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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28. Who's This Standing Next to Me?

Sure Stroke turned the notecard over in her hoof, a bemused frown playing upon her lips. She peered through the ice cream parlor’s window to survey the dusty pathway leading to and from town center, watching ponies and changelings of all ages go about their day like there was nothing out of the ordinary.

Then again, to them, there was absolutely nothing abnormal with a few of the Caretakers shapeshifting to pull a prank, let alone a few doing so for their “homework” assignments or “tests.”

Idly sipping at a nice vanilla milkshake with chocolate sprinkles—which a rather lovely changeling by the name of Chocolate Almond had recommended, along with a free sample bag of her signature treat and namesake—she hummed a tune. Her sketchpad lay to her right, the finished drawing showed proudly, just waiting to be colored. Her mind, though, was on the test she was currently “helping” to give.

The test itself was twofold, as Abacus said before releasing the foals. They weren’t expected to catch their changeling friends in the act for a grade, but they were expected to be alert and on the lookout for any slip-ups.

“Think of yourselves like the math test you all took earlier,” he’d said, with Sweet Treat at his side. “I wrote it to test what we’ve gone over in class these past few weeks, not because I wanted to ruin your grades. We all expect you to try your best to watch out for any deception. Some of your names won’t be drawn this time around. You can turn your own card in for a snack.”

As he spoke, Sweet Treat’s lips seemed to tug into a smile that didn’t quite fit, like she was trying to withhold a snort of laughter as she eyed Abacus like she was waiting for something.

Abacus had gone right along like he didn’t realize. “Those who are drawn will have a nymph standing by you at some point. All of you will have to be extra alert and attentive though, just in case. Good luck, everyone. Have fun testing our nymphs!” He had made to turn away, out of the corner of her eye, Esalen saw Sweet Treat’s muscles tense like she was ready to leap. Then, Abacus did something Sure Stroke never would have expected.

In one motion, he turned, cupped Sweet Treat’s cheek, and pressed his lips against hers. The mare’s eyes went wide. She took in a sharp breath, then slowly melted into his kiss.

Sure Stroke giggled as she remembered how smug he grinned as he stepped back and stage whispered, “Nice try, Stalwart. Caught you this time.”

Sweet Treat stood slack jawed. Green fire then ran over her body and revealed the Queen’s trusted guard in her place, standing almost a full head taller than the grinning schoolteacher as he gaped in awe. “What gave me away?”

Abacus didn’t answer at first. He’d simply grinned, then cast a wink over his shoulder at the class before turning toward the door and flicking his tail across Stalwart’s nose. “Sweet Treat told me this morning she’d be busy preparing extra snacks for our little test. Also, you gave yourself away when you tried to get into pouncing position.”

It had been barely anything that doomed Stalwart’s plan. Just a little smirk, a slight shift in the faux Sweet Treat’s posture, and a few words exchanged between the pair of ponies were all that gave him away.

So, Sure Stroke kept a keen eye on where her friends went when they left the classroom. Vector had babbled something about wanting to go drop his school stuff off at home before he went shooting off into town as fast as his wings could carry him, while Prim sidled up to Rocky and led him into town to help move something or other near the Wood brothers’ shop. As for Toola …

Sure Stroke craned to change her angle so she could try and get a wider view. She could’ve sworn Toola was right behind her a few minutes ago. In fact, she was certain of it. They were just on their way to the parlor together, where in the name of Celestia could she have gone?

And how had Sure Stroke managed to lose her? It wasn’t like Toola could just blend into a crowd, even with how colorful ponies’ coats could be—bright magenta was still eye-grabbing no matter how hard one tried to ignore it. Like an assault on the eyes, really.

Maybe one of the nymphs drew Toola’s name and tricked her into following along when they walked through the crowd of adults on their way over. It wouldn’t be all that difficult to take Sure Stroke’s form …

“Hey, there, Doodle!” Toola’s voice sounded from just behind her.

Sure Stroke squeaked and jumped out of her seat. A bout of familiar, musical giggling made her ears twitch, she turned to find herself nose-to-magenta-coated-nose with a grinning Toola Roola, a milkshake in hoof and her saddlebags slung crookedly over her back.

Chest heaving, Sure Stroke brought a hoof to her heart. “Don’t scare me like that!” she scolded. “Are you trying to give me a heart attack?”

Toola beamed and bounced lightly on her hooves. “Maaaaaaybe!” she chirped as she slid into the seat next to Sure Stroke’s and set her saddlebags down on her left. “Sorry I took so long,” she said in her bubbly tone, while setting her milkshake down and retrieving her math homework, “I thought I saw Nimmy scampering about to find whoever her mark is today, so I wanted to see who she drew before she changed. Buuuuuuuut then I lost her somewhere around Pear Tree’s fruit stand, so I just came back here.”

“Oh.” Sure Stroke settled herself, letting her wings slowly fold against her sides. She made to take her seat again, but stopped short.

