Aspire flicked his ear to the side, craning as best he could to listen while Esalen told Sure Stroke how to remove slime properly.
He chuckled to himself and swished his short, messy tail as he made his way toward the kitchen. “Hopefully she won’t have to worry about getting bandaged again,” he muttered.
Bed wraps, though, were another story. But that was if she ever spent the night in their (or another nymph’s) home, of course.
Once she starts to trust us enough to allow it. Smiling, he hummed a jaunty little tune as he approached the kitchen door, the muffled sound of the adults’ voices reached his ears.
“—Don’t mean to be rude, Miss Faith, and I really don’t want to ruin the evening, but it’s just a little concern of ours.” Aspire froze at the tone of Skydancer’s voice. What in the name of love was there to be concerned about?
“Just Faith, dear. And Aspire told us that he wrapped Sure Stroke’s leg,” his mother replied. “And mentioned scaring her a little, he was so worried about that …”
The sound of a stallion clearing his throat drew Aspire’s attention. “Your son seems nice, Faith,” Drizzly said. “Neither of us mean to accuse him of trying to be mean. We expected a bit of a difference in what you all thought was okay, and what we’re used to. I, personally, loved a good prank in my day. I’d wager that some of you would find me sneaking up and kicking a cloud out from under you to be just as frightening as one of us hearing another classmates’ voice, only to find a changeling staring back at us when we turned around.”
Aspire’s smile fell. He hung his head low and let his ears droop. His throat felt tight.
I took it too far. With a shaking hoof, he stepped forward and pressed himself against the wall, forcing his ears to stand up straight so he could listen in.
Haberdasher spoke up next. “I’ll admit, it does take a bit getting used to the pranking, especially when the changelings really get into it like Aspire did. From what I gather, he thought Sure Stroke was showing that she was comfortable and wanted to play with them like Warm might do with me or Breezy when the Hunting Game comes around.”
“Hunting Game?” Bright Sky and Skydancer parroted.
“A little village tradition,” he replied. “It lets our friends here—” he paused for a beat “—play hunter and prey with us. Think hide and seek, really. Now, back to the point, I’m not excusing Aspire entirely, just trying to play Discord’s advocate. It’s a little miscommunication between friends, I think.”
Despite his words, Aspire couldn’t help the guilt creeping into his chest. He fought down a whine, instead favoring to sit back in his haunches and lean against the wall as he rubbed his shoulder.
“I don’t mean to imply otherwise. Forgive me if it sounded that way,” Drizzly spoke after a moment. “Like I said, he’s a good boy as far as Sure Stroke’s told us. She’s come home every day talking about how nice it was to eat lunch with Esalen and he, and I don’t want to pretend this erases all of that. But, from one parent to another, I have to bring this up, if only because of the nightmare she had after they invited her over.”
Aspire’s blood ran cold. Nightmare? He swallowed a lump in his throat, his mind raced to connect the dots.
If the adults were talking about him scaring Sure Stroke, then wrapping her in cocoon slime, and then, after all that, having a nightmare …
No. She couldn’t have. Why would she be afraid after she said she was okay?
As if voicing his thoughts, Faith spoke, “I understand where you’re coming from. I’d be happy to talk with her if you think that’d help.”
Silence hung thick over the air. Despite the tightening in his throat, Aspire leaned closer to the banister to hear better.
“I don’t know if she’d be comfortable with that yet,” Skydancer began, “but I’ll ask. If not, perhaps Queen Euphoria might serve as an alternative, since she’s not quite as close to the issue, if you’ll forgive me saying.”
“Quite alright, dear. If she wants to talk, then let it be with whoever she feels comfortable sharing this with.” The sound of a wooden spoon being set on the counter and a quick cadence of hooves made Aspire’s ears twitch. “If you don’t mind my asking, what exactly was her nightmare about?”
There was another long pause, broken only by the sounds of Drizzly Days and Skydancer’s hushed whispers back and forth.
Then, after what seemed like forever, they started talking.
With each and every word, Aspire’s head hung lower. He felt numb.
With shaking hoof, he reached up to touch his fangs. For the first time in his life, he wished they weren’t so sharp, that he didn’t look so dangerous when he smiled. He sucked in his lips and screwed his eyes shut, but willed his ears to stay straight so he could hear all of it. No matter how much it hurt to know.
