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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24. Such Beautiful Blue Eyes

A hoof prodded her shoulder. Sure Stroke let out a low mumble and rolled over, clenching her eyes shut. She ducked her head and snuggled deeper under her covers. “Five more minutes, mommy.”

Chittering laughter and Toola Roola’s familiar giggling made her ears perk up. “I’m not your mommy,” Esalen’s voice replied, tinged with mirth. “But if you’d have let me wrap you up last night, I suppose that would’ve counted as tucking you in, Doodle.”

Her eyes shot open. Sure Stroke glanced around at the deep green bed pod she laid in. She rolled over, letting out a squeak as the gelatinous slime bed tried to form around her as she moved to face her friends. With a bit of effort, she came muzzle to chitinous muzzle with her smirking friend, whose pink eyes seemed to dance with amusement.

Still snug in the confines of her slimy bed wrap, Esalen gave a fanged grin, then nuzzled her nose. “Morning, Doodle,” she greeted. “How’d you sleep?”

Sure Stroke tried to ignore the burning blush that filled her cheeks. “I slept well. This, um, bed pod thing is surprisingly comfortable.”

“As much as a cloud bed?” Nimble teased.

She scoffed. “Nothing beats a cloud bed. The only reason we don’t have them here is because of the lack of on demand clouds, except the one Breezy snagged for himself the other day.”

Nimble shook her head. “Such a misguided filly. There is nothing better than a warm bed pod, but I suppose you can be forgiven.” She paused to nuzzle her giggling sister between her ears, then leaned to the side and bared her fangs. With a quick snap of her jaws and a tug, Nimble sliced neatly through her own slime wrap. A haphazard push outward shredded it right down the line to allow herself and Toola to sit up and stretch. Turning, she fixed Sure Stroke with a smirk. “And nothing beats snuggling up in a bed wrap. So there,” she said, sticking out her long, forked tongue and waggling it playfully.

Sure Stroke fought the urge to cringe. Instead, she simply sat up and tried to keep her balance while Esalen’s bed pod formed around her body again. She slid herself out of her sleeping bag, then turned it over to glance at the underside. The tiniest of frowns made its way across her muzzle as she noticed a hint of dampness, the remnants of the slime sticking to it.

I guess I’ll have to ask mom to wash this for me. Sighing, she rolled her bag up. Out of the corner of her eye, Sure Stroke watched Esalen imitate Nimble, slicing through the thick, gelatinous walls of her bed wrap with gleaming fangs so she could stand in the center of her bed pod and merrily buzz her wings.

Curious, Sure Stroke eyed the discarded slime wrappings. A small part of her expected them to just immediately sink into the bedding itself before her very eyes.

Esalen laughed. “It’s not going to happen that fast, silly!” she said. “It takes a couple hours for the wraps to meld with the rest of my pod.”

Oh. Sure Stroke let her ears droop as a sheepish smile flitted across her muzzle. “My bad.”

“Don’t worry about it. I know you’re just curious.” With a bright smile, Esalen tussled her mane, then hopped out of the pod. She turned to add something else, but stopped short. Her brows knitted together. Sure Stroke watched as her nymph friend tilted her head back and sniffed at the air. Her smile broadened and her bright pink eyes lit up. “Mom’s making pancakes!”

Toola let out a gasp, then leapt out of the pod and scampered for the door with Nimble close behind, buzzing through the air. She turned sharply, her hooves skidding against the wooden floor, and then she shot down the hallway.

Without warning, Esalen leapt up and grabbed Sure Stroke’s shoulders. Her wings buzzing, she hovered and pulled the filly toward the edge of the pod. “Come on! We have to go before the boys get there, or they’ll eat all of them.”

Sure Stroke stumbled forward, struggling to keep her balance as her hooves sank into the slime pod. “Essy! Slow down! I’m still—oh, forget it!” She kicked off with her hind legs and flapped her wings to take flight with her friend. Huffing, she let herself be steered toward the door. “What’s the big deal? Pancakes are nice, but they’ll leave some for us.”

Esalen shook her head. “You do not know the wonders of my Grandma Cloudfluff’s pancake recipe, Doodle. Think of the best Cloudsdale style pancakes you’ve ever had.”

Blinking, Sure Stroke nodded. “Okay, I’m there.”

“Now think of how sweet and fluffy they’d have to be for a full grown Enchanter, my Grandpa Beguile, to devour entire stacks of them in the blink of an eye because they taste just like love.”

