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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6. Sometimes, A Changeling Just Won't Change

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 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 hairs 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’d 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 agains 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 mussed 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 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 workout 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 peak, 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 try 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 hoards 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 leapt 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 to 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 now how shapeshifting 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.

 

 

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