Throughout their story, Aspire let one thought repeat:
I’m a terrible friend. And a terrible Caretaker.
In a flash of green fire, his fangs began to shift and shrink once again. Even if Sure Stroke thought she was ready, he had to do it.
Like how his mother or Queen Euphoria might have to work their charm on a pony so they’d open up and talk, he would make Sure Stroke comfortable, even if she didn’t like the way he went about doing so.
I’m going to be a better Caretaker.
Aspire took a deep breath and pushed himself off the wall. He stood, nodding to himself before fixing a smile on his muzzle and slipping into the kitchen.
Six sets of eyes fell upon him. Aspire gave a sheepish laugh. “Er, sorry! Just came by to get some tea!”
Sure Stroke did her best not to wrinkle her snout while she tried to get comfortable in the half-pod-cocoon-chair-thing.
Changeling furniture was something she’d have to get used to if she ever went to one of their houses again—the beds, the chairs, the couches, all of it was made of that strange, sticky, goopy slime with the exception of tables and dressers.
They didn’t even have proper shelving, as she’d noticed in Esalen’s room. Just a bunch of slime dripping down the walls where they stuck things like mane scrunchies or ties.
It took all her self-control not to gag.
Fortunately, her focus was elsewhere. It wasn’t on the food Faith had so kindly made for them—though it did look delicious, she had to admit. She still wasn’t quite daring enough to try any of the catfish they’d offered, but the rice and carrots smelled heavenly.
No. Instead, her focus was on the nymph sitting across from her, to the right of a rather tired looking mare by the name of Bright Sky, and doing his very best to keep his gaze locked on his own plate rather than meet her eyes. Sure Stroke glared. Aspire was being decidedly not annoying or smug or snarky, and she couldn’t figure out why.
Nor could she figure out why that bothered her so darn much.
There was something wrong, that much was clear the moment he returned to the room with a tray bearing three cups of tea balanced on his back. He wasn’t loud or quippy, like normal. He was quiet. Subdued.
So unlike the Aspire she’d befriended.
Even if she’d only just met him recently, Sure Stroke knew a guilty smile when she saw one— and she sure didn’t need to taste emotions to see it in his eyes or hear it in his voice, or in how he kept looking over at her, almost like he was trying to make sure she approved of whatever he was saying.
And it only got worse as she watched him closely.
His fangs had shrunk again. Aspire was trying to hide from her. No matter what she did, no matter how many times she managed to meet his eye and point to her mouth, then to his, he didn’t change back.
Aspire just ignored it all, even though his fangs weren’t fangs at all by the time Faith had called them for dinner a few moments ago. Throughout their talk, he’d kept shrinking them each time her gaze flitted in his direction until …
Sure Stroke set her jaw and took her fork in hoof, as she watched him take a bite of his catfish, just in time to catch sight of his teeth.
His flat, pony teeth where his fangs should be.
Sure Stroke’s eyes narrowed, she fought the urge to flick her tail and rustle her wings. He was hiding them again.
To her right, Esalen was getting antsy about it, though she tried to make it look like she wasn’t. Every so often, her wings would buzz a little, she’d try to catch Aspire’s eye when he reached for the bowl of carrots resting at the center of the table.
She had as much luck as Sure Stroke.
Frowning, Sure Stroke took a bite of her carrots. Her eyes lit up. It was … quite good.
For whatever reason, she was half expecting it either to be overly sweet or plain, with more focus put on the fish. Instead, it was just right.
Sweet, but not sweet.
Just right. “This is really good, Missus Faith,” she said, offering a smile to the mare at the head of the table.
Faith beamed, crossing her hooves and laying them in the empty space before her. “Thank you, dear,” she replied. “I’m relieved you enjoy my mother’s sauce recipe. Sweet, but not overpowering, she used to say.” Waggling her ears, Faith winked. “She also used my father as her test subject, since changeling taste buds are rather sensitive to things like that.”
“Oh?” Her ears perked up. “How so?”
“We changelings have a love for sweetness and spices, they’re rather similar to the emotions we feed on.” Faith pulled a face. “Bitterness, though, is right out. If you ever want to see a changeling pull faces, squeeze a drop of lemon in our tea.”