“… Oh. Oh wow. Okay, yeah, I get it. Let’s go.”

The pair landed nimbly on their hooves and took off after Toola and Nimble, eager to get to the table before the trio of colts could claim the bulk of Faith’s delicious fare.

 

 

“I’m glad you could join us for breakfast, Sure Stroke,” Warm Welcome said with a bright smile upon his muzzle. He held a cup of steaming coffee in hoof, more sugar than Sure Stroke ever thought healthy had gone into the poor drink to make it palatable for the adult changeling. He took a deep sip, his wings buzzed in a lazy show of content. Leaning back in his pod seat, he regarded her through half-lidded blue eyes. His tongue darted out. “You’ve come quite a ways since that first day I saw you at the gate.”

Sure Stroke let her gaze flit toward Aspire, who was seated on her left, then to Esalen the next seat over. “I’ve had a lot of help,” she admitted. “And I’m still a bit out of sorts, but I think I’m getting there.”

A black hoof that shone in the light came into view, carrying with it small pitcher of warm maple syrup and a pair of plates stacked with pancakes that balanced rather impressively on a holed foreleg.

Her nostrils flared as the sweet scent of light, fluffy pancakes wafted to her nose. Sure Stroke felt her feathers fluff and her wings rustle. They smelled even better than Sweet Treat’s. She turned, following the hoof to meet its owners brilliant golden eyes and bright, fanged smile.

“Well, we’re all quite glad you’ve started to get a bit more comfortable in Respite,” Faith said. Her ear flicked. Quick as a cat, she lashed out with a hoof and clipped Aspire over the ear just as he made to reach toward the plate. “Guests first,” she scolded. “You know better than to be greedy!”

Aspire ducked his head, his ears splayed back to lay against his messy blue mane. He let out a low whine. “But … Grandma Cloudfluff’s pancake recipe.”

“You just had Maple’s yesterday, and you’ve had my mother’s pancakes before. Be patient, or you can join me in tending to the garden instead of playing with your friends.”

With a startled squeak, he sat up straight, all trace of objection washed from his muzzle. He hastily picked up his cup of overly sweetened coffee and took a deep sip, his chitinous cheeks tinged a deep red as Toola and Nimble giggled, and Vector made sure to meet his eye as he claimed several pancakes for himself.

Sure Stroke tried to hold back a grin of her own—really, she did. But to no avail. She caught Esalen’s eye, her cheeks puffed out with poorly restrained laughter as she selected two rather fluffy looking pancakes from the stack. Esalen simply shook her head and smiled before taking her own.

To her amusement, Sure Stroke watched Aspire pout while he waited for his turn, wary of his mother’s watchful eye. Once the others had their food, he moved to take the last three from the plate nearest him, then began to slather it with syrup.

Quite an interesting response, she had to admit. Sure, Esalen made it sound like their Grandma’s special pancake recipe sound like it was manna the likes of which Princess Celestia would dine upon, but they were just pancakes. And each of them had shared some just the day before at Sweet Treat’s shop.

A small part of her began to wonder just how much of the changelings’ diet consisted of love and how much was a meal of fluffy pancakes. Perhaps she could slip that into the book idea she discussed with Esalen and Toola.

Either way, her curiosity was roused. Muttering a quick thanks once Aspire passed the syrup over, Sure Stroke poured a generous amount over her meal, then passed it to Zephyr. She took her fork in hoof and cut off a bit of moist, fluffy pancake, then brought it to her mouth.

Her taste buds felt as though an explosion of pure, unadulterated sweetness had gone off in her mouth. So sweet, yet without taking away from the delicious taste of maple syrup playing upon her tongue, or the pancake itself as it seemed to dissolve in her mouth like cotton candy.

“Oh …” Sure Stroke perked up her ears, her eyes went wide. A smile spread slowly across her muzzle. “Oh, wow. That is … what even have I been tasting before this?”

“Inferior pancakes,” Zephyr grumbled good-naturedly, a teasing smirk played upon his lips. “Even Maple bows before Grandma Cloudfluff’s recipe, but he’s come the closest to matching it.” His smirk fell, he turned to level Aspire and Esalen with a mock glare, which only prompted the pair to give their biggest, brightest, fangiest grins. “And these two scuffy-carapaced termites get to eat them all the time.”

