The Village Called Respite

by Carapace

First published

There is a hidden village deep within the untamed forest surrounding Neighagara Falls. Should one ever journey to this village, the changelings who live there will welcome them for a simple price: love.

There is a hidden village deep within the untamed forest surrounding Neighagara Falls. Should one ever journey to this village, those who live there will welcome them for a simple price: love.

When the village accepts a new family from Cloudsdale, a not-quite-altruistic pair of changeling siblings offer a young filly friendship and a chance to find her place in the strange village she hopes to call home.

New cover art done by Arcticwaters.

1. Welcome to Respite

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The little changeling staring back at her in the mirror beamed, humming a jaunty little tune. Her brush, alight with the deep green glow, floated down to a rest on the countertop before her.

Perfect. Her sugar-pink mane was brushed nice, neat, straight, and ready for braiding. Her magic flickered, and gathered the ends of her mane into three separate strands, slowly weaving them together into a tight braid that began midway down.

“Esalen!” Her father, a changeling named Warm Welcome, called, poking his head around the corner to regard her through his deep-blue eyes. A fanged grin played upon his lips as he sighed and shook his head. “You’d better hurry up or you’ll be late again! Aspire’s already down at the table, and he’s eying up your pancakes!”

Esalen giggled, a sound akin to a chitter, but nodded all the same. “I’ll be right there, daddy! Just gotta finish up my braid!” she chirped, giving a meaningful tug at her half-finished braid. “And tell Aspire that if he so much as thinks of taking from my stack, I’ll beat him over the head with those books he reads!”

Warm Welcome chuckled and withdrew his head, the thumping of his hoofsteps echoing down the hallway as he trotted off to relay her little threat.

Good. It would serve that little smart-aleck right! Brushing and braiding her mane was her “Essy time”—about twenty minutes before school when she could just relax, take a few deep breaths, and let the soothing strokes of the brush through her mane chase away any stress that might linger from the night before.

Her eyes flitted toward the books on her desk. One bearing the image of a crystalline heart, an old bedtime story that every changeling and pony living in Respite knew: the tale of how their home had been lost, and their race fragmented, until Respite’s founding. The rest were a mishmash of subjects, as disorganized as her struggle to find something to call her. Nothing quite seemed to grab her.

Trade Day, the day the young changelings of Respite picked how they’d contribute to the village, was drawing nearer with each passing year, and she still hadn’t found her calling.

Not for the first time, she felt a pang of jealousy toward her pony friends—sure, they had to find their special talent, but at least their cutie marks gave them proof of when they’d found it! Esalen had to find it and then decide if it was something she could enjoy doing.

She tied off the end of her braid and sighed. So much for a bit of relaxation before school. Glancing back at the mirror before her, she opened her wings, checking them for any signs of damaged chitin. The firm membrane was without blemish, and the soft green-blue of her wings themselves—transluscent and chitinous with a few holes here and there—were without scuffing or sign of fading.


Perfect. She opened her mouth wide and stuck out her tongue, checking over her teeth. Shining clean, and her tiny fangs sharp and gleaming in the soft morning light—and just starting to poke out from behind her top lip. Once they grew in all the way, she’d look like a proper adult! No more being a “little nymph”.

Her bright smile back in place, Esalen stood, floating her saddlebags over and placing them upon her back. Trade Day could wait until later. There was still plenty of time to think about what she wanted to do.

If only she’d been born just a month later, she’d have another year.

“Essy, come on!” Aspire’s voice echoed down the hall, a pitiful, impatient whine. Typical when he wanted to get moving.

“I’m coming, I’m coming! A little patience would go a long way!” Esalen shot back. She checked over her room, her eyes flitting to her bedpod in the corner—constructed entirely of their green cocoon slime.

Squinting, she caught sight of a crack in the side. A flick of her tail, Esalen sighed through her nose as she pressed her tongue against the top of her mouth, twin glands at the back of her throat filled it with slime. I must’ve kicked it when I slipped out of my wrap. Again.

Drawing back, she spat fresh slime at the bedpod. It hit with a loud squelch, covering the crack neatly. Perfect. Bed made and repaired, everything ready to go.

With a bright smile on her muzzle, Esalen trotted briskly out of her room—stepping deftly around the storage slime that trailed down her wall and stuck to the floor like webbing—and made her way down the hall. She hung a left, then stepped into the kitchen.

“Ah, there’s my girl!” her mother, Faith, crooned, quickly dotting her with a kiss between her ears. She tossed her blond mane, her ponytail flipping from side to side, and levitated the saddlebags over to a peg on the wall next to Aspire’s.

From his seat at the table, Aspire grinned, his deep-blue eyes shining with mirth. “Well, well! It’s about time, sis! With how much you primp in the morning, I’d almost say you were love-drunk on some cute pony in class!”

With a roll of her eyes, Esalen danced out of the way of Faith’s grasp before she could be swept into a hug and pestered. “Mom quit it! He’s just being a jerk because he’s an impatient little gnat!” She hopped onto her cushion, but not before giving Aspire a sharp elbow to his side. “And he thinks he wants to work with foals!”

“Hey!” He gave her a jab in kind, his lips curved into a deep scowl. “Working with foals is a lot different than waiting on a slow sister getting ready in the morning!”

She simply stuck out her long, snakelike tongue and waggled it at him, to which he simply blew a raspberry in reply. With a good-natured roll of her eyes, she gave him another nudge before turning to Warm Welcome. “Dad, could you pass the pancakes?”

“Of course, sweetie,” he said, his horn alight with deep-green magic as he floated the plate of stacked pancakes over. “You two had best eat quickly! I’ve got to take you to the schoolhouse early today. Got an appointment I have to keep.”

As she poured maple syrup onto her pancakes, Esalen flicked her ear toward him. Aspire perked up similarly, even turning away from the book he’d been scanning while nibbling on his food. “Oh?” the pair asked in unison, their tails swishing happily.

Newcomers to Respite were a big deal to everyone. Whether a pony came seeking help when at a low point, or one moving in permanently because they couldn’t find good work elsewhere, Queen Euphoria welcomed them to the little town in the forest with open hooves.

Grinning broadly at their enthusiasm, Warm Welcome nodded. “Yup! Drizzly Days, Skydancer, and their daughter, Sure Stroke—I think she’s about your age, actually. Betcha she’ll be in your class once they get all settled in.”

A new classmate? Esalen was practically bouncing on her cushion. Any thought of the looming Trade Day was chased from the forefront of her mind. “When do they get here?”

“Can we go with you?” Aspire chipped in, his powder-blue wings unfurling excitedly.

Warm Welcome raised a brow. “Hmm, I don’t know. Mister Abacus sent that note home about you two being late to class last week. Something about catching the pair of you chatting away and taste-testing Sweet Treat’s new candies.” His brow arched higher at the way the pair widened their eyes and held their hooves together as if they were begging puppies rather than changeling nymphs. Quickly averting his eyes, he turned to Faith, and asked, “What do you think, honey? Should these two little miscreants get to come with me, or go straight to school?”

Before Faith could even begin to reply, the pair turned their attention to her, the full force of their combined puppy eyes assault aimed at her just as she made to take her seat.

Rolling her eyes, she swept into her cushion across from Warm Welcome and fixed him with a light glare. “I suppose—" she began, slowly turning back to her nymphs “—but they’d better not dawdle and be late because of your tour, or because they went and got distracted again!”

Esalen squealed. “We won’t! We’ll be good and go to class on time!”

“We promise!” Aspire crossed his right forehoof over his chest before holding it aloft. An act Esalen took up wholeheartedly. “Essy and I will be good and make it to class on time.”

Faith narrowed her eyes and fixed them with a calculating gaze. “On your chitin?”

“Yes, momma,” they recited in stereo, “on our chitin.”

“Welllllllllll—" she hummed, a tiny smirk playing upon her lips “—if the two of you promise to get to school on time, and I don’t have to explain to Mister Abacus why my nymphs are so easily distracted by sweets, you can go with your father. But!” Faith held up a hoof to forestall their cheers. “If you want to go with him, you’d better finish your breakfast and not waste time messing about.”

That was all it took for Aspire and Esalen to share a quick look. Each sported matching grins, exposing their gleaming fangs to one another before they set upon their pancakes like a pair of ravenous wolves.

Silverware and napkins were disregarded, mere distractions from savoring the fluffy, syrupy goodness of their mother’s pancakes. Esalen gave pause only to quickly lick herself clean of the syrup that clung to her muzzle, her tongue lapping from chin to the tip of her snout.

Hoof-lickingly delicious, as always. Grandma Cloudfluff’s secret recipe was just as tasty as when she used to make it. Trust a pegasus to know how to make pancakes as light as the clouds she walked on. Love rest her soul.

Her pancakes were gone far too soon, and Esalen couldn’t help but lick her plate clean of every last bit of syrup that remained. Her lips curved up into a big grin as she slurped up the last drops of syrup, closing her eyes as she savored the sweet taste of sugar and maple.

Almost as tasty and filling as the taste of freely given love. But still lacking just a bit of the flavor. Maybe one of her schoolmates would be kind enough to offer a little snack in exchange for one of hers. Better yet, maybe the new filly, Sure Stroke, would take to the village and offer some as thanks for their little tour.

With that, Esalen jolted herself back into reality. Wasting time! “Done!” she cried and held her plate up for her parents to inspect. “All done, and all ready to go!”

“Wait! Hang on!” Aspire said through a mouthful of pancake. A corner of his still remained, almost drowned in the syrup he’d slathered upon it. He swallowed a big bite, screwing up his muzzle as he tried to down a half-chewed bit of pancake. With a strained gulp, he managed to force the offending lump down. “Gah! I’m almost done! Just gimme a sec!”

Esalen stifled a laugh, sharing a wink with her parents. “Now who’s taking too long? You even had a head start!”

Rather than reply, he simply glared and turned to snort at her, his hot breath washing over her face and rustling her carefully combed mane. Aspire smirked and quickly ducked a swipe of her hoof, and took the chance to snare the last bit of pancake with his tongue and scoop it into his mouth.

Once he swallowed, Aspire waggled a hoof at her. “Not very nice, Essy! Maybe you need to read a book on manners sometime! I’m sure I have one somewhere—"

Warm Welcome cut off any further sniping with an oversold groan as he stood and stretched his legs. “Oh dear, Faithy,” he said, almost in sing-song. “It seems like our naughty little nymphs won’t be joining me this morning after all—they’re just having too much fun teasing one another to spend time with their dear old dad and welcome a new family to Respite!”

Faith shook her head and took hold of her fork in her magic. “Oh, no,” she said, fixing a disappointed pout on her muzzle, “it looks like you two will just have to go straight to school and wait outside, wondering just how meeting that nice family might be!”

Esalen started, blinking once before quickly leaping to her hooves. “Nope! Not dawdling!” She took hold of both plates in her magic and rushed over to the sink, while Aspire raced to get their bags. “We’re going, we’re going!”

She dumped the dishes into the sink and turned to the side so Aspire could toss her saddlebags over and onto her back. Perfect aim, a tried-and-true routine. Grimacing at the sudden weight of textbooks and a little snap of the strap, she shifted a bit, making sure that it was evenly balanced, before scampering to stand at Aspire’s side.

Aspire stood by the door, his head held high and posture as straight as a soldier’s. “Ready! See? No wasting time here! Not us nymphs!”

“Ah! You forgot something!” Faith said, tutting and giving a shake of her head.

The pair cocked their heads to the side in unison, brows raised and ears perked up.

Chuckling, Faith held her hooves out wide and made a little beckoning motion; a silent request for hugs.

Bright smiles back in place, they bounded over and caught her in a double tight hug, squeezing her barrel and nuzzling against her for all they were worth. "Love you, mom!” Aspire chirped as he and Esalen drew back.

“And I love you, my silly little nymphs. Now, go on! Off with you!” She shooed them away with a wave of her hoof and brought a fork full of pancake to her mouth. “Have a good day, and make that new filly feel welcome!”

“I’m sure they’ll do their part just fine, dear!” Warm stepped over, giving her a chaste kiss and nuzzle. “I’ll be home once they’re all settled in. Do you have one of your sessions today?”

Faith nodded once. “Yes, Orchid Leaf from Trottingham. The poor dear.” She sighed, a frown chasing the smile from her muzzle. “Her parents’ divorce hit her rather hard, and she’s of the mind that moving away was the cause.”

A pang of sadness, Esalen let her tongue flick out to taste the melancholy rolling off her mother. Bitter and heavy, the price to pay for the burden of helping ponies find happiness through their angst.

Her mother’s calling was both wonderful and taxing. The very nature of changelings made those feelings all the more real to her.

Aspire wrapped his hooves around Faith’s barrel. “It’ll be okay, mom,” he said. “She tasted a bit happier the last time I saw her; not nearly as sad as when she first came.”

Faith chuckled, planting a kiss between his ears. “Yes, I’ve noticed too. Hopefully, I can make a bit more progress with her today.” She gently nudged him off and pushed him toward Esalen, smiling fondly at the pair. “Have a good day, dears. Be nice, and do well in school. And don’t forget your lunch bags again!”

“Yes, mom!” They chorused in reply, each levitating a brown lunch bag off the counter top and into their saddlebags before trotting out of the kitchen, through the sitting room and toward the front door, with Warm Welcome trailing behind.

Esalen’s shimmering green aura engulfed the doorknob and tugged it open. The trio of changelings stepped out of their humble home and into the warm sunlight.


The little village of Respite was located in a lush meadow in the middle of the rolling green treetops near Neighagra Fall. It was situated just northeast of Canterlot and southeast of the Frozen North—the lands cursed by the Dark King Sombra over a millennium ago.

On the opposite end of the village, one could see the mighty Falls cascading into the great lake, where the distant forms of changeling and ponies alike milled about, outfitting their wooden boats for a long day of fishing.

Aspire and Esalen trotted down the dirt pathway alongside their father, smiling and greeting every pony and changeling they passed.

There was Sweet Treat—a stout, plump earth pony, with her wife, Vigil, out in front of their front door, the latter clad in the lightweight, green armor of the village guard. Sweet Treat wrapped her hooves around her lover’s neck, planting a deep kiss on her lips.

“Have a good day,” they heard her say to the smaller changeling once she’d pulled away. “Do you need a bit more love?”

Vigil smiled and nosed up beneath her chin in reply, “I couldn’t have another sip if I wanted, Sweetie! Feed me anymore, and I’ll be so full I can’t fly!”

“Well, you could stand to put on a little more weight! You don’t eat nearly enough for all that running and flying and what have you!”

Warm Welcome chuckled, giving a nod to the bickering mares as he and the nymphs passed so not to interrupt their routine. “That’s one battle Sweetie won’t win, no matter how love-drunk Vigil is.”

Snorting, Aspire gave a little wave to the pair. “So, what’s this new family gonna be like, dad? Have you heard anything about them?”

“Hmm, I know that Drizzly Days took a job with our weather patrol to help manage the more dangerous storms. As for Skydancer—" he wrinkled his muzzle and looked off into the distance “—I can’t recall exactly, but I think Cool Breeze mentioned that she was going to help him work with injured pegasi on flying again, and teaching foals as well. I’ll have to double-check.”

“Or we could just ask them,” Esalen pointed out, and waved her hoof toward the main village entrance. She squinted, her keen eyes just barely making out a few pony-shaped dots milling about. Grinning, she gave a little wag of her tail. “Betcha that’s the moving crew helping them load up their bags into Ready Steady’s cart!”

Aspire bumped his hip against hers. “What kind of foals’ bet are you trying to pull, sis? Everyone knows the routine!”

With a mock huff, she stuck out her tongue.

“Now, now, play nice, you two,” Warm Welcome said, his own playful grin falling for a moment, utmost severity etched upon his muzzle. “All jokes aside, please do try to put a bit of a lid on prodding one another—we don’t know how they’ll take to teasing, and I don’t think any of us want to make Sure Stroke feel uneasy to join your class.” He stopped suddenly, looking down on them with a critical gaze. “I can count on you, right?”

They nodded in unison and made the same motion of crossing a hoof over their chests and holding it aloft as earlier.

“There’s my nymphs!” he said with pride. Warm Welcome resumed his brisk trot toward the gate, his bright, friendly smile back in place. “Come along! And remember, they’re from outside, so give them a little bit more personal space, offer a hoofshake at most; Equestrians find hugging or nuzzling random strangers to be rather invasive. Well, in some cases. Smaller town ponies might be a bit more open to it.”

Scrunching up her nose, Esalen raised an eyebrow. “That seems… really, really distant of them, doesn’t it?”

“It’s just their way, sweetie. They’re quite friendly with one another. Usually, at least. But that sort of thing is just for close friends and family and the like. Nothing to fret over, but keep that in mind, okay?”

Her eyes flitted over to Aspire, sharing a rather uneasy look. Sure, they’d dealt with a few new colts and fillies from the outside joining their class over the years, but that was always after they’d acclimated themselves to their new home.

Maybe we should’ve just waited like normal and let dad show them around. Much like his name suggested, Warm Welcome always made sure that any visitor, long or short-term, felt at home and knew where everything was situated. Simple enough, but it took a big weight off their shoulders.

A gentle hoof touched her shoulder. Esalen looked up to find her father smiling down at her. “Relax, dear,” he said, giving her a little nudge toward the gate. “Just follow my lead, and you’ll do fine! You too, Aspire.”

She fell back into step with him, though she and Aspire subtly moved a bit closer to one another, their shoulders brushing together.

As they neared the gate, the big wooden sign hanging over the archway came into view, the words “Welcome to Respite” proudly on display, right above the Caretakers’ creed.

Those pony-shaped dots became a bit more clear. There was Ready Steady, the burly green earth pony, all hitched up to his fully-loaded cart, smiling and chatting away with his little brothers, Heavy Load and Helping Hoof. Beside them were a pair of new adult pegasi—a stallion of grey-blue coat, his tail and mane, both of which seemed to hang and cling to him like they were wet with rainfall, the same deep-grey as rolling storm clouds, and a mare with a bright yellow coat, her mane and tail tinged orange with red at the ends.

Drizzly Day and Skydancer. But where was their filly?

A bit of movement just behind the mare drew Esalen’s attention. A flash of a violet coat and deep purple mane. A filly with her head ducked low, her eyes flitting from Ready Steady to the brothers loading up the rest of the luggage, to the sign, and down to the dirt road beneath her hooves.

Esalen’s ears perked up. She nudged her brother and nodded toward the filly. “She’s nervous.”

“I can taste it,” he muttered in reply. “Definitely no playing yet, Essy. Just like dad said.”

“Right.”

Warm Welcome came to a stop just within hoof’s reach of the adults. “Good morning!” he said, his tone full of energy. “Drizzly Day and Skydancer, I presume?”

“That’s us!” Skydancer replied with a smile almost as bright as his. “You must be Warm Welcome! Merryweather told us that you’d meet us here when we arrived.”

“Just Warm Welcome will do. Or Warm, I’m not too picky! I do hope your trip wasn’t too tiring!”

Drizzly Day shrugged. “Wasn’t too bad. The balloon ride from Cloudsdale to Canterlot was nicer than the train from Canterlot, I can say that much. That, er, friend of Merryweather’s wasn’t kidding when he said to bring a pillow. Darn thing rattled and shook like nopony’s business.”

“Ah, yes, Hawkeye always goes with her. He’s a bit overprotective of her when she goes on those long trips, but who isn’t? I presume that he revealed himself to you at some point in the conversation?”

“He did,” Drizzly replied, giving a rueful smile. “I nearly jumped through the roof when he changed. Scared the feathers offa me!”

Skydancer ducked her head, her wings unfurling, ready to wrap around and hide her muzzle. “Hehe, you weren’t alone, love! I dove behind the couch, but he and Merry took it in stride.” She shifted from one side to the other. “The only thing we’d ever heard of changelings were some really old legends, and to see one just up and transform… well, it was a good thing he calmed Drizzly and I down long enough for him to explain.”

Warm Welcome winced. “Yes, it can be a bit jarring at first. I’ll have to remind Hawkeye that he’s supposed to explain before he transforms. Though, if I might say, your reactions were quite tame—he’s come back with stories about having to dodge a vase or two.”

“Oh, my!” She brought a hoof to her lips. “I thought it was just us!”

“No, no, it’s happened more often than you think. You’re far from the first, and you won’t be the last. In any case! I’m rambling! Let me introduce my nymphs—or foals if you prefer.” He waved a hoof toward Aspire and Esalen, both of whom smiled brightly, just as he’d asked.

On cue, Aspire stepped forward and offered a hoof to Drizzly. “Hello, sir! My name’s Aspire!”

“And I’m Esalen!” she added, holding out her hoof for Skydancer.

The newcomers smiled, each taking the hooves offered to them and giving a firm shake. “What well-mannered nymphs,” Drizzly said with his half-smile in place. “And what year of school are you in—I think that’s what Hawkeye said.”

“Sixth, Mister Drizzly!” Esalen replied, moving from shaking hooves with Skydancer to taking his. “We’ll finish up in a few months when Trade Day comes around.”

Skydancer straightened up, her eyes shining brightly. “You’ll be in the same year as our little filly! Honey, did you—oh, for heaven’s sake!” She stepped to the side, revealing the young filly that Esalen had caught sight of while walking up.

Sure Stroke was frozen in place, her eyes wide and ears pinned back. She mumbled something, her eyes flitting to the side in search of a place to hide. But before she could move, Skydancer quickly moved behind her and nudged her forward with her snout.

“Go on!” she said softly, giving a little nuzzle to Sure Stroke’s mane. “Say hello!”

Esalen met her eyes, a rather pretty shade of blue like the sky her kind soared through.

Rather cute. Just a little shy. Making friends with her just might help that along. In fact, Esalen was willing to wager that was exactly what the doctor ordered.

Anxiety, a familiar emotion from newcomers to Respite, rolled off Sure Stroke in waves. Esalen had to force herself to focus on Drizzly Day and Skydancer’s more relaxed, pleasant demeanor to escape the bitter taste. Glancing out of the corner of her eye, her brother was in a similar state.

Esalen stepped toward the nervous filly, making sure to smile brightly as she held out her hoof. “Hi! Welcome to Respite, Sure Stroke! I hope we can be friends!”

Suddenly, she was hit with a new emotion: the thick, oppressive taste of fear.

Sure Stroke’s eyes went wide, almost crossing as she alternated between staring at the end of Esalen’s muzzle and at the outstretched hoof.

What in the name of love? Esalen blinked rapidly to clear her head. Where in the world had that come from? Her smile strained, she made to lower her hoof. Maybe Sure Stroke was body shy, even for a pony?

But before her hoof could touch the ground, Skydancer gave Sure Stroke another nudge. “Don’t be rude,” she whispered, her voice barely audible. “Introduce yourself.”

Biting her lip, Sure Stroke looked down to the ground, hesitating just a moment before reaching out with a trembling hoof to touch against Esalen’s. “Hi,” she squeaked out. “I’m Sure Stroke. Nice to meet you.”

Esalen fought down the taste of bad emotions and finished shaking hooves before stepping to the side so Aspire could do the same. Nerves. It was just her nerves. Sure Stroke was in a new place without any friends; that had to be scary. She needed time to adjust, and a couple friendly faces to help her do so.

Her smile back in place, Esalen maneuvered herself to stand on Sure Stroke’s right, leaving the new filly’s left either for Aspire or Skydancer. “Come on! The three of us can show you around!”

“Yeah! We know all the best spots!” Aspire added excitedly. “There’s Sweet Treat’s candy shop, the Wood brothers make great treehouses, and Frosty and Creamy make the most amazing milkshakes you’ll ever have!”

Warm Welcome laughed. “Now, now, settle down, you two! Don’t overwhelm the poor filly on her first day!” He waved to the earth pony brothers. “You guys have their luggage, right? Or do you need my help?”

“Pfft! Who’re you talking to?” Ready Steady snorted and flicked his tail. “Go on with your little tour, Warm! The boys and I got this!”

“Darn right!” Heavy and Helping said in unison, each stomping a hoof.

“Very good! I’ll leave you to it then!” Warm Welcome said, giving a wave as the moving ponies began their trek toward their destination at the far end of the village. Turning back to the pegasus family, he grinned. “Now, about that tour. If you’d all follow us, we’ll be happy to show you around.”

2. We Will Be Your Guidelings

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Changeling and pony alike stopped and waved to the new family, bidding welcome and asking that they please feel free to visit their practices any time before going back to their normal routines.

Visitors were to be welcomed with open hooves and happy smiles, but not smothered. All should be comfortable walking the dirt pathways of Respite.

Esalen was almost bouncing rather than walking as they made their way down the main path, between rows of wooden cottages, topped with twigs and leaves.

By contrast, Sure Stroke’s steps were a bit timid, and the little filly still kept her gaze firmly locked on the ground, only raising her eyes to glance at something on Aspire or Esalen’s face and acknowledge the sights and residents of Respite.

The nerves were still there, rolling off of her in waves, almost forcing Esalen to taste them. How in love’s name does daddy deal with this? Her gaze flitted to Warm Welcome, her jaw nearly dropped at the sight of his cheery smile still in place as he chatted along with Drizzly and Skydancer, pausing to point out one of the residents every now and again.

“And over there, you’ll see a few of the village guards—no, Skydancer, not there! There!” He chuckled. “The armor makes it a bit difficult to see in the trees and brush, but if you look carefully, you’ll see Vigil and Stalwart hovering near those tree tops with Thunder Herald.”

Drizzly raised a brow. “Seems like your guards like darker colors. That a requirement for blending in?”

“Well, we changelings are all geared toward disguising and such, so that helps us a bit. For our pony members, though, no, coat color doesn’t really matter much. Thunder just happens to be as black as the storm clouds he helps push!”

“He works in weather too?”

Warm Welcome nodded. “Oh, yes! He’s a full-time guard, but he chips in whenever there’s a need. You’ll want to make friends with that one!”

Humming, Drizzly nodded. Flicking her tongue, Esalen could taste the vaguely citrus bite of his piqued interest. At least he and Skydancer were taking to the village well.

Aspire, however, seemed to take Sure Stroke’s unease in stride and just pressed on, babbling at a mile a minute. “That’s Sweet Treat over there! She’s the best baker in town—ooh! She’s got a sign up for her triple chocolate cake!” His tongue darted out, licking at his fangs. “Essy! We gotta stop by after school!”

“If everyone else doesn’t beat us to it!” She grumbled playfully, flicking her tail. “You know half the class is gonna race on over as soon as Mister Abacus lets us out!”

“Shoot!” He stomped a hoof. “Good point! We’ll have to be quick! Anyway, Sure Stroke, you’ve really gotta try her stuff sometime!”

Sure Stroke gave a stiff nod, and a mumble of assent, her eyes again flitting toward something at the end of his muzzle.

Do we have syrup on our snouts? Esalen made a show of looking away so she could quickly lick around the edges of her snout, and cross her eyes check the end. Nothing. Not a drop of sugary, sweet syrup. Something in my teeth? I was sure I brushed well…

It couldn’t be helped. With a shrug, she turned back to the pair with a closed-lipped smile. “Oh, Sure Stroke, there’s something you’ll like!” Nudging the filly, she pointed toward an earth ponies walking around and inspecting a pile of logs. “The Wood Brothers’ craft store! They’ll make just about anything, or even let us make stuff like bird feeders and little chairs.”

Sure Stroke flinched a bit at the contact, but, at long last, she lifted her head, those pretty blue eyes lit up.

Subtly, Esalen opened her mouth and flicked her tongue. The smooth taste of happiness, with a dash of spicy interest. Finally, something other than that rotten anxiety!

But just as quickly as it came, Sure Stroke ducked her head and flattened her ears. Shy and nervous still. Drat!

“With them watching,” Warm added slyly. “They’re quite adamant that no foal or nymph plays with their tools alone.”

“I would hope so! Just imagine the trouble we could’ve gotten into as foals, eh, Drizzly?” Skydancer bumped her hip against her husband’s.

Snorting, he bumped her in return. “I don’t have to, honey, I remember getting chased away from the cloud-sculpting guild!”

Esalen flicked her ear toward the adults. “Cloud sculpting?” she parroted in unison with Aspire. They stopped in their tracks, turning to face Drizzly and Skydancer. “What’s that?”

“Exactly what it sounds like!” Skydancer replied. “It’s how pegasi buildings in Cloudsdale are made: we use our weather magic to mould and compress clouds, shaping them into houses, stadiums, anything you can dream of!”

Drizzly snickered. “Even cloudball cannons, honey?”

Especially, cloudball cannons!”

Aspire furrowed his brows, wrinkling his muzzle as he tried to wrap his head around the idea. “What in love’s name is a cloudball?”

The couple shared matching grins, their eyes gleaming with mischief. Skydancer chuckled darkly and raised a hoof as she made to answer his question.

“It’s like a snowball,” a new voice spoke up, just barely above a whisper.

Esalen slowly looked over her shoulder, blinking owlishly at the little filly scuffing a hoof against the ground. She had to force herself to slowly pivot on her hooves, rather than bound over to stand at her side. Little steps. “How’s that?” she asked, fighting against the tugging at the corners of her mouth.

Rustling her feathers, Sure Stroke glanced up, chewing on her lip a bit before expanding upon her answer. “We make them like snowballs; just roll them together, make sure they’re packed nice and tight, and throw.”

“Huh.” Esalen shared a look with Aspire, and resumed walking, falling back into step beside Sure Stroke. “I don’t think any of the pegasi in Respite have made cloudballs…”

“They haven’t, not even the ones from Cloudsdale. Then again—“ he shrugged “—we get snowfall here, so it’s fairer for everyone to just use that.”

“Still, you’d think Mister Breezy would’ve used that on Queen Euphoria at some point, right?”

“Please don’t give him ideas!” Their father mock groaned. “That aside, interesting, Sure Stroke. If it’s that similar, I’m sure you’ll be a big hit when the snowball fights begin!”

Three quick flashes of excitement, Esalen felt a jolt down her spine, her wings readied to unfurl and take flight.

“Snowball fight, eh?” Skydancer said, her voice almost a purr. “Well, well, you just have it all here, don’t you?”

“We try!” Aspire replied happily. “Lots of ponies come from far away places, so there’s always some new tradition that springs up and gets adopted. Queen Euphoria loves for everypony to feel comfortable like this was their home all along!”

“Well, she certainly sounds like a nice changeling! Er, speaking of which, Warm Welcome? If you don’t mind me mentioning, Hawkeye and Merryweather said something about meeting the Queen at some point. Part of getting settled in, they said.” She gave a little rustle of her feathers, an awkward smile graced her muzzle. “Is there an appointment we need to set up, or times that we can go see her in… er, does she hold courts like Princesses Celestia and Luna?”

The trio of changelings stopped abruptly. Esalen sucked in her lips, desperately fighting back laughter, and looked from Aspire to Warm Welcome. Her brother, naturally, was in a similar state, disguising his snickers as a sudden coughing fit.

Warm Welcome simply chuckled and shook his head. “No, Skydancer, you won’t need to make an appointment—it’s all part of the tour. We’re headed there next.” His smile fell ever so slightly at the sight of their sudden unease. He raised a hoof, waving them off. “Oh, don’t worry! Queen Euphoria is quite nice, and always eager to welcome newcomers to the village! Her door is always open, to permanent residents and visitors alike! In fact, take a look!” He turned to point to a lone cottage, standing in the center of the town.

Standing at two stories high, and taking at least thrice the space than the others, Queen Euphoria’s cottage was clearly the focal point of Respite. The front door itself was wide open to welcome any who wished to visit; with a pony and changeling standing guard on either side, greeting bypassers with smiles, hugs, even the occasional joke.

Esalen flicked out her tongue, giggling at the taste of the outsiders’ shock. “Come on!” she nudged Sure Stroke toward the Queen’s house.

“Don’t wanna keep her waiting, Mister Drizzly!” Aspire added, zipping over to tug at Drizzly Day’s leg.

Deep green magic encircled their ears. The nymphs yelped, and released their charges at the sharp tweak of the tips, each clapping their hooves over their head. “Dad!” They cried in stereo.

“Don’t ‘dad’ me, you two! Pushing is rude!” He said sternly, before turning to the pegasi with an apologetic smile. “Sorry, they do get a bit excited.”

As the group approached, the guards looked up, each grinning and giving a wave of their hooves. “There you are, Warm!” The young pegasus called, his ears perked up happily. Sunlight glinted off the badge on his chest—a white circle with a red heart in the center, the mark of the Lovegiver Corps.

“Good morning, Tailwind,” Warm greeted with a wry smile. “We’re not that late, are we? I thought we were on time…”

Tailwind smiled and shook his head. “Any longer and Queen Euphoria was going to send out a search party! Fleetwing, here, was gonna go see if you’d overslept—yeowch!” He clapped his hooves over his ear, rubbing at the spot his partner nipped. “Fleet!”

“Ignore this one,” Fleetwing said sternly. “He’ll pay for it once I get him off duty. Please, go right on in! Queen Euphoria is expecting you.”

Warm Welcome shook his head and chuckled. “Of course.” He stepped to the side and gestured toward the opened door. “After you, my friends.”


To call it “Court” in a similar vein as what Princesses Celestia and Luna held in their grand palace on Mount Canterhorn—receiving ponies in the Throne Room, and looking down from their places on the dais—couldn’t have been further from the truth.

Queen Euphoria’s “Court” was simply a rather large sitting room; outfitted with a rather large, plush sofa, she laid on her stomach, horn alight with magic as she hovered a few papers before her muzzle and chatted with the ponies seated with her. As always, she looked wonderful; her carapace shined with the flickering candles, her sky blue and blond highlighted mane bound into a long ponytail by a golden wire, wreathed in tiny hearts.

Esalen quirked a brow, her gaze lingered on the top of her Queen’s head. No crown today? She must be feelings informal.

Every now and again, she would tear herself away from reading to nuzzle a blue pegasus stallion with windswept mane and tail of pure white, and exchange playful whispers with him, even daring to sneak a kiss. She glanced around the room in search of the house’s other occupants, humming when she didn’t see head or tail of the rest of the Queen’s entourage. They must’ve gotten an early start at their jobs today. Too bad. Morning Dew would’ve loved meeting Sure Stroke…

There was a flash of confusion, mixed with surprise. Esalen blinked and glanced toward the newcomers, each of them seemed to regard the pair with varying degrees of surprise.

She raised a brow, looking from Breezy to the Queen and back again. They’d walked passed several couples of mixed species on the way up, it shouldn’t be that much of a big deal. Or maybe it’s that thing about open displays? They seemed a bit thrown that she had a house instead of a castle.

More and more curious, she mused, filing it away for later. Perhaps her dad could shed some light on the subject after things settled down.

Warm Welcome, Skydancer, and Drizzly trotted forward to stand in the center of the room, stopping just a short distance from the Queen.

However, Sure Stroke remained still, her eyes wide and locked on Queen Euphoria; the waves of anxiety and fear rolled off her again, threatening to drown Esalen in the foul taste.

Blinking, she reached over to nudge the filly, who squeaked and recoiled from her touch. In love’s name, how does daddy put up with this taste! Esalen held her smile as best she could, and nodded toward the adults. “Don’t be afraid,” she whispered. “Queen Euphoria is really nice!”

Sure Stroke whimpered, her eyes darting back and forth, as though looking for an escape.

But Aspire nudged her from her other side. “Hey,” he hissed, “we wouldn’t lie to you—pranking isn’t fun if it really hurts. Besides—“ he grinned and thumped a hoof against his chest “—if she does act mean, Essy and I know where she hides all her chocolate!”

“My, my—“ Queen Euphoria purred from her couch, surveying the little ones with a half-lidded stare and a playful smirk “—what a wonderful little threat, dear Aspire! Surely you recall what happened the last time you stole from my sweet cabinet, don’t you?”

This time, it was Aspire who squeaked and jumped, his wings flared out and buzzed as he tried to right himself. “Er, j-just a joke, Queen Euphoria!” he stammered, bowing low. “Please don’t dye my carapace again!”

Chuckling, she unfolded her hooves and placed them on the ground, elegantly sliding herself off the couch to approach the group. Queen Euphoria stood nearly a head taller than Drizzly and Warm; her smirk broadened into a genuine smile as she closed the distance between herself and the newcomers, and offered a hoof. “Drizzly Day and Skydancer? Charmed to meet you! As my dear Warm Welcome’s wayward son says—“ she paused to glance at Aspire and wink “—Queen Euphoria, leader of Respite village and the Caretakers.”

Drizzly took her hoof, his smile tightening, and ears pinning back. “A pleasure, Your Highness!” he replied quickly. “I can’t begin to tell you how much my family and I appreciate the opportunity! Work in weather management is a bit competitive back home…”

“So I’ve heard, so I’ve heard. Though, in this case, Cloudsdale’s oversight is to Respite’s benefit—if you don’t mind my saying. I look forward to seeing your work, Drizzly. It’s hard to find a fully-fledged weather pony willing to relocate to our village, these days. You pulled us out of quite the pickle!”

“I-I don’t mind at all! Thank you, Your Highness! I—“

She held up a hoof. “Please, just call me Euphoria, unless we’re in town meetings. I’d much prefer to get to know Drizzly Day the pony, my hopefully soon-to-be friend than get all tied up in titles.” Suddenly, her smirk was back, her eyebrow arched. Euphoria made a show of looking the pair of pegasi up and down. “Unless—no, never mind, too soon for that joke.” She shook her head, smiling at whatever quip she’d withheld as she moved to shake hooves with Skydancer. “Ah, my husband has been waiting to meet you, Skydancer!”

“He has?” Skydancer’s ears perked up, her eyes flitted to the pegasus laying on the couch.

“Oh, you have no idea, my dear! Breezy’s been over the moon about having a new flight instructor!”

With a snort, he hopped off of the couch and landed nimbly on his hooves. “No kidding! Herding all those little foals and organizing rehab sessions can be a hassle.” He held out a hoof, grinning broadly. “Cool Breeze, I’m Phory’s husband and the flight instructor-slash-head of flight rehab. I can’t thank you enough for taking the job here, Skydancer!”

If not for Sure Stroke’s prior angst acting as a sort of counterbalance, the sudden swell of utter jubilation might have floored Esalen. The mare ruffled up her feathers and puffed out her chest, she was practically preening.

Better to preen than be fearful, though. Her eyes darted to Sure Stroke. Esalen parted her lips and poked out her tongue, just a tiny bit. Not as much fear, but still a touch of anxiety. Bitter, but not as muggy.

Not to mention her positioning: she stood closer to Aspire, a result of his little jump a moment ago, but didn’t recoil or glance toward his muzzle. She was focused on Queen Euphoria alone.

Small victories? Esalen could only take a subtle step closer to rub her shoulder against Sure Stroke’s.

A flinch, but she didn’t pull away entirely. Perhaps a little progress?

But that wave of fear returned in full when Queen Euphoria turned her attention to Sure Stroke. Her ears perked up, she gave a bright smile and bent her neck low so that she could meet the nervous filly at eye level. “Hello, sweetie!” she cooed. “My, my! You’re as cute as a button! What’s your name?”

“I-I’m, uh…” Sure Stroke stammered, her eyes flitting from the wooden floor to Queen Euphoria’s slitted eyes to the end of her muzzle. She tilted her head to the side, her ears stood up straight.

Fear, anxiety, even the little hint of longing for home vanished in favor of confusion and curiosity. Esalen snuck a peek at her Queen, raising a brow at the distinct normality of her smile—the same happy one she always seemed to wear.

Though, there was something just a tad off. But she couldn’t quite put her hoof on it…

“Go on,” Queen Euphoria coaxed gently.

Biting her lip, Sure Stroke unfurled her wings, her feathers fluffed up almost defensively. “S-Sure Stroke, Your Highness!” She managed, giving a little flinch and laying her ears flat.

With a happy nod, Queen Euphoria leaned forward and nuzzled the top of her head, quite a bit further than Aspire and Esalen had even dared to take their greetings. “Very nice to meet you, Sure Stroke!” she said. “I hope you come to like my village as much as I do!”

Better than earlier, Esalen thought. Still anxious, though. Why does stress have to taste so bitter? She shoved those thoughts to the side once more, there would be time for that later.

Another little rub of her shoulder against Sure Stroke’s, coupled with an encouraging nod. Step one: make her feel welcome and comfortable! With a little assist from the Queen!

Aspire took it upon himself to stand up tall, and speak up, “We can show her around more once she gets all settled in! Oh, and school too!”

“Speaking of which—“ Warm Welcome cut in smoothly “—you two haven’t been watching your time; you need to get going or Mister Abacus’ll come looking.”

“Oh, dear!” Queen Euphoria reared back and gave a gasp of mock horror. “Well, we can’t have Mister Abacus finding out that I made you two late! He might try to put me in detention!”

Cool Breeze snickered and broke from his little chat with Skydancer. “Try? Love, I think he might just drag you by the ear and lecture you in front of all his students!”

“Good point, Breezy! You two had best run along! You’re both just a terrible influence on me!” Giving a wink, she leaned down to nuzzle both nymphs’ manes. “Thank you for visiting,” she whispered, “and for offering to help.”

Beaming, the pair returned the gesture, each threw their hooves around her neck and squeezed tight, mumbling their goodbyes before darting over to hug their father.

Oof!” Warm Welcome staggered with the sudden weight of his nymphs on his back and shoulders. “You two are getting too heavy to be giving your poor, old dad those big hugs!”

“Too bad!” Aspire replied with a laugh. “You’ll just have to suffer it all until you’re old, gray in the mane and tail, and all creaky in the joints!”

Growling playfully, Warm nipped at his son’s ear. “Thanks, son of mine. I’ll remember that.” His facade fell, he reared up and twisted to wrap both up in a tight embrace. “Good job today,” he said, keeping his voice low while the others talked amongst themselves. “You both did really well. I’ll make sure to stop by and get those sweets you were looking at once I’m done helping our new friends—”

“Yes!” Aspire and Esalen pumped their hooves.

“But only if you’re not late for class!”

“… Oh, sweet chitin—Run, Essy!” The pair fled from the Queen’s sitting room as fast as they could, Cool Breeze and Warm Welcome’s hearty laughter and the Queen’s bell-like giggling chasing behind them.

But just as they passed Sure Stroke, Esalen caught it: a small smile and stifled a laugh, those pretty blue eyes shining with mirth.

Happiness and humor had never tasted so sweet.


Chitinous hooves thundered against the wooden schoolhouse floor, Esalen turned the corner, skidding a short distance before she managed to find purchase and get her stride back. “Come on!” she called over her shoulder to her lagging brother. “Only a minute before the bell!”

“I’m coming, I’m coming!” he shot back as best he could, his tongue lolling out as he struggled for breath. “Ugh! I knew this was gonna happen!”

“Quit being such a baby!” Esalen turned, her eyes lighting up as their classroom came into view. Only a few seconds and our hooves have to be through the door before it starts or we’re toast!

She put on an extra burst of speed, buzzing her wings to help make her steps lighter. Closer and closer, the door was just within reach! Esalen lit up her horn, her magic engulfed the door handle and roughly pulled it wide open.

Nice and easy for the siblings to dive through and shout, “Made it!” at the top of their lungs.

Aspire tripped as he tried to land, and tumbled head over hooves and landed just before a chestnut coated unicorn. “Can’t—haa—give us detention—oh sweet chitin my chin!—this time, Mister Abacus!” he grinned weakly and tried to blow a raspberry. He couldn’t even muster the strength. “Darn it… Why does Queen Euphoria’s house have to be at the other end of town?”

Mister Abacus raised a single eyebrow, smirking at the attempted slight. “What do you think, class?” he asked playfully. “Should we tell them?”

The foals and nymphs in their class snickered, each grinning wickedly. In unison, they threw their hooves out wide and waved them in time as they sang, “You’re late! You’re late! You’re oh so very late!

“No way!” Aspire cried, leaping to his hooves. “Clanger didn’t ring the bell! We’d have heard it halfway across the marketplace with how loud he rings that thing!”

“I’m afraid Clanger is sick today, but if you need proof—“ the clock resting on his desk floated over, engulfed in a pale blue aura “—you’re actually five minutes late.”

Esalen leaned over, her breath hitched in her throat, her bright pink eyes going wide as she read the clock face twice to make sure she wasn’t seeing things.

Sure enough, the minute hand was pointing straight at the stylized number one: five minutes past the hour. They were late. Again.

Maybe a third look would help? She cringed, her mother’s stern gaze flitting through her mind. The lecture from last week was still so fresh, being late a second time in two weeks? They might as well try hiding out with Sweet Treat and Vigil; at least they would just give a tiny talk and just let things go while the pair hid themselves.

Mister Abacus chuckled as he floated the clock back over to his desk. “So, then, let’s hear it,” he prompted, waving his hoof. “Why were you late this time? Did Sweet Treat lure you in with one of her creations? Or did Frosty and Creamy—what did you say last time? Ah, yes!—‘spot you trotting innocently down the pathway and try to rope you into an ice cream tasting extravaganza'?”

The class tittered, and then began tossing in their own predictions; from timeless classics such as “their dog ate their homework” to a rather entertaining tale of Aspire wielding his “mighty ruler and protractor” in order to defeat the black hordes of the Dark King Sombra.

Aspire struggled to hold a straight face, eventually just snorting and dropping his head to hide a sheepish blush and grin. “My stories do not sound that crazy!” he mumbled.

“Er, hate to tell you, but they kinda are.” His head shot up, a deep scowl crossed his muzzle. Esalen shrugged and sat back on her haunches, holding up her hooves. “Sorry! I call ‘em like I see ‘em.”

“Traitor!”

With a roll of her eyes, she bumped her hip against his, then turned her attention to Mister Abacus. “Actually—“ she began “—we were busy helping our dad with his job!”

The jokes stopped abruptly. Esalen hid a triumphant grin and fought the urge to taste her classmates’ emotions as they sat up in their desks, even Mister Abacus dropped his teasing smirk.

“Is that so?” he asked, rubbing his chin in thought. “I don’t recall any scheduled welcoming committee events—though, I’m not a part of it, so I don’t pay much mind on school days. I probably missed it.”

Snickering, Aspire nodded. “You did! That pegasus family from Cloudsdale is moving in today; the one with the new weather team manager and Cool Breeze’s new helper!”

“Drizzly Day and Skydancer, you goof!” Esalen added.

“Oh, hush! It’s not like they’d know their names already!”

“Oh, now I remember!“ Mister Abacus cut in before they could get too far into their bickering. “Cool Breeze was over the moon when Hawkeye and Merryweather came back saying that they’d accepted the job offers; they have a filly who’ll be joining us soon, I believe.”

A wave of excitement nearly sent Esalen staggering, she blinked a few times to clear her head of the rush of energy from her classmates. At her side, Aspire was in a similar state.

Emotion with focus was always more potent, and more fulfilling. Happiness, excitement, and love were always the best tasting, especially when somepony directed it at the changeling feeding.

She shook herself. Just had breakfast, don’t be a glutton. Tempting though it was to clear out the bitter taste of Sure Stroke’s anxiety, taking too much too quickly might make her sick. Or it’d get her drunk on the taste and start feeding non-stop, definitely not good. After all, she was a Caretaker, not one of the Locust.

Even the mere thought of that hive made her shiver and abruptly clamp her lips shut. Best not to chance it. She could always ask for a sip or two later if anyone felt up to a trade.

“That’s right,” she said, “her name is Sure Stroke. We showed them around town and took them to meet the Queen a little bit ago.”

All at once, the class burst into chatter.

“What’s she like?”

“Is she nice? Funny?”

“Is she a good flier? She can be part of the cloud relays!”

“Oh, forget the cloud relays, Vector! You’ve got plenty of members! What about baking, does she like that?”

“Or how about painting?”

Esalen glanced back and forth between them, opening her mouth to answer, but shutting abruptly each time one spoke up before she could get a word in edgewise. “I—hang on—wait a minute—well—if you could just—“

Class!” Mister Abacus barked, his muzzle marred by a small frown.

At once, they sat back down, their mouths shut and hooves placed on the desk one atop the other. The very picture of innocent preteens. “Sorry, Mister Abacus,” they chanted sullenly.

“I’m not the one you should all be apologizing to.” He pointed to Aspire and Esalen. “These two would be more than willing to share if you’d give them a chance to speak instead of chattering like squirrels!”

Their ears laid flat, each of the foals and nymphs muttered a quick apology, some shifting in their seats, and a few pegasi ruffling their wings. A touch of shame for their poor manners palpable, like bad tasting medicine.

Out of the corner of her eye, Esalen spotted Aspire pulling a face and sticking out his tongue, his tolerance long since spent. “Er, it’s all right. As for Sure Stroke, well…”

“She’s a bit shy,” Aspire finished for her. “A lot shy, really. I nearly had to ask if I could go wash out the taste of anxiety on the way to the Queen’s house.”

“You too, huh? Though, the little bit of humor when we had to run out was worth it, even if we were late.”

A goofy smile crossed his muzzle, Aspire closed his eyes and gave an airy giggle. “Oh, I know! After all that stuff before, it was just perfect!”

“And just how did the tour go?” A unicorn filly named Prim ’n Proper asked, an almost haughty air to her tone. “You two didn’t scare her with your silly pranks, did you?”

Esalen frowned, and fixed Prim with a glare; always a constant battle with the daughter of Queen Euphoria’s trusted assistant. Everything had to be just perfect with her. “As a matter of fact, no. We didn’t do anything of the sort. We just showed her around, pointed out a few of our favorite places to hang out, and helped our dad introduce her to Queen Euphoria. And that’s it.”

“Really? Not one little joke?”

“Prim,” Mister Abacus called warningly. “That’s enough. If Aspire and Esalen say they were helpful, I’ll believe them. Besides, Mister Welcome would hardly let his own nymphs cause trouble during a tour.” He paused to glance at the siblings, his smile returned as they nodded back to him. “Good. That said, we’ve got a couple of days until Sure Stroke and her family are settled in and she’s ready to join us. So, let’s all give her a warm welcome—Ack! Don’t you—“

“Aww, but we don’t wanna give our daddy away!” Aspire and Esalen sang, sticking out their lips in matching pouts and giving him a show of their patented “twin nymph eyes”.

Groaning, their teacher sat back on his haunches and rubbed his temples, his ears pinned back and laid flat against his scalp as his students giggled. “Every time, every darn time you two,” he grumbled. With a glare, he waved them off to their seats. “Go sit down before you give me a headache, you naughty nymphs. Now, moving along, we do have quite a bit to cover today. Take out your textbooks and let’s get started.”

3. New Filly Blues

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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.

“Psst!”

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.

It clicked.

“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.

“Sure Stroke!”

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.

4. Changelings Always Find a Way

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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.

5. Where There's a Will, There's a Changeling

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Esalen galloped alongside her fellow nymphs, racing back to their classroom. Being excused for tardiness once this week was a small blessing, betting on a second time was definitely pressing her luck. Especially when Mister Façade knew they were all out on the recess field a short while ago.

Changeling lessons were quite a bit different from those of the other pony races in Respite. Certainly, they learned how to wield their magic and fly, but they also practiced to perfect their transformations.

Every nymph was born with the innate ability to shapeshift into whatever they could see or call forth from memory—but the ability to shift had to be refined in order to get the perfect imitations down so they could travel outside their cozy forest without being seen.

Today’s lesson, though, felt a bit more important than the others.

Sixth-year lessons meant all the little details that went into a good disguise would be examined—everything from how they could get the right colors to how well they could copy the style and feel of a pony’s mane.

Mister Façade, Sweet Treat, and a unicorn guard named Stardust awaited the students, standing with bright smiles on their muzzles as the nymphs bounded in from recess, with only a few seconds to spare.

“Good afternoon class,” he greeted.

“Good afternoon, Mister Façade!” They chimed back in unison.

“Ah, nice to see that you’re all ready to start! Though—“ he smirked and raised a brow at the patches of dirt and grass stains on their legs “—a bit rough around the edges. So, what was it this time?”

Giggling with one another, the nine nymphs of their class shared grins. Out of the corner of her eye, Esalen caught Zephyr nudging her brother forward with a bump of his flank.

Aspire fixed the rest of the class with a rather pathetic glare before turning to address Mister Façade. “We were playing soccer, sir. It got a little rough toward the end—had to score the last goal and all…”

“Ah, soccer. Brings back memories…” a wistful smile crossed his muzzle, sunlight gleamed off his fangs. Façade shook himself from his reverie, the sunlight glinted off his short, silver mane as he chuckled to himself. “But that’s for another day. Time to work on our shape shifting, my little nymphs! Today, Missus Sweet Treat and Mister Stardust have joined us to act as your templates—thank you both!”

“Anytime, sir,” Stardust replied, stepping forward and bringing up his midnight blue hoof in a salute. “Can’t let our little ones out into the world without knowing how to look out for themselves!”

Sweet Treat gave a hearty wave. “Hear, hear! Especially not the little ones I’ve watched grow up as they scampered in and out of my shop!”

Mister Façade chuckled. “Yes, yes, thank you both. Today, we’re going to practice with our templates for each pony race. Once Mister Tailwind comes over—ah, there you are!” He grinned as the young village guard bounded around a corner, his hooves slipping and scraping against the wooden floor as he dashed into the room like sky blue blur. “Did you forget again?”

Tailwind shook his head, gasping heavily for breath. “Lost… whoo! Track of time helping Fleetwing… sorry ‘bout that, everyone!”

A few giggles, a couple of the nymphs cat-called and turned their gazes to the desk, asking in mock confusion “What’s the time, Mister Façade”. They quickly leaped out of Tailwind’s reach before he could sweep them up in one of his infamous headlock-noogie combos—an assault none could escape without their mane being ruffled and puffed like a great big cotton swab.

“Settle down, you lot! And you too, Tailwind—I have enough little ones to look after as is!” Mister Façade’s grin faded. “Now, let’s line up in three lines, please. One in front of each of our volunteers—Nimble, for love’s sake! You can practice your hoofstands with Toola after class! Line up in front of Miss Sweet, please!”

With a matching roll of their eyes, Aspire and Esalen slipped into line with a thoroughly amused Nimble Hooves, waiting their turn to practice transforming into the plump earth pony mare before them. Might as well get the more difficult one out of the way first.

Hiding horns and wings were rather tricky—both in terms of physically melding them into smooth coat and remembering not to try flying or casting a spell in that form.

Rarely did a changeling venture from Respite in earth pony form, if only so they could avoid odd questions when they had no choice but to use one of the two.

Still, a useful skill. Any disguise was a good one if it meant keeping them hidden from the other big hives, or ponies who weren’t keen to welcome a changeling into their midst.

Ahead of them, Nimble was engulfed in green fire. In the blink of an eye, a small, peach-coated filly with sugar pink mane and bright blue eyes stood in her place. “Tada!” she said, throwing her hooves out wide like she’d just done a dance routine.

“Not bad,” Sweet Treat said with a smile as she glanced over her double. “But, you forgot a little something dear—“ she sat back on her haunches and patted her plump belly “—I’m a baker at heart, and I tend to snack every now and then while I work. A good rule to follow if you’re gonna play the part: never trust a skinny cook. Usually, it means we’re not that good at our job!”

The faux Sweet Treat smiled sheepishly and took a deep breath, her belly began to fill out, leaving a chubby, filly-sized version of the mare in place. “Better?”

“Getting there, dear! Just a little practice and you’ll have me down pat! Get too good, and Vigil just might come give you all the hugs she’s supposed to give me!”

Another flash of green fire and Nimble Hooves was back in her natural form, stifling a few giggles with a hoof. She trotted to the back of the line, eager to try a second time.

Aspire was next. He marched up with a confident swagger in his step, and a little flick of his short, shaggy tail. He’d nail it, as usual. Little details were always his thing.

Taking a deep breath in through his nose, he started. Green fire ran up his legs, swirling around his body until he was completely obscured.

In a flash, an almost perfect doppelgänger stood before Sweet Treat. The miniature gave a bright smile, a perfect imitation of how she greeted patrons to her shop and chirped, “Welcome, welcome, welcome! Please, have a look around and try some samples!”

Sweet Treat held a hoof up to hide a grin. “Very nicely done, Aspire. But—“ she gave a playful scowl as she reached forward and booped his nose “—I’m not that plump, sweetheart.”

Another flash of green fire, Aspire was back in place, sheepishly rubbing at his mane. His cheeks colored as Nimble and Allegretto giggled into their hooves. “Yes, ma’am. I’ll work on that.”

“Good! Now, who’s next—aha!” Sweet Treat looked to Esalen, her baby blue eyes lit up. “If it isn’t my favorite little taste-tester! I hope you haven’t been using my treats as an excuse to being late again!”

“Hey, wait a minute!” Aspire cut in, narrowing his eyes at Sweet Treat. “I thought you said I was your favorite taste-tester!”

“You’re all my favorite little taste-testers, silly! You know that! And don’t think I don’t know that you were eager to pin it on me too, Aspire!” She looked down her nose at him, smirking at the way he squirmed under her gaze before she turned to Esalen. “Well, missy? Will I have your momma marching up to my shop lookin’ like someone slipped pepper juice in her tea again?”

A streak of pink colored her cheeks. Does everyone know about that? “Nope! I haven’t even thought about it!”

“Good filly! Now, let’s see how your practice has been going!”

Nodding, Esalen furrowed her brows and looked over Sweet Treat’s form. Soft peach coat, sugar pink mane, and bright blue eyes. A white-frosted cake with a cherry and pink icing on top for a cutie mark, a bit of a fluffing in her tail close to her rump, and a pudgy belly—but not too much pudge. She closed her eyes, focusing on the image of Sweet Treat in her head.

Peach, pink, and plump. No horn, no wings, and a nice fluff to her tail. And no fangs.

That was the important bit today—hiding her fangs properly.

Green fire washed over her body. Pulling her wings and horns back into her, and filling out the holes in her legs was as easy as walking. The more personal touches were where she had to really focus, and being quick at it meant she really had to be on her hooves.

Esalen let her cheeks puff out a bit, her belly sagged as her body compensated to imitate that “baker’s pudge,” as Sweet Treat so loved to call it. Perfect. Now, cutie mark. A glance to her flank and focus on the image. One spark of fire later and the familiar white-frosted cake appeared, complete with strawberry and pink icing.

So far so good. Now for the important part. Esalen focused on her fangs, willing them to shrink and flatten into pony teeth. Go away. Hide away, no more fangs. Just flat, not threatening pony teeth.

She cracked open her eyes and raised a hoof, giving a happy little hum at the sight of a nice even coat of peach fur adorning her legs. A quick glance to her rear confirmed that her tail was the same sugar pink as Sweet Treat’s and the familiar cutie mark on her flank. All she had to do was make sure she didn’t bloat her belly like last time, and everything was perfect! “How’s it look?” she asked, giving a little turn.

Sweet Treat hummed, regarding her with a critical stare. “Not bad, not bad at all! You’ve got my colors just right, even my cutie mark! Not too pudgy, also good! You just need to work a little bit on my tail.“ She turned and gave hers a meaningful swish to show off the way it fluffed out nearer to her bottom. “ Other than that, you’re like my mini-me!”

“Yes!” A triumphant pump of her hoof. Esalen beamed and gave her not-quite-fluffy-enough tail a merry swish. “And look! No wing casing on my back and no horn poking out of my head!”

“True, true… but—“ Sweet Treat squinted and leaned forward, a tiny frown crossed her muzzle “—you’re missing two teeth, where your lovely fangs normally are.”

Her celebration stopped. “… But I’m supposed to hide my fangs.”

“Yes, dear, but you’re missing teeth. You shifted them right away.”

Wrinkling her nose, Esalen maneuvered her tongue around to check her mouth. Sure enough, where there should have been two nice, flat pony teeth in place of her fangs, there was nothing but empty space up to her gums.

Just like Sweet Treat said—she hadn’t made pony teeth, she’d completely shifted them away!

“Aw, nuts!” She stomped a hoof. A flash of green fire later and she was back in her natural form. Her ears splayed back and a deep frown marred her muzzle. “I wanna hide my fangs for a bit, not get rid of them!”

“Oh, don’t worry, dear! You’ll have it by your next go around I’m sure!” Sweet Treat leaned forward to nuzzle the top of her head.

A whine escaped her throat, though she leaned into the older mare’s nuzzle. “Need to have it soon…” she grumbled to herself.

“Have what soon, dear?” Esalen nearly jumped back at the sudden question. “You know I pick up things when you little ones all come into my shop!” Waggling her ears, Sweet Treat leaned in close, smirking dangerously. “You know better than to try to hide something from me, young nymph! What’s that you’re grumbling about?”

Before she could make to slip away, Esalen felt a pink coated hoof wrap around her withers, pulling her into a soft hug. Trapped.

“Nothing, Missus Sweet Treat!” She squirmed against the grip.

“Don’t you ‘nothing’ me, Essy! I can just trot over and visit your mama and have a talk with her! You’d best out and tell me right now!”

Some of the nymphs were starting to sneak peeks, tilting their heads and whispering to one another as they flicked out their tongues. Oops. Her ears laid flat against her scalp, her chitinous wings gave an awkward little buzz.

Too much attention, she’d disrupted the lesson.

Mister Façade cleared his throat. “Is something the matter, ladies?”

“Oh, just a little pep talk between us fillies!” Sweet Treat tittered, patting Esalen on the back, still keeping her grip tight so the little nymph couldn’t slip away. “Poor dear seemed a bit down because of a little mistake, so I just wanted to make sure she was a-okay!”

“That so? I’ll be right over, then. Just let me finish up with Zephyr and I’ll be right over.” He turned to the aforementioned colt and leaned down to whisper in his ear, before shooing him back into line. With a small smile on his muzzle, he trotted over to Esalen’s line. “So, what’s giving you trouble, Esalen? Personal touches again?”

Drat. No way out now, not with Mister Façade standing alongside Missus Sweet Treat. She could almost feel Aspire’s amused grin on her back. Jerk.

With one last wriggle, she managed to slip out from her captor’s grip and quickly scooted back before she could be swept up again. Esalen brushed herself off, giving a nervous chuckle. “Well, um, I was just trying to work on hiding my fangs—still pointy sometimes, so I focused on them a bit too much.”

“Ah, I see. Hmm, that is something you’ve needed work on.” Mister Façade brought a hoof to his chin. “You’re doing well, so I wouldn’t worry too much about it. The most I’ve noticed is that, like you said with your fangs, you need a bit more concentration to complete the changes when you imitate an earth pony—a bit of strain hiding both at the same time, perhaps.”

Esalen watched as he hummed and trotted over to his desk. Green magic wreathed his horn as he levitated a notebook and took a peek inside. “Well, the good news is that our test isn’t until next week, so there’s plenty of time for you to practice—“

“It’s not that,” she cut him off, shaking her head. “I wanted to use it for something else.”

A beat of silence. Her ear flicked at the sharp breath he drew in. “Not planning mischief around town, are we?” he asked, raising a brow. A smile played upon his lips. “You know, giving such a big hint isn’t exactly a good way to practice your pranks—I just might have to dock points off for that, actually. Hardly effective if you can’t sneak around, Esalen.”

A more insistent shake of her head, her braided mane whipped back and forth. “No! It wasn’t anything to do with a prank! It’s a side project—oh, stop laughing and help me explain, Aspire!”

Hiding a bout of snickers behind a hoof, he replied, “I dunno, you’re doing a pretty good job from where I’m standing!” At the heated glare she shot him, Aspire rolled his eyes and trotted forward. “She’s telling the truth, sir. No pranks or nicking cookies or anything like that.”

Façade and Sweet Treat shared looks, each raising a brow at his claim. Their disbelief and bemusement, a rather odd taste of bitter herb and sweet cream. A mixing of tastes that should never, ever come together.

It almost made Esalen want to gag. Such a bittersweet taste, like biting into one of Missus Sweet Treat’s experimental candies—they looked nice and sweet, the crystal sugars covering the sweet jam tempted her so, she didn’t even stop to ask Sweet Treat what she’d concocted before swiping several into her mouth. The mere memory of the sour taste that followed the initial sweetness was enough to make her wrinkle her snout and stick out her tongue. Candy should not taste like that. Ever.

“Forgive me if I don’t quite believe that, Aspire,” Façade said, smiling in spite of his raised brow, “but I seem to recall a full class of naughty nymphs who took my ‘sneak and evade’ assignment from last month as invitation to switch out all the sugar and salt in each and every house in Respite.”

Nine nymphs gave bashful grins, along with a few poorly-hidden hoof bumps at the reminder of that particular prank. It had been a true team effort, one that even Queen Euphoria praised once she managed to wash down a batch of rather sweet eggs. And once she’d lifted the tickling spell.

Aspire gave a winning smile, and shook his head. “No, not this time! Big stuff like that is just for assignments—or when Mister Breezy offers us lots of sweets—“

Façade groaned and brought a hoof to his forehead. “Why am I not surprised he does that?”

“—but we’ve got our own little thing we’re working on.”

“Like what?” Nimble Hooves asked. “You’re doing extra work out of class?”

Allegreto grinned and gave her a little nudge with his elbow. “Both of ‘em are bookbugs! Fitting, eh?”

The pair shared a laugh, the running joke against Aspire alive and well, and just as effective as ever—the arch in his spine, how he bared his fangs and splayed his ears against his scalp. “Would you two just—“

“Just what?” Façade cut him off with a stern frown.

His mouth still hanging open, ready to vent his spleen, Aspire quickly adjusted his posture—standing up straight and lowering his jowls to cover his fangs. “N-Nothing, Mister Façade!” He rubbed the back of his head.

Esalen quickly stepped in before he could make more of a mess of things. “It’s something else, sir. We’re trying to do something for Sure Stroke.”

At the mention of her name, Façade and Sweet Treat’s ears flicked. “Oh?” they echoed in unison.

Sweet Treat tapped a hoof against the floor, her tail flicked as she thought. Suddenly, her ears perked up. “Oh, I think I saw her flying outside with her mother—they’re both rather graceful, I must say!”

“Right, Missus Skydancer is Breezy’s new assistant, of course.” Mister Façade raised a brow, confusion seemed to just roll off him. “Wait. You’re not going to pull one of your silly jump-scares are you?”

“No! Oh, love no!” Visions of Sure Stroke taking wing, eyes wide and chest heaving as she tried to escape a pair of shapeshifting pranksters flitted through her mind. Cringing, she flicked her tail. “Not until she’s a lot more comfortable, anyway… it’s just, well, we’ve noticed some things.”

His eyebrow arched higher, nearly touching his goldenrod bangs. Mister Façade rolled a hoof in a circular motion and sat back on his haunches. “Go on.”

Esalen bit her lip, her eyes flitted to Aspire. How best to word it? “She’s like those ponies who come to town and don’t know about us—”

“—Scared of how we look,” Aspire took up. “Especially our fangs. She, uh—“ he looked down, shuffling his hooves into the floor “—she drew a picture of me. It looked like something out of a scary story.”

Inhaling sharply, Mister Façade stood. “I see.” He flicked his tail, a deep frown marred his muzzle. “And you want to practice hiding your fangs—would I be correct in assuming that you mean to hide them so she’s not so scared of you anymore?” At their nods, wrinkled his snout. “I’m of two minds on that regard. Of course, it’s a very nice thing to do, and I can see where you’re coming from, but it does run the risk of making the practice a necessity.”

“What do you mean?” Her brother tilted his head, his ears stood ramrod straight. “Shouldn’t that help her?”

“It could, but, on the other hoof, it could make her become more accustomed to seeing you without fangs.” Mister Façade glanced toward him and stopped in place. Slowly, a smile made its way across his muzzle, he reached forward to tussle Aspire’s mane. “I’m just playing Sombra’s advocate, my boy. The idea itself is a very nice gesture, and could—in theory—allow you to help her get to know you well enough not to be afraid. I can’t make any guarantees, but—“

Missus Sweet Treat cut him off. “Oh, let them try, Façade!” she scolded, giving him a sharp hip check that nearly sent him sprawling. With a bright smile in place and a wave of sugary sweet glee rolling off her, she faced the siblings and swept them into a hug. “I happen to think it’s a lovely idea! Better to help the poor dear make a few friends first if you ask me.”

Mister Façade managed to right himself, glaring sternly at the bubbly mare. “I’m just pointing out the little details! Those are all important, too!” Huffing, he turned back to Aspire and Esalen. “In any case, you want to go this route? Changing little bits of your appearance while staying in changeling form is a bit different than normal—you’ve got to make sure you stay mindful to hide those fangs and not disrupt yourself.”

The siblings nodded but were beaten to replying.

“Wait a minute,” Nimble cut in, “you’re sure it’s just our fangs?”

Nodding, Esalen pointed to Aspire. “Sure Stroke drew a sketch of him. Everything looked fine except for the fangs—they looked like he had daggers in his mouth!”

The others winced, Allegretto and Nimble ducked their heads and scuffed their hooves. “Are we really that scary?” Allegretto asked, fixing them with a rather piteous pout. “I thought we were being friendly…”

“Now, now, I’m sure it’s not personal, ‘gretto.” Missus Sweet Treat softly patted his head, whilst simultaneously pulling Nimble into a comforting hug. “She’s come all the way from Cloudsdale to a new school and left all she knows behind. Not to mention, she’s probably just come face to face with changelings for the first time.”

Mister Façade smiled ruefully. “We do have a rather striking appearance, I’m afraid. Goes back to our more predatory roots in the time before the Sainted Ones gave us aid.”

Each of them hung their heads, a moment of silence for those lost in the Dark King’s terrible curse. The loss of their allies and ancient saviors…

Esalen shook herself and brushed her tongue against her fangs as if testing their edge. Tiny by comparison to Mister Façade’s or Queen Euphoria’s, but strong and sharp, easily able to pierce through flesh and muscle and latch onto prey while she greedily sucked out all the love within or, simply, took it home to cook.

For the first time in her young life, she shuddered at the very thought of her baser instincts. Those few things all hives shared—embodied by the Locust to an almost extreme degree. No wonder Sure Stroke’s so afraid.

Curing that, though, started with practice. “We also learned to shapeshift in that time—” she pointed out, full of youthful confidence “—to hide how scary we were so ponies wouldn’t run away and we could get love! We still hide, but we don’t prey on them like we used to, not like the Locusts!”

At the mention of their long-hated cousins, Mister Façade bared his fangs, hissing venomously. “Do not speak their name, young nymph!”

The nymphs quickly backpedaled, their ears laid flat against their scalps. Anger, utter distaste for the Locust. Bile burned at the back of Esalen’s throat, her eyes crossed at the double dose of the horrid taste—even kind Sweet Treat’s smile had fallen, a dark look crossed her muzzle.

A deep breath through his snout, Mister Façade closed his eyes and lowered his jowls. When he spoke again, his voice was stiff, tinged with irritation. “Your mention of them aside, I cannot deny that your point is valid—and Sweet Treat’s support is certainly well-founded.” He opened his eyes, pasting a small smile on his face. A silent sign that no hard feelings remained. “If the two of you are serious about this, I’ll do my best to help.”

“Façade?” The teacher jumped, giving a quick flap of his wings to right himself and turned in midair to face a rather concerned Tailwind and Stardust, both standing just behind him with their respective lines.

“You two—could you not sneak up on me like that?”

“Sorry, boss!” they echoed in unison.

Stardust stepped forward, a sheepish grin on his muzzle. “Er, we couldn’t help but overhear you lot talking, and our groups got chattering—“

“—And we thought it might be a good idea to give this a go, as well,” Tailwind finished for him. “If you don’t mind, that is. I mean, it could help with their focus on smaller details, right?”

Sighing, Mister Façade brought a hoof to his forehead. “So much for lesson plans,” he grumbled. After a moment’s thought, he uncovered his face, regarding the class with a stern gaze. “I suppose we could use this as a focus exercise, since you’d have to avoid letting your concentration slip.” Before they could break into a cheer, he held up a hoof. “But there will be no fooling around! I expect you to pay attention and give it your all, understood?”

Aspire and Esalen grinned and replied in unison with their classmates, “Yes, Mister Façade!”

“Very good. Well, sit down and listen up. We’re going to have to go back to basics for a moment.” Once everyone sat down—including his assistants—he began, “Now, we all remember the three basic tenets of shapeshifting, right?”

“Visualize, will, and change!” Aspire ducked his head at the giggles and teases at how quickly he’d replied.

“Full marks, Aspire, well done. The good news is that the three tenets still apply. We aren’t adding any new steps, so to speak, but we are adding a complication to the matter—when we think of our natural form, what do we have?”

“Holes in our legs and wings!” Aspire answered.

Allegretto nodded and added, “Our cocoon slime glands in our mouths, too!”

“Curved horns!” Nimble pointed to hers.

Rolling her eyes, Esalen rattled off the rest. “Wings, wing casings, a carapace made of chitin, long, narrow tongues, and fangs.” At their bemused stares, she shrugged. Better to get it over with.

“Very good, very good. Yes, we have all of that, but we’re going to focus on our fangs, given the nature of the issue.” Mister Façade pointed to his fangs—fully grown, reaching all the way down to his chin. “So, what we’re going to do, is visualize ourselves with flat teeth instead of fangs while in our natural form—like our dear pony friends here.” He waved to Stardust, Sweet Treat, and Tailwind, who each gave big smiles to show off their teeth. “The tricky part is keeping that image in your head, and keeping the rest of you still changeling. If that makes sense.”

Oooh, I wish I had a notebook! With a sigh, she resigned herself to working out the meaning herself. Visualize myself without fangs, but still in my natural form. She screwed up her face in thought—the image of a younger version of herself, still waiting for her nymph fangs to grow in properly and peek out from behind her lip flitted to the forefront of her mind. Without that little hint of sharp fangs, no one would know she even had them.

Could it be that simple? Just thinking of herself without her fangs for a bit?

“…Of course, you’ll need a little bit more love to supply the magic.” Mister Façade’s voice pulled her back to the present. “Perhaps a couple of your classmates might be willing to donate a bit if you explain—you could also see if one of the guard’s Lovegivers might be willing or check if your parents would allow you to proxy feed.”

At the mention of the Lovegiver Corps, Tailwind raised a hoof. “I’m quite certain we could get a few from my group to volunteer. As long as our little nymphs can resist gorging themselves on our love, that is!” He gave a playful wink.

With a roll of his eyes, Stardust nodded. “Agreed. You’ll have our support on this.”

“Well, then, let’s get right to it. Everyone form up into your groups again, and we’ll practice hiding our fangs. Try not to use too much energy too soon, even if we have a couple volunteer donors.” Mister Façade trotted to the front of the room, giving them all a clear view as he readied. “Remember, visualize yourself in natural form, but with flat teeth in place of your fangs. Keep that image in your head, and—“ he paused, opening his mouth to let the students watch as twin bursts of green fire engulfed his fangs.

Esalen watched in muted fascination as the sharp point seemed to file itself down and retreat into line with the rest. Each of his teeth began to fill out a bit more to cover the space between, rounding out and forming little crowns to help grind and chew rather than chomp and tear.

But most striking was how it looked with his face still that of a changeling—off. Just like Queen Euphoria’s the day before.

Like if a pony shaved off their mane and tail, she thought, shuddering at the image of the trio of volunteers the notion brought forth.

Missus Sweet Treat clapped her hooves. “All right, little ones! Let’s put this into practice. No need to go in line this time since we’re just doing fangs, I suppose.”

Esalen closed her eyes and focused on that image. Changeling body and face, no fangs. Changeling body and face, no fangs. She opened her mouth, letting her natural magic, that green fire, change her again. Her mouth tingled, a sensation like something pressing against the end of her fangs and pushing them back into her gums—normal for when she changed entirely, but when in this form…

Off.

The rushing flames ceased. She worked her jaw, trying to get comfortable with the new feeling. Smooth carapace, chitinous wings, curved horn, holed legs, but no fangs—it was like she’d done an incomplete shape shift.

Curiously, she ran her tongue over her teeth, flat and wide at the base. Off. Just plain off. Shaking herself, she banished those thoughts. Off, but for Sure Stroke.

Her eyes opened, flitting to Missus Sweet Treat. “How’d I do?” she asked, giving a big smile to show off her teeth.

Humming, the mare leaned forward to inspect her work. “A good start, but I think you lost a bit of concentration, dear—there’s still a hint of a point at the end. Still, very good for your first try! Ah, ‘gretto, let’s see how you did…” she trailed off as she walked to the next nymph in line.

A flick of her tail, a heavy sigh. Blast her wandering mind! It was going to be a long lesson.

But the payoff… Esalen grinned, the memory of that tiny smile Sure Stroke had given them and the thought of it being seen again filled her with warmth. The payoff will make it all worth it!

She poked her tongue out between her lips, concentrating hard on her practice.

The taste of pure lemon juice on the end of her tongue hit hard. Esalen clenched her eyes shut, fighting back the urge to gag a moment while she tried to figure out where it was coming from. She blinked a few times before beginning her search. All of her classmates seemed fine as they went through their practice, though a bit frustrated that they couldn’t quite discard their own image to do it.

All except for one.

Standing straight ahead, Zephyr stared back at her through silver eyes, a small frown marred his muzzle. With a shake of his head, he turned away just in time to avoid getting caught by Stardust, pasting a smile on as he began practicing.

Zephyr always tasted like lemons when he was upset about something.

6. Sometimes, A Changeling Just Won't Change

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While smaller shifts came a bit easier to Aspire than to his sister, the extra energy and focus it took to keep the mental picture straight while he went through the change took its toll on the young nymph. It was quite fortunate that his mother went the extra mile to imbibe their breakfast with a bit of love from her store—giving her meals that extra bit of taste, just like Grandma Cloudfluff’s recipes.

“The secret ingredient is love, my dears!” she used to say, her wrinkled old muzzle creased by a warm smile. “You’ll understand when you cook for your own lovers and families, sharing love with one another is an experience you’ll never forget. Isn’t that right, sweetie?”

Grandpa Beguile would nod dutifully. “The first time was the most wonderful day of my life, save for marrying you and when little Faith was born. Giving love, feeding one another is something to treasure forever.”

Something they got to savor every time they sat down to eat a meal, but their pony friends couldn’t taste. At least, they couldn’t taste it completely. There was that extra little bit of sweetness in every Respite dish.

“I could really go for some love,” he said weakly. His saddlebags seemed like weights upon his back, dragging him down with every plodding step he took toward the entrance to the schoolyard. “Or a stop at Sweet Treat’s. Or Creamy, Frosty, and Chocolate’s.”

“You aren’t kidding! What I wouldn’t give for a sip right now!” Esalen groaned from his side, echoed by Nimble.

Hungry, their magic spent from an afternoon of repetitive practice of those little shifts, and with thoughts of sweet, succulent love and happiness, and sweets from their favorite shops dancing in their heads, it was all they could do not to drool.

Almost on cue, Toola Roola came dashing by, with Vector hot on her hooves. “Can’t catch me!” she sang, nimbly springing into a cartwheel and letting him zip by, a mere hair's breadth from snatching her.

Aspire watched in muted amusement as the pegasus flared his wings out to the side to stop himself. “Grr, you little!” He turned, a mock scowl on his muzzle. “I’m gonna get you for giggling at me!”

“I’m always giggling—ah, no you don’t!” Toola did a quick somersault to avoid his lunge. With a bright grin, she added, “You looked extra silly, flopping over on your face after Mister Breezy was done teaching!”

“It’s not my fault! Stupid wing ups are always really tiring!” Vector snorted and jabbed a hoof at her. “I saw you struggling to connect with a patch of snapdragons!”

Rather than reply, Toola just stuck her tongue out cheekily, laughing at the way he grumbled and readied to pounce again.

Snorting, Aspire nudged Zephyr and Nimble Hooves. “Aren’t you gonna stop them?”

“All you,” Zephyr replied with a half-hearted wave of his hoof.

Nimble simply gave a tired smile and shook her head, sucking in her lips to hide her own giggle fit at the sight.

Jerks. Rolling his eyes Aspire stepped between the pair. “Ponies, ponies, you’re both pretty and your love is very yummy, now can you tone it down just a little?”

Vector turned, a retort on his lips and irritation rolling off him, but he stopped short at the sight of the nymphs. “Whoa!” He flew over to stand before Zephyr, a small frown marred his muzzle. “No offense, you guys look a little rough. What’d Mister Façade make you do, transform into Queen Euphoria and levitate one of Sweet Treat’s wedding cakes through town?”

“That would have been a lot nicer!” Esalen said, a silly, far off look crossing her muzzle. “We could’ve eaten it afterward!” She stopped and shook her head, though she couldn’t hide the way her tongue darted out to lick her fangs. “No, sadly, no cake. Mister Façade had us practicing how to do smaller shifts. They’re a lot harder than they sound.”

“And Mister Tailwind and Stardust were a bit tired from letting us feed already,” Zephyr added. “Missus Sweetie had to offer to let Allegretto have a little at the end so he could go to his music practice, but she was pretty tired too. We’re beat!”

The pair winced in sympathy. “Gosh! It sure looks like it!” Toola said as she trotted forward. “I’d offer you a sip of love, but—“ she gave a glance toward her changeling classmates “—I don’t know if Vector and I could feed the four of you at once.”

“Nuzzles would be much appreciated,” Nimble offered. “Or hugs. Anything would help.” She fixed the pair with a wide-eyed stare and gave her best pouty face. “We poor nymphs would be ever-so-grateful if you’d be so kind!”

On cue, Aspire joined his fellow nymphs in mirroring her expression, even throwing in a little whimper for effect.

A trick their pony friends could never quite resist.

Exasperation. Vector flicked his tail and frowned. “All right, all right! Sheesh! All you guys had to do was ask!” He landed, then sat back on his haunches with his forehooves held out. “Step on up, everyone gets a little snack.”

Toola bobbed her head in agreement, taking a seat beside him. “Yep, yep! Come one, come all! Just don’t be greedy, or we’ll be weak as kittens!”

Happily, the nymphs formed two lines before the pair—Esalen and Nimble stood before Toola Roola, while Aspire and Zephyr stood in front of Vector. Each stepped forward and leaned down to accept a hug, nosing against their donor’s cheek and giving thanks for their snack.

Aspire waited in the line in front of Vector, humming patiently as Zephyr gave his partner-in-crime something more akin to an affectionate headlock than a hug. Naturally, Vector grumbled in mock anger and playfully pushed against him.

Always roughhousing, he thought, a sly smile playing on his lips as an idea came to him. A bit of payback for the “bookbug” comment.

A sudden giggle fit made his ear flick to the left. Aspire glanced out of the corner of his eye, his sly smile grew to a broad grin.

Esalen and Nimble had Toola Roola wrapped up in a tight hug, each using a hoof to hold her in place, the other to poke and prod her belly, sending the bubbly, ticklish filly into peals of laughter as they nosed her cheeks.

Whoooooooooooo’s a giggly filly?” Esalen cooed.

“Whooooooooooo’s a bouncy little thing?” Nimble added.

“Me! Me!” Toola managed to cry through her laughter. She curled up, trying in vain to escape their hooves, only to open up her sides for further torment. “St-ah-ha-ha-ha-ooop!

Aspire flicked his tongue, humming at the sweet taste of love. The three of them are so silly, he thought. But, then again, so am I.

He stole a quick glance to Vector, who finally managed to untangle himself from Zephyr’s headlock and get righted. His mane more a puffball than his windswept look.

Their eyes met, the cherry taste of Vector’s amusement lingered in the air.

“Oh, great! The bookbug wants to feed on me!” Vector moaned and stuck out his tongue as if tasting something sour. “I’m gonna need a scrub brush to help me wash off all the nerd germs!”

Oh, that little—he’s gonna get it! Aspire forced a smile, trotting toward Vector as casually as he could manage. He stopped just out of reach, raising a brow as if he were inspecting the colt before giving a sniff. “Hmm, I dunno, you smell like a wet dog!”

Narrowing his eyes, Vector put his hooves on his hips. “Do you want a snack or not, smart-aleck?”

There it is! Quick as a flash, Aspire darted forward and latched onto the irritated colt, hugging him tight and pinning his hooves to his sides. “Bookbug, am I?” he growled, pressing his nose against Vector’s. “I’ll fix you up just right!” Locking one hoof around Vector’s shoulders, Aspire reached up and mercilessly messed up his mane.

“Ack! You little jerk! Quit that!” Vector struggled against his grip, flailing his hooves helplessly as he laughed. “You’re not supposed to bully donor ponies!”

Though his donor struggled in his grasp, Aspire felt the pleasant tingle as he began to passively feed.

Vector stopped his struggles, a broad, silly smile creased his muzzle as the link connected. He let out a little gasp, as if a feather tickled his side, then relaxed into Aspire’s embrace.

Aspire maneuvered Vector so he could rest on his shoulder, and rested his chin atop Vector’s head. Humming appreciatively and soothingly rubbing his mane, he breathed in deep. The sweet taste of love shared between friends, happiness, amusement, all mixing together in a tasty little treat matched by none other. And Vector always tasted like cheesecake with chocolate syrup on top.

Not too much, he reminded himself. The moment his muscles stopped crying for nourishment, and his eyelids didn’t feel so heavy, Aspire cut the link. With a sigh, he nosed against Vector’s cheek. Good friend. Even if he’s a pain in the rear every now and again.

Of course, that didn’t stop him from giving one last ruffle to make Vector’s mane stand up like he’d been hit with a lightning bolt. “You should know better than to tease!” he replied late. With his snack finished, Aspire nodded and wrapped Vector in a hug again.

When his friend-slash-tormentor grumbled, he nipped lightly at Vector’s ear. “Hey, I could always spit slime in your mane. Or stick your hooves to the floor while the fillies put makeup on you…”

He flicked out his tongue to savor the taste of panic mixing with amusement and hope from the fillies. Not exactly filling, but a decent flavor.

“N-No way!” Vector stammered.

Aspire licked his lips and waggled his eyebrows at his captive. “Thought not.” He released his grip and stood, nuzzling into Vector’s messy mane. “Thank you for the snack, Vector,” he said, dropping his teasing tone. “Your love was very yummy, as always.”

“Yeah, yeah, shut it, bookbug!” Vector shot back, his cocky smirk back in place. “Next time, I’ll just take one of your stupid books and fly away while you sit here moaning and begging for a taste!” The spicy and sweet taste of amusement and good humor, coupled with the mischievous gleam in his tired eyes contrasted the words. He made to stand slowly, a bit too slowly for Aspire’s liking.

And Zephyr’s, too. “You okay, Vec?” he asked, eying his friend’s legs. “You’re shaking a little.”

Vector shook his head. “I’m fine guys, just a little tired from flying—oops!” He stumbled, caught by the nymphs before he could faceplant into the ground.

Narrowing his eyes, Aspire flicked his tongue out as if to lick at his friend’s cheek. A frown creased his muzzle. “You let us take too much after doing a flight work out with Mister Breezy!” The colt quailed in his grip, the smile on his muzzle decidedly sheepish. “Chitin, are you trying to get drained dry? All three of us will get in trouble if Zephyr and I drink too much from you!”

“Just wanted to help,” Vector mumbled. His eyes darted off to the side. “You guys looked like you’d been feeding on sadness.”

Zephyr nipped his ear and fixed him with a stern glare. “That doesn’t mean you need to let us guzzle your love, dummy!”

The pegasus looked toward the fillies, wincing when he was met with another pair of glares and a sympathetic look from Toola Roola.

He’d broken one of the rules shared by pony and changeling alike: don’t overfeed, and don’t let yourself be fed on too much.

Sighing, Vector hung his head. “You’re not gonna tell, are you?”

The nymphs shared a look, wrinkling their muzzles. “We won’t,” Esalen began, raising a hoof to stop him from giving a rather weak cheer, “but only if you let us get you something to eat first. You’re gonna need the sugar.”

“I’m not a foal, Esalen, I can manage being a little tired!”

“Not a chance!” Aspire nosed his way under Vector’s wing, ignoring the colt’s protests. “C’mon. We’re getting you something—Creamy and Frosty always put a little extra love into their snacks, and you know you can’t resist one of their sundaes if we put it in front of you.”

Before Vector could protest, Zephyr managed to slide himself under his other wing. “No arguments out of you, Zippy. Snacks are on us today. Besides—“ he leveled Aspire and Esalen with a rather terse stare, his irritation palpable “—these two still have to explain why in the name of love we just did a small shift lesson because of Sure Stroke.”

“We told you guys in class, though!” Esalen reminded him as she and Nimble helped Toola Roola stand.

“Yeah, and I wanna hear just why we should hide what we look like! It’s like Mister Façade says, if we make it look like we don’t have fangs, she’ll start to expect us to hide them for her all the time!” He snorted and swept his hoof as if to push something away. “Sorry, but no! I want her to feel welcome, but I’m not gonna hide what I am for her in my home—our village, mind you—when every other pony who comes in warms up to us eventually!”

Aspire snarled, a waspish retort at the tip of his tongue, but something caught his eye over Zephyr’s shoulder. Blinking, he snuck a peek, his breath hitched in his throat as he was greeted by the sight of Sure Stroke trotting up to hug her mother.

He held a hoof to his lips to forestall any further commentary and nodded toward the newcomers, just in time for them to watch Skydancer lean down to nuzzle the top of Sure Stroke’s mane and offer her a lift home.

Seeing Sure Stroke smile and nod, happier than she’d been all throughout class, Aspire felt a smile of his own growing across his muzzle as Skydancer took wing and flew homeward with her charge safely on her back.

The foul taste of Zephyr’s irritation died down, a hint of sheepishness took its place. “Close call,” he muttered, kicking at the ground.

“You really ought to be careful with your mouth!” Toola scolded, fixing him with a stern glare. “We said we’d give her time to adjust, and you’re back to complaining about her again!”

“Just let it go for now!” Nimble cut in. “Let’s go get something to eat, then we can talk about the stuff with Sure Stroke. No more arguing, no more snapping, or nothing’s gonna get done about it. Deal?”

Aspire chewed on his lip, looking to Esalen for her input.

She simply shrugged and nodded. If they wanted an explanation, they’d have one.

“All right,” Aspire said, “to the parlor, then. And you—” he glared at Vector once again “—are eating whatever we put in front of you, and you’ll eat all of it.”


Respite’s ice cream parlor was right next door to Sweet Treat’s bakery and sweet shop. Chocolate Almond and her lovers, the brothers Creamy and Frosty, often joked with their neighbor that she couldn’t possibly hold out against such “fierce competition” from three changelings working together when she was but one earth pony working by her lonesome.

Of course, she’d just laugh behind a hoof and gesture to a pair of young changelings who’d opted to help her out as part of their trade training and say, “I have all the help I need, dearies! Young hooves like these work much faster than our old hooves!”

Truly, it was never a dull moment around the quartet.

Aspire and Zephyr deposited Vector into a booth along the back wall of the parlor, giving him strict orders to stay where he was and not do anything silly—like trying to impress a couple of the older fillies sitting just a couple tables away. With his grudging agreement, they trotted up to the counter to stand with the fillies, eying up the various flavors of ice cream.

He needs something a bit sweeter, Aspire thought as he stole a glance to the menu board mounted on the wall, eying the list of prices. As always, an exchange rate for love and bit coins was featured prominently for the benefit of visitors or new residents—one scoop cost either two bits or a quick hug, two scoops cost three or a warm snuggle, and so on.

With Vector’s needs in mind, two or three scoops of the brothers’ special love-infused chocolate was the way to go. And perhaps one for himself, too.

“Oh, dear, here comes trouble!” Creamy called, making his way toward the gathered nymphs and foals. “Look here, Frosty! Mister Abacus released the ravenous hordes upon our poor little shop again!”

Turning from where he was helping a young couple, Frosty grinned. “I think we need to have a word with Queen Euphoria—these horrible little things will just eat us out of house and home if this keeps up!”

Naturally, the young ones stuck their tongues out and jeered at the pair. A typical routine they all so loved to go through.

Zephyr put his hooves up on the counter, careful not to smudge the display case window. “How much to give a few poor, innocent nymphs who just suffered one of Mister Façade’s classes a few scoops?” he asked, fixing the pair with a wide-eyed stare and pout.

Laughing, Creamy reached over and lightly bopped him on the head. “Same price as always, you cheeky little thing! You know better than to try scamming us! I oughta tell Almond what you tried to pull!”

“Ack! No!” Aspire snickered as Zephyr leaped away from the counter. “She’ll make me cook with her again, and not let me lick the bowl!”

“That’s the price you pay, little nymph. Now, what’ll it be?” He swept a hoof over the counter. “We’ve got chocolate, strawberry, banana, and vanilla today. And we’ve got everything for sundaes or floats since the traders came back with stuff from the cities.”

Aspire pointed to the chocolate ice cream. “Two scoops of chocolate for Vector over there. Zephyr and I are buying for him.”

Raising an eyebrow, Creamy glanced to the colt sitting at the back wall and gave a wave. “Not gonna come over and say hi today?” he teased. “I’m hurt, Vector!”

“Er, sorry, Mister Creamy,” Vector called back, with a weak wave of his own. “Just a little tired out from flying class with Mister Breezy. He made us practice a lot of sharp banking today.”

The brothers and the other young couple winced in sympathy. “Ouch! Well, get some rest tonight. You’ll need it,” Frosty said before turning to Aspire and Zephyr. “So, that’ll be two bits or a hug for his—Creamy gets the hug if you go that route since he’s making it. What about the rest of you?”

As the others rattled off their orders and Creamy scooped their orders into wooden bowls, Aspire fished through his saddlebag to find a couple bits. “I’ve got his,” he muttered to Zephyr out of the corner of his mouth. “I think I took more than you.”

Shrugging, Zephyr replied, “If you want. I’m good for a few bits—just got my allowance the other day.”

“So did I, but I didn’t check to see how much you took before feeding.” Seeing Zephyr give another shrug and nod, Aspire passed two gold bits over to Creamy. “We’re all kinda low on love today. Mister Façade had us really working hard.”

“Not a problem!” Creamy picked up the bits in his magic and floated them over to Frosty so they could be put in the register drawer. “Growing nymphs need all the love they can get, after all! Okay, so a scoop of banana for Nimble, two strawberry for Toola, one chocolate for Esalen and Zephyr each,” he said, floating the bowls and wooden spoons to the young ones, and receiving their thanks in turn. “How about you, Aspire?”

Before he could reply, a mare’s voice called from the kitchen, “What? Not a single one of you asked for the chocolate-coated almonds! Or even my strawberries!” Chocolate Almond stuck her head around the doorjamb, fixing the group with a glare of indignation. “You’re not gonna tell me you like those goofballs’—“ she jabbed a hoof toward her husbands, who both grinned cheekily “—ice cream better than my treats, are you?”

Hiding a grin behind a hoof, Aspire shook his head. “Of course not, Missus Chocolate! I just hadn’t seen any of your fares out on display yet!”

Just as he planned, her ire turned toward her husbands. “Oh, really, now? Are you two cheating again?”

“Wh-What?” Creamy yelped, torn between glaring daggers at Aspire for the betrayal and innocently smiling at his fuming wife. “N-No, that was just one time, Sugarlump! It was just a joke! Right, Frosty?”

Frosty nodded frantically. “Yeah! It was all a part of a little thing! We-We’d never do something like—Ow! Ow! Ow!

The pair of brothers yelped, dancing on their hooves as Chocolate caught their ears in her magic and twisted. Her glare bored into them, Aspire had to take a big step to the side to escape the taste of her fury.

