The Village Called Respite

by Carapace

32. Our Favorite Faces

It hadn’t taken much for Sure Stroke to convince her parents to let her go to Coneigh Island with her friends, but her mother did place one or two conditions on the visit. Since they were going for a full day and spending the night in Haberdasher’s house, Skydancer insisted that she bring along her homework so she wouldn’t fall too far behind in her studies.

Normally, Sure Stroke would’ve tried to wheedle her way out of it with a half-hearted promise to work on it once she returned home, but, much to her dismay, Aspire had been within earshot. Somehow what should have been a nice, relaxing train ride to Coneigh Island with her friends had turned into a mobile study session.


Sighing, she flicked her tail as she trotted toward the village gate with her parents and changeling neighbors. Her messenger bag, laden with her sketch pad and math notes, thumped against her left side with every step. She couldn’t be too angry, though, as Aspire did manage to catch her eye and let her peek in his bag just enough to see a familiar storybook slipped in alongside his math book.

Sure Stroke listened absentmindedly as Aspire and Esalen chattered away about the different games and rides she simply had to try, and the food they hoped to have again. Her thoughts wandered a bit, thinking back to some of the stories her friends from Cloudsdale would tell after they came home from Coneigh Island. She couldn’t help but compare theirs with her new friends’.

The foals in Cloudsdale always came home chattering about how strange it felt to walk down a paved sidewalk and look up at concrete buildings and the bridge connecting the city with the suburbs on the opposite side of Gallop Bay. Coneigh Island itself always seemed to be a great big game destination—they got to play darts, throw rings over bottles, and trot through the halls of mirrors. Rides were nice, but there was a little thrill to be had when they could do more with free flight.

“Boring” was all one of the fillies, a loudmouth braggart with a rainbow mane, said about the rides. They were boring to her family. While earth ponies and unicorns whooped and hollered, her family yawned and wondered if they could slip out and do a few loops around the track.

Aspire and Esalen, on the other hoof, went on as though it were a place out of a fairytale. Esalen was especially happy to paint a picture of families laughing and playing without a care in the world and of how new faces were greeted with smiles and the like.

“The rides are fun, too!” Esalen said. “Some ponies think they’re scary because they’re not used to going up high, but a lot of them get really into it.” She giggled, adding, “Aspire and I were confused the first time we went on a ride with a crowd of ponies. They were all screaming and shrieking while they rode the spinning cups, but we couldn’t taste any fear. They were all happy. Ecstatic, even.”

Confused, Sure Stroke fixed her with a quizzical look and furrowed her brows. “That doesn’t make sense. Who screams and shrieks when they’re happy?”

“You mean aside from Nim’s victims?” Aspire chipped in with a knowing smile.

“That’s not enjoyment and you know it, smugling.”

He brought a hoof to his chin in mock thought. “I dunno. An awful lot of laughter and smiling whenever she gets her hooves on somepony. Tears of joy, even. Right, Essy?”

“Naturally,” Esalen replied with absolute sincerity. She met Sure Stroke’s eyes and gave a tiny, innocent smile. It was a tad too innocent for her taste. “Nim takes great care to ensure all those who find themselves in her care leave with a big smile and tears of mirth.”

With a roll of her eyes and a fond shake of her head, Sure Stroke swiped a wing at the twins’ heads, cursing as they both ducked and blew raspberries in reply. “You’re both horrible.”

“We try!” they chimed together.

“You make it too easy,” Aspire added, nudging her shoulder. “But you’ll see what we mean when we get there. Oh! And you’ve gotta try Manehattan pizza! It’s amazing!”

Another thing to put on the list, it seemed. Sure Stroke smiled and nodded along as the wooden gate came into view, the familiar sign hanging overhead bringing a little swish to her tail. She could see Nimble and Toola standing alongside a pair of changelings, one a burly stallion with short, yellow-brown mane and tail, the other a mare of rosy red mane tied in a bun, who barely came up to his chest—their parents, no doubt. The mare wore a white smock with a small smile playing upon her lips as she relayed some instructions to the excited fillies while her husband stood quietly by.

