Free time served as a nice divider between morning and afternoon lessons—an hour for lunch and then another for talk or play while the teachers went to gather a few volunteers around the village to teach specific groups. Pegasi would go to flying class, earth ponies learned about their connection with the earth and plants around them, unicorns practiced basic magic, and changelings worked on honing their transformations and a few spells as well.
Until then, the two hours they were spared were theirs to do with what they wished, as long as they stayed on school grounds and out of trouble.
For the most part, Sure Stroke had sat by herself during lunch hour. Rather than move her desk to join up with others’ like the rest of the class, she sat off to the side, sneaking decidedly unsubtle glances at both the sky and either Aspire or Esalen while she ate and sketched something out.
It was her decision, and Esalen would respect that, even if she would’ve rather spend time getting to know her newest friend.
Try to let her get comfortable with us.
When the second hour came around, Esalen stood between Aspire and a pretty, bubbly filly named Toola Roola.
Toola giggled and did a quick little cartwheel forward. Her hooves were but a bright magenta blur as she landed before the sporty colts in the class. Before either could blink, she reached out and booped a silver-maned nymph named Zephyr on the end of his cute, chitinous nose and danced around his lunge to mess up Vector’s perpetually windswept teal and charcoal gray mane.
The pair fixed her with playful glares and made to grab her. But Toola was far too quick. She just laughed as she dodged navy-coated and black-carapaced hooves before flipping herself back to stand beside her faithful gal-pal, Nimble Hooves, who just gave a bell-like laugh and shook her pale purple mane as she poked the mischievous gymnast in her belly, expertly hitting one of her many tickle spots.
“Who's pick is it today?” Toola Roola asked through her giggles, trying to squirm away from Nimble’s teasing hoof.
Prim ’n Proper lit up her horn and floated a schedule over from its place on the wall. “Hmm, looks like Vector gets to pick today. So, what’re we playing?”
“All right! I call soccer game!” Vector pumped a hoof in the air. “Regular rules: no flying, no magic, no shapeshifting!”
Esalen nodded once. “Sounds fair. How do you wanna divide up? Fillies versus colts again?”
“Nah, we did that yesterday and nymphs versus foals the day before that! Let’s just go with team captains this time.”
“Cool, so who’re the captains? I’m guessing you’re one,” Aspire noted.
Vector smirked and nodded. “Yeah, I’m the winning captain!” He brought a hoof to his chest, buffing it against his coat and looking down his nose at Aspire. “You can be the other one, bookbug!”
Esalen hid a giggle, dutifully joining her classmates as they gave a big “Ooooooooooh!” at the little jab. And here comes mister competitive!
It was just a little twitch of his lips, a tightening of his smile, but she saw it. Aspire’s muzzle split into a wide, toothy grin, the very same he liked to give whenever he had some mischief planned. The tiny spark of competitiveness in his deep blue eyes grew into a roaring flame. “You say that now, but that’ll just make winning all the sweeter! But since you’re so confident, I think I should get first pick—unless you think you need to find a ringer first?”
Just as predictable as Aspire, Vector narrowed his eyes, his smirk falling to a scowl. “No, no, please, go first! That way you can’t complain this time around!”
Never fails, Esalen shook her head and smiled. She watched the pair turn to face the rest of the class, each surveying the prospects carefully.
Of course, Aspire would go right ahead and nab her up—he always did. Whenever he failed to do so, or whenever he wasn’t captain, the pair always ended up marking one another for the whole game.
The end result was always the same: a full contact wrestling match in the last five minutes or so of free time.
His blue eyes met her pink, they exchanged a nod. “I pick Essy,” he said proudly, giving her a high hoof as she trotted over to stand at his side.
Vector frowned and grumbled, “You would, every dang time.” He turned to survey the rest of the line, humming a note before pointing to a stocky earth pony. “Rock Solid, you’re with me!”
Back and forth the pair went, assembling their team until the line dwindled, ending finally when Aspire picked a sheepishly grinning Toola Roola for his last pick. “Had to save the best for last,” he assured her with a sly wink. “I was trying to give cloud brain a handicap!”
