• Published 20th Apr 2016
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The Village Called Respite - Carapace

There is a hidden village deep within the untamed forest surrounding Neighagara Falls. Should one ever journey to this village, the changelings who live there will welcome them for a simple price: love.

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49. Friends

Aspire felt a warm body next to his when he awoke the next morning. He smiled sleepily, tightening his embrace as feathers tickled the holes in his legs, and nuzzled into the crook of the pegasus’s neck. The scent of pencil shavings, lead, and cirrus filled his senses, a scent he knew quite well.

It belonged to a filly. Specifically, his doodly, squirmy, teaseable girlfriend pegasus.

The events from the night before came to him in a rush of images. How he fretted and begged Esalen to tell him what Sure Stroke said while they awaited her return, how the urge to take her in his hooves and hold her tight forever hit him like a rampaging hydra when she entered his room, the way his mother scolded him for causing Rosebud distress with all the roughhousing and noise—to say nothing of how apoplectic she was when he and Sure Stroke told her just why he’d been so frantic.

Oh, that was a lecture for the ages. One that lasted well into the night, and featured a tag team of angry pegasi after Warm Welcome took a quick flight over to Sure Stroke’s house to bring Drizzly Days and Skydancer into the fray. There was a short break in between lecturing and sentencing, though, as Faith pulled the adults into the kitchen to deliberate. In the end, it was she who laid down the law.

Given the circumstances, it was little surprise that the hammer fell solely upon him. Aspire didn’t argue the sentence. It was the best he’d get. Far better than he thought it would be.

Being barred from Sweet Treat’s shop and the ice cream parlor for two weeks seemed a bit lenient. But, with some reflection, Aspire concluded that his reasoning for making such a deal, and insistence that he knew Sure Stroke would never accept Enticier’s offer, played a factor. After all, he wasn’t making a deal like some novice pony who just walked into Paradise.

He made a deal like a proper changeling—he outwitted an Enchanter.

An Enchanter he called a friend.

Sighing, Aspire released Sure Stroke from his embrace and sat up. His rear sank in the gelatinous cushion as he rubbed the sleep from his eyes. It didn’t feel right tricking Enticier into a deal he couldn’t win. Sure, he got his way. His friend would never pursue him or Sure Stroke again, and they could just go back to a nice, casual friendship. No strings attached. Just the little issue of knowing that he’d played Enticier like a fiddle, as ponies from the south might say. But better that than enduring that tired old routine, right?

Then why did he feel like he’d just stuck a knife into one of the grooves of his carapace?

Sure Stroke let out a sleepy mumble as she stirred, drawing his attention. Her wings twitched, she rolled onto her back and arched it, stretching out her hooves as she let out a great yawn. Then she sat up, blinking her bleary eyes and swiveling her ears. Her mane stuck up in odd places.

“Good morning, sleepy,” Aspire teased, happy to have her nearby. After all the stuff with Enticier, he desperately needed her nearby. In his hooves.

It was a changeling thing, that want to hold a friend or loved one and know they were safe. They needed that contact. She’d understand someday.

“Good morning, smugling,” she retorted. Thinking about it a moment, she fixed him with a sidelong look. “Actually, after yesterday, you’re slaveling for the time being.”

Aspire ducked his head and let out a low chitter, pinning his ears. “Was hoping you’d forget that.”

A chittering laugh from Sure Stroke’s opposite side only made him wish to sink into the floor. Esalen sat up, tossing her disheveled mane over her shoulder. She, too, needed Sure Stroke nearby. A wide grin spread across her muzzle. “You should know better by now, you goof. Besides, even if she forgot, I’d remind her.”

“How nice. What happened to blood being thicker than water?”

“It is. However—” Grinning, Esalen looped a hoof around Sure Stroke’s shoulders and hugged her tight “—girls, before boys is equally important, more so when dealing with smug brothers who get their just desserts after gambling and putting Doodles on the spot.”

Sure Stroke didn’t even bat an eye at her nickname. She simply leaned her head to lay on Esalen’s shoulder and wrapped a wing around her, fluttering her lashes at him. “We’ve got a week before school,” she noted. “You’re gonna make it all up to me for that one. Clever trickery or not.”

A heat rose in his cheeks. Aspire gave an awkward cough and turned to hide his face, shimmying off his bedpod while the girls shared grins at his expense. A small part of him longed for the days Sure Stroke just took his teasing with a blush, a wobbly smile, and a lot of squirming. He was the changeling, not her!

But that was just the way with ponies in Respite. They took a lot of teasing, but they gave it right back.

The corners of his mouth tugged upward. While a small part of him might lament the loss of control, a larger part delighted in having a girlfriend who knew how to play the game and would continue playing it in Respite. Not in some far off resort.

