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    “Oh, well, this—this is just fantastic.”

    Unfortunately for Luna, her sarcasm meant nothing to the small, raptor-esque creatures leaping for her and her sister’s faces. She blasted them away regardless with pinpoint precision, but she only had eyes for said sister.

    “‘Take the scenic route and explore the elegance of nature, Luna. The fun is in the journey,'” Luna mocked, dodging tiny fangs. “You know, I think I’ve heard that somewhere before. Where was it? Oh, that’s right. This is the bramblebush fiasco all over again.”

    A lizard soared by Luna’s snout, swatted away by golden magic.

    “Don’t blame me for trying to make the most of our vacation,” Celestia retorted. She gave a shrill scream when her mane was bitten and tugged on from behind. She took to the air and shook her head, sending the scaley hitchhikers flying. Luna was already in stitches. “How was I supposed to know about these troublesome little creatures?”

    “Oh, I don’t know—ask the local king about any wildlife we may encounter before we journey to see him? You two are still pen pals, are you not?”

    Celestia huffed. Her horn blazed with a blinding light that wrapped nearly every lizard in a golden aura. Their tiny legs flailed uselessly as they hovered off the ground.

    “You’re the one who asked that we walk instead of fly on our last major vacation. I was just trying to be considerate this time.”

    “That’s what I was trying to do!” Luna seized a stray lizard gnawing at her hoof and added it to her sister’s collection. “We stopped compromising last time, Sister, and we stopped having fun because of it. Was that not the lesson we learned?”

    Celestia walked to a nearby dropoff, where she lowered the mass of frantic lizards down its cliff face and into the valley below.

    “It was.”

    “So you’ll agree then that it’s my turn to compromise.”

    “Perhaps, but I’m afraid I must insist that I do, this time.”

    “What? Why?”

    Celestia sighed.

    “Because you were right, Luna. I always want to do things that I like to do, and I often have little patience for the things you enjoy. I will not let that happen this time. This time, I want to do things your way.”

    Luna dragged a hoof over her face.

    “Endearing, truly. However, ‘my way’ involves taking established paths, of which there are none. Out here, taking ‘my way’ leads to getting swarmed by animals, apparently. So by all means, Tia, take flight and lead the way.”

    “Well, alright. But you can take the lead, Luna. I insist. Allow me to do at least that much.”

    “…Sister, please.”


    “You are the only one who has been to the hive before. Where would you have me take us? I assure you it won’t be to see Thorax.”

    In a moment of realized absurdity, Celestia laughed. Luna laughed with her. Together, they ascended above the trees, sharing a touch of their horns as they did so.

    “I apologize,” Celestia said with a smile. “Those lizards surprised me, and turned me all around, it seems.”

    “There’s no need to apologize. I believe we are both a bit tired, too. That was close, though.”

    “What was close?”

    Luna smirked. “Our bickering. I suspect we’ll become map mission fodder again for a certain princess and her friends if we let ourselves get too carried away.”

    Celestia scoffed. “Don’t say things like that. I don’t think I could look Twilight in the face again if we required yet another map intervention.”

    The retired duo flew over dancing forests and rolling fields alike, reaching ever closer to a lone gray spike piercing the sky. Shrouded by its lush environment, it could have been mistaken for an old, ashen tree on a hilltop.

    Celestia knew better. For her, muscle memory had taken over as far back as the Badlands’ former border.

    “The Snowcrest Peaks of Yakyakistan and the Bone Spires of Arimaspi’s old territory were true wonders to see first-hoof, Sister, but I think this will be my favorite stop of all.”

    Celestia watched as trees parted and hills bowed away to reveal King Thorax’s hive, shimmering in the afternoon light. She beamed.

    “Oh, I agree. It’s been far too long since we’ve had an audience with Thorax and his subjects.”

    “Hey, where do you think you’re going, ‘Pexy? I wasn’t done tickling you yet!”

    A scene of chaos filled the corridors as red and blue blurs chased each other around and over the heads of curious passersby. In the lead—though not by much—was a lime and cherry nymph, his face contorted with terror. A furious buzzing bore down on him from behind as azure hooves came so tantalizingly close to nabbing him.