Maybe passing the buck was a mistake, he thought, sticking out his tongue and gagging. “Er, I’d like a bag of chocolate-coated almonds or strawberries, Missus Chocolate. Three bits, right?”

Almost instantly, Chocolate’s glare fell, a bright smile crossed her muzzle. “I just made up a batch of strawberries, Aspire-dear!” she crooned, the horrid taste of her anger gone in a flash. She ducked back into the kitchen, letting the green aura encircling her husbands’ ears flicker out.

Aspire’s ear flicked at the sounds of twinkling magic and bowls clinking against one another, a little snicker escaped his lips as a muffled curse sounded from the kitchen. She must’ve misplaced her bags. Again. The sudden taste of irritation and mischievous intent made him turn back toward the brothers, a sense of dread overcame him at the sight of their wicked smirks and eyes glowing in a green light. Oh, sweet chitin.

“Throwing us under the cart, eh, little nymph?” Creamy hissed, flashing his fangs.

“You’d better hope Chocolate doesn’t hold that against us, or you’ll be on our list.” Frosty leaned over the counter to loom over the young ones. “Next time Mister Abacus gives you one of those infiltration assignments, just you wait.”

Aspire took another step back and found himself joined by his classmates. His flank bumped against something smooth, but firm. Chitin? He looked over his shoulder, promptly leveling a flat stare at a sheepishly grinning Esalen. Her bright pink eyes seemed to say, “Sorry, but you’re our shield today!”

He made sure to reply with a look of his own, pulsing magic through his eyes so they glowed as he bared his fangs.

The straining smile and way Esalen pinned her ears back at least gave him some measure of satisfaction.

Turning to face the brothers again, he readied a reply but bit it back as Chocolate Almond came trotting out of the kitchen with a small bag held aloft in her magic. A bag which, Aspire was thrilled to note, was almost bursting at the seams.

Sometimes, it paid to play innocent nymph with an appreciation for her sweets.

“Since my husbands—“ she shot the pair a dirty look “—feel the need to cheat on our daily competition yet again, I’ll just have to offer you a few extra, Aspire-dear. And we’ll stick with bit coins today since you mentioned Mister Façade putting you poor nymphs through the wringer today.”

With a big grin, Aspire floated three more bits over to Floaty and took hold of the bag in his magic. “Thanks, Missus Chocolate! This is exactly what I need!”

Beaming, she reached down and nuzzled the top of his head. “Anytime!” She then turned back to her husbands, her sweet smile morphed into a venomous snarl. “As for you two…

Aspire did his best not to snicker while she laid into her husbands, instead nudging Esalen toward the table with his shoulder.

“You know they’re gonna get you back for that,” Esalen warned, though her grin ruined the effect she was going for.

Shrugging, he slid into the booth, sitting across from Vector as Zephyr dropped off the extra bowl of chocolate ice cream. “I’ll just have to avoid imitating ponies who come here often whenever Mister Façade gives us an assignment. Not that big a deal.”

“Everyone comes here often, bookbug,” Vector snarked. “This place and Sweet Treat’s are the only sweet shops in town.”

“Oh, hush up and eat your ice cream.” Aspire levitated Vector’s spoon off the table and gave him a light thwap on the end of his snout before Vector snatched it out of the air.

“Ruddy jerk,” Vector grumbled, stabbing into his ice cream and spooning it into his mouth.

Beaming, Aspire opened his bag of chocolate strawberries and popped one into his. He paused a moment to hum in appreciation of the rich, smooth taste of chocolate mixing with the sweetness of strawberry. Perfect like always.

But his treat wasn’t the main reason for their visit, although he did watch with a bit of a smile as Vector and Toola Roola ate their ice cream, the sweet snack, and love infused within working wonders to return a bit of the pep in them. He could still feel Zephyr and Nimble Hooves’ stares on him, their curiosity almost palpable enough to overpower the taste of his delicious strawberries.

Almost.

“So,” Aspire began about as casually as he could, “about Sure Stroke and small shifts.”

Zephyr’s spoon halted midway to his mouth. “Yes, about that.” He lowered it, his mouth curving into a small frown. “I don’t think this whole ‘hide who and what we are’ gig is very good, you know. We already have to hide when we go outside the village, thanks to all those stories.”

“Not to mention—” Nimble stole a quick glance around to make sure no one was listening in “—the Locust.”

On cue, each of the nymphs snarled and bared their fangs. Esalen made laid a hoof on Toola’s, as if ready to protect her from the mere mention of their hive’s age-old rival.

“Let’s not go there,” Esalen said. “The problem to focus on is her unfamiliarity, not old scores.”

“Hang on, can I get something straightened out here?” Vector raised a hoof. “You two—“ he pointed to Aspire and Esalen “—planned to shapeshift your fangs out of sight for her? I’m missing a lot of stuff here, but I’m guessing you’ve figured out what she’s so finicky over and that’s it?”

Aspire nodded. “In a word, yes. She drew a… picture yesterday.” He grimaced the image of himself with fangs longer than spades still fresh in his mind.

“Not a nice one, huh?” Toola asked. “What was it of? A big, scary changeling?”

“Me,” he replied, “with fangs longer than Queen Euphoria’s when she’s ready to fight a timberwolf.”

The group gave a collective shudder. Though it was rarely directed at her subjects, Queen Euphoria’s temper was nothing to be laughed at. It had taken Cool Breeze’s soothing words and gentle rubbing at her back to stop her from hanging the remnants of the foolhardy timberwolves around the perimeter of the village as a warning to any who came looking for trouble.

Especially any who dared threaten a hatchling or foal in her village.

Thank love for that! Aspire toyed with one of the strawberries in the bag. “Yeah, my thoughts exactly. Anyway, she’s afraid of our fangs. Given Mister Drizzly and Missus Skydancer mentioned our, er, portrayal in old mythology, I think the reason for that is clear.”

Zephyr brought a hoof to his forehead, awkwardly buzzing his wings. “I didn’t think of it like that. Chitin, that’s not good at all.” He sighed and slowly dragged his hoof down his muzzle. “So kinda like other visitors who wander in off of hearsay and don’t get the full explanation as to what we are and how we do things.”

“Right, but she’s here for good,” Esalen said, before amending her statement. “Unless her parents find other jobs elsewhere, or she leaves when she’s ready to go out on her own.”

“Kind of a given there, Essy,” Toola teased around a mouthful of ice cream, giggling at the rosy hue Esalen’s cheeks took on.

Aspire snickered and popped a strawberry into his mouth. “In any case, yeah, that’s where she is. Not sure why meeting Hawkeye didn’t help a little with that, but that’s not our problem to focus on.”

“Still—“ Vector raised a hoof “—Zephyr had a point. Respite is supposed to be the place where no one has to hide who or what they are for fear of being treated badly. And you guys shouldn’t have to shapeshift for one filly as long as she lives here.”

“I’m not shapeshifting or hiding diddly,” Zephyr added, crossing his hooves over his chest. “I feel for her, really, I do. But I’m not gonna stop being a changeling just because she’s read a few scary bedtime stories and drew a picture.”

Aspire and Esalen shared a look, giving rather awkward grimaces as their friends voiced agreement. All things considered, there were quite a number of flaws with the plan. First and foremost, was the point Zephyr, Nimble, Toola, and Vector raised—truth be told, they hadn’t quite foreseen it being so difficult to keep proper form with smaller changes. It was far easier to keep their teeth completely flat when they were imitating a pony than it was in natural form, mostly because their minds told them they should have fangs. In the short term, it would work, but they couldn’t rely on it for anything too regular.

The second problem was one Mister Façade mentioned. Changing all the time ran the risk of Sure Stroke needing changelings to hide their appearance for her. Not to mention getting the whole village involved wouldn’t be easy, especially if some of the adults felt the same way Zephyr did.

Perhaps, with a little alteration, it could work.

“Doesn’t really help that we kept shifting back,” Aspire muttered. Popping another strawberry into his mouth, he chewed while he mulled over the problem. “That used a lot of energy.”

Nimble pointed toward him with her spoon. “Not to mention how it might look to Sure Stroke if we go from flat teeth to fwoosh big changeling fangs out of nowhere!”

“Jump scare,” Vector and Toola said in unison, earning nods from the nymphs.

Esalen groaned and let her head thump against the table. Without raising herself up, she grumbled into the wood. Something rather obscene and self-depreciating if the way Nimble and Toola giggled and patted her head was any indication.

“I’m an idiot,” she grumbled, turning her head so she could speak out of the side of her muzzle. “I didn’t account for any of this.”

“There, there. It’s not that bad.” Nimble gave Esalen’s mane an affectionate tussle. “It’s just a little over… overthingy.”

“Oversight,” Aspire corrected.

“What bookbug said.” Vector grinned and quickly ducked the strawberry stem sent his way. “Now, now, there’s no need for that!”

Zephyr nodded solemnly. “So very violent, Aspire.”

Rolling his eyes, Aspire tossed a discarded stem at each of them. Always with the shots, even when trying to figure out something like this. “If we could get back to the point, that’d be just brilliant.” With a stern glare at the pair and another for the snickering fillies, he continued. “So, we can’t hold the shifts as easily because we think of ourselves with fangs in natural form, and that’d scare the mane off her if we kept changing back and forth. Any idea on how to get around that?”

Nimble hummed and drummed her hooves on the table. “Well, it’s maintaining the transformation to pony teeth that causes the most problem with me. You guys too, right?” At their nods, she added, “So, maybe that’s the problem—we’re having trouble keeping our concentration on the image, and it’ll take a while to get it.”

“But Sure Stroke is afraid now,” Vector countered. “Much as I hate to agree with bookbug, he and Essy have a point.”

“Yeah, but we can’t just prance in place and suddenly have what we need. That’s not how shape-shifting works, Vec,” Zephyr said, nudging his shoulder. “We’ve been over this before.”

“It takes a lot of practice,” Esalen added. “Not like we just came out of our eggs able to imitate things perfectly and maintain form for long periods. Little things, like faces, or pony coats, but we can’t hold them for too long without working on how to hold the picture and feel in our head.”

“So don’t!” Toola shrugged. “You’re all thinking about this like it has to be some really, really big change that you have to make when there’s a much easier way for you all to do it. Aspire even touched on it a bit ago.” Humming to herself, the bubbly filly spooned another bite of ice cream into her mouth, oblivious to the stares aimed at her.

Glancing around the table and receiving perplexed looks in reply, Aspire sighed. “What did I touch on, Toola?”

She blinked and tilted her head. “With your fangs, silly! You mentioned that Queen Euphoria’s fangs got really big when she fought those nasty timberwolves—and you already know how to make your fangs bigger and smaller, right?” At their nods, she threw her hooves out wide, nearly hitting Esalen in the snout. “So just make them small enough so they don’t poke out from behind your lips! That way, you still have your fangs and the picture of your natural form stays true! Easy-peasy!”

Each of the nymphs glanced at one another, their smiles faltered as they held a sort of silent debate with one another:

Who would tell her it wasn’t quite so simple?

As Aspire readied to refute the point, he caught himself. No, not entirely right, but not all wrong either. With a little bit of tweaking, it could work. “It’s still not quite that simple—our fangs have always poked out from behind our lips since the day we all grew them.”

“Right.” Nimble nodded. “So, if we want to go the route you’re bringing up, the best we could do would be to try and shrink our fangs down until they’re the same size as hatchlings’ fangs.”

Twin waves of inspiration rolled off Esalen and Zephyr. “Oh!” they cried in unison.

“That’s it! We could shrink them down to hatchling size for starters,” Zephyr began.

“And we slowly shrink them less and less,” Esalen picked up. “Like how Mister Breezy eases injured pegasi back into flying—we’d just be helping to get her used to seeing us as we are!”

Toola bobbed her head and swallowed a big bite of ice cream. “Yeah, that’s what I mean! She’s not used to seeing your fangs because she didn’t grow up around changelings!”

“Immersion therapy,” Aspire whispered. Before anyone could move, he swept Toola Roola into a tight hug, nuzzling into her mane. “Toola, you’re a genius! A bubbly, bouncy, flippy genius!” The scent and taste of her joy, mixed with a fluffy bit of flattery, reached him. He didn’t even have to flick his tongue to taste it properly, instead favoring to grin at the pinkish hue that tinged her muzzle. Releasing her, Aspire grinned at his classmates. “So, how about that? Not hiding, but easing her into living with changelings?”

Nimble beamed and nodded, her teal braided mane bouncing. “I’m in! If it works, it’ll be a lot more fun, not to mention better than tasting her fear every day!”

Zephyr simply nodded and took up his spoon, shoveling his ice cream into his mouth while Vector pumped a hoof in the air.

At last, they had consensus. All they had to do was get the rest of the class in on it and put it to practice.

Sharing a grin with Esalen, Aspire picked another strawberry out of the bag and tossed it into his open mouth, chewing happily. A few alterations, but a more solid plan came about.

Hopefully, practical application would work as designed.

7. Putting Our New Faces On

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His wings buzzed with anticipation. Aspire tapped his hoof against his desktop, anxiously looking over to the door for what must’ve been the fifth time in as many minutes.

“Would you calm down?” Esalen hissed out of the side of her mouth. “By love, you’re like a little hatchling waiting for mama to come in with sweets!”

Fixing her with a glare, he leaned over and nipped her ear with a tiny fang—hatchling size now, thanks to their practice with small shifts. “Hush up! I’m just a little worried, that’s all!” he said, nodding toward the clock. “She’s only got a couple minutes before she’s late, and everyone here—” he waved a hoof at their fellow nymphs, each of whom was sporting smaller fangs than normal “—was nice enough to go along with Toola’s idea to change their fangs a little for her.”

She sighed and turned to face him. “Yeah, I know. And it’s really good they did.” Her eyes flitted to Prim ’n Proper, who was sitting in the front row by the door, with her snout raised and turned away from them. Esalen heaved another sigh. “Even if Miss Prim ’n Prissy got her tail in a knot over things, as usual.”

Aspire snorted at that. “Yeah, she’s always got something she wants to complain about. Whatever.” He shrugged, giving a playful grin. “Maybe you should go over and give her a hug, or a little kiss on the cheek.” As soon as the words left his mouth, Aspire had to duck a swipe. “Have I touched a nerve, sister dear?”

“Watch yourself,” she warned, her eyes narrowed and flashed with a green glow. Slowly, a smirk began to cross her muzzle. “I could always tell everyone that you’ve taken an extra interest in Sure Stroke feeling comfortable. You might be a little love drunk, brother dear!” This time it was her turn to duck a swipe of his hoof, laughing and sticking out her tongue. “Temper, temper!” she teased. “Wouldn’t want Sure Stroke to see you acting like that, would we?”

The light, sugary taste of amusement rolled off her, Aspire bared his tiny fangs indignantly. “Kind of hard to get love drunk on a pony who’s always radiating fear, don’t you think?” he spat. “And funny how touchy you got when I teased you about it in front of mom, but it’s okay for you to make stuff up for me!”

Esalen’s smile fell, her ears laid flat against her scalp. “You’re right,” she admitted softly. “I’m sorry. We both put a lot of thought into this, and I’m kinda antsy too.” Her eyes fell to her desk as she fiddled with her hooves. “I’m just hoping we won’t have to taste fear and loneliness from her anymore…”

Sugary amusement soured with remorse, Aspire cringed at the taste. Tentatively, he reached out and touched her shoulder. “Hey,” he said, offering a small smile, “cheer up, Essy. The idea started with you and me, remember? Everyone helps out, Sure Stroke gets comfortable and makes some friends, no more tasting fear, and we get some tasty love out of it!”

“I know, and I’m glad everyone’s okay with this. Well, most everyone,” she amended, shooting another look at the back of Prim’s head. With another sigh, Esalen looked back to Aspire. “I don’t know. I’m being silly and worried, and you know I deal with that by teasing you.”

A new taste reached him, biting and sharp. He fought the urge to gag and turn away in favor of forcing his smile to remain.

Support for his sister was far more important than an aversion to her emotions’ taste.

Aspire slid out of his seat and moved around to stand beside Esalen’s desk. He leaned in, nosing into her cheek. “It’s okay, Essy,” he mumbled, pressing his lips against her smooth, chitinous cheek. Drawing back a little, he smiled and turned to whisper into her ear. “Just means that you’re not allowed to smack me next time I make puns.”

She gave a weak laugh and shake of her head. “I hate your stupid puns,” she muttered with a fond smile.

“Aw, I don’t think so!” Seizing his chance, he looped his hooves around her shoulders and hugged her tight. “I think you find them great pun!”

There was a moment’s hesitation, the murky taste of confusion as she thought about it. And then a spark of realization, a little spice on his tongue as his words clicked for her.

Aspire grinned and withheld a bout of snickers as Esalen groaned and let her shoulders slump. “Oh, shut up, dummy!” she grumbled.

“Or what? Are you gonna punish me?” he asked, waggling his eyebrows.

“One more, Aspire. One more.” She raised her hoof and gave it a threatening shake. “I’ll smack you so hard your carapace cracks!”

“Okay, okay, I’m done.” Aspire released his hold on her and reared back, holding his hooves up in surrender. He wiped the grin off his muzzle, setting his jaw in a stern frown much like their father’s whenever they caused mischief at parties. “No more puns. Serious time.”

Turning away, and pointedly ignoring the return of the murky taste of confusion and a hint of suspicion, he buzzed his wings and hopped into his seat. Running a hoof through his mane, he glanced at her out of the corner of his eye and offered a smirk. “Let’s just hope our antics haven’t distracted the rest of the class from waiting to see if Sure Stroke is punctual this morning!”

A wave of irritation washed over him. The entire class groaned, even Mister Abacus brought a hoof to his forehead and grumbled, “Aspire, please just quit while you’re ahead.”

But none held a candle to the volcanic fury of his sister.

Her shoulders shook, her lips peeled back to reveal her fangs, green flames licked at their ends as they lengthened to their full extent. “You!” she hissed venomously.

“Yeeees?” Aspire drawled, propping his head on a hoof and leaning his elbow against the desk.

“You thick-headed, soft-chitined, little—” she trailed off, her ear flicking to the left at the sound of muffled hoofsteps.

The doorknob turned, the latch clicked as the door was pushed inward. Aspire peered over Esalen’s shoulder and smiled, his own ears perked up at the sight of Sure Stroke’s familiar face.

There you are, he thought. Aspire gave a mental sigh, relieved that she’d shown up today. Curiously, he poked his tongue out as if to wet his lips, tasting the air.

Anticipation, hope, a bit of apprehension, and the slightest hint of unease—his classmates. They were on board with the idea, but still unsure it would work. That much was to be expected, after all, this was a new issue for them to work through.

But it mixed with something else. The all-too-familiar bitterness of Sure Stroke’s anxiety, and the rotting taste of fear.

That needed to be done away with as soon as possible, or they’d have nymphs gagging and trying to hold down their lunches each time they flicked their tongues at her.

Esalen slapped her hooves over her mouth to hide her fangs. There was a flash of green from within her hooves—visible through the holes in her legs. When she pulled them away, her fangs had shrunk again, down to the size of a little hatchling’s. “How do I look?” she asked, her voice tinged with worry.

“You look fine,” he mumbled out of the corner of his mouth. With a smile on his muzzle, Aspire waved to the newcomer. “Hey, Sure Stroke!” he called, echoed by his fellow classmates.

Sure Stroke started, blinking at the warm smiles and happy faces. Slowly, she lifted a hoof to offer a shy wave of her own. “H-Hello, everypony—er—everyone,” she corrected herself, her cheeks tinged pink.

Almost on cue, Toola Roola had one of her little giggle fits. “You’ll get used to it!” she said between bouts. She waved her bright magenta hooves in a circle around her head. “A lot of visitors take a while to wrap their heads around it!”

“No foolin’!” Nimble added, tossing her long purple mane before fixing Mister Abacus with a sly grin. “How long did it take you, Mister Abacus?”

“Two months,” he deadpanned, fixing her with a glare. “Thank you so very much for reminding me, Miss Nimble. I can’t imagine what I’d do without such a cheeky, little nymph in my class.” Mister Abacus paused, sparing a glance to the rest of the nymphs as they beamed expectantly at him. “Well, one of many in my class.”

The nymphs, along with their pony classmates, hooted and exchanged hoof bumps with one another, much to their teacher’s chagrin.

Aspire, however, limited himself to a chuckle as he carefully watched Sure Stroke. The little smile on her muzzle was heartwarming, the ruffling of her feathers, and the way she brought a hoof up to hide her laughter almost made him die.

It was far too cute. The way her blue eyes—so close to matching his shade of blue, but just a touch darker—seemed to sparkle and come to life. Amusement, joy, and familiarity with her classmates’ antics. Common ground, at last, gave a glimmer of hope!

Aspire focused his senses on her, reaching out to taste her emotions. He barely even had to part his lips before the sugary taste of happiness and the zest of humor danced on his tongue.

It was enough to make him want to bound out of his seat to stand next to her so he could savor the happiness coming from her.

But like a good nymph, Aspire restrained himself to a silent cheer. Yes! He pumped a hoof in triumph, sending praise to Nimble and Toola for playing their part in the plan without being told to—just being their normal, silly selves.

His lips slowly began to curve into a wide, toothy grin as he watched Sure Stroke trot toward her desk. Whereas she’d shied away from the nymphs’ grins and greeting before, she seemed a bit more at ease, stopping at each desk to say hello, but her gaze flickered from the ends of their muzzles to their eyes. Confusion plainly written upon her face, but slowly giving way to acceptance, and then content as she happily returned their greeting. Though, with a bit of lingering shyness, her head still ducked so she had to look up at her classmates.

Far better than the day before, and shyness was more welcome than outright fear and anxiety—it didn’t taste nearly as foul.

I can live with this, he decided.

By the time Sure Stroke made it over to their side of the classroom, her smile, though shy, was bright and cheerful. She looked at Aspire and Esalen, her eyes flitting to the ends of their muzzles just like they had with the rest of the nymphs.

Trepidation, a bit of hesitance, followed by smooth, calm acceptance. She lifted her head for the first time since walking in the door, meeting them both at eye level. Her shy smile grew bright, sugary-sweet happiness rolled off her in waves.

Another greeting caught in his throat. He could taste every bit of her happiness and feel his energy peaking with hers. Beside him, Esalen sat up a bit straighter, her eyes brightening.

“Good morning, Sure Stroke,” Esalen said, a bit of extra pep in her voice. “How’ve your first couple days in Respite been?”

“Um, well,” she stammered, glancing to Aspire, then the floor, then back to Esalen again. “It’s been okay. Just a little bit, um, different here. I’ve never lived in a place with…” she trailed off, looking at them again. “Um…”

“Changelings,” Esalen finished for her. “It’s fine. You won’t find many outside their hive. Or, if you did, they’re hiding, so you wouldn’t know it anyway.”

“I-I suppose that’s true.” Sure Stroke shifted in place, her ears laid flat against her pretty purple mane. “I sort of miss the clouds, too…”

Aspire offered a sympathetic smile and nod. “We’ve had a couple visitors from Cloudsdale who thought about staying, but couldn’t get over it. And a few who decided to stick around anyway.”

“Like Grandma Cloudfluff,” Esalen added with a nod. “She and Grandpa Beguile used to talk about her first visit to the village—she moved here from Cloudsdale right when he visited with his hive from the western mountains.” She giggled. “Grandpa Beguile said he fell so hard for her charms that he had to come back again and again, until she finally asked why he didn’t just stay if he loved the village so much—her feathers would get so ruffled whenever he got to the part where he told her it wasn’t the village he’d fallen for!”

Sure Stroke blinked, looking between the two with confusion written on her muzzle again. She made to speak but was cut off as Mister Clanger began ringing the bell out in the hall. Time for lessons to start.

“All right, everyone, that’s enough playing around,” Mister Abacus said, ceasing his banter with Nimble Hooves and Toola Roola. “Take out your math homework and let's go over our problems from last night. Sure Stroke, please take your seat. You can talk to your friends at lunchtime.”

Ducking her head sheepishly, Sure Stroke muttered an apology and scampered over to her desk. Though cowed by their teacher and a bit confused at something they’d said, her smile remained in place.

As he reached into his bag and pulled out his notebook, Aspire savored her calmness—how warm and smooth it was, mixed with the sweet, pep-filled happiness coming from her. Like a nice cup of coffee, with the perfect amount of cream and sugar.

Delicious, he thought with a smile splitting his muzzle. Tempted though he was, Aspire respectfully kept from feeding on her. She’s new and nervous being around us, using her as a snack without her permission would just make things worse. Not to mention make me no better than the Locust. His smile fell, he wrinkled his snout at the mention of their name.

No matter how much it was like dangling a nice, juicy fish in front of a hungry bear, he’d be a good Caretaker and respect her feelings. When and if she felt comfortable offering some love, Esalen and he could happily—and responsibly—feed.

Until then, it was best to keep things casual. New friends don’t feed changelings, he reminded himself the words older changelings drilled into the nymphs as soon as they could understand something other than their hunger for love. Ask politely, accept their answer, and always return favors with kindness.

Aspire turned to face forward just in time to see Mister Abacus levitate a bit of chalk and begin writing the answers on the blackboard. He settled in for a long session, going down the line and checking his numbers.

A long session, but the preceding job well done was more than enough to spur him on. Lunchtime would certainly be fun.


Lunchtime didn’t come soon enough.

Somehow, Aspire was certain that some wicked sorcerer, changeling or unicorn, had cast a spell to make time go slower while Mister Abacus’ lecture moved at its regular pace. In fact, their teacher was the prime suspect of such trickery—he always said he didn’t get enough taught in his lessons and wished there was more time in the day. Even sneaking glances to the sun yielded no better results.

Clearly, Equestria’s famed Princess Celestia, Mover of the Sun and Ruler of the Day, was in on his wicked plot. She was the consummate teacher if Hawkeye’s tales from his visits to the pony capital were anything to go by.

Something about her taking on a young prodigy a few years back. Hawkeye hadn’t exactly been thorough with it, but Aspire was sure her name had to do with sparkling. Or was it glimmering? Shimmering?

No matter.

Aspire hopped out of his seat and pushed his shoulder against his desk, while Esalen did the same with hers. They turned their respective desks around until they formed a table, just as the rest of the class was doing. As he retrieved his lunch bag from within his saddlebag, he turned to Sure Stroke and found her glancing around the room fervently, as if waiting for permission.

He seized the opportunity and offered a smile. “You can sit with us if you want,” he said, tapping a hoof against the right side of his desk.

Sure Stroke’s soft, violet ears perked right up, her tail gave a merry swish. “Really?” she asked, her voice tinged with shyness and just a hint of happiness.

Happy to be invited.

Beaming, Esalen nodded. “Yeah! Come right up! Plenty of room between us!” She reached into her lunch bag and pulled out a thermos, a sandwich wrapped in a napkin, and a little pouch from Chocolate Almond. Unwrapping the napkin, she sniffed. “Ooh! Smoked salmon sandwiches!” Her eyes lit up, her long, slender tongue darted out to lick her lips. “Smells like Long Line and the fishing crew had a good catch!”

“Oh?” Aspire unwrapped his and gave a sniff. Nice and smooth, and not too fishy. Taking the sandwich in hoof, he parted the bread to peek at the succulent fish meat held within. “Thin sliced, like always. I can’t for the life of me figure out how she does it without magic.”

“I know, right?” Esalen bobbed her head, clutching a hoof to her chest as she made a vow, “One day, though, I shall discover her secrets—even if they’re from the deepest, most secret books on the mystical art of filleting the village has to offer!”

Chortling, Aspire shook his head and bit into his sandwich. He chewed slowly to savor the soft texture, the hint of smokey flavor served a wonderful contrast to the mayonnaise spread upon the bread. Maybe there was something to Esalen’s silliness. The adult changelings always managed to skin, fillet, and slice fish as deftly and swiftly as the unicorns in Respite could with their magic, or so it seemed.

Perhaps he could discover their sorcery at the welcoming party for Sure Stroke’s family. Gotta remember not to ask dad if we’re making that a surprise or not, he thought. And if we’re doing it at lakeside so Long Line can just toss fish, or if we’re doing a cookout in the village square again.

“Um, Aspire?” Sure Stroke’s soft voice brought him out of his thoughts.

He turned to face her with a smile on his lips. “Yeah, Sure Stroke?” he asked around a mouthful of sandwich.

Shifting in her seat, she glanced down at what looked to be a dandelion sandwich, then looked toward him. “Never mind, not important.”

“If you’ve got a question, go ahead and ask. We’d both be happy to answer.” He put his sandwich down atop his bag to give her his full attention, an act Esalen mimicked across from him. “What’s on your mind?”

Another one of her nervous shifts. She seemed to fidget in place, her long, purple tail flicked anxiously. “I was just curious how it tastes. The fish, I mean.” She chewed on her bottom lip and brought her sandwich up as if to hide behind it. “The griffins who visited Cloudsdale used to bring fish to eat or sell, but I was always too afraid to try it myself…”

Aspire’s ears perked up. A nice, easy question to start things off. “It’s actually not that strong a fish,” he explained. “In terms of taste, I mean. There’s some, like tuna, that taste a bit fishier, but salmon is pretty mild.”

“It’s a good fish to try and see if you like seafood,” Esalen added. She tore off a small portion of her sandwich and held it out to Sure Stroke. “Want a taste?”

Sure Stroke eyed the offered piece, chewing on her lip as she thought it over. Her curiosity mixed with apprehension, telling of her worry. Both palpable, assaulting Aspire’s taste buds like a crash of thunder through the night.

She shook her head. “No thanks,” she mumbled. “I’ll just stick with my dandelions and daisies for now.”

Esalen didn’t miss a beat. “That’s fine.” She popped the piece of sandwich into her mouth. “If you like, you can always try it at the party.”

“What party?” Sure Stroke cocked her head to the side.

Crack my chitin. Aspire brought a hoof to his forehead. “The welcome to the village party our dad always sets up for new residents,” he replied, aiming a glare at Esalen. “It’s supposed to be set up when you guys get all settled in, and it might have been meant as a surprise!”

Shrugging, Esalen waved him off. “Whatever. Dad can grump at me later if that was the plan.” She broke off to take a sip from her thermos, humming happily. “Oh, mom gave us apple juice!”

“Did she?” Aspire took out his thermos and unscrewed the cap, taking a curious sniff. Sure enough, the scent of apples reached his nose. Annoyance at Esalen’s loose lips vanished in an instant. He took the thermos in both hooves and tilted it back, happily guzzling the sweet nectar. “Ah! That’s good!” He sighed happily, wiping the back of his hoof across his muzzle. “Anyway, just pretend to be surprised if we find out it was supposed to be one, Sure Stroke.”

“I’ll try,” Sure Stroke said with a sheepish smile. “I’m not really the best actor, though.”

“Oh, in that case, just blame Essy. Everyone else will celebrate and eat cake, and laugh while we watch dad chase her around.”

“Gee, thanks, loving brother of mine!” Esalen reached over and bopped him on the head. “You’d sell me out for a slice of cake and a bag of Chocolate Almond’s sweets if you could!”

Aspire held a hoof to his chest. “Essy! I’m hurt that you think I value you so little—I’d sell you out for two of each if I could get away with it! And a scoop of Creamy and Frosty’s mint chocolate ice cream.”

They shared a laugh, their banter as light and fun as ever. Even Sure Stroke couldn’t hold back a fit of giggles at their antics, though she tried her best to hide them behind her sandwich.

Something Esalen caught and honed on like a hawk swooping down upon its prey. “Oh, you think that’s funny, huh?” she teased, playfully narrowing her eyes and leaning forward. “I ought to set Nimble Hooves on you so we can find all your tickle spots!”

A tiny squeak slipped from Sure Stroke’s lips, her laughter ceased. She clamped her wings over her sides protectively and tucked her knees in. “N-No! It’s not funny at all!”

“Uh huh. I’m watching you, filly.” Esalen sat back in her seat and took a bite of her sandwich, her pink eyes locked with Sure Stroke’s blues. Then, quick as a cat, she reached forward and pressed her hoof against Sure Stroke’s nose. “Boop.”

Wrinkling her nose, Sure Stroke blinked. “Huh?”

“Boop,” she repeated. “Revenge is mine. Suffer, little pony, and know my wrath.”

Aspire rolled his eyes. “Ignore her. Essy thinks she’s funny, but everyone knows I got the wit in the family.”

“Wit, but not looks or common sense!” Esalen sang back, tossing her pink, braided mane and fluttering her eyelashes at Sure Stroke. “Wouldn’t you agree?”

Sure Stroke shook her head, still giggling at the pair. She bit into her sandwich and made a show of chewing very deliberately. Her own little way of staying out of the game. But when Aspire and Esalen just waited, each smiling patiently and waggling their smooth, chitinous ears at her, hers strained.

She ducked her head shyly, fidgeting in her seat. “I, er, I’m not the best judge of looks for, um, changelings,” she said. Her eyes darted back and forth between the pair, her wings unfurled and began to come around as if to cover her muzzle. “But, well, I suppose you both look nice—your mane and eyes are a lovely shade of blue, Aspire.”

Aspire beamed. “Why thank you, Sure Stroke!” He ran a hoof through his shaggy, blue mane and fixed Esalen with a smirk. “Nice to know that some of us can appreciate good color!”

Scoffing, Esalen opened her mouth to retort, but Sure Stroke quickly jumped in. “I like her colors, too!” she said, almost squeaking in her haste to diffuse the oncoming battle of quips. “Her mane is a nice soft pink and her eyes are just a shade or two lighter, like something I’d use to paint carnations or the pinkish tinge on certain kinds of roses. And the blue in your mane and eyes is one I’d use to paint the sky on a clear day, or some sort of ocean scenery.”

Aspire’s wings gave a happy little buzz, the corners of his mouth tugged upward into a bright smile. Interested in more than sketching, then, he noted, his eyes flitting to her cutie mark—the crossed pencil and paintbrush emblazoned on her flank—as they had the day before. Upon second glance, he noticed that the blue paint on the tip of the brush matched her eyes. Pretty. Very pretty.

Almost like she were a color palette, from sky blue to deep purple. Fitting for an artist, if he thought about it.

“Nice of you to say,” Esalen said, her playful smile growing into a more sincere, toothy grin as she gave a little buzz of her own wings. “And very poetic.” She gave a chuckle at the little blush that tinged Sure Stroke’s cheeks and glanced to Aspire again. Her eyes gleamed, she leaned in and stage-whispered, “So, really, between fillies, I’m the cute one, right? He’s the scruffy-maned, dull-chitined little gnat.”

“Hey!” he cried in protest.

Esalen simply placed a hoof upon his lips. “Hush, Aspire. The fillies are talking about you—it’s rude to interrupt.” She fixed her gaze on Sure Stroke, smiling as though she weren’t effectively muzzling Aspire. “Well?”

Sparing a glance to Aspire, Sure Stroke brought her wings up to her cheeks. “I think you both look nice, and your chitin isn’t dull at all. It’s… oddly shiny. Like you polished it.”

Another happy buzz from both changelings. Aspire buffed a hoof against his chest, and tried to speak casually, “Yeah, well, just because we live in a tiny village in the middle of a forest doesn’t mean we can’t take the time to look good.” Who was supposed to be making who feel comfortable? He gave her a once over, and said, “Looks like we’re not the only ones who clean up well. Your coat is nice and smooth, and your feathers look like they’re freshly preened.”

Soft violet feathers ruffled up. Sure Stroke gave a happy little hum as she bit into her sandwich.

Point for the home team. Good job. Aspire happily dug into the rest of his as well, the taste of smoked salmon and happiness mixed together, almost like a special treat for the job well done.

Once he finished, he took the little pouch of Chocolate Almond’s sweets and emptied the contents onto his desk. Upon noticing what it was, he laughed. “Chocolate almonds from Chocolate Almond. Gotta love it when we get her specialty.”

Her special treat, and one of Respite’s “must try” dishes. The perfect chance to offer her something that wasn’t too different.

Aspire took a couple chocolate almonds in hoof and slid them over to Sure Stroke’s desk. “Here, try these,” he said. “They’re really good. Chocolate Almond has the best recipe for chocolate-covered anything in all of Equestria—bar none.”

Eying the treats with curiosity written across her face, Sure Stroke plucked one of the chocolate almonds off her desk and popped it into her mouth, chewing tentatively. Almost as soon as she began, her eyes lit up, a hum of approval escaped the back of her throat. “It’s really good!” she squealed. Once she swallowed the tiny treat, she beamed and took the other in hoof. “You weren’t kidding!”

“If there’s one thing we never lie about around here,” Esalen began, holding a hoof in the air as though swearing an oath, “it’s our sweets. When we say something tastes good, we mean it. Especially sweet things. Here, you’re gonna want a couple more.” She passed a couple almonds from her pouch as well, then winked. “But the next ones you’ll have to go get from Chocolate’s shop yourself!”

Sure Stroke nodded, occupying herself with the task of devouring her free treats while trying to eat slow enough to savor the smooth, rich taste of chocolate.

While she attacked her treats with all the ferocity of a hungry timberwolf, Aspire contended himself to slowly nibble on his own and sip from his thermos of apple juice, and subtly poked his tongue out to taste her emotions. Happiness, raw and vibrant—even sweeter and richer than the chocolate almonds the trio shared—reached his lips. A taste he savored, letting out a little sigh.

Just as tasty as his chocolate almonds, and just as tempting.

Aspire popped another into his mouth to nip that right in the bud, and gave himself another stern reminder of patience and kindness before asking to feed.

Once she’d finished the almonds and reached the last few bites of her sandwich, Sure Stroke paused to take a sip from her own thermos and wiped a few droplets from her muzzle. Then, she looked up, curiosity flashing in her eyes once again. “Er, if you two don’t mind,” she began, poking her hooves together shyly, “I had a question about something you mentioned before Mister Abacus started class.”

“Oh?” the siblings replied in stereo and sat up straighter in their seats.

“What’s on your mind?” Esalen asked.

Sure Stroke gave another awkward little fidget, her feathers twitched. “You, um, mentioned your grandparents—how both of them were from outside Respite but came to live here. I was curious if your Grandmother ever said how she adjusted to leaving Cloudsdale.”

Humming, Aspire brought a hoof to his chin. “On our mom’s side, they both came from elsewhere. Grandma Cloudfluff talked about it a few times. Always said she’d never stop missing the clouds, but she loved her job here and made a lot of friends.”

“Grandma Cloudfluff used to help wrangle wild thunderheads like your dad does now,” Esalen added. “Queen Euphoria and Mister Breezy would always talk about what a great cloud pusher she was when she was younger. And Grandpa Beguile said he saw how she smiled and laughed with the other pegasi while she was fighting a big storm.”

“Yeah! That was the day he said he knew she was the one!” He nodded. “She didn’t catch on for a while, too. Grandpa used to laugh himself silly telling us the stories.”

“Used to—oh!” Sure Stroke gasped and brought her hooves to cover her mouth. “I’m so sorry for your loss! I didn’t make the connection!”

Aspire shrugged and waved her off. “It’s okay, Sure Stroke. Grandpa passed away three years ago and Grandma wasn’t far behind, it wasn’t too recent.”

“We miss them both,” Esalen said, her ears drooping a little bit and her smile turning a bit sad. “But mom says remembering the happy times is the best way to cherish them. And Grandpa would be mad if we sat around moping about him all day and night. Especially if it meant making a friend feel sad for his sake when we should be enjoying her company.”

Dropping her hooves to the table, Sure Stroke offered a smile in kind and nodded. She picked up the remains of her sandwich and finished it off, then reached into her bag to pull out three homemade chocolate chip cookies wrapped in a napkin.

“Mom made these last night,” she said softly. “Since you shared yours, I’d like each of you to have one.”

Aspire and Esalen accepted their cookies with muttered thanks and bright smiles. The trio happily munched on their treats and spent the rest of lunchtime naming the changelings and ponies Sure Stroke had to meet, talking up Creamy and Frosty’s frozen treats, and Sweet Treat's delicious confections.

Though she didn’t go running to play with the rest of the class when they went outside, Aspire watched her trot over to her tree with her art supplies—there was a bounce in her step and a bright smile on her face as she sat in the shade, watching them play tag while she doodled to her heart’s content.

Not quite the end result he or Esalen would’ve liked, but progress all the same.

At least she wasn’t flinching away from their fangs anymore.

8. Once an Outsider, Now a Friend

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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.

Maybe…

“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.

9. Come Out and Play

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Sometimes being patient just wasn’t fun.

As the days went by, Sure Stroke began to open up to Aspire and Esalen more and more. Each day, she’d join them for lunch and talk about things. They’d tell her a little bit about the village, she’d talk about her old home in Cloudsdale. Or they’d pester her to share her sketches and doodles she’d drawn during free time the day before, and she’d ask them to talk about some of the things they did for fun.

After a couple weeks, they were able to get her to come over and talk to their other friends. She hit it off with Vector rather quickly, finding kinship in her fellow pegasus, and found Toola’s antics to be fun.

It took a couple days for her to warm up to Nimble and Zephyr, the latter mostly because he came off a bit gruff at times when he got annoyed. But once she sat with them long enough, talking was a bit easier.

Of course, she still stayed close by Aspire and Esalen for comfort. They were the first nymphs she met and the first friends she’d made in the village. It was only natural she try to stay close, even closer than she held Vector.

Still, every time they went outside, she slipped away to do her art in her favorite spot—Sure Stroke’s Art Tree, as all their friends had come to call it.

Esalen stashed her lunch bag within the confines of her saddlebag, just in time for Mister Abacus to send the class outside for the remaining hour of their free period.

Haberdasher’s story was still fresh in her mind. It gave her a bit of perspective on some things she didn’t quite understand when she was younger; to her, he was just some skittish stallion who her parents and Mister Breezy invited to dinner one night, then watched her mother feed a little. It was all just part of showing a newcomer they weren’t the nasty changelings of old, or those who still held onto the ways of those days before the Sainted Ones of the Crystal Empire offered their aid.

A younger Esalen never imagined she’d have to apply something similar to help a classmate. That was an adult thing, little nymphs and foals just ran and laughed and played when they weren’t “trapped” in Mister Abacus’ classroom. New foals usually showed up during the summer and had time to adapt.

Then again, most parents didn’t move to Respite in the middle of the school year. Mister Drizzly and Missus Skydancer were outliers, as Aspire would say.

Mister Haberdasher suggested a little push to get her comfortable. But how do we do that? We’ve had her sit with us for lunch for the passed few days, we’ve invited her to hang out and do homework with us at Sweet Treat’s or the ice cream parlor, but she’s still shifty. A tiny frown marred her muzzle. Esalen glanced out of the corner of her eye, flicking her tail as she watched Sure Stroke slip her saddlebags onto her back and make her way out the door and toward the field with the rest of the class.

No doubt, she’d sit herself down in the shade of her tree and doodle for the next hour, while everyone else played. Just as she had every day over the past several weeks.

Things had gotten better at lunch, though. She’d laugh and joke with them, she’d even stopped looking at the end of their snouts and tasting like she’d been dipped in way too much of some sort of vegetable oil—confusion in small doses, like right before a prank, was a nice little garnish for the ensuing amusement, but it was absolutely terrible in large doses.

Esalen gave another flick of her tail. How to pull Sure Stroke away from that for a while? Sit down and talk with her while watching her doodle away? Or, they could be a bit more manipulative: since Missus Skydancer always picked her up, Aspire and Esalen could try to use that to their advantage.

All it would take was some careful word choice, bright smiles, and a thinly-veiled hint that Sure Stroke had been using “family time” as an excuse to decline their invitations for the past several days.

At least we’d get a straight answer out of Missus Skydancer. Esalen sighed and made to follow her classmates outside. But something tells me that wouldn’t go over too well with Sure Stroke later on.

A rough shove to her shoulder jolted her out of her thoughts. She turned to fix her brother with a harsh glare. “If you’re trying to get me back for the other night, I’d be more than happy to remind you which of us is the better wrestler!”

“Uh, no, and that title goes to me,” Aspire brought a hoof to his chest. “You only win when you can call Nimble or Toola over to help!”

“Not my problem if you can’t get tag team partners!”

“Only because Vector and Zephyr think it’s funnier to laugh when the three of you pin me!” He snorted and bared his fangs. “I’d remind you how the last time you couldn’t call your little helpers went, but I was trying to get your attention. You’ve been off in la la land since lessons ended—you didn’t even try to correct me when I told Sure Stroke the story about how we helped Queen Euphoria catch Mister Breezy that time he shot spitballs at her.”

Esalen blinked and tilted her head. “Which time? He does that almost every other week.”

“Oh, right. Um,” he trailed off, bringing a chitinous hoof to his chin. “I think that was the time she promised to have Sweet Treat bake us her special death by chocolate cake if we told her where Mister Breezy was hiding.”

“I remember that one!” Her ears perked up. “He was hiding behind Missus Sweet Treat’s counter during a rush—she kept glaring at Breezy for causing trouble, but Queen Euphoria got distracted because she could taste everyone’s amusement!”

“Yeah, and I said you tattled on him.”

She drew in a sharp breath through her nose, eyes narrowing. “That was you who tattled first! I only went along with it because you gave me those stupid eyes of yours!”

Aspire brought a hoof up to stifle a laugh. “Yeah, I was setting you up to flip out. Except you were way off in your own little world, leaving me to explain the darn joke.”

Snorting, she strode passed him and flicked her tail across his nose. “Well, you’ll just have to pay for that later. Whose pick is it for recess today?”

“Mine. I’m thinking hide-and-seek today.” Aspire’s wings buzzed, his excitement palpable and sweet to the taste. “You cool with that?”

Esalen gave a full, toothy grin, showing off her fangs. “I’d say that sounds like fun! Picking teams?”

“Foals versus nymphs, I think. It’ll be fun.”

“Perfect!” Her sugar pink tail swished merrily. “I can’t wait to get Toola back for the last time we played!”

Aspire winced. “Oh, right. We have to deal with her stupid flipping and contortionist stuff.” He stopped, tapping a hoof against the wooden floor. “You could always team up with Nimble. She’s pretty… er, nimble.”

She hummed. “Maybe. That could—wait, no.” She sighed and shook her head. “That leaves us short a nymph to catch Vector. We have to put two on him or he’ll shoot past us every time.”

“That’s right!” he groaned, bringing up a hoof to cover his forehead. “Stupid Zippy pegasus!”

His comment earned a bump of her shoulder. “Watch it, there. Keep it to Vector.” The sheepish smile he gave in return made her shake her head. “So, hide-and-seek again. Sounds like that’ll be fun.”

“Should be,” Aspire said with a nod. As they turned the corner and stepped through the doorway, out into the warm sun and green grass where the rest of their classmates were gathered, the smile washed off his muzzle. His brows knit together in concern. “So, mind telling me what had you so far off in your own little world?”

Esalen stayed silent a moment. Her gaze flitted from the crowd of foals and nymphs to the lone filly sitting in the shade of the maple tree; the tiny smile on Sure Stroke’s muzzle, the look of concentration written plainly on her face as she began drawing whatever it was that had caught her eye today.

Her eyes didn’t stay on her sketchpad, though. She kept glancing up, looking toward their classmates, then returning to her work.

Sketching us again? Esalen raised an eyebrow, an amused smile played upon her lips. “That’ll be interesting to see.”

“Hmm?” Aspire followed her stare, blinking as he looked at Sure Stroke. “Sure Stroke sketching again? Why’s that interesting?”

“She’s sneaking looks at the class.” She waved a hoof between the gathered group and lone filly. “It’ll be interesting to see how it looks, I mean.”

He hummed and pulled a face, but nodded all the same. “Hopefully I won’t have overly large fangs again.” Sighing, he ran a hoof through his mane. “I still wish she’d come play with us. She does her drawing stuff every day.”

Esalen nodded, chewing on her bottom lip. Her eyes flitted from Sure Stroke to the waiting group, then to Aspire again. “Mister Haberdasher mentioned Mister Breezy giving him a little push when he came over for dinner.”

Aspire tapped a hoof against the ground. “Yeah.” He shifted his weight from one side to the other, his tail flicked. He turned, rubbing a hoof against his chin. “Hide-and-seek is something we share if I remember right. Rocky said something about playing it before he moved here.”

Slowly, a smile made her way across her muzzle. Esalen turned herself to face him fully. She kept quiet, simply smiling at him and waiting for him to connect the dots himself.

Blinking, he tilted his head. His tongue flicked out, testing her emotions to help guide him along. Aspire drew back in confusion at the taste of her mirth in combination with the knowing smile she wasn’t even trying to hide.

Again, he looked between Sure Stroke and the group. His ears perked up and tail began to swish, he’d figured it out.

“We’re gonna pull her in?” he asked, a grin made its way across his muzzle.

“Bingo,” she replied. “Time for a little push, I think.”

Aspire’s wings buzzed with excitement. “Alright, let’s get her before Prim comes over and rips us apart for taking too long.”

Esalen snickered, but nodded along with him and began trotting over toward the tree as Aspire turned and called out to the class that they’d be over in a minute.

Their hooves thudded and crunched against the rolling green grass, both doing their best to keep their wings from buzzing too much and keep their smiles small.

Running her tongue over her fangs, Esalen was happy to note that she’d kept up her transformation again; they were still the same size as a newborn hatchling’s, just enough to still be there, but unassuming enough that they wouldn’t frighten Sure Stroke.

Perfect. Everything was set.

As they came closer, Aspire called out, “Hey, Sure Stroke!”

Soft purple ears flicked, Sure Stroke looked up from her drawing and gave a smile. She waved, a pencil still held in her hoof, and called back, “Hi, Aspire! Hi, Esalen!” Confusion written plainly across her face, she tilted her head. “Not that I’m not happy you came over to talk, but what’re you doing over here? Shouldn’t you be playing with them?” She nodded toward the rest of the class.

“We will in a minute,” Esalen replied, grinning in turn. “Just gotta bother you a little first.”

Sure Stroke blinked. “What for?”

Aspire took a step closer, pointing at her. “We wanted to see if you’d like to come over and play. It’s my pick today, and I was gonna have us all play hide-and-seek.”

“Oh. Um,” Sure Stroke broke off, looking down at her sketch pad. “I’d planned on, um, practicing during free time…”

“You practice every time we have a break,” he pointed out. “C’mon, it’ll be fun!”

She fidgeted, her ears pinned back to lay against her head. Stealing a glance to the rest of the class, she shrugged her shoulders and ducked her head. “I don’t really think they like me very much,” she muttered. “Prim ’n Proper always looks at me like I smell rotten.”

Snorting, Esalen stepped close and laid a hoof on her shoulder. “Prim’s always got a bee in her bonnet over something. If it’s not you, it’s us playing a joke, or Toola and Nimble being too giggly during a special event, or Vector messing up her mane on a flyby. Little Miss Prissybritches always has something to complain about.”

“Hey, lay off a little,” Aspire chided, bumping his shoulder against her side. “She just likes to keep things orderly and all. She doesn’t try to be mean.” He turned his attention back to Sure Stroke, offering a smile. “It’s not that they don’t like you, they just don’t know you yet. They do want to try, though!”

Another shift in place, her sky blue eyes flitted to the group again. “I know,” she muttered. “They’re nice—mostly. I just…” Sure Stroke trailed off again, her wings unfurled as if to wrap around her. “I know you guys because we met at the gate, the rest…”

Esalen wrinkled her nose, the bitter taste of anxiety and nervousness made her want to gag. Sure Stroke was going the complete opposite direction they needed her to go.

How to get her back on track?

A little push to get her going.

Forcing a smile, she offered a comforting rub to Sure Stroke’s shoulder. “Everyone would really like to get to know you a little better,” she said. “Our friends, Nimble, Toola, Vector, and Zephyr, are certainly interested.”

Sure Stroke’s ear twitched. “They do seem nice. Toola ... she's the one who's always flipping and cartwheeling, right?”

“Her and Nimble, yeah. Though Nimble does more dancing, and she’s really quick to find any ticklish spots if she gets a chance.” Esalen stopped and shook her head. “That’s unrelated, though. Those four are really nice—well, they’re all nice enough when you get a chance to know them, but those four are the ones we’re closest to.”

“Even if Vector calls me bookbug,” Aspire said with a roll of his eyes. With a fond smile and shake of his head, he offered a hoof. “They’re all really fun, even if Prim can be a bit… persnickety.”

His comment was met with a pair of blank stares. Slowly, matching smiles made their way across the fillies’ muzzles. They turned in unison, Esalen opened her mouth, no doubt with one of her quips fresh on the tip of her tongue, but found herself beaten to the punch.

“You really are a bookbug,” Sure Stroke tittered, holding up her sketchpad to her grin.

Esalen’s cheeks puffed up, she tried her best to withhold her laughter, but a glance to her brother ruined it.

His mouth hung low, his eyes were wide with shock. “You… just…” he trailed off. His short-trimmed blue tail seemed to droop along with his ears.

She toppled over, falling into Sure Stroke’s lap. “You should—pfft!—see the look on—oh my sides!” Esalen rolled over and leaned forward to nose against her friend’s cheek. Subtly, she flicked her tongue, tasting the sweetness of joy and mirth. Much better. “You are going to fit in perfectly.”

As her laughter abated, Sure Stroke gave a shy smile. “You think so?”

“I know so.” Esalen gave another affectionate nuzzle, then rolled herself off of Sure Stroke. “So, wanna come over and play? You can brag about how you left bookbug—” she bumped a hip against his shoulder and nearly sent him staggering as he tried to work his mouth “—stunned silent. You’ll be Vector’s new hero. Zephyr’s too.”

Sure Stroke fell into a fit of giggles again, earning another smile from Esalen. She carefully closed her sketch pad and placed it inside her saddlebag, then stood. “If they don’t mind, I guess I could join…”

Aspire chose that moment to shake himself out of his stupor. “They’ll be fine with it. Everyone in class is welcome to play.” A rather odd look crossed his face, something akin to a mischievous smirk and a dangerous gleam in his eye, but it was gone before Esalen could sneak a taste.

She flicked her tongue out, only to catch a bit of amusement. He was planning something; the not-so-subtle “innocent smile” and attempted masking of his emotions only confirmed her suspicion.

With a mental shrug, she stepped to the side to allow Sure Stroke to trot a few steps forward, then fell in step; with Aspire on Sure Stroke’s left and herself on the right.

Whatever trickery her brother had planned, he was welcome to it. As long as it wasn’t anything that would undermine their goal, she would keep her complaints to herself. Something told her that Sure Stroke might find herself fleeing from a vengeful changeling in the near future.

Esalen hid a grin of her own. Time to see how she deals with a bit of changeling payback!


“What in the name of love took you two so long?” Vector demanded, stomping a hoof into the dirt. “You’re cutting into our time, bookbug!”

Seeing Aspire’s ears pin back and jowls begin to peel back into an angry snarl, Sure Stroke backed away and ducked her head, ready to flee at the first sign of trouble between the colts.

Esalen simply rolled her eyes. Great, they’re already scaring her off. “We were getting Sure Stroke, cloudbrain!”

Vector’s ears perked up. “Really?” he asked, peering around Aspire and Esalen to stare at her. A smile crossed his muzzle, with a flap of his wings, he leaped over them and landed within hoof’s reach. “Hey! You actually came over today!”

She gave a shy rustle of her wings. “Y-Yeah. They, um, said it might be fun.”

“Might be? Ha!” He threw a hoof around her shoulders and pulled her into a friendly hug as if he’d known her longer his entire life. “You’ll have loads of fun—that is, unless bookbug is gonna have us do something boring like a spelling bee or whatever goes through his dorky little head!”

As Sure Stroke hid a laugh behind her hoof, Aspire hissed. “You’ll pay for that!” he said, wings buzzing. “Hide-and-seek, foals versus nymphs!”

Translucent wings buzzed and foals stomped their little hooves in approval. His selection was, as always, a popular one. With the edge of the forest, they had plenty of places to hide and run as long as they let one of the village guards know and establish boundaries for them.

“I’d say we’re all in favor, then,” Prim said, using the overly official tone she was so known for. “And what are the rules, Aspire?”

He grinned, showing off his tiny fangs. “Same as always: no using magic to catch or trip, no flying above the treetops unless you run across a forest creature, no nature connection, and nymphs can’t transform into classmates. Sound fair?”

“No restrictions on transforming entirely?” Toola asked.

Aspire shook his head. “Nah, we need something to help keep up with Zippy-colt over here.” He gave a nod to Vector. “How about this: we can only transform into pegasi so we can chase down pegasi. Anything else, we have to stay in natural form. Is that better?”

Vector, Toola, and Prim, the de facto leaders of their fellow foals, huddled together—though Vector made sure to pull Sure Stroke into the group, earning a little squeak from the new filly—and talked it over in hushed whispers. After a moment, they broke their little circle and nodded.

“That’ll do,” Prim said, then raised a hoof to add, “on one condition!”

He raised an eyebrow. “What’s that?”

“Nymphs can’t taste for emotions.”

“Dang!” Nimble stomped her hoof. “It’d have been so easy to catch Toola if we could taste her!”

Her acrobatic friend stifled a bout of giggles behind a hoof. “Too bad, Hoofsy-Woofsy!” she chirped. “You’re gonna have to find me the old fashioned way!”

“It’s either that or natural form at all times,” Vector added. “Take it or leave it, nymphies.”

Esalen narrowed her eyes, carefully weighing their options. On one hoof, transforming into pegasus form would give them some level of a chance in chasing Vector down. On the other, Toola Roola could hide in some of the most creative places thanks to her talent for acrobatics and contortions; hiding under large rocks, climbing small trees, if it was a place no sane pony would think to look, she’d hide there.

Which meant they had to search everywhere for her. Which, in turn, meant they spent more time looking for her while slower and less agile ponies like Rock Solid used the opportunity to sneak their way back to base, where they’d wait with cheeky grins and taunts for the grumbling nymphs to return with a giggling Toola in tow.

“Hang on a minute. Nymphs, huddle up!” she called, turning to talk with Aspire, Nimble, and Zephyr. “So, what are you thinking?” she whispered.

“Catching either of them is a right pain in the rump, but we have to think of which is more difficult,” Aspire replied, his eyes flitting to the smirking ponies, plus one awkwardly smiling Sure Stroke.

“Vector’s a pain because he’ll just shoot off and zip through the trees,” Zephyr said, “I’m quick, but I can’t catch him if he gets a good lead on me. And once he gets out of the trees, you can forget it. He could fly backward circles around us and still make it to base.”

Nimble hummed, tapping a hoof against the ground. “And catching Toola is like trying to catch a fish with your bare hooves.”

Almost in unison, they sighed and shook their heads. Either way they picked, they lost an advantage. But such was the nature of making the rules to give themselves an edge—they had to accommodate the other team or they’d only have a handicapped victory.

“What’s the lesser of the two evils?” Esalen asked, rubbing a hoof against her forehead. “Vector can take off and be halfway across the field before most of us can move, and Toola can hide and evade us with her gymnastics.”

“I can catch Toola once we get her out in the open,” Nimble said, smiling as she bounced in place. “I’m pretty quick on my hooves too.”

Aspire nodded. “We can deal with Toola if a couple of us take time to sweep for her. Nimble, you’re okay to volunteer if you get sight of her first?” Seeing Nimble bounce in place and nod, he turned to the others. “Anyone else?”

“I’ll look for her,” Esalen said. “I still owe her for last time, the two of you can look for the others and keep a watch for Vector breaking.”

“Sounds like a plan!” Zephyr buzzed his wings. “I’ll try to get Zippy before he takes off.” He glanced over his shoulder, raising a brow at the rest of the ponies. “We can have Allegretto watch for Prim, she’s not the best runner so he should be able to keep up just fine. What do we know about Sure Stroke?”

Esalen leaned over to survey her newest friend, biting her lip in thought. “I’ve never seen her fly very fast. Mostly she stays on the ground until Missus Skydancer takes her home.” Turning back to the group, she shrugged. “Maybe she’s a weak flyer?”

Zephyr scoffed. “You’re gonna tell me you think the new flight teacher’s daughter is a weak flyer? C’mon, Essy. I know we tease Aspire for being a bookbug, but don’t make me start to think he got all the brains in the family!” He ducked a swipe and stuck out his tongue. “Temper, temper! Looks like you two share something after all!”

“Bite my carapace!” she hissed. “I’m just speculating, smart-mouth! But if you’ve got the inside scoop on her, you go right ahead and tell us how we should plan this out! Well? Go on!”

His smile strained, his ears pinned back. “I don’t know enough about her,” he mumbled, looking down and away.

“What was that?”

“I said I don’t know enough about her, she talks to you and Aspire more than she does me or anyone else when we sit with you guys at lunch.”

Esalen snorted, giving a decidedly smug smile. “Exactly. And as far as we know, she hasn’t shown much in the way of flying skills. Now, unless our pony friends are feeling particularly informative—and I very much doubt they are—all we can go off is what we’ve seen.”

“Or not seen, in this case,” Aspire added with a nod. “I don’t know if I can agree entirely with either of you, but both raise good points.”

“How about we just catch her and save discussion for later?” Nimble asked. “It’s hide-and-seek, guys. Look for the little purple pegasus, find her, catch her, and then tease her like we do everyone else.” She shrugged and flicked her tail. “Not a hard plan. And if we can bottle up Toola, all we have to worry about is Vector. I say take the transformation so we at least have a chance of catching him.”

Zephyr nodded in turn. “Agreed. He’s a problem in and out of the trees, Toola’s pretty easy to catch once she tries to move to the playground. We’ve either gotta catch her before she starts dancing around everyone, or corral her once she runs out of trees to use as barriers.”

“Makes enough sense for me, too,” Aspire said. “So, take transformations and sacrifice tasting? You agree, Essy?”

She waited a moment, stealing another glance toward the group of ponies. Sure Stroke was certainly the wildcard in the game, but they already had two “problems” to deal with as it was.

Allowing transformations would help them chase their friends down, tasting was only good if they could find and catch them before they all started to run.

A tiny frown marred her muzzle. Either way, we’ve got to deal with those two somehow. And Vector is the bigger threat if he can get to top speed and make it to the field.

Esalen nodded once, then turned to their waiting friends. “We’ll take pegasus transformations and give up tasting emotions.”

The ponies nodded. “Good choice!” Vector said, giving his wings a flex for show. “I could use a little warm up for Mister Breezy’s class, and outflying you silly nymphs seems like the perfect way to do it!”

Aspire and Zephyr hissed, baring their tiny fangs at him, though they quickly sucked in their lips when they noticed Sure Stroke flinch in response. “Y-Yeah?” Aspire stammered. “Well, we know how you like to fly, so we’ll be able to take you this time! You’re as good as done, Zippy-colt!”

Smooth. Esalen rolled her eyes.

“Oh yeah? Well, I’m not alone this time!” Grinning, Vector looped a hoof around Sure Stroke’s shoulders, then tussled her mane. “Let’s see how well you handle two pegasi, bookbug! I’ll bet a whole chocolate cake you lot can’t catch both of us!”

Each nymph’s ears perked up, their tails swished and wagged like little puppies.

Their reply was said in one, unified voice: “Deal!”

His grin only broadened, nearly splitting his face. “I’m gonna enjoy that little snack. How about you, Sure Stroke?”

Sure Stroke tried to hide a smile, but the corners of her mouth betrayed her. “It sounds like fun,” she said, glancing to Aspire and Esalen and mouthing “I’ll share” to them.

Esalen raised a brow. Oh, will you now? A quick glance to Aspire and a flick of her tongue to taste the surprise and calculating stare told her he was thinking along the same lines.

They were going to have to watch for her as well. Even more so with Vector grinning like he’d just found out Hearth’s Warming Eve, Sharers’ Day, and his birthday all fell on the same day.

“Well, then,” Aspire began, giving a small, but confident smile, “good luck, ponies. Base is the maple tree. How does a count of one hundred sound?”

Prim nodded in assent. “That seems fair. We’ll hide as soon as you’ve started counting—and no peeking!”

Rolling her eyes, Esalen nodded and turned to trot away with her fellow nymphs. “Yes, yes, we know the basic rules, Fussybritches!” She smiled, humming to herself as she pictured the way Prim was no doubt puffing her cheeks, her muzzle reddening with poorly suppressed indignation.

She was almost tempted to taste it, even if she knew how foul it would be.

The nymphs sat in front of the maple tree, each closing their eyes. “One,” they said in unison.

Hearing the foals giggle and take off, hooves thumping and swishing against the grass, Esalen’s ear flicked toward the forest. A smile played upon her lips. The challenge was laid down, her wings buzzed with excitement.

And their newest friend was already starting to open up, even if she was still a bit apprehensive.

Too bad she was going to get caught, no matter what plan she’d hatched with that silly Vector.

Teasing her is gonna be a ton of fun. Esalen held back a laugh. Maybe I’ll make good on that threat and get Nimble to find her tickle spots.

“Two…”


“Ninety-seven… ninety-eight… ninety-nine… one hundred!” Esalen took a deep breath and grinned as she belted out with the rest of her class, “Ready or not, here we come!”

She leaped to her hooves and took off toward the forest. The pounding of her fellow nymphs’ hooves and buzzing of their wings as they took to the air to search the first tree branches hummed in her ears. Hide-and-seek was always one of their favorites; it played on some of their more base instincts, giving them the thrill of the hunt and the chance to tease and chase their pony friends in a less antagonistic manner than that practiced by their ancestors, and still practiced by the Locust.

It gave them the perfect chance to exercise every little trick they could bring to the table, albeit with a few concessions. There was plenty of leeway to be had, even if she couldn’t use her taste to help find her friends.

Bounding into the shade of the forest edge, Esalen slowed herself to a trot and sniffed at the air. If she recalled, Prim and Toola were wearing those scents again, the ones those fancy city-mares so loved to put on.

If I can find Prim quick and get her out of the game, we’ll be on even hooves in terms of numbers. She withheld a snicker as she approached a patch of bushes. Crouching low, she pinned back her ears and readied to leap over the foliage. Not to mention a chance to poke her about being so neat and orderly I can find her without trying.

With a playful chitter, she pounced, jumping over the leafy green tops of the bushes landing nimbly on her hooves on the other side.

There was no pony friend to snag and pull into a forced hug, no chance for her to crow in victory before sending back to base.

Her smile fell. “Well, dang,” she muttered, flicking her tail as she stood up straight. “Little Miss Fussybritches learned after all.”

Well, that would just make the game a bit more interesting.

There was a shriek, then a bout of chittering laughter through the trees. Her ears perked up, trying to pick out who’d been caught or sighted by her fellow nymphs. Hooves thudded, scrapping against leaves as they chased after the unfortunate foal. She could hear Allegretto calling something unintelligible through his own laughter.

Esalen turned, biting her lip in thought. She could go help him and bring the number of ponies to find down one. After all, he’d found one of their classmates rather quickly.

Buzzing her wings, she took to the air, her eyes scanned through the mess of branches and leaves to scan for any sign of polished carapace or soft pony coat flitting through the forest, her ears stood up straight to pinpoint the sound.

A squeak and rustle of leaves made her ears waggle. Prim’s voice floated through the trees. “No! Allegretto, wait! Don’t you dare even think about—eep!” she cried, giving one last squeak of protest before succumbing to a fit of laughter as Allegretto, presumably, pounced upon the overly organized filly and tickled her sides.

“What’s that?” Esalen snickered at the sound of Allegretto’s voice. She flew over, grinning to herself as she sped over to get a good seat.

Upon finding them in a clearing, she grinned at the sight of Allegretto pinning Prim ’n Proper down next to a patch of wild grass and poking and prodding her sides as he cooed playfully. “Speak up, Primsy! I can’t understand you! Don’t you dare think of what? Don’t you dare think of tickling your riiiiiibs?”

Again, Prim shrieked. She squirmed and flailed her hooves, trying in vain to escape the pianist’s teasing hooves. Her ears splayed back, her well-brushed tail swished merrily as she writhed on the ground. “I’ll—heehee!—g-get you for—hahahahaha!—this you jerk!”

Needless to say, he wouldn’t need much help tormenting their favorite target. She caught Allegretto’s eye and shared a grin with him. Giving him a nod, she called, “Finish up tickling her, ‘Gretto! We’ve still got nine ponies to find!”

“Got it, Essy!” he called back, almost singing his reply. “Come on, Primsy! Say ‘bye Essy’!”

“Es—hahaha!—alen!” Prim squealed. “Don’t leave me with him!”

Esalen just laughed. “Have fun with ‘Gretto, Primsy! I’ll see you back at base once we’ve caught all the others!” She flew off, swishing her tail as cries of indignation and vows of retribution mixed in with laughter.

No doubt, Prim would make it her mission to find both Allegretto and Esalen in the next round if only so she could hold them down and tickle their ears with the feathered end of one of her mother’s quills.

If she could catch them.

Her laughter abated, Esalen resumed her search. Flitting from tree to tree, sneaking glances around branches, and peering through the leaves, she searched for any signs of wayward pegasi trying to hide in the boughs. A small part of her hoped to see a hint of soft, violet mane and purple coat so she could have the honor of being the first to catch Sure Stroke.

No such luck.

Esalen frowned. Either Sure Stroke was better at hiding than she’d thought, or a certain Zippy-colt had taken care to give her pointers on where not to hide as a pegasus.

At least it would make the game a bit more interesting.

With a sigh, she hovered down to the ground and folded her wings back into their translucent casings. If she couldn’t rely on sight or taste, she’d have to try smell.

Closing her eyes, Esalen sniffed at the air. Scents of grass and musty odor of a rotting tree greeted her. She wrinkled her nose at the latter and lowered her head to the ground to try to find a trail. Just because there weren’t any ponies in the immediate area wouldn’t stop her from picking up any scent they’d left behind.

She walked slowly, sniffing at patches of disturbed grass and soil for any hint of her pony friends. Just a bit of Vector’s natural musk or Toola’s perfume would be enough. Or even the hint of pencil shavings that seemed to follow Sure Stroke.

The enticing smell of vanilla and lilac reached brought a smile to her lips. Toola always chose such sweet perfumes, the kind that just made her seem like she was just begging to be hugged and nuzzled while Esalen sipped at her love.

Giggles floated from the trees ahead, a rustle of leaves made Esalen’s head snap up. She gave a fanged grin. “Alright, Toola,” she called, crouching low as she readied to bound after the giggling filly. “Let’s play!”

The chase was on.


There was a lesson Sure Stroke would soon learn, and Aspire was all too happy to be her tutor. After all, that was his calling or would be once Trade Day came and he declared his intent to become a teacher. Still, it was his job to ensure Sure Stroke learned all about Respite culture; specifically, that of her changeling neighbors.

Even more specifically, why challenging a changeling had consequences.

He grinned, his nostrils flared as he followed her trail. The telltale scents of biting iron and dry, musty paper guided him to her as though Missus Sweet Treat left one of her pies on the windowsill to cool.

Quirking his brow, Aspire sniggered at his own joke. She sure does taste sweet now that she’s not so afraid. Can’t wait until she lets me take a nice, big sip.

Aspire shook his head. Find the pretty pegasus now, tease her, think about feeding on some love later. If not Sure Stroke, Mister Haberdasher was still in town, and he’d said—privately, out of Miss Bright Sky’s earshot—that they could take a few sips from him at dinner tonight. It’d be like having dessert for dinner; all the nutritional value, with the taste of a hot fudge sundae.

He couldn’t help but lick his fangs. Mister Haberdasher was definitely a hot fudge sundae pony. Sure Stroke, on the other hoof, he suspected was a cake pony; both in her preferred treat and in how her love would taste. Both were hypotheses he would be happy to test.

I’ll have to remember that. Aspire sniffed, wrinkling his nose at a new scent. Sweat? And cirrus? That doesn’t smell like Sure Stroke.

Narrowing his eyes, he drew in a deep breath through his nose. There was the bite of iron and must of paper, but with it was the second scent. He wasn’t just following Sure Stroke.

He was trailing two ponies.

A smile played upon his lips. Zippy-colt and Sure Stroke. My lucky day. Aspire turned to look over his shoulder, peering through the leafy green foliage in search of his cohorts “Zephyr!” he hissed. “Nimble!”

Zephyr’s head popped up from behind a bush, looking decidedly innocent as he munched on a few daisies. “Mmph?”

A few paces to his left, Nimble Hooves hopped down from a low-hanging tree branch, buzzing her wings to ease her fall. “Not up there,” she muttered, shaking a few leaves out of her purple mane. “Gah! I was sure I’d find Toola there! She loves climbing!”

“She does. But I don’t smell her anywhere. The good news is that I think we’re tailing a couple others.” Aspire tapped a hoof against his snout. “Zippy’s getting creative,” he said. “I can smell him and Sure Stroke. They’re somewhere around here, hiding on ground level.”

Snorting, Zephyr shook his head. “Trying to trick us into looking through the trees, eh? Not bad.” He trotted over to stand with his fellow nymphs, pausing to disentangle a branch that had found its way into one of his leg holes. “Gah! Stupid things! So thin and pokey and never stop getting in places they shouldn’t!”

Nimble sniggered. “You could try being a little less heavy-hooved and a bit more—” With practiced ease, she stood, balancing on one hoof, and did triple twirl, stopping with a thump of her hoof against the ground “—nimble!”

The colts rolled their eyes. “Har har,” Zephyr grumped. “You’re such a comedian. So, how about we find our pony friends first? Then you can show off your winning sense of humor.”

“Oh, I don’t know if I wanna tell jokes when we find them.” She gave a fanged grin, her eyes flashed with mischievous intent. “I think I wanna hear Zippy-colt giggle like a little foal, and I bet Sure Stroke’s plenty ticklish beneath her wing joints!”

Aspire covered his mouth to stifle a laugh. “Well, once we find her, we’ll pass her along to you for a little experimenting. For now, we have ponies to find.” He lowered his head to ground, sniffing again. Nimble and Zephyr were at his side almost immediately, joining him in his efforts.

Sure Stroke and Vector definitely came this way; and judging by the scents’ strength along with the telltale signs of hoof prints through the soil, they were together.

Two for the price of one.

His eyes darted left and right, peering through the leaves in search of Sure Stroke’s soft purple coat or that gray and teal-striped mohawk Vector styled his mane into.

No such luck. Vector was being a tricky little pony today, and Sure Stroke was going right along with him.

Yeah, tickling is happening. A wicked grin crossed his muzzle, exposing his shrunken fangs. Tease me after I was all nice and friendly, and then act like you’ve got this in the bag, eh, Sure Stroke? Aspire rubbed his hooves together. Time to teach you a little something about what happens when you challenge changelings…

“Spread out,” he whispered. “Try to keep Zippy boxed in on one side. If you see Sure Stroke first, grab her.”

Nimble and Zephyr nodded, moving away to widen their search.

We have plenty of ways to tease naughty little ponies! He gave a low chuckle. And even more for shy ones!


Her breathing was shallow, Sure Stroke cupped her hooves over her mouth in desperate hopes that she wouldn’t be heard.

Hidden beneath a fallen log, she fought against every instinct telling her to look for higher ground, or the confines of a nice, leafy tree. Stay low, because they’ll expect us pegasi to use the trees, just like Vector said. Keep very quiet because changelings can hear very well, especially when they’re trying to find you.

Easier said than done. Violet coat and purple mane weren’t exactly helpful when it came to hiding in the forest, even more so given that her changeling friends were natural hunters.

Hunters who, in a rather surprising twist, wanted to be friends.

What a one-eighty that had been for her. All those tales of changelings playing trickster, disguising themselves as a pony’s loved one to feed on feelings of love and affection or causing confusion and dismay, delighting in the chance to watch ponies run around flustered from their tricks.

These nymphs were certainly tricky—their promise to have Nimble Hooves tickle her silly was a testament to that, as was Aspire’s remark about Queen Euphoria’s sweet stash her first day in the village—but they seemed… nice. The changelings of Respite seemed almost pony-like in how they smiled at her, waving and welcoming her family to the village they so happily shared with their pony neighbors. Their colorful manes and eyes were certainly different from the strange creatures described in the stories.

And yet, they were so very alien.

Smooth, polished carapace that shone in the sunlight, colored backings, holed hooves, translucent wings, long, snake-like tongues that flicked out every now and again, and those fangs…

Those long, pointed fangs, poking out from behind their top lips, creating a more predatory edge to their smiles…

How she’d nearly jumped out of her coat upon seeing Mister Warm Welcome smile at her parents! And Aspire and Esalen’s, too! Even with their kind words, she found herself taken aback, wanting nothing more than to take wing and fly up to the highest cloud!

Her wings ruffled. Sure Stroke felt a tight pain in her chest. She’d been so rude, so scared that day, even in front of Queen Euphoria. Right up until she saw the fangless smile and received an affectionate nuzzle.

They’re so different. Shapeshifting, hard carapace instead of coats, and fangs! She licked her lips, testing her wide tongue against her flat teeth. I wonder what it’s like to have fangs. Do they ever bite their lips? Or their tongues when they flick them out at ponies? Her brows furrowed, Sure Stroke brought a hoof to her chin. So many questions!

None very easy to answer, either. Not without asking them directly, at least.

Sure Stroke ducked her head low, as though she were trying to bury it in the soil. Her tail flicked. She wasn’t sure she wanted to know how they’d react to being poked and prodded; teasing Aspire had already earned a rather mischievous grin, one that showed off his fangs.

I could’ve sworn his fangs were a little bigger the first day. She furrowed her brows, thinking back to her first day in Respite. Esalen’s too.

She shook her head. I’m being silly. Aspire and Esalen are nymphs. They probably still have foal fangs, or whatever they call babies.

Unbidden, her thoughts turned to a certain drawing in her sketchbook. Her ears drooped at the memory, how she’d sketched such a ghastly looking changeling with long, dripping fangs, just before Aspire and Esalen came over to ask her to play.

A low whine sounded from the back of her throat. “I hope they didn’t see that,” she whispered to herself.

The thud of hooves against the dirt made her flick her ears. Sure Stroke turned, coming muzzle-to-muzzle with Vector. “Eep!” She jumped and banged her head on the log. Clapping her hooves over her ears, she whimpered. “Owie!”

Vector winced, pinning his ears against his scalp and covering her mouth with a hoof. He perked up his ears, listening for any sound of chitinous hooves or buzzing wings. Once he was certain they were alone, he pulled his hoof away, mouthing, “I told you to keep quiet!”

Ducking her head again, Sure Stroke gave a sheepish smile. “Sorry!” she replied, mouthing the word as he had.

He sighed and shook his head. “It’s fine,” he whispered, barely audible even against the quiet rustling of the leaves. “I just did a quick look around, we’re gonna have to make our move soon. Aspire, Nimble, and Zephyr have caught our scent. It’s only a matter of time before they find us at this point.”

Sure Stroke shifted in place, wincing as a few leaves crunched beneath her hoof. “What do we do?” she hissed.

“Well, we can’t stay here too long; if they box us in, we’ve got no chance.” He reached up and tapped his hoof against the log. “This was great for a spot to throw them off, but we’ve got no quick out. All they have to do is slide in and grab our legs. And then—” he paused to give a theatrical shudder “—Nimble has her way with us.”

Sure Stroke blinked. “Everyone seems to talk about getting tickled by her like it’s more tickly than anything else, is she really that bad?”

Vector nodded. “She really lives up to her name. She’s great at poking and prodding until she finds what makes you squirm, then it’s all over. And once she knows which spots to go for, you can bet your feathers she’ll tell everyone else.” He wrinkled his nose, shaking his head quick enough to send his mohawk back and forth. “I am not letting her, Zeph, and bookbug get me. No way, no how!”

A crooked smile crossed Sure Stroke’s muzzle. Maybe they’re more like the tricksters than I thought. Just in a different way. Clearing her throat to draw his attention again, she whispered, “So, how do we get out of here without getting caught, then?”

“Oh, that’s easy.” Vector grinned and poked a hoof into her chest. “You’re gonna stay here. I’ll move that way,” he said, pointing off toward the east, “you’ll wait a couple minutes, then circle back the other way. From what I saw, that’ll put me near Nimble and Zephyr, leaving you with Aspire. Think you can manage with him?”

Aspire’s wicked grin and glinting blue eyes flashed before her mind, almost a challenge, daring her to test her mettle against him.

Though timid, Sure Stroke still held the thundering pride of Hurricane’s heirs in her heart. She set her jaw, nodding once. “If I can get flying, he won’t catch me.”

Vector patted her shoulder and said, “Atta girl! Just you wait, we’ll make those nymphs eat our dust while we laugh all the way to home base! Bragging rights are as good as ours! And so’s that cake!” He sniggered, rubbing his hooves together. “I gotta thank Toola for the idea to let them shape-shift in exchange for taking away tasting emotions!”

Ah, yes. That thing. Curious, Sure Stroke tilted her head. “Why does that help us? They can still find us.”

“Yeah, but if they could taste us, they’d figure out we were both planning something and be on watch. It’s like if they said we could fly, but only with one wing.” He wrinkled his snout as if to think on his words, then shrugged. “Eh, that’s the best I’ve got. Sorry.”

“It’s okay. I think I understand a little.” Furrowing her brows in thought, another question came to mind. “Er, how do they taste emotions, anyway? Is it that, um, tongue flick thing they do?” She flicked hers out a couple times like she’d seen Aspire and Esalen do on occasion, whenever they thought she wasn’t paying attention.

Vector snorted. “Not quite that obvious unless they’re worried you’re a little too down in the dumps or looking a bit weak and low on love, but yeah. If a changeling flicks their tongue out at you, they’re checking to see how you’re feeling. They can taste it.”

Blinking, she opened her mouth to speak, hesitating a moment. “Um, I don’t mean to be rude, but isn’t that a bit, well, odd?”

“Not really,” he said. “I mean, the Caretakers have always done it. Then again, I grew up here, so it’s just like how we’re able to push clouds and control weather, unicorns being able to cast spells, or earth ponies having that connection with nature.” He shrugged. “It’s just how things are. Anyway, that doesn’t matter since they can’t taste us right now. Ready to get a big win for team foal?”

Sure Stroke made to prod further but decided against it. I can always figure out more later. She smiled in return and gave a nod. “Let’s do it!”

The pair of pegasi bumped hooves, then Vector slipped out from underneath their log, slinking off toward the east.

Settling herself in, Sure Stroke began counting down in her head. Her mind began to wander toward her new friends, namely the changelings pursuing her.

I wonder how good a flyer Aspire is when he transforms. Sure Stroke grinned, her wings fluffed up in anticipation of the thrill of a good race. He’ll have to be quick if he wants to catch me!

10. Of Nymph and Foal

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Esalen circled around a rather large maple tree, her nose low to the ground as she tried to make heads or tails of where that wily filly had gotten to. Toola had been ahead of her, giggling and darting through the bushes, always just out of reach so Esalen could catch a flash of magenta coat or a glimpse of her pretty, tricolor tail.

And then, without warning, she was gone, leaving Esalen to scratch her head and search the clearing.

Bubbling giggles seemed to echo around her, tickling her ears. A frown marred her muzzle. It’s supposed to be the changeling who plays trickster, you naughty little thing!

Flicking her tail, Esalen idly considered whether or not she could get away with sneaking a little taste, just enough to help her get an idea of what Toola was feeling so she could figure out what her giggly friend might be up to. Once she’d gleaned that tricky, little filly’s plan, Esalen could formulate her counterattack; then Toola be helpless to fend off the tickling and teasing she so rightly deserved!

She shook her head. I’m going to find her without cheating. Lowering her head to ground once more, she sniffed, taking in a deep whiff of Toola’s perfume. She’s around here somewhere. Probably waiting for me to stick my head in some bushes, or take off so she can go running off toward base.

Another bout of giggles seemed to come from everywhere around her. Esalen stood up straight, perking her ears up. No matter what she did, it seemed like Toola simply wasn’t there. Like she was a ghost.

Esalen grit her teeth, letting her lips peel back to bare her fangs. This is why looking for Toola is such a pain in my chitin! There was a rustling of leaves to her left, she whipped around toward a patch of bushes, ready to pounce on the little filly!

There was no flash of magenta coat or tricolored tail, just the wind blowing lazily through the leaves.

Sighing, she relaxed and stood up straight again, letting her scowl fade away. Although, Toola giggling at her eagerness made her grind her teeth together.

Vengeance will be mine, my sweet little friend! Esalen fought the urge to lick her lips, lest she be accused of tasting for Toola’s emotions. If we didn’t have lessons, I’d be sure to demand a nice, long drink.

Toola just so happened to be one of her favorite snacks; the filly’s love tasted like chocolate eclair, and the way she bounced around, giggling and teasing, only made her all the more tempting to the changelings in class.

The fact that she was also rather pretty helped quite a bit.

Still, finding and catching Toola would be no easy task. Even if she knew for fact how close she was.

Unless…

Her lips tugged into a sly smirk. Esalen lowered her head, prowling forward like a hungry timberwolf. “Tooooooolaaaaaaaa!” she called, almost singing her name. “I know you’re here, silly filly! I can smell your perfume!”

More giggling, along with the rustling of leaves from her left drew her attention back to the tree she’d been circling. Close by, there was a downed branch, perfect for a little filly to hide in.

The key was checking without sticking her head in, lest Toola have a quick escape route to slip through and get a head start. Of course, given how well she knew Toola, Esalen had several advantages.

Most prevalent among them was her giggling.

“Where’s Toola?” Esalen called in a tone she might use to play with a hatchling. “Where, oh where, is my giggly Toola Roola?”

Another bout of giggles, punctuated with a little squeak of laughter, made her ears waggle. Close by.

She stalked toward the downed branch, narrowing her eyes to peer through the foliage. “Is she hiding in the bushes?” she called, casually flicking a hoof through the bushes as if searching for her friend.

“Maaaaaaaaaaaaaybe!” Toola’s voice called back between giggles.

Oh, you cheeky thing. Esalen feigned a sigh and pout. “Nope! No Toola Roola here!” She edged toward the branch, ready to pounce. “Is she hiding under the fallen branch?”

“Noooooooooooo!” Toola sang. “No Toola Roola’s here!”

“Are you suuuuuuuuuuure?” Esalen called back, just as she came within hoof’s reach of the branch’s leaves. “Maybe I should check. After all, Toola Roolas are rather silly things; they like to hide in small places and tease innocent little nymphs like me with their giggling!”

Toola let out a laugh. “Says the tricky nymph who wants to tickle a poor little Toola Roola!” There was a pause, punctuated by a little nyeh. Even though she couldn’t see her, Esalen was quite certain Toola had stuck her tongue out. “Too bad, Essy! Looks like us foals are gonna have some of Sweet Treat’s cake, and on your bits!”

Snorting, Esalen quipped, “This Toola seems a bit snippy. I think it deserves extra tickles, we can’t have a snippy Toola Roola walking about. Only happy, giggly Toolas.”

“Toooooo bad!” she chirped. “I’m a snippy Toola, but just as cute as a happy Toola!”

She was close, but it didn’t feel like it. Esalen frowned, halting in her approach. She flicked her ears to the side, trying to pinpoint where Toola’s voice was coming from.

Wherever she was, she most certainly wasn’t under the branch. It sounded like she was just behind Esalen, and yet, she wasn’t.

She’s having me on, Esalen thought, narrowing her eyes as Toola let out another giggle and taunt. She stepped closer to the branch, even though she was sure her friend wasn’t hiding beneath it, doing her best to keep up appearances. Craning her neck low, she made it seem as though she were about to duck her head in to search.

“I think not, silly filly!” she called, keeping up her act. “I think Toola Roola’s like to hide beneath branches, just waiting for a pretty little nymph to catch and tease and tickle her all day long!”

Just as the end of her muzzle brushed against the leaves, she heard it: the shuffling sound of a pony’s hoof rubbing against bark, and the sharp crack of a twig snapping.

It hadn’t come from beneath the branch. Slowly, Esalen’s smile returned. If Toola was close, but not under the branch, she didn’t have a spot to lure Esalen into before slipping away.

Nice try, Toola. “Ready or not, time to get caught!” she called, feinting forward just enough to make it look like she was about to dive in after “Toola”. But then, quick as a cat, she dug her forehooves into the dirt and pivoted, her eyes darted around in search of the tricky little filly.

“Haha!” Toola crowed. “Tricked you again, Es—Whoa!

Hooves scraped against bark, as though a pony had slipped after being silly enough to try climbing a—

A tree.

Esalen’s eyes went wide. “Oh, don’t tell me!” Slowly, she let her gaze wander up. A gasp escaped her lips as she caught sight of Toola Roola dangling from a high branch, her hind legs kicked wildly at the air as her forehooves desperately clutched at the branch. “Toola, you dummy!” she scolded, her wings already sliding out of their pink casing, ready to lift her into the air. “Hold on!”

“H-Hurry, Essy!” Toola squeaked, a panicked look crossing her muzzle. All semblance of teasing and play left the pair. “I’m slipping!”

Esalen bounded over so she was beneath Toola. Buzzing her wings, she hovered off the ground with hooves outstretched. “Just hold on a little longer! I’m right here!” she said as she drew near her friend, flying so she’d be able to grab her from the front. The biting taste of panic, a mix of adrenaline and the foul, almost rotten taste of fear, made her stomach heave, but she ignored it. Her friend was far more important than her stomach!

She could see the little filly’s chest expanding and contracting with each gasping breath. The tricolor tail curled, trying to tuck between her legs despite the pull of gravity weighing down on it.

When she came level with Toola’s waist, Esalen slipped her hooves around her barrel. “You’re doing great, Toola,” she said soothingly. “I’m here! I’m here, okay?” Giving a squeeze, both a hug and a show that she had a strong grip, she nosed against Toola’s cheek. “I’ve got you, now! You’re okay! I’m gonna get you down, okay?”

With her eyes screwed shut, Toola gave a jerky nod of her head. Her body shook in Esalen’s grasp, her ears laid flat against her scalp. “Don’t let me fall!” she whimpered. “Please don’t let me fall!”

“I won’t, I’ve got you!” Her hooves slid up Toola’s side to the crook of her armpits, locking in place and holding the panicked filly tight against the smooth carapace of her chest. “Okay! You’re okay, Toola! Just let go of the branch, and we’ll hover down together.”

Toola didn’t move, fear had taken hold, locking her into a desperate need to cling to something—a branch, in this case.

An idea leapt to the forefront of Esalen’s mind. “Toola,” she said, her voice low, “I want you to let go of the branch, one hoof at a time, okay? Wrap your hooves around my neck, and let me carry you down.” Lightly nudging Toola’s legs with her hooves, she offered a smile. “I’ve got you. I promise. You’re not gonna fall.”

Another shaky nod. Toola let her left hoof slide off the tree bark, the loss of support dropped all of her weight on Esalen.

Esalen grunted, buzzing her wings as fast as she could under the force of Toola’s weight. The pair dipped in the air, Toola shrieked and wrapped her hooves tight around Esalen’s neck.

Ack! Toola, relax!” she yelped, struggling for breath. Her wings buzzed furiously, faltering for a beat or two as she tried to wrest her neck free. “I can’t—would you—Toola, just freeze!”

Toola’s body stiffened. She ducked her head, burying her muzzle in the crook of Esalen’s neck. “’m sorry,” she mumbled, her voice muffled by Esalen’s carapace. “Won’t do it again.”

Sighing in relief, Esalen squeezed the filly to her chest, and lowered herself to ground level. She brought her muzzle close to Toola’s ear and began whispering words of comfort, barely audible, even to herself, until she felt her hooves touch down on the soft, green grass.

She eased Toola onto the ground, frowning at the way her shaking knees buckled at first. Still coming down off it, she noted.

Not a problem, just a small change in plan.

Esalen let herself fall back on her haunches, and pulled Toola into her lap, laying her chin atop the quivering filly’s head. “There we go. See? Safe and sound, just like I promised,” she whispered. With a tiny smile, she nosed into Toola’s tricolored mane, the warmth and the soothing scent of vanilla and lilac did wonders to calm her racing heart.

Taking in a deep breath, she sighed in relief. “How about next time, we don’t hide so high up?”

Toola sniffled, then drew back, cheeks puffy and eyes shone with tears. She nodded, then buried her face in Esalen’s shoulder again. “I thought I could be clever,” she mumbled, her hooves squeezed tight around Esalen’s midriff.

“Well, from now on, be clever closer to the ground,” Esalen scolded, leaning up to nip at Toola’s ear. “You’re far less likely to fall while you’re bouncing about, don’t you think?”

“I’m sorry, Essy.”

With a mirthless chuckle, Esalen patted her mane and rocked her back and forth, singing an old Caretaker lullaby to sooth her frightened friend.

Deep in the land of snow and ice, far, far away!

They Who Glimmer full of love,

Shining brighter than a star,

They took us in and showed us our new way…


A twig snapped beneath her hooves.

Sure Stroke bit back a curse and ducked low, folding her wings tight against her sides to make herself smaller. Her eyes darted about, scanning for any sign of fluffy blue mane or light glinting off well-polished chitin.

Nothing. Just the rustling of leaves, the creak of tree branches as the wind pushed them along, and the sound of her own heartbeat pounding in her ears.

A sigh of relief escaped her lips, the ancestors had smiled upon her. Sure Stroke let her wings relax and gave a little fluff of her feathers to work out the kink in her muscles. Hiding from changelings in the forest was no easy task; even when they were friends.

Twice, she’d been forced to duck behind a patch of bushes as his sniffing came closer. The strange sound of chitinous hooves against the dirt made her ears flick this way and that, trying to pinpoint exactly where her pursuer was looking.

Was this what it was like to be hunted? Flinching at every sound the forest around her made, trying to cover her mouth with her hooves to muffle her breath, begging her heart not to beat so loud—did the ponies who came across changelings in the old tales of the shapeshifting tricksters find themselves fleeing from sharp fangs and strange, chittering laughter?

Sure Stroke scrunched up her snout. Their laughter seemed so alien, like a cross between the odd clicking of spiders and a foal’s laugh. It tickled her ears whenever her classmates were teasing one another—or her, for that matter—and the nymphs were able to get one over on each other. Or play a joke on her fellow foals.

They’re like bugs, she thought. Bugs crossed with ponies in one body.

The rustling of leaves and scrambling of hooves made her ear flick to the east, toward the direction Vector had headed.

She heard a pair of voices cry out in alarm, the buzzing of changeling wings filled the air along with the sound of steady wingbeats and whistling wind whipping through the trees as a pegasus zipped through. Then, a twin sounds of rushing magic, punctuated by a pair of pops. The buzzing ceased, instead replaced by the addition of two more ‘pegasi’ to the chase.

Had Vector just taken his chance to fly for base?

Sure Stroke stayed still, listening out for the one remaining nymph. Aspire’s wicked grin, his tiny, glinting fangs rose unbidden to the forefront of her mind.

The way he looked at her promised no shortage of teasing should he be the one to catch her, a silent promise Vector had all but confirmed.

He has to catch me first she reminded herself, drawing in a deep breath and fluffing her feathers.

If Aspire thought she was just going to stay still and plead for mercy as he loomed over her, giving his chittering laugh before pouncing and claiming his vengeance for the little teasing she’d given, he was in for a big surprise.

