Even with the delicious taste of Sweet Treat’s confections and the company of a few good friends, homework was tedious. Granted, Sure Stroke had declined Esalen’s offer to join them for a study session with the rest of their friends, but much like recess, there was no fear.
Rather, when Esalen flicked her tongue and snuck a taste of her emotions, she found it met with the sweet taste of joy mixed with a hint of bitter regret as Sure Stroke stammered and shuffled in place while she excused herself to spend time with her parents.
Unfortunate, but understandable. Aspire was still a bit mopey that she’d begged out of it—the way he kicked a pebble down the dirt path to their home and mumbled under his breath would almost be adorable, if he didn’t keep pulling her into a conversation on how to speed up their plan.
“… Maybe if we could find a way to coax her into going to Sweet Treat’s or the ice cream parlor—no, we already gave her a taste of Chocolate’s stuff.” He shook his head and kicked the pebble a bit harder, sending it farther up the path. “We could get Toola and Vector to eat lunch with us tomorrow! That way, she’s around a couple foals as well as us!”
“Trying to outnumber nymphs with foals, eh?” Sighing, Esalen shook her head. “You know Zephyr’s always right by Vector. Toola might work, since Nimble likes to hang around with Allegretto every now and then, but that’s mostly when she’s getting ready to do a dance for Sharer’s Day or something.”
Aspire gave a whine. “I’m trying to find a way to make her comfortable quicker! Stop poking holes in my plans!”
Raising a brow, Esalen waved a hole-filled leg at him. “But we are full of holes, you dork.” She ducked a swipe, then stuck out her tongue. “Temper, temper! I’m just trying to lighten the mood!”
With a flash of green fire, his fangs lengthened back to normal length. “Less lightening, more helping,” he growled.
“Oh, would you just relax!” Esalen bopped him over the head. “Weren’t you just poking me with all of your stupid puns a few hours ago and giggling yourself silly when I got mad?”
“That was different! I was trying to get you to relax, since you were—”
“Doing the exact same thing you’re doing right now,” she cut him off and finished his sentence.
Blinking his deep blue eyes, Aspire scrunched up his muzzle in thought. A sheepish grin crossed his muzzle, he gave a nervous chuckle as his ears swiveled back to lay against his scalp. “I really am, aren’t I?” He stopped walking and ran a hoof through his mane. “Chitin, I’m sorry, Essy. I guess I just got excited when we got a little taste of her happiness once she opened up a little and wanted more.”
Esalen stepped in front of her brother, placing a comforting hoof on his shoulder. “Hey, it happens,” she said. “I could taste it too, and I’d like to take sips of her love as soon as possible. She’s nice and quite cute, and her love is really sweet, but she’s shy.”
“Really shy,” Aspire corrected. “I don’t remember Sparky or Rosebud being like this when they started school with us.” He brought a hoof to his chin, frowning in thought. “Though I think they were both a little shifty for a while…”
“It’s been awhile since they first joined our class. And they showed up while we were on summer break, remember?” She poked his shoulder. “Mister ‘wanna be a teacher’, you should remember when students show up.”
Rolling his eyes, Aspire flicked his tail. “Oh, bite me. They’ve been here a few years, cut me a little slack!” Seeing her raise an eyebrow, and how her cheeks puffed up with suppressed laughter, he grumbled, “Not like I do it on purpose.”
“Again, lighten up, punling.” Esalen stepped to the side so they could resume their walk, giving him a little hip check for his troubles.
He fixed her with a stern glare once he’d righted himself, returning her hip bump with a nudge of his shoulder. “Maybe mom and dad could help with some ideas,” he offered. “Something to kinda give us a way to get her out of her shell, but not bombard her with new faces.”
Esalen tilted her head. “But she doesn’t have a shell,” she pointed out, her voice tinged with feigned innocence.
With a sigh of frustration, he brought a hoof to his forehead. “Love give me strength. This is payback for all of my terrible jokes, isn’t it?” Seeing her give a fanged grin, he heaved another sigh, trying to hide the upward tugging at the corners of his mouth.
