Aspire all but flopped into his seat across from Vector and Zephyr and scooted next to Sure Stroke. His head hung low and his ears were drooped. A week of extra homework from Façade had finally caught up with him in the worst way—every day after school, he had to spend an hour practicing his imitations under Façade’s watchful eye, being critiqued and lectured each time he missed even the slightest detail in appearance or demeanor. And then there were the added deception assignments.
He let out a low groan. Façade had spread word around that Aspire would be doing extra work on his disguises, and told everyone to be extra vigilant when talking to their friends.
Façade had no qualms assigning Aspire to trick some of the most observant adults, even fellow changelings and nymphs, along with the usual foals. Only his quick thinking saved him when Nimble Hooves grinned and threatened to test “Toola’s” tickle spots just to be sure it was really her.
A quick “bathroom break” and a transformation into Prim just as Toola passed him by, delaying the filly just long enough before telling her that Nimble was looking for her had sorted that out quite nicely. His father, on the other hoof, simply grinned when he tried to imitate a younger filly named Meadowlark and bent down to whisper, “Meadow and her family left this morning to go visit family in Bridleton, son. Nice try.”
Façade’s wicked grin when he found that one out and indicated his next target as Cooling Breeze still made Aspire whimper.
It was all Creamy and Frosty’s fault. If not for those two soft-shelled, scuffy-chitined, annoying termites, his plan to pounce Toola and claim his victory would’ve gone perfectly. A passing mark and a sip of some of the tastiest, filling love any pony had to offer, and with an audience of their classmates to go with it—the perfect way to show off his mastery of shapeshifting and trickery. Not to mention a great way to show a certain doodly pegasus that he was the very best trickster around and that she should watch whose buttons she pressed. He just might not use a proxy the next time.
All of it went up in smoke before his very eyes because of Creamy and Frosty.
“Stupid, love-forsaken jerks,” he grumbled into the table. “That was so cheating and everyone knows it!” His friends’ sniggers made him pin his ears back. Slowly, he lifted his head just enough to glare at each in turn. “It’s not funny, darn it! I just had to convince Breezy I was Prim—his own freaking half-daughter!”
That was enough to stop Zephyr’s laughter. “Ooooh, I don’t envy you,” his fellow nymph said with a pained grimace. “How’d that go?”
Aspire just groaned and let his head fall to the table again.
“Not well, then,” Vector surmised. “Dang, bookbug, you really reaped the whirlwind on this one. Creamy and Frosty got you back good, and they didn’t even have to lift a hoof!”
“Thanks for reminding me.” Aspire covered his head with his hooves, his shaggy blue mane as messy as a used cotton swab. His stomach growled, he could taste the love from all the ponies in Sweet Treat’s shop on the tip of his tongue. So sweet, so filling. He needed it. After so much shapeshifting and changeling magic, he was practically starved for love.
Oh, no. He sucked in his lips, he had to resist flicking his tongue out until he was full. A changeling on the verge of being love-starved was dangerous, the village ponies’ generosity and willingness to give love usually spared the Caretakers such hunger—one of the many reasons they gave thanks every year on Sharers’ Day.
Aspire could feel his magic washing over his face; his fangs lengthened until they extended down past his chin and his cheeks hollowed out. He was slipping into the form of a changeling in desperate need of a good feeding, one ready to hunt.
No doubt his eyes would have followed suit by now, his Enchanter heritage would see to that.
Slowly, he cracked open an eye to glance at Sure Stroke, his ears perked up to take in the almost musical sound of her mirth. He got a taste of her love once before—as sweet as cake, and filling. Oh, it would be so very delectable.
If he could just hold her close and drink deeply …
Aspire shook himself. No. He was supposed to be tutoring today. She paid for his help with art, not feeding. If he wanted love, he needed someone else.
“Vector,” he grunted. “How do you feel about giving me a bite?”
The giggling ceased. “A … A bite?” Vector asked, his tone thick with hesitation. “I thought our terms were for a nibble before tutoring, bookbug.”
Aspire raised his head just enough that Vector could see his eyes. The colt sucked in a breath through his teeth. “Oh, geez, your eyes are … Aspire, I had no idea.”
“What is it?” Sure Stroke asked with a note of concern in her voice. Her seat squeaked as she leaned over to try to get a look. “What’s wrong with his eyes?”
Vector paid her no mind. He stood and trotted around the table until he was at Aspire’s side. “How long’s it been since you last had a decent drink?”