“Please don’t,” the other three changelings at the table intoned in near-perfect unison. Esalen with a hint of pleading in her eyes, Warm with a flat stare that made Haberdasher snigger, and Aspire …
With a squeak and a rather quick duck to avoid her gaze again.
Her tail flicked. Why are we playing this game?
Faith chuckled. “Or take my word for it. That might actually be for the best.” Her lips tugged into a wide grin, she raised her eyebrows. “I hear tell that my son has already taught you a little bit about how changelings respond to challenges, hasn’t he?”
Sure Stroke cringed and stole a glance out of the corner of her eye. Across the table, Aspire’s ears drooped, he mumbled something under his breath.
“… Didn’t mean to scare her that bad.”
Her ears twitched. There was a tinge to his tone, one she knew all too well.
Aspire sounded just like a guilty foal when one of the teachers back in Cloudsdale caught them misbehaving.
Before Sure Stroke could try to prod him or drag him into the conversation, Faith spoke, “Aspire? Honey, are you feeling well? You’ve barely touched your catfish.” Her brows knitted together. “I didn’t undercook it, did I?”
He shook his head. “No, the catfish is fine.” For a moment, Aspire’s gaze flitted up.
Sure Stroke’s sat up a little straighter as their eyes met, the question was already on her lips.
Then he looked down again. “Just a little out of sorts tonight,” he said.
Out of sorts?
Sure Stroke bit back a huff, glancing around the table. Sure enough, Esalen was gaping, her head tilted and her mouth hanging open like she had something to say.
To her dismay, Esalen just shook her head and took a bite of her food.
Her lone ally was lost.
Sure Stroke sighed and shook her head. Out of the corner of her eye, she noticed Faith tapping a hoof against the empty space before her.
The mare’s ears perked up. “Hmm?”
“Why aren’t you eating with us?”
Blinking, Faith smiled. “Oh! Oh, I’ve already eaten, Sure Stroke.” She licked her lips slowly. “Bright Sky was quite generous after our little talk this evening, and her love just as delicious.”
Sure Stroke looked between Faith and Bright Sky, her eyes narrowed. Upon closer inspection, her fellow pegasus looked more than just a bit tired—she looked as though she’d flown a mile while pushing a thunderhead.
And the amount of food piled on her plate was fit for two ponies!
On cue, Faith huffed. “Bright Sky, you need to eat or you’re going to stay exhausted! We talked about this earlier!”
Bright Sky gave a sheepish smile, squirming in her seat while Haberdasher sniggered.
Faith brought a hoof to her forehead and massaged it to stem off a headache. “I told you it was going to feel draining,” she said. Dragging her hoof down her muzzle, she fixed the mare with a stern glare. “Hab?”
Haberdasher looked toward her. “Yeah?”
“Get that mare of yours eating, or I’ll start feeding her myself.”
“Got it, Faithy.”
A wave of laughter swept through the adults at the table while Haberdasher coaxed the spoon from Bright Sky’s hoof and set about feeding her.
It was cute, almost sickeningly so. Though, if Sure Stroke had to hazard a guess, her changeling friends probably thought it rather appetizing.
Esalen nudged her shoulder, drawing her out of her thoughts. “Sure Stroke,” she began, “finally got to try Sweet Treat’s cake yesterday!”
All eyes fell upon her. Sure Stroke gave a crooked smile.
Darn it, Essy!
“Oh?” Warm’s ears twitched. “Which one?
“Death by chocolate!”
“Ah, yes! Her specialty.” He gave a knowing smile and turned to Sure Stroke. “And how fast did you end up eating your first piece?
Ducking her head, Sure Stroke fidgeted under their collective stares.
Esalen, naturally, was happy to offer her assistance. She threw a hoof around Sure Stroke’s shoulders and grinned. “We blinked and she’d finished it!”
Double darn it, Essy!
Her cheeks burned as everyone fell into laughter again—the changeling family’s chitters mixing with the ponies’ sniggering.
But there was one who didn’t join in.
Sure Stroke met Aspire’s eyes. He offered a half-hearted smile, showing those flattened teeth that just weren’t right before he lowered his gaze again.
He didn’t look up for the rest of dinner.
Aside from Aspire being withdrawn and out of sorts, dinner had gone rather smoothly.