“Aw, how cute! He was able to pull his snout out of a book long enough to make a joke!” His counterpart retorted. “So, we’re all set! Let’s get—“
“Now wait just a moment,” Prim ’n Proper said from Vector’s side. She glanced at both teams and did a quick count. “We’re short one—Aspire’s team has ten players, we only have nine. ”
“Uh… one team is always short one, Prim. We have nineteen in our class.”
“We should be up to twenty total in our class now.”
Esalen scrunched up her nose a moment, before bringing a hoof to her forehead. “Sure Stroke,” she said. “That’s who we’re missing.”
A few of her fellow nymphs’ smiles fell, they looked down and scuffed their hooves against the ground. “She tastes so afraid,” Nimble Hooves mumbled. “I can feel it whenever she looks at us.”
The mood soured, the mutters and whispered gossip from earlier was back in full. Prim herself huffed and turned up her nose. “Well, if she wants to be like that, then we’ll just have to play without her!”
“Now, hold on!” Aspire jumped in. “Weren’t you the one saying we should try to make her feel welcome? And now you’re gonna give her the cold shoulder because she’s scared of coming to a new place?”
“Scared of us nymphs!” Zephyr countered with a scowl, his lips peeled back to bare his fangs. “I saw her smile and shake hooves with the foals in class just fine, but whenever she came near us, she got shifty and nervous like she thought we were diseased!”
Esalen bit her lip, her ears swiveled back while the bickering went on, the horrible taste of indignance and sadness—the foals of Respite all but leaping to the defense of their friends. In a sense, she could appreciate their support, but their anger was misaimed.
Wait a minute! Mister Abacus! “What about Mister Abacus?” she called over their voices.
Everything ground to a halt. “What about him?” Zephyr asked, tilting his head.
“He was just as afraid of us when he showed up, remember?”
Aspire’s ears perked up. “Oh, yeah! Dad said he freaked out so badly he did a bit of accidental magic—they had to get Thunder and Raindance to coax him down from that tree branch!”
“Well…” Zephyr’s ears laid flat, he ducked his head between his shoulders. “Yeah, but he’s our teacher now. And he and Mister Stalwart—“
“Doesn’t matter! It counts! Mister Abacus had trouble at first, and everyone in Respite was patient and kind to him until he was ready. So—“ he turned, his eyes flitting about until he found Sure Stroke, sitting by herself beneath a big maple tree, and pointed to her “—why can’t we do the same for her? Give her a chance, and she’ll come ‘round like everyone else!”
The whispers and mutters filled Esalen’s ears again, though with a different emotion tinging them. Uncertainty, with a little hint of shame. Prim, in particular, looked down at the grass between her hooves, her ears drooped low once the implications hit her.
“Still not very nice of her…” Nimble mumbled, giving a little flick of her long purple tail. “I just wanted to give her a hug…”
“Er, well, our dad said that some ponies might think that’s a little weird at first, so that might be part of the problem,” Esalen said. She reached over to pat Nimble’s shoulders, giving her a little smile. “Let’s just start out small for now—we could invite her to play and let her see that we’re just as fun as the ponies back in Cloudsdale!”
“What if she says no?” Toola Roola asked.
Aspire stepped over to Esalen’s side. “Then we give her space and then try again tomorrow—just like everyone who comes to Respite.”
Their classmates shared looks, fellow nymphs unpinned their ears and stood a little taller while the foals thought it over. One by one, they offered small smiles and nods, their anger put on hold.
A little flick of her tongue, Esalen hid a grin at the sweet taste of happiness and hope. Right back on track. “So who wants to go over? How about you, Vector? She’d probably feel comfortable with a fellow pegasus.”
Ruffling his feathers, Vector pawed at the ground. “Er, yeah, but maybe she’d be more comfortable with you two. I mean, you guys were there to meet her at the gate, and I don’t really know her that well…”
“None of us do, you goof! All we know is that she’s nervous and apparently likes something called cloudball!”
“What ball?” the class parroted.
“Uh… you know what? We’ll let her explain that later on.” It’ll give her something to talk about. “Fine, we’ll go get her—Vector, go get a ball.”
“On it!” he said and took to the air with a few quick flaps of his wings. “Hope you two are ready to lose big!”