True to form, the pair stuck out their tongues and waggled them at the grumbling nymph, earning a roll of his teal eyes before he dug into his own stack, all but burying his black muzzle in the warm, syrupy tower.

A quick look around showed Sure Stroke the rest of her friends weren’t too far off. Each of them seemed hunched over their plates, quickly gobbling up their share of the pancakes as if they were afraid they might suddenly spring to life and dash right off their plates.

She couldn’t help but giggle at the image that came to mind—Aspire chasing after a rogue pancake, cursing and hissing as syrup dripped from his smooth, chitinous muzzle and fangs tinged a deep amber.

A nudge to her shoulder brought her back to reality. As Aspire’s deep blue eyes met with hers, he raised a brow. “What’s got you so giggly?” he asked. His gaze flitted to her plate, then back to her. His lips tugged into a smug smirk she still wasn’t sure if she loved or hated. “Better eat your pancakes, or I’ll steal a few bites faster than you can blink, Doodle.”

Her feathers bristled. Sure Stroke moved so her shoulder was set in his path, ready to cut him off if he should try to lunge for her plate, then waggled her ears. “Just taking my time to appreciate things, bookbug!” she shot back, smirking inwardly at the way his eyes narrowed.

Figures he couldn’t take a little return fire.

Sure Stroke made a show of fluffing her feathers in triumph before digging into her pancakes once again. She let her eyes wander around the table as she ate, from her friends eagerly wolfing down their meals to the pair of adults sitting side by side and chatting softly to one another while they dined at a more sedate pace. Her eyes fell upon Faith, lingering upon the blond changeling mare as she quietly sipped at her coffee.

She stopped with her fork halfway to her mouth. A thought came to mind, she glanced between Faith and her nymphs. Aspire and Esalen both mentioned that their Grandpa Beguile came from outside the village, another hive entirely. Esalen herself plainly called him an Enchanter, a member of the same hive Queen Euphoria mentioned using their “charms” to convince ponies to stay with them.

Granted, the Queen added that the ponies in question lived well and were treated with kindness in some respect, but that left a lot of questions to mind.

No time like the present. Sure Stroke set her fork down for a moment, turning to face Faith. “Missus Faith?” she began. “Would it be okay if I asked you a question about something?”

Faith looked up and smiled. “Of course, dear. What’s on your mind?”

Biting her lip, Sure Stroke gave her tail an awkward flick. She turned to look across the table at Vector. Her fellow pegasus tilted his head, his mouth still full of pancake. “Mmmf uh, Foofle?” he asked.

It took her a moment, but she smiled. “What’s up, Doodle?” Of course. Sure Stroke took a deep breath, ducking her head as she turned to face Faith again. “Esalen mentioned that your dad was from a group of changelings called Enchanters, and Queen Euphoria talked to me about them a little bit.” She fidgeted in her pod seat, uncertain how to broach the subject. “She told me they could be a little … well, that they liked to charm ponies to stay with them.”

Comprehension flashed in Faith’s eyes. “Ah. Yes.” She sighed and sat her coffee mug down. “It’s true, my father was originally from the Enchanter hive. One of the most alluring and talented with his charms, as some of their visitors have said. It’s a bit ironic, really, how hard he fell for my mother.” Shrugging, she shook her head. “He did end up settling here and promised to follow Respite’s law, especially with respect to charming ponies. For the most part, that is.”

“For the most part?” Sure Stroke asked. “What sort of law is it?”

“We can’t charm you without permission,” Aspire said from her left, drawing her attention. “And unless we’re, like, seriously courting or married, it can’t just be you telling me it’s okay to use it. You’d have to say it in front of another changeling and a pony.”

Sure Stroke blinked. “Why one changeling and one pony?”

This time, Warm Welcome spoke up, “It was put in as an added measure to make ponies from outside feel safer. This way, you can have someone you’re comfortable with standing alongside you who can recognize when things have gone too far. The changeling is there to undo anything in the event of unwanted spells.” He grimaced, his deep blue eyes flashed with an eerie green glow. “It’s not common in Respite, but it has happened once or twice before. The Queens don’t take kindly to it, just like they don’t take kindly to nonconsensual feeding.”

Her ears drooped. I think I just stepped somewhere I didn’t want … but that just makes me more curious. “So, are they there just to make sure something bad doesn’t happen?”