“Long enough,” he replied, quickly turning his head and covering the side of his face with a hoof so Sure Stroke couldn’t see. “Vector, please,” he begged, desperation crept into his voice as he gazed into the colt’s teal eyes, “I don’t need a full drink, just a decent pull—a long hug will be enough for me to draw out what I need. You can have all of my pancakes.”
Anything so she wouldn’t see him like this. So predatory. So ghoulish. Just like Queen Euphoria when she mauled those timberwolves to protect the hatchlings. Regardless of how curious Sure Stroke might be about feeding, she simply was not ready to see him like this—or any changeling, to be honest.
Vector didn’t answer immediately. He met Aspire’s gaze, then glanced over his shoulder at Sure Stroke. His eyes flitted back to Aspire and he raised his brows.
Cringing, Aspire nodded once. He still didn’t dare flick his tongue just in case he caught a hint of too much love. “Please,” he repeated.
With a bit of a crooked smile, Vector nodded. “Yeah, sure.” He stepped closer, then reared up on his hind legs so he could wrap Aspire in a tight hug, pressing their cheeks together. “Link up and take a bite, Aspire. Don’t stay quiet about it for so long next time.”
Aspire’s hooves were around the colt before he even thought to move. Against his own advice, he opened his lips and let his tongue snake out to taste the love rolling off Vector in waves. He could taste all of the love in the room. Love for family, for lovers, and the one he was most familiar with. Of all the flavors and types of love, that shared between friends was more than filling enough for any changeling.
Especially when it was directed at them.
The link was established, and Aspire let his eyes flutter shut. A smile spread slowly across his muzzle. He began to draw in, savoring the sweet, delicious taste of all the love Vector had for him. All those moments spent playing in the field at school, laughing and joking at sleepovers, wrestling, eating ice cream and sweets, pranking, and so many more than he could count—the perfect meal for a growing nymph such as he.
Aspire felt his face begin to change again. Green fire washed over his fangs to shorten them until they came a mere halfway down his chin as his cheeks began to fill out to give his muzzle a less angular, predatory look. Thank love … He sighed and leaned against Vector, his forked tongue lolling out to savor every last bit of his meal.
A hoof tapping on his shoulder jolted him back to the present. “Aspire,” Vector said weakly, his breathing ragged, “cut it.”
He cut the link before the words were even out of his friend’s mouth. Aspire slid out of his seat and set his hooves on the floor so he could support Vector’s weight. “I’m sorry,” he whispered, nosing against the colt’s cheek.
“Don’t worry about it.” Vector patted his shoulder. “You needed to feed. Just gimme a sec to catch my breath.”
Nodding, Aspire held him for balance while he took several deep breaths. Vector slowly released his embrace and set his hooves down on the floor one at a time. His wings drooped slightly and his chest heaved as if he’d just flown all the way to Manehattan and back.
A shuddering gasp made Aspire flick an ear. “He’s almost as tired as Breezy,” Sure Stroke whispered.
Aspire winced and turned to face her fully. The raw concern showing in her eyes made him wince again. “I fed rather quickly on him,” he explained, “sometimes it happens when I get really hungry.” Pausing a moment to think, he added, “Er, it happens to all of us when we’re really hungry. Like, about to fall over hungry.”
Her brows furrowed and Sure Stroke fell silent. A look Aspire was all too familiar with flashed across her face, one he often shared when he sat down to study. On a whim, he parted his lips and ran his forked tongue over them.
Intrigue. Inquisitiveness. She wanted to know more. He knew that look in her eyes—they always widened and seemed to shine whenever she pressed him for more details. It was like they were trying to force themselves to take in as much as they could.
She stayed quiet, though, and kept her eyes fixed on his.
Aspire licked his lips to wet them, the taste of her inquisitive nature dancing upon his tongue. “I’m fine,” he said. “Vector filled me up, so I’m not going to go all predatory on anyone. Promise.”
Sure Stroke chewed on the inside of her cheek for a moment, then gave a single nod and settled back into her seat.
Sighing in relief, Aspire pushed Vector into Zephyr’s waiting hooves so he could return to his place, then took his own at Sure Stroke’s side. He licked his lips once more, and again the same taste greeted him.
He would owe her answers later. And, knowing her, there would be no allowances for sugar coating.
With a shaky chuckle, he settled into his seat. “So, how about that math homework? Everyone ready for the wonders of exponentials?”
“Alright, so,” Aspire said as he rose from his seat and shook out the stiffness in his legs, “do you guys feel okay with all the stuff I covered? Like, really sure?”