She wasn’t letting him get away with hiding it. “You’re trying not to laugh.”
“Shut up. I am not.”
“Yes you are, punling,” she teased. “Admit it, that was a joke worthy of your terrible humor.”
Scoffing, Aspire puffed out his chest and tossed his messy blue mane. “You mean my genius,” he said with mock arrogance, before settling down again. “But back on subject, here. What can we do? We already had lunch with her.”
“Just keep doing it?” Esalen offered, shrugging her shoulders. “It’s not gonna happen overnight, you know.”
“Tossing my words at recess back at me, huh?” He arched a brow.
Esalen kicked his pebble before he could, knocking it all the way to the front porch and earning herself a snort of irritation. She beamed back at him. “Thought you could use a little reminder, since you’re getting so love drunk on her!” she sang.
Rather than hiss and growl at her like he had in class, Aspire threw back his head and laughed. “Coming from you? Little miss ‘she’s quite cute’ calling me love drunk? Hello, pot, this is kettle; did you realize you’re black?”
“Oh, hush!” She bumped her hip against him again, cheeks coloring at his laughter. “She’s a sweet, pretty filly, and she’s fun to talk to! I saw you flicking your tongue out extra at lunch, you know!”
“Heh, guilty.” His smile turned sheepish, a hoof rubbed at the back of his mane. “She just tasted so sweet, especially after all that anxiety she’d been putting out for so long.” As they reached the front porch, Aspire swept his hoof sideways, kicking the pebble off into their mother’s garden. “I don’t know what it is, but she tasted a lot sweeter than the rest of our friends. Maybe it’s because I’d been tasting so much of her anxiety and loneliness that it was like the brothers opened up their full stock of ice cream for me, gave me a spoon, and said ‘dig in’.”
The image brought an amused smile to her face, though Esalen couldn’t help but lick her lips at the thought. So many flavors, all of them sweet.
She stopped on the front porch, her hoof just inches from the door handle. “Are my fangs still tiny?”
“Yeah, you might wanna change that back. Good thing for Toola’s idea, huh?”
Grinning as she let the green flames of her changeling magic wash over her fangs, she replied, “I went extra light on the magic use today to help maintain my form. And, yes, Toola is a genius for coming up with the hatchling fangs idea.” She tested the length with the tip of her tongue, humming in approval as she felt them back to their normal size. “We’ll have to do something nice for her. I don’t even want to imagine how tired I’d be if I had to keep shifting my fangs away all day!”
Aspire nodded. “Imagine how she’d have taken it if we kept losing focus.”
Both gave theatrical shudders. Between the sight and sound of rushing green flames, and their fangs lengthening and shortening, Sure Stroke would’ve been thrown for quite a loop.
Esalen grimaced, jerking the door open and stepping inside. The scent of her mother’s cooking reached her—stir-fry vegetables and seasoned rice. A village favorite.
“Well, that doesn’t matter. Let’s just think of some other stuff.” She trotted into the living room, with Aspire following close behind, and made to toss her saddlebag onto the couch, but stopped short at the sight of a new set of bags resting on one of the podchairs. “Huh. Looks like we’ve got guests.”
Perking up his ears, Aspire pointed to the cutie mark on one of the bags—a black top hat. “It’s Mister Haberdasher! From Fillydelphia, remember?”
“Oh, yeah!” Her sugar pink tail swished. “He said he’d come back for visits!”
“Wonder who he brought along with him. Girlfriend, maybe?”
Shrugging, Esalen flipped her bags over the edge of the slime cocoon couch. “Only one way to find out!” She cupped a hoof to her mouth, calling, “Mom? Dad? We’re back!”
“I hear you, sweetie,” Faith’s voice floated from the kitchen, tinged with amusement. “What’ve I told you about yelling in the house?”
“Technically, she didn’t yell,” Aspire pointed out, a cheeky grin spread across his muzzle as he trotted by Esalen, a merry twinkle in his eyes. “So can’t get mad at her, mom!”