What if this filly sitting with her wasn’t really Toola? It could be any one of the nymphs in class, switching places would’ve been all too easy with how they got separated in the crowd. But how could she be sure? For all she knew, the real Toola Roola could be in that seat, innocently humming to herself an upbeat, happy little tune as she started on her math homework.

Still, though, it never hurt to be too careful. She would just have to watch and see how Toola acted, and look for anything out of the ordinary.

“Wanna work on homework together?” Toola offered with a bright smile. “I can help if you get stuck.”

Sure Stroke blinked. “You can?”

Toola giggled and bobbed her head. “I may not be as smart as our smug bookbug, but I’m pretty good at algebra!” She gave a playful little toss of her mane, then added, “I’m a lot more than just a pretty face, a nice mane, and a laugh that makes everyone wanna tickle me silly!”

Sure Stroke gave an amused snort. “Fair point. Although, not everyone here wants to tickle you.” Bringing a hoof to her chest, she smiled. “You and I are together in being perpetual victims of tickling friends, and I am firmly against making my fellow ticklee suffer.”

“Oh yeah?” Toola waggled her ears. “Were you everyone’s favorite tickle target back home?”

“Yes.” Cringing, Sure Stroke rustled her wings. “My cousin, Altocumulus, was bad about it, but he always claimed it was ‘for science’ or whatever. Then all my classmates who could fly faster loved to herd me to a cloud and poke my sides. Even a couple of the rookie instructors for the Wonderbolts’ flight camp found out and wouldn’t stop because they thought it was cute.” She scrunched up her snout and tilted her head. “I … wanna say it was Fleetfoot and Spitfire. It was when I was really little and they just came up.”

A broad grin spread across Toola’s muzzle. “Even the adults liked getting you, eh?”

“Everyone did.” Sure Stroke shook her head, pasting a wide grin upon her muzzle. “Which is why I’ve had to be extra careful not to let Nimble catch me! I’m not going to be a tickle target here!”

A gleam shone in her eyes. Amusement? Mischief? Something Sure Stroke couldn’t quite read. As quickly as it came, it was gone, in its place an hint of sympathy as Toola gave an understanding nod and reached over to touch her shoulder. “Well, us tickle victims have to stick together, then! To combat those who would exploit our poor tickle spots for their own amusement!”

The fillies burst into laughter, leaning against one another for support as they gave way to their mirth. Tears stung the corners of her eyes, Sure Stroke felt Toola wrap her in a hug and give a little squeeze. The tension left her, she cast her suspicion to the side for now.

Even if it was one of the nymphs wearing Toola’s guise, it was still a friend beneath that magenta coat and bubbly demeanor. Figuring out whether she was sitting next to the real deal or one of her tricky nymph friends could come later, preferably after she had a chance to pay attention.

Sure Stroke slipped out from Toola’s embrace and picked up her milkshake, bringing it to her mouth for a quick sip. The sound of air being sucked mixed with little bits of milkshake assaulted her ears, she frowned and drew back to give it a look. Empty.

Darn.

“What a shame,” Toola said with a frown gracing her lips. “Creamy’s milkshakes always run out too early, don’t they?”

Nodding ruefully, Sure Stroke set her cup down on the table. “It was good, the best I’ve had in a while.” With a sigh, she pulled her math homework out of her bag and set it before her. “I’ll have to try another later, maybe in a little bit since that one was free.”

Magenta ears perked up. “Then why not go get more now?” Toola asked. “It’s worth the two bits, in my opinion, and—oooh! What’s this?” Her gaze locked on Sure Stroke’s sketchpad, she leaned forward to get a better view.

Sure Stroke glanced down at her own sketch almost by instinct, a crooked smile made its way across her face. “This is the drawing Aspire wanted as payment for tutoring me instead of love.”

“Because you weren’t comfortable?”

She shook her head. “I offered because I was curious, but he said no.”

Toola wrinkled her snout. “That doesn’t sound like him at all. Anytime I offer him a sip or even a little hug or a nuzzle so he can nibble, he’s happy to take it.” After a beat, she added, “Then again, there was that time after hide and seek where he said no because he only helped me a little, but I gave him cake for that.”

“Yeah, he’s been weird about it.” Good to know I’m not the only one who feels that way. “Either way, that’s what he wanted. Now I just have to color it in and see if I can get the rainbow glow right.” With one last look over her drawing, and a fond smile at the ponies staring back at her, she flipped her sketchpad closed and slid it into her saddlebag. Then she picked up her glass, fished a couple bits from her bag, and stood. “Two bits for another, you said?”

“Yup!” Toola waggled her ears. “Two bits and Creamy’ll be happy to send everyone’s favorite Doodly-Doodle into an ice cream induced coma!”