    “Go away, Papa Calor!” Apex shouted over his shoulder. “I don’t wanna play with you right now!”

    Calor wore a cheeky grin. His prey took a sharp turn, and so he gripped the corner of the wall to launch himself forward, losing none of his momentum.

    “Well, I wanna play, and it’s my turn to decide what we do, right? It was your turn this morning. You wanted to prank the guard changelings by dropping all those honeysuckle pods on them, remember?”

    Apex giggled, but quickly repressed it.

    “Yeah, but you’re always mean when it’s your turn! You just trap me and hug me and tickle me and I can never get away! It’s not fun!”

    “Sounds fun to me.”

    “I don’t like it!”

    “Well how come you laugh so much, then?”

    “Because that’s what happens when you tickle someling!”

    Calor hummed and curled his lip.

    “I dunno, I remember Thorax saying someling around here enjoys having tickle fights with him. This tastes like a lie, ‘Pexy. I’m gonna come find out!”

    A hoof grazed Apex’s leg, and he gasped. His tiny wings buzzed even faster, but he’d already been caught. Blue hooves held him tight to dark blue chitin as Calor landed and skidded along the hive floor, churning up dust and gravel. When he came to a stop, Apex’s struggle intensified. The two began to wrestle, not the least bit haggard from their chase.

    Changelings paused and chuckled knowingly at the commotion.

    “I found a weak spot!” Calor sang. Two tiny hooves kicked at his head.

    “I said no! Bad Papa Calor!” Apex yelped. He rolled onto his stomach to protect himself, giggling all the while. “Go tease some other nymphs!”

    “But I wanna tease my nymph,” Calor insisted. He managed to grin even with hooves squishing his cheek.

    Apex seized an opportunity to fly away, but he shrieked when scurrying hooves befell his shell again and pulled him out of the air. He sought to press under and through his captor’s leg instead, but he was pulled back. At every turn, his attempts were foiled, and Calor’s snickering grew.

    “You still haven’t told me where you’re going in such a hurry, ‘Pexy. We can both go there, if you want, and I can tickle you there, instead—”

    Calor stopped mid-sentence. A familiar warmth flooded his extremities, but it was Apex who spotted the culprit first.

    “Papa Thorax!”

    Calor turned. The whole chamber greeted Thorax as he entered the room, returning the love magic he so readily shared. But even with all of this attention on him, his eyes found Calor at once, and he smiled.

    Calor smiled back. The warmth in his chest, and in his chest alone, began to pulse.

    “Papa Thorax, Papa Calor isn’t playing nice again!”

    Thorax chuckled to himself as the nymph fluttered up to him. He pivoted a coy look first to his mate, and then to Apex.

    “This sounds awfully familiar, Apex. I think this is the third time this week you’ve come to me about something Calor did.”

    Apex impatiently zipped around Thorax’s head.

    “That’s because he’s always being mean! We take turns playing games but whenever it’s his turn he just wants to hug me or play tickle fight!”

    The crowd had quieted down. They watched the two with a kind of privileged amusement. Snickers sounded off when Thorax raised a skeptical brow.

    “What’s wrong with those? You’ve gotten a lot more tolerant with our hugs lately, and you like to play tickle fight with me sometimes.”

    “But I don’t ever have a chance to get away from him! It’s not fair!”

    “Get away? I don’t understand, Apex. I thought trying to get away was part of the game.”

    “Your mate has invented a spectator sport out of out-maneuvering the gnat, Thorax, and the gnat’s fed up with it.”

    Thorax reflexively turned to greet this source of candid monotone. Pharynx’s stone face was waiting for him, fresh out of the corridor.

    “Oh, Pharynx, I was wondering where you went.” Thorax raised his other brow. “But, um, what are you talking about? What spectator sport?”

    Pharynx groaned as he stepped forward, dispersing changelings in his wake. He glared at his brother, now joined by Calor, and with an eye movement, he summoned Apex to his head.

    “This is some sick punishment, right? For not hugging you enough when we were nymphs or something? How do I, the last holdout from total hippiedom, get stuck with having to explain your own sap to all of you?”