A few steps away, Vigil stood nearby, though without the usual forest green armor she and her fellow village guards wore while on duty.

Nimble caught sight of them first. She leaped up on her hind hooves, her face split in a fanged grin as she waved her fore hooves as though she were signaling the Wonderbolts to come in for a landing.

Excited buzzing tickled Sure Stroke’s ears. She scarcely had the chance to glance at either of the twins before they bolted off to catch Nimble and Toola in excited hugs, and began babbling faster than any reasonable pony could hope to keep up with.

The adults present chuckled and shook their heads. The changeling with rosy red mane looked up. Her soft red-pink eyes met Sure Stroke’s and seemed alight with interest and razor sharp focus. A slow smile spread across her chitinous muzzle as she leaned against the stallion.

Sure Stroke chewed on her lip and took a couple steps closer to her mother and Faith. Her old habits came back in full—they were familiar, so they were safe to hide behind. The new mare was not. Her keen eyes reminded Sure Stroke of another changeling who took an interest. Not to mention her friend.

Queen Euphoria and Madame Soleil.

“Good morning, Ladybug,” Warm Welcome greeted with a smile to the mare, then he turned to the stallion. “And Mantis.”

“Good morning, Warm,” Ladybug replied, tearing her gaze away from Sure Stroke so she could trot over and rear up on her hind legs to hug Warm Welcome. Then, she did the same with Faith. “I ought to scold Hab for inviting my fillies along on this,” she quipped, “they’ve been bouncing off the walls since Essy invited them last Saturday. Right, Mantis?”

Mantis padded over to her side, nodding in agreement with his wife. For the first time, Sure Stroke could compare him to her father and Warm Welcome. Mantis wasn’t just tall.

He towered over both of them by a full head and shoulders. If Queen Euphoria were here, Sure Stroke would bet her feathers that he nearly came up to the Queen’s chin!

Mantis stayed quiet, his eyes flitted between his fellow changelings, Sure Stroke, and her parents. Flicking out his tongue, he focused on her a moment. He seemed to hesitate, a hind hoof lifted as if to step away.

She rolled her eyes and gave him a little prod. “You can talk, you big softy. Say hello to Nimble and Toola’s little friend, and introduce yourself to her parents.”

“‘Lo,” he said softly, his voice a low, buzzing rumble that made Sure Stroke’s ears twitch.

Ladybug glared. She set her jaw and reared up, placing her hooves upon his shoulders so she could look him in the eye. Several seconds passed, the pair stayed locked in a sort of silent conversation with one another.

To Sure Stroke’s surprise, Mantis looked away first. “Name’s Mantis,” he said. “Nice to meet you.”

“Likewise,” Drizzly replied with a nod. He held out his hoof to Mantis, who eyed it a moment before he accepted the gesture. A tired smile settled on Drizzly’s muzzle, he glanced at Vigil. “Er, Vigil? Are you going on a trip somewhere?”

Vigil shook her head. “No, Drizzly. I’m here to walk you all to the station. Little precaution we take in case any timberwolves or the like try coming onto the path.”

The trio of pegasi flinched and shared concerned looks. Skydancer’s wings twitched, a nervous smile flitted across her muzzle. “Er, can you really take on a timberwolf by yourself?”

“I had a big breakfast,” came the coy reply, coupled with a fanged grin. “Sweets is always generous when she knows I’m on path escort.” Vigil looked at each member of their party. “So who all is going to Manehattan and who’s coming back with me?”

Ladybug raised her hoof. “Mantis and I just came by to drop the girls off. We’ve got some things to take care of in the herb garden, or we’ll be low on medicine heading into the winter.”

“Right. No need for a repeat of the flu breakout a few years back, eh?”

“Quite.” Ladybug nodded once. Then she turned her attention to Sure Stroke, her eyes shone with interest again. With a small smile, she said, “It’s nice to finally meet my daughters’ newest friend. Mantis and I have heard so much about you.”

