It hadn’t taken long for the teasing to finally drive Respite’s newest couple spare. If Sure Stroke heard one more question about that kiss, one more comment about how simply lovedrunk she and Aspire were for one another, or one more ‘kissy-face’ mimicry from Esalen or Nimble …
Well, she wasn’t quite sure what would happen. Something would, though! That much was certain.
Her cheeks burned. Somewhere deep down, she knew all this was coming. It was a minor annoyance, to be certain. And yet, she couldn’t say she regretted anything.
Aspire’s kisses in the Tunnel of Love had been so very sweet and his hug so warm and secure.
If we could just find a bit of alone time without half the village teasing us, she thought as she irritably dug her spoon into a warm bowl of oatmeal. The burn in her cheeks spread to her neck and Sure Stroke gave her feathers a little fluff. We could go on a date, like those Wonderbolt volunteers called them at camp. Just him and I.
Maybe it was a little early to be thinking of that, but it would be nice. Not that Esalen, Nimble, Vector, Toola, and Zephyr weren’t fun—far from it, in fact!
But they weren’t Aspire.
“You’ve been awfully quiet this morning, sweetheart,” her mother teased over their breakfast of apple slices and oatmeal.
Sure Stroke froze with a spoonful of oatmeal halfway to her mouth. She clenched her eyes shut and heaved a sigh through her nose. Then, she forced a smile. “I’m just enjoying my breakfast, mom.”
A mischievous gleam, the sort that came whenever she knew Sure Stroke was hiding something, danced in her eyes. “Are you? And since when did my apple slices and oatmeal warrant such an adorable blush and fluff in those feathers of yours, Sure Stroke? If I didn’t know better, I’d say your mind was elsewhere.” Her lips curved into a sharklike grin. “Right down the road, one might say.”
Her shoulders slumped. Sure Stroke tried to hold back a low whine. She failed miserably. “Mooooom!”
“Don’t you ‘mom’ me, young mare! I gave birth to you! I raised you! I can tease you silly about your first little boyfriend all I want!” Skydancer thought a moment, then mused, “Or is it nymphfriend?”
From his spot at the opposite end of the table, Drizzly snorted and replied around a mouthful of apple, “Dunno. But I suppose this is the part where I grumble about hitting him in the tail with a lightning bolt.”
“Dad! Don’t you dare!”
“What? I’m just asking! And it’s not like I can until the storms roll through. ” He wrinkled his snout, tapping his spoon against his chin in thought. “Although, I could always make a quick trip over to Manehattan and see about requisitioning a thunderhead for the occasion …”
Sure Stroke sucked in a breath, puffing her cheeks angrily at her sniggering parents. Really, what in Equestria had gotten into them? It was just a kiss—well, several kisses, but the point stood! It wasn’t like they were getting married or anything.
Of course, she knew the answer all too well. Her lips tugged into a scowl as her friends’ faces, each with cheeky grins, floated to view. Those three are getting such a wallop the next time I see them!
She could feel her parents’ gazes on her, even as she fixed her own on her bowl of oatmeal. Growling to herself, she grumbled, “It was just a few kisses. It’s not like I’m going to run away and marry the little punk.”
Her father snorted. “I should certainly hope not.”
“You’re both far too young for that sort of thing, anyway,” her mother added.
Sure Stroke perked her ears up. Was that it? Were they done teasing her already? She let out a sigh of relief, then raised her gaze to meet her mother’s. As soon as she met Skydancer’s brilliant golden eyes, she felt all those nerves return in full force.
“Besides,” Skydancer said, continuing her previous thought, “you two haven’t even gone on dates or spent any sort of time together as a couple.”
“That we know of, at least.” Drizzly fixed Sure Stroke with a critical stare. “You aren’t hiding things from your old sire, are you, honey?”
That did it. Sure Stroke let her forehead thump against the table. For what seemed like the thousandth time that week alone, she whined, “It was just a few kisses!”
“Still doesn’t answer my question,” he replied with a hint of amusement in his tone.
“No! We haven’t gone on a date or anything yet! And I don’t even know if we are going on any!” She took a deep breath, trying to reign in her frustration. But her efforts were in vain. A week’s worth of teasing from all her friends save Aspire, some of the adults, the Queen and her household, and even her own parents finally broke the dam. “It was just a few kisses, and for all I know he was just lost in the moment when he returned mine.”
A gentle hoof touched her shoulder. “Honey, there’s no need to get so angry,” her mother said softly. “We’re just playing.”
“I’ve had just about enough ‘playing’ about the whole thing to last me a good long while.”