Familiar, booming laughter sounded from the kitchen. “I know those voices!” Mister Haberdasher’s gravelly voice made the timbers of their cottage seem to rattle. “And I certainly know that cheeky tone, little Aspire!”
With barely repressed cheers, the siblings bounded into the kitchen, their chitinous hooves clacking against the wooden floor. They rounded the corner, Esalen’s hind hooves slipped and sent her sprawling into Aspire’s side, slamming him into the doorjamb.
The sickening, clack-smack of carapace made Esalen’s ears pin back, pain shot through her natural exoskeleton, bringing tears to her eyes.
“Oof!” Aspire grunted as the air was driven from his lungs. He crumbled to the floor, his hooves clutching at his side.
Laid out on top of him, Esalen groaned. “Oh, chitin, that hurt!”
“You’re complaining? I got crushed against the wall, you clumsy-hooved ninny!” he grumbled from beneath her. “New rule: one nymph runs through the door first. The other follows. Now get off!”
His body pitched to the right, Esalen found herself roughly shoved off of him, landing hard on her back. “Ow! That wasn’t called for at all!”
Aspire turned to fix her with a glare, a retort fresh on his lips, but matching green glows engulfed the tips of their ears and began to twist. “Ow! Ow! Ow! Ow! Ow!”
“I’ve told you both not to run in my house countless times,” Faith said, a stern frown marring her muzzle. “Perhaps I need to ground the both of you until your ears work properly.”
Squirming and ducking her head in hopes of making the pain abate, Esalen grit her teeth. “We’re sorry, we’re sorry, we’re sorry!” she babbled. “We just saw Mister Haberdasher’s bags and got excited, we won’t do it again! Honest!”
Faith’s eyes narrowed, she strode forth, looming over her cowed nymphs. “That’s what you said last time, little lady. And the time before that, as well. Why, if not for your father’s quick casting, you’d have knocked that nice family photograph and frame we spent all those bits on!”
“Don’t forget your mother’s vase,” Warm Welcome added helpfully from his place across the table from a stallion of deep brown coat and slicked back black mane, and a mare with a coat as white as snow and mane as bright yellow as the morning sun. He leaned back in his seat with a lazy grin on his muzzle and crossed his hooves over his chest. “We got lucky that one fell on Essy’s back, Faithy.”
Seeing her mother’s nostrils flare and her jaw set, the bright green glow of her magic flickered out. Esalen felt her blood run cold. Trust their father to throw fuel on the fire at the worst possible time.
But before Faith could get into the full swing of her lecture, a bark of laughter sounded from the table. “Well, well, five years later and you two are still causing your poor mother trouble?” Mister Haberdasher teased. He leaned forward, propping his elbows on the table. “It’s like I never left. I’ll bet you two still can’t help being late if Sweet Treat catches you on your way to class and offers free samples, eh?”
Ducking their heads, the siblings gave sheepish smiles. Their cheeks colored as he fell to another fit of laughter, shaking his head and whispering something to the mare at his side, who just smiled awkwardly in reply.
“It only happened a couple times,” Aspire mumbled, rubbing a hoof against his shin.
“Don’t you try to downplay it, little nymph!” Mister Haberdasher chuckled. “I could set my watch by how often I’d see you two go racing through town as fast as your little hooves could carry you, with your cheeks still stuffed with her wares!”
“That’s not—okay, yeah, that’s exactly what happens.”
Esalen brought a hoof to her forehead and sighed, glaring out of the corner of her eye. “You aren’t supposed to admit that, dummy.”
Sure enough, it was enough to send their visitor back into his laughter while their father smiled, shook his head, turned to the new mare and said, “My nymphs, the pride and joy of my life, Miss Bright Sky.” He gave the pair a sidelong look, the same mischief they were so known for gleamed in his eyes. “Perhaps I could convince you to take one off our hooves? Little Aspire would make a good student at Fillydelphia’s magic schools, and Essy—Ow!” He clapped his hooves over his ears, fighting against Faith’s magic. “Faithy, I was just joking!”