“More or less,” Faith replied with a nod. “I’ve had a few … shall we say nervous cases? A few ponies who weren’t entirely comfortable talking. Not necessarily because they don’t trust me, personally, but because they have trouble talking about their problems in general.” She gave a light cough. “Anyway, I usually offer them a special session where I work my charm so they feel more relaxed. I let them come in with a couple guards, and then I simply look into their eyes and sort of finesse them to be honest with me. Just like dad said his hive used to do.”

Sure Stroke wrinkled her snout. “That’s it? But that doesn’t really seem all that scary, or warrant the need for guards.”

“Doesn’t it?” Faith leaned forward to fix her with a half-lidded stare. “Let’s play a little game, Sure Stroke. I want you to look at someone at the table for a moment. I won’t use my charm, but I want you to tell me the first thing your eyes are drawn to. What is their most striking feature?”

Curious, Sure Stroke turned to glance around the table, her eyes flitted to each of her friends in turn. Her gaze lingered upon Aspire a moment longer as she met his eyes.

Eyes as deep and blue as the sky.

“Aspire’s eyes,” she said.

Aspire sat up a bit straighter, his tongue darted out to lick his muzzle clean as though he expected her to judge his appearance.

Faith gave a chittering laugh. “Very good. Now, tell me the first thought that comes to mind about my son’s eyes. Don’t think hard, just say it.”

Just say it?

“They’re pretty,” Sure Stroke replied. Her cheeks colored a rosy pink. She ducked her head and looked away, doing her best to ignore how he perked his ears and gave her his full attention. “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.”

Aspire ducked his head, his ears laid flat against his scalp as a wave of laughter and catcalls swept around the table. Sure Stroke watched, amused, as a crooked smile made its way across his muzzle before Esalen leaned in to whisper something in his ear that sounded suspiciously like “lovedrunk.”

“Now,” Faith continued, “you know Aspire well enough to be a little more comfortable saying that. So, think about if you met a changeling for the first time. Your eyes just happened to meet, and they started a conversation. You notice how handsome the changeling in question looks and think how broad his chest is or how you’d like to nuzzle into his neck. Then, suddenly, he smiles and thanks you for the compliment—because you’ve said it the very instant you thought it.”

A shiver ran down Sure Stroke’s spine. “So, it’s like all those, um, internal thoughts don’t get filtered out?”

“Exactly.” The mare nodded once. “And that’s all it takes. My father would tell me stories about some of the ponies he charmed. He was a masseuse at one of the resorts they run atop their hive. Mares and stallions alike found themselves melting beneath his gaze, first, then his hooves, and then all their desires came spilling out as he talked with them.” She shrugged. “He never really invited any to stay as his permanent mate, but he did fool around a little.”

“That sounds … really scary.”

“It can be, yes. At very least, the Enchanters work their charm so they force you to reveal your honest feelings. Locust, on the other hoof …”

Warm Welcome coughed into his hoof. “Perhaps it’s best we don’t frighten the poor filly too much, Faithy,” he cut in with a strained smile. Turning to Sure Stroke, he added, “The Enchanters are a bit wily, yes. They tend to use their charm to steer ponies toward a point in conversation where they have to answer yes or no to staying with them. And, of course, since the ponies are well under their spell by that time, the answer is always going to be the first thought that jumps into their mind. All this coming after the Enchanters have basically given them the royal treatment while they stay in the resort.”

So that’s what Queen Euphoria meant when she spoke of the Enchanters’ kindness and how the ponies in their “care” lived well. Interesting.

Sure Stroke hummed a note. “So, is being charmed here kind of like being fed on, then?”

“In a sense,” Faith replied. “It’s an incredible show of trust, but it comes with a lot of restriction. Love feeding can be a bit dodgy on its own, charming raises entirely different questions.”

“There are signs if you’re charmed, though,” Esalen chipped in. She pointed to her eyes. “Your pupils get really small and your eyes get a green tinge, like when we get mad or want to threaten. And you might feel a little tickle in the back of your mind—unless it’s done wrong, then you’re in for a migraine like you wouldn’t believe.”

“Correct, Essy.” Faith smiled and nodded. “Part of everyone’s responsibility in the village is to watch out for the signs of overfeeding and charming, especially if any of our kin from other hives visit.” She paused a moment before adding, “With the Marauders, there’s little problem aside from the occasional over feeding, but that’s usually accidental. The Enchanters are good about following the rules, the most they might try is a little bit of flirting and inviting you to their resorts. The Locust like to test the boundaries sometimes. They rarely break the rules outright, but they like to see what they can get away with.”

