspire said.

“And he’ll still go back for more!” Esalen chimed.

Clanger gave a booming laugh. “That he will, Esalen! That he will!” He tussled her mane and continued on his way, leading Morning Dew down the same hallway they’d come through. “Don’t be too hard on them, Phory!”

A low chuckle from the Queen herself made a chill run down Sure Stroke’s spine. She turned to find the changeling mare regarding the group with a half-lidded stare and a small smile.

Queen Euphoria flicked out her tongue. “A bit nervous, little ones?” she asked, inclining her brows.

Sure Stroke rustled her wings, her tail dipped and tucked between her legs.

A hoof touched each of her shoulders. Aspire and Esalen smiled and nosed against her cheek. Toola even moved to rub between her wings.

“It’ll be fine,” Toola said. “We didn’t do anything that bad, right Queen Euphoria?

“Oh, no, not at all.” Queen Euphoria slid gracefully off the couch and trotted over. She gave a warm smile. “I don’t mind a few tricks here and there, but there are consequences to getting caught in my village. Just like there would be consequences if one of us changelings were caught in unfriendly territory out of disguise.”

Esalen shuddered. “I’d rather not think of that!”

Queen Euphoria leaned down to nuzzle her cheek. “I know, sweetheart, but it’s a lesson we have to impart.” Her gaze flitted to Toola Roola, then Sure Stroke. Her smile returned. “Just like our little pony friends need reminders that playing tricks and challenging changelings in their own territory, especially a queen, can be troublesome as well.”

With a nervous giggle, Toola ducked her head and gave a crooked smile. “Is it too late to appeal for lighter punishment on account of trying to show Sure Stroke that pranking and pulling tricks is part of Respite’s culture?”

Queen Euphoria tutted and wagged a hoof from side to side. “I’m afraid not, Toola.” Her smile spread to a full grin. “Nice try, though. I’ve decided that you and Esalen will enjoy a punishment that will deal with your rambunctiousness quite nicely.”

The pair flinched. Esalen’s ears drooped low. “What did you have in mind?”

The mare still seated on the couch coughed into a hoof. “That’s where I come in, Essy,” she said.

“Missus Orderly?”

“Yes.” She stood and approached, leaning up against Queen Euphoria’s side and smiling down at them. “I’ve got to organize a few things for Phory in the next few months—we have a couple visits from our Caretakers’ kin in the mountains and plains coming, and Sharers’ Day is nearing, of course. As is her birthday.”

Queen Euphoria buzzed her wings happily. “Yes,” she said, kissing the mare’s cheek. “Neat ’n Orderly was going to spend all day getting things set, but when I mentioned that I had a captive trio of mischievous fillies, she asked if she could borrow you for a little while.” Her grin turned decidedly predatory. “And who am I to refuse the services of two of the most bouncy, energetic little fillies in my village for a couple hours of long, tedious event planning?”

Esalen and Toola groaned. “Can’t we do something else?” Toola pleaded. “Anything! Please!”

“Nope!” Queen Euphoria chirped. “I’ve decided! You sowed the wind, my dear, and now you get to reap the hurricane. Event planning is my choice of punishment. No negotiations.”

Neat ’n Orderly nodded along with her. “Quite right. Now, come along, girls.” She turned and nodded to the opposite hallway. “The sooner we start, the sooner we’ll finish, and then you can go out and have fun with your friends.”

With resigned sighs, the fillies hung their heads and followed along. Sure Stroke grimaced as though she’d tasted something foul. It wasn’t horrible, but planning things out wasn’t exactly fun either.

The way Queen Euphoria grinned left no doubt in her mind that she was in for hours of mind-numbing boredom.

She shook her head. I guess I deserve it for going along with them. Sure Stroke made to follow, but stopped at a sharp pain in her backside. She turned and looked down at the black, chitinous hoof planted on her tail, then raised her gaze to its owner.

Aspire stared back at her, an eyebrow raised in amusement. “Where are you going?” he asked.

“Uh, with them?” she replied, gesturing to the others with a wave of her hoof.

He laughed. “Didn’t you listen? Helping Missus Orderly is their punishment, not yours!”