She felt her mother wince. “Fair enough.” The hoof left her shoulder, Skydancer hummed to herself. “Well, do you want to go on a date with Aspire?”
Sure Stroke slowly raised her head, her lips set in a contemplative frown. A part of her wanted to deny it, to brush the whole thing off as being just a flight of fancy between friends and nothing more. Anything to dispel the constant teasing.
But then his blasted smug smirk—in natural and pony form—floated to the forefront of her mind. His constant aura of amusement that always made her wonder whether she wanted to wallop or smile right along with him made her heart skip a beat. The memory of that little boat ride, how close he held her as he kissed her softly and nuzzled her nose and cheeks, made butterflies take wing in her stomach.
There was no doubt to her answer. A small part of her realized it ages ago.
She surrendered to the impulse and let the smile make its way across her face. “Yeah,” she replied, looking down at her breakfast. “I do.”
“Well, why don’t you ask him out?” Drizzly supplied.
Every muscle in her little body stiffened. Sure Stroke let her wings unfurl, her feathers twitched as though they wanted to cover her face all on their own. “I don’t know.” She twiddled her hooves and avoided his gaze as best she could.
“Why not? Your mother asked me out when we were younger.”
Her ears perked up again. She looked across the table at Drizzly and was met with a small smile on his nigh perpetually tired face. That was certainly news to her. “Really?”
“Really,” he replied with a single nod. “She caught my eye when I saw her performing at the Cloudsdale Arts Festival while I was pushing clouds. Found out her name and that she did a lot of shows in the city, so I’d go watch and think about asking her out. Always managed to come up with a reason why it wasn’t the best time.”
“That he did,” Skydancer interjected. Her smile spread from ear to ear, her eyes locked with the stallion across the table. “Of course, he didn’t realize that I noticed him popping up in the crowd more often and thought he was handsome. I got tired of waiting for him to ask me out, so I cornered him outside after one of my shows and did so myself. Seventeen years later, here we are.”
Interesting. Very interesting.
A slow smile spread across her lips. The gears in Sure Stroke’s doodly little head began to turn. I think I’ve got an idea.
“You know,” her mother began, “you should write Altocumulus. I’m sure he’d love to hear about your little boyfriend.”
Just like that, her smile fell. Sure Stroke covered her face with her wings and whined, “Mooooooom!”
Sure Stroke rapped her hoof three times against the wooden door. She stood on the front porch of her friends’ house, with her messenger bag slung over her shoulders. She could feel her heart beating like a drum within her chest. Her feathers twitched nervously, itching to either take flight or fluff up almost defensively.
The sound of chitinous hooves thumping against the wood floor made her ears twitch. “Yeah, I’ve got it,” Aspire’s voice sounded through the door. He seemed annoyed, like he’d been called away from something else to greet whoever decided to come over so early in the day.
He probably had his nose buried in a book or a stack of pancakes, Sure Stroke thought. A smile tugged at her lips.
The latch rattled and clicked, the door pulled open to reveal the aforementioned scruffy-maned nymph standing in the doorway with a decidedly bored look and his lips set in a thin line. A crumb of muffin stuck to the tip of one of his fangs.
He perked right up when he met her eyes. A bright smile spread across his face, he gave his short, scruffy tail a swish. “Oh, hey! What’s up, Doodle?”
Almost like when Toola tossed her mane and smiled at him when she offered love in exchange for homework help. Was that it? Could he already taste her affection?
Sure Stroke set that off to the side for later. She was on a mission. “Are you busy today?” she asked in a syrupy sweet tone. A grin nearly split her face when she saw how his eyes lit up. Already she was jotting down mental notes, musing on how to describe her friend’s—boyfriend?—response.
“Uh, not really,” he replied. His wings gave a little buzz, then fell silent. His cheeks flushed a darker shade of black as the blood rose beneath his carapace. Aspire rubbed a chitinous hoof against his hole-ridden shin. “Did you need something? Math help again?”
She shook her head. “No. No math help today.” Sure Stroke bit her lip and flicked her tail. Blasted nerves could go get bucked, they were anything but helpful. She stepped closer, stopping so her nose was just a hair’s breadth from his.
His eyes went as wide as dinner plates. The corner of his mouth twitched.
Fluffing her wings to show off her feathers, a trick she learned from watching those Wonderbolt volunteers flirting back at flight camp, she closed the distance and nuzzled a slow circle around his nose. “I was just wondering if you might want to spend some time together, just you and me,” she said softly. “I have my stuff so I can draw, and you can bring a book or whatever you want.”
