The desk chair seemed colder than normal. Esalen withheld a tiny whine as she tried to make herself comfortable, idly thinking of how easy it would be to just hop out and spit a thick wad of warm, comfortable slime to cushion the darn thing.
No matter how many times Aspire assured her that, no, her desk wasn’t alive—or, at least it hadn’t been since the tree was cut down and fashioned into the seat—Esalen maintained that it was, and at least sentient. In fact, she was willing to bet a full drink of Toola’s love that desk chairs were like reverse changelings. They maintained one form and fed off of the misery of the poor, innocent students who had to sit in them all day while evil teachers named Abacus gave them horrid math tests.
Why did hers always choose algebra test day to be so uncomfortable? Misery feeding or not, couldn’t her chair be reasonable? Or at least mildly accommodating and understanding of her plight?
Esalen didn’t dare flick her tongue to sample the prevailing feeling of dread that settled over a good portion of the class. The looming test was bad enough, taking it while sick would only make her hour-long torture feel like being force-fed misery.
A quick look around the room was all she needed to confirm it; the way Vector and Zephyr fidgeted, the former’s feathers twitching like he wanted to take flight, even to Rocky frantically trying to look over his homework, his burly shoulders sagged as his ears pinned back against his mane.
But then, on the other hoof, there were those who seemed to radiate confidence. Prissy Prim ’n Proper was the picture of a model student, sitting with almost rigid posture and her nose high in the air like the snooty little thing she was. Two seats away, Toola Roola bounced in place like she didn’t have a care in the world while she chattered and laughed with Nimble, who had propped her elbow on her desk and rested her head on her hoof.
How lucky they were, to feel so very secure. Esalen felt jealousy creep into her chest. Why couldn’t she have a knack for the subject like them?
Or, better yet, the smug little gnat of a brother sitting just to her left. The very same who was turned to face Sure Stroke.
Esalen cast a sidelong glare at the back of Aspire’s head. Why did he have to get the better deal on academics? Not that she was stupid, so to speak, but there was a definite disparity between them.
Her brother didn’t notice her gaze, his focus was entirely on Sure Stroke. Curious, Esalen turned, flicking an ear toward them in time to pick up his hushed whispers as Abacus went about passing out their tests.
“… You’ll do fine,” he told the worrying filly. “Just go slow, work through each problem like we talked about, and don’t panic.”
Sure Stroke looked pale, almost as though she were physically ill by the upcoming test. She sucked in her lips, her eyes closed and ears laid flat against her scalp as she gave a jerky nod.
The poor filly was terrified. Esalen let her shoulders slump, a part of her wished she sat just another seat over so she could reach out to touch her friend’s shoulder in silent comfort. Fortunately, Aspire was on the case.
He leaned in close and wrapped her in a one-hoofed hug. “You’re going to do fine,” he repeated, nosing against her cheek. “You’re a smart filly and you’ll do better than those quizzes. You just need to relax. Okay?”
A rosy hue tinged her cheeks. Sure Stroke ducked her head and opened her eyes to meet his gaze, a nervous smile spread across her muzzle.
Esalen couldn’t help it. She flicked out her tongue to taste, her ears stood ramrod straight as she felt the sweet, fluffy taste of cake dancing upon it along with a hint cotton candy flavoring from Aspire.
And he doesn’t realize? He can’t be that dense, can he? A bemused smile tugged at her lips, she watched Aspire part from Sure Stroke and sit properly in his seat just in time for Abacus to pass their test sheets out. If those two aren’t lovedrunk, I’ll eat rotten fish and down a jug of lemon juice.
A cough to her right made her start. Esalen turned to find herself looking up at Abacus, his lips curved into a stern frown and an impassive stare fixing her in place. Raising a single eyebrow, he floated a stack of papers to her. “Take one and pass it back,” he ordered, “and keep your eyes on your own paper. Good luck, everyone. Go ahead and start.”
Esalen bit her lip and took her test off the top of the stack before passing it back. Curious, she dared to look over the first few problems. Her heart sank. She was in for it.
With a sigh, she took her pencil in hoof and scrawled her name at the top. Just have to make it through this, she told herself, drawing in a deep breath. And then, the fun begins! Esalen licked her lips, a devilish smile tugged at either corner of her mouth. I hope I get Doodle this time. Aspire had his fun in the forest.
Chittering lowly, Esalen began her test, eager to get through it so she could enjoy the thrill of today’s shapeshifting exam.
Deception and trickery were such lovely things. Especially when there was a pony friend she could make squirm until she let her façade fall.
The battle had been long and hard, many had been lost along the way, and Esalen was pretty sure that at least a half-dozen years had been shaved off her life. But none of that mattered. She had slipped into some sort of post-test nirvana, a sense of mind numbing bliss that could only come after one had thoroughly put their brain into overdrive until it overheated and left her half-asleep, barely even a proper nymph.
“I am quite certain my brains have been turned to soup,” Zephyr grumbled into his desk as they waited for Façade to enter the room.
