There was something to be said about patience when it came to changeling nymphs, as Sure Stroke was quickly learning.
Aspire and Esalen had proven themselves quite patient when it came to easing her into the village, albeit with a couple slip ups here and there. They let her adapt at her own pace and offered a hoof to help whenever they could. In addition, there was that little mishap in the forest. Aspire could’ve easily just snuck up and pounced her then and there, but instead, he chose to drag things out and milk it for fun.
Not exactly her favorite memory, but it gave a tad of insight: changelings loved to play, tease, and, well, gloat as they watched their friends squirm.
With some exception, that is. Sure Stroke laughed as she tried to keep her sketch pad away from Aspire. She was seated at her mother’s kitchen table, with Aspire to her left and Esalen across from her, and a plate of warm cookies in the middle and a cup of tea by each of them.
Her attention, however, was anywhere but the cookies. Her eyes flitted between Aspire and Esalen, who sat grinning and sipping at a cup of tea while she enjoyed the show.
Aspire chittered, trying to move so he could steal a peek at her drawing. “Let me seeeeeeeeeeeee!” he whined. His hooves batted at her shoulder with all the force of a playful kitten.
“Would you stop it!” Sure Stroke squirmed to put herself between Aspire and her sketchpad. A laugh bubbled forth from the back of her throat as he tried in vain to stand on his hind hooves and reach over her shoulder. “Patience is a virtue! Aren’t you supposed to be good at waiting it out when you’re in disguise?”
“One, I’m not in disguise,” he retorted, his eyes narrowed as he tried to look over her shoulder. “Two, you’re dangling something I want in front of me—of course I’m going to bite! And this isn’t like love where I have to be discreet, it’s right there for me! Now lemme see!”
Sure Stroke closed her pad and clutched it to her chest, a grin tugging at her lips. “No! You have to wait until it’s finished!”
He let out a low, chittering whine. “But I want to see it now!” Aspire met her gaze and widened his deep blue eyes, like a foal trying to beg to open presents early on Hearth’s Warming. “I should be allowed to—I’m tutoring you. I think progress checks should be included in the trade deal.”
“You never mentioned them before!” Sure Stroke sang. “And we already agreed on a price, so no add ons.”
A snort from over by the stove made her flick an ear. “Oh, would you stop teasing the poor nymph, Sure Stroke?” her mother chided, her laughter ruining the effect. “You and I both know you love sharing your sketches.”
Sure Stroke bit back a curse at the way Aspire’s ears perked up and a smug smile crossed his face. Clutching her sketch pad tighter, she shook her head. “I’m not teasing him! And no!”
“You know, you kind of are,” Esalen chipped in. “Drawing that with him right next to you, then saying he can’t look at it is like holding a tray of cookies under his nose and telling him not to eat it.” She grinned, showing off the full length of her fangs. “I’d just eat the cookies and tickle you silly for trying to taunt me. He’s being nice.”
“Theres’ an idea!” Aspire drawled.
Her feathers bristled. Sure Stroke glared at the pair, her eyes flitting between the two just in case either made good on the half-threat.
Esalen simply smiled and took another sip of her tea before taking a cookie from the plate. “Thanks for the snack, Missus Skydancer,” she said casually. “Your cookies are very sweet.”
“You’re welcome, Esalen,” Skydancer replied. Sure Stroke could hear her hum a little tune to herself as she cut a carrot into small pieces, her knife thudded in a steady rhythm against the wooden cutting board. “Oh, Sure Stroke?”
Her mother’s call made her turn away from Aspire, though not before he tried fixing her with another dose of faux innocent eyes. “Yes?”
“Your father and I are going to start writing letters home. We were wondering if you might want to do the same.” She turned to look over her shoulder. “Maybe you could write Altocumulus like you promised before we left?”
Sure Stroke let her ears droop. She had promised to write her favorite cousin. But, at the same time, what exactly could she tell him about Respite? Stealing a quick glance at Aspire and Esalen, she cringed. How does one tell family their best friends are changelings?
Aspire stopped trying to make eyes at her for a moment. “Who’s Altocumulus?” he asked, tilting his head. “Friend from home?”
“Boyfriend, maybe?” Esalen teased. “You might have competition!”
Sure Stroke’s cheeks tinged a rosy hue. She buried her face in her wings as Aspire sputtered, “I’m not—She’s not my—There is no competition!”
“Uh huh. Sure there isn’t.” Chittering, Esalen winked at him, then turned her to Sure Stroke. “Jokes aside, what he said.”
Despite the blush coloring her cheeks, Sure Stroke couldn’t help but grin. “He’s my cousin. His full name is Altocumulus Stratiformis Translucidus Lacunosus, and he absolutely hates it.”
