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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12. Victory is Sweet

Although she’d just learned a rather valuable lesson about teasing changelings, Sure Stroke couldn’t help but laugh at the look of utter dismay that flashed across Aspire’s face when they arrived at the “base” tree. There, standing before a cheering group of foals and downtrodden nymphs, was Vector, leaning against a tree.

The cocky colt buffed a hoof on his chest and checked to see if there was any dirt on them, before looking up in mock surprise at Aspire. “Well, hey there, bookbug! What took you so long?”

Aspire had groaned and stomped his hoof, grumbling about how he was certain Vector would’ve had to cheat somehow to get past both Nimble and Zephyr, earning a bout of laughter from the foals. Either way, the terms had been met.

Each of the foals would get some chocolate cake, courtesy of their nymph classmates.

When Sure Stroke trotted forward to offer a slime-coated hoof bump, the impromptu celebration-slash-whining-session came to an abrupt halt. Esalen darted forward and grabbed her hooves, looking over each cut with a look eerily similar to how distraught Aspire had been in the forest.

“What happened?” she had asked.

Aspire made to reply, but Sure Stroke silenced him with a look. “I flew through some branches, but one caught my leg,” she said. “I fell hard and scraped my knee, so Aspire bandaged me with his, um… slime?”

“Uh…” Aspire blinked, his eyes shifted from her to their classmates. One ear swiveled to lay flat while the other stood up straight. “Yeah. I, uh, used my cocoon slime and stuff.” He ducked his head and cringed, mumbling, “That said, make sure to tell her if you ever have to put it on her. Still adjusting. My bad.”

The rest of the class took their word for it, each of them glad she wasn’t hurt too bad by the fall, a couple even sparing a moment to give Aspire a friendly nudge or, in Vector’s case, a sock to the shoulder and praise him for such quick thinking.

Her friend blinked and gave a crooked smile, accepting their compliments with no shortage of awkwardness in his voice and assuring that he only wanted to make sure she was okay. Through it all, his eyes never left hers.

Sure Stroke didn’t need a changeling’s emotion tasting to see his confusion as he flicked out his tongue to taste hers. He’s not sure why I covered for him, she thought, beaming back at him, sparing herself a little giggle when he furrowed his brows and gave a much more prominent flick of his tongue. Almost like he were trying to lick the air, really.

She stole a quick glance to Esalen, who also seemed a bit put out, flicking her tongue and cocking her head to the side as if trying to look at an abstract piece.

Confused. She had Esalen completely off-kilter, just as she’d been on her first day in Respite.

A bit of smugness crept into her smile. How nice it was not to be the one on the outside of the inner circle, so to speak. This time, her friends would have to figure her out.

Prim had stepped forward and asked if she wanted to sit out since she’d been hurt, but Sure Stroke had none of it. Even if she was a little scared because of Aspire’s trick, it was still a lot of fun to play with her friends, not to mention work with Vector to win their cake. With her intent declared, the sides switched: the nymphs all ran off to hide in the forest, while the foals counted to one hundred.

It only took Sure Stroke a few minutes into the next round to realize why Vector had limited the terms of their wager to their round.

Just like the old stories told, changelings were incredibly difficult to find. Even when they couldn’t shapeshift, the nymphs’ natural coloration made it nearly impossible to see them through the shadows or foliage; with only their manes, tails, and backings colored different, Sure Stroke guessed “Team Foal” would  be hard-pressed to catch any of their classmates.

As it so turned out, she was correct. Only Allegretto and Aspire had ended up caught, the latter by her. Sure Stroke had a sneaking suspicion he’d allowed her to find him on purpose, even going as far to pretend he hadn’t heard her stumbling through the underbrush before she pounced on him, no matter how much he denied it.

She was also quite certain a nymph who'd just balanced on a branch with ease wouldn't just trip over nothing.

Either way, it was fun. The look of surprise on his face—fake though she knew it was—as she tackled him and crowed in victory, the way Vector howled with laughter when he heard, and the sight of Aspire snarling and grumbling a promise of retribution, all of it harkened back to her home in Cloudsdale.

They act so much like us. They’re just different. 

When the final bell rang and freed them all from their daily eight hour prison, Sure Stroke trotted in between Aspire and Esalen as they walked with Nimble, Toola, Vector, and Zephyr.

She threw back her head and laughed as a pained look crossed Aspire’s face. “Just say it,” he said, waving a hoof at Vector. “I can taste your want to.”

“Well, if you insist!” Vector grinned and leapt into the air, flipping himself in between Aspire and Sure Stroke with a quick flap of his wings. He landed and threw a hoof around Sure Stroke’s withers. “Boy, am I looking forward to a nice, big piece of chocolate cake! Isn’t it a good thing we’ve got four nice little nymphs who’re gonna buy us some, Sure Stroke?”

Stifling a giggle, she played her part. “Oh, yes!” she said, nodding along with him. “Aspire and Esalen told me all about how good Missus Sweet Treat’s baking was! I can’t wait to try some myself!”

Esalen nudged her shoulder. “Careful, little ponies,” she warned, her eyes showing with a mischievous gleam. “You’re heading toward dangerous territory!”

Vector scoffed and flicked a wing at her. “What’re you gonna do? Have that one—” he jabbed a hoof at Nimble “—tickle me senseless? Do your worst! I still get cake!”

In unison, the quartet of nymphs turned and flashed fanged grins, their eyes glowed with an eery green light. “Our worst?” Aspire repeated in a hiss.

“You’ll regret that one, Zippy!” Zephyr added, stepping ahead and cutting them off before they could reach the school gate. He crouched low, giving a challenging hiss and let his jowls peal back to reveal the full length of his fangs. “Take it back, and I just might go easy on you!”

Out of the corner of her eye, Sure Stroke noticed Nimble moving around from her spot between Esalen and Toola. The nymph ducked her head as she slipped behind Vector, she met Sure Stroke’s gaze, smiled, then brought a hoof to her mouth as she flitted her eyes to Vector and back again.

It clicked into place. Vector had laid down a challenge to Nimble’s tickling prowess, just as Sure Stroke had laid a challenge to Aspire and Esalen before hide and seek.