Sure Stroke took another breath and closed her eyes. Be quick and nimble, like mom always taught. Don’t lean to hard into a turn, keep your eyes on the trees ahead so you don’t go splat. All it would take was a quick acceleration to her top speed, then gliding with easy shifts of her weight for steering through the forest. I won’t be able to really move until I hit a clearing, or get out into the open field.

Every little trick her mother taught about maneuvering would have to come into play. Aspire might know the forest, but she had the advantage as long as she made her top speed before he could get a start.

A twig snapped behind her. Sure Stroke turned, leaping to her hooves and flaring her wings, ready to take flight.

But there was nothing. Just herself, the bushes, and a shiver running down her spine.

Sure Stroke!” Vector’s voice hissed from just behind her.

She shrieked, whipping around to face him, but found herself staring into the empty forest again.

Blinking, she cocked her head, searching this way and that for her fellow pegasus. “Vector?” she called.

“Yeah, sorry I scared you,” he replied, his tone tinged with poorly restrained amusement. His voice seemed to come from right beside her, but when Sure Stroke checked, she came face-to-face with the bark of one of the forest’s many maple trees. “Ready to move?”

“Yes, I was just about to—hang on…” Sure Stroke trailed off, her ears perked up to their full height. “You were supposed to go east and lead off Nimble and Zephyr.”

“So?”

Frowning, she stomped a hoof, turning around in hopes of catching sight of the mischievous pegasus. “So why are you back here scaring the feathers off of me? Aspire probably heard us!”

“Hmm, that’s a very good question. Full marks, Sure Stroke! But lemme answer that question, with another,” Vector said, laughing to himself. But with something else mixed in, something that hadn’t been there earlier.

Sure Stroke felt her heart stop, her ears twitched at the odd, almost alien chitter mixed with his voice. Her tail dropped low and tucked between her legs. “V-Vector?” she whimpered. “You’re really scaring me! This isn’t funny!”

Warm breath ghosted over the tips of her ears. “Who says I didn’t hear you?” A familiar voice, one that was most certainly not Vector’s, whispered.

Her body shook, she slowly looked up. Her eyes went wide as they were met with a pair of brilliant blue eyes—the same color she might use to paint the sky on a bright, clear day.

It was Aspire.

Laying almost lazily on an overhanging branch, with the end of his muzzle just a hair’s breadth from hers, he looked down upon her with a playful half-lidded stare and a fanged grin that spoke of mischief yet to come. “Hi!” he chirped, giving a little wave of his hoof. “Thanks for staying in one spot for me instead of running! Makes my job a lot easier!” He stood, balancing on the branch with a rather impressive show of dexterity and grace. “Now, hold still, silly filly! I owe you big for that little joke you made about—”

With a shrill shriek, Sure Stroke shot off through the forest as if Cerberus himself was nipping at her hooves.

Her wings flapped for all they were worth. She could hear Aspire call out to her, but the words were lost on the rush of wind. Every instinct, every fiber of her being screamed for her to fly as fast and as far as she could, to flee from that wicked grin and those gleaming blue eyes.


“… I owe you big for that little joke you made about—ow!” Aspire winced, his ears rang with the echo of her shriek. With a yelp, he clapped his hooves over his head to muffle the sound and screwed his eyes shut, giving a low whine of complaint.

He rubbed at his ears, cracking open an eye to glare at her. “What in the name of love was that for—huh?” He broke off, blinking in confusion at the distinct lack of purple pegasus staring back at him. “Sure Stroke? I was just teasing…”

The sound of feathers rustling, wings flapping, and wind whipping through the wind drew his attention forward, just in time to see Sure Stroke fleeing in terror.

Oh, wow, she really can fly! His eyebrows furrowed and a tiny frown crossed his muzzle. That definitely wasn’t a shriek like when we catch Toola and she plays scared…

Curious, he flicked his tongue out to taste her. Surely, his friends would understand. He wasn’t looking for her anymore, so there was no harm in sneaking a little taste just to make sure she hadn’t taken his little joke too hard.

The taste of pure terror, slimy and foul, like rotting catfish, nearly made him go crosseyed. Aspire clapped his hooves over his mouth and heaved, bile burned the back of his throat.

He swallowed it down and gasped for breath. “Oh, chitin!” he groaned, wiping the back of a hoof across his lips. “Sure Stroke! Wait!”

Too late! Sure Stroke disappeared into the foliage, her terrified shrieks and panicked breath echoed through the trees.

“Crack my eggshell!” Aspire smacked his face with a hoof.

All the careful planning with his sister, all the work they’d done to convince their friends to help her integrate, he could see it going up in smoke before his eyes. Like a piece of paper in an open flame.

He buzzed his wings and took flight, chasing after as fast as he could.

But with each passing second, Sure Stroke’s panicked cries were getting further and further away.

Not gonna work, she’s got a full head start! I’m gonna have to change! Aspire closed his eyes and focused, concentrating on a form he’d practiced with whenever his family snuck into Manehattan. Albeit with one or two alterations.

Namely, wings instead of a horn.

Orange coat, red-orange mane, he thought as he began to channel his natural magic. Orange coat, red-orange mane, and wings. Lightweight body so I’m faster, not so muscular around the legs.

Green fire washed over his form. The buzzing of his wings faded into the steady rhythm of pegasus wings beating against the air. His polished carapace burned away and the holes in his legs filled, orange hairs sprouted from his legs and body.

He grit his now flattened teeth and flapped his wings. “Sure Stroke!” he called over the rush of wind. “Wait! I didn’t mean it! I was just playing! Come back!”

To his dismay, she flapped her wings harder, picking up speed with each beat.

Oh chitin, for a chubby little filly, she’s fast! He panted for breath, pushing himself as hard as he could to catch up with his frightened friend. I need to stretch my wings a bit more…

11. Challenging Changelings

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Faster and faster she flew, the wind seemed to pull at her mane and tail as if trying to drag her back to face her tormentor.

Sure Stroke beat her wings as hard as she could, wincing as she darted between branches. A bit of blood beaded down her cheek, cut open by a stubborn twig that stung her face like an angry wasp.

If the wind wished to betray her, she would have to fly faster than her race’s age-old ally. Even the forces of nature wouldn’t stop her flight from the gleaming fangs and wicked grin on her friend’s face.

Friend? Predator? Which was he?

All their talk together made him seem like such a nice colt like he’d never think to hurt a fly! But sneaking up like that and making himself sound like Vector, tricking her into thinking he was a friend coming to help her was just like…

Tears stung her eyes, her vision blurred.

Just like all the stories!

“Sure Stroke! Wait up!” he called, his voice floating through the trees. “Slow down!”

No! She wiped the back of a hoof across her dampened cheeks and leaned into the wind. No matter what he said, she wouldn’t fall for his tricks again.

It had been Vector whispering to her, right down to the amusement in his voice until he laughed and gave that odd little chitter.

Another pegasus’ wingbeats filled the air. Sure Stroke flicked her ear to listen, her heart plummeted into the pit of her stomach as she realized the buzzing in the air had stopped.

He’d transformed. Right after tricking her with Vector’s voice, he’d transformed.

Don’t look back! He might pretend to be helping again!

“You’re going too fast!” Aspire cried. “Sure Stroke, slow down or you’ll crash! There’s a—whoops! Ack! Go away, you stupid birds!” He cursed, the steady beating of his wings faltered a moment while he tried to fend off his tiny tormentors.

Sending silent thanks to her temporary allies, she flitted through the branches, covering her face for protection against the snapping twigs.

She winced with each harsh thwap of twig and paper-thin leaf against her forelegs; no doubt she would have to come up with some excuse to appease her mother when they met after school.

What a lovely conversation that would be. Hi, mommy! Aspire, one of the nymphs we met on our first day, scared the feathers off of me and chased me through the forest! Can we please go home to Cloudsdale now?

Sure Stroke tried to fight back fresh tears. They seemed so nice! And—And I gave them a chance! Just like mom said! She bit her lip and ducked her chin into her chest. A fat lot of good that did me!

Her ear flicked as the sound of Aspire’s steady wingbeats filled the air again. He was chasing, coming faster if the quick, almost frantic beats of his wings were any hint.

With every twist and turn, he was gaining on her. She could feel the air shifting as he drew close enough to reach out and grab her.

“Sure Stroke, look up! Tree! Tree!”

Something in his tone jolted her. Sure Stroke snapped up, her ears perked up to fullest height and her eyes wide open, just in time for the very solid trunk of a maple tree come into view.

She banked hard to the right, her left leg scraped against the bark. A yelp tore from the back of her throat, Sure Stroke clutched her forehoof tight against her chest, her wings faltered in mid beat. She dropped like a stone.

In her panic, Sure Stroke curled up to cradle her hoof and pitching through the air like a Wonderbolt performing a somersault. Flaring her wings, she managed to level out and catch herself before she came in for a crash landing.

Her hooves hit the ground hard. She stumbled forward a few steps, her canter clumsy and unsteady with one leg injured and cradled to her chest.

A hoof caught on a tree root, sending her on a rough tumble through the patchy grass and dirt. At last, Sure Stroke came to a stop, whimpering as she held her leg close against her belly. The familiar sting of a nasty scrape bit at her shin, her back ached as bruises from her tumble began to form.

Sure Stroke grit her teeth, tears cascaded down her cheeks like twin waterfalls. She sniffled as she cracked open an eye to survey her wound, the sight of her own blood blurred with her tears. Wrapping a hoof around her injured leg, she curled around it and let go. Her tiny body wracked with sobs, her wings wrapped around herself like a feathery shield. “M-Mommy!” she called out to the forest. “Daddy!”

The familiar rustle of wings overhead made her ears flick up. Hooves hit the ground near her with a hard thud, a steady cadence that continued as a pony neared her.

“Sure Stroke! Oh, chitin!”

It was Aspire’s voice.

His hooves wrapped around her and rolled her onto her back. She tried to flinch away but found herself held fast in his grasp. “G-Go away!” she stammered, her thick with pain and fright.

“I wasn’t trying to—I was just—I can’t just leave you!” he babbled. A warm snout nosed against her cheek, a pony’s coat rubbed against her own. “I’m sorry,” he said, speaking softly. “I didn’t mean to scare you so bad.”

Sure Stroke gave a watery huff and jerked her head away from his, hiding her leg beneath her side. She didn’t reply, her tail flicked and cheeks puffed up in anger.

Aspire nosed against her again and continued, “I thought you wanted to play. You teased me like everyone else and joined in the bet, so I thought you wanted to play with us.”

“Play?” she repeated, indignation crept into her voice. “Friends don’t sneak up on each other and copy other friends’ voices in the middle of the forest! Friends don’t scare the feathers off each other like that!”

“B-But… I thought you wanted to play!”

Sure Stroke opened her eyes and pushed him away, then turned her head to glare at him and go on a tirade. Instead of his polished carapace, fluffy blue mane, and deep blue eyes, she found herself staring into a pair of eyes as green as leaves in mid summer.

A colt of orange coat and reddish-orange mane leaned over her, concern written plain across his face. His ears and wings drooped low, he sat back on his haunches and ducked his head into his chest, looking like he’d just been scolded for stealing sweets.

“I-I didn’t mean to scare you,” he said in Aspire’s voice. His wings unfurled and fluffed, ready to wrap around his barrel. “I just wanted you to have fun with us!”

His face brought forth a measure of comfort; a pegasus was standing with her, one of her own kin was at her side.

No. She shook her head. That’s not his face. He changed so he could catch me. Aspire is a changeling nymph. Changelings disguise themselves to play tricks and steal love, and so ponies are comfortable and suspect nothing.

He’s a trickster. They’re all tricksters.

Sure Stroke closed her eyes and looked away, letting out a long breath through her nose. “Change back,” she muttered.

He started, rearing back as though she’d slapped him across the face with a mop. “Huh?”

“Change back.” She waved her uninjured hoof at him. “That’s not—” That’s not the real you. “Just become yourself again.”

Aspire hesitated for a moment, biting his lip and looking away from her. Then, after a beat of silence, a ring of green fire flicked to life with a rush, surrounding his entire body and enveloping the pegasus before her in its tongues.

Orange and red melted away to reveal smooth black carapace and fluffy blue mane. Fluffy feathers burned until translucent blue wings remained, and royal blue backing and stomach to match. Holes formed in his legs, burrowing until she could see the greens and browns of the forest floor between them. A curved black horn, with sharpened tip grew from his forehead, several fins seemed to pop from the back of his head, but then were hidden by his mane.

The squared off muzzle narrowed, his lips seemed to smooth as if sanded and polished.

Last of all came his fangs; at first, they seemed to peek shyly from behind his upper lip, as if unsure that it was safe to be revealed. Then, the fire seemed to surround his fangs, coaxing them to fill out to their fullest length. Sure Stroke watched in muted fascination and no shortage of horror as those sharp, gleaming fangs extended until they reached from his lips to midway down his chin.

She felt her muscles tense, ready to take flight again. Aspire’s fangs were much longer than before.

They were the same size she remembered from her first days; the fanged grins he, Esalen, and all the nymphs and changelings in Respite seemed to share as they waved and welcomed her to their home. The very same size that made her recoil in fright, ready to hide behind her wings or fly home to hide beneath her bed.

“I’m sorry,” he repeated in a low mumble, rubbing a hoof against his shoulder. He gave an uneasy grimace, his lips parting enough to display where his fangs met the roof of his mouth.

Sure Stroke tried not to flinch at the sight, but couldn’t stop the startled gasp that slipped through her lips. They were much longer than she thought.

To her surprise, her reaction made him start. Aspire turned to look at her again, his brows knitted together in confusion as he tried to figure out what was wrong. Then he subtly flicked his tongue out—a move so quick, Sure Stroke would’ve missed it had Vector not told her what it meant.

He was tasting her so he could put the pieces together.

She watched his eyes go wide, his hooves flew to cover his mouth. Aspire turned away, his legs’ polished carapace glowed green as the telltale rush of magic fire tickled her ears again.

When he turned around again, sporting a pair of tiny fangs that barely poked out from behind his lip, Sure Stroke jabbed a hoof at him. “I knew it!” she cried. “I knew your fangs were longer before!”

Aspire flinched, his ears drooped low and a rather plastic smile crossed his muzzle. “Wh-What? No! Noooooo!” He scoffed, opening his mouth to show off his teeth. “No big fangs here! Just, um, little ones! Eheh!”

She raised an eyebrow and gave her wing an irritated rustle. “Eheh?” she repeated, bringing her hooves to her hips, just like her mother when she was in trouble. “I just saw them, Aspire! Your fangs were almost to your chin!”

His smile faded. Aspire ducked his head low again, he stared at the dirt, digging a divot into the earth with his hooves. After a moment of heavy silence, he nodded once.

Sure Stroke drew in a breath through her nose. “And Esalen’s too?” she asked, receiving another nod. “And all the nymphs in class?”

Aspire gave another nod, then looked up. “We were just trying to help you stop being afraid,” he said weakly.

“Trying to—what the hay do you call all this?” With a quick wave of her hoof around the forest, she glared at him, taking a small measure of satisfaction in the way he ducked and tried to make himself smaller. “What in Celestia’s name make you think sneaking up on me, copying Vector’s voice, and scaring my feathers off would do?”

His gaze dropped to the forest floor again, his hooves dug at the dirt. Aspire gave a flick of his short, blue tail and muttered something under his breath.

Sure Stroke waggled her ears. “Speak up!” she demanded, leaning forward and pressing a hoof into the dirt, within easy reach of his.

“I said I thought you wanted to play!” he replied, his voice tinged with frustration. Aspire looked up, his brows furrowed together and a tiny frown marred his muzzle. “You teased me!”

“How does—We were all joking! Esalen, you, and I have all been talking and teasing at lunch!”

Aspire bobbed his head. “Everyone in Respite teases and plays jokes! That’s what friends do when they want to play!” Before she could get in a word to refute him, he stomped a hoof into the dirt and leaned forward, his snout a mere hair’s breadth from hers. Sure Stroke leaned back, her eyes crossed and fixed on his mouth as his lips began to peel back into an angry snarl. “You challenged us, too!” he said, an accusatory edge to his tone.

Confused, Sure Stroke gaped. “What? No, I—” she stopped short, it clicked for her just as the words left her lips. “Vector’s bet.”

“And you acted like you’d already won!” Aspire added. “You mouthed that you were gonna save us some cake like there was no way in love we had a chance! That was a challenge—you invited us to play, so I did!”

She blinked and opened her mouth to reply, but shut it quickly and shook her head. He thought I wanted to play like that because I teased him?

Sure Stroke brought a hoof to her forehead and sighed, wincing at the pain that shot down her leg. “Aspire,” she began, speaking slowly as though talking to a newborn foal, “I didn’t want to be scared like that. I wanted to play hide and seek, not get tricked into thinking another pony was right behind me only to find you looming over me and showing off your fangs!”

Aspire flinched away. “But… But we were all laughing and having fun!”

“Yes,” she said, nodding in assent. “We were. That doesn’t mean I want you to scare me like that!”

“But you were opening up like everyone else who comes to stay!” he protested, uncertainty crept into his voice. “Like all the other ponies who came to visit for a little bit, then decide they like it and want to stay for good! And I thought…” he trailed off, his gaze dropped to stare at his hooves. “I thought you wanted to play.”

There it was again. He thought scaring and teasing her was playing—or, perhaps that was just it.

To changelings, hunting, tricking, and scaring their pony friends in something like hide and seek, then holding them close for teasing and gloating was playing. The game itself was almost tailor-made for them to hunt without doing harm.

Relatively no harm, that is, she thought. Her eyes flitted to his fangs again, staring at their razor sharp points. He and Esalen are so different from ponies—even the foals here are different from ponies back home!

How many of her old friends would sit in a room full of changelings, letting them flick out their tongues to taste and showing off those gleaming fangs while they chittered and played tricks, without a care in the world?

No pony would. We would all fly away, or at least sit on the other side of the classroom.

Sure Stroke bit her lip, flicking her tail as she stared at those fangs. They tried to make me feel welcome. Several times.

“I don’t like being scared,” she said finally.

“I’m sorry,” he said. “I’ll, er, try to remember that from now on.”

“Thank you.” Sure Stroke gave her wings a rustle and looked down. “I’ll try not to, um, send mixed signals next time.”

Aspire looked up and gave a weak smile. “Thanks. I think that’ll help me remember—oh! I guess I should tell the others, too. I’ll get on that.” He shifted in place, chewing on his lip and glancing shyly at her. “So,” he began, “still friends?”

Sure Stroke nodded shyly. “Yeah. Still friends,” she said, extending a hoof to shake.

His eyes lit up as he returned the gesture, clasping her hoof in his.

Almost as soon as he touched it, Sure Stroke felt pain bite into her leg. She winced and made to draw back to cradle her hoof again, but Aspire’s grip held fast.

Confused, he tilted his head, raising a brow at her before dropping his gaze to look at her leg. “You have cuts on your leg,” he said. Glancing to her other leg, he corrected himself, “Both legs.”

“I, um, flew through some branches,” she replied, her cheeks flushed red. He had tried to warn her about slowing down. “It only stings a little, I’ll just get some bandages when we get back.” She pulled her hoof back and tried to twist free of his grip.

Quick as a cat, Aspire’s free hoof caught her knee and held her leg in place. His eyes narrowed and bored into hers, as if he were a parent giving a stern glare to a naughty foal, giving silent command to stay still.

Perhaps out of instinct, Sure Stroke complied. Her ears pinned back against her scalp, she quailed beneath his gaze and gave a tiny nod of submission.

Once he was satisfied, Aspire turned his attention to the leg he had in his grasp, then turned it over. His nostrils flared. “When did you get this?” he asked.

Sure Stroke’s ears twitched at the shift. “I scraped my leg on the tree when I tried to bank around it.”

“I told you to slow down.” His tone carried a scolding edge to it, though with a hint of concern. He sucked in a deep breath through his nose, his cheeks seemed to bulge as if he’d stuffed too many cookies into his mouth. Aspire leaned forward, drawing near to the scrape along her leg.

“Um, Aspire? What are you—”

He opened his mouth and stuck out his tongue, which was dripping with a thick, gooey green slime. Before she could object, he pulled her leg close and ran his tongue along the scrape, coating it with the strange substance.

A shiver ran down her spine. She tried to pull away, but his grip was stronger than she’d realized. His tongue lapped at her leg, coating her wound in the warm slime he’d produced.

Her stomach turned, Sure Stroke brought her free hoof to her mouth to hold back a retch. Ew! Ew! Ew! Ew! Ew!

Once he was satisfied with his work, Aspire nodded and drew back, his cheeks puffed out again. He inhaled a sharp breath through his nose and spat a thick wad of slime on top of his first layer.

Sure Stroke squeaked in protest. “Aspire!” she cried, trying to wrench her leg free. “That’s gross! What the hay do you think—”

“Bandaging you,” he said simply, shooting her another look. “Hold still. This’ll help.” Without another word, he leaned in and began spreading the slime around with his tongue, deftly maneuvering it to coat her shin and cover the remaining cuts.

Biting her lip, Sure Stroke tried not to squirm. Dear Celestia, what even is this stuff? “Aspire, this feels really weird!” she hissed. “What is this slime you’re licking onto my leg!”

Aspire paused his ministrations to reply, “Cocoon slime. We use it for sleeping wraps and bandaging. It’s harmless unless you mix certain magic into it when secreting it.” He returned to his work, humming a tune as he resumed spreading the slime.

“Wait, what sort of magic? Aspire? Aspire!” Seeing that he wasn’t going to give an answer, she huffed and looked away. I am not looking at this! Nope, nope, nope!

Sure Stroke made a point of staring off into the distance in search of anything to distract herself from the steady feeling of Aspire’s long, thin, warm, slime-coated tongue lapping at her leg. At some point, he switched to her other leg to coat the rest of her cuts. Thankfully, he didn’t see fit to spit another wad onto her leg—perhaps because she hadn’t cut that one up too badly.

After a few moments of awkward silence, he finished.

“There!” he said, sitting up straight and taking hold of her hooves to stretch them out. Aspire surveyed his work, giving a satisfied nod. “Just don’t mess with it too much and those cuts should heal up soon!”

Sure Stroke looked down at her hooves, cringing at the sight of the green goop he’d spread all over her legs. Well… at least he meant well? “Er, thanks,” she said, smiling awkwardly. “I, um, probably could’ve made it back, though.”

Aspire gave a sheepish grin. “I figured I owed you since I caused all this.” He rubbed a hoof along her shin, tracing the scrape mark. His grin faltered. “Too much?”

Yes. “Er, just a surprise.” She shrugged her shoulders. “It’s just…”

“Weird,” he finished for her.

Sure Stroke winced. “Kinda. To me, at least. But I appreciate the help all the same.”

He lowered his head, his ears began to droop again. Just like when she yelled at him.

Rubbing a hoof against her slime coated leg, she looked away. Oh, feathers, I made that worse. He was helping in his own… strange way.

Sure Stroke set her jaw. If she ever wanted to make this village her home and keep the few friends she had, she would have to adapt somehow. Aspire and Esalen—all the nymphs in her class, really—were alien to her.

Alien, but nice.

She planted her hooves on the ground for balance and leaned forward, nosing against his cheek in a show of gratitude and affection. “Thank you, Aspire,” she muttered. Her lips tugged into a small smile, a tiny part of her felt a brief spark of fascination at the sensations his smooth carapace brought as she brushed against it. Like touching glass, but with warmth.

“Cake! I knew it!” he whispered.

Her ear flicked. Sure Stroke drew back to regard him with a raised brow.

A bright grin had crossed his face, he seemed full of energy, ready to bounce all over the place.

“What was that?” she asked, watching with a hint of amusement as he ran his tongue along his lips, completely forgoing any semblance of subtlety.

Aspire blinked and shook his head, his eyes looked everywhere but at her face. “I, uh, I just mean I knew you’d come around if we talked!” he replied, pasting a rather unconvincing, innocent smile on his face.

Her brow arched higher, Sure Stroke opened her mouth, ready to tell him off for lying and demand an explanation.

Then, she thought better of it. He’d only stuck out his tongue. All he was doing was tasting for her emotions, making sure she was sincere.

Nothing more.

Sure Stroke nodded and stood, working her legs to test how flexible his slime wrappings were. “I’m glad we had this little talk, then. Even if you had to scare me for it to happen,” she teased, smirking at the way he ducked his head and tried to hide a smile of his own. Laughing to herself, she turned away to begin the trek back to the field. “So I guess you caught me.”

“Wait, we’re counting this?” he asked, hopping to his hooves and trotting over to fall into step at her side. “I only caught you because you fell.”

“I’m tired and I really don’t feel like trying to beat you from a dead start. Besides, you know this forest way better than me.”

Aspire grinned. “I was trying to be nice and give you a chance. I’d have at least counted to five.”

“Such a gentlestallion! Or is it gentleling?” Sure Stroke brought a hoof to her chin. “This is going to be rather odd, isn’t it?”

“You could do me a favor and tell Essy that I got the looks in the family,” he quipped, waggling his ears. “The look on her face’ll be worth it!”

“Excuse me! I just got scared out of my mind because I called you bookbug and said that I would save you some cake—I don’t want to know what your sister will do if I tell her she’s not as pretty as Princess Celestia, or something!”

He scoffed. “Oh, don’t worry your pretty little head about Essy, I’ll protect you!”

Sure Stroke stopped and turned to face him. “Really?” she asked with no shortage of amusement. “You’re going to be my nymph in shining armor?”

“Polished carapace, but yes. She and Vector and everyone else can joke all they want about me being a bookbug, but I know how to wrestle really well!” He grinned, showing off his fangs. “If Essy tries to get you because you helped me, I’ll jump in and hold her down while you tickle her!”

Sure Stroke couldn’t help but laugh and shake her head. “I’ll think about it. C’mon, let’s go see if Vector made it back to base or not.”

“Doubt it! Nimble and Zephyr were watching for him! And we had all the nymphs listening out!” Aspire crowed, licking his lips. “That cake is ours, little pony! Despair in the face of our victory!” He cast a quick look around to make sure they were alone, then added, “But I guess I could make sure we slip you a piece. Since you’re new and all.”

“How nice of you!” she simpered, fluffing her wings. She turned and playfully swatted him with her feathers. “Well, let’s go back and see who has to sneak cake to who, then.”

As they made their way through the forest—with Aspire taking a bit of a lead to guide her back to the main path—Sure Stroke let her mind wander back to what she’d seen.

His fangs. Her gaze flitted to his face, a tiny frown marred her lips as she noted how small they looked. He’s hiding them for me again.

He was still trying to help her.

The entire class was.

“Stop hiding them,” she said softly.

“Huh?” Aspire tilted his head.

“Your fangs. Stop hiding them. Please.”

Confused, he furrowed his brows. “I thought you didn’t like being scared.”

“I won’t be scared if you don’t jump out at me.”

“Yes, you will. I can taste it every time you see them; you hate our fangs.”

Sure Stroke screwed her eyes shut. “If I want to stop being scared, I have to get used to them! So just shut up and change them back!”

With an amused chuckle and a flash of green fire, his fangs grew back to normal length. “You’re a funny pony,” he said, leaning in close. “I like that.”

“And you’re a mischievous little nymph,” she shot back, glancing out of the corner of her eyes to take note of his smirk. “What?”

“That’s kinda redundant. We changelings, by nature, are mischievous.” He flashed a fanged grin. “Especially toward our friends.”

“Oh, shut up. You’re mischievous and you’re a nymph—you are a mischievous little nymph. Full stop.”

“If you say so.” Aspire nodded and started walking along with her. He turned to look at her again, squinting as if he’d missed something. “Hey, Sure Stroke?”

“Yeah?”

“Could you turn your head a little? Like, look over your right shoulder real quick.”

“Uh, sure, I guess.” Furrowing her brows in confusion, Sure Stroke obeyed, turning to peer back at the trees. “What exactly am I looking—”

A long, slender tongue, dripping with warm, gooey slime ran across her left cheek.

She stopped in her tracks, her jaw dropped. “Aspire…”

He gave another slow lick before drawing back. “You had a cut on your cheek,” he said. “I missed that one.”

Oh, right. The branches.

Sure Stroke turned her head slowly, facing him with a rather forced smile.

“Say something first?” he asked.

“Please.”

Aspire ducked his head. “Yeah, okay, that one’s my bad. Noted.”

12. Victory is Sweet

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Although she’d just learned a rather valuable lesson about teasing changelings, Sure Stroke couldn’t help but laugh at the look of utter dismay that flashed across Aspire’s face when they arrived at the “base” tree. There, standing before a cheering group of foals and downtrodden nymphs, was Vector, leaning against a tree.

The cocky colt buffed a hoof on his chest and checked to see if there was any dirt on them, before looking up in mock surprise at Aspire. “Well, hey there, bookbug! What took you so long?”

Aspire had groaned and stomped his hoof, grumbling about how he was certain Vector would’ve had to cheat somehow to get past both Nimble and Zephyr, earning a bout of laughter from the foals. Either way, the terms had been met.

Each of the foals would get some chocolate cake, courtesy of their nymph classmates.

When Sure Stroke trotted forward to offer a slime-coated hoof bump, the impromptu celebration-slash-whining-session came to an abrupt halt. Esalen darted forward and grabbed her hooves, looking over each cut with a look eerily similar to how distraught Aspire had been in the forest.

“What happened?” she had asked.

Aspire made to reply, but Sure Stroke silenced him with a look. “I flew through some branches, but one caught my leg,” she said. “I fell hard and scraped my knee, so Aspire bandaged me with his, um… slime?”

“Uh…” Aspire blinked, his eyes shifted from her to their classmates. One ear swiveled to lay flat while the other stood up straight. “Yeah. I, uh, used my cocoon slime and stuff.” He ducked his head and cringed, mumbling, “That said, make sure to tell her if you ever have to put it on her. Still adjusting. My bad.”

The rest of the class took their word for it, each of them glad she wasn’t hurt too bad by the fall, a couple even sparing a moment to give Aspire a friendly nudge or, in Vector’s case, a sock to the shoulder and praise him for such quick thinking.

Her friend blinked and gave a crooked smile, accepting their compliments with no shortage of awkwardness in his voice and assuring that he only wanted to make sure she was okay. Through it all, his eyes never left hers.

Sure Stroke didn’t need a changeling’s emotion tasting to see his confusion as he flicked out his tongue to taste hers. He’s not sure why I covered for him, she thought, beaming back at him, sparing herself a little giggle when he furrowed his brows and gave a much more prominent flick of his tongue. Almost like he were trying to lick the air, really.

She stole a quick glance to Esalen, who also seemed a bit put out, flicking her tongue and cocking her head to the side as if trying to look at an abstract piece.

Confused. She had Esalen completely off-kilter, just as she’d been on her first day in Respite.

A bit of smugness crept into her smile. How nice it was not to be the one on the outside of the inner circle, so to speak. This time, her friends would have to figure her out.

Prim had stepped forward and asked if she wanted to sit out since she’d been hurt, but Sure Stroke had none of it. Even if she was a little scared because of Aspire’s trick, it was still a lot of fun to play with her friends, not to mention work with Vector to win their cake. With her intent declared, the sides switched: the nymphs all ran off to hide in the forest, while the foals counted to one hundred.

It only took Sure Stroke a few minutes into the next round to realize why Vector had limited the terms of their wager to their round.

Just like the old stories told, changelings were incredibly difficult to find. Even when they couldn’t shapeshift, the nymphs’ natural coloration made it nearly impossible to see them through the shadows or foliage; with only their manes, tails, and backings colored different, Sure Stroke guessed “Team Foal” would be hard-pressed to catch any of their classmates.

As it so turned out, she was correct. Only Allegretto and Aspire had ended up caught, the latter by her. Sure Stroke had a sneaking suspicion he’d allowed her to find him on purpose, even going as far to pretend he hadn’t heard her stumbling through the underbrush before she pounced on him, no matter how much he denied it.

She was also quite certain a nymph who'd just balanced on a branch with ease wouldn't just trip over nothing.

Either way, it was fun. The look of surprise on his face—fake though she knew it was—as she tackled him and crowed in victory, the way Vector howled with laughter when he heard, and the sight of Aspire snarling and grumbling a promise of retribution, all of it harkened back to her home in Cloudsdale.

They act so much like us. They’re just different.

When the final bell rang and freed them all from their daily eight hour prison, Sure Stroke trotted in between Aspire and Esalen as they walked with Nimble, Toola, Vector, and Zephyr.

She threw back her head and laughed as a pained look crossed Aspire’s face. “Just say it,” he said, waving a hoof at Vector. “I can taste your want to.”

“Well, if you insist!” Vector grinned and leapt into the air, flipping himself in between Aspire and Sure Stroke with a quick flap of his wings. He landed and threw a hoof around Sure Stroke’s withers. “Boy, am I looking forward to a nice, big piece of chocolate cake! Isn’t it a good thing we’ve got four nice little nymphs who’re gonna buy us some, Sure Stroke?”

Stifling a giggle, she played her part. “Oh, yes!” she said, nodding along with him. “Aspire and Esalen told me all about how good Missus Sweet Treat’s baking was! I can’t wait to try some myself!”

Esalen nudged her shoulder. “Careful, little ponies,” she warned, her eyes showing with a mischievous gleam. “You’re heading toward dangerous territory!”

Vector scoffed and flicked a wing at her. “What’re you gonna do? Have that one—” he jabbed a hoof at Nimble “—tickle me senseless? Do your worst! I still get cake!”

In unison, the quartet of nymphs turned and flashed fanged grins, their eyes glowed with an eery green light. “Our worst?” Aspire repeated in a hiss.

“You’ll regret that one, Zippy!” Zephyr added, stepping ahead and cutting them off before they could reach the school gate. He crouched low, giving a challenging hiss and let his jowls peal back to reveal the full length of his fangs. “Take it back, and I just might go easy on you!”

Out of the corner of her eye, Sure Stroke noticed Nimble moving around from her spot between Esalen and Toola. The nymph ducked her head as she slipped behind Vector, she met Sure Stroke’s gaze, smiled, then brought a hoof to her mouth as she flitted her eyes to Vector and back again.

It clicked into place. Vector had laid down a challenge to Nimble’s tickling prowess, just as Sure Stroke had laid a challenge to Aspire and Esalen before hide and seek.

Sure Stroke returned her smile and gave a little nod to show her understanding. She turned as if to watch the byplay between Vector and the other nymphs, eying Nimble as she made her approach. Seeing her crouch low, readying herself to pounce, Sure Stroke counted backwards from three, then slipped out from Vector’s embrace and leapt to the side.

As soon as she moved, Vector turned. “Hey, what’s your—oh pony feathers!” He squawked as he was tackled to the ground by Nimble, who quickly pinned his shoulders. His eyes went wide, Vector tried to struggle out of her grasp, flapping his wings in hopes of buffeting her face until Aspire and Zephyr came to her aid and held him down. “Gah! Gerroffame you jerks!”

“I don’t think so!” Nimble sang. She gave a coy smile and sat back on his stomach, letting her hooves trail down his sides. Waggling her ears, she leaned in and nosed against him. “Some silly little colt asked me to do my worst! I think that colt needs a reminder of just how tickly his sides are!”

Vector gasped, his struggles renewed. “I was kidding! I wasn’t challenging—oh, sweet feathering hay—Sure Stroke, Toola, help!”

The trio of nymphs turned to face her, Aspire gave a challenging grin, daring her to jump in. Giggling, Sure Stroke backed away. “Sorry, Vector,” she said, shaking her head as she stood beside Esalen and Toola. “I’ve learned my lesson. Never challenge a changeling unless you’re ready to pay the price.”

“Good filly,” Esalen said. She patted Sure Stroke on the head and sat back on her haunches, a cue Sure Stroke and Toola took. With a wave of her hoof, she acted the part of Queen Euphoria, saying, “Have at him, Nimble! Let’s see how high his voice goes!”

Nimble set to her task with gusto. Sure Stroke watched in muted fascination as the nymph’s hooves moved in a blur; poking, prodding, and massaging Vector’s ribs, sending him into high-pitched shrieks of laughter as he writhed beneath her, trying in vain to escape.

“What’s that, Zippy?” Aspire asked, perking his ears up. “Speak up! We can’t hear you!”

Zephyr cocked his head to the side and pulled a face. “Sounds like he wants more tickles, Nimble! Didn’t you tell us he gets really squirmy if you go for his armpits?”

She grinned. “I did! Watch closely! You’re gonna have to hold his hooves tight, or he’ll buck us right off!”

“No, no, no, no, no! Please, not—eek!” Vector seemed to convulse, laughing uncontrollably as tears streamed down his cheeks.

Sure Stroke tried to hold back her own laughter, but as Toola giggled and cheered for their classmates, she found herself succumbing to her mirth. Her sides ached as she struggled to get it under control. Each time she managed to look up and watch the nymphs continue Vector’s punishment, she fell right back into laughter.

A nudge to her shoulder drew her attention away. She turned and met Esalen’s bright pink eyes, her laughter slowly tapered off. “What’s up?”

“Just wanted to ask you something. Mind stepping away with me for a minute?” Esalen asked.

Confused, Sure Stroke nodded once. “Sure,” she replied, standing to walk with her.

“Great.” Esalen stood, then turned to Toola, sparing a little smile at the filly as she rolled about on the ground. “We’ll be right back. Make sure they don’t skimp on Vector’s lesson.”

Toola tried to reply, but her words came in an incomprehensible babble mixed in with laughter. She waved a hoof at them and gave a shaky nod as she continued watching the free show.

Esalen lead Sure Stroke past the group, toward the school entrance.

Once they were out of earshot, she stopped and turned to face Sure Stroke with a tiny frown marring her muzzle. “You lied,” she said.

Sure Stroke blinked and stepped back, caught off-guard by her bluntness. “What? When did I—”

“I could taste it,” Esalen added, speaking over her like a mother who’d caught her filly. “I didn’t want to say anything in front of the others, but you were lying when you told us about your cuts.”

“I wasn’t lying!” Sure Stroke protested. Her wings rustled, she frowned and gave a little flick of her tail. “I really did fly through some branches and got myself cut up!”

Esalen flicked out her tongue, narrowing her eyes at Sure Stroke. “Hiding, then. I can taste how you feel, and you’re getting defensive.” She stepped closer and laid a hoof on Sure Stroke’s shoulder. “So, tell me what really happened. I’m your friend, aren’t I?”

Pinning her ears back, Sure Stroke nodded. “Yeah.”

“And Aspire’s my brother. So, why can’t you tell me what went on in the forest?”

She shifted in place, rustling her wings. “Because you’ll get mad at him,” she mumbled. Looking down at the dirt path at her hooves, she kicked at a stone. “He didn’t mean for me to get hurt.”

Esalen’s grip on her shoulder tightened. “What did he do?”

Flinching at the tone in her voice, Sure Stroke pawed at the ground. “I, uh, well, he told me that teasing him and helping Vector with the bet could be taken as challenging you guys.” She fluffed up her feathers and gave a sheepish grin. “Especially when I said I’d save you some cake.”

“Yeah, just a lot.” Esalen raised an eyebrow. “So, what happened? He tracked you down and teased you, or something?”

“Or something.” She eyed the groove she’d dug in the dirt as though checking to see if she could hide in it. To her dismay, it was far too small. “He snuck up on me and copied Vector’s voice, and talked to me like nothing was wrong.”

Esalen’s eyes went wide. She looked back toward their friends, eyes locked on her brother as he laughed and mocked Vector, then turned to Sure Stroke again. She flicked her tongue, her shock slowly melted away to anger. “That idiot!” she hissed, her lips curling back into a snarl.

“He apologized!” Sure Stroke hastened to add. “He said he thought I wanted to play, and we talked while he, um…” she trailed off as she glanced down at the cocoon slime on her legs. Her stomach churned at the sight of the stretchy green goop. “While he put this stuff on my leg.”

“Our slime can be used for wraps and bandages,” Esalen said, looking closer to survey her brother’s work before giving a nod. “Good enough, I guess.” She returned her gaze to Sure Stroke, still frowning. “He apologized?”

Sure Stroke nodded. “We talked and figured things out.” Giving a crooked smile, she stepped close and nosed Esalen’s cheek. “I learned more about changelings because of it,” she said. “That counts for something, right?”

A low purr emitted from Esalen’s throat, her lips tugged into a smile. Idly, Sure Stroke wondered if she was tasting her again, but didn’t turn back lest she feel awkward about it.

“You weren’t supposed to find out like that,” she muttered. “We were trying to ease you in.”

“I know, he told me. Which reminds me—” Sure Stroke drew back and pointed at Esalen’s fangs. “—fix them.”

Esalen blinked, her mouth fell open as comprehension dawned on her. “He told you?”

“He chased me as a pegasus, then forgot to make his fangs smaller when he changed back, and then he tried it when he caught me staring.” She stomped a hoof in frustration. “You guys say you want to ease me in, but how can I get used to things if you treat me like a baby?”

Flinching away from her, Esalen looked down at the ground. After a moment of silence, Sure Stroke watched as green fire washed over her fangs, returning them to normal length.

Esalen looked up, apprehension written plain on her face. She flicked out her tongue, her ears perked up. “You don’t taste as bad,” she said.

“I’ll take that as a compliment,” Sure Stroke replied with a smile.

Before Esalen could reply, the sound of feathered wings flapping in the wind made their ears perk up. They looked to the sky just in time to see Skydancer slowing herself for a landing at Sure Stroke’s side.

“Hello, dear,” Skydancer said, beaming as she leaned down to nuzzle the top of Sure Stroke’s mane. “How was school?”

Giggling at her mother’s nose and breath tickling her, Sure Stroke leaned into her touch. “Hi, mom. School was fine.” She turned to look at Esalen and grinned. “They invited me to play hide and seek!”

“And you did?” Seeing Sure Stroke nod, Skydancer gave a merry swish of her tail. “Wonderful! I—what in the name of Celestia is on your legs? And your cheek?”

Uh oh. Didn’t think of how mom would react. Sure Stroke cringed, wracking her brain for how to explain.

“Cocoon slime, Missus Skydancer,” Esalen said, smoothly inserting herself into the conversation as their classmates approached to greet her. “Sure Stroke flew through some branches and got a few cuts during our game, so my brother put some on to bandage them.”

Skydancer turned her attention to Aspire, who ducked his head and gave a strained smile. “Uh, yeah,” he said, not quite meeting her eyes. His cheeks colored, Aspire gave an awkward buzz of his wings. “I probably should’ve told her first, though.”

For a moment, she stayed quiet. Sure Stroke ducked low, waiting for her mother to explode.

Instead, Skydancer just cringed. “I see. I suppose that’s another thing to get used to,” she said, shuddering and rustling her wings at the thought. “Er, I’m sorry. I don’t mean to sound rude, it’s just—” Stopping short, she sighed. “Ignore me. I’ll adjust.”

The foals and nymphs smiled and nodded. Aspire shot Sure Stroke a sidelong grin and added, “You should’ve seen her face when I put it on her leg. She looked like I’d slapped her with a fish!”

“Hey!” Sure Stroke cried. “I did not!”

Green fire wreathed around his form, burning his face away until a perfect imitation of hers was looking back at her. Her double’s jaw dropped open as if unsure to shriek or vomit, before the fire returned and Aspire resumed his natural form, a wicked grin splitting his muzzle. “Just. Like. That.”

To her horror, Skydancer giggled and added, “Now, that is a look I’m very familiar with.”

Mom!” she whined, blushing as her friends laughed.

“Oh, hush, dear! I’m just happy for you.” Ducking down and planting a kiss to the top of her head, Skydancer looked to Esalen. “I don’t suppose you had plans for my little filly today?”

“Actually,” Vector said, stepping forward and grinning, “she was gonna come with us to Missus Sweet Treat’s shop. We’ve got a little bet to cash in on!”

Toola giggled and nudged his shoulder. “Looks like someone needs another quick lesson!” she sang.

He yelped and took wing, just in time to avoid Nimble’s grab for his shoulder. “No way, no how!” he said, jabbing a hoof at the smirking nymphs. “You’re not getting me again!”

Nimble bared her fangs and hissed, grinning as her eyes flashed. “Oh, maybe I won’t get you again today, Zippy colt! But I’ll have you in my hooves again, and I’ll hear that adorable laughter of yours soon enough!”

“He’s really ticklish,” Zephyr explained to Skydancer, his eyes locked on the defiant pegasus above them. He smirked and moved to stand beside Nimble. “And it seems we’ll have to remind him how nymphs play, eh, Nim?”

“Agreed.”

Laughing at the visible shudder that ran through Vector’s body, Sure Stroke turned to her mother and asked, “It’s okay if I go with them, right mom?”

Skydancer gave a bright smile and nodded. “Of course, sweetie!” she said, reaching up to tussle her mane. “Just make sure you remember to be back in time for dinner, and so you can do your homework.”

“We normally do our homework at the shop or the ice cream parlor,” Esalen said.

“Even better,” Skydancer said. She turned on her hooves and unfurled her wings, reader to fly home, but paused. Glancing over her shoulder with a sly smirk, she called, “Your name is Nimble Hooves, isn’t it?”

Nimble turned from her playful menacing to tilt her head at Skydancer. “You know my name?”

“I’ve heard from a few neighbors about a certain nymph who loves to tickle.” Her eyes flitted to Sure Stroke, gleaming with mischievous intent. “That said, my little filly is particularly ticklish around her wing joints.”

Squeaking, Sure Stroke clamped her wings against her sides and darted around a laughing Aspire. “Mom!”

“Really?” Nimble grinned, giving her wings a merry buzz. “I haven’t had a chance to test her spots!”

“Mom, please!”

“She squeaks if you poke her ribs, too! Have fun, dear!” With a single flap of her wings, Skydancer took off, waving to them before she made her way across town.

Almost in unison, her classmates turned to fix her with wicked grins. Vector landed between Nimble and Zephyr, flexing his wings in challenge. “So,” he said, “who’s up for a little experiment? I’ve got the sky covered.”

Sure Stroke whimpered, flinching away as Aspire and Esalen bared their fangs and moved to flank her.

“Come on, now, Sure Stroke,” Aspire cooed. “We just wanna see if your mom’s telling the truth!”

Esalen added, “It’s gonna happen anyway. You might as well just give in.”

“Surrender to tickles!” Toola cried, her menacing façade ruined by a bout of giggles. “But resistance is more fun in the end!”

She needed no further prompting. With a squeak of dismay, Sure Stroke took off toward the gate as fast as she could, her hooves pounded at the dirt as she got a running start, doing her best to ignore the pain shooting up her leg, then took to the sky with a quartet of nymphs and a pegasus right on her tail, and a lone earth pony chasing after on hoof.


Though the aerial view Respite looked different from the walk around tour she’d been given, Sure Stroke still found herself able to navigate just as easily. Ponies and changelings of all colors, sizes, and ages milled about below. The moving ponies from her first day trotted past carrying bits of lumber on their backs and tools in saddlebags, their booming laughter and loud voices pierced through the air, even as his has she was. If she squinted, she could see Mister Welcome darting between the buildings, stopping to talk or direct ponies toward whatever they were working on.

Curious, but she had more pressing issues. Like her airborne classmates rapidly closing in on her, bringing with them promises of tickling and torment untold.

“Oh, hay, no!” She narrowed her eyes and gave a few quick wingbeats. She had to get to her destination before they got ahold of her or she’d be at their mercy.

In Aspire’s case, it would be twice in one day that he got to tease her. And that just couldn’t be allowed.

It didn’t take more than a couple flyovers with her mom to figure out that the little hut with the cupcake shaped sign was Missus Sweet Treat’s shop.

At first, Sure Stroke thought to fly toward Queen Euphoria’s home, but Vector and the nymphs would always adjust course so one of them would be there with hooves ready to grab her the moment she showed sign of banking. They were steering her to the shop.

They want to catch me, tickle me, and then have cake while they crow over it. Sure Stroke smirked. Fine, then.

If they wanted to try to out-fly a Cloudsdale pegasus, they had another thing coming. Herding her toward the sweet shop worked both ways.

After all, no grown up liked it when a bunch of foals—and nymphs—came running into their workplace and made a bunch of noise.

Sure Stroke angled herself down and folded her wings against her side, letting her own momentum and gravity do the work for her. Pinning back her ears, she narrowed her eyes as the wind whistled past her. She could hear the faint sound of Vector’s distant cry, only spurring her forward. He knew as well as she did that it was all over unless Toola could beat her to the door.

A quick glance to the ground below revealed that Toola was nowhere near close enough. All she had to do was land and get inside before they could grab her.

Gritting her teeth, Sure Stroke hit the dirt pathway in a dead sprint, bounding toward the door. The sound of feathery flapping and chitinous wings buzzing, followed by hooves pounding on the dirt just behind her spurred her on. She reached the door, throwing it open and dashing inside as fast as her little legs could carry her. Panting for breath, she searched for Missus Sweet Treat, still struggling to match the name to a face.

“Gotcha!” Aspire cried, wrapping his hooves around her barrel and wrestling her to the floor, putting his full weight on her back so she was forced to lay on her stomach.

Sure Stroke squeaked, kicking her hooves and beating her wings to throw him off. “Let me go!” she cried, squealing as Esalen, Toola, and Vector joined the fray, each grabbing a hoof and pinning it to the floor. “No, no, no!”

“Yes, yes, yes!” they chanted back at her. Vector and Toola’s laughter mixed with the nymphs’ chittering snickers. They had her right where they wanted her.

Esalen shot her a fanged grin, then turned to Nimble. “She’s all yours! Watch out for her wings—ow! She packs a wallop in these things!”

With a chittering snicker of her own, Nimble trotted forward, circling around Sure Stroke like a shark. “Hmm, now where to begin?” she mused, pulling a mock pout. “Do I wanna see you squirm, or should we see how high you squeak? Judges?” she asked, both to their friends and the patrons in the shop.

The grownups, changeling and pony alike, grinned and laughed with them, calling for her to go ahead and make good on her threat. Sure Stroke gave one last, desperate struggle, biting her lip as Nimble descended upon her. She clamped her wings shut in defiance.

Nimble cooed, “Now, now, none of that!” A smooth, chitinous hoof touched her back, coaxing its way under her wing.

She bit her lip, holding back another squeak as the familiar sensation of a hoof’s soft touch around her wing teased her skin. Sure Stroke screwed her eyes shut and tried to wriggle away, but her friends’ grips on her hooves were tight and fast.

Another hoof joined the fray, poking just beneath her ribcage. Sure Stroke gasped, a bout of uncontrollable giggles slipped through her lips. “N-No! Stop!”

“See? Much better!” Nimble said, trailing her hoof around the base of Sure Stroke’s wing as light as a feather’s touch. “Come on, let’s hear it!”

Sure Stroke shook her head and tried to fold her wing closed, but Nimble had moved her free leg to pin it open with her elbow. “N-Nimble, please!” she begged around a fit of giggles and squeaks. “I don’t—eep!—like being tickled!”

“Aw, but you squeak so adorably!” Aspire said, poking her in the side to bring one forth from her lips.

The sound of a mare clearing her throat made her ear flick, and brought the teasing, poking hooves to a halt. Sure Stroke searched for the source and found a plump mare dressed in an apron stained with flour and drops icing standing over them. A stern frown marred her face, she arched a single brow at them.

“Hi, Missus Sweet Treat!” the group sans Sure Stroke greeted her, each returning her look with an innocent smile.

Missus Sweet Treat nodded in return. “Hello, little ones,” she greeted. Her eyebrow arched higher. “Aspire?”

He winced, pinning his ears back at the stern edge to her voice. “Yes, Missus Sweet Treat?”

“What’s my rule on roughhousing in the dining area?”

Aspire ducked his head. “No roughhousing in the dining area. Ever.”

Sure Stroke breathed a sigh of relief, sending silent thanks to her savior as she let herself relax in her friends’ grasp.

Missus Sweet Treat nodded once. “That’s right. Now, as happy as I am to see the newest member of our village having fun with you all, and as entertaining as it is to watch Nimble tickle someone silly—” Sure Stroke felt her heart sink at the sight of the upward tugging of the plump mare’s lips. So much for being her savior. “—but this is not the time or the place. Kindly let her up, please.”

“But we’ll have to chase her all over again!” Vector complained, letting his shoulders slump.

“You’re a fast little colt, I’m sure you’ll manage. Now, off.” She stomped a hoof against the wood floor, the sharp clop of hoof on wood giving no further room for talk.

The group whined and grumbled as they released their hold on Sure Stroke, each getting off of her and huffing. She took her cue to leap to her hooves and dart around to hide behind Missus Sweet Treat, then stuck her tongue out at them.

Esalen narrowed her eyes and laid her ears against her scalp. “Oh, you’ll get it for that one,” she said. “You know what challenging us means!”

With a squeak of fear, Sure Stroke ducked behind Missus Sweet Treat’s legs, her ears burning at the sound of the nymphs’ chittering snickers.

Laughing, Missus Sweet Treat stepped to the side and patted Sure Stroke on the head, pushing her toward her friends. “I’m afraid you’ve gone and stepped in it now, dear. I can’t help you once you step out that door!” she said. Looking to each of them in turn, she smiled. “So, what brings you here?”

“Collecting our winnings!” Vector said as he and Toola stepped forward, each laid a hoof upon Sure Stroke’s back.

Toola bobbed her head. “Yup, yup! Cake is on the nymphs since they couldn’t catch both Zippy and Sure Stroke!” She turned to look at their classmates and made a show of licking her lips, grinning at the way they wrinkled their snouts and grumbled. “Chocolate cake, to be exact!”

Missus Sweet Treat waggled her ears. “Eating chocolate cake on a nymph’s bits? On four nymphs’ bits and boasting about it in front of them? Oh, my! You three are far more brave than I!” She turned and made her way around the counter, shaking her head and smiling. She reached into the display case and pulled out a whole chocolate cake. Big enough to satisfy a few young foals and nymphs. “It’ll be twelve bits.”

As each of the nymphs reached into their saddlebags to get to their bit pouches, Sure Stroke sniffed, licking her lips at the smooth, sweet scent of chocolate. Whether or not she would suffer a bit of payback seemed to fade into the backdrop as anticipation of the cake’s sweetness on her tongue set in.

Being scared was definitely worth it. Free cake is always worth it. Sure Stroke did her best not to bounce on her hooves, but couldn’t stop her tail from swishing or feathers from fluffing as she watched Missus Sweet Treat accept her pay, then bring the cake and several sets of plates and forks over to an empty table.

“Here we are,” Missus Sweet Treat said, stepping back with a smile as they scrambled over to sit around the table, each eying her creation with ravenous hunger. “Should I have one of the boys bring out some drinks, or are you going to be okay without?”

Esalen glanced to Sure Stroke and asked, “Are you okay with tea?”

“Works for me,” she replied, hopping into her place between the siblings.

Missus Sweet Treat nodded and trotted over to a small window next to a push door. “Peppermint!” she called through the window. “Could you be a dear and—oh for goodness sake! Spearmint! Stop throwing flour at your brother!” Heaving a long-suffering sigh, she brought a hoof to her forehead. “Peppermint, make some tea, please. Seven cups.”

“Seven?” a colt’s voice called back. “Geez, Aunty Sweets! Did the Queen and her entourage just drop in? And you didn’t give us a heads up?”

Rolling her eyes, she flicked her tail. “No, Peppermint, some of Mister Abacus’ students.”

“Oh!” His tone changed from incredulous to chipper. “Why didn’t you just say so? Yeah, I’ll have it out.”

“Thank you.”

Sure Stroke furrowed her brows, then turned to look to Aspire. “I thought the Queen was supposed to be rather casual.”

Aspire shrugged. “Well, she doesn’t have a big castle, but she’s still the Queen. We all respect her and try to show appreciation for all she does for the village.” He sat his saddlebags down on the floor and began taking out his homework. “Might as well start working while we wait. What do you guys wanna start on?”

“Might as well get math out of the way,” Esalen said, sighing as she pulled her notebook out, along with the list of problems Mister Abacus had given them. “More algebra. Bleh!” She stuck out her long, serpentine tongue and crossed her eyes, earning a bout of giggles from Toola and Sure Stroke.

Long tongues, too, Sure Stroke noted. They’re an odd mix of pony-like bugs, with some reptile stuff mixed in. Idly, she wondered if there was some place she could go to look up a bit more on her changeling friends. The three pony tribes were easy enough to trace back through history, but the changelings were shrouded in myth and old mares’ tales to frighten naughty foals.

Those thoughts were for later. Unfortunately, algebra beckoned, a call she was more wont to flee from than answer.

Sighing in defeat, she retrieved her own notebook, pencil, and sheet of problems and set them on the table as Toola set about cutting each of them a slice of cake. “How many of these do we have?”

“Only ten tonight,” Esalen said. “He gave us a light assignment since your—”

“Since we have a thing this weekend!” Aspire spoke over her, shooting a stern glare her way. “By love, I know you already opened your mouth about it, but are you trying to let everyone know you did?”

Ducking her head, Esalen gave a sheepish grin. “Oops.”

“Wait, what?” Vector looked between them, his brows knitted together in confusion. “What’d she blab about this time?”

“Oh, she just told me about the—” Aspire’s hoof covered Sure Stroke’s mouth.

“No, no! Don’t ruin the fun!” he drawled, a sideways smirk crept across his face. “Please, Essy’s already gonna get a good walloping once dad finds out, and I’d just hate for her to ruin one of her chances to regale us with a half-baked excuse!”

Sniggering, Zephyr waggled his ears. “Oh, I can’t wait for that! Hers are the only ones worse than yours, bookbug!”

Confused, Sure Stroke brushed Aspire’s hoof away and turned to look to Esalen. To her bemusement, her friend had ducked her head low and seemed to be taking a rather keen interest in her cake, hovering over it like a hawk.

“My excuses are not that bad!” she grumbled, shooting Zephyr a glare when he burst into laughter. “They aren’t!”

There was a creaking of door hinges, then a steady cadence of hooves clopping against wood. “Hey, now!” a colt’s voice called. “What’s Essy making excuses for this time?

Toola waved. “Hi, Pep! Essy’s done a thing that Mister Welcome’s gonna be mad about!”

“Again? Ha!”

Turning to face the source, Sure Stroke was met by a colt of pure white coat and red mane with white highlights, and a peppermint wrapped in plastic displayed proudly on his flank. He looked to be around their age, though perhaps a couple years older. Patches of flour covered his coat and apron, though it did nothing to take away from the bright smile on his face or the spring in his gait.

Peppermint trotted over, balancing a tea tray on his back, then lit up his horn to set it down in the middle of the table. Glancing around the table, his mint green eyes met with hers. “Oh, you must be the new filly I’ve heard about!” he said, grinning and holding out a hoof. “My name’s Peppermint, Sweet Treat and Vigil are my aunts!”

Sure Stroke gave a shaky smile. “Hi, I’m Sure Stroke,” she replied, accepting the hoofshake.

“Nice to meet you!” he said, giving a merry wave. “I’d love to stay around and chat, but I’ve gotta get back or Caramel will whine about me taking too long.” He nodded his head to each of them, sparing an extra grin to Nimble. “Hey, Nim!”

Nimble squeaked, her cheeks flushed. “H-Hi, Pepper! How’s your day going?”

“Pretty well, flour fight notwithstanding.” Flitting his eyes toward Esalen, he winked. “Try to keep her out of trouble for me, eh Nim? We need her to bring in newcomers for bits!”

Giving a shaky nod, she smiled back at him, then ducked her head as though to hide behind her cake.

“You’re so silly.” Peppermint chuckled, then turned and trotted toward the door. “Have a good one, guys! See ya later!”

Once he’d passed through the door, Esalen turned and leveled Nimble with a glare. “Gonna keep an eye on me for him, eh?” she asked, smirking as her fellow nymph quailed before her. “I’ll remember that. Oh, yes, you’ll get yours, ‘Nim’!” It took Toola patting her on the back and rubbing between her shoulder blades to get her to stop arching her back and baring her fangs in that wicked smirk. She gave a snort, turning to nose against Toola’s cheek before taking up her fork, then shoveling a bite of cake into her mouth.

Sure Stroke watched as Esalen’s ears perked right up and her snarl melted away into a bright smile. A happy purr made her own ears twitch, then flick to the other nymphs as they began eating. She looked down, tilting her head as she stared at the cake.

What in the world? Taking her fork in hoof, she speared a bit into her mouth. Her eyes went wide, her tail swished merrily. Just as Aspire and Esalen promised at lunch a few weeks prior, Missus Sweat Treat could bake like no other!

Somehow, the icing was just perfect! Sure Stroke abandoned any sense of propriety and attacked her cake, scarfing it down faster than she’d ever done so before.

When she finished, she couldn’t help but stare at the empty plate, perplexed that she’d polished it off so quickly. Hearing Aspire snort, she turned and was met with his amused smirk. “That happens a lot, doesn’t it?”

Aspire grinned. “Every time we bring someone new in.” He waggled his ears. “We kept trying to get you to come here with all of us, but you wouldn’t listen.”

Ducking her head, she gave a wobbly smile. “Because you all wanted to hang out with me or because you wanted to see me scarf cake?”

“Yes.”

Fair enough.

“You weren’t quite as funny as our last one!” Vector said. “She didn’t even use a fork after the first bite!”

Sure Stroke snorted and clapped her hooves over her mouth to hold back her giggles. “I would’ve paid to see that!” Her eyes flitted to the cake again, then to her plate. “Would it be okay if I have another?”

Snorting, Vector took the cake cutter and passed it over to her. “We’ve got a whole cake, just go ahead!” He grinned, giving a little nudge to a still-blushing Nimble. “After all, we get first dibs since we beat the nymphs.”

Nimble shot him a look, the wobbly smile on her face vanished. “Tread lightly,” she warned.

He grinned. “Oh, Pepper, you look sooooooooooo cute with flour stains all over your coat! Here, let me get a damp towel so you can clean yourself off!” he mocked, clasping his hooves and batting his eyelashes.

Hissing, Nimble brandished her fork at him. “One more word, Zippy. Just one.”

Vector simply smiled back at her, then settled back into his seat to resume eating his cake.

Sure Stroke shook her head in amusement and cut herself another piece. Might as well enjoy it before we start on our homework. With her fork in hoof, she let her eyes wander over each of her new friends’ smiling faces, then down to the slime coating her legs.

A rueful smile crossed her muzzle. It was a little painful, and a bit scary, but hide and seek with the nymphs had turned out for the best after all. They loved to laugh and play, running and wrestling just like the pegasi in Cloudsdale.

She took a bite of cake, humming as she was reacquainted with the taste of sweet chocolate. Today was definitely a good day.


Sure Stroke held her head in her hooves, clenching her eyes shut as if to hide from her tormentor. “I officially hate algebra,” she grumped. “I hate it! Hate it! Hate it!”

Aspire nudged her with his shoulder. “Aw, c’mon!” he said, grinning impishly. “It’s not that bad! Try to be a little more positive about it!”

She leaned in close enough that their snouts almost touched, narrowing her eyes at the cheeky nymph. “I am positive that I hate it!” she retorted.

“She’s got ya there, bookbug!” Vector laughed, waggling his eyebrows. “Only a weirdo, bookophile like you likes this sort of stuff, anyway!”

“That’s bibliophile, cloud-for-brains!”

“And that just proves my point!”

Rather than hiss and bare his fangs as he had before, Aspire just rolled his eyes. “Yeah, yeah, sure it does.” He lowered his voice, mumbling, “You’ll change your tune right about the time you need my help studying for a test. You cloud-brained little punk!”

“Temper, temper!” Esalen chided. Waggling her ears, she flashed him a mischievous grin. “Don’t set a bad example for Sure Stroke, Aspire! She’ll start to think we like to hold grudges!”

“Too late for that!” Sure Stroke put in before he could comment. Shooting him a smirk, she gave a meaningful waggle of her slime-coated leg. “Someone thought it would be a good idea to scare the feathers off of me!” She had to withhold a laugh as he quailed beneath her gaze, the sight of his translucent wings buzzing awkwardly nearly broke her façade. “Now who could that be?”

Sucking in his lips, Aspire fidgeted beneath her gaze. “So! Algebra!” he said, making no effort to hide his want for a change of subject. He moved in a bit closer, leaning to the side so he could look over her work, his smooth carapace touched against her soft coat.

Again, she had to marvel at the feeling. She didn’t have much of a chance to reflect on it in the forest, what with his unique method for bandaging her legs taking the brunt of her focus, as well as what she learned about challenging her changeling friends.

Sure Stroke snuck a glance out of the corner of her eye, marveling at the difference in feeling. A pony’s coat was short, smooth like velvet when brushed well, carried the warmth of the body it covered, and had the tendency to tickle when rubbed against another. Changeling carapace, on the other hoof, was an entirely different story.

It was firm to the touch, like the glinting armor of the Royal Guard of Equestria. Yet it somehow carried the same warmth of a pony’s body, just without the sensation of tickling or velvety coat brushing against another pony’s.

Like river rocks on a warm summer day.

Aspire’s humming brought her back to present. He tapped his hoof against her paper, pointing to the first problem she’d done. “You forgot to change the sign from a negative to a positive,” he said. “And that messed up the rest of the problem.”

Sure Stroke blinked. “What?” She leaned in closer, hunching over her paper and glaring at the numbers before her. Almost frantic, she skimmed through her work, looking for the spot he was talking about. Her lips curved into a tiny frown. “I don’t see where I missed it.”

“Right here.” He tapped his hoof near the third line of her work. “You can’t add a number to one that has a variable by it.”

“You mean the x?”

Chuckling, he nodded. “Yes. The x, Sure. I mean… Stroke? Strokey?” He wrinkled his snout and shook his head. “Nope. Doesn’t work.”

“What are you trying to do with my name?” she asked, giggling at the way he pulled his face.

“Trying to give you a nickname. Saying ‘Sure Stroke’ all the time just isn’t happening!” He huffed. “How come yours isn’t easy like Essy’s or Nim’s?”

“My name isn’t ‘Zippy’, y’know,” Vector said, raising a brow at Aspire. “Zephyr is Zeph and Toola’s just Toola.” The pair bobbed their heads in agreement.

“Not everyone needs a nickname, Aspire,” Nimble added. “Why can’t Sure Stroke be Sure Stroke?”

He rolled his eyes at them. “It’s the principle of the matter!” Turning his attention to Sure Stroke again, he jabbed a hoof at her. “Someday soon, I’m going to figure out a nickname for you and, by my chitin, it is going to stick!”

Sure Stroke covered her mouth to hold in her laughter. “Okay, then,” she said, mirth tinging her voice. “So, about the problem?”

“Oh, right!” Aspire settled back down and shrugged. “You have to change the signs because there’s a minus sign outside the parentheses—so you’ve gotta treat it like you’re multiplying everything inside by negative one and change all the signs before you can add like terms.”

Her jaw dropped. Sure Stroke pinned her ears back and slumped in her seat. “I’ve been adding them together all the way down,” she whimpered, eyes widened in horror.

Each of her friends winced in sympathy. “I’ve done that before,” Vector admitted, giving a pained smile. “At least you caught it now instead of having Mister Abacus give it back covered in red ink. I swear he gets some sort of pleasure out of it.”

“He does a little,” each of the nymphs said, giving meaningful flicks of their tongues.

Sure Stroke groaned and slowly laid her head down, burying her face in her hooves. “I hate everything!” she wailed into her legs. “Stupid like terms! Stupid math! Why can’t I just write or draw all day?”

From her left side, Esalen giggled and patted her shoulder with a hoof. “Because we have to learn it if we want to function in the outside world, or whatever the grown ups say. It’s okay. We all hate it too—”

“Speak for yourself!” Aspire cut in.

With a little raise of her brows, Esalen amended her statement, “Fine. Normal nymphs and foals hate it.”

Scoffing, Aspire shrugged. “If you say so. You got number five wrong, by the way. Good luck figuring out how.”

Sure Stroke tilted her head to glance out of the corner of her eye, watching in mild amusement as Esalen reared back as if struck, turning her attention to her homework.

Squinting, the nymph narrowed her bright pink eyes and hunched her back, almost as though looming over her homework like a hungry timberwolf. “There’s no way,” she mumbled, her hoof moving toward her pencil despite her disbelief. Like she knew he was right. “I don’t see it, what are you even—”

“Nope!” he chirped, reclining in his seat and making a show of tossing his pencil onto the table. “I’m not a normal nymph!”

Toola sniggered at Esalen’s side. “He’s got ya there, Essy! Shouldn’t've opened your mouth if you wanted him to check your work!” Dodging a poke toward her side, she stuck her tongue out at Esalen, then passed her paper over to Aspire. “How’s mine look?” she asked, fixing him with her biggest and most innocent wide-eyed stare and pout.

Aspire blinked a moment, then broke eye contact. “Dear chitin, Toola, I just ate! Are you trying to make me want to hold you tight and feed on you until you fall asleep?”

She beamed and made a show of shrugging her shoulders, then gave him a sidelong look that made his ears stand up straight—along with the other nymphs’. “Will you look over my homework for me if I say yes?”

He bit down on his lip, his eyes flitted to Sure Stroke for a moment, then to the the slice of cake on his place—his second—and back to Toola. Mumbling something under his breath, he moved in a blur, snatching her paper off the table and quickly scanning over it, his soulful blue eyes darting over the page. “You got the last one wrong,” he said, offering it back to her. “You didn’t change signs after you multiplied.”

“Aw, crabapples!” she harrumphed, plopping herself down in her seat. With a sigh, she took her pencil in hoof and began erasing her work. “I thought I had it this time!”

Aspire gave her a sympathetic smile. “Almost. At least it’s just the one—er, sorry, Sure Stroke.”

Cringing at the unintended shot, Sure Stroke gave a sheepish grin. “It’s okay.”

Toola sighed and shook her head. “Well, back to this again,” she grumbled, all traces of her usual bubbly nature gone for the moment. She glanced up, offering a small smile. “So, when do you want a bite? Now or after?”

“Uh, later,” he said, his eyes flitting to Sure Stroke. “I’ll, uh, think of when after I help her with this. Yeah.” He gave an awkward cough and looked at Sure Stroke’s paper. “So, look here. There’s a minus sign in front of the parentheses, like the one from before, so you’ve gotta change the signs like I mentioned earlier.”

Sure Stroke raised an eyebrow at the rather abrupt change in his demeanor. Filing it away for later, she directed her attention to the problem at hoof.

She took her pencil in hoof and erased her work, wrinkling her snout as each stroke of the squared pink eraser wiped away her efforts, leaving behind only the twisted ends of blackened rubber. With an agitated sigh, she began again.

Why did it have to be math?


“Bye Missus Sweet Treat!” the group called as they trotted out the door, each pausing to spare a wave to the baker.

She waved back, beaming at them. “Thanks for stopping by, kids! Nice to meet you Sure Stroke!”

Ducking her head, Sure Stroke gave a shaky smile and nodded as she slipped through the door. As she stepped outside, she moved to the side to allow a changeling mare dressed in forest green armor to enter. Her ears twitched at Missus Sweet Treat’s cheer of “Vigil” just before the door shut behind her.

Humming to herself, she trotted over to her friends and began walking away from the shop. “Do they know each other—wait.” She held up a hoof before her friends could speak, grimacing at her own question. “Small village. Of course they do.”

Zephyr snorted. “Well, that and the fact that they’re married.”

“Oh. Well.” She bit her lip, trying in vain to ignore the burning at the tips of her ears as her friends giggled. “That would explain it, then.” As a wicked fanged grin spread across Esalen’s face, no doubt readying for one of her quips, Sure Stroke turned to look for Aspire and Toola.

The pair had fallen behind a little, walking side-by-side. Aspire’s second slice of cake had been wrapped up for later, held aloft in the bright green glow of his magic. “You know you don’t have to feed me for help on one problem,” he said. “Mom’ll be mad if I spoil dinner, anyway.”

Sure Stroke tilted her head, confused as she watched Toola smile in return. “I just thought I’d offer since you always help us with math. That’s the usual deal anyway.”

He shook his head. “Not for one problem, it’s not. I can’t drink from you for something like that. It’s not equivalent.”

“Always so fair!” she said, laughing. Toola leaned in and nosed against his cheek. “Fine, then. If I’m not feeding you, then I guess you get your slice of cake. Or…” Her eyes flitted up to meet Sure Stroke’s. Grinning mischievously, Toola winked at her, then added. “Maybe you could give it to someone you scared in the forest!”

Aspire ducked his head, mumbling something under his breath that sent her into another of her giggle fits.

Toola stole another nuzzle to his cheek, then broke away to trot down a path off toward the right, with Vector, Nimble, and Zephyr making for the same path. Each gave a wave to Sure Stroke and the siblings. “See ya this weekend! Try not to get walloped too hard, Essy!”

“Shut up, Toola!” Esalen sang back, her eyes flashing dangerously. “Or there’s a tickle session with your name on it!”

“There’s always a tickle session with my name on it! Come up with a new—eep!” Toola jumped to the side, squeaking at a little poke from Nimble’s hoof. “Nim!”

Nimble gave a chittering laugh. “Still works! Seems like a good threat!”

“Oh, c’mon!” Vector and Zephyr said in unison, the former adding, “That’s like saying ‘nymphs still love chocolate’, Nim.”

As the quartet walked away, still bickering and bantering with each other, Aspire and Esalen turned down the path to the left, the same one that lead to Sure Stroke’s house.

“So,” Esalen began. “Who was right about playing with everyone?”

Sure Stroke ducked her head to hide a smile. “You were.”

“Thought so.” With a cheeky grin, Esalen bumped her hip against Sure Stroke’s, sending her stumbling toward Aspire, who bumped her in turn.

She fixed the pair with a mock glare. “Are you two going to tease and bump me back and forth now?”

“Nah, if we wanted to tease you, I’d pin you down and Essy would tickle your sides,” Aspire said with a waggle of his eyebrows. “Don’t think we missed the little squeak you gave Nimble, Sure!”

Unfurling her wings to protect her sides from any wandering hooves, Sure Stroke tried to change the subject, latching onto something else. “Back to the nicknames, eh?”

Aspire wrinkled his snout. “It still doesn’t seem right. I’ll figure something out. Eventually.”

“We all await with baited breath,” Esalen teased, before turning her attention to Sure Stroke again. “So how’ve your parents managed settling in so far? I haven’t seen your mom helping Mister Breezy yet, and I think Raindance has still been doing weather management.”

“They’re still trying to get everything unpacked.” Sure Stroke gave a crooked smile. “Dad’s a bit picky with how our furniture is, so he keeps trying to reshape the clouds so they’re as fluffy as the ones back home. And mom’s getting to know everyone she can buy food from. And, um, learning the cost. I think your dad went with her to the market the first couple times.”

“Yeah, he likes to do that.” Aspire nodded. “Helps new ponies understand what the cost of love for each thing is.”

Sure Stroke gave a hum of agreement. She looked down at the worn dirt path, watching the dust kicked up by each step with muted fascination.

Dirt didn’t quite mould and form to her touch. It was more firm, less fluffy. And it was colored in an orange-brown blend that seemed straight out of one of her scenery books.

“Hey, Sure Stroke?” Esalen asked, jolting her out of her thoughts. “Just had an idea.”

Blinking, she looked up to meet Esalen’s sugar pink eyes. “Yes?”

“Well, since I kinda blew the surprise party for you—”

“You mean completely blew the surprise party,” Aspire quipped, sticking out his tongue at her.

Esalen raised a brow. “Awful brave when you’ve got Sure Stroke between us.” Snorting, she shook her head. “You’ll get yours later. Anyway, do you wanna come over for dinner? It’d be nice to have you over for a night. Your parents, too, actually.”

Aspire perked up, waggling his ears. “Oh, that would be nice! I take back the surprise joke!”

“Too bad, you’re still getting it later.” She looked at Sure Stroke and grinned. “What do you say?”

Sure Stroke chewed on her lip, thinking on what her parents had planned. “I don’t think I can come over tonight. Mom’s gonna make quiche.”

“How about tomorrow around five or six, then? You could ask your parents tonight.”

She nodded once. “If your parents don’t mind, I guess it’d be okay.”

The siblings shared a laugh. Aspire floated his remaining slice of cake over to rest on Sure Stroke’s back. “There, you take that. Call it repayment for me scaring you.” Before she could object, he placed a hoof against her mouth. “No arguing. And don’t worry about our parents, you know our dad loves visitors.”

“Yeah,” Esalen added, “and mom loves having friends for dinner!”

Sure Stroke froze, her ears stood up straight. The color drained from her face as visions of the family of four changelings looming over a trio of pegasi, bound in cocoon slime, their fangs glinting in the light as they readied to feast on her love danced through her mind.

She swallowed a lump in her throat, her tongue seemed to dry out. Working her mouth wordlessly a moment, she struggled to find the right way to voice her question.

Sure Stroke closed her eyes and took a deep breath, settling on the only word prevalent in each version. “What?”

13. A Flock Amongst the Hive

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Sure Stroke jolted awake and tried to move her legs, fighting against the green slime that bound her limbs together. Her mouth was covered, her screams reduced to nothing but muffled cries and pleas for help or mercy.

“Well, well, she’s awake!”

She felt her breath hitch in her throat at the sound of Mister Warm Welcome’s voice. Craning her head, she saw him standing alongside a full-grown changeling mare with golden eyes and a mane as yellow as sunflowers, both giving fanged grins as they loomed over her parents.

“Did you enjoy your nap, dear?” the mare purred, running her hoof through Drizzly Day’s matted gray mane. She leaned down and nosed against his quivering cheek, trailing her long, serpentine tongue along his jawline. “Mmm, delicious! Full of love and seasoned with a healthy dose of fear!” She sat back on her haunches and pulled him close to her side, tilting his head up with a hoof so she could lick his snout then turned to her husband. “We should keep this one, darling. It’d be a shame to let such a strong stallion go to waste.

Chuckling, Warm Welcome kissed her cheek. “I was just thinking the same thing.” With a flick of his wrist, he nudged Skydancer onto her back, earning a startled squeak from the trapped mare. He leaned down and licked her neck, his eyelids fluttered shut. “Mmm, I may have to let you try her, love! She’s delectable!”

“There’s plenty of time for us to enjoy our share of each of them!” She scooted close to him, chittering as they shared a kiss. “They’re ours now!”

“The Queen always lures in the tastiest treats! We’ll have to share them with her once we’ve finished our meal!”

“What a wonderful idea! Do you think she’ll let us have Cool Breeze? It’s been a while since I’ve tasted him!”

Sure Stroke’s struggles renewed. She fought against her bonds, whining as the sticky slime seemed to tighten with her every struggle. Even her wings were bound and stuck against her side, leaving her helpless to watch as the changeling couple held her parents tight in their powerful embrace, sharing another deep kiss over their meal.

Something warm and wet ran across her cheek. Sure Stroke started and made to move away, but found herself pulled by two pairs of hooves. She turned, her blood ran cold in her veins as she met Aspire’s gaze.

Her friend snaked his hoof around her neck and pulled her in close. He ran his tongue from the nape of her neck all the way up to her chin. “She’s just as tasty as you said she’d be, Essy.” Sure Stroke watched him lick his lips, her eyes caught sight of a bit of drool. “It was worth the wait to season her a little!”

Another tongue teased her ear. Warm breath washed over the tip. “Love, desperation, fear, and betrayal!” Esalen said breathily. “All part of a good nymph’s diet, especially when it’s wrapped up in such a cute little package!”

“I never should’ve doubted you, sis!” Aspire leaned over to nuzzle Esalen’s nose. “Ponies are so silly, thinking they’re anything but food!”

“Well, they make good servants,” Esalen said as though talking about the weather. “And they’re a lot of fun to trick, of course.”

He hummed, releasing his grip to bring a hoof up to his chin. “I suppose you’re right.” Shrugging, he leaned in close, baring his fangs. “Either way, this one’s ripe and ready to eat!”

Sure Stroke’s ears pinned back, a whimper escaped her throat. She gave one last struggle, but Esalen held her tight.

“Now, now, just relax,” Esalen cooed, nuzzling her ear. “It’ll only hurt for a minute, then you’ll get a nice little buzz once our venom kicks in.” Soft lips pressed into her mane. “Why would we hurt such a yummy little thing when we can feed on you for as long as we like?”

Aspire tilted her chin up with a hoof. “Thanks for coming to dinner, Sure Stroke! It’s gonna be great having you!”

With a hiss, he darted forward, his fangs seeking out the side of her neck …


A terrified shriek escaped her lips. Sure Stroke sat up straight. Her chest heaved, her body shivered as she frantically searched for any sign of changelings or her parents.

There were none. Just four wooden walls, her old attempts at painting some of Cloudsdale’s more famous landmarks, and her bed.

She was alone in her room.

It was all just a terrible nightmare.

Sure Stroke brought a hoof to her chest, she felt cold sweat matting her coat as she tried to steady her breathing.

Wrinkling her snout, she thought back. Aspire and Esalen walked with her until they made it to her house, then pointed further down the main road toward their family’s home—Aspire fixed her with a sly smirk, saying “Looks like you’ll get real familiar with how changelings play tricks, eh neighbor?”

A shudder ran down her spine as she thought of his trick during hide and seek, the sly smirk he’d shot her overlapped with the wicked grin he wore in her nightmare.

She shook her head. Aspire and Esalen weren’t like the nymphs in her nightmare. They were both kind, patient, and caring. Aspire had even taken the time to coat her leg in slime to bandage her wounds—regardless of how strange, and icky, it was.

Her eyes flitted to her legs, staring at the sickly green slime still coating her cuts. Unbidden, another thought crept to the forefront of her mind:

Was he really being kind because I’m his friend? Or is he tending to me because he wants to keep me in good health until tomorrow night so he and Esalen can feed on me?

Again, she shook her head. No, they wouldn’t spend all that time trying to make sure she was comfortable, especially all that stuff with shortening their fangs, for just one meal.

Would they?

Sure Stroke bit her lip. She touched the slime wrap with a hoof, cringing a little at the strange, goopy feeling it left her with. It’s still warm.

Whatever Aspire’s changeling slime was made of, it managed to keep warm somehow and stuck to her without being spread onto her bed sheets as she slept. Though, it did seem to cling a little bit, almost like tape. But with a quick tug, it stretched and dislodged, staying fast on her legs.

She thought back to how he spoke of the slime’s purpose. “He mentioned some sort of magic to make it heal or do other things.” Furrowing her brows, she brought her hoof closer for inspection. Her eyes found the scrape marks on her knee.

Curious, she rolled out of bed, giving her wings a couple flaps to work out the post nap stiffness, then slowly arched her back. She winced as her muscles protested her stretching, the ache from her breakneck sprint through the forest and subsequent fall left her with a twinge right in her lower back.

Maybe a bath will help. She checked the clock sitting on her desk. Five fifteen, dad should’ve just gotten home from his first day with the weather team a half hour ago. By now, he’ll have taken a bath and sat down at the kitchen to drink cider so he can talk to mom while she cooks.

Sure Stroke walked over to her bedroom door and pushed it open. She pricked up her ears to listen out for the sound of her father’s low, almost sleepy sounding voice, her mother’s more lively, chipper tone, and the telltale hiss of the stove.

“… Wasn’t too bad today. I talked with Raindance about the weather going forward.”

“Oh?” Skydancer’s voice floated down the hall. “What’d he say?”

Sure Stroke’s ears flicked as her father gave a noncommittal hum. “He said we should only see a few showers coming in over the course of the next week, so as long as we coordinate that with some of our own rain, we should be okay. Storms are a bit more sparse this time of year, so not much in the way of thunderhead wrangling.”

“Well, at least you’ll get a chance to meet your team and learn how they do things without a formal weather factory. Hopefully, you’ll have a little bit before nature throws any stray storms our way.”

“Hopefully so, but I’m preparing for storms either way.” There was a beat of silence, then he added, “I saw that you’ve put your name down for emergency weather duty.”

Blinking, Sure Stroke tilted her head. Mom’s never been a weather pony. At least, not that I know of. She perked her ears up and trotted slowly down the hall, doing her best to keep her hoofsteps quiet.

“I did, yes,” Skydancer replied. “I thought you might like the help.”

“Any particular reason why? We have a decent number on our roster, and quite a few of the changeling guards volunteer from what I’ve heard.”

“I’m sure they do, but I know enough about weather magic and formations to help out in a pinch.”

Drizzly gave a low grumble. “You like teaching foals better, though. And I thought you were more excited about the chance to help rehab injured flyers.” There was a soft thump, the sound of his mug being placed on the table. “You’re not a trained weather pony, Sky.”

Sure Stroke reached the banister and poked her head around the corner just in time to see her mother stop stirring vegetables and turn, brandishing a wooden spoon at her father. “Just because I didn’t work in the weather factory or get a piece of paper doesn’t mean I can’t push clouds, Drizzly!”

He leaned back in his chair and held his hooves up in surrender. “I wasn’t trying to say you couldn’t! I’m just saying you’ve never dealt with rogue thunderheads before!”

Skydancer’s cheeks puffed up, she flared her wings out wide and pawed at the floor, ready to launch into a tirade.

By chance, she glanced out of the corner of her eye at Sure Stroke.

With a surprised squeak, Sure Stroke ducked behind the banister, bringing her wings up to cover her head.

“Sure Stroke?” her mother called, drawing a flinch. “Honey, I know you heard us. Come out.”

Laying her ears flat against her scalp, Sure Stroke poked her head around the banister again. She offered a crooked smile. “H-Hi, mom! Hi, dad!”

Drizzly raised an eyebrow at her, a wry smile crossed his muzzle. “What have we told you about eavesdropping, young filly?”

She ducked her head. “To not to …” Her cheeks burned as she shifted from hoof to hoof. “Because it’s rude, and I don’t know if I’m meant to hear the things ponies are talking about or not.”

“That’s right,” he said, giving a single nod. He beckoned her in with a wave of his hoof. “Come on in, sweetheart. Tell me how school was today.”

Sure Stroke bit her lip, her eyes flitted to the slime on her legs, then back up to meet her mother’s. She sucked in her lips and tried to send a silent plea for help.

Fortunately, she had years of practice doing so with her mother.

Skydancer cleared her throat. “Drizzly,” she began, speaking soothingly. “Sure Stroke had a bit of an accident during recess today, and ended up getting a few cuts on her legs.” Glancing at Sure Stroke again, she added, “And her cheek.”

He blinked, looking from Skydancer to Sure Stroke. “I don’t mean to sound cold, but you seem okay, sweetie. You didn’t hit anything too hard, right?” Drizzly leaned forward in his seat, craning his neck. “I don’t see anything on—wait a minute …” His eyes narrowed. “What’s that on your cheek? Did somepony stick gum to you?”

Sure Stroke flinched. “N-Not exactly gum. It’s, um …” She shifted from one hoof to the other, screwing her eyes shut and taking a deep breath. Just get it over with. Like pulling off a band-aid. Except this one is made of slime and got spat on your leg by one of your friends.

With a sigh, she stepped into the kitchen. Her ears twitched at the sharp gasp her father let out.

“What in the name of Celestia,” he began. His chair scraped against the wood as he stood up. An angry scowl marred his muzzle, his wings flared. “Who did this to you?”

“It was Aspire—wait, he didn’t do it to be mean!” she said hastily, holding up a slime-coated leg before he could make a move. “When I got scraped, he put this on my legs like he was bandaging them. He said changelings can use their cocoon slime for stuff like that.”

Drizzly thought a moment, folding his wings against his sides. He glanced to Skydancer. “You knew about this?” he asked.

She nodded. “I spoke with Aspire and Esalen today. They told me the same thing.” Thinking a moment, she tilted her head to the side, laying one ear flat against her scalp. “Though, I could always double check with their parents. Or perhaps, Breezy, so we don’t make it awkward.”

“If you don’t mind, I’d appreciate that.” Drizzly looked down at the floor a moment and mumbled, “I’m not comfortable enough with Raindancer or Stormy Sky to bother them about stuff like this yet.”

“We could talk to Queen Euphoria,” Skydancer offered. “She was rather adamant that we could go to her with any questions or if we felt uncomfortable.”

Sure Stroke’s head snapped up, her ears stood up straight. She glanced between her parents and made to speak, but found herself unable to form the words.

On one hoof, no pony should get in trouble for trying to help, even if they had to help after scaring the feathers off of her. On the other, her nightmare and Esalen’s words still plagued her thoughts.

“Mom loves having friends for dinner!”

A cold shiver ran down her spine. Was he actually trying to help, or was he just preserving a meal for himself?

“Either way,” her father’s voice brought her back to reality. “We’ll ask and decide then.” He walked over and leaned down, surveying her legs with a gaze that spoke of curiosity and unease. “It doesn’t hurt?” he asked. “You don’t feel uncomfortable at all?”

Biting her lip, Sure Stroke rubbed at the slime to show how it stuck to her hoof. “It’s a bit strange, but not painful. It feels like some kind of mixture of gum, syrup, and tree sap.” She tugged at it, watching with muted fascination as it stretched a little, then snapped back like a rubber band. “It didn’t get all over my sheets, though. So I suppose that’s a plus.”

“I wasn’t as concerned for the laundry, but at least we won’t have to ask how to wash it out,” Skydancer put in. “I’d still like to wash your sheets, though. No offense to your little friends, but sticky sheets aren’t fun.”

Drizzly sniffed, wrinkling his nose and drawing back. “Yes, speaking of which, you’ll need to take a bath, sweetie. You’re sweatier than me.” He raised a brow. “Did you go out back and run around while we weren’t looking? I thought your mother said you went to lay down for a nap.”

Sure Stroke let her ears droop. The image of Aspire grinning that fanged grin and thanking her for coming to dinner before he lunged for her neck was still fresh in her mind.

She looked down at her hooves, staring at Aspire’s slime wrap for a moment. “I had a nightmare,” she mumbled.

“Oh?” Drizzly placed a hoof on her back and pulled her in close for a hug. “Must’ve been rough if it made you sweat like this. Do you want to talk about it?”

A whine sounded from the back of her throat. She laid her head against Drizzly’s chest and gave a single nod.

Drizzly nuzzled the top of her head. His wings wrapped around her, soft feathers brushed against her sides as he held her tight, just like he had when she was younger.

Sure Stroke took a deep breath in through her nose. “I dreamt about their family having us for dinner,” she said.

Skydancer let out a sharp gasp.

“Go on,” her father said softly. He ran a hoof through her mane. “Tell me about it.”

Leaning into his touch, she continued, “Mister Warm Welcome and his wife had you both bound with cocoon slime and were talking about how they wanted to play with you before they fed on you. Aspire and Esalen had me bound as well and were talking about how silly of me it was to ever trust them. Aspire even thanked me for coming to dinner before he bit my neck.”

Drizzly stiffened, he tightened his embrace and continued his ministrations. “It was just a dream,” he said after a moment. “They haven’t tried to do anything like that, have they?”

Sure Stroke fidgeted in his grasp. “I heard one of my classmates offer to let Aspire feed on her in exchange for help with our math homework, and Vector said that they’ve been tasting my emotions whenever they flick their tongues out.”

“That … I didn’t know.” Drizzly shifted, his free hoof trailed down to wrap around her. “Sky, did you?”

“I had no idea. I’d seen a couple changelings shapeshift in front of me, and I’ve seen those brothers from the ice cream parlor wrinkle their snouts whenever somepony in a bad mood walks by.” Sure Stroke glanced over to see her mother bringing her spoon to her chin. “To be honest, I just thought they didn’t like seeing ponies in a bad mood. I never considered that they were tasting for emotions.”

“Another thing to ask Queen Euphoria, then.” Sighing, Drizzly folded his wings against his sides as he turned his attention to Sure Stroke again. Concern flashed across his face. “I thought you were getting along well with those two.”

“I was—I mean, I am!” Sure Stroke frowned at her slip up. “I’m trying to get along and be open to new things and stuff, but they’re just so different!” With a groan, she brought her hooves up to cover her head. “It’s their stupid fault I had that nightmare, but I don’t even think they meant to scare me—well, I don’t know if Esalen did, Aspire definitely did when we were playing hide and seek.”

Skydancer moved to sit with them. “What do you mean he scared you? And what did Esalen do?”

For a moment, Sure Stroke sat in silence. She chewed on her bottom lip, flicking her tail as she tried to think of a way to word it best. “W-Well, before we played hide and seek, Esalen and I teased Aspire a little. Apparently, the changelings take that as an invitation to play and tease in turn, so …” she trailed off, mumbling the last bit.

“Speak up, sweetie.”

With a low whine, Sure Stroke ducked her head. “He snuck up behind me and copied another pony’s voice so he could scare me. I panicked and flew through the forest as fast as I could, and then—”

“That’s when you fell,” Skydancer finished for her, wrapping her up in a hug. “Oh, sweetie, you know the foals back in Cloudsdale would’ve started roughhousing if you’d teased them.”

Drizzly snorted. “Sky, you can’t exactly blame her for being a little scared. Roughhousing and chasing is one thing, but taking another foal’s voice to play a trick is a bit off the wall, even for me!”

“He said he was sorry,” Sure Stroke mumbled. “He thought I was comfortable and wanted to play.”

Pulling back a moment, Drizzly made to speak but stopped short to think. “I didn’t mean to imply that he—sweetie, I don’t mean to accuse your friend of being a bully, I just meant changelings imitating others is just so … different for us.” He ran a hoof through his mane and heaved a sigh. “I’m sorry. I’m just tired, and I want you to be happy here, and I guess I just worry about you.”

She hung her head. “I know, Dad.” Raising her head, she gave a hesitant smile. “But at least he helped me afterward, right?”

He gave a hum, but let the issue drop.

A pang of guilt shot through her chest. How sad was it that she could go so easily from wondering if Aspire was sincere to using his strange show of kindness?

It was just a dream like dad said. Still, she wasn’t entirely sure. Aspire and Esalen were nice enough, but the way they invited her over just bothered her so—the wording in combination with how they fed on love and all those stories she read just made her coat stand on end.

“Do you think that’s what gave you such a horrible nightmare?” Skydancer asked. “Aspire scaring you during your little game.”

“Um, well, that might be a part of it. There’s … other stuff because of those stories about changelings. And another thing that happened today …” She glanced at her parents, then back down at her hooves. I have to tell them anyway if I want to go over to their house. “They invited us over to their house for dinner tomorrow night.”

Her parents exchanged confused looks. “That sounds rather nice,” Skydancer began. “Why would that give you a nightmare—oh!” Comprehension dawned on her, she brought a hoof to her mouth. “Those old stories!”

Wincing, Sure Stroke nodded. “Kind of. But that’s just part of it.” She rubbed her shoulder, her wings unfurled and made to wrap around her barrel. “They said their mom loves having friends for dinner, and I sort of froze and started thinking …”

She felt her mother’s grip on her tighten. Out of the corner of her eye, Sure Stroke noticed Drizzly’s wings unfurl and his ears pin back, as though he were ready to leap to her defense.

He took a deep breath and closed his eyes. Slowly, he relaxed, folding his wings against his sides.

After a moment, he opened his eyes again. “Perhaps they misspoke,” he said. “They probably meant that she loves having friends over for dinner—I hope that’s what they meant.”

“Hope?” she squeaked.

“Hope,” he repeated. “Otherwise, I’ll be having words with Queen Euphoria. She promised your mother and I that feeding without consent was forbidden here.” Drizzly drew in a breath through his nose, then released it. “I would like to meet them so I can get another look at how they act. Warm and his foals—er, nymphs, rather—seemed nice.”