With a derisive snort, Faith released his ear. “And we wonder where they get it from!” she said, her tone clipped. Turning to glance at Aspire and Esalen, she sighed and shook her head. “One last warning,” she muttered, low enough so only they would hear. “Only because we have guests. Next time, I’ll make sure Sweet Treat and the twins know not to let you buy snacks at their stores.”
The pair squeaked, bobbing their heads and giving quick acknowledgement before they scampered over to the table to greet their old family friend. Faith, in the meantime, trotted toward the stove, humming as she finished making dinner for her family and guests.
Mister Haberdasher only just managed to get his hooves out in time to catch them so he wasn’t bowled over. “Oof! You two have gotten much bigger since the last time I saw you! I don’t know if I can take much more of your roughhousing!”
“Now you know how I feel,” Warm Welcome huffed. “At least they don’t remind you about your age…”
In unison, Aspire and Esalen turned to face their father, with their hooves still wrapped tight around Haberdasher’s barrel, stuck out their tongues, and blew raspberries at him.
With her tongue flicking through the air, Esalen used the chance to taste Miss Bright Sky’s emotions. She withdrew her tongue and held back the urge to cringe; a faint hint of amusement helped balance out the mix of anxiety and touch of fear.
New pony blues, round two, Esalen thought, heaving a sigh as she nuzzled into Mister Haberdasher. His joy and fondness for them helped offset his companion’s foul taste. She released her hold around his waist and turned to face Miss Bright Sky, curiosity cubed her desire to find something sweet to wash out her mouth.
“Nice to meet you, Miss Bright Sky,” she greeted kindly. “My name is Esalen—and I promise, I’m only half as much trouble as Mister Haberdasher and my dad say. My brother’s the one who causes the most.”
“Hey!” Aspire extracted himself from Mister Haberdasher’s side, glaring at her through his deep blue eyes. “I’m not the one who takes forever to do his mane and tail up every morning—that’s all you!”
“Oh? Which of us is the first to give in when Missus Sweet Treat offers us sweets in the morning? And who stole from Queen Euphoria’s sweets cabinet?”
“Wait, that was you, Aspire?” Mister Haberdasher’s eyebrows shot up. “Now it makes sense…”
Miss Bright Sky looked back and forth between the nymphs and her fellow pony, confusion written across her face. “Um, what makes sense, honey?” she said, her voice as soft as her downy feathers.
“Just remembered the day I was nearly bowled over by Queen Euphoria when she chased him through the front door of Sweet Treat’s shop. Her Majesty is rather quick for her size.” He paused and brought a hoof to his chin, then turned to face Bright Sky. “That reminds me, you’ll have to meet her tomorrow, dear. She likes to welcome newcomers to the village.”
The mare gave a wince, her wings unfurled and raised up as if to cover her muzzle in the same manner Sure Stroke liked to hide herself.
Esalen cringed and stuck out her tongue. Why does anxiety have to taste so bad? “She’s really nice,” she said, “she just likes to play and tease when she’s not busy.”
“And I kinda did it to get back at her for tickling me, if I remember right.” Aspire ducked his head, grinning sheepishly. “She put a color change spell on me that turned my carapace pinker than Essy’s mane.”
“That she did!” Warm Welcome snickered. “Left you like that for a full week, too. And she made you sit on the couch with her every day after school, so you couldn’t run home and hide or try to put on a raincoat.”
The sight of the bright blush coloring Aspire’s cheeks brought forth fit of laughter, even Faith couldn’t help but smile and give a little titter at the memory. Esalen covered her mouth and turned her head to hide from the heated glare he aimed her way.
“Thanks a lot, Essy!” he hissed. “I’ll remember that!”
Rolling her eyes, Esalen made to reply, but the taste of mirth and a soft giggle made her flick her ear and turn toward Bright Sky, just in time to catch her hiding her own laughter within the soft confines of her feathers.
Unable to resist, she ran her tongue along her lip. Her bright pink eyes fluttered shut as she let out a happy sigh. Cardboard and muggy confusion still present, but with sugar-sweet tasting center. Like she had to eat something bitter to get to the sweet filling.