Esalen snorted and shared a wry look with her brother. “No offense, but what’s with that name?”
“Do his parents hate him or something?” Aspire asked. “Seriously, that’s a mouthful and a half.”
“Really, you two!” Skydancer chided, unable to hide her own grin. “Alto has a lovely name, even if he doesn’t particularly like it. He happens to be one of Cloudsdale’s most promising weather science students.” She gave her wings a prideful fluff. “As a matter of fact, his parents are rather popular lectures all over the country.”
Aspire hummed a low note, furrowing his brows. “I don’t know too much about weather science, but I recognize the first bit of his name as a cloud, and part of the second coming from the stratosphere.” He glanced at Sure Stroke. “Didn’t know you had a cousin, Doodle. How come you didn’t tell us?”
“Er, slipped my mind.” Sure Stroke gave a sheepish smile. “I was too busy trying to figure this place out.”
Her mother shook her head. “Why am I not surprised?” Chuckling to herself, she turned to continue cutting. Though not without calling over her shoulder, “You really should write a letter to him, dear. I’m sure he misses you.”
Sure Stroke scoffed and rolled her eyes. “Yeah, right. He couldn’t wait to see me off when we left.”
“You know how he is, dear. He doesn’t like ponies knowing he feels things.” Sure Stroke could almost see her mother rolling her eyes. “Write him a short letter, and I’m sure you’ll have one back by next postage pick up littered with all of his ‘questions for science’ or whatever that silly colt loves to call his curiosity.”
That brought a genuine smile to Sure Stroke’s lips. “I guess you’ve got a point. He does get rather … excitable when he’s interested.”
“That, daughter of mine, is in contention for understatement of the season.”
Both shared a laugh, drawing bemused looks from the pair of nymphs sitting at the table. Feeling a bit lazy, Sure Stroke set her sketchpad on the table and flipped to a blank page, then tore it out. Any paper was good for a letter.
Now, what do I tell him about the village? She tapped her pencil against her chin. Her tail flicked as she wracked her brain with what to send the rather eccentric stallion.
Out of the corner of her eye, Sure Stroke noticed a polished black hoof inching toward her sketchbook. An angry, warning growl was all it took to make the hoof freeze in place, then pull away in the blink of an eye. Slowly, she turned to level Aspire with a narrow-eyed glare.
He gave a wide grin and shrugged his shoulders. “What? Can’t blame a nymph for trying, right?”
Sure Stroke returned his grin with a sickly sweet smile. “Actually,” she said, “I can.”
His indignant yelp as she clipped his ears with a swipe of her wing was music. Sweet music.
After fending off a couple more of Aspire’s attempts to sneak a peek at her sketch and enduring more of Esalen’s playful teasing and coy smiles, Sure Stroke managed to settle in at the table so she could think over her letter, helped along by the steady drumming of a late afternoon shower upon the rooftop.
The twins politely left her to her musing, instead focusing on a bit of their own homework, so to speak. They sat across from one another, each having scrawled out a list of names on a piece of scrap paper so they could take turns calling out random names for the other to shapeshift into. “Practice for a test,” Aspire had said.
“Rocky,” Esalen called.
Aspire scoffed. “Too easy!” In a flash of green fire, a colt with charcoal grey coat and short, scruffy black mane sat in his place. His chocolate brown eyes seemed to stare blankly, his mouth set in a thin line. “How ya doin’, Essy?” he drawled, giving a lazy half-smile. “Stayin’ dry t’day?”
Grinning, Esalen nodded once. “Very good. Who’s next for me?”
The faux Rocky looked down at his paper. His lazy smile widened into a grin. “Hmm, how’s about ya do Prim? Get ya fussy britches on, filly.”
Esalen gave an amused snort, nodding as green fire washed over her body. In the blink of an eye, Prim ’n Proper sat across from Sure Stroke, looking down her snout at the fake Rocky. “Rock Solid!” she snapped, wrinkling her nose as though she smelled something foul. “When was the last time you combed your mane? You look like you’ve been tumbling through the bushes with a timberwolf! We have a new pony to welcome in ten minutes!”
“Sorry, Prim,” Aspire said, shrugging his shoulders. “Guess I let it slip my mind.”
With chittering laughs and twin flashes of green fire, they shifted back to their natural forms so they could move on to their next imitation.
So, this is how they practice, eh? Interesting. Sure Stroke left them to it, instead focusing on her letter. She drank in the familiar scent of rain and cirrus, the occasional flash of lightning that brought along a crescendo of booming thunder made her just want to close her eyes and snuggle in bed. In her mind’s eye, she was home in Thunderbolt Heights whenever the weather team let a storm hit the village.
