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    I stop mid-thought, and Tarsus stares at me. I probably look stupid—mouth agape, ready to relay orders I no longer remember.

    Thorax’s voice has that effect on changelings. One of these days I’ll find a way to weaponize it. Until then, I’ll just call him a dork.

    “My brother graces us with his presence,” I sass in reflex, turning with Tarsus. “Let me guess—you ran a roll call and one of your sap-lings is missing for cluster nap time.”

    Thorax stops, and immediately I can see that he’s panting. He’s begun babbling now, but that won’t save him. I’ve already curled my lip.

    “Everyling is present today, Pharynx. Very funny. Actually, I wanted to see if you’d—”

    “‘Aww, I appreciate your concern, Pharynx. I’ll definitely put more effort into staying in shape,’” I recite in his high-pitched voice. He catches on to my glare at once and begins fidgeting. “Those were your exact words, Thorax. Must have been a long couple of corridors you just sprinted through to be out of breath like that. You fight off some riled salamanders while you were at it?”

    His ears flop, and I can see Tarsus starting to slink away from us in my peripheral.

    Tarsus always was a clever changeling. He knew full well that brotherly scoldings take priority to chore regiment reports.

    “I’m sorry, Pharynx, I haven’t had time lately. The royal summit was last week, and the week before that Apex was sick, so I haven’t been able to focus.”

    I shoot up my brow. “Is it time, or is it focus?”

    He winces. “Well, both, I guess.”

    “‘You guess’? Hive’s sake, Thorax. If you’re going to make excuses, at least practice your script. We’re born actors.”

    I turn on him and walk away, knowing full well he’ll hurriedly follow after me. He does, much like a fawn frantically catching up to its mother.

    “I promise I wasn’t shrugging off your advice! It means a lot to me that you care about my health and well-being. I just haven’t had the opportunity to fit it into my weekly schedule, yet.”

    “I offered to do some basic training with you for exactly that reason—so that you could get used to the routine,” I counter. I deny him the eye contact he’s blatantly pining for. “You just gushed over the sentiment and moved on, never getting back to me. You’re the one always wanting to hang out, Thorax. I figured you’d jump on this if I offered to help.”

    His hooves go quiet, and I look at him. How anything could be so freakishly tall and still look so small and dejected was almost praiseworthy.

    “It’s just, it’s so out of my element,” he mumbles. He rubs his hoof and looks off to the side—more nervous habits he’d yet to break. “And, I know you hate it when I say things like that—I need to step out of my comfort zone more often. I just, I dunno, I think I was just putting it off, to be honest. But it wasn’t because I didn’t appreciate what you were trying to do.”

    I sigh, mourning my justification in taunting him as it fizzles away. Unfortunately for me, being an older broodmate has its perks as well as its chores. Fortunately for Thorax, becoming a pastel hippie has given me the patience I need to do more of the latter, lately.

    “Don’t sulk, Thorax. I’m not angry.” My tone is softer now, and it gets his attention. “I know how you work, which means I know where to put my expectations. It takes you a while to start something new sometimes because of your anxieties.”

    His ears are still flopped over. I’d need to do something about that if this sap was to get anywhere. I close the gap between us, a smirk coming to me.

    “I’m just frustrated that you don’t seem to understand your own weaknesses as well as I do, let alone work towards finding ways to circumvent them.”

    He gasps when I effortlessly pull his big, awkward head down from the clouds and fiercely rub a hoof in the space between his antlers. He immediately begins putting up a fight, but, as we just established, he’s a wimp, so nothing happens.

    “Pharynx, that hurts!” he laughs, gripping at me with those sticks he calls legs. “What’s gotten into you all of the sudden?”

    “You could have prevented this,” I say in monotone, staring off into space. I can’t help but hold my smug smile. “Just because we don’t have enemies on our doorstep at the moment doesn’t mean you get to slack and not have consequences. You’re as big as a maulwurf’s claw now, Thorax, the least you could do is try and fit the part.”

    “That’s not fair, this was a sneak attack!” he accuses, failing miserably to pull his head out of my grasp. I scoff.

    “Sneak attacks, stealth, the element of surprise—A-tier tactics. Can’t help that I’m efficient.”

    He grumbles, and I can sense he’s about to transform—the coward. I rub my hoof harder, ruining his concentration, and the whining escalates. My smirk is a grin, now.

    “Hey, c’mon, Pharynx! Let me go, I get your point!”

    “What were you expecting, Thorax? A hug? A heartfelt pat on the head? Go play with the drones if you want sap for sap. I’ve got nothing but torment for you, especially when you go and blow off my suggestions.”

    He continues to struggle and laugh. He starts talking again, but I’m not listening this time. Something on the far wall of the corridor, behind Thorax, has caught my eye. It’s a bunch of wispy, white patterns, and the more I stare, the more I remember them. One of them sticks out to me—it’s the only marking not completely worn away.

    A chill of old embarrassment runs up my carapace when I realize just what it is. It’s a picture of two changelings hugging, sitting beneath a crudely drawn heart. The words above it are scratched and illegible, but my memory is all too happy to fill in the blanks for me.