And there were the silly nickname add-ons. Sure Stroke rolled her eyes and made a point to flick her tail across Toola’s nose when she trotted by, pointedly ignoring the fit of musical giggling it drew as she head up to talk with Creamy.

“Another?” the changeling asked, a kind smile upon his muzzle.

“Please,” Sure Stroke replied as she hoofed the cup to him along with two gold bits. “The same way.”

Creamy happily accepted her payment with a nod. “Vanilla shake with chocolate sprinkles, coming right up.” He paused to give her a wink. “Because we do want to send Respite’s Doodle into an ice cream induced coma.”

Sure Stroke groaned and let her head fall against the counter, sending silent curses at Aspire, Toola, and everyone else who used that blasted name.

Celestia help her if Altocumulus ever found out.

 

 

The second milkshake was just as tasty as the first. Sadly, Sure Stroke found herself unable to resist its lure and finished it in short order, leaving herself with nothing to tide her over while she suffered through the horrors of algebra.

Why Abacus felt it necessary to give homework right after a test—especially when they had to watch out for any nymphs trying to trick them—was beyond her. At least she had Toola.

Just as promised, the bubbly filly was happy to offer help whenever asked. Like Aspire, she refused to simply give her the answer, instead taking the time to point out where she thought Sure Stroke went wrong and walk her through the steps again. At least, she would when she knew the answer.

Toola looked over the last three problems on their pages, frowning to herself. “I think Mister Abacus slipped our next unit into this,” she said with a defeated sigh. “So, I’m going to have to look at my book when I get home, or I’ll need Aspire to show me how to do this. Sorry, Doodle.”

“That’s okay.” Sure Stroke offered a crooked half-smile in return. “I appreciate all your help, though.”

“Anytime!” Humming to herself, Toola grinned and waggled her ears. “Maybe I should make you draw something nice for me like Aspire, eh?”

Sure Stroke sniggered. “How about all of us pinning our favorite smugling and letting Nim have her tickly way with him?”

“Don’t tempt me; I just might have to take you up on that.”

A laugh bubbled forth. Sure Stroke shook her head and fluffed her feathers as she tucked her homework safely away in her saddlebag. “Well, that takes care of math for now. Maybe I can pester Aspire to help me tomorrow.”

“That sounds like a good idea.” Toola rolled her neck around a few times, wincing as she tried to work out the stiffness. “Ugh, I hate when my neck gets like this! Stupid homework always makes me feel so stiff and achey!”

Sure Stroke let her smile fall. She leaned over and placed a hoof on the back of Toola’s neck, gently pressing and massaging as best she could. A low hum and a contented smile from Toola spurred her on, Sure Stroke did her best to put a little more pressure on and knead with her hoof just like she’d seen her mother do when her father came home tired after a long day.

Toola arched her back, her eyes fluttered shut as she let Sure Stroke work. “Thanks,” she muttered in an almost drowsy tone.

“You’re welcome.” Sure Stroke raised a brow. “You sound tired.”

“Nim and I have been practicing a dance routine at home,” Toola replied without opening her eyes. “We’re supposed to have it ready in a couple of weeks, so she wants to get it just right.”

Soft purple ears twitched. “Is there some sort of talent show coming up?”

Toola cracked open an eye. “You could say that.” She nodded once, then continued, “A group from the Enchanter hive from the north is coming down to visit, including their queen, Lilith. Queen Euphoria asked for volunteers to welcome them with a party and a show, as well as asked a few from the Lovegiver Corps to allow them to feed a little while they’re here.”

The name made Sure Stroke’s ears stand up straight. The Enchanters? The ones who were even better at charming ponies than Aspire and Esalen? “Uh, is that a good idea?” she found herself asking. “Wouldn’t they, y’know, try working their charms on the ponies who feed them?”

“No, they’ll behave.” Toola turned to face her with a small smile. “The Caretakers and Enchanters might have different ways of getting love, but they’re on good enough terms to where they respect each others’ laws when they visit. The most you’ll have to worry about is some cute nymph coming up and flirting a little to try to get you to visit one of their resorts.” She swished her tail. “But if you take their offer, you probably will find yourself charmed and telling them all about how beautiful their eyes are and how much you love their smile and fangs!”

Groaning, Sure Stroke pulled away and buried her face in her hooves. “I was under his spell!” she whined. “That doesn’t count!”

“He made you speak honestly,” Toola countered, “giving him your pancakes was just slipping the suggestion in while you were under. All those compliments were you, Doodly-Doodle-Do!” There was a brief pause, then a bell like titter. “In fact, from what I heard, I’d almost say you had a little something for our resident smugling bookbug!”

Another groan. “Shut up! Shut up! Shut up!” Sure Stroke cried, a rosy hue tinging her dusty purple cheeks. “I do not!”

“Sure you don’t!” She could almost hear the smirk in Toola’s voice. A gentle nudge against her shoulder made her peer between her hooves at her beaming friend. “Do you want to see it?” Toola asked. “The dance I’ve been practicing with Nimmy?”

