Flowing aquamarine mane and velvety smooth magenta coat glowed with light as one filly backflipped over her sister. Polished black chitin reflected the sun’s glow while a pale violet mane captured its glow as the other twirled across the wooden stage on her hind hooves, never once losing her focus. On the far side of the stage, a young nymph with a sunny yellow mane and a red bowtie around his neck sat at a small piano, his eyes closed in concentration as he played a merry tune for the dancers.
Yet another young nymph watched with rapt attention. Her sugar pink mane was brushed back and braided into a neat ponytail, and her pink eyes seemed to light up in awe. No matter how many times Esalen got to watch Toola Roola and Nimble Hooves practice their dances or heard Allegretto play, she found herself entranced.
Though her race were naturally gifted hunters—strong, quick on their hooves, nimble as cats, and gifted with magic and flight—there were some who put them all to shame.
That Toola Roola, a bubbly, pretty little earth pony who flipped and cartwheeled around the stage with incomparable ease, could even match her adoptive sister’s grace was a testament to her talent and drive to improve. With every leap and every twirl, her beautiful mane caught the sun’s light and shimmered like stardust.
Esalen felt her heart race, her stomach felt like something was squirming inside. She shook her head. Toola was a friend. A very pretty, very sweet filly, but a friend. Sort of like a certain pegasus had been up until she and Aspire were caught smooching on a boat at Coneigh Island.
Stop that! Focus! Esalen pushed those thoughts to the back of her mind just in time to watch the girls’ big finale. They moved in perfect synch, starting on opposite ends of the stage—they spun on their hind hooves, took a wide leap and each landed on one hoof. Barely a second passed before they leapt again, this time flipping cartwheel style without ever touching the stage with their forehooves.
They stuck the landing, beaming at their audience of one and spreading their forelegs out wide.
Esalen stomped her hooves against the ground and gave her wings a happy buzz. “Great job, girls!” she praised. “You’ll have the Enchanters amazed if you perform like that when they arrive!”
Nimble grinned as she let herself fall onto four hooves. “We’ll be better,” she said with a merry buzz of her own. “I bet we can have them gobsmacked and left at a loss for words!”
“That’d be a change!” Toola tittered, swishing her tail. “Though we’d have to be on the lookout again afterward—especially if they bring those two nymphs who flirted with us.”
Her jaw clenched, Esalen had to fight down the urge to hiss and bare her fangs as her heart began to race. Pretty as angels and dazzling or not, no Enchanter had better try to take one of her friends away. Least of all …
Nimble’s violet eyes flashed with delight, she ran her tongue along her lips and let a low, happy err sound from the back of her throat. Her eyes fixed upon Esalen. Slowly, a coy smile spread across her muzzle as she raised her brows in silent question.
Esalen broke eye contact and tried to hide the blush flooding her cheeks. “S-So!” she began, hastily snatching her copy of Massage Therapy 101 out of her saddlebags. “Do either of you need a quick once over? We don’t want the stars of our welcome show getting hurt before the Enchanters get here, eh?”
Nodding together, the pair hopped off the stage and trotted over to her side. Toola happily laid down on the soft grass so Esalen could work on her hind legs. She looked up at the stage and waved a hoof at Allegretto. “Thanks for playing for us, ‘Gretto!” she called. “You sound perfect!”
The little nymph sniffed and adjusted his bowtie. “Thanks, Toola,” he replied, eyeing Esalen critically. “Nice to hear someone appreciates me.”
Oops. Esalen grinned sheepishly. “Sorry, Allegretto. I didn’t mean to ignore you. You played brilliantly, as usual.”
He hummed, raising a single brow as he ran his tongue along his lips. His ears twitched. A slow smile spread across his lips as he shared a quick look with Nimble. “Well, thanks,” he said after a moment. “I suppose I’ll forgive you this time since you were—” he grinned, showing a mouthful of sharp teeth and gleaming fangs as he cast a meaningful glance at Toola “—distracted.”
