Esalen had to fight every urge to croon and nuzzle between Sure Stroke’s twitchy violet ears when she started squirming and fluffing her feathers in her sleep. A small, contented smile spread across the filly’s muzzle as she dozed in Aspire’s bed pod, safe and sound in Esalen’s chitinous embrace.
About a half hour after Sure Stroke drifted off, Warm Welcome poked his head in to check on them. He took one look at Sure Stroke and smiled in understanding before whispering for them to stay with her and make sure she wasn’t too drained. Once they gave affirming nods, he floated over Haberdasher’s letter for them to read, and slipped out of the room, closing the door behind him with a soft click of the latch.
Scooting a bit closer, Aspire read the letter silently to himself while Esalen busied herself trying to picture what dreams ran through Sure Stroke’s doodly little head. Maybe she was drawing beneath her tree again? Or perhaps she was playing Guess the Pony?
A mumble here or there made her crane an ear and lean in closer, hoping to catch a word or two of her friend’s sleep talk. Out of the corner of her eye, Esalen noticed Aspire crack open an eye to fix her with a wry look. “What in love are you doing?” he whispered out of the side of his mouth, a bemused smile upon his muzzle.
“Listening,” she mouthed back and waggled her ears.
Sure Stroke turned so her nose brushed against Esalen’s chest and nosed against her smooth carapace. “—spire, stopppit,” she whined in contrast to the grin tugging at her lips.
A wicked grin spread across Esalen’s muzzle. So Sure Stroke’s dream wasn’t her under her tree or playing Guess the Pony, after all. Someone was dreaming about a certain smug bookbug teasing her silly.
Snorting, Esalen glanced at her brother and raised a brow at his darkening cheeks. It took every fiber of her self-control not to fall into peals of chitters at the wide-eyed stare he wore, or how his ears stood ramrod straight as if to catch the next bout of mumbling.
Slowly, she ran her tongue along her lips so Aspire could see it. Her grin widened as the blush spread across his face. If only he were in his favored pony form—she loved how the coat he picked out went from sherbet orange to flaming red.
”So very lovedrunk,” she mouthed.
Aspire sucked in his lips. With a huff, he let his eyes flit down to Haberdasher’s letter, away from her almighty grin.
Sometimes it paid to know exactly which buttons to press to make her smug, smart-mouthed, bookbug of a brother squirm as much as he loved making others. The little gnat deserved a good taste of his own medicine every now and again.
A low moan drew her attention back to Sure Stroke. The filly stirred in her grasp. Her eyelids fluttered a few times, then opened. With another tired moan, Sure Stroke looked around blearily for a moment until her gaze settled on Aspire and Esalen.
“Hello, sleepy,” Esalen teased. “How was not being tired?”
Sure Stroke mumbled something under her breath, then raised a hoof and pressed it against Esalen’s lips. Esalen crossed her eyes and blinked a few times. Did she really just …
“You … You …” Sure Stroke broke off to cover a yawn with her free hoof. “You shush your face and stop that coy smirking.”
To their left, Aspire sniggered. “Better put that hoof down,” he warned, “or Essy might bite.”
Blue eyes met pink. Esalen made a show of narrowing her eyes and pressing the tips of her fangs against Sure Stroke’s hoof. The filly squeaked and drew it back as quick as a flash.
Wicked grin still in place, Esalen patted her mane. “Smart filly.” She set her hoof down on the pod so Sure Stroke could sit up. Her ears perked up as the filly hissed and winced in pain. “Something wrong?”
“My back is a little stiff,” Sure Stroke replied through gritted teeth. Her eyes clenched shut. “I think changing positions and sleeping in the pod might have been a mistake.”
“Ah. You don’t sleep on your stomach,” Aspire put in. “So your muscles don’t like it.”
“That seems to be the case, yes.”
Esalen’s grin fell. A contemplative frown played upon her lips, she brought a hoof to her chin. “I have a book about muscles and massage therapy in my room,” she mused. “I’d been reading up on it for a while.”
“Oh?” Aspire turned his gaze upon her. “Looking for your trade?”
She nodded. “Yeah. I’ve been thinking things over.”
“Toola mentioned something about therapy—” She yawned again. “With stretches. And stuff. She called it Esalen and Toola’s Stretch Services, I think.”
He snorted and shook his head, his messy blue mane rustled like leaves in the wind. “What a goof. ‘Stretch Services’—she’s talking about physical therapy. And she’s thinking of something called yoga.”
Esalen fixed him with a wry look. “Sounds like some sort of yogurt.”
