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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49. Whatever Path You Choose, I'll Follow

Aspire blinked, gaping at his longtime friend as if he’d grown a second head. Of all the things he expected to hear, that wasn’t on the list.

“Have I ever told you that you look adorable when you’re surprised?” Enticier mused with a satisfied smile spread across his muzzle. “Just makes me want to take you in my hooves and kiss along your jawline until you squirm, then go for your lips.”

“Try it and I’ll—gah!” Aspire took several steps back. He looked Enticier up and down, his brows knitted together in both confusion and suspicion. His mind raced, working out the events surrounding Enticier’s visit, every moment spent together, every moment shared with Sure Stroke, searching for any contradiction.

There was none.

Enticier most certainly hadn’t shown any signs of giving up the torch he carried for Aspire, as stubborn as he had been for the better part of ten years. But his attraction for Sure Stroke was …

Genuine. Aspire could taste it each time the Enchanter Prince looked at her—the same fluffy happiness, a hint of orange-zesty desire, and sweet, delicious love as when he was the focus. His grandmother’s voice floated to the forefront of his mind, filling his ears with a sound as sweet as honey like it had during his younger years.

“I thought your grandpa to be quite strange when I first met him, much like you find Enticier and the Enchanters. Their affection cannot be overstated, and their want to love and be loved is unmatched.” At that point, a whimsical smile would always make its way across her face and the weathered corners of her eyes would crinkle even more. “And while no one can love like a changeling, no changeling loves quite like the Enchanters. I suspect your lover or lovers will say the same of you someday.”

He hadn’t understood at the time, neither had Esalen. But over the years, he managed to work it out for himself. Having Enticier, one of the wiliest of the hive even at a young age, as a friend certainly helped with that. Which led him to one conclusion.

Aspire chewed on the inside of his cheek. A frown marred his face.

“Worked it out, have you?” Enticier asked, amusement tinging his tone. “Would you like to share with the proverbial class?”

Narrowing his eyes, Aspire fixed him with a heated glare. “How about you knock off this teasing for a bit and lay it all on the table? What in the name of love are you playing at?”

Enticier’s ears twitched. His smile grew into a toothy grin. “Funny how you’ll use that word here, but not when I invite you to tell me that you don’t feel it for me.”

“What does that have to do with anything?”

“It’s telling.”

Aspire blinked. “Excuse me?”

“All these years of me flirting, stealing kisses, and trying to convince you to join me in Paradise—or any of our resorts—and you’ve never once pulled me aside and said you don’t feel for me.”

“As if that would change things with you. And I’ve said I don’t like you that way.”

“Aha!” The Enchanter Prince raised a hoof. “You don’t like me that way, but you won’t say you don’t love me even when I invite you to do so. See what I mean?”

Aspire tried to will himself to offer a quick retort, but his mouth wouldn’t cooperate. Muscles tightened, and his throat felt as though it shrank a size or two without shapeshifting. “I don’t,” he muttered softly.

Enticier approached slowly, the grin on his faith never abated. “Finish it,” he commanded, “if it’s what you truly feel, I won’t hold it against you. You know that. I wouldn’t burn ten years of friendship with you over this.”

Again, he tried to will himself. All it would take was four words. Four little words and he’d never have to hear of it again. Then, out of pure reflex rather than any want to now, he flicked his tongue.

He could taste Enticier’s emotions, naked for him to savor. Eagerness, love, anticipation, and oh so much delight, gleeful that he had Aspire backed into a corner. But with it came something else. Apprehension. Anxiety. And then …

Just a touch of fear.

Aspire had punched Enticier once before, during his previous visit. He’d shoved him into the lake for trying to nip his ears the time before that. And the number of times he’d synched in his wrestling holds with just a littleextra force each time Enticier challenged him. Each time, the stakes had been the same: if Aspire won, Enticier would stop asking for the duration of the visit. If he lost, he would go to Paradise with the Enchanters for a visit.

With Enticier.

Years of such attempts all culminated in this. They were always sweet, if a bit annoying, and came with assurances that Aspire could always love another mare or stallion, and Enticier would always share. Love was a commodity, of course.

And now, Sure Stroke had been added to the package.

“Why won’t you give up on me?” Aspire asked. “Complete honesty, why? And if this is about my grandfather–”

“Aspire,” Enticier cut him off, his smile ran away from his face. A stern frown formed in its place. “Call me annoying, a shameless flirt, whatever you want. But please. Don’t insult me by suggesting that I only love you for your bloodline.”

“Because it wouldn’t be a boon to you being the one to bring Beguile’s bloodline home, eh?”