Esalen gave a tired smile, ignoring Aspire and Nimble’s amused chittering, and raised a hoof. “Seconded.” With a halfhearted buzz of her wings, she slumped in her seat. “Whoever invented algebra deserves a bite. Right where his neck and shoulder meet.”
He halfheartedly bared his fangs, showing off his sharp incisors. “Seconded. Definitely seconded. We need a time traveling spell and a unicorn talented enough to pull it off. Pronto.”
“Oh, come on now!” Aspire chided. He rubbed shoulders with Esalen, his deep blue eyes danced with mirth. “It wasn’t that bad! I finished in, like, ten minutes, tops!”
“You’re also a smug little bookbug who loves things like math,” she shot back with a sidelong glare. “Weirdo.”
His lips tugged into a smirk. “Now, now, is that really what you wanna say to the very same bookbug you’re going to ask to help you with the next batch of algebra homework? Or the next quiz? Or the next–”
Esalen jammed a hoof into his mouth, her brows flatlined. “Okay, fine, I get it. You’re not a weirdo, you’re smart, and I really need your help if I’m going to survive algebra without mom kicking my sorry backside. Happy?”
“Immensely,” he replied, smugness radiating from the smirk he shot. With his piece said, he reclined in his seat and let his eyes flit over to Nimble. “How’d you make out, Nim?”
She brought her hoof up and waggled it in a ‘so-so’ motion. “I think I mixed up the order of operations once or twice. Should be fine otherwise, though.”
“Good to hear. Now, let’s move past that for just a moment.” Aspire leaned forward and grinned, folding his hooves on his desk. He waggled his ears. “Who do you think you’ll get in the deception test pool this time around?”
A burst of adrenaline shot through Esalen’s veins. She sat bolt upright, licking her lips as a smile spread across her muzzle. “I want Doodle,” she declared. “It’s totally my turn to get a bit of teasing in, and I wanna see how she does figuring out who I am.” After a beat, she added, “Also, if she takes shape-shifting any better than she did when you surprised her in the forest.”
Aspire winced and his smile faltered. “Yeah. Right.” He gave an awkward cough, then fixed his smile back in place. “To be honest, I’m kinda hoping to get her as well. Or Vector. I owe him for the last fifty or so times he’s teased me for being a bookbug or whatever. He’s been begging to get locked up and teased. But, still, I really hope I get Doodle!” His lips tugged into a full, toothy grin. “I bet I can make her squirm as she tries to figure out what’s going on, maybe even let her slowly work it out, and then—” his eyes flashed green “—pounce her right as the the realization hits!”
“Oooooh!” Nimble crooned, baring her fangs in a wide grin. “I’m all for that! I’ve been itching to get my hooves on her and tickle her until she squeals!”
Snorting, Zephyr gave a lazy smile. “You say that about everyone when it comes time for our tests, Nim. What if you get Toola? Or Vector? Or …” he trailed off, waggling his eyebrows. “What about Peppermint?”
Esalen sniggered at the fluffy taste of embarrassment that danced upon her tongue. She reached over to pat the blushing nymph’s head. “Ignore him, Nim,” she said. “We’ll just focus on all the fun we can have tricking our friends.” Then she cast a wink at her brother. “Maybe you’ll get lucky and Pepper’s name will come up, you could get a little kiss if you trick him!”
With a low whine, Nimble laid her head on her desk and covered herself with her hooves, trying in vain to hide the blush that bloomed across her chitinous cheeks.
The door latch clicked, drawing a flick of Esalen’s ear. All chatter ceased, every nymph sat up straight in their seats and turned to face the brothers, Duplicitous and Façade, as they trotted briskly into the room, the latter carrying a small basket filled with note cards on his back.
“Good afternoon, everyone,” Façade greeted.
The class replied in unison, “Good afternoon, Mister Duplicitous and Mister Façade!”
Duplicitous gave a little wave of his hoof. “Hey there, everyone. I trust you’ve all been practicing your transformations and imitations over the past few weeks?” A merry chorus of buzzing wings and chitters was their only reply, the elder changeling grinned. “Just what I like to hear! Now, Façade and I have already gone through and matched you up with some of your classmates, and other villagers to keep things interesting.”
“Right,” Façade said, nodding with him. “Mister Abacus and Sweet Treat will be explaining the rules to the foals, just as we are now. Your assignment this time around is to take the form of one of your classmates and trick a friend into thinking you’re that foal.”
“You can keep the act going as long as you like, but you’ve got to maintain it for at least a half hour,” Duplicitous continued for him. “After that, you’re free to reveal yourself—or not—in any way you see fit. Pounce them immediately, lure them off to a spot to do homework and drop your disguise, anything allowed under Respite law. If you’re successful—” he grinned and inclined his brows “—the foals and volunteers have been told to offer either a snack from Sweet Treat’s or a drink of love.”
More chittering filled the room. Esalen licked her lips, she could almost taste the delectable sweetness of Toola’s love dancing upon her tongue, filling her to the brim. Or, if she was lucky, Sure Stroke’s.