He turned to Skydancer and met her gaze, reaching out to touch her shoulder. “What do you think?”

Skydancer unwrapped one hoof from around Sure Stroke to hold his. “I think that’s fair. But—” she looked at Sure Stroke. “—I won’t make you if you’re uncomfortable being in their home. We could always ask Queen Euphoria to move us elsewhere in the village, or … something,” she finished lamely, offering a forced smile.

Sure Stroke let her head drop, nosing into her mother’s chest. It was comforting to have her parents with her as she tried to weigh her options.

Aspire and Esalen had been friendly, and so had the rest of the foals and nymphs in her class. By Celestia, none of the foals so much as blinked at the nymphs flicking their tongues out or baring their fangs.

And when Toola offered to let Aspire feed, he said no because he’d only helped with one problem. Her ears perked up. He was going to have her eat a piece of cake if he did so she could keep her strength up.

He was looking out for Toola’s health. Perhaps as part of a way to ensure he could feed on her more later, but it was less predatory or parasitic than she’d thought. In fact, if she looked at the way they both acted, along with the other foals and nymphs, it was more akin to something else.

They’re almost symbiotic.

Curious. Very curious.

But what did that mean for her friendship with them? Did they just think her well-being and happiness was a means to ensure a regular snack? Were they genuinely trying to be friendly?

Or was it both?

She rubbed her hoof against the slime covering her knee. If she wanted answers, there were only a few ways she could get them. Each involved speaking with the changelings themselves.

Sure Stroke would have to go deeper into their culture to understand the strange creatures she lived among.

Her mind was made up.

“I want to go.”

14. A Changeling Dwelling

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Punctuality was, in Aspire’s expert opinion, a wonderful thing.

Punctuality meant that everyone was on time, everything was prepared and ready to go, and there weren’t any hiccups that could’ve easily been prevented if the first two conditions were met. Of course, there were exceptions to the rule. Food didn’t necessarily have to be on the table at seven ‘o clock on the dot, but it should at least be nearing the “ready to eat” stage. Or, at very least, it should be started well in advance if it took a while to cook.

It meant that annoyingly catty sisters should have done their mane up and braided it properly long before—say, when she woke up that morning, for instance—since the entire idea of inviting their friend to dinner was her idea in the first place. It meant that fathers who claimed to know the importance of giving a warm welcome and being on time to events should’ve been ready to greet their guests, not lounging on the back porch, looking out into the forest with Mister Haberdasher, and smoking a cigar as he discussed some of the drills he had to run through during his obligatory Village Reserve Guard training.

One might also argue that it meant the loving mother who had agreed to cook for everyone—because she was a wonderful, gracious host, even when it wasn’t expected—didn’t decide that right before Sure Stroke and her family came over was the optimal time to have a session with Miss Bright Sky to discuss how sad she was when her parents got uppity that she chose a job in Manehattan over one in Cloudsdale because she met Mister Haberdasher.

“I know it seems silly,” Miss Bright Sky said, her voice cracking as she wiped a hoof across her face to chase away the tears gathering in her eyes. “But I never thought mom would get so mad! And say those things about … oh, Celestia!” She buried her face in her hooves, her shoulders shook as she sobbed.

Aspire winced. Okay, so maybe Miss Bright Sky needed to have a session this badly. He watched as Faith held her close, rubbing small circles on her back.

“I’m sorry.” Miss Bright Sky’s wings unfurled to wrap around her barrel. “You must think I’m silly acting like this.”

Faith shook her head. “Not at all, honey,” she crooned. “It’s perfectly natural to get upset at something like this. You can let it all out with me.”

“I just—I’ve never seen her look so disappointed in me! Not even when I came home drunk after a party!”

“I understand, Bright Sky. Oh, believe me, I understand.” Faith drew back a little and cupped Miss Bright Sky’s chin, tilting it up so she could look her patient in the eye. With a sad smile, she brushed her hooves away and helped wipe away the tears. “Having your parents’ approval can cause a lot of stress on ponies.”

A pang shot through Aspire’s chest. Okay, so maybe Miss Bright Sky needed to have this session really badly. It would’ve been a bit more convenient if it happened earlier, but …

A single flick of his tongue and the foul taste of rotting fruit told him all he needed to know. He’d keep his mouth shut and let his mother help her patient.

Of course, that didn’t change the fact that there were three others in the house who desperately deserved some nagging.

Aspire slunk down the hall, setting his jaw as he approached Esalen’s room. He poked his head around the door and, sure enough, found her braiding her mane. Blinking, he thought back a moment. No, she was almost done last time he checked. She wasn’t braiding it.

Esalen was rebraiding it.

He drew in a sharp breath through his nose. Oh, just crack my carapace. “You’ve braided your mane how many times now?” he asked, not bothering to keep the irritation out of his tone. “Four?”

Esalen flicked an ear but didn’t turn to acknowledge him as she continued weaving her magic, slowly twisting her mane. “Just because some of us like to keep their mane nice and short so they can just roll out of bed, take a shower, and shake it a few times so it looks like they’ve been letting birds take roost doesn’t mean the rest of us don’t like to add their own style to theirs!” she shot back, then added, “And for your information, this is only the second time. I wasn’t paying attention, so the first one was lopsided and made me look stupid.”

Wrinkling his snout, Aspire thought of how Esalen might look with a lopsided or loose braid.

Slowly, a smirk made its way across his muzzle. “Y’know—”

She turned and fixed him with a glare, her eyes glowed green. “I swear, if a pun comes out of your mouth right now, I’m going to cover your face in slime and watch you writhe about on the floor until you pass out!”

“Hey, don’t pin this all on me! You’re the one getting all wound tight over this!”

Before he could even think to bring out the others he’d whipped up, Esalen hissed. “Why you little …”

“Oh, fine.” Aspire shut his mouth with an audible click, but his smirk remained nonetheless. “You know she’s supposed to be here soon,” he said.

With a groan of dismay, Esalen returned to her braiding. Her reflection in the mirror betrayed her worry. “I know! Ugh! Why did my mane pick today to be uncooperative?”

“Murphy’s law, I suppose.” He shrugged and turned to walk down the hall. Though not before grinning broadly and turning over his shoulders, taking her bedroom door in his magic so he could quickly shut it. “Oh, Essy?”

“Hmm?”

“I just wanna say … you really shouldn’t get your mane in a bunch, it’s really the highlight of our day!”

Esalen slammed her hooves down on her vanity cabinet. “That’s it!” She leaped up, baring her fangs at him before she lunged forward with her hooves outstretched, ready to wring his neck.

Aspire was ready, though. With a flick of his magic, he slammed the door in her face, then flew down the hall. If his family was going to dawdle, then he’d at least have some fun with it.

He heard the door burst open, the buzzing of Esalen’s wings joined his own as she raced after him, hissing and cursing.

Just before the end of the hallway, he let himself drop to the floor, skidding to a halt just before they spilled out into the living room. Aspire turned and held a hoof to his mouth, beaming as he whispered “Mom’s in session with Bright Sky!”

Esalen hovered in front of him, her face contorted in a mask of righteous indignation. She glanced from him to the living room, chewing on her lip as she weighed her options. With a growl, she slowly landed and fixed him with a glare. “You’re dead when she finishes!” she hissed, her eyes flashed green again.

Hearing Faith’s voice, Aspire waggled his ears and motioned her to listen.

“… We can talk a little more if you like, dear. I’m all ears,” she said.

“No,” Miss Bright Sky replied, pausing to sniff. “I know you’ve all got dinner plans with the new neighbors—”

“Which you’re a part of,” Faith reminded her.

Miss Bright Sky ducked her head. “Yes. But I’d hate to be a burden.”

Aspire and Esalen cringed, pinning their ears back in unison.

That was the wrong thing to say. In fact, on the list of the wrongest things to say in front of their mother, it was at the top.

Faith sucked in a deep breath through her nose. Without looking, Aspire could already guess that she’d pulled away to fix Miss Bright Sky with a stern glare, as though the mare were one of her own nymphs.

“I may not be your mother, Bright Sky, but while you’re in my house, and having these sessions with me, you will not use that word to describe yourself again. Is that clear?”

“Y-Yes, ma’am,” Miss Bright Sky squeaked.

“Good girl.” Aspire flicked his tongue and tasted a mix of curdled milk—sheepishness—and light, fluffy sweet cake—relief. He flicked his ear as his mother continued, “As for this session if you’d like to stop now, we can. That’s entirely up to you, though.”

There was a brief silence before she replied, “I think it might be for the best. You still have to cook and I can’t imagine you want to wait that long to start…”

Faith chuckled. “I can start whenever we’re done, but if you’re sure, we can stop here.” She sighed, the couch squeaked as she moved.

Aspire turned to peek around the banister to see what they were up to. He heard soft hoofsteps behind him, then felt Esalen’s shoulder brush against his as she joined him.

She nudged him and whispered, “Do you think she’s gonna let mom—”

He covered her mouth with a hoof, fixing her with a glare as he mouth, “Shut up and watch.”

Turning back, he watched as Miss Bright Sky shifted in her seat and glanced down at her hooves. “Um … Hab mentioned that he had to pay for his sessions …”

Faith shook her head. “Oh, honey, I know you’re uncomfortable around us, you don’t have to do that. Bits are just as good in Respite.”

“But you’ve housed us too, and Warm wouldn’t let us pay him.”

“My husband would rather tie a rock to his legs and jump in the lake. Believe me, you’re not the first he’s refused to accept money from. You can ask Abacus if you want.” She thought a moment, then added, “He teaches Aspire and Esalen’s age group. Really sweet stallion.”

Miss Bright Sky’s ears drooped, she hung her head. “But I should.” Slowly, she raised her head. “And I want to at least try it and see what it’s like.”

Esalen gasped. She gripped Aspire’s shoulder and leaned in to whisper, “She’s actually gonna do it!”

“Yes, she is,” he hissed out of the side of his mouth, his eyes still locked on the pair as his mother took a deep breath and nodded before rearing up to lay her hooves on Miss Bright Sky’s shoulders. “So shut up and watch, and don’t make her feel awkward about it!”

Ducking and letting her ears droop, Esalen mumbled the affirmative and watched in silence.

Faith nuzzled Miss Bright Sky’s nose, whispering a few words of comfort.

Craning his neck and perking up his ears, Aspire just managed to catch her saying, “I’ll only take a little since it’s your first time. This is going to leave you feeling a little tired, dear, and it might tickle. Kind of like when your leg falls asleep.”

Miss Bright Sky nodded. “O-Okay.”

“Still sure?”

Another nod.

“Okay then. Take a nice deep breath for me.” As Miss Bright Sky breathed in, Faith brought her lips close enough to almost touch hers. “Now just relax, exhale, and think of Hab. I’ll do the rest.”

Miss Bright Sky closed her eyes, a smile made its way across her muzzle. Then she exhaled slowly, just as Faith began to inhale.

Her eyes snapped open, then fluttered shut as the bright green glow of love began to pour from her mouth into Faith’s waiting jaws. Her knees shook, she held Faith’s shoulders tight as the changeling mare fed on the sweet nectar that was her love.

Aspire couldn’t help but run his tongue along his lips. He could taste her from here, even just seeing that smile that crossed her muzzle as she thought of Mister Haberdasher made her look so delectable. She was so full of love and affection for their friend that he had to remind himself of the basic tenants of the Caretakers:

Do not take what is not yours, or not offered to you. Give with kindness, ask politely, and you shall receive love in turn.

He closed his eyes and took a deep breath, focusing on something else—anything else. Like the fact that Sure Stroke was supposed to be coming over soon and things weren’t ready for her visit.

His eyes shot open. Aspire turned and grabbed Esalen by the shoulders, shaking her roughly as he began to babble, “Dear sweet chitin, no one in this house is even halfway ready for Sure Stroke’s family, and she’s supposed to be here any minute!” He stopped shaking her so he could lean in close, staring into her eyes. “Do you have any idea what this means?”

Esalen went cross-eyed and stumbled. “That you’re going to shake me until my brain leaks out of my ears?”

“No!” he snapped, stomping a hoof against the wood floor. “This is serious! We’ve spent all this time trying to make a good impression for changelings in Respite, we can’t just let her walk in and find things not ready! Especially with her parents coming too!”

“So we’ll all just sit and talk and stuff while mom makes dinner, like whenever we have our other friends over.” Snorting, Esalen brushed his hooves off her shoulders. “Seriously, Aspire. Relax. Not everything has to be in a perfectly neat setup a hundred percent of the time.”

Aspire recoiled, pressing his back against the wall. “You … you must be joking.”

“Not in the slightest. So what if we’re a little late?”

A noise somewhere between a whimper and a groan escaped his lips. “But then we’ll be bad hosts!”

Esalen brought a hoof to her forehead. “Aspire, I swear! Just freaking relax! She knows we’re friendly, she’s comfortable around us, and she’s finally stopped tasting like rotten catfish dipped in castor oil! We’re flying with a nice, rhythmic buzz—let it go on as is!”

His ears drooped. Aspire fixed her with his best wide-eyed stare.

She threw up her hooves. “Stop! Stop in the name of love! I’m not dealing with this right now!” Turning away, she flicked him across the snout with her tail. “Go pun at dad and Mister Haberdasher until they come inside if that’ll make you feel better!”

Aspire glared at her as she strode into the living room to greet their mother and Miss Bright Sky, and stuck his tongue out at her back. Then he turned and made his way through the kitchen to the door that led out to the back porch.

Not because she said so. No. Definitely not.

Because he definitely needed them to get moving.

Just as he lit his horn and wrapped his magic around the handle, the door pushed inward to reveal none other than Mister Haberdasher and his father.

“So, Stalwart runs the training program now, and from what I hear, he’s quite the hard—oh, hey, son!” Warm Welcome beamed at him and tussled his messy blue mane. His smile widened, his eyes flashed with a knowing gleam. “Came to bug us because we’re coming up on that time, eh?”

Aspire felt his cheeks burn. He looked down at his hooves and scuffed the floor. Really, his father had him pegged.

The way Mister Haberdasher sniggered didn’t help matters in that regard.

Warm patted Aspire’s head and stepped around him. “Don’t worry about it, son. I’m sure they won’t mind a little time just hanging out and talking.”

Aspire forced a smile and nodded stiffly before following his father into the kitchen, pressing himself against the wall as the mares plus Esalen walked in—the latter of whom decided to be cheeky and stuck her tongue out at him, full knowing that their father had shut down his tirade before it could start.

He considered retorting in kind, but a look at how Miss Bright Sky’s knees buckled, even with his mother supporting her, stopped him. The first time letting a changeling feed was always the hardest, especially for outsiders who’d never allowed one to feed on them before.

Or those who hadn’t been fed on unwittingly by others. There were still the other three big hives, not to mention any small hives who lived in among the Equestrian populace.

Still, she was taking it rather well. She wasn’t cowering or trying to pull away from his mother at all. Rather, she seemed rather comfortable leaning against Faith for support until she was gently nudged into a seat at the table, where she was then joined by Mister Haberdasher.

Faith trotted over to the pantry and took out a jar of sweets, tilting it over until a few fell into her hoof. She held them out for Mister Haberdasher to take. “Make sure she eats those,” she said. “Bright Sky, I expect you to eat everything I put in front of you tonight. You’re going to need a lot since you’re not used to that.”

Miss Bright Sky nodded and gave a weak “Uh huh” as she took the sweets offered and began eating.

Smiling to himself, Aspire glanced over to watch as Faith and Esalen began getting things ready to make dinner. “So what’re we eating?” he asked.

“I thought we’d make a fish, rice, and steamed vegetables,” Faith replied, looking over her shoulder and giving a small smile of her own. “A bit more vegetables than usual in case our newest villagers and Miss Bright Sky don’t want to try salmon.”

“I’ve tried salmon,” Miss Bright Sky spoke softly. “Had a few griffon friends.”

“Then I’ll make you some as well. The protein will help. Aspire,” she said, glancing back at him. “Keep an ear out for the door, please.”

It took every fiber of his self-control for Aspire not to roll his eyes and fire off a “No, really? I thought I would dawdle today.”

Instead, he just smiled and nodded dutifully. Not my hill to die on. Just shut up and do what she says, so everything goes well tonight.

Aspire slipped out of the kitchen, ducking around the banister so he could let his smile drop and his ears droop. He sat back on his haunches and let out a frustrated growl, holding his hooves up as if to wring someone’s neck. At this point, he wasn’t sure which of his family it’d be, just that he was fixing to go nuts.

He took a few deep breaths and closed his eyes, searching for his happy place. A nice book, maybe working a few math problems with his friends at Sweet Treat’s place. That would be a rather good time. Especially if Esalen and Sure Stroke were there.

Wrinkling his snout, he cast a glance toward the kitchen. Esalen was being a pain, so maybe not her. Just Sure Stroke. He could help her with some math homework.

He pricked up his ears. Actually, that wasn’t a bad idea …

Three knocks against the door jarred him from his thoughts, a bright grin spread across his muzzle. He stood and hurried to greet their guests.

Showtime.


Sure Stroke tried to push her nerves aside, she tried so hard to convince herself that this was just going to be a nice dinner with her friends and their family—just like meeting new neighbors back in Cloudsdale.

It just so happened that these neighbors looked at ponies as both friend and food source.

The visage of Aspire’s predatory grin, the way he looked at her with eyes full of hunger, flashed through her mind. A cold shiver ran down her spine at the memory of how he and Esalen talked about how she tasted, and how easy it had been to trick her.

She shook her head. They’d been quite nice to her since she’d moved in, and were being rather patient with her all the way through. Surely she could extend them the same courtesy and accept their invitation. For all she knew, they were going to sit down and eat like any pony family.

Maybe she could even get a peek into how the changelings in Respite made their homes—that’d make for some interesting drawings when she had the time!

Still, the dream nagged at the back of her mind. Like all the fairytales of changelings tricking ponies and charming them, leading them into the depths of their hives to give them all their love and remain as little more than servants or captive lovers.

Almost as though she were reading some of the history of the Wars of the Three Tribes.

Sure Stroke took a deep breath. The tribes had changed since those days, though. Who was to say that changelings hadn’t changed since those stories were written?

Why shouldn’t she let Aspire and Esalen’s actions speak as she had before that dream?

She set her jaw. They’ve given me a chance, so I’ll give them the same.

Muffled hoofsteps thudded against the wood floor—a quick cadence, but rather light like a foal running.

Or in this case, she thought with a smile, watching as the latch clicked and the door pulled open to reveal Aspire’s eager grin. A nymph.

“Hey, Sure Stroke!” he greeted.

With a shy duck of her head, Sure Stroke gave a little wave. “Hi, Aspire.”

His grin broadened, he turned to offer her parents a little bow of his head.“Nice to see you both again, Mister Drizzly and Missus Skydancer.”

“You as well, Aspire,” Drizzly replied. “It’s been a few weeks, I think.”

Aspire bobbed his head. “About two weeks.” He blinked. “You look sleepy.”

Drizzly stayed quiet for a moment, regarding Aspire through half-lidded eyes.

Chewing on her lip, Sure Stroke looked from her father, to Aspire, then to her mother. Had her friend just poked the wrong button?

Then, almost mercifully, the corner of Drizzly’s mouth tugged into a small smirk. “I’ve been unpacking and working since we got here,” he said. “We only just finished.”

“That doesn’t sound fun,” Aspire muttered, wrinkling his snout.

Skydancer chose that moment to step in. “True,” she said with a wink. “But it makes it easier for me to cook when I don’t have to go digging through boxes to find pots and pans.”

Sure Stroke couldn’t help but giggle at the way Aspire balked. “That sounds even less fun,” he noted. Shaking his head, he pulled the door open wider and stepped to the side. “Come on in! Mom’s just getting started—” he broke off for a second, pulling a face like he was trying his best not to say something “—so I guess the plan is to hang out and talk.”

“Talking is good,” Drizzly said. Sure Stroke noticed him steal a glance at Skydancer as he led them inside.

Changeling dwellings were surprisingly not as different as she would’ve thought. There was still a decent coating of that weird goop on the walls, collected in the corners so that it almost looked like webbing, and even formed into what looked like cushions and pod-seats in front of the fireplace. But there wasn’t anything too alien other than that.

Okay, so it was already pretty alien. But at least there weren’t any ponies wrapped in cocoons and stuck to the walls.

A quick glance to the ceiling confirmed that there were no ponies hanging their either.

Her eyes wandered toward the door off to the side, catching sight of a table leg that was, to her relief, made of wood rather than slime. The kitchen or the dining room, perhaps.

If there was ever a place you were going to keep ponies for food … wait, stop that!

Warm Welcome chose that moment to walk out from the kitchen with a bright smile on his face. “Glad you all could join us tonight!” He walked over and offered Drizzly Days a hoofshake. “I’ll have to apologize for us running a little late, but an old friend’s girlfriend needed a little help with something bothering her and my wife is always eager to help.”

“No trouble at all.” Drizzly tilted his head. “What sort of problem, if I might ask.”

Warm Welcome made to speak, but stopped short and glanced toward the kitchen. “I’m not sure I can give specifics, but let’s just call them emotional issues.”

“Oh!” Skydancer’s eyes lit up. “Your wife is a psychiatrist?”

“I … think that’s the official term.” He furrowed his brows. “It’s been a while since we’ve gone to the city, and the villagers here don’t really leave for care unless it’s a really intensive surgery or something. Most of the psychi—whatsit—”

“Psychiatric,” Sure Stroke corrected in almost perfect unison with her parents.

“That, yes. Faithy handles most of those issues. Queen Euphoria handles the more serious cases.” For some reason, the instant Warm Welcome finished speaking, Aspire had a coughing fit that sounded suspiciously like he was trying to smother laughter.

Sure Stroke blinked and nudged his shoulder, tilting her head as if to ask.

He smirked and shook his head. “Not right now. Ask again later.” Turning away, he called toward the kitchen, “Essy! Get your lopsidedly braided self out here and say hi!”

Hearing Warm Welcome sigh, Sure Stroke flicked an ear in time to catch him mutter, “You’re just asking for a fight today, aren’t you son?”

Naturally, Aspire turned and beamed at him, then fixed his gaze on the kitchen door. His eyes lit up. “Oh, there you are!”

Uh oh. Sure Stroke hid a smile as she followed his gaze and found Esalen glaring at Aspire through angry pink eyes.

Angry pink, with a rather notable green tinge to them. And was it just her, or did Esalen’s fangs seem a little bit longer?

Esalen closed her eyes and sucked her lips over her fangs. Then, when she opened them and smiled, everything was back to normal. Except for the rather dangerous gleam in her eyes as she walked over and wrapped Sure Stroke in a tight hug. “Thanks for coming!” she said, drawing back to stand on four hooves. Her eyes flitted toward Aspire. “Ignore the bird’s nest with a mouth over here. He’s looking for the eggs that were supposed to be resting in that bush he calls a mane.”

“Bush or nest, you can only pick one for the joke to work,” Aspire shot back. “You quip as bad as Toola holds back giggles—which is only slightly better than your excuses!”

Puffing up her cheeks, Esalen readied for another salvo, but Warm Welcome stepped between them.

“Now, now, let’s not spend the entire night sniping at each other, my troublesome little nymphs.” His dark blue eyes danced with mirth. “Otherwise, I’m sure your mother and I can pull out the hatchling pictures. There’s a lot of stories in that album …”

It was almost fascinating to watch the effect his words had on the nymphs: the mischievous gleam in their eyes vanished, both backpedaled away from him and stood close by her side as they gaped in utter horror at their father.

“You wouldn’t!” they spoke in unison.

For the first time since meeting him, Sure Stroke saw Warm Welcome give the same fanged grin all the changelings in Respite liked to show when they had mischief on their mind. “Wouldn’t we?” he asked.

They hung their heads. It seemed that even changeling nymphs knew better than to accept their parents’ challenge once the photo albums came out.

Sure Stroke made a note to make sure they never had the chance to cajole her parents into giving them a peek at hers. There wasn’t a doubt in her mind that there would be no end to their teasing if they ever got the chance to look at just one of those pictures.

“Why don’t you two show Sure Stroke around the house?” Warm asked, his wicked grin slipped away to his more typical smile. He waved them down the hallway on the other side of the living room. “It’ll be a little while before dinner’s ready, and I doubt you all want to hang around us old folk all night.”

“Old?” Skydancer repeated, raising a brow at him. “Speak for yourself!” Turning her attention to Sure Stroke, she leaned forward and nuzzled the top of her mane, then nudged her along. “Go spend time with your friends.” Dropping her voice to a whisper, she added, “If you feel uncomfortable, come straight back. If they try to chase or grab you, yell.”

They’d gone over that very thing before. Several times.

Sure Stroke nodded along with her but held onto the hope that it wouldn’t come to that. With a bit of a forced smile, she nuzzled her mother’s cheek, then moved to follow Aspire and Esalen down the hall.

“Come on,” Esalen said as she led the way. “We’ll show you our rooms and hang out in one of them for a bit. Mine’s the first door on the left.” She stopped in mid step, her ears stood up. Turning slowly, she ducked her head between her shoulders. “You, um, might want a heads up, but my room is probably going to be a lot different than what you’re used to.”

“I just saw slime furniture,” Sure Stroke deadpanned. “And seats that looked like half a cocoon.”

Aspire laughed. “She’s got ya there, Essy!”

“Oh shut up! I was just trying to let her know so she didn’t freak out!” Her cheeks darkened a touch, she looked away and shuffled down the hall, pinning her ears back as Aspire sniggered. Glancing over her shoulder, she mumbled something under her breath, too low for Sure Stroke to hear more than “… wasn’t the one panicking … love drunk nymph …”

Sure Stroke tilted her head and stole a quick glance to Aspire, but he either didn’t hear or didn’t care. He just smiled and motioned her to follow along.

As they came to the first door on the left, Esalen pushed up on the latch and opened it, then waved her in. “Step right in, mind the slime, though. It tends to stick to just about anything.”

Halting in mid step, Sure Stroke looked down to find her hoof just a hair's width from another meeting with changeling cocoon slime.She looked ahead, noting that the slime seemed to gather mostly in the corners, just like the living room, save for a rather large cocoon looking object against the wall where a bed would normally be.

The slime creeping out onto the floor was easily avoided with a few quick hops, but she kept looking back toward the bed, then letting her eyes wander over the furniture.

In a rather perplexing show of familiarity and foreign nature, Esalen’s room was furnished with a regular wooden desk, a dresser, a closet, and even a vanity cabinet like a normal filly might have—though, hers was painted black and had sugar pink hearts that matched the color of her mane for handles.

The difference lay in the two seats in front of the desk and vanity cabinet—they weren’t actually seats, just cocoon slime cushions that were shaped like half of a cocoon, just like those in the living room. Only smaller.

Out of the corner of her eye, she noticed something else: a clock stuck to the wall with a thick wad of slime, hanging right above Esalen’s desk.

Sure Stroke blinked. “Well,” she began, “I guess that takes away the hassle of Dad having to use a stud finder, hammer, and nail.”

“Huh?” Both siblings tilted their head.

Rolling her eyes, she pointed at the clock. “That.”

They followed her hoof. “Oh!” Esalen said. “Um, yeah, I guess it does. I mean, we use it for a lot of things, y’know.”

Sure Stroke furrowed her brows. “So, you don’t use nails at all?”

“Of course we do! Just not for stuff like this.” With a wave of her hoof, she smiled. “It’s got a more changeling-y feel to it. Plus it makes it easier to put things away.” To demonstrate, she jabbed her hoof into the slime and pulled out a scrunchy. “See?”

“And it just feels nice to come home after school and flop down in a nice, warm, bedpod made of your own slime!” Aspire supplied helpfully.

A shudder ran down Sure Stroke’s spine, but she forced a smile. “Right. I see.” Give me a warm mattress and sheets any day. Looking back at the clock, she tilted her head, then glanced at the siblings again. “So, what do you do if the slime starts to … not stick?”

Slowly, they turned to one another, sharing a blank stare. Aspire shrugged, motioning toward the clock. “It’s your room.”

“Right.” Esalen gave the clock a once over and frowned. “It does look like it could use another coat about now, anyway.”

Sure Stroke watched in muted fascination as Esalen’s cheeks puffed out similar to how Aspire’s had back in the forest. Then, she reared back and spat. A wad of slime the size of a hoofball shot forth from her mouth and splattered against the wall, effectively gluing the clock in place.

Blinking, Sure Stroke could only stare. Oh. Duh. “Well … I feel silly.”

The pair grinned. “You’re not silly,” they said together.

“Well,” Aspire added after a second of thought, “maybe a little silly. But you’re still new, so it’s fine.”

Sure Stroke rolled her eyes but found herself unable to hide a smile. “How very magnanimous of you. I feel so very lucky to know you, Sir Aspire.” Bowing low, she spread her wings like the pegasus guards back home. “It’s truly an honor to be in your presence.”

In almost perfect unison, Aspire and Esalen stuck out their long, reptilian tongues and waggled them at her.

Her brows flatlined. “Really?”

“Really,” Esalen replied. Tossing her head toward the door, she nudged Aspire out. “C’mon, you can see the walking bird’s nest’s lair next. Be warned: you’re about to see more books than any sane pony or changeling should ever own.”

Aspire just shrugged and led them toward the door directly across from Esalen’s. He nudged it open, walking inside without waiting as she had. “It’s not gonna be much of a shock or anything,” he said, stepping around the slime that spilled onto the floor with practiced ease. “I mean, really, it’s just a few books.”

“Just a few books” turned out to be three entire bookcases stocked completely full. While Esalen had things a typical filly might have in her room (plus a decent coating of slime for reasons), Aspire’s seemed almost plain by comparison. There were the bookshelves, a few posters of characters like Daring Do and changelings she didn’t recognize, and a desk that looked like a dust devil had sent everything flying, only for Aspire to hastily throw it back on randomly.

A book with a red cover and ribbon to mark his place, so thick that it was almost half the size of her head, caught her eye. Sure Stroke gaped. “Are you reading that or using it to hit other ponies?”

“Huh?” Aspire followed her eyes, then snorted when he saw what she was looking at. “Nah, it’s an unabridged copy. I like reading. A lot.” Thinking on it for a moment, he smirked and added, “Though, it does make for a nice projectile when Essy gets too catty.”

Esalen snorted. “Try it and see what happens to your collection. I dare you.”

Giving a lazy shrug, Aspire turned toward his bed-cocoon-thing and took a running leap, landing on his stomach with a sickening, squelching noise as the green slime let him sink into it. Then he bounced and flipped onto his back. He folded his hooves behind his head and swished his tail. “Take a seat,” he said, waving at the bed as Esalen hopped up to join him. “Plenty of room for us all to kick back and relax.”

Sure Stroke watched as Esalen seemed to sink down into the slime while she settled in. Tilting her head, she approached slowly. Reaching forward, she pressed a hoof into the slime and promptly drew back with a squeak as it began to sink into the cocoon.

“Just hop right on,” Esalen said, patting a space beside her. “It’s easier than trying to climb in the first time.”

Eyeing the cocoon for a moment longer, Sure Stroke gave a shrug and opted to take her advice. With a little flap of her wings, she hopped over the edge and landed beside Esalen.

Then she promptly began to sink into the strange, gelatinous substance.

Alarm bells rang in her head. Yelping, she leaped and beat her wings as hard as she could, shooting straight up until her head hit the ceiling.

Sure Stroke clapped her hooves over her head. “Ow …”

The sound of chittering laughter made her ears twitch. She glared down at the nymphs, gritting her teeth as they rolled about in Aspire’s bed. “That’s not funny!”

“Yes, it is!” Aspire said in between laughs. He rolled over onto his stomach and slapped a hoof against his bed, grinning up at her. “You’ve just gotta relax like you’re trying to float in water! The bedpod will do the rest!”

Sure Stroke let out a little whine, letting her ears droop. It felt so weird. How in Celestia’s name could they sleep in that sort of thing?

I’m supposed to be giving this whole thing a chance. So … I guess this is part of it. She gulped. Alright, buck it in the face. I’m just going to slowly land, and try to ignore what this stuff is. It’s a water bed right now. A green, gooey, slimy water bed. Unbidden, a shudder ran down her spine. Every fiber of her being told her to stay away from that goop, it just wasn’t right.

To her, at least. To them, and to others in Respite, this was all just the norm.

Swallowing again, she allowed herself to descend. She couldn’t, however, help but pull a face when she felt her hooves touch the slime. Her body shook as she stopped flapping and sat back on her haunches, a whimper escaped the back of her throat when she began to sink.

“Just relax,” Esalen reminded her. “Take a deep breath, sit back, and let yourself float.” She laid back in the slime and spread her legs out wide to show. “It’ll form right to your body and support you.”

A tremble ran through her body. Sure Stroke gave a stiff nod, then sat back. The slime molded around her, letting her rump sink while the bulk of its support went to her shoulders and neck.

Just like a water bed, but with the same sticky goop that had been all over her legs just a day before.

She blinked. “This … is odd. I feel like I’m falling, but I’m not, and I’m not sure if I like it.”

Aspire and Esalen smiled.

“That’s a normal reaction for visitors,” Aspire said, nodding knowingly. “You’ll get used to it after a while.”

“Yeah, once you get over the initial hang up.” Esalen turned and smiled at Aspire. “Hey, bird’s nest, feel like getting us some drinks? Be a nice host, since we’re in your room and all?”

His smile fell. “You did that on purpose. You waited right until I got myself all comfortable to ask.”

Sure Stroke had to hold back a bout of giggles as Esalen ducked her head and fluttered her eyelashes at him, “Would I really do such a thing?” the pink-haired nymph cooed.

Aspire fixed her with a deadpan stare. “Yes, and you just did.” With a sigh, he stood and walked forward—as if he wasn’t standing in the middle of some gelatinous cocoon thing—then hopped out. “Whatever. What do you want, Sure Stroke?”

Glancing from Esalen to Aspire, she ducked her head. “Um, you don’t have to—”

“It’s fine.” He waved her off. “We’ve got tea, juice, water, and milk.”

“Um. Tea is fine if it wouldn’t be too much trouble.”

“It isn’t.” With a smile, he trotted to the door. “Play nice, you two! Essy, no enacting our fiendish plan to find all her tickle spots so we can tell Nimble ‘till I get back!”

Esalen huffed and crossed her hooves. “You suck. And I’ll have—”

“Whatever I bring you. She’s the guest, you’re not. So nyeh!” Sticking his tongue out once again, he slipped out of the room and trotted down the hall.

Rolling her eyes, Esalen scooted herself so she was facing Sure Stroke. “Well, now that he’s gone, we can do the gossiping thing.”

Sure Stroke felt her breath hitch. Uh oh. “Oh … yay?”

“Oh, come on! It’s not like I’m asking you to give me all your life secrets! Just fun stuff! Starting off, your cuts have healed up really nicely, I see. How’s your coat feel after its first meeting with changeling slime?”

“It felt like I let ice cream melt all over it at first.” She rubbed her shin. “I had to scrub hard. A lot.”

“I’ll bet. Our slime doesn’t like to let go that easily. I’m guessing you got it wet first, right? Warm water?” At Sure Stroke’s nod, she gave a pitying smile. “That’s the worst thing to do, really. Next time use vegetable oil or hoof polish remover first. It makes the slime run right off after a couple minutes, like water off a duck’s back.”

15. Friends for Dinner

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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!”

Smooth, bookbug.


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.

Guilt.

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.

It clicked.

“Missus Faith?”

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.

16. Lakeside Party

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Moving to Respite had changed a lot of what Sure Stroke claimed to “know” with absolute certainty, but there was one thing she was willing to place her bits on if she had the chance:

Esalen was well and truly doomed.

She’d known it for some time now. From the moment Vector confirmed that the changelings in Respite—Caretakers, as he called them—could taste her emotions, she knew it was only a matter of when rather than if.

And with Tailwind and Fleetwing standing before her, waiting for her parents to come to the door so they could lead them to the lakeside, Sure Stroke couldn’t help but smile knowingly.

Why hide her smile? It wasn’t like she could hide the taste of her own feelings.

Her smile stretched into a full-blown grin as Fleetwing did just that. The changeling mare blinked twice, then stuck her tongue out, waggled it, and pulled it back into her mouth, her face a mask of confusion. “You know, don’t you?” she asked.

Sure Stroke nodded, giggling into her hoof.

Fleetwing and Tailwind shared a look, then sighed in unison. “Esalen,” they said together.

“Warm is gonna lose it,” Tail said, laughing as he shook his head. He gave a little shrug. “Well, at least we’ll get a show to kick off the party, eh?”

“True.” Fleetwind shot Sure Stroke a little smirk. “You don’t plan on even trying to fake it, huh?”

“Would it even work?” Sure Stroke asked. “You tasted it straight off the bat!”

“Fair point. Well, then, at least play up this part of the act.” Reaching into her light armor, Fleetwing pulled out three blindfolds. “We’re supposed to convince you guys to wear these. If you could, it’d make the whole ‘she knew the whole time’ bit funnier, if only because Warm’ll flip even more.”

Sure Stroke thought for a moment. One one hoof, it’d certainly be entertaining to watch him chase Esalen around. On the other, helping them wind Warm up more might put her at risk of him wanting to play tricks, just as Aspire had.

The mere thought of her wayward friend made Sure Stroke’s smile falter.

He’s going to tell me what’s bothering him today, or so help me, Celestia …

She flicked her tail, forcing her lips to curve into a bright, cheery grin as she said, “I’d be happy to! It’ll be fun getting one over on a changeling for once!”

“Haha! That’a girl!” Tailwind said, waggling his ears. He cast a wink at her. “Don’t worry, we won’t tell him that you’re in on our little joke. And he’ll be too busy chasing Essy to taste you or me for any trickery. We’ll have a bit of fun before we get into the swing of things.”

Fleetwing chuckled. “Seems so.” Fixing him with a half-lidded stare, she smirked and turned to nose against his cheek. She brought a hoof up to his chest and traced a small circle around his breastplate. “I don’t suppose you’d mind giving me a little snack to enjoy while we watch our show, would you?”

His face flushed red. Tailwind’s ears stood straight up, his feathers fluffed as he looked from Fleetwing to Sure Stroke. “Fleet, c’mon! You could just ask!”

“I could, but that wouldn’t be as fun.” She grinned, licking her fangs. “Well, let me give you a sweeter offer.”

Sure Stroke took a none too subtle step back as she watched Fleetwing lean up to whisper something in Tailwind’s ear.

Slowly, his eyes widened. He rustled his wings as a goofy smile crossed his muzzle. “I-I think that’d be a fair trade, sure.”

“I thought so.” Fleetwing kissed his nose. “You’ve always loved caramel-dipped apple slices. Especially—”

Quick as a flash, Tailwind covered her mouth with a hoof, pasting a wide grin on his muzzle as he looked just past Sure Stroke. “Drizzly! Skydancer! Perfect timing!” He slipped away from Fleetwing so he could step back and allow them passage outside.

“Good afternoon, Tailwind. And … Fleetwing, wasn’t it?” Skydancer asked, tilting her head to the side.

Fleetwing nodded. “Yes, ma’am. Nice to see you again as well. Got everything settled in from the move?”

“After about a month and a half of unpacking, organizing, and trying to meet everyone we could in the village, yes. I’ll tell you what, the first thing I want to do after this village party is take a day and get out and fly as much as I can!” Skydancer stretched her wings, giving them a little fluff.

“Well, you might get the chance at the party, if you join in the cloud relay. But first—” she held the blindfolds aloft “—is to put these on.”

Sure Stroke shared a sly wink with Tailwind and turned around so he could help her put it on. Her vision faded to darkness as he slipped it over her head and adjusted it over her eyes.

“Sure Stroke?” Skydancer’s voice made her flick an ear. She caught the telltale mix of confusion and suspicion like Skydancer knew her daughter was up to something.

Naturally, Sure Stroke turned toward the sound of her mother’s voice and gave her most innocent grin. “Yes, mom?”

She couldn’t help but giggle when she heard Skydancer snort. “Don’t you ‘yes, mom’ me! What do you know?”

Tailwind cut in. “It’s just a little something to make things more interesting, Skydancer. No pranks, I promise.”

For a moment, there was silence, then Sure Stroke heard her mother grumble, “Fine. But if someone kicks a thunderhead behind me, I’m getting you first, Tailwind.”

The Respite-born pegasus laughed. “I’m sure you would. Now, if you wouldn’t mind putting your blindfolds on, we should really get a move on or we’ll miss the start of the party.”

“Still don’t see why we have to wear them,” Drizzly muttered.

“Because we’re leading you there and it’s fun,” Fleetwing chirped. The telltale hum of magic tickled Sure Stroke’s ears. “Here, I’ll put them on for you both. We’ll guide you to the lake so you don’t trip over anything.”

It was a bit strange to hear her parents grumbling about wanting to know what they were in for like a pair of foals as Fleetwing blindfolded them but oddly satisfying.

All those years of surprise birthday parties or little games where she had to find her really big Hearth’s Warming present in a patch of clouds were finally coming back to bite her parents right in the rump.

That the “biting” happened to involve a rather large population of the village having fangs just made it all the more entertaining.

Unless there was actual biting involved. That wouldn’t be fun at all. Come to think of it, now would be the perfect time for one of them, namely Fleetwing, to just bend down and take a big chomp at her …

A smooth, chitinous snout nuzzled into her mane. She felt Fleetwing’s long, sharp fangs, and the warm breath running through her mane. The nightmare flashed before her eyes—with Fleetwing’s grinning face looming over her in place of Aspire and Esalen’s.

“Relax,” the mare cooed. “Esalen blabbed, didn’t she?”

Sure Stroke gave a stiff nod. The points of those fangs made her flinch, she bit back a curse. “A few times, yes.”

“Then you know that we’re going to celebrate your move here. There’s no need to taste afraid, little filly.” Pausing a beat, she drew back. “How about I carry you? It’ll be easier than guiding you along with my hoof on your back.”

Biting her lip, Sure Stroke took a moment to think. She flicked her tail.

Her nightmare could go get bucked in the face. Aspire had been nice (if a bit fidgety), Esalen had been patient, and their parents were just the same.

Each and every one of the changelings and ponies she’d met in her short time in Respite had been very accommodating and kind to her—well, save for Prim ’n Proper being a bit short with her.

Sure Stroke nodded. “If you think it’d make things easier, sure.”

Again, she felt Fleetwing nuzzle into her mane. “Atta girl!” The familiar hum of magic filled her ears again.

The ground beneath her seemed to vanish. Sure Stroke found herself in an unfamiliar place—she had no control over herself as she floated through the air. Her first instinct was to fight. She unfurled her wings and gave several quick flaps to steady herself.

“Relax,” Fleetwing repeated. “I’ve got you.” True to her word, she set Sure Stroke on her back, safe and sound.

Sure Stroke blinked as she felt placed on a rather curvy part of Fleetwing’s back. It was smooth, but different. It almost seemed like there was another, less firm layer she’d been set on. Tilting her head, she pushed her blind up just enough to see where she was. Curiously, she was set right on an aquamarine colored oval.

She placed a hoof on it and gave a little poke, drawing a gasp from Fleetwing.

“That would be my wing casing,” Fleetwing said.

“Sorry!”

“It’s fine. They’re meant to protect my wings, but …” Her ears drooped a little as she pawed at the ground. “It tickles a little.” She coughed into her hoof, then turned to call Tailwind. “Ready?”

Sure Stroke had to giggle at the way he casually smiled as he draped his wings over her parents’ shoulders and led them to Fleetwing’s side. “Looks like it! Let’s head out!”

“Good.” Fleetwing glanced over her shoulder and smirked at Sure Stroke. “Blindfold down now. The show will start soon enough.”

Grinning broadly, Sure Stroke obeyed and settled in on her back.


Maybe it was the excitement and anticipation.

Or maybe it was the fact that everything had been organized specifically to welcome them to the village.

But if Sure Stroke didn’t know better through experience how quiet and sneaky changelings could be when they wanted she would’ve had to wonder just how their race could possibly even lay claim to being stealthy.

Every little chittering laugh, the hushed whispers of nymphs, not to mention the more familiar pony chuckling or the giggles of her classmates.

She could even hear Vector’s voice somewhere in the mix. A bit too low for her to make out, but it sounded suspiciously like he was saying something about jumpscaring her so she fell in the water.

More chittering laughter tickled her ears, mixing in with some of Toola Roola’s bubbly giggles and a rather indignant huff from somepony else.

“We’re almost there, guys!” Sure Stroke flicked an ear at the sound of Tailwind’s voice. “Just a few more steps and … stop right here!”

Sure Stroke slipped forward a little as Fleetwing came to a halt, falling flat against the changeling mare’s back.

Behind her, she heard Tailwind snort. “Nearly lose your passenger there, Fleety?”

“Almost doesn’t count!” she sang back. “Now that we’re here, you three can take off your blindfolds on three! Ready?”

Drizzly grumbled something under his breath that earned him a laugh from Tailwind and a whispered scolding from Skydancer. “It seems like it,” he said. Then he called out to Sure Stroke, What about you, honey?”

Sure Stroke didn’t even bother trying to keep her act. Even if Warm didn’t know by now, any changeling who’d tasted her had probably figured it out. “Ready!” she chirped, fluffing her wings.

She heard Fleetwing bite back a snigger before saying, “Alrighty then! One … two … three! Blindfolds off!”

That was all Sure Stroke needed. Quick as a cat, she ripped hers off. She blinked a few times as her eyes adjusted to the sunlight, a grin spread across her muzzle when she found all the villagers beaming back at her, all standing beneath a large white banner with rather well-drawn caricatures of herself and her family and bearing the tagline:

“Welcome to Respite, Drizzly Days, Skydancer, and Sure Stroke!”

In one voice, every villager, from the smallest nymphs and foals to Queen Euphoria, who wore gold circlets in her mane today, yelled out, “Surprise!”

“What in the name of—what?” Sure Stroke turned to find Skydancer gaping for a moment, a giggle bubbled forth as she watched her mother’s cheeks turn a fiery red, her eyes went wide. “You didn’t have … but … what?”

Almost on cue, Warm Welcome stepped forward, his eyes shone with mirth. “You’ll have to forgive us for the delay,” he said, rubbing the back of his head sheepishly. “We weren’t entirely sure you were all settled and ready, what with Drizzly trying to organize with the weather team, you still getting situated at home, and Sure Stroke meeting all the nymphs and foals in school …” he trailed off, his tongue darted out to taste their emotions.

Showtime.

At first, Warm Welcome seemed quite satisfied with himself as he looked toward her parents, but then he stiffened. He turned slowly to stare at her, tilting his head to the side.

His tongue flicked out again.

Sure Stroke simply smiled and waved. “Hi, Mister Welcome!”

“Hello, Sure Stroke,” he replied almost automatically. Blinking, he flicked his tongue out at her a third time, this time running it along his lips. “You do not taste surprised. You taste smug. And knowing.” He furrowed his brows. “Why do you taste smug and knowing?”

Her smile grew into a full grin. Sure Stroke hopped down from Fleetwing’s back. She met Warm Welcome’s gaze, batting her eyes at him. She struggled to hold down her laughter as several of the villagers started sniggering.

Somewhere to her right, she heard Vector laugh and say, “Here we go!”

Warm Welcome sucked in a sharp breath through his nose. “How did you find out?” he asked, his bottom lip stuck out in a surprisingly good attempt at a pout.

Glancing just to his left, Sure Stroke managed to catch sight of Esalen doing her best to hide behind her mother’s leg. Their eyes met for an instant.

Esalen sat back on her haunches and brought her forehooves together, giving a wide-eyed, pleading stare, complete with a pout that rivaled her father’s as she sent one, final desperate plea to Sure Stroke. She mouthed one word, “Mercy!”

Hold me down and help Nimble find all my tickle spots, will you? She returned Esalen’s silent plea with a smirk. Well then, there is no mercy.

Sure Stroke simply looked back to Warm Welcome, waggled her ears, then made it a point to look straight back at Esalen again.

A look of betrayal crossed the nymph’s face, only to melt away to horror as her father turned toward her. Esalen forced a laugh and began edging away from her mother, the crowd around her gave her a wide berth, all grinning and catcalling.

Warm Welcome crouched low and pawed at the group. “Esalen!” he hissed, his eyes flashed green.

Her ears pinned back against her scalp. Esalen took a big step back, giving a rather forced smile. “N-Now, daddy, it was just an accident! I-It was that day at lunch, and Aspire and I were—”

Green fire washed over his fangs, lengthening and sharpening them to a fine point. Sure Stroke couldn’t help but bring a hoof up to her neck as if to hide it from Warm Welcome’s view.

“Five seconds,” he said.

Esalen started, her ears stood straight up. With a frightened chitter, she turned tail and bolted, fleeing as though Cerberus himself were hot on her tail. Or, more aptly, an angry, hissing changeling father.

A chorus of laughter swept through the villagers. There was a glint of gold as bits between hooves of chitin and pony coat. There were even a few ponies shrugging and sidling over to their changeling friends, who all perked up and licked their lips eagerly.

Just like when Toola offered Aspire some love …

Had the ponies of Respite bet their love in exchange for bits or trinkets?

A shadow fell upon her. Sure Stroke shook herself from her thoughts and looked up to find herself standing before Queen Euphoria for the second time since her visit.

Upon closer inspection, Sure Stroke noticed that the circlets in the Queen’s mane were fashioned in a way that looked like tiny hearts forming a chain that wreathed around the long strands of her mane.

Not quite a crown, but certainly regal. Like a Lady from the old pegasus tales.

Giving a startled squeak, she bowed low like she would for Princess Celestia herself. “H-Hello, Your Highness!” she greeted.

Queen Euphoria smiled. “Good afternoon, Sure Stroke. Please, rise.” She gestured with her hoof. “Let’s not stand on ceremony here—this is a day to celebrate, not one where you’re on trial for playing such a delicious little joke on dear Esalen.”

Sure Stroke stood up straight and rustled her wings. “You could tell?”

Chuckling, Queen Euphoria poked her long, slender tongue poked out from behind black chitinous lips and waggled it teasingly at her. “My sense of taste for emotions is a bit more pronounced than that of my subjects,” Queen Euphoria replied. “And I know the taste of smugness mixed with a healthy dose of mischief quite well. I might even say you tasted like one of my kin in mid trick.”

Her feathers fluffed. “I’ve been told by a reliable source that changelings love to play tricks.”

“That we do, my dear. It would seem that you, like so many other ponies who have come to our village, have already become a bit more like us.” The Queen’s smile widened, she cast a wink at Sure Stroke. “In any case, I am happy to welcome you to Respite in a more traditional manner.”

Queen Euphoria looked toward Drizzly and Skydancer, offering them her hoof. “Come. We’ve got plenty of food for everyone, and I’d like to hear how you’ve found the village in these first couple months. I have noticed a sense of organization to my weather team schedule, Drizzly. Your hoofwork, I assume?”

Coughing, Drizzly stood up straight. “Y-Yes, Your Highness, I—”

“Call me Euphoria, please,” she cut him off. “Or Phory, if you like. I may be the Queen of this hive, but I would prefer to keep that aside when making friends.”

“Er … that might be a bit different for us, but if you insist.”

“I do!” Before Drizzly could give a reply, Euphoria caught his shoulder and pulled him to her side, wrapping him in a one-hoofed hug. With a happy chitter, she looked to Skydancer. “Care to join us? I’d hoped to discuss a bit about your preferences as far as flight instruction and rehabilitation.”

Skydancer blinked. “My preferences with respects to what part?”

“Which you prefer taking part in most, dear,” Euphoria replied with a chuckle. “Breezy and I have wanted to start organizing with you for quite some time, but with your move in, we wanted to make sure you got acclimated. Same with the—ahem—delay on this party.” She grinned. “You didn’t hear it from me, but Warm was most put out when I told him to wait.”

“Was he? Why’s that?”

“Warm likes parties.” She turned and called, “Breezy! Stop fooling around with Ready and get over here before I decide to wrap you up and carry you all day!”

Through the crowd, Sure Stroke saw Cool Breeze rear up to fix Euphoria with a cheeky grin. “You making threats or promises, Phory?” he called back. Then he turned, fluffing his feathers and slowly unfurling his wings in a way that made every pegasus present blush. “Maybe I’ll stay right here and see!”

Rolling her eyes, Euphoria guided the family through the crowd. “I swear, he lives to test my patience,” she grumbled despite the smile gracing her lips.

“Is he always like that?” Skydancer asked.

Queen Euphoria made to respond, but a rustle of feathers through the air and a thud as Cool Breeze landed between Drizzly and Skydancer cut her off.

“You bet I am!” he said with a laugh and a merry swish of his tail. “Have been since I first kissed her in the middle of Queen Chaete’s court—right in front of her, no less!”

“Really?” Sure Stroke asked. “How’d she take that?”

Cool Breeze’s grin practically split his face. “It was one of the few times I’d ever heard her laugh while she had her crown on. She even teased Phory afterward!”

“Yes.” Euphoria snorted, but smiled all the same. “She did. And I went chasing after you for embarrassing me in front of several visitors seeking treatment for something or other. I can’t quite recall, I was too busy thinking of how I’d punish him.”

Giggling, Sure Stroke prodded further. “How did you end up doing that?”

“As I recall,” Cool Breeze began, bringing a hoof to his mouth in a mock show of thinking, “I ended up pinned down on a cloud, and—”

“Utter another syllable and you’re getting stuck to the wall for a week!” Euphoria cut him off in a rush.

His jaw shut with a click, but his smirk remained. “That’s fine. I’ll just save it for Sharers’ Day. Like always.”

“Or you could not do that.”

“Or I could.” He waggled his ears. “You’re cute when you’re flustered.”

Euphoria stopped walking. She fixed him with a narrow-eyed stare and bared her fangs at him. “You’re going to pay for that later, beloved!”

Sure Stroke could only watch in muted fascination as Cool Breeze’s eyes drooped until they were half closed, his smirk seemed to take on a different edge. He moved toward Euphoria with a little sway in his hips until his snout touched hers, then he ducked under her neck, trailing his entire body along from shoulder to tail.

“All part of the plan, my love,” he said in a rather husky tone, flicking the end of his tail across her snout.

As she watched Euphoria’s eyes go wide and her long, slender tongue run over her lips, Sure Stroke could only gape in awe at the stallion who dared tease a changeling so—judging by the bemused murmur in a few ponies in the crowd, she wasn’t alone.

Drizzly gave an awkward cough. “Er, yes. Well, that all aside, thanks again. We really do appreciate all this.” His eyes flitted about to the crowd, he ducked his head. “Er, this is a really nice gesture and I—” he paused at the sound of Skydancer clearing her throat. “We, rather, really appreciate it. Thank you, everyone.”

Almost as if his words broke a spell, the villagers cheered and rushed to greet them.

Sure Stroke found herself surrounded by changelings and ponies of all ages, each eager to introduce themselves and ask how she liked the village, school, and if she’d had the chance to try Sweet Treat’s shop yet.

Or, in the case of her friends, the questions were more focused on what food she just had to try or the games they wanted to play with her.

“You’ve gotta join the cloud relay with me and Zephyr!” Vector said, throwing out his chest. “With the three of us on one team, we’ll breeze through the competition with barely an effort!”

At his side, Zephyr nodded and gave a smirk. “No muss, no fuss, no problem!” In a flash of green fire, a pegasus colt with navy coat stood before her, his mane and tail still the same windswept silver as in his natural form. “Top prize is one of Sweet Treat’s death by chocolate cakes,” he added.

Sure Stroke pricked her ears up. The race wasn’t exactly a selling point, but another one of Sweet Treat’s cakes?

She might just have to join in on that. In the spirit of healthy competition, of course.

And perhaps a bit of not so healthy competition.

Before she could reply, Nimble walked right up to Vector and poked his ribs, drawing a squeal of laughter as he leaped into the air.

“Nim!” he cried indignantly, dashing behind Zephyr and doing his best to cover his sides with his wings. “What was that for?”

“Just a reminder not to get too cocky, Zippy-colt,” she teased. “And I’m part of the cloud relays, so don’t go thinking you’ll win this easy, you three!”

Vector made to reply, but stopped short as he noticed Zephyr none-too-subtly drawing his hoof across his neck in a clear “cut it out” motion.

With a grumble, he flicked his tail, then turned to smile at Sure Stroke. “So, yeah, want in?”

Sure Stroke shrugged, trying her best not to appear too eager. “If there’s cake again, I don’t see why not.” Out of the corner of her eye, she caught Nimble flicking out her tongue. She frowned. “That’s so cheating.”

“You’re just mad I know how excited you are now!” Nimble quipped, then blew a raspberry at her.

Furrowing her brows, Sure Stroke went cross-eyed as she glared at the long tongue waggling at her, then huffed. “Do all of you just like doing that, or is there something with showing off how long your tongues are?”

Toola Roola brought a hoof to her mouth to stifle a bout of giggles. “You should see your face!” she cried, succumbing to her mirth. “Oh, you’ll never last if you can’t take a bit of that!”

“My questions stands.”

Nimble waggled her ears. “Bit of column A, a bit of column B. If bookbug was around, he’d probably spout off something about it being part of how changelings love teasing and getting ponies to jump or whatever.”

At the mention of Aspire’s name, Sure Stroke set her jaw. “Speaking of whom,” she began, forcing a sickly sweet smile. “I don’t suppose you’ve seen Aspire around today?”

Her friends flinched. Each of them looked away, cringing as they tried to find something else to look at.

Sure Stroke drew in a sharp breath. “Where is he?”

They flinched again at the tone in her voice. Vector’s ears laid flat against his head, he muttered something under his breath as he rubbed a hoof against his shin.

Gotcha. Sure Stroke stepped forward until she was almost muzzle-to-muzzle with him, and let her smile fall. “Where is he, Vector?”

Vector met her gaze. “Aspire’s been acting kinda weird today,” he said. “We mentioned playing guess the pony with you, and he got all fidgety and stuff.”

“Maybe he’s worried about our shape-shifting courses three weeks from now.” Nimble shrugged. “The whole ‘see if you can convince ponies you know that you’re someone else’ assignment is our final before winter hits, so he’s probably fretting on how he can make himself look perfect or something.”

Toola Roola shook her head, frowning at them both. “I saw him walking around a bit ago! There’s no way he’d miss this, especially not with a chance to play with Sure Stroke!” She paused, then added, “Or laugh at Essy, really.”

Wrinkling her snout, Sure Stroke searched the crowd for any sign of his deep blue mane. She stopped after a moment, cursing under her breath.

If a changeling really didn’t want to be seen, they’d just change form. For all she knew, Aspire could be standing right next to her and she wouldn’t even know it.

Unbidden, the memory of how he’d snuck up on her during their game leaped to the forefront of her mind.

She stomped a hoof into the dirt. Moving forward was her best option, and if Aspire wanted to be silly and hide from her at the party, then she’d just have to enjoy herself with the rest of her friends.

And if he happened to be watching, then he could see her having a good time and come over on his own, so she could give him the walloping he so rightly deserved.

Sure Stroke took a deep breath, slowly forcing herself to smile at the group before her. Then, she turned to her parents, Cool Breeze, and Euphoria.

She had to stifle a laugh at the pained smile on her father’s face as he found himself shaking hooves with several ponies and changelings in rapid succession while Euphoria stayed close by, giving a coy smile as she prodded him on how to implement some of Cloudsdale’s emergency weather strategy in the village.

Drizzly always got so nervous when big crowds started prodding him for his expertise on the subject. And by the looks of some of the changelings, they found it a bit entertaining to see how much they could get him to do that silly wobbly smile while they flicked out their tongues.

I wonder how bashfulness tastes.

With a shrug, she left her father to his fate, instead approaching her mother and Cool Breeze. “Mom?” she called, drawing their attention. “Is it okay if I go play with my friends?”

Skydancer blinked. “I don’t see why not, but …” she trailed off, glancing over at Euphoria and Drizzly Days, then toward Cool Breeze. “You didn’t have anything planned for all three of us, right?”

“Well,” Cool Breeze began, “we were hoping to introduce you all to the rest of our—” he aimed a cheeky grin toward Euphoria, who seemed to find something at her hooves oddly fascinating, her chitinous muzzle darkened in a deep blush “—little family.” Shrugging, he smiled and reached down to tussle Sure Stroke’s mane. “But you’ll meet them soon enough anyway. Go on and play! Hope to see you in the relay later!”

With a smile and wave toward her parents, Sure Stroke turned to walk back toward her friends, stopping short to avoid running into Prim ’n Proper.

“Oh!” she squeaked, clumsily sidestepping around Prim. “Sorry!”

Prim sniffed, looking her up and down as if judging her worth. “Well,” she said after a moment, “at least you’ve stopped being so rude to the changelings.” Turning up her nose, she trotted past Sure Stroke toward Euphoria. “Maybe next you’ll learn to watch where you’re going to you don’t run into someone.”

Sure Stroke drew in a deep breath through her nose, her wings unfurled as she glared at the filly’s back.

Call her nerves and aversion to some of the nymphs and adult changelings on her first few days rude. Fine. Maybe it was rude, especially since each and every one of them could taste exactly how she felt toward them.

Pardon the feathers off her wings if she couldn’t help but feel incredibly out of her depth. But she made amends, and then made friends.

A soft nudge on her shoulder made Sure Stroke turn. “What?” she snapped, drawing a flinch from Toola.

Toola Roola took a step back, pinning her ears against her head. “I was just going to say not to worry about Prim,” she muttered. “She gets stuffy and huffy about anything that isn’t perfectly in order.”

“I said I was sorry! And I didn’t do it on purpose!” Gritting her teeth, Sure Stroke turned to glare over her shoulder again, her eyes narrowed as she watched Prim smile and shake hooves with her parents. “Little suck up!”

“Hey!” Toola said. “Don’t you talk about her like that!”

Sure Stroke flicked an ear toward her, turning to retort, but stopped when she noticed Toola frowning.

“Prim might be snippy,” Toola scolded. “But she’s nice when you get to know her. She’s blunt and has no problem speaking her mind when she sees things she doesn’t like, but that doesn’t make her a bad filly!”

Letting her ears droop, Sure Stroke sighed. “Okay.” She gave a small smile. “I’ll let it go and just enjoy the party.”

Toola beamed back at her like she’d flipped a switch. “Great! Do you want to eat first or would you rather play some games?”

“When’s the could relay?”

“It’s usually up last when we do parties. You’re gonna join Vector and Zephyr and try to win that cake, huh?” She gave a knowing smirk. “Already addicted?”

Sure Stroke stuck her tongue out, earning a fit of giggles. “It’s all your faults for getting me to try some!”

Plus, she thought, letting her eyes wander over the crowd. If I can get some of that cake, I can try to lure Aspire out with it.

She did her best to disguise her smile. “So, what all is there to eat around here?”


Apparently, asking what there was to eat at a Respite party was like some sort of magic phrase.

Almost the instant the words left her mouth, Sure Stroke found herself whisked away to one of several long wood tables by her gaggle of friends and told—yes, told—to sit and wait while they gathered all the things she had to try.

No, she did not get a say in what went on her plate. That much had been made quite clear when Nimble fixed her with a hooded stare and slowly raised a hoof in a silent reminder of how dangerous her tickle attacks could be.

Sure Stroke decided then and there that her best bet would be to smile, nod, and sit her behind down while they carried over plates of food.

Yes. Plates.

Between the salads, the vegetable dishes, the sweet rolls, and Zephyr having somehow managed to swipe a family’s worth of sandwiches, Sure Stroke could only gawk and wonder if they were trying to see how much she could stuff herself with before she burst.

Or if they just thought it might be funny to watch her fly afterward. One of the two.

But then, upon closer inspection, she noticed a thin-sliced bit of something she wasn’t quite familiar with.

Wrinkling her snout, she leaned in to take a cautious sniff. Her ears stood up. “Is that fish?”

“Yup! It’s a fillet of grilled salmon!” Vector replied with a grin and a waggle of his ears. “I maaaaaaay or may not know the grill master well enough to arrange first dibs for us.”

“Really?” Sure Stroke broke her staring contest with the dish before her to fix him with a quizzical stare. “How’d you pull that off?”

He brought up a hoof to buff it against his chest, a boast no doubt on the tip of his tongue.

A quick jab of Nimble’s hoof right beneath his rib cage drew a startled squeak. “Oh, come off it!” she teased, then turned to Sure Stroke. “Zippy-colt’s dad likes to grill when he’s not on guard duty, so he’s the best at cooking stuff like this.”

“Don’t say that too close to my dad!” Zephyr sniggered. “He’s still sore that he lost their annual grill off again!”

Sure Stroke felt her smile strain as all shared a laugh. It was nice to be accepted, but being on the outside of all the in jokes was a bit …

Well, it wasn’t as fun as when she was in the know with all her friends back in Cloudsdale.

Give it time, she told herself, focusing more on the food in front of her. Everything looked delicious, but that salmon just seemed so—well—not in her taste. Sure, there were plenty of pegasi back home who ate fish with their griffon friends, but she’d always stayed away from trying it.

There was nothing wrong necessarily—some creatures ate meat to live, it was just a fact of life.

Sure Stroke simply didn’t.

Her gaze flitted up to her friends’ expectant smiles. They were all waiting to see her try Respite’s fare. Vector, in particular, looked rather interested in how she liked his father’s cooking.

Prim would scold me for being rude if I didn’t try it when offered again. The image of Esalen holding out a bit of her sandwich, offering her a taste, flashed through her mind, as did the offer to try it at this very party.

Almost on cue, someone slid into the seat beside her.

A rather burly earth pony by the name of Rock Solid laid his chin on the table, gasping for breath.

“Okay!” Esalen’s voice came through the colt’s mouth. “Managed to give dad the slip, really hoping he doesn’t notice or find the real Rocky trying to wrestle Ready for a little while! What’s up?”

The group sniggered at her, Toola even went as far as to coo and pat her head soothingly.

“You made it just in time to see Sure Stroke try my dad’s grilled salmon!” Vector replied. “By the way, do you have any idea what’s eating bookbug?”

Esalen snorted. “Not a clue. He’s been oddly shifty the past couple days.” She cracked open an eye, glancing to Sure Stroke, then added, “Sorry about that. I’ll look for him once I get my breath back and give him a good swat.”

“Save enough of him for me,” Sure Stroke said, her smile fading into a frown. “I want a word with him.”

It was rather strange seeing Rock Solid’s muzzle crease into Esalen’s wicked smirk, especially when his gray eyes flashed green. “You got it. Now—” she prodded the plate of fish toward Sure Stroke “—give it a try. If you don’t like it, we’ll blame Zippy.”

“You always try to pin it on me,” Vector shot back.

“No, most of the time I pin it on Aspire, but he’s not here, so you’re my fallback.” Esalen poked Sure Stroke. “You. Trying this.”

Sure Stroke gave a crooked smile, then looked down at the fish on her plate. She swallowed a lump in her throat, then took a fork—which one of them had managed to sneak in front of her while she wasn’t looking—in hoof.

She cut off a small piece and speared it with her fork, then slowly brought it up to her lips. She eyed it as if she expected it to come back to life and lunge at her face.

Screwing her eyes shut, she quickly took a bite of fish and braced for the horrid taste.

It never came. It was certainly foreign to her, but it wasn’t bad.

Just not something she knew.

Slowly, she opened her eyes and began chewing. “It tastes okay,” Sure Stroke said around her the fish. She wrinkled her snout. “I don’t know what it’s close to, but it’s not bad.” She swallowed, spearing another bite on her fork. “It actually tastes kinda …”

Her friends leaned in and pricked up their ears. “Yeeeeeeeees?”

Sure Stroke took another bite. “It’s different. I don’t know how to describe it, but it’s different in a good way.”

Vector threw a hoof around her shoulders before she could blink. “Knew it!” he crowed. “Score another one for Respite!”

Rolling her eyes, Sure Stroke ducked under his hoof and continued eating. A smile tugged at her lips as they all began to chatter and push the other plates closer, and stole a bit of each for themselves, as well.

Such was the way in Respite, it seemed.


Once they’d all eaten their fill—and after Esalen confirmed that her father wasn’t hunting the immediate area for her—Sure Stroke let her friends lead her away from the tables and into an area set aside for games and general play.

There were a few younger foals and nymphs cantering and giggling just out of Helping Hoof’s reach as he walked about with a blindfold on, calling out to them, “Hot or cold? Come on, now! You know you’re supposed to tell me!”

The little ones covered their mouths, their shoulders shook as they leaned against one another and delighted in the stallion’s folly.

Then, one of the fillies snorted and fell over, kicking her hooves in the air as she succumbed to her mirth.

It was all Helping Hoof needed to trot right over and tag her. Then he pulled his blindfold off and fixed the others with a playful smirk and mentioned the Queen punishing naughty nymphs and foals who cheated at games.

Their laughter turned to squeaks of fear as they all leaped to their hooves and ran over to plead that he not get them in trouble.

Sure Stroke stifled a giggle. “How much trouble could they really get in?” she hissed to Esalen out of the side of her mouth.

“Not really ‘trouble,’” Esalen replied. Her voice still seemed a bit strange coming out of Rocky’s mouth. “She’d probably come up with a little joke to play on them so they won’t do it again. Remember Aspire’s threat about her sweet stash?”

“Yeah. Why?”

Again, Esalen’s familiar smirk crept across Rocky’s muzzle. “Because she didn’t just dye his carapace—she enchanted it so he would be the gaudiest, most painful to look at shade of magenta anyone had ever seen.”

Wrinkling her snout, Sure Stroke tried to picture Aspire’s natural form with magenta carapace and messy blue mane and tail.

She stuck out her tongue. “Ew!”

“Bingo. It was worse when he tried to shape-shift.”

“What could be worse?”

Esalen’s smirk grew into a full blown grin. “He stayed that color no matter how he tried to change his coat, and then he started glowing.”

Sure Stroke blanched at the idea. “Oh, that’s just terrible!”

“I know, right?” Esalen cackled. “Ah, that was so great! He’s never lost a game of hide and seek so bad!”

“Oy!” Nimble called, drawing their attention over toward where the rest had gathered in front of a few adults—two changelings and four ponies—sitting on stools or leaning against a drink table. She waved them over. “C’mon! This is a good one to start her off with!”

Tilting her head, Sure Stroke shrugged and trotted over. “What game is this?”

A changeling stallion with long sun kissed mane grinned. “It’s an old village favorite,” he said. “Helps keep us sharp in our limitations, and gets you working on finding the little differences between pony and changeling.” He nodded to her. “Name’s Duplicitous, this little termite—” he jerked his head toward a familiar changeling with short-trimmed silver mane beside him “—is my little brother, Façade.”

Façade snorted. “Har, har, Dupe. You’re such a comedian.” With a roll of his eyes, he met Sure Stroke’s gaze and smiled. “I think we might have bumped into each other a few times at school. Sure Stroke, isn’t it?”

Ducking her head, she gave a small smile. “Yes, sir.”

“We’re not in school, Sure Stroke, you can call me Façade. To answer your question, the game is called Find the Pony. One of the ponies here—in this case, Pear Tree—”

“That’s me!” Pear Tree waved a deep yellow hoof and beamed.

“—Sits with Dupe and me in front of you. We both shape-shift.” On cue, the changeling brothers were engulfed in green fire. When it subsided, perfect imitations of the young stallion sitting with them beamed back at her.

In perfect unison, all three Pear Trees threw their arms out wide and did jazz hooves. “And then you close your eyes for a count of ten, we move about a little bit, and you try to guess which of us is the real Pear Tree!” they chorused. “Ready to play?”

Sure Stroke looked from stallion to stallion, squinting to look for anything to help her. She knew Duplicitous and Façade were on either side of the real Pear Tree, just based on what she’d seen before.

But looking at them after changing? She couldn’t tell.

They were all the same pony, down to the way the real one smiled and hummed to himself while he waited.

Come to think of it, they were all humming in harmony.

Oh, Celestia, what even is this?

“O-Okay.” She swallowed a lump in her throat. How hard could it really be?

By the way all three Pear Trees grinned and sniggered in perfect stereo, Sure Stroke had the feeling she’d just been had.

“Alrighty, then!” the real Pear Tree said, waving a hoof at her. “Close your eyes and count to ten. The boys and I will move around a bit.”

Stealing a glance to her friends, Sure Stroke found herself met with four rather knowing smirks, and Toola Roola struggling to withhold her laughter.

Well, she didn’t have to think herself paranoid—they all knew she was set up to fail in this game.

She shrugged and closed her eyes. If they wanted to have a little fun, she’d indulge them a little. Besides, it would be a nice way to practice telling them apart if they ever tried tricking her. Or, more aptly, when they tried tricking her.

On the other hoof, it also meant she would get more of a taste of what the village had to offer.

Her ears flicked at the sound of the trio moving around, along with the giggling and chuckling of those nearby. She resisted the urge to roll her eyes, instead counting backward from ten.

“Okay!” three Pear Trees said. “Open your eyes!”

Sure Stroke did so and, sure enough, was met with the trio of Pear Trees sitting in their stools, smiling and humming in harmony with one another.

“Um …” She brought a hoof to her chin. “Do I have to pick straight away, or do I have time?”

“You have three minutes!” came the chorused reply.

“You can ask us whatever you want!” the Pear Tree on the left said.

Middle Pear added, “And we’ll answer honestly!”

“Or not!” Right Pear said with a waggle of his ears. “Between you, me, and everyone around us, these two are terrible liars! I’m the real Pear Tree!”

“Nuh uh! I’m the real one!” Middle cried.

Left Pear rolled his eyes and heaved a long-suffering sigh. “You two can’t even imitate me right! I’d never act up like that!”

A small groan escaped her lips. Sure Stroke reached up to massage her temples. “I’m already regretting this,” she mumbled. Then she said, “Okay, I’ll start off with a question for the one on the right.”

Right Pear perked up. “Ask away!”

“What’s your job?”

“I’m one of the village farmers,” he replied without missing a beat.

Middle Pear raised an eyebrow and chuckled. “How would you even know that one?”

Sure Stroke’s cheeks burned. “I-I was just seeing if you hesitated!”

All three laughed. “Why would I need to think about what I do for work?” they chimed together.

This is just maddeningly complicated. The sound of Vector sniggering brought a frown to her muzzle. “You’re more than welcome to help!” she said, turning to fix him with a glare.

Vector simply grinned and shook his head. “Nope! This is all you!”

With a huff, Sure Stroke turned her attention back to the stallions, who were all chatting about crop rotation, and took a step closer. “Is it against the rules to look closer?”

Middle Pear beckoned her forward. “Go right ahead!”

She approached the trio of stallions and regarded them each closely, frowning as she circled them. Just as when Aspire had shape-shifted to imitate her face for her mother’s amusement, or Esalen hiding in Rocky’s form, they all had a pony’s coat. A break touch to each with her hoof confirmed that the brothers had flawlessly disguised themselves.

All the way down to Pear Tree’s colors and cutie mark, as well. Vibrant green mane, pale yellow coat, and even the way the pear tree borne on his flanks.

How in Equestria was she supposed to tell?

Wrinkling her snout, she unfurled a wing and trailed her feathers over Left Pear’s back, drawing a sharp breath and a laugh.

Got you. She grinned and repeated it with the other two, drawing the same reaction—much to her dismay.

“Time’s—eep!—up!” Right Pear said.

“No more looking!” Middle added. “Time to guess!”

Left waggled a hoof. “Guess wisely! Don’t let these pretenders fool you!”

“Oy!” Middle and Right cried.

Sure Stroke groaned. “Enough already!” she said, pointing at Left Pear. “You! I guess that you’re the real Pear Tree!”

Left Pear blinked. “Care to explain why?”

Why? Because she had no clue how she was supposed to tell. “Because you laughed first,” she replied. “The other two just copied you.”

He stared at her a moment, the corners of his mouth tugged into a broad, toothy grin.

In a flash of green fire, Duplicitous sat in his place. “I’m afraid not!” he said.

There was another flash to Sure Stroke’s right, revealing Façade sitting in the middle and the real Pear Tree on the far right.

“You lose!” they sang. “Try again!”

Her shoulders slumped. “Oh, come on!”

A hoof patted her on the shoulder. “Sorry, Sure Stroke!” Nimble said. “It takes a lot of practice to learn ways to tell them apart. You’ll learn.”

Sure Stroke huffed. “Then why’d you have me play it?”

“Because it’s a fun game and it makes us work to keep our act up if you know which questions to ask, and it makes you ask the right ones.” Thinking a moment, Nimble beckoned to Vector and Zephyr. “Hey, you two, come on up with me!” She turned to the stallions and asked, “Is it okay if she tries to pick between us to see if she can figure us out?”

Duplicitous nodded. “That’d actually be better, since it’ll teach her how to tell if a friend is being copied.” He, Façade and Pear hopped off their stools and stepped to the side, allowing the nymphs and Vector to take their places.

“Hey!” Toola called, pouting at them. “How come you picked Zippy instead of me?”

Zephyr sniggered. “Because you’d be absolutely horrible at this game! You’d start laughing before she even got to poking you!”

Toola made a face like she was sucking on a lemon, giving a little “harrumph!” as she sat back on her haunches and crossed her hooves. “Not that giggly!” she grumbled.

Patting the disgruntled filly on the head, Esalen cooed and nuzzled her cheek. “It’s okay, Toola! I like you just the way you are!” She poked Toola’s belly, grinning as she drew a fit of giggles from the moping filly. “Giggly, bouncy, and flippy as can be!”

Sure Stroke couldn’t help but smile and shake her head as she turned to face the others.

“Ready?” Zephyr asked.

She nodded once.

In twin flashes of green fire, two Vector doppelgängers stood in place of Nimble and Zephyr. Both buffed a hoof against their chest, just like he would, and smirked.

“Okay!” they said together. “We’re ready!”

The real Vector waggled his eyebrows, leaning up against Zephyr. “Close your eyes, and we’ll get set to play.”

Again, she closed her eyes, counting backward from ten as she listened to her friends moving about. When she hit zero, Sure Stroke opened her eyes and found all three Vectors sitting on their stools, each wearing his cocky smirk.

“Time to play!” they chimed.

Sure Stroke took a deep breath, eying each of them in turn. She wrinkled her snout. Nimble and Zephyr had copied him well, as far as she could tell. Both of their disguises were perfect.

Maybe she could go with a different way. What was it Nimble said? Ask questions?

Fine, then.

“Vector?” she began.

“Yes?” all three replied.

“Where are your tickle spots?”

They rolled their eyes and recited together, “Under my wings, along my ribs, and right along my collar bone, too.” Then, they paused and added, “Oh, my belly and my sides, beneath my ribcage.”

Sure Stroke blinked. It was like they’d rehearsed it or something. Either that, or it was a regular question when they played.

“Okay then.” She thought a moment. Only have three minutes. “Who’s your favorite pony or changeling to tease?”

“Aspire!” came the group reply, each grinned and sniggered. “Closely followed by you guys!”

She frowned. Somehow she just wasn’t asking the right questions. There had to be something she knew about Vector that they couldn’t fake. But what? They’d known him far longer than she had, and the only thing she’d been around him long enough for was cake at Sweet Treat’s and hide and seek.

It clicked.

Hide and seek. “Who came up with the idea to let the nymphs shapeshift but take away tasting emotions?” she asked.

Behind her, Toola Roola gasped, then burst out in laughter. The Vectors blinked, though the one on the far left gave the slightest hint of a smile.

There you are.

Right Vector answered first. “Me, obviously. I always make the strategies for hide and seek.”

“Yeah, that’s easy,” Middle added with a bit of a scoff in his tone.

The Vector on the left sniggered. “Wrong!” he said, pointing at Toola. “Toola came up with it because she figured we could win as a group if we didn’t let the nymphs sneak up on us and pretend to be part of our team, which would be easier than if they could taste test for us the entire time!”

Grinning, Sure Stroke pointed at him. “You’re the real Vector!”

“Bingo!” he replied, leaping off his stool to catch her with a noogie. “That is how you play the game!”

“You did what?!” Esalen, Nimble, and Zephyr balked, each dropping their disguises to gape at a now cackling Toola.

The trio of nymphs descended upon her, easily pinning Toola so they could exact their ticklish revenge.

“Eee! Nohohohohoho!” Toola wailed, squirming in their grasp as her body shook with mirth. “Mercyyyyy!”

“You cheeky little thing!” Nimble hissed, grinning even as she spoke. “I’m gonna tickle the fur offa you!”

“And here I was comforting you! I’ll fix you right up! Hold her hind legs, Zephyr!” Esalen said, beginning to direct traffic. Then, she sucked in a deep breath, puffing out her cheeks.

Zephyr stopped his tickle assault, a wicked gleam shone in his eyes as he realized her plan. “Got it, Essy!” He quickly pinned her legs. “Nim! Front legs!”

Nimble shifted to hold Toola’s shoulders down, effectively stretching her out. “Got her!”

“No!” Toola cried, her eyes went wide. Her struggles renewed in earnest as Esalen reared back like a snake readying to strike. “Essy, not that! Please! Vector! Sure Stroke! Save me!”

Sure Stroke stood stock still, fighting back her own amusement while Vector roared with laughter and egged the vengeful nymphs on—double payback, it seemed, for Toola encouraging them to tickle him. Not to mention her part in trying to help Nimble find Sure Stroke’s tickle spots.

She looked to Esalen, who turned to regard her with a raised eyebrow.

With a grin worthy of a mischievous nymph, Sure Stroke nodded. “Get her good.”

Esalen’s eyes flashed green. She lunged and pressed her lips against Toola’s belly, and blew hard.

The poor filly shrieked, convulsing as she succumbed to her mirth. Her voice was nothing but a high pitched, incomprehensible squeal as she begged her tormentors to release her.

Revenge was most certainly dish best served cold—or, in this case, by a trio of indignant nymphs tickling Toola ruthlessly.

A cadence of hooves thudding against the ground, like a pony stomping toward them, made her flick an ear. Sure Stroke turned, gasping as she caught sight of Warm Welcome stalking forward with glowing eyes and a scowl marring his muzzle.

“There you are!” he growled.

Esalen halted in her assault on Toola. “Uh oh!” She leaped off her captive and made to flee, but was quickly caught in the deep green glow of Warm’s magic. “Eek! Daddy wait!” Flailing her hooves, she tried to escape her father’s grip.

With a snort, Warm turned and walked away, carrying her behind him in his magic. “You’re not going anywhere, little nymph! You and I are going to have a talk about the meaning of the phrase ‘surprise party!’”

Silence reigned over the group, even the adults managing the game stared while father and daughter bantered back and forth until they were out of earshot.

Slowly, they looked to one another … and promptly burst out laughing. Nimble and Zephyr released Toola, falling onto their backs and kicking their hind legs in the air as they succumbed to their mirth.

Sure Stroke could only lean back-to-back with Vector to hold herself up. Her shoulders shook, she wrapped her hooves around her stomach to hold her aching sides as tears of mirth rolled freely down her cheeks.

She’d probably pay for not doing more to help Esalen avoid capture or for not bothering to try hiding who told her, but that was future Sure Stroke’s problem.

Present Sure Stroke could not possibly care any less as she wiped a hoof across her face, struggling to get her laughter back under control.

Then a familiar voice brought her laughter to an abrupt halt.

“Um, Sure Stroke?” Aspire called, a bit of hesitation tinged her voice.

Sure Stroke glanced at her wayward friend out of the corner of her eye, the smile ran away from her face. She made to speak, a mildly snippy greeting fresh on the tip of her tongue.

Then she took note of the way his shoulders were slumped and ears drooped low, and it died in the back of her throat.

She blinked. “Yes?”

Aspire looked away from her and mumbled something under his breath, he began to rub his shin. “I was, um, wondering if I could borrow you for a moment. To talk. And stuff.”

Again Sure Stroke could only blink. Aspire was still looking away from her like he expected that she was going to lose her temper with him.

Tilting her head, Sure Stroke stood slowly. “Can we just talk here?”

Aspire cringed, ducking low. “N-No,” he said, his voice cracking a touch. “I, um, need to talk to you about a couple things and … yeah. Just an Aspire to Sure Stroke talk.”

Movement to her left made Sure Stroke flick an ear. Out of the corner of her eye, she found Zephyr at her side.

Zephyr flicked his tongue and winced, gagging at the taste. “You okay, Aspire? You taste kinda … ugh! By love! You taste horrible!”

His words only served to make Aspire duck lower, as if trying to be smaller before them.

What is going on with him?

Sure Stroke trotted toward him, glancing at each of her friends in turn before looking to Aspire again.

He was definitely in trouble for how he’d acted and avoided her, but he looked so miserable.

Pathetic, even.

She sighed and waved a hoof. “Sure, let’s talk. Lead on.

17. What We Aspire to Be

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Suspicion was one of those emotions that could vary in taste depending on how intense it was. Sort of like cinnamon.

A little was what gave a pony’s taste a nice kick. It was part of the fun of a good prank, really. Standing next to a friend in disguise, slowly hinting that something was up, and then, right as they leaned in, eyes narrowed, and drawling something so adorably predictable like “Heeeeyyyyyyy …” just before pouncing on them, cackling madly while boasting about his successful imitation was great.

Too much, though, brought a feeling of discomfort to a changeling. If they were in disguise, it brought a feeling of worry that they were about to be revealed before a crowd of unfriendly ponies—or worse, a bunch of Locust—who would chase them out or try to imprison them in some cold place without love.

For a Caretaker like Aspire, it brought on something else: distrust.

Sure Stroke wasn’t entirely trusting of him as he led her away from their friends, away from the party, toward a small clearing off by the lakeside.

Wincing, Aspire let his ears droop. Of course, she was a bit suspicious of him.

I would be after a nightmare like that. He let his shoulders slump, he hesitated in mid step as a thought occurred. Biting his lip, he glanced over his shoulder at her.

Sure Stroke’s face was creased with a small frown, her brows furrowed as she met his eyes.

He couldn’t help but duck his head. Maybe it wasn’t such a good idea pulling her away from everyone else.

If she was having nightmares about being invited to dinner because he’d scared her, why wouldn’t she think he was luring her aside for a quick snack and a heavy dose of his charm spell?

At his hesitation, Sure Stroke pursed her lips. “Well?”

Aspire started. “Oh, uh, sorry!” He gave a tight-lipped smile, making extra sure not to show his teeth even though he’d shifted his fangs away.

No need to scare her again.

He faced forward, nodding to the clearing ahead. “We’re here.”

It was a nice little place set off to the side where they could still see everyone playing and having a good time, but far enough off that they could sit and dip their hooves in the cool water and talk without worry of being overheard.

Aspire stopped right at the water’s edge and took a deep breath. His gaze fell to the dampened dirt at his hooves.

For a moment, the pair stayed quiet. Aspire shifted in place, letting his right forehoof touch the water’s edge. He lifted it out and shook a few droplets off his chitinous carapace, then glanced up at Sure Stroke.

“Do you wanna sit down or something?” he offered.

Like he’d flipped a switch, Sure Stroke drew in a deep breath through her nose, her cheeks puffed up.

She narrowed her eyes. “I’d like you to explain why you’re being so distant!” she snapped, stomping a hoof into the dirt.

A few flecks of mud splattered onto his shin. Aspire ducked his head again. “I … don’t know what you’re talking about.”

He didn’t need to flick out his tongue to taste for anger. The glare she shot him could’ve burnt away his chitin.

Sure Stroke unfurled her wings and crouched low like she was ready to tackle him. “Don’t you lie to me!” she growled, pawing at the dirt. “You were all happy when I came over to your house for dinner, and then when you came back to your room, you were mopey and distant, and you wouldn’t come near me!”

Aspire bit back a curse. What sort of changeling was he if he couldn’t keep his emotions hidden?

“Actually, lying is a thing we do by nature, so this could serve as a very valuable—” Aspire clapped his hooves over his mouth, his eyes went wide. That was wrong. Very wrong.

It would only make her nightmares get worse.

Her glare pierced right through him. Sure Stroke stomped forward until her nose was but a hair’s breadth from his and snorted right in his face. She was challenging him.

Aspire looked away. No she isn’t. She’s not comfortable playing like us. Surrender was best, even if his first instinct demanded he answer the call.

Submission was the best way to make her feel safe and happy.

Something solid hit him on the left side of his face, stars burst before his eyes. Aspire dropped into the water like a sack of potatoes, clutching his bruised cheek and trying to figure out what just hit him.

He looked up, flinching back as he saw Sure Stroke’s face twisted into a mask of fury, her right hoof still extended from the punch.

She hits very hard.

“Get up!” Sure Stroke demanded. She stomped into the water, glaring as she towered over him. “Get up right now and tell me! And don’t you dare lie or misdirect or whatever changeling nature says you should do or I’ll hit you again!”

Anger bubbled beneath the surface. She hit him. She challenged him, hit him, and then stood over him like she was ready to fight.

He was trying to be nice and apologize. And she’d hit him.

Grinding his teeth, Aspire let his lips peel back. Flecks of green fire washed over the flattened pony teeth he’d shifted his fangs into. He hissed as they sharpened. If Sure Stroke wanted to challenge him when he was trying to be nice, he’d show her why he was the best wrestler in their class!

Her terrified face, as she looked back at him in the forest, flashed before his eyes. Aspire blinked, letting his lips settle back into a frown.

No. I won’t.

I can’t.

He hung his head. Green fire washed over his fangs, filing them down until they were flat once more.

His mouth was full of pony teeth. All for her.

No more nightmares. No more thinking their friendship was false.

And no more thinking she was just food.

Aspire looked down at the water. “I’m sorry,” he whispered. “I’m sorry I scared you.”

Sure Stroke didn’t say anything for a moment. He heard her take a deep breath, then let out a sigh.

A wet hoof touched his right cheek, gently turning his head until he was forced to meet her gaze. Concern flashed in those pretty blue eyes. Another pang of guilt shot through his heart.

“You already apologized for that,” she said, still frowning at him. “And you promised you’d stop treating me like a filly and not hide your fangs anymore.”

Aspire grimaced. “Not when they give you nightmares,” he mumbled under his breath.

Sure Stroke’s ears twitched. “What was that?”

“Nothing.”

Her eyes hardened again. “I told you not to lie unless you wanted to be hit again.” Sure Stroke raised her right hoof, ready to strike.

Gritting his teeth, Aspire fought down his instincts and looked away again.

He snuck a flick of his tongue and blanched at the burn of indignation that greeted him. She was even angrier.

“Going to let me threaten you?” she taunted. With a dismissive snort, she pushed his shoulder, trying to goad him on. “I thought changelings always answered a challenge.”

Aspire let his ears droop. “You’re not challenging me. You wouldn’t want to after hide and seek.”

“I’m not? Then let me make it clear.” Sure Stroke brought herself down to eye level, glaring straight at him. “I am challenging you. Get up and talk to me so I can help you, or get hit again.”

His hackles raised. Aspire met her gaze with a glare of his own. “Hitting doesn’t solve problems,” he said, pushing his snout against hers. If he couldn’t get her to stop, he’d at least get her to back down. “Caretakers don’t hit to help.”

She snorted right in his face again and pushed back, using her leverage to force him down until his back was in the water. “Pegasi like to call it percussive therapy. And I’m going to give my friend a round of it if he doesn’t tell me what changed!”

That tore it. Aspire gave another hiss and planted his right hoof so he could push harder and brought his left up to grab hers so he could pull her over and change positions.

The moment he touched it, he felt something. Curious, he paused a moment and furrowed his brow as he stole a glance out of the corner of his eye.

Her hoof trembled in his grasp. Aspire let his eyes flit back to hers, just in time to catch the faintest glimmer of tears welling up.

Blinking, he let his muscles relax. “You’re crying,” he said.

“I’m angry,” Sure Stroke shot back, her voice strained. “Because one of the few friends I have in this village has been acting strange since I went over to his house because he thinks I’m afraid of him!”

“But you are afraid.” Aspire turned his head away and shifted so he could sit back on his haunches, facing out toward the opposite shore.

Sure Stroke scoffed. “I was afraid when you scared me in the forest! We talked about that!”

He heaved a sigh. “I heard our parents talking before I went to make tea. Yours told mine that you had a nightmare after we walked you home.” Aspire squeezed his eyes shut. “A nightmare about us wrapping you up in cocoon slime and taunting you all before we fed on your love.”

Aspire readied for another salvo, another of her furious denials, maybe even a smack over the head. It was fine. He could deal with it just this once if it made her feel at ease.

None came save for the sound of splashing water.

Still bracing himself, Aspire dared to crack open an eye.


No.

Aspire wasn’t supposed to know about her nightmare.

Sure Stroke tried to find a way to say that she wasn’t afraid of him, that it was just lingering doubt.

But it was a lie. She was still afraid to a point. Not necessarily of his fangs or of him, but …

Like he said, lying was a part of changeling nature. Deception was their greatest ally, so why couldn’t he be lying now?

Simply put, he could very well be. If he hadn’t been so distraught and the rest of their friends hadn’t noted how strange he was acting.

She took a deep breath and licked her lips. If there was one thing she could do to help him, it was tell the truth. If deception was a changeling’s ally, then honesty would be hers. “I … I’m still a bit afraid,” she said. “Not of your fangs or how you look, or even how you act. But there’s still a nagging worry that you’ll be just like those old stories and want to feed on me.”

Aspire sucked in his lips, but nodded. “I know. And … I’d be lying if I said your love wasn’t appetizing.” Almost as soon as he said it, his eyes went wide. He waved his hooves in front of him and hastily added, “But not like that!”

“That’s the problem!” Sure Stroke stomped a hoof, splashing water onto herself. “You do want to feed on me! And Toola! Even though we’re friends! Esalen even said your mom loved having friends for dinner!”

Groaning, Aspire brought a hoof to his forehead. “She didn’t mean it like that! I mean, yes, we do, but not with cocoons and biting!”

Sure Stroke flicked her tail. Why can’t I just get a straight answer? “Well, which is it? Do you like having friends for dinner or not?”

He blanched. “We do! I mean, not like—we don’t—not like your nightmare! I’m not a Locust! We’re Caretakers!”

With a groan, Sure Stroke turned away from him. “I don’t know what that is! And that’s still the problem! I don’t understand what all this even means! Am I your friend or am I your food?”

For a moment, Aspire didn’t say anything. She heard the sound of water sloshing and trickling off his sides as he stood. A look out of the corner of her eye found him frozen in mid step like he wanted to come closer.

If only he would.

“The first tenet of the Caretaker hive of Respite,” he began, “was practiced years before the founding of the village, but never written down until Queen Serenitatem formalized the first laws in our history for the ponies she hoped would come in search of a place to rest, find treatment, and even live.”

Puzzled, Sure Stroke turned to face him again, tilting her head to one side.

Aspire continued, “Do not take what is not yours, or not offered to you. Give with kindness, ask politely, and you shall receive love in turn.” He paused a moment to take a breath, then added, “The expanded version states that when receiving love, take only what is offered and stop when asked, and give thanks in turn. She wanted ponies to know that we thought of them as friends before food, even though to us you’re both.”

Sure Stroke wrinkled her snout. That didn’t sound at all like the shape-shifting tricksters from old stories. They all charmed or lured ponies away to feed on their love, they didn’t just walk up, do something nice, and ask.