The blush spread across Esalen’s face, all the way to the very tips of her ears. She ducked her head low and sucked in her lips, doing her very best to avoid her friends’ eyes—especially Toola’s—as she begged any higher power listening for a distraction.
It came in the form a black and blue blur darting across the field, leaping over a squawking Allegretto just in time to avoid bowling him over.
Esalen recognized the polished carapace, sky blue eyes alight with mischievous glee, messy mane, pearly white fangs, and lips curved into a smug smile, even as they clamped down around a folded piece of paper—her smart-mouthed gnat of a twin brother, Aspire.
Without so much as a backwards look, he scampered down the street toward the village entrance and rounded Pear Tree’s food stand, disappearing from sight.
“Was that—” Nimble began.
“—It was,” Toola finished, giggling into her hooves.
Allegretto snorted. “Oh, geez. Wonder what he did this time.”
The sound of powerful wings beating against the air made Esalen flick an ear. An amused smile spread across her face. She turned to look down the path, and promptly chittered at the sight of the filly flying toward them. Her soft purple cheeks were puffed up, her blue eyes flashing dangerously, and face contorted into an indignant mask.
“Aspire!” Sure Stroke hollered, flying past the group without so much as a look. “Get your butt back here or I’m gonna beat your smug little head in!” She banked right at Pear Tree’s stand and swooped low, just like a falcon diving upon an unsuspecting bunny.
Esalen turned to face her friends. The fluffy taste of amusement and mirth served as a nice little add on to the strained smiles and puffed cheeks. “Whatever it was,” she began, “he’s about to get himself a good walloping once Doodle catches him.”
The quartet broke down in a fit of chitters and laughs, each kicking their hooves in the air as Sure Stroke shouted threats in the distance.
It was yet another beautiful day in the hidden village they called home.
Aspire was finished. Done. That little punk loved to live on the edge, prodding and teasing her just as he had before they started dating, but this time he was going to get his.
Sure Stroke hit the ground running, only barely managing to avoid a collision with a burly slate gray colt named Rock Solid. She muttered a quick apology as he shrugged and trotted around the corner and down the path she’d come from. Her eyes darted left and right in search of any sign of her ever-irritating boyfriend. Nothing. He’d given her the slip again. With a snarl, she flicked her tail. “You’d better give me that letter back, Aspire!” she called, stomping toward Sweet Treat’s shop. There was an unspoken rule in the village: no wrestling or pranks in someone’s shop, especially when others were trying to eat or work.
If Aspire ducked inside Sweet Treat’s, he could just hide behind the baker and pull faces while Sure Stroke simmered.
It wasn’t quite his game, but she wouldn’t put it passed him either. He was the epitome of smugness, and just as mischievous as every other changeling in the village.
This time, though, he’d taken a letter for her cousin, Altocumulus. All because he was curious enough to look over her shoulder after he’d finished reading the one Alto sent her a few days ago asking about village culture, and managed to catch her slipping in a little quip about him. Just one little shot that Aspire was loved to dish out the jokes, but couldn’t stand taking them in turn was enough to be called a slight—something rather important to the changelings.
Aspire chose to get her back by pouncing and tickling her silly before stealing a kiss and dashing off with her unfinished letter.
Growling, Sure Stroke came to a halt. “If you don’t give me back my letter,” she called again, “I’ll set Nimble on you while I write a new one. It’ll be all about how you squirmed and writhed when Queen Euphoria caught you trying to slip peppers in her tea as part of Façade’s remedial assignments!” Thinking on it a moment, she added, “And how she made you dress up and serve us tea during Madame Soleil’s last visit!”
Still nothing. She had to admit, the little punk was dedicated to his everlasting quest to be a pest. Truly commendable. He’d have to be rewarded with several solid smacks upside the head with her wings.
Sure Stroke flicked her tail and resumed her trot toward Sweet Treat’s shop, her eyes flitted about in search for any sign of messy blue mane or sky blue eyes, anything that might betray her boyfriend. Even a hint of his chittering laugh or buzzing wings would be enough. Just as she stepped off the grass and onto the dirt path, Sure Stroke collided with something very solid and very gray, she lost her balance and fell back on her haunches. “Oof!”