Her wings buzzed. It was only fitting either she or Aspire fed on the pudgy little pegasus first. They were her closest friends, the ones who took her under their proverbial wing and guided her along.
She chanced a quick look at her brother. A contemplative frown crossed his muzzle, he bit down on the inside of his cheek. Esalen knew that look all too well—he was trying to weigh his options as best he could.
Sighing, she shook her head. It might be a bit sooner than he wanted, but, in her opinion, it should be someone Sure Stroke trusted. And why not someone who the very filly trusted enough to place a charm upon her just a few short days ago?
Eventually, he’s going to have to get over this. Doodle’s curious and she wants to learn, and she really doesn’t like being coddled. Esalen heaved another sigh, turning her attention to the front. If not herself or Aspire, she could only hope Nimble or Zephyr drew Sure Stroke’s name. Just so long as it was someone she trusted enough to relax and allow them to feed.
“Of course,” Façade cut through her musings, “if you do feed, please offer them a snack in return. We don’t want our friends collapsing from exhaustion now, do we?”
“No, Mister Façade,” the nymphs chimed in unison.
“Excellent. Now, should your target figure you out before you choose to reveal yourself, you fail this test. In addition, you’re to give them one of these.” He pulled a note card from his basket. “Sweet Treat has agreed to offer free snacks to any foals who catch you in the act.” Façade leveled the nymphs with a stern look, a hint of underlying pride and mischief shone in his eyes. “You’re all changeling nymphs, little ones. You’re only a couple years away from choosing your trade and deciding what you want to do in life—whether that means you stay in Respite or go off into the wide world of Equestria is up to you.
“With that said, I expect each of you to succeed. When Mister Abacus and I go into Sweet Treat’s shop later this evening, I should be able to walk in with the smuggest smirk on my lips when I ask if she has any of your cards. And she’d better not hand me a single one.” Façade’s eyes glowed a dangerous green. “Whoever does lose their card will find themselves with extra homework, because I might feel like giving you a reprieve after your last successful test was … a mistake.”
A shiver ran through Esalen’s body. Shapeshifting homework could be fun and all, but there was a distinct note of danger in Façade’s tone. They were getting older, in just a few short years, they would all be adults in the villagers’ eyes. Mistakes in mimicry, whether they come from the shapeshifting aspect or the deception itself, should be few and far between if they wanted to venture beyond Respite’s boundaries.
Trips to Manehattan with her parents were one thing, they could always maintain the story and explain away any inconsistencies she or Aspire’s actions might cause. Going out on her own was another matter altogether.
Adults didn’t get do-overs like nymphs. Ponies were more likely to overlook a foal talking of strange things as a sort of flight of fancy than if a full-grown mare or stallion started slipping up.
Duplicitous wrinkled his snout. “Laying it on a little thick, aren’t you?”
Frowning, Façade turned to level him with a glare. “No, I don’t think so,” he replied smoothly. “Mom didn’t let us leave the village until Queen Chaete herself couldn’t tell us apart from any pony or foal, and that kept us safe.”
“Yes, but mom wasn’t exactly the picture of—”
“Whose classroom is this again?” Façade cut him off. “Do I tell you how to do your job?”
Duplicitous heaved a tired sigh, like this was an argument he could never win. “Fair enough. Go ahead.”
With a snort, Façade returned his gaze to the nymphs. His horn wreathed in a green glow, he levitated the notecards from his basket and passed them out to each of his students, laying them face down upon the desks. “There are your cards. Each has your target’s name written on it, wait until after we leave to flip it over and see who you’ve got. The foals will be dismissed from class in a half hour, you’re free to leave at anytime you like to track them down and figure out who you’d like to imitate.” He offered a single nod, then turned to trot for the door with Duplicitous trailing after him. Just before they left, he paused to glance over his shoulder. A small smile played upon his lips. “Best of luck to all of you. Make us proud.”
The brothers swept out of the room, the door closed behind them with a muted click of the latch.
Barely a second passed before the nymphs flipped their cards over in a rustle of paper. A couple groaned and muttered under their breaths, cursing their misfortune for having drawn ponies who were very good at nitpicking little details.
Esalen, on the other hoof, let a wide grin tug at her lips as she looked at the name on her card. A feeling shared with Nimble.
“Oho, yes!” Nimble cackled, looking up at the ceiling with a smile. “I’ve been waiting so long for this!”
She fixed her with a sidelong look. “Who’d you get?”
“Who’d you get?” Nimble parroted back.
Always the same routine. The pair shared looks, then glanced at Aspire and Zephyr. With matching smirks, all four nymphs turned their cards so they could see. Esalen’s grin widened to almost impossible proportions.
I am very okay with this.
“Hey, Nim?” Aspire waggled his eyebrows. “You mind taking care of a little piece of business I have with a certain someone?”
With a wicked grin, Nimble bobbed her head. “Gladly! I won’t even charge you for it. This is worth it!”
Esalen steepled her hooves. “I think I might have a way for all four of us to get our pony friends—with a bit of coordination.”