He shrugged. “Of course it would. I wager many of the elder crowd, mother and father included, would put me on quite the pedestal. Why, I might even get another resort to manage, and maybe Paradise sooner rather than later. But let me let you in on a little secret.” Tilting his head, Enticier closed the distance between them so he could lean up and whisper in Aspire’s ear, “Crack their carapace. I don’t care a whit about any of it. I want you. And, having met and spoken with that beautiful pegasus you like, I want her too.” He planted a gentle kiss on Aspire’s cheek, drawing a shuddering breath. A smile played upon his lips again. “I’m not interested in breaking you two up. I want both of you. We can share her. Or you can share she and me. Or she can share the two of us. However you’d like to hedge it, that’s fine by me. But if you want my complete honesty, nothing held back, there it is. You, her, and I in one of our resorts. Together.”

Aspire grit his teeth, frustration filling his belly. “That was it earlier, wasn’t it? You were trying to get her to come visit because you knew I’d get angry enough to follow, or come with her outright to keep an eye on things.”

“Underhoofed, yes. But I am who I am—the Prince of the Enchanter hive of changelings.”

Yes. Enticier was indeed that. The epitome of everything an Enchanter was. But then again, so was Aspire’s grandfather, Beguile, and he ended up settling down in Respite. Grandma Cloudfluff had resisted an Enchanter’s silver tongue and charmed him herself.

His ears twitched. His mind raced faster than a bolt of lightning. Sure Stroke might be shy and squirmy, but she wasn’t a pushover. That his jaw still ached at the thought of another one of her punches was a testament to that fact.

If Enticier wanted to play that sort of game, he could play it just as well. And he was holding a better trump card.

A slow smile spread across his face. “So,” Aspire began, “isn’t this where you try to lay down the challenge you’ve just been dying to make?”

Enticier grinned. “Am I that transparent? Goodness, I’ll have to work on that,” he mused insincerely dripping from his every word. “Why, yes. It is that time. A bit later than usual, given this is my last night here, but I think it just makes things more fun.”

“If you say so. But I don’t think I want another challenge.”

“Oh?” Intrigue shone naked in his orange eyes. “Then why bring it up?”

“Because I want to make a deal.”

For a moment, Enticier stood silent. The playful grin faltered. He blinked several times. Then, slowly, his face lit up like the Manehattan skyline. “A deal?” he asked. “Between you and I? How very delicious. What do you propose?”

Aspire fought to keep the smug grin off his face, just this once. “You were going to try to rope Sure Stroke into a deal to come visit someday, right?” At Enticier’s nod, he continued, “You get to ask her once. You accept whatever answer she gives without pushing.”

“Interesting. But that hardly seems enticing. Where’s that inner Enchanter I know you have, Aspire? Draw me in. Make me crave this deal. Asking Sure Stroke is cute, but that doesn’t fulfill all my desires. You’re leaving a rather handsome changeling off the table—you.”

“I wasn’t leaving myself off the table,” Aspire countered.

“Oh?” Slowly, Enticier allowed himself an excited grin. Not the playful, teasing one he normally wore, but a genuine grin. Like a nymph sharing a gift with a foal on Sharers’ Day. “Are you saying that if she agrees, you’ll come along?”

Aspire nodded once. “If she says yes, I’ll go visit Paradise with you. Just like you were going to offer her. And whatever happens as a result ...” he trailed off, pausing to swallow a dry breath. “Whatever comes of it, I accept.”

Enticier sucked in his lips to contain a jubilant cry, but he couldn’t contain an eager buzz of his wings. “Oh, sweet Morrigan, yes! Now that is a—”

“I’m not done.” Aspire held up his hoof. “Next comes your part of the deal.”

Blinking, Enticier tilted his head. “I thought to ask once and accepting her answer was it.”

“I’m giving you permission to invite my girlfriend to Paradise and agreeing to go if she says yes. Don’t try to swindle me out of a second term, Trickster Prince.”

“Heh, can’t blame me for trying. What’s the second? No more pestering for the duration of my time here? We’re in the home stretch now, so that’s hardly a bother.”

“True. But that’s not what I want.” Aspire’s smile fell. “If she says no, you drop this.”

“Pardon? Drop this what?”

“This. Us and Sure Stroke.” He gestured between them. “If she says no, that’s it—no more stolen kisses, no more nipping ears, no more pursuing us. You agree to drop it and we part as friends, and I won’t hold a bit of it against you.”

Silence fell over them. All air of playfulness seemed to wash away from Enticier’s face. Instead, there was a cool, calculating look. He was weighing his options carefully.

Like a good Enchanter would when he recognized a deal so sweet he couldn’t resist, but with consequences, he couldn’t bear.

“So we’re all in, as they say in Las Pegasus,” Enticier whispered. “Either I get both of you, or I give up my pursuit and we remain friends.”

“Yes.”