Aspire rolled his eyes and turned away from the group. “C’mon, Essy,” he mumbled out of the corner of his mouth. “Let’s hurry up and get her—I’ve got a score to settle with Vector!”
“Yes, yes, because he kept getting you in dodgeball and hasn’t stopped teasing you since. Focus, genius,” she gave him a little nudge. “And tone down the ‘beat my enemies into the ground’ for a bit—I dunno if Sure Stroke will like that so much.”
He winced and bit his lip. “Good point, sorry. Got a little carried away with that…”
“I know, he has a way of making everyone wanna get really into his games. Just tone it down a little bit in front of her.”
They trotted over to the old maple tree that Sure Stroke was sitting under.
The filly had a sketch pad out and a pencil in hoof, her brows furrowed in concentration. Her saddlebags laid at her side, open and tilted toward her for easy access. Sure Stroke’s tongue poked out between her lips, a tiny smile graced her muzzle as she worked, unaware of the siblings’ approach.
It was almost a shame to bother her, but they had to at least try to extend a welcoming hoof.
“Hey, Sure Stroke!” Esalen called. “Got a minute?”
Sure Stroke started, her hoof jerked to the left, dragging her pencil across the page. She grimaced at the stray line on her pad and gave a low whine.
“Oops! Sorry, we didn’t mean to scare you!” Aspire brought a hoof to his mouth.
“It’s all right,” she said with a sigh and a rueful smile. “I’ve got an eraser in my bag, somewhere.” She laid her sketch pad flat on the ground and reached into her saddlebags, and rummaged around. Her eyes flitted back up to them, glancing between the pair. “So… what did you need?”
Out of the corner of her eye, Esalen caught Aspire flicking out his tongue to taste for emotions—just a bit of frustration and the muggy hint of apprehension, but no trace of rotten fear. She was a bit comfortable with them than the rest of the class. Well, it’s a start.
No doubt sensing the same, Aspire smiled and launched into a quick explanation, telling her all about the soccer game with Vector’s team, and how the numbers weren’t quite even without Sure Stroke. Esalen kept quiet and watched their newest classmate stop searching her bag long enough to listen—she seemed to consider it, but her eyes kept drifting to the end of Aspire’s muzzle before she’d catch herself and look up at his eyes.
A habit she couldn’t quite fight it seemed. And each time her gaze drifted, that tiny bit of fear returned, like a droplet of water sending ripples on the surface of a lake.
Curiously, Esalen watched, though her eyes flitted to the sketchpad on the ground. The partially drawn figure caught her eye.
It was a head, similar to that of a pony, but a bit more narrow along the snout, and with a few antennae peeking out from within its shaggy mane along with a curved horn at the center of its forehead.
Esalen tilted her head. The mane style looked rather similar to how Aspire wore his—medium length and shaggy because of how often he ran his hooves through it. She’s good, very good. She hummed as she let her eyes wander over the picture, snorting at how well Sure Stroke had done with Aspire’s crooked, toothy grin, exposing all of his teeth.
She froze, her gaze locked on the fangs—more akin to small knives than the tiny pointed teeth he had. If anything, they were closer to Queen Euphoria’s when she was ready to fight at best, and completely disproportionate at worst!
Almost as if she’d drawn something straight out of a nightmare.
The pieces started to fall into place. All the flinching, the way Sure Stroke kept glancing at their muzzles whenever they or one of their fellow nymphs smiled, it all fit!
She’s afraid of our fangs. Ponies, minotaurs, and even griffons don’t have fangs!
Visitors who simply came to the village on their own didn’t always react so well when they met changelings face to face. Like Mister Abacus, they wandered in off of hearsay, looking for the village in the middle of the forest where they could rest, find help for their ailments, and meet with friendly faces.
Not all of them took the fangs that came with those friendly faces so well There was always a sense that they held the changelings at hoof’s length until they felt safe enough.
But Sure Stroke’s family had been invited. Merryweather and Hawkeye had gone specifically to offer Drizzly Days and Skydancer jobs in the village—he’d even transformed right in front of them!
Those twin daggers sticking out of her brother’s mouth in the drawing couldn’t be ignored, though. One or two visits from Hawkeye and Merryweather didn’t mean all her worries should be put at ease.
She did move here in the middle of the school year… Esalen furrowed her brows. She didn’t get a chance to get settled like the others who stayed.