Just as quick as it came, Bright Sky’s sweet mirth vanished, replaced by peppery shock. “Oh!” the mare squeaked, her wings flared wide. She hid herself behind Mister Haberdasher, staring straight at Esalen. Or, rather, the end of Esalen’s muzzle.
Oops. Caught. Smiling awkwardly, Esalen withdrew her tongue. “Sorry, Miss Sky. I couldn’t help myself. You were starting to relax a little, and it tasted good.”
“I… I tasted good?” Miss Bright Sky repeated, poking her head out, her curiosity getting the better of her. “Because I thought the story was cute?”
Mister Haberdasher turned to nuzzle her. “Remember what I told you, dear?” he asked. “They feed on emotions and can taste how ponies feel. Missus Faith used that to figure out that I was trying to lie when I first came to see her.”
“He was terrible,” Faith called from the stove, her focus on spooning several portions of vegetables and rice into wooden bowls. “It took me ages to get the poor dear to open up about those dreadful grandparents of his. Honestly, if I weren’t so tied to Respite and my job, I’d take the first train to Fillydelphia and—” she stopped short and heaved a sigh. “Don’t say it, Hab.”
“You know I’m going to,” he chided, the smile gone from his muzzle. A sad frown sat in its place.
Heaving another sigh, she hung her head. “Go on, then.”
“They’re still my family,” Mister Haberdasher said. “No matter how much trouble they caused me, and—”
“And I shouldn’t worry myself with their pettiness, because you’re grateful I helped you to begin with,” Faith finished for him, her yellow tail flicked in irritation. The dull embers of her ire burning deep within, making the rest of her family cringe and flinch away. “Fine. But it doesn’t mean I have to like it,” she spat.
Nodding, Mister Haberdasher extracted himself from Miss Bright Sky’s side and trotted over to wrap Faith in a tight hug, laying his head on her shoulder. He leaned in close to whisper in her ear, no doubt assuring her that he appreciated her sentiment if the dying burn and return of the comforting warmth and sweetness of her happiness were any indication.
“Um…” Miss Bright Sky mumbled, drawing the attention of the remaining three. “Excuse me, but is there something going on?”
Shaking his head, Warm Welcome took her hoof in his. “Nothing for you to worry over, Miss Sky,” he replied, keeping his voice low. “Faithy’s family had a bit of a…” Warm frowned, rolling his free hoof in the air in search of the word.
“Temperamental? Overprotective? Territorial?” Aspire offered.
“Ah! Territorial, that’s it! Thank you, Aspire!” He reached over and tussled Aspire’s mane, earning a squawk of indignation, then turned his attention to Miss Bright Sky again. “As I was saying, she came from a family that was rather territorial toward friends and loved ones. So, Faithy sometimes gets a little too protective of her patients.”
“I’m in the room, you know,” Faith said, pointedly ignoring Mister Haberdasher’s snickers. “Right here. Listening to everything you say.”
While Warm Welcome turned and defiantly stuck his tongue out, Esalen stole a chance to flick hers.
Confusion, still, but with a hint of amusement toward her parents’ antics. And no small bit of curiosity for flavor. Not a bad change from mild fear and apprehension.
Another squeak from Miss Bright Sky. “Y-You did it again!” she stammered, glancing between Aspire and Esalen.
Pinning back their ears, they scuffed their hooves against the floor. “Sorry,” Aspire mumbled. “It’s a habit. Helps us figure out what makes you happy or sad; our friends around town will let us feed on them in exchange for favors and stuff, and it’s better if they’re happy.”
“Negative emotions taste bad and don’t fill us,” Esalen added. “You don’t taste too bad, but… no offense, I wouldn’t ask for a sip.” She shuddered, sticking out her tongue. “You’re so apprehensive, it’s too much, even when you laugh.”
“I’m… sorry?” Miss Bright Sky wrinkled her snout, confusion written plainly across her face.
