Aspire and Esalen sat side by side, with their hooves folded neatly on their desktops and saddlebags slung on the hooks on the left edge. The very picture of a good pair of nymphs, just like the rest of their class.
No distractions, no playing around. The siblings hadn’t allowed anything to deter them from their goal, not this time. Not even Sweet Treat’s super special secret recipe for chocolate chip cookies could sway them—no matter how deliciously, mouth-wateringly sweet they were.
Esalen licked her lips, the scent of hot baked cookies, fresh from the oven, still lingered. Like a siren call, teasing her with promises of that taste she so craved.
No, bad! She shook her head, her cotton candy pink braid whipped back and forth. Giving into her craving for sweets would mean trouble—both in terms of playing truant, and in leaving before giving Sure Stroke a proper welcome to their class.
If her anxiety and fear tasted bitter her first day here, it’d only get worse if I pulled something like that, she shuddered, gagging and sticking out her tongue. And mom would go nuts!
Cookies would simply have to wait until class was over. Or, better yet, cookies would wait until class was over and Sure Stroke was able to join Aspire and her!
It was the perfect plan. All they needed was for Mister Abacus to walk in and get things underway.
Aspire sighed and shook his head as he mumbled under his breath, drawing a flick of Esalen’s ear.
“What?” she whispered, her eyes still trained on the door.
“I said, they’re taking an awfully long time bringing her in,” he replied, giving a nod toward the window. Specifically, toward the sun. “Just around eight, right? Class should be starting soon.”
With a roll of her eyes, Esalen reached over and thumped him on the shoulder. “Would you relax? Sheesh! You’re just mister fidgety lately! Yesterday it was threatening to eat my pancakes, today it’s Mister Abacus and poor Sure Stroke! Are you gonna threaten to eat their food too?”
He turned slowly, leveling her with his best imitation of their father’s stern gaze. His messy blue mane cast a shadow over the upper part of his face. “No, smart-aleck, I’m not gonna threaten to eat their food. I’m just saying, they’re cutting it close—“
“And we don’t every other morning?”
“—No! Well, yes, but that’s not the point! Focus a second!” Before she could react, Aspire leaned over and nipped at her ear, quickly pulling back and dodging a swipe of her hoof. “Serves you right! Anyway, I was thinking more that there might be something wrong. Like… I dunno, maybe she’s getting cold hooves or something?”
Esalen blinked, she leaned back against her chair and hummed to herself. The taste of anxiety was still fresh on her tongue, and Sure Stroke’s constant glances, the way her eyes flitted from the end of Aspire and Esalen’s muzzles and back to the ground vivid in her mind.
“Now remember—“ Prim ’n Proper’s haughty voice cut through her reverie “—everyone gives a nice, happy hello when they walk in! Big smiles and all! We want her to feel right at home!”
The siblings turned to one another, each raised an eyebrow and shared a grin. “Well, at least one of us is ready and raring to go, eh?” Aspire said, bringing a hoof up to stifle a laugh. “Think it’s her coffee?”
A shudder ran down Esalen’s spine. “Don’t even joke about that—can you imagine her hopped up on that stuff?”
“She’d be impossible!”
“Hey!” The pair sat upright, their ears stood ramrod straight as they turned in unison to face Prim. She adjusted her glasses, her sky blue eyes narrowed into a stern glare. “You two!”
“Yes?” Both drawled, with plastic smiles pasted on their muzzles.
Naturally, Prim ’n Proper wasn’t buying it. Her annoyance was palpable and just as biting and foul as ever. She heaved a sigh and brought an alabaster hoof to massage between her forest green eyes. “Could you please try to pay attention? Just… please just smile and join in.”
Esalen blinked, quickly flicking her tongue for a more thorough sampling of her emotions. Annoyance, still, but with a hint of stress. Trying to make things perfect, oh dear. “Right, right, we’ll stop. Smiles in place, see?” As she spoke, she fixed a broad, toothy grin on her muzzle.