Maybe they’ll let this one last a while. That’d be nice. She hummed a note to herself and began writing.
Dear Altocumulus Stratiformis Translucidus Lacunosus,
I’m sorry it’s taken so long for me to write you. Things have been a bit hectic since the move. The villagers—
She stopped in mid sentence, wrinkling her snout. Her eyes flitted up to Esalen. “Um, Essy?”
Still in her natural form, Esalen flicked an ear toward her. “Yeah?”
“What exactly can I put in a letter going to someone outside the village?”
Pink eyes regarded her with a hint of confusion, then softened in understanding. “Oh.” Esalen bit her lip. “Well, I mean, I wouldn’t go advertising that we’re changelings,” she said, her tone rather diplomatic, “but maybe … I really don’t know. Aspire?”
Aspire looked up from his list. He chewed on the inside of his cheek. “You could maybe feel out his reaction. But, I’ve gotta agree with Essy. We don’t exactly go advertising to ponies that we’re here. Hawkeye and Merryweather take care of that personally, or others do it face to face when they go visit other places. Doing it through a letter is kinda … well, how would you have taken it, Doodle?”
“Not well,” Sure Stroke admitted with a rueful frown. “I probably would’ve taken the letter to the Cloudsdale guard station.”
“I’d say I’m hurt, but knowing how skittish a lot of newcomers are, I can’t say I blame you.” He shrugged. “But yeah, maybe just don’t tell him we’re changelings.”
Humming, Sure Stroke glanced at her letter. That made things a little more complicated. If anything, it meant she had to go into a little dance around all the reasons it took her so long to adjust.
She looked up at Esalen. “How do I tell him I had trouble, then?”
Esalen wrinkled her snout, her tongue flicked out. “Don’t want to lie?”
“Well, you could be honest about how you were nervous at first,” she began, “but just don’t tell the whole story. That way it’s not lying, but it’s also not telling all about us.”
“Misinforming,” Aspire supplied.
Esalen bobbed her head. “Yes, that! Misinforming works quite nicely.”
Pursing her lips, Sure Stroke looked down at her letter again. It wasn’t that she couldn’t hold a little bit back, but, for all his grumping and false scorn, Altocumulus was still her cousin. Her favorite cousin, in fact.
Maybe there’s a way of keeping it vague, but also telling about them.
I’m sorry it’s taken so long for me to write you. Things have been a bit hectic since the move. The villagers have been very welcoming since we arrived, and are rather sensitive to how newcomers feel. It took me awhile to get comfortable around them—you know how I can be with new ponies—but I think I’ve made some really good friends. Actually, the first pair I met at the gate are my closest.
Their names are Aspire and Esalen. They’re twins who have lived here all their lives, so they’ve been really helpful in teaching me about Respite’s culture, introducing me to other foals, and helping me survive the torture that is school—no, I don’t care what you say or how much you loved learning, school is a nightmare and whoever came up with it was sadistic. So there. That said, Aspire has offered to help me with my algebra homework, since I just don’t seem to get it. He’s been very patient with me and even cut me a nice deal on what I had to offer in return: a sketch of any part of Cloudsdale I want (I can’t tell you what it is, because he’s sitting right next to me and is trying to read over my shoulder even though he thinks I don’t notice. He’s a dork).
“Hey!” Aspire cried.
Sure Stroke waggled her ears. “That’ll teach you to look over my shoulder, won’t it?” she said with a happy fluff of her feathers. “Now, hush up so I can finish.” She turned back to her letter, grinning at how he huffed and muttered a few choice words under his breath.
No doubt she’d pay for it later, but Aspire deserved a little prod every now and again.
Speaking of the sketch, they have a rather interesting way of paying for things here. You can pay in bits, or you can trade things. Sort of like the trading at Rainbow Falls before the Equestria Games, only you can’t just trade anything you own. It seems like it has to be something you’re talented with that holds equal value to what you’re asking for, but it’s not a bad system. Just different.
Which can be said about a lot of things here, actually. They’re all really nice, just very different.
It makes things interesting. Challenging, confusing, and darn near making me want to stuff my head in a cloud and scream myself hoarse for a while, but interesting all the same.
Hope you’re well, Altocumulus. I look forward to hearing from you again, and maybe we can see each other soon.
“There!” Sure Stroke set her pencil down, satisfied with her efforts. “One letter for Altocumulus, ready for posting!”
Her mother’s soft hoofsteps against the wooden floor made her flick an ear then turn. Skydancer reared up to rest her forehooves on the back of Sure Stroke’s chair, smiling as she read through the letter. She laughed and nuzzled into Sure Stroke’s violet mane. “Very nice,” she said. “I’ll drop it in the post bag for Hawkeye tomorrow morning.”