“Think it’s about time for breakfast,” he said. “Then we’ve gotta head out to the lake to see the Enchanters off.”

Out of the corner of his eye, he saw their grins fade. Sure Stroke rubbed her shoulder awkwardly. The foul taste of her sadness assaulted his tongue mixed with the sting of regret as she licked her lips. “I know it’s probably a silly thing to worry about,” she said, “but I sort of feel bad for Enticier.”

Aspire let out a breath. “I know. So do I.” With a sigh, he beckoned the girls toward the door. “But I meant it when I said I’d like to stay friends, so hopefully he’ll take it.”

Esalen hopped nimbly off the bedpod and gave him a one legged hug. “He made the deal,” she reminded them. “It might sting, but he wouldn’t have accepted those terms if he didn’t want to at least keep things status quo in the event it didn’t work out in his favor. You’re clever, but so is he.”

“True enough. I guess we’ll just have to wait and see.”

The trio exited Aspire’s bedroom, Sure Stroke exchanged quick hugs with each of the siblings, lingering a little longer on Aspire, then skittered off to her house to take a bath and eat breakfast with her parents. The changeling siblings went through much the same routine, albeit with another round of sternness from Faith.

Aspire tried his best to keep as low key as possible. Not an easy task when shapeshifting was out of the question. It wasn’t like his mother would be fooled by such a thing anyhow—mother changelings always knew.

As they readied to leave, he noticed that Rosebud beat a rather conspicuous retreat to the guest room, with a rather hasty goodbye. Aspire blinked and turned to his mother. He couldn’t not ask. “She doesn’t want to be anywhere near them even when we’re seeing them off, does she?”

Faith sighed and shook her head. “No, but I can’t say I blame her.” She turned to stride out the door, with Warm Welcome at her side, offering a comforting nuzzle to her cheek. A small smile played upon her lips. She turned to kiss his nose, then said, “When going through a falling out like hers, it’s not surprising that she feels unsettled by the Enchanters. Their way sets many ponies outside of Paradise on edge.”

He winced, noting the shot across his nose, but kept quiet. Aspire walked side-by-side with Esalen to meet Sure Stroke, Drizzly, and Skydancer on the way into town. His girlfriend gave a small smile and kiss to his cheek as she fell into step with him, the fluffing in her feathers teasing and tickling his side.

Whether she was happy to be near him, relieved to survive her first encounter with another hive, or eager to begin making him pay, Aspire wasn’t certain. But he couldn’t deny it brought a genuine smile to his lips as he tasted fluffy joy and sweet love aimed at the village, Esalen, their parents, and himself. So very delicious. And so much for him.

It took a bit of effort not to drool, but he prevailed. Only just.

They arrived at the lakeside and joined with the crowd of villagers standing opposite the Enchanter delegation. The wooden stage had been disassembled and put into storage in the Wood brothers’ shed, leaving only the rows of tables and chairs around the edge of the clearing. The Queens and their families stood at the center, with Euphoria and Lilith at the forefront of either group.

“I thank you, cousin Euphoria,” Queen Lilith said with a slight bow of her head. “The hospitality of the Caretakers and ponies of Respite cannot be understated.”

Queen Euphoria returned the gesture with a smile. “And our Enchanter cousins to the north are agreeable guests as always. The kinship between our hives is as strong as ever.”

“Agreed. I believe the Queens who came before us would be quite pleased with our efforts.” A playful smile crossed Queen Lilith’s face. “Though your mother may not have been so warm in an official setting.”

“And yours would have been too busy trying to flirt all the while,” her counterpart quipped in turn.

“True, true. I do miss those days.” Turning to look over her shoulder, Queen Lilith beckoned her husband, lover, and son to come forward and bid farewell while Euphoria did the same.

Only then did Aspire notice how thin and forced his smile seemed, and how his orange eyes darted to glance about the crowd until they settled on Sure Stroke and himself. Their eyes met. Enticier stiffened, then tore his gaze away in time to shake Cool Breeze’s hoof.

Though not before Aspire saw the flash of pain and defeat. He sighed.

“You seem upset,” Sure Stroke muttered out of the corner of her mouth. “The way you carried on when he showed up, I thought you’d be happy to see him leave.”

He closed his eyes and rubbed his shin. “I’m happy he’ll stop chasing me. Us,” he amended, turning to meet her eyes. “But for all his faults, when he’s not acting up like this, Enticier’s a good friend. Sorta like Vector, but less antagonistic, more …”

“Like you,” Esalen put in, nudging his shoulder. “When we were little, Enticier would always tease and make those stupid jokes with Aspire and me. It’s where he got his humor, and where I developed a want to smack him.”

Sure Stroke blinked. She glanced toward the royals, then back to the twins. “I never would’ve guessed.”

“He’s not been that way in a while.” Esalen shook her head ruefully. “Not without slipping in some comment that just ruins the moment.”