Right on cue, Aspire beamed at Prim as well. “Just wondering what was taking so long!” he explained, his tone light and cheery.
“Hopefully nothing too major,” Prim turned to the door, chewing on her bottom lip a bit before turning back to the pair. “You said she was nervous yesterday?” At their nods, she flicked her curly auburn tail. “How nervous?”
“Very,” both said in unison.
“She didn’t really talk much, other than to tell us about something from Cloudsdale,” Aspire added. “Otherwise? She kept her head down, spoke softly, and kept looking around—but that’s kinda normal, I think.”
Esalen made to add a comment of her own, but Nimble, a nymph with a pale purple mane she kept tied at the end, called out to the rest of the class, “They’re coming! Prim, they’re coming!” From her spot by the door, she gave a waggle of her ears. “I can hear them trotting down the hall!”
Prim ’n Proper stood up straight, snapping to attention as though the siblings’ summation didn’t phase her at all. “Everyone get ready!” she called and trotted briskly to her desk at the front of the class. “Vector, stop preening and sit down! Toola Roola—in the name of love!—if you try to hoofstand on your desk again, so help me!”
With a roll of her eyes, Esalen shook her head. Trying way too hard to make it perfect. Her ear flicked toward the door, three sets of hoofsteps echoed from the hallway, just outside their classroom door.
A hoof went to her mane, smoothing out a few stray locks. She took a deep breath through her nose, and let it out through her mouth. Okay, yesterday was a bit of a stutter-step, but today is a new day! Like dad says, welcome her with open hooves, be nice, and she’ll feel right at home.
The door opened. Each and every changeling and pony leaned forward, eagerly eying the trio of ponies who walked through.
Mister Abacus entered first, followed by a brightly smiling Skydancer and a more sedate Sure Stroke. As the trio walked in, Esalen took the chance to steal a look at the newcomers’ cutie marks, something she’d avoided out of courtesy during their tour.
Skydancer’s cutie mark was rather interesting. A pair of larger yellow wings encircling tiny white wings, like a mother raising up her foal for their first flight. Fitting, since she was a teacher like Mister Abacus, whose mark was a more obvious sign with a ruler and a textbook laid one on top of the other.
She moved on to look at Sure Stroke’s, a frown tugged at her lips as she was instead greeted by fluffing feathers that covered most of the nervous filly’s flank. The most she could see was the pointed end of something on the far side of her flank. Squinting, Esalen noticed that it looked a lot like the sharpened end of a pencil.
With a shrug, she put it on the backburner. There were more important matters at hoof: like how Sure Stroke was taking the move since they’d met.
Esalen flicked her tongue and wrinkled her nose at the taste. Bitter anxiety and fear, just like before. She managed to catch Sure Stroke’s gaze. Those blue eyes were still wide and flitting from the floor, to her surroundings, and to each of her classmates’ faces, lingering on the nymphs.
Okay, this is getting weird. Her tail flicked, Esalen tapped a hind hoof against the floor. Just what are you looking at?
“Everyone, this is Missus Skydancer,” Mister Abacus began, gesturing to the mare at his side.
On cue, the class stood in unison and sang out in practiced greeted, “Good morning, Missus Skydancer! Welcome to Respite!”
Skydancer gave a wave of her hoof. “Good morning, class! My! Two big welcomes in two days, and so enthusiastic!” Her eyes flitted over to Aspire and Esalen, her smile broadened into a full, toothy grin. “Well, well! If it isn’t the terrible two!”
The siblings chuckled nervously as the class turned their gazes upon them. Prim’s glare was back, as stern and heated as ever. “Hello, Missus Skydancer,” Esalen replied, giving a little wave of her own.
“Hello, Esalen, and you, Aspire. Nice to see you again,” she reached down and nudged Sure Stroke with a hoof. “Of course, you two have already met Sure Stroke—say hello, honey, don’t be rude!”
