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    “Alright, is everyling settled?”

    Thorax watched the half-dozen nymphs seated around his hooves chatter and shift, their focus jumping back and forth from each other, to the blue alicorn sitting nearby. Only a few heads turned to acknowledge him, so he smiled and patiently waited a moment before speaking again.

    “Luna wants to read a story to us, so we should give her our attention, okay?”

    Thorax gently squeezed his hooves together, effectively dragging numerous nymphs closer. Curious eyes and ears turned to him at last.

    “What story is the pony reading?” one asked.

    “I’m not sure,” Thorax admitted, smiling brighter. “It looks like we’ll find out together.”

    All eyes fell on Luna. Nodding, she levitated a thick, green book out from the pile. She gave a contented sigh as her eyes fell across its opening pages.

    “Papa Thorax has impeccable taste,” she stated, looking at Thorax and conducting the nymphs to do the same. “For such a small collection of books, he’s managed to find not one, but two of my favorites.”

    “But Miss Pony, aren’t these stories for little ponies and changelings?” a teal nymph inquired. She wore her confusion openly, and it made Luna giggle.

    “Right you are, little one. However, even adults can find enjoyment from stories made with young ones in mind. The stories they tell often have something for everyone.”

    She paused for a moment. Then, a blue aura sprouted from her horn and began to dance in the air. It took the shape of small ponies running around, jumping, and playing with one another.

    The changelings gasped at the wispy apparitions circling them overhead.

    “But there’s another reason I enjoy stories for young ones. As princess of the night, it was my job to protect the dreams of ponies. Nightmares were an uncommon thing for most, but some foals suffered them quite often. I had a special ritual set up for them. I would soothe their fears and worries by reading to them in a dream, just as their parents did while awake. This way, no nightmare could take root and fester.”

    The ponies born of blue magic faded into nothing, and Thorax met Luna’s gaze. Only then was it apparent she was really talking to him.

    “You read bedtime stories to foals all over Equestria, so you’re familiar with all sorts of books,” Thorax surmised, returning Luna’s smile. He gently corralled his nymphs, who’d begun to flutter around, hunting the lost apparitions.

    Luna nodded. She happily watched Thorax pluck nymphs out of the air with magic and return them to the safety of his hooves.

    “I protected sleep, just as you protect innocence,” she said. “It’s heartening to see how both nymphs and adults react so excitedly to the world around them. Your kind, encouraging leadership surely plays a role in that.”

    “Well, thank you.” Thorax, having gathered his stray flock, let out a sigh. “Granted, the reason the adults were so excitable for a while was because they had to get used to feeling emotions instead of feeding off them. Most of them are acclimated, now. These days, I mostly just have to keep an eye on these guys.”

    Taking in the sight of Thorax playfully—and skillfully—squeezing multiple nymphs at once, Luna hummed amusedly. She looked at the book still floating patiently nearby, and with a swift turn of a page, she cleared her throat.

    “Well then, let me take you all on a new journey that’s sure to excite. It all begins with a pair of young ponies, and the peculiar creature that pays them a visit while their parents are away.”

    The room grew still as Luna began to read. Only the muffled sounds of laughter from the other room dared to usurp her narration.

    “Oh, this is more challenging than I thought!” Celestia beamed at the slew of pastel bodies zigzagging every which way past her. “Young changelings are far more agile than young pegasi, it would seem. Still, that won’t stop me!”

    The former sun monarch lunged forward, and screams of joy rang out. Again, the changelings eluded her, but she shared their laughter all the same.

    She found her azure co-host and playmate grabbing at nymphs a little ways off with much greater success.

    “Calor, are you certain it’s okay for you to be assisting me? Were there not several games going on?”

    Calor, having just claimed a tangerine nymph as his prize, squeezed him tightly.

    “Squeeze the bug!” he exclaimed. He let the giggling nymph go again before addressing his guest. “And yeah, it’s alright. There were other games going on, but as soon as you started playing, everyling jumped ship to play with you. Which is actually helpful; it’s a lot easier to manage one big game than three or four smaller ones.”