Blinking, Sure Stroke brought her hooves away from her face. “I … sure? If it’s okay, I mean.”

Toola simply laughed and hopped out of her seat, slinging her saddlebags over her back in one smooth motion. “Of course it’s okay, silly! I wouldn’t have offered, otherwise!” Swishing her tail, she darted around and snatched up Sure Stroke’s saddlebags before she could blink, then bolted for the door, giggling all the way.

“H-Hey! Come back here with those!”

“No-can-do, Doodle!” Toola sang. She blew a raspberry, then tugged the door open. “Come on, slowpoke! Let’s go!” Before Sure Stroke could blink, she was out the door, giggling as she ran down the path.

With a frustrated groan, Sure Stroke stumbled to her hooves and gave chase. How does she move so darn fast?

 

 

Sure Stroke caught up with Toola in a small clearing off to the side of the path, just after the village center. Her view of the ice cream parlor and Sweet Treat’s sweet shop was blocked by a few cottages and market stands, giving a sense that they were in their own private little area.

The perfect place for Toola to practice without fear of distraction. She had already gone through a few warm up stretches while she waited for Sure Stroke to catch up, her bubbly laughter and ever-present grin cast aside in favor of a more … reserved expression.

Her eyes were half closed, a serene smile graced her lips. She inhaled deeply, readying herself for her performance. A very stark contrast from the bouncy filly who loved to flip and cartwheel around.

It was like an entirely different filly stood in her place. No silliness, no playfulness, all business. She was in full performance mode, ready to dazzle her audience of one.

Sure Stroke sat, transfixed. A nagging little voice in the back of her head told her to stop and pay closer attention, ask a question or two just to be sure this really was Toola.

The filly before her began to hum, slowly swaying from side to side and stepping in time with a song only she could hear in full. She moved with such fluidity, such grace that Sure Stroke let her jaw drop, the question died in the back of her throat in favor of watching Toola go through her routine.

A wide arcing kick out, she reared back and held a hoof straight up, the other out to her side while she twirled and kicked again. Each move a seamless transition from the first to the next, all in a way that looked so effortless. It almost made Sure Stroke want to stand up and join in.

But each time she thought to rise, Toola went into a quick spin, a nimble little jump, or a flip that seemed to come completely out of nowhere. Each move was done with such grace and dexterity, Sure Stroke couldn’t help but wonder if she were seeing magic right before her eyes.

It was all as easy for Toola as walking for her or any other pony. No thought, no visible effort, just poetry in motion. And, in her case, it was perfection in every action.

With one final leaping twirl, Toola returned to the very spot she’d started her dance, landing on her hind hooves and spreading her forelegs out wide. “Tadaaaaa!” she chimed. Beaming, she turned her gaze upon Sure Stroke, her aquamarine tail catching sunlight as she gave it a merry swish. “What do you think?”

Sure Stroke took a moment to gather herself. She blinked a few times and shook her head. “I’m still trying to pick my jaw up off the ground,” she said slowly.

Giggling, Toola let herself fall down on four hooves again. “I’ll take that as a compliment, then!” She reared up to stand on her hind hooves again, slowly moving about as she went through the last few twirls. “This is just part of the whole thing. It really tripped me up for a while,” Toola said. “Nimmy made me practice until I was dizzier than a spinning top!”

A laugh escaped Sure Stroke’s lips. Idly, she noticed that Toola was drawing nearer, moving in an almost haphazard, zig zagging pattern while she went through her dance. But this was different.

That nagging little voice prodded her again. Sure Stroke eyed her friend closely, apprehension gripped her with its icy hoof. “Toola?” she began.

“Hmm?”

“Do you, um …” Sure Stroke trailed off as she watched Toola’s dance. It was so fluid, so graceful. Almost hypnotic in a sense how she swayed and spun on her hooves, moving to a melody entirely in her head. The pegasus shook her head, ruffling her wings to force herself to focus. How could she lead into a question only Toola would know the answer to without it seeming awkward? “I had another talk with Prim the other day.”

Though it was subtle, she saw Toola flick an ear toward her in mid twirl. “Did you? How was that?”

Sure Stroke wrinkled her snout. Of course Toola would just let her talk about it, and any nymph who practiced would do the same. “It didn’t go so well,” she said with a sigh. “She seems to think I’m being antisocial.”

“Primmy has certain expectations of how ponies in Respite should act,” Toola replied as she did a quick little jump. “Her parents were supposedly really shy when they first came here, but they’ve since warmed up since Queen Euphoria and Breezy let them into their home. You saw how they all were, didn’t you?”

“I mean—wait, what?” Sure Stroke blanched. “You’re joking.”

“Nope!” Stopping in mid spin with one leg in the air, Toola regarded her with a grin. “Prim ’n Proper is Clanger and Neat ’n Orderly’s daughter, born just before they got cozy with the Queen and Breezy.”