Sure Stroke returned her smile and gave a little nod to show her understanding. She turned as if to watch the byplay between Vector and the other nymphs, eying Nimble as she made her approach. Seeing her crouch low, readying herself to pounce, Sure Stroke counted backwards from three, then slipped out from Vector’s embrace and leapt to the side.

As soon as she moved, Vector turned. “Hey, what’s your—oh pony feathers!” He squawked as he was tackled to the ground by Nimble, who quickly pinned his shoulders. His eyes went wide, Vector tried to struggle out of her grasp, flapping his wings in hopes of buffeting her face until Aspire and Zephyr came to her aid and held him down. “Gah! Gerroffame you jerks!”

“I don’t think so!” Nimble sang. She gave a coy smile and sat back on his stomach, letting her hooves trail down his sides. Waggling her ears, she leaned in and nosed against him. “Some silly little colt asked me to do my worst! I think that colt needs a reminder of just how tickly his sides are!”

Vector gasped, his struggles renewed. “I was kidding! I wasn’t challenging—oh, sweet feathering hay—Sure Stroke, Toola, help!”

The trio of nymphs turned to face her, Aspire gave a challenging grin, daring her to jump in. Giggling, Sure Stroke backed away. “Sorry, Vector,” she said, shaking her head as she stood beside Esalen and Toola. “I’ve learned my lesson. Never challenge a changeling unless you’re ready to pay the price.”

“Good filly,” Esalen said. She patted Sure Stroke on the head and sat back on her haunches, a cue Sure Stroke and Toola took. With a wave of her hoof, she acted the part of Queen Euphoria, saying, “Have at him, Nimble! Let’s see how high his voice goes!”

Nimble set to her task with gusto. Sure Stroke watched in muted fascination as the nymph’s hooves moved in a blur; poking, prodding, and massaging Vector’s ribs, sending him into high-pitched shrieks of laughter as he writhed beneath her, trying in vain to escape.

“What’s that, Zippy?” Aspire asked, perking his ears up. “Speak up! We can’t hear you!”

Zephyr cocked his head to the side and pulled a face. “Sounds like he wants more tickles, Nimble! Didn’t you tell us he gets really squirmy if you go for his armpits?”

She grinned. “I did! Watch closely! You’re gonna have to hold his hooves tight, or he’ll buck us right off!”

“No, no, no, no, no! Please, not—eek!” Vector seemed to convulse, laughing uncontrollably as tears streamed down his cheeks.

Sure Stroke tried to hold back her own laughter, but as Toola giggled and cheered for their classmates, she found herself succumbing to her mirth. Her sides ached as she struggled to get it under control. Each time she managed to look up and watch the nymphs continue Vector’s punishment, she fell right back into laughter.

A nudge to her shoulder drew her attention away. She turned and met Esalen’s bright pink eyes, her laughter slowly tapered off. “What’s up?”

“Just wanted to ask you something. Mind stepping away with me for a minute?” Esalen asked.

Confused, Sure Stroke nodded once. “Sure,” she replied, standing to walk with her.

“Great.” Esalen stood, then turned to Toola, sparing a little smile at the filly as she rolled about on the ground. “We’ll be right back. Make sure they don’t skimp on Vector’s lesson.”

Toola tried to reply, but her words came in an incomprehensible babble mixed in with laughter. She waved a hoof at them and gave a shaky nod as she continued watching the free show.

Esalen lead Sure Stroke past the group, toward the school entrance.

Once they were out of earshot, she stopped and turned to face Sure Stroke with a tiny frown marring her muzzle. “You lied,” she said.

Sure Stroke blinked and stepped back, caught off-guard by her bluntness. “What? When did I—”

“I could taste it,” Esalen added, speaking over her like a mother who’d caught her filly. “I didn’t want to say anything in front of the others, but you were lying when you told us about your cuts.”

“I wasn’t lying!” Sure Stroke protested. Her wings rustled, she frowned and gave a little flick of her tail. “I really did fly through some branches and got myself cut up!”

Esalen flicked out her tongue, narrowing her eyes at Sure Stroke. “Hiding, then. I can taste how you feel, and you’re getting defensive.” She stepped closer and laid a hoof on Sure Stroke’s shoulder. “So, tell me what really happened. I’m your friend, aren’t I?”

Pinning her ears back, Sure Stroke nodded. “Yeah.”

“And Aspire’s my brother. So, why can’t you tell me what went on in the forest?”

She shifted in place, rustling her wings. “Because you’ll get mad at him,” she mumbled. Looking down at the dirt path at her hooves, she kicked at a stone. “He didn’t mean for me to get hurt.”

Esalen’s grip on her shoulder tightened. “What did he do?”

Flinching at the tone in her voice, Sure Stroke pawed at the ground. “I, uh, well, he told me that teasing him and helping Vector with the bet could be taken as challenging you guys.” She fluffed up her feathers and gave a sheepish grin. “Especially when I said I’d save you some cake.”

“Yeah, just a lot.” Esalen raised an eyebrow. “So, what happened? He tracked you down and teased you, or something?”

“Or something.” She eyed the groove she’d dug in the dirt as though checking to see if she could hide in it. To her dismay, it was far too small. “He snuck up on me and copied Vector’s voice, and talked to me like nothing was wrong.”

Esalen’s eyes went wide. She looked back toward their friends, eyes locked on her brother as he laughed and mocked Vector, then turned to Sure Stroke again. She flicked her tongue, her shock slowly melted away to anger. “That idiot!” she hissed, her lips curling back into a snarl.

“He apologized!” Sure Stroke hastened to add. “He said he thought I wanted to play, and we talked while he, um…” she trailed off as she glanced down at the cocoon slime on her legs. Her stomach churned at the sight of the stretchy green goop. “While he put this stuff on my leg.”

“Our slime can be used for wraps and bandages,” Esalen said, looking closer to survey her brother’s work before giving a nod. “Good enough, I guess.” She returned her gaze to Sure Stroke, still frowning. “He apologized?”

Sure Stroke nodded. “We talked and figured things out.” Giving a crooked smile, she stepped close and nosed Esalen’s cheek. “I learned more about changelings because of it,” she said. “That counts for something, right?”

A low purr emitted from Esalen’s throat, her lips tugged into a smile. Idly, Sure Stroke wondered if she was tasting her again, but didn’t turn back lest she feel awkward about it.

“You weren’t supposed to find out like that,” she muttered. “We were trying to ease you in.”