    Celestia, hovering in the air, analyzed the dozens of nymphs all around her, watching her every move. Her subtlest gestures brought twitches of anticipation from them, and when she moved, they excitedly chittered and moved further away.

    “I can’t even remember the last time I had an opportunity to play with young ones like this,” she said quietly. “A communal daycare is such a lovely idea. I think it could work wonderfully in Equestria, given proper contexts. I’ll enjoy discussing it with Twilight the next time I see her.”

    She looked for Calor again, but he had wandered over towards Apex. The cherry nymph was playfully tackling his neighbors while they all awaited pursuit from the adults.

    Celestia hummed to herself, filing away a mental note.

    “Now where was I? I don’t believe I’ve had the pleasure of making your acquaintance yet!”

    The alicorn shot forward again without warning, this time catching a nymph off guard. With a triumphant laugh, she hugged him tight and spun around, coaxing laughs from him and the others.

    “Squeeze the bug!”

    “The pony got Brexil!” a nymph lamented, dramatically clutching her cheeks even as Brexil was let go. “Oh poor Brexil, lost to us too soon.”

    “We have to keep away better!” shouted another, cracks littering her words. “Everyling keep an eye on her! She distracted us by talking to Calor. We cannot let it happen again.”

    The nymphs rallied together, their eyes focused and stern. Celestia laid her head in one hoof.

    “Goodness, whatever will I do now?”

    “Give up!” a yellow nymph yelled. A multitude of heads nodded.

    Celestia curled her lip. A brilliant golden spark trickled up her horn.

    “You know, my sister and I are rather gifted with magic that rouses the light and the dark. Can you all guess which one I am?”

    The spark ascended from her horn and expanded, forming a miniature sun of tepid warmth. It illuminated the chamber, glossening foliage and sparkling off the awestruck eyes of every changeling. One by one, entranced nymphs slowly hovered closer to it.

    By the time the shocked cries of their hivemates knocked them to their senses, it was already too late.

    “Oh, just look at all these new friends I’m making!” Celestia announced, boasting five nymphs in her grasp and grabbing for a sixth. “Princess Twilight will be so proud of me. Would you all like to help me write a letter to her?”

    The nymphs entered a frenzied panic. They’d been duped.

    “‘Oh, but I love to be here, oh, I love it a lot!’ said the goat in the boat to the drake in the tub. ‘I will not go away, no I shan’t, I say! And so, I’ll show you another fun game we can play!'”

    A teal nymph squeezed Thorax’s hoof. Recognizing his cue, Thorax lowered his head to grant access to his ear.

    “They’re not gonna like his next game either,” the nymph mumbled. He received head pats.

    “Show us the picture again, Miss Pony,” said another.

    “Remember how we ask nicely for things with a ‘please’, Gaster,” Thorax chided. Regardless, a magenta nymph was shown the peculiar artwork within the storybook.

    “I knew I’d seen him before! That’s the goat chimera!” Gaster exclaimed, frantically tapping his hoof against the crooked, serpentine caricature on the page. The other nymphs gasped and crowded over themselves to look, also.

    “I have never heard a more apt description of him,” Luna chuckled. She watched Thorax’s doting hoof reel the excitable drones back into place by his side. “You’re right, little one; it’s Discord. This book was written by a pony who calls himself Dr. Goose. He took inspiration from Discord’s statue while visiting Canterlot many years ago, and created a story based on him. It remains one of my favorites because of how well the author managed to match the goat’s personality with the real thing, without ever having met him.”

    “How come he’s called Dr. Goose?” asked a fuschia nymph, climbing Thorax’s neck. When she got to his head, she hugged his ear for support. “Is he a real goose?”

    “Does he make honk noises like a goose?” Another started making loud honks, causing the others to laugh and join him.

    Thorax scrambled to calm them, and Luna laughed from the deepest part of her chest.

    “I’ve never met him, so I don’t know for sure, but I’ve heard that his wife used to call him a silly goose quite often. I believe the name simply stuck, as they say.”

    Puppeteered by Luna’s magic, the book twirled in the air and caught every nymph’s attention. They settled down at once, pressing into Thorax’s sides and laying against his hooves. Luna breathed deeply and continued.