Again, Sure Stroke’s jaw dropped. “Doesn’t that make her … like, a princess here, or something?”

Toola laughed, resuming her slow dance. “No. She’s just the Queen’s favorite filly to spoil. You should see when she starts teasing Prim. The prissy little thing squirms even more than you when Aspire first called you Doodle!”

Thinking back, Clanger had mentioned something about a filly in their class. But … Prim? The stuffy little filly who walked around with a perpetual look like she smelled something rotten?

Maybe she could ask Queen Euphoria about that later. Sure Stroke flicked her tail. “I’ll have to see it to believe it. But yeah, we talked, and she seems to think I’m being rude because I haven’t paid Aspire back for tutoring me yet.”

“Did you tell her about your drawing?” Toola asked as she drew nearer, pausing to hold a pose with her right legs held out and up.

Sure Stroke shook her head. “I couldn’t get a word in edgewise. She just talked over me and walked away.” With a sigh, she let her wings droop, subtly eying her friend. “What was it you told me at the party about her?”

For a second, Toola’s concentration faltered. She blinked, falling on all four hooves again. “I’m not entirely sure I remember.” Scrunching her snout, she turned to face Sure Stroke. “We did a lot of stuff at the party. I remember most of the games and teasing you about being Doodle.”

“It was after Queen Euphoria greeted my family,” Sure Stroke prompted. “You told me something about Prim.”

“Oh, right!” Toola’s eyes lit up. “When I went to go get you!” She beamed, trotting forward until she was just out of hoof’s reach. “Sorry! That kinda slipped my mind! We had so much fun playing games and stuff, I forgot all about that part!”

The nagging voice told her to back away, she’d let Toola come to close without answering. But Sure Stroke ignored it. “So, you remember? Because, I can’t quite recall.”

Toola hummed a note. “I think I do,” she said. “If I recall, it was something along the lines of—” Quick as a flash, she leapt forward and pounced Sure Stroke, cackling like a loon as she worked to pin the filly’s shoulders.

Sure Stroke let out a squeak, flailing her hooves in vain for a second before she found herself at Toola’s mercy.

Or not.

Not Toola’s mercy. The face staring back at her wasn’t Toola at all.

Nimble Hooves grinned down at her, those dark purple eyes danced with mirth and mischievous intent. “You waited too long!” she sang. Leaning forward, she nuzzled Sure Stroke’s nose. “And now, little pony, you’re alllllllllllllllll mine!”

Whining, Sure Stroke let her ears droop. “I knew something was up! You messed up in the middle of your dance when I started prodding you!”

“True, but I gave you hints before and you let them going flying right over your doodly little head.” With a chittering laugh, Nimble fixed her with a half-lidded stare and wicked smirk. “Now I get to collect my prize!”

Another squeak. A nervous laugh escaped her lips. “You, uh, I’m guessing you’re hungry?” Sure Stroke stammered.

“Starving,” Nimble replied. Before Sure Stroke could say anything, she raised a hoof. “But I won’t ask you to feed me today. I’ll just take your card once I take care of something that’s been a very long time coming! And I’m not the only one who wants it!”

“… Huh?”

Sure Stroke felt her blood run cold as Nimble leaned in and whispered in her own voice, “Which is why I have to be extra careful not to let Nimble catch me, eh?” Chuckling darkly, Nimble nosed against her cheek, then leaned up to whisper in her ear, “Aspire asked me to do him a favor and get you for teasing him, so you’re gonna get a little extra, Doodle. I’m gonna make you laugh ‘till you squeal!”

It was all the warning she had before Nimble lived up to her name and assaulted her tickle spots, rendering her helpless as she writhed and shrieked with laughter.

 

 

Her sides ached like never before. Sure Stroke tried to wipe a hoof across her face to get rid of the feeling of matted coat that always came with tears. Nimble had been extra thorough in finding each and every one of her tickle spots, testing them to see just how ticklish they were, how high they made her shriek, and if it made her writhe and squirm if she got it “just right,” never stopping even when she laughed so hard tears streamed down her cheeks.

She grumbled under her breath, pinning her ears back against her head to drown out the bouncing nymph’s impromptu song as they trotted over to Sweet Treat’s so Nimble could claim her prize. A smooth, holed leg was wrapped around her shoulder to prevent escape, forcing her to listen as Nimble boasted about her victory.

And, oh, was Nimble happy to sing and tell everyone who passed all about it:

“I know Doodle’s tickle spots!

Beneath her wings, along her sides!

I know Doodle’s tickle spots!

She laughed until she cried!

“Squealing, squirming, writhing!

Silly Doodle tried to fight!

Squealing, squirming, writhing!

But I’ve found her aconite!

“Giggle here and titter there,

She’s so ticklish everywhere!”