Sure Stroke perked up her ears. “Oh?”

“Why yes. Nimble sang her tickle song.”

Dang it. She forced a smile. “She tricked me.”

Ladybug chittered. “My Nimble is a changeling nymph. Trickery is something we take pride in, little Doodle,” she said, her smile widened at the way Sure Stroke flinched. Then, she winked. “Take it as a lesson to be more observant next time they play their games.”

Sure Stroke grumbled under her breath, but nodded all the same.

Ladybug trotted over to hug her daughters, then stepped to the side so Mantis could do the same. The couple bid them all goodbye and a safe trip, then trotted back into the village.

“Right, so!” Vigil spoke again. “Drizzly? Skydancer? Are you going or coming back?”

“Going,” Skydancer replied with a smile.

Beaming, Vigil nodded. “Well, then, time to get a move on.” She turned to her fellow changelings and said, “Let’s get in our preferred forms, everyone.”

All six changelings were engulfed in green fire. Sure Stroke watched as smooth, polished chitin and long, pointed fangs vanished before her very eyes. Vigil stood before her, a stocky mare with verdant green coat and teal mane. She fluffed her new feathers and ran a hoof through her long, flowing mane. “Mm, it’s been too long since I’ve gone out like this! I’ll have to show off for Sweets when I get back!”

Warm Welcome sniggered as he fiddled with the orange bow tie that appeared around his goldenrod neck. His short, neat orange mane looked combed to perfection, save for the long bangs that hung over his eyes. “You just want to tease her with those feathers.”

“Let her have her fun, you!” Faith scolded. An exasperated look crossed her pearl white muzzle. With a sigh and a flick of her shimmering golden mane, she reared up to fix her husband’s bowtie. “I don’t understand why you have to add this silly thing every time you transform! Just tie one, you silly gnat!”

“I like my bowtie!” he whined. “And I can pick the colors like this!”

Faith looked to Drizzly and Skydancer for support. The pair blinked, then shared a look. With a sheepish smile, Skydancer said, “It does go nicely with his mane.”

“Ha! I win!”

Smiling sheepishly, Sure Stroke stepped away from her parents and turned her attention to the nymphs. A filly of aquamarine coat and magenta mane stood in Nimble’s place. Her face and her body structure changed so she looked almost exactly like Toola. A perfect replica, in fact, save for the tiny horn poking out from within her wavy mane.

She then glanced at Esalen. Her friend had shrunk a little bit and now barely came up to her snout. Her tied, sugar pink mane became a curly, bouncy purple just a touch lighter than her own, with a horn poking out from beneath the curls. Her polished chitin had vanished beneath a soft, smooth peach coat that shone in the light. A quick look over Esalen’s shoulder made Sure Stroke gape—her tail was tied near her rump to give it a little fluff, raising it up just enough that a passing colt or filly would turn to take a second look.

The gleam in Esalen’s eyes and flash of pink tongue darting along soft peach lips left no doubt in her mind that the disguised nymph wanted her to ask. It was almost a silent dare, begging her for the chance to tease. Sure Stroke could almost hear a coy one-liner about catching someone’s eye and whisking them back to Respite for bed wraps, cuddling, kisses, and a few generous helpings of love.

Rather than give Esalen the satisfaction, Sure Stroke tore her eyes away and turned to look over Aspire’s chosen form.

He wore the same face as the day they’d played hide and seek in the forest. Sunlight shone along his sleek orange coat like he’d just taken a brush to it, and his mane, now a fiery red with a horn sticking out, was just as messy as ever. Still, Sure Stroke couldn’t help but let her eyes wander a bit, scanning from the warm, sunset orange muzzle to the stack of books and notepad emblazoned on his flank—his false cutie mark.

It seemed so odd seeing him out of his natural form. She’d grown so used to the smug grin he wore set upon a black, chitinous face with a pair of fangs sticking out from beneath his lips and extending halfway down his chin.