    “And so he slithered off, off into the sea, but as quick as a fish he was back, that goat in the boat was back with a tree.”

    The audience chittered lightly.

    “A great, old oak tree, tall and healthy as could be. ‘Now watch this trick closely,’ said the goat. ‘Watch and you’ll be amazed—you’ll see.’

    “With a tap on his boat, ‘this game is called Thinking Tree,’ said the goat. ‘In this tree you can become whatever you’d like to be, be it an ox or a fox or a bird or a bee. I will show you both now, how to play this game, Thinking Tree.'”

    The tiniest of yawns arose as the nymphs listened to the goat’s antics. Invested as they were, however, they failed to notice the potency of Thorax’s magic, warming them inside and out, prodding them closer to sleep.

    “And Hopscotch and I didn’t know what to do, so we climbed that tree with the goat. ‘Now chirp and be free, little bird,’ said the goat, and I flew, for suddenly I was a bird in a tree on a boat.'”

    “They transformed?” a nymph asked tiredly. “That’s so cool.”

    “Yeah, I wish I could be a bird,” said another, flopping to one side.

    Luna looked between the two of them. She began to speak, but glanced at Thorax and paused.

    “Is transformation not innate for changelings?”

    “It is,” Thorax answered, gently shifting himself around so that he curled around the group. “But it’s typically not doable, or at least fully controllable, at first. Most changelings learn how to transform once they get to be preadolescents, although they can have random transformations before that.”

    Luna found herself abandoning the book by the wayside. The nymphs had settled in and grew still, embracing Thorax in their sleepy stupor.

    “How funny,” she whispered. “That’s very reminiscent of young unicorn magic.”

    “I can’t help but notice that my mentor is squeezing far fewer bugs than he was a few minutes ago.”

    Calor blinked. He ogled the large, snowy alicorn now watching him patiently. A half-dozen nymphs struggled in her grasp, their cheeks puffed and squished against firm hooves.

    “I’ve made quite a few friends today,” she said, eliciting squeaks with a squeeze before letting the nymphs go. She gave Calor a firmer look. “So let me be one to you, now. Is there something that’s bothering you, Calor?”

    Calor nervously rubbed his hooves together. He looked from the princess to the floor, and then to Apex across the room. The cherry-lime nymph stared back at him with furrowed brows, and he wasn’t the only one. Their merriment had been held up again, and their flexibility was waning fast.

    Calor forced a smile.

    “Yeah, I guess so. Here, gimme a second.”

    Calor let out a wheeze as he suddenly curled into himself, clutching his abdomen. He groaned and gasped, and his wings slowed considerably, causing him to enter a slow fall that drew every eye. But while concern crept up Celestia’s face, the nymphs started cheering.

    Before Celestia had time to be properly confused, Calor bathed himself in a flash of blue fire. When he emerged again, his blue eyes were blood red. Pointed fangs framed his insidious grin, and with a twirl, he cloaked himself in a lush black cape, decorated internally with red velvet. He peered at a group of nymphs from over the edge of his cape, and they shrank back in a flurry of giggles.

    “…Who awakens me at such peril?” Calor drawled in a low, silky voice. “Surely not little changelings in need of…tummy gobbles.”

    The entire nursery shrieked in a harmony of laughs and exaggerated screams.

    “It’s the tummpire!” a lavender nymph exclaimed. “We woke him up!”

    Calor was gone in a flash, and just like that, he’d already grabbed his first victim. He dramatically reared back his head before seemingly biting down on a mustard nymph’s stomach. A loud, fluttering sound brought a fit of squealing.

    “Ah, so refreshing!” the tummpire cooed, discarding his giggling prey. “Who’s next?”

    Celestia watched the dark changeling seemingly teleport from group to group, seizing nymphs and gobbling their bellies one by one. Her amusement only grew when she realized the victimized nymphs were going after their hivemates, as well. These newly-made tummpires chased their friends and tackled them, giving their bellies the same fate.

    Celestia was so caught up in the commotion, she barely noticed when Calor returned. He wreathed himself in flames again, and his outfit was gone.

    “Quite clever, making use of their own energy to turn them against themselves. How did you ever come up with that?”