Aspire swallowed, a sound that tickled her ears. She felt his lips part to allow the tips of his forked to test the air between them. His ears twitched. He swallowed again, licking his fangs clean. “I, uh, well, I need to finish breakfast, but sure.” Buzzing his wings, he added, “Gimme a couple minutes!” With a bright smile, he turned and darted back into his house, first shooting into the kitchen to call to his family, then out and down the hall with a rather suspicious bulge in his cheeks.
Sure Stroke had to cover her mouth to stifle a laugh. Even before their first date, he couldn’t resist wolfing down his mother’s cooking. When she managed to get herself back under control, she noticed Esalen poking her head around the kitchen banister.
Her friend’s pink eyes shone with unrestrained glee, a knowing, fanged smile played upon her lips. She arched a single brow at Sure Stroke and gave a low, almost buzzing hum. Her own little nonverbal question.
A familiar burn flooded Sure Stroke’s cheeks. Pinning her ears back, she gave a shy nod.
Esalen simply gave a grin that rivaled Aspire’s. In her devious little mind, she had won. Her brother and friend were about to go off and make eyes at one another.
And Sure Stroke couldn’t refute the point.
“Have fun,” Esalen stage whispered before disappearing into the kitchen once again.
If it were possible for a pony’s coat to burst into flames from body heat alone, Sure Stroke was almost certain her cheeks would be aflame. I’m not sure which is worse: his smugness or Essy being all coy and knowing.
Aspire came bounding down the hall with his saddlebags thumping against his sides. He skidded to a stop just a few inches before her, a wide, toothy grin spread from ear to ear. “So, where are we going?” he asked, his tail swishing back and forth more like an excited puppy than a nymph.
“I was thinking the lake would be nice. It’d give us a chance to get away from all the teasing and spend some time together.”
She didn’t think it was possible, but his grin broadened. “I know the perfect spot, but it’s a bit of a trip.”
“Oh? How far?”
In a burst of green fire, Aspire shapeshifted into his familiar guise, a pony with orange coat and fiery red mane. This time, however, with a slight difference.
Aspire flared his powerful wings out wide and flashed a winning grin. “We’re gonna have to take a short flight.”
“A short flight?” Sure Stroke repeated with humor tingeing her tone. The roar of rushing water from the mighty falls in the near distance was as constant as a steady drum beat. A show of nature’s power and splendor in the same instant.
With a roll of his eyes and another flash of green fire, Aspire shape-shifted again, resuming his natural form. “Oh, come on, Cloudsdale filly. Are you really gonna tell me that was too long a flight for you? Besides, look at this!” He waved at the scene around them. “Tell me this wasn’t worth the trip!”
He’d taken her to a rather nice patch of grass, circled by lush green bushes and wild flowers. A peaceful little grove hidden away by the mighty trees and mist from the falls. Twin flashes of red flitted through the trees. A pair of red breasted robins danced and sang as they chased one another through the forest.
She looked down and shuffled her hooves. The grass felt soft, tickling against her velvety smooth coat. “I guess I can’t,” she replied with a mock sigh. Fixing him with a wry look, she raised a brow. “If you start with that smirk, I’m gonna—”
Sure Stroke didn’t get the chance to finish. Aspire bounded forward and stopped so there was but a mere hair’s breadth between them, and pasted his most obnoxious, smuggest smirk on his muzzle. “You’re gonna what?” he asked, waggling his eyebrows. “Sit there and puff up your cheeks at me? Go for it, you’ll look like the adorable little Doodle you are. Swipe your wings? Sure, I’ll just pin you and tickle your sides as payback. Equal punishment for the offense, and all. So please, try me, Doodle.” His eyes flashed green. “I dare you.”
Pursing her lips, Sure Stroke thought for a moment, carefully considering her next move. A smirk as smug as his spread across her face, the idea hit her like a bolt of lightning.
With great solemnity, she raised her right hoof and took a deep breath as if to deliver some big, important speech. A laugh threatened to bubble forth when she noticed Aspire’s ears twitch and his smirk grow into a wide grin, eager to see what game he’d get to play.
The grin on his face washed away as he frowned. He blinked twice, then went cross-eyed to stare at the hoof pressed against his nose. “Did you just …” Aspire puffed up his cheeks. “That is not how we’re supposed to play this game, Doodle. You’re breaking the sacred couples’ tradition of Respite.”
“Oh? So it’s tradition for the changeling in the couple to be smug, mischievous, and insolent about everything to the point where the pony naturally gets them back, only to open up for payback?”