    “You tell him, Uncle Pharynx!”

    Pharynx paused. The nymph hadn’t the foggiest idea what he was talking about, but his confidence was admirable all the same. Even he had to crack a smile.

    “Calor, you’re the most agile adult in the hive,” Pharynx continued. “Before you entered the picture, the gnat was untouchable. Nobody could catch him in a chase. Now you’re in his life every day, catching him with ease, and in front of everyone else, no less. He’s probably frustrated. I know I would be.”

    Calor’s ears fell. Thorax’s comforting hoof wrapped around him.

    “Oh… I guess I didn’t think about it that way before,” he mumbled. “Is that right, ‘Pexy?”

    “Yes!” Apex exclaimed, dramatically throwing his tiny hooves up. “That’s what I’ve been trying to tell you! You always pick hug and tickle games and I can never get away!”

    Now even Calor’s eyes fell. Thorax, hugging him tighter, beamed at the nymph atop his eye-level perch.

    “Apex, I think some of that got lost in communication. I don’t think Calor understood why you were upset. Maybe we can give him another chance as long as he promises to do things differently?”

    Hopeful blue eyes looked at Apex’s. They were hesitant, but not avoidant. Calor smiled.

    “I’m sorry if I made you upset, ‘Pexy,” he said quietly, stepping forward. “I didn’t realize what you meant before, but I do now. I’ll dial back the chasing.”

    Apex didn’t move from his spot. Frustration still lingered on his face, but Calor grew a grin anyway.

    “You know, ‘Pexy, I’m only a little faster than you, and I’m an adult. I bet you’ll be even faster than me once you get a bit bigger. Maybe instead of chase games we can play race games, and I can help you get faster. Would you like that?”

    Apex excitedly stood up and fluttered down from Pharynx’s head, as if he’d never been upset at all. “Okay, I accept your apology, then. Let’s race to the nursery hive now! I wanna show everyling there how fast we are, too!”

    “Well, that was a quick turnaround,” Calor mused. He took off the ground and tilted his head to signal Apex. He then looked back at Thorax, and that soothing pulse rang in his chest again.

    “And Thorax, don’t forget, you promised me one-on-one cuddle time later. You know I’ll come find you if you do.”

    Calor grinned slyly, effortlessly unearthing a blush from his mate. A few coos and giggles echoed from all around.

    “I’ve been looking forward to it,” Thorax said softly. “Don’t worry; once we’ve hosted our guests, I’m all yours.”

    The two shared a long look. Calor took off in a streak of blue with his nymph a moment later. When they fell out of sight, a hoof impatiently punched Thorax in the side.

    “Speaking of guests, your sap crisis has been averted, so let’s get a move on, Thorax. I don’t like to be kept waiting, and despite what they may say, I’m sure the former Equestrian diarchy doesn’t either.”

    Chuckling, Thorax followed his sibling through the hive’s frontal chambers. He kept a mischievous face as they walked.

    “You know I saw what was going on back there, right?”


    “That was a rather quick deduction of what was bothering Apex. You two must really be spending more time together, lately. I’d even venture to say you’re starting to master your empathic abilities.”

    Pharynx snapped his head around and glared at Thorax, but it only served to widen his brother’s grin.

    “The gnat felt frustrated and inadequate because his greatest strength no longer seemed like it was enough to get by. I have experience with that. Maybe you remember.”

    Thorax lowered his head, nearly falling for the jab, but he recovered. His smile still hung on.

    “So what you’re saying is you found common ground with your nephew and wanted to help him adapt, like you did.”

    “Yes, since you and your mate are dense with signals,” Pharynx spat. “You, I understand. You’re hopeless. But Calor can be sharp when he actually cares to apply himself. Downright tragic that he never seems to.”

    Thorax smirked. His brother’s aura was tart, sour.

    “Still upset that he won’t join the guard units, huh?”

    Pharynx scowled at the far end of the corridor. He smacked an unsuspecting pebble with his hoof and sent it sprawling.

    “Unmatched agility and speed, even compared to my very best, and what does he use it on? Playing around. It’s maddening how alike you two are.”