“I don’t understand. That doesn’t make sense with how changelings play tricks, charm, and deceive.” She rustled her wings. “Or how some of our stories portray them.”

Aspire slumped. “We’ve always been predators,” he said. “But before the Sainted Ones fell, we were all one hive. And before them, we were like the Locust. We changed. Some of us, at least.” He wrinkled his nose. “We Caretakers do like our tricks, though. And your love is still food.”

Another groan escaped her lips. “That just raises even more questions than it answers! I don’t know any of your history, so that just confuses me more!” Sure Stroke swiped at the water, sending a tiny wave out toward the center of the lake.

Why couldn’t this be simpler? Why did Aspire, Esalen, Nimble Hooves, and Zephyr have to be so different?

And why couldn’t she accept it when they accepted her?

Sure Stroke let her head hang. “I wish I could get past it,” she said. “I like you all so much, but I can’t get over how … changeling you are.”

Aspire didn’t answer. Well, not verbally.

The little whine and sad rumble in the back of his throat were enough.

But she had more. She turned to face him, bringing a wet hoof up to touch her chest. “I almost envy Toola and Vector for growing up with you—they don’t see you like I did when I first came here, and still sometimes do.” Sure Stroke let her wings droop along with her ears. “I like being your friend, and I want to understand you so I don’t have to be scared.”

“I like being your friend too,” Aspire said. “I just don’t think I’m a very good friend, or Caretaker, if I can’t even make you feel at home without giving you nightmares.”

With a sigh, Sure Stroke splashed water at him. “Would you just let my stupid nightmare go?”

He wiped water off his face, fixing her with a dry stare. “I’ll let that one slide, but it’s the last,” he warned. “And no, I won’t, because you haven’t let your fear go. I can’t taste it as much, but it’s there. You shouldn’t have to be afraid of me—or any of us here.” Grimacing, he looked away. “Maybe you should spend more time with Essy instead of me.”

Sure Stroke drew back like he’d struck her. Her ears stood up. “What are you—”

“You both get along well, and she doesn’t scare you like I did,” he continued. Closing his eyes, he sighed. “I’m good at reading books and tasting emotions, I can recite all I want about our tenets and laws and history, but I guess I can’t put it to practice like she can. She’s always been more personal than me, and she’s better at toning down the teasing and stuff.”

“I don’t want to push you away!”

“It wouldn’t make you scared.”

She frowned. He was being stupid, incredibly so. How could they fix anything if he just treated her like a foal and tried to run away from the problem because he couldn’t solve it alone?

Perhaps it was a flight of fancy or a rush of raw emotion she just couldn’t contain. Either way, the answer came to her like a friendly wind.

Aspire wasn’t looking at her, so he didn’t see her crouch low, readying her muscles to spring into action.

He didn’t see her knees bend, or her ears pin back.

Not until she’d stayed quiet too long, at least. And by then, it was far too late.

Sure Stroke leaped upon him in a splash and a rustle of feathers. The startled nymph let out a surprised chitter, rearing back to try to fend her off, only to fall right back into the water.

She made sure to pin his shoulders, thoroughly soaking him from mane to tail.

It took all her self-control not to take pride in the surprise written plain across his face. But that fell secondary to her goal.

Sure Stroke leaned down to nuzzle him. His smooth, chitinous carapace both warm and full of life, and cool with the water coating him.

“I’m still challenging you,” she said softly. Her eyes locked with his. “I challenge you to be yourself and be my friend, Aspire. I challenge you, Esalen, Nimble, and Zephyr to be my first changeling friends, and not shy away because I think some things about you all are weird.”

Aspire stared in silence. He licked his lips, his ears twitched. “You’re sincere,” he muttered.

“Yes, dummy, I’m very sincere.”

“Huh.” Blinking, he gave a small smile. “Okay.”

Sure Stroke furrowed her brows. “That’s it? After all that, just ‘okay?’” she mimicked his voice as best she could—which wasn’t very good at all.

By the look on his face, he knew it too, but just didn’t feel like saying it. “Yes. Okay. I already said I wasn’t going to let the next challenge slide, so I’ll take this one.” With a wry look, he ran a hoof through his sopping wet mane. “Even though you messed up my mane.”

“Deal with it! It comes with being tackled by a chubby little filly, mister ‘I’m the best wrestler!’”

His eyes narrowed. “You’re treading into dangerous waters, little filly!” Green fire sparked, Aspire’s teeth lengthened and narrowed into his normal fangs. “Don’t you think it’s best you quit while you're ahead on getting away with challenging a changeling?”

Sure Stroke stuck out her tongue. “You’re just mad that I’ve got you pinned! And I think I’ll tell everyone it wasn’t even a struggle!”

“Alright, don’t say I didn’t warn you.” Aspire’s eyes flashed green, a wicked smirk tugged at his lips. “Remember how I told you your first lesson was not to challenge a changeling?”

She felt him shift beneath her, readying to try to move. Sure Stroke pressed her weight down on his shoulders. “Yeah. After you scared me and slimed my legs.”

“Good. Here comes lesson one in wrestling. Ready?”

Eyes narrowed, Sure Stroke snorted defiantly. “I’ve got you pinned, what do you mean ‘ready?’”

Aspire’s smirk turned into a decidedly smug grin. Without a word, he bucked his hips, shooting her forward, then wrapped a hoof around the back of her head and tugged her to the side.

Her world went sideways. Sure Stroke gasped at the cold rush of water upon her back. She tried to stop herself, but Aspire caught her by the shoulder and planted a knee firmly on her chest.

Sure Stroke let out a wheezing gasp as the wind left her chest. She shifted left and right, doing her best to wriggle out from under him, but to no avail.

Aspire brought his muzzle in close, nuzzling her nose just as she had his. “Never put all your weight forward or backward,” he said. “It makes it way too easy for me to sweep you.” Waggling his eyebrows, he added, “It also helps if you put a knee on someone’s chest. Makes for a nice little spot to sit, and it’s really uncomfortable.”

“I’ve—oof!—noticed!” Sure Stroke groaned and let her hooves fall flat. Her only option was surrender. “Okay, okay! You win! I give up, mighty changeling! Now get off!”

“Hmm. Nah!” He shook his head and let out a strange, almost purring sound from the back of his throat. Like he was a big cat.

Changelings make the strangest sounds.

Aspire fixed her with a half-lidded stare and a knowing smirk. “What was that you said about us being strange? I’m curious, do enlighten me.”

Sure Stroke rolled her eyes. “Do we have to play this game?”

“I could tickle it out of you if you want.” He let a hoof drift down her side. “I bet I can keep you pinned if I just use one hoof.”

Crabapples. “Fine! Yes, you’re strange to me.” Her eyes flitted to his legs. “Ponies don’t have holes. Or chitin. Or fangs. You do.”

Aspire made a show of opening and closing his mouth. “Anything else?”

Sure Stroke huffed. “Yes. You all have long tongues.”

He’d been waiting for that. Aspire stuck out his tongue, just as she had before, and waggled it at her before blowing a raspberry.

She writhed and tried to cover her face. “Gross!”

Aspire pulled his tongue back in. “Gross, huh?” he parroted, laughing. “Aren’t you forgetting something else?”

Sure Stroke wrinkled her snout. “Um, no.”

“You suuuuuuuure?” he drawled, his eyes shone with mirth. “It’s something else you think is weird! Here, lemme give you a hint!”

She watched in mute fascination as Aspire sucked in his lips. He seemed to be manipulating something around in his mouth, just like he had when …

Her eyes went wide. Sure Stroke unfurled her wings and flapped as hard as she could, splashing him in the face again and again. “No! No slime allowed!”

Cackling like a loon, Aspire nuzzled her. “I’m joking! Geez, stand down already!”

Sure Stroke huffed and glared up at him a moment. Then she splashed him again. “Get off, you jerk!”

He moved off of her and sat back on his haunches beside her, his smirk still in place even as water ran down his chitinous face. “Pegasi are sore losers,” he quipped.

“And changelings play dirty!” she shot back, a smile tugging at her lips as she sat up and turned to face him.

“Of course we do. We’re changelings.” Aspire cast a wink at her. “So, next one of your doodles is me with a clown face and a long tongue instead of fangs, right?”

Sure Stroke cringed. “You guys saw that?”

He gave a rueful smile. “Kinda clued us in that you were scared of our fangs.”

Comprehension finally dawned on her. Sure Stroke felt her breath hitch in her throat. “I … didn’t mean to—I just thought if I drew it, I could get out how I felt and—”

“It’s fine.” Aspire shrugged. “It’s not like you’re the first pony who came and freaked out when they saw our fangs.” Fixing her with a sideways glance, he gave a lopsided smile. “You’re just the first to sit down and doodle me looking like Queen Euphoria when she’s mad instead of babbling and pointing.”

Sure Stroke ducked her head and sucked in her lips, her cheeks burned.

He was right back to teasing her like normal. I wanted this?

“Wait!” Aspire gasped, his ears perked up. “I’ve got it!”

“Got what?” Sure Stroke asked, a feeling of dread rising as he slowly turned to beam at her.

Aspire jabbed a dripping wet hoof at her. “Your nickname is Doodle! I finally got one that works!”

“What?” she shrieked, blanching and bringing up a wing and a hoof as if to ward him off. “No! You can’t nickname me Doodle! Pick something else!”

“Nope!” He leaped to his hooves and stuck out his tongue again. “You’re Doodle from now until the day I get bored or you leave Respite! And I’m gonna make sure it sticks, Doooooooodle!”

Before Sure Stroke could even try to grab him, Aspire took off in a dead sprint, chittering like mad as he dashed back toward the party.

Sure Stroke glared at his retreating form. She stood and shook the water out of her coat, glaring as she watched Aspire’s form burst into green fire and shift into that of a rather lithe orange coated unicorn with a messy red mane.

If he thought he was the only one who could play to his kind’s strengths, he had another thing coming!

Unfurling her wings, Sure Stroke gave chase, flying as fast as she could. With her hooves outstretched, she flew low, weaving around a couple stray trees as Aspire tried to slow her down.

Aspire darted past Façade, Duplicitous, and Pear Tree, cackling as he called out, “Come on, Doodle! Keep up!” He turned sharply, racing as fast as he could toward their friends over by the drink table. “I’m gonna make sure Nimble knows what to call you when she finally catches you!”

“You’d better not or I’ll give you such a smack!” Sure Stroke cried. “Aspire! Get back here!”

Her warning only served to make heads turn toward them, the villagers began laughing as they watched the pair go racing by.

“Better run fast, Aspire!”

“Give him a good swat, Sure Stroke! Teach that naughty little nymph we pegasi aren’t to be messed with!”

“Yeah, right, Rain! Aspire’s got her beat!”

They didn’t even know what they were cheering for, nor did they really seem to care. The villagers just knew it was fun and wanted to join in.

Despite herself, Sure Stroke let a smile cross her muzzle. It was rather nice to hear like they’d already accepted her as one of their own.

She put on an extra burst of speed, the distance between herself and Aspire closed.

With a cry of victory, Sure Stroke swooped down and tackled him, sending them both rolling in the dirt, laughing, yelping, and flailing hooves as each struggled for dominance. In the end, it was Sure Stroke who came up on top. She sat on his back, pressing a hoof between his shoulder blades while covering his mouth with the other.

“Caught you!” she crowed.

Aspire narrowed his eyes. In a burst of flames, he was in nymph form again. His carapaced cheeks crinkled as though he were smiling, then she felt his lips part and a warm, wet tongue run across her leg.

She shrieked and pulled her hoof away. “Aspire! That’s gross!”

He didn’t hesitate. “Her nickname is Doodle!” he called at the top of his voice. “I finally got one!”

Sure Stroke clapped her hoof over his mouth again, but it was too late. Pinning her ears flat, she looked up to find their friends but a few steps away.

Slowly, their ears perked up and broad grins crossed their faces. Vector and Toola Roola even swished their tails happily, the latter sucked in her lips to hold back laughter.

The sound of low, almost sibilant chuckling tickled Sure Stroke’s ears. She looked over her shoulder and felt her heart sink when she came face to face with Queen Euphoria once again.

“And just when I was about to come looking for you!” The Queen said, amusement tinging her voice. “Would you be a dear and let Aspire up, please?”

Nodding, Sure Stroke slid off him. Aspire simply sat up on his haunches and grinned before turning to face the Queen himself.

Queen Euphoria’s smiled brightened. “Thank you. I only wanted to ask if you would mind coming to visit me sometime, Sure Stroke.”

Sure Stroke ducked her head. “Am I in trouble?”

“No, no trouble at all!” Queen Euphoria waved her off. “I just had a lovely little talk with your parents and they happened to mention your …” she trailed off, her eyes flitted to Aspire. “Adjustment to the village and I thought I might offer my help. Just a talk, really. Perhaps tea if you’d like.”

Shifting in place, Sure Stroke glanced at Aspire. He didn’t seem worried, though maybe a bit tense when Queen Euphoria’s gaze fell upon him.

“Why don’t you give it some thought?” Queen Euphoria offered. She smiled and tussled Sure Stroke’s mane. “It doesn’t have to be now. If you want, just come by my house. If I’m not busy with village matters, I’d be happy to talk.” She started to walk away, but stopped in mid step. Bringing a hoof to her lips, she feigned a gasp. “Oh! I almost forgot! Sure Stroke?”

There was something about the gleam in her eyes that set Sure Stroke on edge. “Yes, Your—um …” she trailed off, catching a wry look from the Queen. “I mean, yes, Euphoria?”

“I think Doodle is a lovely nickname for you. Your mother tells me that you’re quite the artist.”

Sure Stroke groaned and buried her face in her hooves, grumbling under her breath as Aspire cackled and wrapped her in a tight hug.

“This stupid name is going to stick, isn’t it?” she muttered.

Aspire brought his muzzle close to her ear, she could almost feel the smugness radiating off him.

“Come on now, Doodle. Was there ever any doubt?”

18. Filly Friends

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The jumble of letters and numbers stared back at her, almost mocking her. They knew they’d beaten her before, the red markings of Abacus’ pen still fresh, like the thin cuts a rosebush left across a pony’s body.

But Esalen was not to be deterred. She would defeat her longtime nemesis with the aid of her faithful companions: Toola Roola the Giggly and Sure Stroke the Doodle. Sadly, Zephyr the Grumpy, Vector the Obnoxious, and Aspire the Bird’s Nest were off playing and wrestling with Rocky the … Rocky.

She wasn’t the best with nicknames. That was Aspire’s thing.

Stupid Aspire being good at math. Why couldn’t he at least stick around and help them out with their corrections? Toola was a great help since she’d all but aced the pop quiz they’d taken, but he was mister tutor in training. This was his job.

Esalen shot a look at Toola, who was already done with her lone correction and a few of Sweet Treat’s peanut butter cookies. It just wasn’t fair. Especially when she and Sure Stroke were still struggling to finish up their own.

Her lips tugged into an impish smirk. Esalen glanced at the purple coated filly out of the corner of her eye, flicking her tongue out to taste the bitter bite of frustration and irritation while she tried to figure out where she’d gone wrong.

Esalen caught Toola’s eye and cast a wink, drawing a poorly hidden fit of giggles as she spoke, “What’s got you stuck, Doodle?”

Sure Stroke gave a low whine. “Essyyyyyyyyy!”

Turning to face her, Esalen mimicked her pout and whined back, “Dooooooooodllllllllllle!”

Soft purple ears drooped. Sure Stroke huffed and crossed her hooves over her chest. “I’m going to smack your brother for coming up with that stupid name!” she grumbled. “I do not doodle that much!”

Toola Roola leaned over the table, placing her hooves on it to balance herself. “Oh, really? Then why—” before Sure Stroke could react, Toola snatched up a piece of her scratch paper and held it up to reveal several tiny clouds, the lake, and a small doodle of a foal and a nymph wrestling in the shallows “—have you been doing this in between your corrections, hmm?”

With a startled squeak, Sure Stroke snatched it back. Her face tinged a deep purple as a blush colored her cheeks. “Th-Those aren’t doodles! They’re sketches! Completely different!”

Esalen hid a smile behind her hoof, she lit her horn and floated the paper out of Sure Stroke’s hooves so she could examine it a bit closer.

She scoffed. The scene wasn’t shaded or overly detailed, just something Sure Stroke had done quickly in between problems; a doodle, just as Toola said.

Rolling her eyes, she made to comment such, but something about the wrestling pair made her do a quick double take. She knew the foal and nymph on Sure Stroke’s paper.

One of them was sitting across from her, blushing profusely as she tried to stretch across the table and take the drawing away, whining each time Esalen moved it just out of reach. The other was her bookbug of a brother.

The tiny Aspire wore a wicked grin as he pinned tiny Sure Stroke, sticking out his tongue at the prone filly. There was even a little speech bubble with the words “Nyah, nyah! I’m smug and proud!” above his head.

Esalen snickered. Someone is getting into the swing of things. Good. “You’d better not let him see that,” she teased, floating the drawing back over to Sure Stroke. “Or you’ll have to hear him snark and pun as much as I do!”

“Oh, not the puns!” Toola wailed. She flopped down on the table and buried her face in her hooves. “Anything but his puns!”

“Yes, the puns!” Esalen cried, baring her fangs and rising to leer at her faux melodramatic friend. “We will all suffer the horrible fate of hearing each and every one of his stupid, poorly timed puns day in and day out!”

The pair broke down in a fit of giggles. Esalen let herself fall back into her seat, chittering merrily as she took up her pencil again.

“Are his puns really that bad?”

Flicking an ear toward Sure Stroke, Esalen glanced up at her. She grimaced. “They’re not bad. They’re worse. He makes the first one and just beats all the follow ups in until you’re ready to beat him into the ground.”

Sure Stroke winced. “I’ll take your word for it,” she said. “Puns can be fun, though.”

Oh, this poor, innocent filly. Esalen gave a sympathetic smile. She reached across the table and patted Sure Stroke’s hoof. “I’m sure you think so, but once you hear him start, you’ll want to smack Aspire just as much as I do, Doodle.”

“I already want to smack him for that stupid nickname.” Sure Stroke fixed her with a glare. “And if he drives you all so nuts, why are you so keen to help him drive me nuts?”

“Because that’s how we show we care!” Toola cheered.

“What she said,” Esalen replied, nodding toward Toola. “Also, because the name suits you, judging by those doodles on your paper.”

Sure Stroke huffed. “Not doodles! Sketches!”

Smirking, Esalen resumed working on question three. An idea came to mind. Why not get a little teasing in while she suffered the horrors of algebra? “There’s no shading, no detailed lines, and you’ve been doing it really quickly while you try to distract yourself. You’re doodling, Doodle. There’s no shame in doing what doodling Doodles do.”

“You’re both just trying to find ways to say ‘Doodle’ as much as you possibly can, aren’t you?” Sure Stroke deadpanned.

On cue, Toola flipped herself out of her chair and cartwheeled over to wrap Sure Stroke in a hug. “You know it, Doodly-Doo!”

Groaning, Sure Stroke slumped. “I had to ask.”

Too easy, Esalen thought. She flicked her tongue out to sample Sure Stroke’s taste.

A dash of irritation, a healthy dose of resignation, but with the more delectable sweetness of happiness acting as a counterbalance. In short, she was having fun, even though they were pressing her buttons.

Excellent.

That meant Sure Stroke was open for a bit more teasing. And Esalen knew exactly what to hit on next.

“We could always find something else to talk about,” Esalen noted, giving a wicked grin. “Like the fact that it seems our new friend is so taken with Aspire that she’s drawn him not once, but twice since coming here. Already lovedrunk for my bookbug brother, eh, Sure Stroke?”

Scrunching up her snout, Sure Stroke tilted her head and furrowed her brows. Esalen could almost see the gears turning in her head as she tried to parse together the meaning behind her words.

Esalen made sure to run her tongue along her lips, savoring the taste of confusion hanging over the air, then again as she saw Sure Stroke’s sky blue eyes go wide. Comprehension dawned on her, bringing with it a blush that spread to the very tips of her ears and even made her wings fluff.

Embarrassment was light and fluffy, like cotton candy.

If they weren’t in Sweet Treat’s shop, Esalen would’ve happily tackled Sure Stroke and hugged her tight to tease and gloat over as she savored and sipped at the delicious treat radiating off her pegasus friend.

Instead, she simply cast a wink at Toola, who tittered and puckered her lips while making loud, obnoxious kissing noises.

Sure Stroke reared back. “No, no, no!” she cried, waving her hooves. “That’s not it at all!”

“Oh, really?” Esalen drawled. “You draw him an awful lot.”

“I draw many things!” Sure Stroke said. “It’s not my fault you haven’t seen them!” Frantically, she rifled through her papers until she found a few, then pushed them to the center of the table. Just as promised, each was littered with her so-called sketches. “See! Plenty of sketches!”

“Doodles!” Toola sang.

“Sketches!”

Chuckling to herself while the pair bickered, Esalen let her eyes wander over each of the drawings. She smiled as she saw a mini Vector and Zephyr exchanging a hoof bump, while a mini Aspire sat fuming and grumbling to himself. On the other side of the page, there was a rather cute drawing of Toola standing on just one forehoof while holding her other out and beaming. Then one of Esalen herself reaching out with a hoof, the word “Boop” floated above her in neat cursive.

And our fangs are proportional, she happily noticed, smiling at how her picture’s fangs poked out from behind her top lip to a fine point, stopping just past her bottom lip. Just as they should.

The next page began with a picture of Toola and Nimble doing a twirl together, their long flowing manes trailed with their every movement. There were a few small drawings, mostly of clouds and pegasi pushing them, but a couple of their friends’ faces.

Esalen had to withhold a snort at the sight of Aspire’s face drawn with rather strange makeup and a ball on the end of his nose. The mini goof of a nymph stuck his tongue out and had a speech bubble floating above him that read “I’m a big, silly, clownling!”

Just below the “clownling” was a picture of her and Aspire together, both staring back at her. He fixed her with a raised eyebrow and his trademark wide, smug smirk, while her miniature gazed through half-lidded eyes and a knowing, almost impish grin.

Her hoof traced over the words floating above them, Esalen had to suck in her lips to avoid cooing.

It wasn’t a speech bubble. It was a title:

My Best Friends.

She licked her lips. The sweet, bubbly taste of Toola’s mirth and mischief mixed with the fluffy embarrassment rolling off Sure Stroke in waves. Esalen stood and trotted around to wrap them both in a hug, cutting them off in the middle of their bantering.

“Your drawings are very good,” she praised. “And you’ve got our fangs looking much nicer, not to mention the detail in our bodies.”

Sure Stroke fidgeted, her taste grew more fluffy. “I’m good at pony bodies,” she replied. “But changeling bodies are tricky, so I’m trying to spend more time working on them. If I can draw you, I can picture them as you are, and then I can start to understand you better.”

Esalen gave an approving hum. “Well, I like it. Though you make it sound like you’re studying us.” Casting a wink, she added, “I’m not a math problem, you know! You can just ask me to tell you the answer!”

“I’ve been getting answers from everyone, and they just raise more questions!” Sure Stroke glared down at the papers sitting on the table. “I can’t decide which is more complicated: math or changelings!”

“Changelings are a lot more fun than math,” Toola supplied helpfully.

Scoffing, Sure Stroke flicked her tail. “Yes, they also delight in mischief and have a tendency to be maddeningly confusing!”

Esalen could only shrug. She couldn’t argue the point, it was part of their nature to be confusing. “There’s not exactly a how-to guide on living with us, sadly. Respite is really just learning as you go, but we’re all happy to help you along the way.” She nuzzled Sure Stroke’s cheek. “You know you can always ask, and we’ll try our best to answer.”

For a moment Sure Stroke stayed quiet. Then she sighed and let her shoulders slump, leaning into Esalen’s touch.

Now there was progress!

“I know,” Sure Stroke muttered. With a tired smile, she shifted to hug both of them. “I appreciate it, too. I just wish there was something written down so I could study it and avoid all my little slip ups. I want to understand. Without being scared until you or Aspire calm me down and tell me what’s going on.”

Esalen winced. Okay, that is a bit of a problem. Something like that would help, especially for ponies who wander in off hearsay—

An idea hit her like a bolt of lightning. Trade Day!

She leaned back to hold Sure Stroke at hoof’s length, giving a wide smile. “Well, maybe that can be your trade!”

“My what?” Sure Stroke tilted her head.

“Your trade,” Toola said. “Everyone who lives in Respite has something they do to help out the village and its visitors—like how Essy’s dad was there to give you all a big welcome, or how Ready Steady is always happy to help ponies move in!”

“Everyone helps somehow, we all pick on Trade Day.” Esalen nodded to Toola. “Aspire’s already planning to be a tutor, how about you, giggly?”

Beaming, Toola nodded so fast her blue and pink mane fluffed. She threw her hooves out wide. “I want to teach gymnastics!” Then, she gave a sheepish grin. “But that’s really exclusive, and that doesn’t really help visitors. I’ve talked with some ponies around town, and they mentioned stuff with muscle therapy and wishing they could stretch like Nimble and me. So I might try something like that.”

Esalen brought a hoof to her chin. “I’m sure one of my books had something in it about that, but I can’t remember what it’s called. We’ll have to look it up.” Her eyes flitted to Sure Stroke. “Since you mentioned wanting a book about us to help new ponies, you could always write one yourself.”

“What?” Sure Stroke’s ears perked up, her eyes went as wide as dinner plates. “Me? Write a book?”

“Why not? It’s not like it has to be really detailed. Just stuff you learned while living here.” Esalen shrugged. “I’m sure Queen Euphoria would be happy to have something else to help get ponies comfortable.”

Sure Stroke bit her lip and gave a little rustle of her wings. “I don’t know. I like writing better than math and stuff, but I’m more into drawing than that.”

“So why not make it a picture book?” Esalen said, prodding her in the chest. “Little illustrations with some of the stuff you talk about as a way of showing, maybe.”

Toola bobbed her head. “That would be nice, actually. And if it’s from an outsider’s perspective, it’d probably help more than us just shrugging and saying it’s normal all the time!”

Letting out a low hum, Sure Stroke brought a hoof to her chin. “A book would really help, but I’m still not sure if I’m the one to write it.”

Esalen smiled and gave another shrug. “You’ve got plenty of time to think about it, Trade Day isn’t for a while. Going back to math, though—”

“Do we have to?” Sure Stroke whined.

“I was going to say you could always ask Aspire. He’s gonna be a tutor or a teacher.”

“All you’d have to do is offer him a trade,” Toola added. “He’s pretty fair about it whenever we ask. He usually just asks for a few sips of love in return.”

Sure Stroke stiffened. Her eyes flitted between them, she rubbed a hoof against her shoulder and looked down at the floor.

Flicking out her tongue, Esalen caught a sample of nerves. Still uncertain, but not nearly as potent as before, and lacking the fear. A bit more typical of a first timer.

She smiled. Not perfect, but much better. Sure Stroke would come around soon enough, she just needed to experience her first feeding.

Aspire or me, maybe, she thought, fighting back the urge to lick her lips. Sure Stroke’s happiness tasted delicious, she could only imagine how her love was. And this could be the way to get her to accept it.

“I’ll … think about it,” Sure Stroke said after a moment. Scrunching up her snout, she looked up to meet Esalen’s eyes. “What’s your trade going to be, then? Tutoring like Aspire?”

Esalen gave a chittering laugh. “Me? No way!” She waved a hoof. “I’m not nearly as book-friendly as him!”

“Even though you love to read!” Toola quipped.

Narrowing her eyes, Esalen pulled the little filly in close and pressed their snouts together. “Behave, you!” she warned, furrowing her brows as Toola simply giggled. “Or I’ll wrap your legs together so we can all take turns poking your sides!”

Undeterred, Toola just stuck her tongue out. “Still thinking about it?” she asked.

Esalen pulled a face but nodded. “Still trying to.”

“Is it really that hard to pick?” Sure Stroke asked, tilting her head.

“I wish it weren’t,” Esalen muttered, bitterly flicking her tail. “I know I want to help ponies like my mom or Queen Euphoria, but I’m not entirely sure I just want to talk like they do, y’know? Ponies and changelings have plenty of other problems.”

Sure Stroke hummed. “Like, physical stuff? Like how my mom helps pegasi relearn how to fly after they get hurt?”

Esalen’s ears perked up. “Yes! That!” she said, grinning broadly. “But, not so specific. More broad.”

“Caretakers love helping everyone they can,” Toola noted. She thought for a moment, then grinned. “You and I could do the stretching thing! Just think!” Bouncing away from them, she stood on her hind legs and held her hooves up as if holding a sign. “Toola and Esalen’s Stretch Services!”

Sharing a look together, Esalen and Sure Stroke sucked in their lips to hold back laughter.

“I don’t think—snrrk—stretch services are what you’re looking for,” Sure Stroke managed to say.

Toola scoffed. “Work in progress. What do you say, Essy?” She waggled her ears. “Trade partners?”

Esalen gave a tight-lipped smile, still holding back her mirth. Working with Toola could be fun, it would certainly be a barrel of laughs unless she did a full one-eighty in personality.

There were worse ponies or changelings she could partner up with.

She nodded once. “I think that’d be lots of fun.”

A loud bang made the trio of fillies flick their ears toward the front door. Cool Breeze darted around to shut it, pressing his back against the frame as if to keep someone out. His blue-coated chest heaved, his snowy mane seemed damp with sweat, a wide grin spread across his muzzle even as he panted for breath.

Esalen flicked out her tongue to sample his taste, an act followed by several other changeling patrons while their pony friends grinned knowingly. Happiness and mischief both hung thick in the air.

He’s up to his tricks. Oh boy.

“No, no, no!” Sweet Treat’s angry voice called from the kitchen. She burst through the door, glaring daggers at Cool Breeze. Stomping a hoof, she pointed him back outside. “You get out of here, Breezy! My poor shop isn’t going to be your hiding place after one of your darn pranks again!”

Breezy laughed. “Aw, c’mon, Sweets!” He pulled the most insincere pout anyone present had ever seen. “I’m just a poor, innocent pegasus, trying to hide from his angry wife!”

“You’re as innocent as Maple when I make pancakes,” she deadpanned. “What did you do this time?”

“Me? Nothing! Nothing at all!”

Esalen flicked out her tongue again. “Liar!” she sang.

Breezy’s false pout left his face, replaced by a bright grin. “Okay, fine, maybe a little, but it’s for a good cause! She was buried in paperwork and desperately needed a break—”

“So you pranked her,” Sweet Treat interrupted with a heavy sigh. Bringing a hoof to her forehead, she let out a groan. “What was it this time?”

“Water balloons,” he replied without a hint of shame in his tone. “Filled with ice water.”

Another groan. Sweet Treat muttered something under her breath that earned a bark of laughter in reply.

With a cheeky waggle of his ears, Cool Breeze wrapped her in a quick hug, then flapped his wings to dart over toward the fillies. He laid his hooves on Esalen and Toola’s shoulders, smiling at each of them in turn. “Say, girls. How’d you like to gimme a bit of a hoof with my little game with Phory?”

Esalen had to fight back her want to bounce in place. Breezy’s pranks were always the best, and anytime he could help them get Queen Euphoria was more than welcome. “I’m in!” she chirped.

“I’m in!” Toola cheered, throwing her hooves up.

They each turned to Sure Stroke, Esalen made sure to give her biggest, brightest grin.

The filly stared back at them, confusion written plain across her face. She scrunched up her snout and stole a glance to the front door as if she expected Queen Euphoria to come charging in, fangs at full length, hissing curses, and ready to spit cocoon slime at any who dared come between her and Breezy.

Not entirely wrong, of course. They were all about to risk the Queen’s wrath by helping her ever-mischievous husband.

Sure Stroke looked up at Breezy. “Won’t she be angry?”

“Oh, we’re well beyond that,” he replied. “I got her a few times before she realized it was me. She’ll come after me first, of course. So you three just have to stay out of sight as best you can, which is perfect, really.” Waggling his eyebrows, he added, “I’ve already got an ambush spot picked out.”

Sure Stroke bit her lip. “I don’t know …”

Fortunately, Esalen had the perfect response to give her the push she so needed.

Time to see if the pony takes the carrot.

“You know,” she began, “if you help us with a prank, you can see how changelings and ponies work together to achieve their goals, and how to avoid being caught by one who’s trying to find you.”

She allowed herself a smirk as she caught the spark that flashed across Sure Stroke’s eyes.

“Okay,” Sure Stroke said with a weak smile. “I guess it couldn’t hurt to try.”

Bingo.

Breezy gave a happy nicker. “Great! Now, let’s get out of here before Phory catches up. I don’t wanna chance getting out when she’s got plenty of stuff to stick us to!” He looked toward the kitchen door, a wide grin crossed his muzzle. “And I know a shortcut to our spot!”

Quick as a flash, he swept the fillies up and onto his back, then bounded for the kitchen door. Esalen and Toola cackled as Sweet Treat shrieked at him, and did their best to hang on, each wrapping a hoof around his shoulder, then another around Sure Stroke to keep her steady.

They shot through the kitchen, Peppermint and Spearmint leaped out of the way, both grinning and catcalling while a small, chubby little changeling with red-orange mane named Maple looked up from where he was trying to sneak a quick lick of syrup off a plate.

Esalen spared a quick wave to each of them before Cool Breeze burst through the back door and into the warm sunlight, speeding off as fast as he could toward whatever spot he’d chosen to stage his ambush.

Just in time for a second bang and enraged hissing to sound from within Sweet Treat’s shop. Then, a familiar voice, cracked with rage and coming in a hunting changeling’s dual reverberating voice, reached their ears.

“COOL BREEZE! WHEN I GET MY HOOVES ON YOU, YOU’RE FINISHED!”

Queen Euphoria was on the hunt.


Sure Stroke knew she wasn’t what one might call a genius by any stretch of the imagination, but she knew better than to ignore the tingle running down her spine.

It was different from the one she got during sunny days, when all her instincts just itched to fly through the open blue sky, or maybe find a nice, fluffy cloud to perch herself on for a quick nap or a few hours of drawing.

Rather, it was one that told her she’d just made a very, very big mistake joining her friends and Cool Breeze in their mischief against Queen Euphoria.

She bit her lip and looked about the yard. Piles of lumber were stacked high, a small, wood tool shed stood a short distance away from a large workbench, several downed tree trunks lay on their side just past a small clearing near the grassy forest edge. On the other side of the yard, a cottage of similar design to the rest of the village stood. The back door bore a small sign with words painted in bright red:

Birch and Pine Wood’s Lumber Yard

Knock On Door For Assistance

Do Not Borrow Tools Without Asking

Do Not Use Tools Without Supervision

This Means YOU, Morning Dew!

Sure Stroke couldn’t help but let her gaze wander. Cloudsdale didn’t have anything like this. There was just no need since all the buildings were built entirely out of carefully shaped clouds. Any wood furnishing was just ordered from lumber yards, usually in small towns near forests.

I wonder if Respite ships its lumber. She wrinkled her snout. No, that wouldn’t make much sense. Respite wasn’t on any maps, it took a visit from Merryweather and Hawkeye for her family to find about about the tiny village.

That said, how did they get new ponies?

Also, why did Morning Dew need a special note?

She turned to Esalen, both questions on the tip of her tongue.

“Okay, so!” Breezy spoke up, cutting across her as he leaned in to let them in on his plan. Unfurling a wing, he revealed a small pouch hanging across his body. He reached in and pulled out four small straws and a few bits of paper. “I’ve got our weapons here, and this is gonna be the staging ground for our ambush! So, it’s really simple: everyone spread out and hide. Phory will be here any second to wring my neck, so hopefully, she won’t stop to search for other scents.”

Sighing, Sure Stroke filed her questions away for later. They were all excited for their game. There would be plenty of time afterward. Hopefully.

“You want to confuse her?” Esalen asked, a wicked gleam shone in her eyes.

Breezy grinned and bobbed his head. “Bingo!” He reached down to tussle her mane. “She’ll follow my scent, then one of you hit her while her back is turned. She’ll come looking for me, not you three. So, if you keep hitting her from behind, she’ll think I’m sneaking around faster than she can track me down.”

Toola let out an amused snort. “Oh, gosh! She’ll be chasing her tail if we can confuse her enough!”

“Yes, but try not to stay in one spot too long.” Breezy held up a hoof. “I’m sure I don’t need to remind you, but changelings are quite good at hunting, eh, Essy?”

Giving a fanged grin, Esalen nodded once. “If we just stay in one spot each, all she’ll have to do is pick one of us out. Then we’re done for.”

“Exactly.” He turned to Sure Stroke, giving a small smile. “Ready to play a trick on a changeling queen?”

Sure Stroke fidgeted in place, her coat stood up as three sets of eyes fell upon her. She rustled her wings and flicked her tail. “The last time I was hunted, Aspire nearly scared the feathers off me,” she muttered.

A gentle hoof wrapped around her shoulder and pulled her in close. Breezy smiled down at her. “Don’t worry,” he said. “Phory might be mad at me, but she won’t do anything too scary. If she does figure out what we’re up to, the most she’ll do is wrap you up in a cocoon for safe keeping while she comes after me.” His grin returned, he gave a playful little waggle of his ears. “Me? I’m in trouble either way.”

Wrinkling her snout, Sure Stroke looked to Esalen and Toola, and was met with matching grins.

“Queen Euphoria won’t be mean,” Toola said. “And if she does wrap us up, it’ll just be in a cocoon like what Essy and all the other changelings sleep in. Like when you roll around in your blankets.”

Esalen laid a hoof on Sure Stroke’s shoulder. “It’s just like when Aspire wrapped your legs, really. She doesn’t do it too tight, just so we can’t run away while she finds anyone else helping to prank her. She always lets us right out when she’s done.”

Sure Stroke let out a low whine. She rubbed a hoof against her shin.

It was weird enough when Aspire wrapped her leg to bandage her cuts and scrapes. Just the thought of her entire body being covered in that … that … sticky, goopy, slime made the skin beneath her coat crawl!

How much would they even have to spit to do that?

She shook her head. It was weird because she didn’t grow up with changelings. To Toola, this was all just part of having them as neighbors.

And for Aspire and Esalen, it was just natural.

Not to mention, if she did play a little, she could actually see how Queen Euphoria went about trying to hunt for each of them in turn.

As for being wrapped up … well, maybe if she asked really nicely, she’d get out of it. And if worst came to worst, she could always sneak away.

Or maybe she could get away with just watching. That would work just fine.

“I’d rather not be wrapped up,” she said slowly. “But if it’s just playing, I guess it’d be okay.”

The Respite natives grinned. Cool Breeze gave her a quick pat on the head, along with one last assurance that “his Phory” would be nice to the fillies, then passed out the straws and bits of paper.

A strange sound tickled Sure Stroke’s ears. She perked them up, raising her eyebrow as she tried to make it out.

It almost sounded like a bee’s buzz as it flew. But from far off.

Breezy flicked his ears. He heard it too. “Right, that’s Phory! Everyone find a place to hide! Don’t bunch up!”

Esalen and Toola darted off, each fighting to hold back their laughter as they dove behind the stacks of long, square boards. In a flurry of blue feathers, Breezy flew over to the toolshed and slipped inside.

The buzzing grew louder, joined by angry hissing. Sure Stroke panicked, she bit her lip and searched frantically for a place to hide.

Her gaze fell upon the tree trunks. Specifically, a little gap between two or three trunks that seemed perfect for her to peek out and shoot through, but difficult for someone else to spot her.

Sure Stroke galloped as fast as her legs could carry her, skidding around the pile. Fortunately for her, the pile had a small cropping of bushes to her right, to cover her flank from view. She would just have to keep an eye out for the left side—where she’d just run through.

As long as she kept her eyes on Queen Euphoria and didn’t give herself away, she had the perfect spot. And this time, she had an easy escape route if she needed to fly.

She crawled beneath the bushes to hide from view, just in case Queen Euphoria chose to make her approach from a higher altitude. Carefully, she crept forward until she could see the small clearing at the center of the yard.

Just in time for her to see Queen Euphoria land with a loud thud, the rapid buzzing of her wings kicked up dust. Her mane hung limp, her golden heart circlets glinted in the sunlight. She snarled, her lips peeled back to reveal her pearl white teeth and long, pointed fangs. Her tongue ran along her lips.

Sure Stroke could see sunlight gleaming off the Queen's chitin, catching on the water from Breezy’s assault. Her eyes went wide.

Oh, crab apples, he didn’t just get her with one. He soaked her!

“I know you’re here, Breezy!” Queen Euphoria called, poorly hidden fury tinged her voice as she began to stalk around the yard. “Come out, dearest! It’ll only get worse if you keep hiding from me!”

No answer came.

With an angry chitter, Queen Euphoria raised her snout and sniffed at the air. Slowly, a smile spread across her black, chitinous muzzle. Her eyes fell on a pair of blue feathers laying at her hooves.

She picked one up and gave it a kiss. “I always did love your feathers,” she crooned, looking toward the woodshed. “So beautiful, so soft … so easy for me to find, my sweet!” Her smile grew into a wicked grin, her fangs began to lengthen. She hunched down and pinned her ears back, making straight for the shed.

Sure Stroke craned her neck to see, she shifted forward, her hooves scraped against the dirt.

Both she and Queen Euphoria froze at the sound. Her heart hammered in her chest, she watched the angry changeling turn toward her, ears perked up and snout wrinkled in confusion.

Queen Euphoria’s brows furrowed, then relaxed. With a low chuckle, she crouched low again and began to approach Sure Stroke’s hiding spot. “Trying to play more tricks? Perhaps there’s a nice bucket of water balanced atop that door just for me, hmm?” Her eyes flashed green. “I don’t think so, darling!”

Barely holding back a squeak, Sure Stroke stayed perfectly still. Her eyes wide as the angry, full grown changeling Queen stalked forward.

Hunting her. Like predator and prey.

The Queen stopped just a short distance away, pinning her ears back, she gave a chitter and bounded forward, ready to leap over the pile of logs …

Sure Stroke heard a puffing sound, then a startled yelp. Queen Euphoria stumbled just before she reached the logs, her hooves dug into the dirt as she stopped and did a quick about-face, searching this way and that for her attacker.

A flash of sugar pink mane and black carapace ducked behind a stack of wood. Esalen had come to her rescue just in the nick of time!

“Breezy!” she yelled. Her snarl returned, she stamped a hoof. “The more you play these games, the more I’m going to punish you once I get my hooves on you! You’re already getting wrapped up in a cocoon and teased—” she paused a moment to lick her lips, her voice dropped to a low, husky tone “—do you really want to see how much worse I can make it?”

For a moment, there was no reply. Then, Sure Stroke noticed a blue hoof reach up to push the shed window up just a crack. Enough so Breezy could stick his straw through the opening when his wife turned to look at the stack of wood where Esalen was hiding, and fire a quick shot that hit her square on her right flank.

Queen Euphoria glared toward the shed and stomped over. Before she’d even made it three paces, Sure Stroke saw Toola pop out of her hiding spot and shoot a spitball.

Right at their Queen’s cheek.

Sure Stroke let her jaw drop. No pony would dare shoot a spitball at Princess Celestia, let alone at her face.

Slowly, she crept back away from the edge of her bush’s cover, mirroring Queen Euphoria turning to gape at Toola’s wood pile.

The turn allowed Esalen and Breezy to move. Essy scampered over to hide behind a wheelbarrow while Breezy chose to shift behind a cutting block.

They were all working in tandem to help each other. All they had to do was keep Queen Euphoria guessing, put her off balance enough that she would get too confused and flustered to slow down and figure them out.

But there was a problem. Sure Stroke’s eyes went wide. If they wanted to keep the illusion up, it meant they couldn’t have ponies fire from opposite positions—they were limited to only firing from the left or right of the previous shooter.

In short, she couldn’t just watch.

She had to participate or everything would fall apart in short order once Queen Euphoria got her wits about.

Sure Stroke watched Breezy peek out to shoot at the back of Queen Euphoria’s head, drawing her attention to the cutting block while Toola shifted around to hide behind the corner of the cottage. A few seconds later, Esalen took her shot, which hit Queen Euphoria right in the shoulder.

It was her turn.

Swallowing a lump in her throat, Sure Stroke moved to peek through the crack between a pair of logs. She tore off a small edge of paper and chewed, waiting as Queen Euphoria stalked Esalen. Sure Stroke brought the straw to her mouth and took aim at her target’s midsection.

Maybe Breezy and the others were brave enough to shoot at her face, but Sure Stroke wasn’t so disrespectful.

Queen Euphoria’s side, however, was fair game.

Sure Stroke sent a silent apology to the confused mare and took her shot. The spitball zipped through the air and struck true.

With a startled gasp, Queen Euphoria turned sharply, her eyes flitting about in search of her assailant. Sure Stroke stayed low and waited.

It was Toola’s turn next. Sure enough, a few seconds later, Sure Stroke saw her chance when Queen Euphoria yelped and brought a hoof up to cover her snout.

She scampered over to hide behind one of the thicker tree trunks, covering her mouth with a hoof to stifle a bout of laughter as Queen Euphoria let out another angry chitter.

“That did it! Breezy, when I get my hooves on you, I’ll—eep!”

Sure Stroke had brought her free hoof to her mouth, she clenched her eyes shut and tried not to squirm. Her ears twitched as she heard another yelp and a bout of cursing, then another. The game was starting to pick up.

Peeking around the tree trunk, she fired off a quick shot that hit Queen Euphoria in the neck, then ducked just in time to avoid being seen.

“I don’t know how you’re getting around so quickly, Breezy, but once I—eep! Stop that!—once I find you, I’m going to give you such a—ack!—such a smack!”

Around and around they went. Through Breezy’s plan, they led her on a merry little chase. Sure Stroke shifted each chance she got, moving as soon as she was sure Queen Euphoria was occupied. Then, when it came her turn to take a shot, she managed to score a quick hit to the irritated changeling’s thigh.

She had to bite her lip as she heard another frustrated grumble. This was fun! Sneaking a quick peek out, she fired a spitball right past Queen Euphoria’s nose.

“Shoot!” she muttered before she could catch herself. Sure Stroke clapped her hooves over her lips as if hoping to catch the words and force them back inside her treacherous mouth.

Too late.

Queen Euphoria stood up straight, her ears perked to their full height. She turned just as Sure Stroke ducked back behind her tree. The damage was done.

Sure Stroke pressed against the tree trunk. She heard sniffing, the Queen was searching for her scent.

“That doesn’t sound like my Breezy,” Queen Euphoria called. “And I thought I smelled someone else at first. A couple someones, actually.”

The soft crunch of a hoof stepping on grass made Sure Stroke flinch.

The Queen continued, “I smell you, of course, Breezy. But I also smell vanilla and lilac, a favorite of a few mares and fillies, as well as a Caretaker’s chitin. The question, though, isn’t who you three are … Oh, no, I can guess you three easily. I know your scents quite well.”

She paused for effect. “I’m very interested in this fourth scent, though.” Another step. “It smells so very much like my wonderful new weather manager, Drizzly, and his beautiful wife, Skydancer—like ozone and rainwater, much like so many Cloudsdale natives. But there’s only one other pony fresh from Cloudsale, and I was so sure our sweet, innocent new filly wouldn’t do such a horrible thing as prank me!” Queen Euphoria gave a low chuckle. “But I can taste all four of you, and I know each taste very well.”

Oh, horseapples.

“Mischief,” the Queen continued, slowly stalking toward her. “Mirth—oh, so very much of that! Especially coming from my left! But there’s someone whose delicious mischief, almost as strong as my own kin, is mixed with doubt and guilt, oh yes! Guilty of what, I wonder? Would our guilty little filly like to confess?”

Filly? Sure Stroke’s eyes went wide. Oh no. Oh no, no, no! That’s right! The Queen said she had her scent, too!

She had to run!

The hoofsteps stopped. Sure Stroke craned her ears, listening out for any sound. Her heart hammered in her chest.

Then she felt warm breath tickling her ear, and the smooth touch of a chitinous snout nuzzling into her mane, with twin fangs brushing against her scalp.

She’d been caught.

“Well, sweetheart?” Queen Euphoria whispered. “Would you like to tell me why you taste so guilty today?”

Slowly, Sure Stroke turned, hunching her shoulders low so she appeared smaller, she fixed a sheepish grin upon her muzzle. “Hello, Queen Euphoria,” she greeted.

Queen Euphoria’s slitted eyes seemed to dance with glee. “Hello, Sure Stroke.” She kissed the top of Sure Stroke’s head. “Would you be a dear and put that straw down for me?”

Sure Stroke took one look at the wicked, fanged grin on the changeling’s muzzle, it was all the prompting she needed to drop both the straw and the scrap of paper.

Her obedience earned her another nuzzle.

“Good girl. Now, stand up and come out from behind this tree.” Queen Euphoria flinched, a wad of paper stuck to her cheek. Her left eye twitched, her lips seemed to tighten. She stepped back and turned, gesturing for Sure Stroke to follow.

Ducking her head, Sure Stroke walked alongside with Queen Euphoria to the center of the clearing.

Queen Euphoria held out a hoof. “Right there is fine, dear. Now, be good and hold still.”

Hold still? For what?

As Sure Stroke made to ask, she noticed Queen Euphoria’s cheeks begin to puff out. Just like Aspire and Esalen’s had when they spat slime.

Her eyes went wide. “No! Wait! That’s not—”

Queen Euphoria spat a stream of slime at her hooves, coating them in a thick layer of the warm, green gunk.

Sure Stroke had to fight down the urge to gag. She flapped her wings and tried to pull her legs out, the slime just stretched with her and yanked her back down to the ground.

Chuckling, Queen Euphoria leaned down to give her cheek an affectionate lick. “Just so you don’t get any ideas to run or fly away, Sure Stroke,” she cooed. Her eyes flashed green again, just as another spitball hit her shoulder. Stealing a sidelong look to the pile of logs Sure Stroke had first hidden in, she leaned in to add in a whisper, “You’re lucky. Your little friends and Breezy are all getting wrapped up in cocoons. And that, my sweet little filly, is just the start of what his mischief has earned him.”

A shiver ran down Sure Stroke’s spine. She let her ears droop and gave a sullen nod, still cringing when she tried one last time to pull free, only for her hoof to get more stuck. “Yes, Queen Euphoria,” she muttered.

Queen Euphoria patted her head. “No need to be so glum, dear. I can appreciate a good prank, but, as you well know, if you challenge a changeling, you’d better be ready for the consequences.” She turned toward the pile of logs and hummed as she trotted forward, pausing to sniff at the air. “Vanilla and lilac, such a lovely scent. One I quite like to wear as well. But there’s only one filly in my village tastes of gumdrops and ice cream when she’s trying not to laugh while she pulls a trick …”

Almost on cue, a poorly stifled giggle fit from behind the logs tickled Sure Stroke’s ears.

Black ears twitched. Queen Euphoria looked over her shoulder to smile and shake her head at Sure Stroke. “Yes, only one filly in all of Respite. And her name is just as pretty as her laughter and as sweet as a tiny little drop of her love.”

She let out a hiss, then leaped over the logs in a single bound, Toola’s shrieks and laughter filled the air. Sure Stroke could hear a short scuffle; the familiar sound of a changeling spitting slime and a sickening squelch as it hit its mark.

Queen Euphoria trotted out from behind the logs with a satisfied grin on her muzzle, a merry sway in her hips, and Toola Roola, giggling though she was wrapped up to her neck in a slimy cocoon, held in her mouth.

Their eyes met. Queen Euphoria waggled her ears and spoke, her words muffled by the cocoon she held in her teeth.

Sure Stroke tilted her head. “What?”

Gently setting Toola down beside Sure Stroke, Queen Euphoria cleared her throat. “I said, ‘my little Toola Roola is in trouble again.’”

“I got you good a few times!” Toola quipped through her giggles. “Right on the end of your snout.”

Queen Euphoria chuckled, then leaned down to lick her cheek and nuzzled between her ears. “Yes, you did. And you’ll get yours once I find Breezy and Esalen.”

A gasp to Sure Stroke’s left made the trio flick their ears.

Before she could blink, Queen Euphoria took off like a bolt from a Cloudsdale guard’s crossbow. She darted around a stack of boards, hissing as she chased after Esalen.

“Run, Essy, run!” Toola cheered from within the confines of her cocoon. “You can beat her!”

Sure Stroke bit back a retort. Esalen didn’t have a chance. Though the young nymph ran as fast as her legs could carry her, Queen Euphoria had the size advantage. It was like with pegasi—small wings might beat faster, but big wings had more power.

With each step, the distance began to close. Both Esalen and Queen Euphoria knew it, too.

The Queen’s cheeks filled again, she reared back and spat a stream of slime that enveloped Esalen’s back, then descended upon the struggling nymph. Her long legs worked quickly, spreading her slime over the nymph’s body and covering all the way up to her neck, like a spider winding its silk around a bug trapped in its web.

It was all over before it even began.

“Three down!” Queen Euphoria sang. She picked Esalen’s cocoon up in her mouth and carried her just as she did Toola, trotting over in an almost carefree manner. She dropped the captive nymph next to Toola and set to her work, doling out a nuzzle and a lick before stepping back and eying each of the fillies in turn.

After a moment of quiet—save for Toola’s giggling—she spoke, “So, before I pull my husband out of his hiding spot and wrap him up, who would like to tell me what he offered you three fillies in exchange for your help?”

Sure Stroke bit her lip and looked away, she pinned her ears back as her friends fell into laughter.

A chitinous hoof cupped her chin and turned her head back toward Queen Euphoria. “Sure Stroke,” she said, leaning in to nuzzle her nose playfully, “what did Breezy offer you?”

Blue slitted eyes bored into hers. Sure Stroke hunched her shoulders, her wings unfurled and came forward like feathery shields.

“Nothing!” Esalen and Toola chimed together. “Nothing! Absolutely nothing!”

Even before Queen Euphoria’s nostrils flared and her smile fell, Sure Stroke knew that was the wrong thing to say. With a whine, she ducked low and hid her head in her wings.

“Nothing?” She flinched at the angry hiss in Queen Euphoria’s tone. “My, my, my! I guess I will have to punish all three of you after all!”

Sure Stroke let out a whimper, the image of Aspire with his carapace dyed a bright magenta, glowing each time he tried to disguise himself, flashed through her mind.

“Please don’t dye my coat strange colors!” she squeaked.

Queen Euphoria fixed her with a wry look. “Dye your—oh! Right! Aspire and I mentioned that your first day here.” She chuckled. “Oh, no, sweetheart, I try not to repeat my punishments. I’m sure I can find something for the three of you. Once I find Breezy, of course. Speaking of, where did he—”

Before she could finish, Toola let out a gasp. “Mister Breezy!” she cried, anger tingeing her tone. “You’d better not leave us! This was your idea!”

Sure Stroke’s head snapped up. She craned around Queen Euphoria, as much as the slime around her hooves would allow, just in time to see the stallion take off through the air, cackling as he made his cunning escape.

“Oooh! That termite!” Queen Euphoria looked between the fillies, then her fleeing husband. She quickly bent down and sliced through Esalen and Toola’s cocoons with her fangs to set them free, and then pulled Sure Stroke out of her slime with a sharp tug. “You three,” she said, fixing each with a stern look, “my house. First thing Saturday morning. Don’t dawdle, or I’ll come pick you up myself. If that happens, your punishments will be much worse. Got it?”

“Got it!” Esalen and Toola replied.

When those blue slitted eyes fell upon her, Sure Stroke gave a shy nod of her own.

Queen Euphoria smiled. “Good girls. Now, if you’ll excuse me …” Green fire washed over her form. Pearl white coat grew in place of smooth, black carapace, but her aquamarine and pink streaked mane remained. She flared her new pegasus wings out wide. “I have a husband to hunt.”

Without further ado, Queen Euphoria took off after her husband. The hunt was on again.

For a moment, the trio sat together in total silence and watched the pair race through the sky.

Then Sure Stroke turned to Esalen and said, “You realize when my mom asks why I’m in trouble with Queen Euphoria, I’m blaming you.”

Esalen didn’t even bat an eye. Instead, she gave an impish, decidedly shameless smile. “What sort of friend would I be if I didn’t drag you into trouble?”

“Besides,” Toola chipped in, “wasn’t it fun, Doodle?”

Sure Stroke wrinkled her snout. She turned away from them with a huff. “This is all Aspire’s fault somehow. I know it is.”

She made sure to pin her ears back to block out their laughter as she stood and stomped back toward Sweet Treat’s shop, and made doubly sure not to let them see the smile tugging at her lips.

Yes.

It was fun.

19. Queen Euphoria

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“I can’t believe you three played a trick on Queen Euphoria without me!”

Sure Stroke tried not to roll her eyes. It had been three days since she’d let Cool Breeze, Esalen, and Toola talk her into playing that silly trick on Queen Euphoria. Three days of all the foals and nymphs in class giving the three of them not-so-subtle hoof bumps in class and commending her “bravery” for playing one of her first tricks on the literal big mare in the village. She even saw a ghost of a smile flit across Prim ’n Proper’s stuffy little face before the filly turned away and stuck her snout right back in the air.

Her friends, on the other hoof, were a different story. Each of them bemoaned that they hadn’t been there to take part in the trick and see Sure Stroke join in on a Respite pastime.

But none pouted quite like Aspire.

Three days later, he was still whining and draping himself all over the trio of fillies, laying his chin on their heads while he complained.

Sure Stroke was just about ready to see if she could buy off Queen Euphoria in exchange for changing his carapace’s color. If he flopped on her just one more time, there would be pain.

He chose that exact moment to pull her into a one-legged hug, grinning at the look she shot him. Aspire flicked out his tongue, his smile grew wider.

The smug little punk knew she was about ready to wring his neck, and he had the gall to be happy about it.

“So!” Aspire began. “Doodle, I’ve got an idea I know you’ll just love!”

There was that blasted nickname again. Sure Stroke felt her cheeks burn, she pinned back her ears at the sound of Esalen and Toola snickering at her expense. “If you’re about to come up with a prank idea, forget it,” she said, jabbing a hoof at the pair. “I’m in enough trouble because of them!”

Esalen gave a fake gasp and brought a hoof to her chest. “Trouble? Me? Never!” She threw the hoof over her forehead. “I would never convince one of my best friends to help Toola and I pull a trick, knowing full well that we’d get in trouble with Queen Euphoria herself! Why, the very idea!”

“So you did it on purpose,” Sure Stroke deadpanned.

“Oh, of course!” Esalen’s eyes danced with mirth. “You wanted to learn more about us, and Breezy gave us a chance to show off how we play around in Respite. And don’t you try and pretend you didn’t have fun!” She sidled up to Sure Stroke and stuck out her tongue, waggling it just inches from her cheek. “I tasted it!”

Darn.

Sure Stroke huffed. She continued on ahead, ignoring her friends as they rubbed shoulders with her and nosed against her cheek. Or, at least, she tried. Her lips betrayed her, tugging into a smile.

“I see you smiling!” Toola sang. She pranced around Sure Stroke until they were face to face, then trotted backward. “You had fun and you can’t fight it!”

“Shut up! I’m being mad at all of you!” Sure Stroke sucked in her traitorous lips. If she couldn’t fight the smile, she would hide it.

Toola simply leaned forward to nuzzle her nose. “I don’t need to be a Caretaker to know you’re faking!”

“Just admit it,” Aspire teased. He released his embrace, instead favoring to press his cheek against hers. “You know you wanna. And you know we know that you know.”

She ducked her head and let out a snort of laughter. Dang it. “You guys are terrible.”

Again, Esalen nosed against her cheek. “Yes, we are. And you love it.”

Sure Stroke sighed and nodded. “Yeah, I guess I kinda do.”

“Kinda?” Toola parroted teasingly as she stepped back into place on Esalen’s left.

Flicking her tail, Sure Stroke tried to glare, but the stubborn smile gracing her muzzle made it rather difficult to maintain. “Okay, I like it and you all make this place an adventure,” she said, her voice tinged with barely suppressed laughter. “No need to rub it in!”

The group broke down into a fit of giggles as they walked. Sure Stroke felt light, like she could just float away like a lazy little cloud in spite of the looming punishment with Queen Euphoria.

Esalen and Toola were probably right anyway. The Queen herself had even mentioned that she was getting off light since it was only her first time pulling a trick.

Hopefully, color changing wouldn’t be involved …

Out of the corner of her eye, she noticed a flash of black carapace and amber mane dart through the front door of Sweet Treat’s shop. A chubby nymph leaned against the wall and panted for breath, clutching a plate stained with a golden brown syrup. He stole a quick glance toward the door, then gave a happy chitter and lapped at the syrup.

To her right, Aspire sniggered. “How many pancakes, Maple?” he called out.

Maple started, his eyes flitted to Aspire. He ducked his head and pinned his ears, grinning sheepishly. “All of them,” he replied in an almost apologetic manner.

He froze, his ears perked up. Maple yelped and took wing, buzzing off around the side of Sweet Treat’s shop just as the front door opened with a loud bang.

A full grown changeling mare stood, her yellow-brown mane frazzled and her face a mask of indignation as she looked left and right. She sniffed at the air, then hissed. “Maple!” she shouted as she stomped after him. “If you stole the last of my pancakes, so help me, I will beat your behind until your carapace cracks!”

When the mare rounded the corner, the trio around Sure Stroke burst into laughter. Esalen and Toola shook their heads, chiming “That’s so Maple!” in unison.

Sure Stroke made to speak, but stopped short when Aspire leaned up against her, nearly sending her sideways as he put his full weight on her shoulder. She fixed him with a wry look. “So … does Maple like pancakes a lot or something?”

Aspire cracked open an eye, his smirk returned. “There are only three things Maple loves more than pancakes,” he replied. “His family, especially his Aunt Vigil—” he gave a lazy wave of his hoof in the in the direction of the angry mare “—maple syrup and love.”

Humming to herself, Sure Stroke gave a little flick of her tail. So her friends liked sweets, Queen Euphoria jealously guarded her candy stash, and Maple liked maple syrup. I wonder why that could be.

Something to think on later, no doubt. Sure Stroke shrugged Aspire off of her and clipped his chin with a wing before resuming her trot toward the Queen’s cottage.

She and her friends exchanged polite nods and greetings with the other villagers, although seeing a pair of adult changelings fix Aspire with matching smirks and flashing eyes gave her pause.

A look to her right yielded a rather odd sight: Aspire’s smirk had faltered, his eyes went wide, and his chitinous face, normally black as coal, turned a rather chalky gray.

Sure Stroke raised a brow. “Something wrong?”

“Huh?” Aspire whipped his head around so fast his mane went frizzy. His tongue darted out from between his lips, he pasted a fake smile on his muzzle. “Nope! Nothing! Everything’s fine!”

Her brow arched higher. “You’re being awful shifty.”

“Changelings are naturally shifty!” he replied, glancing away from her. “Besides, everything is good here! Nothing but sweet love and nice, warm cocoon slime!”

Blanching, Sure Stroke thought to step away, but managed to fight down the urge. She gave a shudder and flick of her tail. A quick check to her left yielded Esalen and Toola chatting away about trades, the latter not the slightest bit disgusted at the notion.

It was still so strange to hear him say it and see other ponies not even bat an eye.

Sure Stroke glanced down at her legs, the memory of how the warm, sticky slime clung to her legs, how she had to scrub hard to get it off, came back to her.

“I’ll take your word for it,” she said after some thought. “I’d prefer a nice, fluffy cloud though.”

“It’s more comfortable than you think,” Esalen chipped in, breaking from her conversation with Toola. “Didn’t you like Aspire’s bed?”

Sure Stroke gave her wings a little rustle as they strode toward the cottage at the center of the village. She could see a pair of changeling guards up ahead, Fleetwing and Tailwind were nowhere to be seen.

The bed itself had been just as alien as the nymph who slept in it. And just like him, after a bit of time getting settled and testing it out, Sure Stroke found she could tolerate it to a point.

She snuck a look to Aspire, her eyes lingered on the fangs poking from behind his lips. Before, she was afraid of him. No matter how he smiled and tried to offer his hoof, her gaze would always find those fangs, the natural fear of a predator sinking its teeth into her would rear its ugly head and make her retreat.

But now, it was just part of the strange colt she’d befriended.

Yes, a colt. He was just a colt who happened to feed on love and shapeshift. Aspire laughed, got angry, got mopey, and even played jokes like the colts back in Cloudsdale.

He just had a bigger penchant for mischief, and an even bigger reaction when challenged.

Aspire himself was a challenge to understand. So, too, was Esalen. And all the other changelings in Respite. Even the ponies themselves were a challenge to understand; how could they become so accustomed to being food and friend that it be as natural as Princess Celestia raising the sun? Or flying from the Nimbus District to Stratos Street, or hurrying up Hurricane’s Way and passing by all the battlements and thunderhead beds on the way to flight school?

“It was different,” Sure Stroke admitted. “Strange, but oddly comfortable once you taught me how to sit on it.”

Esalen beamed. “I’m glad. Our beds might not be as soft as clouds or Cloudsdale mattresses, but the way they let you sink and just form around you is so comfortable!”

“It’s better with a bed wrap,” Toola added.

“A … bed wrap?” Sure Stroke blinked.

“Yeah! Nimble wraps me up all the time! It’s nice!”

Slowly, Sure Stroke turned to Aspire. He smiled and raised a hoof. “We wrap ourselves up in cocoons when we sleep,” he said as though teaching a class. “And if friends are staying over, we do the same for them.”

“Husbands and wives too,” Esalen said with a nod. “And family.”

“Yes, I was getting to that. Family and friends get wrapped up nice and snug, and held tight.” Aspire caught the look on her face and flicked out his tongue. His eyes went wide. “Not for feeding, I mean! Not unless it’s offered, of course, but the cocoon just a security thing!”

“Security?” Sure Stroke repeated as though trying to convince herself. “How?”

Before Aspire could answer, Duplicitous’ smooth litting tone reached her ears. “Because it means we consider them part of our hive. Everyone who lives in Respite, pony and changeling, is a Caretaker.”

Sure Stroke jumped and flared her wings. She looked up to find Duplicitous, garbed in the lightweight forest green armor of the village guard, smiling at her.

At his side, his partner nodded, a fleck of green mane stuck out from beneath his helmet. “Abby thought it was weird too,” he said in a more basal tone. “He kept squirming the first night we cocooned together, but he’s come ‘round.”

“Hey, Stalwart!” Toola greeted. “You drew guarding duty today?”

Stalwart smiled. “Good morning, Toola. And yes, I always guard the Queen’s cottage when her monthly patient visits.”

Sure Stroke’s ears perked up. A visitor? If Queen Euphoria had a visitor scheduled, maybe they could get out of whatever punishments she had in mind.

She considered the prospect while her friends exchanged pleasantries with the stallions, her lips tugged into a small smile. If she played her cards right, there was a chance she could take a page out of her nymph friends’ book and they could get their sentences lightened.

Duplicitous flicked out her tongue, then chuckled and shook his head. “Hmm, someone’s a little hopeful,” he said, his eyes met Sure Stroke’s. “And it seems she’s got a little plan in mind. A pretty tasty one, too.”

Oh, shoot. She flinched as the others turned to look at her, Stalwart regarded her with a raised brow and a bemused smile.

Sure Stroke ducked her head and pinned her ears back. “I was just thinking, if Queen Euphoria is busy, then maybe it would be best if we came back some other time,” she replied in her most saccharine tone.

Stalwart snorted. “Already taking to the ways of Respite’s nymphs, I see.” He grinned, his eyes took on a mischievous gleam. “Queen Euphoria made sure to set aside plenty of time for you three. So don’t you worry about her appointment—she’s got plenty of time for all of you.”

Her shoulders slumped. Sure Stroke hung her head in defeat as the pair stepped to the side and pushed open the door.

With a sweeping wave of his hoof, Duplicitous said, “Go on. She’s waiting for you.”


There was something different about being called into Queen Euphoria’s house for trouble after her first visit. The first time was quite jarring, the sight of a changeling queen sitting and necking with Cool Breeze nearly made Sure Stroke’s jaw drop, especially when she found herself hugged and nuzzled as if one of the Queen’s subjects.

Only after visiting Aspire and Esalen’s house did she realize just how different it was; Queen Euphoria’s home wasn’t furnished with pod seats or couches constructed of changeling slime. Or, at least, her sitting room wasn’t.

Perhaps because she wanted ponies to be as comfortable as possible when they came before her to be welcomed to Respite, rather than feel like they’d just walked into an entirely alien place.

But as Sure Stroke walked alongside her friends into Queen Euphoria’s sitting room, she felt an almost oppressive weight come down square upon her shoulders. Changelings, as she’d learned, did not take challenges lightly.

What, then, did that mean for how they dealt with troublemakers who dared go against their queen? Stealing from her sweets and pelting her with spitballs were entirely different things, especially with how many times she’d been hit in the face and rear.

When they reached the familiar sitting room, Sure Stroke saw Queen Euphoria and Cool Breeze resting on the same couch they’d sat on while greeting her on the first day. But they weren’t alone.

Several ponies were with them, along with one smaller changeling. A few mares and a stallion, all huddled around Cool Breeze, grinning and cooing while they nuzzled and nipped at his neck.

The flight instructor’s face burned a bright red. He squirmed and tried to get away, but Queen Euphoria had him held tight in her hooves, her chest pressed down on his back and kept him firmly in place.

“Now, now,” Queen Euphoria chided, smiling like a cat batting a mouse around with its paw. She leaned down to plant a kiss between his ears, then slowly licked his snowy white mane. “You’re not going anywhere, my dear husband.”

Cool Breeze let out a low whine. “Then—eep! Clanger!

A burly, bronze coated stallion with a deep brown mane hummed as he ran his tongue up Cool Breeze’s shoulder, then turned toward his wing, planting a kiss on the joint, right as a slender mare of peach coat nipped at his neck.

Queen Euphoria chuckled huskily. “You deserve this, Breezy. I warned you all your teasing us would come to hatch one day, and getting those fillies to shoot me with spitballs was the final straw.” Her smirk fell. “Spitballs! Really! The water balloons while I was busy were one thing, I could forgive that. It was funny even though they were cold!”

“It was funny after I dried off,” a dusty purple mare said as she trailed a feather along Cool Breeze’s side.

The changeling seated to Queen Euphoria’s left tossed her cream-colored mane and bared her fangs. “Funny, Dewy?” she hissed. She darted forward and caught Cool Breeze’s ear tip between her teeth, drawing a whimper from the back of his throat as she nibbled on it. “I think he needs another night’s worth of disciplining, Phory. One more night at our mercy. Husband’s right only entitle him to be first in line to your company, not exemption if we all decide to wind him up as he does us!”

“Hmm, we’ll see if he changes his tune later, Caress.” Queen Euphoria leaned over and pecked her fellow changeling’s lips. She flicked an ear toward the door. A smile spread across her muzzle as she turned to look directly at Sure Stroke. “For now, I’m afraid our games will have to come to a pause. I believe my guests have arrived. And promptly, just as I asked!”

Four heads turned, four sets of eyes fell upon the group.

Caress fixed them with a hooded stare and crossed one hoof over the other, leaning forward on the couch. “Well, well, the troublesome twins, Toola Roola, and our hive’s newest member,” she simpered, casting a sideways look at Cool Breeze, she nipped at his cheek. “To think she was so innocent and sweet when she showed up! And then you got ahold of her!”

Sure Stroke ducked her head, pinning her ears back as the pile of cuddling ponies laughed and teased both Cool Breeze and herself.

A familiar hoof wrapped around her shoulders and pulled her tight. Sure Stroke felt Aspire press his cheek against hers, his grin evident in the way his chitinous face creased, and grumbled under her breath.

“Oh, she’s already one of us, Miss Caress!” he crowed, a note of smug pride almost dripping from his tone. “Doodle here has already bowed up and put challenges on me a couple times!”

Five sets of ears perked up. Queen Euphoria’s slitted eyes seemed to dance. “Oh, really, now?” she asked. “Well, then I guess that just make my decision all the more pertinent!” Pausing a moment to kiss the top of Cool Breeze’s head, she unwrapped her hooves and gave his flank a smack to get him moving. “You’re free until later, Breezy. Behave, or I might just take Caress’ advice under consideration.”

Cool Breeze fixed her with a half-hearted glare, then turned his attention to Caress herself. “Husband is supposed to have Phory’s ear,” he grumped.

Caress stood and sashayed right past him, running her tail beneath his chin. “Then husband should take care with how much he teases and tricks his wife and all the lovers they share.” She flicked her tail across his nose, her eyes flashed green. “Or he might just find that each of them would happily see him taken down a few pegs in the—”

“Maybe we should consider other ponies in the room before we go further, hmm?” the mare with the bandanna in her mane spoke over her, giving a meaningful glance to Sure Stroke.

To her credit, Caress had the decency to duck her head and give a quick apology, though she did give Cool Breeze another flick across the nose when she caught him smirking at her.

Queen Euphoria rolled her eyes and shook her head. “My husband and lovers,” she muttered just loud enough for Sure Stroke to hear. She turned to the others and made a little shooing motion with her hoof. “Sorry to cut our morning time short, but I do have some fillies to discipline.”

Clanger hopped off the bed, then turned to offer a hoof to Dewy and the mare with the bandanna. “No worries, Phory. I’ve got a few things to work on with the Wood brothers. They’ve been asking about some new cutting tools, so we’re gonna talk and get that sorted out.”

“Oh, can I come?” Dewy asked. “It’s been ages since I’ve talked to Birch and Pine!”

He smiled and nodded before walking toward Sure Stroke and her friends. “Sure. No touching their tools, though.” Pausing a moment, he patted Sure Stroke’s head.

Huffing, she flicked her tail and cantered after him. “I break one ax handle and no one will ever let me live it down!”

“Morning Dew, honey, you didn’t break one ax handle, you broke several, and their cart wheel.”

“It was an accident! I hit an updraft!”

Sure Stroke perked up her ears. This was the Morning Dew the sign mentioned? She wrinkled her snout. How exactly did one pony break so many things?

Clanger just chuckled. “And the sun was in your eyes, I’m sure. The story changes every season, Dewy.” Pausing a moment, he turned his attention to Sure Stroke. “Nice to finally get a chance to meet you, Sure Stroke. My daughter’s told us all about you, she was practically preening like her Aunt Dewy when she told us you’d finally warmed up to the village.”

She flicked an ear. “Your daughter? Is she in our class?”

“Oh, didn’t she tell you?” He glanced at the unicorn mare and smiled. “Well, Neat and I had a filly before we joined Phory’s little … er …” he rolled a hoof in a forward circle as he struggled to find the word.

Cool Breeze let out a bark of laughter. “Collection of former patients?” he offered, earning a squawk from the Queen.

“Breezy!” she cried, her face darkened with a blush.

“Well, they technically were before—mmph!

Caress covered his mouth with a hoof, a gleam shone in her eyes. “I’ll take it you’d like me to pull him outside for a bit, Phory?”

Queen Euphoria drew in a sharp breath, her nostrils flared. “Yes,” she hissed. “And I think we will have to go another night of disciplining him once I’ve taken care of things here.”

Three sets of ears perked up. Caress gave a big, toothy grin. “Excellent.” Quick as a cat, she caught Cool Breeze’s ear and dragged him out a side door. “Come along, you! Let’s see if you’re so quick to mouth off with me!”

While Cool Breeze struggled and tried to break free, Toola giggled and waved. “Bye, Breezy! Bye, Caress!”

Sure Stroke couldn’t help but glance between Aspire and Esalen, only to find herself met with matching grins and chittering laughter while they cat-called after Cool Breeze.

“Looks like it’s lesson number one thousand on teasing a changeling for you, Breezy!” Aspire said.

“And he’ll still go back for more!” Esalen chimed.

Clanger gave a booming laugh. “That he will, Esalen! That he will!” He tussled her mane and continued on his way, leading Morning Dew down the same hallway they’d come through. “Don’t be too hard on them, Phory!”

A low chuckle from the Queen herself made a chill run down Sure Stroke’s spine. She turned to find the changeling mare regarding the group with a half-lidded stare and a small smile.

Queen Euphoria flicked out her tongue. “A bit nervous, little ones?” she asked, inclining her brows.

Sure Stroke rustled her wings, her tail dipped and tucked between her legs.

A hoof touched each of her shoulders. Aspire and Esalen smiled and nosed against her cheek. Toola even moved to rub between her wings.

“It’ll be fine,” Toola said. “We didn’t do anything that bad, right Queen Euphoria?

“Oh, no, not at all.” Queen Euphoria slid gracefully off the couch and trotted over. She gave a warm smile. “I don’t mind a few tricks here and there, but there are consequences to getting caught in my village. Just like there would be consequences if one of us changelings were caught in unfriendly territory out of disguise.”

Esalen shuddered. “I’d rather not think of that!”

Queen Euphoria leaned down to nuzzle her cheek. “I know, sweetheart, but it’s a lesson we have to impart.” Her gaze flitted to Toola Roola, then Sure Stroke. Her smile returned. “Just like our little pony friends need reminders that playing tricks and challenging changelings in their own territory, especially a queen, can be troublesome as well.”

With a nervous giggle, Toola ducked her head and gave a crooked smile. “Is it too late to appeal for lighter punishment on account of trying to show Sure Stroke that pranking and pulling tricks is part of Respite’s culture?”

Queen Euphoria tutted and wagged a hoof from side to side. “I’m afraid not, Toola.” Her smile spread to a full grin. “Nice try, though. I’ve decided that you and Esalen will enjoy a punishment that will deal with your rambunctiousness quite nicely.”

The pair flinched. Esalen’s ears drooped low. “What did you have in mind?”

The mare still seated on the couch coughed into a hoof. “That’s where I come in, Essy,” she said.

“Missus Orderly?”

“Yes.” She stood and approached, leaning up against Queen Euphoria’s side and smiling down at them. “I’ve got to organize a few things for Phory in the next few months—we have a couple visits from our Caretakers’ kin in the mountains and plains coming, and Sharers’ Day is nearing, of course. As is her birthday.”

Queen Euphoria buzzed her wings happily. “Yes,” she said, kissing the mare’s cheek. “Neat ’n Orderly was going to spend all day getting things set, but when I mentioned that I had a captive trio of mischievous fillies, she asked if she could borrow you for a little while.” Her grin turned decidedly predatory. “And who am I to refuse the services of two of the most bouncy, energetic little fillies in my village for a couple hours of long, tedious event planning?”

Esalen and Toola groaned. “Can’t we do something else?” Toola pleaded. “Anything! Please!”

“Nope!” Queen Euphoria chirped. “I’ve decided! You sowed the wind, my dear, and now you get to reap the hurricane. Event planning is my choice of punishment. No negotiations.”

Neat ’n Orderly nodded along with her. “Quite right. Now, come along, girls.” She turned and nodded to the opposite hallway. “The sooner we start, the sooner we’ll finish, and then you can go out and have fun with your friends.”

With resigned sighs, the fillies hung their heads and followed along. Sure Stroke grimaced as though she’d tasted something foul. It wasn’t horrible, but planning things out wasn’t exactly fun either.

The way Queen Euphoria grinned left no doubt in her mind that she was in for hours of mind-numbing boredom.

She shook her head. I guess I deserve it for going along with them. Sure Stroke made to follow, but stopped at a sharp pain in her backside. She turned and looked down at the black, chitinous hoof planted on her tail, then raised her gaze to its owner.

Aspire stared back at her, an eyebrow raised in amusement. “Where are you going?” he asked.

“Uh, with them?” she replied, gesturing to the others with a wave of her hoof.

He laughed. “Didn’t you listen? Helping Missus Orderly is their punishment, not yours!”

Blinking, she looked from Aspire to Queen Euphoria, and back again. She slowly turned to face the changeling queen and cocked her head to the side. Her wings itched, ready to fly.

Queen Euphoria’s eyes seemed to gleam with mirth. “I did say you were getting off lighter than they were, my dear little Doodle.”

Sure Stroke scowled and shot Aspire a glare. “I’m going to hurt you for spreading that name around!”

“You can try!” Aspire teased. He licked his lips, his eyes lit up. “Oooh, angry enough to challenge, huh? Ready to try lesson two of wrestling? I can take care of that anytime!”

He was asking for it.

Flaring her wings out, Sure Stroke snorted and pawed at the floor. “I’m gonna bop you right over that bird’s nest you call a mane if you keep it up!” she shot back, a confident smirk spread across her lips.

Aspire grinned wide enough to show all four of his fangs. He leaned in, bringing himself nose to nose with her and made to speak.

But a polite cough made them both turn. Queen Euphoria flicked out her tongue. “I’m happy the two of you are having fun, but I do need to take care of my business before your little challenge takes place.” She smiled, then added, “Though, if you do ever decide to take him up on his lessons, do pay attention, Doodle. Aspire might seem boastful, but he is rather talented at wrestling. He and Esalen both.”

She tapped her hoof against the floor. “As for your punishment, dear, I thought we’d begin with something I was rather interested in.” Leaning down, Queen Euphoria brought herself to eye level with Sure Stroke. “Your punishment is that you’ll have tea with me while we have our little talk, dear.”

Sure Stroke felt her heart skip a beat. “Right now?”

Queen Euphoria smiled. “Right now.” She kissed the top of Sure Stroke’s head. “I was going to wait, but I think it’s best we just get to it now.”

Her mind raced. Sure Stroke bit her lip, she looked down at her hooves.

Aspire gave an awkward cough. “Er, why don’t I just leave, then?” he muttered. “I thought this would be funny, but this really seems like something I shouldn’t be making jokes about …”

“You’re more than welcome to stay,” Queen Euphoria said. “If Sure Stroke isn’t bothered, of course.”

Blue eyes met purple. Sure Stroke shifted in place, wilting under his gaze.

He flicked his tongue out, then offered a smile. “If you don’t want me here, it’s fine. I know you’ve got some things to talk about.”

Sure Stroke looked away. “I do,” she admitted. “And I want you here, but …”

A hoof cupped her chin and gently turned her head until she was looking back at him. “But?”

She licked her lips. When had they gone so dry? “I also have questions I don’t know if I feel comfortable asking if you’re … you know.”

Aspire’s smile faltered for just a second. He flicked his tongue out again. “Still nervous, huh?”

“A little.” Sure Stroke brushed his hoof aside and stepped forward, wrapping him in a hug. She whispered in his ear, “But I’m going to try not to be.”

His hooves wrapped around her back and squeezed tight. He drew away to meet her eyes. “Then I’ll leave this time,” he said. “And you can say whatever you want.”

“How very thoughtful, Aspire,” Queen Euphoria praised. “I don’t plan on keeping her for too long, just for tea. So, if you’d like to come back in an hour, she’ll be all yours again.”

“Oh! That’s cool, then!” Aspire’s kind smile vanished, his maddeningly smug smirk returned in full force. “I’ll be by to pick up my Doodle after, then.”

Sure Stroke fixed him with a flat look. “I’m going to smack you again. Hard.”

“I know. See ya, Doodly-Doodle!” He dodged a swipe, then practically pranced down the hallway, his chittering laughs echoed off the walls and tickled her ears.

Queen Euphoria chuckled. “Oh, Aspire,” she said with a sigh. “Both a troublemaker and a brilliant student. So delightfully complicated, wouldn’t you agree?”

“More like so delightfully deserving a good walloping,” Sure Stroke muttered. She covered her mouth. “Sorry!”

“Oh, don’t be, dear. Mischief begets mischief when it comes to changelings.” With a fond smile, she stood to her full height and gestured to the same doorway Caress had just dragged Breezy through. “Shall we adjourn to the kitchen, then? I’m eager to hear what you think of Respite so far.”

Sure Stroke lowered her hoof and gave a shy smile in return. With a nod, she followed Queen Euphoria to the kitchen.

20. Tea Time With a Changeling Queen

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Sure Stroke shifted around, trying her best to get comfortable in the slimy half-pod seat while Queen Euphoria trotted over with a tea tray balanced on her back. While the sensation was still rather strange, she found herself getting used to the way she could just sink back in the gel-like substance and almost feel a sense of weightlessness.

It was still foreign, though. And while she didn’t quite feel the urge to gag, Sure Stroke found she couldn’t help but give the green, goopy seat a quizzical stare as it melded to support her weight.

Of course, that didn’t stop Queen Euphoria from flicking out her tongue and giving a knowing smile. “It does take getting used to, doesn’t it?” she asked as she set the tea tray down on the table. “I remember the first time I visited one of my friends’ homes and tried to sit in a wooden chair. My back ached terribly—I must’ve been a couple years younger than you.”

The Queen sat across from her, lounging in her own pod-seat with a contented smile upon her muzzle. She hummed a little tune as she set about pouring Sure Stroke’s cup. “Do you take yours with cream and sugar?” she asked, motioning to a pair of tiny porcelain cups, then a plate of lemon slices. “Or do you prefer a bit of lemon?”

“Lemon, please,” Sure Stroke replied. “I thought changelings didn’t like sour or bitter things.”

“We don’t. But the ponies in my little family do, and it helps things around for our guests as well.” Wrinkling her snout, Queen Euphoria eyed the lemon slices with distaste, then picked one up to squeeze over Sure Stroke’s tea before passing the cup and saucer to the filly and setting about to prepare her own.

Sure Stroke accepted her cup with a quiet “thank you,” her eyes watched intently as Queen Euphoria poured a splash of cream into her own tea and spooned some sugar in.

Then she kept going. And going. And going.

Slowly, her jaw fell open. She’d seen Alto add a couple spoonfuls of sugar to sweeten his tea, but this was just excessive!

Yet Queen Euphoria was still going! That poor, innocent cup of tea was more sugar than tea by now.

Thinking back, she let her mind wander to that night at Aspire and Esalen’s. She cocked her head. Aspire hadn’t put that much sugar in her tea …

Then again, she didn’t see how he prepared theirs.

“You, er, really like to sweeten your tea, don’t you?” she found herself asking.

Queen Euphoria chuckled. “Yes. Love tastes rather like sweets and other positive emotions like spices, so we tend to stick towards food like that. The fact that Sweet Treat likes to spoil us with her fare only makes it worse, I’m afraid.” She shook her head, a fond smile played upon her lips. “When she started seeing Vigil, I remember walking outside to find one of my most faithful guards standing with her ears perked, her eyes half-shut, and a sleepy grin on her muzzle. She swore up and down Sweet Treat had figured out our way of infusing love into treats.”

Sure Stroke sat up a little straighter. “Changelings can do that?”

“We can do many things with love. It’s one of our talents. But, perhaps that discussion can wait.” Fixing Sure Stroke with a hooded stare, Queen Euphoria took her cup in hoof. “I was wondering if we could discuss a few things about you, dear.”

Her ears flicked. Sure Stroke took a quick sip of her tea. “What sort of things?”

The smile fell from Queen Euphoria’s muzzle. She leaned forward, propping her elbows on the table. “Your parents and Faith talked to me during your welcoming party,” she said. “They mentioned you had a nightmare about your friends.”

A cold feeling crept into Sure Stroke’s chest. She gripped her cup tighter. “I … I … Um …” Images of how hurt Aspire looked after she yelled at him in the forest and when he pulled her aside at the party flashed before her eyes.

Her eyes flitted toward the changeling queen, then down to the table. She licked her lips, the lingering taste of tea did nothing to dull her worry. “I didn’t mean to hurt anyone’s feelings.”

“Relax,” Queen Euphoria said softly. “We’re here to talk things out, dear. I’m not going to yell or pound my hooves against the table because you were a little scared.”

Sure Stroke looked up. “I know, but it’s still …” Her ears drooped. With a shaky voice, she whispered, “I felt bad when Aspire told me he heard about it.”

Queen Euphoria gave a small smile. “Sure Stroke, dear, you’re not the first pony to come to our village and be scared of us, nor will you be the last. As much as I don’t like to say it, being afraid of changelings isn’t exactly an unfounded thing.” Shaking her head, she snorted. “It’s almost instinctual, really. I can’t say I blame you.”

Blinking, Sure Stroke stayed quiet. Instead content to simply drink her tea while she listened.

A cue Queen Euphoria took happily. “I think you’ll find some manner of kinship with Abacus on the matter. He was quite terrified of us for some time, yet now he enjoys a rather healthy relationship with Stalwart, the very changeling who helped pull him out of a tree when he first saw us.”

“A tree?”

“Indeed.” Her muzzle split into a wide, fanged grin. “Abacus jumps quite high when startled. Stalwart delights in sneaking up on him in a friend’s form, then changing back when he’s distracted.”

Sure Stroke winced. “That doesn’t sound nice.”

“It took some time for them to get to that point, but they both seem to enjoy it. Although, Abacus does his best to appear put out when Stalwart pulls his tricks, always huffing and turning away until he gets his kisses.” Chuckling, she paused to take a sip of her tea. “There’s many a tale similar, actually. Clanger and Neat were scared stiff the first time they met me. Their fear tasted of rotting fruit.”

“Really? But they seemed so happy today!”

“They’ve had years to adjust, dear. And I tend to be rather good at making friends.” Her brows raised a touch. “Not to mention making new ponies feel comfortable when they first lay eyes upon my fangs.”

A hoof leaped to her mouth. “I knew you did something!” Sure Stroke cried.

Queen Euphoria nodded once, then sucked in her lips. After a split second, she grinned again, showing off her teeth.

Her new, flat pony teeth.

“I’m very quick,” she said. “A little something I learned with a lot of practice, to help ponies ignore some of my more striking features so we could talk. I’ve found it helps my patients during my regular sessions.”

“You have patients?” Sure Stroke perked her ears up. “Like, a doctor or something? How do you even make time for that when you run a village?”

Chuckling, Queen Euphoria shook her head. “Yes and no. I don’t treat medical problems, I just do exactly what we’re doing right now. I sit down with a pony who has a problem, not really of their body though.” She tapped the side of her head twice. “Much like Faith, I tend to help ponies deal with problems in their head.”

Sure Stroke could only balk. “Like what? A headache?”

This time, Queen Euphoria just broke down into a fit of chittering laughter. “No, dear, that’s not quite it either!” She took a deep breath, her shoulders shaking with mirth. “Oh, if only it were headaches my patients suffered from! My job would be so much simpler! But, then again, I wouldn’t be able to help as I do.”

She set her cup down on the table and folded her hooves. “Stress,” she began, “anxiety, problems with family, anything that you can think of that makes a pony find trouble going about their day, I try my best to help those with extreme cases.” Thinking a moment, she glanced out the window. “Believe it or not, Breezy was one of my first patients when we were young.”

Sure Stroke thought for a moment. Stress didn’t seem like something all that difficult to fix—whenever she got worried over homework or stuff, her mother just gave her a big hug, whispered some encouragement to her, and offered her help as long as she saw Sure Stroke try to do it herself at first.

It was just worrying a lot. How bad could it be?

Still, she found herself a bit curious. Cool Breeze had mentioned something about how he kissed Queen Euphoria in front of the previous Queen, Chaete, but that left out what made him decide to act upon his feelings.

“What was his problem?” she asked.

“He was terrified of heights.” Her eyes danced with mirth. “A rather strange thing for a pegasus, but considering that he was raised by a pair of earth ponies after his parents died of illness, not entirely surprising. It was a small mercy they brought him here at a young age. My mother welcomed them with open hooves, and I made friends with him on his first day.” Blinking, she brought a hoof to her chin. “Not entirely unlike you with Aspire and Esalen, really. But, we’ve gotten a bit off track. Let’s talk about you.”

Sure Stroke fidgeted in her seat, she let her gaze wander down to the teacup in her hooves.

If Queen Euphoria talked to patients like this, did that mean there was something wrong with her?

“Do my parents think I’m having troubles up here too?” she asked, tapping the side of her head just as Queen Euphoria did. “Is that why I’m here?”

The Queen’s smile faltered. “They, and Faith, were worried about your nightmare, dear. And I am, too. I don’t think you’re ‘having troubles’ like my other patients, but I would like to help you adjust.” She sat back in her seat, relaxing her posture. “If you’ll let me, that is.”

Giving her tail a flick, Sure Stroke rolled the teacup around in her hooves. “I’m getting more comfortable each day,” she mumbled. “But there are still some things I don’t understand because of how strange it all seems. And others that just make me want to jump.”

“Like whatever caused your nightmare?”

“Yeah.” Sure Stroke ducked her head, a shiver ran down her spine. “I’m sorry, it’s just … this all caught me so off-guard. Everything from seeing Mister Hawkeye shapeshift at our house in Cloudsdale, to your fangs, to Aspire changing voices and copying how I look, and everything else that’s come up has just been like getting caught in a tornado.”

“Then why don’t we discuss the tornado called Respite, hmm?” The Queen chuckled at her own little joke. “Tell me what’s been giving you the most trouble, the first thing to come to mind.”

The first?

Where did she even start? There was just so much to pick from!

If not the fangs, then the shapeshifting, or the way their eyes glowed when angry. Or …

Feeding.

“Am I your friend or am I your food?”

Aspire had given an answer, in his own roundabout way. But it still left questions open.

No time like the present. Sure Stroke drained the rest of her tea and took a deep breath in through her nose. “My biggest question is about feeding on love,” she said, not meeting Queen Euphoria’s eyes.

“Ah, yes. I’d hoped we could begin there.”

Her head snapped up. “You did?”

Queen Euphoria nodded once. “Given the, er, nature of the nightmare your parents described, I wanted to talk with you about feeding, but didn’t want to push too much.” Smiling broadly, tossed her mane over her shoulder. “Would you like to discuss your nightmare or the nature of our feeding itself?”

“Both, I suppose.” Sure Stroke rustled her wings. “I’ve sort of been thinking about this for a bit because I find my nymph friends confusing—they act like my friends back home and like the foals here, but then … well, they want to feed. And they taste for our emotions.” She thought a moment, then added, “All of you taste our emotions and want to feed, but still call us friends.”

Comprehension dawned on Queen Euphoria’s face. “Go on.”

Now or never. Biting her lip, she asked, “What exactly are we to you? Are we friends or food?”

For a moment, Queen Euphoria stayed quiet. She sat back in her seat and steepled her hooves, humming to herself. “That’s a question both painfully difficult, yet simple to answer. I suppose the best way to reply is by saying that you’re both.” She held up a hoof. “Though, with a bit of a snag.”

“Oh?”

Queen Euphoria leaned forward again. “Here, in Respite, you are both, dear. We Caretakers have always prided ourselves on being friends with ponies and feeding in exchange for favors or by permission, something we learned from our lost friends. In other hives, I’m afraid you’ll find some of those stories of us are very real.” She pursed her lips. “Our cousins, the Marauders, are the closest to us out of the four largest hives. They broke away from us amicably and keep rather close with our way. The Enchanters, however …”

A rather strange look crossed her face like she was sucking on one of the lemon slices.

As quickly as it came, though, it was gone. “Let’s just say they tend to like working their charms to convince ponies to stay,” she said.

Sure Stroke balked. “Like with … oh gosh! That’s horrible!”

“They’re kind in their own way. Their … friends, shall we say, live well.” She shook her head. “We don’t like to speak of the fourth hive, here. Their way goes against everything the Sainted Ones taught us, everything done to keep us alive after the Three Tribes unified and chased us to the Northern Lands. But, for your benefit, I’ll say this.” Her eyes hardened. “If you ever find yourself in the presence of the Locust, never trust them. Get away as fast as you can.”