“And her?”

“I’ll explain it to her. And I’ll make sure she understands how you feel.”

“You won’t influence her?”

“The only thing I’ll say is that she doesn’t have to worry about offending me because I’m sticking with her.”

“I see. Quite a carrot you’ve dangled in front of me, then.”

“You said to make it enticing, so there it is.” Aspire gave a derisive sniff. “Enough stalling. Do we have a deal or not?”

Enticier didn’t reply at first. He seemed to look Aspire over, taking stock of him as if seeing him in a new light. Then that familiar grin, coy and playful, spread across his face. “My only question,” he began, “is would you like to seal it with a kiss here and now? Or would you prefer to save that for when we leave tomorrow?”

Sighing, Aspire leveled him with a flat look. “For once, could you not?” He offered his hoof. “Prince Enticier of the Enchanters, do we have a deal?”

“I’d say sorry, but it wouldn’t be sincere.” His eyes danced with naked glee. Enticier clasped his hoof. “Aspire of Respite, we have a deal.”

Aspire shook his hoof once, then released it. “See you after she decides.”

“Yes, you will. Should I come to call on her in, say, an hour?”

“I’m not sure how long it might take. I’ll send her to find you.”

Enticier smiled. “Ah, lovely. I’ll wait right here then.” He turned to face the water and sat down with a contented sigh. “Please ask her to bring that wonderful sketch she did for me. I’d like to buy a frame from the Wood brothers before we leave for our home in the mountains.” Thinking about it a moment, he glanced at Aspire. “And if you need help packing, do let me know.”

“Of course. I’ll keep that in mind,” Aspire said through gritted teeth before he bowed and turned to make the trek home. All the while, his heart raced. He wasn’t worried. After all, he wasn’t losing Sure Stroke either way. At very least, if Sure Stroke did say yes, they could stay together. From here on out, it was her decision. But there was just a hint of trepidation, a want to make her promise to refuse.

However, he had faith. After all, she wouldn’t be the first Cloudsdale born pegasus to say no to such an offer. And squirmy though she was, Sure Stroke didn’t just roll over.

An old pony phrase came to mind, one he heard from Haberdasher ages ago. “Heads I win,” he muttered with a forced smile, “tails you lose, Enticier.”

If only it didn’t feel so rotten putting it all on her.

He heaved a sigh and let his smile falter, his gaze fell to the dirt road beneath his hooves. If only it didn’t feel so rotten setting his friend up to be hurt.

Sure Stroke tried her best to keep a smile on her face. She sat on one of the slime pod chairs in Esalen’s room, her eyes flitted about, lingering on the slime spilling down the corners and trailing onto the floor like cobwebs. Little blobs held mane ties, a few slices of impressively preserved apple, and various knick knacks her nymph friend no doubt collected from trips to Manehattan. Then her attention turned to Esalen’s messy desk, littered with papers, pencils, and several stacks of books that looked almost eager to fall. Then her gaze at last fell on the large slime pod bed she slept in once before. Anything to distract herself, if even for a moment.

Nothing worked. Every few seconds, she found her mind wandering back to the lakeside. To Aspire. To Enticier.

She squirmed in the pod seat’s gelatinous cushion. Her boyfriend was angry—furious, even. She’d seen his eyes glow a few times before when he felt challenged or wished to dare a fellow villager to accept one of his, and she’d caught a brief glimpse of the way he changed when angry.

But never had she actually seen it all at once. The way his smooth, almost coltish cheeks hollowed out and snout became more angular, how his fangs lengthened until the tips extended past his chin and his eyes …

A shiver ran through her body, to the very tips of her primaries. She’d never seen Aspire’s eyes glow such an angry green.

It was a sight she would happily say she never wished to see again. At least not as a result of her actions.

With a heavy sigh, she picked up the cup of now-cold tea and took a sip. Somehow, the bland taste seemed perfect for the moment. Even the generous spoons full of sugar Esalen had snuck in did little to combat the mix of milk, water, and herb that had long since lost their flavor.

Sure Stroke eyed the rest with distaste, then downed it in one shot. Esalen would be back with more any moment. And if she caught sight of an unfinished cup after so long, she’d start prodding.

For once, the young pegasus just wasn’t in the mood to deal with any of it.

A soft thump and swoosh made her flick an ear and glance up to find Esalen entering the room. The nymph balanced a tray with a pot of tea upon the pink wing casing on her back, careful not to let it topple over. With a deft flick of her magic, she shut the door behind her and placed the tray on her desk before sitting down beside Sure Stroke on the extra pod seat she’d borrowed from the sitting room. Without a word of prompting, she took the pot in hoof and poured Sure Stroke another cup, then added cream and a couple spoons of sugar.