    “One of the books that Thorax got,” Calor said, nodding to the storytime chamber. “It had these stories about vampire ponies, vampire bat ponies and all sorts of stuff. The nymphs ate it up.”

    “How long do you think it’ll take them to realize you’ve left them to entertain themselves?”

    “Two or three minutes, maybe. I try not to use tummpire too often, or else they’ll catch on to me.”

    Celestia gave him a prompting smile. He chuckled weakly. He looked at Apex again. The nymph was rallying the uninfected forces with a determined speech, preparing them for a counterattack.

    “…Thorax said that all the princesses were great with advice, and I remember how you helped him when we were in Canterlot…do you know anything about little ponies? Are they similar to nymphs? I guess I should lead with that question, actually.”

    Celestia nodded to the floor, and Calor followed her as she descended. They landed in a quiet corner, sitting back and watching the spectacle play out.

    “I do not have foals of my own, but I was a teacher for quite some time, so I have picked up a few things over the years.” She sought his eye. “And from what I’ve seen so far, there’s some overlap. I take it this is about Apex?”

    “Yeah,” Calor admitted. “…Is it hard to grow close with little ponies that aren’t yours?”

    “What a strange question,” Celestia murmured. She looked back at the horde of tummpires chasing down their former friends. “Coming from you, that is. I’ve only met you twice, Calor, but even still, I can scarcely think of another changeling that attracts such love from those around him, save one. I believe you two are quite familiar.”

    Calor’s cheeks reddened.

    “Sometimes I just don’t know how to spend time with Apex,” he said. “I’m not patient or introspective like Thorax is, but I do have more energy, so I’ve been trying to be the playmate Thorax can’t always be. But it seems like I can’t even do that much right. When Thorax plays with Apex, he’s always so happy. His aura is sweet and bright and full. It’s just…it’s not the same when we play. I feel like I’m doing something wrong.”

    “Hmm…I wonder if taking a step back and letting your expectations go might help. Oftentimes, I find that the harder I look for something, the harder it is to see it.”

    Calor’s head pivoted. Celestia winked.

    “Let me tell you a story. Princess Twilight was once my student, in both magic and friendship. I tutored her for years, and eventually sent her to Ponyville to make friends, but the truth is she’d long since made one already in me. Teachers shouldn’t have favorites, but in all my centuries of teaching I have never had a student I connected more with, or who connected so much with me.”

    Celestia laid down and curled her hooves beneath her. She closed her eyes for a time, merely listening to the sounds of nymphs happily shouting and playing.

    “Weeks into Twilight’s tutoring, her mother visited me in my office. She had tears in her eyes because she was both overjoyed that Twilight had forged such a powerful connection with me, and heartbroken that she did not share something with Twilight that strong, herself. She, Twilight’s own mother, felt unsure of how to better bond with her, and I found myself in the difficult position of attempting to advise her.”

    Calor stared at her, attentive and respectful. When Celestia looked at him again, his face had sullen.

    “The situations are not the same, but I think I understand your concerns. You’re afraid you won’t be able to live up to or replicate the relationship Apex has with Thorax.”

    Calor let his hooves drift apart until he slumped to the ground. He pressed his cheek against the cold stone. “…Yeah, I guess that is what I’m thinking. Apex only ever wants to interact with me when we’re playing or pranking. That’s the other reason I started focusing on being a playmate so much—that seemed to be what he wanted. For all other things, he wants Thorax. I knew it would take a while for us to get used to each other, but it feels like things have stayed the same for months.”

    “And what does Thorax have to say about all of this?”

    “‘He’ll get used to you, Calor. He loves you like I love you,’” Calor imitated softly. He couldn’t help but smile a little while doing so. “I want to believe him but I can’t just sit here, waiting and hoping. I’m the adult. I’m supposed to help make things happen, right?”

    Celestia hummed. “Would you like to know what I told Twilight’s mother that day?”


    “‘Mrs. Sparkle, I cannot advise you as a parent, but as a teacher, I know that the very best thing we can do for our children is to simply be there for them when they need us. Just as your daughter relies on me to guide her through her discovery of magic, she will always rely on her mother for love and support. I may be the pony Twilight needs to grow as a unicorn, but you are the pony she will look to, to grow as a pony.”