“Of course. It’s fun, isn’t it?” The forked tips of his tongue poked out from behind his lips, teasing the underside of her wrist. “I know for fact you like it. Just underneath all that outrage.”
“Well, maybe you’ll have to get creative and figure out how to deal with a pony who sees through your game and doesn’t give you the satisfaction of taking the bait.” Sure Stroke snorted in challenge as she lowered her hoof. A thought came to her, though.
What was that he said? “Couples’” tradition? Fighting against the blush that threatened to spread across her face, she looked down at her hooves. The grass was quite green. And lovely.
She shuffled her hooves again. “So … are we a couple now?”
The grass rustled. Sure Stroke glanced up to see that Aspire opted to sit back on his haunches. He looked at her through those deep, sky blue eyes. His nerves were shone plain upon his face. He licked his lips, his eyes fell to the grass as he shrugged his saddlebags off. For a moment, there was silence between them.
Sure Stroke couldn’t take it. “Are we?” she prompted.
His cheeks flushed a deep black. “Would you be okay with it?” he asked quietly. “Y’know, being a couple with m—one of us?” Aspire looked up almost shyly and pointed at his fangs. Before she could answer, he moved to tap his hoof against his carapace, then opened his mouth to show off rows of sharp, gleaming teeth, long, serpentine tongue, and the slime glands and venom sacks at the roof of his mouth. He closed his mouth, shifting around in place. “I understand if … I understand.”
He didn’t want to say it. Sure Stroke didn’t need to have the Caretakers’ empathic tasting to know what he felt or meant.
Aspire understood if she felt his natural form to be too alien and frightening for her.
She let her shoulders slump. “Aspire …” she began, but stopped short. Hesitation stayed her voice.
It was the absolute worst thing to happen. Aspire flinched as though he’d been stung, his ears drooped. “It’s okay, you know?” he said softly, trying his very best to mask how it hurt. “I mean, you haven’t had the chance to get as acclimated as Toola. And you’re older than she was, so it might take a while.”
“Aspire, wait a minute—”
“And it’s not like you have to like one of us! Vector’s a great colt, even if he’s a bit of a smart-mouth, but I don’t have much room to talk there.”
Sure Stroke fixed him with a flat stare. “Aspire,” she repeated.
“Or there’s Rocky. Though, you’d have to hit him with an actual rock to get him to take a hint, so, good luck there.”
Oh, believe me, I’m about to hit someone with a rock. If I can find one. She sighed. “Aspire, listen—”
“But—well—I could always …” he trailed off in thought. Aspire met her eyes, his ears perked up as though a brilliant idea had just worked its way into his silly little head. He smiled. “I could always do this.”
The instant she saw the first fleck of green fire, Sure Stroke knew what he was up to. Anger burned hot in her chest, she lashed out with a hoof and took hold of his ear, and gave it a twist. “No!”
With a yelp, he stopped in mid shift. “Ow! Ow! Ow! Let go of my ear!”
“Not until you stop talking at me and start letting me speak!” she snapped. “What in the name of Celestia’s pinions has gotten into you? Since when have I asked you to hide what you are?”
Aspire squirmed in vain. “I was just trying to offer! You kissed my pony form, so I figured … well …”
Blinking, Sure Stroke froze in place. What? She released his ear absentmindedly and let him scoot just out of reach. His muttered complaints and whining as he massaged his ear barely even registered, her mind was racing.
I did kiss his pony form. And his pony form is handsome. Sure Stroke looked over at Aspire and let her eyes wander over his natural, changeling body. He was strange, very much so. But in his own way, with his smooth, polished carapace, messy mane, sky blue eyes, smug smirk, and fangs, he was still handsome.
He was better than his pony form, even though he didn’t realize it.
It was the forest all over again. Or the day he refused to feed on her love when offered. Once again, Aspire was trying to mollycoddle her in spite of himself.
The angry fire in her chest roared to life, her feathers twitched. The righteous fury of Commander Hurricane’s pegasus legions burned brightest when those closest to them were threatened or slighted. Or when someone they cared for was hurting.
Sure Stroke gritted her teeth and furrowed her brows as she slipped her messenger bag off. Percussive therapy wouldn’t work this time. At least, not without a bit of tweaking.
With an angry cry, she leaped upon Aspire and quickly pinned his shoulders to the ground. He squirmed and writhed beneath her, sputtering protests at a mile per second until she silenced him with a warning look. Aspire looked up at her, his sky blue eyes wide and any trace of knowing grin gone from his face.
Leaning in close, she narrowed her eyes. “Stop babying me and shut up,” she growled.