“Thank you,” Sure Stroke muttered.

Esalen cracked a tiny smile. “You’re welcome.” She took a moment to fill and prepare her own cup before setting the pot back on the tray, then relaxed in her pod seat. There was a flash of pink as her forked tongue lashed out to taste for Sure Stroke’s emotions. Her ears drooped as her smile fell. “You’re still worried.”

Sure Stroke let out a mirthless laugh. “My boyfriend just caught me stammering when another nymph tried to invite me to leave my home and join him in his hive’s mountain resort. I think worried is a good place to be.”

“He’s not angry at you. We’ve all known how Enticier can be for years.” With a sigh, Esalen sipped at her tea. “I guess I just figured he’d do his usual routine and pester Aspire again, maybe try to work you into it on the off chance he could get him to agree this time. Never thought he’d do the reverse.” She shook her head. “Not your fault.”

“Isn’t it?”

“Don’t self-flagellate. Of course, it’s not. You didn’t ask him to extend an invitation, and from where I was standing you weren’t too keen on it anyway.”

Ducking her head, Sure Stroke let her bangs cover her eyes. “I … won’t lie and say it doesn’t sound like a lovely place to visit.”

“I’d laugh if you said otherwise.” Esalen snorted. “Grandpa used to tell us about it all the time. The name lives up to the resort itself, not the other way around. That’s the whole point.” There was a beat of silence, then she spoke again. This time, her voice was tinged with concern. “He didn’t charm you—”

“No,” Sure Stroke replied quickly, shaking her head. “He told me what he could do, but he didn’t put me under. Enticier said he wouldn’t in Caretaker territory.”

A relieved chitter filled her ears. Sure Stroke looked up to find Esalen sitting with her eyes closed, relief written across her face. “Good,” she said after a moment. “Very good.” Esalen took another moment to drink in a deep breath, then a sip of her tea, before opening her eyes again. “You and Aspire are going to be fine, Doodle. I mean, for love’s sake, you weren’t going to say yes, right?”

Sure Stroke thought on it a moment, looking down at the steaming cup of tea in her hooves. If Aspire and Esalen hadn’t interrupted, if Enticier kept prompting her for answer, she would’ve sat there, struggling to think of something that didn’t offend him. Something that kept her in the village with all her friends, her family.

Home.

But then she would’ve had to figure out something equivalent to ask for in exchange for the sketch she drew. Odds were that Enticier might have convinced her to promise to visit sometime down the line.

She took a long drink of tea and let out a breath through her nose. “He made it difficult to say no,” she replied. “If not for …” she trailed off, shaking her head again.

Esalen raised her brows. “If not for what?”

“Never mind. It’s silly.”

“It’s got you bothered, so I do mind. Tell me.” She made a show of leaning forward, ready to pounce. “Or I’ll cocoon you myself and prod you ‘till you talk.”

Sighing, Sure Stroke stayed quiet. Her thoughts wandered to the pair on the lakefront. Her boyfriend and his suitor—their suitor, she supposed. His offer for a visit was sweet, but it came with a catch.

Even if he pretended otherwise. A good sales pitch, to be sure.

The sound of chitinous hooves thumping against the wood flooring made her ears perk up and eyes shoot open. Her heart leaped into her throat. Sure Stroke knew those steps.

“Come in, Aspire,” Esalen called before he even knocked.

The door pushed open to reveal the nymph Sure Stroke had been waiting for so eagerly, yet anxiously. His mane seemed just a tad more frazzled, his smile weak. “Hey,” he said softly.

“That was quick,” Esalen noted. “Did he back off, or did he make it a challenge?”

Aspire shook his head. “He didn’t. But he didn’t challenge me per say.” His eyes flitted to Sure Stroke, there was something in them. A flash of worry. He looked down at the floor. “I’m sorry I scared you again,” he whispered.

Sure Stroke moved out of the pod seat and set the cup on Esalen’s desk. She approached him slowly, her wings tense and feathers trembling. Pinning her ears, she leaned in to nuzzle his warm, smooth nose. “I’m sorry I upset you.”

His eyes snapped up to meet hers. “You didn’t,” he said, furrowing his brows. “Why would I be upset with you?”

“For …” Her voice faltered. Sure Stroke felt a rosy blush fill her cheeks. “For not shoving him away?”

“Enticier is literal royalty. Pushing him away, while funny, would cause you more problems than you realize. I was angry because I could taste how uncomfortable you were, and how gleeful and enamored he was.”

Well, that certainly answered the question as to why Enticier was so keen on the idea. Sure Stroke rustled her wings. “Oh. Well. That just makes me feel silly, then.” She ducked her head and gave him a nervous smile. “Thanks. I guess I should say it twice since you sorted things out, shouldn’t I?”