“It’s a series of stretches some ponies believe cleanses the body and can help rehab certain muscles. It’s Chineighs.” He shrugged. “It’d be right up Toola’s alley, really, since she can bend like she’s got elastics instead of muscles and tendons.” Blinking, he tilted his head. “What got you on massages?”
“Toola,” she replied. “She and Nim have pulled muscles before, and they mentioned massages helping. Breezy’s said similar things, so I thought I’d read up and try it out.” Glancing at Sure Stroke, Esalen tilted her head to the right. “Do you mind if I try it?”
Sure Stroke grimaced. “If you think it’ll help, I’m all for it.” She tried to arch her back, but stopped short and gave a hiss of pain. “Definitely laid down wrong.”
“Well, lay back down and don’t move too much. I’ll get the book and come back.” Esalen buzzed her wings and lifted off the comfortable embrace of her brother’s bed pod, then flew out of his room and into the hallway, before turning right into her own.
Her desk was covered in books and papers, both from school and her own musings. Aspire loved to needle her about it, calling it a bigger mess than his mane or one of her own long-winded excuses for lateness. Esalen sniffed at the mere thought as she touched down on the wooden floor and trotted over to search through the piles. Her desk wasn’t a mess, it was just organized in her own special way—it was all exactly as she left it the day before.
The only question was which of the four piles—wait, five. When did that one happen? It was starting to encroach upon the sovereignty of piles one and four, and four was rather important since that had all of her math homework for the past month.
Esalen let out an annoyed sigh through her nose, then set about searching through her piles. It had to be here somewhere. She was just reading it the other day, for love’s sake. It should be somewhere between the crumpled pages of her algebra homework, her copy of Legacy of Love, and The Walker—which she still needed to finish so she could return to Aspire. Of course, she needed to start it over, really. It had been so long since her last time reading, she could hardly recall the plot.
“Something about a demon who follows ponies around,” she muttered. “He Who Follows, I think.” Shaking her head, Esalen set it to the side and continued her search.
Nothing. It wasn’t on her desk at all. For a moment, panic gripped her chest with its icy claw. Like Aspire’s new book series, her therapy books had been gifts from Haberdasher. Losing one of them was just unthinkable. She couldn’t stand such an insult to his friendship with her family.
Esalen bit her lip and turned away from her desk so she could look at the slime trailing down the corners of her walls and pooling onto the floor. “Maybe I stuck it in my storage slime,” she thought aloud as she trotted over to the storage slime nearest her vanity cabinet. Sure enough, a hardback book with a burgundy cover bearing the title Massage Therapy and Techniques for Blockheads written in shining silver script.
With a happy chitter, she tugged grabbed the book and tugged it out of her storage slime. It was freed with a rubbery squelch-pop. Esalen set the spine in her mouth and held it tight, then bounded out of her room to return to Aspire and Sure Stroke.
The pair had stayed much the same way she left them, though Aspire seemed to be grinning and looked ready to say something that would earn the glaring filly’s wrath in the form of a wing upside the back of his head—her favorite punishment for his constant insolence.
Come to think of it, watching Sure Stroke whack him was quickly becoming Esalen’s favorite punishment for his insolence too! A regular pastime.
Esalen leaped onto Aspire’s bed pod and landed beside Sure Stroke with a little bounce as she sank into its slimy embrace and let it form around her. She set the book against the hard membrane edge so she could read, then began flipping through the pages until she found the section on back muscles. “Which part of your back hurts, Doodle?”
Wincing, Sure Stroke made as though to reach around and point, but stopped and drew in a breath through her teeth.
“Don’t try that if you’re in pain, Doodle,” Aspire chided. “Just tell her.”
She rolled her eyes. “Thanks for warning after I did it!”
“I like to think of myself as a proud devotee of hindsight.”
“Hatchlings, focus,” Esalen cut in sharply. “Doodle, which part?”
Sure Stroke blinked, then let her ears droop. “Er, right beneath my wing joints, sort of between that and my tail.”
“Uh huh.” Esalen turned a page. “Sharp pain or sort of a stiff, hard to move pain?”
“Hard to move.”
Medial gluteal and longissimus doors, probably. Furrowing her brows, Esalen scanned over the suggested techniques. “Hmm, so the book advises medium pressure and a kneading technique.”
Sure Stroke turned to fix her with a quizzical stare. “What does that mean?”
“It means you’ll start out uncomfortable because I’m pressing and rolling my hooves into your back like I would knead dough.” Uncertainty flashed in Sure Stroke’s eyes, Esalen flicked her tongue, frowning at the taste. She leaned over and nosed against Sure Stroke’s cheek. “You let me feed on you without a problem,” she said, “which is a much bigger leap than a massage, don’t you think? And I’ve done this before. It helps.”