Taken aback by the sudden shift, Sure Stroke’s wings flared open. Her mind raced. The names were unfamiliar, but the way Queen Euphoria spoke of them was telling.

One friendly, one on strained terms, and one in the same manner the Three Tribes once looked at each other.

She pressed a bit further. “If Enchanters charm and Marauders wander, what do they do?”

Queen Euphoria sighed. “Ponies get the stories of us charming them to stay and cast off their old lives from the Enchanters. Those about changelings wearing the faces of lovers and spiriting them away or kidnapping lost ponies come from the Locust.”

Oh.

Well, that certainly put things in perspective.

Flicking out her tongue, Queen Euphoria frowned. “Why don’t we return to your nightmare?”

“Okay,” Sure Stroke replied with a shy nod. “The, um, feeding part of it?”

“Yes.” Queen Euphoria buzzed her wings. “I believe your parents mentioned that you imagined us behaving—well, to be frank—like the Locust. Might I ask if there’s something you’ve seen that led to it?”

A pained smile crossed Sure Stroke’s muzzle. She ducked low. “I think so,” she admitted. “It was a couple things.”

“Oh? Do tell.”

Sure Stroke pulled a face, but acquiesced. The tale spilled forth from her mouth in a rush: how happy she was to make friends with Aspire and Esalen, the rush of excitement when Vector all but made her the centerpiece of their plan to beat the nymphs at hide and seek, and how Toola’s addition made everything seem more fun.

Then she came to the hunt itself. The way Aspire snuck up and spooked her in retaliation for her unwitting challenge, fleeing from her friend in a blind panic before clipping her legs on a branch.

She couldn’t help but shudder as she relayed how he coated her legs and cheek in slime to bandage her cuts, which brought forth a heated blush when Queen Euphoria chuckled and waved her on. It only grew worse as she relayed the chase to Sweet Treat’s shop and how easily Nimble found her tickle spots, leading to full-on laughter that forced her to pause while the changeling queen composed herself.

Huffing, she pressed on through the sit down with all her friends while they ate cake, talked, and did homework together. A smile made its way across her muzzle at the mere memory.

Nymph and foal alike. They were her friends.

Which, looking back, made it all the more perplexing when Esalen added how her mother loved having friends for dinner.

Queen Euphoria winced at the phrasing. “I see,” she said, speaking for the first time since Sure Stroke began her tale. “Well, it seems you had quite the time with them. Some fun memories, and some not so pleasant. All within a short while.”

Sure Stroke raised a feeble hoof. “I did clear the air with Aspire on quite a bit of it. Just right after all that happened, I had my nightmare where my family and I were …” she trailed off, her ears drooped. “Their dinner.”

“Which, in turn, leads us right back to your question on whether you are friend or food.”

She nodded. “Yes.” Another shudder ran down her spine. “Aspire lunged right for my neck. In the dream, I mean. Not for real.”

“I figured as much. We don’t feed by biting, dear.” Queen Euphoria clicked her tongue. “It’s more of a breathing thing, though we can also feed by standing close and passively sipping. It’s rather painless, really.”

“That doesn’t sound as bad as I thought.” Sure Stroke tilted her head. “But I saw Miss Bright Sky while I was having dinner with Aspire and Esalen’s family. She looked exhausted after Missus Faith fed on her.”

Smiling, Queen Euphoria wagged her hoof. “I said it was painless, not that without cost. When we feed, we do take a bit of energy from our donor. Usually, we offer food afterward so they can replenish their strength, or at least give them a little pep. Depending on how much we feed, that is.”

Sure Stroke’s ears perked up. “So that’s why Missus Faith made her eat a bigger portion!”

“Exactly.” Queen Euphoria chuckled and shook her head. “Oh, and that doesn’t surprise me at all. Faith has always been a bit overbearing when it comes to caring for her charges. Something she picked up from her father, no doubt.” She drained the last of her tea, then set her cup down on the table. “I hope that helps, even though it comes after the fact.”

“It does. Kinda. Sorta.”

“Sorta?”

“Sorta. I’m still a bit curious as to how it works. And, well, feels. I suppose not terrible, if ponies allow it.”

Black chitinous ears flicked. “That is an interesting question,” Queen Euphoria said with a broad grin, tapping her hooves together. “With an equally interesting answer.”

Confused, Sure Stroke perked one ear up and laid the other flat. “How so?”

“Because I’ve heard it described a few different ways, it seems to vary from pony to pony. Honestly, the best way to get an answer is to experience it firsthoof.”

Sure Stroke frowned. She tapped a hoof against her thigh, wrinkling her snout in thought. That certainly made things difficult. How was she supposed to understand if she couldn’t get a description?

Unless she did a little experimenting of her own.

No, that would be silly.

Or would it?

Bringing a hoof to her mouth, Sure Stroke took a moment to think it through. Queen Euphoria had offered to help if she ever had questions about the village.

Of course. So, if she were curious about feeding and the only way to understand what it felt like was to have a changeling do so, it should be someone she trusted.

Who else if not the Queen? “So, if I wanted to know, could you … y’know?”

Across the table, Queen Euphoria flicked out her tongue. Her eyes widened a fraction before she shook her head. “No,” she said firmly.

Sure Stroke gawked at her. Huffing, she flicked her tail. How was she supposed to get answers if the Queen wouldn’t give them? “Why not?”

“A couple reasons. First, I invited you to talk about your adjustment to the village and offered to answer any questions you might have, not the other way around. You’re not my patient. Second, I don’t feel I’m the right changeling for it.” Pausing a moment, she gave a small smile. “I think you might understand why we feel it so special if you shared it with one of your friends when you feel comfortable.”

Disappointment filled Sure Stroke’s chest. She heaved a heavy sigh and let her wings droop. “It’s kind of hard with vague answers.”

Queen Euphoria made as though to retort, but stopped, her smile fell for a moment. Stealing a quick glance outside, she ran her tongue along her lips. “I suppose I could go for a snack before my friend shows up,” she muttered. “Or an early lunch if he’s willing.”

“He who?”

Her smile returned in full. Queen Euphoria stood with a happy buzz of her wings, humming that happy tune to herself as she made for the door. “Come along,” she said.

Sure Stroke stood and slowly walked around the table to meet the changeling queen. “Where are we going?”

“To see Breezy,” Queen Euphoria replied. “I don’t think it’d be proper for me to feed on you—especially since the first time tends to be more draining than normal, even more so since I take more love than most. However, I can let you talk to my husband after I feed on him.”


Fortunately, Cool Breeze and Caress had stayed close to Queen Euphoria’s cottage. While Caress favored to lay down on one of the several cushions set in the shaded the wooden porch, the pranking pegasus had found himself a nice, fluffy cloud to swipe out of the sky and bring to hover to her left so he could lounge comfortably and chat.

“No slime cushions?” Sure Stroke found herself asking, giving a merry flutter of her wings.

Her question drew Caress’ attention. The mare smiled and shook her head. “They dry up in the sun, especially if there’s a drought.”

Cool Breeze held up a hoof and added, “There is almost nothing more uncomfortable than dried changeling slime. During a drought, we can’t afford to spare any water to wet them, and changelings can only produce a certain amount each day.” He rolled over on his cloud, laying his head on his hooves. “So, done chatting? Or am I in more trouble?”

“Not yet,” Queen Euphoria retorted, a playful smile spread across her muzzle. “But I have faith you’ll do something to annoy me soon enough.”

“I should probably be offended, but you’re right. What’s up, then?”

With a bright smile, she nodded toward Sure Stroke. “Our newest filly and I were just talking about how changelings feed, and she’s a bit curious as to how it works. I was hoping you wouldn’t mind treating me to an early lunch, then telling her how it feels afterward.”

Both he and Caress sat up a little straighter, their ears perked up. “Oh?” they asked in unison.

Cool Breeze hopped down off of his cloud, landing nimbly on his hooves. He smiled brightly, though a familiar gleam of mischief shone in his eyes. “I suppose I can indulge you if it helps Sure Stroke come to understand us a little better.” Pausing for effect, he fixed Queen Euphoria with a lidded stare. “Buuuuuuuuuuut …”

Sighing, Queen Euphoria nodded. “Yes, yes, name your price.”

The smugness of his smile rivaled Aspire’s. “I get out of trouble,” he replied.

She snorted. “Trouble and lunch aren’t exchangeable. You know better.”

“Eh, had to try. I don’t really care. Just make me a big lunch after you’re done with your stuff, I guess.”

“That’s fair.” Queen Euphoria hugged him tight, laying her head atop his. “No falling asleep right after like normal, though. Sure Stroke wants to hear how it feels.”

“Right.”

“Ooh, can I get in on this?” Caress asked, rising to join their embrace. “I’m always up for a bit of Breezy’s love.”

“Sure!” Queen Euphoria beamed.

The stallion gave them both a wry look. “When did this become a buffet?”

“When I got the chance to sip on your love,” Caress shot back. “Don’t give me that look, you’ll get a massage and lunch out of it and you know it.”

Thinking about it a moment, Cool Breeze shrugged. He looked at Sure Stroke. “Lucky you, you get to watch two changelings feed.” He nosed against each mare in kind. “Ready?”

Sure Stroke bit her lip, her wings unfurled and feathers bristled. “Won’t that make it worse?”

He bobbed his head from side to side. “I’ll get more tired,” he admitted. “And they’ll drain me a little faster than normal, but I’ve fed them like this before, it’s not so bad as long as I don’t have other things to do.”

“Oh, you do.” Caress licked her lips. “But that’s not for young ears. Can we eat?”

Queen Euphoria nipped at her ear tip. “Behave. Ready, Breezy?”

“Go for it, girls.”

They needed no further prompting. Sure Stroke felt her cheeks burn as Queen Euphoria leaned in and captured Cool Breeze’s lips in a deep kiss, while Caress nuzzled his cheek and whispered sweet nothings into his ears.

They switched, Caress gave him little time to breathe before she pressed her lips against his. Queen Euphoria gave a throaty chuckle and nibbled on his ears.

Cool Breeze’s wings relaxed, his entire body just seemed to melt under their ministrations, especially as his wife nosed her way back into the kiss and both mares seemed to tease him together.

Then they stopped. His back arched, Sure Stroke saw his eyes go wide and cross before fluttering shut. A muffled moan sounded from the back of his throat.

As each mare parted or moved to allow the other a chance at his lips, Sure Stroke caught sight of a flicker of ethereal green flowing from his mouth to theirs.

The hairs on the back of her neck stood up. The changeling mares drew back, each inhaling deeply, their eyes alight as if tasting something sweet for the first time. Cool Breeze, on the other hoof, looked like he was exhaling his very essence to them.

And yet, somehow, he seemed at peace. A tired smile was spread across his muzzle. A slight sagging of his shoulders was the only outward sign of any discomfort.

Slowly, but surely, they were taking his love and a sizable chunk of his energy.

And Cool Breeze allowed it happily.

After several moments of Sure Stroke being left to gape in slack-jawed awe, Queen Euphoria broke away, followed by Caress. The flow of green light stopped.

Cool Breeze leaned against Queen Euphoria’s chest, his eyes shut and his head hanging limp.

Queen Euphoria beamed and kissed his forehead. “Thank you, sweetheart. You’re delicious as always.”

He mumbled something incomprehensible under his breath, which brought forth a laugh from both changelings.

“No falling asleep,” Caress chided. “This lunch was supposed to be informative, remember?”

With a low groan, practically a whine, Cool Breeze opened a bleary eye and looked at Sure Stroke. His tired smile broadened a touch. “Y’know that feeling,” he began, his words slurring, “where you sleep wrong and end up laying on a leg, or your wing unfurls and you roll on top of it? And then in the morning it’s all tingly and you can’t really move it?”

Sure Stroke bobbed her head.

“It’s like that, but more in your chest, spreading all over as it goes. But it’s less pins and needles, more of a tickly kind of thing.” He closed his eye again and sighed. “It’s weird the first couple times, but once you get used to it …” Cool Breeze trailed off into a sleepy murmur, nosing against Queen Euphoria’s polished carapace.

Chuckling, Queen Euphoria cupped his chin with a hoof and pecked his lips. “Why don’t you take a nap, Breezy? I’ll come get you in a couple hours.”

Another sleepy murmur, then a nod. Cool Breeze stood on shaky legs, making to walk almost drunkenly toward his cloud.

Caress rose with him and pushed her shoulder against his, steering him toward her cushion. “Why don’t you stay on ground level with me?” she said softly. “No need to try jumping up to your cloud after feeding us both.”

“Want my cloud.”

“You’re too tired for your cloud.”

You’re too tired for my cloud.”

“Oh, very witty,” Caress replied, rolling her eyes despite the smile playing upon her lips. She gently pushed him onto the cushion, sliding gracefully into place so she could nuzzle his cheek and give an affectionate lick. “Lay down and rest, troublemaker.”

With a tired whine, he let his head fall on the cushion. A goofy smile crossed his muzzle as Caress began to nuzzle his ears and hum softly, lulling him to sleep.

“Please remember to give him something sweet if he wakes before I finish,” Queen Euphoria said. “He’ll need extra after feeding us.”

Caress nodded into Cool Breeze’s mane, never breaking in her lullaby as she kissed his ears. Her hoof wandered up to rub between his wings, bringing forth a happy sigh from the tired stallion.

Queen Euphoria caught Sure Stroke’s eye. She held a hoof to her lips, then nodded toward the door.

Sure Stroke took the cue. Treading lightly, she followed the changeling queen to the opened doorway leading into the kitchen.


Queen Euphoria shut the door with a gentle kick, then faced Sure Stroke with a smile. “I hope that little show helped give some understanding as to how our feeding works in Respite.”

Sure Stroke didn’t reply for a moment. There was something about the way Queen Euphoria looked after feeding. Her smile seemed brighter, her eyes were focused, and every step she took and move she made was full of energy.

Even her carapace seemed to take on a darker black, like she’d just polished it while Sure Stroke wasn’t looking!

Blinking, she gave her head a shake to clear the cobwebs. “It does. I mean, I only have his word to go on, but he seemed rather …” she rolled a hoof through the air, searching for the word.

“Willing?” Queen Euphoria offered. “Happy? Content?”

“Yes! Er, to all three, I mean.”

“He was. And rather eager to help, from what I could taste.” She paused to run her tongue along her lips as though to savor any remnant of his love. “Breezy’s always had such a lovely flavor, so full of love, mirth, mischief, and so much more. It takes so much control to stop sometimes. So much.”

Sure Stroke eyed her warily, her wings unfurled. “Because you’ll hurt him?”

Queen Euphoria snapped out of her stupor. “If I take too much, he can be left incredibly weak. And, well, you may have noticed that I am quite a bit bigger than the rest of my kin, yes?”

The amused snort escaped before Sure Stroke could stop herself. “It was one of the more striking points of my first day here.” Her eyes went wide, she quickly clapped a hoof over her mouth.

Rather than take offense, the Queen simply laughed. “Quite alright, dear, I don’t blame you at all. But, with that in mind, it takes more love to sate my hunger. So, one of the reasons I could not feed on you, is that you wouldn’t last too long if I began to drink.” Her eyes danced with mirth. “Although, I suppose it would be somewhat adorable to have an excuse to wrap you up in a nice, warm cocoon, hold you in my hooves, and feed you sweets while I entertain my guest.”

Squeaking in dismay, Sure Stroke leaped out of reach, her wings flared out wide. “No thanks!”

Queen Euphoria threw back her head, her chittering laughter tickled Sure Stroke’s ears. “Oh, my! I can see why Aspire teases you so! You’re a delight!” Shaking her head, she ran a hoof through her mane. “In any case, I do need to feed more than others. It’s a small mercy, really, that I’ve managed to accidentally woo a few ponies here and there.”

Sure Stroke regarded her with a quizzical stare. “Because you get more to eat?”

“In a way, yes. I meant more of a mercy for Breezy’s sake. If not for that and his understanding on the matter …” Queen Euphoria’s cheeks darkened. She shook her head. “Thank heavens for his understanding. In any case, with more ponies around I can feed a bit more freely, as can Caress.” Thinking about it a moment, she glanced over her shoulder. A fond smile crossed her muzzle. ”I’m lucky he let me keep him,” she whispered, her tail swished merrily. “All these years later and I’m still so love drunk for him.”

Love drunk, huh? Violet ears perked up. Sure Stroke wracked her brain, she was certain she’d heard that phrase at least once since coming to Respite.

The other part, however, she was quite sure she hadn’t.

Just what did “keeping” Cool Breeze mean? Was it something to do with them getting married?

Sure Stroke’s feathers fluffed, a smile tugged at her lips. Could that be it?

Had she just unwittingly stumbled upon another little snippet of Respite’s dual culture?

A light cough sounded from behind her. She flicked her ear and turned to find Stalwart standing in the kitchen, his helmet held in hoof and his head bowed.

“Sorry to interrupt, Your Highness,” he said. “But Madame Chaleur du Soleil has arrived.”

Queen Euphoria gasped. “Oh, crack my eggshell! I lost track of time!”Bringing a hoof to her forehead, she sighed. “I’m sorry,” she said, turning her eye upon Sure Stroke once again. “I’m afraid I’m going to have to end our little chat here. Madame Soleil is a monthly regular of mine, and I don’t want to keep her waiting.”

Sure Stroke nodded, but couldn’t hide her wings drooping. Nor could she stop that flicking tongue from tasting her emotions.

Frowning, Queen Euphoria took a couple steps toward Stalwart. She stopped just short. “If you have any more questions or concerns, I’d be happy to answer them another time.” She paused a moment to offer a playful smile. “Besides, I believe Aspire should be waiting outside for you right about now, or he’ll be busy trying to make some poor pony’s mane gray early.”

Sure Stroke snorted, nodding again as she followed Queen Euphoria and Stalwart back into the sitting room.

There, standing with her back toward them while she looked a few pictures sitting on the mantle, was a mare of soft yellow coat and bright pink mane, with a smiling sun for a cutie mark. Her ear flicked, she turned to face the trio, light shone off her velvet smooth coat. She was, in a word, beautiful.

Queen Euphoria stepped forward and greeted her in Prench. The two shared a hug and a kiss on either cheek before launching into a rapid fire conversation that made Sure Stroke do a double take.

How could anyone talk so fast?

Sure Stroke fidgeted in place, stealing a glance toward Stalwart. The stallion was waiting to be dismissed, his eyes locked firmly on the embracing mares.

She bit her lip and began to edge toward the exit.

“… Et, qui est-ce cette jeune pouliche?” Soleil’s dulcet tones made her ears flick. The mare coughed into her hoof. “I mean, who is this young filly?”

Sure Stroke froze in mid step, turning slowly to give a strained smile.

Chaleur du Soleil’s deep purple eyes bored into hers, alight with curiosity. “I don’t believe I’ve seen you during my other visits.”

“She just moved here with her family, Soleil,” Queen Euphoria said. “Our new weather team lead.”

“Oh! Yes, I do remember you telling me!” The Prench mare approached Sure Stroke, offering hoof. “Chaleur du Soleil, and you are?”

Sure Stroke accepted the hoof shake. “Er, I’m Sure Stroke. Nice to meet you.”

“The pleasure is mine. I hope you find the village to your liking.” Slowly, a knowing smile made its way across her muzzle. “It’s always so nice to see ponies and changelings coming to understand one another.”

“Quite so,” Queen Euphoria added. She turned her attention to Stalwart. “Would you mind walking Sure Stroke out?”

Stalwart nodded. “Of course, Your Highness.” He gestured toward the hallway leading to the front door. “After you, Sure Stroke.”

After a quick bow to Queen Euphoria, Sure Stroke trotted for the door, with Stalwart following a short distance behind.

She pulled the door open and stepped out into the bright sunlight, just in time to catch sight of a familiar nymph, flanked by Vector and Zephyr, doing his best to get a pair of burly white pegasi standing on either side of the door to laugh with, of all things, silly transformations.

Sure Stroke watched as green fire washed over his form. In a flash, he changed. A bright red shirt with yellow polka dots covered his chest, his mane curled and fluffed out like he’d been hit by a lightning bolt and painted in all the colors of the rainbow, but most striking of all was his face.

Her jaw dropped. His black carapace was covered in white paint, bright blue eyeliner circled his eyes, his lips were tinged a bright red that matched the silly clown nose that sprouted from the edge of his snout.

He’d become a very literal clown changeling. A clownling, just like her drawing.

Had Esalen told him?

Yet, for all his efforts, even the way he threw his hooves out wide and gave a big, toothy grin, the guards didn’t so much as snort.

Aspire huffed, shifting back to his natural form in a flash of green fire. “C’mon! I know you guys are at least amused! I can taste it! You do this every time you escort Madame Soleil!”

The pegasi didn’t reply. Although, Sure Stroke was quite certain she saw one of them bite the inside of his cheek, trying to hide a smile.

Duplicitous caught it, giving the stallion a wink before he turned to Aspire. “I think you’ve played your game enough, Aspire.”

“Besides, Sure Stroke’s done,” Stalwart chipped in.

Three sets of eyes turned toward her. Sure Stroke gave a little wave, earning a grin and a flick of Aspire’s tongue to test her mood.

“Have a good time after all, huh?” he teased. “Guess we’ll have to drag you along for trouble more often!”

Sure Stroke shook her head, laughing. “No thanks!” she said as she held up her hooves and crossed them over her chest. “I’m pretty sure I just used up my freebie with her, and I don’t wanna chance being wrapped up, dyed funny colors, or whatever else she can put me through!”

The trio of colts shared matching grins. “Coward!” they chanted together.

“Better a cowardly filly than being in trouble with the Queen,” Duplicitous quipped. “Now, run along, you four. Go pester Creamy and Frosty or something.”

Aspire’s ears pinned back, drawing sniggers from the other colts. “Y’know what? We were just about to go to Sweet Treat’s shop and do our Saturday morning math session, so … yeah! Not the ice cream parlor!”

Sure Stroke raised a brow, eying her friend critically as he glanced from left to right. What’s got him so nervous about the ice cream parlor? He was all excited about it when he showed me around …

Filing that away for later, she shrugged. “Fair enough, snacks and homework it is.” She fixed him with a half-hearted glare. “Except I didn’t bring my stuff because no one told me about this.”

He blinked. “Still having trouble?”

“Extremely, yes.”

“Oh, sorry!” Aspire cringed. “If I’d known, I’d have said something.”

Sure Stroke rolled her eyes. “I’ll go home and get my stuff. Meet you all at Sweet Treat’s shop.”

“Sounds like a plan,” Zephyr said tiredly. Thinking about it a moment, he smirked. “Better hurry, though. Zippy’s been known to get really hungry when he waits.”

Without missing a beat, Vector took his cue. “I’m already hungry,” he added, grinning broadly and fluffing his feathers, “and I think I just might clear out Sweet Treat’s case between now and when you get back if you take too long!”

She didn’t need any further prompting. Sure Stroke took off for home in a rustle of feathers.

21. An Offer He Had to Refuse

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Sure Stroke hit the dirt path leading up to Sweet Treat’s shop in a run, her saddlebags thumping rhythmically against her sides. She sprinted for the door, muttering curses under her breath about the three colts waiting inside.

“I swear, if I got all my things and Vector ate everything, I’m going to smack the lot of them!”

Just before she reached the door, it swung open to reveal Peppermint and a colt of mint green coat and white mane with green tips, with a pair of spearmints for a cutie mark.

She let out a yelp and dug her hooves into the dirt, flapping her wings so she came skidding to a halt, her nose a hair’s breadth from the other colt’s skin.

Peppermint sniggered. “Well, well! Looks like you’ve got a bit of filly magnetism to you, Spearmint!”

“Yeah, right,” Spearmint rolled his eyes, giving his twin a playful shove. He turned his gaze upon Sure Stroke. “You okay?”

Sure Stroke bobbed her head. “Yeah, sorry about nearly running into you!” She blinked, a blush colored her cheeks. “Oh! Um, I don’t think we’ve met! I’m—”

He laughed and waved a hoof. “Sure Stroke, the new weather team manager’s filly. You came in with the troublesome twins and their friends the other day.” His green eyes danced with mirth. “I’m Spearmint, Pepper’s better-looking twin.”

“Oi!” Peppermint stomped a hoof, fixing him with a glare. “You are not!”

“Am so!”

“Are not!”

“We could always ask Nimble!” Spearmint replied with a decidedly smug grin. “I’m sure she’d be happy to give an unbiased opinion.”

Sure Stroke watched Peppermint suck in his lips and quickly look away. “Th-That’s not playing fair and you know it! I could just as easily ask Shady Glen!”

“Please do!” Spearmint’s grin widened. “I could use an excuse to kiss him right on the nose!”

As the twins bickered, Sure Stroke edged around them so she could slip through the door, struggling to hold back a bout of laughter that threatened to bubble forth.

Her efforts failed when she heard hooves thundering against the ground and Peppermint shouting, “No! Spear, get back here! Spear, don’t you dare!” before the door slammed shut.

“I swear, those two!” Sweet Treat huffed from behind her counter, with a chorus of snickering villagers accompanying her ire. Heaving a sigh, she shook her head, then fixed a salespony’s smile upon her muzzle. “Good morning, Sure Stroke. Nice to see you again. Looking for your friends?” She waved a hoof toward a small four-seat table along the back wall.

Sure Stroke perked her ears up, grinning at the sight of Aspire, Vector, and Zephyr chatting and lounging at their table. The nymphs chittering laughter tickled her ears as Vector said something, then made a strange wobbling gesture with his hooves.

A fun story, no doubt.

Upon closer inspection, Sure Stroke noticed that four plates and sets of utensils had been set out on the table, four wooden cups, with a larger plate bearing a stack of pancakes and a pair of wooden pitchers in the middle.

Curious, she muttered her thanks to Sweet Treat and walked over to the colts’ table.

“… So, once my dad stops laughing, he says—” Vector pulled a mock stern expression “—well, Raindance, if you’d pay attention where you were flying, maybe you wouldn’t end up flying straight into Whimsy Mimsy and Dust Devil’s cloud while they’re having lunch.” He paused to fight down a bout of sniggers, then continued, his voice cracked with mirth, “And she says ‘well, they didn’t have to dump the rest of the pie on my head!’”

Aspire and Zephyr held their stomachs, chittering like mad and shaking their heads.

Vector raised his hoof as if to continue, but stopped, his eyes flitted toward Sure Stroke. “Oh, hey! Look who finally showed up!”

Their laughter died off. Aspire and Zephyr turned, beaming at her. “Hey, Doodle!” they greeted in unison.

She sighed. “I’m going to start smacking you every time someone says that name, Aspire.” Fixing him with a sidelong stare, Sure Stroke scowled when he stuck his serpentine tongue out and crossed his eyes. “Twice. I’m smacking you twice every time someone says it.”

“Aw, is that so?” Aspire grinned, peering out of the corner of his eye at the stack of pancakes. “Well, I don’t feel as bad, then! We were just about to divvy up your share of the goods.”

Sure Stroke’s feathers bristled. She pinned her ears back and fixed him with a stern glare. “You’d better not,” she warned, bringing her right forehoof up and shaking it at him, “or you’ll get another round of pegasus therapy!”

Aspire flinched and brought a hoof to his cheek, rubbing the same spot she’d slugged him at the party. “That’s not nice,” he said with a frown. “I even got Maple to make pancakes for you.”

Had he?

Well, that was rather nice of him. Or, at least, it would have been if not for one small detail.

“Which you were about to give away,” Sure Stroke retorted as she hopped into the seat next to him. She flexed her wings in silent challenge, casting a quick wink to Vector when he noticed. “Doesn’t seem like you’re being nice either.”

Zephyr snorted. “C’mon,” he drawled, a lazy smile playing upon his lips. “Bookbug doesn’t have a mean piece of chitin on his carapace, he’d start fretting terribly if we even started talking about leaving you with nothing.”

“Hey! I do not fret!”

“You do. Quite a bit. It’s kinda funny, really.”

Aspire’s cheeks puffed up, he looked at Sure Stroke for support, fixing her with his deep blue eyes. His bottom lip poked out, he even put a bit of a quiver into it.

Sure Stroke had to avert her eyes and bite her lip lest she let out anything resembling a coo. “I don’t know,” she said with feigned uncertainty. “You do seem awful shifty every now and then.”

Her ear twitched as she heard him flicking out his tongue. She could almost feel his wide-eyed stare fade into a flat glare.

“Har har,” he grumbled, bumping his shoulder against hers. “Just get out your books and grab some pancakes. They’re Maple’s specialty.”

With a cheeky smile rivaling one of his own, Sure Stroke rubbed her shoulder against his, then dug into her bag for her most hated rival of all:

Algebra homework.

Her smile faltered a touch as she looked over the set of twelve problems, the jumble of letters and numbers she’d copied from Abacus’ blackboard seemed to stare mockingly back at her.

Sure Stroke glared. The sooner she finished with them, the better.

As she set her notebook and pencil on the table, she noticed the colts beginning to stack pancakes on their plates. Zephyr licked his lips and slathered his own with syrup before passing the pitcher over to Vector.

Tentatively, Sure Stroke reached across the table to grab a couple pancakes off the top. She set them on her plate, awaiting her turn for the syrup.

By chance, she noticed Aspire’s plate lacking in number of pancakes. Sure Stroke did a double take. While Vector and Zephyr happily stacked theirs high with more pancakes than she cared to count, he Aspire had only taken two.

Sure Stroke furrowed her brows. “Not hungry?” she asked, tilting her head.

Aspire stopped and turned to face her. He blinked twice, his lips parted as if to give voice to his confusion.

Then he followed her gaze to his plate. His eyes lit up.

“Oh! No, not that hungry.” He shook his head, then gestured to Vector and Zephyr. “We’ve got a little deal worked for me tutoring them every week. Zippy lets me nibble on his love one week, Zeph buys pancakes. Next week, they’ll switch.”

Switch?

Sure Stroke looked between Aspire and Zephyr. “Since when can changelings feed off each other?”

The pair scoffed. “Since when couldn’t we?” Zephyr retorted. “Just ‘cause we feed on ponies’ love doesn’t mean we can’t feed on changeling love. It’s just easier to get it from ponies.”

“Well, not easier,” Aspire corrected. “But we’d eventually starve, like, half the changeling population. So, usually, changelings feed each other by giving a little.”

“How does that work?” Sure Stroke wrinkled her snout. “You just breathe out and love goes into the other’s mouth?”

Aspire’s ears perked up. “Actually, that’s the closest way I could explain it. How’d you know?” He flicked his tongue, his brows knitted together. “You taste knowing. Who fed in front of you?”

Vector rapped a hoof on the table. “Wait, Doodle watched someone feed?” He waggled his ears. “How’d that go?”

Ducking her head, Sure Stroke fidgeted. “I asked Queen Euphoria about it, so she had me watch her and Caress feed on Cool Breeze.”

“Ah, Breezy again, huh?” Comprehension flashed in Aspire’s eyes, his lips tugged into a small smile. “Same with Hab.” He shrugged. “Anyway, yeah, Zippy let me have a nibble. Normally, I wouldn’t eat right after—well—eating, but Maple’s pancakes are way too sweet to pass up.” Arching a brow, he grabbed the last pancake off the middle plate and stacked it atop hers. “That said, you get this last one. Eat up and get ready to join us in the joys of algebra.”

A shiver ran down Sure Stroke’s spine. “You don’t have to make it sound so ominous.”

Grinning, he picked up his cup and brought nearer to his snout so he could take a long sniff. “Ah, the one drink I love more than tea—coffee.” He glanced at Sure Stroke and waggled his ears. “And yes, yes I do.”

Then he took a long, deep pull of his coffee, his dark chuckling echoed within his mug.

Sure Stroke let out a whine as she accepted the pitcher of syrup. This was shaping up to be a long morning.

Still, there were a couple upsides.

She had friends.

And pancakes.

Two good things had to outweigh one bad, right? Of course.

Still, something nagged at the back of her mind. Esalen and Toola mentioned that Aspire would be happy to help since he wanted to be a teacher of some sort. All she had to do was offer him something in return.

It just so happened that one of those things was permission to feed on her love.

Sure Stroke hid a nervous frown behind a fork full of pancake. There were plenty of other things to offer, as long as he found it acceptable, just like Toola said. Aspire was fair about it. She’d even heard him opt out of feeding on Toola because he was only helping with a few problems.

She forced herself to put it to the back of her mind in favor of looking over her math homework. There would be plenty of time to think of what to offer him later.

For now, she had other matters to attend to.

“Is there any chance you could show me that whole distributing thing again before we start?” Sure Stroke asked. “The one where I have to move numbers around in the parentheses?”

Aspire tilted his head. After a few seconds’ thought, his eyes lit up. “Oh, the distributive property?” He smiled. “That’s easy enough. Here.”

He took up his own pencil. Quick as a flash, he scrawled out a problem with one variable and several numbers. “Okay, so, the whole thing here is that when there’s a variable in the parentheses, it means you can’t go through the regular order of operations since you can’t add seven to five-x. But there’s this negative sign out here, so you can flip the signs around …”


A small frown played upon Aspire’s as he looked over Sure Stroke’s work. He held his mug in one hoof, swirling the remaining coffee around while he tried to find where she’d gone wrong.

Oh. The negative sign again. She’d forgotten to change it over, which messed up the addition.

Aspire glanced at her out of the corner of his eye. Flicking his tongue wasn’t necessary, her hope of having finally bested Abacus’ homework was written plain across her muzzle. Her eyes shone with it, even.

But still.

The temptation was there.

Just a taste couldn’t hurt, he thought as he brought his mug to his lips and took a sip. Then, he ran his tongue slowly along his upper lip as if to savor his coffee.

Instead, Aspire focused on tasting Sure Stroke. His eyes nearly fluttered shut. She was a cocktail of happiness, comfort, and a lovely touch of hope. Like the rich cream blended into his coffee.

It was practically a crime to let her down and poison the well.

But, as a tutor, it was his duty.

He held back a sigh. Little details. If she’d just watch out for those little details. “Nope,” he said sliding her paper back to her, tapping a hoof against the spot in question. “Look here. You’re multiplying two negatives together, so the product becomes a positive.”

Sure Stroke’s ears splayed back. She groaned and let her head fall to the table with a soft thump. “Algebra is the worst!” she whined.

Aspire rolled his eyes. “Oh, come on!” He prodded her side with a hoof, searching for the tickle spot beneath her wings. “It’s not that bad!”

She lifted her head just enough to glare at him. “The absolute worst.”

Clicking his tongue, he managed to slip his hoof between her elbow and side and found the spot. Sure Stroke let out a squeak, she sat up ramrod straight and clamped her wings down.

“Aspire!”

“That’s my name!” He replied with a merry waggling of his ears, chittering laughter tinged his voice. “C’mon, it’s not that bad. You’ve just gotta pay attention to what you’re doing. Look!” Aspire tapped his hoof against the first problem. “Right here, you just went through the order of operations wrong—you do the stuff inside the parentheses first if there’s no variable, remember?”

Her shoulders slumped. That defeated look, with her ears splayed and a dismayed frown upon her lips, made him flick his tail.

Aspire nudged her pencil toward her hoof again. “Just try it, Doodle! You’ve got …” he trailed off as he glanced over her paper. “Five to fix, then you’re done!” Thinking a moment, he flicked his tongue. The mugginess of uncertainty mixed with frustration’s bite.

She needed help.

“How about we go through a couple together?” he offered. “I’ll walk you through them.”

Her ears perked up, the fluffy, sweet taste of hope tickled his tongue again. Sure Stroke sat up and gave a small smile. “Thanks.”

“Anytime.” Aspire nodded toward her problem set. “So, let’s take a look at the first one: two minus one time three, all in parentheses, times x equals five.”

Across the table, Vector rustled his wings. “That stupid rule always trips me up,” he grumbled.

“Only ‘cause you wanna breeze through it as fast as you can so we can go outside,” Zephyr teased, leaning back in his seat. “I’m done whenever you’re finished with Doodle, bookbug.”

Aspire rolled his eyes and jabbed a hoof toward Zephyr. “What he said. And quiet down you two.” Turning back to Sure Stroke, he found her looking at the problem with a frown. He leaned in close. “So, where do you think you need to start?”

Sure Stroke wrinkled her snout. “I’m pretty sure I have to do the stuff inside the parentheses since there’s no letter—”

“Variable.”

“It’s a letter, shut up. And there isn’t one in there, so I have to work it out.”

“That’s right.” Good. She was starting to get it. Now, for the part that tripped her up the first time around. “So where do you start?”

She stayed quiet for a moment. “Last time, I subtracted first and got it wrong. So …” Sure Stroke glanced at him out of the corner of her eye. “There’s nothing else I can do but multiply first, right?”

Aspire raised an eyebrow and gave a playful smirk. “Are you asking me, or telling me?”

“Asking, smart aleck,” she shot back, bumping her shoulder against his. “So I know I’m doing it right.”

“Just teasing. Sheesh!” He held up his hooves in surrender.

“Well? Am I?”

“Yeah,” he replied, dropping his little game. “You’re on the right track. So, multiply it out, what do you get?”

Sure Stroke furrowed her brows in concentration, scrunching up her snout almost cutely as she worked it out. “Two minus three,” she said after a couple seconds. “Which gets me negative one left in the parentheses.”

Aspire nodded. “Exactly. So, negative one times x gets you what?”

“Negative x.” Her eyes lit up in comprehension. “But I can’t leave x as a negative, so I have to move it over by dividing by the negative one I just had.”

“There ya go!” He beamed. “You divide both sides by the unseen negative one to get x all by itself, then the five on the other side becomes a negative five. So the answer is?”

Sure Stroke beamed as she scribbled down the results. “X is negative five!”

Aspire reclined and brought his coffee cup to his lips. “Exactly! See? Once you know the steps and take the time to do them right—” he broke off to fix Vector with a glare “—it’s easy as making Toola laugh.”

He grinned as his friends stopped their work long enough to share a bout of snickering at the absent gymnast’s expense. Score one for him.

“Hey, hey!” Nimble’s voice made his ears twitch. Aspire turned to find the dancing filly standing beside their table with a smile on her muzzle and her hoof resting on a chair at the next table. “Room for one more, or do I need to find my own table.”

“Nah, just put it there!” Vector said while he and Zephyr began shuffling their papers to the side so she could join at the end of the table. “You got Maple’s pancakes? Or did you go for Sweet Treat’s crepes?”

Nimble gave a chittering giggle. “I had to go for crepes. Maple was enjoying a little snack off of Rocky and Ready for their stack, so he couldn’t give me the eyes this time. Plus, I haven’t had hers in a while.”

Rolling his eyes Aspire stuck out his tongue. “Heresy. Pancakes are infinitely superior, even if they’re not Grandma Cloudfluff’s.”

“Oh, hush up and go back to getting cozy with Doodle,” Nimble teased.

Aspire and Sure Stroke all but leaped apart, he felt his cheeks burning, the air around him tasted heavily of his friends’ mirth and mischief, mixed together with thick embarrassment from the filly to his right.

“I’m not getting cozy!” he cried, clapping his hooves over his mouth just as he said it. Shoot! Walked right into it!

It was just what she wanted.

All the excuse Vector and Zephyr needed to break into peals of laughter while Nimble simply fixed him with a hooded stare, slowly running her tongue along her lips. “Mhmm,” she purred, her wings gave a happy buzz.

“He’s just tutoring me!” Sure Stroke chipped in, tapping a hoof against her paper for emphasis. “See? Math?”

Nimble’s eyes lit up. “Oh, is that what we’re calling it?”

Aspire groaned and covered his face with his hooves. “Would you just stop?”

“Why ever would I do that, bookbug?” She waggled her ears. “You two are fun, and she tastes so delicious when she’s flustered!”

He couldn’t argue that one. Just as she said it, he poked his tongue out enough to taste Sure Stroke again. So sweet, yet fluffy. Like that time Haberdasher took them to Coneigh Island and bought cotton candy.

And he had to admit, as he stole a peek at the rosy hue tinging her cheeks, she did look rather cute.

Aspire banished those thoughts. He needed to get control of his tutoring session back. And given his opponent was everyone’s favorite little dancer, he knew exactly how. Slowly dragging his hooves down his muzzle to glare at Nimble. “You know,” he began, “for a nymph who gets so agitated when we tease her about the massive crush she has on a certain baker, you’re awful mouthy today.”

The smile ran away from her face. Nimble reared back as if struck, much to Vector and Zephyr’s delight, then looked away. “I-I don’t know what you’re talking about!” she said, her chitinous cheeks flushed deep black.

Riiiiiight!” Vector prodded her side, a wicked grin crossing his muzzle. “Y’know, we could go pop into the kitchen right now and ask if he thinks your carapace looks nice and polished today …”

Don’t. You. Dare!” Her eyes flashed green. “I will put so much slime in your feathers it’ll take you years to fly again!”

With his work done, Aspire chuckled and turned to Sure Stroke. She looked as though she had something to say, a smirk was on her lips and her ears perked up.

But she closed her mouth. Shaking her head, she faced him with a smile. “So,” she began, “math?”

Curious, he took a fake sip of coffee, just enough to wet his lips and give him an excuse to taste her again.

She tasted knowing again, but with a hint of mischief.

Did she know something? Or did she just have a good quip she was holding back?

A small part of him wanted to prod her to say it, but there was that more rational side that reminded him of his want to keep her comfortable.

And, well, she did still need math help.

Aspire smiled and nodded. “Yeah, math.” He sniggered as Zephyr happily joined in needling Nimble. “We’ll leave the hatchlings to their games. So, on this next one, this is where you keep mixing up the sign rules for multiplications …”


At some point, Aspire had lost track of how much time they’d spent in Sweet Treat’s shop. Long enough for Esalen and Toola to wander in, dragging their hooves, with their ears splayed flat against their heads as they sidled up to the table and simply laid down and groaned into the wood—without even so much as a single giggle or a move to get breakfast, no less!

And even longer still.

Usually, his sessions with Vector and Zephyr only went an hour or two. Vector’s love was the main course for breakfast and the pancake a nice little side, but he could already feel the want for food again.

Maybe it was the constant distractions when Nimble wandered up, then Essy and Toola shortly after their punishment with Queen Euphoria ended. Or maybe it was just that the addition of Sure Stroke meant he had to go slower than normal.

Either way, he couldn’t help but give a little “huh” when their troupe stepped outside and the noontime sun beat down upon his carapace. He let his tongue loll out as he wiped a hoof across his brow. “Chitin, it’s hot today!” he said. “Couldn’t the weather team have found us some cloud cover?”

Sure Stroke shook her head. “Out here? We’re not gonna get anything except what rolls in unless they stockpile it.”

“We do,” Vector said. “To an extent. My sister would have some clouds tucked away for when we needed rain. And, well, for days we really didn’t and she just made a rain shower on a whim.” He paused a beat. “Speaking of, it’s not hot because there are no clouds, it’s hot because of the humidity.”

“Fair enough. But yeah, for summer, though. Nothing unless she’s got a stockpile now, or a nearby town misplaces a few.”

Aspire frowned. “Dang it,” he grumbled.

“Kinda makes you wish we could get shipments from Cloudsdale, huh?” Zephyr fanned himself with a hoof.

His comment earned a playful shrug from Vector. “Your carapace getting soft, Zeph? Can’t handle a little heat and humidity?”

Zephyr bared his fangs at Vector, shifting his weight so his saddlebags slid right off him. “You wanna run that by me again, Zippy?” he hissed. “Or do you wanna avoid another roll?”

Vector grinned and dropped his bags, his wings flared out wide. “Oh, I think I want a piece, Zeph. You only got me last time because you got Nimble in on it!”

Aspire shook his head. He took a big step away from the pair, putting himself between the fillies and his fellow colts just as Zephyr turned to Nimble and said, “Nim, stay out of this one! This smart mouth needs a little reminder of what happens when—hey!

Vector lived up to his name. He moved in a blue-gray blur, tackling Zephyr and pinning his shoulders, only to find himself rolled head over tail in a classic case of one’s momentum being used to reverse the pressure.

And away they go.

He sidled up to Esalen and Sure Stroke, just in time to catch the former ask, “So, what’ve you got planned for the rest of the day?”

“Not much,” Sure Stroke replied with a shrug. She chuckled as Vector managed to slide out from under Zephyr and loop his hooves around his chest. “I was probably just going to hang out with you guys. Or something.”

Nimble propped herself on Esalen’s back. “Wanna roll like the boys?” she offered, a mischievous grin playing on her muzzle as she nodded toward the pair. Just in time to see Vector finally manage to catch Zephyr in a joint lock and force his friend to submit, much to his chagrin. “I hear you got bookbug pinned, which is a feat even if it was just until he decided to sweep you.”

To her credit, Sure Stroke didn’t recoil or duck like she’d been so wont to do before. Instead, she fixed Nimble with a critical stare. “You just want to pin me so you can work on my tickle spots again, don’t you?”

Nimble’s grin only widened. “Guilty.”

“I thought so.” Sure Stroke gave a decidedly smug grin and moved a bit closer to Aspire. “I’ll pass.”

“Darn. Can’t blame a nymph for trying though, right?”

“Sure you can,” Aspire quipped. “Especially when she’s that transparent.”

“Watch it, you.” Nimble bared her fangs. “I know all your spots, and I know you can’t wrestle worth your eggshell when I’ve got you squirming.”

Aspire made to reply, but then he heard a soft giggle sound behind him. His ears twitched, he flicked out his tongue just in time to catch a familiar taste:

Gumdrops and ice cream. Toola’s mischief.

A hoof wrapped around his left shoulder and tugged him. Rolling his eyes, Aspire wrapped his right hoof around hers and pivoted, tugging her into him so her back pressed against his chest, his hind legs locked around her hips so she couldn’t squirm free. He snaked his left leg around her neck, then brought his right across to lock it in.

“Well, aren’t you a sneaky little thing?” he crooned into her ear.

Toola gave a strained laugh, then reached up to tug at his left leg.

Wrong move. Quick as a flash, Aspire caught her hoof and brought it down to his right leg, clamping it down hard. When she tried again, he simply repeated it with her left, leaving her stuck.

He licked his lips. Her mischief had given way to frustration and resignation. She knew he had her.

But he wasn’t one to just let it go.

Aspire nosed and kissed her cheek. “Everyone say ‘goodnight, Toola!’” he teased.

“Goodnight, Toola!” they chanted in unison.

With a dark chuckle, he pressed his cheek against hers and tightened his grip. He felt her struggle for breath for a second, then furiously tapped her hoof against his thigh.

He’d won.

Chittering happily, he slackened his hold and rolled her off his chest, but not without a friendly nuzzle before he said, “The winner and still champion!” He buzzed his wings. “Aspire of Respite!”

A chorus of cheers, buzzing wings, and stomping hooves greeted his boast. Toola hung her head and tried to feign a pout, but only held it a few seconds before she burst into laughter and gave him a hug.

“I can’t even get you when I sneak up!” she said between giggles. “You’re scary good, Aspire!”

Esalen snorted. “He gets lots of practice when he annoys me with those terrible puns of his.”

It was too good to pass up. Aspire gave a wide grin. “I think you’re all just jealous that I’ve grappled wrestling into submission.”

“Oh, cirrus, no!” Vector whined.

“What? You mad I’ve got it all locked up?

Toola fell against Nimble’s side and clapped her hooves over her ears. “Stoooooooooooop! This is cruel and unusual punishment!” Her eyes went wide. “Wait, no! Now, I’m punning!”

Aspire’s grin only widened. It was like his birthday, Sharers’ Day, and a trip to Manehattan for a Hearts and Hooves Day snack all rolled into one. All he had to do was deliver the coup de grace. “And with that, my friends, we’ve reached the final bell!

For a few seconds, there was silence. Aspire didn’t even try to hide the smugness in his grin.

“Whose turn is it to smack him?” Zephyr grumbled.

“Dibs!” Toola bounced forward and cuffed him over the ears, glaring as she wrung out her hoof. “Pun-filled jerkface!”

Aspire cackled and rubbed his head. “Worth it!” He glanced at her out of the corner of his eye. “How’s the hoof?”

“Not bad. Your carapace is hard, bookbug. Is that why you can’t stop punning even though it’s the literal worst?”

“Yeah, yeah, whatever.” He nudged her with a hoof. “Aim for the snout next time, ya giggly thing.”

“You know,” Esalen began, interjecting before they could start again. “Speaking of ‘goodnight, Toola,’ I’ve got an idea. Why don’t we have a sleepover?”

Zephyr perked his ears up. “When were you thinking? Tonight?”

“Why not? It’s Saturday, we don’t have anything else to do, and we can all just relax a bit. Also …” She turned to Sure Stroke with a coy smile playing on her lips and waggled her ears. “I’ve been itching to get my hooves on your mane, Doodle.”

Sure Stroke started. “My mane?”

“Manestyling, of course! And you’re not getting out of it, missy!”

On cue, Nimble was at Sure Stroke’s side, with a hoof right at her ribs. “Surrender now, or surrender after tickles,” she cooed. “Please choose the latter. You’ve got the cutest laugh other than Toola’s.”

Predictably, Sure Stroke tried to edge away, only to find Esalen on her other side, effectively trapping her in place between the two nymphs.

Nowhere to run.

Only surrender or tickling awaited her.

“I think I’ll just take mane styling,” she said with a nervous smile.

Nimble heaved a mock sigh and lowered her hoof. “Fine! Ruin my fun! But one of these days, I’m going to tickle you silly, Doodle!”

“But not today,” Aspire chimed in, rising to the defense of his favorite target. “So, everyone ask their parents then meet up at our place?” Receiving nods from each pony and nymph, he beamed. “Sweet! Well, let’s all head home so we can get this show on the road!”

“Won’t your parents want more notice than this?” Sure Stroke asked.

Esalen scoffed. “Doodle, our parents have let ponies in the same night they wandered in off the forest path. A few foals and nymphs coming over in a few hours is a cinch.”

“It’s not a problem at all,” Aspire added. “Dad’s really cool about it, and mom just likes to know how much she needs to make for dinner. Believe me, us telling her at noon is more than enough time.”


After splitting up with their friends, Aspire and Esalen walked along the path that led to Sure Stroke’s house. They’d already passed by their own house, even stopping to wave to their father as he sat on the porch and rested on a cushion and call out to ask for permission to have their friends over.

Of course, he said yes after poking his head inside, presumably to let their mother know. He gave a bright grin and an extra wave to Sure Stroke before going back to dozing.

“See?” Esalen said, giving Sure Stroke a little hip bump that sent her stumbling into Aspire.

Aspire bumped her in kind, sending her back toward his sister. “Told you dad would be fine with it!”

“Okay, I—oof!” Sure Stroke squeaked as Esalen sent her stumbling again. “I get the—stop that! Okay, I—enough!” Her wings flared out, cuffing both siblings over the back of their head.

Laughing, Esalen nosed against her cheek. “You’re way too fun to tease, Doodle!” Drawing away, she scrunched up her snout in thought. Her eyes lit up, she gave a merry chitter and buzzed her wings. “Ooh! I need to think of how we’re going to style your mane! You’d look adorable with a bun!”

Sure Stroke blinked. “I’ve never really tried a bun before. I mostly just wear it in a ponytail if I don’t let it down.”

“Well, we can try a few things! Oooh! I wish I’d thought of this earlier! I could’ve asked Queen Euphoria if we could borrow some of her circlets!” She stomped a hoof and glanced over her shoulder, then at Aspire. “Do you think she’d let us?”

He shrugged. “I don’t know. You could always ask next time.”

“Next time?”

“It’s a Madame Soleil day, Essy. You know Queen Euphoria is gonna end up insisting she and her guards stay for lunch, and then she and Breezy will end up entertaining them for a couple more hours.”

Esalen’s ears drooped. “Chitin! I completely forgot!” She let out a long sigh, shaking her head. “Fine, next time. But I’m still thinking of mane styles!”

“Noted.” Chuckling, Aspire turned to Sure Stroke. “So, ready for your first Respite sleepover?”

Sure Stroke raised an eyebrow. “Are they all that different from normal sleepovers?”

He shrugged, a playful smile spread across his muzzle. “I’ve heard newcomers say so, mostly because of our little cocooning thing.”

She flinched. “Oh, right. I keep forgetting that.” Ducking her head, she looked down at the ground, a pensive frown crossed her muzzle.

His smile fell. Aspire flicked out her tongue, tasting a hint of doubt. He rubbed his shoulder against hers. “Hey,” he muttered, “we won’t wrap you up if you don’t want us to. I just meant it like the first time you’re joining us.”

“I’m just thinking about things,” she replied.

“What sort of things?

Sure Stroke stayed quiet, chewing on the inside of her cheek. Her gaze flitted toward Esalen.

“You said Vector and Zephyr traded off who let you feed on their love,” she began, “and Toola offered the same the first time you took me to Sweet Treat’s and helped us with homework.”

“Yeah, so? That’s just normal stuff …” Aspire trailed off, panic gripping his chest. “You’re okay with that, right? I can tone it down if—”

“No.” She shook her head. Her wings rustled, a sign of nerves. “I talked with Esalen and Toola about it, and they said the same. We were talking about me having trouble with math and I was wondering if I could … if you wouldn’t mind tutoring me?”

On her opposite side, Esalen perked up. “You want to trade with Aspire? So soon?” She gave her tail a swish. “This is a nice surprise! You were all fidgety about it the other day!”

Aspire furrowed his brows. If she was fidgety, as Esalen said, why was Sure Stroke asking now? “What’ve you got to offer in turn? Since we’re doing a trade, here.”

Sure Stroke thought a moment. Aspire could taste her uncertainty, as well as a faint hint of something else.

Curiosity.

“I could do something like Vector and Zephyr,” she said slowly, her eyes flitting to meet his gaze, then down at the ground. “If you’ll tutor me, you can feed on me a little.”

Out of the corner of his eyes, he saw Esalen beam and nod her head so fast her braid bobbed with her. This was exactly what they’d been waiting for—she was offering it herself!

But didn’t she taste the uncertainty in Sure Stroke? Or was she missing it, like he had in the forest? What was that curiosity for, anyway?

Aspire stick out his tongue as far as he could, flicking it like a snake testing the air. “You don’t taste like you’re sure about that,” he said. “But you also taste curious. What’re you curious about?”

She gave a weak smile. “When I talked with Queen Euphoria about feeding, she explained a bit about how it felt and what it could do, and I wanted to … maybe try it.”

Maybe?

That wasn’t certainty at all.

Flicking his tongue again, Aspire caught a hint of doubt. She wasn’t afraid, but beneath that curiosity was just a sliver of doubt.

The memory of her parents talking about that nightmare flashed through his mind. Aspire took a sharp breath through his nose. She was curious, but she still wasn’t sure she could trust him.

He knew his answer.

Esalen grinned and gave a happy chitter as she nuzzled against her cheek. “I’m glad you decided to take him up on it!” she said. “You’ll find it’s not bad at all! Toola thinks it feels ticklish, and Vector always says he feels like he’s laying on a cloud! It’s really—”

“No,” Aspire cut in.

They stopped walking, each gaped at him.

Esalen recovered first. “What? Aspire, this is a part of trading, a part of our village. You can’t just—” She glanced at Sure Stroke, frowned, then stomped a hoof and looked to Aspire again. “You can’t say no!”

“Sure I can. I’m tutoring her, so I get to set my price, and I don’t want love,” he lied. Aspire looked Sure Stroke over a moment, thinking as fast as he could. What did she have that interested him? Vector and Zephyr offered food, and so did Toola. But Sure Stroke was different.

She needed to see she wasn’t just food.

She was his friend.

What did he know about her? What could he place value on as a show to her?

It clicked.

“I want you to draw me a picture of Cloudsdale,” he said with a grin. “Colored, too. I’ve heard they have rainbow waterfalls there.”

Sure Stroke balked. “You … want a picture of Cloudsdale?”

“Yeah. Colored.”

“Okay.” She blinked. “Why?”

Aspire shrugged. “Because you’ve seen my home, but I haven’t seen yours. I’ve read about it, my grandma’s from there, but the only pony city I’ve visited is Manehattan. I want to see Cloudsdale because it’s part of my family I haven’t seen, and it’s where you grew up.” He paused in thought. “Unless you don’t want to. I mean, you can draw something else.”

“No, no! It’s fine! I just—I’m surprised you don’t want love.”

“I do, just not this time.” Pasting a grin on his muzzle, he added, “I’m more curious how an actual drawing of yours looks because all I’ve seen you do are doodles, Doodle.”

Her brows flatlined. “I really ought to smack you for that.”

“Probably.”

“You suck.”

His grin widened. “I’ve been told that more than you think.”

Sure Stroke snorted. “Somehow, I doubt that.” With a sigh, she turned toward the dirt path leading to her house. “You know, I’m probably going to finish your drawing before I’m good enough at algebra.”

“You don’t know that. I’m a good tutor.”

“What happens if I do?”

“Then we renegotiate our terms.” He inclined his brows. “Simple as that.”

To his surprise, she smiled. “Good. Then we both know what I’m going to offer next time.” Thinking on it, she turned her gaze to Esalen, then back to Aspire. “Or the next time you’re hungry or help me with something, I’m offering. Because I do want to understand, and I want it to be someone I trust.”

Esalen grinned and waggled her ears. “I’d be happy to be the first to feed on you. We’ll work something out.”

Aspire simply shrugged. This was her one freebie, if she wanted it another time, fine. “Likewise. Just not this time.”

With a satisfied nod, she trotted up the dirt path, giving a wave of her wing as she climbed the steps to her front porch and headed inside.

It didn’t take a half second before Esalen’s smile fell. “Why in the name of the Sainted Ones’ glimmering coats did you say no? She was right there, offering you a meal on a platter!”

“Didn’t you taste her?” Aspire asked. “She’s not sure of it.”

“Not sure? Of course she’s not sure, you thick-chitined goof! It was going to be her first time feeding us!” Esalen let her shoulders slump. “She was right there, all eager, and willing, and cute, and looking so unrepentantly yummy, and what did you do?”

Aspire rolled his eyes. “I said no.”

“You said no!” She stomped her hoof, glaring at him through glowing green eyes. “Why?”

Slowly, Aspire raised a hoof. He was going to have to explain, or Esalen just wouldn’t understand. “She had a nightmare about us,” he said.

The glow left her eyes. Esalen’s glare faltered, she leaned away from him. “What?”

“That night she came over for dinner with her parents, I overheard them talking to mom and dad,” Aspire continued. “Right after I scared her in the forest, she took a nap and had a nightmare about us all having them for dinner, like a bunch of Locust.”

Esalen flinched. Horror shone in her eyes. She looked toward Sure Stroke’s house, biting her lip. “I had no idea—why didn’t she—” Her gaze fell upon him again. “Why didn’t you say something?”

Aspire looked down. “Because it was my mess, and I wanted to talk to her about it.” He sighed, letting his ears droop as he met her eyes again. “I haven’t done a good job making her feel like she’s my friend, Essy. You have.”

“Oh, come on, you know that’s not true!”

“Isn’t it? You’ve gossiped with her, you’ve played a prank on Queen Euphoria with her, and I’ve … tutored her and scared the feathers off of her. And learned she had a really mean punch.”

Esalen gave an amused snort. “You wanna fill me in on how that happened?”

“Apparently it’s called percussive therapy. She decided she wasn’t letting me mope about the dream at the party, so she punched me and made me promise to stop babying her.”

“Good filly.”

“Hey!”

“What? You were being mopey.” Frowning, Esalen added, “And you’re babying her now. She’s never going to learn if you don’t feed on her soon.”

Aspire gestured toward her. “Unless you do.”

“I just might, but don’t try to steer me off. She offered you a trade, by right the first meal should’ve been yours. Why did you ask for a picture instead?”

“Because I do want to know more about her.” He smiled and buzzed his wings. “And if I show her that, she’ll see that I see her as a friend, not just food. She might not like that I said no and made her wait to sate her curiosity now, but think of all those stories about us ponies tell.”

Esalen let her jaw drop. “You … ooooh, that’s clever!” Her ears perked up, she gave a big, fanged grin. “You smug little hatchling! You weren’t planning for one meal, you’re planning out a game to get a closer friend along with a lifetime of meals!”

“Now you’re getting it.” Shrugging, he added, “This time is just her freebie. It’s her first trade, so I figured it would be a good place to get her to show off her art skill for me. Plus, I did mean that bit about wanting to see Cloudsdale, and through her eyes, too.”

“I suppose that makes sense, and it works toward the end goal.” Esalen raised a hoof. “But if she offers us love for something else, or just for food …”

Aspire smiled. “Like I said, this was the one time I wanted to say no. After this one, if she offers and is sure about it, I’ll feed on her. Happily.” Closing his eyes, he licked his lips. “I can be patient for her sake, and I’ll make sure she’s fed and rested afterward.”

He felt a hoof lay upon his back. “Good,” Esalen said. “Now come on. I wanna get home so I can set stuff up for doing her mane. She is not getting off the hook on that matter!”

Chuckling, Aspire nodded and trotted along the path with her. His lips curved into a smile.

You’re not food today, Doodle, he thought. But you’ll always be my friend.

Hopefully, she got the message.

22. Sleepover in a Changeling Dwelling

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Three knocks upon the front door sent Esalen shooting off the pod couch, haphazardly tossing a book on different types of therapy over her shoulder as she trotted over to greet her friend.

She smiled as she pulled it open to reveal Sure Stroke as the first to arrive, just as she expected. But her smile faltered a touch when she noticed the filly carried a pillow under her wing and a bag around her shoulders. It seemed full like she’d packed to go camping in the forest for a week instead of just popping over to a friend’s house for a night.

“Uh … wow, you came prepared.” Esalen raised an eyebrow. “Did you bring all of your art supplies in that bag or something?”

Sure Stroke tilted her head. “Uh, no.” Her wings rustled awkwardly. “I brought my toothbrush, toothpaste, a brush, my pillow—” she nodded toward her left wing “—and my sleeping bag.”

Esalen stared for a few seconds. She sucked in her lips and furrowed her brows in thought. Sleeping bags, if she recalled, were sort of like their cocoon wraps, just not with slime. They were nice and warm, but they didn’t quite have that nice, gel-like cushioning. It had been a while since the last time she’d seen one.

A part of her wanted to tell Sure Stroke to take the bag home so she could experience a Respite sleepover to the fullest. Much like feeding, wrapping a pony up on a bed wrap before doing the same for themselves was supposed to be a show of trust and bond between the two.

Then again, she had to remember who she was dealing with. Aspire’s words played over in her mind.

She smiled. “Well, if you want to go with a sleeping bag, I suppose that’s fine. You’ll probably want to lay in the chairs or on one of our beds, though. The floor isn’t exactly comfortable, no matter what you do.”

Sure Stroke ducked her head, a crooked smile spread across her muzzle. “Uh, maybe.” She chewed on her lip and glanced at the pillow under her wing. “Should I take this home, then, or—”

“You could try it out and see how it feels.” Esalen shrugged and stepped aside so she could come in. “Come on in. Personally, I don’t think you’ll need them if you get one of the beds, but you might for the chair depending on how you lay.”

As Sure Stroke followed her inside, she kicked the door shut behind them and led her toward her room. Up ahead, Aspire poked his head out of his room and beamed. He made to greet her, but stopped short when he noticed her bag.

He tilted his head. “What’s with—”

“Sleeping bag,” Esalen cut him off.

“Oh.” His eyes widened in comprehension. “Ooooooooooh. Okay, that makes sense.” He waggled his ears. “Well, that’s one here. So, ready for Essy’s makeovers?”

A wide, fanged grin made its way across Esalen’s muzzle. She turned to Sure Stroke and made a show of buzzing her wings. “Oh, she’d better be,” she said with a happy chitter. Licking her lips, she giggled at the fluffy taste of embarrassment mixed with sweet happiness. “Because once I get her in a pod seat, she’s not going anywhere ‘till I’m done. In fact …” she trailed off as she stepped behind Sure Stroke and pushed her head against the filly’s flank, nudging her into Aspire’s room. “Step into our office.”


Esalen hummed a happy little tune as she sat in a slime pod seat with Sure Stroke in Aspire’s room and ran her brush through her friend’s long, purple mane. It had taken a little bit of coaxing and no shortage of playful teasing about how pretty she’d look if she’d let them give her a makeover, but it worked.

And, really, what better bonding time between fillies than a little makeover at a sleepover? Aside from feeding, of course.

She shook her head, her braid whipped from side to side. Thoughts like that were a bit counterproductive, given what Aspire had told her. Some nice, friendly talk, maybe a few of the village’s normal sleepover games—though perhaps they’d have to forgo a round of hide and seek, given her last experience with it.

To their right, Toola and Nimble were in another slime pod seat, liberated from Esalen’s room along with a few brushes and mane ties she’d plucked from her storage slime, chattering away with Sure Stroke, the former brushing Nimble’s pale purple mane. The colts, meanwhile, sat on Aspire’s bed and were locked in what appeared to be some version of a terrible joke contest, much to Esalen’s horror.

“So, a giraffe walks into the doctor’s office,” Aspire began, a wide grin nearly splitting his chitinous muzzle. “The doctor says hi and asks what’s bothering him. The giraffe says, ‘doc, I’ve got a terrible pain in my neck and it’s killing me!’”

Vector and Zephyr stayed silent a moment, their brows furrowed in deep thought. Then, slowly, their muzzles contorted into disgusted scowls. They groaned in unison and Zephyr shoved a cackling Aspire off the bed.

Even Esalen couldn’t withhold a cringe. “That was terrible and you should feel terrible, Aspire,” she called.

Any reply he had was lost in the midst of his chittering laughter. He held his hooves over his stomach, cackling like mad as Vector and Zephyr shared matching looks. Wicked smiles spread across their muzzles.

Esalen flicked her tongue, a smile of her own tugged at her lips.

Mischief.

With war cries befitting the changelings and pegasi of old, they descended upon the laughing nymph and quickly pinned him so they could mess up his mane and give him the pummeling he so rightly deserved.

Sure Stroke brought her hooves up to stifle her laughter. “He never quits, does he?”

Esalen’s ears twitched. “No,” she replied with a heavy sigh, she closed her eyes and ran her hoof through Sure Stroke’s mane. Silky smooth, just like she wanted. Almost inviting her to bury her snout in it and nuzzle the filly. “Sometimes, I want to strangle him, but I don’t know if I’d have him any other way, either.”

Another bout of giggles, Sure Stroke’s shoulders shook with poorly suppressed mirth. She glanced over her shoulder, a playful gleam shone in her eye. “We could hide his books from him.”

Esalen froze in place with her hoof still touching Sure Stroke’s mane. “I tried that once.” A shudder ran down her spine at the memory. “Not a good idea.”

“Why? He likes to dish out the jokes, can’t he take one?”

“Jokes? Sure he can. His books? You might as well just walk up and punch him in the jaw for no reason. He might be less angry if you did, actually.”

She flinched. “I, um …” Sure Stroke fidgeted in place. “I might have already done that at the party. When he was being shifty about things.”

“I heard.” Esalen smiled. “I also hear you have a mean right, or at least mean enough that his jaw ached the next day. That’s a pretty hard hit for him to feel it through his carapace.”

“I just wanted him to talk to me,” Sure Stroke mumbled under her breath, her soft violet ears splaying back against her scalp. The thick taste of regret, like coffee left out for hours, radiated off her in waves.

Gagging, Esalen sucked in her lips and averted her head as if to escape the taste. She began rummaging through her little box of mane ties in search of one that had dried off since coming out of storage. Sure Stroke probably wouldn’t appreciate one that was still damp with my slime …

She found one and her ears perked up straight. “Have you ever tried putting your mane up in a bun?”

Sure Stroke flicked an ear up. “I don’t think so.” She glanced over her shoulder. “I’ve mostly just worn it in a ponytail or down at home.”

“You should wear it down more often!” Toola chipped in. “You look really pretty like that, even better when you’re flying and the wind runs through it, I’d bet!”

Her cheeks flushed a deep purple. “Thanks.”

“We could try that later,” Esalen said as she set the mane tie to the side. Humming a note, she glanced between Sure Stroke and Toola. Her lips tugged into a smile as a bit of mischief shone in her bright pink eyes. “I think I’ve got something.” She searched through her box again until she found a small styling comb. With a few deft flicks, she began to give Sure Stroke’s mane a little bit of a fluff to it, all the while watching as Vector and Zephyr managed to claim a rare victory over her brother.

“Okay, okay! I give!” he cried in between bouts of laughter. He turned his head this way and that, trying to escape their hooves. His deep blue mane was as puffy as a used cotton swab.

Sure Stroke giggled. “Now you really look like you’ve got a bird’s nest on your head!”

Aspire shot her a mock glare. Slowly, a smirk made its way across his muzzle. “I can spit slime at your mane from here,” he warned. “And I will ruin all the work Essy’s doing.”

Sucking in a sharp breath, Esalen turned and bared her fangs, a threat on the tip of her tongue.

But she was beaten to the punch. “No, you won’t,” Sure Stroke replied.

“I won’t?” he asked, raising a brow.

“He kinda will,” Vector added. “I mean, I can cover his mouth, but then I’ll have it all over my hooves …”

“Don’t be a hatchling!” Zephyr scolded, leaning over to nip at his ear tip. “Essy has hoof polish remover somewhere, I’m sure. If not, you know Missus Faith has vegetable oil in the kitchen.” Still, he glanced over at Sure Stroke, his ears perked up. “So, why won’t he, if we don’t stop him? ‘Cause, really, I’m not gonna since you started it.” As if to drive the point home, he hopped off of Aspire, eagerly followed by Vector.

Aspire rolled over, his eyes glowing green. “Well, Doodle?”

Her lips curved into a wide grin. “Because your mom’s right down the hall and I can scream really loud.”

The glow in his eyes died out like a flame on a candle wick. His brows furrowed. “That’s not fair. At all.”

“Nymphs like to tease and play pranks,” she replied, a note of smugness creeping into her tone. “So why shouldn’t I use this to my advantage?”

“Point.” Aspire sighed and sat back on his haunches. “Dang it, Doodle.”

Esalen chuckled and returned to her work, adding a little bit of fluff to Sure Stroke’s mane and stealing a quick glance over at Toola. How long would it take them to notice? Out of the corner of her eye, she caught Nimble’s gaze. Her fellow nymph raised her eyebrows and made a subtle gesture between the pair of fillies, then cast a wink.

Well, there’s one. Let’s see how long the rest take. They could have plenty of fun with this. “So,” Esalen began, “how was your talk with Queen Euphoria, Doodle?”

A low grumble that sounded suspiciously like “they aren’t doodles, darn it” drew a snicker from the group of friends. The bite of irritation was almost worth the cross look upon her face. Sure Stroke sighed, ruffling her feathers as she leaned back against Esalen to allow her to continue. “It was pretty good. She’s really nice, a lot less …” she trailed off and rolled her hoof forward in a circle. “Formal than I thought she’d be.”

Zephyr snorted. “She’s never really formal. Well, not unless you get in really big trouble like that time what’s-his-face accidentally drained Whimsy Mimsy’s love until she could barely lift a hoof.” Frowning, he looked over at Sure Stroke and added, “That said, if you ever do end up feeding one of us, let us know if we take too much.”

“Um … how would I know?”

“Believe me, you’ll know,” Vector chipped in as he hopped back onto Aspire’s bed. He jabbed a hoof toward the nymph in question, sniggering as he watched him try to fix his mane. “Bookbug is pretty good about watching, but if I don’t speak up and he hasn’t eaten in awhile, I’ll end up so tired I can’t fly.”

“I do take care, though!” Aspire added hastily, his eyes flitting toward Sure Stroke.

“I’m just teasing you, bookbug! Chill!” Flicking a wing, Vector cast a wink at Sure Stroke. “Jokes aside, the Caretakers do what their name says. They take care of those who need help, and they take care of us who offer love. It’s up to you if you want, same with how much.”

Toola stopped brushing Nimble’s mane so she could raise a hoof. “I’m usually good for nibbles and small sips,” she said, nosing against Nimble’s cheek. “Because I usually end up giving Nim here a little love at dinner.”

“You spoil me,” Nimble crooned. Her tongue ran over her lips. “Never stop.”

“Wasn’t planning on it, sis.”

Sure Stroke flicked an ear, her head snapped toward them. “You’re related?” A beat, then she added, “How … does that work?”

Matching smirks spread across Nimble and Toola’s muzzles, their eyes danced with mischievous glee. “About the same it would work for any pony couples, I wager,” Nimble replied. “You’ll have to ask bookbug for specifics, because I’m not explaining the biology behind that unless you want to offer me a biiiiiiig drink, Doodle.”

Esalen stopped brushing for a moment. Which would win out, she wondered. Sure Stroke’s curiosity or her nerves. She poked the forked tip of her tongue between her lips to test her taste.

Mugginess, like undercooked fish. There wouldn’t be any feeding tonight. What a pity.

Fortunately, Toola opted to pipe up and spare Sure Stroke any awkwardness. “I was adopted!” she chirped. “Nimmy’s parents picked me up while they were visiting Manehattan when I was just a little filly.”

“She was even cuter, believe it or not,” Nimble put in, humming happily as Toola resumed brushing her mane. She cast a glance over her shoulder, a crooked smile played upon her lips. “I’d just managed to make myself a unique disguise, not perfect but good enough, so my parents took me to Coneigh Island for a few days. While we were there, we found Toola waiting with a teacher on the steps outside her school. My mom could taste the teacher’s impatience and Toola’s bubbly nature, so she stopped to ask if something was wrong. The teacher sighed and said she was waiting on little Toola’s caretaker, and the rest is history.”

Toola burst into a fit of giggles. “I was waiting for my caretaker, so I ended up with Caretakers!”

Another wave of laughter swept through the group, even Sure Stroke tittered and fluttered her wings. She was opening up and having fun.

Good.

Esalen decided to prod her a little further. “So what all did you talk about?” she asked. A few flicks of her hoof sent the ends of Sure Stroke’s deep purple mane curling up in a passable imitation of Toola’s aquamarine and pink tinged locks. “Besides feeding, I mean.”

“We talked a little about how I liked the village. And she cleared up something I was sort of struggling with.” Esalen didn’t miss the way Sure Stroke cast a quick glance at Aspire, nor how her brother’s eyes lit up when he met her gaze. “Really struggling with.”

He tried to play it cool, though. “Oh, yeah? Which part?”

Soft violet wings rustled nervously. Her ears splayed back as she noticed everyone staring straight at her, their attention fixed. “Um, the bit about wondering if ponies are friends or food.”

“Oh, that thing!” Zephyr flopped back onto Aspire’s bed with a snort. He closed his eyes and shook his head, a wry smile upon his muzzle. “Nothing new there, eh, bookbug?”

Aspire winced, but forced a smile in kind. “Y-Yeah. Nothing new, really. Always a little bit of an adjustment period.” He ducked his head, his gaze fixed upon Sure Stroke. “So, did she explain it any better than I tried?”

“She was … really blunt.” Sure Stroke gave a half-hearted shrug. “She just told me really straightforward that ponies are both to all of you in the village. Though, she did warn me about other hives.”

“Rightfully so,” Vector grumbled. A shudder ran through his body. “Can’t imagine ever wanting to be caught by the Locust. Wandering about with the Marauders might not be too bad, though. Enchanters … well, at least I’d live well. They’re nice enough when they visit, and really charming. Still not a fan.”

Esalen frowned. “Careful,” she warned.

He flinched. “Oh, right.” His ears drooped. “Sorry. I forgot all about your granddad. He was really nice, always let us play around his house. I always forgot he was an Enchanter since he didn’t get all flirty and stuff with ponies.”

“You didn’t see him on Sharers’ Day or Grandma Cloudfluff’s birthday.” Her wings buzzed. A fond smile spread across her muzzle as she let her mind wander to those happy days when she’d watch Grandpa Beguile lavish affection on her grandmother until her snow white cheeks burned red. “He always said he had everything he needed in her.”

The colt nodded once. He knew better than to question when it came to a nymph’s family.

Sure Stroke turned, pulling away from Esalen’s comb so she could fix her with a quizzical stare. “Queen Euphoria mentioned the Enchanters being charming,” she said. “She told me a few things about the hives, but she didn’t really explain all the animosity.”

Aspire glanced toward Esalen. “You’ve got the book in your room, right? Do you wanna read that instead of usual storytelling?”

“She should hear it at least once,” Zephyr said. “Everyone should—oh, for love’s sake, Essy!” He groaned, slapping a hoof over his eyes. “Did you really just do that to her mane?”

Sure Stroke started, her hooves leaping straight to her mane. “What? What did she do?”

It was too perfect. Esalen toppled over, clutching her sides as she gave way to laughter. She struggled a moment, before crying between chortles, “It took you long enough!”

“Essy, what did you do to my mane?”

All around them, their friends stared at Sure Stroke for a moment. Then, slowly, they began to snigger. Toola bounced over and tackled her in a tight hug. “Eeeee! I have a mane twin! Yes! Yes! Yes!”

Sure Stroke goggled at the filly. “Wait, what? A mane—did she?”

Esalen sat up. With a cheeky grin, she snatched the tie out of her mane and shapeshifted. Green fire washed over her form. Smooth black carapace became soft violet coat, deep ocean blue bled into her bright pink eyes, and her sugar pink mane unwound from its braid as purple ran down like wet paint.

She stared back at Sure Stroke and fluffed her new pegasus feathers, then brought a hoof up to play with her mane. “It looks nice!” she preened in Sure Stroke’s voice. “I think I’ll call this mane style Doodleroola!”

Sure Stroke drew in a sharp breath through her snout, the thick taste of her ire brought spice to Esalen’s tongue. But rather than leap to deny it, she simply smiled and turned to hug Toola. “You know what? Yes. I am your mane twin and you have to teach me how to do all your gymnastics so we can have two flippy ponies and one flippy nymph.”

“Oh, love, no!” Vector whined and covered his face with his hooves. “Ugh! Let’s move on to games or something before they actually start practicing! We can read to Doodleroola later!”

Grinning, Esalen shape-shifted back to her natural form in a flash of green fire, but left her mane styled the same as Sure Stroke and Toola’s, in her own little act of solidarity with her fellow fillies. There was another flash to her right. She turned to find Nimble getting in on the act herself, much to Toola’s delight.

Their own version of Aspire’s terrible puns.

With a heavy sigh, Vector grumbled, “I cannot deal. One of you is more than enough, Toola, the world cannot handle another.”

“You know you love me, Zippy!”

“You can’t prove that,” he shot back, dragging a hoof down his muzzle. “You know what? Fine. Bookbug, go get the book before they start practicing cartwheels or flips or whatever they do.”

Aspire sniggered, but nodded and rose to his hooves. “Sure, sure. On your desk, right, Essy?” He stopped to grin at her. “Wait, who am I kidding? You never clean off your desk.”

Esalen stuck out her tongue and flicked it at him. “Shut up and go get the book.” She scrunched up her snout, and in a flash of green fire, her mane was back to normal, save for the mane tie. She scooted around in her pod seat and nudged Sure Stroke so she was closer to the box. “I’ll just sit here while Doodle returns the favor and does my mane.”

With an amused chitter, he strode out of the room and down the hall.


Sure Stroke was surprised how soft Esalen’s mane felt. For a time, she almost thought it would feel more like a spider’s web—long, thin, wispy, and so very fragile against her hoof. Perhaps even a tad sticky, given how they loved to wrap themselves up in slime and slept in pods.

She instead found herself captivated by how soft and silky smooth it felt. A small part of her wanted to just sit and run her hoof through Esalen’s mane, or bury her snout in it to drink in the scent of roses that seemed to follow her friend around.

But she managed to restrain herself as she took up the same brush Esalen had used on her mane. “That scent you wear is lovely,” she muttered. “It suits you.”

“Thanks,” Esalen said. “There’s a family in Manehattan that makes it. They were friends of my mom before they moved away a few years ago.”

“Oh?” Sure Stroke leaned in close and drew in a deep breath through her nose. It was just right. Perfect, actually. She closed her eyes, imagining the soft touch of rose petals brushing against her snout. “What’s the name?”

“Baudelaire’s.”

Sure Stroke froze in mid brush. “The Baudelaire’s?” she asked, goggling at the back of Esalen’s sugar pink head. “The one owned by Prançois Baudelaire?”

Esalen turned, a wry look on her face. “I didn’t know Prancy was big enough to warrant a the in front of his shop name. But yeah, that’s him. Wonderful stallion. His husband’s rather nice, too.”

It was like she’d been dropped straight from the highest point of Stratos Street with her wings tied. Sure Stroke could only work her mouth wordlessly. How in the name of Equestria could Esalen be so familiar with one of the leading producers of the finest perfumes in all the land, and not know?

Or was it simply that it didn’t matter because he was just “Prancy” to her?

“I could get you some if you like,” Esalen offered. “I’d just have to send him a letter next post day.”

Sure Stroke blinked a few times and shook her head. “Altocumulus isn’t going to believe this,” she mumbled under her breath, making a mental note to write a letter to her cousin sometime soon.

Thumping hooves echoed from down the hallway. The pair flicked their ears and turned to face the door just in time to find the rest of their happy troupe filing in with wide grins, several glasses of apple juice held aloft in Nimble’s magic, and a large bowl of sweets balanced between Vector’s wings.

“We’re baaaaack!” Toola sang, prancing in place. “And we bring the sweetest of sweets!”

“Courtesy of Missus Faith,” Nimble added as she reclaimed her seat and passed out the drinks. She scooted over so Toola could join her, glancing at Sure Stroke. “What’s up with Doodle? She looks like you slapped her with a dead fish.”

Esalen shrugged and accepted her drink. “I just mentioned Prancy and she got all spacey.”

Sure Stroke jolted awake in time to pluck her cup out of the air. “I am not spacey! I’m just surprised!” She huffed. “Oh, let’s just get to the story!”

Aspire grabbed the book off his desk and walked over to sit in front of Esalen and Sure Stroke with his back facing them, he slumped his shoulders as though to offer her a chance to peek over.

“It’s better with the pictures,” he explained. “Grab a hooffull of chocolate bites and settle in. This is the oldest bedtime story in all Respite.” Aspire turned the page to the inside cover and held it up so she could see the beautiful image of a shining, crystalline city and two groups standing outside the gates: one a crowd of ponies who sparkled and shone in the sun, the other with color as black as coal, twisted, cylindrical horns, holes in their legs, and pointed fangs poking down from behind their top lip.

His sky blue eyes met hers. “This is our story. It’s called the Legacy of Love.”

23. The Legacy of Love

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Sure Stroke watched with rapt attention as Aspire turned the page to an image of changelings playing their tricks on unsuspecting ponies; an earth pony seduced to follow a beautiful mare deep into the mountains, a grinning changeling playing terrible pranks on unsuspecting unicorns, and a false pegasus slipping into the ranks of the ancient legions without notice.

He read aloud, “In the age before the Three Tribes unified, changelings were feared and reviled for fearsome appearance and trickster nature. They hunted and played tricks on ponies with abandon, and lured their prey into their hives to be charmed and bound to their will, the perfect supply of the love they were denied.”

He turned the page to show an image everypony in Equestria knew quite well. The three leaders and their subordinates, all standing around a table with smiles on their muzzles as they shook hooves. A signed document sat between them. Below, though, the three tribes stood together as one army, glaring down a crowd of changelings led by a changeling queen with a pewter mane and sharp blue eyes. “As the ponies united, they discovered a common enemy. Tired of the tricksters who lived in their midst, their armies banded together to chase the ancient hive away …”

Slowly, Sure Stroke let his voice fade into the background. Her eyes scanned over the pages. She took in every detail. From the angry snarl gracing the old Legionnaires’ muzzles, to the way the changelings bared their fangs and tried to fight back against insurmountable numbers.

The Queen of the Ancient Hive had no choice. When the ponies were divided, her changelings had been free to feed and charm ponies as they pleased. It was a delicate balance of nature. The pegasi warred, the unicorns studied, the earth ponies farmed, and the changelings fed and tormented with abandon.

But once the ponies united, the changelings were faced with greater numbers they could possibly imagine. The unicorns offered magic to detect their disguises while the pegasus legions drove them out of villages, the earth ponies learned their strength to batter the changelings back and force them to retreat.

Little by little, the ponies pushed them out of the new Equestrian territory toward the far reaches of the north, where the land was covered in barren tundra for most of the year. Soon, the changelings found themselves with a new problem: starvation.

They wandered aimlessly, struggling to survive in the harsh winter. The Ancient Queen led them into a cave, fearful of her race dying off in the cold as a mighty snowstorm raged around them. It was as if all their misdeeds had finally caught up and the fates had come to collect old debts.

She watched as her changelings grew weak. Day by day, the youngest and oldest of their number grew sick and frail without the sweet nourishment of the love they so craved. She longed to send scouts in search of a town or outpost for aid, no matter how unlikely the prospect.

But the Queen couldn’t bear to send them off into the endless white abyss. Her changelings were her children. Their survival as a species fell upon her shoulders.

“I will go out into the storm,” she told her kind. “I will find us a new home and food aplenty. This cave will not be the end of us.”

“But Highness,” they protested, “surely we can handle such a task. Let us go, you must stay safe here. We will return with news of a new home and food, and will bring nourishment back for you.”

She refused. “T’was my arrogance and foolishness that led us to this, my children. I should have seen the changing tides in Equestria, but I ignored the signs. I shall go, for it is my duty as Queen. None shall bear this burden save me.”

The Queen set out, leaving her mate in charge until she returned, with orders to wait one week. If she wasn’t back by then, he was to assume she had been lost in the storm and assume control of the hive.

She set out with her race’s survival at the forefront of her mind. Stumbling through the frigid winds, her vision obscured by walls of pure white on all sides as she was battered by the furious storm, she wandered without aim. Day after day, she searched, her strength fading with every effort she made to trudge through the snow.

She collapsed, unable to go on, the hunger pangs and numbing cold rendered her helpless against the frigid north.

Sure Stroke felt a tiny pang in her chest as she regarded the picture of the ancient Queen laying face down in the snow, too weak to go on. She couldn’t help but see Queen Euphoria in her place—the aquamarine and pink mane with beautiful gold circlets wound around laid over the ancient Queen’s tattered pewter.

“She was willing to go that far?” she whispered.

“Far enough that she’d risk freezing to death,” Zephyr replied. “If not for her, we might not even be here today.”

In front of her, Aspire broke from his reading to glance over his shoulder at Sure Stroke. “The Ancient Queen was said to be the epitome of what a changeling was in that age, and she’s the one who most of the modern queens look to as some sort of model, whether it be her trickery, her affinity for blending in, how charming and seductive she could be, or how much she cared for her kind.” He gave a small yawn, then turned back to his reading. “The Queen lay in the snow, helpless against the cold. Her vision blurred, she could feel her carapace freezing and becoming as brittle as glass, her magic was so drained she couldn’t even shapeshift to protect herself. All hope seemed lost … until she saw them.”

He turned to the next page and shifted to the side so she could see more clearly.

The picture showed the Ancient Queen, still laying in the snow, but with one eye cracked open to peer into the storm, straight at a group of glowing lights.

“At first, the Queen was certain she was seeing things, hallucinations brought on by hunger and sleepless nights. The glowing lights came closer and closer until she could make out the forms of several ponies, the likes of which she’d never laid eyes on before. They called out to her, their eyes wide in concern, but she didn’t have the strength to speak. Sleep took her just as their leader, a gleaming pony with a long, flowing cloak, offered a hoof to help her rise to hers …”

The Queen awoke in a warm bed and found herself laying in a strange room of soft peach crystalline walls. Startled, she looked around trying to get her bearings. She happened to steal a glance out the window and let her jaw drop.

A city of crystal buildings that seemed to reach up toward the heavens themselves, with gleaming ponies who glowed at their very core and shone with the sun’s light smiling as they went about their day as if there weren’t a raging storm.

She checked again. The city was completely untouched by the storm itself, yet she could see the dark clouds stretching out toward the horizon, with lightning flashing in the distance.

“I was hoping you would awaken soon,” a stallion’s voice sounded from behind her. “You gave us quite the fright, stranger.”

The Queen turned to find herself face to face with a gleaming stallion garbed in a pink and purple cloak with the image of a blue heart on his chest, a kind smile gracing his muzzle as he levitated a cup of hot soup over to her. She held her hooves out, gaping dumbly at him.

His smile never abated. “Drink,” he ordered softly. “You’re very lucky the Crystal Heart’s enchantments enabled us to see you by our southern gate. Any longer and you might have frozen to death.”

She drank as commanded, her parched throat soothed as it passed her lips and filled her stomach. Her chest filled with warmth she hadn’t felt in an age, as though she’d just fed on love itself.

But that wasn’t possible. Ponies couldn’t infuse love like changelings. And yet, she was filled like she hadn’t been in ages.

“Where am I?” she found herself asking. She ran her tongue along her lips, both to savor the delicious soup and to taste the stallion before her. Curiosity and kindness reached her tongue, a sweet taste to be true.

“You’re in the capital city of the Crystal Empire,” he replied. “My sister’s Empire, to be precise.” He paused a beat, then said, “Forgive me, stranger, but we haven’t seen any pony quite like you before. You appear similar to our cousins to the south, yet clearly aren’t.”

The Ancient Queen nodded once. “You are correct, my glimmering savior. I am a changeling, this is my natural form.”

His brows raised. “The tricksters?”

She flinched, but nodded again. “Yes. I am their queen.”

“Oh? I had no idea I was in the presence of fellow royalty,” he said with a smile. “I am called Snowshine, younger brother to the Crystal Princess, Amortia. If you don’t mind my asking, my sister wondered what brought you this far north. And, given that your kind is from the south, I find myself curious as well.”

Bowing her head, she replied, “We were chased north by Equestria’s unified tribes, they fear and hate us for how we appear and for how we require love to survive. Our trickery and deception came about as necessity, which angered them more over the ages.”

He thought for a moment, then asked, “How many are you?”

“Few,” she said sadly. “Two hundred at most, counting the nymphs.” Pausing a beat, she corrected herself, “Our foals.”

“I see.” Snowshine frowned. “Wait here and rest. I’ll speak with my sister and see what she thinks on this.”

Aspire broke off to stifle another yawn. He blinked owlishly and gave his head a shake. “Hoo! Sorry, I’m more tired than I thought. What time even is it?”

From his spot on Aspire’s bed, Vector glanced up at the clock slimed to the wall. “It’s going on eleven thirty.” He stared a moment, frowning and biting his lip as if he were trying to hold something back. Then he brought a hoof to his mouth to cover a yawn. “Darn it, bookbug! Now I’m doing it!”

“I said I was sorry! Sheesh!”

“Maybe we should break for tonight,” Nimble offered. She nodded to Toola, who was cuddled up against her side with her eyelids drooping. “Little miss bouncy is just about to conk out, and I haven’t even cocooned her yet.”

Toola let out a whine of protest. “Am not.”

Nimble nipped at her ear. “The only way you could be more tired is if you let me feed right now.” Turning her attention back to the group, she said, “Maybe we should put the rest of the story on hold. It’s not exactly a foals’ book, after all.”

Frowning, Sure Stroke gave her wings a little rustle. “But I want to know what happens next!”

Aspire turned to smile sleepily at her. “We can always read it together another day, or you could borrow it.” He glanced at Esalen. “Er, if Essy’s okay with it. This one is hers.”

“It’s fine by me,” Esalen replied without missing a beat. She leaned against Sure Stroke and rubbed their shoulders together. “If Doodle’s that excited about reading our history, she’s more than welcome to borrow it for a while.”

Sure Stroke glanced around the room, each of her friends certainly looked as though they were about to nod right off in front of her. She sighed and let her wings droop, nodding once. Her curiosity would have to wait a little longer.

She had more questions than before, even with the start of their journey to the north.

Thinking about it a moment, she went over what she’d heard of changeling culture since moving to Respite. Aspire and Queen Euphoria both made mention of “Sainted Ones” when they spoke, the former speaking as though they were allies, while the latter talked about how the changelings had been taught a new way.

She wracked her brain, she couldn’t remember much about the Crystal Empire from her history classes other than its fall at the hooves of King Sombra and subsequent disappearance due to his curse. Could that be it?

Were the so-called “Sainted Ones” the lost crystal ponies?

Her friends stood and began filing toward the door so they could go brush their teeth and prepare for bed. Sure Stroke followed suit, resolved to get her answers another time.


Sure Stroke couldn’t help but feel a bit awkward as she felt her friends’ stares on her back while she pulled her sleeping bag from within the confines of her shoulder bag. She let her ears lay flat and ducked her head low. “Is there something wrong?”

“Uh, not really wrong,” Vector began, a bemused smile fixed upon his muzzle. “But … well, we don’t really use sleeping bags when we come over.”

Blinking, Sure Stroke wrinkled her snout. Who didn’t use sleeping bags at a sleepover? Come to think of it, Esalen gave her an awful funny look when she first walked in and mentioned it, and so had Aspire.

What did they sleep in if—wait a minute. Her eyes went wide. Sure Stroke let her gaze flit between her nymph and pony friends, namely Toola, Esalen, and Aspire himself. What was it they mentioned in front of Queen Euphoria’s cottage? Bed wraps?

She licked her lips. “You wouldn’t happen to mean the, um, wrap things, would you?”

Vector nodded. “Yeah, bed wraps. They’re nice and warm.” He sidled up to Zephyr and bumped shoulders with the nymph. “Bookbug and Zeph wrap me all the time, right up to my chest. It’s almost like my blanket at home.”

“Hey!” Zephyr scolded, sticking out his long, forked tongue at Vector. “I’ll have you know my wraps are at least twice as comfortable as that silly pile of fluff and thread you call a blanket!”

Sure Stroke felt her throat tighten as though she were about to gag, but she fought the urge down. Inhaling deep through her nose, she gave her wings a rustle. “So, you guys do this, um, wrap thing a lot at sleepovers?”

“All the time, really.” He shrugged. “Ever since we were hatchlings and newborn foals.”

Nimble and Toola bobbed their heads in unison. “And Nimmy’s been wrapping me since her parents adopted me!” Toola added.

“I … see.” Sure Stroke shifted her weight from hoof to hoof. “And that’s comfortable?”

More nods from her fellow ponies. She bit her lip, curiosity overrode her aversion. “So, how does that actually work?”

They smiled.

“We’ll show you,” Toola said. She trotted up to Sure Stroke and bumped their hips together. “It’s a little odd the first time, but there’s nothing that keeps me warmer at night.” She moved toward the door, then turned to Nimble and added, “Let’s head to Essy’s room so you don’t have to carry me this time. Come on, Doodle.”

With a tiny yawn, Nimble followed her out, though not before smirking at the colts. “Try not to get in a wrestling match before bed this time. Or else Faith just might wrap the three of you up and stick you to the wall for the night.”

Aspire laughed and stuck his tongue out. “You just shaddap and worry about yourself!” he shot back before turning to Sure Stroke and smiling. “Sleep well, Doodle. Enjoy your—ahem—sleeping bag.” He fixed the item with a wry look, then shrugged and trotted over to give Esalen a quick hug. He whispered something in her ear that drew an amused snort and a nip as they parted. Humming a tune, he hopped and buzzed his wings, flying lazily over to his bed where he landed with a cringe-inducing splat as the gelatin-like substance moulded around him.