Aspire didn’t smile or quip, he didn’t even crack a smile. His eyes went down to the floor again. “About that,” he muttered. “You, uh, probably shouldn’t thank me yet.”

“… Why?”

“I sorta, kinda …” he trailed off, mumbling something under his breath.

A tingle ran down her spine. She felt like she was in the path of a runaway tornado. “I didn’t catch that.”

Hoofsteps thudded against the floor. Esalen was at her side. “Aspire,” she said, “what did you do? What do you mean it’s not straightened out? I thought you drew a line.”

“I did. In a way.” He squirmed. He actually squirmed beneath their stares. “You’re, uh …” Aspire glanced into her eyes, his ears drooped. He leaned in to nuzzle her nose. “You’re not going to like it though.”

“I’m listening,” Sure Stroke said slowly.

Aspire took a deep breath and held it a moment, as though he were bracing himself. “I made a deal with him.”

Esalen sputtered. “You what?

“Just listen! I had to find a way to draw a line for him, but I don’t want to just run him off as a friend. And at the same time, I can’t exactly say he’s stealing someone I’ve, ah … laid a claim to. Because … well. We’re dating. Not … y’know.”

If not for the situation, Sure Stroke might have been blushing redder than a ripe apple. Instead, she just felt cold. “What was the deal?”

Sighing, he sat down on the floor. “I sort of promised to explain a couple things.” He brought a hoof up to rub his forehead. “Enticier … is persistent with his affections. He’s had a crush on me almost as long as we’ve been friends, and he’s never been shy about it or his want for me to join him in Paradise. Not even in front of mom, dad, or Queen Euphoria.”

At Sure Stroke’s side, Esalen let out an irritated chitter. “He’s also not above trying to offer to convince others to go to Paradise so you can’t say you have attachments here.”

Aspire flinched. “Ah. Yeah. About that.” He didn’t elaborate.

Esalen sucked in a sharp breath. “You didn’t.”

“One last time,” he replied. “I told him this had to be the last time he ever pulled this, and if the answer was no, he had to drop it and we’d just go on as friends. Or not at all.”

“Uh, I’m not sure I understand.” Sure Stroke glanced between them. “You make it sound like the answer is out of your hooves. But he asked you, right?”

Again, he looked at her. “Not this time. He wants to ask you.”

Sure Stroke took two steps back. “Wh-What?”

He stood and walked toward her slowly, stopping only when his nose touched hers. Aspire clenched his eyes shut. “He wants to offer you a place there just as he’s kept offering me. In exchange for him agreeing to stop if you say no, I agreed to go if you decided you wanted it.”

A lump of ice dropped into the pit of her stomach. Sure Stroke felt as though she were in the middle of Altocumulous Terrace. She sputtered, searching for the words a moment until she settled on the solitary question that rang out above all the others, “Why?”

“Because you’re my girlfriend,” he replied simply. “I can taste how strongly you feel for me every time we kiss, every time we spend time together. And I feel the same. And should we make it to … y’know. That.” His face flushed a deep black. “If we make it that far, I’ll share it with you so you can know what we mean when we talk about how sweet it tastes. So …” Aspire ducked his head and rubbed the back of his mane. “Well, I guess there’s only one way to sum it all up.”

He reared up on his hind hooves and cupped her cheeks with his forehooves, then closed his eyes. “I love you, Sure Stroke,” Aspire whispered softly before planting a kiss on her lips.

Sure Stroke’s wings opened so fast there was a snap of air and a fwump! as her feathers fluffed. Her hooves trembled. She tilted her head to the side and let her eyes flutter shut. Slowly, her hooves slipped around his neck to catch him in a tight embrace.

Aspire broke the kiss first, regarding her with a crooked smile. “Hope you’ll forgive me for putting you on the spot.”

Forgive him? Sure Stroke thought for a moment. If the roles were reversed, he’d almost certainly milk it as long as he could. It was the changeling way, as he’d say.

She smiled. “Not a chance,” she replied, kissing his nose. “After this is settled, you’re chitinous rear belongs to me, punk.”

His ears drooped, though the smile remained. “Can’t blame a nymph for trying, right?”

“I can, actually. So when is he asking?”

“Tonight. He’s still by the lake. Wants you to bring that sketch too.”

“Does he? Well then.” Sure Stroke strode over to her pod seat and picked up the saddlebags she’d laid beside it. “I suppose I have a meeting to get to.” Turning sharp on her hooves, she walked over to Aspire and gave him a tight hug and kiss on the cheek. “See you afterward, slaveling.

Aspire tried to act as though he wasn’t quailing beneath her gaze. “Should I start packing?”