And yet, she was still looking at Aspire. His face was there, even though it had changed. His snout might have rounded out and lost a bit of that angular, predatory look, but the smile was his. Though his eyes looked more like the sky at sunset rather than the open blue sky she’d so come to love, they still held a hint of brilliance to their mischievous light.

Aspire noticed her staring and blinked, his smile faltered. “Is there something wrong? Do I have something on my face?”

“Yeah,” Esalen chipped in, winking at the fillies. “There’s a glob of ketchup on your head!”

Rolling his eyes, he shook his head. “Hardy har. You’re such a comedian, Essy.” His deep orange eyes settled on Sure Stroke.  “Doodle?”

The silly nickname snapped Sure Stroke out of her musing. Her cheeks burned, a rosy hue tinging her soft purple coat a deep violet. She shook her head so hard her ponytail whipped back and forth. “N-Nothing!” she squeaked. “Just making sure I know who’s who for when we get there!”

He tilted his head, staring in confusion for a moment. Then he shrugged and turned to stand beside her, ready to head out as soon as Vigil gave the word.

Out of the corner of her eye, Sure Stroke noticed Esalen and Nimble each running their tongue along their lips and flashing coy smirks in her direction. The latter whispered a few words to Toola, who grinned and waggled her ears. Sure Stroke could feel the burn in her cheeks spread throughout her face.

“Alright, let’s get a move on!” Vigil said, unwittingly rescuing her from further embarrassment. “The station’s only about an hour’s walk, but it’s better to be early than late with Main Line running things.”

With excited grins and a scuffle of hooves on the dirt road, the foals and disguised nymphs scampered over to the adults and began their trot down the forest path.

Sure Stroke couldn’t resist one last sidelong look at Aspire’s face, and pictured his natural one alongside the pony mask he wore. The differences were slight, but he was still there, smiling and laughing with her as he regaled her with further tales of Coneigh Island. All the while, she watched, the gears in her head turning as she admitted it to herself:

Nymph or foal, he’s quite handsome.

While the train station showed its age in the darkened, cracked wood and shuttered windows, Sure Stroke had to admit that the old stallion and his family knew how to keep the place tidy.

Not so much as a speck of dust rested on the counter top. The windows had been cleaned so well, Sure Stroke would almost bet there had been no shortage of birds from the nearby forest—just a short walk out the back door and toward Respite—who flew straight into them, confused at where their opening to prime nest real estate had gone.

Vigil stayed just long enough to see them inside. She gave a single nod, then bade them a pleasant journey before turning to trot back down the path to Respite.

A middle aged stallion of steel gray coat and trimmed brown mane stood behind the counter. He gave a small smile as he counted out the stack of bits Warm Welcome slid toward him in exchange for their tickets.

Warm Welcome took it in stride. “Counting out my bits, Line?” he teased. “It’s almost like you think I’m deceiving you!”

Main Line fixed him with a flat look and gave a single, forced laugh. “That joke was funny the first fifty times you told it, Warm.”

“I don’t make it that often.”

“You do, and so do the rest of you goofball Caretakers. That joke’s older than me, for Celestia’s sake.” With a long-suffering sigh, he swept the bits into a drawer and floated a stack of nine tickets over to Warm Welcome. “Your train will be here shortly, you’ve timed it just right. I’ve got a pot of coffee brewing in the kitchen for anypony who wants one. Though, you’ll have to drink quickly. I give it about ten minutes tops before that train gets here.”

“Anyone,!” Esalen quipped.

He glanced at her, a fond smile played upon his lips. “Anypony outside village limits, smart mouth,” he shot back without a trace of venom. Then he let his eyes flit about the group until they settled on Sure Stroke and her family. “Ah, the newest residents. So they haven’t sent you running for the hills yet.”

Sure Stroke hid a giggle fit as Drizzly furrowed his brows. “No … has that happened before?”

“Not deliberately, but there have been some ponies who don’t take our—” Main Line glanced at the disguised changelings, then at the door as though he expected somepony to walk in at any moment “—friends’ appearances.”