A shiver ran down Sure Stroke’s spine as she allowed Esalen to lead her out of Aspire’s room and just down the hall toward her own, the nymph’s horn wreathed in a green glow as she floated her pod seat behind her.

They strode into Esalen’s room just in time to see Nimble and Toola sitting on the large pod bed, the nymph held her adopted sister in her hooves and nuzzled between her ears. A show of affection not unlike that of sisters back home in Cloudsdale, though perhaps a bit closer.

Then, Nimble Hooves took a deep breath through her nose, her cheeks puffed up and filled as she secreted her cocoon slime. She brought her hooves up to her muzzle and spat a thick stream on her left hoof, coating it in the sticky green substance until it looked like a spoon wrapped in honey.

Nimble laid her head atop Toola’s and closed her eyes. She wrapped her hooves around Toola again, tugging at the slime with her right hoof until she held both hooves out to full length. Humming, she pressed it against her side, then reached behind her back to take another strand.

With practiced ease, she deftly worked until both she and Toola were wrapped together in a translucent green cocoon from their torso to their shoulders. Within a few seconds, she had finished. Nimble gave a happy purr as she wrapped Toola in a hug and nosed against her cheek. “Goodnight, sis,” she muttered.

Toola smiled and tilted her head so she could rub her cheek against Nimble’s chin. “Goodnight, Nim,” she whispered in reply.

The pair snuggled up together, letting the gelatinous pod form around them until it held them comfortably in its warm, slimy embrace.

Sure Stroke sucked in her lips, she let her ears droop as bile stung the back of her throat. She tightened her grip on her sleeping bag and took a cautious step closer to the large pod, shooting a glance out of the corner of her eyes at Esalen.

Her friend nudged the pod seat over to rest before her desk and reached up to unfasten her mane tie, letting her long, flowing, sugar pink mane fall down to her shoulders. Then moved to join her with a smile on her muzzle. “See?” she asked. “It’s not all that bad, and Toola’s nice and snug.”

Questions raced through Sure Stroke’s mind, none more prevalent than something that harkened back to her own experience with the strange cocoon slime. “How does she get out?”

From her place in Esalen’s bed pod, Toola turned her head to call, “Come on up so you can see.”

Glancing at Esalen again, Sure Stroke shrugged and did as asked. She let Esalen go first, then hopped onto the bed, holding back a little shudder as the pod let her hooves sink and formed around her. Sure Stroke looked down at Toola, the filly smiled and simply looked down at her hooves.

“I can sort of wriggle my way out,” she said. “Because of the way bed wraps work. They’re not made extra sticky or wound really tight, so it’s almost like when you roll your blankets around you to keep warm in the winter. When I want out, I just push.” With little effort, Toola pushed out with her forehooves. The cocoon stretched out, making a sound like heated rubber stretching as she worked her shoulder free and waved a hoof at Sure Stroke. Then, she slipped it back inside and let the cocoon slowly retract until it formed around her again. “And once I stretch it out, I can just get out like I would climb out of blankets.”

“Or I can slice it with my fangs,” Nimble pointed out. “Either way, they sort of meld with the bed pod once they’ve been used so it keeps fresh. Recycling, you might say.”

Sure Stroke blinked. She hadn’t even thought about how disposal might work. Though if it just melded with the original bed pod, that would make things rather easy, and would be an efficient means of keeping the pod warm and gelatinous as they liked it.

On the other hoof, though …

Old slime.

She glanced down at the slime she was sitting in, cringing as she shifted in place.

“We do make new pods every now and again,” Esalen said as if hearing her thoughts. “Usually every couple of months. We drain out the more gel-like slime and refill the inside every couple weeks, though.”

“I didn’t want to say anything,” Sure Stroke mumbled. “But thanks.”

Esalen grinned. “No problem. Just think of it like cleaning your sheets every week or so. It’s a little easier that way.”

Unsure how to reply, Sure Stroke just gave a mute nod. She unrolled her sleeping bag and unzipped it enough so she could slip inside. Laying herself down in the soft, goopy pod bedding, she maneuvered her legs inside and pulled it all the way up to her torso.

Sure Stroke wriggled a little to get comfortable as the pod’s slime worked to let her rear and shoulders sink while it cushioned the rest of her body. A soft snort of laughter made her flick an ear. She turned to regard Esalen with a quizzical stare. “What?”

“Oh, nothing.” Esalen’s grin left little doubt that there was something.

“Don’t give me that, you’re thinking something. Say it.”

Stifling a chitter behind her hoof, Esalen filled her cheeks with slime, then slathered it over the very same hoof just as Nimble had. “Oh, nothing much,” she replied as she began to wrap herself in her own cocoon. “I was just thinking, for someone who tasted so unsure when we talked about bed wraps, you look kinda like you’re in one right now.”

Nimble snorted and cracked open an eye. “She’s right, you know.” A playful gleam shone in her eye. “You could always ask before Essy finishes up.”

Sure Stroke bit her lip, glancing over her shoulder at Esalen. The nymph stopped in mid wrap and met her eyes, a curious look crossed her muzzle as if she were waiting just in case.

“I think … I’ll pass.” She fidgeted in the warm confines of her sleeping bag. “For now, at least. I don’t know if I’m quite used to all this, um, stuff to be trying that.”

Esalen smiled and leaned forward to nuzzle her cheek. “Don’t worry about it. I figured as much when I tasted you a bit ago. Just relax and get some rest, Doodle.” She set about finishing her bed wrap cocoon and laid her head down, closing her eyes as she snuggled against Sure Stroke. “See you in the morning.”

Sure Stroke offered a smile in return, then laid her head against the bed of slime. “Yeah,” she muttered. “Goodnight.”

She closed her eyes and let herself drift off into the land of dreams.

A rolling green field awaited her, with foals and nymphs laughing and playing together while she sat under her tree, a sketchpad and pencil in hoof. A young nymph with blue mane wandered over to sit next to her, his lips curved into a crooked, fanged smirk as he rubbed their shoulders together.

“Hungry?” she asked without looking.

Aspire gave a short laugh. “Starving,” he replied, nosing against her cheek. “Can I?”

She glanced at him out of the corner of her eye, a coy smile fixed upon her muzzle. “You’re going to get fat off my love one day, aren’t you?”

He waggled his ears. “Yes. And it’s worth it.” Leaning in, he muttered, “Your love is just so sweet, and so rich. I’ve never had any so filling.”

“Oh, fine!” Sure Stroke made a show of rolling her eyes and setting her sketch pad down before turning her head so their noses touched. “You owe me cake after this.”

“All you want,” he confirmed. With a bright smile, he kissed the tip of her snout, his sky blue eyes fluttered shut as he cupped her cheeks and brought his lips just a hair’s breadth away from hers …

24. Such Beautiful Blue Eyes

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A hoof prodded her shoulder. Sure Stroke let out a low mumble and rolled over, clenching her eyes shut. She ducked her head and snuggled deeper under her covers. “Five more minutes, mommy.”

Chittering laughter and Toola Roola’s familiar giggling made her ears perk up. “I’m not your mommy,” Esalen’s voice replied, tinged with mirth. “But if you’d have let me wrap you up last night, I suppose that would’ve counted as tucking you in, Doodle.”

Her eyes shot open. Sure Stroke glanced around at the deep green bed pod she laid in. She rolled over, letting out a squeak as the gelatinous slime bed tried to form around her as she moved to face her friends. With a bit of effort, she came muzzle to chitinous muzzle with her smirking friend, whose pink eyes seemed to dance with amusement.

Still snug in the confines of her slimy bed wrap, Esalen gave a fanged grin, then nuzzled her nose. “Morning, Doodle,” she greeted. “How’d you sleep?”

Sure Stroke tried to ignore the burning blush that filled her cheeks. “I slept well. This, um, bed pod thing is surprisingly comfortable.”

“As much as a cloud bed?” Nimble teased.

She scoffed. “Nothing beats a cloud bed. The only reason we don’t have them here is because of the lack of on demand clouds, except the one Breezy snagged for himself the other day.”

Nimble shook her head. “Such a misguided filly. There is nothing better than a warm bed pod, but I suppose you can be forgiven.” She paused to nuzzle her giggling sister between her ears, then leaned to the side and bared her fangs. With a quick snap of her jaws and a tug, Nimble sliced neatly through her own slime wrap. A haphazard push outward shredded it right down the line to allow herself and Toola to sit up and stretch. Turning, she fixed Sure Stroke with a smirk. “And nothing beats snuggling up in a bed wrap. So there,” she said, sticking out her long, forked tongue and waggling it playfully.

Sure Stroke fought the urge to cringe. Instead, she simply sat up and tried to keep her balance while Esalen’s bed pod formed around her body again. She slid herself out of her sleeping bag, then turned it over to glance at the underside. The tiniest of frowns made its way across her muzzle as she noticed a hint of dampness, the remnants of the slime sticking to it.

I guess I’ll have to ask mom to wash this for me. Sighing, she rolled her bag up. Out of the corner of her eye, Sure Stroke watched Esalen imitate Nimble, slicing through the thick, gelatinous walls of her bed wrap with gleaming fangs so she could stand in the center of her bed pod and merrily buzz her wings.

Curious, Sure Stroke eyed the discarded slime wrappings. A small part of her expected them to just immediately sink into the bedding itself before her very eyes.

Esalen laughed. “It’s not going to happen that fast, silly!” she said. “It takes a couple hours for the wraps to meld with the rest of my pod.”

Oh. Sure Stroke let her ears droop as a sheepish smile flitted across her muzzle. “My bad.”

“Don’t worry about it. I know you’re just curious.” With a bright smile, Esalen tussled her mane, then hopped out of the pod. She turned to add something else, but stopped short. Her brows knitted together. Sure Stroke watched as her nymph friend tilted her head back and sniffed at the air. Her smile broadened and her bright pink eyes lit up. “Mom’s making pancakes!”

Toola let out a gasp, then leaped out of the pod and scampered for the door with Nimble close behind, buzzing through the air. She turned sharply, her hooves skidding against the wooden floor, and then she shot down the hallway.

Without warning, Esalen leaped up and grabbed Sure Stroke’s shoulders. Her wings buzzing, she hovered and pulled the filly toward the edge of the pod. “Come on! We have to go before the boys get there, or they’ll eat all of them.”

Sure Stroke stumbled forward, struggling to keep her balance as her hooves sank into the slime pod. “Essy! Slow down! I’m still—oh, forget it!” She kicked off with her hind legs and flapped her wings to take flight with her friend. Huffing, she let herself be steered toward the door. “What’s the big deal? Pancakes are nice, but they’ll leave some for us.”

Esalen shook her head. “You do not know the wonders of my Grandma Cloudfluff’s pancake recipe, Doodle. Think of the best Cloudsdale style pancakes you’ve ever had.”

Blinking, Sure Stroke nodded. “Okay, I’m there.”

“Now think of how sweet and fluffy they’d have to be for a full grown Enchanter, my Grandpa Beguile, to devour entire stacks of them in the blink of an eye because they taste just like love.”

“… Oh. Oh wow. Okay, yeah, I get it. Let’s go.”

The pair landed nimbly on their hooves and took off after Toola and Nimble, eager to get to the table before the trio of colts could claim the bulk of Faith’s delicious fare.


“I’m glad you could join us for breakfast, Sure Stroke,” Warm Welcome said with a bright smile upon his muzzle. He held a cup of steaming coffee in hoof, more sugar than Sure Stroke ever thought healthy had gone into the poor drink to make it palatable for the adult changeling. He took a deep sip, his wings buzzed in a lazy show of content. Leaning back in his pod seat, he regarded her through half-lidded blue eyes. His tongue darted out. “You’ve come quite a ways since that first day I saw you at the gate.”

Sure Stroke let her gaze flit toward Aspire, who was seated on her left, then to Esalen the next seat over. “I’ve had a lot of help,” she admitted. “And I’m still a bit out of sorts, but I think I’m getting there.”

A black hoof that shone in the light came into view, carrying with it a small pitcher of warm maple syrup and a pair of plates stacked with pancakes that balanced rather impressively on a holed foreleg.

Her nostrils flared as the sweet scent of light, fluffy pancakes wafted to her nose. Sure Stroke felt her feathers fluff and her wings rustle. They smelled even better than Sweet Treat’s. She turned, following the hoof to meet its owner's brilliant golden eyes and bright, fanged smile.

“Well, we’re all quite glad you’ve started to get a bit more comfortable in Respite,” Faith said. Her ear flicked. Quick as a cat, she lashed out with a hoof and clipped Aspire over the ear just as he made to reach toward the plate. “Guests first,” she scolded. “You know better than to be greedy!”

Aspire ducked his head, his ears splayed back to lay against his messy blue mane. He let out a low whine. “But … Grandma Cloudfluff’s pancake recipe.”

“You just had Maple’s yesterday, and you’ve had my mother’s pancakes before. Be patient, or you can join me in tending to the garden instead of playing with your friends.”

With a startled squeak, he sat up straight, all trace of objection washed from his muzzle. He hastily picked up his cup of overly sweetened coffee and took a deep sip, his chitinous cheeks tinged a deep red as Toola and Nimble giggled, and Vector made sure to meet his eye as he claimed several pancakes for himself.

Sure Stroke tried to hold back a grin of her own—really, she did. But to no avail. She caught Esalen’s eye, her cheeks puffed out with poorly restrained laughter as she selected two rather fluffy looking pancakes from the stack. Esalen simply shook her head and smiled before taking her own.

To her amusement, Sure Stroke watched Aspire pout while he waited for his turn, wary of his mother’s watchful eye. Once the others had their food, he moved to take the last three from the plate nearest him, then began to slather it with syrup.

Quite an interesting response, she had to admit. Sure, Esalen made it sound like their Grandma’s special pancake recipe sound like it was manna the likes of which Princess Celestia would dine upon, but they were just pancakes. And each of them had shared some just the day before at Sweet Treat’s shop.

A small part of her began to wonder just how much of the changelings’ diet consisted of love and how much was a meal of fluffy pancakes. Perhaps she could slip that into the book idea she discussed with Esalen and Toola.

Either way, her curiosity was roused. Muttering a quick thanks once Aspire passed the syrup over, Sure Stroke poured a generous amount over her meal, then passed it to Zephyr. She took her fork in hoof and cut off a bit of moist, fluffy pancake, then brought it to her mouth.

Her taste buds felt as though an explosion of pure, unadulterated sweetness had gone off in her mouth. So sweet, yet without taking away from the delicious taste of maple syrup playing upon her tongue, or the pancake itself as it seemed to dissolve in her mouth like cotton candy.

“Oh …” Sure Stroke perked up her ears, her eyes went wide. A smile spread slowly across her muzzle. “Oh, wow. That is … what even have I been tasting before this?”

“Inferior pancakes,” Zephyr grumbled good-naturedly, a teasing smirk played upon his lips. “Even Maple bows before Grandma Cloudfluff’s recipe, but he’s come the closest to matching it.” His smirk fell, he turned to level Aspire and Esalen with a mock glare, which only prompted the pair to give their biggest, brightest, fangiest grins. “And these two scuffy-carapaced termites get to eat them all the time.”

True to form, the pair stuck out their tongues and waggled them at the grumbling nymph, earning a roll of his teal eyes before he dug into his own stack, all but burying his black muzzle in the warm, syrupy tower.

A quick look around showed Sure Stroke the rest of her friends weren’t too far off. Each of them seemed hunched over their plates, quickly gobbling up their share of the pancakes as if they were afraid they might suddenly spring to life and dash right off their plates.

She couldn’t help but giggle at the image that came to mind—Aspire chasing after a rogue pancake, cursing and hissing as syrup dripped from his smooth, chitinous muzzle and fangs tinged a deep amber.

A nudge to her shoulder brought her back to reality. As Aspire’s deep blue eyes met hers, he raised a brow. “What’s got you so giggly?” he asked. His gaze flitted to her plate, then back to her. His lips tugged into a smug smirk she still wasn’t sure if she loved or hated. “Better eat your pancakes, or I’ll steal a few bites faster than you can blink, Doodle.”

Her feathers bristled. Sure Stroke moved so her shoulder was set in his path, ready to cut him off if he should try to lunge for her plate, then waggled her ears. “Just taking my time to appreciate things, bookbug!” she shot back, smirking inwardly at the way his eyes narrowed.

Figures he couldn’t take a little return fire.

Sure Stroke made a show of fluffing her feathers in triumph before digging into her pancakes once again. She let her eyes wander around the table as she ate, from her friends eagerly wolfing down their meals to the pair of adults sitting side by side and chatting softly to one another while they dined at a more sedate pace. Her eyes fell upon Faith, lingering upon the blond changeling mare as she quietly sipped at her coffee.

She stopped with her fork halfway to her mouth. A thought came to mind, she glanced between Faith and her nymphs. Aspire and Esalen both mentioned that their Grandpa Beguile came from outside the village, another hive entirely. Esalen herself plainly called him an Enchanter, a member of the same hive Queen Euphoria mentioned using their “charms” to convince ponies to stay with them.

Granted, the Queen added that the ponies in question lived well and were treated with kindness in some respect, but that left a lot of questions to mind.

No time like the present. Sure Stroke set her fork down for a moment, turning to face Faith. “Missus Faith?” she began. “Would it be okay if I asked you a question about something?”

Faith looked up and smiled. “Of course, dear. What’s on your mind?”

Biting her lip, Sure Stroke gave her tail an awkward flick. She turned to look across the table at Vector. Her fellow pegasus tilted his head, his mouth still full of pancake. “Mmmf uh, Foofle?” he asked.

It took her a moment, but she smiled. “What’s up, Doodle?” Of course. Sure Stroke took a deep breath, ducking her head as she turned to face Faith again. “Esalen mentioned that your dad was from a group of changelings called Enchanters, and Queen Euphoria talked to me about them a little bit.” She fidgeted in her pod seat, uncertain how to broach the subject. “She told me they could be a little … well, that they liked to charm ponies to stay with them.”

Comprehension flashed in Faith’s eyes. “Ah. Yes.” She sighed and sat her coffee mug down. “It’s true, my father was originally from the Enchanter hive. One of the most alluring and talented with his charms, as some of their visitors have said. It’s a bit ironic, really, how hard he fell for my mother.” Shrugging, she shook her head. “He did end up settling here and promised to follow Respite’s law, especially with respect to charming ponies. For the most part, that is.”

“For the most part?” Sure Stroke asked. “What sort of law is it?”

“We can’t charm you without permission,” Aspire said from her left, drawing her attention. “And unless we’re, like, seriously courting or married, it can’t just be you telling me it’s okay to use it. You’d have to say it in front of another changeling and a pony.”

Sure Stroke blinked. “Why one changeling and one pony?”

This time, Warm Welcome spoke up, “It was put in as an added measure to make ponies from outside feel safer. This way, you can have someone you’re comfortable with standing alongside you who can recognize when things have gone too far. The changeling is there to undo anything in the event of unwanted spells.” He grimaced, his deep blue eyes flashed with an eerie green glow. “It’s not common in Respite, but it has happened once or twice before. The Queens don’t take kindly to it, just like they don’t take kindly to non-consensual feeding.”

Her ears drooped. I think I just stepped somewhere I didn’t want … but that just makes me more curious. “So, are they there just to make sure something bad doesn’t happen?”

“More or less,” Faith replied with a nod. “I’ve had a few … shall we say nervous cases? A few ponies who weren’t entirely comfortable talking. Not necessarily because they don’t trust me, personally, but because they have trouble talking about their problems in general.” She gave a light cough. “Anyway, I usually offer them a special session where I work my charm so they feel more relaxed. I let them come in with a couple guards, and then I simply look into their eyes and sort of finesse them to be honest with me. Just like dad said his hive used to do.”

Sure Stroke wrinkled her snout. “That’s it? But that doesn’t really seem all that scary, or warrant the need for guards.”

“Doesn’t it?” Faith leaned forward to fix her with a half-lidded stare. “Let’s play a little game, Sure Stroke. I want you to look at someone at the table for a moment. I won’t use my charm, but I want you to tell me the first thing your eyes are drawn to. What is their most striking feature?”

Curious, Sure Stroke turned to glance around the table, her eyes flitted to each of her friends in turn. Her gaze lingered upon Aspire a moment longer as she met his eyes.

Eyes as deep and blue as the sky.

“Aspire’s eyes,” she said.

Aspire sat up a bit straighter, his tongue darted out to lick his muzzle clean as though he expected her to judge his appearance.

Faith gave a chittering laugh. “Very good. Now, tell me the first thought that comes to mind about my son’s eyes. Don’t think hard, just say it.”

Just say it?

“They’re pretty,” Sure Stroke replied. Her cheeks colored a rosy pink. She ducked her head and looked away, doing her best to ignore how he perked his ears and gave her his full attention. “They’re a beautiful shade of blue, like the sky on a clear day, or when I’m looking down at a lake from above while I fly over with mom and dad.”

Aspire ducked his head, his ears laid flat against his scalp as a wave of laughter and catcalls swept around the table. Sure Stroke watched, amused, as a crooked smile made its way across his muzzle before Esalen leaned in to whisper something in his ear that sounded suspiciously like “lovedrunk.”

“Now,” Faith continued, “you know Aspire well enough to be a little more comfortable saying that. So, think about if you met a changeling for the first time. Your eyes just happened to meet, and they started a conversation. You notice how handsome the changeling in question looks and think how broad his chest is or how you’d like to nuzzle into his neck. Then, suddenly, he smiles and thanks you for the compliment—because you’ve said it the very instant you thought it.”

A shiver ran down Sure Stroke’s spine. “So, it’s like all those, um, internal thoughts don’t get filtered out?”

“Exactly.” The mare nodded once. “And that’s all it takes. My father would tell me stories about some of the ponies he charmed. He was a masseuse at one of the resorts they run atop their hive. Mares and stallions alike found themselves melting beneath his gaze, first, then his hooves, and then all their desires came spilling out as he talked with them.” She shrugged. “He never really invited any to stay as his permanent mate, but he did fool around a little.”

“That sounds … really scary.”

“It can be, yes. At very least, the Enchanters work their charm so they force you to reveal your honest feelings. Locust, on the other hoof …”

Warm Welcome coughed into his hoof. “Perhaps it’s best we don’t frighten the poor filly too much, Faithy,” he cut in with a strained smile. Turning to Sure Stroke, he added, “The Enchanters are a bit wily, yes. They tend to use their charm to steer ponies toward a point in the conversation where they have to answer yes or no to staying with them. And, of course, since the ponies are well under their spell by that time, the answer is always going to be the first thought that jumps into their mind. All this coming after the Enchanters have basically given them the royal treatment while they stay in the resort.”

So that’s what Queen Euphoria meant when she spoke of the Enchanters’ kindness and how the ponies in their “care” lived well. Interesting.

Sure Stroke hummed a note. “So, is being charmed here kind of like being fed on, then?”

“In a sense,” Faith replied. “It’s an incredible show of trust, but it comes with a lot of restriction. Love feeding can be a bit dodgy on its own, charming raises entirely different questions.”

“There are signs if you’re charmed, though,” Esalen chipped in. She pointed to her eyes. “Your pupils get really small and your eyes get a green tinge, like when we get mad or want to threaten. And you might feel a little tickle in the back of your mind—unless it’s done wrong, then you’re in for a migraine like you wouldn’t believe.”

“Correct, Essy.” Faith smiled and nodded. “Part of everyone’s responsibility in the village is to watch out for the signs of overfeeding and charming, especially if any of our kin from other hives visit.” She paused a moment before adding, “With the Marauders, there’s little problem aside from the occasional over feeding, but that’s usually accidental. The Enchanters are good about following the rules, the most they might try is a little bit of flirting and inviting you to their resorts. The Locust like to test the boundaries sometimes. They rarely break the rules outright, but they like to see what they can get away with.”

A lot of interesting information there, but there was still a new variable to consider. She didn’t really feel like she’d been under any spells since coming, and she definitely hadn’t felt any “tickle” in the back of her mind. Or any migraines.

Her nymph friends, along with Warm Welcome, flicked out their tongues one after the other, each fixed her with strange looks.

“What’s on your mind, Doodle?” Nimble asked first. Her ears drooped a touch. “I haven’t charmed you, if that’s what you’re wondering. I wouldn’t unless you asked.”

“Likewise,” Zephyr added, tapping a hoof against his chest. “Caretakers are more known for tasting emotions than charms. The Enchanters, though, are unmatched. There’s a few living in the village, and a few with mixed blood here too.”

Where they? But that meant Aspire, Esalen, and Faith were all incredibly good at working their charms on ponies if they so chose. Sure Stroke turned to look at the siblings, one ear stood up straight, the other laid flat. “How good exactly are you?”

Aspire bit his lip while Esalen rubbed her shoulder and glanced away. Ever the natural teacher, he spoke first. “We’re better than most of the others,” he admitted. “The only ones who can charm more efficiently are Mom, Queen Euphoria, and the other pureblood Enchanters who moved in.” Thinking a moment, he scrunched up his snout. “I think Vigil’s one, but I’ve never asked. She has that unnatural beauty thing going for her and her eyes kinda have that extra glow to them.”

“She is,” Faith affirmed. “She moved here a while before you two were born. Maple as well.”

“Regale too,” Esalen chipped in. “But she’s all vague about how she does it.”

Sure Stroke perked both ears up. “How so?”

Shrugging, Esalen replied, “She’s a writer, so she likes to say she enchants readers with her stories. I think she just likes to be really coy.” She rolled her bright pink eyes and shook her head. “It’s a bit annoying sometimes.”

It took all of Sure Stroke’s self-control not to point out the irony in Esalen being annoyed by another changeling playing coy, but she managed. Instead, she kept her focus fixed on the subject at hoof.

Their charms.

That there were some rules in the village similar to those for feeding came as some relief. Still, her curiosity was piqued. What exactly did charming entail?

She turned to Aspire, her decision already made. “Could you show me?” she asked.

Confusion shone plainly in those brilliant blue eyes. Aspire leaned back, furrowing his brows. “Are you asking me to charm you right now?”

“Yes. I am.”

“Okay. Got it.” He paused a beat, then shook his head. “I don’t get it. Why are you asking me to charm you right now?”

“Because I’m curious, and because I trust you.” Sure Stroke gave a little smirk, glancing over her shoulder at Faith and Warm Welcome. “Besides, if you were going to do something bad, I’d bet your mom would tan your hide.”

Faith gave an amused snort. “Too true.” Her eyes lingered on Sure Stroke a moment, considering the idea. Then, she looked up to Aspire. “If you feel comfortable with it, Aspire, you have my permission.”

“Mine as well,” Warm Welcome added with a smile.

Aspire chewed on his lip, he looked down at his plate. “I don’t know,” he mumbled. His eyes flitted up to glance at Sure Stroke. “You sure you wanna try this? It can be a little scary the first time.”

Her smirk faded into a frown. He was doing it again, just like when she offered him love in exchange for his help.

“Yes,” Sure Stroke said, her jaw set. She leaned in until she was nose to chitinous nose with him, she could even feel his fangs brush against her chin as he tried to tilt his head back. “I trust you,” she murmured, just loud enough for him to hear. “And I want you to help me understand things about you so I can accept them. This and feeding are included.”

He stayed quiet for a moment, letting out a deep sigh through his nose. Slowly, a small smile spread across his muzzle. “Alright,” he said. A hint of mischief flashed across his face, Aspire fixed her with a half-lidded stare. “Hey, Doodle. I’m still hungry. Gimme your pancakes.”

Sure Stroke wrinkled her snout. “Uh, no.” She placed a hoof on her plate and slid it out of his reach. “I’m eating those.” Blinking, she fixed him with a glare. “This had better not be an excuse to get my pancakes!”

“No, no, just a demonstration. I’m going to convince you to let me have them. Once we’re done, I’ll give them back.” Aspire grinned. “Unless you’d like to go around the village telling everyone you love my nickname for you and want everyone to call you Doodle from now until the end of time, of course.”

“Pancakes it is.”

“Spoilsport,” he retorted. Aspire turned to face her fully, he brought his hooves up to take her cheeks, then tilted his head almost cutely. His eyes met hers. Those deep blue eyes, so vibrant Sure Stroke would almost swear he’d somehow stolen some of the sky’s color when he was born.

They almost seemed to glow with a strange light. His irises took on a lighter tinge, Sure Stroke felt her breath hitch in her throat, her mouth dropped open in silent shock. She didn’t blink—why would she? Blinking would rob her of the chance to just stare into those eyes and get lost in the deep blue.

Such beautiful blue eyes.

“Doodle,” he said softly, his voice seemed to echo throughout her mind. There was a hint of a tickle, like she was feeling a little fuzzy after a nap, and then nothing. Just his voice and those eyes.

So beautiful. And that word, that silly word just sounded so lovely the way he said it.

Wait. Doodle? Is he talking to me? Sure Stroke’s ears perked up. Of course he was! That was his name for her—his special name for her. I’m Doodle. Me! Doodle is me!

“Y-Yeah?” she breathed.

Aspire smiled and leaned in, drawing a sharp gasp and a smile in turn. How could she not when he was so happy to be near her? His lips began to move, Sure Stroke let her muscles relax, her shoulders slumped and feathers fluffed as he spoke again. “Tell me about my eyes again,” he commanded, barely above a whisper. She felt his hoof reach up to pet her mane. “Be honest. Friends are honest with one another, aren’t they?”

Of course they were. Friends don't keep secrets or hold back what they thought.

He said so. If Aspire said so, it was true. And everything she knew confirmed it.

Sure Stroke nodded eagerly, never once breaking eye contact. “They’re so beautiful,” she replied almost airily. “Even more than before! I could just … I could just get lost in them forever and be happy.” A bubbly giggle escaped her lips. “You have such pretty eyes and a handsome smile.” With a shaking hoof, she reached up to touch the tip of his fangs. “And such lovely, white fangs …”

“Aw, I really appreciate you saying that, Doodle.” There it was again! How did he make such a silly name sound so nice? “It really means a lot to me.” Aspire cupped her chin with a hoof and leaned in close, his nose brushed against hers.

Those beautiful blue eyes dominated her vision, her entire world.

“You know what else would mean a lot to me, though?” he asked.

Her heart leaped. “What?” The question was out before she even realized. Whatever he wanted was his, so long as she could just stare into his eyes and enjoy his presence. Anything to keep a smile on his lips.

Aspire drew back enough that she could see him pout and let his ears droop, her heart sank with them. “I’m really hungry,” he replied, holding his stomach with his free hoof. “I didn’t get enough to eat this morning at breakfast because I was the last one to pick from the stack. I know you’ve not eaten much, but …” he trailed off, biting his lip. Was he upset? Why? What had she done wrong?

“But what?” Sure Stroke clasped her hooves around the one still cupping her chin. “What is it?”

The way he looked up at her was almost adorable. Like a puppy begging for food, and yet, somehow, breathtaking. Those eyes were beautiful no matter how happy or sad he was.

But no creature with such beautiful eyes should ever be so sad. Especially not such a good friend.

His smile returned, he tilted his head to the other side. A move she followed so she could maintain her stare into his eyes.

“I’d really like your pancakes,” he answered. “Could I have them? Please?”

Sure Stroke bobbed her head. Of course he could have them! He was her friend and he was hungry, why shouldn’t she offer her meal to him? With a bright smile, she picked up her plate and held it out for him, happy to satisfy his hunger if it meant he’d be happy.

Aspire blinked, and so did she. He didn’t move to take her plate. “Doodle,” he began softly.

“Huh?”

He smiled and leaned back, he removed his hoof from beneath her chin. “Wake up,” he said, “and look at where you are.”

The tingle in the back of her head came back for a split second, then left entirely. Sure Stroke shook her head, blinking owlishly, then looked down. Her mouth fell open. She was holding her plate out to him, ready to give up her meal. All because she’d looked into his eyes a little too long.

Slowly, she looked up at him, then around the table. Knowing looks, a few sheepish smiles, and concern flashing in Aspire and Esalen’s eyes greeted her. “H-How … I didn’t even feel like fighting you,” she said at last.

“You wouldn’t,” Esalen replied, a wry smile played upon her lips. “We’re very good at slipping in and finessing you along. It’s part of how pureblood Enchanters work. They’re in before you know it.”

Sure Stroke felt numb. Her mind raced with all the worst case scenarios, all the times she’d met their eyes when talking to them. How much of it had been them guiding her along and how much had been her actually thinking?

She caught the pair flicking out their tongues at her. Aspire winced and hung his head. “Please don’t be afraid,” he muttered. “I wouldn’t have done it if you didn’t ask. Neither of us has used our charms on you until right now, honest.”

“We would’ve been caught a long time ago,” Esalen added. “And you wouldn’t be worrying right now if we had. You wouldn’t even have been afraid of us at all from the very start.” She let her ears droop. “Aspire and I never even thought to do it, even when you were afraid of our fangs.”

Ah yes. Their fangs.

In fact, now that they mentioned it, they had a point. Sure Stroke furrowed her brows. While under Aspire’s spell, she felt so calm and content even though she knew he was going to work his charms on her. Why, she almost felt happy! Euphoric, even!

She certainly hadn’t felt any of the tingling or overwhelming peacefulness before, not like this at least. Everything had been a jumble of nerves and constant questions. Some of which she still needed answered.

Still, it was a bit creepy. Sure Stroke had to suppress a shudder. “Thanks for showing me,” she said after a moment. “Even if it’s scary, it helps.” Thinking a moment, she added, “And I appreciate you taking the time to explain it along with the rules.”

Aspire and Esalen perked up their ears. “Anytime,” Esalen replied. “We’re glad to help.”

“Especially if it makes you more comfortable around us,” Aspire said. He paused in thought, a grin slowly spread across his muzzle. “Now, seriously, gimme your pancakes, Doodle. I’m hungry.”

Sure Stroke didn’t need to taste emotions to catch the playfulness in his tone. With smugness outmatched only by the nymph in question, she turned away and set her plate on the table, snatching up her fork so she could slice off a big piece. Then, she turned back to him and brought it to her lips.

“Not a chance.”

He beamed. “Good filly.” With a playful waggle of his ears, he sat back in his seat and took his coffee cup, his eyes still flitting to her as she resumed eating her meal.

Sure Stroke couldn’t help but frown. He was still worried for her, still trying so hard to hold her hoof all the way through. Almost like he felt she was a little filly.

At the same time, though, a part of her was relieved. She had friends willing to take the time to make sure she understood their strange culture and talents, and trusted her enough to let her make her own decisions on when to accept them.

Her lips tugged into a smile. Perhaps things weren’t progressing as quickly as she hoped, but progress was still progress.

Even if it came at a snail’s pace.


While waiting for the others to shower and get themselves cleaned, Sure Stroke opted to pull her sketch pad and pencils out of her bag so she could start on Aspire’s drawing. Of course, first that meant she had to figure out which part of Cloudsdale to draw.

Anyone could draw the traditional view of the outer Cirrus Walls and rainbow falls trailing down from the city itself, but for a proper Cloudsdale pegasus, it was so much more than that. And though she might not be as gifted as her mother in flight or as talented with weather work as her father, Sure Stroke was a true Dale Filly through and through. Even her cousin, Altocumulus, for all his studious nature, held onto their heritage with pride.

So what should she show Aspire? He and Esalen both had taken her around Respite and shown her everything they loved about their village, even taking the time to share their culture. How could she match that without simply taking the pair to Cloudsdale?

There was just so much! Of course, there were the usual tourist traps: the Weather Factory with its liquid rainbow pools, the ancient battlements, and the Wonderbolts’ famed cloud base. And what visit to the Dale would be complete without at least passing by the Cloudiseum?

But what about some of the places like the Seventy-Five Climb (or Thunderhead Alley, depending on who you asked)? Or Altocumulus Terrace, where her cousin lived, up where the air was thin and it felt like winter never ended? Or the ponies living in Thunderbolt Heights, right by the Weather Factory’s thunderhead stores, where the constant rumble of thunder and flashes of lightning were so common they became little more than a lullaby at night?

The thought of her old neighborhood made her ears droop. A part of her missed the low rumble of thunder. Nighttime in Respite seemed almost empty without it.

A shifting in her pod seat brought Sure Stroke out of her musing. She looked to her left and found her nose a mere hair’s breadth from Aspire’s. Another shift to her right made her glance over her shoulder to find Esalen lounging lazily over the back of the pod.

“How’s it going, Doodle?” they asked in what had to be practiced unison. Their synchronization was far too precise.

Still, Sure Stroke smiled. “Pretty good. Just thinking about what part of Cloudsdale to draw for your picture, Aspire.” She gave her wings a nervous rustle. “It’s a big city and there’s a lot of history everywhere.” Thinking a moment, an idea came to her. Maybe she could get him to give some hint as to what he wanted. Not specifics, but something to offer insight. “What sort of thing were you hoping to see?”

Aspire shrugged. “Whatever you want to draw is fine with me,” he said with a smile. “I just want to see Cloudsdale as you saw it.”

No such luck. Judging by the way his smile broadened and the tips of his forked tongue poked out between his lips, he had an idea of what she was trying. Stupid emotion tasting! It was cheating, even if it only told him what she was feeling at the time.

Huffing, she nudged his shoulder. “Well, then, it’s going slow and it’s your fault. So there.”

“Fair enough.” He shifted in place, his smile faltered. “So, uh, about that whole charming thing back there …”

Sure Stroke raised an eyebrow. “What about it?”

He chewed on his bottom lip, his eyes flitted away as he struggled to find the words.

To her left, Esalen scoffed. “He wants to make sure you’re not suddenly terrified of us now that you’ve seen what it’s like to be charmed. And he wants to make extra sure you know we haven’t charmed you in any way to make you feel friendly toward us.” Out of the corner of her eye, Sure Stroke caught her sending a stern look over at Aspire. “Even though we already covered this in the kitchen.”

Aspire shifted again. He let his ears droop low while he mumbled something unintelligible under his breath.

A tiny frown made its way across Sure Stroke’s muzzle. Again, she nudged his shoulder. “It’s fine,” she said. “It was … strange, but I sort of already knew you could do that from stories and stuff. I might be slow, but I’m not as scared as I was when I first met you guys.”

His ears perked up. Aspire turned to face her, a small smile upon his lips. “Really?”

“No, I’m lying. Yes, really, you dummy!” Sure Stroke clipped him over the head with her wing, grinning at the way he ducked his head and rubbed his mane.

Esalen threw back her head and gave a chittering laugh. “Told you!” she practically sang. She scooted closer so she could lay herself across Sure Stroke’s back, snuggling in comfortably. “Such a worrywart, isn’t he?”

“Definitely.”

“Hey!” Aspire whined. “I’m just trying to be a good friend!”

“I know.” Turning, Sure Stroke poked the end of his snout. “And we’re just teasing you, silly. Take a joke.”

He stuck out his tongue and crossed his eyes, earning a giggle from the fillies. Then he relaxed into the seat. “Well, I’m glad. Just, y’know, let us know if you’ve got other stuff you wanna know about or test out.” Before she could ask, he turned to fix her with a look. “And, no, I’m still not feeding on you yet. I want to wait a bit yet.”

Sure Stroke puffed out her cheeks. Well, then! Frowning, she glanced at Esalen. The wheels in her head began to turn. If Aspire wouldn’t feed on her yet, there was always Essy. She just had to figure out a good deal for it.

Later.

For now, she’d just let it go. There were other things to discuss. Namely, the story they hadn’t finished. “I was wondering about that story we started,” she said.

On either side of her, the twins perked up. “Oh?” Esalen asked. “Did you like it?”

“It was interesting,” Sure Stroke replied. “It gave me a little bit of context as far as how things changed from, well, the way our stories portray changelings and how you guys are today.” She coughed, rustling her wings. “I don’t suppose we could finish that sometime soon, could we?”

“Sure we can!” A bright smile crossed Esalen’s muzzle. “You can borrow it if you want. Just give it back whenever you finish it.”

“Thanks.” A beat. Sure Stroke glanced at Aspire. “But, to be honest, I kinda liked reading it with you guys. So … if you’re not busy sometime, could we read it together?”

She had to crane her neck to see the look Aspire and Esalen shared. Matching smiles and perked ears, the tips of their forked tongues poked between their lips to test her taste.

They turned together and replied in near perfect unison:

“Sure thing, Doodle.”

Sure Stroke wasn’t sure if she should laugh or groan, so she did the next best thing. It did her heart well to hear Esalen cackling and rolling on the floor after she’d clipped Aspire over the head for the second time that morning.

Just as he deserved. Especially with how his eyes danced with mirth even as he rubbed his head. They really are beautiful.

25. What Would a Doodle Do If Doodling Weren't All She Did?

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Sure Stroke smiled as she shifted her sketchpad aside so Maple could slide a plate of warm cinnamon rolls in front of her. “Thanks, Maple,” she chirped.

The rusty-maned changeling ducked his head, his wings buzzed merrily. “You’re welcome, Sure Stroke,” he replied softly, his voice as sweet as the dollop of maple syrup lingering on his chin. “Is there anything else you need?”

An answer to what Aspire wanted out of her drawing, maybe? Otherwise, no. Sure Stroke shook her head. Just before he could leave, though, she reached out and caught his shoulder. She bit back a giggle that threatened to bubble forth. “Um, Maple?” she began. “You’ve got a little something on your chin.”

His chitinous cheeks tinged a dark red. Maple gave a sheepish smile, then let his long tongue lash out to lap at the syrup running down his chin. He blinked, his cheeks tinged darker. “Sorry!” he said, bowing his head. “It’s a habit! I just like maple syrup so much, I can’t help it!”

A fit of giggles escaped before she could cover her mouth with a hoof. “It’s fine, Maple. I just didn’t want you to walk around with syrup running down your chin all day.”

Maple sucked in his lips and looked away, his smile seemed a bit strained. Almost as though he’d done exactly that before and hadn’t noticed.

I wonder how he figured it out, Sure Stroke thought, fighting the urge to break into full blown laughter. Did someone tell him or did he happen to lick his lips and taste dried syrup on his chitin? She watched the nervous changeling give a hasty bow before he scampered back to the kitchen, her thoughts turned to the names of Enchanters living in the village, along with Aspire’s “unnatural beauty” comment with regard to Vigil.

Maple was cute, in a sense. A bit chubby, but who was she to talk? There wasn’t anything wrong with a pony—or changeling—who liked food. If anything, it sort of added to the nervous nymph’s charm, along with his rust-red mane and orange eyes. Still, not really an unnatural beauty. If anything, the closest she’d seen to that description would have to be Queen Euphoria.

Truth be told, the Queen was definitely beautiful. Perhaps comparable even to Princess Celestia’s radiant splendor.

A mix of a changeling’s chitter and a mare’s giggling made her ear flick. Sure Stroke turned just in time to catch sight of Sweet Treat wrapping her peach coated hooves around Vigil’s shoulders, mindful of the edges in her forest green armor, and dotting a kiss on her lips. Vigil held her helmet in her left forehoof, her mane a soft yellow-brown like leaves in fall, a stark contrast to Maple’s. Sure Stroke couldn’t help but glance her over, mindful of Aspire’s words.

Long flowing mane, a silky smooth tail, and well-polished carapace that seemed to let the light shine over her feminine form. By changeling standards—what Sure Stroke knew of them, anyway—she was probably somewhere in the “drop dead gorgeous” category, as some of her father’s younger teammates back in Cloudsdale might say about other mares when they thought Sure Stroke wasn’t paying attention.

She would probably have to confirm with Aspire, Vector, or Zephyr on the matter. Although, based on how Aspire and Esalen prodded her about which had the best-polished carapace …

Shrugging, she took up her knife and fork. Food for thought. Right now, though, she had actual food to eat and a bit of her own stuff to take care of. Namely, her sketch. Sure Stroke glanced to her left at the sketchpad. She wasn’t quite as far along as she’d like to be, but she at least had the familiar outline of the fluffy cloud base. Still, at least she’d managed to figure out what she wanted to draw for Aspire’s picture. Now she just had to get moving on actually drawing it for him.

Hopefully, he would like it. Although, based on how he talked when he first asked for it, he’d like it if I drew the ice cream parlor dad always took me after school, or that pizza place on Cirrus Way. A small part of her, the mischievous side that was slowly, but surely being fed and strengthened with each passing day she spent time with her nymph friends, wanted to draw a second picture of just one of those places to see how he might react.

Probably not well. He helped her study and trades seemed to be a major part of how the village worked, so turning it into a joke might seem like a bit of a slap in the face.

And given how he reacted to being “challenged,” Sure Stroke was quite certain she didn’t want to see how changelings took to being offended.

Her eyes flitted up to the clock mounted on the wall. Sure Stroke let out a yelp when she noticed the time. How was it already seven-thirty? She could’ve sworn it was just seven a few short minutes ago! With a startled squeak, she snatched up her first cinnamon roll and began wolfing it down as fast as she could, cursing her absent-mindedness with each bite she took.

Mister Abacus is going to have my wings mounted over his desk if I’m late!

In mere moments, the cinnamon rolls had disappeared into the young filly’s tummy. She swept her art supplies into her bag, calling a quick goodbye and thanks to Sweet Treat and Maple over her shoulder before dashing out the door in a flurry of feathers.


Sure Stroke decided it was a good thing she made it to class on time, with only seconds to spare. Scarfing down her breakfast hadn’t made the trip fun, but she managed to shoot through the door and find her way to her desk in the nick of time, safe from Mister Abacus’ ire.

Which, in turn, meant she got to watch a free show featuring Aspire and Esalen when they stumbled in a few minutes after, with sheepish smiles upon their muzzles as they panted and greeted him with a breathy “Good morning, Mister Abacus.”

Much to the amusement of the entire class.

“What was it this time?” Abacus had asked with a long-suffering sigh.

The twins gave matching grins, trying to feign their innocence before they even began their excuse. Sure Stroke had to stuff her hooves in her mouth to hold back a laugh when she caught how Aspire nudged Esalen as if to tell her it was her turn to provide an excuse.

It would be the chance she had to behold Esalen’s legendarily bad excuses. And it didn’t disappoint.

“Well, you see, Mister Abacus,” Esalen began, batting her eyelashes at the frowning stallion, “Aspire and I were on our way over here, just minding our own business—”

To her right, Vector gave a cough that sounded suspiciously like the word “Horseapples!” Sure Stroke flicked an ear toward him, her cheeks ached with barely restrained laughter.

“—And we ran into Ready Steady and the Wood brothers fixing their cart’s wheel.”

Sure Stroke let her wings droop. Was Esalen actually trying to—no! Oh. Oh, no. Essy, no. Bad. Don’t make a big story!

Unable to hear her frantic thoughts, Esalen continued on, “They were kinda having a problem because there was a tiiiiiiiiiny piece of rock jammed into the axle. They hadn’t noticed it at first and just thought the wheel was stuck, so they pulled harder and it ended up cracking the bolt.”

Sighing, Sure Stroke covered her eyes. There was no way Abacus would buy that. Not in a million years. Princess Celestia would come strolling in, without her crown, and dance a jig before he did.

Sure enough, the stallion just raised an eyebrow. “Go on,” he drawled, a rather telling note in his tone.

A note Aspire picked up on, judging by the way his ears twitched and smile faltered. He glanced between Esalen and Abacus, his ears slowly folded. “Uh, Essy?” he asked, speaking up for the first time since greeting their teacher.

Esalen waved him off, she was on a roll. “So, we stopped and offered a hoof. They weren’t sure at first, but Aspire pointed out that our hooves were small enough that we could probably reach in and get the piece out. Or, just use magic to pry it loose.”

Do not facehoof. Do not facehoof. Do. Not. Facehoof. Sure Stroke took a deep breath and closed her eyes, resigned to wait for the proverbial thunderhead to be kicked and a lightning bolt to strike her friend in the head. Maybe then Esalen would realize it was time to pack it in and come clean.

Sadly, it just was not to be. Esalen had committed to her story and was seeing it through to the end. “So, Aspire and I decided it would be a good idea to help them out, even though it made us a little late for class today.” She gave a bright smile, her eyes seemed to shine with innocence.

Abacus stared at her for a moment, then turned his attention to Aspire, who gave a rather strained grin when he noticed it was his turn in the hot seat. The stallion sighed and shook his head. “So, if I were to go out right now, find the Wood brothers, and ask them about their cart, they would tell me the exact same story? Word for word?”

Aspire’s smile tightened. “Y-Yeah!” he stammered. “Sure. ‘Course they will. Because that is what happened.”

“Uh huh.” Abacus’ horn glowed. In a flash, his ruler leaped off his desk and flew over, whapping both nymphs twice between their ears. The pair yelped and clapped their hooves over their heads, their smiles faded away to pained cringes beneath his stern gaze. “You two can stay after school today,” he said. “If you’ve not done your algebra homework right, you might just be staying with me for your free period as well.”

The twins let out dismayed chitters, then bolted for their seats on Sure Stroke’s left side, ducking their heads and flattening their ears to block out their classmates’ giggling.

Shaking his head, Abacus turned to the rest of the class. “Everyone take out your homework from over the weekend and let’s check it together. I’ll take the number you got right once we’ve gone over the answers and corrections.”

For a split second, Aspire’s eyes met Sure Stroke’s. The tiniest of pouts graced his muzzle when he caught the grin creeping across her own.

Sure Stroke simply shrugged and gave in, allowing the grin to show plainly. “What do you want me to do?” she whispered.

“Not laugh!” he hissed back, despite the smile tugging at his lips. He slid into his desk chair and pulled a face at her. “Doodle.”

Her grin fell. Sniffing, Sure Stroke turned away from him and pulled out her math homework. “Smugling,” she shot back playfully.

She heard him chuckle, then felt his breath tickle her ear when he leaned in to whisper, “The smugling, Doodle. I am the smugling.”

No truer words had ever been spoken, as far as Sure Stroke was concerned.

Then, Abacus stole the good mood away from the class with a single announcement, “After we’ve finished, we have a quiz to see how you’re all coming along with distributing and order of operations.”

Perhaps there was one truer phrase after all: I really don’t like algebra …


The tiniest of frowns marred Sure Stroke’s muzzle as she sat beneath the shade of her favorite tree while the other foals and nymphs gathered together at the center of the field and worked out what to play. She glanced at her quiz, wrinkling her snout at the six out of ten written in ink and signed off by Abacus. Not quite as bad as she had been doing on her own, but not good either.

Still, Aspire’s help had gotten her a bit of a boost. It would come in time, just like flying against a headwind. Eventually, she’d be able to make her way through and get to her destination.

Shrugging, she pulled out her sketchpad and opted to work on her drawing instead. There was no point dwelling on the quiz now that she’d taken it. Aspire would help tutor her, and her grades would improve. She just had to keep at it. Of course, that meant she owed a certain smug nymph his drawing, and, by Celestia’s immaculate wings, he would have it.

After all, it was only fair that her part of the trade be a product of her best effort.

Her hoof moved the pencil with expert ease, tracing the outline of the clouds to make them a little bit thicker, adding a bit of soft fluff to them. Cloudsdale’s clouds were the top of the line, especially those that made up the city itself. Emphasizing its fluff, every little puff, was key to making sure he could look at her sketch and truly believe he was seeing it through her very eyes as she walked down the street.

It was the perfect scene; she knew that road like the back or her hoof or the feathers on her wings.

Aspire would love it. Maybe. Hopefully.

Sure Stroke shook her head to dash those thoughts so she could focus her efforts on finishing up her clouds. Once she had the outline done, she could move on to a little bit of shading to give it that realistic shadow so it looked like they were ready to float off the page.

Maybe next time he’d like to see how the Cloudsdale Weather Team rolled out the big storms over the western plains, or how they pushed spring showers south toward the smaller farming towns, or pulling big shipments along to Equestria’s biggest cities.

A cough made her flick an ear. Sure Stroke looked up, confused, to find herself met with the familiar frown and haughty look of her fellow classmate, Prim ’n Proper. She felt her smile falter, but fought to maintain it. Toola’s scolding at the party still held in her memory.

Maybe I could start fresh with her, Sure Stroke thought, perking up her ears. If she could weather the storm with Aspire’s trickery, changelings feeding on love, and experiencing his charm, she could handle one huffy little filly. “Hello, Prim,” she said, giving her brightest smile. “What’s going on?”

Prim didn’t return her smile. She simply sniffed and arched her brow. “I see you’re back to being antisocial,” she said with a note of scorn in her voice. Her auburn tail flicked as though she were swatting a persistent fly.

Sure Stroke blinked, her ears drooped. Or not. “I’m not being antisocial,” she shot back. “I’m drawing. It’s something I quite enjoy doing. I was social at the party, I’ve played with everyone at recess, and I’ve even gone over to Aspire and Esalen’s house for dinner and a sleepover.” Before the filly could counter, she added, “And Aspire’s helped me with algebra twice now, so I’ve been making friends, thank you very much.”

“I see.” A frown spread across Prim’s muzzle. “Did you repay him, then?”

“Well, not yet, but—”

“Why am I not surprised?” Prim cut her off. She rolled her eyes and turned away, her snout in the air. “First you don’t even try to hide how repulsed you were by half of the village, then you hide yourself away from everyone and avoid us at recess, and now you’re going against one of the most important tenets of the village itself: fair, equivalent trade.”

Aghast, Sure Stroke unfurled her wings. “I’m not hiding out here now!”

“And yet you can’t refute my last point.” Prim scoffed and shook her head. “I could understand a bit of outsider’s anxiety when you first came to school, but this is beyond rude.” She made as though to flounce off, but paused just long enough to cast one last baleful look over her shoulder. “If I were you, I’d hurry up and figure out what to pay him. Aspire is a troublesome, smug little nuisance, but he’s sweet. And so is Esalen. Dragging your hooves because you’re finicky is only going to hurt their feelings—think about that.”

As Prim began to trot away, her piece said, Sure Stroke closed her eyes and took a deep breath through her nose. She counted backward from ten, trying to keep a lid on her temper.

Of course she had tried to pay Aspire for his services. She offered love in exchange but he said no. Instead, he wanted a drawing, a bit of her own talent in exchange for his love for teaching. It wasn’t her fault that meant she couldn’t pull a picture out of thin air—he actually had to make it herself!

Deep breaths, she told herself, slowly working to fold her wings against her sides. Don’t yell, don’t snap. Just breathe deep and let it go. After a few iterations, Sure Stroke was able to open her eyes and focus on her drawing again. The fluffy clouds she once called home served to soothe her temper.

Little by little, Sure Stroke’s smile returned. If Prim ’n Proper wanted to be a stuck up, judgmental little thing, she could get hit in the rump by a lightning bolt.

A certain smugling is waiting on artwork. And I’m just the Doodle to deliver it.

Sure Stroke blinked. She blanched and shook her head so hard her ponytail whipped back and forth. “I am never calling myself that stupid name again!” Huffing, she ignored Aspire’s familiar chittering laugh echoing in her ears and took her pencil in hoof. Her tongue poked out between her teeth as she worked to shade in the clouds.

If Aspire could put his best effort into helping her, then he would get the most eye-opening picture of Cloudsdale anyone had ever seen.

26. Dear Cousin Altocumulus

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There was something to be said about patience when it came to changeling nymphs, as Sure Stroke was quickly learning.

Aspire and Esalen had proven themselves quite patient when it came to easing her into the village, albeit with a couple slip ups here and there. They let her adapt at her own pace and offered a hoof to help whenever they could. In addition, there was that little mishap in the forest. Aspire could’ve easily just snuck up and pounced her then and there, but instead, he chose to drag things out and milk it for fun.

Not exactly her favorite memory, but it gave a tad of insight: changelings loved to play, tease, and, well, gloat as they watched their friends squirm.

With some exception, that is. Sure Stroke laughed as she tried to keep her sketch pad away from Aspire. She was seated at her mother’s kitchen table, with Aspire to her left and Esalen across from her, and a plate of warm cookies in the middle and a cup of tea by each of them.

Her attention, however, was anywhere but the cookies. Her eyes flitted between Aspire and Esalen, who sat grinning and sipping at a cup of tea while she enjoyed the show.

Aspire chittered, trying to move so he could steal a peek at her drawing. “Let me seeeeeeeeeeeee!” he whined. His hooves batted at her shoulder with all the force of a playful kitten.

“Would you stop it!” Sure Stroke squirmed to put herself between Aspire and her sketchpad. A laugh bubbled forth from the back of her throat as he tried in vain to stand on his hind hooves and reach over her shoulder. “Patience is a virtue! Aren’t you supposed to be good at waiting it out when you’re in disguise?”

“One, I’m not in disguise,” he retorted, his eyes narrowed as he tried to look over her shoulder. “Two, you’re dangling something I want in front of me—of course I’m going to bite! And this isn’t like love where I have to be discreet, it’s right there for me! Now lemme see!”

Sure Stroke closed her pad and clutched it to her chest, a grin tugging at her lips. “No! You have to wait until it’s finished!”

He let out a low, chittering whine. “But I want to see it now!” Aspire met her gaze and widened his deep blue eyes, like a foal trying to beg to open presents early on Hearth’s Warming. “I should be allowed to—I’m tutoring you. I think progress checks should be included in the trade deal.”

“You never mentioned them before!” Sure Stroke sang. “And we already agreed on a price, so no add ons.”

A snort from over by the stove made her flick an ear. “Oh, would you stop teasing the poor nymph, Sure Stroke?” her mother chided, her laughter ruining the effect. “You and I both know you love sharing your sketches.”

Sure Stroke bit back a curse at the way Aspire’s ears perked up and a smug smile crossed his face. Clutching her sketch pad tighter, she shook her head. “I’m not teasing him! And no!”

“You know, you kind of are,” Esalen chipped in. “Drawing that with him right next to you, then saying he can’t look at it is like holding a tray of cookies under his nose and telling him not to eat it.” She grinned, showing off the full length of her fangs. “I’d just eat the cookies and tickle you silly for trying to taunt me. He’s being nice.”

Theres’ an idea!” Aspire drawled.

Her feathers bristled. Sure Stroke glared at the pair, her eyes flitting between the two just in case either made good on the half-threat.

Esalen simply smiled and took another sip of her tea before taking a cookie from the plate. “Thanks for the snack, Missus Skydancer,” she said casually. “Your cookies are very sweet.”

“You’re welcome, Esalen,” Skydancer replied. Sure Stroke could hear her hum a little tune to herself as she cut a carrot into small pieces, her knife thudded in a steady rhythm against the wooden cutting board. “Oh, Sure Stroke?”

Her mother’s call made her turn away from Aspire, though not before he tried fixing her with another dose of faux innocent eyes. “Yes?”

“Your father and I are going to start writing letters home. We were wondering if you might want to do the same.” She turned to look over her shoulder. “Maybe you could write Altocumulus like you promised before we left?”

Sure Stroke let her ears droop. She had promised to write her favorite cousin. But, at the same time, what exactly could she tell him about Respite? Stealing a quick glance at Aspire and Esalen, she cringed. How does one tell family their best friends are changelings?

Aspire stopped trying to make eyes at her for a moment. “Who’s Altocumulus?” he asked, tilting his head. “Friend from home?”

“Boyfriend, maybe?” Esalen teased. “You might have competition!”

Sure Stroke’s cheeks tinged a rosy hue. She buried her face in her wings as Aspire sputtered, “I’m not—She’s not my—There is no competition!”

“Uh huh. Sure there isn’t.” Chittering, Esalen winked at him, then turned her to Sure Stroke. “Jokes aside, what he said.”

Despite the blush coloring her cheeks, Sure Stroke couldn’t help but grin. “He’s my cousin. His full name is Altocumulus Stratiformis Translucidus Lacunosus, and he absolutely hates it.”

Esalen snorted and shared a wry look with her brother. “No offense, but what’s with that name?”

“Do his parents hate him or something?” Aspire asked. “Seriously, that’s a mouthful and a half.”

“Really, you two!” Skydancer chided, unable to hide her own grin. “Alto has a lovely name, even if he doesn’t particularly like it. He happens to be one of Cloudsdale’s most promising weather science students.” She gave her wings a prideful fluff. “As a matter of fact, his parents are rather popular lectures all over the country.”

Aspire hummed a low note, furrowing his brows. “I don’t know too much about weather science, but I recognize the first bit of his name as a cloud, and part of the second coming from the stratosphere.” He glanced at Sure Stroke. “Didn’t know you had a cousin, Doodle. How come you didn’t tell us?”

“Er, slipped my mind.” Sure Stroke gave a sheepish smile. “I was too busy trying to figure this place out.”

Her mother shook her head. “Why am I not surprised?” Chuckling to herself, she turned to continue cutting. Though not without calling over her shoulder, “You really should write a letter to him, dear. I’m sure he misses you.”

Sure Stroke scoffed and rolled her eyes. “Yeah, right. He couldn’t wait to see me off when we left.”

“You know how he is, dear. He doesn’t like ponies knowing he feels things.” Sure Stroke could almost see her mother rolling her eyes. “Write him a short letter, and I’m sure you’ll have one back by next postage pick up littered with all of his ‘questions for science’ or whatever that silly colt loves to call his curiosity.”

That brought a genuine smile to Sure Stroke’s lips. “I guess you’ve got a point. He does get rather … excitable when he’s interested.”

“That, daughter of mine, is in contention for understatement of the season.”

Both shared a laugh, drawing bemused looks from the pair of nymphs sitting at the table. Feeling a bit lazy, Sure Stroke set her sketchpad on the table and flipped to a blank page, then tore it out. Any paper was good for a letter.

Now, what do I tell him about the village? She tapped her pencil against her chin. Her tail flicked as she wracked her brain with what to send the rather eccentric stallion.

Out of the corner of her eye, Sure Stroke noticed a polished black hoof inching toward her sketchbook. An angry, warning growl was all it took to make the hoof freeze in place, then pull away in the blink of an eye. Slowly, she turned to level Aspire with a narrow-eyed glare.

He gave a wide grin and shrugged his shoulders. “What? Can’t blame a nymph for trying, right?”

Sure Stroke returned his grin with a sickly sweet smile. “Actually,” she said, “I can.”

His indignant yelp as she clipped his ears with a swipe of her wing was music. Sweet music.


After fending off a couple more of Aspire’s attempts to sneak a peek at her sketch and enduring more of Esalen’s playful teasing and coy smiles, Sure Stroke managed to settle in at the table so she could think over her letter, helped along by the steady drumming of a late afternoon shower upon the rooftop.

The twins politely left her to her musing, instead focusing on a bit of their own homework, so to speak. They sat across from one another, each having scrawled out a list of names on a piece of scrap paper so they could take turns calling out random names for the other to shapeshift into. “Practice for a test,” Aspire had said.

“Rocky,” Esalen called.

Aspire scoffed. “Too easy!” In a flash of green fire, a colt with charcoal grey coat and short, scruffy black mane sat in his place. His chocolate brown eyes seemed to stare blankly, his mouth set in a thin line. “How ya doin’, Essy?” he drawled, giving a lazy half-smile. “Stayin’ dry t’day?”

Grinning, Esalen nodded once. “Very good. Who’s next for me?”

The faux Rocky looked down at his paper. His lazy smile widened into a grin. “Hmm, how’s about ya do Prim? Get ya fussy britches on, filly.”

Esalen gave an amused snort, nodding as green fire washed over her body. In the blink of an eye, Prim ’n Proper sat across from Sure Stroke, looking down her snout at the fake Rocky. “Rock Solid!” she snapped, wrinkling her nose as though she smelled something foul. “When was the last time you combed your mane? You look like you’ve been tumbling through the bushes with a timberwolf! We have a new pony to welcome in ten minutes!”

“Sorry, Prim,” Aspire said, shrugging his shoulders. “Guess I let it slip my mind.”

With chittering laughs and twin flashes of green fire, they shifted back to their natural forms so they could move on to their next imitation.

So, this is how they practice, eh? Interesting. Sure Stroke left them to it, instead focusing on her letter. She drank in the familiar scent of rain and cirrus, the occasional flash of lightning that brought along a crescendo of booming thunder made her just want to close her eyes and snuggle in bed. In her mind’s eye, she was home in Thunderbolt Heights whenever the weather team let a storm hit the village.

Maybe they’ll let this one last a while. That’d be nice. She hummed a note to herself and began writing.

Dear Altocumulus Stratiformis Translucidus Lacunosus,

I’m sorry it’s taken so long for me to write you. Things have been a bit hectic since the move. The villagers—

She stopped in mid sentence, wrinkling her snout. Her eyes flitted up to Esalen. “Um, Essy?”

Still in her natural form, Esalen flicked an ear toward her. “Yeah?”

“What exactly can I put in a letter going to someone outside the village?”

Pink eyes regarded her with a hint of confusion, then softened in understanding. “Oh.” Esalen bit her lip. “Well, I mean, I wouldn’t go advertising that we’re changelings,” she said, her tone rather diplomatic, “but maybe … I really don’t know. Aspire?”

Aspire looked up from his list. He chewed on the inside of his cheek. “You could maybe feel out his reaction. But, I’ve gotta agree with Essy. We don’t exactly go advertising to ponies that we’re here. Hawkeye and Merryweather take care of that personally, or others do it face to face when they go visit other places. Doing it through a letter is kinda … well, how would you have taken it, Doodle?”

“Not well,” Sure Stroke admitted with a rueful frown. “I probably would’ve taken the letter to the Cloudsdale guard station.”

“I’d say I’m hurt, but knowing how skittish a lot of newcomers are, I can’t say I blame you.” He shrugged. “But yeah, maybe just don’t tell him we’re changelings.”

Humming, Sure Stroke glanced at her letter. That made things a little more complicated. If anything, it meant she had to go into a little dance around all the reasons it took her so long to adjust.

She looked up at Esalen. “How do I tell him I had trouble, then?”

Esalen wrinkled her snout, her tongue flicked out. “Don’t want to lie?”

“No.”

“Well, you could be honest about how you were nervous at first,” she began, “but just don’t tell the whole story. That way it’s not lying, but it’s also not telling all about us.”

“Misinforming,” Aspire supplied.

Esalen bobbed her head. “Yes, that! Misinforming works quite nicely.”

Pursing her lips, Sure Stroke looked down at her letter again. It wasn’t that she couldn’t hold a little bit back, but, for all his grumping and false scorn, Altocumulus was still her cousin. Her favorite cousin, in fact.

Maybe there’s a way of keeping it vague, but also telling about them.

I’m sorry it’s taken so long for me to write you. Things have been a bit hectic since the move. The villagers have been very welcoming since we arrived, and are rather sensitive to how newcomers feel. It took me awhile to get comfortable around them—you know how I can be with new ponies—but I think I’ve made some really good friends. Actually, the first pair I met at the gate are my closest.

Their names are Aspire and Esalen. They’re twins who have lived here all their lives, so they’ve been really helpful in teaching me about Respite’s culture, introducing me to other foals, and helping me survive the torture that is school—no, I don’t care what you say or how much you loved learning, school is a nightmare and whoever came up with it was sadistic. So there. That said, Aspire has offered to help me with my algebra homework, since I just don’t seem to get it. He’s been very patient with me and even cut me a nice deal on what I had to offer in return: a sketch of any part of Cloudsdale I want (I can’t tell you what it is, because he’s sitting right next to me and is trying to read over my shoulder even though he thinks I don’t notice. He’s a dork).

“Hey!” Aspire cried.

Sure Stroke waggled her ears. “That’ll teach you to look over my shoulder, won’t it?” she said with a happy fluff of her feathers. “Now, hush up so I can finish.” She turned back to her letter, grinning at how he huffed and muttered a few choice words under his breath.

No doubt she’d pay for it later, but Aspire deserved a little prod every now and again.

Speaking of the sketch, they have a rather interesting way of paying for things here. You can pay in bits, or you can trade things. Sort of like the trading at Rainbow Falls before the Equestria Games, only you can’t just trade anything you own. It seems like it has to be something you’re talented with that holds equal value to what you’re asking for, but it’s not a bad system. Just different.

Which can be said about a lot of things here, actually. They’re all really nice, just very different.

It makes things interesting. Challenging, confusing, and darn near making me want to stuff my head in a cloud and scream myself hoarse for a while, but interesting all the same.

Hope you’re well, Altocumulus. I look forward to hearing from you again, and maybe we can see each other soon.

Love,

Sure Stroke

“There!” Sure Stroke set her pencil down, satisfied with her efforts. “One letter for Altocumulus, ready for posting!”

Her mother’s soft hoofsteps against the wooden floor made her flick an ear then turn. Skydancer reared up to rest her forehooves on the back of Sure Stroke’s chair, smiling as she read through the letter. She laughed and nuzzled into Sure Stroke’s violet mane. “Very nice,” she said. “I’ll drop it in the post bag for Hawkeye tomorrow morning.”

Blinking, Sure Stroke tilted her head. “I thought he was in charge of going out to invite ponies to Respite?”

“He is,” Esalen replied. “But he also takes the mailbag out to the train station you all got off at to come here.”

“Or he asks a few villagers for help if there’s a bunch of packages to send out to pony cities,” Aspire added. “Ready Steady, the Wood brothers, and the moving crew usually help him with his drop offs and pickups since they’ve got big carts. If he’s out of town, someone else steps up to fill in for him.”

Oh. Well, that made sense, in a way. It wasn’t all that different from a small town post office.

But he only said pony cities. “How do you get mail out to other hives, then? Like, if you wanted to send something to the Wanderers?”

“Marauders,” Esalen corrected. “And we have a little trick for that. There’s a special spell we have. See, we write it out and address it to whoever the changeling is, then we use a special magic fire to—”

A loud bang cut her off in mid sentence. Sure Stroke brought a hoof to her chest to soothe her racing heart, she turned to the doorway in time to see her father walking in, water droplets dripping freely down his sides and his mane matted against his head.

“Hoo! Raindance wasn’t kidding when she said this one would be a doozy!” he said with a heavy sigh. He glanced up at Skydancer and offered a tired smile. “It’s been awhile since I’ve tangled with a wild one that strong. Not since Sure Stroke was born, I think.”

Skydancer frowned. “You look exhausted, Drizzly.”

His lips tugged into a half smirk. “You should see the rest of the team. We all looked like a team of drowned rats by the time we were done herding the bulk of the storm away.”

“I don’t doubt it.” Skydancer trotted over to him, nosing against his dampened cheek. “Let’s go get you dried off before you get sick, sweetheart.”

“Thanks, honey.” Drizzly pecked her nose, then made to follow her out of the kitchen. He stopped short, glancing between Aspire and Esalen. “Er, if you two want, I can fly you home before I dry off. Not sure exactly how long this storm is going to last, but I don’t want to chance waiting too late.”

Aspire winced. “We can’t fly in the rain, Mister Drizzly.” He glanced over his shoulder and buzzed his translucent wings. “Our wings don’t work when they get wet. They’re not quite as strong as yours.”

“Ah. Well, in that case …” Drizzly furrowed his brows. “Well, we can walk. Honey? Do we have any raincoats in the closet? Or our winter coats?”

“We might, but they’re probably toward the back.” Skydancer smiled at the nymphs. “Give us just a moment, we should have something for you.”

The twins beamed. “Thanks!” they replied in their near perfect unison, drawing a shiver down Sure Stroke’s spine.

It was uncanny how often they managed to pull it off.

As her parents headed down the hall to search for rain jackets, Sure Stroke folded up her letter and set it to the side. She reached out for her sketch pad, but froze halfway there. Her gaze flitted to her left.

Aspire was watching, his sky blue eyes shone with unrestrained glee.

Across the table, Esalen heaved a sigh. “Okay, now I have to know. What is it you’re so determined to keep him from seeing until you’ve finished.”

“Yeah, Doodle!” Aspire crooned. “What’s so special about my drawing? Share with the class!”

Sure Stroke thought quickly. Neither would really know what the picture was until she finished and explained it, but still, there was the principle of the matter. She could, in theory, just show Esalen, but what was to stop her from telling Aspire? Or just passing it over to him?

Instead, she smiled. “Pretend it’s Hearth’s Warming season: you’ll just have to wait and—” she reached out and poked Aspire’s chitinous nose, giggling at how he wrinkled his snout and squirmed away from her hoof “—see when I’m done!”

Aspire rubbed his nose and tried to feign a scowl, but the tugging at either corner of his mouth betrayed him. “I’ll remember that, Doodle.” His eyes glowed green for a split second. “You just wait ‘till Friday.”

Oh, dear. Sure Stroke forced herself to maintain her smile. Did I just challenge him again?

Perhaps she’d be able to convince Zephyr or Nimble to protect her in exchange for a sip of love. Or a nice picture.

Or maybe she should just go hide behind Queen Euphoria until he stopped grinning like the cat who caught the canary.

She ducked her head, forcing a weak chuckle. “Y-You’re not going to let me fail our next algebra quiz, right?”

“Oh, no, no, no! Nothing so easy as that!” He grinned. “I’m just excited to see how you deal with your very first experience testing us!”

Blinking, Sure Stroke bit her lip. Did she dare to ask?

Of course she did. “How do I do that?”

His grin stretched to seemingly impossible lengths, a shiver ran down her spine. “You’ll see.”

Esalen’s ominous cackling did absolutely nothing to help her confidence.

27. Testing, Testing

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The desk chair seemed colder than normal. Esalen withheld a tiny whine as she tried to make herself comfortable, idly thinking of how easy it would be to just hop out and spit a thick wad of warm, comfortable slime to cushion the darn thing.

No matter how many times Aspire assured her that, no, her desk wasn’t alive—or, at least it hadn’t been since the tree was cut down and fashioned into the seat—Esalen maintained that it was, and at least sentient. In fact, she was willing to bet a full drink of Toola’s love that desk chairs were like reverse changelings. They maintained one form and fed off of the misery of the poor, innocent students who had to sit in them all day while evil teachers named Abacus gave them horrid math tests.

Why did hers always choose algebra test day to be so uncomfortable? Misery feeding or not, couldn’t her chair be reasonable? Or at least mildly accommodating and understanding of her plight?

Esalen didn’t dare flick her tongue to sample the prevailing feeling of dread that settled over a good portion of the class. The looming test was bad enough, taking it while sick would only make her hour-long torture feel like being force-fed misery.

A quick look around the room was all she needed to confirm it; the way Vector and Zephyr fidgeted, the former’s feathers twitching like he wanted to take flight, even to Rocky frantically trying to look over his homework, his burly shoulders sagged as his ears pinned back against his mane.

But then, on the other hoof, there were those who seemed to radiate confidence. Prissy Prim ’n Proper was the picture of a model student, sitting with almost rigid posture and her nose high in the air like the snooty little thing she was. Two seats away, Toola Roola bounced in place like she didn’t have a care in the world while she chattered and laughed with Nimble, who had propped her elbow on her desk and rested her head on her hoof.

How lucky they were, to feel so very secure. Esalen felt jealousy creep into her chest. Why couldn’t she have a knack for the subject like them?

Or, better yet, the smug little gnat of a brother sitting just to her left. The very same who was turned to face Sure Stroke.

Esalen cast a sidelong glare at the back of Aspire’s head. Why did he have to get the better deal on academics? Not that she was stupid, so to speak, but there was a definite disparity between them.

Her brother didn’t notice her gaze, his focus was entirely on Sure Stroke. Curious, Esalen turned, flicking an ear toward them in time to pick up his hushed whispers as Abacus went about passing out their tests.

“… You’ll do fine,” he told the worrying filly. “Just go slow, work through each problem like we talked about, and don’t panic.”

Sure Stroke looked pale, almost as though she were physically ill by the upcoming test. She sucked in her lips, her eyes closed and ears laid flat against her scalp as she gave a jerky nod.

The poor filly was terrified. Esalen let her shoulders slump, a part of her wished she sat just another seat over so she could reach out to touch her friend’s shoulder in silent comfort. Fortunately, Aspire was on the case.

He leaned in close and wrapped her in a one-hoofed hug. “You’re going to do fine,” he repeated, nosing against her cheek. “You’re a smart filly and you’ll do better than those quizzes. You just need to relax. Okay?”

A rosy hue tinged her cheeks. Sure Stroke ducked her head and opened her eyes to meet his gaze, a nervous smile spread across her muzzle.

Esalen couldn’t help it. She flicked out her tongue to taste, her ears stood ramrod straight as she felt the sweet, fluffy taste of cake dancing upon it along with a hint cotton candy flavoring from Aspire.

And he doesn’t realize? He can’t be that dense, can he? A bemused smile tugged at her lips, she watched Aspire part from Sure Stroke and sit properly in his seat just in time for Abacus to pass their test sheets out. If those two aren’t lovedrunk, I’ll eat rotten fish and down a jug of lemon juice.

A cough to her right made her start. Esalen turned to find herself looking up at Abacus, his lips curved into a stern frown and an impassive stare fixing her in place. Raising a single eyebrow, he floated a stack of papers to her. “Take one and pass it back,” he ordered, “and keep your eyes on your own paper. Good luck, everyone. Go ahead and start.”

Esalen bit her lip and took her test off the top of the stack before passing it back. Curious, she dared to look over the first few problems. Her heart sank. She was in for it.

With a sigh, she took her pencil in hoof and scrawled her name at the top. Just have to make it through this, she told herself, drawing in a deep breath. And then, the fun begins! Esalen licked her lips, a devilish smile tugged at either corner of her mouth. I hope I get Doodle this time. Aspire had his fun in the forest.

Chittering lowly, Esalen began her test, eager to get through it so she could enjoy the thrill of today’s shapeshifting exam.

Deception and trickery were such lovely things. Especially when there was a pony friend she could make squirm until she let her façade fall.


The battle had been long and hard, many had been lost along the way, and Esalen was pretty sure that at least a half-dozen years had been shaved off her life. But none of that mattered. She had slipped into some sort of post-test nirvana, a sense of mind numbing bliss that could only come after one had thoroughly put their brain into overdrive until it overheated and left her half-asleep, barely even a proper nymph.

“I am quite certain my brains have been turned to soup,” Zephyr grumbled into his desk as they waited for Façade to enter the room.

Esalen gave a tired smile, ignoring Aspire and Nimble’s amused chittering, and raised a hoof. “Seconded.” With a halfhearted buzz of her wings, she slumped in her seat. “Whoever invented algebra deserves a bite. Right where his neck and shoulder meet.”

“Full-length fangs?”

“Full-length fangs.”

He halfheartedly bared his fangs, showing off his sharp incisors. “Seconded. Definitely seconded. We need a time traveling spell and a unicorn talented enough to pull it off. Pronto.”

“Oh, come on now!” Aspire chided. He rubbed shoulders with Esalen, his deep blue eyes danced with mirth. “It wasn’t that bad! I finished in, like, ten minutes, tops!”

“You’re also a smug little bookbug who loves things like math,” she shot back with a sidelong glare. “Weirdo.”

His lips tugged into a smirk. “Now, now, is that really what you wanna say to the very same bookbug you’re going to ask to help you with the next batch of algebra homework? Or the next quiz? Or the next–”

Esalen jammed a hoof into his mouth, her brows flatlined. “Okay, fine, I get it. You’re not a weirdo, you’re smart, and I really need your help if I’m going to survive algebra without mom kicking my sorry backside. Happy?”

“Immensely,” he replied, smugness radiating from the smirk he shot. With his piece said, he reclined in his seat and let his eyes flit over to Nimble. “How’d you make out, Nim?”

She brought her hoof up and waggled it in a ‘so-so’ motion. “I think I mixed up the order of operations once or twice. Should be fine otherwise, though.”

“Good to hear. Now, let’s move past that for just a moment.” Aspire leaned forward and grinned, folding his hooves on his desk. He waggled his ears. “Who do you think you’ll get in the deception test pool this time around?”

A burst of adrenaline shot through Esalen’s veins. She sat bolt upright, licking her lips as a smile spread across her muzzle. “I want Doodle,” she declared. “It’s totally my turn to get a bit of teasing in, and I wanna see how she does figuring out who I am.” After a beat, she added, “Also, if she takes shape-shifting any better than she did when you surprised her in the forest.”

Aspire winced and his smile faltered. “Yeah. Right.” He gave an awkward cough, then fixed his smile back in place. “To be honest, I’m kinda hoping to get her as well. Or Vector. I owe him for the last fifty or so times he’s teased me for being a bookbug or whatever. He’s been begging to get locked up and teased. But, still, I really hope I get Doodle!” His lips tugged into a full, toothy grin. “I bet I can make her squirm as she tries to figure out what’s going on, maybe even let her slowly work it out, and then—” his eyes flashed green “—pounce her right as the the realization hits!”

Oooooh!” Nimble crooned, baring her fangs in a wide grin. “I’m all for that! I’ve been itching to get my hooves on her and tickle her until she squeals!”

Snorting, Zephyr gave a lazy smile. “You say that about everyone when it comes time for our tests, Nim. What if you get Toola? Or Vector? Or …” he trailed off, waggling his eyebrows. “What about Peppermint?”

Esalen sniggered at the fluffy taste of embarrassment that danced upon her tongue. She reached over to pat the blushing nymph’s head. “Ignore him, Nim,” she said. “We’ll just focus on all the fun we can have tricking our friends.” Then she cast a wink at her brother. “Maybe you’ll get lucky and Pepper’s name will come up, you could get a little kiss if you trick him!”

With a low whine, Nimble laid her head on her desk and covered herself with her hooves, trying in vain to hide the blush that bloomed across her chitinous cheeks.

The door latch clicked, drawing a flick of Esalen’s ear. All chatter ceased, every nymph sat up straight in their seats and turned to face the brothers, Duplicitous and Façade, as they trotted briskly into the room, the latter carrying a small basket filled with note cards on his back.

“Good afternoon, everyone,” Façade greeted.

The class replied in unison, “Good afternoon, Mister Duplicitous and Mister Façade!”

Duplicitous gave a little wave of his hoof. “Hey there, everyone. I trust you’ve all been practicing your transformations and imitations over the past few weeks?” A merry chorus of buzzing wings and chitters was their only reply, the elder changeling grinned. “Just what I like to hear! Now, Façade and I have already gone through and matched you up with some of your classmates, and other villagers to keep things interesting.”

“Right,” Façade said, nodding with him. “Mister Abacus and Sweet Treat will be explaining the rules to the foals, just as we are now. Your assignment this time around is to take the form of one of your classmates and trick a friend into thinking you’re that foal.”

“You can keep the act going as long as you like, but you’ve got to maintain it for at least a half hour,” Duplicitous continued for him. “After that, you’re free to reveal yourself—or not—in any way you see fit. Pounce them immediately, lure them off to a spot to do homework and drop your disguise, anything allowed under Respite law. If you’re successful—” he grinned and inclined his brows “—the foals and volunteers have been told to offer either a snack from Sweet Treat’s or a drink of love.”

More chittering filled the room. Esalen licked her lips, she could almost taste the delectable sweetness of Toola’s love dancing upon her tongue, filling her to the brim. Or, if she was lucky, Sure Stroke’s.

Her wings buzzed. It was only fitting either she or Aspire fed on the pudgy little pegasus first. They were her closest friends, the ones who took her under their proverbial wing and guided her along.

She chanced a quick look at her brother. A contemplative frown crossed his muzzle, he bit down on the inside of his cheek. Esalen knew that look all too well—he was trying to weigh his options as best he could.

Sighing, she shook her head. It might be a bit sooner than he wanted, but, in her opinion, it should be someone Sure Stroke trusted. And why not someone who the very filly trusted enough to place a charm upon her just a few short days ago?

Eventually, he’s going to have to get over this. Doodle’s curious and she wants to learn, and she really doesn’t like being coddled. Esalen heaved another sigh, turning her attention to the front. If not herself or Aspire, she could only hope Nimble or Zephyr drew Sure Stroke’s name. Just so long as it was someone she trusted enough to relax and allow them to feed.

“Of course,” Façade cut through her musings, “if you do feed, please offer them a snack in return. We don’t want our friends collapsing from exhaustion now, do we?”

“No, Mister Façade,” the nymphs chimed in unison.

“Excellent. Now, should your target figure you out before you choose to reveal yourself, you fail this test. In addition, you’re to give them one of these.” He pulled a note card from his basket. “Sweet Treat has agreed to offer free snacks to any foals who catch you in the act.” Façade leveled the nymphs with a stern look, a hint of underlying pride and mischief shone in his eyes. “You’re all changeling nymphs, little ones. You’re only a couple years away from choosing your trade and deciding what you want to do in life—whether that means you stay in Respite or go off into the wide world of Equestria is up to you.

“With that said, I expect each of you to succeed. When Mister Abacus and I go into Sweet Treat’s shop later this evening, I should be able to walk in with the smuggest smirk on my lips when I ask if she has any of your cards. And she’d better not hand me a single one.” Façade’s eyes glowed a dangerous green. “Whoever does lose their card will find themselves with extra homework, because I might feel like giving you a reprieve after your last successful test was … a mistake.”

A shiver ran through Esalen’s body. Shapeshifting homework could be fun and all, but there was a distinct note of danger in Façade’s tone. They were getting older, in just a few short years, they would all be adults in the villagers’ eyes. Mistakes in mimicry, whether they come from the shapeshifting aspect or the deception itself, should be few and far between if they wanted to venture beyond Respite’s boundaries.

Trips to Manehattan with her parents were one thing, they could always maintain the story and explain away any inconsistencies she or Aspire’s actions might cause. Going out on her own was another matter altogether.

Adults didn’t get do-overs like nymphs. Ponies were more likely to overlook a foal talking of strange things as a sort of flight of fancy than if a full-grown mare or stallion started slipping up.

Duplicitous wrinkled his snout. “Laying it on a little thick, aren’t you?”

Frowning, Façade turned to level him with a glare. “No, I don’t think so,” he replied smoothly. “Mom didn’t let us leave the village until Queen Chaete herself couldn’t tell us apart from any pony or foal, and that kept us safe.”

“Yes, but mom wasn’t exactly the picture of—”

“Whose classroom is this again?” Façade cut him off. “Do I tell you how to do your job?”

Duplicitous heaved a tired sigh, like this was an argument he could never win. “Fair enough. Go ahead.”

With a snort, Façade returned his gaze to the nymphs. His horn wreathed in a green glow, he levitated the notecards from his basket and passed them out to each of his students, laying them face down upon the desks. “There are your cards. Each has your target’s name written on it, wait until after we leave to flip it over and see who you’ve got. The foals will be dismissed from class in a half hour, you’re free to leave at anytime you like to track them down and figure out who you’d like to imitate.” He offered a single nod, then turned to trot for the door with Duplicitous trailing after him. Just before they left, he paused to glance over his shoulder. A small smile played upon his lips. “Best of luck to all of you. Make us proud.”

The brothers swept out of the room, the door closed behind them with a muted click of the latch.

Barely a second passed before the nymphs flipped their cards over in a rustle of paper. A couple groaned and muttered under their breaths, cursing their misfortune for having drawn ponies who were very good at nitpicking little details.

Esalen, on the other hoof, let a wide grin tug at her lips as she looked at the name on her card. A feeling shared with Nimble.

“Oho, yes!” Nimble cackled, looking up at the ceiling with a smile. “I’ve been waiting so long for this!”

She fixed her with a sidelong look. “Who’d you get?”

“Who’d you get?” Nimble parroted back.

Always the same routine. The pair shared looks, then glanced at Aspire and Zephyr. With matching smirks, all four nymphs turned their cards so they could see. Esalen’s grin widened to almost impossible proportions.

I am very okay with this.

“Hey, Nim?” Aspire waggled his eyebrows. “You mind taking care of a little piece of business I have with a certain someone?”

With a wicked grin, Nimble bobbed her head. “Gladly! I won’t even charge you for it. This is worth it!”

Esalen steepled her hooves. “I think I might have a way for all four of us to get our pony friends—with a bit of coordination.”

28. Who's This Standing Next to Me?

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Sure Stroke turned the note card over in her hoof, a bemused frown playing upon her lips. She peered through the ice cream parlor’s window to survey the dusty pathway leading to and from town center, watching ponies and changelings of all ages go about their day like there was nothing out of the ordinary.

Then again, to them, there was absolutely nothing abnormal with a few of the Caretakers shapeshifting to pull a prank, let alone a few doing so for their “homework” assignments or “tests.”

Idly sipping at a nice vanilla milkshake with chocolate sprinkles—which a rather lovely changeling by the name of Chocolate Almond had recommended, along with a free sample bag of her signature treat and namesake—she hummed a tune. Her sketchpad lay to her right, the finished drawing showed proudly, just waiting to be colored. Her mind, though, was on the test she was currently “helping” to give.

The test itself was twofold, as Abacus said before releasing the foals. They weren’t expected to catch their changeling friends in the act for a grade, but they were expected to be alert and on the lookout for any slip-ups.

“Think of yourselves like the math test you all took earlier,” he’d said, with Sweet Treat at his side. “I wrote it to test what we’ve gone over in class these past few weeks, not because I wanted to ruin your grades. We all expect you to try your best to watch out for any deception. Some of your names won’t be drawn this time around. You can turn your own card in for a snack.”

As he spoke, Sweet Treat’s lips seemed to tug into a smile that didn’t quite fit, like she was trying to withhold a snort of laughter as she eyed Abacus like she was waiting for something.

Abacus had gone right along like he didn’t realize. “Those who are drawn will have a nymph standing by you at some point. All of you will have to be extra alert and attentive though, just in case. Good luck, everyone. Have fun testing our nymphs!” He had made to turn away, out of the corner of her eye, Esalen saw Sweet Treat’s muscles tense like she was ready to leap. Then, Abacus did something Sure Stroke would never have expected.

In one motion, he turned, cupped Sweet Treat’s cheek, and pressed his lips against hers. The mare’s eyes went wide. She took in a sharp breath, then slowly melted into his kiss.

Sure Stroke giggled as she remembered how smug he grinned as he stepped back and stage whispered, “Nice try, Stalwart. Caught you this time.”

Sweet Treat stood slack jawed. A green fire then ran over her body and revealed the Queen’s trusted guard in her place, standing almost a full head taller than the grinning schoolteacher as he gaped in awe. “What gave me away?”

Abacus didn’t answer at first. He’d simply grinned, then cast a wink over his shoulder at the class before turning toward the door and flicking his tail across Stalwart’s nose. “Sweet Treat told me this morning she’d be busy preparing extra snacks for our little test. Also, you gave yourself away when you tried to get into pouncing position.”

It had been barely anything that doomed Stalwart’s plan. Just a little smirk, a slight shift in the faux Sweet Treat’s posture, and a few words exchanged between the pair of ponies were all that gave him away.

So, Sure Stroke kept a keen eye on where her friends went when they left the classroom. Vector had babbled something about wanting to go drop his school stuff off at home before he went shooting off into town as fast as his wings could carry him, while Prim sidled up to Rocky and led him into town to help move something or other near the Wood brothers’ shop. As for Toola …

Sure Stroke craned to change her angle so she could try and get a wider view. She could’ve sworn Toola was right behind her a few minutes ago. In fact, she was certain of it. They were just on their way to the parlor together, where in the name of Celestia could she have gone?

And how had Sure Stroke managed to lose her? It wasn’t like Toola could just blend into a crowd, even with how colorful ponies’ coats could be—bright magenta was still eye-grabbing no matter how hard one tried to ignore it. Like an assault on the eyes, really.

Maybe one of the nymphs drew Toola’s name and tricked her into following along when they walked through the crowd of adults on their way over. It wouldn’t be all that difficult to take Sure Stroke’s form …

“Hey, there, Doodle!” Toola’s voice sounded from just behind her.

Sure Stroke squeaked and jumped out of her seat. A bout of familiar, musical giggling made her ears twitch, she turned to find herself nose-to-magenta-coated-nose with a grinning Toola Roola, a milkshake in hoof and her saddlebags slung crookedly over her back.

Chest heaving, Sure Stroke brought a hoof to her heart. “Don’t scare me like that!” she scolded. “Are you trying to give me a heart attack?”

Toola beamed and bounced lightly on her hooves. “Maaaaaaybe!” she chirped as she slid into the seat next to Sure Stroke’s and set her saddlebags down on her left. “Sorry I took so long,” she said in her bubbly tone while setting her milkshake down and retrieving her math homework, “I thought I saw Nimmy scampering about to find whoever her mark is today, so I wanted to see who she drew before she changed. Buuuuuuuut then I lost her somewhere around Pear Tree’s fruit stand, so I just came back here.”

“Oh.” Sure Stroke settled herself, letting her wings slowly fold against her sides. She made to take her seat again, but stopped short.

What if this filly sitting with her wasn’t really Toola? It could be any one of the nymphs in class, switching places would’ve been all too easy with how they got separated in the crowd. But how could she be sure? For all she knew, the real Toola Roola could be in that seat, innocently humming to herself an upbeat, happy little tune as she started on her math homework.

Still, though, it never hurt to be too careful. She would just have to watch and see how Toola acted, and look for anything out of the ordinary.

“Wanna work on homework together?” Toola offered with a bright smile. “I can help if you get stuck.”

Sure Stroke blinked. “You can?”

Toola giggled and bobbed her head. “I may not be as smart as our smug bookbug, but I’m pretty good at algebra!” She gave a playful little toss of her mane, then added, “I’m a lot more than just a pretty face, a nice mane, and a laugh that makes everyone wanna tickle me silly!”

Sure Stroke gave an amused snort. “Fair point. Although, not everyone here wants to tickle you.” Bringing a hoof to her chest, she smiled. “You and I are together in being perpetual victims of tickling friends, and I am firmly against making my fellow ticklee suffer.”

“Oh yeah?” Toola waggled her ears. “Were you everyone’s favorite tickle target back home?”

“Yes.” Cringing, Sure Stroke rustled her wings. “My cousin, Altocumulus, was bad about it, but he always claimed it was ‘for science’ or whatever. Then all my classmates who could fly faster loved to herd me to a cloud and poke my sides. Even a couple of the rookie instructors for the Wonderbolts’ flight camp found out and wouldn’t stop because they thought it was cute.” She scrunched up her snout and tilted her head. “I … wanna say it was Fleetfoot and Spitfire. It was when I was really little and they just came up.”

A broad grin spread across Toola’s muzzle. “Even the adults liked getting you, eh?”

“Everyone did.” Sure Stroke shook her head, pasting a wide grin upon her muzzle. “Which is why I’ve had to be extra careful not to let Nimble catch me! I’m not going to be a tickle target here!”

A gleam shone in her eyes. Amusement? Mischief? Something Sure Stroke couldn’t quite read. As quickly as it came, it was gone, in its place, an hint of sympathy as Toola gave an understanding nod and reached over to touch her shoulder. “Well, we tickle victims have to stick together, then! To combat those who would exploit our poor tickle spots for their own amusement!”

The fillies burst into laughter, leaning against one another for support as they gave way to their mirth. Tears stung the corners of her eyes, Sure Stroke felt Toola wrap her in a hug and give a little squeeze. The tension left her, she cast her suspicion to the side for now.

Even if it was one of the nymphs wearing Toola’s guise, it was still a friend beneath that magenta coat and bubbly demeanor. Figuring out whether she was sitting next to the real deal or one of her tricky nymph friends could come later, preferably after she had a chance to pay attention.

Sure Stroke slipped out from Toola’s embrace and picked up her milkshake, bringing it to her mouth for a quick sip. The sound of air being sucked mixed with little bits of milkshake assaulted her ears, she frowned and drew back to give it a look. Empty.

Darn.