    “…Wow, that’s really good advice. A little vague, but really good.”

    Celestia laughed. “I tried my best. Do you see the correlation to your situation?”

    Calor raised his head and nodded. He found Apex in the back of the room, kicking with apparent exhaustion at a purple nymph coming for his undershell. He grinned brightly.

    “Yeah, I think so. Don’t try and force things, because it probably won’t help. I love Apex, and as long as I show that, that’s enough. Thanks, princess. Er, former princess.”

    Celestia nodded, and together, they rose from their spot. As they did, Calor’s ears perked. A small voice pinged his name, and he looked up to find a few tiny ambassadors, fluttering quietly.

    “What’s up, Marbella?”

    “Are you and the all-corn pony almost done talking?”

    “I think so. I’m sorry, I thought I’d be back by now. We’ll be done in another minute or so and then we can get back to—”

    “Can we go see Papa Thorax, now?”

    Calor paused. “Now?”

    The nymphs nodded. Calor beamed. Only then did he see their sluggish wingbeats, and the contagious yawn making its way through the crowd.

    “Yeah, sure, we can do that.”

    “Well now, what’s this? The loud and proud champion of games and frivolity, stepping into my chamber of relaxation? This ought to be good.”

    Celestia rolled her eyes. Her sister’s snark was bait, but surrounded by snoozing changelings as she was, Celestia found her will to engage draining away at an alarming rate.

    “I have a delivery for her lazy highness,” she replied cheekily, eyeing the two dozen nymphs from outside converging on Thorax, Luna, and their modest group. Like moths to a lantern, they were drawn in by Thorax’s grin.

    “Hey guys,” Thorax cooed, helping a few of them find spots by his side, then directing the others to spots by Luna. “You’re early. You guys usually play for another hour or two, this time of day.”

    “Tummpire happened,” said Calor, yawning. Entirely cut off from Thorax, he found a spot nearby to lay down and curl up. Thorax laughed.

    “Well that explains it.” He turned and offered Celestia that same inviting look. “You can join us, too, if you like. Even on a quiet day, we usually need six adults for nursery clustering to work.”

    “I’d be honored.” Fluffing her wings, Celestia staked out a spot adjacent to her sister. “That is, if the Nap Queen will allow it.”

    “She does,” Luna said, smiling smugly. She levitated a giggling nymph up to her head and crowned herself. “All are welcome in the Nap Queen’s domain. Hers is a kind, gentle rule.”

    A short ways away, Calor watched familiar cherry eyes shoot Thorax an irritated look. Every suitable spot for napping on or by him had been claimed, and as always, the nymph wore his thoughts on his carapace.

    “Looks like Thorax forgot about both of us, huh?”

    Apex looked at him, and so did Thorax. Calor grinned cheekily.

    “And after he promised one-on-one cuddle time with me, too. He’s just full of lies today, isn’t he?”

    Apex perked up. Thorax cocked a skeptical, albeit knowing brow.

    “C’mere, ‘Pexy. We can start a ‘Papa Thorax is a Liar, Liar, Salamanders on Fire’ club.”

    Little more than a giddy, pastel goblin, Apex snickered and joined him at once.

    From his throne of napping changelings, Thorax smiled.

    “I seem to recall saying that I would come after our guests had left,” he said. He only got a pair of tongues in reply.

    “Tisk tisk, adult changelings shouldn’t make excuses,” Apex countered confidently, letting himself be pulled into a hug from behind. “Papa Calor and I want to spend time with you right now, but you’re too busy, Papa Thorax. That’s your fault.”

    Thorax shook his head, sighing through his smile. “Where’s Pharynx when I need him? It’s not fair when you guys gang up on me.”

    “Don’t worry, he probably wouldn’t help you anyway,” Calor sang, squeezing his bug. “‘Fight your own battles, Thorax. They’re your mate and nymph.'”

    For a time, Thorax merely watched them as they played. It was soft and light, full of subtle hoof pokes from out of Apex’s view, and squeezing that only came whenever they made eye contact. Eventually, though, Apex’s reflexes dulled, and like the rest of the nymphs, he slumped against cool chitin and let it cradle him further towards sleep.