The villagers laughed and shook their heads, a few of the changelings joked about how she was another victim of the Dark Queen of Tickling, which quickly made the rounds.

“Do you have to rub it in so much?” Sure Stroke whined. “And why do I have to go to the shop with you?”

“Because I want you to turn your card over!” Nimble replied. She turned to nose against her cheek. “And because you’re just adorable with your cheeks all puffy like that! I’m gonna have to tickle you more often, I think.”

Sure Stroke tried to duck out of her embrace, but found herself stuck. “I don’t want to be your tickle target!” she grumped. “You’ve already got Toola!”

Nimble chittered. “Oh, I do, but she’s probably gonna get me in a bit. Whenever bookbug gets done leading her about. Or, should I say—” she grinned and waggled her ears “—when you and Toola get done looking for her saddlebags!”

Her ears perked up. Aspire was with Toola? Disguised as her, no less?

Glancing up ahead, Sure Stroke let out another whine. She could see several of their classmates filing into Sweet Treat’s shop, the nymphs each wearing big grins and cackling while they teased the ponies they’d tricked. Zephyr had his hoof wrapped tight around Vector, her fellow pegasus just rolled his eyes and shook his head like he’d been through it all a thousand times before. The changelings from the parlor, Creamy and Frosty, stood to the side and threw in a few quips themselves, hoof bumping each of the nymphs as they entered and making sure to lean down and muss up the foals’ manes.

The entire village was getting in on it. It was all a game, one the nymphs were expected to win.

Sure Stroke did a quick head count. Aspire and Esalen, however, were notably absent. A thought came to her. She could always run off and try to find Toola, just to cause a little trouble for that smug little nymph when Toola realized there were two Sure Strokes with her. If all the nymphs won, they’d never stop their crowing.

And the adults would never stop teasing and catcalling with them.

Nimble tightened her grip. “No planning!” she scolded, flicking out her tongue. “I can taste that mischief you think you’re about to get up to, Doodle, and it’s not gonna happen. You’ve got a date with me at Sweet Treat’s shop, and I’ll be very sad if you try to skip out on it.” With a fake pout, she laid her head on Sure Stroke’s shoulder. “And the only thing that’ll make me feel better after that is more Doodle tickles, I fear.”

“That’s—that’s blackmail!” Sure Stroke cried, her jaw dropped.

Nimble grinned, then mimicked Sure Stroke’s expression. “Yes it is!” she chirped, waggling her ears to add to it. “And for the right reasons!”

“Jerk.”

“Tickly Doodle.”

With a huff and a flick of her tail, Sure Stroke allowed herself to be led along the dirt path. Up ahead, she noticed Peppermint and Spearmint bickering just a short distance from the front door, out of the way of the foals.

“Give me my basket back!” Spearmint demanded with an angry stomp. “I’ve spent most of my afternoon chasing you around instead of hanging out with Shady! Those cookies were for him!”

Peppermint shook his head, his ears drooped. “Spear, I didn’t take it! I was inside making sweetbread with Maple the entire time!”

“Actually,” a second Peppermint stepped around the corner with a slender, grinning colt, who fluffed his forest green wings. A basket rested safely upon the pegasus’ back. “I took your basket and gave it to Shady!” In a flash of green fire, Esalen stood in his place. She skipped right up and booped a groaning Spearmint. “Got ya, Spear!”

“You suck, Essy,” he grumbled, swatting his tail across the real Peppermint’s flank when he caught sight of the grin spreading across his muzzle. “That wasn’t funny.”

Esalen had the grace to look sheepish. Before she could apologize, though, the pegasus stepped forward and nosed his way beneath Spearmint’s chin. “C’mon, Spear,” he crooned. “Don’t be like that. You know all the nymphs have been pulling tricks for their class, and I still got the cookies in the end.”

Spearmint’s scowl faltered. “Yeah, but … I mean, yes, that’s okay, but I was hoping we could go sit down by the lake and stuff, Shady.”

Chuckling, Shady pecked his lips. “Who says we can’t? Just go tell your aunt that Essy got you, then come meet me down at our spot.” He fixed Spearmint with a half-lidded gaze. “Just you and me.”

For a moment, Spearmint just sputtered, a deep blush spread across his snowy white cheeks. He glanced between Shady and Esalen. With a halfhearted whine, he nodded. “Okay. I’ll meet you there.”

“I look forward to it!” Shady beamed, stealing another kiss before sauntering away with a swish of his tail and a none-too-subtle sway in his hips.

Spearmint sucked in his lips, then fixed Esalen with a glare. “I’ll get you for that trick, little nymph,” he promised. “I oughta slip pepper into your sweets next time you come in.”

Chittering, Esalen stuck out her tongue. “Your aunt would tan your rear and you know it! Speaking of, go tell her I got you so you can go cuddle with Shady.”