Mister Haberdasher took that as his cue to trot back over and nuzzle up against her. “Don’t take it too much to heart, dear. It’s just their way of doing things.” He turned and smiled to the changeling family, the warm glow of his happiness and love radiated off of him like the shining sun. “This was the first family to welcome me to Respite, they set me up with a pony couple, and they were patient enough to let me open up to the idea of interacting with changelings and talking about my problems. If not for them, I wouldn’t have started my own shop in Manehattan.” He leaned in close, brushing his lips against her cheek and muttering, “And I wouldn’t have met you.”
She looked at the changelings, then to Mister Haberdasher, then back again. Sighing, she slumped in her seat. “I know, you told me the story again and again when you invited me along. It’s just…” she trailed off, her wings drooped at her sides. “I’m sorry. I’m being very rude. It’s just, you all seem so pony-like, but so…”
“Alien?” Faith offered, an understanding smile crossed her muzzle as she levitated six bowls off the counter and made her way over to the table. Placing a bowl and spoon before each pony and changeling, she took her seat at the head of the table opposite Warm Welcome. She picked up her spoon and looked over to Miss Bright Sky, nodding once before continuing, “Our races are distantly related, but we can do things you can’t, and vice-versa. For example, we can’t manipulate weather like pegasi. Watching Respite’s weather team move clouds about like they were pulling carts is amazing to us.”
“I guess that makes sense.” Miss Bright Sky shifted in her seat, bringing a spoonful of rice to her mouth. Her eyes lit up. “This is very good!”
“Oh, thank you, dear! I was a bit worried I used too much spice for you.” Faith beamed, pausing to chew on some rice. “We like things to have a little bit of a zip, if you will.”
“Sweetness and spiciness,” Mister Haberdasher added. “Changelings like flavor in their food—but they can’t stand a hint of bitter herbs.”
Almost as one, the family of four shared a shudder. “Thanks for reminding me,” Aspire grumbled around a mouthful of carrots. “I still think of the first meal you made that rainy night!”
To his credit, Mister Haberdasher didn’t balk, he simply rolled his eyes. “This from the little nymph who needs three sugar cubes in his tea! And I didn’t realize the taste would carry the same flavor as sadness or misery, or I’d have made something different!”
Aspire stuck out his tongue and waggled his pointed ears in reply, earning a bout of giggles from Miss Bright Sky and a roll of Esalen’s eyes.
Spooning a few green beans into her mouth, Esalen chewed, her eyes focused completely on the newcomer. Not nearly as skittish as Sure Stroke, but still a bit shifty around us. Even with Mister Haberdasher telling her about us up front.
Not exactly unique, nor was it an indicator of common theme. There had been plenty of ponies who took to Respite once they’d figured out that the changeling inhabitants meant no harm. But Miss Bright Sky was more apprehensive than outright terrified or anxious.
Much like Mister Haberdasher.
How had her fellow villagers managed to coax him out?
Aspire and Esalen were only eight or nine when he first came to Respite, far too young to understand the root of his awkwardness or how the adults worked to make him more comfortable during his stay.
All she remembered was the slow change in his emotions, from the biting taste of apprehension when he first walked through the square to sweet happiness and love when he laughed and let the little nymphs and foals hang on his legs while he balanced a plate of sweets out of their reach—right up until Vector did a fly-by and snatched their prize from the laughing stallion.
“Um, Mister Haberdasher?” Esalen asked, setting down her spoon. “I don’t mean to prod or dig up old memories too much, but… I had a question about when you first came to Respite.”
His spoon paused halfway to his mouth, his ear flicked toward her. “Oh?” Mister Haberdasher turned to face her. “I don’t mind talking about it. What’s on your mind, Essy?”
Glancing to Aspire, she was met with a look of confusion. He’d catch on shortly. “I was wondering how you got over your, um, hesitation around us.” Esalen winced, her word choice just didn’t seem to fit. “It’s just that you were a bit shifty at first, and it was a rather big change.”
“Ah.” He placed his spoon down in his bowl, a smile played upon his lips. “That’s not too much to ask, I don’t think.” Chuckling, he leaned back into his seat, looking up at the ceiling as he recalled the details. “If I remember right, I was rooming with Ready Steady and Marigold at the time. I’d been here for a while and was a bit more comfortable walking through town, but I wanted to be near ponies so I wasn’t left alone with changelings—didn’t like the idea of being fed on at all.”