    Calor’s smile was something to behold.

    “Thanks again for offering to help today, by the way,” Thorax said quietly, looking at his guests. “I know this was something you two wanted to do, but at this rate, I’m not sure we’ll even have time for a tour with so few staff. So, thank you, really.”

    “As if a tour is more important than something like this,” Luna whispered. She skillfully unearthed her wings from sleeping changelings and spread them out like magnificent, flexed blankets. “I’m sure your hive is lovely, Thorax, but we are no longer duty-bound to formal gatherings. I, at least, would always prefer something like this to tours and the like.”

    “I must agree,” Celestia added. A nymph by her hoof yawned, and so she lowered her head to do the same. He laughed at the ridiculous face she made while doing it. “Architecture is lovely, but not as much as seeing young minds play and grow together. I haven’t been a teacher for quite some time, but today has reminded me of why I became one in the first place.”

    “Well, I guess it’s no wonder how Equestria has thrived for so long,” Thorax said. Glee filled his face as he watched the alicorns dote on the nymphs with patience and care to match himself. “You both are so maternal.”

    “They’re not the only ones, Thorax. There’s an entire hive of changelings happy to help you look after our young ones, whenever you may need assistance. All you ever need to do is ask.”

    Stepping into the room and drawing all eyes was a lime changeling wearing a deep purple shawl. A single daisy sat behind her ear, held in place by a decorative red headband. A small pair of eyeglasses sat on the bridge of her nose.

    When Thorax saw her, he grinned.

    “Oh, Tymbal, you’re here! Did Tergum talk to you?”

    “He did,” she replied sweetly. “Rest assured, the nursery hive will have plenty of caretakers for the remainder of the week.”

    “That’s great news! Thank you so much for your help. We’ve had our hooves full, here.”

    “I can see that.” Tymbal slowly strolled towards Thorax, holding the proudest little smile. “I’ve also organized a few days off for you from nursery duties, seeing as we’ll have plenty of volunteers.”

    Thorax’s jaw went slack.

    “W-what? No, I don’t need entire days off, Tymbal, I love to do this. It’s my job to help look after everyling. I’m the—”

    Tymbal’s hoof found his mouth. Those nymphs still awake, along with Luna, chortled quietly.

    “I’ll hear no such thing.” The old changeling’s hoof moved to his chin, and she captured him in her eyes. “Even our doting patriarch needs a break from looking after excitable young changelings now and again. Use it as an opportunity to go see your dragon friend in Ponyville, perhaps.”

    “But I—”

    “I also talked to Pharynx about this. He said that if he sees you anywhere near the nursery hive on those days, he’ll happily give you a firm reminder that you need to look after yourself, too. Love magic has had such a wonderful impact on him. He seemed so excited to help.”

    Thorax’s jaw shut. Luna and her battalion of nymphs fell ever further into subdued hysterics.

    “Ooh, Thorax got banned!” Calor jeered from the sidelines. He and Apex shared a devious look. “More Thorax for us, ‘Pexy! He can’t get away, now!”

    Apex excitedly leapt upon Calor’s head. Holding onto his horn for support, he stood up on his hind legs to better see Thorax.

    “Yeah, no escaping now, Papa Thorax! And take us to see the ponies and dragons with you! I’ve never been to the pony town before! I wanna go!”

    Slumping over in exhaustion, Thorax hid his face in the collection of nymphs at his hooves. They stirred at once and shoved his snout away, which made him snort in surprise. This drew further laughs from the entire room, himself included.

    Amidst the frivolity, the alicorn sisters made eye contact.

    “Come to think of it, Sister, there are no more exhaustive to-do lists waiting for us back home anymore. I do believe this vacation can last as long as we want it to.”

    “A splendid insight,” Celestia praised, scooping up nymphs and squeezing them tight. “Furthermore, as retired old mares, I believe adopting a new form of stress therapy would do wonders for us. I think I’ve found the perfect one.”

    “Ah yes, the years of stress must be worked away posthaste!” Luna declared. She bestowed herself a second giggling nymph hat. “Someling would do well to fetch me my fuzzy slippers.”

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