“I know, he told me. Which reminds me—” Sure Stroke drew back and pointed at Esalen’s fangs. “—fix them.”

Esalen blinked, her mouth fell open as comprehension dawned on her. “He told you?”

“He chased me as a pegasus, then forgot to make his fangs smaller when he changed back, and then he tried it when he caught me staring.” She stomped a hoof in frustration. “You guys say you want to ease me in, but how can I get used to things if you treat me like a baby?”

Flinching away from her, Esalen looked down at the ground. After a moment of silence, Sure Stroke watched as green fire washed over her fangs, returning them to normal length.

Esalen looked up, apprehension written plain on her face. She flicked out her tongue, her ears perked up. “You don’t taste as bad,” she said.

“I’ll take that as a compliment,” Sure Stroke replied with a smile.

Before Esalen could reply, the sound of feathered wings flapping in the wind made their ears perk up. They looked to the sky just in time to see Skydancer slowing herself for a landing at Sure Stroke’s side.

“Hello, dear,” Skydancer said, beaming as she leaned down to nuzzle the top of Sure Stroke’s mane. “How was school?”

Giggling at her mother’s nose and breath tickling her, Sure Stroke leaned into her touch. “Hi, mom. School was fine.” She turned to look at Esalen and grinned. “They invited me to play hide and seek!”

“And you did?” Seeing Sure Stroke nod, Skydancer gave a merry swish of her tail. “Wonderful! I—what in the name of Celestia is on your legs? And your cheek?”

Uh oh. Didn’t think of how mom would react. Sure Stroke cringed, wracking her brain for how to explain.

“Cocoon slime, Missus Skydancer,” Esalen said, smoothly inserting herself into the conversation as their classmates approached to greet her. “Sure Stroke flew through some branches and got a few cuts during our game, so my brother put some on to bandage them.”

Skydancer turned her attention to Aspire, who ducked his head and gave a strained smile. “Uh, yeah,” he said, not quite meeting her eyes. His cheeks colored, Aspire gave an awkward buzz of his wings. “I probably should’ve told her first, though.”

For a moment, she stayed quiet. Sure Stroke ducked low, waiting for her mother to explode.

Instead, Skydancer just cringed. “I see. I suppose that’s another thing to get used to,” she said, shuddering and rustling her wings at the thought. “Er, I’m sorry. I don’t mean to sound rude, it’s just—” Stopping short, she sighed. “Ignore me. I’ll adjust.”

The foals and nymphs smiled and nodded. Aspire shot Sure Stroke a sidelong grin and added, “You should’ve seen her face when I put it on her leg. She looked like I’d slapped her with a fish!”

“Hey!” Sure Stroke cried. “I did not!”

Green fire wreathed around his form, burning his face away until a perfect imitation of hers was looking back at her. Her double’s jaw dropped open as if unsure to shriek or vomit, before the fire returned and Aspire resumed his natural form, a wicked grin splitting his muzzle. “Just. Like. That.”

To her horror, Skydancer giggled and added, “Now, that is a look I’m very familiar with.”

Mom!” she whined, blushing as her friends laughed.

“Oh, hush, dear! I’m just happy for you.” Ducking down and planting a kiss to the top of her head, Skydancer looked to Esalen. “I don’t suppose you had plans for my little filly today?”

“Actually,” Vector said, stepping forward and grinning, “she was gonna come with us to Missus Sweet Treat’s shop. We’ve got a little bet to cash in on!”

Toola giggled and nudged his shoulder. “Looks like someone needs another quick lesson!” she sang.

He yelped and took wing, just in time to avoid Nimble’s grab for his shoulder. “No way, no how!” he said, jabbing a hoof at the smirking nymphs. “You’re not getting me again!”

Nimble bared her fangs and hissed, grinning as her eyes flashed. “Oh, maybe I won’t get you again today, Zippy colt! But I’ll have you in my hooves again, and I’ll hear that adorable laughter of yours soon enough!”

“He’s really ticklish,” Zephyr explained to Skydancer, his eyes locked on the defiant pegasus above them. He smirked and moved to stand beside Nimble. “And it seems we’ll have to remind him how nymphs play, eh, Nim?”

“Agreed.”

Laughing at the visible shudder that ran through Vector’s body, Sure Stroke turned to her mother and asked, “It’s okay if I go with them, right mom?”

Skydancer gave a bright smile and nodded. “Of course, sweetie!” she said, reaching up to tussle her mane. “Just make sure you remember to be back in time for dinner, and so you can do your homework.”

“We normally do our homework at the shop or the ice cream parlor,” Esalen said.

“Even better,” Skydancer said. She turned on her hooves and unfurled her wings, reader to fly home, but paused. Glancing over her shoulder with a sly smirk, she called, “Your name is Nimble Hooves, isn’t it?”

Nimble turned from her playful menacing to tilt her head at Skydancer. “You know my name?”

“I’ve heard from a few neighbors about a certain nymph who loves to tickle.” Her eyes flitted to Sure Stroke, gleaming with mischievous intent. “That said, my little filly is particularly ticklish around her wing joints.”

Squeaking, Sure Stroke clamped her wings against her sides and darted around a laughing Aspire. “Mom!”

“Really?” Nimble grinned, giving her wings a merry buzz. “I haven’t had a chance to test her spots!”

“Mom, please!”

“She squeaks if you poke her ribs, too! Have fun, dear!” With a single flap of her wings, Skydancer took off, waving to them before she made her way across town.

Almost in unison, her classmates turned to fix her with wicked grins. Vector landed between Nimble and Zephyr, flexing his wings in challenge. “So,” he said, “who’s up for a little experiment? I’ve got the sky covered.”

Sure Stroke whimpered, flinching away as Aspire and Esalen bared their fangs and moved to flank her.

“Come on, now, Sure Stroke,” Aspire cooed. “We just wanna see if your mom’s telling the truth!”

Esalen added, “It’s gonna happen anyway. You might as well just give in.”

“Surrender to tickles!” Toola cried, her menacing façade ruined by a bout of giggles. “But resistance is more fun in the end!”

She needed no further prompting. With a squeak of dismay, Sure Stroke took off toward the gate as fast as she could, her hooves pounded at the dirt as she got a running start, doing her best to ignore the pain shooting up her leg, then took to the sky with a quartet of nymphs and a pegasus right on her tail, and a lone earth pony chasing after on hoof.