    “Well, if you’re lucky, maybe you’ll get Apex interested when he’s older. He’s quick, too, and he’s not nearly the cuddlebug Calor and I are.”

    “And you expect me to believe you’d let him join, just like that? Please, you fall over yourself when he so much as scrapes a hoof.”

    “I’d have no reason to worry if he’s being looked after by his uncle, though, would I? There’s no changeling more suited to protect him. Not even me.”

    Pharynx scoffed. His expression softened, but he didn’t let his brother see it.

    “Shut up, Thorax.”

    The two came to a stop, and the hive’s exterior suddenly yawned and welcomed in a flood of light. Three guard changelings flew overhead, acknowledging their king and prince with nods.

    “Thorax, Pharynx, our guests are here! The princesses—”

    “—former princesses,” said a soothing, giggly voice.

    “—er, right, former princesses Celestia and Luna are here for their visit today.”

    Thorax found two very familiar faces waiting for him in the afternoon sun. He returned their smiles tenfold and trotted forward, readying himself for the greatest hug he could muster.

    “Oh, Thorax, it’s been so long!” said Celestia, obscuring the changeling in angelic wings. “It feels like we haven’t seen you since your visit to Canterlot.”

    “We have, but it certainly seems the contrary,” Luna remarked, giving a subtler hug upon her turn. “The days and weeks blended together for quite some time, leading up to Twilight’s crowning.”

    “It’s felt like a while either way, for sure. Welcome, by the way! We’re so excited to have you,” Thorax replied, leading their small envoy inside. Pharynx summoned the lingering guards to join them. “So, you two don’t have any responsibilities anymore, then? You’re not going to be advisors for Princess Twilight?”

    The sisters shook their heads.

    “Should she need us, she knows how to contact us, but we left her a very strong support system,” Celestia explained.

    “Rather, she set up her own support system, as we knew she would,” Luna continued. “Twilight’s development as a princess was in no small part helped along by her friends. Her five closest friends now carry advisor roles, and possess limited authority over certain aspects of governance. They all meet regularly to discuss important matters.”

    “Oh, that sounds perfect,” Thorax said. “I don’t think Twilight will have many problems, then.”

    “Hate to interrupt the political banter, but you two didn’t stumble into a frilled basilisk nest on the way here, did you?”

    All eyes fell on Pharynx, bringing up the group’s rear. He raised a brow.

    “That was rhetorical. It’s obvious you did.”

    The beta changeling nodded to their hooves. Celestia and Luna examined them, only to finally notice the glittering copper dust covering them.

    Thorax chuckled.

    “Oh gosh, I didn’t even notice!” He eyed the guards. “Hey, guys, can we get some hot spring water for our guests to wash off with, please?”

    “Excuse me, ‘hot spring’?” Luna repeated with elation. She placed a hoof to her chest and looked at her sister. “Tia, did he just say ‘hot spring’?”

    Celestia could only giggle and nod. She fetched Thorax’s gaze.

    “I don’t suppose you’d mind if we wash our hooves off ourselves, Thorax? A warm soak sounds heavenly, and I believe Luna will not be dissuaded. Perhaps we can discuss more there.”

    Thorax grinned.

    “Oh, great stars above, this is lovely.” Luna sank ever deeper into the steamed water, letting her wet mane snake out along its surface. “Prince Rutherford will no doubt take offense to this, but this is my favorite landmark by far.”

    Wrapping her own mane up in a bundle of golden magic, Celestia leaned back in the soothing waters and sighed. She looked back at Thorax, who had begun dipping and vibrating his wings in a curious cleaning ritual.

    “Please continue, Thorax. I believe you were just about to explain these peculiar creatures?”

    “Oh, right. Well, as my brother said, they’re called frilled basilisks. They’re lizards that live in packs of about eighteen to twenty-two—”


    Thorax looked over his shoulder. His brother stared at him, shaded in the folds of the misshapen hot spring wall.

    “Right, twenty-four. They’re omnivores that eat small animals and certain types of plants. That dust they left on your hooves is actually a defense mechanism. It’s built up and released from their frills when they shake them. It’s meant to get in the eyes of predators and prey alike, to provide an opening to escape or attack.”