“I was going to tell you my answer, but now you’ll just have to wait until I get back.” She blew a raspberry in his direction, then turned to walk toward the door. She paused in mid step as she noticed the worried look Esalen aimed at her. The way her friend bit her lip, physically trying not to interject in their business.

A slow smile spread across her face. Sure Stroke approached Esalen, pausing just long enough to look over her shoulder at Aspire. “She, on the other hoof, does.”

“Hey!” he cried. “That’s—I’m pretty sure that’s not right!”

“Should’ve kept your mouth shut then.” Turning to Esalen, Sure Stroke smiled. “Don’t tell him,” she said, loud enough for Aspire to hear. “My answer is—” she leaned in to whisper in Esalen’s ear. Once she finished, she caught her nymph friend in a tight hug and nuzzled her cheek.

A pair of smooth, holey legs wrapped around her and squeezed tight. She could feel the tips of her friend’s fangs teasing her cheek in return. “Get moving,” Esalen whispered. “And get back here quickly once you’re done.”

Grinning, Sure Stroke drew back to kiss her on the nose, then hurried out of the room. She could hear Aspire bound over to Esalen, demanding she share, and the chittering cackles that echoed through the small home as she refused to utter a word.

They truly were her favorite changelings.

Enticier was waiting by the lakeside, just as Aspire said. In fact, he’d moved by a few short steps from their original spot, standing close to the water’s edge. His ears flicked as her hooves disturbed the grass, but he didn’t turn around at first. His horn was wreathed in the vibrant green glow of changeling magic. A pebble floated near his cheek for a moment then zipped out over the water. It skipped a few times, then disappeared into the depths.

The Enchanter Prince clicked his tongue. “I can never manage more than five or six,” he said loud enough for her to hear. There was a note of chagrin to his tone. He turned to face her with a rueful smile. “Even when I use magic, always just five or six. Ridiculous, I tell you.”

A strained smile tugged at Sure Stroke’s lips. “I didn’t really get to skip rocks growing up. None in Cloudsdale.”

He raised a brow. “Rocks or lakes?”

“Both unless you count rainbow pools.”

Enticier chittered. “I see.” He turned to face her fully, the rueful smile spread to that winning smile she knew so well. “You’ve spoken with Aspire,” he said.

Right to the point without trying to play or butter her up. That was certainly a change. “I have,” Sure Stroke replied with a nod. “Though, he made it sound less like you wanted me to visit …”

“Well, I would prefer it to be a permanent stay, of course.” Enticier approached slowly, almost as though he were making a show of how his broad shoulders and toned legs flexed and relaxed, yet he did it so effortlessly. He stopped so they were but a hair’s breadth apart and tilted his head just slightly to regard her through half-lidded eyes. “For both of you, that is. However, I was about to offer you an invitation to visit before Aspire interrupted, so we’ll just pick up right there. Speaking of which—” his gaze flitted to her saddlebags and back “—may I have that sketch again, please?”

Sure Stroke’s ears twitched. She dug into her bag and carefully retrieved the sketch of Neighagara Falls she’d spent a couple hours drawing in his company, and hoofed it over. “Sorry if it’s a bit wrinkled,” she said sheepishly.

He eyed it for a moment, then shrugged. “It looks well enough to me. Thank you for keeping it.” Enticier smiled and held the sheet of sketch paper close to his chest. “With that taken care of, let’s turn our attention back to my little invitation because I truly do want to return the kindness you’ve afforded me.”

“And try to convince Aspire and I to stay,” Sure Stroke supplied.

“Yes. As said, I would prefer it to be a permanent stay, but our initial deal was going to be a visit.” Enticier gave a million bit smile. “I’m confident you’d come to love Paradise if you saw it yourself, especially with the right nymph to show you around. Not to mention our other resorts, all of them are lovely in their own special way. Paradise, though, is our Respite.”

“I see.” Chewing on her lip, Sure Stroke tore her eyes away from his. Instead, she looked out over the lake, her eyes fixed upon the falls on the other side. “But you’d be free to charm me. And Aspire. And I’d wager you quite like the idea.”

She heard him make to speak, then think better of it. For a moment, she dared to think she had caught him. But then she felt sketch paper brush against her coat as he laid his hoof on her shoulder.

Enticier reached up with his free hoof to turn her chin toward him so he could meet her eyes again. “I won’t deny it,” he said softly. “There’s nothing I’d love more than to have you both charmed so there was no awkwardness between us, no need to hide how we feel or bite our tongues because we felt afraid of what the other might think. Honesty, Sure Stroke. Honesty in its purest form.”

In purest form? Sure Stroke wrinkled her snout. But she withheld the urge to scoff. He was being nice—in his own way, at least. And he was royalty, as Aspire so helpfully reminded her.