 

 

Though the aerial view Respite looked different from the walk around tour she’d been given, Sure Stroke still found herself able to navigate just as easily. Ponies and changelings of all colors, sizes, and ages milled about below. The moving ponies from her first day trotted past carrying bits of lumber on their backs and tools in saddlebags, their booming laughter and loud voices pierced through the air, even as his has she was. If she squinted, she could see Mister Welcome darting between the buildings, stopping to talk or direct ponies toward whatever they were working on.

Curious, but she had more pressing issues. Like her airborne classmates rapidly closing in on her, bringing with them promises of tickling and torment untold.

“Oh, hay, no!” She narrowed her eyes and gave a few quick wingbeats. She had to get to her destination before they got ahold of her or she’d be at their mercy.

In Aspire’s case, it would be twice in one day that he got to tease her. And that just couldn’t be allowed.

It didn’t take more than a couple flyovers with her mom to figure out that the little hut with the cupcake shaped sign was Missus Sweet Treat’s shop.

At first, Sure Stroke thought to fly toward Queen Euphoria’s home, but Vector and the nymphs would always adjust course so one of them would be there with hooves ready to grab her the moment she showed sign of banking. They were steering her to the shop.

They want to catch me, tickle me, and then have cake while they crow over it. Sure Stroke smirked. Fine, then.

If they wanted to try to out-fly a Cloudsdale pegasus, they had another thing coming. Herding her toward the sweet shop worked both ways.

After all, no grown up liked it when a bunch of foals—and nymphs—came running into their workplace and made a bunch of noise.

Sure Stroke angled herself down and folded her wings against her side, letting her own momentum and gravity do the work for her. Pinning back her ears, she narrowed her eyes as the wind whistled past her. She could hear the faint sound of Vector’s distant cry, only spurring her forward. He knew as well as she did that it was all over unless Toola could beat her to the door.

A quick glance to the ground below revealed that Toola was nowhere near close enough. All she had to do was land and get inside before they could grab her.

Gritting her teeth, Sure Stroke hit the dirt pathway in a dead sprint, bounding toward the door. The sound of feathery flapping and chitinous wings buzzing, followed by hooves pounding on the dirt just behind her spurred her on. She reached the door, throwing it open and dashing inside as fast as her little legs could carry her. Panting for breath, she searched for Missus Sweet Treat, still struggling to match the name to a face.

“Gotcha!” Aspire cried, wrapping his hooves around her barrel and wrestling her to the floor, putting his full weight on her back so she was forced to lay on her stomach.

Sure Stroke squeaked, kicking her hooves and beating her wings to throw him off. “Let me go!” she cried, squealing as Esalen, Toola, and Vector joined the fray, each grabbing a hoof and pinning it to the floor. “No, no, no!”

“Yes, yes, yes!” they chanted back at her. Vector and Toola’s laughter mixed with the nymphs’ chittering snickers. They had her right where they wanted her.

Esalen shot her a fanged grin, then turned to Nimble. “She’s all yours! Watch out for her wings—ow! She packs a wallop in these things!”

With a chittering snicker of her own, Nimble trotted forward, circling around Sure Stroke like a shark. “Hmm, now where to begin?” she mused, pulling a mock pout. “Do I wanna see you squirm, or should we see how high you squeak? Judges?” she asked, both to their friends and the patrons in the shop.

The grownups, changeling and pony alike, grinned and laughed with them, calling for her to go ahead and make good on her threat. Sure Stroke gave one last, desperate struggle, biting her lip as Nimble descended upon her. She clamped her wings shut in defiance.

Nimble cooed, “Now, now, none of that!” A smooth, chitinous hoof touched her back, coaxing its way under her wing.

She bit her lip, holding back another squeak as the familiar sensation of a hoof’s soft touch around her wing teased her skin. Sure Stroke screwed her eyes shut and tried to wriggle away, but her friends’ grips on her hooves were tight and fast.

Another hoof joined the fray, poking just beneath her ribcage. Sure Stroke gasped, a bout of uncontrollable giggles slipped through her lips. “N-No! Stop!”

“See? Much better!” Nimble said, trailing her hoof around the base of Sure Stroke’s wing as light as a feather’s touch. “Come on, let’s hear it!”

Sure Stroke shook her head and tried to fold her wing closed, but Nimble had moved her free leg to pin it open with her elbow. “N-Nimble, please!” she begged around a fit of giggles and squeaks. “I don’t—eep!—like being tickled!”

“Aw, but you squeak so adorably!” Aspire said, poking her in the side to bring one forth from her lips.

The sound of a mare clearing her throat made her ear flick, and brought the teasing, poking hooves to a halt. Sure Stroke searched for the source and found a plump mare dressed in an apron stained with flour and drops icing standing over them. A stern frown marred her face, she arched a single brow at them.

“Hi, Missus Sweet Treat!” the group sans Sure Stroke greeted her, each returning her look with an innocent smile.

Missus Sweet Treat nodded in return. “Hello, little ones,” she greeted. Her eyebrow arched higher. “Aspire?”

He winced, pinning his ears back at the stern edge to her voice. “Yes, Missus Sweet Treat?”

“What’s my rule on roughhousing in the dining area?”

Aspire ducked his head. “No roughhousing in the dining area. Ever.”

Sure Stroke breathed a sigh of relief, sending silent thanks to her savior as she let herself relax in her friends’ grasp.

Missus Sweet Treat nodded once. “That’s right. Now, as happy as I am to see the newest member of our village having fun with you all, and as entertaining as it is to watch Nimble tickle someone silly—” Sure Stroke felt her heart sink at the sight of the upward tugging of the plump mare’s lips. So much for being her savior. “—but this is not the time or the place. Kindly let her up, please.”

“But we’ll have to chase her all over again!” Vector complained, letting his shoulders slump.

“You’re a fast little colt, I’m sure you’ll manage. Now, off.” She stomped a hoof against the wood floor, the sharp clop of hoof on wood giving no further room for talk.

The group whined and grumbled as they released their hold on Sure Stroke, each getting off of her and huffing. She took her cue to leap to her hooves and dart around to hide behind Missus Sweet Treat, then stuck her tongue out at them.