A lot of interesting information there, but there was still a new variable to consider. She didn’t really feel like she’d been under any spells since coming, and she definitely hadn’t felt any “tickle” in the back of her mind. Or any migraines.

Her nymph friends, along with Warm Welcome, flicked out their tongues one after the other, each fixed her with strange looks.

“What’s on your mind, Doodle?” Nimble asked first. Her ears drooped a touch. “I haven’t charmed you, if that’s what you’re wondering. I wouldn’t unless you asked.”

“Likewise,” Zephyr added, tapping a hoof against his chest. “Caretakers are more known for tasting emotions than charms. The Enchanters, though, are unmatched. There’s a few living in the village, and a few with mixed blood here too.”

Where they? But that meant Aspire, Esalen, and Faith were all incredibly good at working their charms on ponies if they so chose. Sure Stroke turned to look at the siblings, one ear stood up straight, the other laid flat. “How good exactly are you?”

Aspire bit his lip while Esalen rubbed her shoulder and glanced away. Ever the natural teacher, he spoke first. “We’re better than most of the others,” he admitted. “The only ones who can charm more efficiently are mom, Queen Euphoria, and the other pureblood Enchanters who moved in.” Thinking a moment, he scrunched up his snout. “I think Vigil’s one, but I’ve never asked. She has that unnatural beauty thing going for her and her eyes kinda have that extra glow to them.”

“She is,” Faith affirmed. “She moved here a while before you two were born. Maple as well.”

“Regale too,” Esalen chipped in. “But she’s all vague about how she does it.”

Sure Stroke perked both ears up. “How so?”

Shrugging, Esalen replied, “She’s a writer, so she likes to say she enchants readers with her stories. I think she just likes to be really coy.” She rolled her bright pink eyes and shook her head. “It’s a bit annoying sometimes.”

It took all of Sure Stroke’s self-control not to point out the irony in Esalen being annoyed by another changeling playing coy, but she managed. Instead, she kept her focus fixed on the subject at hoof.

Their charms.

That there were some rules in the village similar to those for feeding came as some relief. Still, her curiosity was piqued. What exactly did charming entail?

She turned to Aspire, her decision already made. “Could you show me?” she asked.

Confusion shone plain in those brilliant blue eyes. Aspire leaned back, furrowing his brows. “Are you asking me to charm you right now?”

“Yes. I am.”

“Okay. Got it.” He paused a beat, then shook his head. “I don’t get it. Why are you asking me to charm you right now?”

“Because I’m curious, and because I trust you.” Sure Stroke gave a little smirk, glancing over her shoulder at Faith and Warm Welcome. “Besides, if you were going to do something bad, I’d bet your mom would tan your hide.”

Faith gave an amused snort. “Too true.” Her eyes lingered on Sure Stroke a moment, considering the idea. Then, she looked up to Aspire. “If you feel comfortable with it, Aspire, you have my permission.”

“Mine as well,” Warm Welcome added with a smile.

Aspire chewed on his lip, he looked down at his plate. “I don’t know,” he mumbled. His eyes flitted up to glance at Sure Stroke. “You sure you wanna try this? It can be a little scary the first time.”

Her smirk faded into a frown. He was doing it again, just like when she offered him love in exchange for his help.

“Yes,” Sure Stroke said, her jaw set. She leaned in until she was nose to chitinous nose with him, she could even feel his fangs brush against her chin as he tried to tilt his head back. “I trust you,” she murmured, just loud enough for him to hear. “And I want you to help me understand things about you so I can accept them. This and feeding are included.”

He stayed quiet for a moment, letting out a deep sigh through his nose. Slowly, a small smile spread across his muzzle. “Alright,” he said. A hint of mischief flashed across his face, Aspire fixed her with a half-lidded stare. “Hey, Doodle. I’m still hungry. Gimme your pancakes.”

Sure Stroke wrinkled her snout. “Uh, no.” She placed a hoof over her plate and slid it out of his reach. “I’m eating those.” Blinking, she fixed him with a glare. “This had better not be an excuse to get my pancakes!”

“No, no, just a demonstration. I’m going to convince you to let me have them. Once we’re done, I’ll give them back.” Aspire grinned. “Unless you’d like to go around the village telling everyone you love my nickname for you and want everyone to call you Doodle from now until the end of time, of course.”