    “Fascinating.” Luna tossed back her soaked mane. “I’ve never heard of them before. Do they only live in this region?”

    “Well, it’s a long story, actually.” Thorax paused and glanced at the trio of guard changelings standing obediently by his brother. He invitingly patted the water, and the drones perked their ears. They looked at Pharynx and, upon getting his lazy grunt of approval, drew closer to the spring.

    Laughs filled the air as they were swiftly wrapped in a wide hug and pulled into the water.

    “As you both may remember, this whole area used to be a desert,” Thorax explained, lightly wrestling with his prey. “The frilled basilisks lived here back then, too, along with their major predators, salamanders.”

    “‘Salamanders.’ I remember that term from Twilight’s notes,” Luna thought aloud, tapping her chin. “Creatures that had been causing wildfires in the region, correct?”

    “That’s right.” A drone leapt up onto Thorax’s head and attempted to push him down into the spring. For such treason, he was seized in magic and playfully dunked several times, himself. His laughs were punctuated with spits of water. “We struggled for a while to get the salamanders to relocate, but thanks to Pharynx, we finally did.”

    Thorax turned his head expectantly. Pharynx stepped from the shadows with great purpose, holding a smug little smile.

    “Thorax wasn’t forceful enough with his efforts,” he said. “You need to push predators like that outside their territory completely and hold them there. Being forced to live on unfamiliar land and staring down changeling border patrols daily triggered a permanent migration within two months.”

    “We’re all very thankful for your tireless efforts in protecting us, big brother.”

    Pharynx feigned a gagging motion that made the princesses giggle. Upon Thorax’s next head turn, he’d already resumed smiling.

    “Frilled basilisks are opportunists,” Pharynx went on. “Their major predator was ousted from the land, so instead of migrating, they adapted to living in a different biome. They’re less of a hazard than salamanders are, so I’ve let them be. For now.”

    The guard changelings, once jovially playing around, had now settled in Thorax’s hooves. Firmly held in a hug and half-submerged in heated water, one of them had already fallen asleep. His head uselessly flopped to one side, supported by Thorax’s neck.

    Adoring eyes watched him fervently.

    “Oh, how I missed witnessing this,” Celestia cooed. She flashed Pharynx a sheepish look. “I do apologize, Pharynx. I have been listening, but I must confess that I was smitten the moment Thorax beckoned them over.”

    “I couldn’t tell,” Pharynx murmured, shrewdly eyeing his cuddled guards. “It’s fine, I get it. Ponies are sentimental, and being disgustingly saccharine, not to mention distracting, is what my brother does best.”

    Thorax flicked his ear.

    “I’m still so curious about the dynamics at play here, Thorax.” Stepping out from the spring, Luna squeezed her mane and tail of water via pressurized magic. “Did you begin playing with them on a whim just now, or was there more to it? Can you sense their fatigue or hunger?”

    “That’s a really great question,” Thorax praised. One of the drones pressed up under his chin, and he repositioned his head to accommodate. “Hunger isn’t really a thing for us anymore thanks to meaningful relationships, but I can still sense a changeling’s emotional states. These guys felt nervous, so I guessed they were feeling unsure of what to do with themselves. I wanted to help them feel more comfortable.”

    “…How hard it must be to do nothing but hold and cherish your subjects all day,” Luna mused, glancing at her sister. “Suffice to say that we would not have retired, and that dear Twilight would still be living in Ponyville, if that had been the case for us?”

    Celestia mirrored her sister’s sly look. “You’re thinking too small, Luna. If hugs and naps were the key to ruling Equestria, I’d have been the one jealous of you so many moons ago. Which time of day do you think involves more sleep and the desire for being close?”

    Luna snorted. She looked at Thorax and coaxed a laugh.

    “Clearly, I was robbed, Thorax.”