With a snort, he turned and trotted inside, grimacing as Creamy and Frosty made a point to mess up his mane when he poked his head inside to yell “Auntie! Essy tricked me, so give her a snack and tell Façade she did it right!” before he dashed off in the direction Shady had gone.

Esalen chittered, trotting past a rather put out Peppermint to stand with Nimble and Sure Stroke. She grinned and gave her wings a happy buzz. “So you got Doodle, eh, Nim?”

“Oh, did I ever!” Nimble’s grip around Sure Stroke tightened. “Found all her tickle spots, and by love is she ticklish!”

Huffing, Sure Stroke looked down at her hooves. “Not that ticklish,” she grumbled. “And it’s not that funny.”

“Yes, you are and yes, it is!” The nymphs exchanged grins and hoof bumps, much to her chagrin.

With a sigh and an irritated flick of her tail, Sure Stroke peered through the shop window to take a quick headcount. Most of the nymphs were there. Zephyr was certainly getting into the boasting part of the act while he sat with Allegretto, while Vector rolled his eyes and nibbled at a cookie. All total, there were six nymphs inside, plus Esalen and Nimble outside.

Eight out of nine.

Aspire was missing. And so, too, was Toola Roola.

A bit of hope brought a smile to her lips. Maybe, just maybe, he hadn’t revealed himself quite yet. Her eyes flitted to Esalen and Nimble. If she could just distract them, maybe she could slip away to kick the proverbial raincloud over the nymphs’ little parade.

Sure Stroke turned her attention to Peppermint, the gears in her head started to turn. Hadn’t she heard Spearmint teasing him about Nimble Hooves just the other day?

It was too perfect. Sure Stroke fixed a coy smile on her muzzle and leaned in close to Nimble as if to whisper. “You know,” she said just loud enough for Esalen to hear, “I heard Spearmint and Peppermint talking about you the other day.”

Nimble went rigid, her ears stood up ramrod straight as a heavy blush spread and darkened her chitinous cheeks. “O-Oh, really?” she stammered, looking away to hide the nervous smile that tugged at her lips. But she couldn’t hide the way she turned an ear toward Sure Stroke, eager to hear every word.

The bait was set, and Nimble was ready to bite. “Yeah. Spearmint mentioned asking what you thought of Peppermint.” She leaned in, grinning as she caught Esalen’s eye and noticed the way her friend stepped closer to hear. “He wanted to know if you thought Pepper was better looking.”

“Ooooh!” Esalen crooned, her eyes shone with glee. She sidled up to Nimble, rubbing their shoulders together. “He’s right there, Nimmy! You should go tell him you think he’s—”

“Shut up! Shut up! Shut up!” Nimble released her hold on Sure Stroke so she could stomp her hooves.

Which just so happened to draw Pepper’s attention as he made to go inside. “Something wrong, girls?” he asked, tilting his head. For a split second, his cheeks tinged a faint red. “Nim?”

Nimble stammered, she looked down at her hooves and muttered something unintelligible, words mixed with nervous chittering. The perfect opening.

Sure Stroke slowly stepped back from her former tormentor, a hint of smug satisfaction crept into her smile. With the nymphs occupied, she turned to search the dirt paths for any sign of Toola or, well, herself.

It didn’t take long before she saw a pair of fillies walking toward them, one a very familiar picture—Aspire wore her soft violet coat and purple mane rather well, her face was creased in a mask of concern and a hint of unease while the nymph in her guise tried to talk to Toola.

There was no hint of the bright smile on bubbly magenta filly, though. She stomped down the path, her gaze flitting this way and that, an angry scowl marred her face.

Sure Stroke could see Toola grumbling and vowing retribution against Nimble as they drew closer. The way her cheeks puffed out and reddened seemed wrong.

The faux Sure Stroke, meanwhile, gave a crooked smile and leaned in, she wrapped her feathers around Toola’s shoulder in comfort as she tried to soothe the angry gymnast’s temper, but to no avail. Toola simply ducked out from under her wing and rounded on her with an angry stomp of her hoof. Far away though they were, Sure Stroke could just make out Toola snapping, “I know this is supposed to be a test for the nymphs, but sticking my hooves to the ground and stealing my bag isn’t funny!”

Uh oh.

In Sure Stroke’s guise, Aspire did a rather impressive job of feigning a wince before falling quiet at her side.

Truth be told, he wasn’t doing half bad. But that didn’t mean he wasn’t about to get a raincloud picked over his parade. Set Nimble on me, will you? Then how about this? Sure Stroke took a deep breath and made to shout, but a pair of smooth, black hooves covered her mouth.

“Oh, no you don’t!” Esalen and Nimble chimed together, the latter with a blush still coloring her cheeks.

Shoot!

A pair of low chuckles made her flick an ear. The fillies turned in unison to see Creamy and Frosty staring ahead with wicked grins and glowing green eyes.