Warm Welcome snorted. “I’ll say. The first time you did let me nibble a little bit of love, you jumped and clung to the banister of Sweet Treat’s shop as soon as you felt the tingle!”
“It felt weird the first time! Like I had an itch or a tickle I couldn’t get away from!”
Esalen snickered, hiding a grin behind her spoon. “So, how’d you get to the point where you’d let daddy feed on you a little?”
“I’m a bit curious as well,” Miss Bright Sky spoke up, raising a hoof like she were in class. “I can’t really imagine what it’s like to have a changeling feed on me.”
“To be honest? I overreacted when Warm fed on me.” Mister Haberdasher’s smile became noticeably sheepish, his ears laid flat against his head. “He didn’t even take a big sip, all he did was throw a hoof over my shoulders, lay his head atop mine, and close his eyes while he took in a little love. It’s a passive thing.”
“Passive feeding?” She tilted her head. “How exactly does that work?”
“Let me finish the story, then we’ll discuss that, dear.” He turned to Esalen once again. “Anyway, I was being rather standoffish, and very distant. I wouldn’t give anything more than a hoofshake to any changeling because I was afraid of being fed on. And because of that, I wasn’t going to talk to your mother like I’d originally come for. That all came to a head one day.”
Shaking his head, Mister Haberdasher picked up his cup and brought it to his lips, sipping at the cool apple juice. “Cool Breeze sat down with me one day. He let me talk about why I was so afraid of changelings, offered a few comments here and there, but let me vent. Once I’d finished, he invited me to dinner with your parents—”
“The first time you came over!” Aspire cried, realization dawning on him.
“That’s right. If not for Breezy, I wouldn’t have become a friend. You might not remember all of it, but dinner was a bit tense. Your mother made a nice dinner, Breezy and your father chatted with me like I was just a regular villager, and you two snuggled right up to me and kept flicking your tongues to see if I was happy yet.” He paused, smirking at Esalen. “In fact, you kept asking me if I was done being scared, Essy.”
Her cheeks burned. Esalen ducked her head to hide from her family’s gazes. “It wasn’t my fault! You tasted terrible!”
“Heh, I don’t doubt it. Your parents made sure not to taste me that night. Said they felt queasy whenever they tried it before.” Giving a small snort, he stared at his cup. “Not sure if that was because I was scared or sad back then. Well, to make a long story short, your mother set the table for five—she didn’t eat. She just sat down, smiled, and told everyone to dig in. I found that a bit odd, but I found it more so when I noticed that Breezy had a bigger helping.”
She gasped, comprehension dawned on her. “Mister Breezy offered to feed momma that night!”
“He what?” Miss Bright Sky squeaked.
“Sky, please.” Mister Haberdasher took her hoof in his. “Remember what I told you before we left Manehattan? Consent is required, and Breezy gave permission for Faith to feed on some of his love.”
“I-I know you said that, but…” her voice trailed off, her wings began to unfurl and rise to cover her muzzle. “It’s just…”
“Scary? Yes, at first it was. And I had to see it in order to understand what feeding meant to the villagers, it’s something on a level deeper than love just being food. It’s about trust.” He brought his free hoof up to rub her shin comfortingly, the smile on his face as warm as the flame of happiness burning within him. “Like the time you convinced me to let you carry me up to rest on a cloud.”
Miss Bright Sky’s face flushed red, her feathers fluffed up as she squirmed in her seat. She made to speak, but trailed off into a fit of sheepish giggles under the combined grins from the family of four.
Esalen didn’t need to flick her tongue out to taste the love and merriment that surrounded the pair. They were so happy together, so very delicious.
Good for Hab! Tasty ponies are better than bitter ponies!
“That’s so cute!” Esalen cooed, swishing her tail and wrapping her hooves around herself, her wings buzzed. “It’s just like love-feeding!”
