The Village Called Respite

by Carapace

Epilogue: A Stray Cloud Blows in From the East

Esalen felt quite pleased with herself.

She couldn’t help it, really, everything she set out to accomplish the day she and Aspire met Sure Stroke at the gate had gone just as she hoped. Even better, actually, aside from one or two little hiccups. The urge to give her brother a good swat for his antics in the forest still arose every now and again, not to mention when she added in his willingness to gamble with Enticier.

But she resisted. How could she not? Looking at them, as she was now, was there any doubt the nervous little pegasus who moved to Respite had adapted for the better?

Just the sight of the pair laying together beneath Sure Stroke’s favorite tree, her chin resting on his hooves, and his upon the back of her neck, was a sight so adorable, so pure she wagered she could take a quick nibble o the love they shared and be fed for a week.

Not that she would. Their love was theirs, it wasn’t her place to ask for a taste, no matter how delicious it might be. The love of friendship, however, was another story. But that could come later.

She turned her attention to Toola Roola and Nimble Hooves, a smile played upon her lips as she watched the sisters go through one of their dance routines again. Or was it gymnastics this time? It was hard to tell, in her opinion. The pair implemented so many flips and cartwheels one could hardly be faulted for mistaking one for the other and with such flawless execution no less!

Especially Toola.

Esalen felt her breath catch in her throat as she watched the bubbly filly stand on one hind hoof and hold the other in the air, at head level. Such flexibility! Such grace! Such a risk of pulling or tearing a muscle if not properly practiced and warmed up, not to mention damage to tendons, as her massage therapy books told her.

Yet Toola didn’t seem bothered at all. There wasn’t a sign of pain or discomfort on her beautiful face. In fact, she seemed oddly at peace, like a changeling basking in the afterglow of a good drink of love. For her, this was her element. Her natural state. The little smile tugging at her lips was utterly sublime. The very picture of serenity.

It was with no small effort that Esalen battled back the urge to walk right up and plant a soft kiss on her lips. Her own seemed to dry at the mere thought, and wetting them with her long, forked tongue did little to help.

By love, she realized. Her heart hammered in her chest. She puffed out a defeated sigh through her nose and resigned herself to the truth. Aspire, Doodle, and Nimble are never going to let me live this down.

Nimble and Toola finished their routine with a bow to one another, then Esalen. They didn’t bother with Aspire and Sure Stroke, but not out of disrespect or slight.

Just that the pair weren’t exactly observant of the world around them—their world only had two inhabitants.

Esalen clapped her hooves dutifully. “Very nice!” she praised. “Are you practicing for the variety show, or—”

“Nope!” Toola chirped, cartwheeling over to stand before her and landing with a happy little bounce. She leaned down, grinning as she nuzzled Esalen’s nose. “Just for fun and giggles!”

“As if you’re full of anything else,” Nimble quipped. “Giggles and love.”

“Shush!” Shooting her sister a quick glare, Toola turned to Esalen with an eager smile. “Esalen doesn’t mind, right Essy?”

Mind? There were many things Esalen minded. Seeing Toola Roola smiling, dancing, and bouncing about wasn’t one of them. Although there was something she could stand to take care of.

Esalen licked her lips again, a light, fluffy taste teased her tongue. Her ears twitched. Love. Affection. Toola’s. And it was aimed at her.

Toola’s cheeks colored, she shuffled her hooves in place and ducked her head, her bright smile turned a shade nervous. She knew what Esalen tasted.

By Morrigan, did Esalen want more.

She returned the nuzzle, maneuvering her nose in a slow, gentle circle around Toola’s. Their eyes met and seemed to close almost in time as each filly tilted her head and began to lean in.

A loud explosion of thunder split the air. Toola squeaked and toppled over in a tangle of flailing hooves.

Esalen pinned her ears. “What in Equestria?” she yelped, scanning the horizon.

“Storm coming?” Aspire asked, halting his affectionate nuzzling long enough to join her search.

She frowned. There were clouds, certainly. But not nearly enough for a storm, even in the middle of Neighagara Forest. At most, it might be another of Breezy’s pranks.

Out of the corner of her eye, she saw Sure Stroke stand up and walk toward down. The filly’s eyes were narrowed and a frown marred her face. “There,” she muttered, pointing east.