“Ah.” Skydancer nodded, turning to smile at Sure Stroke. “Well, we had a bit of a time getting acclimated, but things seem to have settled down.”

Faith laid a hoof on Skydancer’s shoulder. “They’ve adapted quite well,” she said with a wink. “Especially considering the little bumps along the way.”

Nodding, Main Line stepped out from behind his counter with a pair of binoculars floating in the steel gray glow of his magic. He approached the western facing window, and peered out. His lips twitched. “Much as I’d love to hear about the bumps, I think you lot had better get onto the platform. Your train’s headed in now.”

Naturally, everyone crowded over to peer out the window. Sure Stroke fluffed her feathers at the tiny dot trailing black smoke as it chugged toward them, growing bigger and bigger until she could see the engine car and the familiar purple banner flying above the engineer’s cabin—the Royal Standard.

Sure Stroke felt a pair of hooves snatch her by either shoulder and jerk her back, she let out a yelp. Glancing left and right, she found herself in the clutches of Aspire and Esalen, their disguises’ faces split in excited grins as they frog marched her to the platform with Nimble and Toola skipping along close behind.

Her friends were practically bouncing in place while they waited for the train to roll to a stop. Sure Stroke raised a hoof to shield her eyes from the hot wind that hissed out as the brakes released, and then nearly toppled sideways when Aspire bumped into her.

A sheepish grin flitted across his orange coated face. He stopped bouncing long enough to rub at the back of his neck. “Sorry, Doodle.”

Sure Stroke raised an eyebrow, a smug smirk played upon her lips. “Maybe leave the dancing and prancing to the two who don’t trip over their own four hooves, eh, smugling?”

“Maybe leave the smugness to me unless you want me to spit a little slime on your hooves and slip a quick word to Nimble, eh, Doodle?” He returned her smirk with a grin that sent shivers down her spine. Such a grin wasn’t a threat, it was a challenge of his own.

A challenge for a challenge, it seemed. But not one made out of anger or ill intent.

Just friends being friends.

Which meant it only made sense for Sure Stroke to stick out her tongue and blow a raspberry at him. Aspire threw back his head and laughed—not his normal, chittering laugh, but a regular pony’s belly laugh. It sounded warm and oddly … off hearing his laugh without that insectoid chitter mixed in with his voice. And it wasn’t just his laugh.

Esalen and Nimble both seemed so strange without the chittering. Cirrus, even hearing Warm Welcome and Faith chuckle without a hint of that high clicking made her double take at each of them just to be sure she hadn’t somehow lost track of her changelings—which, given the circumstances, seemed far too likely for her tastes.

She blinked. When had they become her changelings? And, more importantly, how could a sound so familiar as a pony’s laughter seem so wrong coming out of their mouths?

Aspire nudged her out of her musings, and nodded toward the passenger car, where his father floated the tickets to the conductor and then led the group inside. “Come on, Doodle,” he said with his damnable grin. “Too much daydreaming, and you’ll get left behind.”

Sure Stroke’s response was, as always, the model of maturity and dignity.

Another raspberry and a flick of her tail across his false, pony face before she boarded the train just seemed all too fitting. She raised her nose in the air and gave a mock huff, trotting along the rows of empty seats, passing by her parents, Faith, and Warm Welcome until she sat down across from Nimble, Toola, and Esalen. Aspire slid into the seat beside her, his pony face still split in that grin and poorly suppressed sniggers tickling her ears, and threatening to infect her with his mirth.

Stupid smugling.

A quick look around the compartment showed no other ponies save for the villagers. No one to overhear their conversation. Sure Stroke let out a sigh of relief, happy she couldn’t risk outing them.

If her friends noticed her caution, they let it pass without comment. Aspire pulled his math book out of his saddlebag and waggled his ears. “How about we get this studying out of the way?”

The fillies shared a look, letting out a symphony of groans as the adults glanced over to watch expectantly. Biting back curses, they fished their books and pencils out, and readied for their daily session of mathematical torment.

No rest for the weary.