    Minutes ticked by whilst the royal siblings communed and caught up. They discussed the other kingdoms and Thorax’s great progress on establishing relations with them. They discussed the state of Twilight’s school, now under new management by Starlight Glimmer, and how Ocellus was faring with her studies alongside a slew of new changeling students. Eventually, Thorax even managed to lure his brother over to the pool’s edge to join them, though no attempts were made to pull the moody changeling into the water.

    Whether this was because Thorax was afraid to try or was simply unable to while cuddling changelings remained a mystery.

    All the while, the princesses’ eyes scarcely left Thorax and his bundle of changelings. By now, all three of them had fallen asleep, and they unwittingly dazzled their guests with hoof twitches as they dreamt. The sisters gave captivated little sounds at every occurrence.

    None of this, of course, was lost to Thorax.

    “If they weren’t already asleep I’d ask if you two would like a turn.”

    Celestia saw her host beaming and blushed.

    “It’s that obvious, is it?”

    Thorax chuckled. “Just a little.”

    The sisters shared a glance.

    “I must admit, even now I think back fondly of the night we all spent together in the tower lounge,” Luna said. She traced the circumference of the pool to sit by Thorax. “My sister and I, we’re simply fascinated—envious, even—of the intimate relationships you manage to have with your subjects, Thorax. It is such a wonderful, and yet alien thing to us.”

    “Intimacy is a more nuanced thing in pony culture—in most cultures of this era, I’m afraid.” Celestia let her mane fall free. “For princesses expected to always appear regal and dignified by societal standards, the nuances are even greater.”

    “…These are a lot of big words for ‘we want to hug changelings again,'” Pharynx said suddenly, sighing in the same breath. He stood up. “Can’t say I wasn’t expecting this visit to derail into sentimentality, but that was quick. Seeing as I’ve lost my unit to Thorax’s sap anyway, I think I’ll take my leave for now. It’s been a pleasure chatting, your former majesties. Thorax can take it from here.”

    “Wait—you’re leaving?” Thorax asked incredulously. His ears wilted as his brother trotted away. “B-but that wasn’t the plan! I thought you were gonna spend the day with us and help with the tour of the new parts of the hive.”

    Pharynx stopped by the doorway. His little brother pined for him with wide eyes from across the room, but he had nothing to offer but a curled lip.

    “Are we going on the tour now? Right now, Thorax?”

    “Well, yeah, we could do it now.”

    Pharynx stared. Thorax fidgeted.

    “…Well, I mean they did mention missing cluster sleep, Pharynx. Maybe we could go spend some time in the nursery hive first—”

    “Yeah, that’s what I thought. Tours will commence when the sap festival is over. See ya later, Thorax.”

    “But Pharynx!”

    Thorax called out to him, but Pharynx was already gone. For a few moments, Thorax stared after him, as if waiting for him to reappear.

    “Still skittish of all things warm and fuzzy, is he?” Luna giggled.

    Thorax forced a smile. “Yeah, some things never change. Don’t get me wrong, Pharynx has come a long way since the last time you saw him. He’s able to sense and feel other changelings’ emotions perfectly, now, just like me. He just…”

    “Opts out of engaging with them?”

    Thorax nodded as Celestia rose from the spring. Water fell in a glimmering curtain from her waterlogged wings, and she flexed her feathers to shed it all the quicker. She lit her horn to squeeze and drain her mane in a similar vein, but her sister’s aura beat her to it. She giggled in surprise before offering her thanks.

    “We’re very much looking forward to the tour with your brother, Thorax,” Celestia said encouragingly. “In the meantime, though, I’d love to hear more about these supposed plans for the nursery hive.”

    Luna eagerly nodded in agreement. Thorax laughed.

    “Well, just before you two got here, Calor and Apex headed off in that direction.” He gently rubbed his snout along the heads of the drones huddled in his embrace, rousing them one by one. “I know they’d love to see you two again, and there are plenty of nymphs and adults in the nursery happy to be nap partners, just like these guys. There’s games and stuff to play, too.”

    The princesses’ eyes sparkled. In a single wingbeat, Celestia was out of the spring, bearing down on her host with a foalish grin.

    “Oh, how exciting! That sounds delightful. I’d love the opportunity to play with the young ones.”