“Pancakes it is.”

“Spoilsport,” he retorted. Aspire turned to face her fully, he brought his hooves up to take her cheeks, then tilted his head almost cutely. His eyes met hers. Those deep blue eyes, so vibrant Sure Stroke would almost swear he’d somehow stolen some of the sky’s color when he was born.

They almost seemed to glow with a strange light. His irises took on a lighter tinge, Sure Stroke felt her breath hitch in her throat, her mouth dropped open in silent shock. She didn’t blink—why would she? Blinking would rob her of the chance to just stare into those eyes and get lost in the deep blue.

Such beautiful blue eyes.

“Doodle,” he said softly, his voice seemed to echo throughout her mind. There was a hint of a tickle, like she was feeling a little fuzzy after a nap, and then nothing. Just his voice and those eyes.

So beautiful. And that word, that silly word just sounded so lovely the way he said it.

Wait. Doodle? Is he talking to me? Sure Stroke’s ears perked up. Of course he was! That was his name for her—his special name for her. I’m Doodle. Me! Doodle is me!

“Y-Yeah?” she breathed.

Aspire smiled and leaned in, drawing a sharp gasp and a smile in turn. How could she not when he was so happy to be near her? His lips began to move, Sure Stroke let her muscles relax, her shoulders slumped and feathers fluffed as he spoke again. “Tell me about my eyes again,” he commanded, barely above a whisper. She felt his hoof reach up to pet her mane. “Be honest. Friends are honest with one another, aren’t they?”

Of course they were. Friends don't keep secrets or hold back what they thought.

He said so. If Aspire said so, it was true. And everything she knew confirmed it.

Sure Stroke nodded eagerly, never once breaking eye contact. “They’re so beautiful,” she replied almost airily. “Even more than before! I could just … I could just get lost in them forever and be happy.” A bubbly giggle escaped her lips. “You have such pretty eyes, and a handsome smile.” With a shaking hoof, she reached up to touch the tip of his fangs. “And such lovely, white fangs …”

“Aw, I really appreciate you saying that, Doodle.” There it was again! How did he make such a silly name sound so nice? “It really means a lot to me.” Aspire cupped her chin with a hoof and leaned in close, his nose brushed against hers.

Those beautiful blue eyes dominated her vision, her entire world.

“You know what else would mean a lot to me, though?” he asked.

Her heart leapt. “What?” The question was out before she even realized. Whatever he wanted was his, so long as she could just stare into his eyes and enjoy his presence. Anything to keep a smile on his lips.

Aspire drew back enough that she could see him pout and let his ears droop, her heart sank with them. “I’m really hungry,” he replied, holding his stomach with his free hoof. “I didn’t get enough to eat this morning at breakfast because I was the last one to pick from the stack. I know you’ve not eaten much, but …” he trailed off, biting his lip. Was he upset? Why? What had she done wrong?

“But what?” Sure Stroke clasped her hooves around the one still cupping her chin. “What is it?”

The way he looked up at her was almost adorable. Like a puppy begging for food, and yet, somehow, breathtaking. Those eyes were beautiful no matter how happy or sad he was.

But no creature with such beautiful eyes should ever be so sad. Especially not such a good friend.

His smile returned, he tilted his head to the other side. A move she followed so she could maintain her stare into his eyes.

“I’d really like your pancakes,” he answered. “Could I have them? Please?”

Sure Stroke bobbed her head. Of course he could have them! He was her friend and he was hungry, why shouldn’t she offer her meal to him? With a bright smile, she picked up her plate and held it out for him, happy to satisfy his hunger if it meant he’d be happy.

Aspire blinked, and so did she. He didn’t move to take her plate. “Doodle,” he began softly.

“Huh?”

He smiled and leaned back, he removed his hoof from beneath her chin. “Wake up,” he said, “and look at where you are.”

The tingle in the back of her head came back for a split second, then left entirely. Sure Stroke shook her head, blinking owlishly, then looked down. Her mouth fell open. She was holding her plate out to him, ready to give up her meal. All because she’d looked into his eyes a little too long.

Slowly, she looked up at him, then around the table. Knowing looks, a few sheepish smiles, and concern flashing in Aspire and Esalen’s eyes greeted her. “H-How … I didn’t even feel like fighting you,” she said at last.

“You wouldn’t,” Esalen replied, a wry smile played upon her lips. “We’re very good at slipping in and finessing you along. It’s part of how pureblood Enchanters work. They’re in before you know it.”