On cue, Aspire bobbed his head. “She’s worked on my neck a couple times because I get stiff hunching over to read. And I know she’s helped Toola with cramps in her legs.”
Sure Stroke relaxed a bit. “I’ve not really had any sort of experience beyond mom rubbing my neck, so discomfort and pressure just seems weird.”
“Only at the start,” Esalen repeated. “Because I have to work out the stiffness and any lactic acids that might’ve built up. After that, it’s supposed to be very soothing.”
Pursing her lips, Sure Stroke laid her head down and nodded once. Her wings rustled nervously as Esalen drew near and placed her hooves upon her back.
“Just relax. It’ll be fine. I promise.” Esalen smiled and slowly began to roll and knead her hooves, even as her friend hissed in pain and gritted her teeth before letting a groan sound from the back of her throat. The first part of a massage like this was always uncomfortable for the patient, much like her mother’s talks.
The end results, though, would make it all worthwhile.
It took every bit of Esalen’s self-control not to chitter happily at how Sure Stroke laid still, purring like a kitten in the middle of Aspire’s bed pod. While the first few moments had been uncomfortable, as predicted, Sure Stroke learned soon enough that her technique was sound, even if it wasn’t refined with years of professional practice.
The filly had almost melted under her ministrations, barely more than cocoon slime in her hooves. With each roll forward, Sure Stroke would let out a happy sigh and smile into the gelatinous bedding, while each press down would draw a moan from the back of her throat.
To their left, Aspire snorted. “Somepony’s awful comfortable,” he teased. “Starting to think you’re a kitten instead of a filly, Doodle.”
“Essy,” Sure Stroke mumbled into the pod, “smack him for me.”
Esalen chittered, her eyes danced with mirth. “I’d have to stop.”
There was a brief pause. Then Sure Stroke said, “Essy, don’t smack him. I’ll do it myself.” Lazily, she waved her hoof and waved it in Aspire’s general direction. “Get over here so I can smack you, smugling.”
“Uh, no. I think not.” He made a point of grinning and leaning in close, just enough that he was a hair out of reach. “Not afraid of aimless flailing.”
“Aim can be arranged,” she grumbled. “Just wait until after Essy finishes up.”
“Try it and I’ll have you tied in knots, Doodle.” His grin widened, Aspire waggled his ears. “Essy might even join in tickling you silly while I hold you.”
“Leave me out of this,” Esalen said, her voice tinged with amusement. She shook her head. “I’m almost done anyway, so you can both roughhouse or sit and relax either way. Or, the walking bird’s nest can tell us what Mister Haberdasher wrote.”
He blinked. “Oh, right. Hab invited us all to meet him in Manehattan so we can go to Coneigh Island with him and Miss Skies.”
Esalen gasped and paused her ministrations for a moment, much to Sure Stroke’s dismay. “Oooh! Yes! Definitely yes!” She turned to Sure Stroke and beamed. “What about you, Doodle?”
Velvety violet ears perked up. “Wait, I’m invited?”
Aspire nodded once. “Us three, our parents, and even Nim, Toola, Zeph, and Zippy if their parents allow it. So, what do you think?”
“Um …” Sure Stroke chewed on her lip. “I mean, if they said I was invited—”
“Hab said we could invite our little circle of friends,” Aspire cut in. “Named you along with the others.”
“I’ve never been to Coneigh Island before,” she said slowly. “But I’ve heard it’s fun.”
Curious, Esalen flicked out her tongue. Again, a hint of uncertainty played across her taste buds, but this time mixed with a dash of happiness and excitement. She just needed a little push to say yes.
“There’s a lot of games and rides at Coneigh Island,” Esalen said. “And a couple of art supply shops in the area.”
Sure Stroke’s ears twitched. “I suppose I could ask after my parents get out of their—um, what do you call this? When ponies are tired after feeding?”
Aspire and Esalen shared a look, matching grins spread across their muzzles. They replied in perfect unison, “The after meal lull.”
With a tired laugh, Sure Stroke rolled her eyes and settled back onto the gelatinous bed. “Of course.” She shook her head. “I’ll ask after my massage is done, then.”
Esalen beamed and perked her ears up. “So, I’m good at it?”
“If your hooves don’t start massaging again, I’m going to be very upset.” Sure Stroke turned and stuck out her tongue. “Yes, you’re good at it, you coy, smart-mouthed nymph, and I would be very happy if you please got back to it!”
The trio fell to laughter and happy chittering. Esalen resumed her work, softly humming a little tune as she massaged Sure Stroke’s muscles. Warmth spread through her chest as she tasted her friend’s happiness, the light, fluffy joy that rolled of the pudgy little artist in waves.
Who knows? Maybe this could be her trade after all.