They followed her hoof. There, hanging in the sky like a splotch of dirt on her mother’s pristinely clean counters, was a lone thunderhead hovering over the eastern part of the forest—as dark as coal, and sparks of lightning buzzing like a hive of angry bees. But there was something else, something off about part of it.

A dusty blue dot, barely discernible against the sky.

“Is that … a pegasus?” Aspire mumbled.

Nimble joined him. “Doesn’t look like Breezy. Or any of the villagers.”

“Lost weather pony, maybe? No, wait, this is way too far out.”

The dusty blue figure toppled off the cloud in freefall, but managed to catch and right himself after a few seconds. Esalen could almost see the pony shaking its head to clear the cobwebs.

Sure Stroke gave a low growl. “That … how did he … I’m going to beat the feathers off that colt!” Without further explanation, she unfurled her wings and shot into the sky like a bolt of wrathful purple lightning.

Aspire and Esalen shifted into their favored guises, adding wings instead of horns, and gave chase. “Sure Stroke! Was a minute!” he called. “Slow down, dang it!”

“What’s the—huff—rush?” Esalen called.

But Sure Stroke didn’t slow or reply. She accelerated, her wings pumping with all the power and fervor of a Cloudsdale pegasus, one who flew more than she walked for a good portion of her life. Within seconds, they were close enough to see the figure playing with the wild thunderhead. And they weren’t alone. Every flier in the village, pegasus and changeling alike, seemed to have come over to investigate.

At the forefront were Drizzly Day, Skydancer, Cool Breeze, and Queen Euphoria, each regarding a colt of singed, dusty blue coat and frazzled purple and white mane with varying looks of disbelief and, in the case of the Cloudsdale family, indignation.

But he hardly seemed to notice. The newcomer was too enamored with the cloud he’d commandeered. He reached into one of three large bags resting on the fluffy, buzzing cloud, and withdrew a journal and pencil. Licking the tip, he scratched out a few notes. “Lightning shock from wild thunderhead greater than factory made thunderheads,” he muttered. “Consider the possibility of comparing—request sample from Manehattan Weather Team and Respite Weather Patrol Team for further study.”

Then Sure Stroke landed behind him, her wings flared in challenge. “Altocumulus Stratiformis Translucidus Lacunosus!” she yelled.

Esalen’s ears twitched. Wasn’t that … She shared a look with Aspire, who furrowed his brows. “Isn’t that?”

“I think so,” he hissed out of the side of his mouth.

The pegasus turned to peer at Sure Stroke through a pair of black-rimmed glasses. He blinked twice, then smiled. “Oh, hello, cousin! How’re you?” Alto patted the thunderhead. “Isn’t this baby a beauty? I think I’ll name her Sparky. Careful though, she’s stronger than the ones back home.”

Sure Stroke’s feathers bristled. She stomped forward and pressed her nose against his, huffing a breath in his face. “What,” she growled, “in the name of Celestia are you doing here? You’re supposed to be in school!”

“School is boring. I can do that stuff without some fancy piece of paper,” he scoffed. “Besides, I wanted to visit. So I started to pack, then I realized home is boring and nothing happens, so now I have all of my things and I’m here.” Alto paused a beat, taking a moment to glance about. His eyes widened. “You brought a welcoming party to see me? That’s nice of you, cousin Sure Stroke. Or, rather …” He fixed her with a sly smirk. “Cousin Doodle.

Aspire chittered at her side and let his disguise drop. “Oh, Morrigan,” he wheezed, “it is! He got that from my letter!”

His mirth got Alto’s attention. “Your letter?” The newcomer blinked again, adjusting his glasses as if it would help him see Aspire more clearly. Then he looked at the gathered villagers again.

Seconds passed like hours.

At last, he looked straight at Drizzly, then Skydancer, then Sure Stroke again. He tilted his head. “Cousin?” he asked. “Did you know some of your villagers are changelings?”

Esalen couldn’t help it. She just couldn’t. She burst out laughing, her disguise fell as she held hugged her hooves to her barrel, even as Sure Stroke let out a long-suffering groan and clipped her cousin’s ear with a deft swipe of her wing.

“Ow! What did I do? Some welcome this is! I come to visit you and check out the clouds, and then I ask one question and you hit me!”

Oh, love, Esalen thought as the pair bickered back and forth, with Drizzly and Skydancer landing to join their daughter’s side, and Aspire desperately clutching her side as he fought to stay aloft. With a sigh, she brought a hoof to her face and shook her head. Here we go again.