Esalen narrowed her eyes and laid her ears against her scalp. “Oh, you’ll get it for that one,” she said. “You know what challenging us means!”

With a squeak of fear, Sure Stroke ducked behind Missus Sweet Treat’s legs, her ears burning at the sound of the nymphs’ chittering snickers.

Laughing, Missus Sweet Treat stepped to the side and patted Sure Stroke on the head, pushing her toward her friends. “I’m afraid you’ve gone and stepped in it now, dear. I can’t help you once you step out that door!” she said. Looking to each of them in turn, she smiled. “So, what brings you here?”

“Collecting our winnings!” Vector said as he and Toola stepped forward, each laid a hoof upon Sure Stroke’s back.

Toola bobbed her head. “Yup, yup! Cake is on the nymphs since they couldn’t catch both Zippy and Sure Stroke!” She turned to look at their classmates and made a show of licking her lips, grinning at the way they wrinkled their snouts and grumbled. “Chocolate cake, to be exact!”

Missus Sweet Treat waggled her ears. “Eating chocolate cake on a nymph’s bits? On four nymphs’ bits and boasting about it in front of them? Oh, my! You three are far more brave than I!” She turned and made her way around the counter, shaking her head and smiling. She reached into the display case and pulled out a whole chocolate cake. Big enough to satisfy a few young foals and nymphs. “It’ll be twelve bits.”

As each of the nymphs reached into their saddlebags to get to their bit pouches, Sure Stroke sniffed, licking her lips at the smooth, sweet scent of chocolate. Whether or not she would suffer a bit of payback seemed to fade into the backdrop as anticipation of the cake’s sweetness on her tongue set in.

Being scared was definitely worth it. Free cake is always worth it. Sure Stroke did her best not to bounce on her hooves, but couldn’t stop her tail from swishing or feathers from fluffing as she watched Missus Sweet Treat accept her pay, then bring the cake and several sets of plates and forks over to an empty table.

“Here we are,” Missus Sweet Treat said, stepping back with a smile as they scrambled over to sit around the table, each eying her creation with ravenous hunger. “Should I have one of the boys bring out some drinks, or are you going to be okay without?”

Esalen glanced to Sure Stroke and asked, “Are you okay with tea?”

“Works for me,” she replied, hopping into her place between the siblings.

Missus Sweet Treat nodded and trotted over to a small window next to a push door. “Peppermint!” she called through the window. “Could you be a dear and—oh for goodness sake! Spearmint! Stop throwing flour at your brother!” Heaving a long-suffering sigh, she brought a hoof to her forehead. “Peppermint, make some tea, please. Seven cups.”

“Seven?” a colt’s voice called back. “Geez, Aunty Sweets! Did the Queen and her entourage just drop in? And you didn’t give us a heads up?”

Rolling her eyes, she flicked her tail. “No, Peppermint, some of Mister Abacus’ students.”

“Oh!” His tone changed from incredulous to chipper. “Why didn’t you just say so? Yeah, I’ll have it out.”

“Thank you.”

Sure Stroke furrowed her brows, then turned to look to Aspire. “I thought the Queen was supposed to be rather casual.”

Aspire shrugged. “Well, she doesn’t have a big castle, but she’s still the Queen. We all respect her and try to show appreciation for all she does for the village.” He sat his saddlebags down on the floor and began taking out his homework. “Might as well start working while we wait. What do you guys wanna start on?”

“Might as well get math out of the way,” Esalen said, sighing as she pulled her notebook out, along with the list of problems Mister Abacus had given them. “More algebra. Bleh!” She stuck out her long, serpentine tongue and crossed her eyes, earning a bout of giggles from Toola and Sure Stroke.

Long tongues, too, Sure Stroke noted. They’re an odd mix of pony-like bugs, with some reptile stuff mixed in. Idly, she wondered if there was some place she could go to look up a bit more on her changeling friends. The three pony tribes were easy enough to trace back through history, but the changelings were shrouded in myth and old mares’ tales to frighten naughty foals.

Those thoughts were for later. Unfortunately, algebra beckoned, a call she was more want to flee from than answer.

Sighing in defeat, she retrieved her own notebook, pencil, and sheet of problems and set them on the table as Toola set about cutting each of them a slice of cake. “How many of these do we have?”

“Only ten tonight,” Esalen said. “He gave us a light assignment since your—”

“Since we have a thing this weekend!” Aspire spoke over her, shooting a stern glare her way. “By love, I know you already opened your mouth about it, but are you trying to let everyone know you did?”

Ducking her head, Esalen gave a sheepish grin. “Oops.”

“Wait, what?” Vector looked between them, his brows knitted together in confusion. “What’d she blab about this time?”

“Oh, she just told me about the—” Aspire’s hoof covered Sure Stroke’s mouth.

“No, no! Don’t ruin the fun!” he drawled, a sideways smirk crept across his face. “Please, Essy’s already gonna get a good walloping once dad finds out, and I’d just hate for her to ruin one of her chances to regale us with a half-baked excuse!”

Sniggering, Zephyr waggled his ears. “Oh, I can’t wait for that! Hers are the only ones worse than yours, bookbug!”

Confused, Sure Stroke brushed Aspire’s hoof away and turned to look to Esalen. To her bemusement, her friend had ducked her head low and seemed to be taking a rather keen interest in her cake, hovering over it like a hawk.

“My excuses are not that bad!” she grumbled, shooting Zephyr a glare when he burst into laughter. “They aren’t!”

There was a creaking of door hinges, then a steady cadence of hooves clopping against wood. “Hey, now!” a colt’s voice called. “What’s Essy making excuses for this time?

Toola waved. “Hi, Pep! Essy’s done a thing that Mister Welcome’s gonna be mad about!”

“Again? Ha!”

Turning to face the source, Sure Stroke was met by a colt of pure white coat and red mane with white highlights, and a peppermint wrapped in plastic displayed proudly on his flank. He looked to be around their age, though perhaps a couple years older. Patches of flour covered his coat and apron, though it did nothing to take away from the bright smile on his face or the spring in his gait.

Peppermint trotted over, balancing a tea tray on his back, then lit up his horn to set it down in the middle of the table. Glancing around the table, his mint green eyes met with hers. “Oh, you must be the new filly I’ve heard about!” he said, grinning and holding out a hoof. “My name’s Peppermint, Sweet Treat and Vigil are my aunts!”