“What a shame,” Toola said with a frown gracing her lips. “Creamy’s milkshakes always run out too early, don’t they?”

Nodding ruefully, Sure Stroke set her cup down on the table. “It was good, the best I’ve had in a while.” With a sigh, she pulled her math homework out of her bag and set it before her. “I’ll have to try another later, maybe in a little bit since that one was free.”

Magenta ears perked up. “Then why not go get more now?” Toola asked. “It’s worth the two bits, in my opinion, and—oooh! What’s this?” Her gaze locked on Sure Stroke’s sketch pad, she leaned forward to get a better view.

Sure Stroke glanced down at her own sketch almost by instinct, a crooked smile made its way across her face. “This is the drawing Aspire wanted as payment for tutoring me instead of love.”

“Because you weren’t comfortable?”

She shook her head. “I offered because I was curious, but he said no.”

Toola wrinkled her snout. “That doesn’t sound like him at all. Anytime I offer him a sip or even a little hug or a nuzzle so he can nibble, he’s happy to take it.” After a beat, she added, “Then again, there was that time after hide and seek where he said no because he only helped me a little, but I gave him cake for that.”

“Yeah, he’s been weird about it.” Good to know I’m not the only one who feels that way. “Either way, that’s what he wanted. Now I just have to color it in and see if I can get the rainbow glow right.” With one last look at her drawing, and a fond smile at the ponies staring back at her, she flipped her sketch pad closed and slid it into her saddlebag. Then she picked up her glass, fished a couple bits from her bag, and stood. “Two bits for another, you said?”

“Yup!” Toola waggled her ears. “Two bits and Creamy’ll be happy to send everyone’s favorite Doodly-Doodle into an ice cream induced coma!”

And there were the silly nickname add-ons. Sure Stroke rolled her eyes and made a point to flick her tail across Toola’s nose when she trotted by, pointedly ignoring the fit of musical giggling it drew as she head up to talk with Creamy.

“Another?” the changeling asked, a kind smile upon his muzzle.

“Please,” Sure Stroke replied as she hoofed the cup to him along with two gold bits. “The same way.”

Creamy happily accepted her payment with a nod. “Vanilla shake with chocolate sprinkles, coming right up.” He paused to give her a wink. “Because we do want to send Respite’s Doodle into an ice cream induced coma.”

Sure Stroke groaned and let her head fall against the counter, sending silent curses at Aspire, Toola, and everyone else who used that blasted name.

Celestia help her if Altocumulus ever found out.


The second milkshake was just as tasty as the first. Sadly, Sure Stroke found herself unable to resist its lure and finished it in short order, leaving herself with nothing to tide her over while she suffered through the horrors of algebra.

Why Abacus felt it necessary to give homework right after a test—especially when they had to watch out for any nymphs trying to trick them—was beyond her. At least she had Toola.

Just as promised, the bubbly filly was happy to offer help whenever asked. Like Aspire, she refused to simply give her the answer, instead of taking the time to point out where she thought Sure Stroke went wrong and walk her through the steps again. At least, she would when she knew the answer.

Toola looked over the last three problems on their pages, frowning to herself. “I think Mister Abacus slipped our next unit into this,” she said with a defeated sigh. “So, I’m going to have to look at my book when I get home, or I’ll need Aspire to show me how to do this. Sorry, Doodle.”

“That’s okay.” Sure Stroke offered a crooked half-smile in return. “I appreciate all your help, though.”

“Anytime!” Humming to herself, Toola grinned and waggled her ears. “Maybe I should make you draw something nice for me like Aspire, eh?”

Sure Stroke sniggered. “How about all of us pinning our favorite smugling and letting Nim have her tickly way with him?”

“Don’t tempt me; I just might have to take you up on that.”

A laugh bubbled forth. Sure Stroke shook her head and fluffed her feathers as she tucked her homework safely away in her saddlebag. “Well, that takes care of math for now. Maybe I can pester Aspire to help me tomorrow.”

“That sounds like a good idea.” Toola rolled her neck around a few times, wincing as she tried to work out the stiffness. “Ugh, I hate when my neck gets like this! Stupid homework always makes me feel so stiff and achey!”

Sure Stroke let her smile fall. She leaned over and placed a hoof on the back of Toola’s neck, gently pressing and massaging as best she could. A low hum and a contented smile from Toola spurred her on, Sure Stroke did her best to put a little more pressure on and knead with her hoof just like she’d seen her mother do when her father came home tired after a long day.

Toola arched her back, her eyes fluttered shut as she let Sure Stroke work. “Thanks,” she muttered in an almost drowsy tone.

“You’re welcome.” Sure Stroke raised a brow. “You sound tired.”

“Nim and I have been practicing a dance routine at home,” Toola replied without opening her eyes. “We’re supposed to have it ready in a couple of weeks, so she wants to get it just right.”

Soft purple ears twitched. “Is there some sort of talent show coming up?”

Toola cracked open an eye. “You could say that.” She nodded once, then continued, “A group from the Enchanter hive from the north is coming down to visit, including their queen, Lilith. Queen Euphoria asked for volunteers to welcome them with a party and a show, as well as asked a few from the Lovegiver Corps to allow them to feed a little while they’re here.”

The name made Sure Stroke’s ears stand up straight. The Enchanters? The ones who were even better at charming ponies than Aspire and Esalen? “Uh, is that a good idea?” she found herself asking. “Wouldn’t they, y’know, try working their charms on the ponies who feed them?”

“No, they’ll behave.” Toola turned to face her with a small smile. “The Caretakers and Enchanters might have different ways of getting love, but they’re on good enough terms to where they respect each others’ laws when they visit. The most you’ll have to worry about is some cute nymph coming up and flirting a little to try to get you to visit one of their resorts.” She swished her tail. “But if you take their offer, you probably will find yourself charmed and telling them all about how beautiful their eyes are and how much you love their smile and fangs!”

Groaning, Sure Stroke pulled away and buried her face in her hooves. “I was under his spell!” she whined. “That doesn’t count!”

“He made you speak honestly,” Toola countered, “giving him your pancakes was just slipping the suggestion in while you were under. All those compliments were you, Doodly-Doodle-Do!” There was a brief pause, then a bell like titter. “In fact, from what I heard, I’d almost say you had a little something for our resident smugling bookbug!”

Another groan. “Shut up! Shut up! Shut up!” Sure Stroke cried, a rosy hue tinging her dusty purple cheeks. “I do not!”

“Sure you don’t!” She could almost hear the smirk in Toola’s voice. A gentle nudge against her shoulder made her peer between her hooves at her beaming friend. “Do you want to see it?” Toola asked. “The dance I’ve been practicing with Nimmy?”

Blinking, Sure Stroke brought her hooves away from her face. “I … sure? If it’s okay, I mean.”

Toola simply laughed and hopped out of her seat, slinging her saddlebags over her back in one smooth motion. “Of course it’s okay, silly! I wouldn’t have offered, otherwise!” Swishing her tail, she darted around and snatched up Sure Stroke’s saddlebags before she could blink, then bolted for the door, giggling all the way.

“H-Hey! Come back here with those!”

“No-can-do, Doodle!” Toola sang. She blew a raspberry, then tugged the door open. “Come on, slowpoke! Let’s go!” Before Sure Stroke could blink, she was out the door, giggling as she ran down the path.

With a frustrated groan, Sure Stroke stumbled to her hooves and gave chase. How does she move so darn fast?


Sure Stroke caught up with Toola in a small clearing off to the side of the path, just after the village center. Her view of the ice cream parlor and Sweet Treat’s sweet shop was blocked by a few cottages and market stands, giving a sense that they were in their own private little area.

The perfect place for Toola to practice without fear of distraction. She had already gone through a few warm up stretches while she waited for Sure Stroke to catch up, her bubbly laughter and ever-present grin cast aside in favor of a more … reserved expression.

Her eyes were half closed, a serene smile graced her lips. She inhaled deeply, readying herself for her performance. A very stark contrast from the bouncy filly who loved to flip and cartwheel around.

It was like an entirely different filly stood in her place. No silliness, no playfulness, all business. She was in full performance mode, ready to dazzle her audience of one.

Sure Stroke sat, transfixed. A nagging little voice in the back of her head told her to stop and pay closer attention, ask a question or two just to be sure this really was Toola.

The filly before her began to hum, slowly swaying from side to side and stepping in time with a song only she could hear in full. She moved with such fluidity, such grace that Sure Stroke let her jaw drop, the question died in the back of her throat in favor of watching Toola go through her routine.

A wide arcing kick out, she reared back and held a hoof straight up, the other out to her side while she twirled and kicked again. Each move a seamless transition from the first to the next, all in a way that looked so effortless. It almost made Sure Stroke want to stand up and join in.

But each time she thought to rise, Toola went into a quick spin, a nimble little jump, or a flip that seemed to come completely out of nowhere. Each move was done with such grace and dexterity, Sure Stroke couldn’t help but wonder if she were seeing magic right before her eyes.

It was all as easy for Toola as walking for her or any other pony. No thought, no visible effort, just poetry in motion. And, in her case, it was perfection in every action.

With one final leaping twirl, Toola returned to the very spot she’d started her dance, landing on her hind hooves and spreading her forelegs out wide. “Tadaaaaa!” she chimed. Beaming, she turned her gaze upon Sure Stroke, her aquamarine tail catching sunlight as she gave it a merry swish. “What do you think?”

Sure Stroke took a moment to gather herself. She blinked a few times and shook her head. “I’m still trying to pick my jaw up off the ground,” she said slowly.

Giggling, Toola let herself fall down on four hooves again. “I’ll take that as a compliment, then!” She reared up to stand on her hind hooves again, slowly moving about as she went through the last few twirls. “This is just part of the whole thing. It really tripped me up for a while,” Toola said. “Nimmy made me practice until I was dizzier than a spinning top!”

A laugh escaped Sure Stroke’s lips. Idly, she noticed that Toola was drawing nearer, moving in an almost haphazard, zig zagging pattern while she went through her dance. But this was different.

That nagging little voice prodded her again. Sure Stroke eyed her friend closely, apprehension gripped her with its icy hoof. “Toola?” she began.

“Hmm?”

“Do you, um …” Sure Stroke trailed off as she watched Toola’s dance. It was so fluid, so graceful. Almost hypnotic in a sense how she swayed and spun on her hooves, moving to a melody entirely in her head. The pegasus shook her head, ruffling her wings to force herself to focus. How could she lead into a question only Toola would know the answer to without it seeming awkward? “I had another talk with Prim the other day.”

Though it was subtle, she saw Toola flick an ear toward her in mid twirl. “Did you? How was that?”

Sure Stroke wrinkled her snout. Of course Toola would just let her talk about it, and any nymph who practiced would do the same. “It didn’t go so well,” she said with a sigh. “She seems to think I’m being antisocial.”

“Primmy has certain expectations of how ponies in Respite should act,” Toola replied as she did a quick little jump. “Her parents were supposedly really shy when they first came here, but they’ve since warmed up since Queen Euphoria and Breezy let them into their home. You saw how they all were, didn’t you?”

“I mean—wait, what?” Sure Stroke blanched. “You’re joking.”

“Nope!” Stopping in mid spin with one leg in the air, Toola regarded her with a grin. “Prim ’n Proper is Clanger and Neat ’n Orderly’s daughter, born just before they got cozy with the Queen and Breezy.”

Again, Sure Stroke’s jaw dropped. “Doesn’t that make her … like, a princess here, or something?”

Toola laughed, resuming her slow dance. “No. She’s just the Queen’s favorite filly to spoil. You should see when she starts teasing Prim. The prissy little thing squirms even more than you when Aspire first called you Doodle!”

Thinking back, Clanger had mentioned something about a filly in their class. But … Prim? The stuffy little filly who walked around with a perpetual look like she smelled something rotten?

Maybe she could ask Queen Euphoria about that later. Sure Stroke flicked her tail. “I’ll have to see it to believe it. But yeah, we talked, and she seems to think I’m being rude because I haven’t paid Aspire back for tutoring me yet.”

“Did you tell her about your drawing?” Toola asked as she drew nearer, pausing to hold a pose with her right legs held out and up.

Sure Stroke shook her head. “I couldn’t get a word in edgewise. She just talked over me and walked away.” With a sigh, she let her wings droop, subtly eying her friend. “What was it you told me at the party about her?”

For a second, Toola’s concentration faltered. She blinked, falling on all four hooves again. “I’m not entirely sure I remember.” Scrunching her snout, she turned to face Sure Stroke. “We did a lot of stuff at the party. I remember most of the games and teasing you about being Doodle.”

“It was after Queen Euphoria greeted my family,” Sure Stroke prompted. “You told me something about Prim.”

“Oh, right!” Toola’s eyes lit up. “When I went to go get you!” She beamed, trotting forward until she was just out of hoof’s reach. “Sorry! That kinda slipped my mind! We had so much fun playing games and stuff, I forgot all about that part!”

The nagging voice told her to back away, she’d let Toola come to close without answering. But Sure Stroke ignored it. “So, you remember? Because I can’t quite recall.”

Toola hummed a note. “I think I do,” she said. “If I recall, it was something along the lines of—” Quick as a flash, she leaped forward and pounced Sure Stroke, cackling like a loon as she worked to pin the filly’s shoulders.

Sure Stroke let out a squeak, flailing her hooves in vain for a second before she found herself at Toola’s mercy.

Or not.

Not Toola’s mercy. The face staring back at her wasn’t Toola at all.

Nimble Hooves grinned down at her, those dark purple eyes danced with mirth and mischievous intent. “You waited too long!” she sang. Leaning forward, she nuzzled Sure Stroke’s nose. “And now, little pony, you’re alllllllllllllllll mine!”

Whining, Sure Stroke let her ears droop. “I knew something was up! You messed up in the middle of your dance when I started prodding you!”

“True, but I gave you hints before and you let them going flying right over your doodly little head.” With a chittering laugh, Nimble fixed her with a half-lidded stare and wicked smirk. “Now I get to collect my prize!”

Another squeak. A nervous laugh escaped her lips. “You, uh, I’m guessing you’re hungry?” Sure Stroke stammered.

“Starving,” Nimble replied. Before Sure Stroke could say anything, she raised a hoof. “But I won’t ask you to feed me today. I’ll just take your card once I take care of something that’s been a very long time coming! And I’m not the only one who wants it!”

“… Huh?”

Sure Stroke felt her blood run cold as Nimble leaned in and whispered in her own voice, “Which is why I have to be extra careful not to let Nimble catch me, eh?” Chuckling darkly, Nimble nosed against her cheek, then leaned up to whisper in her ear, “Aspire asked me to do him a favor and get you for teasing him, so you’re gonna get a little extra, Doodle. I’m gonna make you laugh ‘till you squeal!”

It was all the warning she had before Nimble lived up to her name and assaulted her tickle spots, rendering her helpless as she writhed and shrieked with laughter.


Her sides ached like never before. Sure Stroke tried to wipe a hoof across her face to get rid of the feeling of matted coat that always came with tears. Nimble had been extra thorough in finding each and every one of her tickle spots, testing them to see just how ticklish they were, how high they made her shriek, and if it made her writhe and squirm if she got it “just right,” never stopping even when she laughed so hard tears streamed down her cheeks.

She grumbled under her breath, pinning her ears back against her head to drown out the bouncing nymph’s impromptu song as they trotted over to Sweet Treat’s so Nimble could claim her prize. A smooth, holed leg was wrapped around her shoulder to prevent escape, forcing her to listen as Nimble boasted about her victory.

And, oh, was Nimble happy to sing and tell everyone who passed all about it:

“I know Doodle’s tickle spots!

Beneath her wings, along her sides!

I know Doodle’s tickle spots!

She laughed until she cried!

“Squealing, squirming, writhing!

Silly Doodle tried to fight!

Squealing, squirming, writhing!

But I’ve found her aconite!

“Giggle here and titter there,

She’s so ticklish everywhere!”

The villagers laughed and shook their heads, a few of the changelings joked about how she was another victim of the Dark Queen of Tickling, which quickly made the rounds.

“Do you have to rub it in so much?” Sure Stroke whined. “And why do I have to go to the shop with you?”

“Because I want you to turn your card over!” Nimble replied. She turned to nose against her cheek. “And because you’re just adorable with your cheeks all puffy like that! I’m gonna have to tickle you more often, I think.”

Sure Stroke tried to duck out of her embrace, but found herself stuck. “I don’t want to be your tickle target!” she grumped. “You’ve already got Toola!”

Nimble chittered. “Oh, I do, but she’s probably gonna get me in a bit. Whenever bookbug gets done leading her about. Or, should I say—” she grinned and waggled her ears “—when you and Toola get done looking for her saddlebags!”

Her ears perked up. Aspire was with Toola? Disguised as her, no less?

Glancing up ahead, Sure Stroke let out another whine. She could see several of their classmates filing into Sweet Treat’s shop, the nymphs each wearing big grins and cackling while they teased the ponies they’d tricked. Zephyr had his hoof wrapped tight around Vector, her fellow pegasus just rolled his eyes and shook his head like he’d been through it all a thousand times before. The changelings from the parlor, Creamy and Frosty, stood to the side and threw in a few quips themselves, hoof bumping each of the nymphs as they entered and making sure to lean down and muss up the foals’ manes.

The entire village was getting in on it. It was all a game, one the nymphs were expected to win.

Sure Stroke did a quick head count. Aspire and Esalen, however, were notably absent. A thought came to her. She could always run off and try to find Toola, just to cause a little trouble for that smug little nymph when Toola realized there were two Sure Strokes with her. If all the nymphs won, they’d never stop their crowing.

And the adults would never stop teasing and cat-calling with them.

Nimble tightened her grip. “No planning!” she scolded, flicking out her tongue. “I can taste that mischief you think you’re about to get up to, Doodle, and it’s not gonna happen. You’ve got a date with me at Sweet Treat’s shop, and I’ll be very sad if you try to skip out on it.” With a fake pout, she laid her head on Sure Stroke’s shoulder. “And the only thing that’ll make me feel better after that is more Doodle tickles, I fear.”

“That’s—that’s blackmail!” Sure Stroke cried, her jaw dropped.

Nimble grinned, then mimicked Sure Stroke’s expression. “Yes it is!” she chirped, waggling her ears to add to it. “And for the right reasons!”

“Jerk.”

“Tickly Doodle.”

With a huff and a flick of her tail, Sure Stroke allowed herself to be led along the dirt path. Up ahead, she noticed Peppermint and Spearmint bickering just a short distance from the front door, out of the way of the foals.

“Give me my basket back!” Spearmint demanded with an angry stomp. “I’ve spent most of my afternoon chasing you around instead of hanging out with Shady! Those cookies were for him!”

Peppermint shook his head, his ears drooped. “Spear, I didn’t take it! I was inside making sweet bread with Maple the entire time!”

“Actually,” a second Peppermint stepped around the corner with a slender, grinning colt, who fluffed his forest green wings. A basket rested safely upon the pegasus’ back. “I took your basket and gave it to Shady!” In a flash of green fire, Esalen stood in his place. She skipped right up and booped a groaning Spearmint. “Got ya, Spear!”

“You suck, Essy,” he grumbled, swatting his tail across the real Peppermint’s flank when he caught sight of the grin spreading across his muzzle. “That wasn’t funny.”

Esalen had the grace to look sheepish. Before she could apologize, though, the pegasus stepped forward and nosed his way beneath Spearmint’s chin. “C’mon, Spear,” he crooned. “Don’t be like that. You know all the nymphs have been pulling tricks for their class, and I still got the cookies in the end.”

Spearmint’s scowl faltered. “Yeah, but … I mean, yes, that’s okay, but I was hoping we could go sit down by the lake and stuff, Shady.”

Chuckling, Shady pecked his lips. “Who says we can’t? Just go tell your aunt that Essy got you, then come meet me down at our spot.” He fixed Spearmint with a half-lidded gaze. “Just you and me.”

For a moment, Spearmint just sputtered, a deep blush spread across his snowy white cheeks. He glanced between Shady and Esalen. With a halfhearted whine, he nodded. “Okay. I’ll meet you there.”

“I look forward to it!” Shady beamed, stealing another kiss before sauntering away with a swish of his tail and a none-too-subtle sway in his hips.

Spearmint sucked in his lips, then fixed Esalen with a glare. “I’ll get you for that trick, little nymph,” he promised. “I oughta slip pepper into your sweets next time you come in.”

Chittering, Esalen stuck out her tongue. “Your aunt would tan your rear and you know it! Speaking of, go tell her I got you so you can go cuddle with Shady.”

With a snort, he turned and trotted inside, grimacing as Creamy and Frosty made a point to mess up his mane when he poked his head inside to yell “Auntie! Essy tricked me, so give her a snack and tell Façade she did it right!” before he dashed off in the direction Shady had gone.

Esalen chittered, trotting past a rather put out Peppermint to stand with Nimble and Sure Stroke. She grinned and gave her wings a happy buzz. “So you got Doodle, eh, Nim?”

“Oh, did I ever!” Nimble’s grip around Sure Stroke tightened. “Found all her tickle spots, and by love is she ticklish!”

Huffing, Sure Stroke looked down at her hooves. “Not that ticklish,” she grumbled. “And it’s not that funny.”

“Yes, you are and yes, it is!” The nymphs exchanged grins and hoof bumps, much to her chagrin.

With a sigh and an irritated flick of her tail, Sure Stroke peered through the shop window to take a quick headcount. Most of the nymphs were there. Zephyr was certainly getting into the boasting part of the act while he sat with Allegretto, while Vector rolled his eyes and nibbled at a cookie. All total, there were six nymphs inside, plus Esalen and Nimble outside.

Eight out of nine.

Aspire was missing. And so, too, was Toola Roola.

A bit of hope brought a smile to her lips. Maybe, just maybe, he hadn’t revealed himself quite yet. Her eyes flitted to Esalen and Nimble. If she could just distract them, maybe she could slip away to kick the proverbial rain cloud over the nymphs’ little parade.

Sure Stroke turned her attention to Peppermint, the gears in her head started to turn. Hadn’t she heard Spearmint teasing him about Nimble Hooves just the other day?

It was too perfect. Sure Stroke fixed a coy smile on her muzzle and leaned in close to Nimble as if to whisper. “You know,” she said just loud enough for Esalen to hear, “I heard Spearmint and Peppermint talking about you the other day.”

Nimble went rigid, her ears stood up ramrod straight as a heavy blush spread and darkened her chitinous cheeks. “O-Oh, really?” she stammered, looking away to hide the nervous smile that tugged at her lips. But she couldn’t hide the way she turned an ear toward Sure Stroke, eager to hear every word.

The bait was set, and Nimble was ready to bite. “Yeah. Spearmint mentioned asking what you thought of Peppermint.” She leaned in, grinning as she caught Esalen’s eye and noticed the way her friend stepped closer to hear. “He wanted to know if you thought Pepper was better looking.”

“Ooooh!” Esalen crooned, her eyes shone with glee. She sidled up to Nimble, rubbing their shoulders together. “He’s right there, Nimmy! You should go tell him you think he’s—”

“Shut up! Shut up! Shut up!” Nimble released her hold on Sure Stroke so she could stomp her hooves.

Which just so happened to draw Pepper’s attention as he made to go inside. “Something wrong, girls?” he asked, tilting his head. For a split second, his cheeks tinged a faint red. “Nim?”

Nimble stammered, she looked down at her hooves and muttered something unintelligible, words mixed with nervous chittering. The perfect opening.

Sure Stroke slowly stepped back from her former tormentor, a hint of smug satisfaction crept into her smile. With the nymphs occupied, she turned to search the dirt paths for any sign of Toola or, well, herself.

It didn’t take long before she saw a pair of fillies walking toward them, one a very familiar picture—Aspire wore her soft violet coat and purple mane rather well, her face was creased in a mask of concern and a hint of unease while the nymph in her guise tried to talk to Toola.

There was no hint of the bright smile on bubbly magenta filly, though. She stomped down the path, her gaze flitting this way and that, an angry scowl marred her face.

Sure Stroke could see Toola grumbling and vowing retribution against Nimble as they drew closer. The way her cheeks puffed out and reddened seemed wrong.

The faux Sure Stroke, meanwhile, gave a crooked smile and leaned in, she wrapped her feathers around Toola’s shoulder in comfort as she tried to soothe the angry gymnast’s temper, but to no avail. Toola simply ducked out from under her wing and rounded on her with an angry stomp of her hoof. Far away though they were, Sure Stroke could just make out Toola snapping, “I know this is supposed to be a test for the nymphs, but sticking my hooves to the ground and stealing my bag isn’t funny!”

Uh oh.

In Sure Stroke’s guise, Aspire did a rather impressive job of feigning a wince before falling quiet at her side.

Truth be told, he wasn’t doing half bad. But that didn’t mean he wasn’t about to get a rain cloud picked over his parade. Set Nimble on me, will you? Then how about this? Sure Stroke took a deep breath and made to shout, but a pair of smooth, black hooves covered her mouth.

“Oh, no you don’t!” Esalen and Nimble chimed together, the latter with a blush still coloring her cheeks.

Shoot!

A pair of low chuckles made her flick an ear. The fillies turned in unison to see Creamy and Frosty staring ahead with wicked grins and glowing green eyes.

“Showtime,” Creamy muttered. He cupped a hoof to his mouth and called out, “Why, hello there, Essy, Nimmy, and Sure Stroke! How nice to see you all!”

Frosty took up his call, “How did the test go?”

Up ahead, Toola’s head snapped up. Her brows furrowed as her eyes flitted between each of the fillies before settling on Nimble, a look of pure venom flashed across her face.

Then, she stopped. Her eyes went wide in comprehension, she did a double take, looking to each Sure Stroke in turn before a grin tugged at her lips. She whirled around on the one beside her, ready to cry out.

Too late. Sure Stroke watched in muted fascination as her own face gave a wicked smirk, then a hiss before leaping upon the startled filly. He made quick work of her flailing hooves, pinning them to the ground. “Got ya, you bouncy little thing!” In a flash of green fire, Aspire resumed his natural form. “Now, hold still! You owe me a nibble!”

“Nuh uh!” Toola shook her head. “I saw the real Doodle over there before you got me and figured it out, so that means you lose!”

“No I don’t!”

“Yes you do!” Creamy and Frosty chimed in time with Toola, the pair stepped forward. Frosty spoke up first, “The rules haven’t changed since the village was founded. If you let your mark see the real deal before you reveal yourself, it counts against you.”

“Which means none of Toola’s love for you!” Creamy added. “In fact, you have to turn over your card!”

“Wha—you—that’s not fair!” he whined, sat back to allow her up, then turned to gape at the cackling changelings. “What in love’s name was that for?”

Creamy and Frosty exchanged hoof bumps, matching smug grins settled upon their lips. “We told you we’d get you for setting Chocolate on us, little nymph,” Creamy began.

“And get you, we have,” Frosty finished. With a nod, he turned to trot away with Creamy, though not before calling, “Enjoy your snack, Toola! Be sure to rub his smug little nose in it that he got caught!”

Toola leaped to her hooves and waved at the pair, sticking her tongue out at the stunned nymph before prancing her way over to the others. She stopped just within hoof’s reach of the trio, a single brow raised as she looked at the hooves covering Sure Stroke’s mouth.

With sheepish grins, Esalen and Nimble released their hold on her. Sure Stroke huffed and rolled her eyes. “I was trying to call out, but they were hoping for a clean sweep for the nymphs.”

“Sounds about right,” Toola said with a roll of her eyes. “They always do it so they can have bragging rights. Speaking of which …” Her eyes hardened into a glare.

Nimble took a step back. “Now, sis,” she said slowly, “it was just so you wouldn’t notice Aspire making the switch. All part of the test, you see.”

Toola stayed quiet, her eyes narrowed.

Nimble’s ears drooped. She hung her head, shifting from one hoof to the other. Her tongue flicked out, she gave another wince at the taste. With a sad chitter, she stepped forward and ducked under Toola’s chin, pressing her forehead against the angry filly’s chest. “‘M sorry,” she muttered. “I know you don’t like it when I leave you stuck in places, but I thought it’d be okay because Aspire was around the corner.”

Toola held her angry glare for a moment, but then sighed and hugged her adoptive sister tight, laying her head atop Nimble’s.

A low grumble made Sure Stroke turn away from the pair. Aspire trotted up with a grimace upon his lips, looking quite put out that he’d lost. “Façade is going to have a field day with this!” he groaned.

“Well, to be fair,” Esalen said through a bout of giggles, “you should’ve been more mindful of your surroundings. So, Creamy and Frosty technically didn’t do anything wrong.”

“It’s still not right, darn it!” Aspire whined. “I’m gonna get put through the ringer because of a stupid technicality and those two waiting until the dish was ice cold!”

Sure Stroke snorted, the joke was too easy. “Isn’t that fitting for them?”

He leveled her with a glare. Then, he gave a decidedly smug smirk. “Speaking of payback, how’d you like your tickle session, Doodle? Did Nimmy find all your spots?”

“I didn’t, and yes she did.” An idea came to her, a smile tugged at her lips. “But that reminds me. I have something for you.”

His ears perked up. “My drawing?”

“Nope!” Sure Stroke sidled up to him, unfurling her wing as if to lay it across his back. “Something better!”

Confusion flashed across his face. “Okay … I’ll bite. What is it?”

Quick as a flash, she cuffed his ears with a swipe of her wing. Aspire yelped and raised his hooves to fend off a second blow, while Esalen rolled about on the ground, chittering her head off.

“That.” Sure Stroke gave a smug smirk of her own, then turned, flicking her tail across his nose. “Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have to go turn my card in so Nimble can collect her snack.” She trotted up to the girls, glancing over her shoulder at Aspire. “Come on, I want a good seat for when he has to give up his so Toola can collect her prize.”

The way he pouted and crossed his hooves over his chest made her feathers fluff happily, as did the little smile he tried to hide behind the fakest pout anyone had ever given.

Another day in the strange village called Respite.

29. Through Her Eyes I See the Sky's Splendor

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Aspire all but flopped into his seat across from Vector and Zephyr and scooted next to Sure Stroke. His head hung low and his ears were drooped. A week of extra homework from Façade had finally caught up with him in the worst way—every day after school, he had to spend an hour practicing his imitations under Façade’s watchful eye, being critiqued and lectured each time he missed even the slightest detail in appearance or demeanor. And then there were the added deception assignments.

He let out a low groan. Façade had spread word around that Aspire would be doing extra work on his disguises, and told everyone to be extra vigilant when talking to their friends.

Façade had no qualms assigning Aspire to trick some of the most observant adults, even fellow changelings and nymphs, along with the usual foals. Only his quick thinking saved him when Nimble Hooves grinned and threatened to test “Toola’s” tickle spots just to be sure it was really her.

A quick “bathroom break” and a transformation into Prim just as Toola passed him by, delaying the filly just long enough before telling her that Nimble was looking for her had sorted that out quite nicely. His father, on the other hoof, simply grinned when he tried to imitate a younger filly named Meadowlark and bent down to whisper, “Meadow and her family left this morning to go visit family in Bridleton, son. Nice try.”

Façade’s wicked grin when he found that one out and indicated his next target as Cooling Breeze still made Aspire whimper.

It was all Creamy and Frosty’s fault. If not for those two soft-shelled, scuffy-chitined, annoying termites, his plan to pounce Toola and claim his victory would’ve gone perfectly. A passing mark and a sip of some of the tastiest, filling love any pony had to offer, and with an audience of their classmates to go with it—the perfect way to show off his mastery of shapeshifting and trickery. Not to mention a great way to show a certain doodly pegasus that he was the very best trickster around and that she should watch whose buttons she pressed. He just might not use a proxy the next time.

All of it went up in smoke before his very eyes because of Creamy and Frosty.

“Stupid, love-forsaken jerks,” he grumbled into the table. “That was so cheating and everyone knows it!” His friends’ sniggers made him pin his ears back. Slowly, he lifted his head just enough to glare at each in turn. “It’s not funny, darn it! I just had to convince Breezy I was Prim—his own freaking half-daughter!”

That was enough to stop Zephyr’s laughter. “Ooooh, I don’t envy you,” his fellow nymph said with a pained grimace. “How’d that go?”

Aspire just groaned and let his head fall to the table again.

“Not well, then,” Vector surmised. “Dang, bookbug, you really reaped the whirlwind on this one. Creamy and Frosty got you back good, and they didn’t even have to lift a hoof!”

“Thanks for reminding me.” Aspire covered his head with his hooves, his shaggy blue mane as messy as a used cotton swab. His stomach growled, he could taste the love from all the ponies in Sweet Treat’s shop on the tip of his tongue. So sweet, so filling. He needed it. After so much shapeshifting and changeling magic, he was practically starved for love.

Oh, no. He sucked in his lips, he had to resist flicking his tongue out until he was full. A changeling on the verge of being love-starved was dangerous, the village ponies’ generosity and willingness to give love usually spared the Caretakers such hunger—one of the many reasons they gave thanks every year on Sharers’ Day.

Aspire could feel his magic washing over his face; his fangs lengthened until they extended down past his chin and his cheeks hollowed out. He was slipping into the form of a changeling in desperate need of a good feeding, one ready to hunt.

No doubt his eyes would have followed suit by now, his Enchanter heritage would see to that.

Slowly, he cracked open an eye to glance at Sure Stroke, his ears perked up to take in the almost musical sound of her mirth. He got a taste of her love once before—as sweet as cake, and filling. Oh, it would be so very delectable.

If he could just hold her close and drink deeply …

Aspire shook himself. No. He was supposed to be tutoring today. She paid for his help with art, not feeding. If he wanted love, he needed someone else.

“Vector,” he grunted. “How do you feel about giving me a bite?”

The giggling ceased. “A … A bite?” Vector asked, his tone thick with hesitation. “I thought our terms were for a nibble before tutoring, bookbug.”

Aspire raised his head just enough that Vector could see his eyes. The colt sucked in a breath through his teeth. “Oh, geez, your eyes are … Aspire, I had no idea.”

“What is it?” Sure Stroke asked with a note of concern in her voice. Her seat squeaked as she leaned over to try to get a look. “What’s wrong with his eyes?”

Vector paid her no mind. He stood and trotted around the table until he was at Aspire’s side. “How long’s it been since you last had a decent drink?”

“Long enough,” he replied, quickly turning his head and covering the side of his face with a hoof so Sure Stroke couldn’t see. “Vector, please,” he begged, desperation crept into his voice as he gazed into the colt’s teal eyes, “I don’t need a full drink, just a decent pull—a long hug will be enough for me to draw out what I need. You can have all of my pancakes.”

Anything so she wouldn’t see him like this. So predatory. So ghoulish. Just like Queen Euphoria when she mauled those timberwolves to protect the hatchlings. Regardless of how curious Sure Stroke might be about feeding, she simply was not ready to see him like this—or any changeling, to be honest.

Vector didn’t answer immediately. He met Aspire’s gaze, then glanced over his shoulder at Sure Stroke. His eyes flitted back to Aspire and he raised his brows.

Cringing, Aspire nodded once. He still didn’t dare flick his tongue just in case he caught a hint of too much love. “Please,” he repeated.

With a bit of a crooked smile, Vector nodded. “Yeah, sure.” He stepped closer, then reared up on his hind legs so he could wrap Aspire in a tight hug, pressing their cheeks together. “Link up and take a bite, Aspire. Don’t stay quiet about it for so long next time.”

Aspire’s hooves were around the colt before he even thought to move. Against his own advice, he opened his lips and let his tongue snake out to taste the love rolling off Vector in waves. He could taste all of the love in the room. Love for family, for lovers, and the one he was most familiar with. Of all the flavors and types of love, that shared between friends was more than filling enough for any changeling.

Especially when it was directed at them.

The link was established, and Aspire let his eyes flutter shut. A smile spread slowly across his muzzle. He began to draw in, savoring the sweet, delicious taste of all the love Vector had for him. All those moments spent playing in the field at school, laughing and joking at sleepovers, wrestling, eating ice cream and sweets, pranking, and so many more than he could count—the perfect meal for a growing nymph such as he.

Aspire felt his face begin to change again. Green fire washed over his fangs to shorten them until they came a mere halfway down his chin as his cheeks began to fill out to give his muzzle a less angular, predatory look. Thank love … He sighed and leaned against Vector, his forked tongue lolling out to savor every last bit of his meal.

A hoof tapping on his shoulder jolted him back to the present. “Aspire,” Vector said weakly, his breathing ragged, “cut it.”

He cut the link before the words were even out of his friend’s mouth. Aspire slid out of his seat and set his hooves on the floor so he could support Vector’s weight. “I’m sorry,” he whispered, nosing against the colt’s cheek.

“Don’t worry about it.” Vector patted his shoulder. “You needed to feed. Just gimme a sec to catch my breath.”

Nodding, Aspire held him for balance while he took several deep breaths. Vector slowly released his embrace and set his hooves down on the floor one at a time. His wings drooped slightly and his chest heaved as if he’d just flown all the way to Manehattan and back.

A shuddering gasp made Aspire flick an ear. “He’s almost as tired as Breezy,” Sure Stroke whispered.

Aspire winced and turned to face her fully. The raw concern showing in her eyes made him wince again. “I fed rather quickly on him,” he explained, “sometimes it happens when I get really hungry.” Pausing a moment to think, he added, “Er, it happens to all of us when we’re really hungry. Like, about to fall over hungry.”

Her brows furrowed and Sure Stroke fell silent. A look Aspire was all too familiar with flashed across her face, one he often shared when he sat down to study. On a whim, he parted his lips and ran his forked tongue over them.

Intrigue. Inquisitiveness. She wanted to know more. He knew that look in her eyes—they always widened and seemed to shine whenever she pressed him for more details. It was like they were trying to force themselves to take in as much as they could.

She stayed quiet, though, and kept her eyes fixed on his.

Aspire licked his lips to wet them, the taste of her inquisitive nature dancing upon his tongue. “I’m fine,” he said. “Vector filled me up, so I’m not going to go all predatory on anyone. Promise.”

Sure Stroke chewed on the inside of her cheek for a moment, then gave a single nod and settled back into her seat.

Sighing in relief, Aspire pushed Vector into Zephyr’s waiting hooves so he could return to his place, then took his own at Sure Stroke’s side. He licked his lips once more, and again the same taste greeted him.

He would owe her answers later. And, knowing her, there would be no allowances for sugar coating.

With a shaky chuckle, he settled into his seat. “So, how about that math homework? Everyone ready for the wonders of exponentials?”


“Alright, so,” Aspire said as he rose from his seat and shook out the stiffness in his legs, “do you guys feel okay with all the stuff I covered? Like, really sure?”

Vector scoffed, reinvigorated after a rather hearty breakfast and a lot of prodding by both nymphs to eat more. “Yeah, yeah, bookbug,” he replied with an airy wave of his hoof. “Just go through the order of operations and all that silly expo-whatsit stuff, and we’re gold.”

“And don’t go blazing through it like a certain Zippy colt,” Zephyr added. He sighed and shook his head. “You would’ve done so much better on that last test if you’d just slow down a little every now and then.”

“Well, excuse me if I think I can get it done earlier instead of taking three centuries!”

The pair fell to their bickering. Aspire chuckled nervously and stepped aside so Sure Stroke could stand with them. They waited quietly, watching in amusement as they waited for Vector and Zephyr to finish exchanging barbs before they gave up and called out a quick goodbye to the colts.

Aspire held open the door so Sure Stroke could exit first, earning himself a bright smile and a little fluff of her feathers. She had such pretty coloration—a soft violet that seemed to go perfectly with how soft her downy feathers looked and the sheen of sunlight off her velvet smooth coat.

A not-so-small part of him dared to think of reaching out and laying a hoof upon it as he had before, just to feel the sensation of warm pony coat tickling his chitinous hoof again. Maybe, if he felt particularly daring, even steal a nuzzle and drink in the familiar biting scent of ink and musty pencil shavings and parchment that always surrounded the pudgy little artist.

Despite his want, Aspire managed to restrain himself. But only just.

“Thanks for your help,” Sure Stroke said. “I don’t know if I ever would’ve figured out the expo … exponents?”

“Exponentials,” he supplied helpfully. “And yeah, they’re gonna be quite an adventure. Speaking of which, how’d you do on the test? You never told me.”

It was like he cast a spell to chase her bright, sunny smile away. The filly wrinkled her snout, and a subtle hint of irritation and disappointment stung his tongue. Aspire offered a sympathetic half-smile. “Not well?”

Sure Stroke shrugged. “I got a seventy-three—but that’s probably better than I would’ve done if you hadn’t helped.” She kicked the dirt path, watching as a clump of dirt dissolved into dust in mid air. With a tired sigh and a flick of her tail, she turned her attention to Aspire again. “Thanks again. I owe you.”

Aspire made to wave her off and deny it, but stopped short. His ears twitched, a slow smile spread across his muzzle until it nearly split his face. She owed him a drawing of Cloudsdale. Any part of her choice, so he could see it as she did.

Before he could bring it up, he noticed the inquisitive look in her eyes again. She had questions, and Aspire had a sneaking suspicion he knew exactly what was on her mind.

Sighing, he let his shoulders slump. “I suppose I owe you an explanation for that—” he tossed his head toward the shop “—little show.”

A laugh threatened to bubble forth at the sheepish smile that flashed across her face. “Am I that obvious you don’t even have to taste anymore?” she asked.

“Kinda. You had your ‘curious Doodle is curious’ look.”

The smile vanished. Sure Stroke sucked in her lips and shook her head. “One of these days, Aspire. One of these days …” Another shake of her head. Aspire caught sight of her wings rustling and her tail flicking as though chasing away a persistent fly. “What was that whole thing about, anyway? And why did you hide it from me? You know I don’t like that.”

Aspire couldn’t help but flinch at the memory of the first time she got on him for hiding from her. A phantom pain bit into the left side of his jaw. “I was hungry,” he answered. “Really hungry.”

Sure Stroke snorted and raised an eyebrow. “I’ve seen Queen Euphoria and Caress feed, and I’ve seen you, Essy, and all the other nymphs hungry at lunch or in the shops, Aspire. Why does that make a difference?”

“Not that kind of hungry. Like … think of the hungriest you’ve ever been.” Aspire rolled a hoof through the air. “And think of how bad it is if you’ve been flying a lot without eating. All around Cloudsdale’s outer limits, for example. How would you feel?”

Blinking, she tilted her head and replied, “Like I could eat Sweet Treat’s entire display case, probably.”

Aspire bobbed his head. “Yeah, exactly. So, for me, you’re the case and what I need is …” he trailed off, his smile faltered. Slowly, he reached out and laid his hoof upon her chest, right over her heart.

“Our love,” Sure Stroke finished for him. “So when you get hungry, you start eying us up like we would a buffet table. And then you … change?” She blinked again, scrunching her nose in a way Aspire found quite adorable. “Why would that make you change?”

“Part of our nature as changelings. We do it when we’re angry, too.”

“But I’ve seen you mad before, other changelings too.” Her brows furrowed, Sure Stroke brought a hoof to her chin. “Wait, I thought the glowing eyes was to show you were angry or ready to cause trouble. Didn’t Vector says something about them?”

Again, Aspire nodded. “Yeah. Glowing eyes are part of it. And, well, yeah, we make our eyes glow or flash when we’re mad. I’m talking, like, angry enough to pick a real fight. Not like you and I just fooling around and wrestling or something.”

Comprehension dawned on her. “Like, if someone went after Essy, you’d …” With a bit of a crooked smile, she waved her hoof at his face. “You know? Go scary?”

He couldn’t help it. “Go scary?” Aspire repeated, his voice tinged with mirth. “Oh, yeah. If anyone tried to go after Essy, I would probably ‘go scary.’ Same for y—” hesitating a moment, he covered his mouth and feigned a cough. “Ahem. Same for all of our friends.”

If she heard his little slip, Sure Stroke did a great job of masking it. He didn’t so much as taste a hint of amusement or surprise. Instead, she nodded to herself, then shifted so she could jam a hoof into her messenger bag in search of something. “Speaking of things I owe you,” she said, the sunny smile returning to her face, “I have something you’ve been waiting on for a while. My end of the trade.”

Aspire pricked his ears up. Could it be? “Is it?”

“It is,” she replied as she pulled her sketch pad out and began to flip through the pages.

A broad grin spread across his muzzle, he bounced lightly on his hooves like a little hatchling about to get his first taste of love from a friend. Aspire reared up and grabbed her shoulders, shaking her lightly.“Yes, yes, yes, yes, yes! Gimme! Gimme! Gimme!”

Laughing, Sure Stroke pulled away and unfurled a wing as if to swat him over the head for what seemed like the hundredth time. “A little patience goes a long way!” she scolded playfully as she stopped searching for his drawing. Yet she still held it close to her chest, guarding it against his hungry eyes. “Didn’t your mother ever tell you that?”

Aspire’s eyes flashed green. “She did!” he hissed, a wicked grin tugging at his lips. “She also taught me ways to make the ponies who teased me regret challenging a changeling, and you’re just begging to punch your ticket for another tickle session with Nim!”

To his surprise, she didn’t recoil or stammer like before. Instead, she just stuck her tongue out and fluffed her feathers, then passed him the sketch pad without a word—just that bright, cheery smile.

Curious, Aspire looked at the drawing for about three seconds. Then, his jaw hit the dirt path.

Not literally, though, had he been a bit more aware, he could’ve pulled it off just to see the look on her face. However, his mind was on the beautiful drawing he held in his hooves—two pegasus foals sitting together on the edge of a fountain, the colt a bit older than the filly he held in his hooves as they both beamed up at Aspire.

The filly had a soft violet coat and feathers, a deep purple mane, and eyes as blue as Aspire’s own. He blinked a few times. “Is this …”

“Altocumulus and I,” Sure Stroke finished softly. “That’s the rainbow fountain outside the main Weather Factory building where my dad used to work. We would always go visit when he drew the weekend shift and sit on the edge until he was done working.”

The words “rainbow fountain” barely registered with him. The way she colored it, how all the different reds and blues seemed to blend together like someone took a big spoon and stirred the pool of liquid prism around until it was a kaleidoscopic wonder that drew him in, forcing him to gaze upon it in wonder. And the spout of rainbow that shot up from the center of the pool shone as though caught in actual sunlight.

It wasn’t just a drawing. Aspire held a small sample of Sure Stroke’s talent, her greatest gift, in his hooves. A gift she shared in exchange for his own.

“It’s beautiful,” he whispered. Absentmindedly, he sat back on his haunches so he could stare at it a little longer. He ran a hoof along the fountain’s edge as though he expected to feel the soft, fluffy caress of sculpted clouds against his chitin instead of sketch paper. Maybe he could put it up on a wall. Though, not with slime. That would ruin the colors and tinge the entire thing a rather unflattering shade of green.

Aspire blinked. Since when had slime green been unflattering?

Since a nice filly handed me the most beautiful look at her home I could’ve ever wanted? Still, what could he put it in if not a thorough coating of …

A frame. Aspire needed a frame. Maybe one with a little leg so it could sit on his desk at home.

Sure Stroke’s giggle brought him back to Respite. She regarded him with a toothy grin and said, “I’m glad you like it. For the longest time, I wasn’t sure what part of Cloudsdale you might want to see, but then I remembered you mentioned rainbows when you first asked. So—”

“I love it!” Aspire interrupted, his eyes flitting between the beautiful rainbow and the filly responsible for its splendor. “It’s really, really … wow. And you got to see this all the time?” At her nod, he gave a rueful smile and said, “I wish I could see it for myself. Must be something, huh?”

“It really is!” she replied, feathers fluffing again. Her grin faltered a bit as Sure Stroke ducked her head and let her ears droop. “I’m not sure I did it justice. Seeing it is a whole different story.” Pausing a beat as if to think, she made to speak but stopped herself. Then she smiled again. “In any case, glad you like it.”

“Love, Doodle. I love it. And yeah, this is perfect. Definitely worth the trade!” Aspire charged his magic to tear the page out, but hesitated. “Er, you don’t mind, do you?”

She shook her head. “No, go ahead. It’s for you anyway. The page is perforated, so you shouldn’t get any torn edges.”

“Huh?” Blinking, he glanced between Sure Stroke and the pad. “I was just gonna cut through it.” In a flash of green, a razor thin bolt of magic sheared through the top of the page in a neat, straight line. Just as if he used a paper cutter. Aspire took the page in hoof and held it up for her to see, offering the sketch pad back with the other. “Like this.”

“Oh. Well then.” With an amused snort, Sure Stroke accepted the sketch pad and stuffed it into her messenger bag again. She scrunched up her snout in thought for a moment. “Isn’t it a little unfair, though?”

“Isn’t what unfair?”

“Me being done with the trade?”

Aspire blinked a few times. “Uh. Yeah, it is. You needed help with math, I wanted a drawing. Trade complete.”

“Isn’t it unfair to Vector and Zephyr, though?” she pressed. “You feed on Vector or have Zephyr buy pancakes every week, not just one and done.”

Oh. Aspire furrowed his brows. She did have a point there: her tutoring sessions hadn’t ended, in fact, there was no definitive end date. Still, it was her first trade. Couldn’t he go a little easy on her, just this once?

By the determined gleam in her eyes and the fresh taste of resolve popping like cinnamon on his tongue, Aspire had a sneaking suspicion the offer would fly about as well as he would in a rainstorm. Sighing, he ran a hoof through his messy blue mane. “I mean, if we’re going to do it like I arranged with the others, you’d just have to draw me something once in a while.”

“Like what?” Sure Stroke asked, tilting her head. “More stuff from Cloudsdale?”

“If you want.” Aspire shrugged. “Or anything, really. I like your drawings—doodles, especially,” he added with a wicked grin.

A scowl flashed across her muzzle. “I ought to smack you for that one, but you’re being nice even though you’re teasing.”

“You’re starting to catch on.”

“I am. Stop looking so smug.”

“Never!” he cried. “For a Smugling does as a Smugling does!”

Rolling her eyes, she shook her head. “You smug, therefore you are?”

“Yes, I like that one.”

“Thank you.” Sure Stroke stood up straight as an almost business like frown played upon her lips. “So, the same way every time? Colored?”

Aspire bobbed his head from side to side and let out a noncommittal grunt. “I’d be fine with sketches, so you’re not taking so long. And it doesn’t have to be every week.”

“Oh. That’s fair.” Nodding once, she smiled. “Then, I’ll draw in exchange for more lessons. Talent for talent.”

“Yes, that.”

“Then, I’ll try to have something for you soon.” Sure Stroke turned away to look down the path toward the schoolhouse. “I promised Nimble and Toola I’d go watch them practice their dance. Essy’s there too, if you want to come with us.”

He shook his head and stood, still clutching her drawing in one hoof. “Nah, I’ve got something to take care of, too. You go on ahead. Tell the girls I said hi, and tell Nimble I said to tickle you till you shrieked.”

Sure Stroke threw back her head and laughed. “Yes to the first, no chance in Tartarus to the second!” she chirped before bounding a few steps down the path and took wing. “See you later, Aspire!”

“Bye, Doodle!” he called back, watching as she flew off toward the schoolhouse until she was little more than a violet dot against the verdant trees and clear blue sky. Then his gaze fell to the beautiful drawing held tight in his hoof. Aspire buzzed his wings, lifting himself into the air in a lazy hover and then headed toward the Wood brothers’ shop.

A quick size check and exchange of bits later, he had the perfect frame for his new drawing. His newest and—dare he say it?—favorite piece he’d ever put on display in his room, holding a place of honor on the right side of his desk where he could easily glance at it during reading breaks.

With that in mind, Aspire cracked open his personal favorite adventure book, Daring Do and the Quest for the Sapphire Stone to put the theory to practice. If his calculations were correct, a few moments spared to glance in wonder at the swirling rainbow and smiling filly would only extend his usual reading time by a half hour for a final time of four.

It took him two just to finish the first chapter.

30. A Letter from Home

View Online

Esalen stood shoulder to shoulder with Toola Roola, both giggling at the way Sure Stroke surveyed the crowd around the village center with slack jawed awe. She ran her tongue over her lips purely for the fun of it, the popping taste of surprise and shock tickling her taste buds.

“You and Aspire never said this was such a big thing,” Sure Stroke muttered out of the side of her mouth.

Mail day was an event in Respite. Everyone with friends and family across Equestria, changeling and pony alike, showed up to wait impatiently for Hawkeye and Merryweather to deliver their sack full of letters, packages, and newspapers.

“It must have slipped our minds,” Esalen said with such syrupy sweet, feigned innocence that even their parents fell into sniggers or chitters over.

To her left, Aspire gave a matching smile. “I was too busy trying to sneak a peek at that drawing you did for me. And now that I have it, I’m quite sure I was justified in trying.”

Their father’s familiar chuckle tickled her ears. “Now, nymphs,” he began with amusement tinging his voice, “don’t you think you should give Sure Stroke a little break on her first mail day?”

Esalen pursed her lips, slowly turning to share a look with Aspire. They nodded in unison, then faced him and chimed together, “Never!”

Snorting, Drizzly Days shook his head and whipped his seemingly perpetually matted mane back and forth. “Saw that one coming like a storm front a mile off,” he muttered. With a crooked smile, he tussled his daughter's mane before turning his attention to Skydancer. “You think Anvil Crawler and Spring Virga would’ve written back in time for this round?”

“Hopefully so,” Skydancer replied. There was a note of apprehension buried somewhere beneath her usual chipper tone. Esalen scrunched up her snout at the taste that came with it. Bleh! Family related nerves! As if on cue, the mare gave her wings a nervous rustle, then said, “You don’t think Anvil will be upset it took us so long to write them, do you?”

Esalen turned away from their conversation in favor of standing close by her friend while Aspire began quietly explaining how most of the villagers had someone they kept in touch with on the outside—whether through family, friendship, or however long they’d stayed while being helped through problems, like Prancy and Hab, or treated for ailments.

And Sure Stroke stood there with eyes wide and ears perked up, the model student for his little lecture. The pair looked as though they were in their own little world, their own studious paradise.

By love, those two are so drunk on each other that I’d end up with a stomach ache if I tried sipping right now. She shook her head, then reared up on her hind hooves to see if she could spot Hawkeye or Merryweather coming down the path.

Sure enough, a bubbly little mare trotted alongside a larger stallion, her sunny yellow feathers fluffing and her short powder blue mane bouncing with each step. She wore a bright smile on her face as she chattered away, oblivious to the bemused look spread across her companion’s dark purple muzzle. Though Esalen couldn’t see his eyes, she had a feeling he was fixing the smaller mare with a raised brow, hidden beneath a paler purple mane while he carried the large mailbag on his back.

The others were quick to notice, too. A buzz went through the crowd, and a few of the villagers began to bounce on their hooves, eager to see if any of their friends had written.

Hawkeye came within earshot at last. He stopped and tossed his mane so he could regard the villagers for a few seconds. Then, he snorted and stage whispered, “Merry, it’s almost like they expect me to bring something for them every time we come back with this thing.”

Excited buzzing turned to outright laughter when the tiny mare huffed and tried to push him forward, only succeeding in digging a small divot in the path. Hawkeye simply laughed and resumed his natural form in a flash of green fire. His shaggy, powder-purple mane remained while his coat reverted back to smooth, polished carapace. His eyes, on the other hoof, were a darker shade—the same as his preferred disguise’s coat.

He trotted to stand before the crowd and was met by his loving wife, Lacewing, a changeling mare with a gray-blue mane. With a bright smile that showed his fangs and pointed teeth, he kissed her deeply before bidding Merryweather to go find Whimsy Mimsy. Then he dropped the bag so he and Lacewing could root through the mail and call out each household who received mail this time around.

Naturally, he pulled out Queen Euphoria’s first. Hawkeye didn’t even have to call out for her to approach, flanked by Breezy and Morning Dew, and hold out a hoof. He bowed his head in kind as he hoofed it over, earning a smile and a kiss to his forehead in reply before she turned and led her husband and lover off to find the rest of their little pile.

“How does he get them all in bundles like that,” Sure Stroke whispered, “if no one in the post offices comes to deliver to the village? It’s not like we put our address on them.”

Aspire raised a hoof. “You met the train station manager when you got off, right? The older one who pointed you all down the path?” At Sure Stroke’s nod, he grinned. “Main Line’s family have been friends of our village for a couple generations. The way he tells it, his great-great-grandmother got a bad case of cutie pox that messed up her immune system and led to her getting the flu, and there wasn’t enough time to go to Manehattan or Canterlot. Her family knew about a village in the area, so they brought her here and Queen Farfalla and her husband, Bozzolo, treated her.”

“They’ve been helping us out ever since,” Faith added, sparing the group a small smile. “And a good thing, too. They’ve helped keep a look out for ponies in search of our village, along with those who need help but don’t know where to turn.”

“Faith and Warm Welcome!” Hawkeye called above the din. He held twine-bound letter and newspaper in hoof, waving it above his head. “Looks like a letter from Haberdasher!”

Barely a second later, Lacewing chimed in, “And I’ve got a few for Drizzly Days, Skydancer, and Sure Stroke!”

The crowd parted to allow the two families passage. Esalen trotted alongside her brother and Sure Stroke, leaving Toola to stand with Nimble and their parents while they waited to see if they’d be called.

As they approached, Hawkeye and Lacewing greeted both families with smiles. “Hello, again,” Hawkeye said with a hint of exhaustion and scratchy throat evident in his voice. He nodded to Drizzly, Skydancer, and Sure Stroke in turn. “Sorry I haven’t been around to catch up since meeting in Cloudsdale, but Merry and I have been out looking for a couple things the Queen asked us to take care of.”

“Nothing too urgent, I hope,” Drizzly replied, furrowing his brows. “You sound like you’re getting sick, Mister Hawkeye.”

“Just Hawkeye,” came the practiced reply. “And I’ll be alright, Drizzly. We were out in the Vanhoover area, so I may have just caught a cold.” He paused to smile at Sure Stroke, licking his lips. His eyes brightened. “And if it isn’t little Sure Stroke. You don’t taste nearly as anxious as the last time we met.”

Sure Stroke ducked her head to hide the pink tinge in her cheeks. Her eyes flitted to Aspire and Esalen, then Faith and Warm Welcome. “I’ve had help,” she said quietly. “I’m sorry about how nervous I was.”

He waved her off. “Don’t be. I had to run out of one family’s house before the father got his ax two weeks ago. Took Merry hours to calm him down enough before I could come inside again.”

Lacewing nudged his shoulder. “Honey,” she hissed, her smile took on an edge, “don’t you think we can wait a little to talk about those visits so the village doesn’t have to wait on their mail?”

His smile faltered as a wave of laughter and chittering giggles swept through the crowd. Hawkeye’s chitinous cheeks colored as he passed the mail over to a grinning Warm Welcome and muttered, “There ya go, Warm. Faith. Have a nice day.”

“Thanks, Hawk,” Warm replied just as Drizzly accepted his letter and newspaper from Lacewing. Nodding to both of them, he said, “Have a good morning, you two. Drizzly? Sky? Feel like joining us for breakfast?”

The pair hesitated for a moment. A hint of apprehension flitted across Drizzly’s face. “Er, what did you have in mind?” he asked.

Warm gave his brightest smile. “I was hoping for a trade,” he said with a flash of hunger showing in his eyes.

A flash of hunger shared by Faith and Esalen herself. She ran her forked tongue over her lips to taste. Drizzly and Skydancer held a hint of apprehension, but mixed with a sort of trust shared by friends and the love of husband and wife.

Sure Stroke, on the other hoof, taste curious. And, slowly, almost like an aftertaste making its way to the forefront, comprehension. She smiled and glanced at her parents, then at Esalen’s family—though her gaze did linger a bit longer on Aspire.

Following her gaze, Esalen caught Aspire’s eye and raised a single brow in silent questioning.

He bit his lip, his deep blue eyes flitted between the two fillies. His tongue darted out to taste just as hers had, then he blinked a few times. He’d caught it.

Aspire relaxed and nodded. Then he gave a crooked smile as he made an offer, “A nibble for half a meal?”


Sure Stroke had been less than enthusiastic about Aspire’s offer. Not that she was reneging on prior offers to allow him or Esalen to feed, but on the “unfairness” of it. All the way through town, up the dirt path to their home, and even into Faith’s immaculate kitchen, the little filly made her case that a nibble—which Esalen explained was as much a snack as a couple cookies—wasn’t equivalent to half of a meal.

Only when Faith interjected with a stern look did she stop long enough to listen. “You’re about to feed two changelings for the first time,” Faith had said slowly. “The first time is always the most draining, no matter how much you offer. Add in that you’re going to feed both of my nymphs, and I suspect you’ll be singing a different tune by the end.”

Aspire and Esalen were still chittering and teasing her for the way she scrunched up her snout. That the pair sat on either side of her to make sure she couldn’t slip away only made things worse.

She looked around, her eyes flitting from Drizzly and Warm reading their letters aloud for their wives, to the mares standing and bickering by the stove. A smile tugged at her lips as she heard her mother trying to argue that it wasn’t fair for Faith to cook for all of them, only for the changeling to simply turn and remind her she only had to cook for five since they agreed to feed.

Of course, that did nothing to stop Skydancer from puffing up her cheeks and hovering nearby in case she could offer any help.

And she says I get my stubbornness from Dad, Sure Stroke shook her head, then glanced down at the envelope resting before her on the table. Her cousin’s neat, pointed script stared back at her.

Cousin Sure Stroke

Respite

Sunrise Province

Equestria

Train and Post Station 713, Box 20

A hoof nudged her shoulder. Sure Stroke glanced out of the corner of her eye to see Aspire’s grinning face. “Go on,” he said eagerly, “read it. I wanna see if his reaction is as funny as you said!”

“Or if it’s as adorable as when we call her Doodle?” Esalen chipped in with her coy smile.

“Literally impossible, Essy. Nothing compares to Doodle’s faces.”

Sure Stroke sucked in a breath and fixed each with a narrow-eyed glare. It only lasted a second or two before she smiled again. “You’ll see,” she said. “Just get ready to listen to my goofball of a cousin’s eccentricities.”

“Eccentricities?” Warm Welcome repeated from his place at the head of the table. He set his own letter down and picked up his coffee, then leaned back in his pod seat with a little rubber like squeak. “This ought to be entertaining, then.”

At his side, Drizzly snorted. “You’ve no idea.” He turned and nodded to Sure Stroke. “Go ahead, sweetheart.”

Sure Stroke beamed and quickly tore open the envelope. She snatched the letter from within, then settled back to read aloud.

Cousin Sure Stroke,

Please stop using my full name! When you do that, the mailpony reads the entire name on the envelope before giving it to me and it's embarrassing!

In any case, I suppose I can forgive the long wait, even though I've been waiting for word ever since you left! What if you had found something cool? I'd only just now be hearing about it! I'm very envious that you're getting to explore new lands. Is the weather interesting there? Here it's been awfully boring. Hardly any thunder at all. In fact, I'd say things since you left have been just that: boring. Mom and Dad are off doing the lecturing, and I'm stuck here. Sure that might seem fun at first, but... Did you know they don't let anyone without a permit engage in unassisted cyclogenesis? Even if you are the top of your class!

Oh! That reminds me, Mom recently was included in a team to look into mesocyclone evolution and how it's related to tornado genesis in the untamed areas of Equestria—like the Badlands or the plains near Everfree Forest! I've not been able to sneak the rough drafts yet, but she's told me about how sometimes the downdraft of the storm would come out hot! HOT! And then they wondered just how or why it would come down hot when it should be coming down cold, but then it hit them! The stratosphere! Some storms' circulations are pushing outside the troposphere, past the tropopause, and into the stratosphere! It's so wild!

I got off track. Glad you're not all by your lonesome. I always worried about you being alone all the time. I was also worried about your mane. It's relatively dry up in Cloudsdale, even when everything’s foggy (or I guess it would just be 'cloudy' since there's no ground involved?), so I wasn't sure how things might be where it's more humid. Related, they made a more precise hygrometer only last week! It's seriously amazing how quickly and accurately it measures!

I got off track again. Anyway, it sounds like things are good. Say hi to Auntie and Uncle for me. (Or have them read this: "Hi!"). Oh, and if you want a good screaming cloud, definitely go for cumulus humulus this time of year.

-Alto

There was silence for a moment. Then a thud as Drizzly banged his head on the table. “Unassisted cyclogenesis,” he growled into the wood. “I’m going to knock my brother over his head, then I’m going to have a talk with Altocumulus.”

“I must be missing something,” Warm said, blinking as he looked between Drizzly, then Skydancer, then finally Sure Stroke, and back again. “What is that?”

“Strengthening a cyclone in the atmosphere,” Drizzly replied without lifting his head. “Making it more powerful where it begins. In short, it’s not a good idea for untrained pegasi to try it. Ever. That’s exactly why we have the certifications.”

“So it’s dangerous, then.”

“Extremely.”

Warm nodded in understanding. “I see.” He turned slowly to fix Aspire and Esalen with a stern look. “Sort of like a certain pair of nymphs sneaking off in their pony disguises to hang out near the Tunnel of Love at Coneigh Island when they were barely seven, eh?”

The pair gave the biggest, brightest grins Sure Stroke had ever seen. Their pointed teeth and long fangs even gleamed—literally, gleamed!—as they tried to make themselves look as sweet and innocent as possible. How a pair of changeling nymphs who openly said causing mischief and playing tricks thought they could feign innocence in front of their own father was well and truly beyond her.

But they tried. They failed miserably—evident as the family of four broke into chittering laughter at the memory—but they at least tried to play it up like the foals back home.

Yet another reminder of how similar they were, even though they were still so strange.

Aspire caught Sure Stroke’s questioning look and fought down his mirth long enough to say, “We were really hungry, and mom and dad were taking forever chatting with a couple ponies, so we just snuck off to the perfect little buffet for hungry changelings.”

“Yes,” Faith purred as she trotted over with a large platter of cinnamon rolls and a stack of plates balanced on her back. A rather put out Skydancer trailed in her wake. “Fortunately, Warm and I caught up to them before any of the guards could hear them talking about how ‘sweet and filling’ the couples’ love was each time they got a sip.”

Sure Stroke bit her tongue to hold back a laugh and forced herself not to turn her gaze upon either of the twins. Instead, she fixed her attention on the cinnamon rolls Faith placed in the center of the table. Or, rather, eight stone-sized pastries slathered in thick, creamy icing. They looked like the ones some of the fancy bakeries back home sold—big and heavy enough that they looked like they could knock a pony out cold, with enough icing that she could almost feel the sugar rush coming on.

Fitting. After all, changelings loved their treats to be extra sweet. Just like the love they fed upon.

She licked her lips. A bit of extra sweetness every once in a while was fine. She’d just have to eat light for the rest of the day.

Once Faith distributed plates and offered each of them two of the cinnamon rolls, she passed Aspire and Esalen one each. Then she guided Skydancer over to sit near Warm Welcome and Drizzly Days.

Curious, Sure Stroke glanced at Aspire and Esalen’s portions. “Are you sure that’s going to be enough if you’re just nibbling?” she asked.

Aspire bobbed his head. “Well, for these? More a bite than a nibble,” he admitted. He scooted over in his pod so he could come closer and turned to face her. “But Essy and I will be careful about how much we take. Besides, you’ve seen Breezy and Zippy after being fed on, and Bright Sky, too.” Smiling, he tapped her plate twice. “You’re gonna need those for your strength, and maybe a bit of mine. Probably gonna have want to nap afterward as well.”

She bit her lip. Sure Stroke glanced over at the adults, who were all scooting a little closer. She watched closely as Faith and Warm Welcome asked her parents to relax, and just think of someone they loved each other, their friends, her, even them if they felt friendly enough.

“Any sort of love or attachment will work,” Faith said to Skydancer as she rested her hooves on the mare’s sunny yellow shoulders. “Ready?”

Skydancer sucked in her lips and closed her eyes, nodding. “Ready.”

“Good. Now I’m going to drink, so it’s going to be like breathing. Deep breath in—” she waited for Skydancer to do so, while Warm and Drizzly went through the same across from them“—and exhale for me.”

Both Drizzly and Skydancer did so. The changelings drew in deep breaths, their eyes wide and alight with hunger as they began to coax an ethereal green glow forth from her parents' mouths and drank it greedily.

As Skydancer let out a tiny whimpering moan, Sure Stroke started. Her wings tensed up as she watched her mother slowly relax in Faith’s embrace.

She felt a smooth, chitinous nose brush against her right cheek. “Ready?” Esalen asked.

Somewhere in the back of her mind, a little voice told her to call it off. The natural, trained fear of these tricksters who so delighted in feeding on ponies’ love and affection screamed out, begging her to think this through.

Esalen blinked, the forked tips of her tongue poked out between her lips. “Still nervous?”

“You don’t have to let us feed if you don’t want,” Aspire added quietly. “I’ll—we’ll understand if you’re afraid.”

Sure Stroke whirled around to face him so quickly her neck muscles strained and fixed him with a frosty glare. A hint of satisfaction shot through her as he flinched. “I’m nervous, not afraid,” she retorted. “I’m not the terrified little filly you both met at the gate!” She drew in a deep breath, then let it out slowly. “It’s just … different. Like everything else here.”

For a moment, neither spoke. There was silence save for the sound of Faith and Warm Welcome feeding and her parents’ shuddering breaths. Then, it stopped. Her ears twitched as she heard both changelings whisper their thanks and check on how their donors felt, before prodding them to eat.

Memories of Caress, Queen Euphoria, and Aspire himself flashed before her eyes. Each fed and made sure the ponies who gave them love were comfortable afterward.

The changelings from all the scary stories never did that. Sure Stroke closed her eyes and took a deep breath. She nodded once. “I’m ready,” she whispered, “eat up.”

Sure Stroke heard both let out happy purrs from the back of their throats, then lick their lips with a little slurping sound. Smooth, chitinous hooves wrapped around her shoulders. She felt Esalen lay her head upon her shoulder, while Aspire laid his chin atop her head.

“Just relax,” Aspire whispered.

“And think of something you love,” Esalen added.

Slowly, Sure Stroke let her thoughts wander. What did she love? There were her parents, of course, and her cousin, Altocumulus. But what about all her other friends in Cloudsdale? Or those she made in Respite?

Why not all of it? After all, she was an artist—her mind was as much a canvas as any. She conjured up a familiar scene in her old neighborhood in Thunderbolt Heights. The low rumble of distant thunder sounded in her ears, Sure Stroke saw her parents standing and chatting away with Queen Euphoria, Breezy, Faith, and Warm Welcome. Esalen sat a few feet to her left while Nimble Hooves and Toola Roola went through their dance routine, taking the time to narrate some of the steps to an older colt.

Altocumulus.

Altocumulus tilted his head, running a hoof through powder blue and white mane as he watched with rapt attention. No doubt he was thinking of all the different muscles at work or the impressive dexterity in the fillies’ each and every action.

On her left sat Aspire. His playful grin spread across his face, he inclined his brows, then slowly raised a water balloon in hoof and nodded toward Altocumulus and Esalen.

A strange tingling tickled her chest, like a feather brushing over her torso. Sure Stroke let out a tiny gasp. She felt it spread, first to her head, then flood her entire being with a tingly, pins-and-needles sort of sensation. Sure Stroke’s muscles tensed, she bit her lip and tried to squirm to shake it off.

The hooves around her held fast. They didn’t tighten, but they didn’t let her move too far. “Relax,” Aspire whispered in her ear. “We’re taking small bites. Just take deep breaths, let them out slowly, and try to keep whatever picture you’ve got in your head.”

Despite her unease, Sure Stroke nodded. She breathed in deep through her nose until her chest filled, then let it out. Don’t fight it, she told herself. Treat it like a trip to the dentist. The strange, alien sensation made the hairs on the back of her neck stand on end, but Sure Stroke did her best to maintain the image in her head. The imaginary Aspire ignored her hushed, laughter filled warning and lobbed an overfilled water balloon at Esalen and Altocumulus …

“It’s delicious,” Esalen crooned, a note of rapture in her voice. She sighed and let out a low hum like she were savoring her favorite treat. “Your love is like cake batter and sweet cream, and almost as filling as Toola’s. Just a little more. Please.”

More?

Sure Stroke licked her lips and nodded, her neck muscles felt exhausted. It was like it took the strength and temerity of Commander Hurricane himself even to move. She could just lay her head down on the wood table and fall asleep, or maybe lounge in her pod seat and doze for a few hours.

“Couple more seconds,” Aspire said. He nosed into her mane, humming in content. His fangs tickled and scratched her scalp. “Better than cake batter,” he purred. “And much more filling. You’re delectable, Doodle.” Sure Stroke let out another gasp as she felt his forked tongue lap at her purple locks. She heard him swallow, then mutter, “Time to cut it, I think, Essy.”

Esalen’s forked tongue ran along her cheek, as affectionate as Queen Euphoria a couple weeks ago, but with a little something more. Gratitude. “Agreed. We’re done, Doodle.”

The tingling stopped. Sure Stroke slumped in their grasp, a tired whine escaped her lips. Soft, smooth lips pressed against her cheeks. Chitinous snouts nuzzled her as the twins whispered their thanks and compliments, like she’d cooked and served them a homemade meal.

In a way, perhaps she had. Sure Stroke mumbled sleepily. Regardless, that nap was sounding very enticing right now. Breakfast could wait until later, at least until after she took a little bit to rest her eyes.

Aspire snorted, his breath tickled her ear. “No sleeping!” he chided in a playful tone that was far too chipper and lively. He prodded her shoulder. “Doodles who just fed changeling nymphs have to eat so they can regain their strength!”

Whining, Sure Stroke tried to bat his hoof away, only for Esalen to giggle and join in poking her. “Tired,” she groaned.

“You need to eat first!” Esalen replied. “So no sleeping yet. Eat up, or we’ll feed you ourselves.”

“Just like a little foal,” Aspire added.

Jerks. With a sleepy grumble, Sure Stroke sat up and peered at her plate through bleary eyes, and lazily plucked a cinnamon roll from her plate. But they’re my jerks.


Once breakfast was eaten and everyone was full, Faith took charge. With a tone that brooked little room for argument, the matron of the changeling family decreed that their guests turned donors should rest, given their exhaustion. Both she and Warm led Skydancer and Drizzly out to the sitting room to lay on the couch.

Meanwhile, Sure Stroke found herself being frog-marched down the hallway toward the twins’ rooms with a grinning, chittering nymph pressed against either side so she couldn’t try to wriggle free. She couldn’t even unfurl her wings to fly out of their grasp, for all the good it would do. Flying while exhausted was never a good idea.

“I’m not that tired!” she whined despite her aching muscles begging for rest.

Aspire scoffed. “Yeah, and I’m a sea pony. You’re about to fall asleep on your hooves, Doodle. So, come on back and lay down in a pod for a couple hours.”

Before she could argue further, Esalen nipped at her ear tip. “No debates,” the nymph scolded. “Or we’ll call mom and let her give you the same lecture every new pony who tries arguing gets.”

A shiver ran down Sure Stroke’s spine. She hadn’t really seen Faith get angry. If anything, she was kind and understanding, much like Queen Euphoria had been. But the little glimpses of sternness she’d seen at dinner with Bright Sky, and this very morning with her family, Sure Stroke had a feeling Faith was a changeling she didn’t want to cross.

She heaved a tired sigh as Aspire nudged his bedroom door open and beckoned her inside. She trotted over to his bed pod, her hooves dragged against the wood floor. With a grunt, Sure Stroke reared up to try to climb into the gelatinous pod, but her muscles just didn’t have the strength.

Aspire and Esalen gave their chittering laughs. “Hang on,” Aspire said. “We’ll give you a boost.”

They moved before she could think to protest. Sure Stroke let out a startled squeak as they ducked and pushed her rump up and over the edge of the pod, sending her tail over teakettle onto the slimy center. It formed right around her like a warm, gooey blanket, almost as though it were enticing her to just sit still and doze off.

Not an idea she was opposed to.

The slime pod shifted. Sure Stroke managed to lift her head just enough to see Esalen laying on her stomach beside her, close enough that their sides brushed together. With a toothy grin, she laid her head near Sure Stroke’s and nuzzled her mane. “Thank you for trusting us,” she whispered. “It was brave of you, even if you don’t think so.”

“Welcome,” Sure Stroke slurred. She made to lean over to reciprocate the gesture, but ended up just laying her head on Esalen’s hooves. Another chittering laugh tickled her ears, her cheeks colored as she felt her friend slip one hoof out from under her head and wrap her in a loose hug, then rest her chitinous chin on her shoulder.

A steady buzzing filled the air and made her ears twitch. The bed pod shifted again, Aspire landed on her opposite side. “Figured you wouldn’t be up for too much talking,” he began, “so I thought I’d grab a book and read for you until you drift off. Don’t worry, it’s not Legacy of Love, so you’re not gonna miss anything new there.”

Curious, she cracked open an eye to meet his gaze—as much as she could through Esalen’s sugar pink mane. “What is it?” she asked. Or, at least, she tried to ask. Instead, her tired muscles and numb tongue made it sound more like “whazza?”

He scooted over so she could see his grin, then flashed the title for her. The words The Cold Queen were written in elegant, silver lettering, with the image of a grizzled unicorn stallion with a mane as black as charcoal and coat gray as ash glaring off into the distance displayed on the cover.

“A detective series I’ve been reading,” Aspire replied. “Hab got me the first five books a while back. I’ve been wanting to go get the rest of the series, but we haven’t had time. Close your eyes and relax, Do—” He hesitated for a moment, his grin faded. Instead, a fond smile played upon his lips. His eyes seemed to shine with an odd light. “Just relax, Sure Stroke. See you when you wake up.”

Too tired to speak, Sure Stroke gave a single nod, then closed her eyes. She took a deep breath, a content smile spread across her muzzle as she tried to pay attention to his story. It was a tale about a snarky young stallion, fresh out of his school years, who had run afoul of his government because he didn’t use his power wisely, and kept getting involved in matters he shouldn’t. Like accepting a job offer to prove the innocence of a strange mare with entrancing eyes and velvet smooth coat, accused of a crime so terrible it could start a war …

Sure Stroke would never quite remember when she finally drifted off.

31. That After Meal Lull

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Esalen had to fight every urge to croon and nuzzle between Sure Stroke’s twitchy violet ears when she started squirming and fluffing her feathers in her sleep. A small, contented smile spread across the filly’s muzzle as she dozed in Aspire’s bed pod, safe and sound in Esalen’s chitinous embrace.

About a half hour after Sure Stroke drifted off, Warm Welcome poked his head in to check on them. He took one look at Sure Stroke and smiled in understanding before whispering for them to stay with her and make sure she wasn’t too drained. Once they gave affirming nods, he floated over Haberdasher’s letter for them to read, and slipped out of the room, closing the door behind him with a soft click of the latch.

Scooting a bit closer, Aspire read the letter silently to himself while Esalen busied herself trying to picture what dreams ran through Sure Stroke’s doodly little head. Maybe she was drawing beneath her tree again? Or perhaps she was playing Guess the Pony?

A mumble here or there made her crane an ear and lean in closer, hoping to catch a word or two of her friend’s sleep talk. Out of the corner of her eye, Esalen noticed Aspire crack open an eye to fix her with a wry look. “What in love are you doing?” he whispered out of the side of his mouth, a bemused smile upon his muzzle.

“Listening,” she mouthed back and waggled her ears.

Sure Stroke turned so her nose brushed against Esalen’s chest and nosed against her smooth carapace. “—spire, stopppit,” she whined in contrast to the grin tugging at her lips.

A wicked grin spread across Esalen’s muzzle. So Sure Stroke’s dream wasn’t her under her tree or playing Guess the Pony, after all. Someone was dreaming about a certain smug bookbug teasing her silly.

Snorting, Esalen glanced at her brother and raised a brow at his darkening cheeks. It took every fiber of her self-control not to fall into peals of chitters at the wide-eyed stare he wore, or how his ears stood ramrod straight as if to catch the next bout of mumbling.

Slowly, she ran her tongue along her lips so Aspire could see it. Her grin widened as the blush spread across his face. If only he were in his favored pony form—she loved how the coat he picked out went from sherbet orange to flaming red.

”So very lovedrunk,” she mouthed.

Aspire sucked in his lips. With a huff, he let his eyes flit down to Haberdasher’s letter, away from her almighty grin.

Sometimes it paid to know exactly which buttons to press to make her smug, smart-mouthed, bookbug of a brother squirm as much as he loved making others. The little gnat deserved a good taste of his own medicine every now and again.

A low moan drew her attention back to Sure Stroke. The filly stirred in her grasp. Her eyelids fluttered a few times, then opened. With another tired moan, Sure Stroke looked around blearily for a moment until her gaze settled on Aspire and Esalen.

“Hello, sleepy,” Esalen teased. “How was not being tired?”

Sure Stroke mumbled something under her breath, then raised a hoof and pressed it against Esalen’s lips. Esalen crossed her eyes and blinked a few times. Did she really just …

“You … You …” Sure Stroke broke off to cover a yawn with her free hoof. “You shush your face and stop that coy smirking.”

To their left, Aspire sniggered. “Better put that hoof down,” he warned, “or Essy might bite.”

Blue eyes met pink. Esalen made a show of narrowing her eyes and pressing the tips of her fangs against Sure Stroke’s hoof. The filly squeaked and drew it back as quick as a flash.

Wicked grin still in place, Esalen patted her mane. “Smart filly.” She set her hoof down on the pod so Sure Stroke could sit up. Her ears perked up as the filly hissed and winced in pain. “Something wrong?”

“My back is a little stiff,” Sure Stroke replied through gritted teeth. Her eyes clenched shut. “I think changing positions and sleeping in the pod might have been a mistake.”

“Ah. You don’t sleep on your stomach,” Aspire put in. “So your muscles don’t like it.”

“That seems to be the case, yes.”

Esalen’s grin fell. A contemplative frown played upon her lips, she brought a hoof to her chin. “I have a book about muscles and massage therapy in my room,” she mused. “I’d been reading up on it for a while.”

“Oh?” Aspire turned his gaze upon her. “Looking for your trade?”

She nodded. “Yeah. I’ve been thinking things over.”

“Toola mentioned something about therapy—” She yawned again. “With stretches. And stuff. She called it Esalen and Toola’s Stretch Services, I think.”

He snorted and shook his head, his messy blue mane rustled like leaves in the wind. “What a goof. ‘Stretch Services’—she’s talking about physical therapy. And she’s thinking of something called yoga.”

Esalen fixed him with a wry look. “Sounds like some sort of yogurt.”

“It’s a series of stretches some ponies believe cleanses the body and can help rehab certain muscles. It’s Chineighs.” He shrugged. “It’d be right up Toola’s alley, really, since she can bend like she’s got elastics instead of muscles and tendons.” Blinking, he tilted his head. “What got you on massages?”

“Toola,” she replied. “She and Nim have pulled muscles before, and they mentioned massages helping. Breezy’s said similar things, so I thought I’d read up and try it out.” Glancing at Sure Stroke, Esalen tilted her head to the right. “Do you mind if I try it?”

Sure Stroke grimaced. “If you think it’ll help, I’m all for it.” She tried to arch her back, but stopped short and gave a hiss of pain. “Definitely laid down wrong.”

“Well, lay back down and don’t move too much. I’ll get the book and come back.” Esalen buzzed her wings and lifted off the comfortable embrace of her brother’s bed pod, then flew out of his room and into the hallway, before turning right into her own.

Her desk was covered in books and papers, both from school and her own musings. Aspire loved to needle her about it, calling it a bigger mess than his mane or one of her own long-winded excuses for lateness. Esalen sniffed at the mere thought as she touched down on the wooden floor and trotted over to search through the piles. Her desk wasn’t a mess, it was just organized in her own special way—it was all exactly as she left it the day before.

The only question was which of the four piles—wait, five. When did that one happen? It was starting to encroach upon the sovereignty of piles one and four, and four was rather important since that had all of her math homework for the past month.

Esalen let out an annoyed sigh through her nose, then set about searching through her piles. It had to be here somewhere. She was just reading it the other day, for love’s sake. It should be somewhere between the crumpled pages of her algebra homework, her copy of Legacy of Love, and The Walker—which she still needed to finish so she could return to Aspire. Of course, she needed to start it over, really. It had been so long since her last time reading, she could hardly recall the plot.

“Something about a demon who follows ponies around,” she muttered. “He Who Follows, I think.” Shaking her head, Esalen set it to the side and continued her search.

Nothing. It wasn’t on her desk at all. For a moment, panic gripped her chest with its icy claw. Like Aspire’s new book series, her therapy books had been gifts from Haberdasher. Losing one of them was just unthinkable. She couldn’t stand such an insult to his friendship with her family.

Esalen bit her lip and turned away from her desk so she could look at the slime trailing down the corners of her walls and pooling onto the floor. “Maybe I stuck it in my storage slime,” she thought aloud as she trotted over to the storage slime nearest her vanity cabinet. Sure enough, a hardback book with a burgundy cover bearing the title Massage Therapy and Techniques for Blockheads written in shining silver script.

With a happy chitter, she tugged grabbed the book and tugged it out of her storage slime. It was freed with a rubbery squelch-pop. Esalen set the spine in her mouth and held it tight, then bounded out of her room to return to Aspire and Sure Stroke.

The pair had stayed much the same way she left them, though Aspire seemed to be grinning and looked ready to say something that would earn the glaring filly’s wrath in the form of a wing upside the back of his head—her favorite punishment for his constant insolence.

Come to think of it, watching Sure Stroke whack him was quickly becoming Esalen’s favorite punishment for his insolence too! A regular pastime.

Esalen leaped onto Aspire’s bed pod and landed beside Sure Stroke with a little bounce as she sank into its slimy embrace and let it form around her. She set the book against the hard membrane edge so she could read, then began flipping through the pages until she found the section on back muscles. “Which part of your back hurts, Doodle?”

Wincing, Sure Stroke made as though to reach around and point, but stopped and drew in a breath through her teeth.

“Don’t try that if you’re in pain, Doodle,” Aspire chided. “Just tell her.”

She rolled her eyes. “Thanks for warning after I did it!”

“I like to think of myself as a proud devotee of hindsight.”

“Hatchlings, focus,” Esalen cut in sharply. “Doodle, which part?”

Sure Stroke blinked, then let her ears droop. “Er, right beneath my wing joints, sort of between that and my tail.”

“Uh huh.” Esalen turned a page. “Sharp pain or sort of a stiff, hard to move pain?”

“Hard to move.”

Medial gluteal and longissimus doors, probably. Furrowing her brows, Esalen scanned over the suggested techniques. “Hmm, so the book advises medium pressure and a kneading technique.”

Sure Stroke turned to fix her with a quizzical stare. “What does that mean?”

“It means you’ll start out uncomfortable because I’m pressing and rolling my hooves into your back like I would knead dough.” Uncertainty flashed in Sure Stroke’s eyes, Esalen flicked her tongue, frowning at the taste. She leaned over and nosed against Sure Stroke’s cheek. “You let me feed on you without a problem,” she said, “which is a much bigger leap than a massage, don’t you think? And I’ve done this before. It helps.”

On cue, Aspire bobbed his head. “She’s worked on my neck a couple times because I get stiff hunching over to read. And I know she’s helped Toola with cramps in her legs.”

Sure Stroke relaxed a bit. “I’ve not really had any sort of experience beyond mom rubbing my neck, so discomfort and pressure just seems weird.”

“Only at the start,” Esalen repeated. “Because I have to work out the stiffness and any lactic acids that might’ve built up. After that, it’s supposed to be very soothing.”

Pursing her lips, Sure Stroke laid her head down and nodded once. Her wings rustled nervously as Esalen drew near and placed her hooves upon her back.

“Just relax. It’ll be fine. I promise.” Esalen smiled and slowly began to roll and knead her hooves, even as her friend hissed in pain and gritted her teeth before letting a groan sound from the back of her throat. The first part of a massage like this was always uncomfortable for the patient, much like her mother’s talks.

The end results, though, would make it all worthwhile.


It took every bit of Esalen’s self-control not to chitter happily at how Sure Stroke laid still, purring like a kitten in the middle of Aspire’s bed pod. While the first few moments had been uncomfortable, as predicted, Sure Stroke learned soon enough that her technique was sound, even if it wasn’t refined with years of professional practice.

The filly had almost melted under her ministrations, barely more than cocoon slime in her hooves. With each roll forward, Sure Stroke would let out a happy sigh and smile into the gelatinous bedding, while each press down would draw a moan from the back of her throat.

To their left, Aspire snorted. “Somepony’s awful comfortable,” he teased. “Starting to think you’re a kitten instead of a filly, Doodle.”

“Essy,” Sure Stroke mumbled into the pod, “smack him for me.”

Esalen chittered, her eyes danced with mirth. “I’d have to stop.”

There was a brief pause. Then Sure Stroke said, “Essy, don’t smack him. I’ll do it myself.” Lazily, she waved her hoof and waved it in Aspire’s general direction. “Get over here so I can smack you, smugling.”

“Uh, no. I think not.” He made a point of grinning and leaning in close, just enough that he was a hair out of reach. “Not afraid of aimless flailing.”

“Aim can be arranged,” she grumbled. “Just wait until after Essy finishes up.”

“Try it and I’ll have you tied in knots, Doodle.” His grin widened, Aspire waggled his ears. “Essy might even join in tickling you silly while I hold you.”

“Leave me out of this,” Esalen said, her voice tinged with amusement. She shook her head. “I’m almost done anyway, so you can both roughhouse or sit and relax either way. Or, the walking bird’s nest can tell us what Mister Haberdasher wrote.”

He blinked. “Oh, right. Hab invited us all to meet him in Manehattan so we can go to Coneigh Island with him and Miss Skies.”

Esalen gasped and paused her ministrations for a moment, much to Sure Stroke’s dismay. “Oooh! Yes! Definitely yes!” She turned to Sure Stroke and beamed. “What about you, Doodle?”

Velvety violet ears perked up. “Wait, I’m invited?”

Aspire nodded once. “Us three, our parents, and even Nim, Toola, Zeph, and Zippy if their parents allow it. So, what do you think?”

“Um …” Sure Stroke chewed on her lip. “I mean, if they said I was invited—”

“Hab said we could invite our little circle of friends,” Aspire cut in. “Named you along with the others.”

“I’ve never been to Coneigh Island before,” she said slowly. “But I’ve heard it’s fun.”

Curious, Esalen flicked out her tongue. Again, a hint of uncertainty played across her taste buds, but this time mixed with a dash of happiness and excitement. She just needed a little push to say yes.

“There’s a lot of games and rides at Coneigh Island,” Esalen said. “And a couple of art supply shops in the area.”

Sure Stroke’s ears twitched. “I suppose I could ask after my parents get out of their—um, what do you call this? When ponies are tired after feeding?”

Aspire and Esalen shared a look, matching grins spread across their muzzles. They replied in perfect unison, “The after meal lull.”

With a tired laugh, Sure Stroke rolled her eyes and settled back onto the gelatinous bed. “Of course.” She shook her head. “I’ll ask after my massage is done, then.”

Esalen beamed and perked her ears up. “So, I’m good at it?”

“If your hooves don’t start massaging again, I’m going to be very upset.” Sure Stroke turned and stuck out her tongue. “Yes, you’re good at it, you coy, smart-mouthed nymph, and I would be very happy if you please got back to it!”

The trio fell to laughter and happy chittering. Esalen resumed her work, softly humming a little tune as she massaged Sure Stroke’s muscles. Warmth spread through her chest as she tasted her friend’s happiness, the light, fluffy joy that rolled of the pudgy little artist in waves.

Who knows? Maybe this could be her trade after all.

32. Our Favorite Faces

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It hadn’t taken much for Sure Stroke to convince her parents to let her go to Coneigh Island with her friends, but her mother did place one or two conditions on the visit. Since they were going for a full day and spending the night in Haberdasher’s house, Skydancer insisted that she bring along her homework so she wouldn’t fall too far behind in her studies.

Normally, Sure Stroke would’ve tried to wheedle her way out of it with a half-hearted promise to work on it once she returned home, but, much to her dismay, Aspire had been within earshot. Somehow what should have been a nice, relaxing train ride to Coneigh Island with her friends had turned into a mobile study session.

Terrific.

Sighing, she flicked her tail as she trotted toward the village gate with her parents and changeling neighbors. Her messenger bag, laden with her sketch pad and math notes, thumped against her left side with every step. She couldn’t be too angry, though, as Aspire did manage to catch her eye and let her peek in his bag just enough to see a familiar storybook slipped in alongside his math book.

Sure Stroke listened absentmindedly as Aspire and Esalen chattered away about the different games and rides she simply had to try, and the food they hoped to have again. Her thoughts wandered a bit, thinking back to some of the stories her friends from Cloudsdale would tell after they came home from Coneigh Island. She couldn’t help but compare theirs with her new friends’.

The foals in Cloudsdale always came home chattering about how strange it felt to walk down a paved sidewalk and look up at concrete buildings and the bridge connecting the city with the suburbs on the opposite side of Gallop Bay. Coneigh Island itself always seemed to be a great big game destination—they got to play darts, throw rings over bottles, and trot through the halls of mirrors. Rides were nice, but there was a little thrill to be had when they could do more with free flight.

“Boring” was all one of the fillies, a loudmouth braggart with a rainbow mane, said about the rides. They were boring to her family. While earth ponies and unicorns whooped and hollered, her family yawned and wondered if they could slip out and do a few loops around the track.

Aspire and Esalen, on the other hoof, went on as though it were a place out of a fairytale. Esalen was especially happy to paint a picture of families laughing and playing without a care in the world and of how new faces were greeted with smiles and the like.

“The rides are fun, too!” Esalen said. “Some ponies think they’re scary because they’re not used to going up high, but a lot of them get really into it.” She giggled, adding, “Aspire and I were confused the first time we went on a ride with a crowd of ponies. They were all screaming and shrieking while they rode the spinning cups, but we couldn’t taste any fear. They were all happy. Ecstatic, even.”

Confused, Sure Stroke fixed her with a quizzical look and furrowed her brows. “That doesn’t make sense. Who screams and shrieks when they’re happy?”

“You mean aside from Nim’s victims?” Aspire chipped in with a knowing smile.

“That’s not enjoyment and you know it, smugling.”

He brought a hoof to his chin in mock thought. “I dunno. An awful lot of laughter and smiling whenever she gets her hooves on somepony. Tears of joy, even. Right, Essy?”

“Naturally,” Esalen replied with absolute sincerity. She met Sure Stroke’s eyes and gave a tiny, innocent smile. It was a tad too innocent for her taste. “Nim takes great care to ensure all those who find themselves in her care leave with a big smile and tears of mirth.”

With a roll of her eyes and a fond shake of her head, Sure Stroke swiped a wing at the twins’ heads, cursing as they both ducked and blew raspberries in reply. “You’re both horrible.”

“We try!” they chimed together.

“You make it too easy,” Aspire added, nudging her shoulder. “But you’ll see what we mean when we get there. Oh! And you’ve gotta try Manehattan pizza! It’s amazing!”

Another thing to put on the list, it seemed. Sure Stroke smiled and nodded along as the wooden gate came into view, the familiar sign hanging overhead bringing a little swish to her tail. She could see Nimble and Toola standing alongside a pair of changelings, one a burly stallion with short, yellow-brown mane and tail, the other a mare of r