Aspire blocked out the rest of their discussion, instead turning to watch his old friend make to step into the crowd with his family. But then, Queen Lilith stepped on his tail and stopped him short. She leaned down, whispering something into his ear, and gave a little jerk of her head in Aspire’s direction.

Enticier let his shoulders slump but nodded. He turned and briskly trotted across the clearing, careful to mind the wooden frame balanced on his back.

Ah, Aspire thought. So he did get a frame.

The Enchanter Prince stopped just out of hoof’s reach. He glanced at the adults, flinching at the looks he received from Drizzly and Skydancer, but he didn’t retreat. Instead, he squared his shoulders and bowed his head. “Thank you for putting up with me,” he muttered. Then, turning to Esalen, he added, “Remaining friends was part of the deal Aspire gave. I mean to honor it, if you wish.”

Nodding, Esalen smiled and said, “Maybe next time we can take you fishing since you won’t be busy wooing.”

“Fishing?” He wrinkled his snout. “Like … watching the fishers, or actually … using all those tangly lines and nets.”

“If generations of Caretakers and gryphons could figure it out, I’m sure you’ll be able to manage.”

Aspire stepped forward and bumped shoulders with him. “We’ll show you. Maybe even before we dunk you under the water.” Smiling, he raised his brows. “If you behave.”

A scandalized look flashed across his face for an instant. He made as if to sputter assurances, but stopped short. Then Enticier blinked. “You’re teasing me. You’re playing like when we were little.”

For a moment, they were nymphs just out of hatchling years ago. Aspire offered his hoof. “I never could stand you chasing,” he admitted. “But I missed just having this.”

“I see.” Again, he bowed, then accepted Aspire’s hoof. “Until next time. And perhaps …” Enticier turned to aim a hesitant smile at Sure Stroke, mindful of her parents. He held out a hoof to her. “Perhaps you’d like to join us. If I haven’t, ah, chased you away with my behavior.”

Aspire watched as his girlfriend gave a shy rustle of her wings before brushing the Prince’s hoof away. Then she stepped forward and wrapped a leg around his shoulders in a gentle hug, and leaned in to whisper something in his ear.

Seconds passed. Enticier threw back his head and let out a long chittering laugh, before returning the hug and parting. “Oh,” he said, eyeing Aspire, “oh, you don’t know how lucky you are. Take care of each other. And please write. I miss our letters.”

“I, uh, will?” Aspire’s eyes flitted between them. “What did you two just—”

Enticier shook his head and held a hoof to his lips. “Can’t tell,” he teased with a wink. “Secret among friends who share a common smug, squirming, sputtering bookbug in their lives. And it’s passed time I left anyway. Toodles!” He turned and buzzed away before Aspire could grab him and demand explanation. His orange eyes danced as he reached his mother’s side and rubbed a shoulder against her leg.

Out of reach.

But there was a doodly pegasus well within grabbing and prodding range. Aspire had Sure Stroke pinned against his side before she could so much as let out a squeal of laughter. “What did you tell him?” he demanded, grinning as he savored the taste of joy and mirth rolling off her in waves.

Sure Stroke beamed and waggled her ears. “You already owe me for the rest of the week,” she replied, “do you really want to add more to your debt?”

His cheeks colored. He pinned his ears against his scalp to block out Esalen’s gleeful chitters. Cursing, he wrinkled his snout and shot a glance at the Enchanters as they turned to leave. With a defeated sigh, he moaned, “Do I at least get to know if that’s going to come back and bite me?”

She squirmed in his grasp until one leg was free, then pressed her hoof against his nose. “Nope! You’re stuck with the mystery, smugling! Just like I would’ve been!”

Aspire didn’t want to admit she had a point.

He didn’t want to. But he couldn’t pretend otherwise. Maybe he really was doomed.

And maybe, he reasoned as he felt her press her soft lips against his cheek, he didn’t quite mind it.

A bolt of realization made his ears perk up. “Say,” he began, turning to press his nose against hers. “You mentioned wanting to do art therapy before.”

Sure Stroke blinked. “Yeah? What about it?”

“Mom’s got a patient at the house. The one who got startled by the Enchanters. We sorta mentioned that you might be able to help. If you want, that is.”

Sure Stroke leaned back so she could aim a questioning look at Faith. “Uh … I did want to talk to you about it first …”

His mother’s golden eyes fixed upon the filly, surveying her for a moment. “I’d be happy to,” Faith said. “Perhaps after we get Rosebud to come out of her shell. Hmm?”

Aspire would bet the smile Sure Stroke gave in reply could’ve fed the village for a month.

Author's Note:

Thank you for reading the misadventures of my ponies and changelings in this strange village called Respite! If you like the story, please consider reading my other works and donating to my Patreon.

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