Vector scoffed, reinvigorated after a rather hearty breakfast and a lot of prodding by both nymphs to eat more. “Yeah, yeah, bookbug,” he replied with an airy wave of his hoof. “Just go through the order of operations and all that silly expo-whatsit stuff, and we’re gold.”
“And don’t go blazing through it like a certain Zippy colt,” Zephyr added. He sighed and shook his head. “You would’ve done so much better on that last test if you’d just slow down a little every now and then.”
“Well, excuse me if I think I can get it done earlier instead of taking three centuries!”
The pair fell to their bickering. Aspire chuckled nervously and stepped aside so Sure Stroke could stand with them. They waited quietly, watching in amusement as they waited for Vector and Zephyr to finish exchanging barbs before they gave up and called out a quick goodbye to the colts.
Aspire held open the door so Sure Stroke could exit first, earning himself a bright smile and a little fluff of her feathers. She had such pretty coloration—a soft violet that seemed to go perfectly with how soft her downy feathers looked and the sheen of sunlight off her velvet smooth coat.
A not-so-small part of him dared to think of reaching out and laying a hoof upon it as he had before, just to feel the sensation of warm pony coat tickling his chitinous hoof again. Maybe, if he felt particularly daring, even steal a nuzzle and drink in the familiar biting scent of ink and musty pencil shavings and parchment that always surrounded the pudgy little artist.
Despite his want, Aspire managed to restrain himself. But only just.
“Thanks for your help,” Sure Stroke said. “I don’t know if I ever would’ve figured out the expo … exponents?”
“Exponentials,” he supplied helpfully. “And yeah, they’re gonna be quite an adventure. Speaking of which, how’d you do on the test? You never told me.”
It was like he cast a spell to chase her bright, sunny smile away. The filly wrinkled her snout, and a subtle hint of irritation and disappointment stung his tongue. Aspire offered a sympathetic half-smile. “Not well?”
Sure Stroke shrugged. “I got a seventy-three—but that’s probably better than I would’ve done if you hadn’t helped.” She kicked the dirt path, watching as a clump of dirt dissolved into dust in mid air. With a tired sigh and a flick of her tail, she turned her attention to Aspire again. “Thanks again. I owe you.”
Aspire made to wave her off and deny it, but stopped short. His ears twitched, a slow smile spread across his muzzle until it nearly split his face. She owed him a drawing of Cloudsdale. Any part of her choice, so he could see it as she did.
Before he could bring it up, he noticed the inquisitive look in her eyes again. She had questions, and Aspire had a sneaking suspicion he knew exactly what was on her mind.
Sighing, he let his shoulders slump. “I suppose I owe you an explanation for that—” he tossed his head toward the shop “—little show.”
A laugh threatened to bubble forth at the sheepish smile that flashed across her face. “Am I that obvious you don’t even have to taste anymore?” she asked.
“Kinda. You had your ‘curious Doodle is curious’ look.”
The smile vanished. Sure Stroke sucked in her lips and shook her head. “One of these days, Aspire. One of these days …” Another shake of her head. Aspire caught sight of her wings rustling and her tail flicking as though chasing away a persistent fly. “What was that whole thing about, anyway? And why did you hide it from me? You know I don’t like that.”
Aspire couldn’t help but flinch at the memory of the first time she got on him for hiding from her. A phantom pain bit into the left side of his jaw. “I was hungry,” he answered. “Really hungry.”
Sure Stroke snorted and raised an eyebrow. “I’ve seen Queen Euphoria and Caress feed, and I’ve seen you, Essy, and all the other nymphs hungry at lunch or in the shops, Aspire. Why does that make a difference?”
“Not that kind of hungry. Like … think of the hungriest you’ve ever been.” Aspire rolled a hoof through the air. “And think of how bad it is if you’ve been flying a lot without eating. All around Cloudsdale’s outer limits, for example. How would you feel?”
Blinking, she tilted her head and replied, “Like I could eat Sweet Treat’s entire display case, probably.”
Aspire bobbed his head. “Yeah, exactly. So, for me, you’re the case and what I need is …” he trailed off, his smile faltered. Slowly, he reached out and laid his hoof upon her chest, right over her heart.
“Our love,” Sure Stroke finished for him. “So when you get hungry, you start eying us up like we would a buffet table. And then you … change?” She blinked again, scrunching her nose in a way Aspire found quite adorable. “Why would that make you change?”
“Part of our nature as changelings. We do it when we’re angry, too.”
“But I’ve seen you mad before, other changelings too.” Her brows furrowed, Sure Stroke brought a hoof to her chin. “Wait, I thought the glowing eyes was to show you were angry or ready to cause trouble. Didn’t Vector says something about them?”