All eyes were on Sure Stroke as her mother pushed her forward, straight into the center of attention. Excitement, anticipation, and hope for a new friend, all a rather sweet taste for any changeling in the room.
But that delightful taste came with a bitter center: the filly’s nerves.
Pawing at the ground, Sure Stroke ducked her head and shrugged her shoulders, as though trying to make herself appear smaller before her peers. “‘Lo,” she mumbled.
“Hello, Sure Stroke!” the class called back cheerfully.
Her head went a bit lower, her ears laid flat against her scalp. That tiny trickle of nervousness grew, billowing out to fill the well of emotions like an algae bloom. Her eyes flitted from one classmate to the next, lingering on the changelings just a bit longer than the ponies.
Something about that stare. It’s always at our muzzles. Esalen steepled her hooves and hummed idly. But not at Queen Euphoria, or at least not like she stared at ours. Why not?
Curious, but not something to poke at quite yet. After class, maybe, or when they had a little bit more information as to what drew Sure Stroke’s attention. She just had to see if Aspire was as concerned and if he’d be willing to join in her effort.
A glance to her left told her all she needed to know.
Aspire turned to her, cocking his head to one side. “You seeing this?” he mouthed, pointing at Sure Stroke.
She nodded once. “Later,” she hissed in reply, giving a meaningful jerk of her head toward Mister Abacus. “Don’t wanna get in trouble.” Their pact made, the siblings turned to face the front and not a moment too soon.
Mister Abacus stepped up to stand beside Sure Stroke, and made as though to lay a comforting hoof on her back, but thought better of it. “Well, we’re happy to have you here, Sure Stroke,” he said softly. “Why don’t you take your seat. There’s one beside Aspire, actually—” he waved his hoof toward the empty seat to Aspire’s left “—right next to the window.”
Sure Stroke hesitated a moment, looking up to Skydancer almost uncertainly.
“Go on, sweetie,” her mother said. She leaned down and nuzzled into Sure Stroke’s bouncy purple mane. “I’ll come by and pick you up after school, okay? Maybe we can go by Sweet Treat’s place afterward, huh?”
A tiny, fleeting smile, and nod of her head. Sure Stroke nosed her way under her mother’s chin and caught her in a tight hug, whispering something before they parted.
Skydancer’s grin fell, but only slightly. She shook her head before nudging Sure Stroke toward the class, before standing up straight and waving to the students. “Have a good day, everypony—er, everyone, rather! Don’t study too hard!”
With a snort, Mister Abacus brandished a ruler at her. “Don’t tell them stuff like that!” He glared at the laughing mare as she pranced out of the classroom.
Slowly, he turned to face the rest of the class, his eyes narrowed at the sight of the room full of changelings and ponies stuffing their hooves in their mouths to hold back their mirth. A smirk crossed his chestnut brown muzzle. “Since you’re all so thoroughly amused, why don’t you take out your math homework so I can collect it?”
Esalen sighed in stereo with her fellow classmates and reached into her bag to take out a sheet of paper covered in scribbled equations and scratch work. Stupid algebra.
“There we go! I’ll come around to collect it, you can chat amongst yourselves a little bit—oh, Sure Stroke—” he called “—don’t worry about this assignment, you’ll just start with our next one. Okay?”
Sure Stroke gave a weak smile and nod as she slowly made her way to her desk. With every member of the class, she walked by her smile grew more and more strained, her eyes flitted to the ends of the nymphs’ muzzles each time they turned and reached out to shake her hoof—just a second between her glance and the slow return of the gesture.
On the other hoof, whenever she came to a foal, she readily accepted the hoofshake. She’d return their smile, greet them with almost equal enthusiasm, that tiny dash of happiness would spike and mix with a measure of comfort in something familiar.