“Aw, shoot, sorry, Sure Stroke!” Rock Solid’s voice made her ears perk up. She looked up at the burly earth pony and found him looking down sheepishly at her, shifting his saddlebags back so they sat more comfortably. He offered a hoof to help her off the ground. “I was just lookin’ for ya. Didn’t mean ta knock ya down.”
With a rueful smile, she accepted the offer and let him pull her up to her hooves. “It’s okay, Rocky. I wasn’t looking where I was going.” She took a moment to look up and down the path, frowning at the distinct lack of Aspire. “You haven’t seen that smug punk of a boyfriend of mine since I nearly bowled you over a little bit ago, have you?”
Rock Solid blinked twice, then pointed back over his shoulder. “Matter of fact, he went shootin’ by me like a bat outta Tartarus up the way, shoutin’ somethin’ about you never gettin’ a letter back if you didn’t hurry up.” He gave a low chuckle, then reached into his saddlebag and pulled out a folded piece of paper. “Didn’t realize he dropped it in Whimsy Mimsy’s flower patch when he went zippin’ by me.”
Sure Stroke let out a sigh of relief. It was about time one of Aspire’s little tricks backfired. She accepted her letter with a smile and a laugh. “Thanks, Rocky. I owe you one!”
“No worries. Might wanna check and make sure he didn’t write a lil’ somethin’ in there ta get ya back for that joke, though. Never know with those nymphs and their tricks.”
Indignation flooded her chest again. “Good point. I swear, if he did, I’m gonna—oooh!—he’ll wish he’d never hatched!” Grumbling promises of pain and retribution against her boyfriend under her breath, Sure Stroke unfolded her letter and readied to read through her writing for any alterations.
Instead, there was but one line written inside:
Blinking, she wrinkled her snout. “‘Tricked you again. Pucker up, Doodle?’ What in the name of—Eep!”
Her world went sideways as Rocky tackled her and pinned her shoulders to the ground. His sheepish smile had spread into a smug grin riddled with sharp teeth and gleaming fangs. Before she could react, he closed the distance and captured her lips in a soft kiss.
Sure Stroke’s eyes went wide. For a moment, she thought to push him away, but she managed to beat back the very natural “looks like Rocky, talks like Rocky” connection and reminded herself just who—or, more aptly, what—she was dating.
Almost as though he could read her thoughts, not-Rocky pulled back just enough to lick her snout. Green flames washed over his form and burned away his slate gray coat and black mane to replace them with smooth, polished carapace and messy blue mane. “Tricked you again,” Aspire teased. He nuzzled a slow circle around her nose and let out a low, rumbling purr from the back of his throat, almost like a big cat. “And now, Doodle, let’s discuss the terms of punishment for your terrible slight against me.”
“Slight?” She scoffed. “I just said that you were really sweet and cute beneath that smug, all-knowing, snarky face you put on! How in Celestia’s name is that a slight?”
“Sweet, I can handle. Cute? I beg to differ.” He puffed out his chest and grinned, licking the tips of his fangs with his long, forked tongue. “I am a proud nymph of the Caretaker hive, Doodle, the very same hive that could match the Enchanters and Locust in combat in each of the three Changeling Wars, and instill enough fear of reprisal that none dare violate our laws in the eastern provinces of Equestria since that’s our territory. Handsome, strong, and dashing, yes. But cute and adorable?” He shook his head and stuck out his tongue. “Never! Not even as a hatchling!”
Sure Stroke rolled her eyes. “Of course. And modest, too.”
“Naturally. I’m glad you noticed.”
“It would’ve been hard not to. So what are these terms you think you’re going to lay out?”
“Not think. I know I’m laying them out.” Aspire grinned. His horn lit a verdant green as he floated a folded piece of paper out of his saddlebags—her letter. “I’m going to make a little addition to your letter, Doodle. Nothing bad, just a little something I thought I’d share with your cousin. Your first option is that I’ll call it even after a few kisses if you send this with my note left alone.”