Mister Haberdasher nodded. “It is. They’re similar in nature, certainly. And it took me seeing Breezy make a show of giving consent, along with your mother drinking from him and then ensuring that he ate more to regain his strength. It helped a little, and I started talking to your parents more after that. And then, well…” He waved a hoof around the table. “Here we are.”
“Here we are, indeed,” Faith said, a fond smile playing upon her lips. “It’s nice to hear one of my friends find happiness, even more so for him to come back with a special somepony at his side.” Her smile widened into a playful grin at the sight of Miss Bright Sky blushing and trying to hide herself by pressing into Mister Haberdasher’s side. “Now, if only I could get you to eat your dinner without threatening to wrap you in a cocoon and feed you like a little nymph…”
The thinly-veiled threat made Mister Haberdasher’s smile run from his face. He pinned his ears back and ducked his head. “Yes, ma’am,” he said weakly, taking up his spoon again and shoveling rice into his mouth.
“That’s much better.” Faith nodded, then leaned forward to look around him at Miss Bright Sky. “Do make sure he eats well when you two leave us for Manehattan. If he gives you trouble, just send a letter and I’ll come up and set him straight.”
Giggling despite her apprehension, the pegasus bobbed her head. “I think you’ve just given me the perfect counter to his favorite excuse.”
“Oh yeah?” Warm asked around a mouthful of food. “What’s that?”
“Watching his figure.”
Faith and Warm rolled their eyes, each sighing and shaking their heads at the sheepish grin their friend gave in reply.
Warm spoke up first. “Send a letter next time, we’ll both visit.”
“Us too!” Aspire added, a wicked gleam in his eye.
Esalen grinned and nodded. “It’s been a long time since we snuck into Manehattan. We can go to Pony Island again!”
“Trust you two to use your parents’ threats as a chance to fun,” Mister Haberdasher grumped.
“Oh, come now, Hab! Nymphs will be nymphs, you know that!” Warm laughed.
Amusing though the antics and story were, there was quite a bit to take away from it all.
Namely, how he came to their house that night. Cool Breeze had pulled him out of his comfort zone and convinced him to watch something foreign, something that made chills run down his spine.
How to apply that to Sure Stroke? She thought, tapping a hoof against the table. It’s probably too early to just up and say ‘hey, watch me feed on Toola Roola or Vector’, we only just got her to stop flinching at our fangs.
Something more along the lines of getting her comfortable in a new school would work better. Perhaps Aspire’s idea of pulling a few friends over for lunch, and showing that their fellow nymphs were quite amicable as well.
Warm directed his attention to Esalen once he’d finished laughing, confusion written plain across his face. “Not that I mind sharing old stories, but what brought this on, Essy? Fancy a trip down memory lane?”
All attention shifted from Mister Haberdasher’s mock indignation to her. Esalen blinked and gave an awkward smile, rubbing a hoof against her shoulder.
Not quite as smooth a segue as she’d hope for, but she’d have to take it.
“Aspire and I have been trying to get Sure Stroke to open up,” she said. “It’s been… er… slow.”
Snorting, Aspire crossed his forelegs over his chest. “It’s only been a couple days, but, yeah. Slow is about right.” He sighed and shook his head. “We got her to sit down and eat lunch with us, though. But that was only after we shortened our fangs a little bit.”
“Oh?” Faith’s ears perked up. “When did you two start practicing smaller shifts?”
The pair winced, then forced innocent grins. “Yesterday?” they offered in unison.
Warm snorted. “What did you two do? Bully Façade into teaching you?” He chuckled, lifting his cup for a drink, but stopping short when he noticed how strained their grins had gotten. The smile slipped from his muzzle. “You did?”
“Er, we may have gotten the class interested in the idea of hiding our fangs so she would stop staring at them,” Aspire admitted.
“And by ‘may’, we mean ‘definitely did’,” Esalen added. “But it was for a good cause!”
There was a moment’s pause, then Faith sighed and brought her hooves up to massage her temples. “Explain,” she said, her tone sharp. “And it had better be a darn good cause if you two hijacked Façade’s class for your own pet project.”
Wincing at the tone, Aspire and Esalen set about explaining themselves.
Good thing we finished our homework early.