Sure Stroke blew a sigh out through her nose. “I don’t like it,” she said. “I’m sorry, I know what your feeling on it is, but it just doesn’t sit right with me. I mean, who’s to say you don’t plant the idea to make it a permanent stay in my head without me knowing?”

“I do.” His smile fell. “We may enchant and charm, Sure Stroke, but we don’t force. Our guests become companions of their own volition, we only make it so they feel comfortable sharing their feelings and make certain they receive everything they desire while they stay with us.” The Enchanter Prince took a deep breath and let it out slowly. “Even if the truth is that they wish to leave and never return.”

There it was. Just as she’d been told. A life of wanting for nothing, all in exchange for her love. All she had to do was smile, look into his eyes once they left Caretaker territory, and kiss him before walking straight into his web, with Aspire by her side. Sure Stroke had to admit, she’d be lying if there wasn’t some small, selfish part of her that felt curious. Wouldn’t it be nice to be treated like royalty? Like Princess Celestia herself?

Then she thought of everything she’d be leaving behind. Respite’s tight-knit, warm community. Her parents. Esalen, Faith, and Warm Welcome. Nimble Hooves and Toola Roola. Zephyr and Vector. Queen Euphoria and Cool Breeze.

Everyone who made her move from Cloudsdale seem less scary. Everyone who made Respite the wonderful, happy place she knew it to be.

Everyone who made Respite home.

She’d left one home to come to her new one.

“You’ve been very kind to me, and sweet,” she said softly, barely above a whisper. “And your offer is very tempting. I’m sure Paradise is a wonderful place, and Aspire and I might just love it there as much as you do if we gave it a chance.”

A grin spread across his face. “You will!” he said breathily. She could almost feel his heart racing like an eager foal’s on Hearth’s Warming Morning. “By Morrigan’s name and love itself, I promise you will! I—Oh, the first day, I can show you the perfect spot to sit near the lake at sun—”

Sure Stroke covered his mouth with her hoof. Enticier blinked twice, then crossed his eyes to stare at the offending limb for a moment. Then he looked into hers, his grin faded away. Confusion flashed across his face.

It almost hurt to see him so taken aback. A small part of her noted that he probably felt there was no possible reason to refuse. He didn’t know her well enough. It wasn’t his fault, though. Enticier had only known her a few days.

“But,” she said, careful to enunciate the word, “my friends and family are here, and so is my boyfriend. And, yes, your deal with Aspire does mean that I’d still have him with me if I agreed to leave with you tomorrow to visit Paradise, it doesn’t mean that I can take all of them with me.” Carefully, gently, she brushed his hoof away from her chin. Then reached up to take hold of the hoof on her shoulder. “You’re a nice nymph, Enticier. I know you’ll make someone, maybe several someones, very happy someday.”

Enticier let out a shaky breath. “I—I’m sorry? I don’t quite … are you …” He blinked several more times, his mouth worked wordlessly as he tried to find the right way to say it. “I don’t understand.”

Sure Stroke smiled. “I know. That’s the problem.”

“But … But I … and you … and Aspire …” The nymph took three steps back, he looked her up and down as if he’d never seen her before. Or, more aptly, as if he had to look at her in another light, and only just realized that he missed some very critical details in his plan.

She could almost pick the instant it hit him. It came right about as he held her sketch close to his chest like a security blanket.

“Why, though?” he whispered, almost as though he were asking himself and her. “I was going to show you all the best spots, every place that made artists cry for joy for centuries. Aspire would’ve had his foals and nymphs to teach. What did I do wrong?” Enticier, Prince of the Enchanters, looked toward the village, toward where he knew Aspire to be, then back to her.

She saw the pain in his eyes. A pang shot through her chest, everything clicked at once. The poor nymph. He’d been so sure of himself, so confident that in his plan and talent for filling ponies’ ears with promises to turn fantasy into reality, that he hadn’t taken the time to stop and think about what he might have to give up.

And it hit him when he was most vulnerable: a pony he liked had just told him no.

His last chance had just run out.

Sure Stroke walked toward him and reared up, wrapping him in a gentle hug. “It’s not something you could’ve changed,” she said. “We were both brought up in certain ways. I don’t hold anything against you.” She drew back to look him in the eye. With a small, regretful smile, she nuzzled his nose. “Respite is my home now. Maybe Aspire and I can visit someday, but—” she released her embrace and took a couple steps back “—I’m afraid that’s all I can offer. A visit to a friend.”

Enticier flinched as though he’d been struck. He knew as well as she did, that was the final nail. “I … see.” He swallowed, his gaze fell to the dirt at his hooves. “Well. Thank you for your …” His handsome face contorted in pain. “Thank you for being honest with your feelings. And the sketch,” he added in a rush. “Though, now I suppose I have to offer something else …”

Sure Stroke rubbed her shin. “I’ll accept being friends.”