“Meep!” he squeaked in reply.
Sure Stroke unfurled her wings in a wide, threatening display. “I didn’t kiss you because you were a pony, you aggravating, smug, smart-mouthed, thick-headed, wise-cracking, infuriating changeling!”
Aspire blinked. “… Huh?
“Are you—how in Celestia’s name does someone who can literally taste emotion not get it?”
“Oh, would you just shut up!” Sure Stroke tilted her head and closed the distance, capturing his lips.
They were just as soft as a pony’s, but without the tickle of their coat. Instead, she could feel the points of his fangs poking her bottom lip as she drew upon his. Their eyes locked, Sure Stroke let her eyelids droop into a half-lidded gaze in contrast to the wide-eyed stare he returned. Slowly, his lips began to move in kind, reciprocating the kiss as he melted into it, just like in the Tunnel of Love.
The instant she felt his forked tongue poke her lips to taste, Sure Stroke drew back and loomed over him.
Aspire blinked his eyes a few times, confused. “So …”
“I kissed you because I like you!” she said. “Aspire the aggravating, smug, smart-mouthed, thick-headed, wise-cracking, utterly infuriating changeling who is supposed to be a part of this first date with me and owes me reading.”
Like magic, he perked right up. “Okay,” he muttered softly, his entire face flushed as black as hurricane clouds. A smile spread across his face. Nodding to himself, he closed his eyes, took a deep breath, and repeated, “Okay.”
Aspire opened his eyes and met her gaze. Those sky blue eyes shone with mischievous delight.
What is he up to?
“I owe you reading, huh?” he asked. “That’s not all I owe you, Doodle.”
Sure Stroke raised an eyebrow. “Huh?”
“Come on, you forgot something important. Something I taught you about us changelings a long time ago.” He grinned, showing off his teeth again. “Think hard.”
Wrinkling her snout, Sure Stroke fixed him with a wry look. “You taught me a lot about changelings, you’re going to have to be more—eep!” Her world went sideways.
Aspire moved as quick as a pouncing timberwolf, pinning her against the ground. His chest heaved, he grinned down at her with gleaming eyes and leaned in close. His fangs tickled her cheek as he leaned up to whisper in her ear, “If you challenge or slight one of us, we’ll get you back just as good, Doodle. And you—” his lips pressed against her cheek “—just threw out a challenge when you pinned me like that. And then—” he kissed the corner of her mouth “—you kissed me.”
Sure Stroke felt her face burn as he moved to nuzzle her nose just as she had done back at his house.
“You know I can’t just let you do all that without paying you back, don’t you, Doodle?”
“Meep?” she asked.
“Yeah,” he purred, pausing just long enough to give her nose an affectionate lick. “Meep is just about right. Pucker up, doodly girlfriend.”
The blush spread all the way to the very tips of her ears. Sure Stroke leaned up and returned the gesture, then settled back against the warm bed of grass and wrapped her wings around him. “Gladly, smugling boyfriend.”
From her spot within the boughs of a great oak tree, hidden by a mass of leafy coverage, Esalen smiled to herself as she captured another picture. She had the decency to give them a bit of a mulligan on the first kiss, though, really, that was more because she was struggling not to break cover to throttle Aspire.
When Sure Stroke tackled and set him straight, she settled down. But when the pegasus planted a smooch on his lips, Esalen could’ve done backflips.
“About time,” she whispered to herself as she watched the pair settle in to read together. A smile tugged at her lips as she watched Aspire rub his shoulder against Sure Stroke’s.
Idly, she let her mind wander. While Aspire’s choice of date spot wasn’t exactly secret, it was nice and secluded. The perfect place to bring someone on a nice, quiet date. Esalen covered her mouth to stifle a laugh as she watched Sure Stroke wrap a wing around Aspire and lay her head on his shoulder.
Yes, the perfect place for something just like this. A bit difficult to get to unless everyone had wings, though. It would take an earth pony the better part of an hour to walk around the lake, and carrying one all the way across was just out of the question.
Toola Roola would love to come here and practice her gymnastics, she thought, giving her false feathers a little fluff. As quickly as it came, she shook her head. Focuse, Essy! Lovedrunk brother and Doodle to take pictures of for scrapbooking and teasing.
She brought the camera to bear and peered through the lens at the couple. The bright smiles on their faces brought warmth into her chest. They were happy together. And Sure Stroke was comfortable enough with him to demand he be himself.
Maybe there wouldn’t be so much teasing with the pictures. They could have a mulligan on the entire date. They deserved it.
“Congratulations, you two.”