The Village Called Respite

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.
http://www.fimfiction.net/story/291019/the-village-called-respite

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7. Putting Our New Faces On

His wings buzzed with anticipation. Aspire tapped his hoof against his desk top, 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 were 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 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 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 in 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 off 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 between 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 lets 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 off 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 herself 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 more fishy, 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 the 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 palate, 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 Treats 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.

 

 

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