He didn’t look up or reply. His mane hung over his face to shield his eyes.

But not his ears drooping.

Cringing, Sure Stroke raised a hoof as if to reach out and touch his shoulder, but drew back. “I’ll, ah, give you some time alone. Goodnight, Enticier.” She turned to trot away, keeping her pace slow and ears perked in case Enticier found his voice.

He didn’t call out. He didn’t hiss or chitter angrily.

Only when she was out of earshot did Sure Stroke give into the urge to glance over her shoulder. Just in time to see the mournful, defeated expression on his face as he stared after her.

With a sigh, she faced forward and unfurled her wings. She took flight with a few powerful pumps, soaring over the village until she caught sight of the path leading up to Aspire and Esalen’s home, shrouded in growing shadows of tall trees by the setting sun.

Sure Stroke touched down in a casual canter, never once breaking stride as she climbed the wooden stairs onto the porch and knocked on the front door.

A few seconds later, the door opened inward. Warm Welcome looked down at her and sighed. “Oh, thank love!” he muttered. “Aspire’s been chasing Esalen and trying to get her to tell him whatever you said since you left. Faith and I can’t get him to knock it off.”

Of course. Sure Stroke rolled her eyes and entered the house, making a beeline straight for the source of chittering laughter, mocking taunts, angry hisses, and the occasional thump of carapace on wood. “I’ll take care of it, Mister Welcome. Sorry for the trouble.”

Whatever reply he gave was lost to the sound of a startled yelp, then Aspire’s voice, “Tell me! Tell me or I’ll synch it harder!”

Faith was standing in the hallway, just outside of Aspire’s room, biting her lip, uncertain as to whether or not to enter and discipline or leave her nymphs to deal with whatever slight had been committed. The instant she laid eyes on Sure Stroke, she let out a deep breath and beckoned her to hurry into the room.

Nodding, Sure Stroke trotted briskly down the hallway and poked her head around the doorjamb. She had to cover her mouth to hold back a burst of laughter.

Aspire had Esalen in a rather painful looking hold that saw her laying on her belly, with her left foreleg twisted in a rather unnatural angle, while he kneeled by her shoulder. His fangs were bared, his eyes glowed green. “Tell me,” he hissed. “Right now, Essy.”

Even through the pain, Esalen managed to crack open an eye and look toward the door. “Why don’t you—nng!—ask her yourself, dummy? She’s back.”

His head snapped up. Sure Stroke found herself transfixed by a pair of brilliant blue eyes, the same color she’d paint a sky on a clear summer’s day. Almost in a daze, he released his hold and stood. He took a nervous step toward her.

Sure Stroke offered a small smile as she stepped around the doorjamb and into Aspire’s room. “Hey,” she greeted.

Aspire’s ears twitched once. Then he cleared the distance between them and pounced, pinning her to the floor. His eyes were wide, his smug grin nowhere to be found. “What did you tell her?” he demanded. “She wouldn’t say a word, I’ve been sitting here all this time begging and trying to get it out of her, but she wouldn’t say. What did you tell her, what did you tell him, this isn’t funny, stop grinning!”

She couldn’t help it. Sure Stroke threw back her head and laughed. “What did I tell who when?” she sang, fluttering her eyelashes.

“Doodle, please! What did you tell Enticier?” A nervous chitter rolled about in the back of his throat. “Did you … y’know?”

“No.”

“No?”

Sure Stroke leaned forward and licked his nose, fixing him with a smile and a half-lidded gaze. “Respite is my home, you silly smugling. And no matter how handsome Enticier might be, I have a handsome, funny, smug, pun-tastic nymph who loves me just the way I am. Awkwardness, nervousness, and all.”

A grin spread slowly across his face. He let out a shaky laugh, leaning down to nuzzle her cheek.

His weight shifted forward.

She bucked her hips just as he’d done when she confronted him by the lake, sending him tumbling forward. Before he could right himself, Sure Stroke rolled him over and pinned his shoulders, adding a knee to his chest for good measure.

The very same sweep and pin he’d pulled on her by the lakeside.

A wicked grin spread across her face. “And now,” she purred, nosing against his cheek before turning to dot kisses along the smooth chitin, “I have a boyfriend who owes me big time for putting me on the spot.”

Aspire’s face flushed a deep black. “Is it too late to ask for mercy?” he squeaked.

“Mercy?” Sure Stroke chuckled, drawing back to peck his nose. “Entirely. Face it, smugling. You’re doomed.” As she turned her head to seal his lips with hers, she noticed that he didn’t look all that upset in the face of certain doom by pegasus girlfriend.

Silly boyfriend. He’d learn soon enough.

   
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