“Showtime,” Creamy muttered. He cupped a hoof to his mouth and called out, “Why, hello there, Essy, Nimmy, and Sure Stroke! How nice to see you all!”

Frosty took up his call, “How did the test go?”

Up ahead, Toola’s head snapped up. Her brows furrowed as her eyes flitted between each of the fillies before settling on Nimble, a look of pure venom flashed across her face.

Then, she stopped. Her eyes went wide in comprehension, she did a double take, looking to each Sure Stroke in turn before a grin tugged at her lips. She whirled around on the one beside her, ready to cry out.

Too late. Sure Stroke watched in muted fascination as her own face gave a wicked smirk, then a hiss before leaping upon the startled filly. He made quick work of her flailing hooves, pinning them too the ground. “Got ya, you bouncy little thing!” In a flash of green fire, Aspire resumed his natural form. “Now, hold still! You owe me a nibble!”

“Nuh uh!” Toola shook her head. “I saw the real Doodle over there before you got me and figured it out, so that means you lose!”

“No I don’t!”

“Yes you do!” Creamy and Frosty chimed in time with Toola, the pair stepped forward. Frosty spoke up first, “The rules haven’t changed since the village was founded. If you let your mark see the real deal before you reveal yourself, it counts against you.”

“Which means none of Toola’s love for you!” Creamy added. “In fact, you have to turn over your card!”

“Wha—you—that’s not fair!” he whined, sat back to allow her up, then turned to gape at the cackling changelings. “What in love’s name was that for?”

Creamy and Frosty exchanged hoof bumps, matching smug grins settled upon their lips. “We told you we’d get you for setting Chocolate on us, little nymph,” Creamy began.

“And get you, we have,” Frosty finished. With a nod, he turned to trot away with Creamy, though not before calling, “Enjoy your snack, Toola! Be sure to rub his smug little nose in it that he got caught!”

Toola leapt to her hooves and waved at the pair, sticking her tongue out at the stunned nymph before prancing her way over to the others. She stopped just within hoof’s reach of the trio, a single brow raised as she looked at the hooves covering Sure Stroke’s mouth.

With sheepish grins, Esalen and Nimble released their hold on her. Sure Stroke huffed and rolled her eyes. “I was trying to call out, but they were hoping for a clean sweep for the nymphs.”

“Sounds about right,” Toola said with a roll of her eyes. “They always do it so they can have bragging rights. Speaking of which …” Her eyes hardened into a glare.

Nimble took a step back. “Now, sis,” she said slowly, “it was just so you wouldn’t notice Aspire making the switch. All part of the test, you see.”

Toola stayed quiet, her eyes narrowed.

Nimble’s ears drooped. She hung her head, shifting from one hoof to the other. Her tongue flicked out, she gave another wince at the taste. With a sad chitter, she stepped forward and ducked under Toola’s chin, pressing her forehead against the angry filly’s chest. “‘M sorry,” she muttered. “I know you don’t like it when I leave you stuck in places, but I thought it’d be okay because Aspire was around the corner.”

Toola held her angry glare for a moment, but then sighed and hugged her adoptive sister tight, laying her head atop Nimble’s.

A low grumble made Sure Stroke turn away from the pair. Aspire trotted up with a grimace upon his lips, looking quite put out that he’d lost. “Façade is going to have a field day with this!” he groaned.

“Well, to be fair,” Esalen said through a bout of giggles, “you should’ve been more mindful of your surroundings. So, Creamy and Frosty technically didn’t do anything wrong.”

“It’s still not right, darn it!” Aspire whined. “I’m gonna get put through the ringer because of a stupid technicality and those two waiting until the dish was ice cold!”

Sure Stroke snorted, the joke was too easy. “Isn’t that fitting for them?”

He leveled her with a glare. Then, he gave a decidedly smug smirk. “Speaking of payback, how’d you like your tickle session, Doodle? Did Nimmy find all your spots?”

“I didn’t, and yes she did.” An idea came to her, a smile tugged at her lips. “But that reminds me. I have something for you.”

His ears perked up. “My drawing?”

“Nope!” Sure Stroke sidled up to him, unfurling her wing as if to lay it across his back. “Something better!”

Confusion flashed across his face. “Okay … I’ll bite. What is it?”

Quick as a flash, she cuffed his ears with a swipe of her wing. Aspire yelped and raised his hooves to fend off a second blow, while Esalen rolled about on the ground, chittering her head off.

“That.” Sure Stroke gave a smug smirk of her own, then turned, flicking her tail across his nose. “Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have to go turn my card in so Nimble can collect her snack.” She trotted up to the girls, glancing over her shoulder at Aspire. “Come on, I want a good seat for when he has to give up his so Toola can collect her prize.”

The way he pouted and crossed his hooves over his chest made her feathers fluff happily, as did the little smile he tried to hide behind the most fake pout anyone had ever given.

Another day in the strange village called Respite.

 

 

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