Again, Aspire nodded. “Yeah. Glowing eyes are part of it. And, well, yeah, we make our eyes glow or flash when we’re mad. I’m talking, like, angry enough to pick a real fight. Not like you and I just fooling around and wrestling or something.”
Comprehension dawned on her. “Like, if someone went after Essy, you’d …” With a bit of a crooked smile, she waved her hoof at his face. “You know? Go scary?”
He couldn’t help it. “Go scary?” Aspire repeated, his voice tinged with mirth. “Oh, yeah. If anyone tried to go after Essy, I would probably ‘go scary.’ Same for y—” hesitating a moment, he covered his mouth and feigned a cough. “Ahem. Same for all of our friends.”
If she heard his little slip, Sure Stroke did a great job of masking it. He didn’t so much as taste a hint of amusement or surprise. Instead, she nodded to herself, then shifted so she could jam a hoof into her messenger bag in search of something. “Speaking of things I owe you,” she said, the sunny smile returning to her face, “I have something you’ve been waiting on for a while. My end of the trade.”
Aspire pricked his ears up. Could it be? “Is it?”
“It is,” she replied as she pulled her sketch pad out and began to flip through the pages.
A broad grin spread across his muzzle, he bounced lightly on his hooves like a little hatchling about to get his first taste of love from a friend. Aspire reared up and grabbed her shoulders, shaking her lightly.“Yes, yes, yes, yes, yes! Gimme! Gimme! Gimme!”
Laughing, Sure Stroke pulled away and unfurled a wing as if to swat him over the head for what seemed like the hundredth time. “A little patience goes a long way!” she scolded playfully as she stopped searching for his drawing. Yet she still held it close to her chest, guarding it against his hungry eyes. “Didn’t your mother ever tell you that?”
Aspire’s eyes flashed green. “She did!” he hissed, a wicked grin tugging at his lips. “She also taught me ways to make the ponies who teased me regret challenging a changeling, and you’re just begging to punch your ticket for another tickle session with Nim!”
To his surprise, she didn’t recoil or stammer like before. Instead, she just stuck her tongue out and fluffed her feathers, then passed him the sketch pad without a word—just that bright, cheery smile.
Curious, Aspire looked at the drawing for about three seconds. Then, his jaw hit the dirt path.
Not literally, though, had he been a bit more aware, he could’ve pulled it off just to see the look on her face. However, his mind was on the beautiful drawing he held in his hooves—two pegasus foals sitting together on the edge of a fountain, the colt a bit older than the filly he held in his hooves as they both beamed up at Aspire.
The filly had a soft violet coat and feathers, a deep purple mane, and eyes as blue as Aspire’s own. He blinked a few times. “Is this …”
“Altocumulus and I,” Sure Stroke finished softly. “That’s the rainbow fountain outside the main Weather Factory building where my dad used to work. We would always go visit when he drew the weekend shift and sit on the edge until he was done working.”
The words “rainbow fountain” barely registered with him. The way she colored it, how all the different reds and blues seemed to blend together like someone took a big spoon and stirred the pool of liquid prism around until it was a kaleidoscopic wonder that drew him in, forcing him to gaze upon it in wonder. And the spout of rainbow that shot up from the center of the pool shone as though caught in actual sunlight.
It wasn’t just a drawing. Aspire held a small sample of Sure Stroke’s talent, her greatest gift, in his hooves. A gift she shared in exchange for his own.
“It’s beautiful,” he whispered. Absentmindedly, he sat back on his haunches so he could stare at it a little longer. He ran a hoof along the fountain’s edge as though he expected to feel the soft, fluffy caress of sculpted clouds against his chitin instead of sketch paper. Maybe he could put it up on a wall. Though, not with slime. That would ruin the colors and tinge the entire thing a rather unflattering shade of green.
Aspire blinked. Since when had slime green been unflattering?
Since a nice filly handed me the most beautiful look at her home I could’ve ever wanted? Still, what could he put it in if not a thorough coating of …
A frame. Aspire needed a frame. Maybe one with a little leg so it could sit on his desk at home.
Sure Stroke’s giggle brought him back to Respite. She regarded him with a toothy grin and said, “I’m glad you like it. For the longest time, I wasn’t sure what part of Cloudsdale you might want to see, but then I remembered you mentioned rainbows when you first asked. So—”
“I love it!” Aspire interrupted, his eyes flitting between the beautiful rainbow and the filly responsible for its splendor. “It’s really, really … wow. And you got to see this all the time?” At her nod, he gave a rueful smile and said, “I wish I could see it for myself. Must be something, huh?”