Skydancer and Faith were like two peas in a pod, with Bright Sky chipping in little bits as she got her strength back. The pair gossiped and giggled over stories about their respective foal or nymphs—to Sure Stroke, Aspire, and Esalen’s collective dismay—and seemed rather keen on meeting up in town with some of the other mares.
More surprisingly, though, was how well Drizzly hit it off with Warm. Not that her father wasn’t a nice pony, but he’d been so tired and so reserved since moving in, Sure Stroke wasn’t entirely certain he’d make any new friends so soon.
Yet there he was, standing shoulder-to-shoulder with the very changeling who first greeted them when they came to Respite, happy as can be.
“Thanks for having us over, Warm,” Drizzly said, grinning as he offered his changeling friend a hoofbump. “You’ll have to come over to our house some time. Only fair, eh?”
Warm Welcome beamed and returned the gesture. “I think that’s a great idea! We’ll figure out something later this week.”
“How’s tomorrow sound?”
It took everything in Sure Stroke not to laugh at the way everyone aside from her parents sucked in a breath and pasted smiles on their muzzles.
“Maybe another time,” Faith offered. “There’s a bit of a, um, party by the lakeside tomorrow. Everyone’s going.”
Skydancer’s ears shot up. “Oh!” Her cheeks colored. “Why didn’t somepo—someone tell us? We would’ve been glad to help!”
Warm Welcome laughed and shook his head. “You were all unpacking and getting settled in, we understand entirely. It’d be unfair of us to ask you to help when you were still running around.” He held up a hoof to stop any further argument. “It’s already done, Skydancer. If you really want to complain, you can take it up with Queen Euphoria and me tomorrow. Although—” his smile broadened “—I don’t foresee her changing her mind either.”
Sure Stroke had to suck in her lips to hide a smile at the way her parents ducked their heads and muttered their thanks. They’d get a nice, big surprise at the party tomorrow.
Wait a minute, I’m supposed to be surprised too! Her eyes flitted to Faith and Warm Welcome, then to Esalen, who was looking rather intently at her as if to say “Stop feeling smug, dang it!”
How one was to do that, Sure Stroke had no idea. So, to compensate, she just gave what she hoped was a genuine smile and hugged Esalen. “See you tomorrow,” she said, before dropping her voice to whisper teasingly, “Hope you run fast because I have no idea how well I can hide from your dad!”
She felt Esalen’s shoulders slump. “You suck,” she whispered in reply.
Giving a tight hug in turn, Esalen nosed against her cheek, then bade her goodbye and passed her down the line toward her parents, Bright Sky, and the stallion they kept calling “Hab”—which she only realized was short for “Haberdasher” when her mother said it.
If anything, the relief that flooded her chest when she realized she wouldn’t have to stand there, fake a smile, and call him “Mister” would hopefully mask her smugness at knowing about the impending party.
Then she found herself face to face with Aspire. Relief faded away, she let her eyes wander from the nervousness in his own to the tight-lipped smile he was giving, all the way to the end of his muzzle where his fangs should have been.
Sure Stroke fought to keep her wings from unfurling, but she couldn’t stop the flick of her tail. Fixing a sickly sweet smile on her muzzle—and getting far too much pleasure in the way his eyes widened when he noticed—she drew in and hugged him tight enough that she could lean in and whisper in his ear, “Why are you hiding them?”
She felt him stiffen in her grasp. “D-Dunno what you’re talking about,” he whispered back. “Maybe I just felt like going vegetarian tonight.”
Narrowing her eyes, she tightened her grip. “Listen, you. I can tell you’re—”
Aspire slipped out of her grasp and placed his hooves on her shoulders, effectively holding her at length. “Thanks for coming, Sure Stroke!” he said with a big, cheesy smile. “See you tomorrow at the lake, right? Right! Go rest up, ‘cause the parties in Respite are crazy!”
Before she could reply or catch him by the shoulder, he gave her a little push toward her parents and managed to slide behind his own, hiding away from her.
Sure Stroke drew in a sharp breath. If he wanted to try to play games and hide away when he needed a talking to, he’d just have to learn the hard way.
He was safe for now. Once she got him alone at the party, though …
With a flick of her tail, Sure Stroke turned to follow her parents out the door. Aspire had just earned himself a round of therapy the old pegasus way.