Sure Stroke sucked in her lips. If there was ever a dangerous prospect, it was giving a nymph an open chance for mischief. Even more so with Aspire’s penchant for jokes. “And if I refuse?”
His grin took on an edge that would’ve sent timberwolves running. “Then I wrap you up in a nice, warm cocoon, take you over to Queen Euphoria’s house, and leave you to her tender mercies. I know she just loves doting on villagers in front of visitors, just like you were one of her own hatchlings.”
Oh, hay, no. “There’s no way I’d let you wrap me up.”
“What makes you think I don’t know that, Doodle?” His grin widened, he pecked her nose. “I’m fully prepared to show you how quick I can pull it off, though. Your call: note or wrap?”
She huffed, puffing up her cheeks. Sure Stroke wracked her brain for something to help her out of the situation, but came up empty. She’d never been able to outwrestle Aspire no matter how hard she tried. Even surprising him ended with her flat on her back, her cheeks burning as he held her fast and crowed his victory for all to hear in between stolen kisses, nuzzles, and contented purring. And that was without him wrapping her limbs up.
With a sigh, she let her head thump against the ground. “Fine,” she said, closing her eyes. “You can write your note. But I get to okay it first.”
Aspire hummed. “You can, but you can’t change it unless it’s actually offensive or touches on something you wouldn’t be comfortable talking to Essy about.”
“Done.” Sure Stroke opened her eyes and met his gaze. The way his sky blue eyes seemed to bore into her own, shimmering with mischief, delight, and unbridled smugness just made her squirm beneath him and fluff her feathers. Her cheeks burned as the corners of her mouth threatened to tug into a smile in spite of herself. “Let me hear it.”
Chuckling, he leaned in and whispered his message in her ear. Sure Stroke groaned and squeezed her eyes shut, prompting a laugh and a quick lick to her cheek. “I trust you don’t object?” he asked, feigning innocence.
“You’re a jerk,” she replied, “you know that, right?”
“Of course. It’s part of my charm.” Aspire nosed against her cheek and began to trail toward her lips, planting a kiss on the corner of her mouth. He stopped just short of her lips, and Sure Stroke felt the heat spread from the spots he kissed and licked across her face all the way down her neck. His breath tickled her muzzle as he murmured, “Do we have a deal?”
Swishing her tail, Sure Stroke nuzzled his chitinous nose. The sharp prick of his fangs tickling against her coat and silky smooth carapace brought a smile to her face. His fangs teased and tickled her lips. “Yes, oh mighty smugling. We have a deal.”
“Excellent,” he replied. Aspire tilted his head to the side and closed the distance.
Their lips met in a sweet kiss, Sure Stroke gave a contented sigh and wrapped her hooves around his neck.
Only after several kisses and a lengthy session of hugging and nuzzling her cheeks did Aspire deem that Sure Stroke had repaid her slight against him. Once that was taken care of, he helped her up and led her into Sweet Treat’s shop, and bought cupcakes and some tea for them to enjoy while she finished up her letter.
For all the bluster about being a proud changeling and such, Aspire was adorable when he was trying to play it “cool.” Especially when he ducked his head to hide a goofy smile when she pecked his cheek as thanks for paying.
With her second cupcake half finished, Sure Stroke put the final touches on her letter and signed off on it. “There,” she said. “That’s all taken care of and ready to go.”
“Not quite,” Aspire reminded her around a mouthful of cupcake. He swallowed, then wiped his mouth with the back of his holed hoof. “I still get to put my little note in.”
“Yes, yes, I know.” Sure Stroke rolled her eyes. “Can’t believe you’re going to ruin my fun.”
“I’m not ruining anything. I’m just leveling the field.” He settled back into his seat and picked up his teacup. He took a sip, closing his eyes as he hummed in content. After a moment, he asked, “Done?”
“Yeah. Let me just give it a look to make sure I’ve got everything.” She picked up her letter and read it under her breath.