    “And I’d very much like to assist those who may be in need of sleep,” Luna added. She bemusedly jabbed her sister in the flank. “I’d also like to know where my sister has suddenly found all this energy for playing with young changelings.”

    As Thorax coaxed the guards from the spring, he helped them dry their wings. When one of them began to improperly do so with strenuous flexing, he fussed over and scolded her at once. The other two snickered at the sudden outpouring of concern and ethereal love magic.

    Amidst this, Celestia looked at Luna and bit her lip in a display of glee.

    “There will always be energy to spare for ‘Papa Thorax’ and his changelings, Luna.”

    “…Are they still doing it?”

    “It’s barely been a minute, Luna.”

    “Yes, but are they still doing it?”

    “Look for yourself.”

    “I looked last time! He’ll surely ask me if I need something if I look again!”

    Celestia caught her mouth in her hoof, but a snicker escaped anyway.

    She looked back at her escorts. Sure enough, the same guard changeling was still riding atop Thorax’s back as he walked, his mustard hooves anchored around Thorax’s neck, and his head lying lazily against his own hooves. With every step Thorax made, his eyelids seemed to grow heavier.


    “Yes, they’re still doing it,” Celestia whispered, looking ahead again. “And it’s just as adorable as it was a minute ago.”

    “The nursery hive is just up ahead,” Thorax announced from behind. He shifted his attention to the two guards at his side, noting their disgruntled looks. “And yes, someling else can ride on the way back.”

    The guards perked up at once.

    “Just don’t tell Pharynx, alright? He gives me an earful whenever I dote on his guard changelings too much. He thinks too much love will make your senses dull. I think we’ll continue to disagree on that one.”

    From up ahead of them, Luna restrained a squeak.

    “Sister, I will not make it at this rate. What is our contingency plan should you or I become comatose?”

    Celestia laughed, but it was short-lived. A louder, merrier laughter echoed down the hall to greet her, and it grew louder with every hoofstep. She turned to Thorax for guidance, but his proud, encouraging look was all the context she needed.

    She broke into a prance, beckoned by youthful voices. Not even her sister’s frantic pleas to slow down could deter her.

    “Calor, you’re s’posed to be playing Squeeze the Bug with us!”

    “Sorry, Phidalia, I’m coming! Just lemme go finish up with Tergite, okay? His game is almost over.”

    “No, it’s not. We just started playing, Calor.”

    “Oh, honeysuckle. Really?”

    “Yes, really! You picked our teams and then went over to help someling else! We’ve been waiting for you so we can start!”

    “You guys don’t need me to start though, do you?”

    “Yes, we do! We can’t start because you’re the one that’s supposed to transform into the ball!”

    Celestia stepped through a wide archway and felt her breath leave her. At once, her gasp made her the subject of interest for dozens of shining eyes. Small changelings barely the size of her head hung in the air all around the room, their little hooves curled up to their chests as they hovered.

    “Sister, what has gotten into you? I’m starting to feel like the older one here-” was all Luna could manage before she, too, was captivated by the chamber of pastel cherubs.

    “Whoa, ponies!”

    Immediately, several nymphs swarmed them.

    “Are you all-corns?” one nymph asked, her tiny wings buzzing extra fast to hold her aloft upside-down. “Where are your corn horns? I thought all-corns had corn horns.”

    “How come you’re here? Did you come to play with us too?” asked a second, somersaulting over his friend and making him laugh. “I’ve never played games with a pony before! What sort of magic can you do? Could it make hide-and-seek or bug pile more fun?”

    “Hey, guys? Maybe we can say hello to our guests before we start asking them questions?”

    Celestia and Luna stepped aside as Thorax entered the room and inspired cheers all over. There was a warmth in the air when he moved, and dozens of nymphs converged on him, besetting him with hugs.

    “Papa Thorax is here! Papa Thorax is here!” they shouted, enveloping him from view in a mass of buzzing wings. He dutifully made eye contact with every one of them, scooping up a giggling throng of them in one leg while using the other to bestow head pats.

    Preoccupied as he was, he failed to notice his guests struggling to hold back tears from the sidelines.