Sure Stroke gave a shaky smile. “Hi, I’m Sure Stroke,” she replied, accepting the hoofshake.

“Nice to meet you!” he said, giving a merry wave. “I’d love to stay around and chat, but I’ve gotta get back or Caramel will whine about me taking too long.” He nodded his head to each of them, sparing an extra grin to Nimble. “Hey, Nim!”

Nimble squeaked, her cheeks flushed. “H-Hi, Pepper! How’s your day going?”

“Pretty well, flour fight notwithstanding.” Flitting his eyes toward Esalen, he winked. “Try to keep her out of trouble for me, eh Nim? We need her to bring in newcomers for bits!”

Giving a shaky nod, she smiled back at him, then ducked her head as though to hide behind her cake.

“You’re so silly.” Peppermint chuckled, then turned and trotted toward the door. “Have a good one, guys! See ya later!”

Once he’d passed through the door, Esalen turned and leveled Nimble with a glare. “Gonna keep an eye on me for him, eh?” she asked, smirking as her fellow nymph quailed before her. “I’ll remember that. Oh, yes, you’ll get yours, ‘Nim’!” It took Toola patting her on the back and rubbing between her shoulder blades to get her to stop arching her back and baring her fangs in that wicked smirk. She gave a snort, turning to nose against Toola’s cheek before taking up her fork, then shoveling a bite of cake into her mouth.

Sure Stroke watched as Esalen’s ears perked right up and her snarl melted away into a bright smile. A happy purr made her own ears twitch, then flick to the other nymphs as they began eating. She looked down, tilting her head as she stared at the cake.

What in the world? Taking her fork in hoof, she speared a bit into her mouth. Her eyes went wide, her tail swished merrily. Just as Aspire and Esalen promised at lunch a few weeks prior, Missus Sweat Treat could bake like no other!

Somehow, the icing was just perfect! Sure Stroke abandoned any sense of propriety and attacked her cake, scarfing it down faster than she’d ever done so before.

When she finished, she couldn’t help but stare at the empty plate, perplexed that she’d polished it off so quickly. Hearing Aspire snort, she turned and was met with his amused smirk. “That happens a lot, doesn’t it?”

Aspire grinned. “Every time we bring someone new in.” He waggled his ears. “We kept trying to get you to come here with all of us, but you wouldn’t listen.”

Ducking her head, she gave a wobbly smile. “Because you all wanted to hang out with me or because you wanted to seem me scarf cake?”

“Yes.”

Fair enough.

“You weren’t quite as funny as our last one!” Vector said. “She didn’t even use a fork after the first bite!”

Sure Stroke snorted and clapped her hooves over her mouth to hold back her giggles. “I would’ve paid to see that!” Her eyes flitted to the cake again, then to her plate. “Would it be okay if I have another?”

Snorting, Vector took the cake cutter and passed it over to her. “We’ve got a whole cake, just go ahead!” He grinned, giving a little nudge to a still-blushing Nimble. “After all, we get first dibs since we beat the nymphs.”

Nimble shot him a look, the wobbly smile on her face vanished. “Tread lightly,” she warned.

He grinned. “Oh, Pepper, you look sooooooooooo cute with flour stains all over your coat! Here, let me get a damp towel so you can clean yourself off!” he mocked, clasping his hooves and batting his eyelashes.

Hissing, Nimble brandished her fork at him. “One more word, Zippy. Just one.”

Vector simply smiled back at her, then settled back into his seat to resume eating his cake.

Sure Stroke shook her head in amusement and cut herself another piece. Might as well enjoy it before we start on our homework. With her fork in hoof, she let her eyes wander over each of her new friends’ smiling faces, then down to the slime coating her legs.

A rueful smile crossed her muzzle. It was a little painful, and a bit scary, but hide and seek with the nymphs had turned out for the best after all. They loved to laugh and play, running and wrestling just like the pegasi in Cloudsdale.

She took a bite of cake, humming as she was reacquainted with the taste of sweet chocolate. Today was definitely a good day.

 

 

Sure Stroke held her head in her hooves, clenching her eyes shut as if to hide from her tormentor. “I officially hate algebra,” she grumped. “I hate it! Hate it! Hate it!”

Aspire nudged her with his shoulder. “Aw, c’mon!” he said, grinning impishly. “It’s not that bad! Try to be a little more positive about it!”

She leaned in close enough that their snouts almost touched, narrowing her eyes at the cheeky nymph. “I am positive that I hate it!” she retorted.

“She’s got ya there, bookbug!” Vector laughed, waggling his eyebrows. “Only a weirdo, bookophile like you likes this sort of stuff, anyway!”

“That’s bibliophile, cloud-for-brains!”

“And that just proves my point!”

Rather than hiss and bare his fangs as he had before, Aspire just rolled his eyes. “Yeah, yeah, sure it does.” He lowered his voice, mumbling, “You’ll change your tune right about the time you need my help studying for a test. You cloud-brained little punk!”

“Temper, temper!” Esalen chided. Waggling her ears, she flashed him a mischievous grin. “Don’t set a bad example for Sure Stroke, Aspire! She’ll start to think we like to hold grudges!”

“Too late for that!” Sure Stroke put in before he could comment. Shooting him a smirk, she gave a meaningful waggle of her slime-coated leg. “Someone thought it would be a good idea to scare the feathers off of me!” She had to withhold a laugh as he quailed beneath her gaze, the sight of his translucent wings buzzing awkwardly nearly broke her façade. “Now who could that be?”

Sucking in his lips, Aspire fidgeted beneath her gaze. “So! Algebra!” he said, making no effort to hide his want for a change of subject. He moved in a bit closer, leaning to the side so he could look over her work, his smooth carapace touched against her soft coat.

Again, she had to marvel at the feeling. She didn’t have much of a chance to reflect on it in the forest, what with his unique method for bandaging her legs taking the brunt of her focus, as well as what she learned about challenging her changeling friends.

Sure Stroke snuck a glance out of the corner of her eye, marveling at the difference in feeling. A pony’s coat was short, smooth like velvet when brushed well, carried the warmth of the body it covered, and had the tendency to tickle when rubbed against another. Changeling carapace, on the other hoof, was an entirely different story.