But with every bit of hesitation she showed the nymphs, the mood in the class changed. Excitement gave way to confusion as the nymphs tilted their heads and looked to one another—hushed conversations, sideways glances, and a couple of them sitting with their shoulders sagging.
Prim ’n Proper did her best to mask her disappointment as Mister Abacus approached her desk to take her homework, she turned to face the teacher and started questioning him about something on the homework, though not without turning to stare one last time at the back of Sure Stroke’s head.
A flick of Esalen’s tongue told the full story. Prim wasn’t happy in the least bit. A trickle of dismay at her failed attempt to welcome the new filly mixed with something else, something more foul than even Sure Stroke’s fear:
Indignation. As a filly born and raised in Respite, Prim was offended on the nymphs’ behalf.
Uh oh. Esalen glanced between Sure Stroke and Prim, the former coming closer to her desk with each passing second.
She’d start with her new classmate first, then move to putting out the other fires.
Turning in her seat to face Sure Stroke, she smiled but made no move to shake hooves or hug the uncomfortable filly. “Hi! How was your first day in Respite?”
“Um, not too bad,” Sure Stroke said softly, stopping in between the siblings’ desks. Her wings relaxed at her sides, she lifted her head a little so she could meet their eyes. “We spent most of the day unpacking… didn’t really get to walk around and see anything other than what you showed us.”
Aspire leaned forward and propped his chin on his hooves. “Aw, that’s a bummer! You got everything put up though, right? Or did you guys have a bunch of stuff?”
She shook her head. “No, we still have some things left over, but everything in my room is set up, so that’s nice.” A tiny smile played on her lips. “Dad fell asleep on a pile of flattened boxes last night, and mom was so tired she almost left him!”
While Aspire snickered at Drizzly’s expense, Esalen flicked her tongue, just a taste to sample the emotions.
The bitter taste was still there, but something sweeter was mixed in: happiness. The corners of her mouth twitched—Sure Stroke was starting to relax more around them!
Small victories are still victories! For a moment, she just sat and watched her brother flop onto his desk, let his tongue loll out of the side of his mouth and give a loud, fake snore—a terrible imitation, but enough to make Sure Stroke giggle into her hoof despite her nerves.
But just as soon as she gave her mental cheer, Sure Stroke’s eyes flitted back to the end of Aspire’s muzzle. The filly’s laughter stopped abruptly, her smile fell just slightly, she ducked her head and mumbled, “I should sit down… nice to see you again.”
Aspire lifted his head off the desk, tilting his head. He waited until she’d passed him by before subtly flicking his tongue out of her line of sight. He blinked and mouthed something to himself, shaking his head as he turned to fish his own homework out of his bag.
Esalen frowned and gave another flick of her tongue, and promptly bit back a groan. That tiny swell of happiness had dimmed, the bitter taste of her nerves swelled and poisoned the well. They’d been so close!
Still, there was hope—Sure Stroke had been fine until she shifted her gaze toward Aspire’s muzzle, she’d even been ready to open up a bit and laugh with them.
Just gotta figure out what it is she’s so fussy about.
Ears twitching at the scraping and clicking of chalk against a blackboard, Esalen had been struggling to stay focused since Mister Abacus began his lessons. Algebra was torture.
Complete and utter torture.
Thank love that Aspire was patient enough to tutor her when she struggled, or her grades would’ve bottomed out long ago. He’ll certainly be good for that once Trade Day comes around.
She shook her head, chasing those thoughts back to the recesses of her mind. If she spent her days dreaming about what her calling might be, she’d fall behind.
Taking hold of her pencil in her magic, she copied down the equations written on the board, a tiny frown crossed her muzzle as he stared at the mix of numbers and letters, and tried to make sense of them. Bring this over here by dividing from that side to free up “x”… wait, no, I have to move the free number first, or the whole thing gets messed up.