    It says, ‘Big brother and me’! Isn’t that cool, Pharynx? I didn’t know we had rocks that could make pictures! What do you think?

    . . . Ugh, Thorax. You’re embarrassing, you know that?

    Huh? How come? I just wanted to share how I feel with everyling, Pharynx.

    Well, they’re all laughing, Thorax—at you. None of them care about how you feel, or about rock pictures.

    But, I—well then I don’t care what they think! I drew these pictures because I wanted to, Pharynx. You’re my brother and I care about you a whole lot.

    “. . . Pharynx?”

    I lose my balance when Thorax finally manages to transform out of my grasp, his teal fire knocking me to my senses. Finally free, he stares at me with those big, round eyes full of concern.

    “Are you okay?”

    “Yeah,” I grumble. He cocks his brow. I think we both realize how unconvincing I sound. I grunt again. “It’s nothing, just thinking.”

    Looking around the corridor, I find Tarsus patiently sitting on his flank near the southern exit, waiting for me. He waves. Thorax enthusiastically waves back. Just from this, shared love magic starts to stir in the air.

    I sigh, contemplating my fate in this spritely fairy hovel.

    “What did you want, Thorax?”

    Thorax blinks and looks back at me. “Huh?”

    “I interrupted you when you ran up to me with that sorry physique,” I reiterate, smirking when he frowns ever so slightly. “Why were you looking for me?”

    “Oh, is the brotherly tormenting over now?”

    “For now,” I reply. I don’t like that sassy tone. “But it might rear up again. I’d get to talking.”

    He rolls his eyes and chuckles.

    “Cluster nap time got pushed back today. The theatre troupe has a really big play they want to show the whole hive this afternoon. I wanted to see if you’d like to come with me.”

    I open my mouth and mentally seize myself from reflexively tearing down his hopes. Even I might start to feel something if that excited, nymph-like face deflates. Can’t have that.

    “You know how I feel about your ‘plays,’ Thorax. I’ll probably fall asleep.”

    “I know you don’t find them interesting, but this one is going to have acting through transformation. Noling is going to be in their original forms, and the cast is a secret. Only the characters are known. The actors will be revealed at the end of the play.”

    I turn my head sharply. There’s a smugness to his expectant smile, now.

    “So the audience can analyze who may be playing these characters during the play, then.”


    “Looking for quirks and tells of the actors will help you identify them. Then you can see how correct you were.”

    He grins. “That’s right. I figured you might find it more interesting.”

    I turn around to Tarsus, who stands at attention immediately.

    “Tarsus, looks like I’ll be preoccupied longer than expected. You’re relieved. If you’re going to the play, too, come see me after.”

    He nods, salutes, and departs. I look at Thorax again. There’s way too many teeth in his grin, now.

    “Yeah, okay, it doesn’t sound half bad,” I yield, walking along the corridor once more with him. “I can actually use that information to help the drones identify and overcome their nervous tics while in disguise. We might not need to infiltrate anymore, but we should be up to snuff, anyway.”

    “And that practice will only make plays like this more exciting,” Thorax adds. He’s way too pleased with himself, having hooked me so flawlessly. I jab him in the side, and he lets out another whine.

    Much better.

    “I’m happy to have you along. Calor is really excited about this one. He hasn’t stopped hyping it up to me for a week,” he says, rubbing his side. “And, maybe after the play, if you’re not too busy with the Guard’s regiments, you could show me some of those exercises and courses you had in mind for me. I promise I’ll give it my best…and I’ll try not to wimp out too early.”

    I knowingly shake my head. “Oh, you will, and I’ll be right there, waiting to laugh at you when you do, don’t you worry about that. But, yeah, I think I have some time for that. And, all teasing aside, it’s okay to start slow with training. Wise, actually. All I ever ask for is effort, Thorax.”

    I glance to the receding corridor behind us, and the scribbles of chalk still on display for the whole hive to see. I can’t help but smile a little. In Chrysalis’s hive, having a brother like Thorax was a burden. In our hive, it’s more of an honor.

    He’ll never hear me say that of course, but he knows it’s implied. Sort of.

    “A changeling once told me he cared about me a whole lot,” I say suddenly, catching his eye. “I didn’t think much of it at the time, but every so often I do, now. I’d just like to say that I’ll always be here for you, Thorax, from tormenting to bettering, and everything in between.”

    I immediately regret feeling something, as I knew I would. He makes a sound no self-respecting creature should ever make before vigorously hugging me. We nearly collapse under his weight.

    “Aww, Pharynx, that’s so sweet of you to say!”

    “Get off.”

    “I’m so lucky to have a brother who cares about me, and understands who I am and what I struggle with.”

    “Urge to torment is rising again.”

    “I want you to know that I’m always going to be there for you, too, Pharynx. I might be the little brother, but I can be reliable, too. Anytime you’re struggling with something or just need someling to listen, just let me know.”

    “Alright, moment’s over. You think you have anxiety now? Just wait until I sic a maulwurf on your pixie behind on this training course to get you motivated. We’ll invite the whole hive—call it ‘post-feature entertainment.'”

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