It was firm to the touch, like the glinting armor of the Royal Guard of Equestria. Yet it somehow carried the same warmth of a pony’s body, just without the sensation of tickling or velvety coat brushing against another pony’s.

Like river rocks on a warm summer day.

Aspire’s humming brought her back to present. He tapped his hoof against her paper, pointing to the first problem she’d done. “You forgot to change the sign from a negative to a positive,” he said. “And that messed up the rest of the problem.”

Sure Stroke blinked. “What?” She leaned in closer, hunching over her paper and glaring at the numbers before her. Almost frantic, she skimmed through her work, looking for the spot he was talking about. Her lips curved into a tiny frown. “I don’t see where I missed it.”

“Right here.” He tapped his hoof near the third line of her work. “You can’t add a number to one that has a variable by it.”

“You mean the x?”

Chuckling, he nodded. “Yes. The x, Sure. I mean… Stroke? Strokey?” He wrinkled his snout and shook his head. “Nope. Doesn’t work.”

“What are you trying to do with my name?” she asked, giggling at the way he pulled his face.

“Trying to give you a nickname. Saying ‘Sure Stroke’ all the time just isn’t happening!” He huffed. “How come yours isn’t easy like Essy’s or Nim’s?”

“My name isn’t ‘Zippy’, y’know,” Vector said, raising a brow at Aspire. “Zephyr is Zeph and Toola’s just Toola.” The pair bobbed their heads in agreement.

“Not everyone needs a nickname, Aspire,” Nimble added. “Why can’t Sure Stroke be Sure Stroke?”

He rolled his eyes at them. “It’s the principle of the matter!” Turning his attention to Sure Stroke again, he jabbed a hoof at her. “Someday soon, I’m going to figure out a nickname for you and, by my chitin, it is going to stick!”

Sure Stroke covered her mouth to hold in her laughter. “Okay, then,” she said, mirth tinging her voice. “So, about the problem?”

“Oh, right!” Aspire settled back down and shrugged. “You have to change the signs because there’s a minus sign outside the parentheses—so you’ve gotta treat it like you’re multiplying everything inside by negative one and change all the signs before you can add like terms.”

Her jaw dropped. Sure Stroke pinned her ears back and slumped in her seat. “I’ve been adding them together all the way down,” she whimpered, eyes widened in horror.

Each of her friends winced in sympathy. “I’ve done that before,” Vector admitted, giving a pained smile. “At least you caught it now instead of having Mister Abacus give it back covered in red ink. I swear he gets some sort of pleasure out of it.”

“He does a little,” each of the nymphs said, giving meaningful flicks of their tongues.

Sure Stroke groaned and slowly laid her head down, burying her face in her hooves. “I hate everything!” she wailed into her legs. “Stupid like terms! Stupid math! Why can’t I just write or draw all day?”

From her left side, Esalen giggled and patted her shoulder with a hoof. “Because we have to learn it if we want to function in the outside world, or whatever the grown ups say. It’s okay. We all hate it too—”

“Speak for yourself!” Aspire cut in.

With a little raise of her brows, Esalen amended her statement, “Fine. Normal nymphs and foals hate it.”

Scoffing, Aspire shrugged. “If you say so. You got number five wrong, by the way. Good luck figuring out how.”

Sure Stroke tilted her head to glance out of the corner of her eye, watching in mild amusement as Esalen reared back as if struck, turning her attention to her homework.

Squinting, the nymph narrowed her bright pink eyes and hunched her back, almost as though looming over her homework like a hungry timberwolf. “There’s no way,” she mumbled, her hoof moving toward her pencil despite her disbelief. Like she knew he was right. “I don’t see it, what are you even—”

“Nope!” he chirped, reclining in his seat and making a show of tossing his pencil onto the table. “I’m not a normal nymph!”

Toola sniggered at Esalen’s side. “He’s got ya there, Essy! Shouldn’t of opened your mouth if you wanted him to check your work!” Dodging a poke toward her side, she stuck her tongue out at Esalen, then passed her paper over to Aspire. “How’s mine look?” she asked, fixing him with her biggest and most innocent wide-eyed stare and pout.

Aspire blinked a moment, then broke eye contact. “Dear chitin, Toola, I just ate! Are you trying to make me want to hold you tight and feed on you until you fall asleep?”

She beamed and made a show of shrugging her shoulders, then gave him a sidelong look that made his ears stand up straight—along with the other nymphs’. “Will you look over my homework for me if I say yes?”

He bit down on his lip, his eyes flitted to Sure Stroke for a moment, then to the the slice of cake on his place—his second—and back to Toola. Mumbling something under his breath, he moved in a blur, snatching her paper off the table and quickly scanning over it, his soulful blue eyes darting over the page. “You got the last one wrong,” he said, offering it back to her. “You didn’t change signs after you multiplied.”

“Aw, crabapples!” she harrumphed, plopping herself down in her seat. With a sigh, she took her pencil in hoof and began erasing her work. “I thought I had it this time!”

Aspire gave her a sympathetic smile. “Almost. At least it’s just the one—er, sorry, Sure Stroke.”

Cringing at the unintended shot, Sure Stroke gave a sheepish grin. “It’s okay.”

Toola sighed and shook her head. “Well, back to this again,” she grumbled, all traces of her usual bubbly nature gone for the moment. She glanced up, offering a small smile. “So, when do you want a bite? Now or after?”

“Uh, later,” he said, his eyes flitting to Sure Stroke. “I’ll, uh, think of when after I help her with this. Yeah.” He gave an awkward cough and looked at Sure Stroke’s paper. “So, look here. There’s a minus sign in front of the parentheses, like the one from before, so you’ve gotta change the signs like I mentioned earlier.”

Sure Stroke raised an eyebrow at the rather abrupt change in his demeanor. Filing it away for later, she directed her attention to the problem at hoof.

She took her pencil in hoof and erased her work, wrinkling her snout as each stroke of the squared pink eraser wiped away her efforts, leaving behind only the twisted ends of blackened rubber. With an agitated sigh, she began again.

Why did it have to be math?

 

 

“Bye Missus Sweet Treat!” the group called as they trotted out the door, each pausing to spare a wave to the baker.

She waved back, beaming at them. “Thanks for stopping by, kids! Nice to meet you Sure Stroke!”