Sure Stroke felt numb. Her mind raced with all the worst case scenarios, all the times she’d met their eyes when talking to them. How much of it had been them guiding her along and how much had been her actually thinking?

She caught the pair flicking out their tongues at her. Aspire winced and hung his head. “Please don’t be afraid,” he muttered. “I wouldn’t have done it if you didn’t ask. Neither of us have used our charms on you until right now, honest.”

“We would’ve been caught a long time ago,” Esalen added. “And you wouldn’t be worrying right now if we had. You wouldn’t even have been afraid of us at all from the very start.” She let her ears droop. “Aspire and I never even thought to do it, even when you were afraid of our fangs.”

Ah yes. Their fangs.

In fact, now that they mentioned it, they had a point. Sure Stroke furrowed her brows. While under Aspire’s spell, she felt so calm and content even though she knew he was going to work his charms on her. Why, she almost felt happy! Euphoric, even!

She certainly hadn’t felt any of the tingling or overwhelming peacefulness before, not like this at least. Everything had been a jumble of nerves and constant questions. Some of which she still needed answered.

Still, it was a bit creepy. Sure Stroke had to suppress a shudder. “Thanks for showing me,” she said after a moment. “Even if it’s scary, it helps.” Thinking a moment, she added, “And I appreciate you taking the time to explain it along with the rules.”

Aspire and Esalen perked up their ears. “Anytime,” Esalen replied. “We’re glad to help.”

“Especially if it makes you more comfortable around us,” Aspire said. He paused in thought, a grin slowly spread across his muzzle. “Now, seriously, gimme your pancakes, Doodle. I’m hungry.”

Sure Stroke didn’t need to taste emotions to catch the playfulness in his tone. With smugness outmatched only by the nymph in question, she turned away and set her plate on the table, snatching up her fork so she could slice off a big piece. Then, she turned back to him and brought it to her lips.

“Not a chance.”

He beamed. “Good filly.” With a playful waggle of his ears, he sat back in his seat and took his coffee cup, his eyes still flitting to her as she resumed eating her meal.

Sure Stroke couldn’t help but frown. He was still worried for her, still trying so hard to hold her hoof all the way through. Almost like he felt she was a little filly.

At the same time, though, a part of her was relieved. She had friends willing to take the time to make sure she understood their strange culture and talents, and trusted her enough to let her make her own decisions on when to accept them.

Her lips tugged into a smile. Perhaps things weren’t progressing as quickly as she hoped, but progress was still progress.

Even if it came at a snail’s pace.

 

 

While waiting for the others to shower and get themselves cleaned, Sure Stroke opted to pull her sketchpad and pencils out of her bag so she could start on Aspire’s drawing. Of course, first that meant she had to figure out which part of Cloudsdale to draw.

Anyone could draw the traditional view of the outer Cirrus Walls and rainbow falls trailing down from the city itself, but for a proper Cloudsdale pegasus, it was so much more than that. And though she might not be as gifted as her mother in flight or as talented with weather work as her father, Sure Stroke was a true Dale Filly through and through. Even her cousin, Altocumulus, for all his studious nature, held onto their heritage with pride.

So what should she show Aspire? He and Esalen both had taken her around Respite and shown her everything they loved about their village, even taking the time to share their culture. How could she match that without simply taking the pair to Cloudsdale?

There was just so much! Of course, there were the usual tourist traps: the Weather Factory with its liquid rainbow pools, the ancient battlements, and the Wonderbolts’ famed cloud base. And what visit to the Dale would be complete without at least passing by the Cloudiseum?

But what about some of the places like the Seventy-Five Climb (or Thunderhead Alley, depending on who you asked)? Or Altocumulus Terrace, where her cousin lived, up where the air was thin and it felt like winter never ended? Or the ponies living in Thunderbolt Heights, right by the Weather Factory’s thunderhead stores, where the constant rumble of thunder and flashes of lightning were so common they became little more than a lullaby at night?

The thought of her old neighborhood made her ears droop. A part of her missed the low rumble of thunder. Nighttime in Respite seemed almost empty without it.

A shifting in her pod seat brought Sure Stroke out of her musing. She looked to her left and found her nose a mere hair’s breadth from Aspire’s. Another shift to her right made her glance over her shoulder to find Esalen lounging lazily over the back of the pod.