    “You guys are awfully full of energy this afternoon.” Thorax watched his latest victim grab onto his hoof. He giggled when Thorax shook it. “That’s kinda unusual for this time of day. The nursery changelings should’ve calmed you all down by now. Calor, what’s going on?”

    Thorax found the oceanic drone at once, hovering near the ceiling. Haggard and visibly disheveled, he grimaced sheepishly as he flew down to join them.

    “We’re understaffed,” Calor admitted. “It’s just Tergum and I on play duty right now, and the next shift isn’t for a few hours. I had to jump in and help as soon as we got here.”

    Thorax sighed, and his cloak of nymphs collectively stepped aside. “Why are we understaffed? I thought the schedule for this month was agreed on by everyling, already.”

    Calor teetered his head back and forth. “Well, it was, but Tarveesa and Rolvik took time off at the same time this week. I…might have forgotten to update the schedule. They were both supposed to be here this afternoon.”

    Thorax’s tone slipped into concern. “Why didn’t you come get me the moment you realized that?”

    “Because I can handle it, and because you’re busy with the tour this afternoon.” Calor glanced at the princesses, reassured by their presence. When they shared sly glances back, the confidence drained.

    When he looked back at Thorax, a disapproving stare was waiting for him.

    “Calor, we’ve talked about this—numerous times. You gotta stop taking so much responsibility by yourself. You needlessly overwork yourself at every opportunity, even when there are so many changelings willing to help. Changelings like me.”

    Firm hooves wrapped around Calor’s neck, forcing him to hover closer. He landed with a blush and returned the embrace. The room disappeared for a time as a comforting heat flooded his chest and hooves.

    “You know I’d come and help out even if I was giving a tour.”

    “…Yeah, I know. Sorry, Thorax.” Calor buried his face in orange chitin, closing his eyes.

    Satisfied, Thorax looked again at his young spectators. They were visibly antsy, bobbing up and down in the air by repeatedly stopping their wings and buzzing them again.

    “I take it there’s noling on story duty, then?”

    “No,” Calor said solemnly. Pulling away, he motioned to a side chamber. In it, a few stone seats and a haphazardly stacked collection of books sat alone. “Apidae was doing it last shift, and she would’ve stayed, but she had to go help with something.”

    Thorax turned to his guests. He beckoned them over with a pearly smile.

    “Well, this isn’t the setup I was hoping for, but if you two would really like to help us out, it looks like we could use it today.”

    Given the floor, Celestia and Luna stepped forward. They drew the entire room’s attention with a coordinated flare of their wings.

    “A good afternoon to all of you,” Celestia began, focusing on a handful of faces amidst the crowd. “My name is Celestia, and this is my sister, Luna. We’ve come to visit you all today because we’re good friends with Thorax. It was not originally in our plans to play games with you, but we’re more than excited to assist.”

    “And I believe we already have our preferred activities.” Luna gazed at the forlorn books in the adjacent room. “Should any of you wish to continue playing games, my sister is more than happy to take part in them. As for me, I’ve been looking forward to a quiet afternoon with a good book for several days now, and I’d be happy to read some aloud for you, or even tell a few tales of my own.”

    Excitement surged throughout the nursery. From the sidelines, Thorax watched nymphs fly up to the alicorns, bombarding them with further questions.

    He chuckled to himself. Proper manners would have to be revisited another time.

    “Tergum,” Thorax called. Said drone’s lime head curiously protruded from a bug pile across the room. “With Celestia and Luna here, Calor and I can handle things now. Could you please go to the Feelings Forum and talk with Tymbal? I’m sure she can find some volunteers to cover nursery shifts for the remainder of the week.”

    Tergum nodded. He burst from a giggling mass of nymphs. With a few head pats and a parting smile, he dashed away.

    Thorax turned back to Calor, still at his side.

    “By the way, where’s Apex? I haven’t seen him since I walked in.”

    Calor opened his mouth, but Celestia’s warm giggling distracted him. He turned with Thorax to find familiar red eyes poking through her mane, entertaining the entire room with a simple protrusion of the tongue.

    Thorax placed his head in his hoof. He was laughing, as well.

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