Ducking her head, Sure Stroke gave a shaky smile and nodded as she slipped through the door. As she stepped outside, she moved to the side to allow a changeling mare dressed in forest green armor to enter. Her ears twitched at Missus Sweet Treat’s cheer of “Vigil” just before the door shut behind her.

Humming to herself, she trotted over to her friends and began walking away from the shop. “Do they know each other—wait.” She held up a hoof before her friends could speak, grimacing at her own question. “Small village. Of course they do.”

Zephyr snorted. “Well, that and the fact that they’re married.”

“Oh. Well.” She bit her lip, trying in vain to ignore the burning at the tips of her ears as her friends giggled. “That would explain it, then.” As a wicked fanged grin spread across Esalen’s face, no doubt readying for one of her quips, Sure Stroke turned to look for Aspire and Toola.

The pair had fallen behind a little, walking side-by-side. Aspire’s second slice of cake had been wrapped up for later, held aloft in the bright green glow of his magic. “You know you don’t have to feed me for help on one problem,” he said. “Mom’ll be mad if I spoil dinner, anyway.”

Sure Stroke tilted her head, confused as she watched Toola smile in return. “I just thought I’d offer since you always help us with math. That’s the usual deal anyway.”

He shook his head. “Not for one problem, it’s not. I can’t drink from you for something like that. It’s not equivalent.”

“Always so fair!” she said, laughing. Toola leaned in and nosed against his cheek. “Fine, then. If I’m not feeding you, then I guess you get your slice of cake. Or…” Her eyes flitted up to meet Sure Stroke’s. Grinning mischievously, Toola winked at her, then added. “Maybe you could give it to someone you scared in the forest!”

Aspire ducked his head, mumbling something under his breath that sent her into another of her giggle fits.

Toola stole another nuzzle to his cheek, then broke away to trot down a path off toward the right, with Vector, Nimble, and Zephyr making for the same path. Each gave a wave to Sure Stroke and the siblings. “See ya this weekend! Try not to get walloped too hard, Essy!”

“Shut up, Toola!” Esalen sang back, her eyes flashing dangerously. “Or there’s a tickle session with your name on it!”

“There’s always a tickle session with my name on it! Come up with a new—eep!” Toola jumped to the side, squeaking at a little poke from Nimble’s hoof. “Nim!”

Nimble gave a chittering laugh. “Still works! Seems like a good threat!”

“Oh, c’mon!” Vector and Zephyr said in unison, the former adding, “That’s like saying ‘nymphs still love chocolate’, Nim.”

As the quartet walked away, still bickering and bantering with each other, Aspire and Esalen turned down the path to the left, the same one that lead to Sure Stroke’s house.

“So,” Esalen began. “Who was right about playing with everyone?”

Sure Stroke ducked her head to hide a smile. “You were.”

“Thought so.” With a cheeky grin, Esalen bumped her hip against Sure Stroke’s, sending her stumbling toward Aspire, who bumped her in turn.

She fixed the pair with a mock glare. “Are you two going to tease and bump me back and forth now?”

“Nah, if we wanted to tease you, I’d pin you down and Essy would tickle your sides,” Aspire said with a waggle of his eyebrows. “Don’t think we missed the little squeak you gave Nimble, Sure!”

Unfurling her wings to protect her sides from any wandering hooves, Sure Stroke tried to change the subject, latching onto something else. “Back to the nicknames, eh?”

Aspire wrinkled his snout. “It still doesn’t seem right. I’ll figure something out. Eventually.”

“We all await with baited breath,” Esalen teased, before turning her attention to Sure Stroke again. “So how’ve your parents managed settling in so far? I haven’t seen your mom helping Mister Breezy yet, and I think Raindance has still been doing weather management.”

“They’re still trying to get everything unpacked.” Sure Stroke gave a crooked smile. “Dad’s a bit picky with how our furniture is, so he keeps trying to reshape the clouds so they’re as fluffy as the ones back home. And mom’s getting to know everyone she can buy food from. And, um, learning the cost. I think your dad went with her to the market the first couple times.”

“Yeah, he likes to do that.” Aspire nodded. “Helps new ponies understand what the cost of love for each thing is.”

Sure Stroke gave a hum of agreement. She looked down at the worn dirt path, watching the dust kicked up by each step with muted fascination.

Dirt didn’t quite mould and form to her touch. It was more firm, less fluffy. And it was colored in an orange-brown blend that seemed straight out of one of her scenery books.

“Hey, Sure Stroke?” Esalen asked, jolting her out of her thoughts. “Just had an idea.”

Blinking, she looked up to meet Esalen’s sugar pink eyes. “Yes?”

“Well, since I kinda blew the surprise party for you—”

“You mean completely blew the surprise party,” Aspire quipped, sticking out his tongue at her.

Esalen raised a brow. “Awful brave when you’ve got Sure Stroke between us.” Snorting, she shook her head. “You’ll get yours later. Anyway, do you wanna come over for dinner? It’d be nice to have you over for a night. Your parents, too, actually.”

Aspire perked up, waggling his ears. “Oh, that would be nice! I take back the surprise joke!”

“Too bad, you’re still getting it later.” She looked at Sure Stroke and grinned. “What do you say?”

Sure Stroke chewed on her lip, thinking on what her parents had planned. “I don’t think I can come over tonight. Mom’s gonna make quiche.”

“How about tomorrow around five or six, then? You could ask your parents tonight.”

She nodded once. “If your parents don’t mind, I guess it’d be okay.”

The siblings shared a laugh. Aspire floated his remaining slice of cake over to rest on Sure Stroke’s back. “There, you take that. Call it repayment for me scaring you.” Before she could object, he placed a hoof against her mouth. “No arguing. And don’t worry about our parents, you know our dad loves visitors.”

“Yeah,” Esalen added, “and mom loves having friends for dinner!”

Sure Stroke froze, her ears stood up straight. The color drained from her face as visions of the family of four changelings looming over a trio of pegasi, bound in cocoon slime, their fangs glinting in the light as they readied to feast on her love danced through her mind.

She swallowed a lump in her throat, her tongue seemed to dry out. Working her mouth wordlessly a moment, she struggled to find the right way to voice her question.

Sure Stroke closed her eyes and took a deep breath, settling on the only word prevalent in each version. “What?”

 

 

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