“How’s it going, Doodle?” they asked in what had to be practiced unison. Their synchronization was far too precise.

Still, Sure Stroke smiled. “Pretty good. Just thinking about what part of Cloudsdale to draw for your picture, Aspire.” She gave her wings a nervous rustle. “It’s a big city and there’s a lot of history everywhere.” Thinking a moment, an idea came to her. Maybe she could get him to give some hint as to what he wanted. Not specifics, but something to offer insight. “What sort of thing were you hoping to see?”

Aspire shrugged. “Whatever you want to draw is fine with me,” he said with a smile. “I just want to see Cloudsdale as you saw it.”

No such luck. Judging by the way his smile broadened and the tips of his forked tongue poked out between his lips, he had an idea of what she was trying. Stupid emotion tasting! It was cheating, even if it only told him what she was feeling at the time.

Huffing, she nudged his shoulder. “Well, then, it’s going slow and it’s your fault. So there.”

“Fair enough.” He shifted in place, his smile faltered. “So, uh, about that whole charming thing back there …”

Sure Stroke raised an eyebrow. “What about it?”

He chewed on his bottom lip, his eyes flitted away as he struggled to find the words.

To her left, Esalen scoffed. “He wants to make sure you’re not suddenly terrified of us now that you’ve seen what it’s like to be charmed. And he wants to make extra sure you know we haven’t charmed you in any way to make you feel friendly toward us.” Out of the corner of her eye, Sure Stroke caught her sending a stern look over at Aspire. “Even though we already covered this in the kitchen.”

Aspire shifted again. He let his ears droop low while he mumbled something unintelligible under his breath.

A tiny frown made its way across Sure Stroke’s muzzle. Again, she nudged his shoulder. “It’s fine,” she said. “It was … strange, but I sort of already knew you could do that from stories and stuff. I might be slow, but I’m not as scared as I was when I first met you guys.”

His ears perked up. Aspire turned to face her, a small smile upon his lips. “Really?”

“No, I’m lying. Yes, really, you dummy!” Sure Stroke clipped him over the head with her wing, grinning at the way he ducked his head and rubbed his mane.

Esalen threw back her head and gave a chittering laugh. “Told you!” she practically sang. She scooted closer so she could lay herself across Sure Stroke’s back, snuggling in comfortably. “Such a worrywart, isn’t he?”

“Definitely.”

“Hey!” Aspire whined. “I’m just trying to be a good friend!”

“I know.” Turning, Sure Stroke poked the end of his snout. “And we’re just teasing you, silly. Take a joke.”

He stuck out his tongue and crossed his eyes, earning a giggle from the fillies. Then he relaxed into the seat. “Well, I’m glad. Just, y’know, let us know if you’ve got other stuff you wanna know about or test out.” Before she could ask, he turned to fix her with a look. “And, no, I’m still not feeding on you yet. I want to wait a bit yet.”

Sure Stroke puffed out her cheeks. Well, then! Frowning, she glanced at Esalen. The wheels in her head began to turn. If Aspire wouldn’t feed on her yet, there was always Essy. She just had to figure out a good deal for it.

Later.

For now, she’d just let it go. There were other things to discuss. Namely, the story they hadn’t finished. “I was wondering about that story we started,” she said.

On either side of her, the twins perked up. “Oh?” Esalen asked. “Did you like it?”

“It was interesting,” Sure Stroke replied. “It gave me a little bit of context as far as how things changed from, well, the way our stories portray changelings and how you guys are today.” She coughed, rustling her wings. “I don’t suppose we could finish that sometime soon, could we?”

“Sure we can!” A bright smile crossed Esalen’s muzzle. “You can borrow it if you want. Just give it back whenever you finish it.”

“Thanks.” A beat. Sure Stroke glanced at Aspire. “But, to be honest, I kinda liked reading it with you guys. So … if you’re not busy sometime, could we read it together?”

She had to crane her neck to see the look Aspire and Esalen shared. Matching smiles and perked ears, the tips of their forked tongues poked between their lips to test her taste.

They turned together and replied in near perfect unison:

“Sure thing, Doodle.”

Sure Stroke wasn’t sure if she should laugh or groan, so she did the next best thing. It did her heart well to hear Esalen cackling and rolling on the floor after she’d clipped Aspire over the head for the second time that morning.

Just as he deserved. Especially with how his eyes danced with mirth even as he rubbed his head. They really are beautiful.

 

 

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