With a sigh, Esalen erased her scratch work and resigned herself to starting all over again. If she could just stay focused, she wouldn’t be making such silly mistakes. But she just couldn’t keep her mind from wandering—whether it be Trade Day or figuring out what bothered Sure Stroke so, her classwork just wasn’t high on her list.
“Prim,” Mister Abacus called, “have you finished the first problem?”
Nodding her auburn-maned head, Prim began rattling off the answer and how she went about getting it.
Esalen only half heard, favoring to glance off to the side, toward the bright, sunny sky through the window. She smiled as she watched a few pegasi flit here and there, pushing clouds into place for the late afternoon shower they’d scheduled over the eastern orchard.
She squinted, searching for the gray-blue of Drizzly Day’s coat, before stopping and giving herself a mental bop—he’d only just arrived in Respite yesterday, so he’d be at home unpacking still. It’d be up to Miss Raindance to lead the team until he was ready.
Hopefully, she doesn’t start early again, Esalen thought with a shudder. Last week’s light shower had been more of a torrential downpour.
Her left ear flicked toward Aspire, she shifted her gaze and raised a brow. “What?” she mouthed.
Aspire brought a hoof to his mouth, miming that she keep quiet, and jerked his head toward Sure Stroke. “Look,” he hissed back.
Esalen glanced out of the corner of her eye toward the front of the room—Mister Abacus was busy correcting Prim, but that wouldn’t take too long. She’d have to be quick.
She leaned forward, ducking her head behind the foal sitting in front of her while she snuck a peek.
On Aspire’s left, Sure Stroke had her pencil in hoof and seemed to be drawing something on the edge of her paper. Every now and then, she’d look toward the window, smile, and sigh. Her primaries would twitch as if just itching to feel the wind beneath her wings.
Of course. It’s a bright, sunny day, and she’s from Cloudsdale. She’s probably doodling the clouds and stuff. Not all that interesting, especially for Aspire to take note and interrupt her flimsy concentration. Besides, if it took Sure Stroke’s mind off her worries for a bit and gave her a moment of comfort, more power to her.
Just as Esalen made to reply to Aspire, Mister Abacus called, “Esalen!”
She squeaked and sat up straight. “Yes, sir?” she replied sheepishly, her ears burned as her classmates shared a giggle at her misfortune.
The schoolteacher’s brows knit together. “Since you’ve got enough time to look out the window, you must be done with those problems! So, could you tell us what you got for question number two?”
Sneaking a glance at her paper, she hid a wince. She’d only managed to get the first problem done thanks to Aspire. “Uh…” she pasted a smile on her muzzle and stole a look at the problems on the board.
2) 14 = —(P — 8)
Esalen tilted her head as she did a bit of quick math. Switch everything inside the parentheses to negative, that makes the minus sign a plus sign. Then subtract eight from both sides… “Negative six,” she said. “P is negative six.”
“Correct. But why is it six? Why wouldn’t you add the eight to both sides instead of subtracting it?”
“Because of the negative sign outside the parentheses,” Esalen replied. “The signs inside have to flip before you can do anything.”
Mister Abacus nodded and gave a small smile. “Exactly right! Before you start moving things around, you have to remember your order of operations—so, since there’s a negative outside the parentheses, everything inside gets multiplied by negative one. However—“ his smile dropped, he fixed her with a stern gaze “—please try to pay more attention from now on, okay? I think you can wait a bit for recess.”
Sheepishly rubbing at her mane, Esalen nodded, took hold of her pencil again, and quickly scribbled down the rest of the problems. She hastily began to work out the rest of the problems, sneaking little glances to the blackboard to get little hints.
But as she made her way through the rest of her problems, a hoof tapped on her shoulder.
“Essy!” Aspire hissed again.
Esalen gritted her teeth, and ground out, “Stop! You’re gonna get us both in trouble!”
“No, really, look!”
“She’s just doodling, that’s not a big deal!”
“Essy,” his tone changed, the hushed whisper took on a more serious edge, “they’re really good. Look.”