Blinking, she looked from Aspire, to Queen Euphoria, and back again. She slowly turned to face the changeling queen and cocked her head to the side. Her wings itched, ready to fly.

Queen Euphoria’s eyes seemed to gleam with mirth. “I did say you were getting off lighter than they were, my dear little Doodle.”

Sure Stroke scowled and shot Aspire a glare. “I’m going to hurt you for spreading that name around!”

“You can try!” Aspire teased. He licked his lips, his eyes lit up. “Oooh, angry enough to challenge, huh? Ready to try lesson two of wrestling? I can take care of that anytime!”

He was asking for it.

Flaring her wings out, Sure Stroke snorted and pawed at the floor. “I’m gonna bop you right over that bird’s nest you call a mane if you keep it up!” she shot back, a confident smirk spread across her lips.

Aspire grinned wide enough to show all four of his fangs. He leaned in, bringing himself nose to nose with her and made to speak.

But a polite cough made them both turn. Queen Euphoria flicked out her tongue. “I’m happy the two of you are having fun, but I do need to take care of my business before your little challenge takes place.” She smiled, then added, “Though, if you do ever decide to take him up on his lessons, do pay attention, Doodle. Aspire might seem boastful, but he is rather talented at wrestling. He and Esalen both.”

She tapped her hoof against the floor. “As for your punishment, dear, I thought we’d begin with something I was rather interested in.” Leaning down, Queen Euphoria brought herself to eye level with Sure Stroke. “Your punishment is that you’ll have tea with me while we have our little talk, dear.”

Sure Stroke felt her heart skip a beat. “Right now?”

Queen Euphoria smiled. “Right now.” She kissed the top of Sure Stroke’s head. “I was going to wait, but I think it’s best we just get to it now.”

Her mind raced. Sure Stroke bit her lip, she looked down at her hooves.

Aspire gave an awkward cough. “Er, why don’t I just leave, then?” he muttered. “I thought this would be funny, but this really seems like something I shouldn’t be making jokes about …”

“You’re more than welcome to stay,” Queen Euphoria said. “If Sure Stroke isn’t bothered, of course.”

Blue eyes met purple. Sure Stroke shifted in place, wilting under his gaze.

He flicked his tongue out, then offered a smile. “If you don’t want me here, it’s fine. I know you’ve got some things to talk about.”

Sure Stroke looked away. “I do,” she admitted. “And I want you here, but …”

A hoof cupped her chin and gently turned her head until she was looking back at him. “But?”

She licked her lips. When had they gone so dry? “I also have questions I don’t know if I feel comfortable asking if you’re … you know.”

Aspire’s smile faltered for just a second. He flicked his tongue out again. “Still nervous, huh?”

“A little.” Sure Stroke brushed his hoof aside and stepped forward, wrapping him in a hug. She whispered in his ear, “But I’m going to try not to be.”

His hooves wrapped around her back and squeezed tight. He drew away to meet her eyes. “Then I’ll leave this time,” he said. “And you can say whatever you want.”

“How very thoughtful, Aspire,” Queen Euphoria praised. “I don’t plan on keeping her for too long, just for tea. So, if you’d like to come back in an hour, she’ll be all yours again.”

“Oh! That’s cool, then!” Aspire’s kind smile vanished, his maddeningly smug smirk returned in full force. “I’ll be by to pick up my Doodle after, then.”

Sure Stroke fixed him with a flat look. “I’m going to smack you again. Hard.”

“I know. See ya, Doodly-Doodle!” He dodged a swipe, then practically pranced down the hallway, his chittering laughs echoed off the walls and tickled her ears.

Queen Euphoria chuckled. “Oh, Aspire,” she said with a sigh. “Both a troublemaker and a brilliant student. So delightfully complicated, wouldn’t you agree?”

“More like so delightfully deserving a good walloping,” Sure Stroke muttered. She covered her mouth. “Sorry!”

“Oh, don’t be, dear. Mischief begets mischief when it comes to changelings.” With a fond smile, she stood to her full height and gestured to the same doorway Caress had just dragged Breezy through. “Shall we adjourn to the kitchen, then? I’m eager to hear what you think of Respite so far.”

Sure Stroke lowered her hoof and gave a shy smile in return. With a nod, she followed Queen Euphoria to the kitchen.



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