She shook herself from her musings just in time to hear Aspire finish his little spiel. “… So, how about it?” he asked. “Vector’s team could really use you and it’ll be a lot of fun!”
Sure Stroke ducked her head and fixed her gaze on her saddlebag. “I, uh, maybe later,” she mumbled, slowly looking back up at them. “I’ve never been very good at sports…”
Aspire’s shoulders slumped. “You sure? It doesn’t matter how good you are, really—it’s just for fun, and Vector and I just like to tease each other.”
“I just… I think I’m just gonna work on my, um, sketches. I didn’t get to practice very much on the train ride over.” She dropped her gaze and didn’t look back up, her ears laid flat against her scalp as she resumed her search for an eraser.
Smiling in spite of the answer, Esalen made as though to offer a hoof, but stopped short. Instead, she simply brushed a few stray locks out of her eyes. “All right, well have fun. If you change your mind, though, we’d love to have you join us.” She turned and fixed Aspire with a meaningful stare and a toss of her head toward the rest of the group.
He didn’t argue. “Yeah, have fun drawing, Sure Stroke! Hey, maybe you can show us later if you’re feeling up to it!” Before Sure Stroke could even stammer out a reply, the siblings bid her a quick goodbye and trotted back to the rest of the group.
As soon as they were out of earshot, Aspire let his smile drop and muttered out of the side of his mouth, “You saw the drawing too?”
“It looked good—“ she said, smiling playfully “—guess we know which of us caught her eye, eh?”
“Funny. And yeah, I looked really good—aside from the pickaxes sticking out of my mouth.”
Esalen cringed, the bite in his words as harsh as ever despite his tone. “You saw it too?”
Aspire gave her a sidelong glance. “Out of the corner of my eye, yeah. Kinda hard to miss when she draws fangs for an angry changeling. So, safe to guess that’s what she keeps looking at. Our fangs.” His ears drooped, he cringed. “How do we fix that, Essy?”
She glanced over her shoulder at Sure Stroke and raised an eyebrow. They couldn’t take away their fangs entirely, but there was always an alternative—changelings always found a way.
How had Queen Euphoria managed to nuzzle Sure Stroke without making her flinch away?
Letting her mind wander back to Queen Euphoria’s home, she focused on the Queen’s smile again. Something about it seemed off, a touch different from the normal one where she showed teeth, even her at rest fangs.
Esalen jerked upright. That’s what was off.
Queen Euphoria had shown teeth. But there were no fangs.
One minute, her smile was normal. Then she closed her mouth for but a second, and when she smiled again, it was just a bit off.
Even Sure Stroke noticed something changed.
Esalen turned to grin at Aspire. “Like Queen Euphoria,” she said.
He blinked and tilted his head, regarding her with no shortage of confusion.
“She did a quick little shift to hide her fangs while Sure Stroke was looking. If that’s what she’s afraid of, well …” She waggled her ears. “We are changelings. Why can’t we change a little?”
Suddenly his ears perked up, the proverbial lightning bolt struck him. A matching grin nearly split his muzzle, Aspire stopped in his tracks. “You wanna change forms until she’s comfortable?”
“Sort of. Hiding wouldn’t work long-term, not without feeding a lot, and I don’t like the idea of asking for that much from our friends. But—“ she opened her mouth to flash her fangs “—I think we could stand to learn a bit of how to hide these for a bit. And then…” Esalen held a hoof out, prompting him to finish.
“And then, we show her that we can adjust until she’s ready. Kind of a peace offering?”
She gave a single nod. “Exactly. Like dad would say: don’t just tell that we want her to feel welcome, show it!”
Aspire stomped a hoof twice against the ground. “Perfect! Essy, you’re brilliant!”
“I do try!” she said, with a little toss of her braid. “We just have to pay extra attention to hiding our fangs in class—practice until we can pull it off easier!”
“Sounds like a plan to me!” Pausing a beat, he added, “We’re still gonna stomp Vector’s team, right?”
Esalen laughed and shook her head before swatting his ear. “Yes, you great big goof, we can go play first!”
With their plan set, the two dashed over to the rest of their class, eager to make the most of their free time before afternoon lessons began.