Esalen wrinkled her muzzle and turned to face him. Aspire met her stare with a nod and a motion of his hoof toward Sure Stroke, mouthing, “Look for yourself.”
Raising an eyebrow, she checked to make sure that Mister Abacus wasn’t watching before sneaking another peek toward Sure Stroke—or, rather, her notebook.
Just as Aspire said, there were a few little drawings scrawled on the side. Fluffy clouds—just like floating in the sky—lined the top of her paper, with a few tiny pegasi pushing against their edges or peeking out to wave at the filly drawing them.
But the attention to detail—how each pegasus reaching for a cloud had forelegs nicely portioned, how their bodies were more streamlined and showed hints of tiny feathers filling their wings, rather than just a couple of oversized primaries—was amazing!
They were far better than the doodles of an absentminded filly, they were more akin to sketches, really. She was even taking the time to shade everything in!
Esalen gave a low hum and craned her neck to glance at Sure Stroke herself. Or, more specifically, the mark on her flank. Her curiosity had been piqued about just what else made up her new friend’s cutie mark aside from that pencil tip.
Set upon Sure Stroke’s violet coat was the image paintbrush and a pencil laid across each other. With a quick glance to her saddlebags, Esalen found the same mark displayed just above the buckle.
Something in the bag caught her eye. Peeking out from within, there was a white edge. Like a notebook of sorts, but without all the lines to write on.
“Aha,” she murmured, a smile played upon her lips. She’s an artist.
She gave an appreciative nod to Aspire. “Good call,” she hissed out of the side of her mouth. Then, she turned to face the blackboard again as Mister Abacus finished praising Toola Roola for properly distributing her numbers.
Just in time to feign attentiveness when his eyes flitted in her direction, going right passed her, and locking on Sure Stroke.
Her ears drooped. Caught daydreaming already. Esalen shook her head and sighed as she began a mental countdown. Three. Two. One.
The filly jumped at the sound of his voice, hastily covering her paper with her hooves to hide her drawings. “Y-Yes, sir?”
Mister Abacus frowned, giving a shake of his head. “Sure Stroke, I know you’re new, but try to pay more attention. Okay?”
“Yes, sir,” Sure Stroke replied, hanging her head meekly.
“Thank you, dear. Now, can you tell us what you got for number five?”
Scrunching up her nose, Sure Stroke leaned forward and peered at the blackboard. Her wings seemed to droop a bit as she stared at the problem.
5) —8 = —(x + 4)
“Um…” she ruffled her wings and ducked her head between her shoulders again. “Negative twelve?” she asked.
A round of giggles from the rest of the class, Sure Stroke’s ears drooped lower until they laid flat against her head. Mister Abacus shook his head and said, “No, you forgot to distribute the negative one outside the parentheses, dear. It changes both ‘x’ and four to negatives, so you end up adding the four to both sides to get negative four on the left, then divide by negative one to get rid of the negative on ‘x’. So, if we do all that, we should get a four.”
Sure Stroke dropped her gaze to her desk and fiddled with her pencil.
“It’s okay,” Mister Abacus said softly, “everyone learns at their own pace. Just take good notes and pay better attention and I’m sure it’ll catch on.”
She gave a half-hearted nod and took her pencil in hoof again, slowly writing down the problems on the board.
Out of the corner of her eye, Esalen watched as Sure Stroke set about her work. A hint of embarrassment hung in the air around her, those foul-tasting emotions overpowered that little trickle of happiness she had talking to them earlier.
Even worse, her anxiety was back again, and just as bitter as before. Esalen let out a deep sigh through her nose before turning her gaze to the blackboard again.
New filly woes and trouble in math. Not a good combination on the first day of class. Hopefully, the free time between morning and afternoon lessons would give her a chance to just relax and get to know the class.
And if they could help her get over that pesky fear of hers sooner, all the better.