Dear Altocumulus Stratiformis Translucidus Lacunosus,
Things have gotten rather busy in the village since my last letter. That big visit I mentioned a few weeks back is right around the corner, so everyone is doing their best to lend a hoof and get things organized for our guests. A few ponies have volunteered to house them, with our village leader hosting theirs in her home. It seems that this is a normal arrangement for both groups, a rather old hospitality agreement. At the same time, though, it’s a bit strange. The villagers talk about our visitors like they’re a bit out there in terms of belief and the way their culture diverged, but speak of them as if they’re distant family otherwise. A strange part of the family, but family nonetheless. Aspire and Esalen themselves have told me they share heritage with this other group, so I’m guessing things will be normal for the most part. Well, as normal as they can be here.
Speaking of visits, I must admit that I’ve found myself missing Cloudsdale more and more with each passing month. I love Respite dearly, but it just isn’t the same. I miss the feel of clouds beneath my hooves, the rumble of thunder lulling me to sleep, the liquid rainbow fountains, and being able to see you every day. Honestly, the last one is the biggest reason. This village has its own charm, with lush green forest surrounding us and a beautiful lake to sit by with my friends. I’ll say it again, I love this place. But I’d like to visit home soon. Maybe I can see what my parents think about going home for Hearth’s Warming, though that might depend on Dad’s work.
I mentioned Trade Day a while back, but didn’t really explain all that much about it. So, here: the villagers here have a special day for picking their respective jobs, or trades as they’re called here. Rather than let their cutie marks dictate what job they go into, ponies choose how they want to apply their talents. I think I might have to talk to Euphoria, the village leader I mentioned, about mine. I have a few ideas, but I’m not exactly sure how to make them happen. Esalen seems to be leaning toward a massage therapy trade, and I’m sure she’ll do well there. The filly has magic in her hooves.
Aspire, on the other hoof, knows exactly what he wants to do. Smug and snarky as he is, he loves teaching quite a lot. So, he’ll more than likely end up teaching the little ones in our school. It’s sort of funny, really. He’s known for getting in trouble because he and Essy are late, or he throws in a smart comment, but he essentially wants to work with the very ponies he’s driven spare. If anything, he’s a bit of a contradiction. He’s mischievous, snarky and loves to put on an air that he knows something we all don’t, but he’s really sweet beneath all that and quite down to earth. As a matter of fact, he’s cute when he’s flustered or trying to be affectionate. Really, as much as he likes to play up his little act, he’s a sweetheart.
Last week, he bought some bluebells from Whimsy Mimsy and had Sweet Treat make little candies out of them, completely out of the blue. You should’ve seen how he squirmed when he offered them to me at lunch, and how that smug little smirk he so loves to wear becomes a big, goofy grin whenever I kiss his nose. And he tries so hard to deny it—which only makes him all the more adorable.
I hope everything is going well for you. Have you made any new friends since I left? Or maybe there’s a nice colt in your life you haven’t told me about?
With a smile, she nodded once. “Yeah. It’s got everything.” Thinking on it a moment, she fixed him with a sidelong look. “I still can’t believe you’re going to do this.”
Aspire smiled, but didn’t open his eyes. “You shouldn’t have called me cute, Doodle. So now, I’m going to give dear Altocumulus a little something to level the playing field.” He set his cup down and tapped a hoof against the table. “Now, gimme.”
“Fiiiiiiiiiiiiine!” Sure Stroke slid the letter over to him along with a pencil. “Jerk.”
“Doodle,” he shot back as he accepted the pencil. Cracking open an eye, he jotted down his note and signed with a flourish. His smirk spread across his muzzle. “Done,” he said, sliding it right back over. “I’m sure he’ll enjoy that.”
Sighing, Sure Stroke looked down at his note. Her ears drooped low as her eyes traced over his flowing cursive.
P.S. Hey, Alto, this is Aspire. Since your cousin seems to love teasing you by rattling off your full name each and every chance she can, and falsely accuses me of being cute, of all the rotten things, I thought you’d like to know that she’s got a little nickname of her own in the village, and she just loves it when we say it.
So, the next time you get a chance, be sure to give her a great, big hug and call her Doodle. And just enjoy the squirming.
Hope you’re well. Regards,