“It really is!” she replied, feathers fluffing again. Her grin faltered a bit as Sure Stroke ducked her head and let her ears droop. “I’m not sure I did it justice. Seeing it is a whole different story.” Pausing a beat as if to think, she made to speak but stopped herself. Then she smiled again. “In any case, glad you like it.”
“Love, Doodle. I love it. And yeah, this is perfect. Definitely worth the trade!” Aspire charged his magic to tear the page out, but hesitated. “Er, you don’t mind, do you?”
She shook her head. “No, go ahead. It’s for you anyway. The page is perforated, so you shouldn’t get any torn edges.”
“Huh?” Blinking, he glanced between Sure Stroke and the pad. “I was just gonna cut through it.” In a flash of green, a razor thin bolt of magic sheared through the top of the page in a neat, straight line. Just as if he used a paper cutter. Aspire took the page in hoof and held it up for her to see, offering the sketch pad back with the other. “Like this.”
“Oh. Well then.” With an amused snort, Sure Stroke accepted the sketch pad and stuffed it into her messenger bag again. She scrunched up her snout in thought for a moment. “Isn’t it a little unfair, though?”
“Isn’t what unfair?”
“Me being done with the trade?”
Aspire blinked a few times. “Uh. Yeah, it is. You needed help with math, I wanted a drawing. Trade complete.”
“Isn’t it unfair to Vector and Zephyr, though?” she pressed. “You feed on Vector or have Zephyr buy pancakes every week, not just one and done.”
Oh. Aspire furrowed his brows. She did have a point there: her tutoring sessions hadn’t ended, in fact, there was no definitive end date. Still, it was her first trade. Couldn’t he go a little easy on her, just this once?
By the determined gleam in her eyes and the fresh taste of resolve popping like cinnamon on his tongue, Aspire had a sneaking suspicion the offer would fly about as well as he would in a rainstorm. Sighing, he ran a hoof through his messy blue mane. “I mean, if we’re going to do it like I arranged with the others, you’d just have to draw me something once in a while.”
“Like what?” Sure Stroke asked, tilting her head. “More stuff from Cloudsdale?”
“If you want.” Aspire shrugged. “Or anything, really. I like your drawings—doodles, especially,” he added with a wicked grin.
A scowl flashed across her muzzle. “I ought to smack you for that one, but you’re being nice even though you’re teasing.”
“You’re starting to catch on.”
“I am. Stop looking so smug.”
“Never!” he cried. “For a Smugling does as a Smugling does!”
Rolling her eyes, she shook her head. “You smug, therefore you are?”
“Yes, I like that one.”
“Thank you.” Sure Stroke stood up straight as an almost business like frown played upon her lips. “So, the same way every time? Colored?”
Aspire bobbed his head from side to side and let out a noncommittal grunt. “I’d be fine with sketches, so you’re not taking so long. And it doesn’t have to be every week.”
“Oh. That’s fair.” Nodding once, she smiled. “Then, I’ll draw in exchange for more lessons. Talent for talent.”
“Then, I’ll try to have something for you soon.” Sure Stroke turned away to look down the path toward the schoolhouse. “I promised Nimble and Toola I’d go watch them practice their dance. Essy’s there too, if you want to come with us.”
He shook his head and stood, still clutching her drawing in one hoof. “Nah, I’ve got something to take care of, too. You go on ahead. Tell the girls I said hi, and tell Nimble I said to tickle you till you shrieked.”
Sure Stroke threw back her head and laughed. “Yes to the first, no chance in Tartarus to the second!” she chirped before bounding a few steps down the path and took wing. “See you later, Aspire!”
“Bye, Doodle!” he called back, watching as she flew off toward the schoolhouse until she was little more than a violet dot against the verdant trees and clear blue sky. Then his gaze fell to the beautiful drawing held tight in his hoof. Aspire buzzed his wings, lifting himself into the air in a lazy hover and then headed toward the Wood brothers’ shop.
A quick size check and exchange of bits later, he had the perfect frame for his new drawing. His newest and—dare he say it?—favorite piece he’d ever put on display in his room, holding a place of honor on the right side of his desk where he could easily glance at it during reading breaks.
With that in mind, Aspire cracked open his personal favorite adventure book, Daring Do and the Quest for the Sapphire Stone to put the theory to practice. If his calculations were correct, a few moments spared to glance in wonder at the swirling rainbow and smiling filly would only extend his usual reading time by a half hour for a final time of four.
It took him two just to finish the first chapter.