Blinking, Sure Stroke tilted her head. “I thought he was in charge of going out to invite ponies to Respite?”
“He is,” Esalen replied. “But he also takes the mailbag out to the train station you all got off at to come here.”
“Or he asks a few villagers for help if there’s a bunch of packages to send out to pony cities,” Aspire added. “Ready Steady, the Wood brothers, and the moving crew usually help him with his drop offs and pickups since they’ve got big carts. If he’s out of town, someone else steps up to fill in for him.”
Oh. Well, that made sense, in a way. It wasn’t all that different from a small town post office.
But he only said pony cities. “How do you get mail out to other hives, then? Like, if you wanted to send something to the Wanderers?”
“Marauders,” Esalen corrected. “And we have a little trick for that. There’s a special spell we have. See, we write it out and address it to whoever the changeling is, then we use a special magic fire to—”
A loud bang cut her off in mid sentence. Sure Stroke brought a hoof to her chest to soothe her racing heart, she turned to the doorway in time to see her father walking in, water droplets dripping freely down his sides and his mane matted against his head.
“Hoo! Raindance wasn’t kidding when she said this one would be a doozy!” he said with a heavy sigh. He glanced up at Skydancer and offered a tired smile. “It’s been awhile since I’ve tangled with a wild one that strong. Not since Sure Stroke was born, I think.”
Skydancer frowned. “You look exhausted, Drizzly.”
His lips tugged into a half smirk. “You should see the rest of the team. We all looked like a team of drowned rats by the time we were done herding the bulk of the storm away.”
“I don’t doubt it.” Skydancer trotted over to him, nosing against his dampened cheek. “Let’s go get you dried off before you get sick, sweetheart.”
“Thanks, honey.” Drizzly pecked her nose, then made to follow her out of the kitchen. He stopped short, glancing between Aspire and Esalen. “Er, if you two want, I can fly you home before I dry off. Not sure exactly how long this storm is going to last, but I don’t want to chance waiting too late.”
Aspire winced. “We can’t fly in the rain, Mister Drizzly.” He glanced over his shoulder and buzzed his translucent wings. “Our wings don’t work when they get wet. They’re not quite as strong as yours.”
“Ah. Well, in that case …” Drizzly furrowed his brows. “Well, we can walk. Honey? Do we have any raincoats in the closet? Or our winter coats?”
“We might, but they’re probably toward the back.” Skydancer smiled at the nymphs. “Give us just a moment, we should have something for you.”
The twins beamed. “Thanks!” they replied in their near perfect unison, drawing a shiver down Sure Stroke’s spine.
It was uncanny how often they managed to pull it off.
As her parents headed down the hall to search for rain jackets, Sure Stroke folded up her letter and set it to the side. She reached out for her sketch pad, but froze halfway there. Her gaze flitted to her left.
Aspire was watching, his sky blue eyes shone with unrestrained glee.
Across the table, Esalen heaved a sigh. “Okay, now I have to know. What is it you’re so determined to keep him from seeing until you’ve finished.”
“Yeah, Doodle!” Aspire crooned. “What’s so special about my drawing? Share with the class!”
Sure Stroke thought quickly. Neither would really know what the picture was until she finished and explained it, but still, there was the principle of the matter. She could, in theory, just show Esalen, but what was to stop her from telling Aspire? Or just passing it over to him?
Instead, she smiled. “Pretend it’s Hearth’s Warming season: you’ll just have to wait and—” she reached out and poked Aspire’s chitinous nose, giggling at how he wrinkled his snout and squirmed away from her hoof “—see when I’m done!”
Aspire rubbed his nose and tried to feign a scowl, but the tugging at either corner of his mouth betrayed him. “I’ll remember that, Doodle.” His eyes glowed green for a split second. “You just wait ‘till Friday.”
Oh, dear. Sure Stroke forced herself to maintain her smile. Did I just challenge him again?
Perhaps she’d be able to convince Zephyr or Nimble to protect her in exchange for a sip of love. Or a nice picture.
Or maybe she should just go hide behind Queen Euphoria until he stopped grinning like the cat who caught the canary.
She ducked her head, forcing a weak chuckle. “Y-You’re not going to let me fail our next algebra quiz, right?”
“Oh, no, no, no! Nothing so easy as that!” He grinned. “I’m just excited to see how you deal with your very first experience testing us!”
Blinking, Sure Stroke bit her lip. Did she dare to ask?
Of course she did. “How do I do that?”
His grin stretched to seemingly impossible lengths, a shiver ran down her spine. “You’ll see.”
Esalen’s ominous cackling did absolutely nothing to help her confidence.